The 66 chapters of Isaiah consist primarily of prophecies of Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria, Israel (the northern kingdom), Ethiopia, Egypt, Arabia, and Phoenicia. The prophesies concerning them can be summarized as saying that God is the God of the whole earth, and that nations which think of themselves as secure in their own power might well be conquered by other nations, at God's command.
The judgments, however, are not only against those who persecute Isaiah's country, Judah. Chapters 1-5 and 28-29 prophesy judgment against Judah itself. Judah thinks itself safe because of its covenant relationship with God. However, God tells Judah (through Isaiah) that the covenant cannot protect them when they have broken it by idolatry, the worship of other gods, and by acts of injustice and cruelty, which oppose God's law.
Some exceptions to this overall foretelling of doom do occur, throughout the early chapters of the book. Chapter 6 describes Isaiah's call to be a prophet of God. Chapters 35-39 provide historical material about King Hezekiah and his triumph of faith in God.
Chapters 24-34, while too complex to characterize easily, are primarily concerned with prophecies of a "Messiah," a person anointed or given power by God, and of the Messiah's kingdom, where justice and righteousness will reign. This section is seen by Jews as describing an actual king, a descendant of their great king, David, who will make Judah a great kingdom and Jerusalem a truly holy city. It is traditionally seen by Christians as describing Jesus, who was, according to Hebrew genealogical records from Jerusalem, descended from David, and who will return to make a true Theocracy. A number of modern scholars believe that it describes, in somewhat idealized terms, King Hezekiah, who was a descendant of David, and who tried to make Jerusalem into a holy city.
The prophecy continues with what some have called “The Book of Comfort” which begins in chapter 40 and completes the writing. In the first eight chapters of this book of comfort, Isaiah prophesies the deliverance of the Jews from the hands of the Babylonians and restoration of Israel as a unified nation in the land promised to them by God. Isaiah reaffirms that the Jews are indeed the chosen people of God in chapter 44 and that Yahweh is the only God for the Jews (and the only God of the universe) as he will show his power over the gods of Babylon in due time in chapter 46. In chapter 45:1, the Persian ruler Cyrus is named as the person of power who will overthrow the Babylonians and allow the return of Israel to their original land.
The remaining chapters of the book contain prophecies of the future glory of Zion under the rule of a righteous servant (52-54). There is a very complex prophecy about this servant, that is written in a very poetic language. Although there is still the mention of judgment of false worshippers and idolaters (65 & 66), the book ends with a message of hope of a righteous ruler who extends salvation to his righteous subjects living in the Lord’s kingdom on earth.
Isaiah lived in the late eighth century BC. He was part of the upper class but urged care of the downtrodden. At the end, he was loyal to King Hezekiah, but disagreed with the King's attempts to forge alliances with Egypt and Babylon in response to the Assyrian threat.
Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings: Uzziah (also known as Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. According to tradition, he was martyred during the reign of Manasseh, who came to the throne in 687 BC, by being cut in two by a wooden saw. That he is described as having ready access to the kings would suggest an aristocratic origin.
This was the time of the divided kingdom, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. There was prosperity for both kingdoms during Isaiah’s youth with little foreign interference. Jeroboam II ruled in the north and Uzziah in the south. The small kingdoms of Palestine, as well as Syria, were under the influence of Egypt. However, in 745 BC, Tiglath-pileser III came to the throne of Assyria. He was interested in Assyrian expansionism, especially to the west; and 2 Kings 15:17-22 mentions that King Menahem of Israel paid tribute to him ("King Pul").
With Israel under King Pekah no longer loyal, Tiglath-pileser attacked in 733. He took much of the land of Israel (2 Kings 15:29-30) leaving only the city of Samaria and its surroundings independent. Judah, however, was not involved.
Damascus, capital of Syria, was taken by the Assyrians in 732. Tiglath–pileser died in 727, raising false hopes for the Palestinian countries. Ahaz died a year later. Isaiah warned Philistia and the other countries not to revolt against Assyria. Hoshea, then king of Samaria, withheld tribute to Assyria. Consequently, Shalmaneser V, the new king of Assyria, laid siege to Samaria for 3 years, and his successor, Sargon II, took the city and deported 27,000 Israelites to northern parts of the Assyrian empire. This marked the end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel forever, as its population was taken into exile and dispersed amongst Assyrian provinces. It is as a result of this exile that reference is made to Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
There was peace in the area for 10 years, but then, Sargon returned in 711 to crush a coalition of Egypt and the Philistines. Judah had stayed out of this conflict, Hezekiah wisely listening to Isaiah’s advice.
Isaiah is concerned with the connection between worship and ethical behavior. One of his major themes is God's refusal to accept the ritual worship of those who are treating others with cruelty and injustice.
Isaiah speaks also of idolatry, which was common at the time. The Canaanite worship, which involved fertility rites, including sexual practices forbidden by Jewish law, had become popular among the Jewish people. Isaiah picks up on a theme used by other prophets and tells Judah that the nation of Israel is like a wife who is committing adultery, having run away from her true husband, God.
An important theme is that God is the God of the whole earth. Many gods of the time were believed to be local gods or national gods who could participate in warfare and be defeated by each other. The concern of these gods was the protection of their own particular nations. Isaiah's God is conceived as the only true god, and the god of all humankind, not just the Israelite nation, and thus could participate in warfare against all the other gods.
No one can defeat God; if God's people suffer defeat in battle, it is only because God permits it to happen. Furthermore, God is concerned with more than the Jewish people. God has called Judah and Israel his covenant people for the specific purpose of teaching the world about him.
A unifying theme found throughout the Book of Isaiah is the use of the expression of "the Holy One of Israel". Some Christians interpret this as a title for Christ. It is found 12 times in chapters 1-39 and 14 times in chapters 40-66. This expression is unique within the Old Testament to the book of Isaiah which suggests that, although scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written in various sections by different authors (on which, more below), the work was intended to be a unified body evidenced with the attention to literary consistency.
A final thematic goal that Isaiah constantly leans toward throughout the writing is the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, with rulers and subjects who strive to live by the will of God.
Almost all scholars who believe that there are multiple authors recognize some sort of division at the end of chapter 39 and that subsequent portions were written by one or more additional authors, referred to collectively as Deutero-Isaiah. Supporters of the three author proposal see a further division at the end of chapter 55. For most of the twentieth century the three-author position was the most widely held; in the 1990s, more complex and carefully nuanced positions (such as that from Williamson, 1994) started to appear. The typical objections to single authorship of the book of Isaiah are as follows:
These and other considerations have led most modern critical scholars to conclude that the book of Isaiah, in its present form, is the result of an extensive editing process, in which the promises of God's salvation are re-interpreted and claimed for the Judean people through the history of their exile and return to the land of Judah.
Chaim Dov Rabinowitz (Daat Soferim Isaiah- Introduction) points to the statement in the Talmud (Bava Basra 15a) that the book of Isaiah was written by King Hezekiah and his assistants, which may have have lived long after Isaiah. In addition, since the book of Isaiah was a product of many authors (all drawing upon one oral tradition of Isaiah's prophecies) there would naturally be changes in style.
Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (1872 - 1946) wrote that the question of the book's authorship doesn't affect Jewish understanding of the book.
In the Apostles: Paul reflects fourth song in the following: "He was delivered up for our trespasses" Romans 4:25 "Many will be made righteous" Romans 5:19 "in the likeness of sinful flesh, condemned sin in the flesh" Romans 8.3 "Christ dies for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures" 1 Corinthians 15:3 The Kenosis passage portrays Christ as "taking the form of a servant" Philippians 2:6-11 1 Peter contains a number of allusions to the fourth song in chapter 2: "Christ also suffered for you"; "He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth"; "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten"; "He himself bore our sins in his body"; "By his wounds you have been healed"; "straying like sheep" 1 Peter 2.21-25
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