Any introduction to Isaiah ought to be dominated by the historical setting of the book. It was written during one of the most turbulent periods of the history of Palestine. The political and military machinations that the text carefully details are sufficiently complex and exciting to warrant an action movie. Regrettably however by far the largest subject dealt with in the majority of introductions to Isaiah is the question of just how many Isaiah's there were. In order to make this introduction as useful and yet balanced as possible I shall deal first with the authorship issues and then proceed to sketch the historical context in which this book was written.
Writing about the authorship of Isaiah is for me a peculiarly emotive experience. As and eager and idealistic believer in my very early twenties I started Bible school with a view to entering the ministry. After three attempts at getting an essay past my tutor who refused to accept that anyone could seriously consider Isaiah to be written by one person I decided that a Biblical education was not for me. Some fifteen years later I hope I am able to discuss the subject in a less contentious manner; although frankly my position has not changed significantly.
The pivotal point in the discussion concerning the authorship of Isaiah is: can prophecy be predictive? This question arises because there appear to be two very specific but contradictory dating events within Isaiah. Firstly is Is 6:1 we hear of Isaiah being commissioned in the year that King Uzziah died which places the commencement of Isaiah around 740BC. However Is 44:28 mentions Cyrus who was not even born until 599BC. We are therefore faced with a decision; either we accept that Isaiah was capable make a prophecy of something a hundred and fifty years yet future or we accept that parts of Isaiah were written far later by someone else.
There is extensive evidence that the whole of Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament and attributed to Isaiah but the Lord Himself, all four of the evangelists, Peter and Paul. However this argument does not impress modern scholarship who instead assert that it was common ancient practice to attribute writings to people even though they did not do them all. It is interesting and indicative that even the secular Wikipedia is unable to produce an article discussing both points of view that is not flagged as being unbiased.
I do not believe that anything that I write is going to alter anyone's mind on this matter so instead I will make a different observation. The Holy Spirit saw fit to record this as one oracle and to refer to it as one oracle. Therefore I suggest it should be treated as one oracle. I shall do so in this and future articles without further apology.
Moving from authorship to context we find ourselves thrown from a theological battle to one of international intrigue. From the perspective of Judah this probably started in 740BC when King Uzziah died. He and Jeroboam II of Northern Israel had both reigned over periods of relative prosperity with little or no external interference. However the reality was that to the North Assyria was beginning to flex her muscles and was preparing to enter into an expansionist phase.
As on many occasions in Jewish history it was infighting that allowed foreign powers to move against the Jews so easily. In 734 Northern Israel and Syria were sufficiently concerned about the aggressive positioning of Tiglath Pilesar of Assyria that they tried to force Judah to join with them in an alliance. Ahaz refused, Israel and Syria attacked and Ahaz called upon Assyria to help. Assyria came and attacked and eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom completely in 722BC.
Judah had now help to destroy the buffer zone between it and the most aggressive superpower of the time. Inevitably Assyria continued the march South and eventually captured almost the whole of Palestine other than Jerusalem itself which was spared by divine intervention. However, this summary has very much 'cut to the chase' and the book of Isaiah fills in the details in most intriguing fashion.
As interesting as the historic context is Isaiah is not principally an historic book. Isaiah is not concerned so much with the result of the politics so much as with the spiritual reality of the nation that inspires the politics. Ritual worship of God will not result in divine blessing if it is coupled with cruelty and injustice. Isaiah is therefore at great pains to draw on the religious reality of the period in which he ministered.
We also see in Isaiah one of the first and fullest developments of the 'Messiah'. It is probably this shift from the here, now and ugly to the future and beautiful that leads the critics to reject the unity of the book. However I believe that for Isaiah the look forward was the natural reaction to the despair that the present situation was inclined to inspire.