The content of the book of Isaiah is best/only understood in the historical context in which its message is seated. The section for summary is over the years 739-701 B.C. As Oswalt notes, these years correspond with Isaiah’s life and chapters 1-39 (4). It is in this period that the Hebrew people continue to struggle with remembering God. The test to trust God is apparent throughout the account of ruthless Assyrian emperors and the real threat they posed toward their enemies. Isaiah’s message is one that highlights the contrast of trusting the fickleness of foreign powers with the true reliability of the Hebrew God. Trusting foreign powers with other gods might bring short provision, but not trusting the only true powerful God leads to destruction (5).
The period that the text covers could be called “Assyria’s moment of glory”. Prior to strong capable leaders, Assyria had been fairly weak in its force. Those who had felt Assyria’s might in the past found a time of rest. This led to Israel and Judah’s complacency which assumed God’s favor resting on them (5). With the rise of Tiglath-pileser III things strongly changed. The days of peace were over if you were in Assyria’s path. It quickly became known that when Pul flexed his muscle the entire world feared it (6). The book of 2 Kings provides much background for a proper understanding of Isaiah.
Judah was torn on which way to turn regarding Assyria. They eventually sided with Assyria in hopes that they would be protected and find favor with the main power. Looking for help from a bigger protector seems to be the theme for Judah throughout this period. Isaiah rightly perceives that striving to survive by linking to a foreign power is useless and harmful in the end. Conquering kings often take what is freely handed over and then forcefully taken when it is not. For the Hebrews apostasy often comes about due to amnesia of God (6-7).
Pul died in 727 B.C. who was then succeeded by Shalmaneser (7). This king too maintained a sweeping power hold on any Assyrian opponent. The next king that followed was Sargon. He continued the domination that had become expected by the Assyrian military strength (8). It is in this time period that a somewhat decent king named Hezekiah reigned over Judah. He tried to rid the land and temple of worship to false gods. One time he even tried (unsuccessfully) to unite Northern Israel with the South through celebration of Passover (9). Another time Judah chose to rely on Egypt for protection which did not prove to be any more successful than the trustworthiness of Ahaz’s confidence in Assyria. Sargon maintained a world dominance posture that had been built on the wins of his predecessors. He, however, died disgracefully on the battlefield and is forever remembered as an example of pride coming before a fall (Isa. 14).
Babylon hoped to gain some ground, but was soon met with defeat by the consistent supremacy of Assyria led by Sennacherib. It was not long before Assyria was strong as ever and as Isaiah had predicted, was knocking on Judah’s door (10). With the increased threat close to home, Hezekiah tried to pay off Sennacherib with a tribute. There is also a possible account of a plague that took out the Assyrian army saving Jerusalem. Due to pride, Assyrian history probably would not have recorded such an event or allowed the city to remain. Mystery surrounds the details of how it happened, but Jerusalem was spared from the crushing sweep of Sennacherib. Hezekiah, however, was faithful to God due to Isaiah’s message (12-13).
Despite Circumstances of any Empire…May we not forget God. May we put full trust in YHWH.
Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.