Who Is Isaiah and Why Is His Central Message So Critical Today?

120314-Post 2-popeDuring Advent, we read a lot 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 to today, even though we live in a far more secular world than he ever could have imagined. Let’s consider key elements of his life, struggle, and message. If you would like to read a shorter mediation and already have a firm grasp on Isaiah’s life and teachings, you can skip down to the section below labeled in red: Lessons from Isaiah.

The Prophet Isaiah was born in 760 BC and is further identified as the son of Amoz (1:1). His name in Hebrew (Yeshayahu) means “Yah[weh] is Salvation.” And he 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.

He 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 there had begun 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 who sought to stay true to the faith of Abraham.

By the time Isaiah began his ministry (742 BC), 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). He warned of northern destruction here: 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 ministry in Judah and his mission spanned four Kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is likely that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, and this gave him both access and influence. His eloquence and influence also suggest that he had acquired a royal education. Little else is known of him personally.

Though 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 BC, “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. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 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!” 6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” 8 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 his 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, 12 and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 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 BC, 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, 6 “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,” 7 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 false piety attitude 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 by his fearful and self-serving political calculations. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC. The survivors were carried off into exile. 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 BC). Here was a better king, more faithful, more trusting, and thus less fearful. He rid Judah of any elements of Canaanite religious practice and courageously broke free of the alliance with Assyria by 705 BC. He fortified Jerusalem (and his faith) for the backlash that was sure to come from Assyria.

Sure enough, in 701 BC, Assyria came to collect back-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:

 33 “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. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. 35 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” 36 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 came. Their king, Sennacherib returned home and was killed by his own sons.

A fear rebuked brought Judah victory. Now perhaps 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, then emerging as a power to the east. Faith and trust are surely difficult things, especially for a king.

Since it looked like another alliance was forming with a pagan state, Isaiah warned,

5 “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6 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. 7 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.” 8 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. Isaiah was dead but, if the tradition is true, Manasseh answered to God.

Lessons from Isaiah –

  1. 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!” He was willing to rebuke and encourage people regardless of their standing.
  2. In the end, Isaiah’s message is remarkably clear: Do not fear! Clearly, fear leads all of us to a lot of foolish decisions, and 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 get killed, we would still win, for the martyr’s crown would await us. Do not fear!
  3. Why were foreign alliances so troubling to Isaiah? First of all, they manifested a lack of trust in the Lord: “Can God save us? Maybe, but 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. Thus, these alliances manifested a lack of trust in God and introduced, inevitably, the adultery of “sleeping with” other gods.
  4. For us, an admonition is in order as well. As a Church, we ought to be wary of too many entanglements or “partnerships” with our increasingly hostile secular government. Many strings come attached to the federal and state monies we accept to serve the poor, give tuition assistance, etc. Many compromises are increasingly demanded of us. Sadly, certain 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 employees through health care plans. Large blocks of federal money are currently administered by Catholic charity organizations, etc. These 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 and to be willing to say no to money that demands 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, administering a government program? A certain Pope we all know recently warned that the Church is not an NGO.
  5. Individual Catholics would also do well to be more leery about political alliances. Too often, we allow political views to trump our faith. Catholics need to be Catholics first, and be willing to denounce sin and evil no matter who perpetrates it or promotes it.
  6. Alliances are often dangerous things. Too easily do we slip into adultery with the world. Beware! Compromise is ugly, and adultery is a disgraceful betrayal of the Lord, whom we should fear and love.
  7. Do not be afraid!

Saint Isaiah, pray for us!

25 Replies to “Who Is Isaiah and Why Is His Central Message So Critical Today?”

  1. Wonderful article, Monsigneur, very inspirational for this first week of Advent. God bless you!

  2. Would I be out of line to say that the Monsigneur is the “Matt Walsh” of religious blogs? (Note: I mean that as a compliment!)

    One question: This is the first time I have seen someone refer to Isaiah as “Saint Isaiah.” Why?

    1. I think that most call the Old Testament “Holy Ones” leaving the Title “Saints” to those who died after the Resurrection of our Lord. The OT Holy Ones are Saints, Holy Ones, but they had to wait until our Lord’s Harrowing of Hell after He Died but before His Resurrection. People bug out a little when I speak of Saint David!

      “For the just, who had died in the state of grace, and had paid all the debt of their sins, were still not admitted to the vision of God until Jesus had died.”
      Christ’s Descent into Hell and His Resurrection
      by Fr. William G. Most

      These are the Old Testament Holy Ones who did God’s Will in righteousness but had to wait for the Messiah to open the way to God’s Kindgom which was closed by Original Sin. The OT Holy Ones were Saints in waiting, so to speak.
      Pax Christi

      1. The Eastern Churches might differ their notion. Even here in the Western Tradition we invoke them occasionally under the title saint. For example in the Litany of the Saints in the Rite of Exorcism Saint Elijah is invoked, etc… Unless they argue that Isaiah is now in Hell clearly he is a Saint since Sheol has been harrowed.

        Thus I think for thus who trouble over this notion there is illustrated the axiom that Catholics make the best fussbudgets. We can fight about the littlest things. Perhaps it is due to an intellectual tradition of 2000 years combined with a common tendency for Catholics to be far less imbued with our 2000 spiritual or mystical tradition.

        Further, there is a modern tendency to lack sophistication when it comes to language. Words can be used in both a strict and wide sense, there is metaphor, analogy, irony, etc. There are endless tones and shades of meaning. But too many of us moderns are cloddishly unaware of the art of language and therefore easily take offense, when none is intended or even given. Anyway, St David pray for us.

  3. I am a new reader of your blog, and very grateful for your writing, Msgr. Pope. It is edifying, uplifting, challenging, and humbling all at the same time. Please continue.

    1. Amen !

      Good format for our young , to try to decipher the finer and hidden aspects of most of the history lessons as well !

  4. Msgr. Pope, I thank God for your faith and powerful ministry through this blog. The ugly consequences of taking government money to “do God’s work” are already here and growing – for those who have eyes to see. God has been sending the messages “Fear not” and “Trust in My power” literally for ages. Dearest Mary and beloved saints, please pray for the Catholic church in America.

  5. Msgr:
    I know that this is not exactly the topic of your post (which is excellent by the way) but do you have any view on whether the book of Isaiah is the prophecy of one man or of several men.
    Just curious.

    1. Well, I’m not a big fan of the Historical Critical Method, at least its excesses. But the second half of Isaiah certainly deals with events some 200 years into the future of the first 39 Chapters. It is possible to argue it was all prophecy, but there are also stylistic differences and signs of substantial editing. SO I am not too anxious that some speculate different authors or editors. Whoever the Holy Spirit gave it to, thank you Holy Spirit.

  6. You are great Msgr. I learn so much from reading your articles.
    Please continue to call us back to the faith by enlightening our minds.
    God bless

  7. Regarding #4, I completely agree. I would add to that tax exemptions. I am not saying that they are not right, or that they should be done away with. But it is another layer by which religious people are beholden to the state in a sense. As we fight to retain religious liberty, we have to be ready to give those up those tax exemptions as well if push comes to shove, even if it means great loss of property in particular.

  8. So very true. I have heard people demand that Catholic hospitals perform abortions and sterilizations “because they accept Government money” as if the Church herself cannot run these hospitals alone.

    This is sad. These same people fail to realize those hospitals care for all who come through their doors, not just fellow Catholics or those with hearty insurance plans. They fail to see these hospitals will continue to do so to the best of their abilities even without government money. These people are willfully blind to the outpouring of mercy.

    I imagine at first, governments gave money to these caregiving hospitals as a guilt offering, but it soon grew into a tether via which governments attempt to impose their own human morality upon God.

  9. “And frankly, if we are using mostly government money, can we really say that WE are serving the poor? Are we not, rather, administering a government program?”–well said. I recall a man, now passed on, saying that stealing from Peter to pay Paul was still stealing from Peter.

    Looking objectively at the Old Testament, it isn’t too much to say that the Israelites were complete disasters at being God’s chosen people. And yet, as I recall some EWTN guy saying, the Jews are the only Old Testament culture to survive unto today culturally intact,and just think of all the different people they had to battle starting with the Egyptians and all the way through to the Romans. If you want to count the entire bible, only the Jews and the heavenly Israel are still around.

    In answering the question, Whether Christ was born without His Mother suffering?, St. Thomas Aquinas uses this quote from the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah 35:1-2: “Like the lily, it shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise.”

  10. We who the devil claims are watched over by bored evils, a prayer for deliverance will be answered before they wake up to themselves.

  11. Thank you very much for the information on Isaiah, his name is so dominant in the readings for Advent and Easter.

  12. Good writing Msgr., (lot of work) 🙂

    Was up at the ‘Wall’ today with the ‘End of The World’ Banners 🙂 and a Christian lady stopped with her bike (nice lady, met her before) — she read the back of the banner, that says:

    Mankinds Deepest Greatest Desire is for God Himself — and at the Bottom it says: Believe Repent Obey Trust

    She said something like: No one is Going to Repent, These are The or like The Days of Noah.

    Very True, you know.

    Jesus said: As it was in the Days of Noah so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

    In the Days of Noah, Noah may of Preached for 120 Years — not one convert —


    Regarding money/Gov’t with the Church’s — Absolute Evil with the following: The Church’s are all Tax Exempt it may be, but one of the stipulations is that they can’t like endorse any Political Candidate or Maybe say anything Political !

    What Garbage is this ????!!!!!! if I was a Pastor or Priest, I would be like don’t vote for any Democrat, they all support Abortion pretty much it may be.

    Ask John The Baptist what he may think of 501c3, he’d have nothing of it.

    Shalom, Blessings, Maranatha 🙂


    p.s. Regarding Money, The USA just reached $18 Trillion Dollars in Debt !!!!!!!!! http://www.usdebtclock.org — The Last Days ?? These words could be true maybe soon:

    Look up for our Redemption Draws Near >

    1. Regarding the tax exempt/Political thing, it’s maybe been like that for 50 years, no wonder our Country has downward spiraled to like the bottom — The Church’s have been Silent and have fore-beared Valor !

  13. Wonderful! I love this book of the bible. It is so beautiful and brings the Lord alive for me. Thank you for all the background information. You always give me a wonderful gift through your writings. May the Lord continue to bless you in your ministry.

  14. A very powerful post. Thank you for your words, Monsignor. If the spirit of the age has seeped into the precincts of the Church, what ought Catholics due to get back onto the straight path? What would Isaiah say if he were among us today?

  15. Two voices crying in the Wilderness: Isaiah and Msgr. Pope. Grateful for both.

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