OF ALL THE OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETS quoted in the New Testament, the most frequently cited is Isaiah, who is remembered on our Church’s calendar on May 9. Isaiah’s prophecies are referenced 66 times in the New Testament; only the Psalms are more frequently quoted.
Isaiah lived in the eighth century bc, a time of great political upheaval in the Holy Land. The Assyrian Empire was poised to engulf the northern kingdom, Israel, (which it would succeed in doing) and threatened the southern kingdom, Judah, as well. While the rulers’ response was to seek military alliances with neighboring pagan kingdoms, Isaiah’s response was decidedly apolitical: only faithfulness to God and His way would save His people.
Isaiah insisted that the Jews reject the idolatry of their pagan neighbors rather than flirt with it for political ends. He preached the need for rediscovering justice and charity as the distinctive signs of God’s people at a time when the godly way of life was being forgotten. Otherwise God would use His people’s enemies to chastise them for their infidelities.
While some modern scholars suggest otherwise, ancient authors claim that Isaiah prophesied for over sixty years and died in the reign of Manasseh. The Martyrdom of Isaiah, a first-century AD Jewish work, reflects the tradition that Isaiah was killed by order of Manasseh. Manasseh would later repent and author the prayer which bears his name.
The Call of Isaiah
Isaiah describes the religious experience which launched his prophetic activity:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.
Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
“So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! Because 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 live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged’” (Isaiah 6:1-7).
Isaiah’s vision has become an icon of our liturgical experience of the glory of God. We depict the six-winged seraphim hovering over the throne of God on the ripidia which are poised over our churches’ holy tables. We quote their description (“with two he covered…”) in our Liturgy of St. Basil. In every Liturgy of East and West the angels’ cry (“Holy, holy, holy…”) introduces the anaphora, its central prayer. Finally, the live coal from the altar has become an image of the Eucharist which touches our lips, takes away our iniquities and purges our sins.
Isaiah’s Messianic Prophecies
Isaiah foretold the coming of a Messiah who would deliver God’s people from their oppressors. In Isaiah 45 this Messiah is identified as Cyrus the Great, the Persian monarch who defeated the Babylonians in the sixth century bc and allowed the Jews to return to the Holy Land and rebuild Jerusalem. “Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held… ‘I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways; he shall build My city And let My exiles go free, not for price nor reward,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 45:13).
Nevertheless, Jewish scholars saw that this prophecy would reach its ultimate fulfill-ment in Another who was to come in the future. The first Christians recognized that Jesus was the long-awaited One who fulfilled these prophecies:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali… the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (Isaiah 9:1, 2).
“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him…” (Isaiah 11:1, 2).
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever” (Isaiah 9:6, 7).
“And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10).
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3).
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isaiah 61:1).
The Suffering Servant
Perhaps the first prophecies of Isaiah to resonate among the followers of Jesus were the following which Jewish texts like the Babylonian Talmud attributed to a Messiah who conquered through suffering:
“I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
“He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed… He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:2-5, 7).
Most rabbis today see these prophecies as describing the suffering people of Israel.
St Jerome (c. 342–420) expressed the thought of many Christian commentators since when he said, “[Isaiah] was more of an Evangelist than a Prophet, because he described all of the Mysteries of the Church of Christ so vividly that you would assume he was not prophesying about the future, but rather was composing a history of past events.”