Who was Isaiah the prophet? Was his message only historical, or is it a message for today? Does God reveal through Isaiah what will occur in this end-time age?
Isaiah is widely regarded as one of the greatest prophets of the Bible. His name means “YHWH (the LORD) is salvation.” He lived in Jerusalem and the prophecies God gave him were directed toward Israel, Judah and other nations. Jewish tradition says he was of royal descent, and he may have been a cousin to King Uzziah. This may have given him access to the kings of Judah in Jerusalem.
The biblical account in chapter 1, verse 1 of the book he authored says he received visions from God during the reigns of four kings of Judah—Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. The time covered is from the end of King Uzziah’s reign (Isaiah 6:1) to the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. It was at least a 40-year ministry during the last half of the eighth century B.C.
What did Isaiah do?
Isaiah was married to a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3). They had two sons whose names had prophetic meanings. They were Shear-Jashub (Isaiah 7:3, meaning “a remnant shall return”) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (Isaiah 8:1-4, meaning “speed the spoil, hasten the booty”).
Isaiah and his family would be for “signs and wonders in Israel” (Isaiah 8:18). His prophecies are still “signs and wonders” for us today.
Isaiah prophesies during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem
During Isaiah’s lifetime, the nation of Assyria was the predominant power in the Middle East. In 721 B.C. Assyria had captured Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel, and deported the Israelites to other lands.
Isaiah apparently lived in Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom of Judah, and he and his nation soon had to face the ruthless and cruel Assyrian Empire as well. Because of the sins of the people of both Israel and Judah, God said He was using the Assyrians as “the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hand is My indignation” (Isaiah 10:5).
After the fall of the northern kingdom, Judah became a vassal state to Assyria. When Judah rejected Assyria’s authority, King Sennacherib of Assyria brought troops to the region and took several Judean cities. The Assyrian monarch then turned his attention to Jerusalem.
During this time when King Sennacherib was trying to conquer Jerusalem, God twice used Isaiah to send messages to Hezekiah, king of Judah. As the attempted siege of Jerusalem began, God had Isaiah tell King Hezekiah not to worry about the Assyrian invasion because the Assyrian leader would hear a rumor and return to his own land, where he would die (Isaiah 37:5-7).
The Assyrians then sent a letter to King Hezekiah in which they blasphemed God and made further threats against Jerusalem. After Hezekiah took the letter to God and beseeched Him in prayer, God sent a second message through Isaiah, letting King Hezekiah know that He (God) would defend the city (verses 21-35).
“Then the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh” (verses 36-37). Verse 38 tells of Sennacherib’s death.
How did Isaiah the prophet die?
Jewish tradition says Isaiah was killed by being sawn in two by King Manasseh, the son of King Hezekiah. This seems to be alluded to in Hebrews 11:37.
The biblical record cites King Manasseh of Judah as a ruler who “seduced” his subjects “to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD had destroyed before the children of Israel.” He was a monarch who “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (2 Kings 21:9, 16). It thus seems likely that Isaiah suffered a gruesome death at the behest of King Manasseh.
While we have very little information about Isaiah’s life, his inspired writings and prophecies have been preserved in the Bible for generations and are most important for us today.
Isaiah as a writer
Isaiah’s style of writing reveals a well-educated background. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, “For versatility of expression and brilliance of imagery Isaiah had no superior, not even a rival. His style marks the climax of Hebrew literary art” (“Isaiah,” vol. II, p. 885). The style of writing of epigrams, metaphors, interrogation, dialogue, hyperbole and parables “characterize[s] Isaiah’s book as the great masterpiece of Hebrew literature” (ibid.).
Many of the prophecies in Isaiah begin with the historical conditions and prophecies for his day and then move forward to a far greater fulfillment prior to the return of Jesus Christ. This is the dualism seen in many of the prophecies of the Bible. The first (historical) fulfillment is lesser in scope and is followed by the greater future fulfillment at the end of this present age. The dualism in Isaiah usually pertains to the prophecies about Jesus Christ, Israel, Judah or other nations.
Two exceptions would be the prophecies of the coming Day of the Lord and the Kingdom of God. These prophecies are singular and point to only one fulfillment.
There are four major themes of prophecy found in the book of Isaiah, and we will consider them in the remainder of this article.
Jesus Christ, the most important theme
Almost one-third of the chapters of the book of Isaiah contain prophecies about Jesus Christ, addressing both His first and second comings. Isaiah provides more prophecy of the second coming of Christ than any other Old Testament prophet. The following are some prophecies about Christ in both His first and second comings:
- “He shall judge between the nations” (Isaiah 2:4).
- He was to be the “Branch of the Lord” (Isaiah 4:2; Isaiah 11:1).
- He would be born of a virgin and be called “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 8:8, 10).
- He would be a “stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Isaiah 8:14).
- An eternal “government will be upon His shoulder” and He would be called the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
- The Holy Spirit would “rest upon Him” (Isaiah 11:2).
- He would be “a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isaiah 28:16).
Christ is directly spoken of in more than half of the chapters between Isaiah 40 and Isaiah 61. Undoubtedly, the most important chapter pertaining to mankind’s salvation is Isaiah 53. This prophecy explains how much He would suffer during His sacrifice for man’s sins.
Within this section, a description of His first coming begins in Isaiah 52:14, which says, “His visage [appearance] was marred more than any man.” Isaiah 53:2-5 explains that His earthly physical appearance would not stand out, He was “despised and rejected,” and “by His stripes [wounds] we are healed” of our sicknesses.
This pivotal chapter tells us that He would come to give His life as a sacrifice for our sins. The Passover lamb symbolized this merciful act (Isaiah 53:7; Exodus 12:5; 1 Corinthians 5:7). Statements of His death are then repeated: “For He was cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8). “And they made His grave with the wicked” (verse 9). He was an “offering for sin” (verse 10) and He “poured out His soul unto death” (verse 12).
Through the book of Isaiah, God revealed that Jesus would come to earth first as a human to deal with sin and then again in His glorified state after being resurrected from the grave to establish the Kingdom of God (see also Hebrews 9:28). Not understanding the dualism of Christ’s coming, many Jews rejected Him during His first coming as a human because He did not fulfill the prophecies of ruling over the earth and establishing an eternal government that are to occur during His second coming (Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 40:10).
Interestingly, God also revealed through Isaiah how Christ would be able to come back to life after being crucified. The prophet wrote, “Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise” (Isaiah 26:19). Also, prior to Isaiah’s time, King David had prophesied of Christ’s death and resurrection (Psalm 16:10).
Warnings and assurances to Israel and Judah
In terms of content, the largest single subject in the book of Isaiah is warnings to Israel and Judah both for Isaiah’s age and for us today. The first 11 chapters describe many social, moral and religious sins that are similar to the sins that the modern descendants of Israel and Judah are presently committing. For an explanation of who these people are today, see the “12 Tribes of Israel” section of this website.
The dualism of the historical setting as a prophecy for the end of the age is apparent in chapter 11, which says, “The LORD shall set His hand again the second time” to bring them back from captivity (verse 11). The timing of this restoration is during and after Christ’s second coming (verses 4-10).
The warnings to Israel and Judah of their national sins continue throughout chapters 41 to 49. The difference is that in these chapters God gives them encouragement that He will eventually redeem them. Here are some examples:
- “You are My servant, I have chosen you” (Isaiah 41:8-9; Isaiah 49:3).
- “I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).
- “Even I will carry, and will deliver you” (Isaiah 46:4).
- The Lord is “the Redeemer of Israel” (Isaiah 49:7; Isaiah 44:22).
In chapters 56 to 59 God continues to give correction and warning to Israel and Judah for their sins. In these chapters Israel and Judah are chastised for their hypocrisy in how they worship God. There are two chapters in particular that touch on this religious hypocrisy. They are Isaiah 56, which focuses on keeping the Sabbath, and Isaiah 58, which deals with fasting for the wrong reasons and, again, keeping God’s Sabbath.
The Day of the Lord
Prophecies about the coming Day of the Lord can be found in the writings of many of the Old Testament prophets, and Isaiah is no exception. This subject is covered from chapters 2 to 66. Unlike the dualism of the prophecies to Israel and Judah, most prophecies about the Day of the Lord are for an event yet to come. These foretell a time of awesome and frightening events leading to the return of Christ. Many people think of it as “the end of the world,” although it is really just the end of this present evil age.
Isaiah explains that the Day of the Lord will last for one year (Isaiah 34:8; Isaiah 61:2; Isaiah 63:4). The principle of a day for a year in prophecy also applies to the Day of the Lord (Numbers 14:34; Ezekiel 4:6). It is the year of the “Lord’s vengeance” or God’s wrath (Revelation 6:17).
In the earlier chapters on this subject (2, 13 and 24), Isaiah describes the effects of God’s wrath on this world. Men will hide in caves in terror (Isaiah 2:19-21), the earth will be shaken and possibly moved from its orbit (Isaiah 13:13), and the earth will become almost empty and a total waste (Isaiah 24:1, 3, 6). Isaiah also speaks of the Day of the Lord as a time of war (Isaiah 31:8-9). These events are also described in the seven trumpets of Revelation 8-9.
God further reveals through Isaiah that the “daughter of Babylon” will be destroyed in the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 47:1, 5, 7, 9). These verses are almost identical to those of Revelation 18:7-8, 17-19, 21. This Babylon is the final end-time government and its religious system that will be destroyed at Christ’s return.
The time of God’s wrath will come to an end when “the great trumpet will be blown” (Isaiah 27:13) and Jesus Christ will return to the earth (Revelation 11:15).
While the Day of the Lord often focuses on the wrath of God (the punishment that will come upon the disobedient for one year before Christ returns), this term is also used in a broader way by John in Revelation 1:10 to describe all the events—including the wrath of God, the Millennium and events thereafter—that will occur after Christ’s return. Virtually every Old Testament prophet who warned of God’s judgment on the Day of the Lord also spoke of restored peace and prosperity that will follow the judgment. For further explanation of this latter meaning, see the article “What Is the Day of the Lord?”
The Kingdom of God
The last major theme addressed in Isaiah is the Kingdom of God that Jesus Christ will usher in with His return. The term “kingdom” is not used in Isaiah, but this future age is described in many of the chapters from the beginning to the end of Isaiah.
The following are some of the prophecies about this coming Kingdom:
- The Lord will set up His kingdom over all nations, teach man His ways and judge between the nations (Isaiah 2:2-4).
- The “Branch” will establish Jerusalem and those who dwell there as holy (Isaiah 4:2-6).
- “The government will be upon His shoulder.” He will be called “Prince of Peace” and “of the increase of His government there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
- All animals will live at peace with man and one another, and “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
- The Lord will resettle Israel in their land (Isaiah 14:1-2).
- The deaf shall hear, the blind shall see, and Jacob’s descendants will “hallow” the Lord’s name (Isaiah 29:18, 22-24).
- A king and princes will rule in quiet and peaceful habitations (Isaiah 32:1, 15-18).
- “The desert shall … blossom as the rose,” the infirmed will be restored, and “waters shall burst forth in the wilderness” (Isaiah 35:1-10).
There are numerous prophecies about the Kingdom of God throughout chapters 44 to 66. It is a very important theme in this book. Everything written is leading up to the peaceful eternal government of God and, finally, to “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17).
Other subjects in Isaiah
Aside from the four major themes, there are a few other important subjects covered in the book of Isaiah. These include:
- Prophecies of judgment coming against numerous nations (Isaiah 13-24).
- Lucifer’s attempt to overthrow God (Isaiah 14:12-14).
- Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, his defeat and death, and the extension of Hezekiah’s life (Isaiah 36-39).
- Chapters that speak of those who serve and obey God (Isaiah 25-26, 54, 61-62).
Isaiah’s teaching on social justice
Today passages in the book of Isaiah are commonly cited in reference to social justice. This topic is indeed a subject of his book, as evidenced by the fact that the word justice is found more often in Isaiah’s writing than in any other book of the Bible.
Urging the citizens of Jerusalem to repent of their sins, the prophet Isaiah implored them to “learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, emphasis added throughout).
While seeking justice is the honorable course of action for all peoples at all times, Isaiah also noted that true, lasting justice would come via the return of Jesus Christ to rule the earth. Isaiah explained that “the LORD is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18).
When Jesus returns to rule the earth, Isaiah prophesied: “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:7).
Speaking of Christ’s reign, Isaiah also noted that He “will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands shall wait for His law” (Isaiah 42:4).
Relevance of Isaiah’s prophecies
The prophecies of Isaiah are relevant in all generations, but they primarily point to the end of the age when Jesus Christ will return and set up the Kingdom of God. The warnings of the Day of the Lord and warnings to Israel and Judah are relevant for us today.
If we will heed these warnings from God, then we can be assured of the promises of mercy and salvation through Jesus Christ that are explained in the book of Isaiah.