OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETS
by Fr. William Most
The word prophet has at least two senses in the Old
Testament. There are ecstatic prophets, and classic prophets.
The ecstatic prophets are marked by odd, even frenzied
behavior. They do not appear in Israel before the time of Samuel;
they disappear after the 5th century B. C. They lived in groups,
with a sort of a leader. They wore a hairy mantle and a leather
girdle. (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). They often had scars, from wounds
inflicted by themselves or by others when in a frenzy:1 Kings
18:28. They sometimes went in for repeated cries (1 Kgs 18:26,
28). Some prophets, perhaps of the same type, resided at the
royal court. In 1 Samuel 19:20-14 David had just escaped, for the
time, the hands of Saul. But Saul sent messengers to arrest him.
The messengers found Samuel seeming to lead a band of frenzied
prophets. The messengers fell into frenzy too. Saul himself then
pursued, but the "spirit of God" came upon him, and he fell into
the same state. He took off his clothes and lay naked all that
day and night. Ecstatic prophets sometimes did this in their
The ecstatic type of prophets in the times of the kings were
often in large groups, of even 400 at a time. Their prophecy
might be induced by music. Kings often consulted them, and at
times they gave messages such as the kings wanted, showing that
at least in such cases there was nothing supernatural about their
state. In other cultures there are similar phenomena, e. g., the
Was this really a spirit of God that came upon them, or
merely what the on lookers would call that? It is hard to imagine
the spirit of God leading to uncontrollable frenzy and making a
king lie naked all day and night. In 1 Cor 14 St. Paul speaks
much of prophets, and compares the gift of tongues to them,
unfavorably for tongues. Paul speaks of a supernatural gift of
prophecy, and even then, in 14:32-33 we find: "The spirits of the
prophets are subject to the prophets; God is not a God of uproar
but of peace." Such then is the nature of really supernatural
prophecy, at least, such as it was known to St. Paul. Such an
example as that of 1 Samuel 19 does not seem to be of
supernatural origin especially since the spirits of the prophets
in 1 Samuel seem not to be subject to the prophets. As to the
statement that Samuel was leading them, he could have fallen into
a nonsupernatural frenzied state, or could have feigned it, to
protect David from Saul.
Even Abraham is called a prophet in Genesis 20:7 and the
whole people of Israel are called prophets in Psalm 105:15. But
the meaning does not seem to be ecstatic prophets.
Before the great prophets there were lesser nonecstatic
prophets, such as Samuel (except for the case mentioned), Elijah,
Elisha, Micaiah, and Nathan.
But it is clear that the classic prophets, of the type of
Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are very different
from the ecstatic prophets. Amos explicitly says (7:12-16) he is
not a prophet - he meant he was not an ecstatic prophet.
The call of a classic prophet may have come by way of a
vision (e. g., Isaiah 6), or also through an interior
communication. Such an experience enabled the prophet to
understand God in a way not given to others. Thus they had a
basis for judging events in God's way. So the prophet was a
spokesman for God. The image of Ezekiel eating a scroll given him
by God (2:8 - 3:3. cf. also Jer 15:16 and Rev./Apoc. 10:8-11) is
probably a way of expressing this. Foretelling the future was not
the basic work of a prophet, it was only part of his whole
message. We notice especially that in Ezekiel 37, several times
the prophet is told to to the dry bones -- which does
not at all refer to foretelling the future, but to announcing the
word of God.
Moses had foretold (Dt. 18:15): "The Lord your God will
raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own kinsmen.
You shall listen to him." This could have been taken to mean just
a great prophet, and might even refer to the great classic
prophets. But both Jews and Christians by the time of Christ
understood the promise of Moses to refer to a special individual
prophet: cf. John 6:14 (the people thought Jesus was that
prophet) and 7:40. So too did the Apostles understand it: Acts
3:22 and 7:37. Indeed Moses was said to have spoken to God face
to face, as one man would to another: Ex 33:7-11. So the great
prophet would be entirely unique, it would be Christ Himself.
However, we need to notice that even Moses did not see the
face of God. In Exodus 33:18-23 Moses asked to see God. But God
said He would put Moses in the hollow of the rock, and cover him
with His hand, so that Moses could see only "His back". But no
man could see His face. The prophet foretold by Moses in Dt.
18:15 really would see God fully, for Christ Himself is divine,
His human soul saw the vision of God from the first instant of
His human conception, as the Church teaches, e. g., Pius
XII, (cf. Wm. Most, ).
Further it seems possible to gather from these words of
Moses about the coming prophet who would be like Moses in
speaking to God face to face, that the intervening classic
prophets did not, at least, ordinarily speak to God thus. Rather
they obtained their messages by the general illumination
described above, or by interior locutions.
The books of the greatest prophets are collections of things
they had said on various occasions. The collections could have
been made by others, e.g., Baruch for Jeremiah. It is not always
easy to determine the original setting. And continuity may be
poor, especially in Jeremiah. The fact that so many prophetic
utterances were in poetry makes it more difficult to understand
them, for they may indulge in poetic fancy.
Besides the exaggerations of poetry - and Semitic poets at
that - we need to keep some other things in mind to understand
the prophecies of the future. St. Augustine, in 17.
3, notices that . He finds an
indication of this latter when something that at first sight
would seem to refer to a certain figure, does not entirely fit
him, e.g., the prophecy of Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 7:12
speaks of a successor who will come "after David sleeps with his
fathers." At first sight this would seem to be Solomon. But
Augustine notices that Solomon became king not after David's
death, but before it: so he concludes the prophecy is only partly
fulfilled in Solomon: we must look ahead also to Christ. And only
Christ would have the kind of realm and reign predicted (cf.
Psalm 72: 8, which is entitled, "Of Solomon").
Further, some predictions may have a less glorious
fulfillment than it might have been, e. g., Gen. 49:10, as we
saw, says a ruler will not be lacking from Judah until the time
of the Messiah. This came true, but would have had a much more
glorious fulfillment, in splendid kings on the throne of David,
if the Jews had not been so unfaithful so many times.
Isaiah : His times
His ministry began about 742, "the year King Uzziah died", and
ran until sometime in the reign of Hezekiah (715-687). He worked
chiefly in Judah. The time before the death of Uzziah had been
one of great external development and prosperity for both
northern and southern kingdoms, especially since the power of
Assyria had declined at that time. Also the power of Syria, which
had disturbed the north in the 9th century, had also declined.
During the reign of Uzziah there were victories over the
Philistines, Arabs, Ammonites, and Edomites. Jerusalem was
fortified. Uzziah promoted agriculture and industry.
In the north, it was the time of Jeroboam II, another
forceful king, who restored the boundaries of his nation .
Prosperity and wealth were everywhere, which opened the way to
corruption. Both northern and southern kingdoms then enjoyed
power such as they had not known since the division of the
But that was to change. Tiglath Pileser III, who was
conquest-minded, came to the throne of Assyria. He made Syrian
Arpad a province, and so got tribute from Damascus under Rezin
and from Tyre under Hiram. Next he extended his power to Lebanon,
and soon penetrated the territory of Israel. He seems to have
been the Pul mentioned in 2 Kings 15:19 to whom King Menahem gave
tribute a thousand talents of silver. The name Azariah, which is
the same as Uzziah, appears on Assyrian tablets as among the
princes who joined an alliance against Tiglath Pileser. In many
ways Uzziah seems to have been religious, but yet he did not
remove the high places. Josephus, 9.22 tells that
at the height of his power he became proud, attempted to offer
sacrifice in the temple, even though the high priest warned him.
At that very time he was stricken with leprosy, thus ending his
public exercise of kingship, and a devastating earthquake came at
the precise moment of his sin against the priests. (cf. 2 Kings
15:5). Yet the prosperity of Judah in his reign was greater than
that of any period since Solomon.
During this general period God sent some to whom He revealed
His plan, such as the prophet Amos (cf. 3:7) who told of the
coming dangers and called for repentance and faith. A bit later
Hosea preached in the northern kingdom, which was to fall with
the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. God's plans span great periods of
time with ease.
So it was a very turbulent time for Judah and others, since
Assyria was expanding to the west, aiming at a world empire.
Isaiah, with divine guidance, saw the danger before others did.
Many of his contemporaries mocked his predictions (5:19). Isaiah
saw not only the international situation, but also the sins of
his people, which were to lead to a judgment by God (chapter 6).
Most likely Isaiah 5:26-30 has the Assyrian threat in mind, even
though Isaiah does not at this time mention Assyria by name.
Syria and Damascus tried to force Judah into an alliance with
them against Assyria. King Achaz refused, and even joined an
alliance with Assyria, contrary to the urging of Isaiah (chapter
7). Syria and Damascus invaded Judah in 735. Isaiah offered Achaz
a sign in the sky or in the depths. But Achaz pretended that
would be tempting God - which it was not, since God had invited
him to ask for it. Achaz gave tribute to Assyria, which then took
Damascus, and killed its king Rezin. Achaz was a wicked king, who
even offered his own son in sacrifice to an idol:2 Kings 16:3.
Hezekiah, son of Achaz, was a good king who eliminated idols and
human sacrifice. He also resisted Egyptian requests to join in a
coalition against Assyria, but still, when Sennacherib became
king of Assyria, he withheld tribute (2 Kings 18:7). Contrary to
the warnings of Isaiah he became a leader in the revolt against
Assyria, and made a treaty with Egypt (Is 30:1-7;31:1-3).
Isaiah seems to have had little to say in the
period 727 (probable date of death of Achaz) to 705, death of
Sargon of Assyria, even in 722 when Sargon conquered Samaria as
Isaiah had predicted (probably around 725). Yet Isaiah begins to
speak much again around 715, when Hezekiah took full power. The
prophecies of chapter 18 and 20 probably show Isaiah's lively
interest in the revolt of the Palestinian states, supported by
Egypt, against Assyria. Hezekiah was inclined to cooperate with
alliances against Assyria, and Isaiah warned against this. When
Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah.
The lesser cities in Judah were all reduced by Sennacherib. But
he did not take Jerusalem, though he claimed he shut up Hezekiah,
"like a bird in a cage" (ANET 288). Hezekiah sued for terms, and
tribute to Assyria was greatly increased. 2 Kings 18:17 - 19:37
also mentions what some scholars think was a second revolt
against Assyria, in which Hezekiah was again besieged, but Isaiah
assured him the city would not fall. Assyria was turned back,
either because of an epidemic in the army (2 Kings 19:35) or
because Sennacherib was needed suddenly back home. About this
time Hezekiah became ill, seemed likely to die. But at his
prayer, God gave him 15 more years of life:Is 38:10-20. There is
an unverifiable tradition that Isaiah was sawed in two by order
of King Manasseh (687-42).
In all, it is very difficult to be sure which of these events
Isaiah had I mind in a particular passage.
The Text of Isaiah
Most scholars today see three Isaiahs, for chapters 1-39,
40-55, and 56-66, describing three periods:threat of punishment,
exile, and restoration. We consider this is possible, but there
is surely no convincing proof that there were three. For this is
simply the familiar deuteronomic pattern we have met before. And,
as we pointed out, Amos and Hosea show the same pattern. Isaiah
merely fills it in more thoroughly. Further, even within the so-
called three sections, Isaiah can easily shift from one tone to
Another attempt against the unity of Isaiah comes from the
fact that there is a the prediction of the actions of Cyrus by
name (44:28). But this argument is valid only if one insists
there can be no true prophecies. Actually, as we will soon see,
Isaiah did predict things about the Messiah in three passages.
Micah 5:2, his contemporary, predicted by name the place of birth
of the Messiah. And someone less than a major prophet in 1 Kings
13:2 foretells actions of King Josiah, to come about 300 years
later (which are recorded in 1 Kings 23:15). Flavius Josephus, in
XI. 1. 1-2 asserts that Cyrus before releasing the
Jews from captivity, read the prophecy about himself in Isaiah,
and that this influenced his decision.
The book opens with a denunciation of the sinfulness of the
people, with special stress on the fact that sacrifices then were
mere externalism. This thought is crystallized in a passage
farther on, in 29:13: "This people honors me with their lips, but
their hearts are far from me." Older critics used to claim that
Isaiah and other major prophets rejected sacrifices. But it was
the empty external "participation" that they denounced. Then
29:14 goes on to say that because of this defective worship, "the
wisdom of the wise will perish". This would be a punishment like
that given through Rehoboam.
Some major messianic prophecies are found in Isaiah, which
the targums recognize as messianic - except, in their present
form, for 7:14.
Summary of Chapter 1
In the times of Kings Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz and Hezekiah,
Isaiah saw a vision from God about Jerusalem.
He calls on the people to listen, for God has spoken. God
complains that He has brought up children who have rebelled
against Him. Even dumb animals, the ox and the ass, know their
master:yet Israel does not recognize its master and its father.
It is a sinful people, full of wickedness who have provoked the
Holy One to anger. Why should they act so as to call for further
chastisements? Already their whole head is sick, their heart is
faint. There is no sound part of that body from head to foot.
Everywhere there are bruises, sores, bleeding wounds that have
not been cared for or bandaged. So the country is desolate, the
villages are burned:foreigners devour their land. It is desolate.
Daughter Zion is left like a tent in a vineyard, like a shelter
in a field of cucumbers, like a city under siege. If the God of
armies had not let a remnant survive, Israel would have been
totally wiped out like Sodom, like Gomorrah.
Now the prophet calls on the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah -
that is, Jerusalem. Yes, they offer so many sacrifices, but God
has more than enough of those animals and their blood, for the
offerings are meaningless, mere externalism, with no interior
dispositions. He says He cannot put up with their New Moons and
Sabbaths. The people spread out their hands in prayer, but God
will not look, for their hands are really full of blood. So they
should stop doing evil and seek what is morally right, and help
the oppressed, defend those who are fatherless and the widows. If
they do that, then he appeals to their good sense:cannot they see
that if they do as He asks He will listen to them? Even if their
past sins have been as red as scarlet, He will cleanse them to be
as clean as fresh wool. If they do this they will eat the best,
and the sword will not come upon them. God has spoken!
But no, in actuality, the city that was once faithful has
become a harlot. Once there was righteousness and justice in
Jerusalem, but now instead He sees murderers. Their silver,
probably meaning their rulers, has turned to dross, and their
wine which once was choice, is now heavily watered. It is because
their rulers rebel against God, going after bribes and gifts.
They do this instead of taking up rightly the case of the
fatherless and the widows. Therefore His hand, which once was
turned against their enemies, will now turn on them to put things
right. But His action will result in cleansing their dross, and
taking away their impurities. Then He will give them judges as in
days of old and wise counselors. After this is all over it will
be called a faithful city, a city of righteousness. Those who are
penitent will be redeemed with righteousness, but rebels and
sinners will be broken. They who have forsaken the Lord are going
They will be ashamed then of their sacred oaks which they
once cultivated. Their gardens will dry up. Mighty men will burn
together with their works, and no one will quench the fire.
Comments on Chapter 1
Of what period of history is Isaiah speaking here? As usual,
we cannot be sure. A large possibility is the constant threat of
Assyria. Another is the fact that after the Syro-Ephramitic war
Pekah had destroyed the army of Achaz, and the Edomites and
Philistines invaded Judah. Jerusalem too was threatened.
But the chief message is clear. God calls heaven and earth
to witness to the fact that His people have been wicked. Even
brute animals, such as the ox and ass, know their master:these
people do not know their Father. (The mention of the ox and ass
here may have suggested putting those animals in Christmas
cribs). The people are loaded with guilt, they have forsaken the
Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah is fond of the expression,
the Holy One. God's holiness means basically that He observes
what is morally right in all His actions. Cf. Psalm 11:7: "God is
morally right  , and He loves the things that are
morally right ." Quite a contrast to the gods of
Mesopotamia, who seem to have been amoral, acting as if there
were no such thing as morality, or the Greek Zeus, a big time
adulterer, or Roman Jupiter. Cf. Ez 28:2: "Behold I am against
you, O Sidon. . . and they shall know that I am the Lord when I
inflict punishments on her, and I shall show myself holy in her
." Cf. also Is 5:15-16: "God, the Holy One, will
show Himself holy by moral rightness. "(We do find even in
paganism some who speak of the God as morally right and the
guardian of justice. Socrates did this. It was at times said in
Mesopotamia, from where the Jews came. Cf. Wolfram von Soden,
, tr. D. Schley, Eerdmans, 1994, pp. 131,
The prophet asks if they want to be beaten still more? It seems
they have hardened themselves, and do not understand even when
there is no sound part from head to toe in them. Their country is
desolate, cannot they see? Does he mean the desolation is already
at hand, or is he, with prophetic vision, looking ahead? The
Daughter of Zion means the Daughter that is Zion (the hill on
which were built the palace and temple). Yet God's mercy has left
them a remnant, they are not completely wiped out, so they are
not like Sodom and Gomorrah, which were totally destroyed.
Now Isaiah picks upon the notion of Sodom, and calls the
rulers of Jerusalem the rulers of Sodom. Did he refer to
homosexuality there? We know from all the major prophets what
kind of sins Jerusalem committed:social injustice, not defending
the widow and orphan, instead, going for bribes. But this does
not mean that Isaiah did not know what the real sin of
Sodom was. Cf. Jude 7: "Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the
surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged
in unnatural lust serve as an example by undergoing a punishment
of eternal fire." This is confirmed abundantly by the
Intertestamental Jewish literature.
God says He cannot stand their sacrifices and festivals, He
is weary of them. Some time ago, commentators often made the
mistake of saying the major prophets were all against sacrifice.
But no, they objected to empty externalism. We can gather the
right concept of sacrifice from Isaiah 29:13: "This people honors
me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." We see there
are two elements, lips, the externals, and hearts, the interior
dispositions. The outward sign should be a means of expressing
the interior, which is basically obedience to God's will. The
external without the interior is worthless, arouses God's anger
instead of pleasing Him. The Jews of Isaiah's day enjoyed the
externals, answering prayers, singing, joining in processions -
but it was all just empty:they disobeyed the will of God in not
caring for widows and orphans, and instead oppressed them for
financial gain. Even the sacrifice of Jesus would have been
worthless without obedience:cf. Romans 5:19.
Isaiah then urges them to stop doing evil, to do what is
good, to seek what is right, to help the oppressed. To most
persons this does not sound strange, but to some Protestant
commentators this creates a problem, to a thorough Lutheran it is
unacceptable. For in his major work,
(tr. J. L. Packer & O. R. Johnston, Revell, Old Tappan., 1957)
Luther explicitly denies free will (p. 273) and adds that a human
being is like a horse (pp. 103-04):either God or satan may ride
him, and accordingly he does good or evil and goes to heaven or
hell. The human has nothing to say about which one rides him (pp.
103-04). Yet all Scripture testifies we do have free will, or
else all the exhortations to turn to God, to repent, to do good,
all over Scripture, are all mockery. St. Paul gives us a
fascinating problem. In one set of texts (2 Cor 3:5, Phil 2:13)
he says we cannot get a good thought of ourselves, or make a good
decision, or carry it out. In the other set (e. g., 2 Cor 6:1) he
says what Isaiah says here, that when grace comes, it is our
decision whether it comes in vain or not. How to fit together
these two sets of texts is a problem that has been a subject of
hot controversy over the centuries. It is, of course, no answer
at all to simply deny free will, as Luther did. We know the texts
can be reconciled, for Scripture does not contradict itself, but
how to reconcile the texts is debated. For a new proposal which
fully accepts all texts, cf. Wm. Most, (London, 1971),
Verses 18-20 also raise a problem for Protestants. God asks
the people to think it over:even if their sins are scarlet, they
shall be as white as wool. The favorite classic Protestant tactic
here is to say this means only . The sinner is not
really made white as wool - God throws the merits of Christ, like
a cloak, over him, and refuses to look underneath where all is
total corruption. If we recall that in the same line of thinking,
that man has no free will - this may fit. But 2 Peter 1:4 says we
become sharers in the divine nature; 1 Cor 3:16 and 6:19 say we
become temples of the Holy Spirit - who would not like to dwell
in total corruption; and we become capable for the face to face
vision of God in the next life (1 Cor 13:12) -- hardly possible
for someone totally corrupt, for as Malachi 3:23 says, "He is
like a refiner's fire. Who can stand when He appears? "Even now
we become white as wool, and even, as St. Paul puts it, "a new
creation"( Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). Creation is making something
out of nothing, not putting a white cloak over total corruption.
But the faithful city has become a harlot. Isaiah is not
just using rose-colored glasses here. Jerusalem once was faithful
to God, in the time of David, and the first part of the reign of
Solomon, and under some good kings, such as Jehoshapat. The
imagery behind thee lines is that Jerusalem is the bride of God,
and so must be faithful ( a theme much developed in Hosea). But
she has become unfaithful, has gone into association with the
Assyrians, who require that Assyrian idols be placed in
He says their silver has become dross - which is the
impurities removed in the process of purifying silver. A sulphide
ore of lead was a source of silver. The ore was put into a
shallow cup. A blast of hot air in the furnace would oxidize the
lead, and leave the silver. Lye might be added to speed up the
process. In Jeremiah 6:27-30 God tells Jeremiah He will make him
a refiner of silver - but his attempts to refine the people were
in vain, so they were rejected. Hence God Himself (Jer 9:7) said
He would refine and test them Himself - referring to the fall of
Jerusalem and the temple.
The silver may refer to the rulers of Jerusalem. For certain
they are in mind when he speaks of them as thieves, loving
bribes. They do not help the widow and the orphan.
Hence, in 24-26 God says, in some versions, that He will
"get relief", and "avenge" Himself on them. The words "get
relief," Hebrew , can indicate He has been burdened by their
empty sacrifices, and now will get relief by acting to set things
right. But His acting will be not what the English word
implies, it is more strictly the sense of Hebrew naqam, used in
v. 24, which means action by the highest authority to correct
things, whether it be favorable or unfavorable
to the persons affected (thus in Judges 11:36 there is
vindication for Israel, but punishment for enemies. Cf. also
Isaiah 59. 15b-18 where both and are used in the
sense of punishment, even though usually means saving.
Vengeance is really an exercise of hatred, willing evil to
another so it may be evil to him - the opposite of love, which is
wiling good to another for the other's sake. God does not hate or
act in hatred, is rather His righting of the objective
order. Cf. Simeon ben Eleazar ( 1. 14): "He
[anyone] has committed a transgression:woe to him, he has tipped
the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the whole
world". Cf. also Paul VI, doctrinal introduction to his
Constitution on Indulgences of Jan 1, 1967.
God here threatens punishment, but it is for the sake of
repentance and purification. Hence He adds that He will bring
back judges as they once were and Jerusalem will be called a city
of righteousness, faithful city. But that really was far in the
future, after the end of the Babylonian exile, 539 BC.
He says they will be ashamed of their sacred oaks and
groves, where the Jews, like the Canaanites, used to offer
sacrifices to pagan gods. They thought they were getting
fertility - but it will turn out to be the opposite, all will
become tinder for fire.
This is what Isaiah saw concerning Jerusalem: Finally, in
the last days, the mountain of the Lord will be the highest of
all, and all nations will come to it. Many people will say:Let us
go to the mountain of the Lord, to learn His ways, so we may walk
as He wills. The Lord will judge between the nations from
Jerusalem. Then they will make ploughshares out of swords and
pruning hooks out of spears. There will be no more war anymore.
But then Isaiah puts aside this glorious vision of the
future and urges the house of Jacob to follow the light of the
Lord. Really, the prophet says, God has abandoned His people, for
they are full of superstitions from the East, they cultivate
divination as the Philistines do. They have material treasures
without end, a multitude of horses. But they also have many idols
and they bow down to the things their hands have made.
So Isaiah utters the terrible prediction:they will be
brought low. May God not forgive them!
Because of the coming wrath of the Lord, he tells them to
hide themselves in the ground. For human pride will be humiliated
on that Day of the Lord, when all the cedars of Lebanon, every
high tower, every ship of trade, and all human arrogance will be
brought low. Only the Lord will then be exalted, and idols will
be no more. In fear men will flee to caves, to holes, they will
cast away their idols. They have even treated rodents as gods. So
men will flee to caverns in the rocks out of dread of the Lord
when He comes to shake the earth. So they should no longer trust
in man:a man has only breath in his nostrils: he is of no
Comments on Chapter 2
At the start of this chapter, Isaiah lets his mind turn to a
glorious future, in which all nations will come to Jerusalem to
worship God, and there will be no more war.
Supplement on the Messianic Age
We wish to consider two kinds of material: 1)highly
idealized pictures; 2)prophecies that seem to indicate all
gentiles will join Judaism.
First, the idealized picture: Isaiah 11:6-9 says the wolf
will be a guest of the lamb and the leopard with be with the kid,
and a calf and lion will eat together, with a child to lead them,
while the baby plays at the Cobra's den. There will be no harm
anywhere, and they will even beat their swords into ploughshares
What shall we say? First, we know the Semites had powerful
imaginations, and could exaggerate more than Hollywood. In fact,
the dire language of Matthew 24 about the sun being darkened, the
moon giving no light, and stars falling from the skies -- all
these are found in the descriptions of much milder events. Isaiah
13:10 speaks of the fall of Babylon thus: "The stars in the sky
and the constellations will not give their light. The sun will be
dark when it rises, the moon will not give its light." Similarly,
Isaiah 34:4 said in speaking of the judgment on Edom: "All the
stars will be dissolved, the sky will roll up like a scroll, and
the host of the heavens will fall like dried leaves from the
vine." Again, Ezekiel 32:7-8 foretells the judgment on Egypt
thus: "When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and darken
the stars. . . the moon will not give its light."
Which is the more powerful, the more exaggerated imagery?
That about the wolf and the lamb, or about the sun and moon? Hard
In passing, some leftwing authors like to say that Joel 3:10
contradicts Isaiah 2:4. Joel says they will beat their
ploughshares into swords. A simple distinction will help. Even
the nonconservative NAB in a note on Joel 4:10 (= NRSV 3:10)
explains that warlike weapons are made in reply to God's call to
armies to expel forever the unlawful invaders, from the land of
the chosen people. Isaiah looks to a different situation:the
heavily idealized age of the Messiah.
But our second problem is much more complex. Many times over
the prophets foretell all the nations being converted to God.
Objectively and actually, that meant that the gentiles would be
called to be part of God's people. But that was new. Ephesians
3:5-6 tells of a secret not revealed to past ages:that Gentiles
are also called to be part of the people of God.
But to read Isaiah, for example, things would sound
different. For example Isaiah 2:2-5 says the mountain of the Lord
will become the highest mountain, and all nations will stream
toward it. They will say: "Now let us go up the mountain of the
Lord. . . that He may teach us in His ways and we will walk in
His paths. Teaching shall go forth from Zion and the word of the
Lord from Jerusalem."
Specially striking too is Zechariah 8:22-23: "Many peoples. .
shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem. . . ten men
from nations of every language will grasp a Jew, and take hold of
his garment: "Let us go with you. For we have heard that God is
A related problem is in the last chapters of Ezekiel,
chapters 40-48 which give a detailed description of a Jerusalem
to be restored, with a great temple and animal sacrifices.
Significantly, however there is no mention of a Day of Atonement,
or an ark of the covenant, or veil. The real day of Atonement was
Good Friday, and the veil was then broken forever. The ark is
replaced by the Eucharist.
How can we understand this? St. Augustine in
4. 33 said that in the OT, material things were used to stand for
spiritual things: "there, even earthly gifts were promised, while
the spiritual men understood even then, although they did not
preach it clearly, what eternity was signified by those temporal
things, and in which gifts of God was true happiness." St. Paul
in Gal 3:15-21 spoke of the promises given to Abraham as really
standing for eternal salvation.
So, these images given by Ezekiel could be taken to stand
for eternal goods. And the lack of such essential things as a Day
of Atonement, an ark, and a veil give a hint of what the real
But no wonder the first Christians had a hard time
understanding. Yes, Jesus had told the Apostles to go and teach
all nations. But we fear Peter and the others thought this meant
all nations would become proselytes. So in Acts 10, Peter, after
not understanding the vision of the sheet let down from the sky,
went to the Roman centurion Cornelius. Jewish Christians were
shocked that he would associate with Gentiles. Clearly the
commission of Mt 28:18-20 had not registered on them at all.
Let us not accept the foolish proposal that Jesus after the
resurrection never spoke words at all, that He just used interior
locutions; and that only in time did Peter and others come to
understand. This will not do at all, and only someone ignorant of
mystical theology could say such a thing. St. Teresa of Avila,
who had much experience with locutions, explained ( 25):
"When God speaks in this way, the soul has no remedy, even though
it displeases me, I have to listen, and to pay such full
attention to understand that which God wishes us to understand
that it makes no difference if we want or not. For He who can do
everything wills that we understand, and we have to do what He
wills." She added ( 6. 3. 7): "When time has
passed since heard, and the workings and the certainty it had
that it was God has passed, doubt can come" about the
authenticity of the message. So Peter would have had to
understand clearly at once , if Jesus had used an interior
locution, and later could begin to doubt. But the foolish
proposal has that turned precisely around.
We have already seen at least a glimpse of the truth:the OT
prophecies could easily give the impression, not that gentiles
would be accepted into the Church as gentiles, but that they
would all become proselytes.
But now we must ask:How and why did Jesus and the Scriptures
speak in away so readily misunderstood? We add that toward the
end of His public life some in the crowds began to suggest He
might be the Messiah. But others said no, for the Messiah must
come from Bethlehem (John 7:40-44). He could so easily have said
on that occasion:But I was born in Bethlehem. But He did not.
So we ask why? God wants faith to be free, not coerced. He
could have arranged to have His resurrection take place with all
Jerusalem, including His enemies, assembled before the tomb. This
would have bowled them over. There would have been no freedom
left to such a faith.
To understand, we need to notice that there are two main
kinds of evidence that lead us to accept something as
true:compulsive and noncompulsive. Compulsive evidence, such as
the fact that 2 x 2 = 4, forces the mind, does not leave it at
all free. But noncompulsive evidence is different, Further, there
is a broad spectrum of noncompulsive evidence running from some
things at the top of the scale, where the evidence is so strong
that no one actually doubts, e. g., that Washington crossed the
Delaware. But at the low end of that scale there are things where
feelings can enter, e. g., if one would say, about the original
Mayor Daley of Chicago, that he was a good honest politician,
those who received favors would agree he was good and honest. The
opposition would say quite the opposite.
Now the evidence for things of our faith is objectively
adequate, but definitely noncompulsive. It lies somewhere on that
scale we mentioned where it is rational to believe, .
This in turn is the same sort of framework we can see with
the parables. If we wanted to follow the chronology of Mark - we
are not sure of it of course - Jesus at first taught rather
clearly. But then the scribes charged He was casting out devils
by the devil. Then He turned to parables, and all three Synoptics
quote Isaiah 6:9-10, in varied forms, saying the same thing:It is
so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not
This was not deliberate blinding by Him. Otherwise why would
He later weep over Jerusalem for not understanding the time of
their visitation (Mt 23:27)?
No, He was setting up a marvelous divine device for dividing
people according to their dispositions. We might speak of two
spirals, in opposite directions. Let us think of a man who has
never been drunk before, but tonight he gets very drunk. Next day
- for this is the first time - he has guilt feelings. There is a
clash between his moral beliefs and his actions. Our nature
abhors such clashes, and something will have to give. Either he
will align his actions with his faith, or his faith will be
brought into line with his actions. This goes on and on, like a
spiral that gets larger as it goes out, and feeds on itself. In
other words, the man is getting more and more blind. In time he
will lose perception of other moral truths and even of doctrinal
Here is another remarkable thing. We know that God is
identified with each of His attributes, so He does not
love, but love. Similarly He is justice, and He is mercy.
How is this possible? We can begin to understand as we are now
explaining. The man who goes out on the bad spiral is getting
more and more blind. This is justice, he has earned the blinding.
But it is also mercy, for the more one knows about religion , the greater the responsibility. So his
responsibility is mercifully being reduced. And in one and the
same action, we find both mercy and justice exercised.
On the good spiral we also see both. The man who lives
strenuously according to faith, which says the things of the
world are worth little compared to eternity, he will go farther
and farther on the good spiral. His ability to understand
spiritual things gets greater and greater. This added light is,
in a secondary sense, merited, and is justice. We say secondary,
for in the most basic sense, no creature by its own ability can
establish a claim on God. So all is basically mercy. Yet as we
said, secondarily there is justice: God in the covenant has
promised to reward those who keep His covenant law. So again, in
one and the same action, there is both mercy and justice
So it seems we may have found at least some insight into
God's ways in these matters. One example is that He wants
Scripture to be difficult, so we may work on it more, and get
more out of it (cf. EB 563) but still more, so that those well
disposed will be justly rewarded, while those who ill-disposed
will lose the little they have. To him who has, it will be given.
From him who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken
away (Mt. 25:29).
Here we might borrow a line from St. Paul (Romans 11:33-34):
"O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How incomprehensible are His judgments, and unsearchable His
ways." We have had the privilege of seeing, not all things about
His wisdom, but some little corner, like Moses who had the
privilege of seeing God from behind.
Comments on Chapter 2 continued
Isaiah turns from this glorious vision to the realities of
his day, when the people and rulers alike were so unfaithful to
God. He says the wrath of God will strike, and he suggests, in
poetic fancy, that they hide themselves in caves, or in the
ground, from His anger.
Incidentally this is just the same kind of fancy that Job
indulges in in Job 14:13 ff. He says in effect he would like to
hide in Sheol, the realm of the dead, until God's anger would
pass. He knows he cannot do this of course. Incidentally, one
foolish commentator, not understanding this poetic imagery,
thinks Job raises the possibility of an afterlife, and then
denies survival - what would be left of the inspiration of
Scripture whose chief author is the Holy Spirit?
In 2:20 the prophet says then men will throw away their
idols, which include idols of rodents. Is this more fancy? No,
the Egyptians considered scarab beatles sacred, which gather dung
into a ball for food, roll the ball and carry it into a crevice.
Chapter 3:1- 4:1, Summary
The supreme Lord is taking away all support of food from
Jerusalem, and all warriors, judges, prophets, and officers. Mere
boys will rule over them, and will be insolent to old men, the
base will be disrespectful to the honorable. Someone may even
tell one of his relatives who has a cloak that he should be the
ruler - such will be the poverty.
Their faces will show their guilt, like Sodom. They have
brought all this on themselves. But the innocent will be better
of, and will eat the fruit of their labors, while the guilty will
be repaid for their sin.
Children and women will oppress them.
God arises to judgment. He charges that the princes and
elders have devoured his vineyard, Israel. What they have taken
from the poor, to be seen in their houses, testifies against
The women have been haughty, have gone to extremes to adorn
themselves. But now instead of ornamental chains on their ankles
there will be iron chains. Instead of fine hairdresses their
heads will be shaved, and have scabs. No more perfume, instead a
stench. Sackcloth will replace rich robes. There will be only
shame where there used to be beauty. Their foreheads will be
burned with a branding iron, to mark them as slaves.
Comments on 3:1- 4:1
We do not know to which invasion Isaiah refers, it could be
one from the Assyrians or the Babylonian siege (cf. Lamentations
2:20). Incompetent young people and women will take over - who
normally should respect the elders and those in authority. They
even ask someone who has no more than a cloak to take control of
a "heap of ruins", the city. They are so wicked that they are
open about their sins, like Sodom. Romans 1:31 says the lowest
degradation is found in those who not only sin, but even say sin
Then comes a scene in which there is an imaginary court, in
which the Lord charges the leaders of the people, on whom the
chief blame falls. They have abused their office to make
themselves rich at the expense of the poor.
Then the prophet specially rebukes the proud and
ostentatious women who went about with necks raised, flirting
with their eyes, taking mincing steps - since they had ornamental
chains on their ankles, which prevented large steps. Zion was the
part of the city where the royal palace was located. It was
especially the ladies of the court who were guilty of this vain
display, who did everything they could to entice men into sex.
Zion here is used to refer to the entire city. God will change
their adornments into things that oppress them. There will even
be branding on their foreheads, done by the enemy, to mark them
Women who once were proud, will have fallen so low that seven at
a time they will come to any man asking him to give them his name
so they will be protected.
Summary of 4:2-6
On the day of messianic salvation, the Branch of the Lord
will be glorious, the fruit of the land will be the pride and
glory of the remnant, the just, who have survived the invasion.
For the Lord will have washed away the filth. And as of old, He
will put a cloud of smoke by day and a shining pillar by night.
Comments on 4:2-6
The branch of () the Lord" means the Messiah. The Targums
regularly take that word as standing for the messiah. Here the
vision of the prophet shifts from the destruction of chapter 4 to
the age just after the destruction, or even to the age of the
Messiah. Such shifts occur many times in Isaiah, and help to show
that the picture of three Isaiahs, so that one predicts
punishment, the second speaks of exile, the third of restoration
is too artificial. There are so many alternations of images and
moods, as we see here.
It is a remnant that will enjoy the age. Isaiah often speaks
of the remnant, e. g., also in 6:13. The word remnant was also
used for those who remained after the wanderings in the
wilderness and finally entered the promised land. It also refers
to those who escaped the Assyrian deportation from the northern
kingdom(cf. 2 Chr. 30:6; 34:9) to those left by the Babylonians
in Judah after the destruction, and to those who returned from
the great exile. There was also talk of a faithful remnant at a
time of national apostasy; Elijah thought of himself as such a
remnant) 1 Kgs. 19:10. St. Paul also speaks in Romans of a
remnant who did not reject Christ.
Summary of chapter 5
Isaiah tells of a friend, who, later on turns out to be the
Lord. The friend had a vineyard. He took good care, cleared out
the stones, put it on a fertile hill, planted choice vines, built
a watchtower, and a wine vat. But instead of good grapes, it
turned out wild grapes, small and bitter tasting.
In v 3 the friend begins to speak, and asks Jerusalem to
judge between him and his vineyard. Has he not done everything
for it? But it gave only bad fruit. So he intends to take away
the hedge that protected it and break the wall. It will be a
wasteland, not pruned, nor cultivated. He will order the clouds
to give no rain.
In v 7 we learn that the vineyard is that of the Lord, and
the vineyard is the house of Israel and the men of Judah. He
hoped for what is right, but saw instead bloodshed, and cries of
Woe to those who keep on adding houses to houses. They will
become desolate, the mansions without anyone to live in them. A
great vineyard will produce only a little, a large measure of
seed only a bit of grain.
Woe too to those who get up early to start their drinking
and keep it up late at night. They have music at their banquets,
but no regard for the Lord or the work of his hands. So the
people are destined to go into exile, and the powerful men will
die of hunger, the masses will suffer thirst. Sheep will feed
among the ruins of the rich.
Woe too to those who pull sin and guilt down on themselves
as if with ropes.
Woe also to those who call evil good, and good evil, who
make darkness light, and light darkness. To those who are wise in
their own eyes. Woe to those who are champions at drinking and
mixing drinks, who take bribes to acquit the guilty, while
denying justice to those who are innocent. Their roots will decay
and will burn in fire since they have scorned the word of the
Holy One of Israel.
As a result of all these things, the Lord's
anger blazes, the mountains shake, dead bodies lie in the
streets. Even so his anger has not yet run its course. For he
calls to far off nations, to the Assyrians. They will come
speedily. Their arrows are sharp, their bows keen, their horses'
hoofs like flint, their chariot wheels like a whirlwind. They
roar like a lion carrying off prey. On that day of the Lord they
will roar over it as the sea roars. If one looks at the land, he
will see darkness and distress and heavy clouds.
Comments on Chapter 5
Here is another shift:after the idyllic picture in the last
part of chapter 4, we suddenly find a threat, opening with the
imaginary song of the vineyard. Since antiquity the agriculture
of Israel has depended much on the unfailing produce of the
olive, fig and grape. Even in the long hot summers, the vine can
flourish because of its deep roots. The vineyard of course is the
People of God, The vine is a symbol of Israel. God transplanted
it from Egypt (cf. Psalm 80:8-13), and gave it every care and
protection. Yet it produces only sour fruit.
There follows a group of six woes:against those who
endlessly expand their ownership of houses and add field to field
until there is no space left. But God says the great houses will
be desolate, and the great vineyards will produce hardly
anything. Who to those who are pleasure lovers, who get up early
to start their drinking and stay at it late at night. Therefore
exile is coming and all will be brought low. God will be exalted
in His justice, that is His concern for moral order, and the Holy
God will show Himself holy by doing what is right. Woe to those
who are shameless sinners who make fun of Isaiah's words in 1:4
about the Holy One of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 5:12-14), Woe to those
who turn morality inside out, calling evil good and good evil,
(compare Romans 1:31:to not only sin but say sin is good is the
lowest degradation). Woe to those who are champions at drinking
and indulge in drinking bouts, and free the guilty for a bribe,
while condemning the innocent. So the anger of the Lord burns
against His people, and He will summon the fierce and speedy
might of the Assyrians against them on the day of the Lord - a
day often mentioned in Scripture, which sometimes means a nearby
time when God will right things, sometimes means the final
righting at the end of the world. The prophet also speaks of an
earthquake. This is likely to be that in the time of Uzziah.
Summary of Chapter 6
In the year in which King Uzziah died Isaiah saw a wonderful
vision that inaugurated his mission as a prophet. He saw the Lord
on a throne, the tRain of the Lord's robe filled the temple.
Above Him were seraphs, each having six wings. Two of these wings
covered their faces, two covered their feet, and with the other
two they were flying. They called to each other:Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord Almighty. The whole earth is full of his glory.
Then the doorposts and thresholds shook, and smoke filled
Isaiah, recognizing what the vision was, said:Woe to me! I
am a man with unclean lips and yet I have seen the Almighty Lord!
Then one of the seraphs flew to him. He had a live coal
which he had taken from the altar with tongs. The seraph touched
Isaiah's mouth saying:This has touched your lips. You guilt is
taken away, your sin is atoned for.
Then the Lord said:Whom shall I send? Who will go? Isaiah
replied:Here I am. Send me!
The Lord replied:Go and tell this people:Really listen, but
do not understand. Really look, but do not perceive. Make the
heart of this people calloused. Make their ears dull. Close their
eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, and hear with
their ears and their heart might understand and turn and be
This hardening is to last until their cities are ruined and
deserted, and their houses empty, their fields ruined and
ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away, and the land
is deserted. And even though a tenth remains, it will be laid
waste again. But just as the terebinth and the oak leave behind
stumps after being cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump
in the land.
Comments on Chapter 6
This was the vision in which Isaiah received his commission as a
prophet. It is strange indeed that the account of it is put here
in chapter 6, instead of at the beginning. But the sayings of
prophets were often given at different times, and later arranged.
Isaiah says it happened in the year in which king Uzziah died.
The date of his death is disputed, estimates range from 747 to
735. We commented on the circumstances of his death in the
The vision Isaiah saw was of course anthropomorphic. God
does not have human form. But the whole scene powerfully
impressed Isaiah with the transcendence of God. That word means
the fact that He is above and beyond all our categories. To
illustrate:When we know something we know either passively or
actively. Int he passive mode, we take in an image from something
outside, we are passive, we gain information. Now God cannot be
passive, cannot gain anything. So the passive mode is not correct
for Him. But in the active mode a person knows what is happening
only if and because he is causing it, like a blind man pushing a
chair. Obviously we cannot make God so limited. so we must simply
say:He is above and beyond all our categories. (Some unfortunate
theologians commonly called"Thomists" have insisted God knows
only by causing thing. But St. Thomas himself never said that.
Rather, every time- and it was several times -- when he wanted to
explain how God can know future contingents (e. g., what I will
do tomorrow at 10 A. M) Thomas first explains carefully that
although a future free act as future is unknowable even to God,
yet since God is in eternity, which has no past, and no future,
the thing is present to Him. And so He knows it. But Thomas
always stops there. He never tries to explain just God
knows a thing once it is present to His eternity. That is part of
the mystery of His transcendence.
This transcendence of God is something we greatly need to
realize, or try to realize. For there are two poles, i. e.,
centers about which things cluster, in our relationship to God.
One is the pole of love, closeness, warmth. The other is the
sense of His infinite majesty, greatness. It is this that Isaiah
saw so well by means of this anthropomorphic vision. The Saints
and Fathers of the Church have understood this aspect especially
well. Thus Dionysius the Areopagite, writing around the year 500.
A. D. said that God is best known by "unknowing." St. Gregory of
Nyssa in his said: "The true vision of the One we
seek. . . consists in this:in not seeing. For the one sought is
beyond all knowledge." St. Augustine ( 1.
6. 6 said: "He must not even be called inexpressible, for when we
say that word, we say something."
There is just a trifle of exaggeration in such sayings as
that of Augustine. Yet there is far more truth in them. Similarly
the philosopher Plotinus said ( 6. 8. 9) that God
is"beyond being." Plato seems to have said much the same in
The explanation of such sayings it this: If we compare any
word, e. g., good or being, as used to apply to God, and as used
to apply to any creature, we find that the sense is, in the two
cases, partly the same, but mostly different. Hence God is
inexpressible, as Augustine said.
Isaiah had a deep sense of this reality. To lack it means that
one's devotion will be sick, mired in the slush of a distortion
As part of this vision Isaiah sees some seraphim, which he
describes a bright creatures with six wings each. That word
seraph, plural seraphim, is indeed rare, being found only in this
passage. Basically the same Hebrew word appears in Numbers 21:6
where God sends burning serpents - such seems to be the meaning
of , to punish the faithless Jews. Moses prayed, and God
directed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and put it upon a pole.
Anyone bitten would recover if he looked at the bronze serpent.
This was very obviously a forecast in action, a prefiguration, of
Christ on the cross.
Sometimes people speak of nine choirs of angels, and seem to
have found them in St. Paul's Colossians and Ephesians. But that
is a mistake, for St. Paul especially in Colossians, is using
such terms, which he took from his opponents, in countering their
errors. The opponents were most likely either Gnostics or Jewish
apocalyptic speculators. In St. Paul's context, they are evil
spirits, not angels.
The seraphim were calling out Holy, holy, holy. The holiness
of God is a most prominent theme in Isaiah. Basically holiness
means God's concern for what is morally right - cf. the appendix
to Wm. Most, Commentary on St. Paul. We can see the thought well
in Isaiah 5:15-16: "Man is bowed down, and men are brought low.
But the Lord of hosts will be exalted in right judgment
, and God, the Holy One, will show Himself holy
[ from the root of , holy] by moral rightness
[i. e., by doing what moral rightness calls for]." Similarly in
Ezek 28:22: "They will know I am the Lord when I inflict
punishment on her [Sidon] and I will show myself holy in her
This shaking of the doorposts would recall the earthquake at
the time of King Uzziah.
Isaiah thought he was doomed, because he knew no man could
see God and live. We think of Moses who wanted to see God, but
was refused, as we saw in the introduction. He aid his lips were
impure from sin. But one of the seraphim, in a symbolic action,
took a coal from the altar and touched his lips to purify them.
In John 12:41 we read, remarkably, that it was Jesus Isaiah
had seen. that saying came right after a quotation of the next
mysterious lines of Isaiah, which we are about to consider.
Those next lines are indeed mysterious. God asks for someone
to volunteer to be sent, and Isaiah volunteers. Then God gives
him a strange commission, which seems to mean he is to blind the
people so they could not be forgiven.
To understand, we must know that the Hebrews commonly spoke of
God as positively doing things He only permits. Thus in 1 Samuel
4:3 - if we read the Hebrew, and not the slanted translations -
the Jews said after a defeat by the Philistines: "Why did God
strike us today before the face of the Philistines?" They knew
perfectly well it was the Philistines who had struck them.
Similarly, in the account of the plagues in Exodus, several times
God says He will harden Pharaoh, and again the text says God did
harden the heart of Pharaoh. Again, God merely permitted it. Cf.
Is 45:7, where God says: "I bring well-being and create woe." And
in Amos 3:6 He said: "When evil comes to a city, has not the Lord
The mysterious words God spoke to Isaiah are quoted in all three
synoptics, in connection with the parables. If we follow the
chronology of Mark's Gospel-- for the Gospels are not intent on
chronology - Mark indicates Jesus at first spoke clearly, but
then, after His enemies charged He was casting out devils by the
devil, He turned to parables. Jesus told His disciples that to
them was given to know the mysteries of the kingdom, but to
others, all was in parables, "so that seeing they might look and
not see, and hearing they might hear and not understand." These
words are from Isaiah 6:9-10, which we saw above. They have been
much discussed of course. St. Mark quotes them in the form found
in the Targum. St. Matthew quotes Isaiah in softer form (13:13-
15): "Therefore do I speak to them in parables, seeing
they do not see, and hearing they do not hear." Isaiah had used
imperative forms: "Hearing hear, but do not understand, seeing
see, but do not perceive. . . . "
First, as we said, it is well known that the Hebrews often
attributed to positive direct action of God what He only permits,
He did not really want to blind people. For in Mt 23;37 He wept
over Jerusalem because they would not listen.
So we need a different way to understand the purpose of
parables. It is this:We might think of two spirals in the
reactions of people to parables - and other things too. Let us
imagine a man who has never been drunk before, but tonight he
gets very drunk. The next day there will be guilt feelings - we
specified it was the first time. Over time, something must
give:either he will align his actions with his beliefs, or his
beliefs will be pulled to match his actions. In other words, if
he continues to get drunk, he will lose the ability to see there
is anything wrong with getting drunk. But other beliefs are
interconnected, and so his ability to see spiritual things
becomes more and more dull.
In the other direction, if one lives vigorously in accord
with faith, which tells us the things of this world are hardly
worth a mention compared to the things of eternity (cf. Phil 3:7-
8), such a one grows gradually more and more in understanding of
spiritual things; he is on the good spiral. So the parables are a
magnificent device of our Father, showing both mercy and justice
simultaneously. To one who goes on the bad spiral, the blindness
is due in justice, yet it is also mercy, for the more one
realizes, the greater his responsibility. On the good spiral, the
growing light is in a sense justice for good living; yet more
basically it is mercy, for no creature by its own power can
establish a claim on God. So in both directions, mercy and
justice are identified, even as they are in the divine essence,
where all attributes are identified with each other.
Rather similarly, Pius XII said (:EB 563) that God deliberately sprinkled Scripture with
difficulties to cause us to work harder and so get more out of
So we can understand God's words to Isaiah in this way.
But then God foretold the exile, yet said that a holy
remnant, a holy seed, would be left, which would be a "stump
in the land". We think of course of the great prophecy in Isaiah
11:1which says that there will be a shoot from the stump of
David, that is, after David's line had been deprived of its
power, and seemed dead, a great ruler, the Messiah, would come.
(More on Isaiah 11 later, of course).
Summary of Chapter Isaiah 7
When Ahaz was king of Judah, King Resin of Aram and Pekah,
son of Remeliah, King of Israel, tried to fight against
Jerusalem, but could not take it. The king of Judah was told of
this alliance, and king and people were fearful, shaking like
trees in the wind.
Then God told Isaiah to take his son Shear-jasub and to go
out to meet King Ahaz, to tell him to have faith. God promised
the invasion would not succeed. He added that within 65 years
Ephraim, the northern kingdom, Israel, would be shattered. But if
Ahaz did not have faith, he would not stand.
Isaiah then offered Ahaz a sign in the sky or in the depths.
Ahaz refused to ask, as if it would be tempting God. Isaiah then
said: "Is it not enough for you to weary men? Must you also weary
God? The Lord Himself is going to give you a sign:A virgin will
be with child and give birth to a son, and will call him
Immanuel. The son will eat curds and honey when he comes to know
right from wrong. But before this, the land of the two kings of
the north will be devastated.
But because Ahaz did not have faith, God said he would bring
a terrible time on Judah:The king of Assyria would come. at God's
call. Yet after the attack there would still be milk and honey.
But where three were rich vines, there would be only grazing land
for cattle and sheep.
Comments on Chapter 7
At the beginning of this chapter 7, we read of the time of
the Syro-Ephraimite war. Near the end of the reign of Joatham,
around 734, Rezin of Syria in alliance with Pekah of Ephraim
(that is, Israel) had attacked Judah (as we learn in 2 Kings
15:37) and the threat was in earnest. It seems Syria wanted to
draw Judah together with Ephraim into an alliance to offer
resistance to the aggressive Assyrians. But Judah was not so
inclined. Hence Syria and Ephraim wanted to force Judah. Details
of the events can be found in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28.
After some military actions such as the capture of Elath (2 Kings
16:6) the northern allies wanted to capture Jerusalem. It was a
The house of David, Judah, learned that Aram was in alliance
with Ephraim. Ahaz and his people were shaken like leaves blown
by the wind. But then the Lord told Isaiah to take his son Shear-
Jashub (the name means "a remnant will return") to meet Ahaz at
the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool on the way to
Washerman's field. The idea"a remnant will return" is of unclear
import. It could mean either warning or hope, or physical return
from exile or spiritual return to God. God had ordered Isaiah to
name his son this way, it seems
God told Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to be afraid of those two
smoldering stumps who wanted to invade Judah, for they would not
last long. Isaiah was assure Ahaz that the Lord said:It will not
happen. In saying that Damascus is the head of Aram and Rezin is
the head of Damascus, God was saying in effect:These are only
humans! Similarly He said that Samaria is the head of Ephraim and
the head of Samaria is just the son of Remeliah, just a human
again. They planned to set up the son of Tabeel as a usurper,
king of Judah. The way Isaiah spells Tabeel may be deliberate
corruption of spelling for contempt, so as to mean, in Aramaic:
"Good for nothing", instead of "God is good". So God wanted to
assure Ahaz that within 65 years Ephraim would be shattered as a
people. So Ahaz is ordered to stand firm in faith. If not, he
would not stand at all. The prophecy of the 65 years was
fulfilled in a series of events:The fall of Samaria to Sargon II,
and eventually Esarhaddon of Assyria just about 65 years after
this prophecy, introduced a racial mixture in the area of the
Tiglath-Pileser came to the throne of Assyria in 745. This
prophecy of Isaiah probably came around 733. Damascus fell to
Tiglath in 732. Then Shalmaneser V (727-722) and Sargon II (722-
705) attacked Samaria, which fell in 722 or 721.
But Ahaz would not believe, and so through Isaiah God
offered Ahaz a sign in the sky or in the depths. Ahaz said he did
not want to put the Lord to the test.
At that point Isaiah gave the great prophecy:The virgin (or
young woman) will be with child, and will have a son and call him
Immanuel. Before that boy will be old enough to reject wrong and
choose right, the land of the two northern kings will be laid
Isaiah told Ahaz in the name of the Lord that Assyria, in
whom he wanted to trust against the northern kings, would not
help. Instead God would summon Assyria to swiftly punish Judah.
Instead of rich vines there would be briers and thorns. It would
be a place for cattle and sheep.
Ahaz had even sacrificed his own son by fire 2 Kings 16:2-4
and 2 Chron. 28:1. In his fear he sent messengers to Tiglath-
Pileser of Assyria declaring himself a vassal (2 Kings 16:7; 2
Chron 28:16. He took gold and silver from the temple to give as
tribute. Tiglath Pileser responded quickly, in 734, and took
Damascus, the city of Rezin whom he killed. Ahaz had a pagan
altar, like one in Assyria, set up in the temple:2 Kings 16:10.
He sent so much temple equipment to Assyria that eventually the
sanctuary was closed:2 Kings 16:17-18; 2 Chron 28:24.
Now about that prophecy: "Behold, the young woman shall conceive
and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. "
The date of this prophecy can be gleaned from the fact that
it was spoken to Ahaz who reigned c 735-15 BC.
The Targum does not identify this passage as messianic. However,
Jacob Neusner, ( p. 173) quotes the great
Hillel, one of the chief teachers at the time of Christ, as
saying that Hezekiah, son of Achaz (to whom Isaiah spoke) had
been the Messiah. So Hillel considered the text messianic. But
then Neusner adds (p. 190): "Since Christian critics of Judaism
claimed that the prophetic promises. . . had all been kept in the
times of ancient Israel, so that Israel now awaited nothing at
all, it was important to reject the claim that Hezekiah had been
the Messiah". Thus the Talmud, cited by Neusner, p. 173, quotes
Rabbi Joseph as denying that Hezekiah had been the Messiah. St.
Justin Martyr in 77 has Trypho the Jew say
the Jews believe Hezekiah was the Messiah.
But even though the Targum does not mark this passage as
messianic, yet it does mark 9:5-6 as messianic. Now both Is 7. 14
and 9. 5-6 are part of the section on Immanuel, which runs from
6. 1 to 12. 6. Hence it is generally accepted that the child in
7. 14 is the same as the child in 9. 5-6. This means, of course,
that since 9. 5-6 is messianic, so is 7. 14. AS Jacob Neusner,
cited above, said, it was the actions of the Jews against
Christians that caused them to stop saying 7. 14 was messianic.
Who, then, is the child of 7. 14? Some of the characteristics of
9. 5-6 are too grand for Hezekiah, as we shall see. Further the
use of the definite article before in 7. 14 seems to
point to someone special, not just to the wife of Achaz. Also,
there is no clear example in the Old Testament of to mean
a married woman. On the other hand, a sign to come seven
centuries later would hardly be a sign for Achaz. We
conclude:this is a case of multiple fulfillment of prophecy:it
refers to both Hezekiah and Christ.
Still further, the Septuagint uses to render Hebrew
(which means a young woman, of the right age for
marriage, who at least should be a virgin. is the more
precise word for virgin). R. Laurentin (, Petersham, 1986, p. 412, claims the Septuagint
sometimes uses loosely. But this is not true.
Actually, there are only two places in the OT where the
Septuagint translates by . One is in Genesis
24. 43, where the context shows the girl is a virgin. The other
is Is 7. 14. There are several other places where is at
least likely to be a virgin. But the Septuagint is so careful
that it uses instead of , a more general word,
in those cases. Laurentin in the English version appeals
also to Genesis 34. 3 (in the French he had appealed to 34. 4,
which does not have the word at all)! But the case is
at least unclear, since 34. 3 is likely to be an instance of
concentric ring narration, common in Hebrew. In it the text
begins to narrate and event, goes part way, then goes back to the
start and retells, using different details. This may happen twice
or three times. And as we have just said, in all clear instances
the Septuagint is very precise in its use of , at
times more precise than the Hebrew (as shown by the context).
:there are good reasons for taking 7:14 as
meaning Jesus, but also good reasons for taking it to mean
Hezekiah. So this is probably a case of multiple fulfillment of
prophecies - on this pattern in general cf. again Wm. Most, (Libertyville, Il. 1990), chapter 5.
What invasion is meant here? The trouble did begin to come
from Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria in 733-32, went further with the
fall of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom in 722. Then
there was a racial mixture introduced into the north by
Esarhaddon (681-69), which was about 65 years after the prophecy
The Lord will bring a terrible time on them. He will whistle
for flies from Egypt and bees from Assyria. They will settle in
the ravines and crevices. The Lord will employ a razor from
beyond the River, the King of Assyria. He will shave their heads
What about the comment in verse 15 that the child will eat
curds and honey - and the same expression comes in verse 22. Now
curds and honey could be taken in two ways:the words could
suggest plenty:cf. Exodus 3:8. 17 and Dt 6:3. Or do the words
suggest a normal diet for a recently weaned child? What then of
the use of the words in verse 22:does it mean just a subsistence
diet after an invasion, a small but adequate diet, from being
able to keep a cow? To say the vine will be replaced by cattle
grazing seems to mean a change from agricultural economy to
pastoral. But where there had been a thousand rich vines, there
will be only briers and thorns, and cattle will graze in that
Summary of Chapter 8
The Lord ordered Isaiah to take a large scroll and pen and
write on it:Maher-shalal-Hash Baz, and Uriah the priest and
Zechariah will come as reliable witnesses to what he is to write.
Then Isaiah went into his wife, the prophetess, and she
conceived and had a son, and named him Maher-shalal, hash-baz.
And before the boy is only enough to say Father or mother, the
wealth of Damascus and of Samaria will be taken away by the King
Since the people have rejected the gentle waters of Shiloah,
a pool on the SE side of Jerusalem, (standing for the true faith
in God), and feel confident over the fall of Rezin and the son of
Remeliah, the Lord will bring the pompous king of Assyria like a
flood, and he will sweep into Judah with water as deep as the
neck. The outspread wings will cover the land.
Then Judah will raise the war cry in the land of Immanuel,
and so Assyria will not always triumph. There will be punishment
for Ahaz for his lack of faith, but the faithful remnant will be
So God tells Isaiah not to think the way most of the people
think. The Lord is the Holy One. He will be a stone on which the
faithless will stumble and fall and be broken.
So Isaiah should bind up the flaps of the revelation, which
is for him and his disciples, the faithful remnant. They should
wait for the Lord. They are a type of Christ and His Church to
come. So they should not consult mediums, as so many are doing in
a time of great fear, but hope in the Lord, who seems to be
hiding His face at the time. . Those who do not accept his
revelation will wander in darkness and distress.
But Isaiah and his little group are to be a sign from the
Comments on Chapter 8
The whole chapter is a warning of disaster to come. So
Isaiah is to write the prediction on a scroll, and get witnesses
to testify to it, seemingly so that later it will be proved he
had predicted it. On the scroll he wrote:Mahar-shalal Hash-Baz,
which seems to mean:quick plunder, swift spoil. He then goes to
his wife, whom he calls a prophetess, probably simply because she
was the wife of a prophet. In later centuries the wife of a
Bishop was sometimes called episcopa, feminine form of Episcopus,
and similarly the wife of a presbyter was presbytera. She had a
son, named him Maher shalal, hash baz, as above. Before the child
would be old enough to say My Father (age from 18 months to two
years), Samaria would be plundered. it actually fell in 723 or
722 to Tiglath -Pileser III. :2 Kings 15:29.
Now Isaiah shifts from literal statement to images as he
often does. The waters of Shiloah seem to refer to Jerusalem's
means of water in a siege, bringing it from the spring
Gihon. It stood here for the rule or God founded on Sion. The
River means the Euphrates, as usual in the OT. People were happy
at the defeat of the two northern kings - but that was not to
last, for Assyria was coming at Judah too, like a flood that
would sweep everything, but the depth would be only to the neck -
probably signifying that a remnant would be left - a theme
appearing now, that will be frequent in the future.
The outspread wings could mean that Assyria would cover the
land - or else be a means of recalling God's protection to Israel
under His wings at the time of the Exodus. Hence the mention of
Then God speaks to Isaiah "with a strong hand", probably
meaning an overpowering action of God upon Him. (Cf. our remarks
in the introduction on the mode of messages given to prophets).
He tells Isaiah that he and his little group must not think the
way the people in general think. People think of the conspiracy
of Rezin and his allies. Yes, there was a danger, but God's power
was always greater. Rather than fear Rezin, they should fear the
Holy One, God. He will be the stone on which many stumble. They
thought of Him as their Rock, their solid support. But now Isaiah
turns the figure around:the Rock may make them stumble if they do
not have faith in Him.
The prophet is told to bind up the revelation. It seems to
mean to reserve it for the faithful remnant about him. Later it
is to be opened.
Many of the people, in their desperate state, are consulting
mediums from whom they may have a whispering sound, as if from
ghosts, or mutterings, as some of the so-called seers did. Such
people will wander in darkness.
Summary of Chapter 9 - 10:4
Even though these people are in darkness, yet a time is
coming when there will be no more gloom for the land of
Zebulun and Naphtali and the Galilee of the Gentiles. They will
finally see a great light, which will dawn for those in the
shadow of death. People are then to rejoice as at the harvest, or
as when dividing spoils, at the defeat of Midian.
For a child is to be born. The government will be his. He
will be called Wonderful Counsellor, even Mighty God, Everlasting
father, Prince of Peace. There will be no limit to the increase
of peace under Him, for he will sit on David's throne,
establishing it - for it had fallen - and upholding it with what
is right, from then on, and forever. The jealous love of the
Almighty Lord will bring this about.
But now, after the pleasant vision of the future, in 9:8,
Isaiah's vision turns to God's punishment of Jacob
(Israel:northern kingdom:there are four woes, and a refrain at
the end of each).
Woe to those who say in pride that if the brick houses are
destroyed, they will rebuild with dressed stone. But the Lord has
given the foes of Rezin power against them, "Even so, after all
this, His anger is not appeased: He still raises His arm against
Woe to those who have not returned to the Lord:the Lord will
cut off the rulers, the head, and the tail, the false prophets.
So even the Lord will not take pity on the fatherless and widows,
for all are wicked. "Even so, after all this, His anger is not
appeased:He still raises His arm against them. "
Woe to those whose ungodliness is like a fire, so that no
one spares his brother: Manasseh against Ephraim; Ephraim against
Manasseh. Both will turn against Judah. "Even so, after all this,
His anger is not appeased: He still raises His arm against them.
Woe to those who make unjust laws, laws that should protect
the poor, but are now turned against the poor. But a day of
reckoning is coming. "Even so, after all this, His anger is not
appeased:He still raises His arm against them."
Comments on Chapter 9 -10. 4
The chapter opens with a cheerful prediction of the coming
of the Messiah. The people who have been in darkness in the
territories of Zabulon and Naphtali and the northern part of
Naphtali, with its heavy gentile population, hence called
"Galilee of the gentiles", will see a great light, the Messiah.
For He is to grow up in Galilee, and do much of His public
preaching there. The joy of the people will be great, like that
of men at the harvest, or of men who divide the spoils of war.
Formerly the boots of warriors trampled the land. Now the great
light will come.
"For a child is born to us, a son is given us, and the
government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called
'Wonderful Counselor, Mighty-God, Everlasting Father, Prince of
: "A child is
born to us, and a son is given to us, his government is upon his
shoulder, and his name will be called messenger of the Great
But the great title is found in the : "A
child is born to us, a son is given to us, and his name has been
called from of old Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, He who lives
forever, Messiah in whose day peace shall increase for us. "
The sense of the Targum is disputed. We have rendered it
substantially as does J. F. Stenning (,
Oxford, 1949). However Samson Levey (, (Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974) turns
the sentence structure around so as to read: "his name has been
called Messiah. . . . by the Mighty God." The difference hinges
on the Aramaic words which can mean either "by" or
"from of old". As to the words "Mighty God" which the New
American Bible renders God-hero - that version is not defensible,
for the Hebrew in the Old Testament always means only
Mighty God, never God-hero. Levey makes a similar change in
sentence structure for the Hebrew: "the Mighty God. . . has
called his name 'Prince of Peace'." That translation raises the
question of which terms belong to whom.
The Septuagint, which omits , testifies to the
Jewish discomfort. We recall that the LXX since Qumran is thought
to be in general a careful translation of the Hebrew, but of a
Hebrew text differing from our Masoretic text, for the text then
had not yet been stabilized.
Naturally, the ancient Jews, with their emphasis on monotheism,
would have difficulty calling the Messiah God. Yet there are some
other OT passages that could indicate divinity of the Messiah:
Psalm 80. 15-18: God is asked to visit this vine "which your
right hand has planted. . . . Let your hand be upon the man of
your right hand, upon the son of man whom you have strengthened
for yourself." Samson Levey () here comments: "It would appear that the Targum
takes the Messiah to be the son of God, which is much too
anthropomorphic and Christological to be acceptable in Jewish
exegesis." He notes that neither the earlier nor the later rabbis
took up this interpretation by the Targum. Rather, he says that
some of the later rabbis "carefully steer clear of any messianic
interpretation" by the Targum here. (In passing:we note that here
the Messiah is called Son of Man!)
Psalm 45. 7-8: "Your throne, O God, is ever and ever. . . .
God your God has anointed you with the oil of rejoicing." Even
though some think the Psalm was occasioned by a royal marriage,
the Targum saw it as messianic. Levey even remarks that the
Hebrew word for king, , in verses 2, 6, 12, 15, and 16 is
understood as God.
Ezekiel 34. 11: God Himself said: "For thus says the Lord
God:Behold I, I will search out my flock and seek them out." We
notice the repeated "I", which seems to stress the thought that
God Himself would come. But in verse 23 of the same chapter: "I
will set one shepherd over them, my servant David." The Targum
Jonathan does treat the psalm as messianic. Of course this is far
from clear, but there could be an implication that the Messiah,
called here "my servant David" would be God Himself.
Jeremiah 23. 3: God said: " And I myself shall gather the
remnant of the my flock from all the lands to which I have driven
them." But in verse 5: "I will raise up for David a righteous
branch." That word "branch" is often taken by the Targums to
indicate the Messiah. Hence Targum Jonathan on verse 5 does use
"a righteous Messiah" instead of "branch". Then, surprisingly, in
verse 6: "And this is the name which He shall call him: "the Lord
is our righteousness." In the later Midrash, 1. 51 we read: "What is the name of the King Messiah? R.
Abba b. Kahana said:'His name is 'the Lord'". In the Hebrew text
of that passage, the word for Lord is Yahweh! It is astounding to
find a later rabbi doing such a thing. (cf. Levey, , p.
Jeremiah 30. 11: "For I am with you - oracle of Yahweh - to
save you." The Targum clearly calls this passage messianic. Levey
notices this, and comments: "in v. 11 the apparent
anthropomorphism of God being with Israel, in the physical sense
is softened by the use of the word Memra" - Memra is a puzzling
word in the Targums, which seems in general to refer to the
complex interplay between God's constancy and the fickleness of
His people - but a times, it seems to mean God Himself. (On Memra
cf. Bruce Chilton, , Glazier, 1987, p. lvi).
Jewish thought on the Preexistence of the Messiah:
a) Scripture: Micah 5. 2: "And you, Bethlehem, Ephrathah,
you are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall
come for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, ." The Targum Jonathan on
this verse reads: "whose name was spoken from days of old, from
the days of eternity." Samson Levey, a major Jewish scholar (, p. 93) comments that
although there does not seem to be a Rabbinic doctrine of a
preexistent Messiah, yet the last words of the Hebrew text do
tend to suggest such a preexistence.
Malachi 3. 1: "Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare
the way before my face, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly
come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant in whom you
delight." R. H. Fuller (, Chas. Scribner's Sons, NY, 1965, p. 48:The starting
point for this expectation is Mal 4:5 f. (Mt. 3:23f. ). In this
passage, an editorial note commenting on Mal 3:1, Elijah appears
as the forerunner not of the Messiah but of Yahweh himself. . .
followed by the coming of Yahweh to his temple for the
eschatological judgment." Fuller uses the number Mal 4. 5,
following some English versions and the Vulgate. The Hebrew has
it at 3:23-24. Jesus in Mt 11. 13 used a modified form of the
text (by influence of the familiar and similar sounding Ex 23.
20, and makes clear that he is the one, the Messiah, and by
implication, is Yahweh Himself.
First Enoch 48. 1-6 (Charlesworth, Pseudepigrapha I:
(p. 35): ". . . even before the creation of the sun and
moon, before the creation of the stars, he was given a name in
the presence of the Lord of Spirits. . . . he was concealed in
the presence of (the Lord of Spirits) prior to the creation of
the world and for eternity.
(p. 9) Comments by editor of segment, E. Isaac: "The Messiah in
1 Enoch, called the Righteous One, and the Son of Man, is
depicted as a who is resplendent and
majestic, possesses all dominion, and sits on his throne of glory
passing judgment upon all mortals and spiritual beings." Isaac
also thinks (p. 8) that the work originated in Judea and was in
use in Qumran before Christian times.
4. 4. 54a: "Seven things
were created before the creation of the world, namely:Torah,
repentance, paradise, gehenna, the throne of majesty, the temple,
and the of the Messiah. "
(775-900 AD). From: W.
Braude, , 18., 1968, p. 641-43): "You find
that at the very beginning of the creation of the world, . But where is the
proof that the king Messiah existed from the beginning of God's
creation of the world? The proof is in the verse, 'And the spirit
of God moved,' words which identify the king Messiah, of whom it
is said, 'And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him (Isa 11.
COMMENTS:1. As Levey notices, Micah 5 implies
preexistence of the Messiah. Mal 3. 1 as used by Jesus implies
even divinity. The words of 1 Enoch do state a real preexistence.
The Rabbinic texts are at least close. For in Hebrew thought the
name at times approaches identification with the person. The
naming of things brings them into existence:Is 40. 26. To cut off
a person's name means not only death but obliteration of his
existence:cf. 1 Sam 24. 22 and Ps 9. 6.
2. We noticed that in 1 Enoch the Messiah is called Son of
Now even if the stiff=-necked Jews did not understand the
divinity of the Messiah, what of Our Lady, filled with grace
beyond all other creatures? And at the annunciation she had
readily learned her Son was to be Messiah, for the angel said He
would rule over the house of Jacob forever. But further, the
angel explained that the Holy Spirit would 'overshadow' her, the
same word used of the divine presence filling the tabernacle in
the desert, and that as a result of that, a unique reason, the
Son would be called Son of the Most High. With the further help
of the above texts, it is hard to suppose she did not know of His
Amos had come from Judah to prophesy of the punishment of
Israel, the northern kingdom. Here Isaiah does the same. Just as
Amos had a remarkably structured presentation (5:7-6:14) so does
Isaiah here, with four woes, prediction of punishment, each
ending with the ominous: "Even so, after all this, His anger is
not appeased:He will raises His arm against them." the fourth woe
is in 10:1-4.
In the first woe, the basic cause of punishment is pride. Pride
is the master vice, there is no virtue which it cannot mimic. One
can even act humble to be praised for his humility. And when Eve
listened to the tempter and looked at the fruit she as it were
said:God may know what is right in some things, but right now, I
In the second: God will cut off both the head, the prominent
men, and the tail, the false prophets - we note how he ridicules
the prophets by making them just the tail. And the anger of God
is great, for normally He is the protector of the widows and
orphans, but here He says He will not pity the fatherless and the
widows, for everyone is so wicked.
In the third: No one will spare his brother, strife it will
spread like a forest fire in the wind. As to the time referred
to:after the death of Jeroboam one usurper came after another.
And fraternal strife broke out under Pekah.
In the fourth woe: God strikes out against the abuse of
legal and judicial power, which should promote justice, but
instead is used to promote wickedness.
Summary of Chapter 10 :5-34
God says: Woe to Assyria. It is indeed my means of punishing
Jerusalem. Yet such was not the attitude of Assyria. Assyria
boasts of its power:all its generals are like kings. But Assyria
really intended only to destroy. It destroyed for God Samaria and
Damascus. So it destroys Jerusalem.
Assyria boasts that it was its own power that enabled it to
strike these peoples. It was as easy as robbing eggs from the
nest of a bird. The axe should not boast against the arm that
swung it:nor should the King of Assyria boast against the
God who used him for His purposes, to punish Israel.
But The Lord will send a wasting disease against the warriors of
Assyria. It will quickly consume them.
Then the remnant left in Israel and Jacob will no longer
rely on Assyria, but will rely on the Holy One of Israel. That
remnant will return to God the Mighty (). Yes, the
people used to be as numerous as the sands of the sea, but now a
remnant will return, for the Lord has decreed destruction.
So God tells them: do not fear the Assyrians. Soon my anger
against you will end, and will be turned to destroy them, just as
He once struck Midian, as He parted the Red Sea. Yes, they enter
Aiath go through Migron, put supplies a Micmash, encamp overnight
at Geba, so that Raham trembles, Gibeah of Saul flees and so they
But the All powerful Lord will lop them off like so many
Comments on 10:5 - 34
The date of the invasions Isaiah speaks of here is much
debated. The important thing is this:God will use a foreign
power, as He has so often done in the past - recall Amalek,
Midian, Philistines - but then when His people finally repent, He
will humble these nations. Some think this speaks of the time of
Tiglath-Pileser - he did invade in 734 BC, but that time did not
take Samaria, which fell in 722. Others think of the time of
Sargon, second successor to Tiglath-[Pileser, who came to the
throne in 722. Still others think still later of Sennacherib. A
good conjecture would be 715, after Sargon's conquest of
Charchemish in 717.
However the vision of Isaiah is great, and it sweeps over
immense reaches of time. He wants to call the people to
repentance. If they do not repent, God will humble them, as He
did so often in the past. Then finally, after repentance, He will
rescue them, even though it be only a humble remnant that
Incidentally this picture is precisely what many like to
call the Deuteronomic theme: sin - disaster - repentance -rescue.
And they use that framework on a grand scale to say there are
three Isaiahs. As we saw above, their evidence is really scant.
But the prophet predicts Assyria after all the other
conquests will turn against Assyria. He speaks of Assyria as a
rod in the hand of God. God's providence controls all nations,
and He did intend to punish His people. Yet, even though Assyria
was doing God's will in one sense, in another it was not:it
became proud, and thought it was by its own power that it won, as
if an axe should tell the man who used it that the axe was the
In what way does God use even nations for His own ends? In
Proverbs 21. 1 we read: "The king's heart is in the hand of the
Lord; he turns it wherever he will." How does God do this?: We
must say it is by His transcendence, i. e., He is above and
beyond all our categories. We explained something about it
earlier, by a study of how He knows future free actions, though
no one can fully understand it.
Similarly, in His transcendence, He can cause humans to do
things, without completely taking away their freedom. We said,
"not completely," since there is indeed a reduction in freedom.
God sends me an actual grace, to lead
me and to enable me to do a particular good thing here and now.
if I simply make no decision at all, no decision against it, it
will "work in me both the will and the doing" as Phil 2:13 says.
But what it works in me is decided by that omission of resistance
at the precise point at which a man could reject grace. That he
can reject grace is evident from experience, and from St. Paul, 2
Cor 6:1: "We urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain."
Similarly, all Scripture is full of exhortations to repent, to
return to God to be converted. All these are meaningless, even
mockery of the human, if we do not have the real power to reject
So in the process, the on the
outcome is made by the human.
But there is , in which the is made by God, e. g., when He sends an extraordinary
grace, that can either cut through resistance already present, or
prevent it from developing. Then God makes the first decision,
while the human seconds the motion. We call this extraordinary
since it is a reduction in the freedom that God in general has
pledged Himself to give us.
, when does He use this extraordinary
mode? We distinguish two orders, the and the
order. The internal order is that which includes all
the things and steps that lead to eternal salvation, or the lack
of it. In that category, God has bound Himself by
accepting the infinite price of redemption, to offer grace
without any limit, except what the resistance of humans imposes.
Since He has pledged to give us freedom, then to routinely
overrule that even in part would be self-contradiction.
The order has to do with all else, including
whether or not a king will wage war, how it will turn out, etc.
In this , which meant: a remnant will return.
But before that point is reached, God says again: Be not
afraid of the Assyrians even though they take one city after
another on the way to Jerusalem. (The route described seems not
to be the actual one, but again, Isaiah is interested in the
broad picture as we said in the comments on the first part of
chapter 10). Yet He will cut the Assyrians down as He once did
the Midianites in the time of Gedeon. Assyria also serves as a
type of the powers arrayed against those whom God protects.
Assyria finally fell only in 612, with the capture of Nineveh.
Summary of Chapter 11
What seemed to be a dead stump of the line of Jesse is going
to bring forth a Branch. On him the Spirit of the Lord will rest,
a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, power, knowledge, and
fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by mere impressions or by flattery, but
will give righteous judgment. He will strike the wicked with the
rod of his mouth. Righteousness will be his belt, faithfulness
In this glorious age the wolf will live with the lamb, the
leopard with the goat, the calf and lion will live together,
while a small child can lead them. For there will be no harm on
all the holy mountain of the Lord, the earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord.
The Lord will again reclaim the remnant of His people from
all other lands. There will be no more jealousy between Judah and
Ephraim. Together they will capture Philistia, Edom, Moab, and
To bring back His people the Lord will dry up the gulf of
Egypt and make the Euphrates easy to walk through. There will be
a highway for the remnant to return.
Comments on Chapter 11
The first verses read: "There shall come forth a shoot from the
stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the
spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and
understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of
knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in
the fear of the Lord. "
: " A king
will come from the sons of Jesse, and the Messiah will be
anointed from his children's children. "
Some scholars, disinclined to see a real prophecy,
want to make this refer to the great reduction in size of the
Kingdom of Judah at the time of Isaiah and Achaz - the king then
controlled absolutely only Jerusalem (Cf. John H. Hayes and
Stuart A. Irvine, , Abingdon,
Nashville, 1987, pp. 212-13. They point out that the word which
RSV renders "stump" is Hebrew , a rare word, found only
three times in the OT, in this passage and in Job 14, 7 and
Isaiah 40. 24. In the latter it means a newly planted tree; in
Job it means a felled tree. The Targum renders it by "sons", as
we saw. But the Targum also definitely makes it refer to the
Messiah, and historically, the line of David had lacked power for
about 600 years by that time (from 586 BC to the time of Christ).
So, following the Targum interpretation, we see this passage as
a real prophecy that the Messiah would come from the line of
Jesse, that is, the line of David. But that line disappeared
after the exile. And so the Messiah did come from a shoot from
the withered line of the sons of Jesse.
The Spirit of the Lord is to rest upon this Messiah. Several
times the Gospels speak of Jesus as being moved or led by the
Spirit, e. g., in Mt 4:1, He was led into the desert by the
Spirit. In Lk 10. 21, He rejoiced in the Holy Spirit. In Lk 4.
18: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," (referring to Is 61. 1-
2. Similarly, in Mt 12. 18 the Evangelist says that His cures
were to fulfil Is 42. 1-4). In view of His divinity, how is it
that He would need or want the action of the Holy Spirit? The
answer is that He had a complete and perfect humanity, and
although His divinity could supply for anything, could even do
the functions of a human soul, yet the Father, in His love of
good order, willed that His humanity be full and fully provided
for as such. This is in accord with the principle of St. Thomas,
Summa I. 19. 5. c in which it is said that God wills that one
thing be in place to serve as a title for the second thing, even
though that title does not really move Him.
Incidentally this same reasoning can account for many other
things: the role of the Mass and of Our Lady and the other
Saints. Even though Jesus paid for all forgiveness and grace in
dying once for all (Heb 10:12 & 18) there are still two reason
for the Mass and His command, "Do this in memory of me):1)It is
one thing for Him to earn forgiveness, another for us to receive
it. For that we need to be like Him, esp. cf. Rom 8:17: "We are
heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer
with Him so we may also be glorified with Him." 2) God in His
love of holiness and good order loves to have one thing in place
to serve as a title for the second, as we said above on the basis
of I. 19. 5. c. Similarly the cooperation of Our Lady in Calvary
was not needed, and her entire ability to do that came from Him,
so that her role did not ADD to His. Yet the Father is pleased to
have it to make the title for forgiveness and grace more rich. It
is similar for her role in the subjective redemption, and for
that of the other Saints.
The Spirit rests upon Him, does not merely come for a time,
as it is reported to have done on various persons in the Old
Testament. The qualities it gives Him are the Gifts of the Holy
There are two great categories of graces:sanctifying, and
charismatic. The sanctifying are all those that lead to final
salvation. These are offered without limit to all, since the
Father has accepted the infinite price of redemption. These gifts
mentioned here are in the sanctifying category, not in the
category of tongues etc. Some today make the mistake of saying
all Catholics have the Gifts. This is true, in the sanctifying
category:they come with sanctifying grace. But then they add all
Catholics must be charismatics, speaking in tongues etc, as if
things in one category, charismatic, could be the actualization
of things in a different category, sanctifying things.
The gifts in the Sanctifying category have many functions:e.
g., they bring, in advanced souls, infused contemplation. They
bring also guidance in which the soul does not need to reason
from step to step to reach a conclusion:the conclusion is dropped
ready made, as it were, into the mind. Of course, there is room
for self-deception here. But we must remember that the clear
manifestations of graces of this sort are found only in souls
well advanced. Further, this sort of guidance usually leaves a
soul somewhat less than certain of the course to be followed, as
a sign that it should seek guidance from authority or a director.
St. Teresa of Avila, who had so many extraordinary gifts, and had
been told in a revelation to found a reformed branch of the
Carmelites, would not go ahead without consulting four directors.
Kings and other powerful people are exposed o flattery,
which may turn their heads. But the Messiah will judge
righteously, and not by appearances. He knows what is in man:cf.
He will protect the weak and the poor. Remarkably ancient
kings often were expected to do that, and many did. The Pharaohs
of Egypt, especially in the Middle Kingdom did at least some of
that. Hence one of the chief insignia of the Pharaoh was a
shepherd's crook. So did the kings of the ancient Near East (cf.
W. von Soden, , tr. D. Schley, Eerdmans,
1994, p. 63. . The Messiah of course was to be far greater than
they in this respect. He is to use the rod of his mouth - not
military force - to overcome the wicked (cf. 2 Th. 2:8 and Psalm
The idyllic picture of the peace in the animal world seems
to mean a return to the conditions of paradise, before sin:cf.
The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord (11:9).
Knowledge here is (cf. Is 53:11. : in his
knowledge he shall make righteous (hiphil=make righteous,
not:make to be accounted righteous). Same word is found in Hosea
6:6 "and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings". The verb
is the Qal infinitive of , which means not only
know, but love also. .
This root of Jesse wi, one thought of no account(cf. chapter
523) will be exalted like a banner. His place of rest will be
inglorious:does this hint ahead to His rest in chapter 53?
Now another image: the return from exile. It had begun with
deportation in 734, then more when Samaria fell in 722, and
finally to come under Nebuchadnezzar in 597 and 587. The old
jealousy of Ephraim and Judah will be gone. Together they will
take the Philistines, Edom, Moab, and the Ammonites. This return
from exile is then pictures in extremely idealistic terms:God
will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea, make the Euphrates
shallow, there will be a highway from Assyria. Literally Ephraim
did not come back - this is idealized.
Further we may compare the idealized vision of a future temple
in Ezekiel 40-48 -- which will not really have animal sacrifices.
Just as in the old law material images were used which were later
understood to stand for spiritual things, so also here
(Augustine, City of God 4. 33). The real fulfillment comes in
Christianity, which as Romans 11 shows is the continuation of the
old Israel. Cf. Augustine 17. 3 on the three kinds
Summary & Comments on Chapter 12:
The prophet says on the day when the Lord rescues Israel
they will praise Him, for though He was angry, that anger has
been turned away. They will trust in God. They will draw water
joyfully from the springs of salvation, that is, the spiritual
and temporal blessings that God has opened for them.
In a later time people sang that song during the Feast of
Tabernacles as they drew water from the pool of Siloam (cf. John
7:37). They would shout loudly, for the Holy One of Israel-
Isaiah's favorite name for God -- is among them.
This chapter completes the early series of prophecies,
Now begins a different series, oracles against the other
nations (chapters 13-23. Even in this stretch, there are a few
utterances of a different type, especially in chapter 22.
Prophecy Against Babylon:13:12 to 14:23:Summary and Comments:
Some scholars think this part is not by Isaiah, since it
happened after his time. But they are moved by a rationalist
spirit, which denies anything supernatural. On the other hand, a
basic conviction that God would punish the wicked could be enough
to account for the picture painted here. This would really be
much the same as the Deuteronomic pattern. We note too that
Babylon could easily stand for the center of power of evil, as it
does in Apocalypse 17 - 18. And St. Augustine, in his , spoke of Babylon as capital of the City of this World.
He opens with a call to battle:raise a banner, as a rallying
point for the holy ones - those solemnly dedicated to the battle
by God. Isaiah imagines he hears a noise on the mountains of a
great army assembling. It will sweep through Babylon easily. The
mention of mountains recalls the mountains of Media, from where
came the army of Medes and Persians that finally conquered
Troops come even from faraway lands, for Babylon has ruled
widely, and all want to destroy its power. The "Day of the Lord"
is at hand - in Scripture that means either the day of reckoning
for evil persons and things, or the great day at the end of time.
But now even nature quakes at the sight:The stars of the sky
will not give their light, and the sun is dark at its rising, nor
will the moon give light. These lines in verse 10 are apocalyptic
genre, just as are similar words in Matthew 24, and similar words
in Isaiah 34:4 for God's judgment on Edom, and in Ez 32:7-8, for
His judgment on Egypt. God will put an end to the arrogance of
People of many nations have been in Babylon for business,
but in the face of this terror they will run back to their own
lands. Those who do not leave will be thrust through, and their
infants will be dashed to pieces, their houses looted, their
wives raped. The jewel of kingdoms, Babylon, will be overthrown
by God. Like Sodom and Gomorrah it will never again be inhabited.
No Arab will pitch his tent there, desert creatures will live
there. This happened in stages. In 538 Cyrus captured Babylon,
but spared the city. In 518 after an uprising Darius conquered
the city again and tore down its walls. Alexander had planned to
make Babylon his metropolis, but died young. Later the city fell
into complete disrepair, when Seleucus I made his capitol at
Seleucia. In the first century B. C. Strabo called Babylon a
wilderness. In the 19th century excavations began, to discover
the ruins, still uninhabited.
In contrast, God will have compassion on His people. And men
of other nations will come to them and become their servants.
There follows a taunt song against the king of Babylon - not
necessarily a particular one, but the King standing for all the
power of Babylon. The Lord will break the rod of the wicked with
which they afflicted other peoples. So now other lands can be at
peace. And even the cedars of Lebanon do not have to be cut down
to build palaces in Babylon.
In a fine poetic fancy, Isaiah pictures the realm of the
dead. Other ancient kings sit on their thrones there when the
King of Babylon comes down. They mock Him:You have become just as
weak as we are! In place of fine carpets, maggots will be spread
That king had thought himself like the morning star, son of
the Dawn, and had said he would ascent to heaven, and go above
the stars. But now the king is brought to the depths of the
Church Fathers like Jerome and Tertullian took this king
to stand for Lucifer, the leader of the devils. As a piece of
fancy, such as that which Isaiah himself uses, this is suitable
of course. The king of Babylon had considered himself the
"morning star". So the Fathers made the name Lucifer, light
bringer, for the chief devil.
The kings in the underworld ask:Is this the man who shook
the earth? Who would not let the Hebrew captives go home? Other
kings there lie in state, but the King of Babylon does not have
an honorable burial. This was fulfilled specially in Belshazzar,
the last king, who was killed in the invasion by the army of the
Medes and Persians, and seems not to have had an honorable
burial. His dynasty disappeared from history. Some object;
Nabonidus was really the last king of Babylon. But cuneiform
records show Nabonidus went off to Arabia on a religious mission,
and never assumed the throne again, and before he left, made
Belshazzar his regent. Hence the book
of Daniel, and the natives, would speak of him as the king.
So the offspring of the wicked will never be mentioned. His
sons will be slaughtered. Babylon itself will be a place for owls
and a swampland.
Prophecy against Assyria:Summary & Comments:14:24-27
Assyria disturbed Israel before Babylon did. Isaiah may have
put Babylon first, since Babylon seems of greater lasting
importance. And in the vision of a prophet, time means little.
Here God says:Surely , as I have planned, it will happen. I
will crush Assyria in the land of my people. I will take his yoke
from the peoples. This is my plan for the world.
Prophecy against the Philistines:Summary and Comments. 14:28-32
An oracle from the year in which King Ahaz died tells the
Philistines not to be happy over the fall of Assyria. One
Assyrian King has died, more are coming:a snake, a more venomous
snake, a dragon. Tiglath-Pileser ruled 745-27; Shalmaneser, 727-
22, Sargon II 721-05, Sennacherib 705-681. We have no record that
Shalmaneser struck the Philistines, but Sargon II and Sennacherib
Who was that King who died? We are not certain of the date
of the death of King Ahaz. Tiglath-Pileser King of Assyria died
in 727, Ahaz probably died the year after that. Isaiah warned
Philisthia against revolting at the death of Tiglath-Pileser, and
implied that Judah should not try revolt either, as the
Philistine envoys would urge. In general Isaiah advised against
depending on foreign powers:they should depend upon the
protection of God, if they would be faithful. Yes, Judah was to
be humbled, but would be restored.
Prophecy against Moab, Summary and Comments. Chapters 15-16
Moab was a small state east of the Dead Sea, people
descended from Lot (cf. Gen 19:37). They were related to
Israelites, but not subject to them.
Isaiah mentions quite a number of place names, cities that
are destroyed in a night, that is, suddenly. The locations of
many of these are not known. But the point of the prophecy is
Every head is shaved, every beard is cut off. Among the
Israelites to shave a beard was a sign of disgrace (2 Sam 10:4-5)
or mourning (Is 15:2; Jer 41:5) or sadness ( Ezra 9:3).
Israelites, like Semites in general had full rounded beards.
Philistines and Egyptians were usually clean shaven. Leviticus
19:27 and 21:5 says the Israelites should not shave or trim the
edges of the beards -- too closely resembling gentile mourning
customs (Dt 14:1). They also avoided the gentile practice of
sacrificing hair to deities.
In 15:5 Isaiah shows a feeling of sympathy for Moab,
something unusual in a prophet for an outside people. They flee
as far as Zoar (SE tip of Dead Sea). The rulers of Moab seem to
have sent lambs to acknowledge the overlordship of the King of
Judah, in hope he would accept them as refugees. The reply from
Jerusalem may be the lines 4b-5:Jerusalem is protected by God,
and the Messiah will come. This reminds us of Is 9:7, speaking of
the extension of the power of the future Messiah.
The refugees go as far as the Ravine of the Poplars, the
southernmost boundary of Moab. Then they go into the land of
Edom. The lament is heard everywhere. The waters of Dimon (or
Dibon) seem to be those of the nearby Arnon river - they already
run red with the blood of the slain, and worse things are yet to
come. The enemy is as fierce as a lion, and about to fall on
Next Isaiah speaks of the reason for the crushing of
Moab:its pride and insolence against Judah's God.
Remarkably, again Isaiah weeps for Moab in 16:9.
But in 16:13-14 he reports the Lord has said that within
three years, counted as carefully as a servant bound by contract
would count them, Moab will be despised, with few feeble
The fulfillment came fully with the Messiah, and there was a
foreshadowing of Him in the incorporation of Ruth of Moab into
the lineage of the coming King Messiah.
Oracle against Damascus and Ephraim. Summary and Comments. 17:1-
At the start of this section, Isaiah predicts that Damascus
will no longer be a city, but a heap of ruins. The problem is:In
ancient times Damascus was not destroyed, but continued to exist,
even though it stopped being the seat of a powerful king (such as
we see in Isaiah 7). It is still a city today.
First, we recall the extremely colorful language we saw in
chapter 13, where in speaking of the destruction of Babylon -
which really was physically destroyed - the prophet used extreme
language, saying the sun would not give its light etc. We gave
references to anther passage of Isaiah on the punishment of Edom
and one from Ezekiel on the punishment of Egypt. So we see that
Semites do not speak like modern Americans.
Further, we must notice that the real center of this passage
is the destruction of the northern kingdom, called here Ephraim.
That did happen with the fall of Samaria in 721. It had allied
with Damascus, which also lost its power. Further, in the Dead
Sea Scrolls in what we have come to call the Damascus Document,
in 5. 12, we find interpretations much different than ours. It
says that the word stands for the Law, and those who dug
it were the converts of Israel who left the land of Judah to
sojourn in the land of Damascus. Now did some of the Scroll
people really live in Damascus? Not very likely. This was a
symbolic use of the name Damascus. Further, in the Pesher on the
prophet Habakkuk from Qumram (xii. 3-4) we find that Lebanon has
come to stand for the Temple. Similarly the old Targum Onkelos
uses the name Lebanon where Habakkuk in the Hebrew text had
spoken of the Temple. Also was used to stand for the
Council of the Community.
In Hosea 8:13, from middle of 8th century, the prophet
threatens that if they do not reform, they "will return to
Egypt." That was of course symbolic, for oppression. Samaria was
destroyed in 721, Assyria oppressed them, took so many into
Again, the name Kittim at first meant the people of Crete.
But in the Scrolls it is commonly used to stand for the Romans.
Even before that, in 1 Mac 1:1, Kittim stood for Greece proper.
And in Daniel 11:30 the Kittim means the Romans.
Apocalypse/Revelation 11:8 says that the two witnesses after
being killed will lie in the streets of the great city which is
spiritually called Sodom and Egypt where also their Lord was
crucified! What a free symbolism:Sodom = Egypt= Jerusalem.
So it is easily possible Isaiah was using similar symbolic
A smaller problem is about the "cities of Aroer". Some
versions make it just "her cities". The Hebrew would admit either
possibility. The general message is the same either way. (There
were three cites named Aroer, two of them could be meant here,
the two in Transjordan).
The northern kingdom had prospered under Jeroboam II, and
even a bit after him. But now it is to be turned into poverty. It
will be like a field after the harvesters have gone through,
leaving only a few stray gleanings. That, says Isaiah, will
finally lead men to turn to the Holy One of Israel -- again, a
favorite name he uses for God. Then men will give up the altars
of idols, and the poles sacred to Asherah, the personification of
Isaiah says that even if they have planted choice things,
they will reap little. It reminds us of chapter 1 of Haggai,
where God said through Haggai:You have planted much, reaped
little - and have done many other things that should give good
results, but they have not given them, because of the people's
infidelity to God.
Some versions of 10b - 11 speak of "the desirable one", a
surname for Adonis of Tammuz, worshipped in Babylonia and Syria
as god of spring. In his honor people planted things that would
shoot up quickly, but not last, expressing the short life and
speedy death of Adonis.
The next three verses, 12-14 according to some scholars form
separate section, not belonging to this one, but speaking of the
raging of Assyria. That is not impossible, but seems less likely,
for Isaiah has already had written a full section on Assyria.
Prophecy against Cush:Summary and Comments:Chapter 18
Chapters 18-20 form a sort of unit. Chapter 18 is on Cush or
Ethiopia, 19 is on Egypt, 20 is on both. Cush is south of Egypt,
but at one time had extended its rule over part of Egypt. It is
divided by the tributaries of the Nile river. The date for these
chapter is much debated. The best probabilities are around 712,
the time of the Philistine revolt against Assyria, or the
restlessness in 705 after the death of Sargon.
The "whirring wings" point to the Nile valley, with its
numerous tsetse flies, locusts and other insects.
Ambassadors here do not mean permanent representatives of
one nation living in another nation, as today. Rather, the
embassies were sent at particular times. This one seems to have
come to urge Judah to join in revolt against Assyria. Earlier,
Hoshea, king of th northern kingdom c 725 had actually trusted
Egyptian help against the Assyrians (cf. 2 Kings 17:4). They came
this time in papyrus boats, which were of course very light. Here
God through Isaiah tells them to go back to their own land. (Some
think he is telling them to go to Assyria, a land cut by rivers,
Mesopotamia). The prophet here, and elsewhere wants Judah to
depend on God, not on foreign alliances. Actually both northern
and southern kingdoms were geographically in a middle position,
along the fertile crescent, between Assyria and Egypt, and hence
often became a battle ground for those great powers. Even
Hezekiah, a good king had had a tendency to take part in
coalitions with foreign help.
Isaiah speaks of the ambassadors as tall, smooth-skinned.
Perhaps their bearing in Jerusalem was majestic - a contrast to
the ruin that was to come upon them later.
The Ethiopians were probably fearful of the Assyrians, and
with reason. But God tells them that He rules the destiny of
nations:He will remain quiet, and look down from above, serenely
like the light high clouds that were common at harvest time when
no rain clouds were seen. He looks calmly down from his dwelling
place on their struggles, for He, as absolute Master, dominates
the outcome. At the very moment when Assyria seemed most
powerful, it was cut down.
The prophet predicts that even Egypt will bring gifts to the
Lord's land. 2 Chronicles 32:23 tells how such gifts came after
the Lord saved Jerusalem from Sennacherib in 701 (in Isaiah
37:36). Apocalypse/Revelation 21:26 tells of gifts from the
nations to the new Jerusalem.
Prophecy on Egypt. Summary and Comment. Chapter 19
Riding on a swift cloud (as in Psalm 104. 3) the Lord will come
to Egypt. The idols of the land will tremble before Him. (Some
have imagined the idols bowing as the Holy Family came into Egypt
on their exile there). St. Athanasius wrote exultantly in his
work that the triumph of the Gospel in his
own land was fulfilling this prophecy.
There will be civil strife in Egypt. Then, being discouraged,
the Egyptians will consult idols and the dead.
God will hand them over to a cruel master. This may be
Pharaoh Shabaka, founder of the 25th Dynasty, an Ethiopian
dynasty, sometime between 711 and 720. Before he took power there
had been numerous city kings, with petty divisions in Egypt.
Others think the cruel king was Esar-haddon of Assyria, who
subdued Egypt in 670 BC.
The prophet predicts the river will go dry. Egypt as
Herodotus said was "the gift of the Nile". Only its annual floods
made life possible there, by their irrigation of the land. The
threats in verses 1-34 remind us of the plagues at the time of
the Exodus, when God had previously subdued Egypt.
Egypt had been thought to have specially wise men, but
Isaiah says their wisdom will come to nothing. They cannot tell
what God has planned against Egypt. Zoan seems to be the same as
Tanis. If the late dating of the Exodus is correct (1290 BC),
then Tanis would be the city where Moses confronted the Pharaoh
and won, after the plagues struck the land The officials of Zoan
and Memphis were thought to be among the noblest of Egypt, who
were proud of their descent from ancient kings-- But they will be
The reason:The Lord has poured on them a spirit of
dizziness, so that Egypt will stagger like a drunkard in his
vomit. Then the Egyptians will lose manliness and be like women.
They will shudder at the hand of the Lord raised against them.
Even a mention of the land of Judah will terrify them, as they
realize that it is He who has struck them with His judgments. We
could either say that the complete fulfillment of all of this
must wait for the end-time, or consider this as another example
of Hebrew hyperbole -- recalling the words about the sun and moon
in chapter 13. Isaiah would then be imagining that the Egyptians
remembered the power of God shown long before in the Exodus.
But then, at verse 18, the tone changes to a forecast of future
blessings for Egypt. The mention of five cities may be an
allusion to the Exodus, in which Joshua, after Jericho and Ai,
conquered the kings of five cities who had united against Joshua
(cf Joshua 10). It is evident that the number five is symbolic,
meaning few in comparison to the total of Egyptian cities. Jews
had probably lived in Egypt rather early. The pseudo-Aristeas
reports that Pharaoh Psammtik (644-10) used Jews as mercenary
troops against the Ethiopians.
Isaiah mentions that one of the five will be called City of
Destruction. However the reading here is debated. Some think it
means City of the Sun, which would be Heliopolis.
Isaiah then says that there will be an altar to the Lord in
Egypt, and a monument, perhaps an obelisk, at its border. We know
of a temple there a bit later, at Elephantine (modern Aswan) in
the 6th or 5th centuries. He says the Lord will protect the Jews
The prophet foretells a highway between Egypt and Assyria.
Actually there was such a road, from ancient times. The sense
seems to be that in the future God will bring Assyrians,
Egyptians and Jews into one people. This was most fully fulfilled
later, cf. St. Paul in Ephesians 3:6.
Victory Over Egypt-Ethiopia. Summary and Comment. Chapter 20
In 711 Sargon II of Assyria sent his top commander to put
down a revolt of Ashdod, which had broken out in 713. Egypt had
supported the rebellion, and Assyrian inscriptions say Judah also
supported it. But it seems Hezekiah withdrew from the rebellion
Three years before the fall of Ashdod, that is, in 714, God
ordered Isaiah to take off the rough sackcloth garment he was
wearing, usual for a prophet (cf 2 Kings 1:8; Zech 13:4; Mark
1:6). He may have still kept a long woolen undergarment, or, some
think, only a loincloth. Complete nudity was frowned on: cf. Gen
This was a symbolic action, a forecast of what Assyria would
do to Egypt, Ethiopia, and those who trusted in them:they would
go into captivity.
Such symbolic actions were usual for Ezekiel (chapters 4-5
and 24:27), but not for Isaiah.
The Fall of Babylon. Summary and Comment. 21:1-10
This is marked as an oracle concerning the Desert by the
Sea. Babylon will be a desert, and the southern part of it
extended to the sea, the Persian Gulf.
A vision came to Isaiah like a whirlwind, such as he had
seen come up to Judah through the Negeb, to the south. It was a
frightening vision. Media and Elam (to the south of Media) would
attack Babylon. All the groaning Babylon had caused would cease
for Babylon would fall. Donkeys and camels would come with the
army - they were used in large numbers in the army of Persia for
transport and to confuse the enemy in battle.
When did this happen? Babylon was destroyed by
Sennacherib of Assyria in 689 (Esarhaddon, son of
Sennacherib rebuilt it). Babylon reached its greatest splendor
after the fall of the Assyrian empire. It was captured by the
Persians in 539, and destroyed by Xerxes in 478. (Alexander the
Great planned to rebuild it, but died young). The capture by
Cyrus of Persia was vividly described by Daniel, chapter 8. (It
says that Darius the Mede captured it. Josephus (
10. 245-49) does report that Darius made the actual capture. He
was a kinsman of Cyrus the chief conqueror, who at times did use
kinsmen for such purposes. As Daniel describes the event,
Belshazzar and his nobles were having a great banquet (cf. 21:5)
when the handwriting on the wall came. Herodotus says the capture
wa s so swift that those feasting in the center of the city did
not at first know the outer parts had been taken. Cyrus did not
destroy the gods of Babylon, but that was done later on.
There is mention of oiling the shields -- perhaps to make
the missiles of the enemy glance off, or it might mean the shield
straps were oiled so they would not chafe.
Prophecy on Edom. Summary and Comments 21. 11-12
The heading says this is an oracle on Dumah. That seems to
mean Edom. Arabian Dumah was east of Mt Seir, mentioned in the
next line, and probably was linked with Edom for a time. But
also, Dumah in Hebrew means silence -- perhaps the silence of
Edom is the same as Esau, twin brother of Jacob, and stands
for rejection of the covenant. God threatened Edom more than
Someone calls from Mt. Seir, asking the Watchman:what is left of
the night. It may mean the country is in distress, and ask show
long it will last. The reply says morning, relief, is coming, but
also night, meaning that the relief will not last.
Prophecy against Arabia. Summary and Comments. 21. 13-17
The Dedanite caravans, it seems have been driven off the
usual caravan routes by a threat from Assyrians. The prophet
tells them to take refuge int he steppe, a sort of barren plain,
and asks the people of Tema to help them with food and water.
Kedar is another tribe of the region, noted for their bowmen. But
they are to be subjugated by Assyria under, probably, Sargon and
"According to the years of a hired servant" means a time
anxiously and carefully computed.
Prophecy against Frivolous Jerusalem. Summary and Comments.
The time and setting of this section is quite unclear. Some
think it was just after the Lord had killed so many of the army
of Sennacherib, who beseiged Jerusalem in 701. They were
rejoicing then. But we would have to ask:Why would Isaiah object
It is quite possible that the words "the Valley of Vision" refer
to some place outside Jerusalem, and that the setting is that
Sennacherib has been taking cities on his way to Jerusalem (cf 2
Kings 18:13). The people have heard of it, and in a spirit of
"Eat drink and be merry: tomorrow we die" are becoming frivolous.
Such a strange setting for revelry was seen during World War I
Who are the slain who were not killed in battle? It may be
those who were captured and surrendered, and executed after that.
Verse 5 speaks of a . That expression has
two meanings in general. It may refer to the day when at the end
of the world God will set things right. Or it may refer to lesser
occasions much before that time, which are evil for the enemies
of God's people, but good for them, unless they had been
We are not sure why the references to Elam and Kir are
given. Elam was East of Babylonia. Kir was subject to Assyria (2
Kings 16:9). They were probably auxiliaries of Assyria.
The Palace of the Forest was on Mount Zion, and served among
other things as an arsenal for weapons. The City of David is a
fortress also located on Zion. Isaiah means they were trusting in
weapons more than in God. God, says the prophet, had planned the
whole event long before. He is the absolute, all-powerful Master.
He speaks of a reservoir between the walls for water from the
Old Pool, to hold water from the Pool of Siloam for use during a
siege. Part of the south of the city was between two walls that
enclosed the eastern and western hills. Hezekiah took such
measure, as we see from 2 Chronicles 32:2-8.
Isaiah now insists on his usual policy:the chief defense is
God, they should weep and wail and put on sackcloth for penance,
and should go to the temple. Instead of that, they are going in
for revelry: "Eat and drink, tomorrow we die".
The prophet adds that the Almighty Lord -- who controls the
whole event - had told him: this sin will never be atoned for. It
probably means that punishment will come for sure for their sins,
no matter what.
Isaiah now speaks of a prominent individual, Shebna, who
seems to have been ostentatious, showing off his power, having a
fine tomb carved for himself in Jerusalem. But God says:he will
be taken to a strange land in captivity, and will die there. His
splendid chariots in which he paraded in Jerusalem will not help
him at all.
Shebna seems to have been the steward, the custodian of the
royal possessions, and so he had the keys. But God planned to
depose the proud Shebna, and give his place to the lowly Eliakim.
However, Eliakim is foretold as going to fall too, because of his
nepotism. Eliakim was called "a driven peg", on which many things
could be hung - his relatives depended on him, in his nepotism.
But that peg too would be sheared off.
Prophecy against Phoenicia. Summary and Comments. Chapter 23
Isaiah asks the ships of Tarshish to wail for
Tyre, where they might have come in, is destroyed. Tarshish is
probably in Spain, part of the far flung mercantile empire of
He says they learned of the ruin when they came top Cyprus
on their return voyage. Grain from Egypt had come there on such
ships. He calls the Nile Shihor. Tyre is called a fortress of the
sea. Part of Tyre was built on a rocky island near the coast.
Tyre had given crowns - that is, it seems that some of its
settlers became kings or powerful rulers. So they should wail for
Then he asks Tyre to till its land, to become agricultural
instead of mercantile as it had been, The words "Daughter of
Tarshish" and Daughter of Sidon" mean merely those cities, called
daughters. The word is a usage like that in our expression
the city of Washington. It does not mean Washington has a city,
but merely the city that is Washington. Similarly we often find
the words "Daughter of Zion", which means merely Zion.
The text of verse 13 is in poor condition. It could be
translated:Look at the land of the Kittim [the people of Cyprus]
he made it a heap of ruins". Or: "Look at the land of the
Babylonians." which Assyria has struck. If we take the second
translation given here, it would refer to the attack on
Babylon by Sargon in 710 or by Sennacherib in 703, both of which
came before Sennacherib struck Tyre in 701.
Then the prophet says Tyre will be desolate for 70 years,
the span of a king's life. But then Tyre will return to her work
as a prostitute, improper commerce with the nations. The profits
of Tyre will go to Jerusalem.
The fulfillment of these prophecies began under Shalmaneser
of Assyria. The seventy years probably means the period 700 to
630 when Assyria would not let Tyre engage in business
activities. Nabuchadnezzar beseiged the new city of Tyre for 13
years. How much success he had is not clear:Ezek 29:17-18 seems
to imply he took it, but Ezek 26 seems to imply the opposite. But
neither passage is fully clear. Alexander the Great did take the
city after a siege of seven months. Then 8000 inhabitants were
killed outright, and 30, 000 were sold as slaves. Still later,
Tyre again prospered, but not as before.
As for wealth coming to Jerusalem:David had arranged with King
Hiram to supply materials and workers to build the great temple,
constructed under his son Solomon. Still later, b y authorization
of Cyrus, conqueror of Babylon, the people of Tyre and Sidon
helped the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 3:7).
The Final Judgment of the whole World. Summary and Comments.
After foretelling the doom of so many nations, not strangely
Isaiah as it were sums it up, and speaks of the great Day of the
Lord. The words "day of the Lord" could be used for lesser
occasions, but especially meant the final reckoning. He says it
will be the same for all classes of people, for it is time to
reckon. Of course, the good will fare well in the long run, even
if they may suffer from earthly cataclysms:the reckoning for them
is favorable;not so for the wicked.
He says the earth will be totally laid waste. This is
Semitic hyperbole and apocalyptic language. - Apocalyptic is a
genre in which bizarre images are used, it foretells cataclysmic
events and often secret things. The original readers knew well
they needed to reduce the wording-- though it was not always
clear how far. -- Some think apocalyptic was not known as early
as Isaiah. We agree that full blown long passages are far in the
future from Isaiah. But we did see touches of it in Isaiah 13:9-
10 for the fall of Babylon. There the prophet said that the stars
will not give their light, the sun will be dark at its rising.
Similar language appears again in Isaiah 34:4 on the fall of
Edom, and in Ezek 32:7-8 for the punishment of Egypt. There will
be more of it in Matthew 24. And 2 Peter 3:12-13 says the heavens
will be destroyed in fire and the elements will melt. But the
fire is a purifying and refining one. Hence 2 Peter continues,
saying that there will be a new heavens and a new earth.
He says that the reason is that people have defiled the
earth and disobeyed the laws. This will be extensive, as we see
later in Matthew 24:12: "Because sin will reach its peak, the
love of most people will grow cold." And again in Luke 18:8:
"When the Son of Man comes, do you think He will find faith on
So a curse will strike, and very few will be left.
What is the city that will be left in ruins? Probably he has
in mind Babylon, which stands for the world power opposed to God.
At first it may seem strange, but then in 24:14 Isaiah
begins to speak of praise from the east and from the west for the
Lord. They sing: "Glory to the righteous One." This is the same
sense as a favorite title used by Isaiah for God:the Holy One.
Holy means that He loves and observes all that is right. Perhaps
in the background of his thought is the event of 2 Chronicles
32:23, when after the Lord's victory over Sennacherib in 701,
many brought gifts to Jerusalem to the good king Hezekiah.
Then gloom comes again to the prophet's mind so that he
says: I waste away. The floodgates of the heavens are opened -
does he think of the language used for the deluge? -- and the
earth reels like a drunkard.