The traditional Jewish and Christian view is that the Book of Isaiah was written by the prophet of that name who lived during the 8th and possibly 7th century BC. Isaiah states that he is the son of Amoz and that his ministry coincided with the Judean kings named Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. This indicates a prophetic ministry that lasted from about 740 to 700 BC, which is during the same time that the prophet Micah was ministering. It is likely that these two men were familiar with each other’s writings.
Isaiah’s primary audience was the people of Judah. They were failing to live according to the commands of God recorded in the Torah. Because of this disobedience, Isaiah prophesied future judgment on Judah. Isaiah didn’t stop with judgment, however. He also foretold of God’s salvation for the believing remnant of Israel, and for all those who worship Yahweh.
Isaiah is the most quoted Old Testament prophet by New Testament writers, and his book is the second most quoted in the New Testament, after Psalms.
The first five chapters of Isaiah record the sinfulness of the people of Judah, including greed, arrogance, drunkenness, injustice, oppression and murder. Because of their utter failure to follow the commands of Yahweh, judgment would be brought on them in the form of foreign aggression. God would use surrounding nations to punish Judah, eventually leading to the deportation of most of the survivors.
It is helpful to see Isaiah’s words in context with the historical situation in which he found himself. F. Derek Kidner writes, in the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition:
In 740 BC the death of King Uzziah (6:1) marked the end of an ‘Indian Summer’ in which both Judah and Israel had enjoyed some fifty years’ respite from large-scale aggression. This would soon be only a memory. The rest of the century was to be dominated by predatory Assyrian kings: Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727), Shalmaneser V (726–722), Sargon II (721–705) and Sennacherib (705–681). Their ambitions were for empire, not for plunder alone; and in pursuit of it they uprooted and transplanted whole populations, punishing any sign of rebellion with prompt and hideous reprisals.
In 735 Jerusalem felt the shock wave of their approach, when the armies of Israel and Syria arrived to force King Ahaz into an anti-Assyrian coalition. Isaiah’s confrontation of the king (ch. 7) brought to light the real issue of this period, the choice between quiet faith and desperate alliances. The king’s decision to stake all, not on God but on Assyria itself, called forth an implied rejection of him and his kind, and the prophecy of a perfect king, Immanuel, to arise out of the felled stock of the Davidic dynasty.
Israel paid for her rebellion with the loss of her northern regions (‘Galilee’; 9:1) in c. 734 and of her national existence in 722. For Judah, bordered now by a cosmopolitan Assyrian province (2 Ki. 17:24) in the territory where Israel had stood, there was every discouragement to patriotic gestures.
After 5 chapters of railing against the sins of Judah, Isaiah recalls a vision he had of God. The year of the vision is about 739 BC, near the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry.
Chapter 6, verses 1-3 record these memorable words:
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
Although God is spirit, He sometimes allows people to see a physical representation of Himself. To Isaiah, God is sitting high upon a throne in the temple that Solomon had built. His robe is so large it fills the entire room in which He is seated. While many Jews wondered where God was, Isaiah’s vision proves that He is reigning over the affairs of Judah and the rest of world.
God is surrounded by seraphim, which are angelic creatures with six wings each. This is the only place in the Bible where seraphim are mentioned. The Hebrew word means “to burn,” so many scholars suppose that the seraphim are burning with zeal for God.
John A. Martin writes, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old Testament:), about the seraphim wings:
Covering their faces with two wings indicates their humility before God. Their covering their feet with two other wings may denote service to God, and their flying may speak of their ongoing activity in proclaiming God’s holiness and glory.
The seraphim are singing to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Martin continues his description of the scene unfolding in front of Isaiah.
In calling to one another the seraphs, whose number is not given, were proclaiming that the LORD Almighty is holy. The threefold repetition of the word holy suggests supreme or complete holiness. . . . Repeating a word three times for emphasis is common in the Old Testament (e.g., Jer. 22:29; Ezek. 21:27). The seraphs also proclaimed that His glory fills the earth (cf. Num. 14:21) much as His robe filled the temple. By contrast the people of Judah were unholy (cf. Isa. 5; 6:5) though they were supposed to be a holy people (Ex. 22:31; Deut. 7:6).
As the seraphs cried out, Isaiah saw the temple shake and then it was filled with smoke (Isa. 6:4). The thresholds (cf. Amos 9:1) were large foundation stones on which the doorposts stood. The shaking (cf. Ex. 19:18) suggested the awesome presence and power of God. The smoke was probably the cloud of glory which Isaiah’s ancestors had seen in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21; 16:10) and which the priests in Solomon’s day had viewed in the dedicated temple (1 Kings 8:10–13).
What is Isaiah’s reaction to be being in the presence of God? “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Isaiah realizes that his sinfulness, along with the sinfulness of the people of Judah, render him ruined before God. He cannot do anything for God until he is forgiven.
In verses 6-7, a seraph flies to Isaiah and places a burning coal on his lips and proclaims that his sins have been paid for, taken away. As soon as Isaiah repented, God removed his sin. Now that Isaiah is reconciled to God, what will God ask him to do?
In verses 8-10, God asks for a volunteer and Isaiah steps up. What message would God have Isaiah deliver the people of Judah? Isaiah is to preach to Judah just as he has in the first five chapters of the book. He is to pronounce judgment on their sins and demand that they turn back to God.
However, God makes it clear to Isaiah that the more he preaches, the less the people will see, hear, or understand what he says to them. His preaching will be completely ineffective in bringing Judah to repentance. If God knows that the people will not repent, then why bother sending Isaiah?
John Martin explains that the “Lord did not delight in judging His people, but discipline was necessary because of their disobedience.” God does not short-circuit human psychology. He wanted to give the people of Judah every opportunity to hear the message of repentance so that they and their children would have no excuse. Nobody would ever be able to say that God never warned them, that God never commanded that they change their behavior. Isaiah was to make sure of that.
Even though God knows every human decision before it is ever made, in this instance He also allowed Isaiah to know. Perhaps this was grace from God to help Isaiah through the difficult years of his ministry. Isaiah always knew that his preaching was decreed by God, regardless of whether it ever changed anyone’s mind.
Isaiah asks God how long the people of Judah will refuse to repent. God responds that Judah will be destroyed and its people deported. This would occur when the Babylonians attack in 586 BC, some 100 years after Isaiah’s death, thus Judah would not listen to him during his lifetime. Not all will be lost, however. God would preserve a remnant of believers, a holy seed that would someday grow into the renewed people of God.