Isaiah, one of the greatest of the prophets, appeared at a critical moment in Israel’s history. To say that his ministry was part of one of the most complicated periods, is an understatement. During his time, the promised land had already split asunder. The people were no longer ruled under Jerusalem and the throne of David. Most of the tribes of Jacob formed the Northern Kingdom (referred to as Israel in this period) with the remaining tribes still loyal to Jerusalem and the throne of David – referred to as Judah.
Beyond the borders was the ever-looming threat of the Assyrian Empire whose capita city was Nineveh. It was in the area of modern-day Mosul in Northern Iraq. Compared to Israel, it is to the northeast at some distance.
The Assyrian Empire was the largest empire (911 to 609 BCE) before that of the Greeks under Alexander and the later Roman Empire. To locate that in history, it rose to prominence just after the reigns of King David and his successor Solomon and lasted until the rise of the Babylonian Empire (about 25 years before Babylon conquered Jerusalem and ended the Kingdom of Judah). The Assyrians created the blueprint for no-compromise, take-no-prisoners empire building. They were the first to have iron weapons, they created unique military tactics, and established imperial rule that was copied by many later empires. Part of their imperial rule was to destabilize effective cores of resistance to their rule by deporting half the population and replacing them with Assyrians or other conquered people, eliminating religious practices other than their own, and forcing Akkadian language upon the people. At its height the empire was as far north as the Black Sea, extended to the Red Sea in the east, and included the area now known as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt.
There were many kings of Assyria. The two that figure prominently in the history of Israel were King Sargon II and King Sennacherib. Sargon’s military exploits included the effective elimination of the 10 northern tribes of the covenant people in 722 BCE. From then on, the fear was that Assyrian attention and ambition would be focused on the Kingdom of Judea. In 701 King Hezekiah of Judea joined an Egyptian-lead alliance against Sennacherib. While Jerusalem was spared, more than 46 towns and villages of Judea were destroyed.
The ministry of Isaiah extended from the death of Uzziah in 742 B.C. to Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C., and it may have continued even longer, until after the death of Hezekiah in 687 B.C. Later legend (the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah) claims that Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, executed Isaiah by having him sawed in two. In between, here are the highlights: the Syro-Ephraimite War (735–732 B.C.), the accession of Hezekiah (715 B.C.), the revolt of Ashdod (714–711 B.C.), the death of Sargon (705 B.C.), and the revolt against Sennacherib (705–701 B.C.).
For Isaiah, the vision of God’s majesty was so overwhelming that military and political power faded into insignificance. He constantly called his people back to a reliance on God’s promises and away from vain attempts to find security in human plans and intrigues. This vision also led him to insist on the ethical behavior that was required of human beings who wished to live in the presence of such a holy God.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is as complicated as the times in which he lived. But again, we rely on the good folks at The Bible Project to make this prophetic book accessible and understandable. I thought it good to recommend to you to take a moment to watch The Bible Project’s video on the first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
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