In the year 1920, on Shabbat Naḥamu, a British Zionist Jew, named Viscount Herbert Samuel, visited the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City. There, he was honoured with the recitation of the haftara “Take comfort, take comfort, My people, says your God; speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her” (Isaiah 40:1-2). After thousands of years of exile and suffering, a Jewish authority had finally returned to Jerusalem, following the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations’ historic decision, recalling Isaiah 42:18 and Zerubbabel and Nehemiah at the time of the Second Temple.
Uzziah, King of Judah
“Of all the political figures in the Bible, quite possibly no one came closer to the spirit of our time than Uzziah, king of Judah. He understood the importance of strengthening his military and developing its proficiency and weaponry. But this wise and heroic king was not content with military conquest. He understood that he must develop the land, expand its borders, and make the wilderness bloom. Together with military reinforcement, the expansion of settlement, and conquest of the southern shore, came unprecedented spiritual and cultural blossoming. In Uzziah’s time the prophets of the great books arose: Amos, Hosea and Isaiah, who bequeathed a Torah of justice, kindness and human solidarity, and a vision of the final redemption, to the Jewish nation and to humanity, as no one in Israel or the nations had ever done before.” [i]
Uzziah Oozes Arrogance
Military success, the expansion of his empire, and economic prosperity wasn’t enough for the greatest of the kings of Judah. One realm was out of his hands – the Temple; but Uzziah sought control there too. Entering the inner sanctuary, his exulted kingship ended instantly (see 2 Chronicles Ch.26). He was struck in the forehead with leprosy, and remained a leper until the day he died.
Isaiah was a teacher and a man of the book. He was a member of Jerusalem’s elite scholarly circles. He expressed his vast experience of teacher and guide (Isaiah 8:1-2, 16; 28:9-13; 29:11-13; 30:8-9, 20-21), and above all, students who continued in his way, including several prophets (Micah 4:1-3; Nahum 2:1; Habakkuk 2:2-3, 12-13; Zephaniah 3:9-10; 3:14-15; 3:20-21, among others). He created a school of thought – a unique prophetic study house with “the language of the learned” (Isaiah 50:4), which is key to understanding Isaiah Ch’s. 40-66. (A. Hacham in his Introduction to Isaiah, was probably the first to recognise that Isaiah was the founder of a study house or beit midrash. Isaiah was a teacher as well as a prophet, and he and his students were the upholders of the “prophetic school” founded during the time of Manasseh – a time when the true prophets were being persecuted by Manasseh, and by his son, Amon.).
Some like to consider Isaiah as a prophet of peace, others that he was a prophet of consolation, but there’s another dimension to Isaiah. He was politically aware, moving in the area of the royal palace in Jerusalem as he did, for decades. He sought to diminish what he believed was problematic government inclinations. His call and warnings stretch down 2,700 years, to our day and our situations. He reaches into the Jewish soul that wrestles to shape both society and the land of Promise. The events struggled with in his day connect his prophecies to 21st Century Israel, and the nations. His prophecies, pertaining to the political reality, are found in the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah. His accusative voice and words showed no fear or restraint as he tackled the government, and the wealthy elite. The issue of not mixing religion and politics was not a problem for him. It is a problem today because of dumbing-down the prophetic voice, so that God’s word does not reach, challenge, or disturb the modern mind and conscience.
Isaiah addressed a rebellious people likened to Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10-15), but even so, they would not be completely destroyed; a remnant would be left to rebuild the nation. In every prediction of destruction, Isaiah includes a trace of redemption, the tidings of “She’ar-Yashuv,” the remnant who will return. God had not finished with His people then, and He has not finished with Israel now in 2020 AD. The rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah were called to hear (shama) just as previously the heavens and the earth were called to “listen” (shama, Isaiah 1:2). The identification of Israel with Sodom and Gomorrah underlines the gravity of the situation, and the depth of depravity of Israel. Israel is characterised as a prototypical pagan and wicked city, followed by God’s rejection of Judah’s empty worship (Isaiah 1:11-14), resulting in God’s temporary abandonment of Judah (Isaiah 1:15).
It was during the height of King Uzziah’s reign in Judah that Isaiah began his ministry. Uzziah’s army was powerful and defeated its enemies to the east (Ammon and Moab) and west (the Philistines). The government extended the borders of the kingdom to the south. Diplomatic relations were good, securing peace and tranquillity for Uzziah’s citizens. But there, rocking the boat, was the prophet Isaiah. He saw beneath the veneer, his insight penetrating into the reality which included the poverty and pain. Based on the law of kings, found in Deuteronomy 14:14-20, with no holds barred he criticised two of the greatest Jerusalem kings, Solomon and Uzziah (Isaiah 2:6-11), when he recognised Uzziah’s aspirations to restore the glory of Solomon’s kingdom to Jerusalem. He recalled the terrible crisis that followed Solomon’s reign, when the kingdom split. The prophet could see the exploitative, hedonistic society that was the true picture, growing fat and greedy, while trampling over the downcast. A similar virus is affective in many corrupt governments and officials in the world of today. In his early ministry, being concerned with society’s segmentation and corruption, Isaiah was similar to Amos. Like Amos, Isaiah sought to shake the people from their pleasant daydreams, and to make them realise that the direction they travelled led to a terrible Day of Judgement – the day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-20). His criticism of Jerusalem’s leadership in Isaiah 3:1-2, is expressed in the language of Deuteronomy’s passages about leadership. Speaking of the beauty of the daughters of Zion is an illusion to the beautiful captive woman in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. While the captive is in fact a foreigner and the conqueror an Israelite soldier, Isaiah witnesses the daughters of Zion grieving their city and trying to eradicate their shame. Indeed, even with the ingathering of recent times to their homeland, the nation and the land of Israel have remained fragmented since the time of Isaiah.
Perhaps more than any of the prophets in Israel, Isaiah was involved in interpreting the Torah, and in a number of places he states that he is referring to Torah passages. We have the examples provided above, but other samples are: The destruction of Edom (Isaiah 34:11) is described in a way that is reminiscent of the beginnings of Genesis – “He will stretch out a line of chaos, and the plummet of emptiness.” In the same chapter he also refers to a list of birds found in “the Book of the Lord” (cf. Leviticus Ch.11 and Deuteronomy Ch.14). Then there is Jerusalem’s redemption. The ingathering of the exiles is described in terms of the Exodus from Egypt (Isaiah 11:15-16; 26:20-21; 27:12-13) – the salvation of the last survivors of Jerusalem is likened to the clouds of glory that sheltered Israel as thy left Egypt (Isaiah 4:5-6). Isaiah often refers to Deuteronomy just as Jesus did. God’s mountain at the end of days (Isaiah 2:2) becomes a glorious extension of Israel’s national court (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). Isaiah was a man of the Word, and not a hot-air prophet as so many are today – whose only suffering might possibly be sunburn as they sail the seas in their luxury yachts, or tripping over as they descend from their private planes (Ezekiel 13:3). Prophets made appearances on Brexit, but are invisible when it comes to the “minor” injustices in the land, which cause distress and weeping, not least of all for the children.
It was during the rise of the Assyrian Empire, and the fall of Samaria – the Kingdom of Israel, that the middle years of Isaiah’s ministry occurred. It was about 840—830 BC, and when king Ahaz submitted. Isaiah addressed various issues including political diplomacy, security, and international relations. King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel fought against Judah in Ahaz’s time. The competing political factions in Judah on the one side wanted a political alliance with Rezin and Pekah. The other faction, with King Ahaz at the helm, sought military aid from the super-power Assyria, in order to fight against Rezin and Pekah. Isaiah spoke and prophesied against both those approaches. Forming an alliance with Aram and Israel, unstable empires in his eyes, he called “Two smoking stubs of firebrand” (Isaiah 7:4). Losing Judah’s independence to Assyria was equally unthinkable for the prophet. Isaiah withdrew after Ahaz’s submission to Assyria, saying, “And I will wait for the Lord” (Isaiah 8:17).
Hezekiah came to the throne, raising hope in Isaiah, that a new path would be taken for Judah. His hopes were soon dashed, as Hezekiah grew in power he began to rebel and revel in independence. A struggle began as it had between Isaiah and Ahaz previously. Isaiah tried to guide Hezekiah away from rebellion, and his ties with Egypt, another super-power. He objected to Hezekiah’s fortification of Jerusalem. The King ignored the pleas and warnings. Just as Christians are today, Isaiah was accused with being detached from the harsh reality of the real world and its problems. The Church is out of date and out of touch with society is the modern-day cry. But – those that ridiculed the prophet were eventually forced to swallow their words. In the final phase of Isaiah ministry, Isaiah became the protector of Jerusalem by lifting their spirits and turning the people heavenward; encouraging them with his words that peace and consolation would come for Jerusalem. Even when speaking out against the false sense of peace and security, Isaiah never stopped believing in his people and his city. Some today still struggle to understand Isaiah’s political worldview, that the Jewish state must be governed by God, and God alone — “For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our lawmaker, the Lord is our King – He will save us (Isaiah 33:22). He is still the God of Israel; He has not surrendered His sovereignty to an earthly authority. Isaiah despaired of an earthly government, much as we do today when we look at the world leaders. If the upright and noble Uzziah, one of Judah’s greatest kings – comparable to Solomon himself – had become contaminated with the sin of pride, what hope remained for mortal kingship? If the vast conquest that restored Jerusalem to its former glory had resulted in a corrupt generation, then what good had actually been achieved? Moved by the political reality of an earthly kingdom drunk on power, Isaiah lifted up his eyes and looked to the distant future, and to the end of days (Isaiah 2:1-4).
[i] David Ben-Gurion, from a lecture on “The Significance of the Negev” January 17, 1955.