The four great prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, were active in the last days of the northern kingdom of Israel. At this crucial period, during which the final appeals of the Lord to that nation are heard, the Lord has His men in place, who will speak for Him.
It is interesting that at key periods in history the Lord has two witnesses who testify for Him. At this time, Amos and Hosea are sent to the northern kingdom, whilst the ministries of Isaiah and Micah are directed towards the southern kingdom of Judah. In the last days of the kingdom of Judah, before the destruction of Jerusalem, we have Jeremiah and Ezekiel; Jeremiah, in Jerusalem, for the forty years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and Ezekiel, in Babylonia, having been taken into captivity with Jehoiachin, for the final seven-and-a-half years.
Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah date their writings over a long timeframe: Hosea and Isaiah to the same period from Uzziah to Hezekiah, kings of Judah, Hos. 1. 1; Isa 1. 1. Micah is a slightly later contemporary, beginning in the reign of Jotham, Uzziah’s successor, Mic. 1. 1. Neither Isaiah nor Micah mention any Israelite kings, and this is understandable, given that their ministry is directed specifically towards the kingdom of Judah. The general timeframe we are dealing with, then, is the 8th Century BC, and principally the late 8th Century. Whilst many biblical scholars would split Isaiah into two or three segments,1 to do so breaks up the threads that can be traced throughout the book and raises more questions than it actually supposedly solves. Although the book naturally falls into two sections - the first thirty-nine chapters dealing largely with the present and the immediate future, whilst the last twenty-seven chapters, are, on the whole, dealing with the more distant future, that is, the first coming of the Lord Jesus, as well as events that are still future -there is a clear cohesion to the whole. In addition, it is clear that the New Testament sees Isaiah as a whole, ‘spoken’ by Isaiah the prophet.2
In the scriptures the prophets stand, not altogether in chronological order, but in canonical, or spiritual order. This is not just the fact that the longer works of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are grouped together, followed by the shorter works of the rest of the prophets (in the Hebrew Bible the book of Daniel is not included with the prophets) but, in these three books, with the book of Daniel giving specific details, the course of prophetic history is outlined, reaching far beyond the immediate future into a time which is still future, namely the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus, and beyond that into the eternal state. The prophecies that follow these three great witnesses corroborate and reinforce their message and fill in some of the details.
Isaiah stands at the head of the prophets, and in his sixty-six chapters he encompasses the whole of the scriptures that follow, including the New Testament, for his message includes: judgement on Israel and the nations in the immediate and more distant future; the coming of the forerunner, John the Baptist, and of the Lord Jesus Himself; the birth, death, resurrection and glorification of Christ; the setting up of the kingdom and the final judgement. In fact, Isaiah ends where the book of Revelation itself ends with new heavens and a new earth, the eternal blessing of the redeemed, and the eternal judgement of the lost. There is no other book that has such scope. Not surprisingly, then, apart from the Psalms, it is the most often quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament.
There are four principal pictures of Christ in the book: in chapters 7-11 we see Him as the Son; in chapters 32-35 as the Sovereign; in chapters 42-53 as the suffering Servant; and in chapters 59-66 as the Saviour. As so often in scripture, these can be seen to correspond with the fourfold picture of Christ that we have in the New Testament in the Gospels, in John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke respectively.
However, there are also other, miniature pictures of Christ that include the Stone, 8. 14; 28. 16; the shining Light, 9. 2; 42. 6; 49. 6; 60. 1, 19; and, the Shepherd, 40. 10, 11; 62. 11.
There are other themes that can also be traced through. For example, we have a number of references to a highway. In the first part of the book there are three references to a highway: for the remnant to return from Assyria, 11. 16; for the Assyrians and Egyptians to come together to serve the Lord, 19. 23; and, for the ransomed of the Lord to return, 35. 8. These references to a future day are sandwiched between two references to the ‘highway of the fuller’s field’, 7. 3; 36. 2, both of which relate to a time when Judah is being attacked by her enemies. The message of hope is clear, as contained in the name of Isaiah’s son: Shear-Jashub - ‘the remnant will return’. Enemies might come and go, but the purpose of the Lord stands firm. In the second part of the book there are two references, the first in chapter 40, where the way is being prepared in the desert for the Lord to come, 40. 3, the second in chapter 62, where the way is instead being prepared for the people to return, 62. 10. In between these two references we have brought before us the suffering Messiah, the Saviour, who Himself prepared the way.
Another theme that is prominent, particularly in the latter section of the book, is the idea of the Lord as ‘Redeemer’. The majority of references are the Lord reminding Israel of this great truth. Seven times over the Lord speaks of Himself as ‘thy Redeemer’, 41. 14; 44. 24; 48. 17; 49. 26; 54. 5, 8; 60. 16. This is what the Lord is in relation to His people, despite their waywardness. They are His by virtue of redemption. It is lovely to see that there eventually comes a point in the book in which Israel, in repentance, acknowledges this fact, 63. 16.
Isaiah is faced with two major problems among the people to whom he is writing: rampant idolatry and a lack of reality. These two issues are addressed throughout the book. In doing so, he brings before the people the incomparability of the true God. He is the One who raises up successive kingdoms, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and brings down kings; He is the Lord of history who can and will use whom He wills to accomplish His purposes. He is the Lord of the nations, who can and will deal with them in judgement when it is His time to do so. He is the Lord of creation, the upholder and sustainer of all things. He is the Lord of the future who can tell exactly what is going to happen, even naming kings who will reign before they have even been born. He is the Lord of His people, who cares for them, preserves them, and disciplines them for their good and His glory. He is the Lord of salvation and redemption, who will establish them. He will not abandon them, but will, in His own time, bring about conditions of everlasting peace and prosperity. Isaiah wants, therefore, to open the eyes of the people, cp. 6. 10, to understand that the Lord is God, the only one worthy of worship and trust, to realize that He is active on behalf of His people and deserves more than just lip service, but genuine devotion.
Integral to the accomplishment of divine purpose is the coming of the Messiah. Through suffering and death, He will deal with sin; He will bring judgement upon His enemies, including Satan, and will reign in righteousness. It is clear, then, that the Lord, through Isaiah, wants Israel to understand the big picture of divine purpose. He is working to a timetable, and this timetable is defined in later books, particularly the book of Daniel, but, in essence, it is all here in Isaiah. Today, the Lord, too, wants His people to be aware of the big picture. We have the great privilege of having the complete canon of scripture, and, therefore, much more detail than was available to Isaiah. From it we understand that world events are not haphazard or random, but that they are under the control of the God of heaven, who is working to a timetable. There is no doubt that His ultimate purpose will be accomplished, and we can rejoice in the certainty of the prospect that lies ahead of us. Not only so, but a clear understanding of divine purpose will strengthen and establish us in the present, cp. 2 Thess. 2. 2.