For Americans who lived during the second half of the 20th century, it is safe to say that we were spoiled. Although we experienced wars like Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq, we really do not know what it’s like to have major strife on our own soil. On September 11, 2001 we had a brief and shocking wakeup call, but isn’t it amazing how quickly we have slipped back into our complacent, self-indulgent ways?
In order to understand the book of Isaiah we need to shake the cobwebs of complacency off of our perspectives and enter into the world of war, terror, and uncertainty. Isaiah’s ministry happened during a period of Israel’s history when it seemed that the world was falling apart. For a much richer comprehension of Isaiah, read Isaiah’s book while you have your thumb stuck in 2 Kings. It is a great exercise to track Isaiah’s message with the four kings of Judah (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah) and their war-torn history as it is told in 2 Kings. If you pay close attention, you will notice that Isaiah 36-39 are almost exact replications of 2 Kings 18-20.
Isaiah’s book is actually a collection of Isaiah’s messages that were given over a long period of time.
Isaiah did not sit down at a word processor to compose his manuscript and take the notes to the pulpit. The words of the prophets were first spoken, then written. Whether Isaiah actually placed the words of his messages on the paper himself, or if it was done by one of his followers is not known.
What we do know is that the book of Isaiah is really a “best of” series of Isaiah’s messages spoken over the course of four different kings’ reigns in Jerusalem. If you track the book according to which king is in power when each individual message is given, you will notice a very different tone and agenda in each section.
Two Halves to Isaiah
The book of Isaiah can be divided into two halves.
Part 1: chapters 1-39 Destruction is coming, Judah beware!
During this section Isaiah is preaching during the impending and ever-growing threat of the Assyrian Empire. The first three kings under his ministry do not listen to his message and the pagan idols remain in the temple and the people continue to oppress the poor and think like the pagans. The climax of the section is when King Hezekiah changes things and destroys the idols and ceases paying homage taxes to Assyria. This was a bold step of faith that Hezekiah made, and God honored it. Assyria was defeated by the Babylonians and Jerusalem experienced a season of peace.
Part 2: chapters 40-66 The Messiah is coming, World prepare!
Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh became king and took the city in a 180 degree turn, deeper into sin than it had ever been. This broke Isaiah’s heart. Tradition tells us that Manasseh had Isaiah thrown in prison and eventually sawed in half. During this dark time is when the focus of Isaiah’s teaching went beyond the bleak and inevitable annihilation of Jerusalem to the future hope of the Messiah. From his dark dungeon, Isaiah preaches messages of hope that have lit up the centuries since they were first uttered.