What Is the Historical Context for the Book of Isaiah?

Nephi taught that the words of Isaiah “are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4). But he also acknowledged that he had an advantage over his descendants, because he had lived in Jerusalem and had “beheld the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5).

Unlike the Book of Mormon, which places prophetic teachings in a context of historical events, the Old Testament separates the historical writings from the prophetic ones. As a result, Isaiah makes frequent reference to names, places, and historical events without explaining what they are. Many of the explanations are found in the books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

Some familiarity of the historical context of Isaiah’s writings can enhance our understanding and enable us to apply his teachings more accurately in our lives.

Israel and Judah

After the death of King Solomon, his kingdom was divided:

  • The northern portion came to be known as the kingdom of Israel. Ten of the tribes (plus Levi) lived there, and the capital city was Samaria. Because the most prominent tribe in the northern kingdom was Ephraim, Isaiah sometimes refers to the kingdom of Israel as “Ephraim.”
  • The southern portion was known as the kingdom of Judah. It was home to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The capital city was Jerusalem. Isaiah uses the term “Zion” to refer to Jerusalem.

Isaiah lived in Judah and interacted directly with at least two of its kings: (Ahaz and Hezekiah).

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 1.57.38 AM
Source: Book of Mormon Study Guide for Home Study Seminary Students, Unit 7: Day 2, 2 Nephi 17-20

Other Nations

Just north of Israel was another kingdom, about the same size as Israel and Judah. It was called Syria, and its capital was Damascus.

Beyond Syria was a much larger (and growing) empire called Assyria. The kingdoms of Syria and Israel saw the growing threat from this empire and tried to figure out how to avoid being conquered.

South of Judah was the Egyptian empire. Many people in Judah saw an Egyptian alliance as their key to defending themselves against Assyria.

Far to the east were the empires of the Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans) and the Persians (also known as the Medea). They didn’t threaten Judah during Isaiah’s lifetime, but Isaiah foretold a time when Babylon would conquer the kingdom of Judah and carry its people into captivity. He also prophesied that Cyrus, king of Persia, would allow the Israelites to come home.

Source: “Five Empires of the Ancient Near East: A Historical Backdrop of 1 Kings to Matthew,” Ensign, April 1982

The Syro-Ephraimite War

Fearing that the Assyrian empire would conquer them and carry them into captivity, the kingdoms of Syria and Israel tried to form an alliance with Judah. The king of Judah, Ahaz, refused to join their alliance, so in 735 B.C., they invaded Judah and attempted to dethrone him. Isaiah advised Ahaz to have courage and not to be intimidated by Israel and Syria (2 Kings 16:5-9, Isaiah 7:1-2, 2 Nephi 17:1-2).

The Assyrian Captivity

Several years after the Syro-Ephraimite invasion, in 722 B.C., the Assyrian empire entirely destroyed Syria and Israel. Their standard procedure when conquering a nation was to relocate everyone to other parts of the empire. They believed that the differences in language and culture would make an uprising less likely. So, shortly after being conquered, the kingdom of Israel was scattered by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:6-18).

The Assyrian empire also invaded the kingdom of Judah in that year. But Jerusalem was miraculously spared when 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died in one night, decimating their army (2 Kings 19:35, Isaiah 37:36).

The Babylonian Captivity

Isaiah also foretold a major event which didn’t occur until after his death. In about 600 B.C., the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, attacked the kingdom of Judah and carried many of its people to Babylon, to serve in captivity (2 Kings 24, 25).

After the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C., King Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to the land of Judah (2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-2).

References in Isaiah

  • Isaiah 7 (2 Nephi 17) tells the story of Isaiah counseling King Ahaz during the Syro-Ephraimite invasion. The prophet counsels him not to panic because the Assyrians will conquer both Israel and Syria.
  • Isaiah 8, 9, and 10 (2 Nephi 18, 19, and 20) are prophecies of the Assyrian captivity, followed by a prophecy of the destruction of Assyria.
  • Isaiah 13 and 14 (2 Nephi 23 and 24) foretell the sudden destruction of Babylon and the death of the seemingly invincible king during the Babylonian captivity.

The principles taught by Isaiah have universal applicability, but many of them are expressed in terms of the cultural environment in which he lived. An understanding of that environment can make it easier to understand the core principles and to apply them to the situations we face in our lives.

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