Isaiah or Yeshayáhu (יְשַׁעְיָהוּ "Salvation is the Lord) is one of the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
In his long career spanning the late eighth and early seventh century B.C.E., he advised several of the kings of Judah. He warned both Israel and Judah of impending doom as a punishment from God for His people's sin. As court prophet to Judah's King Hezekiah, the Bible reports he inspired that ruler to a faith, which—with God's miraculous help—turned back the rampaging armies of Assyria that had ravaged the nation. As the purported author of the Book of Isaiah, he is credited with having written some of the most memorable lines in literature, especially those predicting the coming of the Messianic Kingdom of universal peace (Isaiah 9, 11, 60). In Christian tradition, the Book of Isaiah influenced the teachings of both John the Baptist and Jesus. Christians, unlike Jews, believe that Isaiah's prophecies of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53) predict the crucifixion of Jesus and that Isaiah's prophecy of the child Immanuel was fulfilled through Jesus' virgin birth (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23).
The details of the history of Isaiah's life are debated by scholars, as is the question of the authorship of the Book of Isaiah; the modern consensus is the book is the work of multiple writers who took inspiration from the prophet, most notably Second Isaiah who wrote during the Babylonian exile.
Family and Prophetic Call
Isaiah was the son of Amoz, not to be confused with the northern prophet Amos, whose oracles do seem to have influenced Isaiah considerably. His ease of access to the court and Temple (Isa. 7:3; 8:2), together with sources that tell us that Isaiah was the cousin of King Uzziah, suggests he was of a family of high rank.
He exercised the functions of his prophetic office during the reigns of Uzziah (also called Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Uzziah reigned 52 years in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. Isaiah must have begun his career a few years before Uzziah's death, probably in the 740s. He lived at least until the fourteenth year of Hezekiah, who died in the 690s, and may have been contemporary for some years with King Manasseh. Thus Isaiah may have prophesied for the long period of 64 years or more.
His original call to the prophetical office is not recorded. However, a powerful vision came to him "in the year that King Uzziah died," in which he reports seeing God enthroned among angelic beings (Isa. 6:1):
- I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
- And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
- He said, "Go and tell this people:
- 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'"...
- Then I said, "For how long, O Lord?"
- And he answered:
- "Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitants... until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken."
Isaiah's personal life, like his public persona, was a reflection of his religious calling as prophet whose oracles were destined to fall on deaf ears. He was married to a woman referred to as "the prophetess" (8:3). Isaiah had by her two sons, who bore symbolic names given by God—Shear-jashub ("Remnant will return," 7:3) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz ("Destruction is imminent," 8:1-4). These sons assisted Isaiah in his ministry and may have carried on his tradition after his death.
Isaiah's Troubled Times
Contrary to the inspiring spirit of the prophecies in the Book of Isaiah for which he is best known, the historical Isaiah was not primarily a prophet of hope. The names of Isaiah's sons—signaling impending destruction and the survival of only a remnant—were emblematic of the themes of his ministry. He lived during a time of terrible military and political upheavals, which witnessed Israel and Judah allying with pagan neighbors and warring against each other. Isaiah exercised his ministry in a spirit of uncompromising firmness and boldness in regard to all that bore on the interests of religion. Although his prophecies consistently concern themselves with the fate of nations and kings, political issues were secondary. The key to Judah's fate was the faithfulness of at least a remnant of righteous believers to the commands of God alone.
Only a few historical details of Isaiah's ministry can be gleaned from the prophecies and narratives of the book that bears his name. For example, he prophesied to King Ahaz of Judah that the northern alliance of Israel and Syria would not prevail against him (Isa. 7-8). Nevertheless, God would surely punish Judah if it did not turn to God. The agent of God's wrath was the rising power of the Assyria.
In 722 B.C.E., the northern kingdom of Israel was completely overrun and many of its citizens taken into exile in the Assyrian Empire. Later, Sennacharib of Assyria conquered nearly all of Judah, capturing all of its major towns except Jerusalem and exiling many Judeans as well. Thus, an important theme for Isaiah is the idea of a "remnant" of faithful believers who would endure the current trails and witness the day of redemption when a powerful Judean king of the Davidic lineage would lead them to victory. This king, later known as the Messiah, would unite Judah and Israel (also called Ephraim), and conquer the surrounding nations:
- In that day the Root of Jesse [King David's father] will stand as a banner for the peoples... He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth. Ephraim's jealousy will vanish, and Judah's enemies will be cut off; Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim. They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west; together they will plunder the people to the east. They will lay hands on Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites will be subject to them. (Isa. 11:10-14)
Isaiah warned strongly against relying on alliances with pagan nations, believing that Israel and Judah should rely only on God's power, not treaties with surrounding countries. To dramatize the futility of Judah allying itself with Egypt against Assyria, Isaiah reports that he stripped and walked naked and barefoot for three years, declaring:
- The king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt's shame. Those who trusted in Cush and boasted in Egypt will be afraid and put to shame. (Isa. 20)
Isaiah and Hezekiah
Isaiah's most dramatic success, according to the biblical account, came during the reign of King Hezekiah. When Sennacharib of Assyria was in the process of besieging the major Judean city of Lachish and his armies threatened the capital of Jerusalem, Isaiah counseled Hezekiah not to capitulate:
- Out of Jerusalem will come a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Therefore this is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: "He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city," declares the Lord. (Isa. 37:32-34)
A story preserved in Isaiah 37 (as well as 2 Kings 19 and 2 Chronicles 32) relates that an angel of the Lord then smote the Assyrian army, forcing them to withdraw from Jerusalem. However, the account in Kings also admits that Hezekiah, in an effort to assuage Assyria, had sought to bribe Sennacharib, sending him a note of abject apology, saying: "I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me." The account goes on to say "the king of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. So Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace" (2 Kings 18:13-16). In a rare confirmation of a biblical account from another historical source, Sennacharib himself records in his own version of the story, preserved in the Taylor Prism. He boasts not only that he that he conquered nearly all of Judah and exacted substantial tribute, but that "Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage."
Soon after, Hezekiah fell ill, and Isaiah foretold his imminent death. (Isa. 38) Hezekiah then prayed desperately to God for deliverance. Isaiah, instructing that a poultice of figs be applied to Hezekiah's infected boil, declared that God had added 15 years to his life. Not only that, but because of Hezekiah's determination to act as God wishes, God would protect Jerusalem from the Assyrians. There is no mention in Isaiah of Hezekiah's stripping the Temple to pay tribute to Sennacharib.
The accounts in Kings and Chronicles declare Hezekiah to be one of the best of Judah's kings, especially because of his strict policy of official state monotheism and his support of the Levite priesthood centering in Jerusalem. It is not known what role Isaiah played in such reforms. Like all "true" prophets, he was a strict monotheist who was probably intolerant of pluralism in royal religious policy, but Isaiah was not necessarily a friend of the priesthood. Echoing Amos' harsh denunciation of priestly corruption, he declared:
- Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood. (1:13-15)
It is possible, however, that Isaiah may have seen Hezekiah's reforms as rooting out priestly corruption by centralizing the priesthood and banning sacrifices outside of Jerusalem.
Both Jewish and Christian apocryphal traditions state that after Hezekiah's death, Isaiah became a martyr to Hezekiah's son, King Manasseh of Judah, who had liberalized Hezekiah's religious policy and considered Isaiah a thorn in his side. Whether such traditions have a basis in history or result from a polemic against the wicked Manasseh is hard to know.
Isaiah may have had disciples and descendants who carried on his tradition, possibly even into the period of the Jewish exile in Babylon. Such followers are hinted at in an oracle preserved in Isaiah 8:16-18:
- Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in him. Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.
Some scholars surmise that the disciples of Isaiah formed a "School of Isaiah" that perpetuated his traditions and added to his prophecies over the following two centuries. One of the members of his school may have written the funeral dirge mocking the king of Babylon (Isa. 14) that in the King James Bible describes the fall of Lucifer for his hubris in striving to surpass God. The king of Babylon became a threat to Israel a hundred years after Isaiah's death.
Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah, is the title given to the writings that comprise chapters 40-55 (and 34-35) of the Book of Isaiah. It is thought to have been written during the period of exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. It includes the Servant Songs (42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12), which are interpreted by Christians to refer to Jesus' suffering and crucifixion, although Jews see the prophecies as about Israel's role in world redemption. With words of comfort and hope addressed to the exiles in Babylon who despair of ever returning to "Zion"—the prophet's favorite term for Jerusalem—it prophesies the coming of Cyrus of Persia (44:28; 45:1, 13) who will overthrow Babylon and provide for the return home. The poetry of Second Isaiah is regarded as the most sublime in all Hebrew literature.
The noticeable break between the first part of Isaiah (Is. 1-39) versus the latter half of the book (Is. 40-66) was first identified by eighteenth-century critical scholars Doderlein (1789) and Eichhorn (1783). They noted that this part of the book reflects an exilic timeframe, with direct references to Cyrus, a lament for the ruined Temple, and expressions of Messianic hopes uncharacteristic of the time of the historical Isaiah when a legitimate Davidic king still ruled. The tone of the two halves of the book is strikingly different; the first mostly warns erring Judah of impending divine judgment through foreign conquest, while the second provides comfort to a broken people.
Third Isaiah, or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66, was written in a style similar to Second Isaiah but reflects a post-exilic time frame; most likely its author (or authors) were disciples of Second Isaiah. The setting of many of its prophesies reflect bitter intra-community conflict between insiders—a priestly group that controlled the Temple—and outsiders, the prophet among them. Scholars see the period of Third Isaiah, 520-490 B.C.E., as a time of turmoil and vying for power to shape the restoration community.
While the multiple authorship of Isaiah is settled in mainstream scholarship, some evangelical scholars still insist that virtually the entire Book of Isaiah, except for a few narrative sections, is the work of the historical Isaiah of Jerusalem. Some recent scholars have tended to circumscribe authorship and historical-critical questions and look at the final form of the book as a literary whole, a product of the post-exilic era that is characterized by literary and thematic unity.
Isaiah in Christian Tradition
Isaiah plays a significant role in Christian tradition. The writings attributed to him clearly influenced both Jesus and John the Baptist, and Christian writers refer to his prophecies frequently as having been fulfilled in Jesus' birth, ministry, and crucifixion.
- Matthew's Gospel sees Isaiah's prophecy of the child Immanuel as being fulfilled in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us." (Matt. 1:23) Jews are quick to point out the term translated as "virgin" in this passage actually means "young woman," while Immanuel himself should have been born in Isaiah's own time as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah that his military troubles would be ended: "Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste." (Isa. 7:13-16)
- John the Baptist echoes one of the Book of Isaiah's prophecies (Isa. 40:3) in declaring his own mission:
- This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" (Matt. 3:3)
- Jesus himself begins his public ministry (according to Luke's account) by quoting a passage from Isaiah 61:
- He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
- The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-20)
- New Testament writers often refer to Isaiah to explain how Jesus fulfilled prophecy: Matthew states no less that four times (4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14) that a certain event in Jesus' life happened in order: "to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah." The twelfth chapter of John's Gospel refers three times to the Book of Isaiah. In Acts 8, the Holy Spirit guides the Apostle Philip to witness about Jesus to an influential Ethiopian eunuch who is reading Isaiah. And finally, St. Paul refers several times to Isaiah's writings in his letter to the Romans.
Romans 10:16 is particularly important, for it is constitutes the earliest mention in Christian sources of the Suffering Servant prophecy interpreted as relating to Jesus: "Not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our message?'"
Paul's quote is a paraphrase. A fuller quotation is:
- Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering... Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:1-5)
Christians interpret this and other passages from Isaiah 53 to be a clear reference to Jesus, as if the prophet foresaw his crucifixion. Jews, on the other hand, see the Servant poems (which constitute several chapters of Deutero-Isaiah) to refer to Israel itself. Rather than speaking of the Messiah, Jews see these passages as speaking of Israel's suffering during her exile, during which time she became a laughing stock. The passages, in context, gave hope to the Jews that one day they would return to Jerusalem, rebuild their Temple, and eventually regain their political independence through the Messiah—a literal king of Davidic lineage. For the disciples of Jesus, the death of their hoped-for Messiah was strongly disillusioning. (Luke 24:21) Isaiah 53, interpreted as predicting Jesus' death, soon became a source a inspiration to these earliest believers as they came to see the crucifixion as God's intended plan from the beginning.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the Martyrdom of Isaiah, a composite work combining several earlier apocryphal writings regarding Isaiah together with Christian traditions in which the prophet receives several visions, including specific details concerning the birth, life, and death of Jesus. A second century work in its current form, the book was well known to the early church fathers.
- Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. ISBN 0664256392
- Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001. ISBN 0060936991
- Motyer, J.A. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. London: InterVarsity Press, 1993. ISBN 0830815937
- Podhoretz, Norman. The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are. New York: Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0743219279
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