Author: Michael Pfundner, 15 November 2023
Biblical prophets were not fortune tellers. Periodically they referred to the future, but their main job was to speak into the present. Time and again they critiqued the status quo, drawing attention to the chasm between God’s commitment to his people and their failure to respond in kind.
Being a prophet of God, rather than a soothsayer who lived off telling the monarch what he wanted to hear, could be a risky business. Moses stood up to a cruel Pharaoh, Elijah to the idolatrous king Ahab, and Nathan confronted King David for breaking three of the Ten Commandments in one go. People who have had a close encounter with the Lord lose their fear of worldly lords.
Isaiah, too, spoke truth to power. He questioned kings who forged political alliances which threatened to undermine trust in God and loyalty to his covenant.
Social justice was high on his prophetic agenda. Isaiah had no time for faith without works:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord …
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1.11,14–17)
True prophets like Isaiah didn’t shy away from confronting not just rulers but the entire nation with an inconvenient truth: that being God’s chosen people was no insurance policy against judgement.
Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. (Isaiah 6.11–12)
Isaiah not only foresaw destruction by violent invaders (first Assyria, then Babylon) and the eventual fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of its surviving inhabitants to Babylon; he concluded that, at the end of the day, it was God himself who would ‘send everyone far away’. The fall of Jerusalem would not signify God’s surrender to Babylon’s deities, but his judgement of a people who had lost their way and rebelled against him. To Isaiah, Assyrian and Babylonian warriors were God’s instrument for carrying out justice. This may not sound very nice, but that was exactly Isaiah’s point: God won’t play nice for ever if we keep breaking the rules.
And yet, there was a glimmer of hope. Judgement would not last for ever, either:
‘Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6.13)
God’s refining fire will burn the people down like a tree, but the stump will remain. And from that stump a saviour will emerge:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him. (Isaiah 11.1–2)
Jesse was the father of King David, who had united the tribes of Israel to form one nation. Generations before calling Isaiah to be his messenger, God had made a covenant with David, promising to uphold his lineage forever. Isaiah reveals the identity of the one on whom ‘the spirit of the Lord shall rest’. The Messiah, from the royal line of David, will come to restore the whole of creation and establish God’s shalom (peace and well-being) for good.
Biblical prophecy is realistic. It strikes a balance between divine justice and mercy, pain and healing, despair and hope. Isaiah insisted that God’s judgement had not rendered his covenant with David null and void, although it may have seemed that way to the exiles in Babylon:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid. (Isaiah 40.1–2)
Crucially for us, God’s grace extends beyond Jerusalem. Isaiah’s prophetic vision stands out among much Hebrew prophecy in that it encompasses the whole world:
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11.9)
In New Testament language, knowledge of the Lord comes through the Son. God sent the Messiah, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish. Eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Spirit gave Isaiah eyes to see what lay ahead. To this day, Christians keep looking towards the complete fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, when Messiah Jesus will return to establish God’s unending rule and when at last ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb’ (Isaiah 11.6).
All Bible quotations are from the NRSV.