Isaiah was a Hebrew prophet who was believed to have lived about 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. He became agonizingly aware of God’s need for a messenger to the people of Israel, and, despite his own sense of inadequacy, he offered himself for God’s service: “Here am I! Send me.” He was thus commissioned to give voice to the divine word.
Born in Jerusalem, Israel, he was said to have found his calling as a prophet when he saw a vision in the year of King Uzziah’s death. Isaiah prophesized the coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ.
The Book of Isaiah, comprising 66 chapters, is one of the most profound theological and literarily expressive works in the Bible. Compiled over a period of about two centuries (the latter half of the 8th to the latter half of the 6th century BCE), the Book of Isaiah is generally divided by scholars into two (sometimes three) major sections, which are called First Isaiah (chapters 1–39), Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55 or 40–66), and—if the second section is subdivided—Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66).
The prophecies of First Isaiah
First Isaiah contains the words and prophecies of Isaiah, a most important 8th-century BCE prophet of Judah, written either by himself or his contemporary followers in Jerusalem (from c. 740 to 700 BCE), along with some later additions, such as chapters 24–27 and 33–39. The first of these two additions was probably written by a later disciple or disciples of Isaiah about 500 BCE; the second addition is divided into two sections—chapters 33–35, written during or after the exile to Babylon in 586 BCE, and chapters 36–39, which drew from the source used by the Deuteronomic historian in II Kings, chapters 18–19. The second major section of Isaiah, which may be designated Second Isaiah even though it has been divided because of chronology into Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah, was written by members of the “school” of Isaiah in Babylon: chapters 40–55 were written prior to and after the conquest of Babylon in 539 by the Persian king Cyrus II the Great, and chapters 56–66 were composed after the return from the Babylonian Exile in 538. The canonical Book of Isaiah, after editorial redaction, probably assumed its present form during the 4th century BCE. Because of its messianic (salvatory figure) themes, Isaiah became extremely significant among the early Christians who wrote the New Testament and the sectarians at Qumrān near the Dead Sea, who awaited the imminent messianic age, a time that would inaugurate the period of the Last Judgment and the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah, a prophet, priest, and statesman, lived during the last years of the northern kingdom and during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah (Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He was also a contemporary of the prophets of social justice: Amos, Hosea, and Micah. Influenced by their prophetic outcries against social injustice, Isaiah added themes peculiar to his prophetic mission. To kings, political and economic leaders, and to the people of the land, he issued a message that harked back nearly five centuries to the period of the judges: the holiness of Yahweh, the coming Messiah of Yahweh, the judgment of Yahweh, and the necessity of placing one’s own and the nation’s trust in Yahweh rather than in the might of ephemeral movements and nations. From about 742 BCE, when he first experienced his call to become a prophet, to about 687, Isaiah influenced the course of Judah’s history by his oracles of destruction, judgment, and hope as well as his messages containing both threats and promises.