“Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens, who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts and calls them each by name, because of his great power, and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”
For those with good memories, this quote from the Book of Isaiah 40.26. may bring to mind George W. Bush’s great speech to the nation after the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger with the loss of all seven crew. A moment of very public national disaster, and humiliation, and the President’s speech writers chose to end his address with that quote. That they did shows something of the enduring Scriptural literacy of the USA (something alas that has faded here since the 1960s) and an appreciation of the emotional power of the Book of Isaiah. Even today it’s embedded in the English language – ‘beating swords into plough-shares’ for example – and has massively influenced many works of our literature.
However, Isaiah’s influence goes far beyond his literary impact. Biblical scholars may regard him as the greatest Hebraic stylist, but more significantly he had an immense influence on the New Testament writers. Two thirds of St Paul’s quotes from the Old Testament are drawn from Isaiah, and the Gospels and many other books, including Revelations, are quite deliberate appropriators of his language and concepts. So profound has been his influence on early Christian writings that he has sometimes been called the ‘Fifth Gospel’ and, given the fact that our civilisation owes more to the New Testament than any other set of writings, Isaiah is clearly well worth some study.
The Attribution of the Book of Isaiah
Perhaps surprisingly, scholars widely regard much of the Book of Isaiah as composed by the man himself, albeit how much of the book is hotly debated, but the trend has been to attribute more of it to him than was once thought (a general trend with many parts of the Bible as scholarship progresses).
Isaiah himself is a historical figure who lived the latter half of the 8th century BC and appears to have been active as late as 688 BC when the Judaean king Manasseh came to the throne. Non-Biblical tradition says that Manasseh fell out with Isaiah and had him executed in a particularly grisly way.
Isaiah was therefore a near contemporary of Elijah, although the latter’s activities were focused on the northern Kingdom of Israel based at Samaria, while Isaiah was a subject of the kings of Judah based at Jerusalem. While concerned with events in Judah, Isaiah had a much less parochial view than Elijah and many of his prophecies were addressing not only Judah, but Israel and their neighbours, and indeed into the far future. He broke the Prophetic mould in many ways, hence his impact on later Jewish and Christian thought, and even today in some ways.
So how much of the Book of Isaiah was attributable to him and who wrote the other bits? As I said, it’s hotly contested but on balance the consensus has shifted in recent years to the first 40 chapters (although the traditional view that it has one author, the prophet himself or a close associate, retains its adherents), with the latter 26 being written perhaps a century later during the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish elite. The reasons for this thinking are the marked change in style and vocabulary after chapter 40, although clearly some scholars see the prophecies made in the latter section as a commentary on current events rather than foretellings of the future.
A different and more sympathetic way at looking at this issue is to recognise that Isaiah’s writings were subject to different editors at different times to varying degrees, with parts of the latter sections, drawing on earlier writings of Isaiah, being glossed to show how they might be interpreted as having already come true as a means of lending credibility to his more futuristic prophecies about the first and second comings of the Messiah. For reasons that will become apparent, I tend towards a nuanced sympathy for this view, with a couple of qualifications.
Life and Times
Isaiah was a witness to climactic times and oncoming disaster. During the first half of his ministry he witnessed the progressive destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the rampant Assyrian warrior kings in the later part of the 8th century BC, something the prophets blamed on Israel’s lapse into polytheism (chapter 10. 10-11),
“As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols (formerly the greater kingdoms north of Israel such as Syria which had been conquered by Assyria) whose graven images were greater than those of Jerusalem (Judah) and Samaria (Israel), shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?”
So Israel was destroyed, much of its surviving population deported by the Assyrians to the Zagros Mountains where they disappeared into controversial obscurity, and Judah was turned into a subject kingdom by the Assyrians, ruled by king Ahaz. However, when Ahaz died, his successor Hezekiah, with the support of an Egypt horrified at Assyria’s breaking of its dominance of the Levant, decided to revolt against his Assyrian overlords.
Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, then invaded Judah and Hezekiah realising he was facing impossible odds, submitted and Judah reverted to tributary status, but only a few short years later (in Hezekiah’s 14th year on the throne) war broke out again between the two, only this time a cryptic reference in Isaiah indicates that Egypt was intervening again and that other neighbouring peoples also joined in the revolt. A massive Assyrian army invaded and another massacre resembling that of Israel was on the cards, but Isaiah stiffened Hezekiah’s resolve and told him to place his faith in God. What happened next is unclear, but some form of disaster overwhelmed the Assyrians when they were in the process of conquest, and much of the army was destroyed, with Sennacherib retreating to his capital of Ninevah where he was assassinated some time later. Isaiah on course ascribed the unlooked-for victory to divine intervention.
For the rest of Hezekiah and Isaiah’s lives Judah was left in peace. Its exact status poised between rival Assyria and Egypt is unclear, and other than the non-Biblical later tradition that he was murdered by Hezekiah’s son and successor Manasseh (reputedly Isaiah’s maternal grandson) he disappears, other than for a series of prophecies regarding the deeper future.
So we can see that Isaiah wasn’t as intensely political as some other prophets such as Elijah and had a much more harmonious relationship with most of the Judaean kings, at least until the end, the reason being that Judah had not yet succumbed to polytheism, unlike its neighbour Israel. He was also much more of what people expect in a prophet, less focused on material and contemporary things, and more on the far future and things of the spirit. Some commentators believe he was a vegetarian given his statements on respecting all life and preferring the path of non-violence. This is perhaps over stating the case, and it’s more likely that Isaiah was foreshadowing Jesus’ later teachings about not resorting to violence wherever possible and seeming dislike of animal sacrifice.
Now this is where it gets interesting, at least to me. Isaiah is the first of the prophets as most modern people would understand it – a seer who sees far into the future, not just that of his own day. His writings are oracular in style, in verse as opposed to the rest of the book, and are presented as the words of God, not entirely dissimilar from those of the Oracle of Delphi for example, only much longer and more declamatory.
They are littered through the 66 chapters of the book but do not appear to be set out in any chronological or thematic order which makes understanding their references more difficult, but the frequency with which they were quoted in the New Testament for example indicates the importance they were accorded by Hebrews, and latterly Christians, for centuries.
So how do we make sense of them? There are inevitably different schools of thought, but perhaps the most profound and dominant view of them is to see them as a Tetrarchy (four parts) of prophecies, with within them pairs having dualistic meanings and structures.
Let me take just one chapter, the first part of one prophecy to illustrate the point about the Tetrarchy, chapter 2, so indisputably Isaiah’s own work. Chapter 2 starts with an ideal vision of the End Times Earth, after the judgement of mankind by God, so Heaven on Earth. It then veers sharply into a warning about the Judah of his own time, it’s corruption and creeping paganism, then warning of a day of reckoning for Judah and its destruction. So you have a pair of prophecies, one about the near-term disaster that awaits Judah and the other about the paradise that awaits the faithful at the end of time. Hence the dualist structure we see again-and-again.
Now this also causes a real problem for the scholars who argue that the first 40 chapters are those of Isaiah and the last 26 by later writers on the grounds of writing style. They have traditionally seen the more futuristic prophecies as the thoughts of these later pseudo-Isaiahs after the ending of the Babylonian Exile in 550 BC because they are more dominant in the later chapters. But here we see Isaiah prophesises both short and long term, in a linked pair. It’s an argument for a single author – Isaiah – edited by two different later writers with very different styles, each adding perhaps some explanatory bits of their own material to try to explain the context to the reader (some of the prose sections) but not fabricating the oracles themselves in most cases. Just preparing this article has shift my own thinking in this direction to the more traditional view.
So let’s get back to the Tetrarchy of prophecies. Firstly, an admission, there are some oracles that lie outside them, most notably those concerning the other kingdoms of Isaiah’s day, but these are not central to the book and are of secondary importance.
As I said, they are scattered about, but there is more chronological order to them later on. Crudely, they can be broken down into:
1. Prophecies for the Destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by Babylonia
Centred on but not only chapter 39) in which the culprits are directly named almost a century before the events transpired. This is fascinating because Assyria was the superpower of Isaiah’s day and Babylon an also ran trying to sustain its independence and yet this chapter is accepted as having been Isaiah’s original work. His oracle links with other less specific ones about the destruction awaiting Judah such as that of chapter 2.
2. The Judean captives in Babylon will be freed by the ‘Medes’
This is the Mede and Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great (chapters 40-48) who is specifically named. This has caused many to argue that this passage post-dated the ending of the Babylonian Exile, but there are problems with that (see above) and so it’s perhaps more reasonable to say that the later editor of the last 26 chapters added Cyrus’ name and other details to clarify the ‘truth’ of Isaiah’s prophecy. This section also forecasts the restoration of Jerusalem, or Zion, something Cyrus encouraged.
3. The First Coming of the Messiah
After the renewed Judah has fallen into Sinfulness again (chapters 49-57), the ‘Suffering Servant’ as Isaiah calls the Messiah is the central figure. Although mentioned in other earlier oracles such as those of chapters 7 and 8 in which the Messiah is called ‘Immanuel’, described as born of a virgin and is God born as human, among other things. In fact, the book devotes more space to the person identified with Jesus that for any of its other prophecies.
Chapter 53 is however the crux on this section of prophecies which gives a detailed description of the Messiah’s physical and spiritual mission, His physical characteristics and humble birth, His suffering at the hands of the authorities and His horrifically painful death and why it was necessary. All are things later fitting the Christ described by the Gospels. Other chapters and other oracles allude to this first coming of the Messiah in human form, with chapter 26.19 predicting that He would rise from the dead as well.
Subsequent chapters outline the opening of the Jewish faith to non-Jews so that it is transformed into a universal faith and its spreading to all the nations of the world (something St Paul persuaded the Early church to do). Even more strikingly, these passages excoriate the hypocrisy of the Jews who persist in the old Jewish faith with its focus on maintaining the Law and not the spirit of it, and for having rejected their own Messiah. Indeed, there are coded warning about another destruction of Judah after the ending of the Babylonian Exile, but also a statement that this will not be the end of the Jews either (e.g. chapter 46.4).
4. The Second Coming of the Messiah
And so we return to the first prophecy of Chapter 2 – that of End Times Earth or the Messianic Age, comprising the Second Coming of the Messiah, this time openly in power, the Final Judgement and remaking of Earth. As with the other three parts of the Tetrarchic prophecies, its elements lie threaded through most of the chapters of the book, linked in pairs to others, and encompasses another restoration of the Jews to Israel and Jerusalem (chapters 9.6-7, 14.1-2 although the latter may itself have a dualist sense in referring both to the Babylonian restoration and that of the modern state of Israel), a devastating war lasting a year which will lay waste the world before the Second Coming of the Messiah, during which the ‘Daughter of Babylon and its false religion’ (seen as the prevailing government for the region, if not the world) is destroyed, the Final Judgement and then the Rule of the Messiah. The language and concepts were clearly very influential on Book of Revelations and that of Daniel.
We see four eras of prophecies, linked in differing permutations of dualist prophecies, e.g. Israel’s fate being that of Judah a century later, the coming of the Messiah in human form and then as revealed Divinity, the contrast of the Messianic kingdom with the struggles of Judah foreseen by Isaiah and paralleling those of Israel etc. The dualist nature of the prophecies is a well-used literary device because it creates counterpoint between differing things, illuminating the meaning of one another by contrast, sometime so subtle that one might overlook it. At least one reader has noticed and remarked on the use of this structural device in The Unseen Path, only Isaiah uses it in many ways.
So how do we pull all of this together and make sense of it? Firstly, we know that two thirds of the Book of Isaiah was the work of the prophet himself and quite probably more than what we started out thinking. There are undoubtedly some much later elements, but they’re not adding anything completely new but rather developing the context and detail of the oracles themselves.
Secondly, we can see that Isaiah’s structure, syntax and vocabulary are very sophisticated, arguably the most in the entire OT, and this helps draw out the impact of his oracles.
Thirdly, we can also comprehend why it had such an influence on the New Testament writers who seemed keen to show how Jesus fitted the description of the ‘Messiah’ outlined by the prophet. For a Jew who actually knew Jesus and his Isaiah at the time, the parallels must have been very striking, and it helps explain the New Testament writers’ scathing descriptions of the Jewish elite – ‘If we humble people could see who He was, why couldn’t the priests and Jewish elite?’ This is perhaps at the root of the latter’s detestation of Jesus and the early church – it was a potentially fatal threat to their monopolisation of the life of the Jews and, a bit like the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, threatened to shine a spotlight on how far the Jewish religion had drifted away from what the Old Testament writers said it should be.
Fourthly, its message is entirely consistent with the central narrative of the Old Testament – the Jews being a case study of humanity for all to learn by – how God loved humanity, how faithless they were in response, the disasters that enfolded them as a consequence, how Jehovah saved them and how they went and screwed up all over again. The Hebraic Tragic Cycle one might term it, or the Wheel of Providence a Puritan might say.
The specifics of the contrast between the two Comings of the Messiah, not only being another dualist mechanism, one in humility as a commoner and the other as Jehovah Revealed, are also revolutionary, and one could see how it might be seen by the authorities as a threat to the established political order, but then proper Christianity has always been inherently subversive, which is why governments have gone to such lengths to control it.
And finally, Isaiah himself. In fact we get very little sense of the man himself, unlike with the other prophets. There is something far more purely spiritual about him, more self-effacing, than with the other prophets. He’s ultimately unknowable while his work is deeply profound and incredibly influential, and isn’t that what the best authors strive to achieve, so that their story’s greatness makes the author’s personality seem invisible.?
© 1642again 2018