by John Thomas Lowe
Isaiah was a prophet for King Ahaz right before the Assyrian conflict began. He was the 8th-century BC Israelite prophet after whom the Book of Isaiah is named. Within the text of the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah himself is referred to as "the prophet." However, the exact relationship between the Book of Isaiah and the genuine prophet Isaiah is complicated.
Born: Kingdom of Judah
Died: 7th century BC
Feast: May 9; Thursday after the Feast of the Transfiguration (Armenian Apostolic Church)
Venerated in: Judaism; Catholicism; Eastern Orthodoxy; Oriental Orthodoxy; Islam
Notable Works: Book of Isaiah
Books: Esaias, Des Propheten Jesaja Weissagungen, The Isaiah Targum
Children: Maher shalal hash bas, Isaiah
Alternate titles: Yeshaʿyahu
Flourished: c.800 BCE - c.701 BCE ("God Is Salvation"), (flourished 8th century BCE, Jerusalem), prophet after whom the biblical Book of Isaiah is named (only some of the first 39 chapters are attributed to him), a significant contributor to Jewish and Christian traditions. His call to prophecy about 742 BCE coincided with the beginnings of the westward expansion of the Assyrian empire, which threatened Israel and which Isaiah proclaimed to be a warning from God to a godless people.
The earliest recorded event in his life is his call to prophecy, as now found in the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah; this occurred about 742 BCE. The vision (probably in the Jerusalem Temple) that made him a prophet is described in a first-person narrative. According to this account, he "saw" God and was overwhelmed by his contact with the divine glory and holiness. He became agonizingly aware of God's need for a messenger to the people of Israel, and, despite his own sense of inadequacy, he offered himself for God's service: "Here am I! Send me." He was thus commissioned to give voice to the divine word. It was no light undertaking; he was to condemn his own people and watch the nation crumble and perish. As he tells it, he was only too aware that, coming with such a message, he would experience bitter opposition, willful disbelief, and ridicule, to withstand which he would have to be inwardly fortified. All this came to him in the form of a vision and ended as a sudden, firm, and lifelong resolve.
Presumably, Isaiah was already prepared to find meaning in the vision before the arrival of that decisive moment. However, information about that period of his life is inconclusive and consists mainly of inferences drawn from the biblical text. At times the prophet's private life shows through the record as an aspect of his public message. Once, when he confronted a king, he took with him to reinforce his prophetic word, a son with the symbolic name Shear-yashuv ("A Remnant Shall Return"). Again, to memorialize a message, he sired a son of the "prophetess" (his wife) and saddled the child with his message as a name: Maher-shalal-hash-baz ("Speed-spoil-hasten-plunder"), referring to the imminent spoliations by the Assyrians. If the sons had not been wanted as walking witnesses to the prophet's forebodings, posterity would not know of this wife or these sons.
In Isaiah's parental home, it is known only that his father's name was Amoz. Since he often spoke with kings, it is sometimes suggested that Isaiah was an aristocrat, possibly even of royal stock. However, the same reasoning might apply to any number of prophets; from Nathan in David's time onward, prophets had dealings with kings and were, like Isaiah, well informed about public affairs. Moreover, Isaiah's sympathies were forceful with the victimized poor, not with the courtiers and well-to-do. Also, it is sometimes argued that he was of a priestly family. However, his knowledge of cultic matters and the fact that his commissioning seemingly occurred in the Temple in Jerusalem are slender evidence for his priestly descent as against his unreserved condemnation of the priests and their domain: "I am fed up with roasting rams and the grease of fattened beasts," he has God proclaim in a famous passage in the first chapter.
One could argue with equal force that Isaiah is descended from a family of prophets (though his father, the otherwise unknown Amoz, is not to be confused with the prophet Amos). He is thoroughly schooled in the traditional forms and language of prophetic speech. It is an educated speech—intense, vivid, the finest of classical Hebrew. Isaiah is particularly well acquainted with the prophetic tradition known to his slightly older contemporary, Amos. Four eminent Hebrew prophets addressed themselves to the people of Israel and Judah in the latter half of the 8th pre-Christian century: Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. Strangely, no evidence suggests that any of these knew any of the others in person. Seemingly, they were apart and alone, yet Isaiah and Amos follow essentially the same lines of thought and differ significantly only because Amos had addressed the northern kingdom (Israel). At the same time, Isaiah would emphatically include Judah and Jerusalem. The basic similarities in style and substance strongly suggest influence, direct or indirect, of the one on the other—and both invoke a recognizable Israelite tradition.
Isaiah's experience bridges the classes and occupations. He was at home with the unprotected, the widowed, and orphaned; with the dispossessed, homeless, landless; and the resourceless victims of the moneyed man's court. He was also acquainted with the greedy authors of the prevailing misery: promulgators of discriminatory laws, venal judges, greedy landgrabbers, fancy women, thieving and carousing men of means, and irresponsible leaders, both civil and religious. In other words, he was intimately aware of the inequities and evils of human society—which may have been no worse in Israel in the 8th century BCE than many critics believed they were almost everywhere in modern times.
Isaiah shared with him and the people the long-standing tradition that a special bond united Israel and its God. Since patriarchal times there had been an agreement, a solemn "Covenant" between them: Israel was to be God's people and he their God. He had chosen them and cared for them. His solicitude for their welfare had been established. Such was the traditional massage. Isaiah knew and honored this ancient tradition, but, more significantly, he also shared the conviction of Amos that this arrangement was wholly conditional, contingent on the people's conduct. Behavior such as Amos saw about him in Samaria, and Isaiah saw about him in Jerusalem could cancel that Covenant—had done so; that is the meaning of the vineyard parable in the fifth chapter of Isaiah. There God is compared to the careful and industrious cultivator of a vineyard—Israel—who, angry at the "wild grapes" of injustice and violence that is his crop, threatens to take away his care and protection.
As Isaiah knew him, Israel's God did not fit into the picture of utter injustice and consequent misery rampant in 8th-century Israel. To that people's God, as Isaiah knew him, persons mattered. God was, in fact, more concerned about people than about how his subjects performed for him their oft-rehearsed rituals. A literal interpretation of the 13th verse of chapter 29 and verses 10 to 15 of chapter 1 would suggest that God finds the motions of worship repugnant, which may have been Isaiah's meaning. He was overawed by the holiness—the otherness—of his God and must have thought that the customary gifts of meat, grain, and flattery were unseemly or, at the least, irrelevant. Although like Amos, Isaiah appears most often to speak in absolutes, it is indeed possible to interpret these two passages less strictly (as some scholars do) and to say that he spoke in relative terms and that, in his scale of religious values, he merely ranked moral conduct above ritual conformity.
Isaiah's theology included the sometimes lovely view that God shapes history, traditionally entering the human scene to rescue his people from national peril. But, according to Isaiah's discomfiting surmise, God could intervene quite as appropriately to chastise his aberrant nation. To that end, he could employ a human agent (e.g., a conquering foe).
More readily than Amos, perhaps because a decade had passed, Isaiah could identify the agent: Assyria. Isaiah's call to prophecy roughly coincides with the beginning—after a period of relative inactivity—of the westward expansion of the Assyrian empire under the victorious generalship of Tiglath-pileser III (reigned 745–727 BCE). Current events did not escape the prophet's attention. Isaiah appears to have read the omens, as Amos had done; he could see in Assyria the instrument of God's wrath: "Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury! Against a godless nation I send him…" (10:5–6).
In the year that King Uzziah died (742 BCE), according to chapter 6, Isaiah was one of a crowd gathered for an occasion at the Jerusalem Temple when of a sudden it occurred—and he became a prophet: "Go, and say to this people…." The experiences that had gone into the shaping of his young life—his acquaintance with the arrogant rich and the suffering poor; his seeming knowledge of Amos and his heritage of tradition, ethnic and religious; his dismay at the threat of Assyria; above all, perhaps, a new and overwhelming sense of the majestic holiness of God—all merged, coalesced, and he knew that his God was sending him with words for his people and that, reluctant or not, he was compelled to go. From the start or retrospectively, he was aware of a frantic need—impossible to satisfy—to call his people back from the brink of peril. His vision was his moment of insight and resolve when, with complete clarity and instantaneously, he knew what he must do and say.