From Faith to Faith -- Essays on Old Testament Literature by B. Davie Napier
B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1955. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: Prophecy. In the Days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (Isaiah 1-11, 17-22, 28-33)
We have seen something of the covenant faith of Israel as it is expressed in Old Testament myth, legend and history. That faith finds its most dynamic articulation in the prophets.
In the strict sense of the word, there is no "typical" prophet. In the Hebrew canon of prophecy (the Latter Prophets) there are four "books" comprising fifteen names -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve "minor" prophets (the last twelve writings of our Old Testament, Hosea to Malachi) These fifteen writings vary in length, were written over a span of centuries from the eighth probably to the third B.C., are addressed to radically different historical situations, and certainly in their present form represent far more than fifteen writers. The creators of this literature do not always speak with one voice even on comparable points and the statement of one may sometimes stand in contradiction to that of another.
This is a study of Isaiah of Jerusalem whose prophetic ministry was performed in the latter half of the eighth century B.C. during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (Isa. 1:1) He, no more than any other prophet, is typical. Indeed, one suspects that the phrase "typical prophet" is a contradiction in terms. In the very nature of his being a prophet, a spokesman for Yahweh, he does not and cannot conform to a type. But Isaiah is central to Old Testament prophecy, perhaps as no other. How and why this is so will, we hope, become apparent.
The word of the prophet is characteristically addressed to the life and problems of the prophet’s own community. It may involve (as it sometimes does) a process of extrapolation from the present scene, whereby divine commitment to the future is proclaimed in divine judgment or in redemption, or in both; or it may sweep backward in time to bring past events forcefully into the present with incisive relevance. But any reference to the past or the future is directly related to, or contingent upon, the present and it is intended primarily for the contemporary community.
The terms of the prophet’s own existence and of his own immediate historical environment are of the essence. The prophet has no abstract word. What he passionately believes to be the revelation of Yahweh he sees in historical event and understands from the Word of Yahweh. There is no prophecy without history, and no understanding of the prophetic message apart from the history that calls it forth.
A. Survey of Judah’s History Through the Eighth Century B.C. (See I Kings 12 -- II Kings 20; Isa. 36-39)
The one Kingdom of Israel was severed immediately following the death of Solomon about 922 B.C.1 With the bitter cry,
To your tents, 0 Israel!
the northern tribes known collectively as Ephraim seceded from the union. Jeroboam became king in the North and Rehoboam, son of Solomon, ruled in Judah. Of the two resultant kingdoms, Judah was in territory and population much the smaller. Palestine’s mountainous backbone running north and south between the Mediterranean and the Jordan valley is higher and more rugged in the south; and the city of Jerusalem, well fortified by nature against ancient methods of attack, stands at an elevation of about 2,700 feet. The routes of commerce between Egypt and the west crossed Israel (as the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim is called) , not Judah. Judah was relatively isolated.
In part for these reasons, the Southern Kingdom was always culturally and religiously more homogeneous and conservative than Israel, and the continuity, with one brief interruption, of the Davidic rule provided a political stability never known in Israel.
But this is not to say that in the South every man sat peacefully under his own vine and his own fig tree contemplating in gratitude and thanksgiving the mercies of Yahweh. The riches of Judah were repeatedly plundered by Egypt, Edom and Assyria; life was threatened and harassed by Israel and Syria; the head that wore the crown in Judah often lay uneasy; and Yahwism had its apostasies and perversions.
Asa (c. 913-873) , the second son of Rehoboam to occupy the throne, instituted a sweeping reform, the description of which in I Kings 15:9 ff. is convincing testimony of the influence upon Judah of the fertility cult of the Canaanite goddess Asherah. His son and successor, Jehoshaphat (c. 873-849) , also remained a faithful Yahwist. During these two reigns, Judah gained a considerable degree of political stability, despite first her friction and later her costly alliance as junior partner with Israel.
The alliance was formed between Ahab and Jehoshaphat and was sealed with the marriage of Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah to Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram. Athaliah had a Yahweh name (Athali-yah ="Yahweh is strong") ; but like her mother, she was an ardent protagonist of the cult of the Phoenician Baal, Melcarth. Following Jehoram’s death, she exercised the influence of the queen mother upon her son Ahaziah until his violent death at the hands of Jehu in Israel (II Kings 9:21-28) , when, shades of mother Jezebel, she proceeded to wipe out the royal family, including, of course, her own grandsons, and make herself queen. Thanks, however, to a counterscheme involving chiefly a sister of Ahaziah and her husband, Jehoiada, priest of Yahweh, one of Ahaziah’s sons named Joash was hidden and, seven years later, successfully enthroned in a revolution that was at once political and religious. Jehoiada’s role was decisive. Athaliah was slain and
Jehoiada made a covenant between Yahweh and the king and people, that they should be Yahweh’s people; and also between the king and the people. Then all the people . went to the house of Baal, and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces, and they slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. [II Kings 11:17 f.]
The revolution of Jehu in Israel had its related counterpart in Judah, but Jehoiada’s action on behalf of Yahwism in Judah was never condemned in later prophecy as Jehu’s was, and with good reason. It was engineered with purposive restraint:
All the people of the land rejoiced; and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been slain. . . . [II Kings 11:20]
Joash reigned, unfortunately without distinction, to the end of the century (c. 837-800) Like Jehu and Jehoahaz, in Israel, he suffered bitterly from the ruthless aggression of Hazael of Syria. His successor, Amaziah (c. 800-783) , "killed ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt" (II Kings 14:7) but, in an exchange of words heard in substance every day on elementary school playgrounds, provoked war with Israel that ended in Judah’s disastrous defeat (14:8-14) Popular disaffection with the reigns both of Joash and Amaziah culminated in assassination. The Davidic line continued, now with some real distinction, under the grandson and son, respectively, Uzziah (or Azariah C. 783-742)
The Kings account of Uzziah’s reign is one brief paragraph in length (Azariah, II Kings 15:1-7) ; but from Chronicles (II, ch. 26), from archaeological finds, and indirectly from the Southern prophets, Micah and Isaiah, we learn that Uzziah’s reign was a period in Judah of vast expansion in territory, in commerce and in power, corresponding to the brilliance of the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 786-746) in the North. The Chronicler cites the restoration to Judah of Eloth (II Chron. 26:2) far to the south on the shore of the Red Sea. Eloth was near Ezion-geber, the site of a commercial enterprise of Solomon, whose facilities for refining copper in the area have been excavated. According to the Chronicler, Uzziah also conquered the Philistine territory on the Mediterranean coast (26:6) , exacted tribute from Ammon (v. 8) , built up the fortifications of Jerusalem (v. 9) , and, among other accomplishments including activity in Arabia, developed the Negeb, the desert region to the south of Judah (v. 10) Archaeology provides some strong confirmation of the Chronicler’s record. All indications point to the eighth century as one of unparalleled activity in the Negeb; and a seal of Jotham, Uzziah’s son, has been recently excavated at Eziongeber.2
There can be no doubt that the wealth and power of the crown in Judah under Uzziah was exceeded only by Solomon’s reign at its peak. And the Chronicler, who sees only the glories of Solomon’s rule, informs us that Uzziah’s greatness was the reward of faithfulness to Yahweh (v. 5) Be that as it may, at least two Yahweh prophets, Isaiah and Micah, look out upon the life of Judah in the decades following Uzziah’s reign with bitter reproach and with condemnations that must fall, in part, upon Uzziah. We are forced to conclude that, as in Solomon’s day, Yahwists believed that the power, prestige, wealth and apparent security of the crown and the nation were bought at a price too dear -- widening economic disparity between rich and poor, the ruthless exploitation of society’s weaker members, a deepening acquisitiveness and an inevitably accompanying disregard of the justice and righteousness of Yahweh, the meaning of covenant, and the true practice of the Yahweh cult.
Before the end of his life Uzziah contracted leprosy, perhaps about 750 B.C. In all matters involving the public, his son Jotham acted in his place and, of course, succeeded to the throne when Uzziah died, about 742. II Kings 15 alludes to his accession only in passing (v. 7) and to his reign briefly (vv. 32 ff.) In terse fashion it describes the chaotic succession of kings in Israel following the death of Jeroboam II (c. 746) -- Zechariah (six months) , Shallum (one month), Menahem (ten years by the Kings count, but probably less; mentioned in an Assyrian inscription dated 738 B.C., confirming the notice of 15:19 that Menahem paid tribute to Assyria) , Pekahiah (parts of two years) , and finally Pekah, with a reign not of twenty years (so v. 27) but hardly more than two.3 This violent program of royal succession was, in fact, a part of Israel’s death throes.
In 745 B.C. the throne of Assyria fell to Tiglath-pileser III. Himself an able and aggressive ruler, he was followed in kind by Shalmaneser V (727-722) and Sargon II (722-705). Sargon was succeeded by Sennacherib, considerably less able than his predecessors, who reigned in Assyria until 681. The second half of the eighth century, however, saw Assyrian power at its peak. The "Pul" of II Kings 15:19 is Tiglathpileser, who exacted tribute in 738 not only from Menahem of Israel but from other small western states including Syria. There is no indication that Judah was among them.
About 735 B.C., Ahaz succeeded his father Jotham on the throne of Judah (II Kings 16:1) Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria, both facing the immediate threat of the return of Assyrian armies, at once sought alliance with Ahaz and Judah, now the most stable, and probably the most powerful of the small western states. When Ahaz refused, they lay siege to Jerusalem in the obvious hope of deposing him and, with Judah under a ruler of their own choice, forming an allied army to meet Assyria. Ahaz found himself in a desperate situation. The notice of 16:3 that he sacrificed his own son probably refers to this time. But, folly of follies, he also sent to Tiglath-pileser requesting help. He did so against the advice of the prophet Isaiah (see Isa. 7) , rightly given: Ahaz obligated himself unnecessarily, since Tiglathpileser would certainly have dispatched his armies anyway. This independent action on the part of two vassal kings was obviously mutinous in intent.
So, in 734 B.C., Assyria was back in the west again with bitter vengeance. Damascus, the capital of Syria, and north Israel were plundered, and for the first time Assyria put in practice her policy of deportation of the potentially influential elements of conquered populations from whom leadership for revolt might subsequently be drawn. These were settled in other parts of the empire, their places taken by persons similarly uprooted elsewhere.
Judah was not invaded. But Ahaz was called to Damascus in the role of a vassal and, in partial token of subservience, arranged to have a pagan altar constructed in Jerusalem (II Kings 16:10 ff.) The prophetic protest against political alliances was religiously motivated: it meant the compromise of Yahwism and the worship of alien deities.
By 732 B.C., Assyria had efficiently organized Syria and Israel, north of Samaria, into provinces and had replaced Pekah with Hoshea, who proved to be Israel’s last king. Israel’s end came quickly in 722 or 721 B.C.
In Judah, whose history is resumed in II Kings 18, Jotham is succeeded by Hezekiah about 725. This is a round number: the date remains uncertain. But one thing is very clear: from the time of Assyria’s resurgence of power in the eighth century to the setting of her sun in the closing decades of the seventh, Hezekiab was the only king of Judah seriously to contest the domination of Assyria. He expressed his defiance in two ways. He instituted a vigorous religious reform, always in the ancient Near East a gesture of independence under such circumstances; and he undertook elaborate defense measures, including the strengthening of the outer fortifications of Jerusalem and the construction of the Siloam tunnel. II Kings 20:20 alludes to the tunnel briefly; a more detailed account is given in II Chron. 32. Jerusalem’s chief source of water was the Gihon spring outside the city wall. The spring was made inaccessible to attackers and its waters were channeled in a subterranean tunnel cut through the soft limestone rock into the city. Workers, beginning at opposite ends, met in the middle; and someone, at the point of meeting, placed this inscription in the wall of the tunnel, now excavated:
The boring through is completed. And this is the story of the boring through: while yet they plied the drill, each toward his fellow, and while yet there were three cubits to be bored through, there was heard the voice of one calling to another, for there was a crevice in the rock on the right hand. And on the day of the boring through the stone-cutters struck, each to meet his fellow, drill upon drill; and the water flowed from the source to the pool for a thousand and two hundred cubits, and a hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the heads of the stone-cutters.
The tunnel is more than 1,700 feet in length. The workmen failed to meet precisely head-on, but it was for the time a superior feat of engineering.
In view of Hezekiah’s show of defiance, it is remarkable that he escaped Assyrian chastisement and humiliation for so long a time. In 711 he was in all probability party to a rebellious coalition of states including, as we know from Assyrian records, Egypt and the Philistine city-state of Ashdod. Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon from 721-710, and again for six months in 705-704, may also have been involved. His embassy to Hezekiah described in II Kings 20:12 ff. must have been sent either in 711 or in 705: and it therefore preceded the devastating invasion of the west by Sennacherib in 701 (II Kings 18:13-19:36)
Assyrian wrath was poured mercilessly on the western states, including Egypt and Ethiopia, in 701. The co-operative effort at resistance was futile. Sennacherib, whose annals were recorded on clay cylinders now recovered by archaeologists, wrote in part of this campaign as follows:
As for Hezekiab, the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke, 46 of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small cities in their neighborhood, which were without number, -- by escalade and by bringing up siege engines, by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels and breaches, I besieged and took. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep, without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. Himself, like a caged bird, I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. Earthworks I threw up against him, -- the one coming out of his city gate I turned back to his misery. The cities of his which I had despoiled I cut off from his land and to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Sillibel, king of Gaza, I gave them. And thus I diminished his land. I added to the former tribute, and laid upon him as their yearly payment, a tax in the form of gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Urbi and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. In addition to 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, there were gems, antimony, jewels, large sandstones, couches of ivory, maple, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians, which he had them bring after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude he dispatched his messengers.
The Kings account of the siege agrees substantially, although not in all details, with that of Sennacherib, who, be it noted, does not claim the actual fall of Jerusalem. Three possible reasons for the lifting of the siege appear. The first is the payment of tribute. But according to II Kings 18: 14-16, this was before the siege of Jerusalem and if in fact so, it hardly constitutes a reason for the lifting of the siege. After its payment, according to this biblical account, and before joining battle with the Egyptians at Eltekeh in southern Judah, Sennacherib expressed his continuing distrust of Hezekiah in a note of sharp warning which Hezekiah interpreted as a threat to return and destroy the city of Jerusalem. If such were the true circumstances, it is remarkable that the Assyrian siege was abandoned short of the actual capitulation of Jerusalem. It would appear that the collapse of Judah’s capital could have been accomplished then as easily as at any time in the period of Assyrian ascendancy. Morale in Jerusalem was at a near-record low. On every hand, surrounding city-states and nations were prostrate. In Judah itself, forty-six cities had been destroyed. No pride remained in Jerusalem: Hezekiah had stripped the temple, exhausted all wealth, and surrendered members of his own family in tribute.
Perhaps, as the Sennacherib inscription might imply, the besieging Assyrian forces were bought off with the tribute. The Kings account sees it differently.
A second possible reason for the abandonment of the siege is the notice of II Kings 19:7 -- the call of critical Assyrian military business elsewhere, a "rumor" of trouble in another part of the empire. A third possible reason is the sudden toll of death among the Assyrian forces by plague (the angel of the Lord, 19:35) The sequence and detail of events may now be irrecoverable and we do not doubt the influence of popular legend in the third possible explanation. But one fact is clear. Some who suffered through the siege -- king Hezekiah and prophet Isaiah among them -- believed that Assyria’s departure, by whatever visible causes induced, was a Yahweh deed on behalf of his covenant people, in accordance with his own covenant purpose. The remarkable oracle (19:20-28) attributed to Isaiah (and if not from him certainly from a contemporary) states this faith with explosive force (cf. Isa. 10:5 ff.) Yahweh to Assyria:
. . . I know your sitting down
Hezekiah survived to recoup some of his losses before his death about 686. He is one of only two kings of Judah (with Josiah, C. 640-609) to receive the unqualified endorsement of the Deuteronomic historians (II Kings 18:1-8) The evaluation is well made. If Isaiah found occasion, as certainly he did, to protest aspects of Judah’s life during Hezekiah’s long reign, prophet and king enjoyed for the most part a relationship of mutual respect, as witness Hezekiah’s dependence upon Isaiah during the fearful days of Sennacherib’s siege, and the story, augmented by legend, of Hezekiah’s illness in II Kings 20.
Hezekiah’s son and successor, Manasseh, was a man of totally different character. Biblical tradition records of him that he "shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another" (II Kings 21: i6) Extra-biblical tradition tells of the death of the aged Isaiah at Manasseh’s instigation.
B. The Book of Isaiah
There are 66 chapters in Isaiah, as the book now stands in the Old Testament canon. As long ago as the 1780’s scholars recognized that chapters 40-66 could not be the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem because they deal with, and reflect an intimate knowledge of, events in the sixth century B.C.
In chapters 1-39, chapters 36-39 are closely paralleled by II Kings 18-20, which we have just surveyed. While the prophet is prominently figured, these historical narratives are hardly from Isaiah and may well have been added to the book of Isaiah from Kings.
Chapters 34-35 are on a number of counts suspect. The per-spective appears almost certainly to be later than Isaiah and it is possible and even probable that the two chapters were an original introduction to chapters 40 ff.
This leaves us with the first 33 chapters of the book. The precise analysis of this section is exceedingly complicated and fraught with controversy, but three general observations may be drawn. (a) The block of chapters, 1-33, does not constitute an original unit, but results from the compilation of several older collections of material, each of which was gathered at a different time and by different hands. Roughly, four such collections are represented:
1-12. In large part authentically Isaianic; and mainly from the prophet’s earlier ministry.
13-23. Oracles for the most part against foreign nations with non-Isaianic material predominating.
24-27. An apocalyptic section, considerably later than Isaiah.
28-33. Isaianic material again predominating; and mainly from Isaiah’s later years.
(b) The present order of oracle and incident within these collections is not chronological. It is sometimes impossible to date a given passage, and prophetic utterances separated in time, and even in reverse order, may sometimes be found side by side.4
(c) The teachings of Isaiah of Jerusalem were preserved, altered and augmented, and reapplied to the changing historical scene for at least the next several centuries by a continuing and self-perpetuating circle of disciples.5 It is our judgment that in the present book of Isaiah much of the material admittedly not from Isaiah of Jerusalem is in a profound sense "Isaianic" in that it faithfully represents the essential theology of the eighth-century prophet.
C. The Man Isaiah
What do we know, significantly, of the person of Isaiah?
(a) He was an urbanite. Isaiah knows best the life of the city -- Jerusalem. Everything in his life that reflects his own personal experience supports this. Any intimate knowledge of his of the kingdom of Judah is confined to the city; his interest is always concentrated there. Indeed, his very language -- the similes, metaphors and illustrations that he uses -- betrays him as a man of urban mind and outlook.
(b) It is commonly assumed that Isaiah was a man of noble birth, related by blood to the wider royal family of Judah. We are reminded that he spoke unequivocally with men in high authority, from the king (e.g., Isa. 7) to the chief steward of the royal household (22:15 ff.) Isaiah’s great freedom of movement is called in evidence, his air of assurance, his apparent escape from any serious form of persecution. Perhaps Isaiah was of Jerusalem’s nobility; but if there is nothing to deny it there is, on the other hand, nothing to confirm it. We remember other prophets, before and after Isaiah, who spoke with courage and integrity in the face of the king. Other prophets were granted or fearlessly exercised freedom of movement. The forceful declaration, "Thus saith Yahweh," is of the essence of prophecy. And in the long history of Old Testament prophecy there is no recorded instance of the successful silencing of a major prophet. Some certainly suffered more public abuse than others or firmer opposition from the royal house; but Isaiah’s counsel was on occasion categorically rejected by the king (so again Isa. 7) , and he must have suffered more than once the cutting public derision to which he refers in 28:9 f. In the case of at least one prophet an apparent effort is made in an unusually extended genealogical introduction to establish royal lineage (Zeph. 1:1) Isaiah appears simply as "the son of Amoz." If he was of royal blood, canonical tradition evidently did not regard the matter as of any great consequence.
(c) He was married to a woman whom he refers to only once as "the prophetess" (8:3) He does not apparently mean a female prophet (although the term is later so used in the Old Testament of Huldah, II Kings 22:14) , but simply the wife of a prophet (cf. Duke-Duchess) In Amos’ day only a few decades earlier the term "prophet" was in disrepute in the Northern Kingdom and Amos disclaimed the title (Amos 7:14). Isaiah’s use of the term in this way suggests perhaps that prophecy in Judah had fared better; or perhaps that the work and stature of an Amos had helped to restore the term to a place of respect.
(d) The prophet and prophetess, Isaiah and wife, had to our knowledge two sons, both named, as were Hosea’s children, symbolically. The name of the first, Shear-jashub (7:3) , means "a remnant shall turn" (that is, turn back again to Yahweh) or "a remnant shall return" (for the fulfillment of the covenant, and inferentially perhaps, from exile) It is a two-sided symbol, negative and positive. "Remnant" unmistakably implies divine judgment upon the nation and, at least as interpreted by Isaiah’s disciples, catastrophic judgment falling upon the whole nation, Jerusalem included. We think Isaiah himself also envisioned it so. But on the other side, the symbol expresses the unquenchable biblical faith in divine redemption. Judgment is meted out, not vindictively nor as a merely punitive measure:
I will turn my hand against you
Judgment is a purifying fire necessitated by gross unfaithfulness in the covenant community, but positive in ultimate purpose. Yahweh is working redemptively in history: a remnant will return.
The second son is born and named when Ahaz and Judah are threatened by the Rezin-Pekah alliance, to which crisis the name (8: 1-3) has immediate and positive reference. Mahershalalhashbaz is symbolically predictive of the overthrow of Judah’s enemies: Damascus (Syria) and Samaria (Israel) will quickly become the spoil and prey of Assyria -- "the spoil speeds, the prey hastes" is the meaning of the name. On the assumption that little Mahershalalhashbaz survived (quite an assumption, with such a name) we cannot but wonder whether Isaiah may not later have referred the name in a now negative symbolism to Judah herself. The name is not mentioned again -- understandably. Our own private tradition has it that a number of the lad’s playmates in Jerusalem became incurable stutterers.
This, then, we know about the man Isaiah -- an urbanite prophet, at home in, and on intimate terms with, the life of Jerusalem, counselor (if not relative) of kings, married, the father of at least two children; and, certainly we ought to add, a man of passing eloquence. We doubt that Old Testament history ever produced a man more gifted in the use of language. Some of Isaiah’s recorded oracles must be ranked with the most beautiful and majestic passages in the world’s literature. But this is emphatically not the most significant measure of the stature of Isaiah.
D. The Prophet Isaiah
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning
The true measure of Isaiah’s stature is his mind and faith. With phenomenal sensitivity and what we may describe only as inspired judgment, he extracts from Israel’s total heritage her truest and most enduring insights, the unique qualities of her understanding of history, and the essence of her historical faith. We venture the claim not only that Isaiah is central to prophecy hut that no prophet stands more nearly in the center of biblical theology nor anticipates in such comprehensive fashion many of the affirmations of the New Testament community. Isaiah’s influence upon subsequent Old Testament theology and ultimately upon Christianity is incalculable.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. . . [6:1]
So begins the account of Isaiah’s call and commission to prophecy. So begins a description of the nearly indescribable -- one man’s sense of direct confrontation by Him whose glory fills the whole earth (v. 3). Chapter 6 has been appropriately called Isaiah’s "most revealing page." In thirteen verses the prophet lays bare the totality of his faith. Every significant affirmation, elaborated elsewhere, is at least inferentially here.
This is not to say that Isaiah presents here -- or in the sum of his oracles -- a systematic theology. He does not think systematically; indeed, the Old Testament prophet never sees himself as thinker at all, but rather as responder. He is, in the bare, plain, nonphilosophical sense of the term, an existentialist. He responds pointedly and often passionately to the specific realities of his own existence -- realities which in his understanding embrace without significant differentiation what we would call spiritual and physical phenomena. Isaiah’s call is to him just as concrete an event as his meeting with Ahaz in the next chapter and for that very reason incomparably more intense: Ahaz is only a king; Yahweh is The King, Yahweh of hosts! (6:5) The one experience is as "historical" as the other. As he meets Ahaz when Rezin and Pekah "came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it" (7:1) so he sees the Lord "in the year that King Uzziah died." Both are events, dated and located. As he confronts Ahaz "at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field" (7:3) so he is confronted by Yahweh in "the temple" (6:1)
In the formal sense of the word, then, there can be no prophetic "theology." The prophet does not draw abstractions from the concrete, generalizations from the specific. His theology is practical, never theoretical. It is articulated in relation and response to particular events in his particular existence; and when the response is made, the prophet is usually so intensely and totally absorbed that he does not concern himself with the relationship between this and some other response. His theology, then, is not only not systematic: it may appear to us to be at points inconsistent.
Chapter 6 records perhaps the most significant moment, the most influential event, in Isaiah’s life. If it is the first episode (c. 742 B.C.) in a long prophetic career, we suspect that the present account of it was created much later. We think it must represent Isaiah’s recollection of his call from the vantage point of a prophetic career long in process, although there are many who would disagree with our judgment.
The only real problem in understanding and interpreting Isa. 6 is in vv. 9 ff., Yahweh’s commission to the new prophet. It is clear that Isaiah did not know to what he would be assigned when he answered with his emphatic "Here am I! Send me" (v. 8) But in what follows it is equally clear, we think, that he recalls, early or late in his ministry, a Yahweh who speaks in bitter irony:
Go, and say to this people:
His is a prophetic ministry doomed from the outset to futility and, worse, to the intensification of the very attitudes which the prophetic mission would correct. If we could have asked Isaiah, when he came thus to understand his prophetic task, early or late, "Why go on with it at all?" we are sure he would have given answer in the words of Amos (3:8) , "The Lord Yahweh has spoken; who can but prophesy?"
It is also clear from the call that Isaiah believed Judah’s historical judgment to be inescapable. The prophet asks how long the perversity of Judah will continue, how long this people will remain fat of heart, heavy of ear, and blind of eye. Yahweh replies:
Until cities lie waste
We seriously doubt that Isaiah regarded this threat as fulfilled by Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 B.C. We are forced to conclude, from this and other references, that Isaiah, like Amos, was a prophet of doom.
We cannot systematize the theology of Isaiah; but we can easily see his strongest emphases, his dominant prophetic themes. We may list them as follows, recognizing that they are by no means mutually exclusive, that all are to some degree implicit in any one: The Covenant, the Holiness of Yahweh, the Pride and Perversity of Judah (and others), Historical Judgment, Historical Redemption, the Messianic Hope, and the Quality of Faith.
1. The Covenant
Let me sing for my beloved
Almost every recorded utterance of the eighth-century prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah) takes its meaning and relevance from the concept of covenant. It is everywhere presupposed. And yet the specific Hebrew term for covenant, berith (as in B’nai B’rith = "children of the covenant") is not once employed in a passage of undisputed authenticity for the covenant between Yahweh and Israel ("Israel" now in the sense in which Isaiah commonly uses it, for the total covenant community)
Why, when the concept of covenant is crucial to all they say, do they apparently deliberately avoid the term? We can only guess that in the eighth century, these four prophets, at least, believed that the term as commonly employed was misused, abused, distorted in meaning. Amos gives us a brilliant example of the diametric difference between popular :and prophetic interpretation in what he has to say about the Day of Yahweh (Amos 5:18-20) From Isaiah we read:
Woe to those. . . who say: "Let him [Yahweh] make haste,
This may well refer to the same Day of Yahweh; and it may at the same time answer our question. In the popular understanding of the covenant, Israel is unqualifiedly guaranteed a happy and speedy issue out of all her difficulties. The prophets apprehend a vaster and more profound covenant purpose and covenant obligation. The covenant will ultimately issue in Yahweh’s, not Israel’s, glory; and if Israel is oblivious to her own obligations under covenant, she will come under a historical judgment the more severe because of her peculiarly intimate relationship with Yahweh (so Amos 3:2) Isaiah may well have in mind, in part, the popular perversion of the covenant concept when he cries of his own generation:
They are a rebellious people, lying sons,
Give us a smooth covenant. Leave us with our illusion that all is well; that Yahweh is ours, and not we his!
Isaiah eschews the term; but he renders the prophetic understanding of the covenant unforgettable in all that he says, and most eloquently, in the Song of the Vineyard (5:1-7) The covenant between Yahweh and Israel is likened to the relationship between a man and his vineyard. When he is lavish in his care of it, it yields not the good grapes he has every right to expect, but, literally (at the end of v. 2) vile-smelling grapes. Now Isaiah drops the third person and speaks for Yahweh in the prophetic first person:
Judge, I pray you, between me
What more could Yahweh do for Israel than he has done? Life, land and possessions she owes to him. And he?
He looked for justice [mish pat],
The "inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah" (v. 3) have themselves vitiated the covenant. And Isaiah defies, as he does repeatedly, the common plea that he speak smooth things. Yahweh will remove his care from this perverse vineyard -- nay, he will destroy it!
I will remove its hedge. . . .
This must be; for Yahweh is the Holy One of Israel.
2. The Holiness of Yahweh
Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts;
Yahweh of hosts is exalted in justice [mish pat],
The phrase, "the Holy One of Israel" (or of Jacob, or, simply, "the Holy One") , appears some thirty times in the book of Isaiah, and about twelve times in oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the Old Testament it appears only about ten times, and possibly earlier than Isaiah only once (Hos. 11:9) Yahweh as the Holy One is distinctly and characteristically Isaianic.
What does Isaiah mean to convey by the Holiness of Yahweh? Why do his hearers come at length to cry in exasperation, "Let us hear no more of the Holy One of Israel!" (30:11b) ? "Holy" was an ancient term in Canaan, a primitive term long current in fertility religions. The holy was the separate -- that which was set apart as pertaining exclusively to the deity. The same Hebrew root was used in the designation of the sacred prostitutes attached to the Canaanite shrines.
Isaiah’s characteristic employment of the term represents a phenomenal subsuming and refinement of the primitive idea of holiness. It is common to say that Isaiah gives an ethical content to the term. Obviously he does: justice and righteousness belong to the Holiness of Yahweh (so 5:16, quoted above) But for Isaiah the term embraces vastly more than Yahweh’s ethical attributes. Yahweh is holy. Holiness is Yahweh. It is that without which Yahweh would be not Yahweh -- without which Yahweh would not be. The holiness of Yahweh conveys Isaiah’s intense practical monotheism: in his call he hears the attendant seraphim (presumably -- we are not certain -- images of winged creatures with serpentine bodies) praising the holiness of Yahweh as glory filling the whole earth. The covenant is always implicit in the term: it is repeatedly the Holy One of Israel; it is for Isaiah as it is put in Hosea (11:9) "the Holy One in your midst." But if holiness is the sum total of deity, it is never deity contemplated mystically, exclusively transcendent, totally "other." Holiness does convey transcendence and otherness but, paradoxically, it forcefully implies at the same time the full impingement of the "Other" upon the life of the world and, with particular purpose in a unique relationship, upon Israel. Martin Buber has aptly called this quality of holiness "radiation."6 For Isaiah and the prophets there is no god but God-in-life-and-history. Yahweh’s holiness alone explains the meaning of existence. As Holy One he is Judge in human history. As Holy One he is also Redeemer.
3. The Pride and Perversity of Judah
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
They have despised the Holy One of Israel,
In metered lines, and employing the parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry, Isaiah decries the perversity of the covenant people. To allege that this is exclusively or even primarily an ethical protest on the part of the prophet is a woeful misapprehension. The Holiness of Yahweh does involve the divine demand for justice and righteousness; and Isaiah follows Amos in the categorical condemnation of Israel’s social sins (see, e.g., 1:16-17, 21-23: 3:14 f. -- "grinding the face of the poor" ! -- and 5:23) Indeed, Isaiah literally damns the total structure of the formal Yahweh cult not for the cult itself but because the ceremonial practice is accompanied, in the grossest hypocrisy, by a corporate life of injustice, oppression and violence. Thus saith Yahweh: "I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly." [1: 13c].
This people draw near with their mouth
Nevertheless, Isaiah clearly understands that social iniqiuity is only symptomatic of a deep and (as we think Isaiah means it) fatal malignancy. Isaiah sees in Judah a willful and total rebellion of covenant man against covenant God. It is unmitigated, uncompromised, unrelieved -- and scandalous -- alienation.
The whole head is sick,
The malignancy is, in a word, pride, and Isaiah repeatedly probes it out in a variety of approaches.
You turn things upside down!
Their land [the land of Yahweh’s people] is filled
"Woe to the rebellious children," says Yahweh,
All this is covenant man pridefully denying the covenant God -- assuming autonomy, creating gods; and putting trust in alliances (Egypt in this case) , in a covenant made with men.
In one of Isaiah’s oracles, his prophetic ire against pride in every form sweeps up for condemnation an astonishing category of objects:
For Yahweh of hosts has a day
But hear the climax!
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
We think Isaiah comes very close here to a "doctrine" of man. We are not forgetting what we have called the existential reference -- the sharp, specific allusion to the concrete realities of Isaiah’s existence; but here, on wings of furious prophetic indignation, Isaiah moves north to Lebanon, west across the Jordan to Bashan, on somewhere, anywhere, to the mountains -- and then to the symbols of human pride, the high towers, the fortified cities, and the proud, frail craft that sail the seas. The pride that renders Judah sick unto dying is the more critical because it is shared -- by all men!
No, Isaiah would not have said this. He approaches, but only approaches, a theological doctrine of man. He does so also when the pride of Assyria is condemned, a pride that says,
My hand has found like a nest
Assyria is prey to the same pride, and subject to the same prophetic condemnation. She did not do this by the strength of her own hand, as she boasts (10:13) but as the rod of Yahweh’s anger (10:14)
Shall the ax vaunt itself over him who hews with it,
If we are not sure how far Isaiah consciously carried his indictment of human pride, we know he saw it as a sickness that would ultimately bring ruin upon Assyria (10:12, 16-18) as well as Judah. Yahweh, Author of the covenant, the Holy One of Israel, visits historical judgment upon human pride and perversity.
4. Historical Judgment
Thus says the Holy One of Israel,
The city of Jerusalem was twice put to siege during the ministry of Isaiah; first in 735 or 734 by Rezin and Pekah, and again in 701 by Sennacherib. On both occasions Isaiah apparently predicted the lifting of the siege. Of the conspiracy between Syria and Ephraim, Isaiah declared to Ahaz, "Thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand . . . (7:7) ; and in a recorded oracle already quoted (the authenticity of which has sometimes been questioned) , the prophet directs this word of Yahweh to the besieging Assyrians:
Because you have raged against me
And yet Isaiah, for all that Jerusalem and the Temple meant to him, apparently remained convinced throughout his ministry that judgment would ultimately fall upon Judah and Jerusalem. In the first crisis he confronted Ahaz with a son symbolically named "A remnant shall return"; and he stated an article of faith fundamental to his whole ministry:
If you will not believe,
Probably shortly after Sennacherib’s siege he delivered an oracle to his own people far more severe than that directed against Assyria. The threatened population had not been humbled by that historical chastisement. Bitterly and with finality Isaiah spoke:
In that day the Lord Yahweh of hosts,
And as we saw earlier in the present discussion, Isaiah expresses in the account of his call (ch. 6) his conviction that the nation will suffer judgment. "How long, O Lord," he asks -- how long will her perversity endure? "Until cities lie waste. . . and Yahweh removes men far away." We observe the probability, of course, that the prophetic word of doom is nearly always implicitly qualified by contingency -- that is, the fulfillment of the dire expectation is contingent upon the continuation of the conditions which call it forth. Hope is often implicit in the most passionate prophetic denunciations: in the midst of an extended indictment, Isaiah cries,
Come now, let us reason together,
Nevertheless, Isaiah quite apparently believes that the covenant rebellion of the nation -- this people, this people of unclean lips -- is so obdurate, so deep, so firmly established, so pervertedly willed that there will be no turning, no repentance and therefore no redemption until the nation has passed catastrophically under the judgment of Yahweh. So far as the prophet himself is concerned, the contingent possibility of quiet salvation through repentance is an impossible possibility: Israel’s redemption, and the ultimate fulfillment of Yahweh’s covenant purpose -- these lie now only beyond judgment. "If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established" (7:9)
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
"In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength."
And you would not, but you said, "No!" [30:15]
5. Historical Redemption
Immanuel = With Us is -- God!
The final prophetic word is not judgment but redemption. Judgment is the wrath of Yahweh, but it is a purposive and constructive wrath, not a vindictive wrath. Judgment is not an end in itself, is not merely punitive. Judgment is the divine extremity to make redemption possible.
I will turn my hand against you
In the bitterly controverted "Immanuel" section (7:10-17; see also 8:8) we simply do not know -- and cannot know -- the identity of the child to be so named. It does not matter: the name is symbolic -- With Us is God. It is God who is with us, the Holy One of Israel in our midst. His declared purpose from of old is to bless, through Abraham and Israel, all the families of the earth (see Gen. 12:3, an expression, probably of the faith of the J writer in the tenth century B.C.) It is his purpose in history to redeem, to reconcile rebellious man with himself. But it is God who is with us. It is redemption on his terms -- terms which Isaiah understands as quietness, confidence, trust, belief in Yahweh. If Israel will not submit to his terms, then he will bring her to submission in judgment, in fire, in purge. His purpose will be fulfilled in history: with us is God!
Only a remnant will survive; but a remnant will continue in history, fulfilling the purposes of Yahweh. It is God who is with us. Beyond tragedy there is always hope. It is the nature of God to forgive and redeem. The salvation that Isaiah himself experienced in the symbol of fire, the remnant will know beyond the fire of death and destruction.
Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." [6:6 f.]
Nearly two centuries later, Isaiah’s most distinguished disciple understood his own mission to the survivors of Israel in these terms:
Comfort, comfort my people,
As the purged and forgiven Isaiah is charged with a mission to his own nation, so the same disciple sees the purged and forgiven nation charged with a mission to the world:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
Israel (now Judah and Jerusalem) is understood and interpreted in the faith of Isaiah in terms of the covenant relationship with Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel. Her total violation of the covenant in pride and perversity renders her incapable of fulfilling Yahweh’s covenant purpose. She will be brought under a tragic divine judgment from which only a remnant will emerge -- but a purified remnant, reestablished in the covenant and capable again of glorifying Yahweh. God is with us. A remnant shall return. Yahweh saves.
6. The Messianic Hope
Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for Yahweh, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom Yahweh has given me are signs and portents in Israel from Yahweh of hosts. . . .
It is the message of hope and redemption that is sealed, not on lifeless parchment but in the living faith of Isaiah’s disciples. The full message of Yahweh’s grace, forgiveness and continued covenant activity must await the judgment, lest its proclamation further fatten the already fat hearts and dull the already insensitive faculties of this people. This message in full is released by Second Isaiah in the latter half of the sixth century, following Judah’s destruction at the hands of Babylon.
But by one means or another, as we believe, the living seal failed to seal utterly. Isaiah himself may have broken it. Perhaps some of his disciples, earlier than Second Isaiah, were unable for whatever reasons to hold back the message of redemption. In any case we find in the earliest collection of Isaianic material two oracles eloquently proclaiming a redemptive faith. We think 9:2-7 and 11:1-9 are authentic and indeed that the tide of critical judgment against the passages is turning.
We shall not quote them, but we urge their careful rereading, mindful of our discussion here. There is nothing in either incompatible with what we understand elsewhere about the faith of Isaiah. Both are Messianic -- that is, simply, both look forward to the coming of a Messiah, an "anointed one. But this projection into the future is in full continuity with the present. Somewhere beyond the judgment of Yahweh upon the nation, the Davidic rule, which Isaiah never protests as such, will be re-established and the covenant purpose fulfilled. This is historical redemption, to be effected by the continuation of Yahweh’s mighty deeds -- "the zeal of Yahweh of hosts will do this" (9:7) -- but in and through and out of the very real exigencies of history. If Isaiah’s Messianism has an eschatological flavor, that is, if it anticipates a growing concern in subsequent centuries with the "last things," we may remark that this is, for Isaiah, the goal of history; that Isaiah may indeed be the father of Jewish and Christian eschatology; but that for Isaiah it is a "natural" and consistent development of a very real covenant history.
7. The Quality of Faith
Isaiah to the king (Hezekiah?) :
In that day you looked to the weapons of the house of the forest [Lebanon -- the reference is to Judah’s arsenal], and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many, and you collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him [Yahweh] who planned it long ago. [22:8-11]
For Isaiah, there is only one alternative to frustration, defeat and death, and that is absolute faith in Yahweh. We almost hear him say, He that would save his life must lose it.8 He does say, If you will not believe you shall not be established. We think Isaiah is misread as a pacifist. Certainly he is misread as a "quietist" if the term connotes the deprecation of human effort. Isaiah never condemns human effort per se, but the attitude in which human effort is undertaken. Trust in the work of human hands -- any kind of work -- is iniquitous when that work is conceived as itself the ultimate end. In the words quoted above, Isaiah says in effect, What you have done is in fact what Yahweh would have had you do, but is it brought to nought because you have put your faith, your trust, in what you have done and not in him in whose wisdom and for whose purposes all must be done.
And this brings to a head the essential point in the inter-pretation of the prophets, the so-called ethical prophets. But we can say it better in the categories of social ethics of our own time. In terms, then, of our own time, human effort, social reform, slum clearance, decent wages and working hours and living standards, racial understanding, human brotherhood, world government, adequate medical care, the alleviation of human suffering, the promotion of human rights, the establishment of personal security -- all of this, to be sure, we acknowledge as "good" and, hopefully, we work, we expend effort, toward these ends. But if these are ends in themselves -- if the "good" society becomes God -- then the unqualified prophetic word (right or wrong, and this we are not arguing) pronounces upon them the sentence of damnation. Good in themselves, these efforts become diabolical and doomed to defeat when they are themselves the end, and man is made God. "You did not have regard for him who planned it long ago."
If Isaiah does not say, as a creed of the Christian church puts it, The end of man is to glorify God, he does say with his sharp existential reference to Judah that it is the sole end of covenant man to glorify Yahweh!
We think the faith of Isaiah anticipates remarkably a quality of the faith of Paul, that great Christian apostle to the nations. Paul makes explicit what is always centrally implicit in Isaiah: "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23b) This declaration, implicit or explicit, that whatever man does is accursed except it be done to the glory of God appears to us to be either the revelation of God himself or, as some would say, the excretion of a diseased mind.
1This, and all subsequent dates in this chapter, are after pp. 29 ff.
2Ibid., pp. 39 f.
3The introductory formula (supplied by the Deuteron of Kings) usually correlates the reign of the king in question ruling king in the sister kingdom (see, e.g., I Kings 15:1 exclusively internal synchronism makes absolute dating difficult if not impossible. In most instances, scholars have been able only to approximate the dates of accession and death. For a discussion of the nature of the problem, see T. H. Robinson, op. cit., "The Chronology of the Regal Period." pp 454 ff.
4For treatment of the literary problem of Isaiah, see Peake (ed.) op. cit. p. 436; more exhaustively Pfeiffer, op. cit., pp. 416-21; more conservatively, with the literary problem placed sensitively in the context of theology and history, John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1953) , pp. 71 ff.
5Isa. 8:16; and see Martin Buber (tr. Carlyle Witton-Davies, from the Hebrew) , The Prophetic Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1949), pp. 147 and 202 ff. Aage Bentzen also speaks of Isaiah’s "circle of disciples" in Introduction to the Old Testament (Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gad, 2nd, and two-vol. ed., 1952), II, p. l08..
6Op. cit., p. 136.
7Some scholars question the authenticity of this passage. Granting that the verses which immediately follow (Isa. 29:17-24 are probably "Deutero-Isaianic milieu" (Buber, op. cit., p. 208), the case against 29:16 is, in my judgment, quite inconclusive.
8Mark 8:35, Matt. 10:39, Luke 9:24; cf. John 12:25.