April 4, 2011

Introduction to the Book of Isaiah


Isaiah is known as the “Messianic Prophet” because of the many prophecies in the book of Isaiah that were later fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. Because of Isaiah’s focus on the coming Messiah, it is not surprising to learn that the New Testament writers quote from the book of Isaiah more than any other Old Testament book.

“Isaiah” in Hebrew is “Yesa-ayahu” (Yesa: salvation; ayahu: of Yahweh; hence, his name means “Salvation is of Yahweh”). So how did we get “Isaiah” from “Yesa-ayahu”? A Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was completed in 132 B.C. In that translation, the name Yesa-ayahu was rendered “Esaias,” and the English “Isaiah” is simply transliterated from the Greek. (In the same manner, the Hebrew name Yeshua [Joshua, Jesus] was transliterated twice­­­: from the Hebrew Yeshua to the Koine Greek Ιησούς, and then from the Greek Ιησούς to the English “Jesus.”)

Isaiah was the son of Amoz (1:1), whom in Jewish history is identified as a brother of King Amaziah, who was king of Judah when Isaiah was born. Amaziah’s son (and possibly Isaiah’s cousin, if Jewish history is accurate), Uzziah, reigned at the time Isaiah started his prophetic ministry.

Isaiah was married, his wife is referred to just once (8:3), where she is referred to as “the prophetess”). They had two sons.

Today we know Isaiah not only for his messages of judgment and hope to his contemporaries in Judah, but also for his prophecies of the future Messiah and the fulfillment of many of those prophecies in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Like the other prophets, Isaiah’s main duty was to speak God's word to his contemporaries in the kingdom of Judah. Isaiah spoke both of near judgments and future restoration for the Israelites . . . indictments against them for their sins versus encouragement (even begging!) for them to repent; the certainty of destruction of the nation if they didn’t repent and the promise of future rescue and restoration.

Isaiah’s prophecy is especially colorful in foretelling a bright future with the coming Messiah. He wrote that God would not forget His covenant made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David and that He would spare a remnant of His people, out of which would come the Messiah and His new kingdom. Through Isaiah, God condemned empty ritualism (1:10-15) and idolatry (40:18-20) and predicted the coming Babylonian captivity of Judah because of its departure from the Lord (39:6-7), which happened about 50 years after Isaiah’s death.

Isaiah’s credentials as a prophet were bolstered among his contemporaries by specific events he predicted that came true during his lifetime:

36:6-7—predicted that the Assyrians who laid siege to Jerusalem would fail and return defeated to their land. Fulfilled in 36:36-38.

38:5—predicted that King Hezekiah’s illness would be healed, and it was (2 Kings 20:7).

One specific prediction established his prophetic credentials for the generations of Israelites that followed, a specific prediction about a future king named Cyrus (44:28). Just 150 years later, in 538 B.C., Persian King Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 1:1-2; 6:3), sending Ezra and a remnant of the Jews exiled to Babylon back to Jerusalem. This is one of the remarkable passages in Isaiah that confounds Old Testament critics, a specific prediction that occurred in Old Testament history and which witnessed to the Israelites the inspiration of Isaiah’s prophecies.

The pattern of fulfilled prophecies of Isaiah gives us assurance of the accuracy of his prophecies of the Messiah’s second coming and eventual reign over all mankind. The specific prophecies of Isaiah also have given rise to skeptics in recent centuries, beginning in some of the major European universities in the 18th century. Proceeding with research tainted by the their presuppositions that biblical passages recounting miracles or prophecies that came to pass later, these “scholars” assumed these verses to be either counterfeit or added later, after the event prophesied. The skeptics held that the prophecies about Hezekiah and Cyrus were added after the fact by Jewish rabbis, that the specific prophecies of the first advent of the Messiah added by Christian writers after the events took place, and that these same Christians added the prophecies of His second advent to support early church doctrine.

Interestingly, however, among Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 is a complete Isaiah scroll, which has been carbon dated 335-107 B.C. The answer to the skeptics is undeniable and irrefutable: at least a century before Christ, all of these prophecies of the Messiah’s first advent were part of Jewish Scripture.

Looking at the events that were taking place during Isaiah’s ministry, we find that Isaiah states in 1:1 that his ministry occurred during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, so we can pretty accurately date his ministry from approximately 739 to 689 B.C. It was during this time, when Isaiah was ministering in the southern kingdom of Judah, that the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (722 B.C.). Isaiah died approximately 130 years before the Babylonians captured Judah and carried its people into exile.

It was a time of great turmoil in Judah. Assyria was threatening to conquer both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, Israel and Syria, in addition, were allied against Judah.

Commercially and militarily, Judah was strong, with flourishing commerce through its ports on the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Its fortified cities presented a real obstacle to the powers that wanted to invade and conquer the country.

Spiritually, however, Judah was in a steep decline. King Uzziah tried to act as a priest and was afflicted with leprosy and died. His son, Jotham, allowed increased spiritual corruption, greed, crime, and Jotham’s son, Ahaz, fearing the Israel/Syrian threat, allied Judah with the Assyrians, in the process giving the Assyrians permission to build a pagan altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was Ahaz’ alliance with the Assyrians that gave the Assyrians a foothold in Palestine. Its presence in the region enabled Assyria to station troops in Judah and led to the Assyrian invasion and destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah, is not known for leading the nation to further idolatry, but neither did he lead in revival. He was consumed with protecting Judah from its enemies, paying a large annual tribute to the Assyrians, then later reneging on that agreement. Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah listened to the prophet Isaiah and trusted in the Lord rather than forming military alliances to protect Judah, and the Assyrian army was miraculously defeated and returned to Assyria (Isaiah 36-37).

The Babylonians were growing in power and sent ambassadors to Hezekiah proposing an alliance. Hezekiah followed Isaiah’s advice and turned them down. However, Hezekiah unwisely displayed the treasures of Judah and the Jerusalem Temple to them.

Isaiah predicted that Hezekiah’s treasures and his descendants would be taken away to Babylon (Isaiah 39:1-2), which happened a little more than a century later, after the Babylonians had conquered the Assyrians and had become the dominant world power.

During this time God sent several prophets to Israel and Judah. Hosea (750-725 B.C.) prophesied mainly to Israel, the northern ten tribes. Micah (735-700 B.C.) together with Isaiah spoke primarily to Judah in the south.

There are two major themes in the Book of Isaiah

First is the exhortation to “Trust in the Holy One of Israel.” Faith in the Lord and obedience to His will, and not alliances with neighboring pagan nations, would assure not only God’s forgiveness for His people, but also Judah’s deliverance from its enemies. Eight times, Isaiah urges the people of Judah to “wait upon the Lord” (cf. Isa 40:28-31), rather than seeking secular solutions to the threats against their nation.

The second theme of the book of Isaiah is the coming Messiah and the glory of the future age in which all Israel will be gathered together in its land and will be forgiven and restored to the Lord. Isaiah writes repeatedly of the events to come, foretelling the fall of the pagan nations and the coming kingdom of the Messiah to rule the world in justice and righteousness (cf. Isa 2:1-5).

Isaiah's favorite designation for the Lord is “The Lord of Hosts,” a term which he uses more than 60 times. “Hosts” can refer to the armies of Israel, angels, messengers, the heavens. In Isaiah, its various uses seems to designate all of these, and could easily be translated to express the thought “all-powerful God.” He also uses the phrase “the Holy One of Israel” 25 times, more than any other writer.

There are two divisions in the book:

Chapters 1-39, called the “Assyrian period”: indictment against Judah and the impending judgment; the sovereign God who judges both His people and the pagan nations. In this section, Isaiah prophesies that God will use the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians for His purposes in punishing His people, and afterward judge each of these nations and destroy them because of their sins.

Chapters 40-66, called the “Babylonian period”: exhortations to God’s people to have faith and show patience; restoration and future blessings will come to Israel. In these chapters, Isaiah writes words of comfort for the exiles who would live in Babylonian captivity a century later.

Next: Isaiah 1—the sinful condition of the people of Judah and the call to repent.

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