February 7, 2019
During Epiphany we have been hearing from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. Who was Isaiah and what was his message?
Certainly, Isaiah is one of the most well-known Old Testament prophets. His prophecies are an important part of what we hear at Christmas and he, along with Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is one of the great prophets, both in importance of insight and in volume of writings.
The prophet may not have been just one person. This conclusion is drawn from two important critical observations. There are three separate time periods of focus in the visions of Isaiah and form critically (that is a vocabulary and style analysis) there seem to be three separate voices in the collected sayings.
Isaiah, at least the first one, was an 8th century prophet who was associated with the Kingdom of Judah, where the Temple and the cult of YHWH was centralized. He was prominent in advising the King of Judah from his calling in the year of King Uzziah's death (c. 740 BCE) until the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BCE. Tradition holds that he died a martyr's death under King Manasseh, whose reign extended from c. 690 BCE to c. 640 BCE.
The whole book of Isaiah can be broken into four broad sections. Chapters 1-35, the most plausibly attributed to Isaiah, are primarily concerned with the political situation in Judah under pressure from Syria, in the years from 740 BCE through 700 BCE. There is, along with his contemporaries Amos and Hosea, a strong ethical component to the Isaianic prophecies which are to accompany right worship, the understanding of the divine holiness, and in the interaction of the rulers with the people.
Chapters 36-39 are a section taken from 2 Kings 18:13-20.9, with the addition of the Song of Hezekiah.
Chapters 40 through 55 are "Deutero-Isaiah," the designation of a literary and prophetic voice that seems different than the earlier chapters and has a message of Israel's redemption and mission to the nations. This portion of Isaiah is dated to the period just before the release of the Babylonian Exiles by the Persian King, Cyrus the Great around 537 BCE. It contains the first dateable absolute monotheistic proclamation of YHWH (esp. 43.10 ff. through chapter 44). It is also in these chapters that the "suffering" servant verses are found which the early church began applying to the life and actions of Jesus (42:1 ff., 44:1-5)
Finally, Chapters 55 through 66 have been identified with "Trito-Isaiah and seem to be a slightly latter period after the return of the exiles. Although the theme of restoration is present, some of the latter chapters seem to be critical of post-exilic practices, including an opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple.
Whether a single prophet seeing into the future, or multiple prophets voicing God's ways contemporaneously, Isaiah proclaims a God who serves, a need for justice among the people, and a hope for the future.