Friday, October 24
Isaiah 1: The first five chapters of this book form a sort of preface, introducing the call of the prophet in chapter 6. We note the absence of historical indicators (except for 1:1, of course) in these chapters, in striking contrast with chapters 6 and 7. The purpose of this introductory material, which was surely composed after Isaiah was called, is to provide a critical analysis of the Kingdom of Judah, in order to set that calling in the proper historical context.
The time of Isaiah, the second half of the eighth century before Christ, beginning in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), was a period of rebellion against God and infidelity to His covenant. This rebellious infidelity is illustrated in the first chapter by the collapse of national life (verses 6-9), religious apostasy (verses 10-15), and social disintegration (verses 21-23).
The book’s first verse, as is usual in the prophetic books, simply provides the time frame: the second half of the eighty-century, beginning in the last year of King Uzziah, 742 B.C.
This is a book about “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), a theme that joins all parts of the work. Indeed, the names “Jerusalem” and “Zion” occur 97 times in the Book of Isaiah, the occurrences spread pretty evenly in all parts of the work.
The national life of Judah has collapsed (verses 6-9). God had made this people His children through the Exodus deliverance and covenant, but who can tell it under the current conditions?
For the first time Isaiah uses the expression “Holy One of Israel” (Qadosh Israel), which expression is found 25 times in Isaiah and only 7 times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Found in all parts of this book, it may have been coined by Isaiah himself. Indeed, he uses the expression Qadosh, “Holy One,” to refer to God 33 times, whereas it appears only 25 times in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. The transcendent holiness of God was revealed to the prophet by the voices of the Seraphim in Isaiah’s call in the Temple (6:1-3), where the word is tripled, or, if the term be permitted, “cubed”–holy times holy times holy. This is the holiness that fills heaven and earth. In a sense, all of the Book of Isaiah is an extension of that hymn of the Seraphim.
Isaiah’s criticism of religious ritual (verses 10-15) was not a condemnation of ritual worship itself. If it were, how do we explain his being called in the Temple, to which the Lord here refers as “My courts” (verse 12)? This criticism was directed, rather, to the separation of ritual from ethics (verses 16-20), two essential components of the Mosaic Law.
Jerusalem, the holy city of God’s presence, is likened to the condemned cities destroyed of old for their corruption (verses 9-10; 3:9; 13:19). In the midst of this condemnation, nonetheless, there comes the promise of restoration, if Israel should attend and repent (verses 25-27).
Saturday, October 25
Isaiah 2: Once again Isaiah’s vision, as at the first (1:1), concerns “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1)
This chapter contains three oracles, none of which can be assigned with certainty to a particular date; they do seem to come, however, from early in his ministry, perhaps within the first years after his calling.
The first of these oracles (verses 1-5) is concerned with the ideal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem to come—“it shall come to pass in the last days” (verse 2). It speaks of the future glorification of God’s holy city, that more blessed Jerusalem of promise, of which the ancient capital of David was a prefiguration and type (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10). It will be, says the prophet, a city of peace (verse 4), something that the Jerusalem on earth has never been. Isaiah will describe this Jerusalem at greater length in chapter 4.
Although the literary and historical relationship between the two texts is uncertain, verses 2-4 of this chapter are substantially identical to Micah 4:1-4.
This oracle is internally balanced by “into Zion” (verses 2-3) and “out of Zion” (verses 3-4). The image of flowing upwards indicates that this is not a natural process, so to speak; it does not follow the natural law of gravity. It suggests, rather, the divine magnetism by which God’s reverses the order of nature.
The second oracle (verses 6-9) moves from the ideal, future Jerusalem to the actual, unfaithful city known to Isaiah. This oracle is critical of the idolatrous pursuit of wealth in the Jerusalem of Isaiah’s time. We remember that his prophetic calling came in the last year of King Uzziah (6:1), whose reign (783-742) had restored a great deal of Judah’s prosperity. This prosperity, Isaiah saw, led to the worship of human achievement as a particularly virulent form of idolatry. It was the sin of pride, and Isaiah threatened its punishment.
This second oracle offers a series of contrasts with the first. Thus, instead of drawing the nations to the ways of God (verse 3), we find this Jerusalem conforming to the ways of the nations (verse 6). Instead of spiritual riches for the world (verse 3), there is worldly wealth for Zion (verse 7). In place of world peace (verse 4), we see Jerusalem full of the instruments of war (verse 7). Whereas the first oracle spoke of the knowledge of the true God (verse 3), the second speaks of the worship of false gods (verse 8).
This punishment of these evils is the theme of the third oracle (verses 10-22). Verse 11 marks Isaiah’s first use (of very many during the first thirty-nine chapters) of the expression "on that day" to designate the day of judgment (verse 17), the catastrophic day when God will overthrow all pride, all human achievement, all idolatry. Although Isaiah was speaking within the particular historical context of the mid-eighth century before Christ, we observe that his language was universal — all. Among the biblical prophets, Isaiah was the first to proclaim a universal divine judgment on human history as such. This made him a prophet for the whole world, a vocation that he still fulfills through the Christian Gospel.
Sunday, October 26
Isaiah 3: Once again this chapter begins with “Jerusalem and Judah” (verses 1,8). The “staff and stay” (KJV), found twice in this verse, are the masculine and feminine forms of the same noun (mash‘en and mash‘enah). This combination formed an idiom indicating totality, not unlike our English “kit and boodle.” Every form of support, says Isaiah, is coming apart. Can famine (also mentioned in verse 7) be far off? (
The prosperity attendant on the reign of King Uzziah was accompanied by grave social inequities and other evils. The present chapter of Isaiah speaks of two such: the lack of adequate leadership (verses 1-15) and the elaborate cultivation of female finery in clothing and adornment (verses 16-24).
The previous chapter ended with a warning about putting excessive trust in men (2:22). The present chapter continues this theme by listing the failures of Judah’s leadership. This first unit is enclosed by “the Lord, the Lord of hosts” (’Adon IHWH Savaoth–verses 1 and 15).
First, Israel’s leadership is in a state of collapse (verses 2-3), and with it all societal support and structure, including the basic technical crafts, such as carpentry. The leadership is immature (verse 4), so all of society disintegrates (verses 5,12). Since leadership is not taken seriously, serious men will not assume it (verses 6-7). Indeed, Isaiah knew that he was already seeing an excellent example of such a bad ruler in the person of King Ahaz (735-716). Meanwhile, in Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, Israel’s own puny monarchy was on its last legs, destined to fall to the Assyrians in 722.
The Lord will be the Judge for His oppressed and badly governed people (verses 12-15; cf. Psalms 50  and 82 , perhaps the liturgical texts on which Isaiah relies).
Second, the mention of women in leadership leads to a sarcastic description of the arrogant clothing styles for women in vogue at the time. Isaiah’s description is bound to remind a modern reader of a contemporary fashion show, in which a line of pretentious young ladies come strutting across a walkway, walking in ridiculous gyrating strides that have no purpose except to draw meretricious and lascivious attention to themselves: "the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet" (verse 16). Isaiah goes on with an obvious relish for sarcasm, listing the various articles of clothing and jewelry, all the way to purses and hand mirrors.
The first verse of chapter 4 goes logically with the present chapter. These vain, arrogant women, despite their vaunted allurements, cannot find husbands, because the casualties of warfare have claimed six of every seven men.
Monday, October 27
Isaiah 4: Hitherto the prophet Isaiah, when writing of the Lord’s “day” (2:12,17,20; 3:18; 4:1), has portrayed it in the colors of judgment and retribution. In the present chapter he writes in terms of renewal.
Once again we discern a paralleled reversal of elements in the preceding parts of this book. Thus, the tragedy associated with marriage on the “day” (verse 1) is now replaced with the huppa, the bridal canopy (verse 5), the scandalous dress and behavior of Judah’s women (3:16-23) gives way to godly cleansing and beauty (verses 2,4), and the Lord’s glory, hitherto revealed in punishment (2:10,19,21), now redounds in the glory of the holy city (verses 2,5). Likewise, the revelation of the Messiah, the “Branch of the Lord” (verse 2) supplants the degenerate leadership described at length in the previous chapter. In short, the day of the Lord as Judge (3:17-18) becomes the day of the Lord as Redeemer (verses 4-5).
The “branch of the Lord” is the future Davidic king who will gather the Lord’s elect remnant. He is the fulfillment of the promises made to David (cf. 11:1; 53:2). He is portrayed as human, the fruit of the earth, and divine, as branching forth from the Lord. This is Isaiah’s first explicit prophecy of the Incarnation.
This remnant, preserved and gathered by the Messiah (verses 2-3), has been transformed by the divine purging. Consequently, it is “holy” (verse 3), marked by a quality proper to God. These survivors have been purged by the spirit of judgment and burning (verse 4), a theme later to be taken up in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12).
The guidance of this remnant evokes the imagery of pillar of the Exodus, when the people were overshadowed by the divine shadow and fire (verses 5-6). Described here as a wedding canopy, the huppa, the marriage chamber is indicated (Psalms 19 :6; Joel 2:16). This rich metaphor evokes the Lord’s espousal of His people (cf. 49:17-18; 54:1-13), who will find shelter under that canopy (verse 6).
Tuesday, October 28
Isaiah, 5: This final chapter of the Isaian preface is the most melancholy, as the divine judgment now looms most unmistakably over Jerusalem. What more can the Lord do (verse 4)?
This chapter breaks into two unequal parts: the parable of the vineyard (verses 1-7) and a description of its terrible harvest (verses 8-30).
First comes the description of the vineyard, which is an image much favored in the Book of Isaiah (3:14-15; 27:2-6; 63:1-6; 65:8-10). The poetry of the first verse is most striking: ’ashírah n’a lidídi shírat dódi lekármo / kérem hayáh lidídi beqéren ben shámen–“let me sing for my beloved my darling’s song of his vineyard; a vineyard my beloved had on a very fertile hill.”
As in our Lord’s parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-44, with parallels in Mark and Luke), Isaiah builds his case gradually, not showing his hand until after the judgment is reached. He describes the vineyard’s construction, his friend’s care for it, and finally the failure of the vineyard to bring forth the fruit that was expected (verses 1-2). Then he calls, once again, on “Jerusalem and Judah” to pass judgment on the vineyard (verses 3-4). Having enumerated the punishments that will be inflicted on the faithless vineyard (verses 5-6), Isaiah at last identifies the vineyard as God’s own people (verse 7), but only after the judgment has been pronounced.
In the preparation of His vineyard, God spared neither effort nor expense (verse 2). The list of His labors signifies the various stages of His intervention in the history of salvation. Nonetheless, what did the vineyard produce? It brought forth be’ushim, a word that appears nowhere else in the Bible outside of this text (verses 2,4). Derived from the verb ba’ash, meaning “to stink,” the word may be translated as “stinky fruit.”
The fault, of course, lies on those charged with the cultivation of the vineyard—that is, the spiritual and political rulers of Judah. They are the reason the vineyard has produced stinky fruit. In this respect our Lord’s own corresponding parable is more explicit, laying the blame on Israel’s leadership.
The punishment of the vineyard, recognized by Israel to refer to Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon in 587, involves the “briars and thorns” (verse 6) associated with man’s original fall (Genesis 3:18).
To God the realm of Judah has become a complete disappointment. In place of just judgment (mishpat there is bloodshed (mispah). Instead of righteousness (tsidaqah there is a distressful cry (tse‘aqah) (verse 7).
In the chapter’s long second part (verses 8-30), Isaiah enumerates the stinky fruit” is a series of six “woes.” These offenses have chiefly to do with sins against social justice, such as the monopoly of property and resources (verses 8-10) and self-indulgence (verses 11-12). These will fittingly be punished by poverty, hunger, and thirst (verse13), followed by death and ruin (verses 14-17). Those that satisfied their appetites will now satisfy the appetite of the realm of death (verse 14).
The monopoly of real estate (verse 8), a special evil of the eighth century before Christ (cf. Amos 2:6-8; 3:10,15; Micah 2:2,9), violated the ancient rules of inherited property contained in the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 25; Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-2; Ruth 4:1-4).
Isaiah has now given us, then, the social, political, and religious context of his call to the prophetic ministry in 742, “the year that King Uzziah died.”
Wednesday, October 29
Isaiah 6: Having arranged several of his oracles as a preface, to set the historical and religious context for his call to prophesy (chapters 1-5), Isaiah now comes to the call itself. In this account the prophet hints at a paradigm for the entire religious reform of his own times, inasmuch as the revelation of God’s “triple” holiness brings him to a sense of his sinfulness and to a repentant obedience to the Lord’s summons.
Two kings are contrasted, the dying Uzziah and Lord, “high and lifted up.” Corresponding to this contrast, two kinds of people are implied. There are those that place their trust in earthly monarchs, such as Uzziah, who reigned for more than half a century in Judah, or, in context, Tiglath Pileasar III, who began his reign over Assyria and most of the Fertile Crescent three years earlier, in 745. In contrast to these, there are those that place not their trust in men, but in the Lord.
Uzziah was exactly the kind of monarch desired by the worldly. In every way by which the world assesses the success of a king, Uzziah was successful. Isaiah, however, speaks only of his death, and this twice (here and in 14:28). For the prophet the only thing finally significant about Uzziah was that he died. Thus, he represents the dead and decaying order constructed on rebellion against God.
The Lord is “high and lifted up” (here and in 57:15), the same expression that will describe God’s Servant (52:13).
He is manifest in His Temple, the locus of sacrifice, the place where heaven and earth are joined. About Him are the Seraphim, “the fiery ones,” each with six flame-like wings. They cover their eyes, not their ears, for they remain attentive to do God’s bidding. Before Him they cover their feet in humility, as though waiting for His to dispatch them to do His will (verse 2). Meanwhile they chant to one another, in antiphonal responses, announcing the holiness and glory of God. Holiness in God’s glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God’s holiness revealed.
The revelation of God’s holiness in this vision of His glory causes Isaiah great consternation and fear. It is not simply the disquietude of the creature before the Creator, but the terror of the sinner in the presence of the All Pure. Isaiah now knows himself to be contaminated (verse 5; cf. Job 42:5-6; Luke 5: 8). He is “undone,” reduced to silence, recognizing himself at one with the world of sinners. He is part of a society that has polluted language at its source (cf. Psalms 12 : 1-4). His own lips are unclean, unworthy to participate in the seraphic hymn to God’s holiness. He is unable to more than confess his vileness before the God to whom he will henceforth refer as “the Holy One of Israel.”
Because man cannot cleanse himself, a Seraph is dispatched to purge the prophet’s lips with a burning coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice (verse 6). This coal from the altar represents the purging power of that Sacrifice, of which all the biblical sacrifices are types and preparations, that Sacrifice that takes away the sins of humanity. This coal is so hot that even the Seraph, the “fiery one,” must handle it with tongs. The fire itself, burning perpetually (Leviticus 6:12-13), represents the divine holiness (Exodus 3:2-6; 19:18-25).
Isaiah’s sins are purged away by the sacrificial fire (verse 7). That is to say, his confession leads immediately to his purging, and this purging leads immediately to his calling as a prophet. The chapter’s remaining verses concern the conditions and purpose of Isaiah’s ministry.
If we took too literally and simply the Lord’s instructions to Isaiah (verses 9-10), we might imagine that the prophet was to speak in very obscure words, impossible to understand. In fact, however, his contemporaries thought his words so simple that they amounted to baby talk (28:9-10). And this is precisely the point. Isaiah is to speak with such utter clarity as to leave his hearers without excuse. Hardness of heart will be the only explanation of their failure to understand. His words will harden their hearts, in the same sense that the heart of Pharaoh was hardened by the repeated divine signs that Moses works in his presence.
It was to the present verses of Isaiah that the writers of the New Testament had recourse in order to explain the tragic mystery to which they bore witness—namely, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah in spite of the utter clarity of His manifestation (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:26-27).
Indeed, when John appeals to this Isaian text in reference to the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, he goes on to mention that Isaiah wrote these words in the context of his inaugural vision. In doing so, he identifies Jesus as the Lord whose glory Isaiah had beheld: “Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, / Lest they should see with their eyes, / Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, / So that I should heal them.’ These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory and spoke of Him” (John 12:39-41).
The account ends with the foretelling of Jerusalem’s destruction and the deportation of the people (verse 11-12). These things came to pass because of what happened in the ministry of Isaiah, as the prophet’s sixth century editors knew very well. They pertain to that remnant in the final verse (13). Israel, like Isaiah, would be purged by fire. The remnant, the “holy seed” (4:3; 41:18; 43:5; 53:10; 5921; 65:9,23; 66:22), would be the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Thursday, October 30
Isaiah 7: The question of hope, raised in chapter 5, was somewhat answered in chapter 6. Isaiah had been cleansed, suggesting that Judah might also be cleansed and not perish. The theme of such hope continues in the present chapter.
The house of David was in dire straits by reason of international politics. It was the year 735. Assyria was on the offensive throughout the Fertile Crescent, thereby prompting local nations to form a coalition against this new power from the east. Syria (Damascus) and Israel (Samaria, Ephraim), the major partners in this coalition, had invaded Judah in order to add this latter to their alliance against Assyria (2 Kings 15:37). This invasion failed (verse 1; 2 Chronicles 28:5-8). A second invasion was imminent (2 Chronicles 28:17-18), this time with a view to replacing King Ahaz on the throne (verse 2). This plan, of course, placed the covenanted house of David in jeopardy.
Isaiah himself had recently fathered a son, to whom he gave a name symbolizing the idea of a “remnant” (Shear-Jashub, “a remnant shall return”), thus indicating the hope that he entertained with respect to Judah’s prospects. The prophet brings this son with him as he approaches the king to deliver the oracle that opens this chapter (verse 3). The son serves as a kind of prophetic enactment of Isaiah’s message to Ahaz. The prophet and his son meet the king at the aqueduct that provided Jerusalem with water prior to Hezekiah’s construction of an underground aqueduct some years later. Presumably Ahaz was inspecting the water supply in view of the coming siege.
Isaiah speaks the word of reassurance; the efforts of Syria and Israel will come to nothing, so Judah should not fear them. The king must put his trust in God (verse 4), because the promise of God trumps the proposals of men (verses 5-9). (The king, alas, had already sought the aid of Assyria against this coalition of the local states.)
Within sixty-five years, says Isaiah, Israel will cease to be a kingdom. Since this alliance of Syria and Israel was formed in 735 (that is, seven years after Isaiah’s call as a prophet), the ending year of the sixty-five years was 670, the very year during which alien migrants, brought by the Assyrians under the Emperor Esarhaddon (2 Kings 17:24; 2 Chronicles 33:11; Ezra 4:2), arrived from the east to settle the land of Samaria, the former kingdom of Israel. Isaiah ends with a plea for faith—“If you don’t stand in faith, you won’t stand at all” (ta’aminu . . . te’amenu).
The second oracle in this chapter, also addressed to Ahaz, has three parts. First, the king is again summoned to faith (verses 10-11). Second, Isaiah condemns the king for his unbelief (verses 12-15). Third, Isaiah foretells Jerusalem’s eventual downfall *verses 16-17).
Isaiah’s prophecy of the child (verses 14-16) concerned the fate of Damascus, the capital of Syria, which fell to the Assyrians three years later, in 732, and of Israel, which the Assyrians destroyed ten years after that. In this prophecy’s most elementary meaning, the intended child is any child conceived about this time. Such a child, says the prophet, would not reach the age of discretion (“able to distinguish right from wrong”) before the whole land would be over-run with Assyrians. There would not agriculture. The child would have only dairy products and honey to eat. They could call any such child “Emmanuel,” because the name means “God is (still) with us.” By the time the child reached the age of discretion, it would be all over for Syria and Israel. Indeed, Isaiah’s second son, soon to be conceived (8:1-4), would be such a child.
But there is more. This elementary meaning hardly justifies the exotic description given by Isaiah. The “child” is also more than just any child. He assumes dimensions that no mere child of earth could possibly support. He is also a particular child to be born some time in the future, and Isaiah will subsequently describe him in terms utterly unique. He will gather the scattered children of God (8:11-22; 11:12-13). This child is no longer just any child. He is a deliverer (9:3-7), even “God the mighty” (9:6). He would be in a most literal sense, “God with us” (Matthew 1:22-23). It is no wonder that Isaiah is sometimes called “the fifth Evangelist.”
Meanwhile Judah will have to suffer much because of Ahaz (verse 17). The short oracle that completes the chapter (verses 18-25) continues the theme of Judah’s coming trial. The Lord will “whistle” for invaders to attack from two sides (verse 18). The land will be utterly stripped, like a man whose whole body is shaved (verse 20). Farming will disappear (verses 21-22). All such labor would be wasted (verses 23-25).
Friday, October 31
Isaiah 8: Isaiah must take a large tablet, something that could serve as a conspicuous sign, and write on it in clear letters, “concerning Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, four words meaning “Quick-Spoil-Hurry-Booty” (verse 1). If this seems mysterious to us, it was no less so to Isaiah’s contemporaries. Witnesses to the event were recorded (verse 2), who could vouch for the date of the inscription.
Later, Isaiah is instructed to make this strange inscription the name of his second son (verse 3), who becomes an enfleshment of the prophet’s spoken message of impending doom (verse 4). When his prophecy has been fulfilled by the Assyrian invasion, the two witnesses could testify to the date of the prophecy. This prophetic act forms a striking but contrasting parallel to the Emmanuel prophecy in the preceding chapter.
In 734 Tiglath-Pileser, who had marched across the Fertile Crescent, turned his forces south, along the sea coast, to check the Egyptians, who might have been tempted to march north and intervene. He next neutralized King Hosea of Israel, depopulating a large section of Galilee. Finally, he turned his attention to Syria, which fell in 732.
Shiloh (verse 6) was the stream that flowed quietly from the spring of Gihon and provided water to Jerusalem. It symbolized the tranquility of obedient faith. This faith had been abandoned when Israel broke with the throne of David in 922. This faithless northern kingdom was now putting its trust in Syria and in its own apostate monarchy.
Syria and Israel would soon be visited by another river, the mighty Euphrates, which symbolized the Assyrian Empire (verse 7). These nations had chosen the world rather than God, and now the world would flood them over. The invasion would be so devastating that even Judah would feel the flood, barely able to keep its head above water (verse 8). In appealing to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16), Ahaz had submitted the Davidic throne o a secular, foreign power. It would never be the same again.
The second part of this chapter treats of the faithful remnant (verses 9-22). Isaiah mocks the coalition arranged against Judah (verses 9-10). His confidence is related to his inner separation from the infidelity of his contemporaries (verse 11), whom he exhorts to ignore the alliance arrayed against Judah (verse 12). They must fear God and not man (verse 13).
Isaiah speaks of his disciples, who will preserve his oracles until they have been fulfilled (verse 16; 50:4; 54:13). Indeed, it is to these Isaian disciples, who pertain to the remnant of which he speaks, that we owe both the preservation and the final form of Isaiah’s message. He gives further instruction to these disciples (verses 19-22).
Isaiah and his sons, meanwhile, remain as “signs” to Judah (verse 18: Hebrews 2:13). Like these two sons, Isaiah has a symbolic name—“The Lord saves.”