Throughout the centuries, the book of Isaiah has been a vital source of nourishment for the Church. In fact, in the early church, Jerome (342–420 AD) thought Isaiah’s message so clearly conveyed the gospel that Isaiah “should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet.”
The New Testament writers found Isaiah to be a vital source for Christian nourishment, as it refers to his prophecy over 250 times! Handel’s Messiah is infused with selections from Isaiah, as the repeated refrains “comfort ye” and “unto us a son is given” draw from Isaiah 40 and Isaiah 9.
Many who have attempted to read through the book of Isaiah have found the experience to be a bit of a challenge. Its historical context is foreign, its poetry is complex and its organization may at times feel disjointed. These are common experiences of all who set out to study and read Isaiah. Therefore, gaining a sense of the historical context and the structure of his prophecy will greatly help you to better understand Isaiah. We’ll consider each of these in turn below.
Understanding the historical context of Isaiah is essential for interpreting its message. The book opens with the following words, “The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1). The only repeated word in this verse is “Judah,” which was originally one of the twelve tribes of Israel, but overtime became the title of the southern kingdom. In 930 BC, just after the reign of King Solomon, God divided the people of Israel into two separate nations. Ten of the tribes from the north became the kingdom of “Israel” or “Ephraim.” To the south, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin came to be called the kingdom of Judah, which is where the Davidic king reigned from his capital city of Jerusalem. Isaiah’s message is primarily directed to Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of the four kings mentioned above.
So, what do we know about these kings? King Uzziah, also known as Azariah (767-735 BC; 2 Kings 15:1-7; 2 Chronicles 26;) and his son Jotham (751–731 BC; 2 Kings 15:32-38; 2 Chronicles 27:1-9) brought great peace and success to the kingdom of Judah during the middle of the eighth century BC. Following this, King Ahaz (735–716 BC; 2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28) and King Hezekiah (716–686 BC; 2 Kings 18–20; 2 Chronicles 29–32; Isaiah 36–39) faced a number of threats from surrounding nations, including the empire of Assyria. While we will grant more attention to these threats shortly, we can see that Isaiah prophesied during a time of prosperity in Judah which then led to times of international crisis.
There are three major historical crises which Isaiah focuses upon. The first crisis took place when Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel formed a coalition to come against Judah around 735 BC. An entire story is devoted to this in Isaiah chapter 7. Amidst this crisis, God brought the nation of Assyria against Aram and Israel. In fact, these initial campaigns by Assyria into Aram and Israel in 732 BC culminated in 722 BC, when Israel’s capital Samaria fell to Assyria and Israel went into exile.
The second crisis relates to the era of the Assyrian Empire, which was located in the northern part of Mesopotamia. As the empire spread, Assyria had numerous campaigns into Israel and Judah during Isaiah’s lifetime. King Sargon (Isaiah 20:1) and King Sennacherib (Isaiah 36–37) are mentioned by name, and chapters 36–37 of Isaiah speak of Sennacherib’s devastating campaign through Judah which reached the capital city of Jerusalem itself. This was a major time of crisis for Judah, but God intervened and rescued Zion from the hand of Sennacherib in 701 BC.
The third crisis relates to the era of the Babylonian Empire. In chapter 39, Isaiah announces that Jerusalem and its king would eventually be taken into captivity by Babylon. Many prophecies in Isaiah 40–55 spoke to those who were captured and sent off into captivity under the Babylonian exile.
These three crises provide a historical vantage point for us to read and interpret Isaiah’s message. However, much of his prophecy looks beyond these conflicts. Isaiah 44–45 announces that God would use a Persian King named Cyrus to promote the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the fall of Babylon (cf. chapters 13–14). Furthermore, Isaiah looks well beyond the Persian era, hinting at that which is to come in the messianic age when God’s works of judgment and salvation come to completion. The book of Isaiah presents itself then as a vision that speaks to its immediate context all the way through to the culmination of all things.
The second key to better understand Isaiah is to have a sense of the structure of his prophecy. Generally speaking, the book of Isaiah has three major parts which relate to the historical eras noted above. Isaiah 1–39 speaks messages primarily of judgment (though with some glimmers of hope) to Judah and other nations during the Assyrian era. Isaiah 40–55 speaks messages of comfort regarding God’s coming salvation to those sent away in exile to Babylon. And Isaiah 56–66 calls for those who have returned from the Babylonian exile to live in light of God’s promises to rescue and redeem his people and to await the culmination of all things.
A final word of advice—if you ever get lost, I’d recommend that you take advantage of the free access to Calvin’s commentaries on Isaiah. Calvin has a wonderful way of explaining the meaning of texts in light of their historical context, and how they also point us to Christ. You might also find a video that my friend Wayne Chan helped me to produce which gives a brief overview of Isaiah’s historical context (click here). Isaiah’s prophecy can sometimes be difficult for modern readers to grasp. By being mindful of the structure of his book and his historical context, you’ll be better prepared to grasp his message.