Isaiah (Yesa yahu = Yahweh is salvation) is one of the most outstanding and most important of the prophets. He was born around the year 700 B.C. and lived in Jerusalem. There is a good basis for thinking that he belonged to a distinguished priestly and perhaps noble family, judging from his education and culture and from his contacts with the court and nobility of the kingdom of Judah. He was married, with two children.
In the year 740, on the death of King Uzziah, he received his calling as a prophet in a vision in the Temple of Jerusalem as he himself describes:
“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. . . . And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ . . . And I said: ‘Woe to me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me'” (Is. 6:1-8).
Isaiah was charged with proclaiming the downfall of Israel and of Judah in punishment for the unfaithfulness of the people and their failure to repent. In the second part of his book he goes on to announce the consecration of Israel which he describes in a prophetic vision of enormous importance.
The prophecies contained in the first part of the book refer to the period in which Isaiah himself lived. In the year 738 the political horizon of the Near East was overshadowed by the growing threat of the military strength of Assyria, which was ruled at the time by Tiglath- Pileser III (724727). The northern kingdom (Israel) had fallen to the Assyrians in 721, and Judah, in the south, had become a vassal of Assyria and was about to succumb politically and spiritually in the reign of Ahaz.
At this point the prophecy of the Emmanuel is recorded (Is. 7ff), the first announcement in this book of the coming of the Messiah, which will guarantee the continuity of the Davidic dynasty in line with the promise announced by Nathan (cf. 2 Sam. 7ff).
On the death of Ahaz, King Hezekiah fostered a religious revival in Judah, albeit a rather external and superficial one which did not deeply affect the lifestyle of his subjects. Influenced by the aristocratic party, Hezekiah sought an alliance with Egypt against Syria and soon had to pay the price of his overlord’s revenge; but just when everything seemed lost and exactly in the way that Isaiah had foretold, Yahweh’s miraculous intervention in favor of his people destroyed the army of the arrogant Sennacherib.
In the second part of the book (chap.40-55) the scene changes. In his prophetic vision Isaiah now sees Babylon, almost two centuries in the future, at a point when the exiled Jews are in need of consolation. The king, Cyrus the Great (555-528 B.C.), governor of Anzan, proclaimed himself king of Persia and Media around the year 549. His campaigns led him into Lydia, whose capital Sardis he took in 546, hence the panic referred to in Isaiah 41:5; he continued northward and eastward, conquering as he went, and reaching Babylon in 539.
The following year Cyrus issued a proclamation authorizing Jews in exile to return to Palestine; he restored to them the sacred vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had taken and permitted them to rebuild the Temple.
The third part (chap. 56-66) looks at the return of the Jews just at the point when they are taking steps to reform their lifestyle in keeping with the Covenant even though they are very exposed to foreign and idolatrous influences. By this stage the Jews apparently have an altar, although they have not yet begun to rebuild the Temple or the city walls.
A book like this is not the kind of thing written all at one go: Different parts were written at different times over the fifty odd years of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.
When were those different parts brought together to make the book as we now know it? Is it possible to say that Isaiah was the human author of the entire book?
As far as the first question is concerned, three documents testify to the book having its present form between the third and second centuries B.C. These are the complete (Hebrew) text of Isaiah discovered in Qumran in 1947 (which scholars say goes back as early as the second century B.C.), which is endorsed by the Greek translations of the Septuagint and the praise of Isaiah made in the book of Sirach (48:24-25), referring to Isaiah 40:1; 51:3,12-19; 66:10-13.
As far as authorship is concerned, Jewish-Christian tradition has always recognized Isaiah as the human author of this entire book. However, some modern critics attribute chapters 40-66 to a prophet whose name is unknown and who lived in Babylon after the time of the exile, about a century and a half after Isaiah; but this theory is based on historical and sociological arguments—on the fact that the book refers to events occurring after Isaiah’s lifetime, which in effect means questioning his prophetic abilities; and besides how could a prophet of this stature pass unnoticed in his own time?
The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in a reply of 28 June 1908 to a query on this subject, said that the arguments of the critics referred to were not strong enough to sustain the theory of there being a number of authors. However, some difficulties remain unresolved: for example, the fact that Cyrus is mentioned by name two centuries before he lived (this may be a matter of a later addition).
After the Psalms, Isaiah is the Old Testament book most quoted in the New Testament: 22 quotations and 13 references (six to the first part part of the book and seven to the second) and all referring to Isaiah by name. There are 66 chapters in all, and these are usually divided up in three sections.
1. The Book of the Judgments of God (chap. 1-37). This consists of oracular statements about Judah and Jerusalem (1-12), not in any apparent chronological order; within this part falls the “Book of Emmanuel” (chap. 7-12). Then come oracles against the nations (chap. 13-23), a series of apocalyptic prophecies; followed by the eschatological oracles (chap. 24-27), called the The Book of the Revelation of Israel, and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, with the Six Woes (chap. 28- 33), and a series of warnings to those who oppose God’s plans.
Finally there is the destruction of God’s enemies (chap. 34-35) and a description of Sennacherib’s invasion, his defeat, and the edict expelling the Jews.
2. The second part, called The Book of the Consolation of Israel (chap. 40-55), consists of oracles on liberation from Babylon (chap. 40-48) and others on messianic liberation (49-55). Of particular importance are the four poems of the Servant of Yahweh (42:1-7, 49:1-9, 50:4-11,52:13-53:12).
3. The third part (56-66) contains a series of prophecies which extend the Book of Consolation, although they also include a series of instructions to the returned exiles: This is the point at which they have to rebuild the Temple and restore its liturgy, all of this prefiguring the New Jerusalem, God’s final calling of all the nations. The book closes with a hymn of thanksgiving for God’s mercy, accepted readily by believers and rejected by unbelievers.
Chosen by God to be the spiritual guide of his people, Isaiah, like other prophets, receives as his main mission that of trying to get people to keep the Covenant made at Sinai, where they had committed themselves to adore Yahweh as the only true God and to keep his law.
Given Israel’s proneness to unfaithfulness, Isaiah’s assignment was by no means an easy one. But God continues to watch over his people, as he tells Isaiah when he gives him his vocation as a prophet. The vision Isaiah receives in the Temple will exercise a profound influence on his ministry.
Isaiah has an acute perception of the transcendence of God and a parallel sense of his own insignificance and unworthiness. Compared with the Holy One of Israel, as Isaiah likes to call God, man is stained by sin and unworthy to look upon God’s infinite majesty.
The image of the Seraphim (described in chapter six when he gives the account of his vocation) who purifies his lips with a burning coal is meant to indicate on the one hand the infinite mercy of God, who comes to man’s aid out of pure love offering him the hand of friendship, but it also expresses fallen man’s absolute need for hope of salvation: Only through God’s grace can man regain lost happiness. As the image of the burning coal shows, man’s salvation is conditional on his recognizing his sins and shortcomings in all humility; only if he does this does the grace of forgiveness become effective.
It is interesting to note Isaiah’s insistence that repentance is not merely an external, purely cultic or ritual exercise. He asks for more than that—purity of soul, sincerity of heart, strict fidelity to God’s law; without this even the greatest sacrifices count for nothing.
Isaiah is a man of faith. All his forcefulness comes from his complete and unconditional faith in Yahweh. He asks the people to have the same kind of faith: They need it, because their relationship with God is tired and superficial. Isaiah tries to convert people by example, and he warns them to listen to what he says because he is speaking God’s word, which never lies – and not to listen to human arguments, even if they come from powerful people, because salvation can come from God alone.
Isaiah knows that this time the testing which Israel will undergo because of its infidelity will be long and difficult. Soon they will be uprooted and sent to Babylon, with all the pain and anguish it involves, but they must not lose faith, they must keep hoping for deliverance. He prophesies that a “remnant” will survive and from it the Messiah will emerge to be universal King and Lord: the announcement of Emmanuel (Is 7:14).
This prophecy of Emmanuel is one of the most important prophecies in Isaiah and in the entire Old Testament. The sign which the prophet announces is first the imminent birth of a son to Ahaz, the future King Hezekiah; this guarantees the continuity of the Davidic dynasty which has held the key to Israel’s hope ever since the prophecy of Nathan.
But because of the solemnity of the prophecy and the symbolism of the name (Emmanuel = God with us) obviously here is something which goes beyond being a purely historical reference: It is a prediction of the birth of the future messianic king, Jesus Christ, the pinnacle of the Davidic dynasty and of Israel’s hope.
The text expressly says that the Emmanuel will be born of a virgin; in this unique kind of birth the Church sees a prophetic reference to Mary’s perpetual virginity, which was later to be the subject of a solemn definition. The Anointed (= the Christ) who will be born of the virgin is the “Wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6).
These names applied to the child mean that the Anointed will possess to an eminent degree the outstanding virtues of those who went before him—the wisdom of Solomon (“Wonderful counselor”), the fortitude and valor of David (“mighty God”), the humility of Moses and all the virtues of the patriarchs, because he is “everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” But additionally the Messiah is the “Servant of Yahweh” (Is. 49) who gives his life to atone for the sins of men.
The final teaching in the second part of Isaiah is a dramatic account of how the very people whom the Servant of Yahweh comes to save are those who will rise up against him and heap opprobrium upon him:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our’ iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:3-5).
It is impossible to argue against this prophecy referring to our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the most skeptical of exegetes is deeply moved by this passage, which forms the climax of Isaiah’s prophecies about the Servant of Yahweh and which is very reminiscent of Psalm 22.
Paul says that this is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8).