The name Isaiah means Isai—Yah, "Yahweh is my salvation". Many commentaries say that the book is divided into two or three sections. The first 39 chapters are about Judah under threat from Assyria, which was building an empire at the time. Isaiah himself wrote chapters 1–39, before the exile. The description of his call in Isaiah 6 suggests that he was a high court official who was suddenly called to act as court prophet. In his call he saw God's utter holiness and this theme runs through his prophecy. He seems to have prophesied in court from about 740–690 B.C.E., and according to Jewish tradition he died in the persecution under Manasseh. He was married with two sons. From chapter 40 onwards the Assyrian empire has been taken over by the Babylonians, and those who cannot believe that Isaiah foresaw this are obliged to argue that others continued Isaiah's work during the exile. This argument disregards that fact that certain almost unique phrases such as "the Holy one of Israel" occur throughout the whole book. Some commentators claim to see evidence that chapters 56–66 were added later in which different styles can be seen, perhaps by a school of prophets. It describes events such as the reconstruction of the walls and the rituals in the reconstructed temple indicate in Nehemiah's time (not later, as some say, because Isaiah 64:11 says that the temple was still burned down).
The book of Isaiah spans times of rapid change; not only the political turmoil following the collapse of the northern kingdom and later exile of the south, but also the introduction of money in place of bartering[1 p.78].
Isaiah is acknowledged as a prophet, but there is some disagreement about what prophecy is. Some say "all prophecy is conditional", in other words, a warning about a disaster that can be avoided by heeding the warning; others say that biblical prophecy is simply foretelling of the future. The book contains its own hint in Isaiah 46:10.
Excellent early copies of Isaiah were found a Qumran; the "Great Isaiah" scroll was dated to 100 B.C.E., yet agrees well with the texts from other sources. The book has been in its present form for at least two millennia. The context is the ABC of the Exile: Assyria, Babylon, then Cyrus the Persian.
Chapters 1–39 reflect the concerns of Judah and Israel threatened by the Assyrian empire in 733–701 BCE, promising an ideal king (9:1–6, 16:5, 31:1–8); chapter 40 on relates first to Babylon, in which Israel has been assimilated (45:13), and later to Cyrus God's agent (44:28, 45:1), which was the situation in 550–540 BCE. There is no hint that these events are being predicted; it is assumed that the reader knows they have happened. Lastly, there is trito-Isaiah which foresees a final return to the promised land (60:21), and gentiles serving the Jews (55:5, 61:15). The mountains of Judea will be reclaimed from the marauding Edomites. The "three Isaiahs" speak of differently of The Word. Isaiah son of Amos sees it as something to be obeyed, and the people do well or badly depending on their response. Deutero-Isaiah emphasizes that God is sovereign and his word is all-powerful; what he says will happen, whatever people do. Trito-Isaiah describes God's word as something not as something to be fulfilled but that fertilizes the earth; he re-interprets phrases from Deutero-Isaiah as symbolic rather than literal (see 58:8).[2 p13–6]
Structure partly based on Motyer:
Related thoughts are often used to mark the beginning and ending of sections of text, e.g. "quenched" (Ch 1, 66).
Chapters 1–5: Introduction
The situation to which Isaiah prophesied is explained. Isaiah's ministry spanned the reigns of four Kings, about 739–686 BC (52 or 53 years), a time when national hope was fading into dark despair
Isaiah ceased prophesying 100 years before the exile to Assyria in 586 BC
Chapters 6–12: Isaiah's call
Chapter 6: Isaiah's call
Chapter 7: the western Mediterranean is in crisis, being threatened by Assyria. Judah is attacked by small states nearby, perhaps because King Ahaz (who is compared unfavourably with King David) prefers to pay tribute to Assyria rather than fight
Chapter 10: faith trusts in God's unseen hand rather than worldly strength
Chapter 12: the whole community needs to be cleansed
Chapters 13–27: God's nature
The God of the whole cosmos loves humanity, and wants to give his "chosen people" a special role
Chapter 24: sinful cities will be destroyed ...
Chapter 26: ...but the heavenly city stands firm
Chapter 27: Judah will be gathered from Assyria and cleansed
Chapters 28–35: How God saw Judah's situation
Judah was trapped between opposing super-powers, and was doomed because it had forsaken God
Chapter 29: God will rescue his people just in time
Chapter 30: making a treaty with Egypt is not only foolish, but also a substitute for trusting God
Chapters 36–39: Defeat by Assyria, and transfer to Babylon
Chapters 36–37: Assyria, a constant threat throughout the first 38 chapters, invades Judah
Chapter 38: God will eventually rescue Judah
Chapter 39: Babylon gains control of Assyria, acquiring its empire, including Judah
Chapters 40–55 are sometimes called "Second Isaiah" and promise rescue from captivity
Chapter 40: God will rescue; Judah's sin will be cancelled
Chapter 44: the first glimpse of Cyrus, the Persian ruler who will send all the exiles home...
Chapter 45: ...but the Jews will still be unhappy, because though at home they are still vassals
Chapter 49: God's servant will redeem Judah
Chapter 53: God's servant will bear our sins
Chapters 56 on are sometimes called "Third Isaiah"
Chapters 56–66: Judah's weakness and God's solution
Chapter 56: Judah's political weakness
Chapter 57: Judah's religious weakness
Chapter 56: Judah's spiritual weakness
Chapter 61: God will dry Judah's tears
Chapter 62: God will destroy Judah's oppressors
Chapter 63: God will wreak vengeance
Chapter 65: God will re-establish Jerusalem
Chapter 66: A new Jerusalem in God's loving care
Sweeney[4 p.78f] sees (by ignoring questions of authorship and date) a simpler structure in the book. He says that the book Isaiah is about the place of Jerusalem in God's plans; chapters 1–33 prophesy judgment and subsequent restoration, while chapters 34 on presuppose that the judgment has happened and the restoration is at hand. Going into more detail:
Thus the theme in Isaiah 6 of Isaiah encountering God in the temple and being cleansed continues throughout the book.
© David Billin 2002–2023