(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Judaean prophet{$I[g]Israel;Isaiah} Because of his clear grasp of political reality and the power of his poetic utterances, Isaiah is generally considered to be the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.

Early Life

Although there are sixty-six chapters in the book that bears his name, Isaiah (i-ZAY-uh), the great prophet of the eighth century b.c.e., probably wrote only the first thirty-nine of them. Stylistic and historical evidence indicates that the later chapters were written in the sixth century b.c.e., after the people of Judah had passed into the Babylonian captivity predicted at the end of Isaiah’s own works. The author of chapters 40-55 is probably a single anonymous prophet, called for want of a name “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah.” The final chapters, called “Trito-Isaiah” or “Third Isaiah,” are probably by various hands. At any rate, although these later chapters are clearly in the tradition of Hebrew prophecy, they have no other claim to the name of the great prophet Isaiah. In actuality, they may have been attached to the earlier chapters simply for the sake of convenience.

Isaiah was the son of Amoz; evidently he was a native of Jerusalem. Beyond that, very little is known about the life of Isaiah before he was called to prophesy around 742. Because he obviously had access to the inner area of the Temple, some scholars conjecture that Isaiah was a member of a priestly family and may even have studied for the priesthood himself. As a young man, he might have been a “wisdom teacher.” Certainly he was familiar with the wisdom literature that was so much a part of Hebrew education.

The tone of Isaiah’s poetry suggests that he was of aristocratic background. His pronouncements regarding specific rulers and councillors, his comments on statecraft, and his exposures of international intrigues all reveal the knowledge of an insider. Although the prophet Isaiah, like Amos and Hosea, forecast doom if the people of Judah did not reform, his warnings were often addressed to the ruling classes in words that evidence firsthand knowledge of their self-centered, luxurious, and corrupt way of life.

Even if Isaiah had not been an insider in court circles, he would have attracted attention because of his intellectual brilliance and his poetic genius. His social status, however, gave him an additional sense of security in his dealings with councillors and with kings. Even when God himself spoke to him, Isaiah did not hide behind false modesty but volunteered with confidence for whatever mission God had in mind. It is undoubtedly this confidence that sustained him when God sent him out naked and barefoot, supposedly for three years, in order to attract the attention of his countrymen to the predictions that they had ignored.

Aside from this unusual episode, Isaiah seems to have lived a godly yet normal life. He was married—whether before or after his call is not clear. He had two sons, probably after he began to prophesy, as their names reveal his preoccupation with God’s intentions toward his people. He maintained his court contacts, at times being called on to advise the king.

It is clear that when Isaiah became the prophet of Judah, he did not emerge wild-eyed from the wilderness, nor did he change except in the intensity of his dedication. The rulers of Judah could not complain that God had not given them every chance to turn to him; he had sent to them a prophet who spoke their language and understood their problems, a moderate, rational man who insisted only that private and public life should be subject to the will of God.

Life’s Work

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet describes the experience that directed his life. The moment is dated as falling within the year of King Uzziah’s death (probably 742 b.c.e.). After seeing a vision of God enthroned, surrounded by angels, Isaiah’s first reaction was the sense of his own uncleanness in the sight of God. After being forgiven, he heard God ask, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for Me?” Isaiah’s immediate response was to utter the well-known words, “Here am I! Send me!”

During the next four decades, Isaiah took his advice, his satirical comments, his diatribes, and his predictions of doom to the people of Judah, later expanding his warnings to address the neighboring Jewish state of Israel as well as pagan lands ranging from Egypt and Syria to powerful Assyria. Because so many manuscripts were lost after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, scholars cannot be certain of the chronology of Isaiah’s thirty-nine chapters. Specific historical references date some segments, however, while others reflect themes that clearly preoccupied the prophet throughout his life.

Shortly after Isaiah began his life of prophecy, Judah was threatened by the allies Israel and Syria, who had joined forces in the hope of conquering Judah and placing a puppet on the throne and eventually defeating the powerful nation of Assyria. Isaiah was troubled by the fact that Israel’s intended puppet was not of the house of David; furthermore, he was convinced that Assyria was in the ascendancy with the permission of God. Thus, on both counts Israel and Syria were defying God.

Given these convictions, it fell to Isaiah to convince King Ahaz that God would protect Judah. Taking his son Shear-jashub (whose name means “a remnant will return”), Isaiah went to meet Ahaz, carrying the reassurances that the...

(The entire section is 2270 words.)