The greatest of the prophets appeared at a critical moment of Israel’s history. The second half of the eighth century B.C. witnessed the collapse of the northern kingdom under the hammerlike blows of Assyria (722), while Jerusalem itself saw the army of Sennacherib drawn up before its walls (701). In the year that Uzziah, king of Judah, died (742), Isaiah received his call to the prophetic office in the Temple of Jerusalem. Close attention should be given to Isa 6, where this divine summons to be the ambassador of the Most High is circumstantially described.
The vision of the Lord enthroned in glory stamps an indelible character on Isaiah’s ministry and provides the key to the understanding of his message. The majesty, holiness and glory of the Lord took possession of his spirit and, conversely, he gained a new awareness of human pettiness and sinfulness. The enormous abyss between God’s sovereign holiness and man’s sin overwhelmed the prophet. Only the purifying coal of the seraphim could cleanse his lips and prepare him for acceptance of the call: «Here I am, send me!»
The ministry of Isaiah may be divided into three periods, covering the reigns of Jotham (742-735), Ahaz (735-715), and Hezekiah (715-687). To the first period belong, for the most part, the early oracles (Isa 1-5) which exposed the moral breakdown of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. With the accession of Ahaz, the prophet became adviser to the king, whose throne was threatened by the Syro-Ephraimite coalition. Rejecting the plea of Isaiah for faith and courage, the weak Ahaz turned to Assyria for help. From this period came the majority of messianic oracles found in the section of Immanuel prophecies (Isa 6-12).
Hezekiah succeeded his father and undertook a religious reform which Isaiah undoubtedly supported. But the old intrigues began again, and the king was soon won over to the pro-Egyptian party. Isaiah denounced this «covenant with death» and again summoned Judah to faith in Yahweh as her only hope. But it was too late; the revolt had already begun. Assyria acted quickly and her army, after ravaging Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem (701). «I shut up Hezekiah like a bird in his cage,» boasts the famous inscription of Sennacherib. But Yahweh delivered the city, as Isaiah had promised: God is the Lord of history, and Assyria but an instrument in his hands.
Little is known about the last days of this great religious leader, whose oracles, of singular poetic beauty and power, constantly reminded his wayward people of their destiny and the fidelity of Yahweh to his promises.
The complete Book of Isaiah is an anthology of poems composed chiefly by the great prophet, but also by disciples, some of whom came many years after Isaiah. In 1-39 most of the oracles come from Isaiah and faithfully reflect the situation in eighth-century Judah. To disciples deeply influenced by the prophet belong sections such as the Apocalypse of Isaiah (Isa 24-27), the oracles against Babylon (Isa 13-14), and probably the poems of Isa 34-35.
Isa 40-55, sometimes called the Deutero-Isaiah, are generally attributed to an anonymous poet who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian exile. From this section come the great messianic oracles known as the songs of the Servant, whose mysterious destiny of suffering and glorification is fulfilled in the passion and glorification of Christ. Isa 56-66 contain oracles from a later period and were composed by disciples who inherited the spirit and continued the work of the great prophet.
The principal divisions of the Book of Isaiah are the following:
A. The Book of Judgment
I. Indictment of Israel and Judah (⇒ Isaiah 1:1-5, ⇒ 30)
II. Immanuel Prophecies (⇒ Isaiah 6:1-⇒ 12:6)
III. Oracles against the Pagan Nations (⇒ Isaiah 13:1-⇒ 23:18)
IV. Apocalypse of Isaiah (⇒ Isaiah 24:1-⇒ 27:13)
V. The Lord Alone, Israel’s and Judah’s Salvation (⇒ Isaiah 28:1-⇒ 33:24)
VI. The Lord, Zion’s Avenger (⇒ Isaiah 34:1-⇒ 35:10)
VII. Historical Appendix (⇒ Isaiah 36:1-⇒ 39:8)
B. The Book of Consolation
I. The Lord’s Glory in Israel’s Liberation (⇒ Isaiah 40:1-⇒ 48:21)
II. Expiation of Sin, Spiritual Liberation of Israel (⇒ Isaiah 49:1-⇒ 55:13)
III. Return of the First Captives (⇒ Isaiah 56:1-⇒ 66:24).