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Book of Isaiah

The Book of Isaiah (Hebrew: Sefer Y'sha'yah ספר ישעיה) is a book of the Bible traditionally attributed to the Prophet Isaiah, who lived in the second half of the 8th century BC. In the first 39 chapters, Isaiah prophecies doom for a sinful Judah and for all the nations of the world that oppose God. The last 27 chapters, called "The Book of Comfort," prophesy the restoration of the nation under a divine king. This section includes the Songs of the Suffering Servant.

Content

The 66 chapters of Isaiah consist primarily of prophecies of Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria, Israel (the northern kingdom), Ethiopia, Egypt, Arabia, and Phoenicia. The prophesies concerning them can be summarized as saying that God is the God of the whole earth, and that nations which think of themselves as secure in their own power might well be conquered by other nations, at God's command.

The judgments, however, are not only against those who persecute Isaiah's country, Judah. Chapters 1-5 and 28-29 prophesy judgment against Judah itself. Judah thinks itself safe because of its covenant relationship with God. However, God tells Judah (through Isaiah) that the covenant cannot protect them when they have broken it by idolatry, the worship of other gods, and by acts of injustice and cruelty, which oppose God's law.

Some exceptions to this overall foretelling of doom do occur, throughout the early chapters of the book. Chapter 6 describes Isaiah's call to be a prophet of God. Chapters 35-39 provide historical material about King Hezekiah and his triumph of faith in God.

Chapters 24-34, while too complex to characterize easily, are primarily concerned with prophecies of a "Messiah," a person anointed or given power by God, and of the Messiah's kingdom, where justice and righteousness will reign. This section is seen by Jews as describing an actual king, a descendant of their great king, David, who will make Judah a great kingdom and Jerusalem a truly holy city. It is traditionally seen by Christians as describing Jesus, who was, according to Hebrew genealogical records from Jerusalem, descended from David, and who will return to make a true Theocracy. A number of modern scholars believe that it describes, in somewhat idealized terms, King Hezekiah, who was a descendant of David, and who tried to make Jerusalem into a holy city.

The prophecy continues with what some have called “The Book of Comfort” which begins in chapter 40 and completes the writing. In the first eight chapters of this book of comfort, Isaiah prophesies the deliverance of the Jews from the hands of the Babylonians and restoration of Israel as a unified nation in the land promised to them by God. Isaiah reaffirms that the Jews are indeed the chosen people of God in chapter 44 and that Yahweh is the only God for the Jews (and the only God of the universe) as he will show his power over the gods of Babylon in due time in chapter 46. In chapter 45:1, the Persian ruler Cyrus is named as the person of power who will overthrow the Babylonians and allow the return of Israel to their original land.

The remaining chapters of the book contain prophecies of the future glory of Zion under the rule of a righteous servant (52-54). There is a very complex prophecy about this servant, that is written in a very poetic language. Although there is still the mention of judgment of false worshippers and idolaters (65 & 66), the book ends with a message of hope of a righteous ruler who extends salvation to his righteous subjects living in the Lord’s kingdom on earth.

Historical background

Isaiah lived in the late eighth century BC. He was part of the upper class but urged care of the downtrodden. At the end, he was loyal to King Hezekiah, but disagreed with the King's attempts to forge alliances with Egypt and Babylon in response to the Assyrian threat.

Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings: Uzziah (also known as Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. According to tradition, he was martyred during the reign of Manasseh, who came to the throne in 687 BC, by being cut in two by a wooden saw. That he is described as having ready access to the kings would suggest an aristocratic origin.

This was the time of the divided kingdom, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. There was prosperity for both kingdoms during Isaiah’s youth with little foreign interference. Jeroboam II ruled in the north and Uzziah in the south. The small kingdoms of Palestine, as well as Syria, were under the influence of Egypt. However, in 745 BC, Tiglath-pileser III came to the throne of Assyria. He was interested in Assyrian expansionism, especially to the west; and 2 Kings 15:17-22 mentions that King Menahem of Israel paid tribute to him ("King Pul").

Syro-Ephraimite War

Because of the threat from Tiglath-pileser, Syria (or "Aram") and Israel (led now by Pekah) tried to force Judah to ally with them around 734 BC. Ahaz was on the throne of Judah then. He was advised by Isaiah to trust in the Lord, but, instead, he called to Assyria for help. Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Syria attacked Judah and inflicted damage on it before Assyria came to its aid, but there would be more serious religious consequences of Ahaz’s refusal to accept the Lord’s guidance through Isaiah.

Fall of Syria and Samaria

With Israel under King Pekah no longer loyal, Tiglath-pileser attacked in 733. He took much of the land of Israel (2 Kings 15:29-30) leaving only the city of Samaria and its surroundings independent. Judah, however, was not involved.

Damascus, capital of Syria, was taken by the Assyrians in 732. Tiglath–pileser died in 727, raising false hopes for the Palestinian countries. Ahaz died a year later. Isaiah warned Philistia and the other countries not to revolt against Assyria. Hoshea, then king of Samaria, withheld tribute to Assyria. Consequently, Shalmaneser V, the new king of Assyria, laid siege to Samaria for 3 years, and his successor, Sargon II, took the city and deported 27,000 Israelites to northern parts of the Assyrian empire. This marked the end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel forever, as its population was taken into exile and dispersed amongst Assyrian provinces. It is as a result of this exile that reference is made to Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

There was peace in the area for 10 years, but then, Sargon returned in 711 to crush a coalition of Egypt and the Philistines. Judah had stayed out of this conflict, Hezekiah wisely listening to Isaiah’s advice.

Babylon

Merodach-Baladan took power in Babylon in 721. Sargon took Babylon without a fight in 711, but after Sargon’s death, Merodach-Baladan rebelled against Sargon's successor Sennacherib. Babylon was defeated this time but would revive in another century to defeat Assyria and subjugate the Jews and destroy Jerusalem.

Hezekiah and Sennacherib

Sennacherib came to the throne of Assyria in 705. He had trouble immediately – with Ethiopian monarchs in Egypt (reference to Ethiopia here refers to present day north Sudan) and with the Babylonian leader, Merodach-Baladan. Despite Isaiah’s warnings, Hezekiah became involved as well. The Assyrians invaded the area, taking 46 towns before putting Jerusalem under siege. Isaiah persuaded Hezekiah to trust in the Lord and Jerusalem was spared.

Themes

Isaiah is concerned with the connection between worship and ethical behavior. One of his major themes is God's refusal to accept the ritual worship of those who are treating others with cruelty and injustice.

Isaiah speaks also of idolatry, which was common at the time. The Canaanite worship, which involved fertility rites, including sexual practices forbidden by Jewish law, had become popular among the Jewish people. Isaiah picks up on a theme used by other prophets and tells Judah that the nation of Israel is like a wife who is committing adultery, having run away from her true husband, God.

An important theme is that God is the God of the whole earth. Many gods of the time were believed to be local gods or national gods who could participate in warfare and be defeated by each other. The concern of these gods was the protection of their own particular nations. Isaiah's God is conceived as the only true god, and the god of all humankind, not just the Israelite nation, and thus could participate in warfare against all the other gods.

No one can defeat God; if God's people suffer defeat in battle, it is only because God permits it to happen. Furthermore, God is concerned with more than the Jewish people. God has called Judah and Israel his covenant people for the specific purpose of teaching the world about him.

A unifying theme found throughout the Book of Isaiah is the use of the expression of "the Holy One of Israel". Some Christians interpret this as a title for Christ. It is found 12 times in chapters 1-39 and 14 times in chapters 40-66. This expression is unique within the Old Testament to the book of Isaiah which suggests that, although scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was written in various sections by different authors (on which, more below), the work was intended to be a unified body evidenced with the attention to literary consistency.

A final thematic goal that Isaiah constantly leans toward throughout the writing is the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, with rulers and subjects who strive to live by the will of God.

Authorship

Critical positions

One of the most critically debated issues in Isaiah is the proposition that it may have been the work of more than a single author. Different proposals suggest that there have been two or three main authors (Original Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Trito-Isaiah), while alternative views suggest an additional number of minor authors or editors.

Almost all scholars who believe that there are multiple authors recognize some sort of division at the end of chapter 39 and that subsequent portions were written by one or more additional authors, referred to collectively as Deutero-Isaiah. Supporters of the three author proposal see a further division at the end of chapter 55. For most of the twentieth century the three-author position was the most widely held; in the 1990s, more complex and carefully nuanced positions (such as that from Williamson, 1994) started to appear. The typical objections to single authorship of the book of Isaiah are as follows:

  • Anonymity → That is to say that Isaiah’s name is suddenly not used from chapter 40-66.
  • Style → There is a sudden change in the mood of the book from Isaiah after chapter 40.
  • Historical Situation → The first portion of the book of Isaiah speaks of an impending judgment which will befall the wicked Israelites whereas the later portion of the book discusses God's mercy and restoration as though the exile were already a present reality.
  • Supernaturalism → Critics often reject the unity of the work as such would require that the author had intimate knowledge of future events-- a possibility precluded by the naturalism under-girding much of higher criticism.

These and other considerations have led most modern critical scholars to conclude that the book of Isaiah, in its present form, is the result of an extensive editing process, in which the promises of God's salvation are re-interpreted and claimed for the Judean people through the history of their exile and return to the land of Judah.

Traditional position

Jews and Christians have traditionally understood the book to have one author, Isaiah himself. While quoting Isaiah, the gospel of John implies as much (, ). The ancient Jewish historian Josephus attributes both sections of the book of Isaiah to a single author.

Chaim Dov Rabinowitz (Daat Soferim Isaiah- Introduction) points to the statement in the Talmud (Bava Basra 15a) that the book of Isaiah was written by King Hezekiah and his assistants, which may have have lived long after Isaiah. In addition, since the book of Isaiah was a product of many authors (all drawing upon one oral tradition of Isaiah's prophecies) there would naturally be changes in style.

Ben Sira 48:27-28 implies that Isaiah prophesied the prophecy of Isaiah 44. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain the complete book of Isaiah.

Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (1872 - 1946) wrote that the question of the book's authorship doesn't affect Jewish understanding of the book.

Contemporary Roman Catholic understanding

According to the introduction to the Book of Isaiah in the New American Bible, the book is a collection of poems composed by Isaiah, with additional material added by later disciples of the prophet. Through chapter 39 most of the material is Isaiah's and is an accurate account of the situation in eighth-century Judah. Chapters 13-14, 24-27, and 34-35 were probably the work of others. Chapters 40-55 were probably written by an anonymous poet near the end of the Babylonian captivity, while chapters 56-66 were written later by anonymous disciples committed to continuing Isaiah's work.

Songs of the Suffering Servant

Songs of the Suffering Servant, also called the Servant songs or Servant poems' were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. The songs are four poems taken from the Book of Isaiah written about a certain "servant of Yahweh". The songs lend themselves to independent interpretation apart from the rest of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66). Yahweh calls the servant to lead the nations, but the servant is horribly abused. The servant sacrifices himself, accepting the punishment due others. In the end, he is rewarded. The traditional Jewish interpretation is that the Servant is a metaphor for the Jewish people. Various interpretations have followed: Zerubbabel, Jehoiachin, Moses. Duhm proposed in his commentary that the songs were added by a poet with leprosy. Sigmund Mowinckel suggested that the songs referred to Isaiah himself. Christians traditionally see the suffering servant as Jesus Christ.

The first song

The first poem has Yahweh speaking of His selection of the Servant who will bring justice to earth. Here the Servant is described as Yahweh's agent of justice, a king that brings justice in both royal and prophetic roles, yet justice is established neither by proclamation or by force. He does not ecstatically announce salvation in the marketplace as prophets were bound to do but instead moves quietly and confidently to establish right religion. Isaiah 42:1-7

The second song

The second poem, written from the Servant's point of view, is an account of his pre-natal calling by God to lead both Israel and the nations. The Servant is now portrayed as the prophet of the Lord equipped and called to restore the nation to God. Yet, anticipating the fourth song, he is without success. Taken with the picture of the Servant in the first song, his success will come not by political or military action, but by becoming a light to the Gentiles. Ultimately his victory is in God's hands. Isaiah 49:1-6

The third song

The third poem has a darker yet more confident tone than the others. Although the song gives a first-person description of how the Servant was beaten and abused, here the Servant is described both as teacher and learner who follows the path God places him on without pulling back. Echoing the first song's "a bruised reed he will not break" he sustains the weary with a word. His vindication is left in God's hands. Isaiah 50:4-9

The fourth song

The last, longest, and most famous Servant poem, is a speech by Yahweh announcing the destiny of the Servant. Isaiah 53 declares that the Servant intercedes for others, taking the punishments and afflictions of others. In the end, he is rewarded with an exalted position. Much of song makes reference to an unknown group. See the many references to "we" and "our" in the song Isaiah 53:1-11 Early on the evaluation of the Servant by the "we" is negative: "we" esteemed him not, many were appalled by him, nothing in him was attractive to "us". But at the Servants death the attitude of the "we" changes after verse 4 where the servant bears "our" iniquities, "our" sickness, by the servants wounds "we" are healed. Posthumously, then, the Servant is vindicated by Yahweh. Because of its references to the vicarious sufferings of the servant, many Christians believe this song to be among the Messianic prophecies of Jesus. Isaiah 52:13-53:12

New Testament Allusions and Quotations

In the Gospels: The first song is directly quoted in Matthew 12:18-21 The fourth song's "He was numbered with the transgressors" Isaiah 53:12 is directly quoted in Luke 22:37 The fourth song's "Surely he bore our diseases" is quoted in Matthew 8:17 "Suffer many things" in Mark 9:12 may refer to Isaiah 53:2-3 "Ransom for many" Isaiah 53:10 is alluded to in Mark 10:45 and 14:24 "Make many righteous" in Isaiah 53:11 may be referred to in 3:15 "Divide the spoil with the strong" Isaiah 53:12 may be referenced in Luke 11:22

In the Apostles: Paul reflects fourth song in the following: "He was delivered up for our trespasses" Romans 4:25 "Many will be made righteous" Romans 5:19 "in the likeness of sinful flesh, condemned sin in the flesh" Romans 8.3 "Christ dies for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures" 1 Corinthians 15:3 The Kenosis passage portrays Christ as "taking the form of a servant" Philippians 2:6-11 1 Peter contains a number of allusions to the fourth song in chapter 2: "Christ also suffered for you"; "He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth"; "When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten"; "He himself bore our sins in his body"; "By his wounds you have been healed"; "straying like sheep" 1 Peter 2.21-25

Isaiah scroll

The 2,100-year old Isaiah Scroll is the only complete scroll in the cache of 220 biblical scrolls discovered in a cave in Qumran on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea. Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea scrolls are kept, says that Isaiah was the most popular prophet of the Second Temple period: 21 copies of the scroll were found in Qumran.

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