Israel’s period of glory and prosperity was very short indeed. The kingdom of David, the kingdom of God among the people of Israel, had become a very small nation, no different from the rest of the small nations that were trying to survive in the midst of powerful neighbors. The Israelites believed in their mission as long as good fortune was on their side. When it became obvious that they could no longer maintain their privileged situation, the Israelites lost the sense of their own destiny and began to live like the rest.
Israel knew that Yahweh, their God, is the ‘‘God of gods” because of their books and be-cause the old people told their children; the Israelites go up to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and follow the religious customs of their elders. But, as Isaiah will reproach them, all of this is nothing more than human laws, a religion that is learned and does not spring from the heart. The processions are well attended, the clergy is powerful, but behind this facade life is absent and a godless king is able to destroy everything (2 K 21).
Actually, faith is without power unless it relies on an “experience” of God. If we have not had that experience, if the faithful as a whole have not had it, if they are taught only the religious experience of their forebears, all will die little by little. Isaiah is the man who at this time lived this experience and encountered the living God. This young man, of noble birth “had seen Yahweh” (chapter 6) and never ceased to speak in the name of God present in Israel, but whom Israel did not know.
What do we find in the following poems?
– Echoes of days of anguish. Judah, quite small, is squeezed in between two great nations, Ashur (Assyria) and Egypt, and the politicians wonder which of the two they must allow to swallow them up. Isaiah responds: “Seek first the kingdom of God and see to it that you practice justice among yourselves. God will make you stronger than the powerful.”
– A persevering struggle to arouse faith in those deprived of vision. The externals of religion abound, but there is very little sense of responsibility, not much love for God, and little concern about doing his will. Isaiah will repeat: “Believe in him, he is among you, and if you do not become strong by relying on him, he will crush you.”
– God’s promises to David’s descendants. Whether the rulers are good like Hezekiah or estranged like Ahaz, they are mediocre men not to be trusted with such great promises. Yet, in the darkest hours, Isaiah will declare that the Lord has chosen Jerusalem and David, his king. From David’s line, Christ, the king of Peace, will be born.
Some Facts About Isaiah’s Time
Beginning in the year 740, the northern nation of Ashur rises up and begins its conquests. All the peoples of the Middle East are afraid and try to resist, with the encouragement of Egypt, another great power. In this conflict the northern nation of Israel disappears; Samaria, its capital, is captured and its residents deported in 720.
In 736, northern Israel and their neighbors from Aram try to force the kingdom of Judah to join them against Ashur. Then Ahaz, the king of Jerusalem, calls for the help of the Assyrian armies, in spite of Isaiah’s warnings. The Assyrians destroy both Israel and Aram, and plunder the land of Judah.
In the years 701-691 Sennacherib, king of Assyria, comes to subdue Judah. King Heze-kiah, encouraged by Isaiah, resists the enemy, and the famous liberation of Jerusalem takes place.
The Book of Isaiah
The Book of Isaiah and his disciples is the most important of the prophetic books. Jesus and his apostles will often quote it. Isaiah’s words are found in chapters 1–39 of the book bearing his name. The second and the third parts of the book, namely, chapters 40–66, bring together the words of other prophets who wrote a century and a half later.
For the second part of the book of Isaiah and the poems of the Servant of Yahweh (chapters 40-55), see Introduction on page 569.
For the third part of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56-66), see Introduction on page 593.