The Prophet Isaiah: Witness to History
by John A. Tvedtnes, FARMS

The Book of Isaiah is the longest of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Modern Bible readers tend to think of Isaiah as the great visionary who foresaw the coming of the Messiah and the captivity and gathering of Israel. But most of his prophecies were for his own day and concerned the political turmoil of the latter part of the eighth and the early part of the seventh centuries B.C.

The preface to Isaiah’s book, found in Isaiah 1:1, indicates that his ministry occurred during the reigns of “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” This means that Isaiah began to prophesy no later than 740 B.C. Since his record notes the death of the Assyrian king Sennacherib and the rise of his successor Esarhaddon in 681 B.C. (Isaiah 37:38), Isaiah must have prophesied for some six decades, during which time he saw much war and political turmoil. It was one of the most eventful periods in ancient Near Eastern history.

The latter part of the eighth century B.C. saw numerous struggles on the part of various nations and city state of the Near East to retain their independence in the face of Assyrian expansion. In 747 B.C., the Babylonian king Nabonassar broke away from Assyria. About the same time, the rulers of Napata (also known as Kush, Nubia, and Meroe), in what is today Sudan, began moving into Egypt, where they established a rival dynasty in the area of Thebes.

Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria had already subdued most of the small kingdoms of Syria and had taken away part of the kingdom of Israel. The struggle was carried on by Shalmaneser V, who laid siege to the Israelite capital of Samaria. When he died in 722 B.C., his successor, Sargon II, managed to complete the job and deported large numbers of Israelites from their homeland.
While Sargon was busy with Israel, the Elamites and Babylonians allied against him and were able to prevent Assyrian expansion to the southeast. Concentrating his efforts in the west, he completed the capture of the Phoenician city Tyre (after a 6 year siege), defeated the Syro Philistine confederacy, and received tribute from Egypt. In 717 716, he defeated and annexed Carchemish and also beat the army of Pharaoh Osorkon III in a battle that ended the Egyptian 22nd Dynasty. He then turned his attention to the northwest, defeating and annexing to his empire Cilicia and all of the Neo-Hittite kingdoms beyond the Taurus Mountains, in modern-day Turkey.

Meanwhile, the kingdoms of Judah, Moab, Edom and Philistia plotted with Egypt against the Assyrians. In response to this threat, in 712 B.C., Sargon subdued Judah–then ruled by the anti Assyrian king Hezekiah–and annexed the Philistine port city of Ashdod (see Isaiah 20). At the same time, he allowed Shabaka of Nubia to reconquer Egypt. Two years later, Sargon made the Medes of what is now northern Iran his vassals.

In 709 BC, Sargon was finally able to reconquer Babylon and become its king. He then turned his attention southward and fought the Aramaeans of what is now southern Iraq. Meanwhile, Mita of the Mushki (known as Midas, king of Phrygia, in Greek mythology) offered his friendship and presents were sent to Sargon from as far away as Dilmun (modern Bahrain) and Cyprus. True to his martial nature, Sargon died in battle and was succeeded by his son Sennacherib in 705 B.C. The new king spend many years at war with Elam, allowing some of the western nations to reassert their independence. In 703 B.C., the Babylonian king Merodach-Baladan returned from exile in Elam and led an Aramaean uprising in Babylon, regaining the throne. Encouraged by this, the Egyptians convinced Judah and the Philistine and Phoenician city-states to break with Assyria, resulting in the famous invasion of 701 B.C., when Sennacherib took 46 Judean cities.

While he was besieging the city of Lachish, some 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem, Sennacherib sent emissaries to also lay siege to king Hezekiah’s capital, Jerusalem. Reading the accounts in 2 Kings 18:17 and Isaiah 20:1, English readers get the impression that the Assyrian leaders were named Tartan, Rabsaris and Rabshakeh. In actual fact, however, these are military titles used in ancient Assyria and Babylonia and known to us from ancient tablets unearthed in Iraq.

The Assyrian officers spoke to the Jews in Hebrew (“the Jews’ language” of 2 Kings 18:26), which was displeasing to the Jewish leaders. Not wanting the people of the city to understand what was being said, they asked that the conversation be carried on in Aramaic (“Syrian”), which was then the lingua franca of the Near East, used in trade and international relations, spoken only by the upper class. But the Assyrians, wanting to persuade the people of the city not to resist, continued to deliver their message in the native tongue.

Sennacherib’s successors, Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal, spent much of their time at war with the Egyptians, notably against the Nubian king Taharqa, known from the Bible as Tirhakah (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9). In 663 B.C., the Assyrian army was able to move far up the Nile river to sack the capital city of Thebes. The Assyrians were firmly in control of the largest empire the world had known to that time.

Many of the prophecies of Isaiah reflect the events of his time. He foresaw the fall of Israel and Judah and neighboring kingdoms to the Assyrians and the ultimate fall of Assyria to a combined Babylonian-Medan army in 605 B.C. As we read the book of Isaiah, we see history in both retrospect and in prophecy.

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