Early on in the times of ancient Hebrews, the Jews divided the Old Testament into three components: Laws, Prophets, and the holy writings. Later on, the Prophets were sorted out into The Former Prophets and The Later Prophets which comprised the book of Isaiah in “The Latter Prophets” (Martin, 9). Among The Latter Prophets, Isaiah is assigned uniformly in the first place and rank among other major and minor prophetic books because of its account of length, values, and coverage. Since the Savior Jesus also referred to this threefold division in his discourse with his disciples after the resurrection in Luke 24:44, the division of the Old Testament is as old as Jesus. The Jews credited the canonization and division of the Old Testament to Ezra; however, there is not any concrete evidence to support this theory.
The book of Isaiah bears the name of the writer itself. Isaiah was the son of Amoz (1:1). His name “Isaiah” which literally means “the salvation of Yahweh” or “Yahweh saves” also delivers a specific message to his original readers (Orelli, 1). He had two sons namely: Shear-Jashub which means “a remnant shall return” and Maher-shalal-hash-baz “swift is the booty and speedy is the prey” symbolically Assyria’s unrestrained yearning for conquest (Arnold & Bayer, 355). Those names were the living embodiment of Isaiah’s message to Israelites.
When we trace the historical background of Isaiah in the Old Testament, we find it in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. He lived in the city of Jerusalem, the capital of Davidic kingdom. He started his prophetic office during the dominance of Assyria. And the prophet himself narrates the inauguration of his ministry in the last year of King Uzziah. On the basis of the reign of Uzziah, the most scholars attributed his prophetic ministry in 740 B.C. He continuously prophesied in the southern kingdom during the reign of four kings – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
Before Isaiah started his prophetic office, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was already invaded by Assyrians in 722 B.C. In the span of his ministry in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, the Davidic Kingdom was outwardly prospering, but it was spiritually going downward. They forgot God because of long prosperous reign during Uzziah. Despite some spiritual reformations and revivals under some godly kings, the evil king Ahaz, son of Jotham introduced odious heathen practices of worshipping Baal, the Canaanite god (Martin, 12). Thus, the idolatry and sexual immorality flourished throughout the kingdom under the influence of Asher (the mother god of fertility) and Baal.
Simultaneously, Judah’s apostasy led her to captivity to Assyrian, the powerful nation in the face of the earth. In the wake of the hostile coalition among King Rezin of Damascus and King Pekah of Samaria along with Edomites to fight against Assyria (2 Kings 16:5ff; 2 Chro. 28:5ff), Isaiah protested against such a perilous coalition with any power. “He advised strict neutrality and a patient waiting for divine deliverance” (Erdman, 8). Nevertheless, the king cancelled the counsel of Isaiah and forsook God. Consequently, Isaiah witnessed two significant historical events: Syro-Ephraimitic war (734 B.C.) under the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pilesar III (745-727 B.C.) and the fall of Jerusalem by the later Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 B.C. (LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, 293). Thus, the chosen nation of God had to go through spiritual, political, and social turmoil due to their arrogance, religious rituals, and unfaithfulness toward the Lord.
The main theme of the book of Isaiah is salvation by faith. There are, however, several secondary themes – the remnant of God, the sovereignty of God, Holy one of Israel, the servant of God, and Anointed one – Messiah. On top of these themes, they proclaim one unified message to God’s chosen nation to trust God in the midst of every difficult circumstance, else the judgment is inevitable. Nonetheless, there is hope that God will restore his kingdom and people in the Promised Land.
The unfolding story of salvation history in the prophetic book of Isaiah is heartening to its readers from the beginning. The book is divided into two portions. The first portion of the book (chapter 1 to 39) is mainly consisting of condemnation of Judah and forthcoming punishment. The second part of the book (chapter 40-60) is inclusively about the prophecies of deliverance and restoration of Israel. Thus, the entire theme functions overall in the periphery of disobedience (apostasy), judgment (consummation), repentance, and restoration.
As the first part of the book progressively reveals sin and fault of Judah, the chosen people of God never seem to be turning back to God from their sinful nature. People in Judah were observing laws; yet, they failed to understand that ceremonies cannot save them. God wanted them to be obedient than bringing sacrifice (1:11). The Holiness of God was being traded with pagan gods. The adoption of such a disgraceful pagan worship petrifies the morality of Judah. Isaiah opens the woe oracle against Judah in order to bring them back to God; hence they will celebrate enormous blessings from God.
In the midst of their apostasy, Isaiah continuously delivers the message of judgment. But there was a condition that could be applied to reverse the judgment – the true worship. “This condition is sincere repentance manifest in deeds of purity and charity. This is certain to receive divine pardon and cleansing, and will result in a restoration of national life” (Erdman, 20). Despite this fact, people of Judah never listened to the prophecy of Isaiah nor humbled themselves and submitted to God rather they fortified themselves from favor of God by following idolatry, sexual fornication, and injustice. Because of their moral perversion, they had been rejecting mercy and grace of God ceaselessly. “Judah’s unbelief is described as “reject[ing] the gently flowing waters of Shiloah” (Ridderbos, 93). Here, Shiloah represents the Kingdom of God. By rejecting the Kingdom of God whose throne is on Zion, Judah preferred to trust the earthly king and his throne and power.
As a result, God’s indictment was prosecuted amongst Judeans, since they rested their hope in gigantic world power than the promised Immanuel (7:14ff). The message of salvation by faith on Yahweh alone could intercept the prominent affliction on God’s people. In contrast with this fact, they became stiff-necked, hostile, and arrogant to the message of salvation. Therefore, the Assyrian, in whom Judah had put her hope, had lust to establish the empire also plunged the land of Judah and took them to captivity. “It is the apex of prophetic sorrows that the land of this Immanuel shall have fallen prey to the claws of the Assyrian predator” (Ridderbos, 94). Although judgment came upon the Judeans for the sake of their unfaithfulness and disobedience to God, he would never keep his people afflicted forever.
However, God never forsakes nor forgets his people. The Judean infidels were crying out to God in the exile. They were complaining against God for forsaking them and allowing them to be captivated by Babylonians (49:14). Motyer writes that people of Judah had better remembering their own iniquities than accusing God for not intervention (394). They lamented and repented before God in their despair. But God had neither forsaken nor forgotten them (49: 15ff). In response to their genuine repentance, God assured them of divine deliverance.
Now, the large portion of the prophecy is about the restoration of Israel. They are basically about comfort to his people who were afflicted in the foreign land. God reveals Isaiah the gracious coming deliverance for his people. The grace plan of God is introduced during the reign of the mighty King Cyrus by bringing back his people in their own land – the Promised Land (44:28). Thus, they were redeemed and restored by grace through faith in Yahweh alone.
Meantime, the very apex of the prophecy about the Suffering Servant is revealed in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This is the climax of unfolding mystery of coming Christ in the world as a perfect atonement on behalf of humankind. Particularly, the latter chapters disclose the culmination of God’s restoration (60:1-66:24). The picture of Israel’s glory, her marriage with God, judgment upon nations, and blessings for his servants are portrayed in the further restoration. For this reason, there is ultimate hope, salvation, and restoration in God.
After assessing the function of the book in the salvation history, we can see human tendency and inclination to sin. On the other hand, God demonstrates the unfailing and unconditional love to his people. As a matter of fact, we do not deserve his forgiveness; however, he does not forsake us nor forget us. His promise is unshakable and endures forever.
If we look at the verses through 14-17 in Isaiah chapter 49, we find Jews in the exile were not sure if God was still holding on with Mosaic covenant that he would never forsake nor forget his people (Deut. 4:31; Jos. 1:5, 1 Sam. 12:22). But God speaks in the scene right after they grumbled against him. The illustration of breastfeeding mother and child is a means to convey God’s love and care for them. Indeed, mother hardly abandons her baby. Yet, there are some circumstances when the mother can forsake her own baby. There was cannibalism in the land of Israel in the history. 2 Kings 6:28-29 records that a mother cooked her own baby for food during King Ben-hadad of Syria besieged Samaria. The same kind of cannibalism occurred in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. when Babylonians besieged her. The food shortage caused some mothers to be anthropophagus (Lam. 2:20; 4:10; Ezek 5:10). The first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also testifies a savage cannibalism in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. during the fall of Jerusalem. “A woman … who … had fled to Jerusalem … killed her son, roasted him, and ate one half, concealing and saving the rest” (6.3.4). In the light of these historical evidences and the present day situations of legal abortion freedom, we can conclude that even a mother can forsake or forget her own child.
But God says that he shall never forsake nor forget us. Moreover, he says that he has engraved us in his palm. The technical term “engraved” can be compared to present day “tattoos” which remains with the individual forever. The metaphorical meaning of the text is: God has thought of us; he is with us all the time. Therefore, God cares about us, and his grace is abundant for us. He wants to restore every life and bring the world back to the original form that he created in the beginning.
The use of anthropomorphism by Isaiah is very effective to relate my own life to the original text. The way he illustrated the case of Jews complain, and God’s instance response to them by using the figure of breastfeeding mother in the speech have struck my perception of God’s unfailing love. This new perception provided me a wide dimension to understand his grace and mercy for me as well as every individual.
Few years ago, Nepal had no abortion law which means abortion was illegal. So, many infants who were born through illicit relationship or considered as illegitimate babies were slain by their own mothers to conceal their illegitimate relationship. How hard and heartbreaking it is when we just think about that kind of crime!
I still remember a barbaric murder of an infant. Someone had a baby before she tied her knot. Her boyfriend refused to marry her. So, she had two choices – either kill the baby or accept rejection and hatred from family and boycott from society. Finally, she beheaded her own baby boy the night when he was born. I believe this one example is enough to argue that a mother can not only forsake or forget, but also take life of her own baby.
On the contrary, there is an Almighty God who promised to the generations and generations to come that he would never forsake nor forget. When I remember this particular promise, I feel fear of God which makes me stand in awe of God. We know that we do not deserve this life, but his love has exceeded all human love. So, this promised is so specific to us that no matter how wicked we are; he will not forsake us.
We can relate this promise in our own life. Many times, our own people forget us. Our church forgets us. But it gives us more longing to be loved by God when we remember his promise that he will never ever forget us. His promise is still in work and will be active at the end of the world. The example of tattoos can be used in this context as God says that he has engraved us in his palm.
In my own ethnic group, my parents used to tattoo in a traditional way. Those tattoos were like an ornament as well as lifelong sign to remember the particular date or thing. The richness of language that Isaiah used to attribute God who engraved us in his palm cannot be compared to my parents’ and their generations’ tattoos, but this kind of picture will provide them the wider perspective toward the main point of the biblical message. For example, the tattoo in my father’s hand reminds him of his wedding anniversary. This is how he can directly relate to the biblical story to his own personal experience to understand the depth of message.
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LaSor, William S., David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush. Old Testament Survey. 2nd
ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996.
Martin, Alfred. Isaiah ‘The Salvation of Jehovah’. Chicago: The Moody Press, 1956.
Motyer, J. Alec. The prophecy of Isaiah. Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993. 16 Nov. 2008.
Orelli, C V. The Prophecies of Isaiah. Trans. J S. Banks. George Street: Edinburgh, 1889.
Ridderbos, Jan. Bible Student’s Commentary Isaiah. Trans. John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1985.