In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.
We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.
The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.
The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).
Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).
The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).
In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.
The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).
The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.
There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).
Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.
There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).
Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?
Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.
Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.
However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).
Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).
The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).
Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).
In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).
The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.