Profiles of Faith: Isaiah - A Prophet for Then and Now

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Isaiah - A Prophet for Then and Now

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Isaiah was a prophet for the kingdom of Judah, ca. 740-700 B.C. Rabbinic tradition has it that Isaiah's father, Amoz (not the same as Amos the prophet), was a brother of King Amaziah. This would make Isaiah first cousin to King Uzziah and grandson to King Joash. If this is accurate, Isaiah would have been of royal blood, of the aristocratic class and possibly brought up in the palace. Some scholars believe that Isaiah had a close association with the temple because of his familiarity with priestly rites.

Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament more than any other prophet. He speaks of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, in a variety of ways—as Branch, Stone, Light, Child and the King. He foretells the destiny of Israel and the gentiles, focusing on Zion (Jerusalem) and the great King who will eventually reign from there.

So much has been written about Isaiah and his 66-chapter prophecy that it is hard to know where to begin. In its introduction to Isaiah, The Expositor's Bible Commentary (1986) states:

"The Prophecy of Isaiah is the third longest, complete literary entity in the Bible, being exceeded in length only by Jeremiah and Psalms ... Isaiah is at once familiar and neglected. Chapters like 6, 35, 40 and 53 are among the best-known parts of the [Old Testament] ...

"There are however vast stretches of the book, especially in chapters 13-34, that are virtually unknown to most Christians. Ignorance of any part of Scripture is to be deplored, but this is particularly so with a book that gives such a manifold presentation of Christ. Moreover, a study of the book in its wholeness presents a view of him that is most majestic and moving, one in which the virtually unknown contexts of the well-known passages shed a flood of light on those passages themselves.

"The [New Testament] writers recognized Isaiah's special importance, quoting from and alluding to it frequently. Many of its verses and phrases have passed into common use in literature. For example, there are seventy quotations from Isaiah in the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations ...; and Handel used much of Isaiah's language in the Messiah."

Scholars tend to focus on Isaiah's preoccupation with God's messianic salvation of Israel. This is not to say that Isaiah glossed over the sins of his fellow countrymen. Isaiah consistently addressed the hedonism of Judah and the nation's lukewarm attitude toward the true God. This is why God allowed Assyria to invade and threaten Judah—to get her attention so she would turn back to her only protector and savior, Almighty God.

We are not given much of Isaiah's early life, but his prophecies tell us much about his character and service to God, his country and mankind. To better understand Isaiah, let's explore two major events: the way God spared Jerusalem from Sennacherib during the reign of King Hezekiah and Isaiah's encouraging testimonies about the coming Messiah, Jesus.

An Assyrian army threatens

In 701 B.C., when Isaiah was an elderly man, the Assyrian military juggernaut was stopped before the walls of Jerusalem. Sennacherib of Assyria had come into Judah, destroyed 46 walled cities and taken away 200,000 captives. Assyrian annals record how Sennacherib boasted of shutting up Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a caged bird." However, those records curiously omit any mention of Sennacherib actually capturing Jerusalem, unlike the many other cities listed. The reason for this interesting omission is fascinating to consider.

King Sennacherib was not as powerful a king as his father, Sargon II, had been. "He inherited a vast empire from his father, with abundant opportunities for its further extension. He had, however, not inherited his father's boldness or daring, or his resources. All the powers of his mind were employed in holding together that which he had received. It is indeed doubtful whether he left his empire as strong as he had received it" ("Sennacherib," The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1988, p. 1156).

Although he wasn't the warrior his usurper father had been, Sennacherib inherited the arrogance and ruthlessness of previous Assyrian kings. With this attitude he ravaged the Judean countryside, conquered Lachish, the last protectorate of Jerusalem on the road to Egypt, and approached the city of Jerusalem to lay her waste. At once Isaiah's record shows the remarkable dialogue of that critical time and his humble and bold attitude toward God in the process.

Isaiah 36-37 address the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (also recorded in 2 Kings 18-19 and 2 Chronicles 32). Although King Hezekiah was one of the great kings of Judah, there is no question that God used Isaiah to help Hezekiah and Judah. This great prophet of God certainly well represents what it means to demonstrate faith in action.

Jerusalem on the brink

In 701 B.C. Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem and sent three officers to demand the city's surrender. The field commander spoke arrogantly:

"Tell Hezekiah, 'This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours?

You say you have strategy and military strength—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Look now, you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces a man's hand and wounds him if he leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him. And if you say to me, "We are depending on the Lord our God"—isn't he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, "You must worship before this altar"?

"'Come now, make a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses—if you can put riders on them! How then can you repulse one officer of the least of my master's officials, even though you are depending on Egypt for chariots and horsemen? Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it'" (Isaiah 36:4-10 Isaiah 36:4-10 [4] And Rabshakeh said to them, Say you now to Hezekiah, Thus said the great king, the king of Assyria, What confidence is this wherein you trust? [5] I say, say you, (but they are but vain words) I have counsel and strength for war: now on whom do you trust, that you rebel against me? [6] See, you trust in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; where on if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him. [7] But if you say to me, We trust in the LORD our God: is it not he, whose high places and whose altars Hezekiah has taken away, and said to Judah and to Jerusalem, You shall worship before this altar? [8] Now therefore give pledges, I pray you, to my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, if you be able on your part to set riders on them. [9] How then will you turn away the face of one captain of the least of my master's servants, and put your trust on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? [10] And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

Hezekiah seeks help

The field commander's insolent words were designed to instill fear among Jerusalem's inhabitants. But they were not budging. They would wait on their king, who had given them strict instructions not to reply to the Assyrian's threats. When Hezekiah's representatives heard those threats, they went directly to him.

"When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. They told him, 'This is what Hezekiah says: This day is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the point of birth and there is no strength to deliver them. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he will rebuke him for the words the Lord your God has heard. Therefore pray for the remnant that still survives'" (Isaiah 37:1-4 Isaiah 37:1-4 [1] And it came to pass, when king Hezekiah heard it, that he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD. [2] And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests covered with sackcloth, to Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz. [3] And they said to him, Thus said Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and of blasphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring forth. [4] It may be the LORD your God will hear the words of Rabshakeh, whom the king of Assyria his master has sent to reproach the living God, and will reprove the words which the LORD your God has heard: why lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.
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, NIV).

To his credit, King Hezekiah immediately humbled himself and turned to God for help in this time of trouble, a lesson for us. He then sought Isaiah's help.

After Isaiah heard Hezekiah's words, his response was quick and sure: "Tell your master, 'This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! I am going to put a spirit in him so that when he hears a certain report, he will return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword'" (verses 6-7, NIV). This is faith in action; Isaiah made bold pronouncements based on his faith in God's reply to him.

Meanwhile, the Assyrian commander heard that King Sennacherib, having subdued Lachish, was warring against Libnah. Assuming that the king of Ethiopia (apparently the Egyptian Pharaoh Tirhakah, who was from Ethiopia) was advancing to make war on him, Sennacherib saw the need to immediately destroy Jerusalem and Hezekiah before confronting another foe.

Sennacherib continued his brazen arrogance, sending messengers to tell Hezekiah: "Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, 'Jerusalem will not be handed over to the king of Assyria.' Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely. And will you be delivered? Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them—the gods of Gozan, Haran, Rezeph and the people of Eden who were in Tel Assar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, or of Hena or Ivvah?" (Isaiah 37:10-13 Isaiah 37:10-13 [10] Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah, saying, Let not your God, in whom you trust, deceive you, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. [11] Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands by destroying them utterly; and shall you be delivered? [12] Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed, as Gozan, and Haran, and Rezeph, and the children of Eden which were in Telassar? [13] Where is the king of Hamath, and the king of Arphad, and the king of the city of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah?
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, NIV).

The list of kingdoms vanquished by the Assyrians was indeed long and discouraging. When Hezekiah received Sennacherib's letter, he went to the temple of God and spread the arrogant missive before God and prayed these words:

"O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; listen to all the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God. It is true, O Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste all these peoples and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, O Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God" (verses 16-20, NIV).

God responds through Isaiah

Shortly thereafter, Isaiah received God's answer to Jerusalem and Hezekiah's terrible plight and had it delivered to Hezekiah:

"This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word the Lord has spoken against him: 'The Virgin Daughter of Zion despises and mocks you. The Daughter of Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee. Who is it you have insulted and blasphemed? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!

"'By your messengers you have heaped insults on the Lord. And you have said, "With my many chariots I have ascended the heights of the mountains, the utmost heights of Lebanon. I have cut down its tallest cedars, the choicest of its pines. I have reached its remotest heights, the finest of its forests. I have dug wells in foreign lands and drunk the water there. With the soles of my feet I have dried up all the streams of Egypt."

"'Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone. Their people, drained of power, are dismayed and put to shame. They are like plants in the field, like tender green shoots, like grass sprouting on the roof, scorched before it grows up. But I know where you stay and when you come and go and how you rage against me. Because you rage against me and because your insolence has reached my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will make you return by the way you came'" (Isaiah 37:21-29 Isaiah 37:21-29 [21] Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Whereas you have prayed to me against Sennacherib king of Assyria: [22] This is the word which the LORD has spoken concerning him; The virgin, the daughter of Zion, has despised you, and laughed you to scorn; the daughter of Jerusalem has shaken her head at you. [23] Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? and against whom have you exalted your voice, and lifted up your eyes on high? even against the Holy One of Israel. [24] By your servants have you reproached the Lord, and have said, By the multitude of my chariots am I come up to the height of the mountains, to the sides of Lebanon; and I will cut down the tall cedars thereof, and the choice fir trees thereof: and I will enter into the height of his border, and the forest of his Carmel. [25] I have dig, and drunk water; and with the sole of my feet have I dried up all the rivers of the besieged places. [26] Have you not heard long ago, how I have done it; and of ancient times, that I have formed it? now have I brought it to pass, that you should be to lay waste defended cities into ruinous heaps. [27] Therefore their inhabitants were of small power, they were dismayed and confounded: they were as the grass of the field, and as the green herb, as the grass on the housetops, and as corn blasted before it be grown up. [28] But I know your stayed, and your going out, and your coming in, and your rage against me. [29] Because your rage against me, and your tumult, is come up into my ears, therefore will I put my hook in your nose, and my bridle in your lips, and I will turn you back by the way by which you came.
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, NIV).

God meant business. No king, no matter how powerful, could successfully challenge the absolute supremacy of his Creator. Promising that Jerusalem and its inhabitants would survive, God continued His decree against arrogant Sennacherib: "Therefore this is what the Lord says concerning the king of Assyria: 'He will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came he will return; he will not enter this city'" (Isaiah 37:33-34 Isaiah 37:33-34 [33] Therefore thus said the LORD concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it. [34] By the way that he came, by the same shall he return, and shall not come into this city, said the LORD.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

God's dramatic intervention

It's hard to imagine that anyone could have grasped what God had in mind next. That night He sent an angel to kill 185,000 in the Assyrian camp. When the survivors awoke in the morning, they were shocked to find so many of their fellow soldiers dead. Sennacherib was so stunned that he instantly gave orders to break camp and head back to Assyria on the very road he had traveled to waste Jerusalem. Jerusalem was spared. The Assyrian army had been crushed without a single arrow fired. Yes, he had surrounded Hezekiah "like a caged bird," but his contempt for God and His servants proved his undoing.

Although historical records show that Sennacherib ruled Assyria for another 20 years, he never returned to Jerusalem. In the end his own sons assassinated him as he worshiped in his pagan temple. "So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh. Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. Then Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place" (Isaiah 37:37-38 Isaiah 37:37-38 [37] So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelled at Nineveh. [38] And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Armenia: and Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead.
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Isaiah's story: God will be glorified in Israel

The story of Isaiah goes beyond his personal example in difficult times. It is also a story of the future, the story of God's mercy on a restored Israel and Judah in a transformed world.

In chapters 2-4 Isaiah offers a glimpse of the coming age. He contrasts that glorious time with God's judgment on the wicked. A futuristic Isaiah was boldly optimistic; his optimism grew from God's guarantee that mankind was destined to enjoy a glorious future.

Isaiah 9 shows the sublime vision of the virgin birth of the King of Kings, who would redeem humanity and save Israel. Ironically, Isaiah gave this prophecy at the time of Israel's being taken into captivity by Assyria.

"For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this" (Isaiah 9:6-7 Isaiah 9:6-7 [6] For to us a child is born, to us a son is given: and the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. [7] Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
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Again, Isaiah's inspiration focused on the end result of God's salvation: In the end, God's chosen people win.

Isaiah speaks of the Messiah's reign in chapter 32 and of a transformed world in chapter 35. Zion's redemption and restoration are treated triumphantly in chapters 51-52. These themes are explored in greater detail in other articles in this issue of The Good News.

Isaiah's description in chapter 53 of Christ Jesus as God's servant, a man of sorrows, is perhaps one of the best-loved chapters in the Bible. The vivid detail shows the Savior suffering for us. From the language used, one might picture Isaiah standing at Jesus' feet as He died. Isaiah treats Jesus' death as if it had already happened, though some seven centuries would pass before the Savior's death at Calvary.

Fittingly, the futuristic Isaiah closes his book by mentioning the glory of a new heavens and new earth in chapters 65-66. Jesus Christ, as the Revelator of Revelation, reemphasizes the ultimate new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21-22. "The Bible reaches its final climax in a magnificent vision of the new heavens and the new earth, which is an expansion of Isaiah 66. Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them" (Halley's Bible Handbook, 2000, p. 390-391; compare Revelation 21:3 Revelation 21:3And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
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Isaiah was a hopeful, faithful and loving prophet of God. Much of his message is as relevant as it was in the late eighth century B.C. Isaiah remains a prophet for our time, too. If we will heed his admonitions, repent of our ungodly ways and turn to God, then the promises he recorded for the entire world in the future can be yours and mine today.