Summary: An introduction to Isaiah, revealing the judgement and mercy of God.
In a lot of senses, the passage that we just heard read is a microcosm of the whole book of Isaiah. It starts out by proclaiming a judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem but it ends with a promise from the LORD to redeem his faithful people, cleanse them from sin and establish Zion as the mountain where all the nations will bow before the Almighty.
Isaiah is a meaty book. There’s lots to it, and we can’t hope to cover it all but what we will do over the next ten weeks is look at some of the broad themes and some of the key passages in working out what God’s warning is to Israel, what his warning is to us, and catch a glimpse – well more than a glimpse, really – of God’s plan of salvation for a wayward people.
Firstly we need to set our feet firmly in some history.
In around about 1000BC, King David came to the throne of Israel and ruled for about 40 years. His son Solomon succeeded him. Solomon was a man of great wisdom, and he presided over the most prosperous and influential period in Israel’s history. He built the great Temple of the Lord in Jersualem. But he was, in the end, led astray by his foreign wives. Upon his death the kingdom split in two – Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. For the next two hundred years there was a succession of kings in both kingdoms, most of whom rejected the LORD and led the people of God toward idolatry.
According to vs 1, Isaiah received his visions during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.
Uzziah became king of Judah in around 792BC and he was a godly king. His reign was fairly prosperous and peaceful. He was succeeded by his son Jotham who also did what was right in the eyes of the LORD. But the people of Judah continued their corrupt practices despite the faithfulness of these kings. Ahaz son of Jotham then became king in 735 BC, but he did evil and worshipped foreign gods.
During this time the major power in the area was Assyria, to the north. Israel and Damascus put pressure on Ahaz to join them in a rebellion against the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III. Ahaz refused, but instead of remaining neutral as Isaiah advised him he sought an alliance with Assyria to protect Judah from Israel. He offered vast sums of money, including some of the treasures from the Temple to buy Assyrian favour. (MAP) In response, Tiglath Pileser invades Damascus and then the northern kingdom of Israel as far south as Galilee. When Tiglath dies he is succeeded as king of Assyria by his son Shalmaneser V. Israel decides to ally itself with Egypt, but this backfires when Shalmaneser invades Samaria and exiles the northern kingdom. This occurs in 722BC. Israel is scattered throughout the Assyrian Empire and from then on there is only Judah.
In around 715BC Hezekiah becomes king of Judah. Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah does what is right in the eyes of the LORD. He still pays tribute to Assyria, but he doesn’t enter into the worship of foreign gods. Eventually, the new king of Assyria, Sennacherib, wants to further his expansion and invades Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem. That event is the subject of Isaiah 36-39 which we’ll get to in a few weeks.
Isaiah himself is speaking to the southern kingdom of Judah, and the first chapters are mainly concerned with the reign of Ahaz, this king who sold the Temple treasures to bribe the Assyrians. He also sacrificed his own child to Molech, and we’ll see later that he treats Isaiah’s advice with disdain. So that’s the spiritual context to which Isaiah is writing.
Outwardly, Judah may have appeared a prosperous and religious nation. They were under the protection of the great power, Assyria. They made the sacrifices, they observed the holy days and the festivals. But they were rotten in their hearts. They were morally corrupt.
Let’s have a look at some of the descriptions of them in Isaiah 1:
ISA 1:2 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
"I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
ISA 1:3 The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand."
ISA 1:4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people loaded with guilt,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the LORD;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
These were the specially chosen people of God. The children of God whom God raised and protected and taught. But they have rebelled. They are worse than animals – at least an animal knows who its master is. But Israel have forsaken the LORD. Even though foreigners occupy their land, even though they are effectively enslaved, beaten and afflicted, their cities burned and desolate – they persist in rebellion.