The Book of Isaiah, as it now appears in our Old Testament, contains far more than can be attributed to the prophet. As a whole, the book is a rather large collection of writings that were produced by a number of different authors, some of whom were separated by relatively long periods of time. For example, Old Testament scholars have long recognized that Chapters 1–39 constitute a unit that is quite separate and distinct from Chapters 40–66.
Generally, Chapters 1–39 are attributed to the prophet Isaiah. These chapters deal primarily with Judah and Jerusalem at a time when the city was still standing and when the southern kingdom was threatened with invasion by the Assyrians. The group of chapters beginning with Chapter 40 appears to have been written from the point of view of conditions that prevailed more than a century later. In fact, the writer indicates very clearly that the Babylonian captivity has existed for a long time. He believes that the punishment is nearly complete; the time is close at hand when the captives will return to their homeland and rebuild the city of Jerusalem, which has long been in ruins.
A careful reading of each of these two groups of chapters reveals that the prophet Isaiah did not write all of the first thirty-nine chapters, nor did one person write all that is contained in Chapters 40–66. Ample evidence indicates the work of several different authors. The editors who assembled the entire collection of manuscripts placed them all under the name of Isaiah because they were quite certain of those materials that belonged to him, and putting them all together indicated their location in the sacred writings rather than precise authorship of each part.
Isaiah was a prophet of the southern kingdom. His call to a prophetic life took place in the year that King Uzziah died (740 B.C.), during a critical period in the history of the nation. Uzziah was one of Judah's greatest kings. He reigned for approximately half a century, and during this time, the kingdom enjoyed its greatest period of prosperity. Commercial relations were established with neighboring states, and the internal resources of the country were developed. However, this increase in wealth and the way in which it was distributed brought about some serious problems. The contrast between the rich and the poor reached an alarming state, which brought threats of a revolt from those who were deprived of their lands and other possessions. Then, too, there was an added threat from without, for the advance of the Assyrians against northern Israel was an indication that the time was not far distant when Judah might expect an invasion by the Assyrians. The situation was indeed ominous, but because Uzziah was a strong and able ruler, the people had confidence that he would know how to deal with these problems. Then came the startling news that the king had leprosy and would have to leave Jerusalem and live in a leper colony outside the city. Uzziah's son Jotham, heir to the throne, possessed none of the strong and admirable qualities characteristic of his father. Instead, he was a weak and vacillating person quite unable to inspire confidence on the part of his subjects. Uzziah lived for three years in the leper colony. The news of his death brought shock and consternation to the entire kingdom.
During this time and under these critical circumstances, Isaiah became a prophet. The vision that he interpreted as his call to service is recorded in Chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah. The scene in which the vision occurred is the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Here the religious life of the nation was centered, and to this place Isaiah, a young man probably in his early twenties, turned in an hour when the future of his country looked especially bleak. The vision is described in considerable detail. Its essential meaning is expressed in the prophet's deep conviction that despite Judah's dark hour, Yahweh still controls the nations. His glory and majesty fill the whole earth. The contrast between Yahweh's holiness and the sinful state into which the Judean kingdom has fallen is something that calls for immediate action. Someone must speak for Yahweh and communicate the divine message to the people. Knowing what a difficult task this would be, Isaiah pleads that he is quite unfit to perform it. Then an act takes place that symbolizes an inner cleansing of his heart and mind, after which he responds to the call with the words "Here am I. Send me!"
Isaiah's ministry lasted approximately half a century, continuing through the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Tradition tells us that he suffered a martyr's death during the reign of King Manasseh. His work brought him into direct contact with kings and priests, and he encountered strong opposition from both groups. At times, this opposition was so strong that he was forced to give up speaking in public and confine his ministry to a group of disciples with whom he met privately. With regard to the priests and the services that they performed, Isaiah expressed convictions that were similar to those spoken to the people of Israel by Amos and Hosea. For example, speaking for Yahweh, he says, "'The multitude of your sacrifices — what are they to me?' says the Lord." And again, "Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates." He even insists that Yahweh will not listen to the multitude's prayers: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood."
In the same spirit, Isaiah criticizes the economic policies that were not only sanctioned but encouraged by the rulers of the land. In "The Song of the Vineyard," which was probably chanted by the prophet, we find these words: "Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no place is left and you live alone in the land." This chant protests the way in which the poor people were deprived of their property in order to satisfy the claims of their creditors, who had taken unfair advantages of these people's unfortunate circumstances in order to enrich themselves.
The prophet's criticism of kings was expressed on many occasions, but never was it more pronounced than when he protested against the foreign alliances that were being negotiated. Early in Isaiah's ministry, he warned King Ahaz against the dangers involved in an alliance with Assyria. The heads of two puppet kingdoms that were all that remained of northern Israel asked King Ahaz to join with them in a coalition against Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they threatened to make war against him. Ahaz was frightened and wanted to appeal to Assyria for help. Isaiah clearly saw the folly that would be involved in a move of this kind, and in a prophecy that has often been misinterpreted as a reference to a coming Messiah, he warned King Ahaz that within three or four years those two puppet kingdoms that he feared would be completely routed. On the other hand, if Ahaz wanted to protect Judah, he should give his attention to those conditions that needed moral reform. King Ahaz did not heed Isaiah's advice. He went ahead with his plans, and as a result, Judah was placed in a subservient relation to the Assyrian empire.
During the reign of King Hezekiah, on two different occasions an attempt was made to curb the rising power of the Assyrians by forming alliances that would resist any further Assyrian aggression. The first of these was promoted by the Egyptians, who invited the Judean king to join with them. The second one was initiated by Merodach-Baladan of Babylon, who visited King Hezekiah and tried to persuade him to have Judah join with the Babylonians and the Egyptians in a united front against Assyria. King Hezekiah, fearful that Judah would be unable to stand alone, was inclined to join the alliance, but Isaiah knew that it would be a grave mistake for the king to do so. In one of the strongest messages that he delivered to the king, the prophet declared, "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots. . . . But the Egyptians are men and not God; their horses are flesh and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, he who helps will stumble, he who is helped will fall; both will perish together."
Despite the immediate dangers that the nation of Judah faced, Isaiah was confident of the ultimate triumph of the Hebrew people. Like Hosea, who had looked on the approaching captivity of northern Israel as merely a prelude to a reformed and triumphant Hebrew society, Isaiah was sure that any temporary disaster would not be the final end of the Judean kingdom. Yahweh's purpose in the world was to be realized through the Hebrew people, which meant that the city of Jerusalem and that for which it stood could never be overthrown completely. When the Assyrians did invade Judah, capturing many cities and demanding that Hezekiah surrender the city of Jerusalem, Isaiah advised the king not to yield to their demands. He insisted that Jerusalem was Zion's city and would never fall. Within a short time, the Assyrian army withdrew, and for a brief period, Isaiah was vindicated.
Closely related to Isaiah's teaching concerning the "surviving remnant" that would be the hope of Judah were his predictions with reference to the coming of a Messiah, or "anointed one," who will someday occupy the throne in Jerusalem and rule the nation with justice and righteousness. He will be a far better king than any of those who have preceded him. Under his leadership, the poor and the oppressed will find a champion, for he will judge their cases with a discerning mind and will not be unduly influenced by hearsay or mere outward appearances. His kingdom will be the fulfillment and realization of the divine purpose in the world.
Israel's messianic hope, though implicit in the teachings of some of the earlier prophets, finds its first clear expression in the prophecies of Isaiah. The term Messiah means "anointed one," or one who has been chosen by Yahweh for the accomplishment of a specific purpose.
Hebrew kings and priests, as well as prophets, were usually anointed in a special ceremony that symbolized their dedication to the work for which they were called. When Saul was chosen as the first king of Israel, he was anointed by Samuel, and this ceremony symbolized people's hope that the nation, under Saul's leadership, would realize its chosen destiny. But Saul did not measure up to these expectations, and the same was true of all the kings that followed in the line of succession of King David. The man who succeeded King Uzziah was notoriously weak and incompetent, and it was during his reign that Isaiah centered his attention on the coming of a Messiah who would possess the good qualities that were so lacking in the kings. In one prophecy, the Messiah is portrayed as an ideal king; in another one, he is characterized as an ideal judge who will understand the problems of the poor and the oppressed. He will ensure that their rights are protected and that they are given their just dues. During the centuries that followed the career of Isaiah, the concept of a coming Messiah took on a number of different meanings and became one of the most important ideas of Judaism.
One of the best-known passages in the Book of Isaiah is recorded in Chapter 2 and deals with the subject of the coming of a warless world. Looking into the distant future, the writer envisions a time when the nations will "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up swords against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." This prophecy, like the one recorded in Chapter 11, in which "The wolf will live with the lamb" and "They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain," seems to be an admirable supplement to the idea of a coming Messiah, who will be know as "Prince of Peace." Although these passages have often been attributed to Isaiah, the evidence indicates very strongly that these prophecies come from a later period. The same is true of several of the oracles concerning foreign nations, especially the ones having to do with the destruction of Babylon and the future regeneration of the Assyrian nation. That these oracles were finally included in the collection of Isaiah's own work indicates the high esteem with which they were regarded.