Isaiah (active ca. 740-701 B.C.) was a Hebrew prophet. His Hebrew name, Yeshayhu, means "God is salvation" and alludes to the prophet's major doctrines and teachings.
The son of Amoz, of noble descent, Isaiah lived in Jerusalem. He referred to his wife as the "prophetess" and gave his two sons names symbolic of his prophecies: Shear-Yashub, meaning "a remnant will return," implying a return to the God of Israel, from whom his people were estranged; and Maher-shalal-has-baz, or "quick prey," which may have been intended to serve as a warning to Pekah, the usurper king of Israel, and Rezin, the king of Aram (Syria). They had attacked and besieged Jerusalem (734 B.C.) in an attempt to depose the Judahite king Ahaz, who refused to join them in their alliance against Assyria.
The turning point in Isaiah's life was his call to prophecy in the year of King Uzziah's death (ca. 740 B.C.), which came to Isaiah in a vision in the Temple. To Isaiah the word kadosh, or "holy," meant righteousness. To obey God's will was to be just, and Zion would eventually be redeemed in justice.
Isaiah's prophecies can be understood only in the context of the prevailing social conditions. Uzziah's reign (ca. 780-740 B.C.) was one of great prosperity, but Isaiah denounced the ill-gained riches of his people, who oppressed the poor. The richer classes, as often happens, also tended toward assimilation with their neighbors. In the case of the Judahites this meant the adoption of the idolatrous cults, which were associated with immoral practices.
Judah was situated in a buffer area, surrounded by stronger nations that aspired to overrun its territory or at least to occupy it as a base of operations against neighboring enemies. Judah, moreover, was directly in the path of the rival imperialist giants of that day, Egypt and Assyria. Isaiah opposed alliances with either and urged dependence on the Lord. When Egypt induced Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Aram to join in an alliance against Assyria, Isaiah denounced them as "two tails of smoking firebrands" (Isaiah 7:4). He urged the Judahite king Ahaz (ca. 735-715 B.C.) to rely on God rather than on Tiglathpileser III, to whom Ahaz had given costly gifts to induce him to come to his aid.
Isaiah's prediction that the conspirators would themselves soon be destroyed was realized a few years later, when Damascus, the capital of Aram, was captured in 732 B.C. and Samaria, Israel's capital, in 722 B.C. The involvement of Ahaz with Assyria also had its sinister consequences, for as a result the Assyrian idolatrous cult of the heavenly bodies was introduced into Judea.
King Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.), who succeeded Ahaz, generally heeded the prophet's advice and kept out of political or military entanglements. However, he was swayed by his steward, Shebna, and the court party to join the coalition that revolted against Sennacherib, the Assyrian monarch (705-687 B.C.). Isaiah considered it foolhardy to trust "in the shadow of Egypt" rather than in God. Indeed, the efforts of Egypt to stop Sennacherib proved futile; he conquered the rebellious peoples and invaded Judea.
In his own inscriptions, the Assyrian ruler wrote of having destroyed 46 fortified Judahite towns, deporting their population and capturing Hezekiah. At this crucial juncture the Judean king appealed for counsel to Isaiah, who urged him to have faith in the Lord and not to surrender the city. Before long, Tirhakah, the king of Ethiopia, went to war against Sennacherib, forcing him to move his army from Jerusalem. There a pestilence broke out in his army and destroyed it.
God and the Messiah
Isaiah was fully committed to the idea that God was the author and guide in human history. All nations, moreover, were mere instruments in His hands, and they must serve Him by establishing the rule of justice, righteousness, and peace. This would be achieved only in the "end of days," when all nations would worship the God of Israel, who would teach them His ways.
Isaiah envisioned the glorious future of the world, when the Messiah, God's anointed, a perfect ruler, would bring about an everlasting peace among men. The nations would "beat their swords into plowshares" and would not "learn war any more" (2:4). The Messianic ideal thus gave a spiritual goal to human existence.
Authorship of the Prophecies
The Book of Isaiah is generally believed to include prophecies by several hands. The first part, chapters 1-39, is attributed to Isaiah. Some scholars maintain that the second section encompasses the remainder of the volume, while others claim that it embraces only chapters 40-55, which deal generally with the period of the Babylonian exile. This part of the Book of Isaiah is ascribed to an anonymous prophet, who has been referred to as the Second, or Deutero, Isaiah. Unlike the prophecies of Isaiah ben Amoz, warning of punishment and doom, those of Deutero-Isaiah speak of God's salvation as manifested by Israel's return to Zion and the attainment of universal monotheism (45:22 ff). The reason that scholars believe that the final chapters of the Book of Isaiah (56-66) form a separate division and were composed by another anonymous prophet, designated as Third, or Trito, Isaiah, is that these chapters deal with the problems of the Jewish community after its return to its homeland. This would be around the time of Haggai and Zechariah (ca. 520). The several parts of the Book of Isaiah represent a Hebrew prophecy that attained great heights in human ethics and ideals.
Further Reading on Isaiah
To appreciate Isaiah's message one must read at least portions of the Book of Isaiah in a good standard translation such as the Revised Standard Version (1952) or the Soncino edition (1950). Abraham J. Heschel discusses the mission and the message of the prophet in the chapter "Isaiah, Son of Amoz" in The Prophets (1962). He also discusses various aspects of prophecy as well as the Second Isaiah in other portions of this work.
Additional Biography Sources
Hayes, John Haralson, Isaiah, the eighth century prophet: his times & his preaching, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987.
Ludlow, Victor L., Isaiah—prophet, seer, and poet, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1982.