Isaiah (Part 01): History
No more appropriate is the warning not to miss the forest for the trees than it is for the book of Isaiah. We travel through it as we may in Europe, not so much intent on finishing the trip at a destination, as we are on enjoying the sights, sounds, and scenes along the way. It is not that the book is disorganized; it is that the book’s organization does not follow our normal structural ruts of chronology or system. In Isaiah we meet an explosion of ideas and contrasts, spinning our minds as we try to catch the light and color circling about us. We need to adjust our seats; shift our gaze; in other words, change our perspective until the thematic images come into focused view.
Perhaps the best start is to find a firm base in the history. Isaiah was a real person, a real prophet of God, who lived at a precise point in history, prophesying before specific kings of Judah. Judah and Israel had been divided from the Saul/David/Solomon beginning for about 150 to 170 years. Jeroboam II reigned in Israel. Uzziah reigned over Judah. Their individual kingdoms had reached their peaks during this time, with prosperity and security settled on both.
Kings are reported in the Bible as either good or bad, although explanation and qualification is usually given. A fault we may have is that we walk away without the explanation and qualification, holding in our heads only a list of the king’s names and the assignment of good or bad next to each. Some kings are better than others. Maybe at least a third category should be inserted—a category in between the good and bad called “so-so.” A good king held to the Law and ensured that the people held to the Law as well. A good king cared about Yahweh as God more than simply acknowledgement through ritual. The bad king didn’t care. Partial adherence to the Law (at best) accompanied by the worship of other deities from surrounding nations was the religious activity. The religious thought was as common with them as it is with most today—what’s in it for me? Our third category of the so-so king includes those who did pay a little more attention to the Law and who did not worship foreign deities. But you could tell that following the Law was more ritualistic duty rather than desire for their God because exceptions were often made. The most common exception was in leaving the “high places,” the other spots around the nation where people could go to sacrifice and worship without having to travel all the way to Jerusalem.
Uzziah was a so-so king. For the most part, he followed the Law and worshipped only Yahweh. However, the high places were still scattered throughout the land, condoned by the king. Uzziah, although ensuring temple procedure in accordance with the Law, expended little effort on ensuring that his people pursued God as well.
But the prosperity that Uzziah enjoyed at God’s hand of blessing eventually distorted his thinking. He became proud, and, in Henry VIII fashion, began to see himself as head of the church in Jerusalem to whom the priests must answer. As king, Uzziah figured himself worthy to offer sacrifice to God in the temple. When the priests confronted him, Uzziah initially reacted in rage until the Lord struck him on the spot with leprosy. The priests ushered him out of the temple, and the king lived in quarantine the rest of his life. The kingdom was turned over to his son, Jotham.
Jotham was also a so-so king. His reign was fairly prosperous, but his attention to the Law was again more ritualistic than from a heart set on God.
During Uzziah’s and Jotham’s reigns, the kingdom of Assyria—far to the north—was gaining strength, beginning to conquer surrounding territory. By the time Jotham had died and his son Ahaz came to the throne, Assyria was recognized both as a great power and a serious threat. Ahaz was not a good king. He was not a so-so king. Ahaz was a bad king, caring little about Yahweh and the Law, and taking part in the pagan ritual and worship of the nations around him.
Israel (the northern kingdom) and Aram (or Syria) made an alliance at this time, probably to present a stronger defense against Assyrian conquest to the north. For some reason, those two nations decided to attack Judah. Perhaps Ahaz had already made some overtures to Assyria. Perhaps Ahaz simply refused to join the Israeli-Syrian alliance and seemed a threat to their south if left alone. Syria attacked from the northeast while Israel attacked from the northwest. The losses suffered by Judah were devastating. Syria took thousands captive back to Damascus. Israel would have done the same had it not been for the intervention of the prophet Oded (2 Chronicles 28:9-14).
The damage done by Israel and Aram gave confidence to other nations south of Judah. Edom attacked from the south and Philistia attacked from the west. Ahaz was feeling extremely isolated trapped now by hostile nations all about him. God sent Isaiah to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:3-9), urging him to be at peace and call upon God. But Ahaz would have none of it. Ahaz rather turned to sacrificing to the god of the Syrians (reasoning that their god was responsible for their victory over Judah). Ahaz also stripped the temple of gold, sending this as tribute to Assyria, asking their king, Tiglath-Pileser, for help.
Assyria did come (as their plans had probably already been) to attack and defeat Syria. Ahaz rushed to Damascus to offer thanks, but Assyria was more interested in its own agenda than in defending Judah.
Ahaz's reign lasted only 16 years. When he died, his son, Hezekiah became king. Hezekiah was a good king. He followed Yahweh from his heart. He was intent at keeping the Law in temple worship, and he was concerned that the people of Judah followed Yahweh. He tore down the high places throughout the land. He even reinstituted the Passover, calling on everyone—those in Judah and those in Israel—to attend (although most of those in Israel scorned him).
Assyria was undergoing a change in leadership as well. Because a nation’s strength was often tied closely to the will and ability of its leader, surrounding nations began to rebel against Assyria. Because of this, Hezekiah experienced a time of relative peace early in his reign. But Assyria’s new king, Sennacherib, proved to be as strong a leader as Tiglath-Pileser.
During this time, Sennacherib attacked and took Israel captive. They led away most of the nation into captivity. This marked the end of the divided kingdom, with Israel no longer a nation.
Sennacherib then turned his attention to Jerusalem. At first, Hezekiah paid him huge tribute basically to go away. But Sennacherib wasn’t leaving. Hezekiah called for Isaiah to inquire of God. God sent rumors to Sennacherib, causing him to withdraw his army from Jerusalem and go fight elsewhere. But Sennacherib returned, taunting Hezekiah and saying blasphemous things about God. Again Hezekiah turned to Yahweh. In the night, God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers. With this devastation, the rest simply returned home not to bother Judah again.
Hezekiah became ill, and Isaiah came to inform him that he would die. Hezekiah prayed, asking God for longer life. And God heard his prayer. Isaiah told him that God would give him 15 more years. Hezekiah asked for a sign that God would heal him. Isaiah offered for the sun’s shadow to advance or decline along the steps. Hezekiah asked for the more difficult decline (or reversal of the sun’s normal direction). This sign was granted, and three days later, Hezekiah was healed and went up to the temple on the third day as God had promised.
In his new health, peace, and wealth, Hezekiah became proud. He entertained ambassadors from Babylon, showing off all his nation’s wealth—perhaps a bad move since Babylon was a growing power. But Hezekiah’s real mistake was in his pride. The word of the Lord came to Hezekiah through Isaiah, letting him know that for his sin, Judah would be taken captive. The news did not bother Hezekiah so much because the Lord had promised that it would not occur during his lifetime. So, Hezekiah comes to the end of his life in a rather self-centered frame of mind.
These were the historical events. But much is involved related to God’s interaction with the people. Isaiah’s writings will show us the conflicts, the sin and selfishness of Judah, and the plan of God in condemnation, judgment, and mercy.