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The Times of Isaiah,
The Prophet

Isaiah was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets; one of the outstanding evangelists of the Hebrew race. His name means "the salvation of Yahweh". The prophet was conscious of his name and realised that he did not bear it accidentally. Jesha and Jeshuah are among his favourite words and seem to infer that like Abraham he lived by faith in the day of the future Jesus, who is the personal salvation of Jehovah (John 8. 56; Heb. 11. 13).

His, father, Amos ‑ no relation to the prophet of that name ‑ appears to have been a citizen of Jerusalem. The social position of Amos cannot be defined, but Isaiah seems to have held high rank, for when Hezekiah, King of Judah, enquired of him, he sent a deputation of his chief officials (2 Kings 19.2). His prophetic ministry extends through the reigns of four kings, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, covering a period of at least forty years. Isaiah's prophecies have much in common with those of the other great prophets of the same period, Amos, Hosea and Micah. Many pieces of prophetic history are interwoven in the book of Isaiah. That these pieces are from the pen of Isaiah is probably because the writing of prophecy and history were from the beginning never totally separated. The Chronicler refers to a portion of these historical pieces as incorporated in the book of Isaiah (2 Chron.32.32). He also informs us that Isaiah was the author of a historical monograph that embraced the whole reign of King Uzziah. (2 Chron. 26. 22).

It is convenient to divide Isaiah's ministry into five periods, which, although unequal in length, are each marked by features peculiar to itself. The first three may be said to be Assyrian in outlook, the fourth Assyrian and Babylonian, and the fifth Babylonian.

The first period extends from the death of Uzziah, about 740 BC to the beginning of the reign of Ahaz and is dealt with chiefly in Isaiah, chapters 9 and 32. Like Amos, Isaiah appears here mainly as a preacher of righteousness and judgment to come. His ministry begins at a time when Israel had forsaken God and placed their confidence in worldly prosperity, warlike resources, superstition and idolatry. Middle-class luxury, oppression of the poor by wealthy merchants and tradesmen, wantonness of women, excess in festive drinking and perversion of moral distinctions, abounded on every hand. He portrays this tragic condition of the spiritual life of Judah in these words; "And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city" (Isa.1.8). He describes their waywardness in these words, "The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not consider" (Isa. 1.3). Isaiah traces all the manifestations of national corruption to a single source; absence of a religious spirit or the knowledge of God, in the men of his time. This truth he graphically describes in the unique story of the vineyard (Isa.5.1-7).

The second period covers the critical period of the Syro-Ephraimite invasion of Judah, about 735 BC and is described in chapters 7,8 and perhaps 9. This period finds Isaiah in an entirely new role, that of a political adviser. This fact can be better appreciated when we look at the contrast, which in this respect, he presents to Amos and Hosea in the North. Like Isaiah, they looked forward to a future time of blessing for Israel, yet their writings contain no hint of political direction for the leaders of the state. It may be said here that Isaiah revives this political function of prophecy that had been in abeyance since the days of Elisha.

One of the outstanding events of this period is the impressive interview between Ahaz and Isaiah as a result of the invasion of Judah by the combined forces of Syria and Ephraim. By this unbrotherly act the Northern Kingdom sealed its own doom. Both it and Syria fell a prey to the advancing Assyrians under the leadership of Tiglath-pileser. Isaiah 7 sets out the interview between God's prophet and the faithless Ahaz. Isaiah assures the king that the conspiracy will come to nought, and holds out a promise of deliverance on the condition of faith in God. Ahaz replied: "I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord" (7.12). Isaiah then continued the conversation, and gave utterance to the remarkable promise concerning a coming king in these words: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (7.14). The king's unbelief is answered by the threat of an Assyrian invasion.

Isaiah did not accept the king's decision as final, but made an appeal to the people at large. From the court he delivers his messages in the form of a series of oracles which are contained in chapter eight. They probably extended over a period of some months. Isaiah could see that the Syrio-Ephraimite conspiracy would be destroyed by the kng of Assyria. He endeavoured to impress this encouraging fact upon the minds of the people by the erection of a motto: "To Maher-shalal-hash-baz" (8.1,2). Months later he gave the interpretation of the motto in connection with the birth of a son to whom he gave the motto as a name (8.3,4). The people did not believe him; his message fell on deaf ears. The prophet was right. Damascus was overthrown in 732 BC and Samaria some ten years later. Judah, however, did not become a theatre of war between Assyria and Egypt. The rejection of the prophet's message by the common people marks a temporary cessation of his public activity (8.16-18). The Lord hid His face from the house of Israel, in that he withdrew the guidance of the prophetic word that had been so coldly received.

The next period is marked by the strange absence of any record of Isaiah's reflections on the events with which it is associated, namely the fall of Samaria in 721 BC. This event is foretold in several of Isaiah's most striking prophecies in 8.1-4; 17.1-11; 28.1-4. The fall of Samaria must have profoundly affected Judah, especially so when it is realised that the Ten Tribes comprised the larger portion of God's people. This followed the proud boast of the Assyrian: "Shall I not, as I have done to Samaria and her idols. so do to Jerusalem and her images?' This should have had a very chastening effect on the heart of Judah (10.11). Judah seems to have concluded that if God failed to avert the doom of the Northern kingdoms, there was no assurance that He would protect her. This may have been the cause of the desperate struggle that afterwards took place to throw off the Assyrian yoke.

We now come to the most eventful stage of Isaiah's career, which covers a period from 720 BC to 701 BC, during which time Hezekiah is king of Judah. It must be remembered that, throughout his prophetic career, Isaiah had always urged upon Judah the need for a position of isolation and absolute dependence upon God. Ahaz absolutely refused to be guided by the prophet, and, fearing the consequences of a Syrio-Ephraimite conspiracy, tendered his allegiance to Tiglath-pileser, who promptly responded to his appeal (2 Kings 15.29).

The first hint that Hezekiah might endeavour to free himself from the pact to which his father was a party, might be found in the short oracle of Isaiah 14.29-32, which is thought to have been the year of Hezekiah's accession to the throne. The next time that unrest is witnessed in Judah we find the Southern kingdom in the black books of Sargon. It has been suggested that Isaiah chapters 28-31 consist of the prophet's protests against negotiations on the part of Hezekiah with Egypt with a view to a revolt against Assyria. It is interesting to note that the originators of this revolt against Assyria in favour of an Egyptian alliance were anxious to keep the prophet in the dark regarding their plot. They did not succeed. Isaiah draws attention to their attempt to outwit the Almighty (29.15; 30.1-12; 31.1-2).

Isaiah then resorted to an even more drastic attempt to turn public opinion against rebellion. For three years he walked the streets of Jerusalem "naked and barefooted" as a sign of humiliation which awaited not only Egypt ‑ the power with which certain statesmen of Judah sought alliance ‑ but the power of Ethiopia at the hands of Assyria (20.2,4). To quote the words of Dr. Skinner: "Isaiah consistently upheld the maxim that the safety of the state lay in abstinence from all attempts to recover its independence, and in quiet resignation to the will of God." There is no reason to suppose that the prophet held out any hope that such alliance would spare them from the trial of an Assyrian invasion.

In this, as in other periods, we find Isaiah against the spirit of unbelief and unfaithfulness that inspired Judah to seek deliverance through human wisdom and effort and alliances with surrounding heathen states. It seems clear that Isaiah expected the defeat of Egypt and Ethiopia at the hands of Assyria (chap. 20). He foresees a great expansion of the Assyrian empire under their victorious king, Sargon.

Isaiah also realises that Assyria is an instrument in the hand of God to fulfil a Divine purpose. But, as one historian asks: "How could an immoral force (Assyria) be used for moral ends? When and where and how would the Assyrian overstep the limits of his commission and appear in open conflict with the will of Him who had raised him up? And when this point was reached, how would God rid himself of the formidable tool He had fashioned to execute His strange work on the earth?" This is the subject matter of Isaiah, chapter 10. 5-34, which covers the major portion of the period under review.

The contrast should be noted between God's purposes in raising Assyria up and the unholy ambitions of that despotic world power (10. 5-15) the annihilation of this mighty military power under the metaphor of disease and conflagration (10. 16-19); the encouraging message to the faithful remnant in Israel (10. 20-27): the destruction of Assyria under the very walls of Jerusalem (10. 28-34). The picture ends with the attempt of Assyria to overrun the earthly seat of God's visible government in Jerusalem, as he stands over against the capital, "swinging his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion". His armed forces suffer a mortal blow, and Judah is saved from the Assyrian terror. "The Lord God of Hosts shall lop the boughs with terror; and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down and the lofty one shall be humbled" (10. 32, 33). Thus is the epic defeat of the Assyrians under Sennacherib foretold by God through the mouth of his faithful prophet. This prophecy was fulfilled in 701 BC. Other references to this defeat are to be found in Isaiah 14.24-27; 17.12-14; and chapter 18.

Isaiah felt that the hour had arrived when God would destroy His enemies, and thus vindicate the truth that He was indeed the "Holy One of Israel". This was probably the gravest challenge to the power of God since the day when Samuel exclaimed: "Wherefore thou art great, O Lord God; for there is none like you, neither is there any God beside you, according to all that we have heard with our ears" (2 Sam. 7.22-24). Isaiah 28.7; 31.5,8; 30.27-33 are also relevant.

In order that we might obtain a clear impression of this crisis, it is necessary briefly to review the policy of King Hezekiah. He had formed the opinion that Sennacherib's enterprise against Babylon had considerably weakened his armies. On the other hand Egypt might under the influence of the Ethiopian, King of Napata appear to be in the ascendancy. The traditional Egyptian interest in the Plain of Esdraelon ‑ a triangular plain that breaks the central range between Galilee and Samaria ‑ was now likely to increase. Just as the close of Tiglath-pileser's reign marked a change in the foreign policy of Judah, so the close of the reign of Sargon, also a king of Assyria, witnessed another change in the policy of Judah. The prospect of freedom from the financial yoke of Assyria, imposed during the reign of Ahaz, king of Judah, together with the visit to Jerusalem of a mission of the envoys from the Ethiopian kings of Napata, caused Hezekiah to believe that the critical moment for action had arrived.

From this time onward, Hezekiah acted swiftly. He fortified Jerusalem and placed in protective custody in the capital Padi, Assyrian vassal king of Ekron. The toil of the king was unavailing. God did not intend Judah to think that, within herself, she had the power to deliver herself from impending disaster, or that her ends could be accomplished through alliances with heathen kings.

As soon as Sennacherib, king of Assyria, was free from Babylonian commitments, he lost no time in directing his attention to the powers with whom Hezekiah had associated himself. They were all soundly defeated, thus leaving the road to Judah clear for a full-scale invasion. The puppet king, Padi, was surrendered by Hezekiah and restored by Sennacherib to his throne. The campaign against Judah then followed. The record of Sennacherib ‑ now in the British Museum ‑ and that in 2 Kings 18. 13-16, are in broad agreement, Hezekiah was defeated and subjected to a heavy fine.

Certain difficulties arise when comparing the foregoing account with Isaiah, chapters 36 and 37. Of the various explanations that have been presented, it is generally held that after the capture of Ekron, Sennacherib set about the systematic reduction of the cities of Judah. Separate corps had the responsibility of capturing the capital. The Arabian army which Hezekiah had enlisted to his cause was easily defeated. Realising that further resistance was futile, Hezekiah sued for peace, which he obtained at the price of a very heavy fine. Assuming that he did not include the surrender of Jerusalem in his peace overtures, Sennacherib must have repudiated the agreement and gone back on his peace terms, for a siege of Jerusalem followed.

Hezekiah realised the helplessness of his position against so formidable a foe. In his extremity he went into the Temple, and humbly and earnestly appealed to God for protection against the opposing forces. He beseeches God to "see and hear the words of Sennacherib which he had sent to reproach the living God" (37.14-20). Isaiah was commissioned to reassure Hezekiah that the Assyrian army would not lay siege to Jerusalem, nor "shoot an arrow at it, nor come before it with shield, nor cast a bank against it" (37.33). Hezekiah's extremity was God's opportunity. Sennacherib's army perished in a night; the angel of the Lord performed his work swiftly, suddenly, and in silence (37.36). Of the miraculous destruction of this mighty host, it has truly been said that "it is one of the outstanding examples of pacifism in practice."

An historian has summed up the crisis of the fate of Jerusalem in these words: "The crisis of Jerusalem's fate becomes the occasion of that final revelation of the majesty of God to which Isaiah had looked forward from the beginning of his work, and which he with increasing distinctness connected with the overthrow of the Assyrian power. The whole history of redemption converges to this one event; it is the consummation of God's work of judgment both on Israel and on Assyria, and the inauguration of the reign of holiness and righteousness and peace reserved for the purified remnant of the nation."

Adapted and reprinted from BSM 1986

Time Scale for Isaiah's ministry




   Fall of Samaria Hezekiah  

Sennacherib attacks Jerusalem


740 BC




700 BC


Preacher of Righteousness

Political Advisor

Political eclipse   Acted
seeks God



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