In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called t0 another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah is one of my favorite Old Testament books, and seems to have been a favorite of many of the New Testament writers as well. According to Luke, Jesus begins his ministry with a quote from Isaiah, when he proclaims that “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” , and there are many other references to portions of Isaiah in the New Testament. I understand it as a composite book containing the observations and prognostications of more than one person, but having a unified theme. The book begins by identifying itself as being “the vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” However, beginning about chapter 40 the setting has clearly changed to the postexilic period, and the prophet even mentions Cyrus by name. Some explain the time shift with the theory that God somehow projected Isaiah ahead in time over a century, but I think that’s a real stretch. Generally speaking, the role of the prophet was not to foretell the future, but to “forth-tell” the present. Prophets observed what was going on in Israelite society, compared it to their understanding of how God wanted his people to live, and warned the people of the consequences that might ensue if they continued on their current course of behavior without correction.
Earlier prophets like Elijah and Elisha focused mainly on idolatry, but sometime in the eighth century there seems to have been a quantum shift in the nature of prophetic concerns. Faithfulness to God is still a major theme, but warnings against social injustice begin to appear with increasing frequency, especially in Amos and Isaiah. God is seen as less concerned with proper ritual worship than how his worshipers are treating other people, especially marginalized populations. In fact, God is disgusted and angered by the sacrifices, music, and prayers of successful, self-centered people who ignore the needs of others. Isaiah, in full mouthpiece-of-God prophetic mode, has God saying a few choice words to religious people who say all the right words and observe all the right protocols, but don’t do anything to mitigate the lives of those living in dire circumstances. For example:
“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
“Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.”
“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”
Isaiah issues dire warnings of the coming disasters that will fall upon Judah as a result of the people’s habitual sins against God and neighbor, but he also ecstatically envisions a restored and perfected kingdom in words of sublime poetry:
“The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”
“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”
“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child”
Isaiah’s words reassure me that God is faithful, even when his people are not. God cares about all people, especially the “least of these”, those who suffer most in unjust, greedy societies. God is actively and continuously working to put right all that is wrong in the world, and someday he will succeed. And that’s good news to me.