In 3 Nephi 23, Christ issues a really interesting commandment: “Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah.” So let’s dig into Isaiah a little bit. There are a lot of different routes we could go with this episode. In the future, we’ll try to talk more about the poetry and language and specific prophecies of Isaiah, but in this episode, the first thing I want to do is lay out some of the historical context that Isaiah is couched in. It’s great to apply Isaiah to our own lives today, but it’s also important to try to understand what Isaiah meant to the people in Isaiah’s time. So let’s jump in.
Alright, so if you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ll recall a very important prophet named Abraham. His son was Isaac. Isaac’s son was Jacob. Jacob was renamed Israel, and he had 12 sons, who would eventually be known as the 12 Tribes of Israel. These Israelites were enslaved by Egypt for a while; they were led out of Egypt by Moses, wandered in the wilderness for many years, and eventually settled in the land we know today as Palestine.
In 930 BC, the Kingdom split in two. Ten tribes comprised the northern Kingdom of Israel, also known as Ephraim (the dominant tribe there), and two tribes comprised the southern Kingdom of Judah.
But in the 8th century BC, there was trouble brewing in the northeast — the Assyrian Empire. So let’s set the stage here. Around 735 BC, we’ve got a few important chess pieces on the board. You’ve got King Rezin in Damascus, which is the capital of Syria. You’ve also got King Pekah in Samaria, the capital of Israel. Pekah is also known as the son of Remaliah in the Bible. And then you’ve got King Ahaz in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah.
At this time, Syria and Israel were vassal kingdoms of Assyria. But they don’t want to pay tribute anymore. They want their independence, so Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel (along with some other nations) form an alliance to stand against King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria. But they realize that they’re still outmatched, so they turn to King Ahaz of Judah and say, “Hey, you need to join our alliance so we can take down Assyria. And if you don’t join us, we’re going to attack you, remove you from the throne, and install a puppet king that will join us.”
Ahaz refuses to join the alliance, apparently recognizing the futility of opposing the mighty Assyrians. As promised, the alliance attacks Judah, beginning the Syro-Ephraimite War. As Ahaz is deciding what to do about the invaders wreaking havoc in the kingdom, the prophet Isaiah comes with a message from the Lord. He counsels Ahaz (in Isaiah chapter 7) to not be afraid of the alliance—God would ultimately take care of Judah.
The wicked King Ahaz ignores Isaiah’s advice and instead turns to Assyria for help. Judah pays them tribute and becomes a vassal to Assyria. Assyria ends up crushing Syria. They kill King Rezin and take the people captive. They also conquer a good chunk of Israel. King Pekah is assassinated by the pro-Assyrian, Hoshea, who Tiglath-Pileser then installs as the new king of Israel. Judah was saved but at a cost.
When Tiglath-Pileser III dies years later, Hoshea seizes the opportunity and decides to revolt against Assyria. It didn’t work, and in 721 BC, Assyria crushed the northern kingdom, along with its capital, Samaria. Like the inhabitants of Syria, most of the inhabitants of Israel were taken captive into Assyria. We refer to them as the “Lost 10 Tribes.” The land was repopulated with Assyrians, who intermarried with the remaining Israelites. Their descendants come to be known as Samaritans, who are despised in the New Testament for being, essentially, mudbloods.
Now, a major theme of Isaiah is that if the people of Judah do not repent—if they do not turn to the Lord, they will be destroyed and carried away captive as well. But if they stay faithful to God, He’ll have their back. As Isaiah frequently reminds us, “His hand is stretched out still.”
And we see an example of that a couple of decades later. After King Ahaz dies, a righteous king named Hezekiah assumes the throne. The Assyrian throne has passed from Tiglath-Pileser III to Shalmaneser V and then Sargon II. Now, whenever there was a changing of the guard, vassal kingdoms would try to take advantage of the situation and revolt, as we’ve seen. When Sargon II died in 705 BC, King Hezekiah of Judah seized the moment and stopped paying tribute to Assyria. The new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, of course, didn’t like that. Assyria invades Judah and starts laying waste to the kingdom.
Assyria eventually arrives outside Jerusalem. Assyria sends an envoy near the city walls to issue threats and talk some smack, as recorded in Isaiah 36. Hezekiah turns to Isaiah for counsel. Isaiah tells Hezekiah: “… thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, Nor shoot an arrow there … For I will defend this city ….”
Isaiah’s prophecy comes to pass. Chapter 37 reports that “the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh.”
Now, whether it was an angel that stopped Assyria, the plague (as many believe), or something else entirely, this really was the upset of the ancient world. Jerusalem didn’t stand a chance, but the Lord was on their side. In part, this led the inhabitants of Jerusalem to believe that the city could never fall. Laman and Lemuel from the Book of Mormon were beating that drum even 100 years later, but they were wrong. And as Isaiah and Lehi, and Jeremiah prophesied, Babylon (after defeating Assyria) ends up destroying Jerusalem around 587 BC and carries all but the poorest and weakest of inhabitants captive into Babylon. But, unlike the northern kingdom’s captivity, Isaiah prophesies that one day these captives would return to Judah.
We’ll stop here. I hope this context for the Book of Isaiah is helpful. If you want more info, check out the resources in the YouTube description. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- Read Isaiah: https://bit.ly/3BvQIn8
- “The Syro-Ephraimite War: Context, Conflict, and Consequences,” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3BxjZOx
- “The Assyrian Conquest and the Lost Tribes,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3f49Xgd
- “Tiglath-Pileser III,” via the Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3dnP0w4
- “History of Mesopotamia,” via the Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3SeMB5D
- Other books I used as resources for this episode:
- NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
- “Learning to Love Isaiah,” by Kerry Muhlestein.
- “The History of the Ancient World,” by Susan Wise Bauer
- “Jerusalem: The Eternal City,” by Galbraith, Ogden, & Skin