Historical Time Period
Every one of us is born into a particular moment in history, and listening to the apostle Paul, it would seem God, in God’s sovereignty, has even appointed the time in which each person lives.
From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and [God] allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.Apostle Paul, Acts 17:26 (NRSV)
The time God chose for Isaiah has a lot of parallels to the time you and I are living in today.
Late Eighth Century
Isaiah was born in Judah, in Jerusalem, actually, at the southern end of the divided kingdoms of Israel, which separated during the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Israel was comprised of the ten tribes to the north. Down below Judah and Benjamin formed the kingdom of Judah, centered around God’s holy city of Jerusalem.
When Isaiah began his work in the late eighth century B.C., Judah was still basking in a long-sustained prosperity that was a carry-over from Solomon’s reign. There was little interference from foreign powers, Egypt was weak, King Uzziah had been collecting tribute from the Philistines and widening Judah’s borders. But the good times were nearly over, and people were beginning to sense it.
There was big trouble on the horizon, threats from within and without.
Internally there was moral decay, a sense of complacency and entitlement concerning the people’s collective wealth. There was no heart engagement with God, only formal, ritualistic, and empty religion. Judah had become very tolerant and even accepting of other belief systems, lifestyle choices influenced by the surrounding area cultures, and other religious practices.
Externally there was a growing threat of invasion. The crisis of their generation was the rising Assyrian empire to the east, coming ever nearer to Judah.
An aggressive empire builder named Tiglath Pileser quickly changed the whole international landscape as Egypt and Babylon began to make new alliances to try to save their own empires from Assyria. Ultimately, Israel, and later Judah, were dragged into this ongoing armed colonization of lesser powers by that greater power, the Assyrian (and later Babylonian) empire.
Isaiah saw with the eyes of God the combination for disaster.
He began to warn of what would come, the exile to Babylon (though Babylon in Isaiah’s day was a little known state, not very powerful) as well as promising hope for the remnant that God would spare.
Few people listened to him.
Assyria did eventually take Israel into captivity.
Babylon did grow in power and two hundred years later took Judah into captivity.
It all happened exactly as Isaiah had prophesied.
Word of the Lord
Isaiah’s message was primarily for Judah, although he also warned the surrounding nations and touched on what would happen to Israel. Over the sixty years of Isaiah’s tenure God sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites, the capital of Assyria; the prophets Amos and Hosea to warn Israel; and the prophet Micah to both Israel and Judah. God was seriously calling people to repentance before God’s judgment would fall.
But repentance in God’s own people never came.
Description of God’s People
They preferred idols created by their own hands instead of the Creator Who had created them.
They refused God’s gracious, repeated warnings, preferring unholy alliances and prideful self-righteousness
The people of Isaiah’s day had an unrealistic appraisal of themselves.
They had little awareness of their real situation, spiritually and physically. They went through the motions of their God-given religion, observing the feasts and sacrifices, the festivals and worship liturgies. But in their everyday life, it was not to God that they turned.
God’s help did not seem relevant.
Instead they relied on their wealth, and their political allies.
2 Kings 14-20 and 2 Chronicles 26-32 provide good background reading on Isaiah’s life and time. Some highlights (or lowlights, more accurately) include:
High Places: Even the good kings turned a blind eye to the people’s polytheistic practices. Both Judah and Israel were liberally encrusted with shrines, temples, and altars to the gods of other nations, and people made a regular practice of those other religions. Most notable were Ba’al and Ashtoreth (also Asherah or Astarte).
Apostasy: Some kings openly left their faith in God behind, at least one attempted to coopt priestly power, and others first desecrated God’s temple, then finally shuttered it, closing it off to the public, and shutting down any priestly activity.
Kings, over the years, had erected altars for “Astarte the abomination of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.”
Women weavers, who originally were meant for the upkeep of the great curtain that hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, were now repurposed to weave for Asherah.
Military Aggression: It was expected for kings to overrun whatever people groups they could, and the kings of Israel and Judah were no different, colonizing whatever regions they could, killing people by the tens of thousands in their quest for power and acquisition.
Graft and Bribery: The people’s hard-earned taxes were spent on political and diplomatic power bids, as well as personal gain.
Murder and Assassination: Unsurprisingly, kings and officials came and went at an ever-quickening pace, as assassination became quid pro quo in deciding political accession.
Abomination: King Ahaz himself led the nation in practicing child sacrifice. High places were established where people could force “a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech.” (King Josiah later dismantled these places.) He also stripped God’s temple of much of its treasure and sent it as tribute to Assyria.
Enslavement: At one point, “The people of Israel took captive two hundred thousand of their kin, women, sons, and daughters; they also took much booty from them and brought the booty to Samaria.” Disaster was averted when a prophet of God convinced Israel to literally put the clothes back onto the Judahite people they had captured, return their belongings to them, and enable them to return to their homes.
However, the episode itself illustrates the accepted practice of their day. Captured people were routinely stripped and enslaved, and all that was looted from their conquered cities was considered payment to the troops which had attacked them.
Sexual Excess: Attendant to the practices of other religions was temple prostitution. Of particular note is the male prostitution that had been installed in God’s temple. It had also become unremarkable for kings to fill their harems with wives and concubines.
It does not take much guesswork to imagine the sexual profligacy that spread throughout both Judah and Israel.
Mindless prosperity leads to self-reliance and abandonment of faith in God.
Judah’s prosperity made it easy to avoid depending on God, with the result of moral decay. That is a warning for you and me today.
Prosperity is fleeting.
But God is eternal.
You and I are not responsible for the decisions of our leaders apart from whatever our civic duty requires of us (to vote, to speak up through letters and protests). But, we must live by whatever those decisions bring about. We will be swept along in the destiny of our nation, whatever that will be.
Isaiah was called by God to deliver both prophetic warning and a call to repentance to national leaders, but also to ordinary folk. Like us. You and I may not have Isaiah’s call to prophesy, but we can respond to Isaiah’s warning and direction.