Three waves of Gentiles flood Judah in the book of Isaiah.
The first threat is from Aram and Israel, from Syria and the Northern kingdom. Assyria is the rising power to the east, and that power is threatening to overrun the nations to the west of Assyria. The kings of Aram and Israel want to resist the Assyrians, and so they form an alliance against the Assyrian empire (Isaiah 7-8) and they want to bully Judah into joining that alliance.
Isaiah assures King Ahaz that Judah has nothing to worry about. The Lord will take care of Judah and will dispense with the Aramean-Israelite alliance. Trust Yahweh, Isaiah says, and He will deliver. Trust Yahweh to save from the Arameans and Israelites.
Yahweh’s assurance is an assurance of salvation (the name “Isaiah” means “Yah saves”). He will raise up a king who will deliver Judah from the threat, and then Judah will rejoice in the words of the Song of the Sea, “Master Yahweh is my strength and song, He has become my salvation.” And this is what happens. Judah is saved from this crisis in the sense that Yahweh rescues Judah from her two enemies. They don’t conquer Judah. Judah doesn’t die.
The second crisis also involves the Assyrian empire.
Early in the reign of Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, the Assyrians conquered Samaria, took Israelites into exile, and settled the northern kingdom with people from other conquered lands (2 Kings 17). The anti-Assyrian alliance of Israel and Aram hasn’t worked, and now the northern kingdom has been overthrown. Israel the northern kingdom died; the Assyrians took some into exile and sowed the land with other peoples. The result was the cross-breed Samaritan people that was still around in New Testament times.
Yahweh didn’t save the Northern kingdom from Assyria, and that means that the Southern kingdom is also in danger. If the Northern kingdom died, will the southern Kingdom also end up in the grave? Not yet. Israel died, but Judah was again delivered. Tiglath-Pileser devastated the Northern kingdom, but Judah was left intact.
Again, Yahweh proved Himself the savior of Judah. The Northern kingdom fell in the year 722 BC. Some 15 years later, another Assyrian king, Sargon, died, and the Babylonians took the opportunity of the transition of power to rebel against the Assyrians. Sennacherib, the new king of Assyria, was preoccupied with some time with the major Babylonian rebellion, and other nations that had been threatened by the Assyrians became restless as well.
Despite the objections of Isaiah, Kings tells us that Hezekiah “rebelled against the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 18:7). When Sennacherib was finished with the Babylonian revolt, he turned to the smaller powers that had rebelled against him, and he marched into Judah, besieging all the fortified cities. Hezekiah paid him tribute by cutting gold off of the temple doors to pay him off. Sennacherib took the tribute, but then sent a large army to Jerusalem anyway. Jerusalem was besieged by a huge Assyrian army.
This was the biggest crisis of Isaiah’s lifetime, and this event is at the very center of the prophecy of Isaiah. Israel was already destroyed, and it would never recover. The northern kingdom never had a return from exile like the Southern kingdom would have. No dynasty of the Northern kingdom was restored. It’s speculation, but if Assyria were to take the southern kingdom, it might well mean the death of the Southern kingdom.
Isaiah assured Hezekiah that Yahweh could be trusted, and He proved that He could be trusted. At night, Yahweh sent His angel to the Assyrian camp, and killed 185,000 Assyrian warriors. Sennacherib retreated back to Nineveh, where he was later while worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god. Yahweh saves.
After the Assyrian threat is broken in chapter 38, the Babylonians appear in chapter 39 and beginning in chapter 40 we have prophecies concerning the Babylonian exile (43:14; 47:1; 48:14, 20). Eight of the 13 references to Babylon come in chapters 39-48. Four of the others are in chapters 13-14, and another in 21:9. We have this progression of enemies, and there is a rhythm to the way they appear and function in the book.
The Aramean threat doesn’t do much damage. They will not succeed in their plans. This is the thrust of the prophecy of Immanuel to Ahaz. Damascus, the capital of Syria/Aram, will not prevail over Jerusalem, and Samaria’s head will not be able to overcome the head of Judah, who is Yahweh.
But the promise that the Aramean threat will be broken is shadowed by another threat, the threat of the second enemy, Assyria. The same prophecy and sign of Immanuel not only signifies the deliverance of Judah from Aram/Israel, but also the threat of the Assyrian invasion, which will be much more devastating than the Aram/Israel threat.
Assyria will break Aram and take Israel away into captivity, but then the Assyrians will sweep down into Judah and threaten Judah too. Assyria will overflow the banks of the Euphrates and fill the land of Judah up to the neck. So, one threat is broken because an even greater threat is coming.
And that’s the message regarding Assyria too. Assyria is not to be feared because God will take care of Assyria, but He takes care of Assyria by raising up another people, another nation, that will be even more powerful than Assyria, another people that will bring even greater distress to Judah than Assyria had done. Assyria is to Aram as Babylon is to Assyria. Assyria is the great power that neutralizes the immediate threat, but brings even greater destruction to Judah. Babylon is the greater power that neutralizes the threat of Assyria, but actually takes Judah off into exile.
Yah saves, but Yah saves in different ways, from different sorts of devastation. Sometimes the Lord saves us with an Assyrian-style salvation. That is, sometimes He saves by pulling us back from the brink, and scattered the besieging armies at the last moment, at night.
But sometimes Yahweh saves us with a Babylon-style salvation. That is, sometimes He saves by letting us fall over the brink, by sending us into the grave, by giving us the full judgment for our sins, and then by bringing us back to life.-And Isaiah’s message is that the Babylon-style salvation is even greater than the Assyrian-style. What lies on the other side of the grave is more glorious than we can imagine. It will be so much greater that it will make us forget all His previous acts of deliverance.
We can trust the Lord not only for avoidance of death; we can trust Him in death, to rescue us from the grave, and to lead us to even greater glory on the other side.
Trusting God, then, means: If you want to grow in glory, you’ve gotta die. Don’t try to slip past it. Don’t try to escape. Pray that God will deliver you from utter destruction, as Hezekiah did. Don’t seek out the deaths that the Lord has in store for you.
When death comes, trust Him. He saves Judah from Assyria, but He also saves Judah from Babylon, and that was even greater. He pulls Judah back from the edge of the grave; He then raises Judah after it had toppled headlong into the grave.
And the glory comes after death. Fruitfulness comes after the seed dies in the ground. Ascension and a great name come after the humiliation of the cross.