The Ministry of Isaiah Under Pekah of Israel and Ahaz of Judah, About 734 B.C.
Under Jeroboam II, Israel had held sway over Syria as far north as “the entering of Hamath” (2 Kings 14:25); under Pekah, Israel shrank to the area south of Galilee and west of the Jordan River.
The title of the book of Isaiah in Hebrew manuscripts and in the LXX is “Isaiah.” In Luke 4:17 the book is called “the book of the prophet Esaias,” and in Acts 8:30, “the prophet Esaias.” In Hebrew Bibles the book is found in the section called “Prophets,” immediately preceded by the combined book of Kings and followed by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and “The Twelve.” See Vol. I, p. 37.
The prophet Isaiah was the author of the book called by his name. The son of Amoz and a scion of the royal line, he was called to the prophetic office in his youth (5T 749), toward the close of the reign of Uzziah (Azariah, 790-739 B.C.), during the coregency of Jotham (PK 305). This would place the call between the years 750 and 739 B.C. His term of ministry continued for at least 60 years (PK 310), spanning the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (ch. 1:1; for regnal dates see Vol. II, p. 77). The fact that Isaiah never mentions Manasseh, whose sole reign began in 686 B.C., and that he was “one of the first to fall” in Manasseh’s massacre of those who remained loyal to God (PK 382; 2 Kings 21:16), implies that his ministry terminated soon after the death of Hezekiah in 686 B.C. If so, it must have begun not later than about 745 B.C. It is probable that the prophetic messages of Isa. 1-5 were given between the years 745 and 739, probably during the last year of Uzziah’s reign but prior to the vision of ch. 6 (PK 306). It was while Isaiah contemplated relinquishing his prophetic mission, in view of the resistance he knew he would encounter (cf. Jer. 20:7-9), that he beheld this vision of divine glory (PK 307) and in it found encouragement and confirmation of the divine commission already entrusted to him.
Isaiah was married and had two sons, Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa. 7:3; Isa. 8:3). In Jerusalem, the chief scene of his labors, he became the court preacher and exercised considerable influence. For many years he was both political and religious counselor to the nation. His prophetic ministry, together with that of Micah and possibly also the indirect influence of Hosea in the northern kingdom, contributed to the reforms of Hezekiah. Manasseh, however, followed the evil policy of his grandfather Ahaz, abolished the reforms of his father Hezekiah, and took the lives of men who had encouraged the worship of the true God. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Isaiah was slain by Manasseh (see PK 382). Inspiration confirms the words of Heb. 11:37, that some were “sawn asunder,” as descriptive of the fate of Isaiah (see EGW, Supplementary Material, on Isa. 1:1).
For some 25 centuries no question arose concerning the authorship of the book of Isaiah. During the 19th century, however, higher critics in Germany began to challenge its unity of origin (see p. 85). The opinion of these men continued to gain ground until, at length, the view was almost universally accepted that the book had been written by at least two authors, a so-called first Isaiah, who wrote chapters 1-39 and who did his work at the close of the 8th century B.C., and a second Isaiah, or Deutro-Isaiah, who wrote chs. 40-66 toward the close of the Babylonian exile. There are many modifications of the above theory. Some critics assign more than half the book of Isaiah to the Maccabean period, that is, to the 2d century B.C.
One of the chief arguments of these critics for a composite authorship of Isaiah is that chs. 40-66 appear to them to be written, not from the standpoint of an author living at the close of the 8th century B.C., but from that of one who lived near the close of the Babylonian captivity. The mention of Cyrus by name (chs. 44:28; 45:1) is regarded by them as conclusive evidence that these chapters were written during the time of Cyrus, that is, in the second half of the 6th century B.C. This concept, of course, is based on the a priori assumption that prophetic foreknowledge is impossible.
There are many evidences of unity of thought and expression between the first and last parts of the book. For instance, one characteristic of Isaiah is his use of the term “the Holy One of Israel” as a title for God. This expression occurs 25 times in Isaiah and only 6 times elsewhere in the OT. It is not exclusive, however, to any part of Isaiah, but is found 12 times in chs. 1-39 and 13 times in chs. 40-66. The title “the mighty One of Israel [or, “of Jacob”]” appears only in the book of Isaiah (chs. 1:24; 49:26; 60:16). Similarities of style and language between the first and second parts of Isaiah are far more impressive than its supposed diversities.
Though the subject matter and literary style of chs. 40-66 differ considerably from those of chs. 1-39, one basic theme runs through both sections—that of deliverance from political and spiritual foes, and from their oppression of body and soul. In the first section of the book, Isaiah, whose names means “the Lord is help,” or “the Lord is salvation,” presents deliverance from sin, Syria, Assyria, and other enemies through repentance, reformation, and faith in God. The second section deals with deliverance from Babylon, and eventually from the dominion of sin through faith in the coming Deliverer. A fundamental unity of thought and purpose thus pervades the entire book, despite the apparent difference in subject matter.
The first section of the book reaches a climax in deliverance from the armies of Assyria under Sennacherib. In the last section, prophetic vision looks forward to deliverance from Babylonian captivity. A similar transition occurs in the book of Ezekiel, with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., from anticipation of, to restoration from, captivity. Furthermore, the early chapters of Isaiah record messages borne by Isaiah during his youth. The latter chapters of the book reflect a maturity of prophetic insight and literary style characteristic of age, and as a result constitute a masterpiece surpassing in depth of thought and majesty of expression even the fine passages of the earlier part of the book.
The earlier chapters of Isaiah are concerned with Assyrian invasions of Judah; the latter chapters look forward to deliverance from Babylon. Isaiah’s mission was to hold the kingdom of Judah steady as the northern kingdom vanished into Assyrian captivity. Through Isaiah the leaders were given an opportunity to understand the nature and significance of contemporary events. It was the divine purpose that Judah should profit from the sad fate of the northern kingdom, and as a result turn to God in sincere repentance. The tide of Assyrian invasion eventually all but submerged the little kingdom of Judah, and the might of Assyria was turned back from conquering Jerusalem by a signal act of God. But the men of Judah failed to heed the implied warning of history and the more explicit warnings of Jeremiah, that a similar fate awaited them unless they should amend their evil ways.
Accordingly, beginning with ch. 40, Isaiah anticipates captivity in Babylon, but with the assurance that eventual deliverance from Babylon is as certain as that recently experienced from Assyria. Furthermore, deliverance from national enemies becomes, for those who trust God, a promise of ultimate deliverance from the dominion of sin. All differences between the two sections of the book may be fully accounted for on the basis of the background of changing historical events, the resulting change in the subject matter of prophecy, and a possible change in Isaiah’s literary style with the passing years.
Although certain critics have assigned a considerable portion of the book of Isaiah to the Maccabean period, there is evidence that at that time the entire book existed as a single unit. Writing about 180 B.C., the author of the book of Ecclesiasticus (ch. 48:23- 25), Jesus ben Sirach, credited various sections of the book of Isaiah to the prophet whose name it bears.
The most impressive evidence, however, that the book of Isaiah was regarded as a single unit centuries before Christ, comes from ancient Bible manuscripts dating from that period and found in 1947 in a cave near the Dead Sea. Among these are two scrolls of the book of Isaiah known as 1QIs and 1QIs. There is no evidence whatever that chs. 1- 39 ever existed by themselves as an independent document apart from chs. 40-66; all evidence is to the contrary. There is every reason to believe that Isaiah the prophet was the author of the entire book that bears his name.
The NT frequently cites the book of Isaiah, but without making any distinction between chs. 1-39 and 40-66. The more extensive passages from Isaiah cited in the NT are as follows:It is evident that Christ and the apostles accepted the book of Isaiah as a single volume from the pen of the prophet Isaiah, and we are altogether safe in doing the same. Note especially Christ’s references to Isa. 6:9, 10; 53:1 as cited in John 12:38-41, where He credits the prophet as author of both sections of the book; also, Rom. 9:27, 29, 33; 10:15, 16, 20, 21, where Paul does the same.
The commentator on Isaiah is now in the fortunate position of having at his disposal two Hebrew manuscripts of this Old Testament book older by a thousand years than any other Hebrew Bible manuscripts previously known. These priceless documents, known as the Dead Sea scrolls of Isaiah, call, therefore, for special attention. The discovery, general characteristics, and importance of these and other Hebrew scrolls found in caves near the Dead Sea since 1947 have been described briefly In Vol. I, pp. 31-34, and need not be repeated here.
Of the two Isaiah scrolls found in the first cave near Khirbet Qumrân, the one containing the complete book (sold first to the Syrian monastery in Jerusalem) is designated 1QIs; the incomplete scroll (sold to the Hebrew University) is called 1QIs. Both are now in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. Both, part of an Essene community’s library, were stored in the cave before the end of the Jewish war (A.D.), as shown by professional excavation of the cave and of Khirbet Qumran̂ . Both apparently date from the 2d or 1st century B.C.; 1QIs seems to be older than 1QIs. They are here described briefly since their more important variations from the Masoretic text are noted in the comments on the verses involved.
1QIs, the complete book, was published in facsimile and in modern Hebrew letters by Millar Burrows (The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark’s Monastery, vol. 1 [New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1950]), and resulted in many learned studies. On the whole this first Isaiah scroll shows great agreement with the long-familiar Masoretic text. However, the scribe of 1QIs was not a professional and his handwriting is less beautiful than that of 1QIs. He made many scribal errors. The impression is gained that some of his errors are due to mistaken hearing, since some sections seem to have been written from dictation. There is also evidence that the copy used as a prototype had certain lacunae, or gaps. Accordingly, when the scribe came to a missing passage he left a blank space in his copy and later copied in the missing section from another, and perhaps more perfect, copy. Sometimes the scribe underestimated the amount of missing matter, and the space he left for it proved insufficient. The result was that the inserted sections often ran over into the margin.
A few omissions from the text are noticeable where the eye of the scribe, or the dictator, skipped from a certain word to the same word a little farther on and missed all words between. This very common scribal error, frequent also in New Testament manuscripts, is called homoeoteleuton. Additions to the text are very few and short— never exceeding a few words. There are many textual variations, but most of these are of a minor nature and most of them do not affect the meaning of the text. There are thousands of orthographic variations (differences in spelling), as might be expected in a manuscript a thousand years older than the next oldest Hebrew manuscript of the same book.
1QIs is much less complete than the other Isaiah manuscript, 1QIs. When Prof. E. L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem procured it from the dealers or discoverers, it was in bad condition. After it had been unrolled, it was found that the remnants of this scroll have preserved for us fragments of the following chapters of Isaiah 10; 13; 16; 19; 22; 26; 28-30; 35; 37-41; 43-66. The fragments containing text material up to chapter 37 are very small and therefore less informative than the last part of the book, which is reasonably well preserved, although every page shows large or small gaps in the leather, and therefore also in the text. The poor state of preservation of this scroll is especially lamentable, because what remains of it is far superior in quality to 1QIs.
Its script reveals that it is the product of an experienced scribe who had beautiful handwriting and who made hardly any scribal errors. Enough is preserved of this scroll to warrant the conclusion that the missing parts did not differ from those still extant, in their striking agreement with the Masoretic text. Throughout 1QIs only eight variations from the Masoretic text have been considered of sufficient importance to be given attention in this commentary, and even these are of relatively minor significance (see on chs. 38:13; 41:11; 43:6; 53:11; 60:19, 21; 63:5; 66:17). The other variations are even less so.
The preserved portions show so few variations from the Masoretic text that some critical scholars at first refused to believe in the antiquity of a scroll that showed textual peculiarities these scholars had believed to be of much later origin. This second Isaiah scroll thus reveals that the text has been transmitted to us practically unchanged since Christ’s time, while 1QIs exemplifies other contemporary, less-carefully-copied texts.
1QIs was edited by E. L. Sukenik and published posthumously by N. Avigad in The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, The Magnes Press, 1955).
From the Qumrân Cave 4 come fragments of 15 Isaiah MSS—14 written on leather, 1 on papyrus—only a few being yet (1976) published. See P. W. Skehan, Biblical Archaeologist 19 (1956), pp. 86, 87; Skehan, Revue Biblique 63 (1956), p. 59.
Qumrân Cave 5 produced one small Isaiah fragment (J. T. Milik, in Discoveries inthe Judaean Desert, III: Les ‘Petites Grottes’ de Qumrân [Oxford, 1962], p. 173); and the caves at Murabba ‘ât one (2d century A.D.) containing parts of ch. 1:1-14 (ibid., II: Les Grottes de Murabba ‘ât [Oxford, 1961], pp. 79, 80).
Isaiah was apparently a very popular book at Qumrân, for more examples from it were found in the 11 caves there than from any other Bible book except Deuteronomy, of which there were two more examples than of Isaiah.
3. Historical Setting.
The book of Isaiah is definitely dated, and the period from which it comes is well known in Near Eastern history. Isaiah was called to his prophetic office prior to the time he was accorded the vision of divine glory recorded in ch. 6, and carried on his ministry during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Isa. 1:1). According to the tentative chronology employed in this commentary (see Vol. II, pp. 77, 84, 86), Uzziah died about the year 739 and Hezekiah died in 686, succeeded by his son Manasseh. The kings of Assyria during this period were as follows: Tiglath- pileser III (745-727), Shalmaneser V (727-722), Sargon II (722-705), Sennacherib (705-681), and Esarhaddon (681-669). These kings were the most powerful rulers Assyria ever produced. Thus Isaiah did his work during the height of Assyrian supremacy, when it appeared that Assyria might soon gain complete control of the Eastern world. Tiglath-pileser III began a series of campaigns against the surrounding nations, as a result of which more and more of the Near East was brought under Assyrian control. Assyria came to be regarded as the great terror of the world, and no country appeared strong enough to withstand her might.
In 745 Tiglath-pileser invaded Babylonia, in 744 he marched against the northeast, and from 743 to 738 he engaged in tremendous campaigns against the northwest and west that brought him into conflict with Menahem of Israel and “Azriau from Iauda” (probably Azariah [Uzziah] of Judah). Azariah seems to have been the moving spirit in a major coalition of Western nations aimed at preventing Assyria from gaining control of the Mediterranean area. In 737 Tiglath-pileser’s campaign was again directed to the northeast, against the region of Media. But in 736 he was back once more in the northwest, where he engaged in a desperate five-year struggle to bring Western Asia completely under his control. In 735 his campaign was directed against Urartu, in the region of modern Armenia; in 734 he warred against Philistia, and in 733 and 732 against Damascus. In 731 he was once more in Babylonia, and in 730, according to the record, he remained at home. But in 729 he was again in Babylonia, where he “took the hands of Bel” and thereby became king of Babylon under the reigning title of Pulu (see Vol. II, p. 61). In 727 there was another campaign against Damascus. For further information on the reign of Tiglath-pileser, see Vol. II, pp. 60-62.
Although the records of Shalmaneser V (see Vol. II, p. 62) are very incomplete, it is known that his major campaign was against the nation of Israel. He besieged Samaria for three years, 725 to 723 inclusive, when the city was taken (723/722) and the nation of Israel disappeared forever.
Sargon II (see Vol. II, pp. 62, 63) may have been in command of the army that took Samaria in 723/722. He began to reign in 722/721 and became, perhaps, the greatest military monarch of Assyrian history. He engaged in a series of campaigns against the northeast, Babylonia, the northwest, and the Mediterranean coastlands. In 720 he put down uprisings in the northwest and west, and in 715 he subdued certain Arab tribes and received tribute from various obscure Egyptian rulers. In 711 he sent his tartan (see on 2 Kings 18:17) to put down an uprising in Ashdod (cf. Isa. 20:1). In 709 Sargon became king of Babylon.
Sennacherib (see Vol. II, pp. 63-65) began his reign in 705, and in 703 brought about the defeat of Merodach-baladan of Babylon. In 701 he embarked upon his famous “third campaign,” which took him against Phoenicia, Philistia, and Judah. Practically all Asiatic countries in the Mediterranean area, including Moab, Ammon, and Edom, were subdued and forced to pay tribute. The campaign, however, was not an unqualified success, owing to the fact that Jerusalem was not taken. Sennacherib evidently returned to the west in another campaign not mentioned in Assyrian records (see on 2 Kings 18:13), in which he again threatened Jerusalem, but was forced to return to Assyria after the annihilation of his army by an angel of the Lord (Isa. 37:36, 37).
Egypt and Babylon were comparatively weak during this period, but nevertheless exerted themselves at times against Assyrian aggression. Merodach-baladan of Babylon was particularly active during the reigns of Sargon and Sennacherib, and Taharka of Egypt led an army against Sennacherib during his second invasion of Judah (see on 2 Kings 18:13; 19:9).
Isaiah lived in a troubled world. For both Judah and Israel it was an era of peril and crisis. The people of God had fallen deeply into ways of sin. Under Azariah (Uzziah) in Judah and Jeroboam II in Israel both nations had grown strong and prosperous. But material prosperity brought spiritual decline. The people forsook God and His ways of righteousness. Social and moral conditions were much the same in both nations. Everywhere there was miscarriage of justice, for magistrates judged for reward and rulers were primarily interested in pleasure and personal gain. Greed, avarice, and vice were the order of the day. As the rich became richer the poor became poorer, many sank into the depths of poverty and were reduced to the status of slaves. The social and moral conditions of the times are graphically depicted by Isaiah and his contemporaries, Micah, Amos, and Hosea. Many of the people forsook the worship of Jehovah and followed the heathen gods. Others clung to the outward forms of religion but knew nothing of its true meaning and power.
Isaiah warned the people that such conditions could not long endure. Jehovah would withdraw Himself from a people who, though they professed to pursue righteousness, followed ways of evil. He caught a vision of the holiness of God and the nation’s desperate need of becoming acquainted with Him and His ways of righteousness, justice, and love. He saw God seated upon His throne, exalted and supreme, yet profoundly interested in the affairs of earth, calling upon men to repent, ever willing to forgive, but bound by His own righteous character to judge those who persisted in evil ways. Isaiah pointed out the fact that the path of righteousness was the pathway of life, peace, and prosperity, but that the way of wickedness was fraught with trouble and woe. He endeavored to teach the people the true meaning of religion and the true nature of God. Appeals were made for a purer and better world. The nation was warned of the fact that continuance in the way of evil would result in speedy destruction. God would employ the Assyrians as His tool to execute justice upon a nation of hypocrites that decreed unrighteous decrees, turned aside the needy from judgment, took away the rights of the poor, made widows their prey, and robbed the fatherless. For such, Isaiah made it clear that the day of visitation and desolation would surely and quickly come.
Isaiah set forth the fact that the entire world was ruled by one God, a God who required righteousness, not only of the Hebrews, but of all the nations of earth, and who would judge all peoples who persisted in their evil ways. The Lord’s judgments would fall upon Assyria and Babylon, upon Philistia and Egypt, upon Moab, Syria, and Tyre. Ultimately the whole earth would be brought to utter ruin because of its iniquity. God alone would be exalted, and His people would worship Him in a new world of perfect joy and peace.
Isaiah was a statesman as well as a prophet. He deeply loved his nation, and spoke with courage and conviction against any course of action that was not in harmony with the national interest. He saw the folly of relying upon Egypt for help, and called the attention of the leaders of Judah to the fact that the counsel of their wise men would become confused and that Egypt itself would be divided, with one city fighting against another and every man fighting against his neighbor.
He counseled against the folly of relying upon worldly alliances for strength. He stressed the fact that the counsel of men would come to nought, and that only those who placed their reliance upon God would ultimately prevail. The people of God would find their strength in having His presence in their midst. But they refused the offer of divine mercy and protection.
Despite impending ruin, Isaiah constantly referred to a remnant who would be faithful to the Lord and who would, accordingly, be saved. Except for this remnant, the professed people of the Lord would be utterly consumed, like Sodom and Gomorrah. The remnant, however, would place their trust in the Holy One of Israel and would learn to walk in His ways.
Isaiah constantly refers to the Lord as “the Holy One of Israel.” Being holy, He required that His people likewise be holy, and being righteous, He could not tolerate iniquity. Isaiah looked forward to new heavens and a new earth, to a new Jerusalem, which would be “the city of righteousness” (Isa. 1:26). For Isaiah, holiness involved more than a scrupulous observance of the ceremonies and ordinances of religion. These, in fact, were offensive to the Lord unless they were accompanied by a reformation of character and a holy, blameless life.
As far as Israel was concerned, it is evident that Isaiah expected that only a few individuals would escape the imminent doom. For Judah, however, he held out hope that there would be an escape from impending perils. He made it altogether clear, nevertheless, that the only path of safety lay in a return to God and to His ways of righteousness and holiness.
In the latter part of his book, chs. 40-66, Isaiah sets forth one of the most striking pictures of Israel and Israel’s God found anywhere in the Bible. Here is Inspiration’s most poignant description of Christ as the suffering Saviour (ch. 53). Here is one of the Bible’s most revealing pictures of the infinite greatness and goodness of God. Here also is set forth the great mission of the church. Isaiah saw clearly that Christ would come as a “light to the Gentiles” and that His message of salvation would eventually go “unto the end of the earth” (ch. 49:6). He called upon Zion to awake and to put on her glorious garments (ch. 52:1), to enlarge the place of her tent and to stretch forth the curtains of her habitations in preparation for that glorious hour when she would inherit the Gentiles and cause the desolate cities of earth to be inhabited (ch. 54:2, 3). He bade her to arise and shine, for the glory of the Lord Himself would arise upon her and Gentiles would come to her light and kings to the brightness of her rising (ch. 60:1-3). For rinciples of interpretation, see pp. 25-38.
Isaiah is appropriately called the Messianic prophet. No other seems to have had so clear a picture of the holiness and greatness of God, of the person and mission of Christ, and of God’s glorious purpose for His church. Isaiah is rightly regarded as the king of Israel’s celebrated prophets, and his writings the masterpiece of all prophetic writings.
I. Isaiah Called to Combat National Apostasy, 1 to 6.