Good morning! If you look at our progress through the Bible in a physical book, you’ll see that we’re definitely closer to the end than the beginning now. Well done! Thanks for sticking with this community and this project thus far. Today with Isaiah 1-4 we start reading the ancient Hebrew prophets, the final section of the Old Testament.
You may recall references to prophets in the historical books we read earlier (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, etc), and now we hear from those prophets directly. There are four “major” prophets in Christian Bibles, with a dozen “minor” prophets. The terms refer only to the comparative size of each work, and not to their merits. (We’ve seen repeatedly how much wisdom can be packed into books with only a few chapters.) Prophets represent the voice of God addressing the Hebrew people and their rulers. They are wise interpreters of their national situation, and many offer predictions of what will come to pass. Such “prophecies” did not all come true (any more than do the forecasts of today’s political analysts) and many were likely written after the fact, making it seem like they knew more than they actually could have. What matters more than historical truthfulness is the nature of prophets as messengers advocating for divine concerns for justice and faithful worship. They took on the influence (but not the authority) of kings in later Hebrew history, when Jewish rulers were less dependably committed to enacting God’s priorities. The prophets whose words are preserved in this section of Scripture were active after the united monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon. When the nation split into southern Judah and northern Israel, prophets began to speak on God’s behalf in each community, and their words started to be preserved as a separate class of sacred literature. They are mostly arranged in the Bible according to size rather than chronology or geography, which is why Isaiah is the first prophet we read.
The book of Isaiah has three distinct sections (pre-exile, exile, and post-exile) written in the centuries when the Assyrians and Babylonians menaced Jerusalem. Scholars believe that the pre-exile writings (Isaiah 1-39) more-likely come from the historical figure, while later parts of the book come from later followers of Isaiah writing to the same community with a similar style. “First Isaiah” was an advisor to kings in southern Judah, and he interpreted several national crises as signs of God’s judgment on Judah for social injustice. Like most of the prophets, Isaiah uses dramatic, threatening imagery and black/white moral categories to emphasize the importance of following God’s ways rather than human ones.
Isaiah 1 introduces us to this prophet’s tone. He refers to the people as “Israel” because this is after the northern kingdom had been captured by Assyrians, when the region of Judah is all that remains of the old nation of Israel. Isaiah tells his audience that they are a remnant hanging on by a thread, because God is waiting to see whether they will start to live according to justice. Solemn religious rituals and sacred assemblies are meaningless when they don’t lead to righteous actions in the world. These are the priorities that Isaiah lifts up on God’s behalf: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17).
Isaiah 2-4 predicts the influence of Jerusalem and its temple as a beacon of God’s justice and peace for all nations. But before that time, there will be harsh judgment on the idols and wrongdoings of Israel. The Jewish people will see impoverishment and despair as God takes away their idolatrous riches. It will be impossible to find or keep leaders who wants to rule over the heap of ruins left in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, after this period of “cleansing”, God will create a place of cloud by day and fire by night (recalling signs of God’s presence in the Exodus) to be a haven of hope. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Isaiah 5-8. Thanks for reading!