Background for “Isaiah Speaks of Jesus” BS 49a


Historical setting for Isaiah

Isaiah lived during the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC, which was a difficult period in the history of Jerusalem. He was part of the upper class but urged care of the downtrodden. At the end, he was loyal to King Hezekiah, but disagreed with the King's attempts to forge alliances with Egypt and Babylon in response to the Assyrian threat.

Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings -- Uzziah (also known as Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. According to tradition, he was martyred during the reign of Manasseh, who came to the throne in 687 BC, by being cut in two by a wooden saw. That he is described as having ready access to the kings would suggest an aristocratic origin.

This was the time of the divided kingdom, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south.


Isaiah is concerned with the connection between worship and ethical behavior. One of his major themes is God's refusal to accept the ritual worship of those who are treating others with cruelty and injustice.

Isaiah speaks also of idolatry, which was common at the time. The Canaanite worship, which involved fertility rites, including sexual practices forbidden by Jewish law, had become popular among the Jewish people. Isaiah picks up on a theme used by other prophets and tells Judah that the nation of Israel is like a wife who is committing adultery, having run away from her true husband, God.

An important theme is that God is the God of the whole earth. Many gods of the time were believed to be local gods or national gods who could participate in warfare and be defeated by each other. The concern of these gods was the protection of their own particular nations. Isaiah's God is conceived as the only true god, and the god of all humankind, not just the Israelite nation.

No one can defeat God; if God's people suffer defeat in battle, it is only because God chooses for that to happen. Furthermore, God is concerned with more than the Jewish people. God has called Judah and Israel His covenant people for the specific purpose of teaching the world about Him.

A unifying theme found throughout the Book of Isaiah is the use of the expression of "the Holy One of Israel". Some Christians interpret this as a title for Christ. It is found 12 times in chapters 1-39 and 14 times in chapters 40-66. This expression is unique within the Old Testament to the book of Isaiah which suggests that, although scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written in various sections by different authors (on which, more below), the work was intended to be a unified body evidenced with the attention to literary consistency.

A final thematic goal that Isaiah constantly leans toward throughout the writing is the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, with rulers and subjects who strive to live by the will of God.