THE PROPHET ISAIAH IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The different names given to the prophet in Scripture throw light upon his character and the nature of his work. He is described as a man of God implying that he was more closely related to God than others and indicating also that he was a man of righteous character. A second name is 'servant of Jehovah', and this showed that the prophet was specially commissioned by God to discharge certain duties for Him.
The type of service in which he was engaged is brought out in a third phrase: 'messenger of Jehovah.' His chief task was to convey messages from God to men. His words were authoritative because they were uttered in the name of the Lord. He is also called a 'seer', and this shows how the prophet received his message, for he saw things to which other men were blind. But this is not to suggest that the prophet was a wholly passive person, at the receiving end of everything, for prayer was doubtless a frequent preparation for the prophetic revelation.The tradition of prophets as such was well-established by the time Isaiah was born, and he comes on the scene as a true man of God, who has received a revelation and a commission from Jehovah, and comes to the people bringing a message from Jehovah.
b) The Political Background to the Life and Ministry of Isaiah
Isaiah was born during the reign of the good king Uzziah, and it was in the last year of this monarch's life that he received the call to the prophetic office. Uzziah's character was generally acknowledged to be very noble, and in every way he showed a spirit of true piety and honour for the things of God, although in his later years he suffered from leprosy, due to an act of great pride. During his reign the nation as a whole enjoyed times of prosperity and temporal development. The whole nation mourned his passing from the scene at a time when his presence seemed needed the most. Under him the worship of Jehovah was encouraged but he was not strong enough to secure the destruction of the high places where idolatrous practices were continued. His reign must be ranked as one of the outstanding of the southern kingdom.
After him his son Jothan came to the throne, who had already acted as regent in the time of Uzziah's segregation. He walked in the ways of his father, and under him the people continued to worship the Lord Jehovah after the manner of the commandment, though still the places of idolatry were allowed to remain. To the superficial view there might have appeared evidence of true and deep devotion but in reality it was not so. On every side there was a rapid growth of the spirit of luxury and indulgence, and in the midst of this it is not surprising that the spirit of true piety was declining steadily. Following him, there arose Ahaz, whose whole reign was one chronicle of disaster and destruction. With an absolute abandon, Ahaz gave himself over to the overthrow of the ordained order of worship, broke the commandment in almost every detail, destroyed the temple worship and finally closed the doors of the house of God. In the most calculated manner he conspired to obliterate the memory of the service of the Lord of all Israel, the Redeemer and the Holy One. All that he did was as a goad to the devout and outspoken Isaiah.
He came forth and publicly rebuked the king for his extravagances in religious things, reproved him for his sin, and arraigned him before the people as an enemy of the true way. But all this was to no avail, for his warnings and advice were disregarded by the nation, led by the king himself. Then he was followed on the throne by his son Hezekiah, who was very unlike his fathers and set about reviving the worship in the temple, which his father had abolished. He attempted, with some success to obliterate idol worship, and to deliver his people from the yoke of foreign power. It was under him that Isaiah came into his own, and was treated with high favour. In this position he was given every opportunity for the use of his keen and divinely inspired power of discernment into the facts of the contemporary situation. But now was the time when the nation's folly was to be seen more patently, for now it was too late to institute reforms, which could be effective. The overthrow of the nation which Isaiah had for so long foretold was at hand, and nothing could delay it.
c) Isaiah the man
The name, Isaiah, means 'Jehovah saves,' or 'Jehovah is salvation', and through days of crisis and disaster greater than any before in the history of the people, his call was constantly to faith in the One Who alone could save the land. His role was ever that of inspiring and challenging the drooping spirits of the men of Judah at times when hope seemed dead. His ministry was a long one stretching as it did through the reigns of Uzziah, Jothan, Ahaz and Hezekiah. His father's name was Amoz, and there is a Jewish tradition that he was a brother of King Amaziah; in which case Isaiah would be the cousin of King Uzziah. Naturally enough, it is impossible to be really sure of this, but it is certainly a reasonable explanation of the fact that Isaiah enjoyed immediate and regular entrance to the royal house. And also that he had the ear of the most influential people of his day. In spite of this, he remained a simple and undaunted spokesman for Jehovah, and tradition again affirms that it was for this reason that he was put to death in the reign of the wicked Manasseh, Hezekiah's successor. He was married and he himself called his wife 'the prophetess' (Isaiah 8:3). He had two children, one named Shear-jashubl, which means 'a remnant shall return,' and the other Maher-shalalhashbaz, which means 'haste ye to the spoil.' These names were given to them as portents of what was to come and also as a reinforcement of the prophet's predictive message.
Apart from this, there is little else known of his personal history except what is found in the book itself. The exact length of his ministry is not known for sure, but he definitely laboured for at least forty years. From the last year of King Uzziah's reign 740 B.C. to the fourteenth year of ther reign of King Hezekiah in 701 B.C. and it is clear that through all this period of time his call and challenge were unremitting and persistent. His aim was ever definite - the establishment of the worship of the Lord in righteousness and truth amongst the chosen race.
Isaiah's prophecy, the longest of all the Old Testament prophecies divides first of all quite naturally into two parts, chapters 1-39, and 40-66. Because of this split, critics during the last century have seen fit to decide that two separate authors are responsible for the prophecy and that the second one was written some hundred years after the first one. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the prophecy itself by the way of names and such like to establish the truth or the falsehood of this statement. However the nature of the second part of the book seems to indicate that it was said to a nation at a time when they were in a completely different condition from that of the exile in Babylon, during which time some people maintain that it was written. As well as these two separate parts, the prophecy also divides into nine sections.
1)Chapters 1-12 Prophecies centred on Judah and Jerusalem
This section contains, among other things, Isaiah's vision of the Lord in the temple, and with this experience Isaiah was made aware of the aweful holiness of God. This holiness is an ever-recurring theme in this section and indeed in the whole of the book. Here Isaiah tells a sinful people who have forsaken the Lord, in spite of all He has done for them in the past, that judgment will come, and Judah will be ravaged. Yet he also introduces the theme of the remnant which will be left, and which will dwell in holiness on Mount Zion. Through the whole of the prophecy Isaiah proclaims the judgment of a holy God alongside the mercy which He will show to His redeemed, who have lived according to His statutes. This doctrine of the remnant is a characteristic of Old Testament prophecy, and also of evangelical preaching. Another theme introduced in this first section is that of the King Messiah, foremost among nations.
2)Prophecies against foreign and and hostile nations
In this section, the prophet declares that doom awaits al1 the nations which are in enmity with Jehovah and His chosen people. Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Ethiopia and Egypt, will all be overthrown, and their pride laid in the dust. They will be subject to Judah, and will bring tribute to Sion.
3) Isaiah's Apocalypse: Judgments of Jehovah against the World's Sin
Here we have prophecy which deals clearly with the end of the world. The prophet declares that doom will fall on the whole world, from the hand of Jehovah, but that in all the ruin and judgment of this time, His people will be secure, and He will establish His Kingdom on Mount Zion. At this time, the vine of Israel, which had been described in the first section as bringing forth bad fruits will at last bring forth good fruit. All this is in accord with other prophecies of the end time.
4)Prophecies concerning the relation of Judah and Jerusalem to Egypt and Assyria (Chapters 28 to 33)
This part of the prophecy was written at the time of Hezekiah's reign, when the southern kingdom was under threat of war from Assyria. Hezekiah, knowing that the land was too weak in itself to meet the coming attack, contracted an alliance with Egypt, through which Egypt would supply Judah with horsemen and chariots. But this alliance was formed without any consideration of the fact that they were the chosen nation of Jehovah, and that if they sought His aid in battle, they needed to fear no foe, nor to ask aid of other powers. But the nation had forgotten the great battles of the reign of David, and they made a treaty with Egypt. Here the prophet shows how wrong this step was, for the Egyptians will be no help to them at all. The section closes with an account of the miraculous way in which the Lord delivered them from the hand of the Assyrians, with no aid at all from the Egyptians, and of how conviction of sin came upon the people at this demonstration of God's grace to them.
5) Prophecies proclaiming the doom of Edom and the redemption of Israel (Chapters 34-35)
First of all, there is a description of how desolate Edom will become and how it will be laid waste. Then in contrast to this picture of devastation, is the joy of the redeemed when God's kingdom is established in Zion. Once more, we have a picture of the ransomed few dwelling in Zion, enjoying the grace and favour of the Lord.
6) Historical appendix: Isaiah's life and activity during_the reign Hezekiah (Chapters 36-39)
In this section, there is an account of the Assyrian host before the walls of Jerusalem, and how the Lord hears the prayer of Hezekiah and destroys many of the Assyrians in one night, so that the rest of the army flees in terror. After this, Hezekiah becomes ill, but prays for restoration, and the Lord grants him the lengthening by fifteen years, of his life. Hezekiah receives on friendly terms the envoys of the land of Babylon, and shows them all he has, and Isaiah is inspired at this time to prophecy that at some time in the future all the king's household and his land will be the possession of the people of Babylon. Now begins the second division of the prophecy, which some maintain was written at the time of the exile in Babylon, and deals with deliverance from bondage. Some state to be a continuation of the first part of the book, and a word of predictive prophecy, dealing in part with the deliverance from bondage, and in part with the end of the world.
7) Deliverance from the Dominion of Babylon. (Chapters 40-48)
In this section, among other things, the overthrow of Babylon by Cyrus is introduced. He is shown as the chosen instrument of God in the overthrow o f the land of Babylon, and in the restoration of the people of Judah to their land. Outstanding in this section is Jehovah's great mercy, for He will redeem His people in spite of their sin. Yet alongside Cyrus, who is the appointed instrument of the One whom He will use to accomplish His will at one specific stage of history, another greater figure appears. In all, the second part of the prophecy contains four distinct passages which in commentaries are called the 'Servant' passages, and are clearly to do with a Person of far more lasting significance than Cyrus. The first of these passages is 42:1-9, and in these verses we see a foreshadowing of the Lord Jesus Christ.
8) Redemption through suffering and sacrifice (Chapters 49-57)
This section contains the other three 'Servant' passages, and through it all there are two mighty themes - the Servant of the Lord, and the glorious future awaiting Israel. In the second 'Servant' passage chapter 49:1-9, His commission and task are set forth - namely, to restore Israel, and to be the salvation to the ends of the earth, in spite of the fact that He has suffered rejection. Kings and rulers will realise that He is the Chosen One and then salvation and restoration will be secured for Zion. In the third chapter 50: 4-9, the Servant begins to speak of His suffering and it is clear that there is perfect agreement between Him and Jehovah. The fourth and last begins at Chapter 52:13 and continues into the wellknown narrative of the sufferings and ultimate glory awaiting the Servant, as He fulfils the will of God.
In the rest of the section, the most outstanding theme is the glory awaiting Israel when the King Messiah comes into His own. There is an appeal to the people, in view of all the glorious salvation which the Lord offers them, to turn from their sin, and to look to Him.
9) The Triumph and the Universal Dominion of Jehovah (Chapters 58-66)
Here the prophet once more declares that sin is a barrier to the divine purposes, and calls his fellow-countrymen to repent, for the Lord will indeed deliver and redeem His people. Here again, is the picture of the glory of Zion, which the Lord will impart to the righteous remnant of His People, and then the land, which has long been forsaken and desolate will no longer be so. At this time evil will be cast out and destroyed, and God's glory announced throughout the world,. In this section I should like to draw your attention in particular to chapter 63: 1-6, where the prophet gives a wonderful description of the Saviour coming back from the destruction of His enemies, having trodden the wine press alone.This is a marvellous prophecy of the work of salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ in particularly fine and stirring language.
Indeed, one of the most outstanding features of the whole prophecy is the way in which the figure of the Holy One the Redeemer of Israel stands out far above everyone else.His holiness is established in the fine passage in chapter 6, where the seraphim called 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts', and to the Hebrew mind this treble repetition of the word holy reinforced it to the highest degree possible.Here we see that holiness is the central essential divine characteristic. This holy God demands righteousness in the men he has made, and above all in the people He has chosen from among all the nations to be His own possession. But He does not find righteousness, and He will in consequence bring the whole earth to judgment. This is grim news, but it is not a grim note which pervades the whole book, on the contrary. From all the prophecies of the Lord's dealings with His people a Figure emerges who is clearly a foreshadowing of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the King of Judah Who will come forth from the stump of Jesse, 'a root from the dry ground.' Who will rule in righteousness and bring peace to the earth. He is the Servant, Whom we see suffering in chapter 53 for the sin of the people and Who is to see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied.
Isaiah has been described as the evangelical prophet and this title is fully justified, for the message which he preached is the one which we preach, and which we find in the New Testament. Our God is indeed a righteous holy God, and He tells His people' to be Holy as I am holy,' to put on that righteousness without which no man shall see God. But He is not a harsh taskmaster, asking us to do something impossible, for he knows full well that in our sinful, unregenerate state we cannot possibly do this of ourselves. So at great cost to Himself, He has provided a way - "the righteous One, My Servant shall make many to be accounted righteous and He shall bear their iniquities." The Lord Jesus Christ bore our sins on the tree so that we might be reconciled to God. The price was paid and His righteousness imputed to us.
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