During Advent, we read quite a bit from the Prophet Isaiah. Therefore, for my own meditation and yours, I offer the following reflection on Isaiah, the man and his message. Each of the issues with which he dealt is still with us, even though we live in a far more secular world than he could have imagined. Let’s consider key elements of his life, his struggle, and his message.
Isaiah was born in 760 B.C. He is further identified as the son of Amoz (Isaiah 1:1). His name in Hebrew (Yeshayahu) means “Yah[weh] is salvation.” Isaiah lived this name well, insisting that Judah’s kings and people trust only in God, make no alliances with foreign nations, and refuse to fear anyone but God.
Isaiah lived in the terrible period following the great severing of the northern kingdom of Israel (with its ten tribes) from the southern kingdom of Judah. In the period prior to Isaiah’s birth, the northern kingdom had known almost nothing but godless kings. Idolatry had begun there from the start, when the first king, Jeroboam, erected golden calves (of all things!) in two northern cities and strove to dissuade northern Jews from going south to Jerusalem (in Judah) to worship. Other ugly moments in the north featured King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, who advanced the worship of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal, and who persecuted Elijah and the few others who sought to stay true to the faith of Abraham.
By the time Isaiah began his ministry (742 B.C.), the division was some 200 years old. Though living in Judah to the south, Isaiah both prophesied doom for the north and warned the kings of the south to rebuke wickedness and fears and to form no foreign alliances against the growing menaces to the north (Israel) and the east (Assyria). In this passage, he warned of northern destruction: In a single day the Lord will destroy both the head and the tail … The leaders of Israel are the head, and the lying prophets are the tail (Is 9:14-15). But his own Judah remained the focus of his concern and warnings.
Isaiah’s mission and ministry in Judah spanned four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is likely that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, which gave him both access and influence. Isaiah’s eloquence and influence also suggest that he received a royal education; little else is known of him personally.
Although the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah describe the wickedness of the people of Judah and the need for their repentance and his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic call seems to have begun in 742 B.C., “the year King Uzziah died,” and is described in Chapter 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for 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 flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:1–8).
While God accepts Isaiah’s offer, He warns that Isaiah’s message will be resisted. Isaiah asks, sadly,
“How long, O Lord?” And he said, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned” (Is 6:11–13).
Sure enough, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah describe a fiercely stubborn resistance to Isaiah’s calls. However, the prophesied destruction of the south would not occur until 587 B.C., long into the future, due in part to some limited success Isaiah had in working with King Hezekiah at a critical moment.
The winds of war were blowing. Assyria was expanding and the ominous clouds of its destructive conquest were moving westward. Israel to the north joined in a coalition to fight Assyria and tried to strong-arm Judah to join, threatening invasion and overthrow of King Ahaz if there was no agreement. Let’s just say that Ahaz was anxious, and all of Judah with him—threats to the north, threats to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west. There was no real escape.
God dispatches Isaiah to Ahaz with the following message:
… Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands … [who have] devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass (Is 7:4–7).
In other words, trust God. Make no alliances and do not give in to your fears. Stand your ground! God offers Ahaz a sign that a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, Immanuel (God is with us). But Ahaz cops a falsely pious attitude, talking about not putting God to the test. Yet it is Ahaz who fails the test. Caving in, he sends tribute to Assyria and offers to become a vassal state.
In the end, this frees Assyria to concentrate on destroying Israel to the north. And while it can be argued that Israel’s wickedness brought her destruction, Ahaz helped seal the fate of fellow Jews in the north through his fearful and self-serving political calculations. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and the survivors were carried off into exile. It was farewell to the Ten Lost Tribes. Only Judah and the Levites in the south remained intact.
Though Judah was spared, the relief from threatening Assyria was to be temporary. Meanwhile, Ahaz’s son Hezekiah became king (ruling from 715-687 B.C.). Hezekiah was a better king: more faithful, more trusting, and thus less fearful. He rid Judah of any elements of Canaanite religious practice and by 705 B.C. had courageously broken free of the alliance with Assyria. He fortified Jerusalem (and his faith) against the backlash that was sure to come from Assyria.
Sure enough, in 701 B.C., Assyria came to collect past-due tribute and to assert who was boss. Jerusalem was surrounded with troops and her fate seemed sealed. But Isaiah summoned Hezekiah and Judah to courage:
“Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow here, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (Is 37:33–36).
The Assyrian survivors left and returned by the way they had come. Their king, Sennacherib, returned home and was killed by his own sons.
A fear rebuked brought victory to Judah. Now maybe people would listen to Isaiah and trust God rather than foreign alliances! Well, not so fast. Hezekiah, who had been ill but miraculously recovered, started to get awfully friendly with the Babylonians, who were then emerging as a power to the east. Faith and trust are surely difficult things, especially for a king.
Because it looked like another alliance was being formed with a pagan state, Isaiah warned,
“Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days” (Is 39:5–8).
Hezekiah’s selfish response reminds me of an old saying of my father’s: “People disappoint.” Alliances and dalliances with foreign lands and a corresponding lack of trust in God would continue to plague Judah despite miracles against Assyria.
We know little of Isaiah’s final demise. According to an extra-biblical tradition (and hinted at in Hebrews 11:37), he died by being sawed in half by Hezekiah’s unfaithful son, Manasseh. If the tradition is true, Manasseh answered to God for Isaiah’s murder.
Lessons from Isaiah:
Despite often disappointing results, Isaiah never gave up. God told him to prophesy and so he did. Isaiah lived what he preached. He feared God, not man. He never thought twice about going up to kings and declaring to their faces, “Thus saith the Lord!” Isaiah was willing to rebuke and encourage people regardless of their standing.
In the end, Isaiah’s message is remarkably clear: Do not fear! Clearly, fear leads all of us to a lot of foolish decisions. It is through fear that the devil holds us in bondage (Heb 2:15). The solution to fear is trust in God. And even if we were to be killed, we would still win, for the martyr’s crown would await us. Do not fear!
Why were foreign alliances so troubling to Isaiah? First of all, they manifested a lack of trust in the Lord with the following thinking: “Can God really save us? Maybe, but just in case He doesn’t come through, let’s make sure we have a plan B.” Hmm … not much faith there! But second (and related) the secular states of today were unknown at that time. People and nations were deeply religious. Alliances with foreign lands meant marriages to foreign queens as well as adopting the false religions of those nations and queens. Can someone say, “Jezebel”? Or how about Solomon and his 1000 wives and all their foreign gods? It was his folly that led to a divided Jewish nation and that introduced the wicked practices of the Baals and other Canaanite atrocities. These alliances manifested a lack of trust in God and introduced, inevitably, the adultery of “sleeping with” other gods.
An admonition is in order for us as well. As a Church, we ought to be wary of too many entanglements or partnerships with our increasingly hostile secular government. Many strings are attached to the federal and state monies we accept to serve the poor, give tuition assistance, etc. Compromises are increasingly demanded of us. Sadly, some sectors of the Church (especially certain universities) are caving in to the power and slavery of money and are compromising on same-sex unions and providing contraception (and even abortifacients) to their employees through health care plans. Large blocks of federal money are currently administered by Catholic charitable organizations. These government entanglements increasingly demand compromises of us and it is only going to get worse. Beware! We need to shift back to using our own monies to care for the poor. We need to be willing to say no to funding that comes with the demand to make compromises we cannot make. Serving the poor is important, but we cannot let even that become an idol. And frankly, if we are using mostly government money, can we really say that we are serving the poor? Are we not, rather, merely administering a government program? The Pope recently warned that the Church is not merely an NGO (non-governmental organization, voluntary and not-for-profit).
Individual Catholics would also do well to be more hesitant to form political alliances. Too often, we allow political views to overrule our faith. Catholics need to be Catholics first, and be willing to denounce sin and evil no matter who perpetrates it or promotes it.
Alliances are often dangerous things. Too easily do we slip into adultery with the world. Beware! Compromise is ugly; adultery is a disgraceful betrayal of the Lord, whom we should fear and love.
Do not be afraid!
Saint Isaiah, pray for us!