In order to understand the poem, you need to understand the poet. Understanding the circumstances that brings about the text will help you understand the intended message. Isaiah is perhaps the most familiar prophet of the Old Testament, and also the least understood. Many people use the Book of Isaiah as an example of what is difficult about the bible. I have found that the greatest stumbling block to understanding Isaiah is a lack of familiarity with the man himself. Once you get a handle on his circumstances such the geography and customs of Isaiah and the people he is talking to, the passages open up.
Isaiah recorded his magnum opus during the last four decades of 8th century BC, from 740BC to 700 BC. Many scholars feel the book was heavily edited over the centuries, and most argue the book was written by three different people over a 200 year time span. For the sake of this entry, we will assume the entire book was written by Isaiah and any anachronisms in the text may have been added by later editors.
As a brief overview, the history of Israel begins with Moses leading the 12 tribes of Israel out of Egypt and in time, turns the reigns over to Joshua who leads them into the promised land. The nation is ruled by a number of judges, and in this time period we have the story of Samson and Delilah. The people have a hankering for a king so finally the prophet of the day ordains Saul to be their inaugural king, followed by David and then Rehoboam. Rehoboam, unfortunately, was a ruthless and wicked king and this led the ten tribes to the north to break away, leading to the formation of two kingdoms moving forward: the Kingdom of Israel to the north, and Judah to the south. The Old Testament books are not entirely in chronological order; they are divided into groupings of historical books, poetic books, major prophets and minor prophets. For example, the books of Ezra and Nehemia, the 15th and 16th of the 39 books of the Old testament, are the last of the historical books and recount the condition of the people of Judah at the close of the Old Testament. The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, was the last of the smaller prophets so is a book of discourses delivered by Malachi but was likely written just before Ezra and Nehemehia. The book of Isaiah is one of the major prophets, and fits into the historical narrative of the Book of Kings.
Isaiah resided in the southern kingdom of Judah and ministered during reigns of Uzziah (792-740), Jotham (750-732), Ahaz (735-715) and finally Hezekiah (715-687). There is some overlap of the kings as the son would have started their reign as co-regent, and there is dispute over when the kings reigned so different sources would provide different dates. King Uzziah died around 740 BC when Isaiah was still a young man. Sometime in that year, Isaiah went to the temple and had a vision of God sitting on his throne. The vision is filled with temple imagery such as smoke (burning incense) the throne (in the holy place) and eating a book (the white biscuit offered by the priest). It is at this point that Isaiah truly becomes a prophet and seer.
He preached a hope of salvation to Judah while the Northern Kingdom was being besieged by Assyria. Born perhaps shortly before 760 BC, he identifies himself as the son of Amoz who may have been brother of King Amaziah of Judah. If this is so, this would make Isaiah a cousin of King Uzziah. There is no real evidence of royal lineage, but making a point of mentioning his Father’s name could be significant.
Isaiah refers to his wife as a prophetess, and he mentions two sons whose names were themselves icons to his message. Shearhashub (a remnant shall return) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Bas (the spoils speeds, the prey hastes). Kings 15 suggests that Uzziah and his son Jotham who served after him ‘did that which was right in the sight of the Lord’. Jotham served as a coregent and was just 24 when he became king. At this time, The Assyrian Empire was growing in power in Mesopotamia and was preparing to conquer Israel in the north. Many in Uzziah’s and later Jotham’s court did not want to oppose Assyria for obvious reasons – they were a ruthless and powerful military force. Uzziah and his son, however, refused to ally with them for fear of becoming a powerless protectorate.
Jotham only served for 16 to 20 years before he died and his son Ahaz took over. It is under the rein of Ahaz who did not follow the Law of Moses that Isaiah began to directly oppose the king’s foreign policies. Israel had forged an alliance with Syria in an attempt to defend against Assyria’s advances and when Ahaz King of Judah refused to join them, the king of Syria threatened to remove him from power and replace him with the son of someone named Tabeel. God sent Isaiah with a message for Ahaz 7:4 “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands.” I have never been insulted by God or one of his prophets, but clearly He is not above dishing out some zingers. Isaiah then gave the reluctant king a sign that a child would be born, and before the child was weaned, Israel and Syria would fall. (7:18-23) Unconvinced, Ahaz panicked and made an allegiance with Assyria for protection from Israel and Syria which comes at a huge price and sets the stage for Assyria to lay waste to the northern kingdom.
Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son, was much more willing to listen to the prophet’s council. He broke ties with Assyria in 705 and in 701, the Assyrian forces of Sannacherib threatened to invade. Isaiah counselled the king to trust in the Lord 37:36, and ‘The angel of the lord went forth and smote in the camp of the Assyrians 100 and 4-score and 5000: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses” (37:36). Later in life, Hezekiah became critically ill and Isaiah advised him to prepare to die. The king pleaded for his life and he was granted 15 more years to live accompanied by a sign that the sundial would be turned back (38:8). It is not likely the earth would be turned on its axis, more likely that there was a light brighter than the sun that caused the sundial to cast a different shadow. The final historical reference is when Hezekiah shows hospitality to King Merodach-Baladan of Babylon and makes the mistake of showing him all his riches. Not long after, Babylon invades to rob him of his treasures. Isaiah warned him of this pending doom and Hezekaih response to this prophecy was that, although his pride would lead to the eventual fall of his kingdom, at least ‘there shall be peace and truth in my days” 39:8.
There is an apocryphal tale that Isaiah served under Menasseh, Hezekiahs less faithful son, and was martyred by being sawed in two but there is no evidence that this story is true.
Knowing his history provides context to his prophesies. He was often warning the various kings about the ramifications of their policies on the nation of Israel, prophesying both of the immediate future, and the distant future. He used a variety of images that would be familiar to the people of that day, and used geographical references that they would understand; as such, many of the reference are of farming. It should therefore be understand that, although the book of Isaiah was written for our day, it was not written to our day. It was written to the people of Israel some 2700 years ago, but the message of warning applies to our day.