The Book of Isaiah's Importance to Christians
Seeing into the Future
The Foretelling of the Messiah
While the Book of Isaiah was written prior to the lifetime of Jesus, Christian scholars and ecclesiastics often rely on it as if to prove Jesus is the Messiah for whom the Jews awaited through the centuries, including their continuing to wait even now. Their continuing is the basis of religious antisemitism from the Holocaust back to ancient Crusades. It seemed outrageous when Jesus' own people denied His divinity. So the Book of Isaiah has become for some a way to carry on the age-old struggle between conservative Jews and Christians, which goes against the interests of religion and disgraces religious institutions. Still, the Book of Isaiah, like the rest of the Bible, is full of wisdom and inspiration for all, be they atheist, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Who was Isaiah, and what's in the book bearing his name?
In the old Douay Bible, Isaiah's name is spelled Isaias, but it's the same person. There's an argument that the last part of the book, one of the longest in the Bible, really wasn't written by Isaiah at all, but was added later as a convenient addition to bolster the claim of Jesus' divinity. The writing style of the latter part of Isaiah's book is different from the beginning, and therefore evidence on which skeptics rely. Isaiah and his book find themselves at the focal point of the ongoing argument between conservative Christians and Jews despite the live-and-let-live attitude of the vast majority of their church and synagog members. So many people find dogmatic creeds irrelevant that it's foolish to point to the Bible as proof of what someone must believe. But in Isaiah there's a metaphor of all faith.
Isaiah lived over 700 years before Jesus and was a high-ranking adviser of kings in Jerusalem at a time when Israel was a separate nation sometimes warring with Judah and its capital, the City of David, Jerusalem. There was a constant threat to both nations from their neighbor Syria. At this time the Jews strayed badly from their faith, abandoning the religion of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David to take up idol worshiping instead. Isaiah tried to keep the Jews on track worshiping the invisible God, but it was no use. The lifetime of Isaiah was marked by bad behavior of his people and kings. Eventually he was executed for trying to reform them, the same as Jesus centuries later.
The Book of Isaiah is concerned almost exclusively with the city of Jerusalem. It begins by saying that the book is the "vision" of Isaiah concerning Jerusalem during his lifetime. Judah is called a "sinful nation." (Ch 1) Because God was seen as vengeful, He was feared greatly. The Hebrew people were insular. It was considered wrong that they should be "filled with eastern ways" and "pleased with the children of foreigners." (Ch 2) Isaiah wanted a return to the old religious law in which contact with other nations was discouraged.
Isaiah was especially critical of women in Jerusalem, accusing them of openly flirting and wearing arrogant clothing. He predicted their punishment and said that afterwards, seven women would vie for one man to marry "to take away our reproach." (Ch 3, Ch 4) "The anger of the Lord is aroused against his people," said Isaiah. (Ch 5)
Chapter 6 is in the style of John's Revelation, also called Apocalypse, written 700 years later. It is like the account of a dream or vision. "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us," says God, suggesting a later coming of a Messiah. (Ch 6) After chastising those in Judah who fail to trust in the Lord when enemies assailed Jerusalem (Ch 7 and Ch 8), Isaiah makes a strong reference to Someone who closely might resemble Jesus: "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." (Ch 9) With such wording, it's no wonder the Book of Isaiah is often read aloud at Christian masses and services.
Isaiah predicts "woe to" everyone who doesn't trust in the Lord, including Israel, Syria, Judah, and Lebanon. (Ch 10) But Isaiah sees a happy day coming when "the child will play by the cobra's hole" and those who trust in the Lord will have nothing to fear. (Ch 11) The people who trust in the Lord will say to God, "Although You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away." (Ch 12) Going back and forth through the annals of Hebrew history, Isaiah tells of the horrors of destruction at the hands of Babylonians. (Ch 13) He compares the enemies of Hebrews to Lucifer. (Ch 14) Whether the Hebrews themselves, or their enemies such as Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, or Egypt, someone always was being conquered and slaughtered. (Ch 15, Ch 16, Ch 17, Ch 18, Ch 19)
Strangely, Isaiah walked "naked and barefoot" for 3 years as directed by God, waiting for a "sign." Isaiah saw Syria capturing Egyptians and making them walk away naked and barefoot also. (Ch 20) He predicts the falling of many kingdoms and of Jerusalem, where the people lost their faith. The Lord wanted them to weep and mourn, but instead there was joy and gladness as the Hebrews said, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die," angering the Lord. (Ch 22)
One by one, Isaiah predicts the eventual fall of all the great empires and cities, such as Tyre, putting in perspective the brief years of mankind compared to the greatness of God who "stretched out His hand over the sea" and "shook the kingdoms." (Ch 23). All mankind is put into perspective and humbled by Isaiah's prophesies, which are no more than accurate statements of history and geology, as the Lord makes the earth "empty and makes it waste, distorts its surface, and scatters abroad its inhabitants." (Ch 24) In awe of the Lord's power to make a "fortified city a ruin," Isaiah says, "The strong people will glorify" God, who also is "a strength to the needy in distress." (Ch 25)
Isaiah mentions the rising of souls of faithful people after death, a key element of Christianity. "Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise." (Ch 26) But like all of the Bible, the Book of Isaiah is mainly for the Hebrews: "Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit." (Ch 27) The Hebrews are "His people." (Ch 28) The Lord is like a "potter" and we are like his "clay." Isaiah asks, "Shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, 'He has no understanding?'" (Ch 29) "Woe to the rebellious children...who take counsel, but not of Me," says the Lord according to Isaiah. (Ch 30) People who seek strength in the leading nations of the time, such as Egypt, are misguided; they should rely instead on God; in time, all nations must fall. (Ch 31) The great bustling cities do not bring peace; when they fall to the ground, the faithful will find peace anywhere, even in the wilderness. (Ch 32) All that mankind deems strong and powerful eventually will cease to exist. (Ch 33, Ch 34) Afterward, in the wasteland and wilderness that remain, people of faith will find happiness with God. (Ch 35)
Isaiah acknowledges that there's temptation to forsake God when nations like Assyria defeat Judah while clearly having no faith in God. (Ch 36) But those who preserve their faith will not be defeated; if the king in Jerusalem prays to God for help, Judah will not be defeated. (Ch 37) Isaiah remembers King Hezekiah of Judah and how Isaiah advised him to keep faith in the face of Assyrian aggression, but also told the king that Babylon would overtake Jerusalem. (Ch 37, Ch 38, Ch 39) In foretelling the future, the Book of Isaiah uses words similar to gospel descriptions of John the Baptist: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'" (Ch 40)
Isaiah sometimes writes as if he were God speaking to the Hebrews. (Ch 41) It is the same God described over and over again in the Bible, rewarding the faithful but punishing the unfaithful. (Ch 42) God is to the nation of Israel the same as a loving parent to his or her child. (Ch 43) Man-made images are no substitute for the invisible God worshiped by the Hebrews. (Ch 44) Although modern churches may be filled with statues of saints, do the people worship the statues or use them only as reminders of God-fearing people, just as the whole Bible itself is a reminder of the faithful? Is it possible the nations called Pagans in Isaiah's time used their man-made images only to remind themselves to be faithful to the same invisible God mankind seems to accept despite images symbolizing religious faith? Is it blasphemous to ask?
God is the solution to problems because faith in God gives strength and assistance to the people of Israel. (Ch 45) This is the same faith we see in all religions today. Isaiah continues to write as if he were God speaking to the Hebrews, reminding them that no one can conquer them as long as they keep faith in the God of Israel. (Ch 46) All of Israel's enemies are depicted as evil. (Ch 47) In writing the words of God, Isaiah defines the invisible God as being "the First" and "also the Last...Indeed My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has stretched out the heavens." (Ch 48)
The "mighty One of Jacob" is the Lord addressed in the Bible and by Isaiah. (Ch 49) As such God pertains only to Israel (another word for Jacob). The Bible seems single-minded in pertaining only to Hebrews, the Jewish people. Perhaps the only reason the Bible is read today is that Christianity was adopted by the Romans who spawned Europeans who in turn traveled the world, settling and colonizing every continent. But as we read Isaiah we somehow feel left out unless we are Jewish, a small minority of the world's total population, who are mainly Christian and Muslim.
Isaiah appears to write as if he were Jesus: "The Lord God has given Me the tongue of the learned...I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard. I did not hide My face from shame and spitting." (Ch 50) The chapters of the Book of Isaiah are like poem after poem, some mystical, some historical. Isaiah is an activist, a convincing advocate of religion: God's "righteousness will be forever" and God's "salvation from generation to generation...Who are you that you should be afraid of a man who will die, and of the son of a man who will be made like grass? And you forget the Lord your Maker..." (Ch 51)
"My people shall know My name," writes Isaiah as if he were God. (Ch 52) But by "people" he means only Jews. Isaiah seems to write very definitely about Jesus, who will come hundreds of years later: "Who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him...despised and rejected by men...wounded for our transgressions...and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray...the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter...And they made His grave with the wicked...He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Ch 53) No wonder the Book of Isaiah is in the Christian Bible.
Isaiah gives comfort to virgins just as Mary does in the Christian faith: "Sing, O barren, you who have not borne! ...your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is His name; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; He is called the God of the whole earth." (Ch 54) Isaiah has words that remind us of Jesus at the Last Supper giving bread and wine to nourish the soul: "Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance...Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you..." (Ch 55)
After writing only in terms of the Hebrew people, Isaiah finally writes, "Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Lord...everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath and holds fast My covenant--even them I will bring to My holy mountain...My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations." (Ch 56) Isaiah repeats the often written concept in the Bible that children inherit the sinfulness of their forefathers: "You sons of the sorceress, you offspring of the adulterer and the harlot...Are you not children of transgression, offspring of falsehood?...'There is no peace,' says my God, 'for the wicked.'" (Ch 57) Isaiah promotes self-sacrifice: "If you turn away...from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight...you shall delight yourself in the Lord..." (Ch 58)
Isaiah optimistically tells of a God whose "hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. (Ch 59) Chapter 60 seems truly prophetic, saying, "Gentiles shall come to your light," as we know now that most of the world has derived its religion from the Hebrew roots. Isaiah is very nationalistic in his Jewish pride: "...You shall be named the priests of the Lord, they shall call you the servants of our God. You shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory you shall boast." (Ch 61) But this is mainly a pep talk addressed to the Hebrews: "They shall call them The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, a City Not Forsaken." (Ch 62)
We are reminded that Isaiah lived through rebellious and sinful times when the Jews were punished by God: "Our adversaries have trodden down Your sanctuary. We have become like those of old, over whom You never ruled, those who were never called by Your name." (Ch 63) "And there is no one who calls on Your name...for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities." (Ch 64) "I have stretched out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good." (Ch 65) Isaiah closes his book, writing as if God were speaking: "'And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,' says the Lord..." (Ch 66)
The faith Isaiah advocates could be that of any religious person, not only Hebrews. As in every book of the Bible, the Book of Isaiah has great wisdom and inspiration for all.