Yeshayahu (Isaiah) is the prophet in whose time the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Yisrael (Israel). The Israelites were traumatized by the horror of seeing their nation destroyed. Some fled to the southern kingdom of Yehudah (Judah), others into Egypt. The northern kingdom had a political office of prophet who advised the king. The southern kingdom did not. It is thus likely that Yeshayahu was the last one to hold the office of prophet under the northern kingdom. From this time forward prophets would not be seen so frequently at court with the king and would become instead outsiders increasingly decrying the corruption of the monarchy and priesthood. Yeshayahu writes about events that took place between the mid-Eighth Century BCE (the 700’s) up to the return from the exile at the end of the Sixth Century BCE (the 500’s).
Verse one is quite telling. It establishes that Yeshayahu (Isaiah) was a prophet who prophesied concerning Yehudah and Yerushalayim in the time of several kings of Yehudah. These kings, include Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and his father Ahaz.
Verse two begins with the core message of Yeshayahu to the Israelites: Hashem is concerned that after all He did to create and protect the Israelites, they have rebelled against Him. The chapter goes on to describe some of the many misdeeds of the Israelites. Among them, that the Israelites bring offerings to the Temple but make them in vain, that is, with no intention of either serving Hashem or of observing His laws.
Yet, despite, the iniquity of the people of Zion (whom Yeshayahu compares to Sodom and Gomorrah [1:9]), Hashem presents an ultimatum: If the people return to the Law and are obedient, they will be rewarded with plenty. If the people continue to choose wickedness, they will be destroyed (1:18-20). This is a major theme, not only of Yeshayahu, but of the Prophets in general and of most of the TaNaKh. We are always asked to make a choice between the Law and perversity, and our choice determines the outcome.
In this particular case, the people chose the path that lead to destruction. The prophecy of chapter 1 was fulfilled in the Babylonian conquest.
Chapter 2 introduces a second prophecy, related to that presented in chapter 1, but separate. Yeshayahu starts by saying that “the mountain of Hashem’s house” will be set above the other mountains and hills and that “all nations shall flow unto it.” He also prophecies peace.
This sounds good, but idol worship and corruption are serious problems, in part because “Beit Yakov” is so easily influenced by its neighbors. The prophecy predicts a purging of idols from Beit Yakov, as well as from the surrounding nations.
Again, this prophecy was fulfilled when Persia took control of the region. The Persian Empire was very active in suppressing the various polytheistic traditions held by the peoples of the area, but allowed significant freedoms to the Jews. Presumably, the difference in part lay in the common practice of other peoples of viewing their kings as living gods (threats to the emperor)–a practice did not exist among the Israelites.
Chapter 3 speaks of Jerusalem and Yehudah during Babylon’s war of conquest. There will be starvation, and absence of leadership, internecine violence and oppression, and corruption. He speaks of the removal of officials, leaders, and wise men from the land.
Other Prophets confirm that the Babylonian conquest was brutal. We also know that the wealthy, powerful, and educated were deliberately removed from the land to the city of Babylon, leaving those who remained in chaos.
Both chapters 3 and 4 also speak of the decay of social fabric. 3:5 says that the young will place themselves above the old. Chapter 4 speaks of the institution of marriage (as understood at the time) falling apart. It is well known that war and conquest often cause cultural upheaval as people try to make the best of their situation.