Isaiah is a frequently quoted Bible book. This is unsurprising as it is full of important ideas and promises. Yet for many, it's also a long and tricky book referencing parts of history we are unfamiliar with. On reading Isaiah, we might left be thinking, 'what is the exile?', 'why does he keep referencing Exodus' or even 'who is Isaiah writing to?' This article is designed to help you understand the historical background of Isaiah in the exile and the exodus.
Isaiah was a prophet, chosen by God to speak God's message. If you're used to reading a narrative or the New Testament letters, Isaiah as prophecy will feel different. We have written an article explaining the prophetic genre, which might help you read it.
1. The historical background: exile
Isaiah was specifically commissioned to speak messages to God's people in Judah—we know this because of Isaiah 1:1. Judah (a place and a people) starts to be called Judah after King Solomon dies and the Israelite kingdom splits into two. Out of the 12 original tribes, Judah consists of the two southern tribes living in the southern part of the land. It includes Jerusalem, the temple where God dwelt and has a king from David's line. Judah was the last part of Israel carried into exile.
God's promises, judgement and exile
God's promises defined the history of God's people. God had promised they would be a great people, in the land of Israel, with him dwelling among them, with his king ruling over them and the people enjoying great blessings.
In 1 Kings 2, the kingdom is finally established. In 1 Kings 3–10, we see a golden era for God's people where they start to enjoy many of the things he promised them. To keep enjoying the blessings, the people and their king had to obey God. Soon after the high point, everything starts to go wrong, and in 1 Kings 11, the people begin to disobey God seriously.
The first consequence of this disobedience was God splitting the great kingdom in two: the northern kingdom (then referred to as Israel) and the southern kingdom (then referred to as Judah). This separation was a terrible judgement as the north was cut off from God's temple and king. No temple meant they couldn't atone for their sin or have a relationship with God. Throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Kings, God's people and kings in both kingdoms continued to sin.
Next in God's judgement, as their idolatry continues, the northern kingdom is destroyed and its people were sent into exile. In 2 Kings 17, Assyria invades—the people are dispersed and we don't see them again in the Bible story. The south manages to last a little longer. By 2 Kings 24–25 we see them sent into exile too (in two phases) to Babylon. At the same time, Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. The southern people (Judah) aren't dispersed. They remain a distinct people together in exile for 70 years. The exile is the biggest and most terrible event in the history of Israel.
The exile and Isaiah's prophecy
When you read Isaiah, you'll see different parts of his book seem to be at different times. He speaks during and after the northern kingdom is being taken into exile; but before the southern kingdom goes into exile. He's writing to a people still in Jerusalem—still with a temple and a king. But those people are seeing or have seen their neighbours in the north be attacked, pillaged, carried away and destroyed.
2. The historical background: Exodus
An earlier important moment in the Bible story had been the exodus. Isaiah often references it, and as we read Isaiah it is essential to understand what happened at the exodus and why it matters.
The original exodus
The word 'exodus' was first used in the Bible to describe the mass departure of God's people from Egypt in Exodus 1–19. It is the first big rescue in the Bible and is designed to teach us about how Gods rescues. It was a prototype, or a model, to help us understand and wait for God's future rescue. Here is a summary of what the book is designed to teach us:
- When God rescues his people, they are from terrible situations. The people of Israel are in slavery in Egypt at the beginning of the book of Exodus. Under the superpower of the day, Pharaoh treats God's people very badly.
- God's rescues are of an immense scale. The original exodus was lead by Moses but achieved by God. It was a rescue not only from Egypt but from the judgment coming on the land (which the Israelites also deserved as they were also sinful) through the Passover lamb.
- When God rescues his people, it is designed to reveal something about him. In Exodus, God tells his people to look at this rescue to learn wonderful things about being their God. It revealed God as powerful, judging and saving, wise and making the distinction between his enemies and his people.
- God's rescues are for something. In the first exodus, God was rescuing his people to enjoy his promises, to be his people, in relationship with him, in his land.
In Isaiah, God references the first exodus to promise a second more significant exodus. We see this in Isaiah 40–55 and this talk series goes through this section of the book. Here are some key facts about Isaiah's exodus:
- Isaiah promises a rescue for God’s people after the exile, and he describes this as a second exodus. In Isaiah 11:15–16 a rescue is promised, through a desert, on a highway which will be 'as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt'.
- The second exodus has similar features to God's prototype exodus: God's rescues are from terrible situations, of an immense scale, designed to reveal, and for something. We understand God's promise of rescue more because we understand concepts through the first exodus.
- Isaiah's second exodus has differences to God's first exodus. He's now rescuing his people from this world and all sin and judgement. He's now rescuing on a cosmic scale. He's now revealing new and different things about himself. He's now rescuing for a whole new creation. We understand God's promise of rescue better because we see the differences (mostly massive improvements on his first exodus).