Of all the books included in the Old Testament, the book of Isaiah is perhaps one of the most referenced and quoted in Christian spheres. The first of the so-called “Major Prophets” (a designation denoting length, not significance), Isaiah recounts the life and teachings of the prophet Isaiah who lived in the Kingdom of Judah during the 8th century BCE.
Context for the Book of Isaiah
As the name of the book suggests, Isaiah centers around the messages and teaching that God gave to the prophet Isaiah to share with the people of Israel. However it is also widely accepted by scholars today that this prophet did not write the entire book of Isaiah. The book covers an expansive period of time, which seems to point to it being a composition of several prophets or writers active during this period of Israel’s history.
Nevertheless, Isaiah plays a key role. A prophet of the southern kingdom, Isaiah was called by God to share His message with the God's people in 740 B.C, the year that King Uzziah died. This was a critical period in the southern kingdom of Judah’s history. Uzziah was known as one of the best kings Judah had; his righteous rule marked a time of great prosperity for the kingdom. However, as prosperity boomed, the divide between the rich and poor in the kingdom grew wider.
At the same time, the threat of invasion from Assyria was mounting. Things got even more grave when King Uzziah contracted leprosy and was forced to give over the throne of the nation of Judah to his son, Jotham. Unlike his father, Jotham was a weak and vacillating person and was unable to inspire confidence in his people. This is the political situation Isaiah begins his prophetic work in.
In the past, scholars have divided Isaiah into three key sections. Modern consensus, however, tends to separate the book into just two parts. The division is made of the basis of literary characteristics, with the first part encompassing Isaiah chapters 1-39 and the second including chapters 40-66. Part one contains warnings of judgment and promises future restoration for Jerusalem, Judah and all the nations. In part two, the forewarned judgment has already taken place and the time for restoration is at hand.
Summary of Isaiah
As discussed, the book of Isaiah can be separated into two major parts. Isaiah chapters 1–39 centers primarily around Judah and Jerusalem when the city was still standing and when the kingdom was at risk of invasion from the Assyrians.
- Chapters 1–12: Oracles, or words of warning and judgment against Judah from Isaiah's early years as a prophet.
- Chapters 13–23: Oracles against foreign nations from the middle of Isaiah’s “career”.
- Chapters 24–27: This section is referred to by scholars as the "Isaiah Apocalypse". It is believed to have been added at a much later date.
- Chapters 28–33: Words of wisdom from the latter part of Isaiah's ministry.
- Chapters 34–35: A prophetic vision of restoration for the future.
- Chapters 36–39: Stories from Isaiah's life. Central to this sections are stories about King Hezekiah who was king near the end of Isaiah's ministry. While threats of captivity continue mounting, the reign of King Hezekiah ultimately comes to an end, and with it begin the Babylonian captivity.
The second section, Isaiah chapters 40-66, jumps ahead in time. Here the Babylonian captivity (which followed the Assyrian rule) is already well underway and the judgment previously foretold is nearly complete. The time is close at hand when the people of Israel will be able to return to their homeland and rebuild the city of Jerusalem, which has long been in ruins.
- Chapters 40-48: Assurance of the comfort of God which comes through the Servant.
- Chapters 49-57: Assurance that the salvation of God will come through the suffering Servant.
- Chapter 49-52:12: God’s Servant is the redeemer of the whole world.
- Chapters 52:13—53:12: Redemption is wrought by the suffering Servant, also referred to as God’s Lamb.
- Chapters 54-66: Outlines the need for a redeemer and tells of what the coming restoration will be like.
Interpretation of Isaiah
The book of Isaiah has long been viewed by the Church as the most Christological of all the prophets. Isaiah is so significant in fact that the book has frequently been called "the Fifth Gospel". Of the 37 quotations from the Old Testament prophets in the apostle Paul’s letters, 27 come from Isaiah. Isaiah is also frequently referenced and quoted in the Gospels and in Acts, usually as the writers point to Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies of a savior.
Isaiah describes and has clear impact and implication for the time and culture in which it was written. But the words of warning, wisdom, and assurance continue to speak to us today. Isaiah speaks out against corrupt leaders and for the disadvantaged, and roots righteousness in God's holiness rather than in anything we as people earn on our own. It's a powerful call to fix our eyes upon the Lord, and an encouraging vision of God's plan for restoration for all the world.
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