What is the Legacy of Isaiah the Prophet?
Isaiah the prophet is known for having urged Israel to rely on Yahweh, their national god, instead of on the political power, and the gods of nations like Egypt or Assyria for protection and prosperity. He also promoted just and ethical practices in everyday life and politics. Because of this, Isaiah is associated with a just political order. Isaiah’s prophetic oracles also point towards to the coming of a new community that would live in lasting peace and a time when injustice would be eliminated. His life and teachings are recorded in the book of Isaiah.
Who Was Isaiah and What Did he Teach?
Isaiah’s teachings and oracles are best understood in the political and social context of the time period and major events to which he was responding. Little is known about the life of Isaiah, but he is said to have been the son of Amoz.
‘Isaiah’ (1509) by Michelangelo. ( Public Domain )
It is likely that Isaiah was of noble blood or had connections with the nobility since he had access to numerous kings and princes of Judah. He appears to have had an official function in the royal of court of Judah as a scribe of some sort. At the age of about twenty, Isaiah received a commissioning from Yahweh in a vision to be his prophet. This commissioning is recorded in chapter 6 of the book of Isaiah.
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Isaiah, The Prophet of Politics: Anti-Assyrian Alliance of Aram and Israel
The story of Isaiah starts sometime in the late 8th century BC. Isaiah’s first appearance as a prophet is the story of when he addresses the actions of King Ahaz of Judah (who reigned 743-733 BC) in response to an invasion threat by Israel and Aram. In the 730s BC, most of the Levant was under the influence of the Assyrian Empire.
Around 735 BC, the kingdoms of Aram and Israel formed an anti-Assyrian league and stopped paying tribute. Although surrounding polities probably joined this league, Judah, under the leadership of King Ahaz, did not. Subsequently, Israel and Aram threatened to invade Judah probably to replace Ahaz with someone who would be more compliant to their anti-Assyrian interests.
Fearing an attack from the north, Ahaz was tempted to turn to the Assyrians for help in an alliance. As he was about to do this, Isaiah came to him and delivered an oracle from Yahweh, telling him that such an action would reflect a lack of faith in the God of Israel since it would be placing more trust in the political power of Assyria than the divine might of Yahweh. Ahaz ultimately did not listen to Isaiah, however.
Isaiah; illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company. ( Public Domain )
Another reason why Isaiah, as a prophet of Yahweh, may have opposed an alliance with Assyria is that it would inevitably lead to Judah becoming a vassal of Assyria. Religion and politics were intertwined in the ancient Near East and submitting to Assyria would also mean submitting to the Assyrian national god Assur . This would displace Yahweh as the deity central to the Judahite national identity. Ultimately, it would amount to a national abandonment of devotion to Yahweh. Isaiah, as a prophet of Yahweh, had to put a stop to this.
Egyptian Alliance and King Hezekiah
King Hezekiah came to power in about 715 BC. Hezekiah is known for having instituted many religious reforms and restoring Yahwehism as the state religion of Judah. Isaiah was no doubt pleased with Hezekiah’s reforms.
In 714 BC, the Philistine city-state of Ashdod led another revolt against Assyria. This revolt was inspired by Egypt, a rival empire and superpower to Assyria at the time. King Hezekiah was tempted to join the revolt, but Isaiah urged him not to rely on the military strength of Egypt but on Yahweh to save Israel from Assyria. Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah listened to Isaiah and stayed out of the conflict. The revolt was crushed by 712 BC, but Judah was spared.
‘Prophet Isaiah predicts the return of the Jews from exile’ (1560-1565) by Maarten van Heemskerck. ( Public Domain )
In 705 BC, Sargon II of Assyria died. After his death, Babylonia and Egypt encouraged the Levantine nations to revolt against Assyria. This time, King Hezekiah did not heed Isaiah’s warning and joined the revolt. The Assyrian king Sennacherib responded by invading Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC.
During the siege, Isaiah told Hezekiah that Judah would be delivered if he trusted in Yahweh. Judah was ultimately spared, but the king was forced to pay a very large tribute to Assyria. Ultimately Judah ignored Isaiah’s pleas to not rely on political power and military strength. According to tradition, Isaiah continued his ministry until he was martyred by the pagan King Manasseh.
‘The Prophet Isaiah’ (1511-1512) by Raphael. ( Public Domain )
The Story of Isaiah the Prophet Lives On
The prophet Isaiah criticized the pursuit of political power or military strength alone. He advocated ethical behavior and pursuit of justice both in politics and everyday life. As a result, Isaiah could be considered an early advocate of social justice.
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Who was Isaiah in world historical terms? Isaiah, like the other Jewish prophets, is considered to be the Jewish manifestation of the Axial Age , a period from about 700 BC to about 200 BC, during which many foundational ethical and religious teachers emerged across multiple civilizations.
Prophet Isaiah, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. ( Public Domain )
These figures include Siddhartha Gautama , Confucius, and Socrates, among others. These teachers all promoted ethical lifeways that acknowledged a transcendent order of some sort - just as the Hebrew prophets did. Isaiah is important to the intellectual and spiritual history of humanity whether one is Jewish, Christian, or neither.
Top Image: Stained glass representation of the Prophet Isaiah by Valentin Bousch. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
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United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Isaiah—Introduction” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops . Available at: http://www.usccb.org/bible/isaiah/0