Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. 

Daughter Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege.
(Isaiah 1:7–8, NIV)

On Sunday we began our series in the book of Isaiah, a book massive in size and scope, and massive in its significance for our understanding of the rest of the Bible. On Sunday, I sketched out a very high level map of the book, and promised a bit more detail for those who want to dig into the historical background — here it is!

The first section of Isaiah (1–39) is focused broadly on events that took place during the life and ministry of Isaiah, while the second half of Isaiah (40–66) broadly looks forward to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC and beyond. Within chapters 1–39, there are two narrative sections that focus our attention on two particular incidents in Judah’s history.

The first incident, a war between Judah and her northern neighbours is referenced in Isaiah 7–8. This incident during the reign of Ahaz, occurred in around 735BC. As Assyria continued to grow and its influence spread around the fertile crescent, Israel and Syria (Judah’s neighbours to the north, aka Ephraim and Aram) banded together to form an alliance, and were very keen for Judah to join them. When Ahaz declined, Israel & Syria went to war with Judah instead, to try and over-throw Ahaz and replace him with someone who would be more receptive to their request. They inflicted extraordinary casualties on Judah although their attempt to place Ahaz was ultimately unsuccessful — check out 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28. The events of chapters 7 and 8 are set in this conflict. Isaiah encouraged Ahaz not to trust in other rulers or countries but to just trust the LORD. But instead, when Israel & Syria invaded from the north Ahaz decided to throw his lot in with Assyria and join them instead!

The second key historical moment occurred around 701BC during the reign of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, and is narrated in Isaiah 36–39 (this passage is replicated in 2 Kings 18:17–20:21, and the first half of 2 Kings 18 provides some additional useful context). Hezekiah reversed direction from Ahaz by throwing off the Assyrian yoke. He began forging relationships with Egypt and Babylon before he stopped paying tribute to Assyria. Initially this appeared to have been a grave miscalculation — the wave of the Assyrian army swept through Judah with unexpected speed and ferocity. The desolation of Judah by Assyria in chapters 36–37 is also described in Isaiah 1:5–9, in the section quoted above. After the destruction of Judah, Jerusalem was left like the solitary hut in a field of cucumber plants, everything else in Judah was flatted. Isaiah 37 describes how even as the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem, one night in a moment the war was over. The angel of the Lord wiped out vast swathes of the Assyrian army in their sleep. And when they woke to the devastation, those that were left fled.

These two events, 3 decades a part, provide the backdrop for the first section of Isaiah. In both instances, Isaiah challenges Judah and her kinds: who are you going to trust? Don’t put your trust in human alliances with other nations, they’ve got nothing. Just trust the LORD!

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