When we talk of the Prophetic books of the Bible, Isaiah is often the first to come to mind. 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. Isaiah is a prominent text within the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, designated as the first of the Tanakh's Latter Prophets and one of the most influential religious texts during the Second Temple period. This Old Testament book also has a profound impact within Christian theology. It is referenced numerous times throughout the New Testament, and its Christological implications have caused some scholars to refer to Isaiah as “the Fifth Gospel”.
Let’s take a look at some of the historical context around the writing of the book of Isaiah, paying special attention to when and why the text was composed. We hope that this overview will encourage you to engage Isaiah with new insight.
The book of Isaiah primarily centers around the messages and teachings that God gave to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz. Scholarly consensus is that the book of Isaiah was not written by its namesake prophet singlehandedly. The book covers an expansive period of time--compiled over a period of approximately 2 centuries, 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 throughout the narrative laid out in the book.
Isaiah, a prophet of the southern kingdom, was called by God to share His message with the people in 740 B.C.-- the year that King Uzziah died. This was a critical period in the history of the southern kingdom of Judah. Uzziah was known as one of the best kings Judah had; his rule marked a time of great prosperity for the kingdom. But as prosperity boomed, the divide between the rich and poor in the kingdom grew wider, and all the while 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 in which Isaiah's prophetic work begins.
The “Three” Isaiahs
Given the expansive nature of the book of Isaiah and a timeline that indicates multiple authors, many scholars have tried to determine the best way to understand this prophetic book. One of the most prominent ways of discussing Isaiah is to divide the text into three parts: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1-39), Deutero-Isaiah (40-55), and Trito-Isaiah (56-66). This three-part division is different from the two-part division which focuses on literary characteristics of the book (see “What is the Book of Isaiah About?”). Instead, this “Three” Isaiah lens, separates each section on the basis of assumed authorship and historical location.
Sometimes also referred to as First Isaiah, this is the section the text that scholars are most confident in attributing to the historical Jewish prophet Isaiah. This section is believed to have been written during the Eighth Century BCE, prior to the Assyrian invasion and well before the Babylonian exile and captivity. Proto-Isaiah looks ahead and warns of a coming judgment against the people of Israel and Judah by way of foreign invasion.
The second Isaiah section, Deutero-Isaiah, was likely written by an anonymous writer (or writers) in the Sixth century BCE when the Jewish people were in exile. This is a time jump of approximately 150 years; the city of Jerusalem has already been destroyed and the people are living in captivity. In contrast to Proto-Isaiah with its word of condemnation and coming judgment, Deutro-Isaiah focuses far more on the coming restoration. This again points to a later composition date; exile and judgment have come down of the people, just as God warned. In the aftermath, the messages God sent to His prophet center around His plans to heal and uplift His people.
This third and final division of Isaiah jumps in time yet again. Seemingly written after the people have returned from the Babylonian exile, Trito-Isaiah references the construction of the second temple. The author of Trito-Isaiah is also unknown and typically assumed to have been written anonymously in the post-exilic period. This section outlines the need for a redeemer and tells of what the coming restoration (or Messianic Age) will be like.
The book of Isaiah reveals the full dimensions of God's judgment and salvation. The terrible judgment prophesied upon Israel and all the nations that defy God is called “the day of the Lord.” Isaiah refers to the judgment “fire” and says God will have compassion on his people.
The book can be understood as an extended meditation on the destiny of the Jewish people before, during, and after the Exile. Deutero-Isaiah describes a mighty God who will restore His people by sending a royal savior (a messiah) who will destroy the oppressor. The book of Isaiah speaks out against corrupt leaders and for the disadvantaged, an issue of present pertinence during the text’s composition. It is a call to turn back to God and to put our faith in Him, and it sets the stage for the coming of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the coming messiah that Isaiah predicted.
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