Introduction to Yesha’yahu (Isaiah) ~ Part 1

In my last post, we dug into the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy and the Office of the Prophet within the Kehilah in our time. Over the last several months, the small Skype-group I attend on Tuesday afternoons has been using the Lifeguide’s Bible Study on Yesha’yahu. There are only 24 lessons, so you know that we are not covering his entire book. Although somewhat reluctant to continue in the topic of prophecy, I sensed a tug in my spirit to do an in-depth, verse-by-verse study on my own and I will be sharing that with you throughout the next several months or so. Since there is a lot of background material I want to share, I have made the Introduction a two-part series.

Introduction

Sir Winston Churchill was once asked to give the qualifications a person needed to succeed in politics, and he replied: “It is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.” [1]

Because God’s prophets were correct all the time, they didn’t have to explain away their mistakes. When a prophet speaks in the name of Adonai, and the prediction does not come true — that is, the word is not fulfilled — then Adonai did not speak that word. The prophet who said it spoke presumptuously; you have nothing to fear from him.” ~ Deuteronomy 18:22 (CJB) To the law and the testimony, wrote Yesha’yahu, “For they [false prophets] will indeed give you this unenlightened suggestion.” ~ Yesha’yahu 8:20 (CJB). Yesha’yahu was a man who had God’s light, and he was not afraid to let it shine.

Since as Believers we believe that there is only one God, and since we understand that prophecy contains messages from that God, we are often inclined to think that prophecy in the Bible is a unique phenomenon. While we may be justified in thinking that any prophecy outside the Bible is fraudulent, the fact remains that biblical prophecy is part of a long tradition of prophecy in the ancient Near East. Even the Bible makes this fact known to us in the narratives about Bil’am and the prophets of Ba’al sponsored by Ach’av and Izevel.

The writing prophets of Isra’el have been designated as the “classical prophets,” and the earliest of these appear at the beginning of the eighth century. Before that time prophets such as Natan, Eliyahu, Elisha and many others are mentioned in the historical literature, but no collections of their oracles are known. They are referred to as the “pre-classical prophets.” These pre-classical prophets show the most similarity to the prophets known from the ancient world. Their messages are directed to the king and concern public policy or other issues of national significance. In that sense, these prophets serve as official or, more frequently, unofficial advisors to the king.

In contrast, the classical prophets often address the people as they offer their social and spiritual commentary. Though their messages include the pronouncement of blessing or rebuke, it is now directed toward society. As a result, the writing prophets’ express warnings concerning captivity and destruction.

In Isra’el the prophets more often represented a counterculture movement. As such the prophets tended to cluster around periods of great turmoil. During the pre-classical period the prophets Moshe, D’vorah, Sh’mu’el, Eliyahu and Elisha all served during troubled times. During the classical period prophetic activity surrounds three key periods:

  1. the Ashur crisis that brought the fall of the northern kingdom (Isra’el) and the siege of Yerushalayim (760-700 BCE: ’Amos, Hoshea, Mikhah, Yesha’yahu)
  2. the Babylonian crisis that brought the fall of Ashur and the fall of Y’hudah and Yerushalayim (650-580 BCE: Havakuk, Tzfanyah, Nachum, Yirmeyahu, Yechezk’el)
  3. the postexilic period with its Persian rule and identity crisis (530-480 BCE: Hagai, Z’kharyah, Yo’el, ’Ovadyah, Mal’akhi; Dan’iel could be counted among these, although he served during the exile). [2]

Yesha’yahu’s book is the first of the prophets in the English canon and the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew canon. Yesha’yahu is powerful in its poetic imagination, intriguing in its prophetic vision, and complex in its structure. One can never read or study the book without having new insights into the nature of God and our relationship with Him. The authors of the Brit Hadashah read the book of Yesha’yahu concerning the coming of Yeshua and realized that this prophet anticipated the Messiah’s coming with remarkable clarity. For this reason, they quoted Yesha’yahu more than any other Tanakh book.

Circumstances of Writing

The book presents itself as the writing of one man, Yesha’yahu, son of Amotz. The first verse dates his prophetic activity as spanning the reigns of four kings of Y’hudah: Uzziah (783-742 BCE), Ahaz (735-716 BCE), and Hezekiah (716-686 BCE). Not much is known about Yesha’yahu apart from his prophecy.

Yesha’yahu’s authorship of the whole book has been vehemently contested in the modern period. Many scholars have argued that the historical Yesha’yahu could not have written chapters 40-66. For those who believe that God knows the future and can reveal it to His servants, it is not problematic that God through Yesha’yahu predicted the rise of Babylon, its victory against Y’hudah, the exile, and the return. Personally, the Ruach wrote the book, and I’m not hung up on who the scribe was.

Uzziah’s reign was a particularly prosperous time in the history of Y’hudah, but storm clouds were on the horizon. Ashur was on the rise again in the person of Tiglat-Pil’eser III (745-727 BCE). The king Ashur threatened to engulf Aram (Syria) and the northern kingdom of Isra’el. After the death of Tiglat-Pil’eser, his successors, Shalman’eser and Sargon, defeated the northern kingdom in 722 BCE and deported its citizens. This event brought Y’hudah even more under the shadow of that great empire.

Message and Purpose

Yesha’yahu‘s message is relatively simple. First, Yesha’yahu accused God’s people of sin, rebelling against the One who made them and redeemed them. Second, Yesha’yahu instructed these sinners to reform their ways and act obediently. Third, Yesha’yahu announced God’s judgment on the people because of their sin. Finally, God revealed His future restoration of the people, or at least of the faithful remnant that survived the judgment. As part of the restoration of God’s people, Yesha’yahu foresaw both judgment on the nations (chaps. 13-23) and a future turning of the nations to God (2:1-4). The first part of the book (chaps. 1-39) emphasizes sin, the call to repentance, and judgment; the second part (chaps. 40-66) emphasizes the hope of restoration. [3]

In my next post, I will continue with our exploration of additional background information on this fascinating book.

Click here for PDF version.

[1] Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – The Prophets.

[2] The IVP Bible Background Commentary – Old Testament.

[3] HCSB Study Bible.

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