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:
The Book of Judgment
The Book of Consolation
1 The vision which Isaiah, son of Amoz, had concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the LORD speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me!
2 An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.
3 Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the LORD, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized.
4 Where would you yet be struck, you that rebel again and again? The whole head is sick, the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot: Wound and welt and gaping gash, not drained, or bandaged, or eased with salve.
Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire; Your land before your eyes strangers devour (a waste, like Sodom overthrown) –
5 And daughter Zion is left like a hut in a vineyard, Like a shed in a melon patch, like a city blockaded.
6 Unless the LORD of hosts had left us a scanty remnant, We had become as Sodom, we should be like Gomorrah.
Hear the word of the LORD, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah!
7 What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the LORD. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure.
When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you?
8 Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear.
Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load.
9 When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood!
Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil;
learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.
If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land;
But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!
10 How has she turned adulteress, the faithful city, so upright! Justice used to lodge within her, but now, murderers.
Your silver is turned to dross, your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels and comrades of thieves; Each one of them loves a bribe and looks for gifts. The fatherless they defend not, and the widow’s plea does not reach them.
Now, therefore, says the Lord, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah! I will take vengeance on my foes and fully repay my enemies!
I will turn my hand against you, and refine your dross in the furnace, removing all your alloy.
I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as in the beginning; After that you shall be called city of justice, faithful city.
11 Zion shall be redeemed by judgment, and her repentant ones by justice.
Rebels and sinners alike shall be crushed, those who desert the LORD shall be consumed.
12 You shall be ashamed of the terebinths which you prized, and blush for the groves which you chose.
You shall become like a tree with falling leaves, like a garden that has no water.
The strong man shall turn to tow, and his work shall become a spark; Both shall burn together, and there shall be none to quench the flames.
1  The title of the book: an editorial addition. Isaiah: meaning “the salvation of the LORD,” or “The LORD is salvation.” Amoz: not the minor prophet. Judah: the southern kingdom of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Uzziah: also called Azariah; cf ⇒ 2 Kings 15:1; ⇒ 2 Chron 26:1.
2  Israel: not the northern kingdom, as in ⇒ Isaiah 9:11 exclusively, which Isaiah usually calls “Ephraim” from the tribe bordering on the southern kingdom, but the entire chosen people, cf ⇒ Isaiah 8:14.
3  Holy One of Israel: a title used frequently by Isaiah, rarely by other writers.
4 [5-8] Sufferings inflicted upon God’s people for their sins.
5  Daughter Zion: Jerusalem. Hut . . . shed: for the shelter of watchmen and laborers.
6  LORD of hosts: God, who is the Creator and Ruler of the heavenly armies of the angels, stars, etc. Remnant: St. Paul uses this text in ⇒ Romans 9:29 where he speaks of God’s saving mercy toward the Jews and Gentiles. Sodom . . . Gomorrah: cf Genesis 19.
7  The number of your sacrifices: however numerous, they are not acceptable without the right dispositions on the part of the worshipers.
8  Octaves with wickedness: the solemnity of the feasts marred by evil deeds.
9  Spread out your hands: in prayer.
10  A picture of Jerusalem, once so faithful to God. Apostasy from the covenant is often likened by the prophets to unfaithfulness to the marriage vow.
11  This verse is the key to the whole Book of Isaiah. Zion’s defiant persistence in sin has demanded a divine judgment, by which her survivors will be cleansed and will return to God in justice; cf ⇒ Isaiah 40:2.
12  Terebinths which you prized . . . groves which you chose: as popular shrines for idolatrous worship.