The Prophet Isaiah

This 15th Week of Ordinary Time (2020) the first readings in the daily Masses are from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. With other prophetic works, to talk about the writings are to talk about the prophet themselves. Isaiah calls for more nuance in that the prophet was a person of the 8th century BCE who preached to Judah (the southern kingdom) and its capital Jerusalem. It was during a particularly turbulent era of three Judaean kings and four Assyrian kings. The later who sought to overrun the western Fertile Crescent that also included the Kingdoms of Israel (north) and Judea (south). Isaiah provides more than enough “markers” for us to know with certainty that he exercised his prophetic ministry from 740-701 BCE.

And yet, in Isaiah 44:28 (and 45:1), the prophet proclaims that Cyrus, King of Persia, will release the Jews from the Babylonian Exile, return them to the promised land and order that the city and the temple be rebuild. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 587 BCE with Cyrus conquering Babylon some 40 years later – in other words, 110-150 years after the prophetic ministry of Isaiah who preached to the three Judaean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. What are we to make of that?

  • Either he lived to be more than 200 years old (extra-biblical writings put Isaiah’s death early in the reign of Manasseh, dying as a martyr ~695 BCE) or
  • Isaiah foretold of the Exile and the role of Cyrus as God’s anointed one (Is 45:1), or
  • there were later followers/adherents that added to the original writings using his “voice” and “name” which was an acceptable practice of the time.

It is this third possibility that Scripture scholars accept. Scholars view the book as three separate collections of writings:

  • 1st Isaiah (chapters 1–39), containing the words of the 8th century prophet Isaiah;
  • 2nd Isaiah (chapters 40–55), the work of an anonymous 6th-century BCE author writing during the Exile; and
  • 3rd Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from Exile.

That is not to say that scholars do see the essential unity of Isaiah. There is general agreement that

  • Isaiah 1–39 promises judgment and restoration for Judah, Jerusalem and the nations, and
  • Isaiah 40–66 presume that judgment has been pronounced. The section offers words of comfort and consolation promising that restoration soon follows.

The whole of Isaiah can thus be read as an extended meditation on the destiny of Judah/Jerusalem into, during, and after the Exile.

The Prophet Commissioned

In the year that Uzziah, king of Judah, died (742), Isaiah received his call to the prophetic office while in the Temple of Jerusalem (Is 6). The vision of the Lord enthroned in glory stamps an indelible character on Isaiah’s ministry and provides a key to the understanding of his message. The majesty, holiness and glory of the Lord took possession of his spirit and, at the same time, he gained a new awareness of human pettiness and sinfulness. The enormous abyss between God’s sovereign holiness and human sinfulness overwhelmed the prophet. Only the purifying coal of the seraphim could cleanse his lips and prepare him for acceptance of the call: “Here I am, send me!” But it is important to understand the situation into which the Lord was sending Isaiah.

Geography and the Currents of History Surrounding the Prophet

Israel and Judah had the unenviable situation of occupying the land that separated Egypt and the great powers of the Syro-Mesopotamian region (Assyria, then Babylon, and then Persia). The kings of the countries to the north and south of the promised land always imagined their kingdom should expand to include the other great region – Israel/Judah just happened to be in between. The age of Kings (~1000 BCE thru 587 BCE) saw David and Solomon as major regional powers, but the 921 BCE dissolution of the united kingdom into Israel (north) and Judah (south including Jerusalem) reduced all the subsequent kings to the recurring role of appeasement, a vassal state, and subject to paying tribute. Of course, there are moment of rebellion that, in the end, rarely turned out well.

Why mention all this? Because this forms the currents of events surrounding Isaiah and he mentions many of the key players involved in all the shifting political alliances and power struggles – all of which were basic national statements of “we take care of ourselves” and they no longer relied on the protection of God.  Because of that Isaiah’s writings center around several key historical events of the late eighth century.

Assyria was the new power in the region and in opposition a regional alliance (the anti-Assyrian league) formed. In 738 the first league was defeated by Assyria – this is mentioned in passing in Isaiah 10:9 and Amos 6:2. As a result, both Israel and the Arameans (of Damascus) were required to pay tribute to Assyria. It is believed that Judah was a key animator of the league but avoided retribution. But by 735 the Aramean leader of Damascus (Rezin) created a new anti-Assyrian league which King Ahaz of Judah refused to join. The northern Kingdom of Israel and Damascus joined armies to attempt to remove Ahaz from the throne of Judah (Is 7:1). The resulting Syro-Ephraimite War (735–732; Israel was sometimes referred to as Ephraim) was the original occasion for many of Isaiah’s oracles (cf. chaps. 7–8), in which he tried to reassure Ahaz of God’s protection and dissuade him from seeking protection by an alliance with Assyria.

Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky! But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” (Is 7:11-12).

Ahaz refused Isaiah’s message. It should be noted that the sign was given anyway:

Listen, house of David! Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” (Is 7:13-14)

The sign that was relevant in the life of Ahaz and in the Christian era was considered a prophecy of the Incarnation of Jesus.

Rather than God, Ahaz turned to Assyria for protection. During the invasion by Damascus/Israel, the Philistines and Edomites (often hostile neighbors to Judah) were taking advantage of the situation and raiding towns and villages in Judah. Ahaz asked Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria for help. The Assyrians defended Judah, conquering Israel, Damascus and the Philistines, but the post-war alliance only brought more trouble for the king of Judah. Ahaz had to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III with treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem and the royal treasury. He also built idols of Assyrian gods in Judah to find favor with his new ally.

By 722 BCE, the Assyrians totally defeated Israel, the northern kingdom, which was removed from history.

When Hezekiah came to the throne of David in 715 BCE Isaiah appears to have put great hopes in this new King on David’s throne in Jerusalem. Isaiah supported the religious reform that Hezekiah undertook. But the old intrigues began again, and the king was sorely tempted to join with neighboring states in an alliance sponsored by Egypt against Assyria. Isaiah succeeded in keeping Hezekiah out of the Egpytian-inpsired Ashdod revolt (part of the Philistia region of modern Israel to the west of Jerusalem) against Assyria. The revolt was crushed by the forces of King Sargon II of Assyria.

When Sargon died in 705 B.C., with both Egypt and Babylon encouraging revolt, Hezekiah was won over to the pro-Egyptian party. Isaiah denounced this “covenant with death” (28:15, 18), and again summoned Judah to faith in the Lord as the only hope. But it was too late; the revolt had already begun. Assyria acted quickly and its army, after ravaging the land of Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem (701). “I shut up Hezekiah like a bird in his cage,” boasts the famous inscription of King Sennacherib of Assyria. The city was spared but at the cost of paying a huge indemnity to Assyria. Isaiah may have lived and prophesied for another dozen years after 701 BCE

The Message of the Prophet

For Isaiah, the vision of God’s majesty was so overwhelming that military and political power faded into insignificance. He constantly called his people back to a reliance on God’s promises and away from vain attempts to find security in human plans and intrigues. This vision also led him to insist on the ethical behavior that was required of human beings who wished to live in the presence of such a holy God. Isaiah couched this message in writings of singular poetic beauty and power, writings in which surprising shifts in syntax, audacious puns, and double- or triple-entendre are a constant feature.

Seeing Isaiah as a two-part book with an overarching theme leads to a summary of its contents like the following:

  • Part I: The book opens by setting out the themes of judgment and subsequent restoration for the righteous. God has a plan which will be realized on the “Day of Yahweh”, when Jerusalem will become the center of his worldwide rule. On that day all the nations of the world will come to Zion (Jerusalem) for instruction, but first the city must be punished and cleansed of evil. Israel is invited to join in this plan. Chapters 5–12 explain the significance of the Assyrian judgment against Israel: righteous rule by the Davidic king will follow after the arrogant Assyrian monarch is brought down. Chapters 13–27 announce the preparation of the nations for Yahweh’s world rule; chapters 28–33 announce that a royal savior (a messiah) will emerge in the aftermath of Jerusalem’s punishment and the destruction of her oppressor.
  • Part II: The oppressor (now identified as Babylon rather than Assyria) is about to fall. Chapters 34–35 tell how Yahweh will return the redeemed exiles to Jerusalem. Chapters 36–39 tell of the faithfulness of king Hezekiah to Yahweh during the Assyrian siege as a model for the restored community. Chapters 40–54 state that the restoration of Zion is taking place because Yahweh, the creator of the universe, has designated the Persian king Cyrus the Great as the promised messiah and temple-builder. Chapters 55–66 are an exhortation to Israel to keep the covenant. God’s eternal promise to David is now made to the people of Israel/Judah at large. The book ends by enjoining righteousness as the final stages of God’s plan come to pass, including the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion and the realization of Yahweh’s kingship.

The complete Book of Isaiah is chiefly by the great prophet, but also by disciples, some of whom came many years after Isaiah. In 1–39 most of the writings come from Isaiah and reflect the situation in eighth-century Judah. Sections such as the Apocalypse of Isaiah (24–27), the oracles against Babylon (13–14), and probably the poems of 34–35 were written by followers deeply influenced by the prophet, in some cases reusing Isaiah’s material; cf., e.g., 27:2–8 with 5:1–7.

Chapters 40–55 (2nd Isaiah) are generally attributed to an anonymous poet who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian exile. From this section come the great writing known as the Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–7; and 52:13–53:12.), which are reflected in the New Testament understanding of the passion and glorification of Christ.

Chapters 56–66 (3rd Isaiah) contain writing from the postexilic period after Cyrus of Persia returned the people to Jerusalem and helped build their city and eventually their temple. The writings are considered to be composed by writers imbued with the spirit of Isaiah who continued his work.

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