In our long haul through Isaiah, every so often we have been stopping to examine the pathway and route of the prophet’s thoughts. It’s like an aerial view of the whole so far. I think we need to do this every time we discern a change of direction in the text of Isaiah’s writings. A kind of, “What has he just said? And where is he going now?”
THE ONE MAN ISAIAH – OR MULTIPLE ISAIAHS?
Part of my rationale for this is on the grounds of reading so many commentaries, articles and volumes on Isaiah’s 66 chapters by “scholars” who are convinced that the whole book is a random collection of writings, and that it is not always written by the “original” Isaiah. Some think there were two Isaiah’s, others think there were several. This writer, however, is convinced that the very theory (and that is all it is) is unfounded and fictional. I contend that there is only one Isaiah who wrote the entire book that bears his name. To my mind there is a perfectly logical sequence of thought and message in the order of those 66.
We have ploughed through the first 24 chapters and are about to plummet the depths of chapter 25. Chapter 24 is shocking in its statements of some undefined spot on the world’s future timeline. It is dark, dismal and fearful to the faithless. The future, however, cannot be so described without an explanation as to the wonderful news that stops chapter 24 from being endlessly dark. Chapter 25 is as glorious and blindingly bright as Isaiah 24 is dark and depressingly dismal. Isaiah 24 through to the end of chapter 27, is a serious pivot in the prophet’s seismic Richter scale of insights and visions. Yet, without doubt, no matter how many, so called “higher critics,” hasten to point out signs of “discrepancy,” and “mix-up” in the sequential thoughts of the book, I beg to differ from the lot of them. Allow me to explain what I mean.
ISAIAH AND THE TWO HEBREW STATES
We start in Isaiah’s volume when the entire Hebrew people were still present in the Land, yet dwelling as two separate nations. It needs to be understood that there were serious national emergencies throughout the whole of the Hebrew tribes, and these watershed circumstances precipitated God raising up this marvellous cluster of prophets to guide the populace throughout the huge crises of spiritual identity, in order to bring the two nations into alignment with Yahweh’s purposes. Alas, they would not listen.
THE WEIGHT AND SIGNIFICANCE OF ISAIAH
Nobody could reasonably or intelligently, in any way consider this ancient epoch and era of events that we are engaging with, without an intellectual and spiritual assessment of the seriously mammoth “starring role” that Isaiah played, along with his colleagues and friends in the “prophetic gifting and calling.”
This group of men ceaselessly and self-effacingly addressed themselves to the nationwide, spiritual, calamitous, upheaval that was driving both nation states towards a dreadful judgement and a shocking death. Just as western society today is being openly plunged into a dark freefall of purposelessness, so, in Isaiah’s day, the tiny nation of Israel, and the even smaller nation state of Judah were on an identical cliff edge of collapse and closure. In a nutshell, the Hebrew people needed to repent and have faith in God because their end was nigh! And the northern kingdom, in particular, had no idea how “nigh” their end was.
Isaiah and his contemporaries not only made a major contribution to the development of an understanding of what was God’s purpose during these years, but our twenty-first century knowledge of the historical scenario of these days is greatly enlarged by what we know and read of these Old Testament writing prophets. If we merely searched the Bible for its history, the prophets are of greater historical significance than any of the kings who ruled in their times. As contemporaries, Isaiah and Micah were huge in their influence.
THE CRISIS THAT WAS PRECIPITATED BY THE RISE OF ASSYRIAN CONQUESTS
Both Isaiah and Micah began to prophesy and preach as the shadow of the iron fist of Assyria fell over the Hebrew lands. This dark cloud put the accelerator on the decline of Judah, as the northern state tottered, stumbled and finally collapsed prostrate to its exilic grave. Isaiah and Micah together lived on through the tragic years that followed the disappearance of the ten northerly tribes. Isaiah continued his priceless input, throughout the entire period until, extra biblical accounts tell us, King Manasseh sawed him in half whilst he was hiding in a tree.
THE CRISIS DEFINED
But, how do we define these crises? How are we to outline their parameters and describe their nature? By describing what they were, we will see the character and stature of Isaiah and the other prophets, as they engaged with both God and the people in a spiritual combat that cost all their prophets their life. They each died in an attempt to save their nation from the darkness of their future, both in this life and the next. After all, one of the finest definitions of a prophet is that he is the divinely appointed interface between the seen and the unseen worlds.
It was not merely the external physical menace of Assyrian aggression, as suggested above, but a spiritual emergency coincident with and attendant upon the Assyrian fear creating fighting machine that threatened the national character and the Yahwistic religious practice with Judah. This was foundational to Hebrew existence. All the surrounding nations lived in deep and restless fear of Assyria and its modus operandi in seeking to conquer the entire Middle East – even though no Assyrian ruler ever had the ability to construct a governmental infrastructure to make that nightmare, “dream,” a sustainable reality.
Beyond fear of Assyria, and within the heart of the people, was a spiritual darkness, ever increasing and constantly in the process of being suffocatingly smothered over the minds of the population of Judah. This brought with it all the ramifications and corollaries of an infesting demonic culture, similar to those that they were first commissioned to annihilate in the days of Moses and Joshua.
When I use this kind of phraseology, I feel I am in danger of over blaming the devil and the darkness, as well as the Assyrians that all brought Judah to this crisis. If the chosen people were simply innocent victims of a demonic onslaught. There would be no culpability on their part. However, the darkness that fell upon Judah (and Israel) was something the people literally invited, and thereafter warmly embraced. Indeed, if the people of Judah were innocent victims of this darkness, none of the prophets would have been required to correct them – for there would have been nothing to correct. But life – and people – are never as simplistic or as passive as that perspective would suggest.
We have, earlier, in the very first chapter of Isaiah, discussed the socioeconomic ills for which the official Levitical sacrificial Temple religion had proved itself as possessing no effective rebuke or response. It was a lifeless set of faithless religious observances. This continued religious observance, without even the slightest spiritual reality was a major root of many social ills. These were ills which were only aggravated – as opposed to being created – by the Assyrian exactions, that is, their excessive and unjust demands, and also of their spiritually syncretic tendencies that were always endemic since Israel made their home in Canaan. This idolatrous and shamefully immoral mix of the divine and the demonic, which ran wild in the lax days of Ahaz’s recognition of the Assyrian gods, and seems to have peaked in the days of Manasseh, was indeed its darkest manifestation.
These sustained trends, at this particular point of time, indicated a certain ever weakening feebleness in the nation’s fundamental structure, and were certainly not calculated to assist the nation in its struggle for continued existence. Metaphorically speaking, it was a severe attack of satanic woodworm in the timbers of Judah’s society, religion, and political policy – like an acidic dissolution of moral fibre in all stratas of Jewish life. It was only a matter of time before the total collapse. It was a dark and socially painful decline that was deliberately and wilfully “self-inflicted” at its roots. The destructive fire of Assyrian armies and idolatrous worship may have come from external forces, however Judah had drenched the ground of their nation’s infrastructure themselves with the inflammable fuel of rejection of Yahweh. The conflagration that was to follow was to cause Judah to disappear off the face of the map in exactly the same manner as had, the northern kingdom. As The Northern State fell in 722 BC, Judah had only 135 years to wait for its own eradication.
In short, with the developing dissolution of familial, inherited, collective community patterns, the Mosaic Covenant, with its severe ascetic pious, ethical and societal requirements which had been the original basis of Israelite society, had been largely neglected and forgotten by the majority of Judah’s citizens, to whom Yahweh had become merely a symbolic “national guardian,” whose function it was, in return for meticulous religious cultic observance, to give the nation protection and blessing (Isaiah 1:10-20). In short, they perceived of the Almighty God of Sinai as a mere, insipid “Sugar Daddy,” whose sole purpose of existence was to keep Judah safe no matter what they got up to or where their heart was. It was a weak and effeminate lifestyle under a weak and effeminate image of a god. The populace hardly had a true grasp of life, never mind a firm grasp on God. The true nature of Yahweh was lost and buried – apart from the prophets.
This, however, was not the whole of it. While reading through Isaiah, it reads as if Judah was theologically embedded at this time, not in the ancient Mosaic covenant at all, but in Yahweh’s eternal covenant with David. So much of Isaiah is concerning the reign of the Davidic line, culminating in Messiah. This covenant, promised by God in 2 Samuel 7, had, in the national mind, largely superseded that of the original Sinaiatic covenant. It was obviously believed and affirmed by their religious practices and language, that Yahweh had chosen Zion as his dwelling, and promised to David an eternal dynasty, and also that each successive Davidic king, as Yahweh’s anointed “son” (Psalm 2:7), would be protected from his foes. The dynasty then would, ultimately gain a domain even greater than David had in his lifetime, with the kings of the earth fawning at its feet (Psalm 2:10. Psalm 72:8-11. ). Judah’s existence, in brief, did not rest in obedient response to the gracious acts of Yahweh in the past, with all its promises and corrective commands come down from Sinai, but in His unconditional promises of the future to David. The Davidic covenant was (and still is, of course) a totally eschatological expectation, that simply needs believing and waiting for. On top of that, it is easier to get excited and to build one’s life on a far flung future glory, than to spend one’s life struggling to match one’s conduct against Moses’ hundreds of laws.
This covenantal promise to David is remarkably profound, and somewhat neglected even by most Christian bible readers. It was in David’s fullest understanding of the promise made in 2 Samuel 7, when he wrote what was probably his last Psalm – the one we know as Psalm 72. It is beyond question David’s last prayer for the son whom he had just set upon his own throne before he died.
It seems absolutely transparent that the poet-seer, son of Jesse, with God’s promise in mind (2 Samuel 7), looks beyond the young Solomon to the fulfilment in a yet greater son, that is, Messiah, the king of all kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is so self-evident, one needs assistance to misunderstand it. It is this, exactly, that caused the people of Isaiah’s day to have a solid conviction of the future despite their godless lifestyle. Those that had even a tinge of faith, believed it. The majority of the population held this promise more as a legendary tale more than the solid promise that it truly was – and still is. Messiah will one day reign and the theocracy will be fully restored to Israel. The throne of David was in Jerusalem on planet earth, not in heaven. As it was, so shall it be.
The official Temple sacrificial system was the servant of the nationally acknowledged belief system and paradigm. Its business was, by sacrifice and offering and by ritual affirmation of the Mosaic instructions, to assure the well-being of the nation. A certain internal “paganisation,” however, was inevitable, all the while nothing but a normative Yahwehism was merely externally maintained without any internal reality. Thus, the state religion corroded and became like all pagan religions, morally and spiritually corrupt. It could only ceremonially be an insipid and diluted spiritual support and defence of the existing order. It might conceivably, on rare occasions facilitate a priest to criticise an individual king, but it could not fundamentally confront the state or believe that the state could fall. Inevitably, as Micah and Isaiah show, the Levitical routine tended to offer little, if any, critique of idolatry at all.
The events of the late eighth century BC fell on Judah’s dead religious practices with all the force of a sledgehammer on an egg. With the very existence of state and dynasty being challenged, the national ideology was fundamentally called into question and was perilously rocking on a moral and spiritual cliff edge.
As unbelief assayed the scenario, could it really rely on the promises to David? After all, if Assyria could treat the nation with contempt, and if Assyrian gods could be moved into Yahweh’s temple by the reigning member of the Davidic dynasty, what was to be said of Yahweh’s power to fulfill his promises? Judah’s response was twofold and utterly contradictory.
First, there was a blind and fanatical confidence in history and Yahweh’s protection.
Secondly, there was a cowardly deep unfaith, unbelief – better described as active paganism in the heart of the general public. Both were equally damning and destructive.
There were those who were quite sure that Yahweh would make good his promises to Judah no matter what folly she committed. They were foolishly arrogant with the mantra of, “We are the chosen people, and therefore Yahweh will not let us fall, no matter how bad we are.” These silly people must have simply chosen to erase the Northern kingdom from their memory, unless they believed that there were other reasons apart from their rejection of Yahweh and His word that led to their annihilation. No! No! No! This idiocy held by the foolish, was simply factoring out the truths that drove the northern Hebrew nation into headlong self-eradication. And there were others who, like King Ahaz, because they chose not to believe in the national constitutional ideology built on the word of God (like Isaiah 7:1-17), could see no way of saving Judah, except to make her a willing grovelling foot-licking vassal of Assyria.
After submission to Assyria had brought Judah only misery, and after rebellion from Assyria had proved entirely futile, and even after wholesale, disillusionment with the national religion and its promises had set in and did not suggest any sound future, bringing an even more saddened and depressed expectation of existence, added altogether with the abandonment of even the pretext of Yahwehism – The prophets were a wonderful infusion of fresh air in the midst of the fetid toxic gas of unbelief and selfishness that pervaded the idolatrous atmosphere of Jerusalem and Judah.
The danger of this national widespread evil paradigm was acute, as events of the reign of Manasseh, to which we shall later highlight, indicate. That Judah did not collapse and fall at that moment of history must irrefutably be credited, humanly speaking, in no small degree to Yahweh, via His prophets – especially Isaiah – and to those willing to hear him. Isaiah was a giant character, and a clear voice in the midst of the fog of the opinions of the masses.
Judging by the ease with which he approached successive kings (Isaiah 7. Isaiah 36. Isaiah 39), it seems that he must have been of a good, high and conceivably, even an aristocratic family, if not a member of the court itself. Yet, it was his lot through most of his life to stand in opposition to the policies of various kings and their courts and to fearlessly rebuke what was happening in no uncertain terms.
With uncompromising godly rage Isaiah assailed the scheming and devious upper class and the debauched judges who had conspired to rob the destitute of their rights (e.g. Isaiah 1:21-23. 3:13-15. 5:8. 5:24. 10:1-4.). The debauched aristocracy, licentiously cossetted, concerned only for material properties and wishes (e.g. Isaiah 3:16-4:1. 5:11.), sociable to foreign idolatrous ways and without moral standards or faith in God (Isaiah 5:18-21), seemed to Isaiah to be infinitely deserving of the divine wrath with which he was ordered to deliver. Isaiah knew from the beginning, as stated in Isaiah 6:9, that he was speaking to a people that were wilfully incapable of correction. Likening the nation to a well-tended vineyard which ought to have produced good grapes but did not (Isaiah 5:1-7), he declared that Judah, because of her failure to respond to Yahweh’s grace in righteous behaviour, would be turned over, like such a useless vineyard would have been, to the thorns and briars. Isaiah was introducing thoughts of exile, exactly as per the northern kingdom, into the warp and woof of Judah’s future.
Like Amos, Isaiah received a clear vision that revealed the day of Yahweh to come as a day of horrific judgement (2:6-21. Isaiah 24 the whole chapter). Isaiah also viewed the Assyrian as the instrument of the immediate judgement (5:26-29), just as he had further predicted that there would be a later pall of judgement from the Babylonians.
Isaiah saw the nation crumbling from within (3:1-12), plunged into ruin (6:11 on), reduced to a tiny remnant (10:22 on), and declared that even that small remnant would be plunged anew into the fires of catastrophe (Isaiah 6:15).
Isaiah’s first clash with the national policy came during the crisis of 735-733 when the Aramean-Israelite coalition moved on Jerusalem to compel Judah’s co-operation against Assyria. This was when Ahaz reigned in Jerusalem. By this time, Isaiah had a son to whom he had given the ominous name of “Shear-Jashub” meaning, “Only a remnant will return.” The name is capable of a hopeful connotation (“A remnant will return. Isn’t that good!”), and this is developed in Isaiah’s thought (Isaiah 16:26). But here it seems to embody a warning to Ahaz, as in, “Only a remnant will return! Isn’t that shocking! (Isaiah 16:22) and so the ominous connotation to the name is probably the original point made.
Knowing that Ahaz was thinking to propose an appeal to Assyria for help, Isaiah accompanied by his son, confronted the king (Isaiah 7:1-9), and, assuring him that the northern confederation would never be allowed to carry out their purpose, urged him not to have any dealings whatsoever with Assyria, but to trust in Yahweh’s promises. While Ahaz wavered, Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-17) offered a sign from Yahweh in order to prove that what he had said to Ahaz was true. When the faithless ungodly king refused this offer with pious cant, Isaiah in hot anger gave the famous sign of Immanuel. The birth of this child, presumably to the royal household, would signify that Yahweh’s promises were sure, but, since Ahaz had not believed it, it would also be a sign to the awful calamity that his cowardice would invite into the nation’s life and culture. Recurrently reprimanding the royal rule and dogma, and graphically depicting the dire consequences (e.g. 7:18-25. 8:3-8a), Isaiah summoned all who would listen to take a stand in opposition (8:11-15).
But Ahaz did not believe. Instead he volitionally sent cart loads of tribute to Tiglath-Pileser and surrendered his independence, and the security of his nation for the next, a subservience to Assyria that would continue for the following half century or so. He even had Assyrian religious accoutrements installed in Solomon’s temple and the Solomonic altars and lavers moved to the far corners of the temple grounds. Isaiah, his advice scoffed at by the king, handed over to his disciples a record of what he had said as a witness for the future (Isaiah 8:16-18) and withdrew from addressing Ahaz, the king, any further.
AS WITH ISRAEL SO WITH JUDAH
I have always found it astonishing how Isaiah explained over and over again that what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel was certainly bound to happen to Judah in the long run. Surely, one did not need to be a university professor or a Doctor of Divinity to see that particular projection as self-evidently certain. After all the predictions of doom and exile made by the prophets, speaking to both the northern and the southern kingdoms, together with the absolute disappearance of Israel in 722 BC, it must have been a mental graphic of awful proportions for the remaining southerners. How on earth could they not conclude that what had happened to the ten northern tribes would indeed happen to them if they did not change?
The overall cataclysm of the emergency stemmed, in part, from the exact same internal sickness and practical dynamics that destroyed the kingdom of the ten tribes – and, shockingly, was even more visibly present in Judah. It was a simple observation to make. “The north has disappeared Judah! Their response to Yahweh and their reception of idolatry was the same as yours. You are next on the list for the same treatment as they!”
But, as the old English proverb says: “There is none so blind as they that WILL NOT see.” “After all,” they would answer, “We have the Davidic king! We have the Temple and the Ark! How on earth could we go the same way that the northern kingdom went?” And so, Judah’s decline continued.
Isaiah did not, for all this, surrender hope. His doctrine, understanding and grasp of God was far too vast for him to suppose that the nation’s dereliction could frustrate or interfere with the divine purpose and cancel the promises. In spite of his conviction that Ahaz had betrayed his high office, perhaps because of it, Isaiah treasured the dynastic ideal as this had been perpetuated within the belief system of Judah, as in Psalm 72. He himself gave classic expression to the expectation of a scion of David’s line who would completely fulfil that ideal (Isaiah 9:2-7. 11:1-9) exhibiting the charismatic gifts, supposed by some, to have been secretly reposing within each generation of the dynasty (Chapter 11:2) establishing justice – as Ahaz so notably had not – and bringing the national humiliation forever to an end. Isaiah was convinced that Yahweh was in control of events and that His purpose to set up His kingly rule of peace over the nation was sure (Isaiah 2:2:2-4.11:6-9).
He therefore viewed the present tragedy and crisis as a part of that purpose – a discipline, a purge, by which Yahweh would remove the dross of the national character, leaving a chastened and purified people (Isaiah 1:24-26. 4:2-6). The ominous note in the name of his son Shear-Jashub began to give way to a hopeful interpretation (Isaiah 10:20 onwards). Perhaps only a remnant, but still, a remnant will return i.e. repent. Though repeatedly disappointed, Isaiah never surrendered the hope that the tragedy would purify Judah and produce that righteous remnant (Isaiah 37:30-32). Theologically, this aspect of Isaiah’s personal expectation is world-changing.
After his rebuff in the 735-733 crisis, Isaiah apparently made no attempt to influence the national policy as long as Ahaz reigned. We have no record that Isaiah ever spoke to Ahaz again after the Isaiah 7 confrontation.
ISAIAH 13 – 23
We next meet him after Hezekiah had taken the throne when (714-711) Judah was asked to join a revolt against Assyria led by Ashdod and supported by Egypt. As we have seen, ambassadors of the Ethiopian twenty-fifth dynasty (Isaiah 18) and probably of the Philistines (14:28-32) waited on Hezekiah, to enlist his cooperation. Isaiah (he who had opposed submission to Assyria) opposed the scheme emphatically. His position was that Yahweh had founded Zion and was its overseer and guide.
And so, we have from Isaiah 13 through to 23 the word of God concerning the future and destiny of all the surrounding nations that were local to Judah. Isaiah’s prophetic vision ever expanding. All these races and nation states were at Isaiah’s time occupying land that God had promised to Abraham, apart from Ethiopia and Egypt, of course. They were included because of anti-Assyrian plots that Egypt made with Philistia, Edom and Ammon. At that point of time the 25th dynasty which was an Ethiopian dynasty was ruling Egypt. We suspect they tried to enrol Judah in their plot as Isaiah sees them and tells them to go home in chapter 18. This large plain of prophetic words, spoken concerning a huge plain of nation states is an amazing series of divinely inspired understanding of where the world was going in Isaiah’s day. The prophet starts with Babylon and their role in Judah’s judgement in this world, as well as their own demise (13:1 -14:23). Then in three short verses Assyria’s demise (14:24-27). The words concerning Philistia (what we would refer to as Gaza) (Isaiah 14:28-32), Moab (Isaiah15 -16), Damascus, to be razed to the ground – still unfulfilled really (Isaiah 17), Ethiopia (Isaiah 18), Egypt (Isaiah 19-20), followed by a return to thoughts of Babylon (Isaiah 21:1-10), followed by Edom (Isaiah 21:11-12), Arabia (Isaiah 21:13-17), Jerusalem itself (Isaiah 22), and finally, the fall of Tyre (Isaiah 23).
So we started with chapter 24 and the distressing scenes of tribulation, death, loss, famin and poverty that will sweep the earth, concluded by the next three chapters.
Again, I add, the sequential thought and direction of the whole, thus far seems perfectly logical and straightforward. We move on to Isaiah 25.