Prophets of the Bible – Isaiah
Isaiah and his prophesy
The Book of Isaiah is introduced: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” Isaiah 1:1. Uzziah was a good king, who faltered toward the end, when Isaiah received his calling. “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple… Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people, hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” Isaiah 6:1,7-8. His vision was of the holiness of YHWH. Having realised “woe is me! for I am undone” (v6) it undoubtedly defined his ministry. His was a willing response to what he had seen and heard, but also it came with a warning that despite his best efforts, the people would not accept his message.
As far as we can make out, Isaiah came from the upper echelons of society and mingled with them in power, notable the kings. He began operating under Jotham (good king), continued under Ahaz (bad king) and reached his height of influence under Hezekiah (good king). He died during the reign of Manasseh (especially bad king that turned good at the end). A Jewish tradition was that under Mannaseh he was sawn in two (Hebrews 11:37). As far as we can make out, he prophesied for over 60 years. When scholars divide the Book into two (some wrongly regard it as two books): Judgement (1-39); Comfort (40-66), this demonstrates what were two of the major themes of Isaiah. Isaiah’s name means (appropriate to his key message): “Yahweh is salvation”. We know Isaiah had a wife, referred to as “the prophetess” (Isaiah 8:3). They had three sons, naming the eldest Shear-jashub, meaning “A remnant shall return” (Isaiah 7:3), the next Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14), and the youngest, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, meaning, “Spoil quickly, plunder speedily” (Isaiah 8:3)
Background and context
Isaiah ministered (supposedly) 760 – 673 BC. He was based at Jerusalem and prophesied mainly to the southern kingdom of Judah. He did prophesy to the northern kingdom, Israel, too, but they were taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 BC. He also prophesied to surrounding nations, especially given their relationship to Israel / Judah. At the start of his prophesying, the Assyrians were the dominant power in the region, and while along with Syria and Egypt that power was to wane, they were Judah’s main threat. Isaiah, just as did the other prophets, was all too conscious of the political dynamics of the surrounding nations and the intrigues and alliances that took place. Chapters 36-39 tell the story of how Assyria sought to take captive Judah, but failed in spectacular fashion, thanks to YHWH’s intervention and the prayer of a praying king (Hezekiah) encouraged by Isaiah. Following Assyria’s demise, there was the rise and fall of Babylon, and later Persia, all of which Isaiah predicted. Hezekiah lived to witness the destruction of a 186,000 Assyrian army by the angel of the Lord, but his foolishness in welcoming emissaries from the new rising Babylonian empire set the scene for the later captivity of Judah.
While the Babylon captivity was 100 years after Isaiah prophesied, he not only foretold it would happen but he looked forward to Israel’s return from Exile and the Messianic kingdom where there will be great blessing, not just for Israel but to the Gentile nations. Isaiah also prophesied in amazing detail concerning the Messiah. Isaiah 53’s Suffering Servant is a wonder example we will consider more deeply in Chapter 15. Passages from the Isaiah were cited many times in the New Testament, including by Jesus. Many such texts are memorable and widely quoted. As this was written, in an unrelated context, a friend quoted “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” Isaiah 25:3. Shortly after, in another context, another friend shared: “But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away. Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” Isaiah 41: 9,10.
Another feature of the Book of Isaiah worth mentioning is the many different references to God and God’s character, such as the one used throughout the Book: “the Holy One of Israel” (28 times). Some have referred to Isaiah as the fifth gospel because its message touches on many, no all, of the key gospel themes are covered (if you want examples as to how – then listen to Handel’s Messiah, which draws heavily upon Isaiah). Isaiah’s (prophet) contemporary in Judah was Micah, and in Israel it was Amos and Hosea. Further background to his life and times can be found in the Books of Kings and Chronicles.
A synopsis of Isaiah
- Messages of rebuke and promise (chs. 1–6)
- Prophecies from Aramean and Israel threat against Judah (chs. 7–12)
- Judgment against the nations (chs. 13–23)
- Judgment and promise (the Lord’s Kingdom) (chs. 24–27)
- Six Woes: Five on unfaithful in Israel and one on Assyria (chs. 28–33)
- More prophecies of judgment and promise (chs. 34–35)
- Historical transition from Assyrian threat to Babylon exile (chs. 36–39)
- The deliverance and restoration of Israel (chs. 40–48)
- The Servant’s ministry and Israel’s restoration (chs. 49–57)
- Everlasting deliverance and everlasting judgment (chs. 58–66)
The message of Isaiah
We can see right from the start of the Book the two major themes of rebuke and judgement and of restoration and hope. Rebuke: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward” Isaiah 1:2-4. Restoration: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord” Isaiah 2:2-5
As we read through Isaiah and the 15 prophets to follow, it becomes clear there is a lot of repetition and if not repetition, common themes. Often contrasting themes appear next to each other, such as here with God’s complaint against his covenanted people who he was effectively wedded to as well of his love and promises of future restoration, not just following the return from Exile but in a yet to happen future when Israel’s Messiah reigns and, while sometimes veiled, the notion that the other nations were to benefit (after all it was always God’s intention that Israel should be a blessing to the nations) was also a theme that is repeated. These contrasting themes are taken up by the prophets to follow and it seems there is a good deal of repetition as if God was trying to get through to His people and needed to reinforce what had been said before. Going back to Deuteronomy 27 and 28, they had a choice between blessings and curses. The tragedy of Israel was too often it made the wrong choice and cursing followed.
One of the focuses we have in these early chapters especially was the old Jerusalem, ripe for judgement, destruction and exile, would one day give way to a new Jerusalem, where blessings flow to the nations, under the Messiah from David’s line. Here we are introduced to the Righteous Branch: “in that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious” Isaiah 4:2, which is picked up again by Jeremiah 23:6, 33:15 and Zechariah 3:8, 6:12 as equating to the Messiah. It is worth noting that in the first half of Isaiah, while the emphasis on judgement, we have references, besides chapter 2. Chapters 11-12 and 32 speak of coming glory. Not to be lost sight of, because this idea is developed in later chapters, is the nature of the coming king: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” Isaiah 9:6. Neither is something of the flavour of what is to come: “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” Isaiah 35:8-10.
Sadly, as we see from the opening chapters of Isaiah, the notion of Israel being a means for God to bless the nation was a distant proposition. It seemed that Judah had committed every sin imaginable, ranging from abandoning their God and worshipping idols, to sexual immorality and dealing injustice with the poor. One aspect not mentioned thus far was how many of the women were occupied with gaining luxuries: “rise up, you women who are at ease, hear my voice; you complacent daughters, give ear to my speech” Isaiah 32:9. The result would be devastation and eventually exile, as many other prophets picked up on. The notion of God allowing calamities to get the peoples’ attention also applies. We also see in Isaiah reference to the marriage covenant YHWH has with Israel and God’s desire to re-establish that relationship in the way it had been intended. Making alliances with foreign powers was another common theme, discussed here in chapter 11 concerning a number of prophets and later developed under the ministries of other prophets, such as Jeremiah, and it was one God abhorred because it was to do with compromise and not trusting Him. While lip service was given to the worshipping YHWH, often that was all it was.
While the focus was on Israel and especially Judah, Isaiah was mindful of the nations that affected them, especially Assyrian and Babylon who were to take respectively, Israel and Judah into exile. But these were to be judged too along with other nations. While it was true, they were often instruments of God’s judgement, they also often overstepped the mark in their dealings with Israel and Judah along with other wickedness God found repugnant. Some respite for Judah could be seen in the historical interlude in chapters 36-39 when under Hezekiah, who intreated the Lord, Judah was delivered from the Assyrians who earlier conquered Israel. Later the king regressed when proudly he entertained a delegation from Babylon he was warned they would later conquer Judah. Before we move to the second half of Isaiah, as Isaiah appears to be transported from present to future, we can reflect how these first half prophecies were fulfilled.
Isaiah now switches tack in chapters 40-66 with an emphasis on comfort and hope. In the second half, Isaiah looked forward to when the people would return from exile, a glorious hope, the coming of the Messiah and beyond that – a new heaven and earth. This section begins: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” Isaiah 40:1-5.
The section ends on sober note, how things end up and God’s promises to Israel finally fulfilled: “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh” Isaiah 66:22-24.
It is in this second half of the Book, we are introduced to “The Servant”, who can be equated to Israel, Israel’s Messiah and in one case (chapter 45) Cyrus. The first reference is: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law” Isaiah 42:1-4. Two other Servant references, often cited by Christian preachers and New Testament writers, as referring to Jesus, are: “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting” Isaiah 50:4-8 and “Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider” Isaiah 52: 13-15, plus Isaiah 53.
One of the wonderments of Isaiah’s ministry was how he could look forward to different points in time ranging from what was happening in his day to the final end state. In between that is what Christians see (and non-believing Jews don’t), the first and second comings of the Messiah. As we have already pointed out, Isaiah would likely have seen the two events as one. Given much of the first half of Isaiah focuses on the King to reign (second coming), we have to ask how this fits it with the Servant who dies to atone for the sin of the people (Isaiah 53) – how can it be? And also, pertinently, the need to be prepared and be rid of wrong attitudes (still a theme of Part 2), a message that John the Baptist, who fulfils some of Isaiah 40, gives to the people. A proper understanding of Isaiah needs to take into account all these things, for that is how God sees things, and to consider with prayerful concern: “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” 1Corinthians 1:23.
We come to the end of this very brief view of Isaiah, and while there is so much else of Isaiah’s message that merits consideration, let us consider the glorious hope of a time yet to be: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying” Isaiah 65: 17-19. While there still is exhortation to be prepared and to live in accordance to the will of God, it is in the context of hope of what is to be: “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” Isaiah 60:1-3. But let us sign off for now by considering three messages:
Firstly – return to the Lord: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” Isaiah 55:1, 6-9.
Secondly – that hope is for (believing) Jew AND Gentile: “Thus saith the Lord, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant” Isaiah 56: 1-4.
Thirdly – that hope is embodied in the person of Jesus, who when he spoke at the synagogue in Nazareth, at the commencement of his ministry, he quoted up to “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” in the passage that follows, much to the fury of those who heard him. At the end when he announced: “this day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” Luke 4:21, he was mindful the words from Isaiah that followed were yet to be fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” Isaiah 61:1-3.