Prophecy and the Prophets

By Barnard C. Taylor

Part II - A Story of the Individual Prophets

Chapter 1



Parallel Reading: 2 Kings 14 to 21; 2 Chronicles 26 to 33; Micah; Hosea; Amos.

1. Date and Occasion

The exact date of the beginning of Isaiah’s work is not known, but it was before Uzziah died. (1:1.) He continued to prophesy at intervals until the close of the reign of Hezekiah, possibly was slain by the next king, Manasseh. A period of about forty years, 740-698 B. C.

Judah was flourishing in the reign of Uzziah, or as he is otherwise called, Azariah. Wealth there, as in Israel under Jeroboam II, produced wickedness, vice, oppression. Jotham is classed among the better kings of Judah, but some of the rebukes of Isaiah were caused by the sin of his reign. Ahaz was the worst king Judah had because he deliberately chose to trust in a heathen power instead of Jehovah. The destiny of Judah was largely determined by the infidelity of Ahaz. His unwise policy of seeking help from Assyria led to Judah’s becoming tributary to Assyria. Much that we have in Isaiah was occasioned by the sins of this reign. The remarkable Immanuel prophecy (7 to 12) was made the day Ahaz rejected Jehovah. This wicked king was succeeded by his good son, Hezekiah. His attempted reforms were probably encouraged by Isaiah. His kingdom was threatened by the invasion of the Assyrians under Sennacherib. These two prominent features occasioned many of the important messages of Isaiah. Thus very much of the book of Isaiah was due to the political and religious condition of Judah in the reigns of the two important kings, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

The northern kingdom came to an end while Hezekiah was king of Judah, 722 B. C., but before it fell Isaiah was interested in its religious condition. His work included threats against these Israelite sinners. The prophecies of Hosea and Amos help us to understand what it was that Isaiah had to condemn in the northern kingdom. Both Israel and Judah were the people of Jehovah. The apostasy of Israel concerned the prophet of Judah. Crimes of all kinds were committed by the people. Idol worship in forms practised by all the surrounding heathen was adopted by the Israelites, north and south. Idolatry was worse in Israel, but prevalent in Judah. Such conditions, political, social, religious, characterized the time of Isaiah, and they must be kept in mind in studying his prophecies.

Judging from what we have in his book he was not prophesying all the time. There seem to have been intervals of several years between some of his messages during which he was silent. The dates of the prophecies cannot be determined in many cases, except approximately. A few of them are dated. Thus we know the occasion of their delivery. Some can be placed by internal evidence. When we know the date, we can better understand the message.

2. The Divisions of the Book

The book is made up of a collection of prophecies delivered at different times. Some of the prophecies form only a chapter, or but part of a chapter, some of his messages make a number of chapters. Thus chapter 5 is a separate prophecy; so is chapter 6. The contents of the six chapters, 7 to 12, seem to be practically all of one discourse, at least so far as the chief thought is concerned.

These various prophecies may be arranged in groups for convenience of study.

The entire book is divided into two parts, chs. 1 to 39, and 40 to 66. There are easily recognized differences between the thought, outlook, purpose, teaching, and style of these two parts.

In part one, chs. 1 to 39, we find prominent: Charge of sins; rebuke for crimes; threats of punishment, including even the overthrow of the kingdom, because the people have forsaken Jehovah. The prophet is deeply interested in what he sees going on about him. Only occasionally he lifts his eyes to the future and speaks of, a brighter time. The key-word of the Prophet, even while he threatens, is, however, the word “Remnant.” There would be destruction, but not total.

In part two, chs. 40 to 66, what we find of charge of sin is made in order to explain the punishment that had come, or was seen as having come, upon the chosen people. The time of affliction is regarded as passed,

the time of favor has come. God was about to visit his people and deliver them from the results of their sins and from their sin.

In the first part the actual condition of Israel at the time is most prominent in the prophet’s mind; the future Messianic times are only occasionally presented.

In the second part the Messianic times are the chief theme, while the present actual condition of Israel is incidental.

In the first part the Messianic idea is that of King. In the second part it is that of Sufferer. In the first God’s people are oppressed, invaded, exiled; in the second, restored, prosperous, triumphant, dominant.

In the first part the style suggests oral speech, delivered to the assembled people in the midst of stirring times. In the second part we find calm, consecutive composition, with elaborately sustained argument.

These differences give evidence for the view of a diverse authorship, but they do not prove it. Other facts are cited for oneness of authorship. The meaning of the book for us remains practically the same on either view. We will lose none of the rich truth of these prophecies if we read them as Isaiah’s. We will gain much of the evidence furnished by the power of Jehovah to predict, if we place the whole in the days of Isaiah.

See especially chapters 44,45, and 48, where the claim that Jehovah is the only God is argued from the fact that he alone can predict. The facts here mentioned must have been so far in the future at the time they were foretold that the prophet could not have merely guessed they would come to pass.

(1) The first part of the book may be subdivided into the following sections:

a. Chapters i to 11. Of these ch. i is an introduction to the entire book, giving a summary of the main thought of Isaiah: rebuke for sins; threatened punishment, and promise of God’s favor. The sudden transition from charge and condemnation to exhortation and promise is found in many places in Isaiah.

Chs. 2 to 4 form one message, beginning with a prediction of a time when all nations would serve Jehovah, and then exhorting Israel to be faithful to him, with the threat that all their wicked haughtiness would be brought low, and ending with a prediction of a purified people with Jehovah dwelling among them.

Ch. 5 sets forth God’s disappointment in his people from whom he had expected righteousness. Woes are pronounced upon various classes of sinners with a threat of the nation’s fall.

Ch. 6 gives the vision the prophet saw by which he was impressed with the thought of God’s holiness and his people’s sinfulness, and showing the mercy of God who cleansed the prophet of his sin.

Chs. 7 to 12 contain the Immanuel prophecy, occasioned by the refusal of Ahaz to accept the prophet’s offer of help from Jehovah, because he was looking for help from Assyria, to whose king he had sent a bribe when he was threatened by the combined powers of Israel and Syria. The chief points of the prophecy are found in ch. 7, where the birth of the Immanuel is told to Ahaz, who, however, is threatened with punishment because he would not trust Jehovah; in ch. 9, where the character of the coming King Immanuel is given, and in ch. n, where the character and peaceful effects of his reign are foretold. In ch. 8 there is a message to the people of an import similar to that given to the king in the preceding chapter. In both cases the prophecy takes on a twofold aspect: assurance is given that the people cannot perish because God is with them, as the name Immanuel shows, but the desolation of the land is also announced. In ch. 10 it is declared that the Assyrians would be used as God’s agent to punish his people, and that the Assyrians would themselves be punished. In chs. n and 12 is given a prediction of the restoration of the people, and their triumph, like that over the Egyptians when they came out of Egypt.

b. Chapters 13 to 23. This group of prophecies is almost entirely concerned with the heathen nations, delivered at various dates, but collected and put by themselves. In most cases the complete destruction of the nation mentioned is foretold. They are to be punished because of hostility towards God’s people. These messages were not expected to reach the peoples named, but were intended as comfort to the Israelites, whose enemies would thus perish, and to teach the permanent lesson that enmity to God will be punished.

Babylon and Egypt are prominent in this number of heathen nations. The description of the fall of Moab is graphic. It is declared that Egypt will turn to Jehovah after her punishment, a most remarkable prophecy. The small neighboring peoples are especially condemned because they showed hate toward Israel instead of friendship.

c. Chapters 24 to 35. In this group are prophecies most difficult to understand. They have in part an apocalyptic character, and the connection of thought is by no means clear.

Chs. 24 to 27 are to some extent connected with the preceding group and contain a threat of punishment upon the whole world. The description of the destruction in chapter 24 is terrific. Then ch. 25 shows that salvation will come to the nations after their punishment. Ch. 26 gives the song of triumph by Israel, God’s chosen people, and ch. 27 shows that Israel, though desolated, will flourish again.

Chs. 28 to 33 contain woes pronounced against God’s people, which were prophesied at various times by Isaiah. The condemnation and threats are severe because they have sinned against the Holy One of Israel. But even in the midst of such denunciation there is held out the hope of mercy from Jehovah. Isaiah seldom delivered a message that did not have some comfort in it. It is declared that the peoples to whom Israel looked for help should themselves perish. God alone would make his people strong.

Chs. 34 and 35 may be taken together as giving in contrast the most terrible destruction that was to come upon the heathen, especially Edom, and the glad restoration of God’s people from captivity. The land of the enemy shall forever lie waste, the land of Israel shall blossom abundantly. In this case as in most of those where outside nations are mentioned, Edom may be taken as representative of the enemies of God’s people. The prophecy would have its fulfilment in the punishment of any people that persisted in hostility towards the people of God.

d. Chapters 36 to 39. This may be regarded as a sort of appendix to the first part of the book. It is simple history, rather than prophecy of the usual character. It gives an account of the invasion by the Assyrian king in the days of Hezekiah; the message of assurance given by Isaiah in answer to the prayer of Hezekiah; the account of the king’s illness and recovery, and of the embassy that came from Babylon to congratulate him on his recovery, with the rebuke of the prophet because Hezekiah had shown a willingness to form an alliance with Babylon.

This division is pertinent here because it shows how Judah came into contact with Babylon, and gives the prediction that Babylon should at last take Judah captive. This prepares the way for the second part of Isaiah, in which the captivity is assumed as a background for the promises of restoration, which is a chief thought of the second part.

(2) The second part of Isaiah is divided into three groups of nine chapters each:40 to 48; 49 to 57; 58 to 66. There is a common refrain at the end of each of these divisions.

The theme of the whole of this part is found in ch. 40: the announcement that God is coming to deliver his people. This is given at first in general terms. Then the prophet shows that God’s coming will be in the person of a Deliverer, and that he is coming to rescue his people from oppression. The real thought here is that of a spiritual deliverance, which had its fulfilment in the work of Jesus Christ. The teaching of Isaiah here is not surpassed in the Old Testament,

a. In the first group of this part, chs. 40-48, chief emphasis is put upon the fact of deliverance. The prediction of the work of Cyrus in delivering Israel from captivity forms an important part of this thought, but it is not this deliverance that is the chief thing in the mind of the prophet. Cyrus and his work illustrated the greater deliverance that would be wrought by the greater Deliverer.

The term “servant” occurring in these chapters is used in two or three ways. Sometimes it means the whole people of Israel, sometimes the true people of God called Israel, and sometimes an individual distinguished from Israel, for whom he is to do a work. This use is found in chapter 49 also.

Special comfort is given in chs. 40, 41, 43, because God will deliver his people from their affliction. He will be with them and protect them. Ch. 42 describes the work of the servant in general terms. In chs. 44 and 45 it is declared that God would raise up Cyrus to cause his people to return to their land and build their temple. It is said that this is predicted in order that Cyrus might know that he was victorious by the help of Jehovah.

Chs. 46 and 47 give assurance of the fall of Babylon the oppressor of God’s people. In the first part of ch. 46 occurs one of those frequent instances of teaching by contrast that Isaiah uses. The people of the idols carry their idols, Jehovah carries his people. Ch. 48 shows the chief purpose of prediction:to give evidence that Jehovah was the true God, and that there was no other god.

b. Chapters 49-57. In this division the greatest thought is that of the Deliverer, in ch. 53. But the great love of God for his people is emphasized in it all. In ch. 49 we find the thought, afterwards so fully developed, that the Servant seems at first to fail, though at last he is to triumph. This reaches its climax in ch. 53, where the seeming defeat reaches even to death, but the sufferer succeeds, not in spite of death merely, but by means of it. This is the only place in the Old Testament where the idea of vicarious suffering is so plainly taught in words. The same truth was taught in all the bloody sacrifices.

In chs. 51 and 52, Zion is called to arise because her deliverance is at hand. She is described as rejoicing in the goodness of God. So in ch. 54 it is declared that the time of Zion’s chastisement is passed. In chs. 55 and 56 the thought is all of gladness and rejoicing in the mercy of God. Ch. 57 teaches that Israel’s suffering was due to her sin, but God had mercy and saved.

c. Chapters 58-66. In this division the greater emphasis is put upon the condition of the people delivered. The triumph of glorious Zion is the theme.

In ch. 58 the true conditions of favor with God are given. Ch. 59 shows that sins caused their calamities, and that God will redeem his people. Ch. 60 describes all the nations as serving God’s people, contributing their wealth for the glory of his house. Ch. 61 is a message of liberty. The prosperity of the people of God shall be boundless. Ch. 62 gives assurance of the power of God on behalf of his people. They shall no more be forsaken. Salvation has come. In ch. 63 God’s punishment of the Edomites, Israel’s enemy, is graphically portrayed, and though his people had sinned, he would show mercy. In chs. 64 and 65 there is a confession that God’s people had sinned against him, yet the infinite mercy of God would secure the redemption of Israel and their future glory. Then in the last chapter there is a summing up of the doctrine that God will severely punish sin, but will save with a mighty power those who put their trust in him. At last all nations shall worship Jehovah.