In ancient Israel, prophets served as YHWH’s representatives to make known his will to the people and to urge them to repent and change their ways when they pursued a wayward course. Although declaring the message divinely revealed to them, the prophets did not necessarily commit the “word of YHWH” to writing. Jeremiah, for example, dictated the message to Baruch, who then recorded what the prophet said. (Jeremiah 36:5, 6, 17, 18, 32) According to the Talmud (Baba Bathra, 14b, 15a), Isaiah did not write the book bearing his name, but the writing is attributed to Hezekiah and his colleagues.
In style, the Hebrew of Isaiah is exceptional. When it comes to brevity and poetic beauty, English translations are greatly limited in their renderings of the Hebrew text. So the Talmud may preserve a reliable tradition that seems to point to a work that conveys the message as having been recorded and likely also edited by professionals in the royal court who, like Hezekiah, highly valued the “word of YHWH” that Isaiah proclaimed.
As evident from the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (the Great Isaiah Scroll believed to date from the end of the second century BCE), the Hebrew text that was known in the first century CE varies little from the Masoretic Text. The Greek translation that is believed to have been produced in the second century BCE, however, does vary from the Hebrew text to a greater extent. In this commentary, major differences will be apparent from the accompanying literal renderings and comments.
In the first century CE, Jews and Christians regarded the book of Isaiah as a unit. In more recent times, certain ones have advanced arguments that the book consists of two or three distinct collections, with only a portion thereof being recognized as from Isaiah’s time. While pages can be filled with arguments for or against partitioning the book of Isaiah, this effort contributes little to a better understanding of the message that has been faithfully preserved throughout the centuries.
Isaiah began his service as a prophet during the rule of Judean King Uzziah (Azariah), during whose reign the kingdom of Judah began to prosper. This king’s successes are attributed to his acting uprightly before YHWH. Later, Uzziah became arrogant on account of his military triumphs and was stricken with leprosy when he wrongfully entered the temple. He intended to offer incense and then became angry with the priests who reproved him for attempting to do this. (2 Chronicles 26:4, 5, 16-20) It may have been toward the close of Uzziah’s reign that Isaiah began to serve as a prophet, for his specific commissioning occurred in a vision during the year in which King Uzziah died. (Isaiah 6:1, 8-13)
Jotham succeeded his father Uzziah as king and remained faithful to YHWH. His subjects, however, did not imitate his good example, and the kingdom of Judah faced aggression from the ten northern tribes of Israel under the rule of Pekah and the Syrians during the reign of Rezin. (2 Kings 15:32-37; 2 Chronicles 27:1, 2) Before this development, Jotham had succeeded in subduing the Ammonites and exacting tribute from them. (2 Chronicles 27:5-7)
Upon Jotham’s death after a reign of 16 years, his son Ahaz succeeded him as king. (2 Chronicles 27:8, 9) The reign of Ahaz witnessed abandonment of the worship of YHWH and progressive deterioration in the moral condition of the people and a progressive decline in the prosperity of the realm on account of foreign aggression. (2 Kings 16:2-7; 2 Chronicles 28:1-7)
When the corrupt 16-year rule of Ahaz ended, his son Hezekiah began to rule. Unlike his father, Hezekiah pursued a godly course during his 29-year reign, undertook to rid his realm of idolatrous practices, and restored the worship of YHWH at the temple in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 18:1-7; 2 Chronicles 29:1-11)
According to ancient tradition, Isaiah’s prophetic service was completed during the corrupt rule of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah. An apocryphal work thought to date from the second century CE (“Ascension of Isaiah,” 1:9; 5:2, 14) relates that King Manasseh had the prophet Isaiah sawn asunder.
During the time Isaiah served as YHWH’s prophet, Assyria proved to be the dominant power in the region, and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah experienced Assyrian aggression. Evidence to this effect is found in ancient Assyrian records, and the commentary that follows will include pertinent references to this material.