The life and significance of the prophet Isaiah, and the prophetic tradition are discussed in this article.
Last updated 2009-07-01
The life and significance of the prophet Isaiah, and the prophetic tradition are discussed in this article.
In this article Professor Hugh Williamson of the Oriental Institute, Christ Church, University of Oxford explains what we know about Isaiah's life and times.
The prophets whose books we have in the Bible suddenly started to appear in the eighth century BC. Of course, there had been prophets before that-people like Nathan and Elijah-but their story had always been included in the wider history of the people, which we have in the books of Samuel and Kings. Now, however, something seems to have happened which made such a difference that it was necessary for their words to be recorded separately in books of their own, not wrapped up with the historical narrative.
The first of these prophets was Amos, and very soon after there also came Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. They are all quite different from each other, so what can it be that unites them in having books named after them?
In the past, prophets like Elijah and Elisha were quite as committed and passionate as Amos and Hosea, and they too could utter condemnations of those who broke God's law, oppressed the poor and so on. But they only ever envisaged the judgment of individuals or groups within the nation. It never occurred to them that things could have got to such a point that God would have to destroy the nation as a whole. For the first time with Amos, however, that possibility is envisaged; indeed, it is actually announced! (Amos 5:2, Amos 8:1-2)
And so it happened; within a generation or two at the most, Israel was no more. The Assyrians had defeated her and absorbed the territory into their own Greater Assyria. Only the southern kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, remained to carry forward the story which we now have in the Bible.
We do not know as much as we should like about the prophet Isaiah himself. He is not mentioned anywhere outside the Bible, and although he is referred to in the books of Kings and Chronicles, it is only in material which is duplicated in his book. So effectively all we have to go on is contained in the one book - Isaiah.
From that book, we can suppose that he lived in Jerusalem; although of course other places are mentioned, Jerusalem is the only place where Isaiah himself is said to have been present (e.g. in the narratives in chapters 6-8, 20, and 36-39). What is more, he seems to have had easy access to the royal court (see especially chapter 7), and to be well informed about the affairs of state. It is therefore generally assumed that he came from a family that would have been included in the ruling classes; whether he was in fact related to the royal family in some way is possible, though entirely unknown.
From the way he writes we can see that he was well educated in the best traditions of the time. It is not just his fine use of language which impresses, but also the way that he incorporates insights from the distilled wisdom of the Israelite people. It is probable that such material will have formed an important part of the national curriculum of the time. Only a few families, whose children were destined to follow their fathers into the court bureaucracy or other positions of responsibility, will have received a formal education, including learning to read and write. It looks very much as though Isaiah should be included among them.
Not everything in the long book which bears his name was necessarily written by Isaiah, however. From chapter 40 onwards, first, everything relates historically not to the Jerusalem of Isaiah's own day, but to the situation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon over 150 years later. Similarly, chapters 56-66 find us back again in Jerusalem, not in Isaiah's time, however, but rather in the period of the restoration after the Babylonian exile-the times of which we read in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for instance.
Finally, even within the first part of the book, there is material (such as chapters 24-27 and 34-35) which seems to refer to these later periods as well, and not to the times of Isaiah. And while chapters 36-39 certainly relate stories about Isaiah, it is unlikely that they were actually written by him. When elsewhere he talks about himself, as in chapters 6 and 8, for example, it is as 'I'; he does not refer to himself in the third-person 'he', as we find in 36-39 and some other places.
For these and other reasons, scholars believe that the book of Isaiah is a collection of the work of a number of prophets and other writers. That does not in the least lessen their importance or value, of course, but it does suggest that their inspired words which have come down to us are ultimately more important than the individuals who wrote them.
Prophets can be found throughout human culture. Prophets are found in cultures as remote from each other as Siberian and Indonesia - even in our own day. In ancient times, prophet-like figures were found all over the Ancient Near East. There are some very close parallels in Mesopotamia, many hundreds of years before Isaiah.
So the Old Testament prophets stand within a particular tradition. Interestingly, it's not an exclusively Israelite tradition at all. Within Israel, they come at certain particular times because they were people of God who responded to the need of the hour - they crop up when the nation is in crisis.
There are two great waves of prophesy in Ancient Israelite times and they're linked with two great imperial conquests - funnily enough both by nations from the territory we think of as Iraq - Ancient Mesopotamia. The Assyrian crisis, when the northern peoples of Mesopotamia spread to the West in the 8th century, called forth Isaiah and Micah, working in the south in what we call Judah; and Amos and Hosea working in the north - what was actually called Israel. All four interpret this threat to the national life as the powerful act of a just national God - the God of Israel.
About a hundred or a hundred and fifty years later, there was another great wave of imperial conquest from Mesopotamia. This time it's the more southerly Mesopotamian power, Babylonia, and this calls forth a second great wave of what's called classical prophecy - the great figures being Jeremiah, who works in Jerusalem, and Ezekiel, who is exiled to Babylonia and works as a prophet there.
Dr Paul Joyce, lecturer at St. Peter's College Oxford
Regarding prophesy, you have to remember that it was a profession. The prophets seem to have been trained. They had a specific kind of language - they talk about the 'oracle of God' and there are references to them being influenced by music being played; there are references to the 'sons of the prophets', which doesn't mean their children - it means they were actually apprentices. So there must have been some training through which they all went, and they were officially employed by the court.
Some references say "the Kings had 400 prophets sitting at their table", which meant that they were employed by the court. They also probably acted privately, so if people had questions of God they would come and talk to them. Out of that apparatus, which seems to have been a common profession, or at least not uncommon, there emerge the few that we know of as 'The' prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and so on, who speak with a kind of dissident voice - who are not just the 'yes men' for the court, as many of them obviously seem to have been - who would have been labelled by them as the 'false' prophets.
The prophets felt constrained to make their point in a language which is highly poetic and complicated and expresses the kind of passion that perhaps only poetry can express. It's difficult to imagine this, because one tends to think of the prophets as hairy men with loincloths, running around screaming in the streets. But they were a highly intellectual bunch, and they were trained, but out of them emerged these special figures who are quite different.
Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, principal of the Leo Baeck College Centre for Jewish Education
I think in Isaiah's teaching and preaching that the most extraordinary thing is what the theologians call the 'suffering servant'. The idea that the way that God will most ably express and demonstrate his love and concern is not through majestic acts of power and might but by humility and by being broken that by his stripes we are healed.
Within the Christian tradition this is understood in terms of what Jesus Christ did, that his death and his resurrection demonstrate for us most clearly the power of God, that God is revealed on the cross in the most extraordinary way. But it seems to be beyond and bigger than the Christian religion. It seems to be something more profound than that. That the task of creativity - the God who is the Creator actually costs, that here is God, who shapes the world at immeasurable cost to Himself - that God is caught up in the pain and the suffering of the world.
God doesn't stand separate from it, not feeling the pain in a sort of glorious isolation, bubble-wrapped away from the world surrounded by divine powers and looked after by the angels - but actually He is a God who is engaged in the mess and the dirt of life. That God is the one who is involved in our humanity and involved in our suffering. And the moment you start saying that, you start unravelling a lot of the philosophical ideas of God who is beyond pain and doesn't care because he can see everything and everything's known. We actually have a God who seems caught up in our weaknesses.
And the remarkable thing that Isaiah argues is that actually that is an effective way of being. That there is redemption; that there is healing in God's hurting. That by God's pain, our pain, to some extent, is alleviated.
How can this be - that God who suffers, alleviates my suffering? How can this be, that God hurts, so that my hurts are made less? But I believe that to be the case and I think Isaiah's passages are wonderful when he talks about the God who stands in for my suffering and because He is prepared to suffer, I don't need to suffer.
Mark Wakelin, director, North Bank Centre
Amos is the first of all the writing prophets. He began to prophesy about halfway through the eighth century BC. Amos was somebody who came from the southern kingdom and prophesied in the northern kingdom. He's the only one of the prophets who prophesies outside his territory which makes him quite an interesting person. And his major criticism of the religion of the northern kingdom is the abuse of the poor people in the land, so Amos's major criticism that exists over and over again in his letter is that they are stealing things from the poor, they're not giving the poor wages, they're continuing to worship God in the temple but they're ignoring the needs of the poor and the oppressed in the land.
Hosea is a writing prophet who prophesies in the eighth century and Hosea comes from the north and prophesies in the north. Hosea prophesied slightly later than Amos, beginning just as Amos stops. Hosea, like Amos, criticises the citizens for their abuse of the poor and also for something else which is very important: he criticises them for not worshipping God alone. One of the things that seems to be happening during Hosea's reign is that people seem to be turning more and more to different religions particularly Baal' religion which is native Canaanite religion and they seem to be worshipping Yahweh that would be the name for the God of Israel alongside the Canaanite gods.
Perhaps one of the most striking things of Hosea's prophecy is the image that he uses of Israel as a wife. He uses his own situation with his relationship with a woman called Goma, as a parable of Israel's relationship with God.
Dr Paula Gooder, tutor at the Queen's Foundation in Birmingham
A history of prophecy in Israel, Joseph Blenkinsopp, pub. Westminster John Knox Press (1996)
Expositor's Bible Commentary: With the New International version of the Holy Bible: Isaiah-Ezekial, Frank E (Ed) Gaebelein, pub. Zondervan (1986)
A short introduction to the Old Testament Prophets, E W Heaton, pub. Oneworld publications (2001)
Exploring the Old Testament 4: The Prophets, G McConville, pub. London SPCK (2002)
Reading Isaiah: Poetry and vision, Peter Quinn-Miscall, pub. Westminster John Knox Press (2001)
The fifth gospel: Isaiah in the history of Christianity, John F A Sawyer, pub. Cambridge University Press (1996)
Prophecy and the Biblical prophets, John F A Sawyer, pub. Oxford University Press (1993)
The Old Testament; Isaiah 1-33, John Watts, pub. (Word Biblical Commentary Series) Paternoster Press (1985)
Variations on a theme: King, Messiah, and Servant in the Book of Isaiah, H G M Williamson, pub. (Paternoster 1998)
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