The earliest of the major prophets, Isaiah addressed both kingdoms of Israel, serving at the same time as men like Hosea, Amos, and Micah (c. 740-680 B.C.). He seems to have been influential with the southern kings, even the wicked Ahaz, and enjoyed a great amount of interaction with Hezekiah. Like Hosea and Joshua, Isaiah’s name was built on the Hebrew word for “salvation” and means “Jehovah saves.” This was appropriate because Isaiah’s message was one of salvation to Israel, with a heavy emphasis on the coming Messiah, and is often called the “gospel of the Old Testament.”
The first verse describes this as a “vision.” This is a rare word, occurring only 35 times in the entire Old Testament: 30 times in ten prophets (twice in Isaiah) and once each in 1 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Psalms, and Proverbs. It always means a revelation of some kind, usually in a vision. However, it is obvious that not everything in Isaiah was the result of a vision (see the historical narrative in chapters 7-8 and 36-39, for instance), while others parts clearly were (chapter six). It may be best to understand that Isaiah saw all the prophetic revelations recorded, whether by vision or real life (see Isaiah 2:1 – “the word which Isaiah saw”).
Not surprisingly, Isaiah has been attacked ferociously, especially since the late 1700s. The basis for these attacks is because the book naturally breaks into two main sections: chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-66. The latter section deals almost exclusively with prophecy, including calling by name the Persian king, Cyrus, who was not even born for another 100 years. This has caused liberal scholars who reject predictive prophecy to claim that there were at least two “Isaiahs,” each writing one of the two sections, and that the later Isaiah was during or after Cyrus’ time. 1 There is no legitimate basis for this and is valuable only to those who refuse to acknowledge that God provided the historical Isaiah with supernatural revelation, including future events.
There are two strong arguments for a single Isaiah. First, every time Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament (including by Jesus), he is referenced as Isaiah, regardless of the section of the book being quoted. If anyone were able to correct the pseudonymous writer, it would be Jesus. 2 Second, the name of every writing prophet was preserved with his work. This was important to the Jews and essential in verifying the prophet’s authority. If even short, relatively minor prophecies like Obadiah and Haggai had their writers’ names preserved, how much more a half or third of, arguably, the greatest writing prophet’s work? Is it possible that God would allow twenty-seven chapters, containing some of the greatest teachings and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, to be mistakenly attributed to Isaiah rather than the true writer? Even Hebrews is blatant in its anonymity to everyone but the original audience. Again, there is no basis for this, and it is best to accept the literal eighth-century Isaiah as the writer of the entire book.
Even beyond the judgment prophecies about Israel and her enemies, Isaiah is a gold mine for students of Scripture. It is in Isaiah that we find the seraphim crying “Holy, holy, holy” (chapter 6). Isaiah tells of Messiah’s birth (chapters 7, 9), his first ministry (chapter 61), his substitutionary death for sin (chapter 53), his coming battle (chapter 63), and his kingdom (chapters 11, 60, 64-66). In fact, there are more Messianic prophecies found in Isaiah than any other Old Testament book, including the Psalms. It is in Isaiah we find all three members of the Trinity mentioned together (chapter 42) and the story of God’s dealings with Hezekiah (chapters 37-39).
Chapters one through five all contain undated messages. Whether these came before his “commission” in chapter six is debated. It seems that they possibly sum up the big themes of Isaiah’s work. The opening message is about the need for judgment to come upon Israel because of their rebellion. Isaiah said that even work animals know their masters, yet Israel did not recognize Jehovah, though he treated them as his own children (Isaiah 1:2-3). Instead, they rejected him. Although God had repeatedly punished them (as he promised throughout Deuteronomy), they would not repent (Isaiah 1:4-9).
Sarcastically referring to them as Sodom, God said that he was “fed up” with their sacrifices, festivals, and prayers – even though he was the one who designed and commanded them (Isaiah 1:10-15)! They had turned them into mere ritual rather than repentant worship, and it disgusted him. Instead, he wanted them to confess their sin and begin to obey him again (Isaiah 1:16-20). If they did this, he promised to forgive their sin and restore blessings to them. 3 Rebellion would only bring more judgment.
Although the situation seemed bleak, God promised to come to Zion in judgment (Isaiah 1:21-23). This judgment, however, would be for purification not annihilation (Isaiah 1:24-31). The old and corrupt things would be done away with, while the new, pure things would be established. This is a brief look forward to the Messianic Kingdom, which will be described in much more detail throughout the book.
The analogy in Isaiah 1:30 is about the unbelieving, idolatrous portion of Israel: “For you will be like a tree whose leaves wither, like an orchard that is unwatered.” This finds its contrast both earlier in Psalm 1:3 (“[The righteous man] is like a tree planted by flowing streams; it yields its fruit at the proper time, and its leaves never fall off. He succeeds in everything he attempts.”) and later in Isaiah 61:3 – “They will be called oaks of righteousness, trees planted by the LORD to reveal his splendor.”
- Scholars refer to this unknown writer as “deutero-Isaiah.” Others have gone so far as to chop the first section into two parts as well, claiming that there must have been a third writer (“trito-Isaiah”). ↩
- The response to this is that Jesus was simply bending his teaching to his listeners’ current level of understanding. However, this could open serious allegations to anything that he taught, questioning whether he was speaking absolute truth or just what the people could understand. ↩
- It is important to note the difference between the Law and the Church. Israel received temporal forgiveness and blessing when they obeyed God. Christians have already received forgiveness and “every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3) at salvation. Although salvation has always been by grace through faith, even under the Law, sacrifices and obedience were an integral part of the exercise of faith and were required for physical blessings. ↩