The Background to Isaiah
Four pivotal moments in the history of the Israelite people form the background to the various parts of Isaiah.
1.The Syro‐Ephraimite war and its aftermath. After a period of relative peace between Israel (the Northern Kingdom, often called “Ephraim” in Isaiah after its most important tribe) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom), international tensions rose when Tiglath‐pileser III became king of the Assyrian empire in 745 BCE and began an effort to conquer the lands to the west of Assyria, including Syria, Israel, and Judah. Uzziah, the king of Judah whose reign began during the peaceful era, died in 733 ( 6.1 ), but because he was quarantined due to an illness, his son Jotham became king in 759, followed by Jotham's son Ahaz in 743 or 735 (the chronology is disputed). Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria (Damascus or Aram) tried, beginning in 735, to enlist Ahaz in an alliance against Assyria, and when that effort failed, they attacked Judah to replace Ahaz with a king more amenable to their policies (ch 7 ). This conflict is known as the Syro‐Ephraimite war, since it was a war of Syria and Ephraim against Judah. Ahaz successfully turned to Assyria for help in fending off Israel and Syria. The price he paid was steep: Judah became a vassal of Assyria.
2.The Assyrian invasion. During the decades following the Syro‐Ephraimite war, the Assyrians expanded their influence in the area, taking over Syria and then attacking the Northern Kingdom, which fell in 722 BCE. When the Assyrian ruler of the time, Sargon II, died in 705, Hezekiah, the king of Judah and son of Ahaz, rebelled against Assyria. Hezekiah had thought to take advantage of the confusion at the change of rulers, and in addition sought support from Egypt that was not forthcoming ( 36.6 ). The new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, retaliated, and conquered the cities surrounding Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Hezekiah was able to avert the conquest of Jerusalem itself only by paying tribute.
3.The conquest of Jerusalem and the exile. During the century following these events, the Assyrian empire gradually weakened. In 612 BCE, the rising Babylonian empire conquered the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and the international power struggle became one between Babylon and Egypt, with Judah caught between. In 605 the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptian Pharaoh, Neco, at the battle of Carchemish, and Babylon became the leading empire of the day. Judah came under Babylon's control, and when the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, rebelled against Babylon, the result was an invasion by Nebuchadnezzar. In 586, he destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple and deported a good deal of the population to Babylon, an event referred to as the exile.
4.The return. During the sixth century BCE, the Babylonians were increasingly challenged by the rise of another great empire, the Persians. In 539 Cyrus, the Persian king, defeated the Babylonians at the battle of Opis. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Judah, and many (though not all) eventually did so. The returning exiles rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple.