The prophet Isaiah lived in the eighth and early seventh centuries BC. He was from Jerusalem and began his ministry in 740 BC, the year of King Uzziah’s death. The bulk of his ministry took place under Ahaz and Hezekiah.
For most of the history of Judaism and Christianity, it was assumed that Isaiah wrote all sixty-six chapter of the book named after him. Beginning in the eighteenth century, biblical scholars began to argue, however, that the book shows clear signs of having been written over a longer period of time. Scholars are now nearly in universal agreement that there were three separate authors for the book, known as First, Second, and Third Isaiah. The First Isaiah wrote most of chapters 1-39 and is the prophet for whom the entire work is named. His influence was so great that he had disciples who carried on his prophetic ministry after his death. This led to what some scholars call an Isaiah “school” that eventually produced Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, in the sixth century BC, and Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66, in the fifth century or later. Not all scholars make a sharp distinction between Second and Third Isaiah.
There are several reasons why scholars arrived at this conclusion, namely the change of subject matter beginning in chapter 40. This is where the return from Babylonian captivity becomes the dominant subject matter. The Persian king Cyrus—the same one who ordered the release of Israel in 539—is actually named in Isaiah 44:28. Other historical events of the time are mentioned or alluded to as well. The argument for multiple authorship of Isaiah has never rested on whether or not God can speak of future events so specifically. The point is that prophetic books of the Old Testament were written for the benefit of a present audience. References to events of the sixth century would have no meaning to an eighth-century audience.
The topics covered in First Isaiah mainly center on events of the eighth century, but the chapters are not chronologically arranged, which gives many readers the feeling that they are skipping around a bit. Much of chapters 1-12 are prophecies against Israel and chapters 13-23 are against foreign nations. Chapters 24-27 use mythological language to describe end-time judgment (probably written in the sixth century). Chapters 28-35 are miscellaneous prophecies dealing with Judah, Israel, Egypt, and Edom. Chapters 36-39 is a narrative that follows the story of Hezekiah and the failure of king Sennacherib of Assyria in sacking Jerusalem (see also 2 Kings 18-19).
Isaiah is a long book and is largely written in poetic style, which can be harder to read than narrative. An overarching theme of the book is that God is the “holy one of Israel” who punishes God’s rebellious people through invasion but then also redeems them. The book also richly conveys the theological notion of God’s sovereignty and rule over all the earth. Isaiah is cited many times in the New Testament and the book has been called “the fifth Gospel” because of it. Two passages in particular are prominently connected to the New Testament. Isaiah 7:14 speaks of a sign of the birth of a son who will be called “Immanuel” (God with us). This text says that the son will be born of a “young woman.” This word came to be understood as “virgin” in the Greek translation (Septuagint). The Gospel of Matthew, working from the Greek version, connects Isaiah 7:14 to Jesus’ birth by the Virgin Mary. In its context, however, Isaiah 7:14 refers to the near birth of a son, and before than son is old enough to know right from wrong (perhaps the age of 12 or 13?), the threat of invasion King Ahaz fears will come to nothing.
The other passage often connected to the Gospel is a lengthy one; it stretches from Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12. Here the prophet speaks of a “suffering servant” whose sufferings will bring restoration to the people. It is obvious how New Testament writers would have made a connection between this servant and Jesus. However, in context, the prophet is likely referring to the Israelites in exile in Babylon whose sufferings there will eventually lead to restoration later. For the New Testament writers, God’s deliverance of the Israelites is seen as a preview of what God will eventually do for all peoples in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- Peter Enns