Isaiah: Introduction – Isaiah 1
Read the Passage: Isaiah 1
Author and Date – Isaiah was a prophet who ministered mainly to the southern nation of Judah during the time of the divided monarchy. He ministered from ~739 BC–686 BC. Isaiah is one of the so-called major prophets, along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah (also known as Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Some have suggested that Isaiah’s family may have been wealthy, as he had unusual access both to kings (cf. Isa. 7:3) and to priests (cf. Isa. 8:2). Many scholars believe Isaiah’s father Amoz was a brother of King Amaziah, which—if true—would make Isaiah a cousin to the kings under whom he ministered. This would help to explain his royal access. Isaiah was married and had two sons, both of whom had prophetic names (cf. Isa. 7:3; 8:3). Tradition holds that Isaiah was killed sometime after 681 BC by King Manasseh who murdered him by having Isaiah sawed in half inside of a hollow log (cf. Heb. 11:37, “They were sawed in two”). Isaiah’s contemporaries include the prophets Micah and Hosea, and possibly Amos. Note that the book of Isaiah is quoted at least 65 times in the New Testament, which is more than all of the other Old Testament prophets combined. Furthermore, Isaiah is cited by name at least 20 times in the New Testament.
Theme and Purpose – Isaiah’s main ministry to Judah was to exhort the people of Judah to repentance and to warn them about impending divine judgment. Observe that many of Isaiah’s prophecies came true during his own lifetime, including Jerusalem not falling to the Assyrian army (cf. Isa. 37:6–7) and Hezekiah’s return to health after his severe illness (cf. Isa. 38:5). Other major prophecies in the book of Isaiah include the deliverance of Judah by Cyrus (cf. Isa. 44:28; 45:1) and Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Isa. 53:1–12). Observe that Isaiah also gives encouraging information about the new heavens and new earth (cf. Isa. 65:17–25; 66:22–23), as well as many detailed prophecies about the promised Messiah (cf. Isa. 7:14–15; 9:6; 11:1; 42:2; 50:5; 52:13; 53:1–6, 10–11; 61:1–2). In fact, only the book of Psalms has more Messianic prophesies than the book of Isaiah.
Historically, the Assyrian empire was the superpower of the day. Note that Israel and Syria had formed an alliance against Assyria, yet King Ahaz of Judah had formed an alliance with Assyria. When the King Ahaz would not join the Israeli-Syrian alliance against Assyria, Israel and Syria threatened to attack Judah, prompting an attack and defeat of Israel by Assyria (in defense of Judah), who then implemented heavy taxation upon Israel. Later, when the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileaser III died, Israel rebelled from their forced allegiance to Assyria, which prompted an attack on Israel by the Assyrian King Sargon II in 722 BC. Observe that Hezekiah became king of Judah in 715 BC and—in contrast to his forebears—opposed the Assyrians, prompting the attacks by Sennacherib which are described in Isaiah 36–37.
Structure and Outline: The book of Isaiah is not strictly chronological in presentation. This book can be thematically outlined as follows:
- The Judgment of God’s People (chs. 1–35)
- The History of God’s People (chs. 36–39)
- The Salvation of God’s People (chs. 40–66)
Wickedness of Judah (1:1–9)
Unlike some of the other prophets, Isaiah does not begin with his call to ministry or by giving detailed biographical information (cf. Isa. 6:1–13). While Isaiah does briefly record the chronological scope of his ministry in Isa. 1:1, the main content of this opening chapter is a courtroom scene in which God vividly describes the wickedness of Judah. In His indictment, God highlights the irrationality of Judah’s sins, as He points out His own loving provision for the nation (cf. Isa. 1:2), as well as the undesirable consequences of the nation’s sin (cf. Isa. 1:5–6). In Isa. 1:7–8 the prophet illustrates the coming destruction of Judah, as he alludes to the desolation of the land, the burning of the cities, and the victory of foreign nations. Yet, amid divine judgment upon Judah, Isaiah alludes to hope, noting the Lord will not destroy the entire nation, but will preserve “a very small remnant” (Isa. 1:9).
Appeal of the Lord (1:10–20)
In Isa. 1:9 the prophet records that God had prevented Judah from becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah in that He did not destroy the nation. It is surprising, then, that in Isa. 1:10 God addresses Judah as “you rulers of Sodom . . . you people of Gomorrah.” Observe that Isa. 1:11–15 is an arresting passage as here God condemns the seemingly good religious activities of the nation, which include: sacrifices, burnt offerings, incense, sacred days, religious assemblies, holy feasts, and prayers. Note that many of these activities were prescribed in the Mosaic law. In this passage it is clear that external conformation without internal transformation is an abomination to God. Despite the peoples’ sin, in Isa. 1:16–20 God appeals to the nation and invites them to repent. In a verse that shows the sensibility of remorse, God pleads, “Come now and let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18; cf. Rom. 12:2).
Condition of Jerusalem (1:21–31)
In Isa. 1:21–31 God reiterates the degenerate condition of Judah, specifically mentioning the sins of Jerusalem, as he refers to “the faithful city [which] has become a harlot” (Isa. 1:21). In this passage Isaiah cites the sins of harlotry, murder, impurity, rebellion, thievery, bribery, and injustice. Because of the wickedness of the people, God would judge them; however, the purpose of divine retribution, writes Isaiah, is restoration. After purging sin from Jerusalem, Isaiah notes, “You shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isa. 1:26). In part, this prophecy was fulfilled when many Israelites returned to Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity. Yet, the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy among God’s people will not come to pass until Christ returns to a renewed heavens and a renewed earth, which Isaiah will discuss with some detail towards the end of this book (cf. Isa. 65:17–25; 66:22–23).
- Given the great sin of the people of Judah, why did God preserve a remnant of people rather than destroying the entire nation?
- How does the mind and human reason relate to the Christian faith? Does the Bible foster or encourage an anti-intellectual mindset?
- Given God’s repeated warnings to His people, as well as the obvious consequences of sin, why did Israel refuse to repent and follow God?
- How do verses like Matt. 5:14; Heb. 11:10, 13, 16; 13:14 relate to Isa. 1:21–31? What does it mean to be a citizen of heaven and of earth?
- Given that the goal of divine retribution is restoration, how ought we shape punishment within the church and contemporary society?