Introduction to the Book of Isaiah
A pervasive theme of the book of Isaiah is the creation of an ethical, God-fearing society. The terms mishpat (justice) and sedaqah (righteousness) recur throughout the book, as the Prophet attempts to convey to the people that ethical morality must lie at the foundation of civilization. Isaiah’s emphasis on ethics expresses itself in a variety of forms. In the beginning of the book, Isaiah stresses mishpat at the expense of sacrifices, telling the nation that their sacrifices are meaningless when not complemented by moral behaviour. Moreover, our conception of the Divine is linked to Justice as well. Isaiah repeatedly contrasts God’s loftiness with man’s lowly stature. The “Day of God” is depicted as the day in which God’s greatness will become manifest, thereby bringing to the fore man’s relative lowliness. Interestingly, when Isaiah speaks of God’s sanctified loftiness, it is specifically in terms of His righteousness-
But the LORD Almighty will be exalted by His justice (mishpat),
and the holy God will show Himself holy by His righteousness (sedaqah). (5-16)
The great gap between God and man is rooted in man’s failure to act morally. By exemplifying ethics, man imitates God, thereby drawing closer to Him.
The Book of Isaiah may leave those who read it confused, as it moves easily between past and future, rebuke, punishment, and comfort. Images of an idyllic future mix with admonition and portended doom. Present and future merge together in dreamlike harmony. True to Isaiah’s opening words “The vision (Hazon) of Isaiah”, Isaiah is a visionary. While living in the unstable present, he sees in his mind’s eye the upcoming catastrophe. Equally real to Isaiah, however, is the glorious, redeemed future that awaits Israel, and indeed the entire cosmos, once the people have arisen from sin. Present and future, potential and actual…entering Isaiah’s world means entering the world of the visionary, in which the harmonious future is at least as true as the volatile present.
As the opening verse proclaims, Isaiah prophesied during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. During this time the region of Palestine and its surrounding nations was undergoing a shift in political power. The political reality of the late ninth and early eighth centuries in the Syria-Palestine region was characterized by continual war between Aram (Syria) and Israel (the Northern Kingdom), in which Judah was occasionally involved. However, with the accession of Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria, to the throne in 744, Aram and Israel were forced to unite against the new emerging superpower. Over the next decade Assyria steadily gained power, securing and enlarging its borders. Aram attempted to create an anti-Assyrian coalition, which included Israel and Tyre, but in 733 Assyria quelled any such attempt, reducing Aram to a province under the Assyrian Empire. Assyria also attacked Israel at this time, conquering much of the area and shrinking the kingdom to the city of Samaria and the surrounding region. Israel existed as a quasi-independent state for a decade, until its exile in 722 (2 Kgs. 17-1-6; 18-9-10). Throughout this period Judah was not a significant player in international politics, paling in comparison to the larger and more powerful Northern Kingdom.
Isaiah’s first intervention in the political arena occurred in 734 (Isa. 7-9; cf. 2 Kgs. 16; 2 Chr. 28). Tiglath-pileser had seized control of the Mediterranean coastal route as part of Assyria’s imperialist agenda. In response, Aram and Israel (with Philistine and Edomite support) attacked Judah, presumably in an attempt to replace Ahaz, the Judean king, with a ruler in favour of revolt. Isaiah responds by advocating trust in God, who would save Judah both from the weak kingdoms of Aram and Israel, as well as from the Assyrian Empire. In reality, Tiglath-pileser returned in 733 on another western campaign. He attacked Damascus, eventually destroying the city, and significantly reduced Israel, ultimately leading to the kingdom’s collapse in 722.
Isaiah’s second interaction with the political realm occurred in the period of 713-711 (Ch. 20). Sargon II (722-705), then King of Assyria, returned to the region to deal with the uprising of the Philistine city of Ashdod. At this point Isaiah masquerades as a prisoner of war, conveying to the people the folly in rebelling against Assyria.
The prophet’s final political intervention took place in 701, during the Assyrian campaign against Palestine (Ch. 36-37). The death of Sargon in 705 sparked revolt in many parts of the Assyrian Empire. Responding to the danger, Sargon’s successor, Sennacherib (704-681), attacked Palestine. Sennacherib devastated Judah, capturing all of its fortified cities and forcing Judah to pay tribute. It was at this point that Isaiah stepped in, reassuring Hezekiah that he need not be troubled by the Assyrian threat. In fact, Sennacherib did not succeed in wholly vanquishing Judah and instead ended up retreating from the region.
Isaiah’s prophecies consistently focus on trusting in God, rather than allying with untrustworthy nations. It is a theme that recurs throughout the Later Prophets, and one which the people of Israel contended with on a regular basis as their political situation worsened. In this context, idolatry and alliances were two offshoots of the same root problem. Both stemmed from a lack of trust in God, be it in the political or spiritual realms. In fact, adopting a nation’s god represented an acknowledgement of its power, such that the political and spiritual realms were closely connected.
The Book of Isaiah and Qumran
The scroll of Isaiah was one of the scrolls found in greatest abundance in the Qumran caves. Twenty-one manuscripts of Isaiah were found at Qumran, placing the Book of Isaiah as one of the three most popular books there, along with Psalms (thirty-six manuscripts in the Qumran caves) and Deuteronomy (twenty-nine manuscripts). Two Isaiah scrolls were found in Cave 1, eighteen in cave 4, and one in cave 5. In addition, one more manuscript was discovered further south at Wadi Murabba’at. The Great Isaiah Scroll, perhaps the best known of all the Dead Sea Scrolls, is the only manuscript found at Qumran that preserves a biblical book virtually in its entirety. This scroll (1QIsaa) was found wrapped in protective cloth inside a pottery jar and is among the seven scrolls that were first discovered. While it is the only scroll found containing the entirety of Isaiah, several other scrolls preserve substantial parts of the book, and the fragmentary Isaiah scrolls, when taken together, preserve considerable portions as well. The manuscripts were copied over the course of nearly two hundred years, from 125 BCE (1QIsaa) to approximately 60 CE (4QIsac).
The Qumran manuscripts contain many textual variants, both from the Masoretic text and from the Greek translation. These variants include simple errors, transpositions, obscurities, and attempts to correct existing textual errors. However, the numerous variants appear to all be individual textual variants, pointing to the existence of one original work from which the Masoretic text, the Qumran manuscripts, and the Septuagint all evolved. Orthographic practice is not systematic in any of the scrolls, but the spelling is generally fuller in 1QIsaa than in the Masoretic Text or any of the other scrolls except 4QIsac. In cases of textual omissions, the Masoretic Text tends to preserve the longer textual tradition.
The present commentary will be based on 1QIsaa, in comparison with the Masoretic Text. Significant textual variants will be pointed out in the commentary with the note [TV].
As evident from the numerous scrolls found at Qumran, the Qumran community held the book of Isaiah in particular regard. The reason for this prominence is the heavy emphasis that Isaiah places on the end of days. Throughout the book, and particularly in the concluding section of consolation (chapters 40-66), Isaiah pays great attention to the future redemption. For Qumran, a community focused on the eschatological, Isaiah’s emphasis on the end of days was particularly significant.
Ch. 1- The Pervasive Corruption of Judah
The opening chapters of Isaiah capture the main themes that are developed throughout the book. Social injustice, the place of the Temple in Divine service, human responsibility, haughtiness, idol worship, Divine retribution, and ultimate redemption are all discussed briefly by way of introduction, to be more fully developed in later chapters. In the opening chapter, the prophet pays particular attention to the corruption that lies at the heart of Judean society.
1-10- At the end of the previous paragraph (1-9) Isaiah states that but for the mercy of God, the Jewish people would have been eradicated, exactly as Sodom and Gomorrah were. Now, for the second time in two verses, Isaiah refers to the Biblical cities, calling the Jewish people “the nation of Gomorrah”. The implication is clear- though the Jewish people have not been, nor will be annihilated, their behaviour warrants such a fate.
1-10-17- Isaiah here compares ritual sacrifice with social justice. In the absence of basic social justice, sacrifices in the Temple are gestures devoid of meaning. As Isaiah will continue to emphasize throughout the book, worship of God and human interaction are not two separate spheres, but rather function in tandem with one another. Caring for the widow is, in fact, an expression of Divine worship.
1-19-20 Reminiscent of the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy (11-26-28), Isaiah here lays the fate of the Jewish people squarely in their own hands. Life or death, prosperity or destruction—their external reality is directly dependent on their actions.
2-4- God’s Glory versus Man’s Lowliness
In the following chapters Isaiah repeatedly contrasts God’s greatness with man’s lowliness, as he alternates between prophecies of rebuke and comfort.
2-1-4- Among the most idyllic of the prophet’s poetry, Isaiah here paints a glorious picture of the future. The house of God stands raised above all mountains, serving as a beacon of light for Jews and non-Jews alike. The spiritual harmony affects the physical realm as well, as nations proclaim universal peace.
2-5-22- Idolatry was one of the greatest sins during the First Temple Period, and as such the prophets fought against it zealously. Isaiah here concentrates on the folly of idolatry – “they bow down to the work of their hands” (2-8). The falseness of idolatry relates to man’s lowliness- man acts haughtily, yet his poor choice of master undermines his own self-worth.
Within the same context, Isaiah contrasts man’s lowliness with God’s exaltedness-
The arrogance of man will be brought low
and the pride of men humbled;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day (2-17)
Man essentially degrades the concept of the Divine by worshiping idols, while Isaiah’s message of monotheism reinstates God’s absolute loftiness. Thus, in polemics against idolatry, Isaiah highlights God’s absolute majesty.[TV] 2-9-10- The second half of verse 9 and all of verse 10 are not in 1QIsaa, but they do appear in 4QIsaa, 4QIsab, the Masoretic Text, and the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint was translated.
2-12-22- The Day of the LORD- “The Day of the LORD”, when God will reveal himself in His unique glory, is a recurring theme throughout the prophets. In accordance with other prophets (cf. Amos (5-18-20), the Book of Joel, Zep. (1-12-18)), Isaiah speaks of the “Day of the LORD” in terms of Divine retribution and revelation. It appears that this day of punishment is not one sole day in world history, but rather signifies a time of Divine revelation which recurs throughout God’s relationship with humanity.[TV] 2-22- Verse 22 appears in 1QIsaa and the Masoretic Text, though not in the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint was translated.
3-16-17- The pride of the daughters of Zion is an example of the unjustified conceit that Isaiah protests. Haughtiness is contemptible on two levels. With regard to God, pride manifests itself as hubris, with man pursuing his own path in disregard of God’s will. With regard to man, haughtiness results in societal corruption, as each individual places his own interests above the considerations of others. Thus, egocentric arrogance lies at the heart of both the spiritual and societal evils that Isaiah cries out against.
4-3- This verse provides assurance that despite the impending destruction, God will ensure that a remnant of the Jewish people remains in Jerusalem. We read of a similar sentiment in Isaiah’s initiation prophecy-
…But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (6-13)
Even while prophesying destruction, Isaiah hints to eventual rejuvenation.[TV] 4-4- The final word in the Hebrew verse appears as “storm” in 1QIsaa, as opposed to “purging” in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint. [TV] 4-5-6- After “cloud” in verse 5, 4QIsaa and the Masoretic Text read- “by day and smoke with a glow of flaming fire by night. Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy, which shall serve as a pavilion for shade from heat”. 1QIsaa does not contain these verses, presumably because the eye of the scribe skipped from “by day” in verse 5 to the same words in verse 6.
5-1-7- The Vineyard Song
Throughout the Bible, the vineyard and its products represent God’s relationship with His people. In The Song of Songs, the grapevine is used as a symbolic indicator of the relationship’s development (cf. 1-2,4; 2-4,13; 5-1; 6-11; 7-13; 8-11-12). In our chapter, Isaiah portrays a farmer painstakingly tending his vineyard, giving it all that it required for optimal growth and watchfully protecting it from harm, only for it to yield sour grapes. The culminating verse (5-7) reveals Isaiah’s intent-
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (5-7)
It is the House of Israel that has flung aside God’s loving care. Here again Isaiah conflates worship of God and social justice- in failing to act justly towards one another, the Jewish people have betrayed God.
The alliteration in verse 7 (mishpat/mishpah (justice/bloodshed); sedaqa/se’aqa (righteousness/cries of distress)) underscores the contrast between the ideal and the actual. The Jewish people possessed the ability to realize the potential, yet instead chose its antithesis.
5-8-30- A Series of Woes
This unit contains a chain of defamations of societal ills. In the spirit of the Biblical model of commensurate punishment (“measure for measure”), those responsible for society’s decay will themselves suffer ruin.
5-16- In this verse two central themes of the book converge. God’s exaltedness and His desire for social justice among humanity, which may appear unrelated or even contradictory, are shown here to be integrally connected. God’s greatness is expressed in justice, and his holiness in righteousness. The gulf between God and man widens through man’s corruption; conversely, man possesses the ability to bridge the gap through imitating God’s ethical standard.
Ch. 6- The Initiation Chapter- Vision of the Celestial Realm
This chapter details Isaiah’s initiation as a prophet. Isaiah describes the celestial realm with a clarity unprecedented thus far in the Bible. Given the Bible’s general reticence on things Divine, the openness here is surprising.
In Isaiah’s account, the seraphim proclaim God’s Glory in terms of immanence-
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of His glory (6-3)
In keeping with this sense of God’s closeness to His people, Isaiah eagerly volunteers to deliver God’s message, unaware of its dreadful content. The horror of the message startles the prophet, evoking a protest “For how long?” (6-11). Isaiah’s vision of the Divine reflects a time in which God’s presence still resides amongst the people, when exile and destruction are distant concepts.
In truth, the mission is indeed shocking-
Go and tell this people-
Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving (6-9)
Isaiah is commanded to prophecy, yet the people will not be able to understand his message. For what purpose, then, does God will his prophecy? In the spirit of appropriate punishment, God here decrees that those who distance themselves from Him will be distanced. The natural consequence of sin is further distance from God. As such, the nation who has refused to heed God’s word up to this point will now not be able to do so.
6-13- As noted earlier (4-3), despite the horror of the destruction, God promises a surviving remnant to the House of Israel.
7-1-9-6- Political Intervention
During the time of Isaiah, Assyria rose as a superpower, ultimately exiling the Israelite kingdom in the later part of Isaiah’s career (see Historical Introduction). At this point in time, Aram and Ephraim, the Israelite Kingdom, have joined forces against Judah, presumably to prevent Judah from allying with Assyria. Isaiah responds to this threat by reassuring Ahaz, the king of Judah, enjoining him to trust in God and not fear the “two smoldering stubs of firewood” (7-4), Aram and Ephraim, for they will be defeated (7-3-9). Isaiah strengthens his promise by providing a sign of God’s protection over Judah, in the form of a son named Emanuel (meaning- “God is with us”) (7-10-25). In a further attempt to penetrate Ahaz’s skepticism, Isaiah bears a son, and, at God’s command, names him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (meaning- “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”). Isaiah also publicizes his son’s name in written form, testifying to Assyria’s future destruction of Aram and Ephraim (8-1-4).
Thus far, Isaiah has opposed seeking Assyria’s aid against Aram and Ephraim. Since the two kingdoms will be defeated, there is no need to fear them, and therefore no need to request Assyrian assistance. Having delivered his message, Isaiah now turns his attention to the people in Judah who seek to ally with Aram and Ephraim, against Assyria. He warns that continuing in this route will lead to Assyria attacking Judah (8-5-8). For the prophet, such an alliance is not only politically disastrous, it is spiritually deceitful. At this point, an alliance with any nation is equally sinful, signifying a lack of trust in God (8-9-15).
Isaiah is well aware that the people will not heed his word. In a bracketed comment, he commands that his words be documented for future generations (8-16). Isaiah concludes his prophecy with visions of future destruction, which will eventually end in a restoration of the Davidic dynasty (8-19-9-10).
7-14- This verse has been the subject of great controversy. Christian interpretation has seen in this verse a reference to Immaculate Conception, translating “almah” as “virgin”. Jewish commentary has understood the word simply as “young woman”. Rashi, for example, holds that the woman alluded to is Isaiah’s wife, making Emanuel Isaiah’s son. However, varying opinions abound regarding both the meaning of the word “almah” and the woman’s identity.[TV] 7-14- 1QIsaa reads “His name will be”, as opposed to “Let her name him” in the Masoretic Text.
7-18-25- The subject of these verses is unclear. Isaiah may be referring to Assyria’s conquest in Judah, rebuking Ahaz for requesting Assyria’s aid despite Isaiah’s warnings. Alternatively, Isaiah may be returning to Ephraim’s and Aram’s destruction, prophesying their ruin at the hands of Assyria.
8-1-4- God commands Isaiah to call his son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (meaning- “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”) as a symbol of the imminent exile of Aram and the Israelite Kingdom by the Assyrians. This instance reflects the extent to which the role of the prophet takes over the prophet’s personal life. Isaiah expresses this later on in the chapter, declaring-
Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion. (8-18)
The merging of the prophet’s personal life and his mission is typical of prophets throughout the Bible. God commands Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife and have children with her, their names then representing God’s attitude toward the people of Israel (Hosea 1). Ezekiel is commanded not to mourn on the occasion of his wife’s death, in an attempt to convey to the people the horror to come (Ezek. 24-15-24). Similarly, Isaiah carries out his prophetic mission with the recognition that it demands complete submission to the Divine command.
8-4- As the capital city of Aram, Damascus here represents the Aramean empire. Similarly Samaria, capital city of Ephraim, represents the Israelite kingdom (cf. 7-8-9).
8-5-8- The insecure Israelite kingdom is here compared to the Siloam (“Waters of the Shiloah”), the relatively weak stream running alongside the Temple Mount. In contrast, Assyria is represented by “the mighty floodwaters of the River” (a reference to the Euphrates). Water is often used as a symbol of strength and sustenance, both political and spiritual. Thus Jerusalem in envisioned as “a place of broad rivers and streams” (33-21). In a similar vein, Jeremiah castigates the Jewish people for their rampant idolatry, accusing them of abandoning God “the Spring of living water”, only to dig out “broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer. 2-13).
8-14-15- These verses are purposefully ambiguous. According to one reading, they imply God’s salvation of the people of Israel, as He traps their enemies. However, these verses can equally well be understood as a warning to the people of Israel- Should they fail to heed His word, God’s wrath can as easily be turned against them. The double message is reminiscent of 1-19-20 (“If you are…obedient… but if you resist and rebel…”), and continues the theme of reward and punishment emphasized throughout the book.
8-16- God’s command to Isaiah to record his prophecies and entrust them to his students points to the long road that the Jewish people have yet to travel. The people were not willing to hear Isaiah’s prophecies of destruction, and as a result the prophecies were set aside. When the political situation took a turn for the worse, Isaiah’s prophecies of doom were, tragically, more realistic. Alternatively, one may interpret this verse as a reference to prophecies written only for future generations, which were entrusted to Isaiah’s students for the future without ever being intended for the current generation.
9-5-6- A paragon of justice, righteousness, and peace, the future Davidic King of Israel embodies the essential values of the ideal society that Isaiah urges the people to build.
9-7-10-4- Imminent Destruction of Ephraim
These verses make up a unit of rebuke to Ephraim, the Israelite Kingdom. Isaiah rebukes the people for their sins, warning of upcoming retribution. Aware that the people brush off threats of doom, Isaiah takes pains to convince the people of the imminence of destruction, repeating the refrain-
Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
his hand is still upraised. (9-11, 16, 20; 10-4; cf. 5-25).
10-5-12-6- Assyrian Downfall and Israelite Salvation
The following unit details Assyria’s downfall and Israel’s subsequent salvation. Isaiah describes Assyria’s blind arrogance- Assyria thinks that its success is due to its self-acquired strength, when in truth God has simply chosen Assyria to fulfill His mission of punishment (10-5-19). Thus, once Assyria has fulfilled its mission, instigating Israel’s return to God (10-20-23), it too will be brought low (10-24-34). Isaiah continues with an idyllic description of the reinstatement of the Davidic dynasty, which will be followed by the ingathering of the exiles and unification between Judah and Ephraim (11-1-17). The section concludes with a song of thanksgiving for the future salvation (Ch. 12).
10-8-11- The king of Assyria boasts that he can destroy Samaria and Jerusalem (capital cities of the Judean and Israelite kingdoms respectively, representing the kingdoms in entirety), just as he has destroyed previous kingdoms of idol worship. The Jewish people enjoy the illusion that they, God’s Chosen people, are untouchable. Isaiah has the Assyrian king dispel that illusion- The Chosen people only enjoy special Providence when they act in accordance with their mission. Once they engage in idolatry, “as the other nations do”, they become subject to the same harsh treatment earned by all idolaters.
10-12-19- The pride of Assyria will ultimately bring about its downfall. Isaiah emphasizes the sinfulness of arrogance, viewing it as a crime against God. The phrase “By the strength of my hand I have done this” (v. 13) is reminiscent of Deuteronomy “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8-17). There, Moses warns the people against ascribing their successes to themselves, rather than acknowledging God’s silent support. The sinfulness of human pride is a recurring theme throughout Isaiah’s prophecies, assuming prominence in his castigation of both Israel and the nations.
10-20- In envisioning Israel’s return to God, Isaiah pinpoints Israel’s fundamental challenge- to trust fully in God, rather than in untrustworthy nations. The folly of relying on neighbouring countries is eloquently portrayed in Lamentations (Ch. 1), when Israel, destroyed and humiliated, realizes that her “friends” betrayed her, rejoicing over her shame rather than coming to her aid.
Ch. 11-12- Return to Utopia
In one of the most beautiful of prophecies, Isaiah depicts the glorious, idyllic future of Israel’s redemption. The messianic descendent of the Davidic dynasty will emerge, bringing with him righteousness and awe of God. The peace and harmony reflected in his kingship will be enjoyed by all of creation, so that “the wolf will live with the lamb… and a little child will lead them” (11-6). Knowledge of God, paralleled with righteousness throughout Isaiah’s prophecies, will eventually manifest itself in world peace. At the height of this serenity, Judah and Ephraim, with a history of discord originating in Genesis (cf. Genesis 37-50), will finally unite (11-13). This idyllic portrait recalls the Bible’s description of the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, universal harmony reigned. Now harmony will be reinstated, amongst humans and animals alike. The serpent, originator of sin in Eden and condemned to enmity with humans, will now radiate peace- “The infant will play near the hole of the cobra” (11-8). This vision balances Israel’s redeemed existence with the greater universal harmony, as “the Holy One of Israel, great in [Israel’s] midst” (12-6) casts His radiance upon the entire cosmos.