First ISAIAH – Chapters 1 – 39
In search of the good government
As you begin to read the Book of Isaiah, you can feel trapped in doom and gloom. You must understand that Isaiah was angry and afraid of the future of his nation of Hebrews. He condemned not only his own country but also many of the surrounding ones. He was fed up. It is rumoured that because of harshness of his criticism, he angered the king and was executed. You have to read it patiently to see beyond the angry rhetoric. You will find here and there his yearning for an ideal ruler – a good government. His dream is so alive that it looks like he was seeing a figure of Christ. This is why Isaiah became known as the prophecy of Jesus the Christ. “Christ” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” meaning “anointed one”.
Isaiah condemns nations in many parts, (Chapters 1,2,3,13,15,17,18, 19, 22 – 39.) Isaiah criticised them for their bad governments (kings), corruption, and immorality. He predicts destruction and suffering as the consequence. He condemns not only Hebrew states but all nations in the Middle East. (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 13, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22 – 39.) God is also non-discriminatory in choosing his agent. For example, he chose non-Hebrew Persian and Assyrian kings to be the messiahs. (chapter 10). I don’t think Isaiah intended to predict appearance of a person like Jesus. He just wished there was a government (or king) which was faire, just, merciful, and wise.
The book of Isaiah is an influential book in Christian faith. Frederic Handle wrote the beloved oratorio “Messiah” often quoting verses from the book of Isaiah to characterize Jesus the Messiah. In the entertainment world also, the recent Walt Disney cartoon movie, “Zootopia” is inspired by an ideal world (11: 2-9 & 65: 25) where preyed and predators live together without being harmed. The first sermon Jesus gave when he began his ministry at a synagogue in Galilee was a quotation from Isaiah. (Luke 4: 16 – 19) Isaiah greatly influenced Christian idea of social justice too.
The question is: Is Isaiah predicting what the life of Jesus would be like? Was Isaiah describing a man yet to come eight hundred years later? Or did Jesus tried to emulate his life according to the image dreamt by Isaiah? Or did the Church altered, or fabricated some parts of the oral tradition about the life of Jesus to fit Isaiah’s prophecy? In my way of thinking, it really does not matter. Faith does not necessarily have to be based on historical facts. Spiritual truths can be expressed in different literal forms; fictions, history, or poetry. “What is it trying to tell us?” is the question we should be asking. I think that debating facts or fiction of the Biblical passages is a meaningless exercise in our spiritual life. Faith is a conviction of things not seen nor known. (Hebrew 11:1)
For example, in search of a good government, Jesus was made to be a descendant of King David in order to qualify him as the ideal king; “the King of kings” – the best government. Matthew made Bethlehem as his birth place. The city was known as the city of David, his birth place. (Chapter 9) The difficulty of this notion is that if Jesus was a result of immaculate conception (virgin birth), he was not the son of Joseph therefore not the descendant of King David. Isaiah traced David back to Jesse as his ancestor. (11:1) Matthew traced Joseph’s ancestry to David. Mary the mother of Jesus was not an offspring of David. So, Matthew’s argument is a bit of a stretch. It isn’t history. Matthew tried to build up Jesus’s image of the Messiah by manipulating some facts. But we get the idea. The life of Jesus was the model of the best king (government).
A prophet in the Bible is not a fortune teller. He/she does foretell the future sometimes but that is only one aspect of his multiple mission. Like Moses, a prophet conveys the word of God: in other words, he/she was a preacher. Like Miriam, she celebrates the miraculous God’s action after crossing it on a dry sea floor with dance and music by the Red Sea: a worship leader. Like Samuel, he anoints kings, advises and often scolds kings like Nathan. He declares justice on the street like Amos. The prophetic function is one of today’s preachers’ dual mission, proclamation and teaching. A prophet is a messenger of God.
The Book of Isaiah was not written by one person Isaiah. It probably began as the document recording the original words of Prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C. It looks like his autobiography in many parts, particularly in chapter 6. But other prophets added their writings. It is a compilation of many prophetic works written in three centuries. In ancient days, it was not unusual for people who admired a particular writer to add their own writings to the original text. You realize that before printing press was invented in the 16 Century, all documents were hand-copied onto a piece of parchment or of skin or chiselled on a piece of flat stone. Copiers added, edited, and omitted freely as there was no copy-right laws. The book of Isaiah is the work of many people who agreed and admired the original prophet. Imagine editing Jane Austen!
Scholars agree that it contains the writings of at least three major prophets. The first is Chapters 1 – 39 written by the original Isaiah written just before the defeat of kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the Babylonian empire – the eighth century B.C. The second is the chapters 40 – 55 written by a nameless prophet in Babylon (the present day Iraq) just before the liberation of the Jews from captivity in the seventh century B.C. And the third is the chapters 56 – 66 by yet another nameless person after the return of the Hebrews to Palestine, in the sixth century B.C..
The prophets in the Bible speak about three dimensions of life: the relationships with God, with people, and with the world. In today’s preaching, the first two are major common themes; first about the nature of God; secondly about personal moral ethics. But rarely do we hear the third dimension; politics, foreign relations, history, and society.
Today, politics is often off limit in religion. On the contrary in the prophetic tradition, as you can clearly see in Isaiah, politics and society are dominant themes. He spoke prominently about morality of kings (politicians and governments) and foreign relations. He spoke about historical events as the consequences of political actions and God’s responses. In fact, politics and history are the major themes of the first Isaiah: 1 – 39. Let me pick a few salient points the first Isaiah raises:
– God hates empty words and showy rituals – worship service. Building, clothes, and ornaments mean nothing to God. They are like wine left to become sour and waterily. (1:12)
– God’s rule is peaceful and just. Beat swords into ploughshares. (2:4)
– A young woman will bear a child, who will be a wise counsellor and Prince of Peace. (7:10) The word “young woman” was changed into a Greek word “virgin” when the Catholic Church translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It followed the traditions of other religions which often made the birth of their gods the result of immaculate conception.
– The poor will be protected and widows and orphans will be treated justly. (10)
– A non-believing foreign king, Syrian, can be an instrument of God. (10:5)
– The vision of the world under God’s rule. A David’s descendants will produce a new king who will rule with wisdom and treat the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless. Wolves and sheep will live in peace. (11: 2 – 9)