Often, especially in the context of these pages on Isaiah, by reading, praying, meditating and discussing with friends whatever particular subject is current in my mind, I find that my heart and thought life swells to bursting with ever more and ever new concepts of what it is that actually defines Isaiah as a person. What is it that sustained him in his peak of ministry? Considering the fact that he lived 700 years before Christ was born in Bethlehem, why is the cosmos of his spiritual experience hugely larger than mine, giving him eyes to see further than I do? What makes the horizon of his perspective further away than mine? What exactly defines a prophet and makes his (or her) heart beat in a way that sustains people’s faith and understanding 2,700 years after they had spoken and written stuff on the scrolls? I desperately – and I really mean desperately – want to hear the heartbeat, feel the pulse and look into the whites of the eyes of all the prophets – especially Isaiah – and the rest of the Old Testament Hebrew prophets as portrayed and verbally sketched and modelled in the Hebrew Bible texts and scrolls that are the only evidential source we have of who and what they were.
With the intensity ever and regularly reaching new levels of critical mass within my being, I find myself closing in and approaching a series of sharp assertions which, although they come out of my mouth in twenty-first century language, and although many of those assertions are statements I have never heard from others, I am filled with the assurance of what I am saying, even though I cannot fully fathom the depths of what I am writing. If anybody invents a time machine in my lifetime I would volunteer to go back to Isaiah’s time and would become the first stalker in history. I would strain myself a lot to pick up the notes of his addresses (if he had any notes prior to writing the scrolls) I would take my iphone and record him in conversation. Blow it! I would pin him to the wall and say “Isaiah, my friend, mentor and pastor tell me what I can do to learn what you have learned, say what you have said, and become what you have become. I profoundly apologise for sounding like a man about to be released from (or received into) a psychiatric unit, but I sometimes get emotional – as I am today – about the intellectual and academic conclusions I have arrived at for today by just reading and pawing over Isaiah’s texts.
Here is my punch into the dark for today.
Isaiah (and all the other Old Testament prophets) carried serene, heavenly, unshakeable convictions and absolute certainties that were engrafted together in their physical and spiritual DNA with unqualified and fathomless anguish, pain and sorrow.
Does that make sense to you? I heard words that touched on this from Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I see clearly that every prophet of the Hebrew Bible, as well as those of the New Testament – including Christ Himself – have a paradoxical serenity of what is to them a fountain of unqualified certainties. And these cast iron presuppositions and ensuing propositions brood over them feeding and funding them with a sureness of vision and belief that is not just gained philosophically by interaction with others, or academically by much learning at the scholar’s desk. They are clearly not even scientifically acquired or understood from the university laboratory or even from experiences of life learned by practice and tangible familiarity. They are, like creation, or views of the stars, just there and nobody can logically calculate where these imaginings, ideas and envisioned realities come from – apart – of course, from the “elsewhere” of God Himself.
It is of course possible that Isaiah knew Amos, Hosea, Joel and others as friends. And it is equally possible that they never met at all. But I do find it astonishing that they were, like all my Apple devices, synchronized. And though all my Apple devices have various bits of data identically, each device has its own intrinsic purpose that is different. So we have those prophets that spoke to the Northern kingdom, and those that spoke to Judah in the big city. But they were in synch with their message and their interpretation of history, their predictions of the future, and they were in synch concerning the contemporary needs of all Hebrews to align themselves with the Torah and the God of the Torah. It is the synchronization that I find astonishing.
And yet, paradoxically, these rock solid convictions that the Hebrew prophets were gripped by, convictions which were and still are clearly perceived by all their readers as the foundation behind everything they voiced in their presentations both audible and legible, sweep over us hand in hand with the most profound and traumatic anguish. I am talking of anguish that was justified by the purity of their heart and the passion of what they knew of Yahweh.
The mutual claim that carried them all is that they had seen and/or heard Yahweh – the Almighty Everlasting, Ever-living Creator of all things (That is of course infinitely more intense with Jesus – the prophet above all prophets – who was Yahweh incarnate). They each explain, some more than others, that they have had a tangible encounter with Yahweh Himself. To some of them it was even a touchy/feely experience of God, and to others a full blown conversational dialogue and exchange of views. To a few it was what they saw and heard, as if they were walking down the streets of heaven and, “Oops!” they had seemingly “accidentally” had the audacity to overhear a conversation of angelic folks that live there. Whatever the fully detailed encounter was, they all seem to have returned to the normal routines of life where, whatever was imparted to them from their heavenly and divine “meet-up,” whatever was in the atmosphere of God’s glory and/or whatever was imparted by the very touch of Christ that they had absorbed, they came back from meeting God Himself looking at all aspects of life and human existence in a completely different light than before, simply declaring with absolute certainty: “This is what Yahweh says,” or, “This is what I saw.”
Although none of them used the words, “born again,” “new creation,” or “converted,” they had a such a concept of the holiness and the character of God and his attitudes and ways, and were proportionately gifted in their prosaic and poetic language with such pin-pointed accuracy as to what they had received from the Almighty, that Christ Himself quotes these men in order to express Himself. We know, of course that the Spirit of Christ was the One who carried them along as they preached, taught and wrote. The fact that Jesus uses the words of these men to let the masses know what heavenly wisdom is all about, demonstrates the depth of the reality of their heavenly experiences and their divinely imparted courage. From this fact we can only conclude that whatever the prophets said was indeed, truly the Word of God.
To be absolutely clear; we miserably err if we ignore the likes of Isaiah and his prophetic ilk.
Isaiah and the other prophets are assured, given peace and certitude from the aspect of what God has said or done with them. And yet, they are simultaneously, because of carrying those beliefs, and the emotional burden of God Himself, living in a highly pressured state of agony and pain. With deeply emotive cries, and life endangered tension they each call out to the rest of the Hebrew world – and at times to the whole world: “How is it possible that you folks can live the way you do, while I can see that all around us these injustices, this misuse of power and authority, these abuses of the poor, the elderly and the widowed? How is it possible that the entire population can live and breathe and continue with the status quo that accepts the obscenely rich extracting even more wealth from the agonizingly hard-earned gains of the poor?”
These prophets are definitely persons who are living in an uncontrollable and never ending place of torment. One could even use the word torture because of those very certitudes that everything they say oozes with. Such was the responsibility and pain of these prophets, in her book “Pain and Promise” Professor Kathleen O’Connor makes a very convincing argument that Jeremiah was plainly carrying and demonstrating all the symptoms of what we today call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as he preached and taught the certainties he had heard from Yahweh whilst being abused and spitefully used amongst his beloved people. Ms O’Connor is quite an authority on PTSD having treated many soldiers in her career and has spent huge swathes of her career getting to grips with Jeremiah.
Rejecting what the prophets said was the foundation of rejecting the person of the prophets themselves. Thus, these “God acquaintances” were all murdered and tortured because of the certitudes acquired in His presence, by His touch, through His word and in His Spirit. As Stephen said in the early chapters of Acts, minutes before his martyrdom: “”Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become (Acts 7:52).
However, what was even darker than purely rejecting the prophets – the populace were rejecting Yahweh whom Isaiah and the others all claimed had sent them. And in rejecting Him there was a misery of existence here in this life which would precipitate (and still does) a much greater loss after their human life this side of the grave had finished. That state of unbelief and lack of reception of God’s mind has eternal weight and consequence. As Abraham J Heschel states: “God is raging in the words of the prophets.”
I find it a fact that demands deep thought and agitated meditation. These unique “prophet” fellows, claimed to have met God, seen God, and had been literally touched by God. They all say, some plainly and others more obliquely, that they had experienced glimpses of the heavenly universe. They had grasped something glorious, relevant and real about the moral and spiritual nature of the physical world. They were all plainly gripped by the conceptual repercussions that go beyond what man can normally imagine when one turns their back on the personal purity of heart and life that God calls for. Each of them came back to their workaday lives and wept, cried out and sacrificed themselves because the poor were abused and drained of their money and belongings, the widows were disenfranchised from their homes, the traders had false scales, and the Ten Commandments were as unknown in their Hebrew society as they are today in the west. They must have been horribly tortured as they mixed with people on the streets who thought all these ungodly, and at times inhuman things were the way life was meant to be.
Picture these men! They have seen God. And as a result of God imparting His personal perspective, His feelings and His counsel to them, they do not return to write a systematic Theology. They do not come back to correct people’s concepts of who and what God is. They are not filled with ideas for abstract philosophy and theological debate. They don’t want to discuss J,E,P or D. They do not return from their “job interview” with a tenured salary and a house, a car and six weeks annual holiday. They do not call for weekly services of several hymns, an offering and a thirty-minute sermon. They hit the streets and are filled with explanations and extrapolations of everyday life that terrify them. This is what made Jeremiah and Ezekiel ill. This is what made Isaiah scream with a spiritual top C, “Woe is me for I am dissolved.” Isaiah claimed that the entire nation was sick and full of sores from head to toe and beyond healing. Hosea was walking with God and prophesying the state of his nation and his people, while the public were aware that he was going through a living hell in his domestic life. The agony of needing to pay for the return of his prostitute wife was undoubtedly the scandal of his generation. And all Hosea could answer the people was that they had done to Yahweh what his wife had done to him. To cap it all, his wife had a child whom he had to name, “Not mine.” These men did not hold “church” with appropriate songs and building funds and a three-point sermon every week. They stood on the streets, or confronted kings and religiously hyped priests and Levites. They cried, screamed and pleaded with the world around them saying, “Yahweh says this and that about what you are doing and saying. Stop now or see the whole world around you perish. And if your world won’t perish, the world you leave as a legacy for your children will.”
So; Yes! With deep certitude I see that the prophets were people of pain, and anguish beyond what most of us can understand, and from a source many find it hard to comprehend.