Profiles of Faith: Isaiah - A Prophet for Then and Now

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Isaiah - A Prophet for Then and Now

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Isaiah was a prophet for the kingdom of Judah, ca. 740-700 B.C. Rabbinic tradition has it that Isaiah's father, Amoz (not the same as Amos the prophet), was a brother of King Amaziah. This would make Isaiah first cousin to King Uzziah and grandson to King Joash. If this is accurate, Isaiah would have been of royal blood, of the aristocratic class and possibly brought up in the palace. Some scholars believe that Isaiah had a close association with the temple because of his familiarity with priestly rites.

Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament more than any other prophet. He speaks of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, in a variety of ways—as Branch, Stone, Light, Child and the King. He foretells the destiny of Israel and the gentiles, focusing on Zion (Jerusalem) and the great King who will eventually reign from there.

So much has been written about Isaiah and his 66-chapter prophecy that it is hard to know where to begin. In its introduction to Isaiah, The Expositor's Bible Commentary (1986) states:

"The Prophecy of Isaiah is the third longest, complete literary entity in the Bible, being exceeded in length only by Jeremiah and Psalms ... Isaiah is at once familiar and neglected. Chapters like 6, 35, 40 and 53 are among the best-known parts of the [Old Testament] ...

"There are however vast stretches of the book, especially in chapters 13-34, that are virtually unknown to most Christians. Ignorance of any part of Scripture is to be deplored, but this is particularly so with a book that gives such a manifold presentation of Christ. Moreover, a study of the book in its wholeness presents a view of him that is most majestic and moving, one in which the virtually unknown contexts of the well-known passages shed a flood of light on those passages themselves.

"The [New Testament] writers recognized Isaiah's special importance, quoting from and alluding to it frequently. Many of its verses and phrases have passed into common use in literature. For example, there are seventy quotations from Isaiah in the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations ...; and Handel used much of Isaiah's language in the Messiah."

Scholars tend to focus on Isaiah's preoccupation with God's messianic salvation of Israel. This is not to say that Isaiah glossed over the sins of his fellow countrymen. Isaiah consistently addressed the hedonism of Judah and the nation's lukewarm attitude toward the true God. This is why God allowed Assyria to invade and threaten Judah—to get her attention so she would turn back to her only protector and savior, Almighty God.

We are not given much of Isaiah's early life, but his prophecies tell us much about his character and service to God, his country and mankind. To better understand Isaiah, let's explore two major events: the way God spared Jerusalem from Sennacherib during the reign of King Hezekiah and Isaiah's encouraging testimonies about the coming Messiah, Jesus.

An Assyrian army threatens

In 701 B.C., when Isaiah was an elderly man, the Assyrian military juggernaut was stopped before the walls of Jerusalem. Sennacherib of Assyria had come into Judah, destroyed 46 walled cities and taken away 200,000 captives. Assyrian annals record how Sennacherib boasted of shutting up Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a caged bird." However, those records curiously omit any mention of Sennacherib actually capturing Jerusalem, unlike the many other cities listed. The reason for this interesting omission is fascinating to consider.

King Sennacherib was not as powerful a king as his father, Sargon II, had been. "He inherited a vast empire from his father, with abundant opportunities for its further extension. He had, however, not inherited his father's boldness or daring, or his resources. All the powers of his mind were employed in holding together that which he had received. It is indeed doubtful whether he left his empire as strong as he had received it" ("Sennacherib," The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1988, p. 1156).

Although he wasn't the warrior his usurper father had been, Sennacherib inherited the arrogance and ruthlessness of previous Assyrian kings. With this attitude he ravaged the Judean countryside, conquered Lachish, the last protectorate of Jerusalem on the road to Egypt, and approached the city of Jerusalem to lay her waste. At once Isaiah's record shows the remarkable dialogue of that critical time and his humble and bold attitude toward God in the process.

Isaiah 36-37 address the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (also recorded in 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32). Although King Hezekiah was one of the great kings of Judah, there is no question that God used Isaiah to help Hezekiah and Judah. This great prophet of God certainly well represents what it means to demonstrate faith in action.

Jerusalem on the brink

In 701 B.C. Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem and sent three officers to demand the city's surrender. The field commander spoke arrogantly:

"Tell Hezekiah, 'This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours?

You say you have strategy and military strength—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Look now, you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces a man's hand and wounds him if he leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him. And if you say to me, "We are depending on the Lord our God"—isn't he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, "You must worship before this altar"?

"'Come now, make a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses—if you can put riders on them! How then can you repulse one officer of the least of my master's officials, even though you are depending on Egypt for chariots and horsemen? Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it'" (Isaiah 36:4-10, New International Version).

Hezekiah seeks help

The field commander's insolent words were designed to instill fear among Jerusalem's inhabitants. But they were not budging. They would wait on their king, who had given them strict instructions not to reply to the Assyrian's threats. When Hezekiah's representatives heard those threats, they went directly to him.

"When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. They told him, 'This is what Hezekiah says: This day is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the point of birth and there is no strength to deliver them. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he will rebuke him for the words the Lord your God has heard. Therefore pray for the remnant that still survives'" (Isaiah 37:1-4, NIV).

To his credit, King Hezekiah immediately humbled himself and turned to God for help in this time of trouble, a lesson for us. He then sought Isaiah's help.

After Isaiah heard Hezekiah's words, his response was quick and sure: "Tell your master, 'This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! I am going to put a spirit in him so that when he hears a certain report, he will return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword'" (verses 6-7, NIV). This is faith in action; Isaiah made bold pronouncements based on his faith in God's reply to him.

Meanwhile, the Assyrian commander heard that King Sennacherib, having subdued Lachish, was warring against Libnah. Assuming that the king of Ethiopia (apparently the Egyptian Pharaoh Tirhakah, who was from Ethiopia) was advancing to make war on him, Sennacherib saw the need to immediately destroy Jerusalem and Hezekiah before confronting another foe.

Sennacherib continued his brazen arrogance, sending messengers to tell Hezekiah: "Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, 'Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.' Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them—the gods of Gozan, Haran, Rezeph and the people of Eden who were in Tel Assar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, or of Hena or Ivvah?" (Isaiah 37:10-13, NIV).

The list of kingdoms vanquished by the Assyrians was indeed long and discouraging. When Hezekiah received Sennacherib's letter, he went to the temple of God and spread the arrogant missive before God and prayed these words:

"O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; listen to all the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God. It is true, O Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, O Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God" (verses 16-20, NIV).

God responds through Isaiah

Shortly thereafter, Isaiah received God's answer to Jerusalem and Hezekiah's terrible plight and had it delivered to Hezekiah:

"This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word the Lord has spoken against him: 'The Virgin Daughter of Zion despises and mocks you. The Daughter of Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee. Who is it you have insulted and blasphemed? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!

"'By your messengers you have heaped insults on the Lord. And you have said, "With my many chariots I have ascended the heights of the mountains, the utmost heights of Lebanon. I have cut down its tallest cedars, the choicest of its pines. I have reached its remotest heights, the finest of its forests. I have dug wells in foreign lands and drunk the water there. With the soles of my feet I have dried up all the streams of Egypt."

"'Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone. Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorched before it grows up. But I know where you stay and when you come and go and how you rage against me. Because you rage against me and because your insolence has reached my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will make you return by the way you came'" (Isaiah 37:21-29, NIV).

God meant business. No king, no matter how powerful, could successfully challenge the absolute supremacy of his Creator. Promising that Jerusalem and its inhabitants would survive, God continued His decree against arrogant Sennacherib: "Therefore this is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: 'He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city'" (Isaiah 37:33-34, NIV).

God's dramatic intervention

It's hard to imagine that anyone could have grasped what God had in mind next. That night He sent an angel to kill 185,000 in the Assyrian camp. When the survivors awoke in the morning, they were shocked to find so many of their fellow soldiers dead. Sennacherib was so stunned that he instantly gave orders to break camp and head back to Assyria on the very road he had traveled to waste Jerusalem. Jerusalem was spared. The Assyrian army had been crushed without a single arrow fired. Yes, he had surrounded Hezekiah "like a caged bird," but his contempt for God and His servants proved his undoing.

Although historical records show that Sennacherib ruled Assyria for another 20 years, he never returned to Jerusalem. In the end his own sons assassinated him as he worshiped in his pagan temple. "So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh. Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place" (Isaiah 37:37-38).

Isaiah's story: God will be glorified in Israel

The story of Isaiah goes beyond his personal example in difficult times. It is also a story of the future, the story of God's mercy on a restored Israel and Judah in a transformed world.

In chapters 2-4 Isaiah offers a glimpse of the coming age. He contrasts that glorious time with God's judgment on the wicked. A futuristic Isaiah was boldly optimistic; his optimism grew from God's guarantee that mankind was destined to enjoy a glorious future.

Isaiah 9 shows the sublime vision of the virgin birth of the King of Kings, who would redeem humanity and save Israel. Ironically, Isaiah gave this prophecy at the time of Israel's being taken into captivity by Assyria.

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this" (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Again, Isaiah's inspiration focused on the end result of God's salvation: In the end, God's chosen people win.

Isaiah speaks of the Messiah's reign in chapter 32 and of a transformed world in chapter 35. Zion's redemption and restoration are treated triumphantly in chapters 51-52. These themes are explored in greater detail in other articles in this issue of The Good News.

Isaiah's description in chapter 53 of Christ Jesus as God's servant, a man of sorrows, is perhaps one of the best-loved chapters in the Bible. The vivid detail shows the Savior suffering for us. From the language used, one might picture Isaiah standing at Jesus' feet as He died. Isaiah treats Jesus' death as if it had already happened, though some seven centuries would pass before the Savior's death at Calvary.

Fittingly, the futuristic Isaiah closes his book by mentioning the glory of a new heavens and new earth in chapters 65-66. Jesus Christ, as the Revelator of Revelation, reemphasizes the ultimate new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21-22. "The Bible reaches its final climax in a magnificent vision of the new heavens and the new earth, which is an expansion of Isaiah 66. Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them" (Halley's Bible Handbook, 2000, p. 390-391; compare Revelation 21:3).

Isaiah was a hopeful, faithful and loving prophet of God. Much of his message is as relevant as it was in the late eighth century B.C. Isaiah remains a prophet for our time, too. If we will heed his admonitions, repent of our ungodly ways and turn to God, then the promises he recorded for the entire world in the future can be yours and mine today.