Isaiah is one of the most familiar books of the Old Testament, and yet Isaiah can be hard to understand. We are probably familiar with the verses in Isaiah that we read during Advent or hear in classical music. The other parts of Isaiah that are in between those familiar verses, however, can be hard to get.
Isaiah is a collection of poetry and prophecy. That genre difference alone makes Isaiah harder to interpret than a straightforward narrative history like 1 Kings. In addition to this unfamiliar genre difference, the book of Isaiah uses so many references and assumes so much about earlier parts of the Old Testament that just about everyone who reads it has the sense that they do not fully grasp its message.
In this way, Isaiah is a bit like a T.S. Eliot poem. If I read an Eliot poem like “Gerontion,” I can get the sense of despair and isolation that it provokes. The lonely passionless old man narrating the poem is depressing. That much I can get on my own. Without a lot of study and knowledge of British literature, though, I know that there are a lot of words and references in this poem that I do not really understand. After all, there are references to characters and events in books I have never read. What these references mean, I do not know until someone explains them to me. Isaiah is a little like this. If I had never read through the law, then I would never get the connection between idolatry and social injustice Isaiah references in the opening chapters. I would also not realize that the treatment of orphans, widows, and sojourners by a society and its rulers so powerfully signifies the state of their hearts towards the LORD. Similarly, if I am not familiar with the history in 1st and 2nd Kings, I will not understand the issues facing Israel that Isaiah references.
Given their importance, this lesson is a brief overview of this background material. This is the stuff that Isaiah’s original hearers would have in their minds as he spoke and wrote to them.
Isaiah lived in Jerusalem about a decade before the Northern Kingdom fell. Remember that Israel itself was divided into a northern and a southern kingdom. The Northern Kingdom was often called Israel, and the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. Isaiah was in Judah’s capital Jerusalem. He spoke as a prophet of the LORD to both kingdoms.
The Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 BC. You can read more about the background history of this in 2 Kings 17-23. The first half of Isaiah, chapters 1-39, deal directly with this time and place. It will help if you have at least the rough outlines of this history in mind as you read through Isaiah.
The second half of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, refer to the fall of the Southern Kingdom to Babylon, which took place in 586 BC. So, in between chapters 39 and 40 is about 150 years of history. You can read more about the background history of this in 2 Kings 23-25. When Judah fell to the Babylonians, they were marched out of their homeland to dwell in exile within Babylon. The time period perspective of this second half of Isaiah is at the end of this exile period, roughly the 530s BC.
In addition to the historical setting, it also helps to remember the highlights of Israel’s narrative history that precede Isaiah. Back in Gen 22:15-18, Abraham and his family are called out by the LORD to be a blessing to all nations. As his family grew, they became enslaved in Egypt and were rescued by the LORD. Their exodus from Egypt led them to Mount Sinai, where they received the Mosaic law. In Ex 19:1-6, they were again told to follow the LORD, keeping the covenant, to be a blessing to all nations.
From subsequent historical narratives like Joshua and especially Judges, we know that Israel failed massively at keeping the covenant. Even their royal leader King David, the man after God’s own heart, failed at faithfully keeping the covenant. Yet, in 2 Samuel 7, the LORD promises that a faithful king will arise, lead Israel towards faithfulness, and rule over the nations forever.
With this grand back story, the hearers and readers of Isaiah are anticipating the promised king from David’s lineage who will fulfill all of these ancient promises. That is their expectant hope. They do not know the details, but those with faith in the LORD’s promises are waiting for a message on this from Isaiah. This is the background and the anticipation that come with the beginning of Isaiah.
Isaiah certainly delivers a message for this expectant hope, although the details he does provide were probably not what most of Israel was hoping for. Isaiah’s message was that Israel’s sin would lead to divine justice from Israel’s neighbors, Assyria and Babylon. That divine justice would somehow lead to the restoration of Israel with a new King Immanuel, which in turn would result in peace on Earth.
This storyline of justice and hope is repeated and fleshed out throughout Isaiah. He calls out sin, primarily by identifying injustice and idolatry. He prophecies that the nations surrounding Israel will be the instruments of the LORD’s justice. Israel is going to be like a tree that is chopped down and then burned. Out of this charred stump, somehow however, will emerge a new branch that will restore Israel. A new king who is also the chief servant of the LORD will suffer for and lead Israel to restoration and peace on Earth. There is both justice for Jerusalem and hope for a new Jerusalem. This theme is repeated and fleshed out throughout Isaiah.