Isaiah is the most regal of the prophets. His words and thoughts are those of a man whose eyes had seen the King, vi.5. The times in which he lived were big with political problems, which he met as a statesman who saw the large meaning of events, and as a prophet who read a divine purpose in history. Unlike his younger contemporary Micah, he was, in all probability, an aristocrat; and during his long ministry (740-701 B.C., possibly, but not probably later) he bore testimony, as unremitting as it was brilliant, to the indefeasible supremacy of the unseen forces that shape history, and to the quiet strength that comes from confidence in God.
During this period three events stand out as of unique importance: the coalition -- due to fear of Assyria -- formed by Aram and Israel against Judah in 735 B.C. (vii.1-ix.6), the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians in 721 B.C., and the deliverance of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. from the menace of Sennacherib. In these and in all crises, Isaiah's message was a religious one, but instinct, as the sequel showed, with political wisdom. It rested ultimately upon the vision with which his ministry had been inaugurated -- the vision of the King, the Lord of hosts, upon a throne high and lifted up, whose glory filled the whole earth.
The King was "holy," partly, no doubt, in the ethical sense -- for the man of unclean lips is afraid in His presence -- but also partly in the older sense of being separated, elevated, lifted above the chances and changes of humanity. Holiness here is almost equivalent to majesty, it is the other side of the divine glory; and it is this thought that inspires the message of Isaiah with such serene confidence. His God is on the throne of the universe: He is the Lord of hosts. His purposes concern not only Judah, but the whole world, xiv.26, and His kingdom must eventually come. Therefore it is that when, at the news of the confederacy of Aram and Israel against Judah, "the heart of Ahaz and his people shook as shake the forest trees before the wind," vii.2, Isaiah remains firm as a rock; for, to paraphrase his own great alliterative words, "Faith brings fixity," vii.9b. This word of his early ministry is also one of his latest (701): "he who believeth shall not give way," xxviii.16. That is the precious foundation stone that abides unshaken amid the shock of circumstance, and can bear any weight that may be thrown upon it. This, then, is Isaiah's great contribution to religion: he is before all things, the prophet of faith. "In quietness and confidence your strength shall be," xxx.15.
It is easy from this point of view to understand the scorn which Isaiah heaps upon the common objects of men's trust, whether ships, walls or towers (ii.), lip-worship, xxix.13f., or the gorgeous services of the sanctuary, cunning diplomacy or the projected alliance with Egypt or Assyria (xxx.). Isaiah is the sworn foe of materialism: the contrast between human and divine resource is to him nothing less than infinite. "The Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit," (xxxi.3). It is in harmony with this insistence upon the supremacy of the spiritual that Isaiah regarded religion as separable not only from political form, but even from ecclesiastical organization; for (if the text of viii.16b can be trusted) he committed his message not to the contemporary church, but to a few disciples, transforming thereby the existing conception of the church, and taking a step of immeasurable significance for the development of true religion.
The majesty and originality of Isaiah's thought have their counterpart in his language. Very powerful, e.g., is his description of the Assyrian army --
See! hastily, swiftly he comes,
The book is full of poetry as fine as this. Whether describing the mighty roar of the sea, xvii.12-14, or Jehovah's power to defend Israel, xxxi.4, or singing a tender vineyard song (v.); Isaiah is equally at home. He effects his transitions with consummate skill: note, e.g., the swift application he makes of the parable of the vineyard, v.5-7, or the scathing retort he makes to those who complain of the monotony and repetition of his message (xxviii.11).
The prophecies that fall within the first thirty-nine chapters are practically all on a very high religious and literary level; yet it is all but universally conceded that they are not entirely from the hand of Isaiah. Some prophecies, e.g. xiii., xiv., may be nearly two centuries later than his time, others, e.g. xxiv.-xxvii, four or six; indeed large sections or fragments of the book are relegated by the more radical critics to the second century B.C. and connected with the Maccabean times. But even the more conservative scholars admit that several oracles of Isaiah have been worked over by later hands, possibly by pupils, and that isolated sections, e.g. xxiv.-xxvii., have to be relegated to the post-exilic age, and even to a comparatively late period within that age. These questions can only be settled, if at all, by exegetical, theological and historical considerations, for which this is not the place; but in sketching the contents of the various prophecies, the more probable alternatives will be indicated, where a solution is important.
It is plain that the present order of the book is not strictly chronological; otherwise it would have begun with the inaugural vision which now appears in ch. vi. Generally speaking, there are six more or less sharply articulated divisions in the first thirty-nine chapters, i.-xii., xiii.-xxiii., xxiv.-xxvii., xxviii.-xxxiii., xxxiv.-xxxv., xxxvi.-xxxix.
Chs, i.-xii. Prophecies concerning Judah, Jerusalem (and Israel)
The first division, like the fourth, deals in the main with Judah and Jerusalem. As the next division, xiii.-xxiii., deals with foreign peoples, i.1 can serve as a preface only to the first division and not to the whole book. The prophecy opens with an arraignment of Judah, intensely ethical in spirit. It was placed here, not because it was first in point of time, but as a sort of frontispiece; for, though the different sections of the ch., e.g. vv.2-9, 10-20, may come from different times, the first at any rate implies the ravaging of Judah, i.7, and appears to point to the invasion of Sennacherib in 701 B.C.: it would thus be one of the latest in the book. The land is wasted, the body politic diseased, i.1-9; the people seek the favour of their God by assiduous and costly ceremony, which the prophet answers by an appeal for a moral instead of a ritual service, vv.10-20. But, as injustice and idolatry are rampant, they will be surely punished, vv.21-31.
As a foil to this picture of the depravity of Zion, a foil also to the immediately succeeding description of her pride and idolatry, is the beautiful vision of Zion in the issue of the days, ii.2-5, as the city to which all nations shall resort for religious instruction, and their obedience to the expressed will of the God of Zion will usher in a reign of universal peace. The passage appears, with an additional verse, in Micah iv.1-5, where it seems to be preserved in a more original form; yet Isaiah can hardly have borrowed it from Micah, who was younger than he. It used to be supposed that both adopted it from an older poet. But the contents of the oracle, assigning as it does a world-wide significance to Zion, its temple, and its torah, while not absolutely incompatible with Isaianic authorship, rather point to a post-exilic date. We are the more at liberty to assume that the passage was later inserted as a foil to the preceding description of Zion as Sodom, as neither in Isaiah nor in Micah does it fit the context.
The general theme of ii.-iv. is the divine judgment which will fall on all the foolish pride of Judah. How it will come, Isaiah does not say -- the prophecy is one of the earliest (735?) -- but the storm that will sweep across the land will reveal the impotence of superstition and idolatry and material resources of every kind, ii.6-22. All the supports of Judah's political life will be taken away: indeed, the leaders are either so weak or rapacious that the country is already as good as ruined, iii.1-15; and the women, who are as guilty as the men, will also be involved in their doom, iii.16-iv.1. Strangely enough, this eloquent threat of judgment ends in a vision of comfort and peace, iv.2-6. The land is one day to be wondrously fruitful, her people to be cleansed and holy, and the glory of Jehovah will be over Zion as a shelter and shade. The theological implications of this last passage seem late, and it was probably appended by another hand than Isaiah's as a contrast and consolation.
Then follows a lament, in the form of a vineyard song, which skilfully ends in a denunciation of Judah, the vineyard of Jehovah, v.1-7, merging thereafter into a sixfold woe, pronounced upon her rapacious land-holders, drunkards, sceptics, enemies of the moral order, worldly wise men, besotted and unjust judges, v.8-24. This is fittingly followed by the announcement that Jehovah will summon against Judah the swift, unwearied and invincible hosts of Assyria, v.25-30.
In the noble vision (740 B.C.) which inaugurated his prophetic ministry (vi.), Isaiah saw the glorious Jehovah attended by seraphim and received from Him the call to go forth and deliver his message to an unbelieving people. This vision appropriately introduces the prophecies proper in vii.-xii.; but it is practically certain that though the vision itself was early, the account of it is later. The hopelessness of his prospective ministry looks rather like the retrospect of a disappointing experience. Though Isaiah elsewhere expresses his faith in the salvation of a remnant, this chapter asserts the utter annihilation of the people, vv.11-13ab. An attempt has been made to relieve the gloom in the last clause of the chapter, v.13 c, by a comparison of the stump of the tree that remained, after felling, to the holy seed; but this clause, which is wanting in the Septuagint, and utterly blunts the keen edge of the prophecy, is no part of the original chapter.
The next section, vii. i-ix.6, plunges us into the war which the allied arms of Aram and Israel waged against Judah in 735, doubtless in the desire to force her to join a coalition against Assyria. Isaiah, vii.1-17, seeks to reassure the faith of the trembling king Ahaz; and when Ahaz refuses to put the prophetic word to the test, Isaiah boldly declares that the land will be delivered from the menace before two or three years are over; and many a child -- or it may be some particular child -- soon to be born, will be given the name Immanuel, and will thereby bear witness to the faith that, despite the stress of invasion, God will not forget His people, but that He "is with us." To the same period, but probably not the same occasion, belongs the prophecy of the devastation of Judah by Assyria, vii.18-25. But the blow is to fall first, and within two or three years, on Aram and Israel, with their respective capitals. It did not fall so quickly as Isaiah had expected: Damascus was indeed taken in 732, but Samaria not till 721: in spirit, however, if not in the letter, the prophecy was fulfilled, viii.1-4. The unbelief of Judah will also be punished by the hosts of Assyria, but the ultimate purpose of Jehovah will not be frustrated, viii.5-10. He alone is to be feared, and no combination of confederate kings need alarm, viii.11-15. The prophet commits his message to his disciples, and with patience and confidence looks for vindication to the future, viii.16-18. Desperate days would come, viii.19-91, but they would be followed by a brilliant day of redemption when Jehovah would remove the yoke from the shoulder of His burdened people by sending them a glorious prince with the fourfold name. [Footnote 1: vii.8b]
This latter prophecy, ix.2-7, has been denied to Isaiah, but apparently with insufficient reason. The passage falls very naturally into its context. The northern districts of Israel (ix.1) had been ravaged by Assyria in 734 B.C. (2 Kings xv.29), and upon this darkness it is fitting that the great light should shine; and the yoke to be broken might well be the heavy tribute Judah was now obliged to pay. There are undoubted difficulties, e.g. the mention of a Davidic king, ix.7, after a specific reference to the fortunes of Israel over which the Davidic king had no jurisdiction; and it is probable that we do not possess the oracle in its original form or completeness. But, in any case, the vision of the righteous and prosperous king ruling over a delivered people fittingly closes this series of somewhat loosely connected oracles.
The next section, ix.8-x.4, forms a very artistic whole, consisting of four strophes, each of four verses, concluding with the refrain --
For all this His wrath is not turned,
The poem, which falls about 734, lashes the pride and ambition of Israel (not Judah) and threatens her people with loss of territory and population, anarchy and civil war. The passage was probably originally followed by v.26-29, which has a similar refrain, and which, with its vivid description of the terrible Assyrian army, would form an admirable climax to this poem. [Footnote 1: Ch. ix.8 is an introduction and v.13 an interpolation.]
Chs. x.5-xii.6. Assyria, then, is the instrument with which Jehovah chastises Israel. But because she executes her task in a spirit of presumption and pride, she in her turn is doomed to destruction; but the remnant of Jehovah's people will be saved, x.5-27. The gradual approach of the Assyrians to Jerusalem is then described in language full of word-play, vv, 28-32, which forcibly reminds us of a very similar passage in Isaiah's contemporary Micah, i.10-15. This chapter is probably about twenty years later than those that immediately precede it. There is an obvious advance in the prophet's attitude to Assyria, and the boast in vv.9-11 carries the chapter later than the fall of Samaria (721) and Carchemish (717). It is even possible that the description of the Assyrian advance in vv.28-32 implies Sennacherib's campaign in Judah in 701.
After the destruction of the enemy before Jerusalem in x.33, 34 follows an enthusiastic description of the Messianic king -- of his wisdom and justice, and of the universal peace which will extend even to the animal world, xi.1-9. It is the counterpart of ix.2-7, though here again, and perhaps with more reason, the Isaianic authorship has been doubted. The peculiar emphasis upon the equipment with the spirit is hardly, in these ethical relationships, demonstrably pre-exilic, and the "stem" out of which the shoot is to grow suggests that the monarchy had fallen, but the word may possibly be used to indicate its decadent condition. In any case, there seems very little doubt that the rest of the section, xi.10-xii.6, strikingly appropriate as it is in this place, is post-exilic. It describes how in the Messianic days just pictured, theexiles of Israel and Judah will be gathered from the ends of the earth to their own land, where their near neighbours will all be vanquished, xi.10-16. Then follows a simple song of gratitude for the redemption Jehovah has wrought, xii. The presuppositions of the dispersion here described are not such as fit into Isaiah's time; they would not even apply to the conditions after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah in 586, still less to the fall of Samaria and the exile of Israel in 72l -- the passage must be post-exilic. But though much later than Isaiah's time it forms a very skilful conclusion to the first division of his book, and is an admirable counterpart to the gloomy scenes of ch. i.
Chs. xiii.-xxiii. Prophecies concerning foreign nations
Chs. xiii.1-xiv.23. The Downfall of Babylon. The oracle concerning Babylon, the first of the series of oracles concerning foreign nations, is one of the most magnificent odes in literature. A day of destruction to be executed by the Medes is coming upon Babylon the proud (xiii.) and the exiles will return to their own land, xiv.1-3. The triumph song that follows discloses a weird scene in the underworld, where the fallen king of Babylon receives an ironical welcome from the shadow-kings of the other nations. There can be no doubt that this prophecy is not by Isaiah. It glows with a passionate hatred of Babylon; but the Babylon which figured in the days of Isaiah (xxxix.) was only a province of Assyria, not an independent and oppressive world-power; nor would its destruction have meant the return of the exiles of northern Israel. The situation is plainly that of the period during the later exile of Judah before the capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 538, as the horrors which the poet anticipated (xiii.15f.) did not take place.
In the spirit of ch. x., xiv.24-27 proclaims the invincible triumph of Jehovah's purpose and the destruction of the Assyrians in the land of Judah. The assassination of Sargon in 705 B.C. was the cause of wild rejoicing throughout the western vassal states: the joy of Philistia is rebuked by the prophet in vv.28-32 with the warning that worse is yet in store -- an allusion, no doubt, to an expected Assyrian invasion. If this be the theme of the passage, v.28 can hardly be correct, as Ahaz had died ten or twenty years before.
Chs. xv., xvi. Oracle concerning Moab. The subscription to this prophecy, xvi.13, indicates that we have here an older prophetic oracle, given "heretofore." Strictly speaking, it is not so much a prophecy as an elegy over the fate of Moab whose land had been devastated by an invader from the north. The fugitives, arriving in Edom, send in vain for help to the people of Judah. Who the invader was it is hard to say -- possibly Jeroboam II of Israel, whose conquests were extensive (2 Kings xiv.25; Amos vi.14). The oracle, besides being diffuse, is altogether destitute of higher prophetic thought, and is certainly not Isaiah's, though he adapted it to the existing situation and foretold a similar and speedy devastation of Moab, no doubt at the hands of the Assyrians, xvi.14.
Ch. xvii. I-II. This prophecy concerning Aram and Israel falls, no doubt, within the period when these two countries were leagued against Judah, about 735. The doom of Aram is to be utter destruction; that of Israel, all but utter destruction.
In the next two passages, xvii.12-14, xviii., Isaiah appears to return to his favourite theme of the sure destruction of the Assyrians, though they are not mentioned by name. In xvii.12-14 their hosts are compared to the noise of many waters, while in xviii. their doom is announced by the prophet in answer to an embassy sent by the Ethiopians, who were alarmed at the prospect of an invasion by the Assyrians, doubtless under Sennacherib.
Ch. xix. Oracle concerning Egypt. For Egypt the prophet announces a doom of civil war, oppression at the hands of a hard master, and public and private distress which will issue in despair, vv.1-17. In their terror, however, the Egyptians will cry to Jehovah, who will reveal Himself to them and be in consequence honoured and worshipped on Egyptian soil. Then a triple alliance will be formed between Egypt, Assyria and Israel, and they shall all be Jehovah's people, vv.18-25.
The dream of such an alliance is very attractive and not too bold for so original a thinker as Isaiah. But the passage is beset by difficulties. The attitude to Egypt appears to be much friendlier in vv.18-25 than in vv.1-17; and it seems quite impossible to find within Isaiah's age a place for five (=several?) Hebrew-speaking cities in Egypt, v.18, whereas such a reference would excellently fit the later post-exilic time when there were extensive Jewish colonies in Egypt. If the city specially mentioned at the end of the verse be, as it seems to be, either Sun-city (Heliopolis) or Lion-city (Leontopolis) then it would not be unnatural to find, in the next verse, with its worship of Jehovah upon Egyptian soil, a reference to the founding of a temple at Leontopolis by Onias in 160 B.C. In that case, Assyria in v.23 stands, as occasionally elsewhere, for Syria, from which Israel had suffered more severely during the second century B.C. than the earlier Israel from Assyria; and the dream of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, united in the worship of the true God, would be just as striking and generous in the second century as in the eighth. At first, v.19 seems to tell powerfully in favour of the Isaianic authorship, as the massebah (pillar) here regarded as innocent was proscribed a century after Isaiah by the Deuteronomic law (Deut. xii.3). But the Egyptian Jews may not have been so stringent as the Palestinian, or we may even suppose that the "pillar" has here nothing to do with worship, but stands, for some other purpose, on the boundary line. There is no adequate reason, however, why vv.1-17, or at least vv.1-15, should not be assigned to Isaiah.
In ch. xx. (711 B.C., cf. v.1, capture of Ashdod) Isaiah indicates in symbolic prophecy -- which, however, was not fulfilled -- that the people of Egypt and Ethiopia would be deported by the Assyrians. The prophet's object was to dissuade the people of Judah from the Egyptian alliance which they were contemplating.
The theme of xxi.1-10 is the same as that of xiii., xiv. -- the impending fate of Babylon -- and the passages may be almost contemporary. Warriors of Elam and Media are sent against Babylon, and the issue is awaited with tremulous excitement, till at last the watchman proclaims the welcome news, "Babylon is fallen, is fallen." The importance here aligned to Babylon and her fall, the express mention of Elam and Media, v.2, as her assailants, and the description of Jehovah's people as "threshed" point unmistakably to the last years of the exile, after the rise of Cyrus in 549, and before the fall of Babylon in 538, so that the passage cannot be from Isaiah. With this seems to go the next little enigmatic oracle concerning Edom, xxi.11, 12, whose fate, as affected by the fall of Babylon, is as yet uncertain. The desert tribes, xxi.13-17, will also be affected by the general upheaval and be driven from the regular caravan routes.
Ch. xxii. is the only chapter in this division (xiii.-xxiii.) which is not concerned with foreign nations. It probably owes its place here to its peculiar superscription which conforms to the other superscription in xiii.-xxiii. In this chapter the prophet laments and very sternly rebukes the frivolity of the people of Jerusalem -- whether shortly before the invasion of Sennacherib or after his retreat, it is hard to say. Trusting in their armour and fortifications they give the rein to their appetites, but he solemnly declares that their sin will be punished with death.
Unique among the oracles of Isaiah are the two pieces, xxii.15-18 and 19-25, which deal with persons. Shebna, one of the court officials and probably a foreigner, is threatened with exile and the consequent loss of his office: probably he championed the policy of an Egyptian alliance. His place will be taken, according to Isaiah, by Eliakim, who, curiously enough, is threatened in his turn. Probably vv.19-23 are an adaptation of 2 Kings xviii.18, where Eliakim is holding an office here held by Shebna, while Shebna is only a scribe.
A prophetic lament over Tyre (xxiii.) concludes the oracles dealing with the foreign peoples. The glad ancient merchant city will be brought to silence, vv.1-14, though after seventy years she is to be revived, and the proceeds of her traffic are to be enjoyed by the people of Jerusalem, vv.15-18. There was a siege of Tyre during Isaiah's time, but it is probably not that which is celebrated here, as the poem lacks the nobility and grandeur of the prophet's style. If the oracle is held to imply the conquest of Tyre, it would require to be brought down to the time of Alexander the Great; but it may well be only an anticipatory lament and therefore earlier, contemporary perhaps with a similar oracle of Ezekiel concerning the siege of Tyre (Ez. xxvi.-xxviii.) Verses 15-18 are clearly dependent on Jeremiah's view of the duration of the Chaldean oppression (Jer. xxv.11, xxix.10); and the whole chapter may be exilic.
Chs. xxiv.-xxvii. Late prophecy concerning the glorious issue of some world-catastrophe.
This section is very peculiar, obscure, and in the Old Testament altogether unique. Contemporary historical facts are seen now in the lurid light of fear, more often in the more brilliant light of eschatological hopes. In ch. xxiv. a great catastrophe is impending. The world is weary, and joy has vanished. The city (Jerusalem?) is desolate. Something has happened to revive Jewish hopes and kindle high expectations as to the issue of the coming calamity, but in the immediate future new woes are impending -- the earth will reel; on that day, however, Jehovah will suddenly punish the powers supernatural and terrestrial, and come down to reign in glory on Mount Zion. Then (xxv.) follows an enthusiastic song of praise, because a certain strong city (unnamed) has been laid low. A great banquet is prepared on Zion for all the sorrow-ridden nations of the world -- emblem of their reception into the Kingdom of God -- tears are wiped from every eye, and, with their reproach removed, the Jews praise their God for the victory. Another song of praise follows in xxvi.1-xxvii.1 for the power with which Jehovah has defended His own city, and laid her proud rival low. The wicked will not learn from the divine judgments; but, while they are destroyed, not only do Jehovah's own people increase, but their dead are restored to life, to participate in His glorious kingdom; and the dragon is smitten. Then follows xxvii.2-6, a song of the vineyard-counterpart to v. l-7 -- which praises Jehovah's care for Judah, with whom He is angry no more. Her rival shall become a desolation, but she herself shall be forgiven and re-established, if only she remove all signs of heathen worship, and from the ends of the earth her exiled sons shall gather to worship at Jerusalem.
The origin of this piece is wrapped in obscurity; and it would seem that the author, for some reason, deliberately concealed the historical situation. It is not even certain that the piece is a unity: the song, e.g., in xxv.1-5 interrupts the description of judgment, and the connection is occasionally loose. There is no clue to what is meant by the strong city which is to be overthrown. It is plain, however, that the writer lived in Palestine, doubtless in or near Jerusalem, xxv.6, 7, at a time when the Jews were scattered throughout many lands, xxiv.14-16, xxvii.12, 13, and when there were at least three great world powers, xxvii.1. This could hardly have been earlier than the end of the Persian period, and probably the tidings that rang from the isles of the sea, xxiv.14, 15, were those of the victorious advance of Alexander the Great. No earlier date would suit the theological implications of the passage: e.g. the judgment upon the hosts of heaven, xxiv.21, 22 (cf. Dan. xi.), the resurrection from the dead, xxvi.19, the banquet of the nations on Zion, xxv.6. The style of the passage is nearly as peculiar as its thought, it abounds in assonance and alliteration. It is assigned by some to the close of the second century B.C.; but, in any case, it can hardly be earlier than the later half of the fourth century B.C., and may well express the wild expectations to which disappointed Jewish hearts were lifted by the conquests of Alexander.
Chs. xxviii.-xxxiii. Prophecies concerning Judah and Jerusalem
We now return to the undoubted prophecies of Isaiah. This group begins with a woe, xxviii.1-4, pronounced not long before the fall of Samaria in 721 B.C., ending in two verses, 5, 6, presenting another outlook, apparently by a later hand. In vv.7-22, probably about the time of the Egyptian alliance, Judah is also threatened for the drunkenness of her leaders, and for the false confidence which leads the people scornfully to close their ears to prophetic instruction. The interesting little section which follows, vv.23-29, shows how the farmer adapts his methods to the particular work he has to do. The connection, however, is anything but obvious: it may be intended as a reminder to the sceptics of Judah that the divine penalties, though slow, v.19, are sure; or it may be meant to suggest that God's judgments are tempered with mercy. To the same period belongs the prophecy of the distress that is to be inflicted on Ariel, i.e. Jerusalem, by "a great multitude of all the nations," clearly Sennacherib's army, xxix.1-15; but in a prophecy, probably much later, which is dramatically appended to it, a promise of redemption and restoration is held out, xxix.16-24.
In xxx., xxxi., also before the invasion of Sennacherib, the prophet denounces the folly of trusting the impotent aid of Egypt, when their real strength lay in quietly trusting their God: for Jehovah will smite the Assyrian with a mysterious blow and defend his dear Jerusalem. Though such promises undoubtedly fall within the range of Isaiah's message, the ideas and the general tone of xxx.18-26 are sufficient to place that passage almost certainly in the post-exilic period. Against the background of calamity in the two preceding chapters, xxxii.1-8 throws up a picture -- whether from Isaiah's or a later hand -- of the Messianic age, when rulers would be just and character transformed. The imminent desolation of Jerusalem, with which the women are threatened, is again immediately contrasted with the fruitfulness and security of the land, when the spirit will be poured out from on high, xxxii.9-20.
This group is closed by a song of triumph (xxxiii.) over the prospective annihilation of the foreign foes who have crushed Israel, by the glorious God who defends Jerusalem. There is much in the passage, especially towards the end, vv.19-21, which looks as if the Assyrians were the enemy, and the prophecy, like most of those in this group, fell shortly before Sennacherib's invasion. But, besides lacking the vigour of Isaiah's acknowledged prophecies, the passage contains ideas which are hardly his: e.g. the sinners in Zion, v. 14, are not to be destroyed but forgiven, v.24. The allusion to the king in v.17, if the text is correct, helps us little, as the king may be Jehovah. There is a growing conviction that the passage is post-exilic, some scholars even bringing it down to the Maccabean times, about 163 B.C.
Chs. xxxiv., xxxv. Prophecy concerning the redemption and return of Israel.
A fitting conclusion to the whole book -- ignoring xxxvi.-xxxix., which is an historical appendix -- is afforded by the picture of the world-judgment, the redemption of Israel, and the destruction of her enemies in xxxiv., xxxv. Edom is singled out as the special object of Jehovah's vengeance, xxxiv.5-17; and, in contrast to her desolation, is the blessedness of Israel, returning to her own land across the blossoming wilderness with exceeding joy. Ch. xxxv., at any rate, seems to point to the return of the exiles from Babylon, and ch. xxxiv. may also without violence be fitted into this time. The Jews never forgot or forgave the Edomites for their cruelty on the occasion of the destruction of Jerusalem (Lam. iv.21ff., Ps. cxxxvii.7) and the joy of their own redemption would be heightened by the ruin of Edom (Mal. i.2-5). If, however, xxxiv.16 implies, as we are not bound to believe, a fixed prophetic canon, the chapters would be very late, falling somewhere within the second century B.C. More probably they were written, like xiii., xiv., towards the end of the exile.
xxxvi.-xxxix. Historical Appendix
Separating the earlier from the later of the two great divisions of the book of Isaiah (i.-xxxv., xl.-lxvi.) stands a purely historical section, practically identical with and probably borrowed from 2 Kings xviii. l3-xx.19, which finds its place here, no doubt simply because of its connection with the prophet Isaiah. It tells the story of Sennacherib's invasion of Judah, his insulting demands, whether transmitted through the Rabshakeh (xxxvi.) or by letter (xxxvii.), of Hezekiah's terror and Isaiah's divine word of reassurance, and of the ultimate departure of the Assyrian army. Ch. xxxviii. contains Isaiah's prophecy to Hezekiah of his recovery from sickness, with the king's song of gratitude. This is followed by another prophecy of the Babylonian exile, occasioned by an embassy sent to Hezekiah by Merodach Baladan, king of Babylon (xxxix.).
This account omits the very important statement in 2 Kings xviii.14-16 of the heavy tribute paid by Hezekiah to the King of Assyria, and inserts the psalm of Hezekiah, xxxviii.9-20, which is no doubt later than the redaction of the book of Kings as it is not found there, and is, in all probability, a post-exilic psalm. It is not certain whether the accounts in xxxvi.1-xxxvii.9a and xxxvii.9b-37 are simply parallel versions of the same incident, or refer to two different campaigns. In the distinctly prophetical portion, xxxvii.22ff, though there is much that recalls Isaiah, the passage in its present form can hardly be his. Ch. xxxvii.26, e.g. would be a pertinent appeal to Israel, but hardly to Sennacherib; it rests, no doubt, on the later Isaiah (xl.28, xlvi.11). The prophecy of exile to Babylon, xxxix.6, 7, is not natural at a time when Assyria, not Babylon, was the enemy. Again, xxxvii.33, which denies that even an arrow would be shot, is hardly reconcilable with Isaiah's prophecy of an arduous siege for the city, xxix.1-4. Further, the minute prediction that Hezekiah's life would be prolonged for fifteen years is not in the manner of Isaiah, nor indeed of any of the great prophets, whose precise numbers, where they occur, are to be interpreted as round numbers (e.g. seventy years in Jer. xxv.11, xxix.10); and the story of the reversal of the shadow on the sun-dial reflects the later conception of the prophet as a miracle-worker (cf. I Kings xiii.3-6). The section, in its present form, must be post-exilic.
With ch. xl. we pass into a different historical and theological atmosphere from that of the authentic prophecies of Isaiah. The very first word, "Comfort ye," strikes a new note: in the main, the message of Isaiah had been one of judgment. Jerusalem and the cities of Judah are in ruins, xlv.13. The people are in exile in the land of the Chaldeans, xlvii.5, 6, from which they are on the point of being delivered, xlviii.20. The time of her sorrow is all but over, xl.2; and her redemption is to come through a great warrior who is twice expressly named as Cyrus, xliv.28, xlv.1, and occasionally alluded to as a figure almost too familiar to need naming, xli.25, xlv.13. He it is who is to overthrow Babylon, xlviii.14. Such, then, is the situation: the exile is not predicted, it is presupposed, and the oppressor is not Assyria, as in Isaiah's time, but Babylon. Now it is a cardinal, indeed an obvious principle, of prophecy that the prophet addresses himself, at least primarily, to the situation of his own time. Prophecy is a moral, not a magical thing; and nothing would be gained by the delivery of a message over a century and a half before it was needed, to a people to whom it was irrelevant and unintelligible.
The literary style of these chapters also differs widely from that of Isaiah. No doubt there are points of contact, notably in the fondness for the phrase, "the holy One of Israel" -- a favourite phrase of Isaiah's and rare elsewhere. The influence of Isaiah is unmistakable, but the differences are no less striking. Isaiah mounts up on wings as an eagle: the later prophet neither mounts nor runs, he walks, xl.31. He has not the older prophet's majesty; he has a quiet dignity, and his tone is more tender. Nor has he Isaiah's exuberance and fertility of resource: the same thoughts are repeated, though with pleasing and ingenious variations, over and over again. All his characteristic thoughts already appear in the first two chapters: the certainty and joy of Israel's redemption, the omnipotence of Jehovah and the absurdity of idolatry, the call of Cyrus to execute Jehovah's purpose, the ultimate design of that purpose as the bringing of the whole world, through redeemed Israel, to a knowledge of the true God.
The theological ideas of the prophecy are different from those of Isaiah. Unique emphasis is laid on the creative power of Jehovah, and this thought is applied to the case of forlorn Israel with overwhelming effect; for it is none other than the eternal and omnipotent God that is about to reveal Himself as Israel's redeemer, in fulfilment of ancient words of prophecy, xliv.7, 8. This very attitude to prophecy marks the book as late; it would not be possible in a pre-exilic prophet. But the most original conception of the book is one which finds no parallel whatever in Isaiah, viz. the suffering servant of Jehovah. This servant is the exclusive theme of the four songs, xlii.1-4, xlix.1-6, l.4-9, lii. l3-liii.12; but more or less he is involved in the whole prophecy. The function of the servant is to give light to the Gentiles -- in other words, to bring the world to a knowledge of Jehovah (cf. xlii.1, xlv.14).
Who is the servant? The difficulty in answering this question is twofold: (i.) while the servant is often undoubtedly a collective term for the people of Israel, xli.8, xliv.1, 2, the descriptions of him, especially in the songs alluded to, are occasionally so intimately personal as to seem to compel an individual interpretation (cf. liii.). But in this connection we have to remember the ease with which the Oriental could personify, and apply even the most personal detail to a collective body. "Grey hairs are upon him," says Hosea, vii.9, not of a man but of the nation; and Isaiah himself, i.6, described the body politic as sick from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot (cf. Ezek. xvi., xxiii). Clearly, therefore, individual allusions do not necessarily compel an individual interpretation; and there is no reason in the nature of the case, and still less in the context, to assume a reference to any specific individual. The songs are an integral part of the prophecy: the function of the servant is the same, and the servant must also be the same in both. Indeed one passage in the second song, xlix.3, expressly identifies the servant with Israel; and in liii., an intensely personal chapter, where the servant, after death, is to rise again and take his place victoriously in the world, the collective interpretation of the servant as Israel, emerging triumphantly from the doom of exile, is natural, if not necessary.
But (ii.) admitting that the servant is everywhere Israel, a new difficulty emerges. The terms in which he is described are often apparently contradictory. At one time he is blind and deaf, xlii.18, 19; at another he is Jehovah's witness and minister to the blind and deaf, i.e. to the heathen world, xliii.8-10, xlii.7. This contrast, which runs through the prophecy, is simply to be explained as a blending of the real and the ideal. The people contemplated are in both cases the same; but, at one time, the prophet contemplates them as they are, unreceptive and irresponsive to their high destiny; at another, he regards them in the light of that destiny -- called, through their experience of suffering and redemption, to bring the world to a saving knowledge of the true and only God.
Chapters xl.-xlix. fall somewhere about 540 B.C.-between the decisive victories of Cyrus over the Lydians in 546 (cf. xli.1-5) and the capture of Babylon in 538. The prophecy opens with a word of consolation. The exile of Judah is all but over, her redemption is very nigh; for the eternal purpose of Jehovah must be fulfilled, xl.1-11, He is a God whose power and wisdom are beyond all imagining, and He will be the strength of those who put their trust in Him (xl.12-3l). For He has raised up a great warrior from the north-east (cf. xli.2, 25), i.e. Cyrus, through whom Israel's happy return to her own land is assured (xli.1-20). Israel's God is the true God; for He alone foretold this day, as no heathen god could ever have done, xli.21-29. The mission of His servant Israel is to spread the knowledge of His name throughout the world, and that mission must be fulfilled, xlii.1-9. Let the world rejoice, then, at the glorious redemption Jehovah has wrought for His people, xlii.10-17; for their sorrow, xlii.18-25, and their redemption alike, xliii.1-7, spring from a deep purpose of love. Israel is now fitted to be Jehovah's witness before the world, for her impending deliverance from Babylon is more marvellous than her ancient deliverance from Egypt, xliii.8-21. Her grievous sins are freely forgiven, xliii.22-28, and soon she shall enter upon a new and happy life, xliv.1-5, for her God, the eternal and the only God, forgives and redeems, xliv.6-23. [Footnote 1: Between xl.19 and 20 probably xli.6, 7 should be inserted.]
The deliverance of Israel is to be effected through Cyrus, who is honoured with the high titles, "Shepherd and Messiah of Jehovah," xlv.1, and assured by him of a triumphant career, for Israel and the true religion's sake, xliv.24-xlv.8. Those who are surprised at Jehovah's call of the foreign Cyrus are sternly reminded that Jehovah is sovereign and can call whom He will, xlv.9-13, and the ultimate object of His call is that through the redemption of Israel, which he is commissioned to effect, all men shall be saved, and the worship of Jehovah established throughout the whole world, xlv.14-25. In xlvi. the impotence of the Babylonian gods to save themselves when the city is taken by Cyrus is contrasted with the incomparable power of Jehovah as shown in history, and in His foreknowledge of the future, and made the basis of a warning to Israel to cast away despondency. Then follows a song of triumph over Babylon, the proud and luxurious, whose doom all her magic and astrology cannot avert (xlvii.). Ch. xlviii. strikes in places a different note from that of the previous chapters. They are a message of comfort; and, where the people are censured, it is for lack of faith and responsiveness. In this chapter, on the other hand, the tone is in places stern, almost harsh, and the people are even charged with idolatry. Probably an original prophecy of Deutero-Isaiah has been worked over by a post-exilic hand. This chapter is in the nature of a summary. It emphasizes Jehovah's fore-knowledge as witnessed by the ancient prophecies and their fulfilment in the coming deeds of Cyrus; and the section fittingly closes with a ringing appeal to Israel to go forth out of Babylon.
Chapters xlix.-lv. presuppose the same general situation as xl.-xlviii.; but whereas the earlier chapters deal incidentally with the victories of Cyrus and the folly of idolatry, xlix.-lv. concentrate attention severely upon Israel herself, which is often addressed as Zion. The group begins with the second of the "servant" songs, xlix.1-6, its theme being Israel's divine call, through suffering and redemption, to bring the whole world to the true religion. In earnest and beautiful language Israel is assured of restoration and a happy return to her own land, of the rebuilding of her ruins, and the increase of her population; and no power can undo this marvellous deliverance, for Jehovah, despite His people's slender faith, is omnipotent, xlix.7-l.3. In l.4-9 the servant tells of the sufferings which his fidelity brought him, and his confidence in Jehovah's power to save and vindicate him. The glorious salvation is near and sure; let Israel but trust in her omnipotent God and cast away all fear of man, li.1-16. Bitter has been Jerusalem's sorrow, but now she may break forth into joy, for messengers are speeding with good tidings of her redemption, li. l7-lii.12. The fourth and last song of the servant, lii. l3-liii.12, celebrates the strange and unparalleled sufferings which he bore for the world's sake-his death, resurrection, and the consequent triumph and vindication of his cause. In fine contrast to the sufferings of the servant acquainted with grief is the joy that follows in ch. liv. -- joy in the vision of the restored, populous and glorious city, or rather in the everlasting love of God by which that redemption is inspired. Nothing remains but for the people to lay hold, in faith, of the salvation which is so nigh, and which is so high above all human expectation (lv.). [Footnote 1: Ch.1.10, 11 are apparently late.]
The problem of the origin and date of this section is one of the most obscure and intricate in the Old Testament. The general similarity of the tone to that of xl.-lv. is unmistakable. There is the same assurance of redemption, the same brilliant pictures of restoration. But, apart from the fact that, on the whole, the style of lvi.-lxvi. seems less original and powerful, the situation presupposed is distinctly different. In xl.-lv., Israel, though occasionally regarded as unworthy, is treated as an ideal whole, whereas in lvi.-lxvi. there are two opposed classes within Israel itself (cf. lvii.3ff., 15ff.). One of these classes is guilty of superstitious and idolatrous rites, lvii.3ff., lxv.3, 4, lxvi.17, whereas in xl.-lv. the Babylonians were the idolaters, xlvi.1. Again, the kind of idolatry of which Israel is guilty is not Babylonian, but that indigenous to Palestine, and it is described in terms which sometimes sound like an echo of pre-exilic prophecy, lvii.5, 7 (Hos. iv.13) -- so much so indeed that some have regarded these passages as pre-exilic.
The spiritual leaders of the people are false to their high trust, lvi.10-12. This last passage implies a religious community more or less definitely organized -- a situation which would suit post-exilic times, but hardly the exile; and this presumption is borne out by many other hints. The temple exists, lvi.7, lx.7, 13, but religion is at a low ebb. Fast days are kept in a mechanical spirit, and are marred by disgraceful conduct (lviii.). Judah suffers from raids, lxii.8, Jerusalem is unhappy, lxv.19, her walls are not yet built, lx, 10. The gloomy situation explains the passionate appeal of lxiii.7-lxiv. to God to interpose -- an appeal utterly unlike the serene assurance of xl.-lv.: it explains, too, why threat and promise here alternate regularly, while there the predominant note was one of consolation.
In its general temper and background, though not in its style, the chapters forcibly recall Malachi. There is the same condemnation of the spiritual leaders (lvi.10-12; Mal. i. ii.), the same emphasis on the fatherhood of God (lxiii.16, lxiv.8; Mal. i.6, ii.10, iii.17), the same interest in the institutions of Judaism (lvi.), the same depressed and hopeless mood to combat. From lx.10 (lxii.6?) it may be inferred that the book falls before the building of the walls by Nehemiah -- probably somewhere between 460 and 450 B.C. This conclusion, of course, is very far from certain; it is not even certain that the chapters constitute a unity. Various scholars isolate certain sections, assigning, e.g., lxiii.-lxvi. to a period much later than lvi.-lxii., others regarding xlix.-lxii. as written by the same author as xl.-xlviii., but later and other different conditions, others referring lvi.-lxii. to a pupil of Deutero-Isaiah, who wrote not long after 520 (cf. Hag., Zech.).
To complicate matters, the text of certain passages of crucial importance seems to be in need of emendation (cf. lxiii.18); and it is practically certain that there are later interpolations. One can see how intricate the problem becomes, if Marti is right in denying so important a passage as lxiv.10-12 to the author of the rest of the chapter, and assigning it to Maccabean times. But, though there are undoubted difficulties in the way, it seems not impossible to regard lvi.-lxvi. as, in the main, a unity, and its author as a contemporary of Malachi. In that case, the superstitious and idolatrous people, whose presence is at first sight so surprising in the post-exilic community, would be the descendants of the Jews who had not been carried into exile, and who, being but superficially touched, if at all, by the reformation of Josiah, would perpetuate ancient idolatrous practices into the post-exilic period.
This prophecy begins with a word of assurance to the proselytes and eunuchs that, if they faithfully observe the Sabbath, they will not be excluded from participation in the temple worship, lvi.1-8. But the general situation (in Judah) is deplorable. The spiritual leaders of the community are indolent and fond of pleasure, men of no conscience or ideal (cf. Mal. ii.), with the result that the truly godly are crushed out, lvi.9-lvii.2, and the old immoral idolatry is rampant, lvii.3-13. The sinners will therefore be punished, but the godly whom they have persecuted will be comforted and saved, lvii.14-21. The people, who have been zealously keeping fast-days, are surprised and vexed that Jehovah has not yet honoured their fidelity by sending happier times: the prophet replies that the real demands of Jehovah are not exhausted by ceremonial, but lie rather in the fulfilment of moral duty, and especially in the duty of practical love to the needy (lviii.). It is not the impotence of Jehovah, but the manifold sins of the people, that have kept back the day of salvation, lix.1-15; but He will one day appear to punish His adversaries and redeem the penitent and faithful, lix.16-21. Then the city of Jerusalem shall be glorious: her scattered children shall stream back to her, her walls shall be rebuilt by the gifts of the heathen nations, and she shall be mistress of the world, enjoying peace and light and prosperity (lx.). Again the good news is proclaimed: the Jews shall be, as it were, the priests of Jehovah for the whole world, Jerusalem shall be secure and fair and populous (lxi., lxii.). But if Judah is thus to prosper, her enemies must be destroyed, and their destruction is described in lxiii.1-6, a unique and powerful song of vengeance.
A very striking contrast to all this dream of victory and blessedness is presented by lxiii.7-lxiv.12, in which the people sorrowfully remind themselves of the brilliant far-off days of the Exodus when the Spirit was with them -- the Spirit whom sin has now driven away -- and passionately pray that Jehovah, in His fatherly pity, would mightily interpose to save them. The devotees of superstitious cults are threatened with destruction, lxv.1-7, while brilliant promises are held out to the faithful -- long and happy life in a world transformed, lxv.8-25. Again destruction is predicted for those who, while practising superstitious rites, are yet eager to build a temple to Jehovah to rival the existing one in Jerusalem; while the faithful are comforted with the prospect of victory, increase of population and resources, and the perpetuity of their race (lxvi.).