Much of the book of Isaiah is a prophetic response to the historical situation in Judah during the reigns of Uzziah (2 Kings 15; 2 Chronicles 26), Ahaz (2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28), and Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32). Isaiah had the difficult task of calling Judah (whom he often refers to with the generic Israel) to seek the Lord as he and they watched Shalmanessar, king of Assyria, besiege the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17). Isaiah beckoned Judah to trust in the LORD for deliverance during the mounting international threats not only from Assyria but also Egypt and the rising Babylonian forces. Israel was being overtaken because of their rampant idolatry (2 Kgs 17:7-23) and in Judah, Isaiah found the same. As a people, Israel and Judah had failed in their obligations to the One who had delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 12-15; 20:1-17).
Isaiah began his prophecy by indicting Judah for their unfaithfulness to the Lord (Isaiah 1). While Judah viewed herself as a beautiful people, Isaiah presented them with a divine mirror. Isaiah said, “Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Seek justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s case” (Isa 1:16-17). Nonetheless, Isaiah promised the mercy of God to those who would seek Him, saying, “‘Come, let us discuss this,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, they will be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land. But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword’” (Isa 1:18-20).
In Isaiah 2-4, the prophet declared that God would glorify Himself by disciplining and then restoring His people. In Isaiah’s vision, Jerusalem had the potential to become a place where the word of the Lord flowed freely. However, at the moment, Isaiah saw human pride, rampant idolatry, and little fear of the Lord (Isa 2:12-22). Judah’s opulence was displayed by the attire of the daughters of Jerusalem, whose future would be far from their present pursuits. Isaiah declared to them, “Instead of perfume there will be a stench; instead of a belt, a rope; instead of beautifully styled hair, baldness; instead of fine clothes, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding” (Isa 3:24). War would so ravage the city that women would be left begging for a husband (Isa 4:1). Despite all this tragedy, Isaiah saw a day of future glory for Jerusalem. Once the Lord had “washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodguilt from the heart of Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of burning” (Isa 4:4), then those who remained in Jerusalem would be called holy and the whole city would be destined to live (Isa 4:3).
In the New Testament, Paul and John employed Isaiah’s declarations that God is sovereign to save His people and condemn those who forsake Him to worship idols.
(1) In Rom 9:29, Paul quoted Isa 1:9 to explain God’s sure salvation of a remnant of Jews. Paul saw in Isaiah’s prophecy a brick for the wall of defense he was building in order to justify God’s present calling of the Gentiles—a matter that dominates the latter half of the Epistle to the Romans. During Paul’s ministry more Gentiles than Jews were giving allegiance to the Messiah—a fact that contributes in no small way to the drama of the storyline of Scripture. Some Gentiles thus boasted over the minority Jewish populace among them in the church. This may have been the situation in Rome, prompting Paul to describe God’s historical plan for the partial, temporary, hardening of the Jews—during which time many Gentiles would be grafted in to the hope of Israel. In Romans, Paul explained that while there were not many Jews coming to faith, the Lord had reserved a remnant of Jews who would believe, a remnant that resembled in some ways the remnant Isaiah predicted. Concerning this remnant of Jewish Christians, in Rom 9:29 Paul quoted Isa 1:9, saying, “If the Lord of Hosts had not left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah.” Isaiah announced judgment and hope upon Judah; those who trusted in the word of the Lord would be delivered. Paul echoed the prophet, but his message humbled Gentiles too; in Christ, no grounds for boasting could be found.
(2) In Rev 6:15, John alluded to Isa 2:10, 19-21 when he wrote that when the sixth seal was broken, people hid in caves to escape God’s wrath. Isaiah prophesied that the Day of the Lord would be awful for the proud and all who would not humble themselves before Israel’s God. They would try to hide in rocks and crevices, any small passage where they might think themselves safe from God’s judgement (Isa 2:10, 19-21). When the plagues came upon the earth at the breaking of the sixth seal in Rev 6:12-14, John saw even the mighty leaders of the earth crawl into caves and beg for rocks to fall on them that they would escape God’s wrath (Rev 6:15-17).