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Historical Setting for the Book of Isaiah

In the year 931 BC, King Solomon died, and the whole of Israel was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel under the rebel leader King Jeroboam and the southern kingdom of Judah under Solomon's son, King Rehoboam. The capital city of the north was Samaria, and the southern kingdom centered in Jerusalem.

In the mid 800s BC, Assyria, the dominant nation in the Middle East had expanded its empire to include vast conquests. Assyria's center was located in the area of northern Mesopotamia (northern Iraq of today). Between 810 and 745 BC, Assyria entered a dormant period and years of ineffectual rule which allowed the kingdoms of Palestine (both Israel and Judah) considerable freedom and independence.

Isaiah was born about 770 BC. His father's name was Amoz (not the Old Testament prophet Amos who was Isaiah's contemporary). Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, was married to a woman whom he called "the Prophetess," and had at least two sons. The names of his sons were received by revelation, each given as a prophetic sign. They were Shear-jashub (meaning "the remnant shall return") and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (meaning "quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil"). More about the significance of these names is found in the text commentary.

At the time of Isaiah's birth, two strong kings ruled the kingdoms of Israel: Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom of Israel and Uzziah (also known as Azariah) in the southern kingdom of Judah. In the north, Jeroboam was beautifying Samaria and expanding its borders. This was a time of peace for both kingdoms since neither of the "super powers," Assyria to the northeast and Egypt to the southwest, had strong rulers who threatened that part of the Middle East.

During Isaiah's youth and early manhood, under the leadership of the strong king Uzziah, Judah's borders were expanded southward and eastward, including Edom and territories reaching to Elath and the Red Sea. In about 750 BC, Uzziah was stricken with leprosy, and his son Jotham ruled with him as regent.

In 742 BC, the year of Uzziah's death, Isaiah received his call as the Lord's prophet (Isaiah 6). At the time of his divine call, he saw a vision of the Lord in the temple. This glorious vision initially frightened Isaiah, but he was comforted by the Lord, and his sins were forgiven him. During the vision, Isaiah overheard the Lord saying to his hosts, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" (Isaiah 6:8). Isaiah humbly volunteered, "Here am I; send me" (Ibid.). Then the Lord extended the call. As has been explained, Isaiah's call came at the end of Uzziah's reign, and he would yet serve the Lord as his prophet for fifty years until Hezekiah's death in about 692 BC. Isaiah's ministry would span the reigns of four Judean kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Isaiah 1:1). But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Back to the story.

After Uzziah's death, his son, Jotham, ruled Judah. By the time Isaiah received his call, both Israelite nations had become wealthy and cosmopolitan as a result of increased trade. Also, as wealth increased, idolatry and wickedness began to permeate these cultures. The greatest decadence was found in Samaria. At this time Amos and Hosea served as prophets in the northern kingdom, and they warned the northern kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, of her wickedness and impending destruction.

In 745 BC, a few years before Isaiah received his prophetic call, a man gained the throne in Assyria who was not passive and ineffectual. This was Tiglath-Pileser III who was also called "Pul" (pronounced "pool") in the Bible. Under his able leadership, the Assyrian Empire would eventually reach the pinnacle of its power. Pul immediately began to threaten his small neighbors in Palestine to the southwest-the ultimate objective being Assyria's major rival, Egypt. Pul maintained a powerful, professional, standing army whose cruel ways came to be dreaded by the smaller nations of the Middle East.

Assyria's threatened invasion of the Palestinian states could be met in one of three ways: (1) submission to Assyria and purchase of exemption from molestation by homage and tribute; (2) help from Egypt which was eager to secure the allegiance of these buffer states in Palestine; and (3) forming a confederation of the small Palestinian and other Middle East states, with or without the aid of Egypt, to oppose Assyria.

Initially the northern kingdom paid tribute to Assyria, but about 736 BC, Samaria (the northern kingdom) and Damascus (Syria) attempted to form a confederacy. At this time Judah was ruled by a young new king named Ahaz, the son of Jotham. Jotham had been a strong ruler, but his son Ahaz was less noble and more corrupt. Ahaz, king of Judah, refused to join this alliance, and therefore was threatened by attack from both Samaria and Syria. His plan was to seek the protection of Assyria against his hostile neighbors. As Samaria and Syria were preparing to attack Jerusalem, the Lord sent Isaiah to meet with Ahaz, the "fat hearted" apostate monarch of Judah. Isaiah's inspired counsel to Ahaz was that he refrain from forming any alliances with foreign nations. Isaiah also advised Ahaz that it would not be necessary to prepare for war. All that was necessary was for Ahaz to trust in the Lord, and all would be well. This was Isaiah's first venture into public prominence. Publicly he was uncompromisingly opposed to Ahaz's plan to cast himself under the protection of Assyria.

Ahaz ignored Isaiah's advice, armed the tribe of Judah, and made an alliance with the Assyrians. The result was that Judah immediately suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Syria and Samaria. Assyria, however, rescued Judah by smashing and subduing these two enemies of Judah. Consequently, not only were both of these subjected to Assyrian rule, but Judah also became a vassal state of Assyria in 734 BC. Unknowingly by his maneuverings, Ahaz had moved Judah into a state of Assyrian vassalage. Isaiah was no conspirator against the state, and after Ahaz concluded the Assyrian alliance, Isaiah withdrew from public life (735 to 715 BC) to wait upon Jehovah and also to wait until the wicked King Ahaz died. Ahaz did die in 715 BC.

About fourteen years after Isaiah withdrew from public life, in 722 BC, the northern kingdom of Israel came to an end as Assyria complete the deportation of many thousands of Israelites into exile in Assyria.

After Ahaz's death in 715 BC, his righteous son, Hezekiah, succeeded him on the throne. Ancient Jewish tradition maintains that Hezekiah was Isaiah's son-in-law. This perhaps explains why he appears to have had easier access to the king than we might suppose was possible for the ordinary citizen. At any rate, following the death of Ahaz, Isaiah was able to speak freely in public.

Meanwhile Assyria continued its campaign to subjugate all of the Palestine states including Judah. During the entire career of Isaiah, there was constant peril from this Mesopotamian aggressor. Isaiah consistently advocated a peace policy toward Assyria. He wasn't blind to the increasing ruthlessness of Assyria, but he felt that a policy of peace toward Assyria was the lesser of two evils. He also felt that Assyria's oppression of Judah was Jehovah's justified chastisement of Judah. He was convinced, however, that Zion, the earthly habitation of Jehovah, would never be given over to the Assyrians to be spoiled and plundered. Isaiah maintained a stand against alliances with foreign powers throughout his ministry. He saw clearly that such alliances would compromise the religious as well as political freedoms of his country. Actually, the motives underlying his counsel were more religious than political. He believed that faith in Jehovah was a sufficient guarantee of divine protection. Not to have faith was to court disaster.

Hezekiah, on assuming the throne of Judah, initiated a universal reform of Judah to restore the proper pattern of worshipping God among the people. The Levites, those holders of the Levitical Priesthood were assigned to prepare the temple for rededication. The temple rededication was a glorious occasion. Hezekiah also re-instituted the celebration of the feast of the Passover, and he invited all in Judah and the remnant remaining in Samaria to participate.

A few years of peace and prosperity followed, but in 711 BC a revolt of Palestine states against Assyria was fomented by Egypt. Judah abstained from joining in. Assyria (now under Sargon II), in countering the revolt, crushed and captured a state (Ashdod) on the Philistine coast. Isaiah was worried that Hezekiah might be drawn into the alliance with Egypt and he warned Hezekiah and Judah not to become involved. He dramatized his warning by living on the streets of Jerusalem naked and barefoot. His motive in demonstrating in this manner, again, was to dissuade Hezekiah from becoming involved in Egyptian intrigues against Assyria.

Sargon II, Assyria's leader, died in 705 BC, and at about this time, another Mesopotamian power appeared on the stage. During the reigns of Pul, Shalmaneser, and Sargon II, Assyria had subdued Babylon by deposing the Babylonian ruler and taking control. After Sargon II's death, Babylon mounted an effort to regain its autonomy and sought to induce Hezekiah to join a rebellion against Assyria. A delegation was sent to Jerusalem from Babylon in 705 BC to encourage an alliance against Assyria. Isaiah chapter 39 tells of this delegation. Hezekiah courted this delegation and displayed for them the palace treasures. Isaiah was disgusted and prophesied that Babylon would one day return to Jerusalem to get those palace treasures and carry off the people of Judah captive to Babylon.

Also about 705 BC, Egypt renewed her efforts to stir up revolt against Assyria among the Palestinian states. Hezekiah finally succumbed and was persuaded to join an alliance with Egypt. Isaiah opposed this alliance (Isaiah 30:1-5; Isaiah 30:31), and referred to it as a "covenant with death and Sheol" (Isaiah 28:15). It appears that the Egyptians had no intention or ability to support Judah against Assyria but were interested only in keeping the Assyrians busy with revolts, making it impossible for them to mount any kind of campaign against Egypt. Egypt was weak, and Hezekiah was foolish to trust in their support. A statement by an Assyrian general at the time summed up both Egypt's perpetual weakness and Hezekiah's folly in relying upon Egypt. He said that relying upon Egypt was like trusting a "broken reed" that could only injure him who leaned upon it (Isaiah 36:6). The stubborn Hezekiah, however, was determined to oppose Assyria (now under Sennacherib) in spite of Isaiah's protests.

Assyria under Sennacherib, after subduing a number of Palestinian cities, marched to and besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC. Hezekiah prepared for battle by strengthening the fortifications around Jerusalem and "internalizing" the Gihon Spring by digging a tunnel under the wall of Jerusalem, thus creating the so-called "Hezekiah's tunnel." In recent years, tourists in Jerusalem have been permitted to walk through this tunnel. As the siege commenced, Hezekiah realized the hopelessness of his position militarily, and he surrendered to Sennacherib who assessed an overwhelming monetary tribute. Hezekiah had to literally strip Judah of all of her treasures to pay it. He did hold back some of the treasures of his own palace. Even after the tribute was paid, the Assyrians did not release the pressure on Judah. When Hezekiah attempted to negotiate a settlement, the Assyrians were rude and abusive and sought to undermine the authority of King Hezekiah. Under these conditions, Hezekiah panicked (Isaiah 37:1-4), and he sent to Isaiah the entreaty "lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left" (Isaiah 37:4). The prophet offered Hezekiah strong counsel (Isaiah 37:5-7; Isaiah 37:21-35; Isaiah 10:24-34; Isaiah 14:24-27; Isaiah 31:8). Isaiah interpreted some of the aforementioned insolent behavior by Sennacherib's Assyrian soldiers as mockery and reviling against the "Holy one of Israel." With righteous indignation, he prophesied unhesitatingly in Jehovah's name that Sennacherib would not capture Jerusalem. Further, he prophesied that Sennacherib would die by the sword in his own land. Isaiah counseled Hezekiah to send away the Assyrians and not acquiesce to them any further. What a remarkable inspired prophecy issued under extremely stressful circumstances!

At this point, as if Hezekiah did not have enough problems, he developed a serious acute illness-apparently some type of infection. During one visit to the monarch's palace, Isaiah observed the gravity of his condition, and Isaiah told him that he was appointed to die. Hezekiah prayed and pled with the Lord for his life, and, as Isaiah was leaving the palace, he was prompted by the Spirit to turn around and return to the king and promise him that he would live if a poultice of figs were spread over the abscess. Hezekiah was incredulous and asked Isaiah for a sign attesting to the divine authenticity of this promise. The Lord then authorized Isaiah to predict a phenomenal sign-that the sun dial would return backward ten degrees. This miracle occurred and was of great comfort to Hezekiah. No sooner had Hezekiah recovered than he received an ultimatum by letter from Sennacherib: Surrender or face annihilation. Isaiah again reminded Hezekiah of the Lord's promise, and that very night some type of peculiar catastrophe struck the Assyrian army. Some accounts have it that 185,000 of the Assyrian soldiers died, though this may have been a somewhat exaggerated legend. At any rate Sennacherib departed quickly back to Nineveh, never to return. In the years that followed, this event would be recounted until "later generations could ascribe this deliverance to nothing less than a supernatural intervention, second only to the one which had secured the freedom of the Israelites from the Egyptian captivity" (Roth, The History of the Jews, 42). Regarding this event Professor Benjamin Mazar wrote:

Embellished by legendary accretions, it strengthened the popular view of the impregnability of the city, and the ultimate sanctity and inviolability of mount Zion and the Temple. This confidence remained intact through subsequent generations down to the last years of the monarchy, until the day that the city walls were breached, the defending forces overwhelmed, and the city itself destroyed by the armies of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Mountain of the Lord, 57).

Twenty years later Sennacherib was murdered by stabbing as Isaiah had prophesied (Isaiah 37:3-38). Thus we see that Jerusalem did not fall to Assyria.

Perhaps because of Hezekiah's ill health (he died about 692 BC), his son Manasseh began to rule as a co-regent at the tender age of twelve years. Manasseh quickly established a pagan and perverse public policy. According to Jewish tradition, he slew many of the prophets and had Isaiah encased in a tree trunk and sawn asunder with a wooden saw. If the Jewish tradition that Hezekiah was Isaiah's son-in-law, then Isaiah would have been killed by his own grandson. Christian tradition also supports the idea that Isaiah was sawn asunder and that he was among those martyred prophets mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 23:37 and by Paul in Hebrews 11:37.

Let us now briefly summarize again the essential historical events during this period of Israelite history that are pertinent to the book of Isaiah: Isaiah received his call from the Lord in 742 BC at the time of Uzziah's death.

The Northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and Syria (Damascus) formed a confederacy in 736 BC for the purpose of resisting Assyria's domination. Judah, under the apostate king Ahaz refused to join and therefore Judah was threatened by attack from the combined armies of Samaria and Damascus. In order to protect Judah against these neighbor aggressors, Ahaz, against the advise of Isaiah, entered into an alliance with the Assyrians. Assyria then smashed Damascus and Samaria and both became vassal states of Assyria. On becoming involved in an alliance, Judah also inadvertently found herself in a state of vassalage under Assyria. Isaiah then withdrew from public life to await the death of the wicked King Ahaz.

Meanwhile between 732 and 722 BC, Assyria effectively destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel by carrying away captive to Assyria 27,290 of its most influential citizens.

Ahaz died in 715 BC and was succeeded by his more righteous son, Hezekiah. Hezekiah instituted a series of religious reforms in Judah in order to correct the apostate form of worship which had developed. These included re-dedicating the temple.

In 711 BC, Egypt sought an alliance with Judah for the purpose of resisting and undermining the interests of Assyria. Isaiah warned against this alliance and dramatized his warning by living naked in the streets of Jerusalem. Hezekiah heeded Isaiah's advice initially but finally in 705 BC Hezekiah did commit Judah to this foolish alliance. It was foolish because Egypt had neither the intent nor the ability to protect Judah against the powerful forces of Assyria now under Sennacherib. Also in 705 BC, Hezekiah received a delegation from a new rising super power in Mesopotamia. This was Babylon who was also seeking Judah's support in a rebellion against Assyria.

Assyria besieged Judah and Jerusalem in 701 BC. Hezekiah capitulated and paid an overwhelming monetary tribute to Sennacherib which required stripping Judah of most all of her treasures. This tribute, however, did not buy them relief from the abuses and threatened attack of Assyria's forces. Hezekiah sent for Isaiah who daringly prophesied that Sennacherib would never capture Jerusalem. Hezekiah became desperately ill from some type of infection. Isaiah initially felt that Hezekiah was appointed to die but later was inspired to prophesy that he would live. Isaiah then proffered a miraculous sign to comfort Hezekiah. True to Isaiah's prophecy, Sennacherib's army suddenly developed a peculiar and devastating epidemic illness and had to withdraw from their siege of Jerusalem.

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