Among the writers whom the Hebrew Bible styles the "Latter Prophets" foremost stands "Isaias, the holy prophet . . . the great prophet, and faithful in the sight of God" (Ecclus., xlviii, 23-25).
The name Isaias signifies "Yahweh is salvation". It assumes two different forms in the Hebrew Bible: for in the text of the Book of Isaias and in the historical writings of the Old Testament, for example in IV Kings, xix, 2; II Par., xxvi, 22; xxxii, 20, 32, it is read Yeshá`yahu, whereas the collection of the Prophet's utterances is entitled Yeshá`yah, in Greek `Esaías, and in Latin usually Isaias, but sometimes Esaias. Four other persons of the same name are mentioned in the Old Testament (I Esd., viii, 7; viii, 19; II Esd., xi, 7; I Par., xxvi, 25); while the names Jesaia (I Par., xxv, 15), Jeseias (I Par., iii, 21; xxv, 3) may be regarded as mere variants. From the Prophet himself (i, 1; ii, 1) we learn that he was the son of Amos. Owing to the similarity between Latin and Greek forms of this name and that of the Shepherd-Prophet of Thecue, some Fathers mistook the Prophet Amos for the father of Isaias. St. Jerome in the preface to his "Commentary on Amos" (P.L., XXV, 989) points out this error. Of Isaias's ancestry we know nothing; but several passages of his prophecies (iii, 1-17, 24; iv, 1; viii, 2; xxxi, 16) lead us to believe that he belonged to one of the best families of Jerusalem. A Jewish tradition recorded in the Talmud (Tr. Megilla, 10b.) held him to be a nephew of King Amasias. As to the exact time of the Prophet's birth we lack definite data; yet he is believed to have been about twenty years of age when he began his public ministry. He was a citizen, perhaps a native, of Jerusalem. His writings give unmistakable signs of high culture. From his prophecies (vii and viii) we learn that he married a woman whom he styles "the prophetess" and that he had two sons, She`arYashub and Mahershalalhashbaz. Nothing whatever indicates that he was twice married as some fancy on the gratuitous and indefensible supposition that the `almah of vii, 14, was his wife.
The prophetical ministry of Isaias lasted wellnigh half a century, from the closing year of Ozias, King of Juda, possibly up to that of Manasses. This period was one of great prophetical activity. Israel and Juda indeed were in sore need of guidance. After the death of Jeroboam II revolution followed upon revolution and the northern kingdom had sunk rapidly into an abject vassalage to the Assyrians. The petty nations of the West, however, recovering from the severe blows received in the beginning of the eighth century, were again manifesting aspirations of independence. Soon Theglathphalasar III marched his armies towards Syria; heavy tributes were levied and utter ruin threatened on those who would show any hesitation to pay. In 725 Osee, the last King of Samaria, fell miserably under the onslaught of Salmanasar IV, and three years later Samaria succumbed to the hands of the Assyrians. In the meantime the Kingdom of Juda hardly fared better. A long period of peace had enervated characters, and the young, inexperienced, and unprincipled Achaz was no match for the SyroIsraelite coalition which confronted him. Panicstricken he, in spite of the remonstrances of Isaias, resolved to appeal to Theglathphalasar. The help of Assyria was secured, but the independence of Juda was thereby practically forfeited. In order to explain clearly the political situation to which so many allusions are made in Isaias's writings there is here subjoined a brief chronological sketch of the period: 745, Theglathphalasar III, king of Assyria; Azarias (A. V. Uzziah), of Juda; Manahem (A. V. Menahem) of Samaria; and Sua of Egypt; 740, death of Azarias; Joatham (A. V. Jotham), king of Juda; capture of Arphad (A. V. Arpad) by Theglathphalasar III (Is., x, 9); 738, campaign of Theglathphalasar against Syria; capture of Calano (A. V. Calno) and Emath (A. V. Hamath); heavy tribute imposed upon Manahem (IV Kings, xv, 19-20); victorious wars of Joatham against the Ammonites (II Par., xxvii, 4-6); 736, Manahem succeeded by Phaceia (A. V. Pekahiah); 735, Joatham succeeded by Achaz (IV Kings, xvi, 1); Phaceia replaced by Phacee (A. V. Pekah), son of Remelia (A. V. Remaliah), one of his captains; Jerusalem besieged by Phacee in alliance with Rasin (A. V. Rezin), king of Syria (IV Kings xvi, 5; Is., vii, 1, 2); 734, Theglathphalasar, replying to Achaz' request for aid, marches against Syria and Israel, takes several cities of North and East Israel (IV Kings, xv, 29), and banishes their inhabitants; the Assyrian allies devastate part of the territory of Juda and Jerusalem; Phacee slain during a revolution in Samaria and succeeded by Osee (A. V. Hoshea); 733, unsuccessful expeditions of Achaz against Edom (II Par., xxviii, 17) and the Philistines (20); 732, campaign of Theglathphalasar against Damascus; Rasin besieged in his capital, captured, and slain; Achaz goes to Damascus to pay homage to the Assyrian ruler (IV Kings, xvi, 10-19); 727, death of Achaz; accession of Ezechias (IV Kings, xviii, 1); in Assyria Salmanasar IV succeeds Theglathphalasar III, 726, campaign of Salmanasar against Osee (IV Kings, xvii, 3); 725, Osee makes alliance with Sua, king of Egypt (IV Kings, xvii, 4); second campaign of Salmanasar IV, resulting in the capture and deportation of Osee (IV Kings, xvii, 4); beginning of the siege of Samaria; 722, Sargon succeeds Salmanasar IV in Assyria; capture of Samaria by Sargon; 720, defeat of Egyptian army at Raphia by Sargon; 717, Charcamis, the Hittite stronghold on the Euphrates, falls into the hands of Sargon (Is, x, 8); 713, sickness of Ezechias (IV Kings, xx, 1-11; Is, xxxviii); embassy from Merodach Baladan to Ezechias (IV Kings, xx, 12-13; Is., xxxix); 711, invasion of Western Palestine by Sargon; siege and capture of Azotus (A. V. Ashdod; Is., xx); 709, Sargon defeats Merodach Baladan, seizes Babylon, and assumes title of king of Babylon; 705, death of Sargon; accession of Sennacherib; 701, expedition of Sennacherib against Egypt; defeat of latter at Elteqeh; capture of Accaron (A. V. Ekron); siege of Lachis; Ezechias's embasy; the conditions laid down by Sennacherib being found too hard the king of Juda prepares to resist the Assyrians; destruction of part of the Assyrian army; hurried retreat of the rest (IV Kings, xviii; Is., xxxvi, xxxvii); 698, Ezechias is succeeded by his son Manasses. The wars of the ninth century and the peaceful security following them produced their effects in the latter part of the next century. Cities sprang up; new pursuits, although affording opportunities of easy wealth, brought about also an increase of poverty. The contrast between class and class became daily more marked, and the poor were oppressed by the rich with the connivance of the judges. A social state founded on iniquity is doomed. But as Israel's social corruption was greater than Juda's, Israel was expected to succumb first. Greater likewise was her religious corruption. Not only did idolatrous worship prevail there to the end, but we know from Osee what gross abuses and shameful practices obtained in Samaria and throughout the kingdom, whereas the religion of the people of Juda on the whole seems to have been a little better. We know, however, as regards these, that at the very time of Isaias certain forms of idolatrous worship, like that of Nohestan and of Moloch, probably that also of Tammur and of the "host of heaven", were going on in the open or in secret.
Commentators are at variance as to when Isaias was called to the prophetical office. Some think that previous to the vision related in vi, 1, he had received communications from heaven. St. Jerome in his commentary on the passage holds that chapters i-v ought to be attributed to the last years of King Ozias, then ch. vi would commence a new series begun in the year of the death of that prince (740 B.C.; P.L., XXIV, 91; cf. St. Gregory Nazianzen, Orat. ix; P.G., XXXV, 820). It is more commonly held, however, that ch. vi refers to the first calling of the Prophet; St. Jerome himself, in a letter to Pope Damasus seems to adopt this view (P. L., XXII, 371; cf. Hesychius "In Is.", P.G. XCIII, 1372), and St. John Chrysostom, commenting upon Is., vi, 5, very aptly contrasts the promptness of the Prophet with the tergiversations of Moses and Jeremias. On the other hand, since no prophecies appear to be later than 701 B.C., it is doubtful if Isaias saw the reign of Manasses at all; still a very old and widespread tradition, echoed by the Mishna (Tr. Yebamoth, 49b; cf. Sanhedr., 103b), has it that the Prophet survived Ezechias and was slain in the persecution of Manasses (IV Kings, xxi, 16). This prince had him convicted of blasphemy, because he had dared say: "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne" (vi, 1), a pretension in conflict with God's own assertion in Exod., xxxiii, 20: "Man shall not see me and live". He was accused, moreover, of having predicted the ruin of Jerusalem and called the holy city and the people of Juda by the accursed names of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the "Ascension of Isaias", the Prophet's martyrdom consisted in being sawed asunder. Tradition shows this to have been unhesitatingly believed. The Targum on IV Kings, xxi, 6, admits it; it is preserved in two treatises of the Talmud (Yebamoth, 49b; Sanhedr., 103b); St. Justin (Dial. c. Tryph., cxx), and many of the Fathers adopted it, taking as unmistakable allusions to Isaias those words of the Heb., xi, 37, "they (the ancients) were cut asunder" (cf. Tertullian, "De patient.", xiv; P.L., I, 1270; Orig., "In Is., Hom." I, 5, P.G., XIII, 223; "In Matt.", x, 18, P.G., XIII, 882; "In Matt.", Ser. 28, P.G., XIII, 1637; "Epist. ad Jul. Afr.", ix, P.G., XI, 65; St. Jerome, "In Is.", lvii, 1, P.L., XXIV, 546-548; etc.). However, little trust should be put in the strange details mentioned in the "De Vit. Prophet." of pseudoEpiphanius (P.G., XLIII, 397, 419). The date of the Prophet's demise is not known. The Roman Martyrology commemorates Isaias on 6 July. His tomb is believed to have been in Paneas in Northern Palestine, whence his relics were taken to Constantinople in A.D. 442.
The literary activity of Isaias is attested by the canonical book which bears his name; moreover allusion is made in II Par., xxvi, 22, to "Acts of Ozias first and last . . . written by Isaias, the son of Amos, the prophet". Another passage of the same book informs us that "the rest of the acts of Ezechias and his mercies, are written in the Vision of Isaias, son of Amos, the prophet", in the Book of the Kings of Juda and Israel. Such at least is the reading of the Massoretic Bible, but its text here, if we may judge from the variants of the Greek and St. Jerome, is somewhat corrupt. Most commentators who believe the passage to be authentic think that the writer refers to Is., xxxvi-xxxix. We must finally mention the "Ascension of Isaias", at one time attributed to the Prophet, but never admitted into the Canon.
Appreciation of IsaiahEdit
It may not be useless shortly to set forth the prominent features of the great Prophet, doubtless one of the most striking personalities in Hebrew history. Without holding any official position, it fell to the lot of Isaias to take an active part during well nigh forty troublesome years in controlling the policy of his country. His advice and rebukes were sometimes unheeded, but experience finally taught the rulers of Juda that to part from the Prophet's views meant always a setback for the political situation of Juda. In order to understand the trend of his policy it is necessary to remember by what principle it was animated. This principle he derived from his unshaken faith in God governing the world, and particularly His own people and the nations coming in contact with the latter. The people of Juda, forgetful of their God, given to idolatrous practices and social disorders of many kinds, had paid little heed to former warnings. One thing only alarmed them, namely that hostile nations were threatening Juda on all sides; but were they not the chosen people of God? Certainly He would not allow His own nation to be destroyed, even as others had been. In the meantime prudence dictated that the best possible means be taken to save themselves from present dangers. Syria and Israel were plotting against Juda and her king; Juda and her king would appeal to the mighty nation of the North, and later to the King of Egypt.
Isaias would not hear aught of this shortsighted policy, grounded only on human prudence, or a false religious confidence, and refusing to look beyond the moment. Juda was in terrible straits; God alone could save her; but the first condition laid down for the manifestation of His power was moral and social reformation. Syrians, Ephraimites, Assyrians, and all the rest were but the instruments of the judgment of God, the purpose of which is the overthrow of sinners. Certainly Yahweh will not allow His people to be utterly destroyed; His covenant He will keep; but it is vain to hope that welldeserved chastisement may be escaped. From this view of the designs of God never did the faith of Isaias waver. He first proclaimed this message at the beginning of the reign of Achaz. The king and his counsellors saw no salvation for Juda except in an alliance with, that is an acknowledgment of vassalage to, Assyria. This the Prophet opposed with all his might. With his keen foresight he had clearly perceived that the real danger to Juda was not from Ephraim and Syria, and that the intervention of Assyria in the affairs of Palestine involved a complete overthrow of the balance of power along the Mediterranean coast. Moreover, the Prophet entertained no doubt but that sooner or later a conflict between the rival empires of the Euphrates and the Nile must arise, and then their hosts would swarm over the land of Juda. To him it was clear that the course proposed by Juda's selfconceited politicians was like the mad flight of "silly doves", throwing themselves headlong into the net. Isaias's advice was not followed and one by one the consequences he had foretold were realized. However, he continued to proclaim his prophetical views of the current events. Every new event of importance is by him turned into a lesson not only to Juda but to all the neighbouring nations. Damascus has fallen; so will the drunkards and revellers of Samaria see the ruin of their city. Tyre boasts of her wealth and impregnable position; her doom is no less decreed, and her fall will all the more astound the world. Assyria herself, fattened with the spoils of all nations, Assyria "the rod of God's vengeance", when she will have accomplished her providential destiny, shall meet with her fate. God has thus decreed the doom of all nations for the accomplishment of His purposes and the establishment of a new Israel cleansed from all past defilements.
Judean politicians towards the end of the reign of Ezechias had planned an alliance with the King of Egypt against Assyria and carefully concealed their purpose from the Prophet. When the latter came to know the preparations for rebellion, it was already too late to undo what had been done. But he could at least give vent to his anger (see Is., xxx), and we know both from the Bible and Sennacherib's own account of the campaign of 701 how the Assyrian army routed the Egyptians at Altaku (Elteqeh of Jos., xix, 44), captured Accaron, and sent a detachment to ravage Juda; Jerusalem, closely invested, was saved only by the payment of an enormous ransom. The vindication of Isaias's policy, however, was not yet complete. The Assyrian army withdrew; but Sennacherib, apparently thinking it unsafe to leave in his wake a fortified city like Jerusalem, demanded the immediate surrender of Ezechias's capital. At the command of Ezechias, no answer was given to the message; but the king humbly bade Isaias to intercede for the city. The Prophet had for the king a reassuring message. But the respite in the Judean capital was short. Soon a new Assyrian embassy arrived with a letter from the king containing an ultimatum. In the panic-stricken city there was a man of whom Sennacherib had taken no account; it was by him that the answer was to be given to the ultimatum of the proud Assyrians: "The virgin, the daughter of Sion hath despised thee and laughed thee to scorn; . . . He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow into it. . . . By the way that he came, he shall return, and into this city he shall not come, saith the Lord" (xxxvii, 22, 33). We know in reality how a sudden catastrophe overtook the Assyrian army and God's promise was fulfilled. This crowning vindication of the Divinely inspired policy of Isaias prepared the hearts of the Jews for the religious reformation brought about by Ezechias, no doubt along lines laid down by the Prophet.
In reviewing the political side of Isaias's public life, we have already seen something of his religious and social ideas; all these view-points were indeed most intimately connected in his teaching. It may be well now to dwell a little more fully on this part of the Prophet's message. Isaias's description of the religious condition of Juda in the latter part of the eighth century is anything but flattering. Jerusalem is compared to Sodom and Gomorrah; apparently the bulk of the people were superstitious rather than religious. Sacrifices were offered out of routine; withcraft and divination were in honour; nay more, foreign deities were openly invoked side by side with the true God, and in secret the immoral worship of some of these idols was widely indulged in, the higher-class and the Court itself giving in this regard an abominable example. Throughout the kingdom there was corruption of higher officials, ever-increasing luxury among the wealthy, wanton haughtiness of women, ostentation among the middle-class people, shameful partiality of the judges, unscrupulous greed of the owners of large estates, and oppression of the poor and lowly. The Assyrian suzerainty did not change anything in this woeful state of affairs. In the eyes of Isaias this order of things was intolerable; and he never tired repeating it could not last. The first condition of social reformation was the downfall of the unjust and corrupt rulers; the Assyrians were the means appointed by God to level their pride and tyranny with the dust. With their mistaken ideas about God, the nation imagined He did not concern Himself about the dispositions of His worshippers. But God loathes sacrifices offered by ". . . hands full of blood. Wash yourselves, be clean, . . . relieve the oppressed, judge for the fatherless, defend the widow. . . . But if you will not, . . . the sword shall devour you" (i, 15-20). God here appears as the avenger of disregarded human justice as much as of His Divine rights. He cannot and will not let injustice, crime, and idolatry go unpunished. The destruction of sinners will inaugurate an era of regeneration, and a little circle of men faithful to God will be the first-fruits of a new Israel free from past defilements and ruled by a scion of David's House. With the reign of Ezechias began a period of religious revival. Just how far the reform extended we are not able to state; local sanctuaries around which heathenish abuses had gathered were suppressed, and many `asherîm and masseboth were destroyed. It is true the times were not ripe for a radical change, and there was little response to the appeal of the Prophet for moral amendment and redress of social abuses.
The Fathers of the Church, echoing the eulogy of Jesus, son of Sirach (Ecclus., xlviii, 25-28), agree that Isaias was the greatest of the literary Prophets (Euseb., "Præp. Evang.", v, 4, P.G., XXII, 370; "Synops. Script. S.", among the works of St. Athan., P.G., XXXVIII, 363; St. Cyril of Jerusalem, "In Is., Prooem.", P.G., LXX, 14; St. Isidore of Pelus., "Epist.", i, 42, P.G., LXXVIII, 208; Theodoret., "In Is. Argum.", P.G., LXXXI, 216; St. Jerome, "Prol. in Is.", P.L., XXIV, 18; "Præf. ad Paul. et Eustoch.", P.L., XXXII, 769; "De civ. Dei", XVIII, xxix, 1, P. L., XLI, 585, etc.). Isaias's poetical genius was in every respect worthy of his lofty position as a Prophet. He is unsurpassed in poetry, descriptive, lyric, or elegiac. There is in his compositions an uncommon elevation and majesty of conception, and an unparalleled wealth of imagery, never departing, however, from the utmost propriety, elegance, and dignity. He possessed an extraordinary power of adapting his language both to occasions and audiences; sometimes he displays most exquisite tenderness, and at other times austere severity; he successively assumes a mother's pleading and irresistible tone, and the stern manner of an implacable judge, now making use of delicate irony to bring home to his hearers what he would have them understand, and then pitilessly shattering their fondest illusions or wielding threats which strike like mighty thunderbolts. His rebukes are neither impetuous like those of Osee nor blustering like those of Amos; he never allows the conviction of his mind or the warmth of his heart to overdraw any feature or to overstep the limits assigned by the most exquisite taste. Exquisite taste indeed is one of the leading features of the Prophet's style. This style is rapid, energetic, full of life and colour, and withal always chaste and dignified. It moreover manifests a wonderful command of language. It has been justly said that no Prophet ever had the same command of noble throughts; it may be as justly added that never perhaps did any man utter lofty thoughts in more beautiful language. St. Jerome rejected the idea that Isaias's prophecies were true poetry in the full sense of the word (Præf. in Is., P.L., XXVIII, 772). Nevertheless the authority of the illustrious Robert Lowth, in his "Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews" (1753), esteemed "the whole book of Isaiah to be poetical, a few passages excepted, which if brought together, would not at most exceed the bulk of five or six chapters". This opinion of Lowth, at first scarcely noticed, became more and more general in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and is now common among Biblical scholars.
Prophets in the Hebrew Bible
|Pre-Patriarchs (Bible)||Abel · Kenan · Enoch · Noah · Eber|
|Patriarchs and Matriarchs||Abraham · Isaac · Jacob · Sarah · Rebecca · Rachel · Leah|
in the Torah
|Moses · Aaron · Miriam · Eldad & Medad · Phinehas|
in the First Prophets
|Joshua · Deborah · Eli · Elkanah · Hannah · Abigail · Samuel · Saul · David · Solomon · Gad · Nathan · Jeduthun · Ahiyah · Elijah · Elisha · Shemaiah · Iddo · Azariah · Hanani · Jehu · Micaiah · Jahaziel · Eliezer · Zechariah ben Jehoiada · Oded · Huldah · Uriah · Hilkiah ·|
|Major Prophets||Isaiah · Jeremiah · Ezekiel · Daniel|
|Minor Prophets||Hosea · Joel · Amos · Obadiah · Jonah · Micah · Nahum · Habakkuk · Zephaniah · Haggai · Zechariah · Malachi|
|Noahide prophets||Beor · Balaam · Job · Eliphaz · Bildad · Zophar · Elihu|
|Other prophets||Amoz · Beeri · Baruch · Buzi · Mordecai · Esther|
|Italics denote that the status as a prophet is not universally accepted.|