The New Testament’s favourite Hebrew prophet: Isaiah

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Of all the prophets, Isaiah is the one most often read in the lectionary. It is also the most quoted book, apart from the Psalms, in the New Testament. Isaiah provides some of the key Old Testament readings for both the Christmas and Easter lectionary cycles, and much of the libretto for Handel’s Messiah.

The book as we have it falls into three main sections. Much of the first section, chapters 1-39, relate to the time when Assyria is the major power in the Middle East. Isaiah’s ministry covers the time of four kings of Judah, and by the end of his prophesying Israel, the northern kingdom has fallen, and Judah, especially the city state of Jerusalem, stands alone.

One of the features which makes Isaiah stand out in his day is the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from an Assyrian siege. The section of 2 Kings which includes this story is also repeated as chapters 36-39 of Isaiah. Isaiah emphasises that the Lord has made his home on Mt Zion. If his people trust him, he will defend them. According to the biblical account, the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army are struck down by God, possibly by a plague. Sennacherib’s own records give no account of why his siege failed, but merely recount an unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem and a substantial financial tribute.1 This failed siege is seen in scripture as a stunning vindication of Isaiah’s prophecy.


A detail of the Assyrian carved record of Sennacherib’s campaign (see note 1 for the link)

Perhaps because of this prophetic success, Isaiah’s theology was carried on by one or more disciples, who not only edited his voluminous prophecies, but brought his theology up-to-date for subsequent generations. Most notable among these disciples was the anonymous prophet2 who prepared the people for the end of their exile in Babylon, nearly 200 years later. The section containing his work is the most coherent in the book, consisting of chapters 40-55. It is also the section which is most used in the lectionary.

While this anonymous prophet, sometimes called Isaiah of Babylon, continues the emphasis found in Isaiah of Jerusalem on the importance of that city, he particularly uses the first Isaiah’s way of identifying God as the Holy One of Israel. The most significant sections of his prophecy, however, are what have become known as the Servant Songs, most famously the song of the suffering servant,3 read in the Good Friday Liturgy, and treated from New Testament times on as a prophecy of the crucifixion.

This and the other servant songs have always presented something of a conundrum: whom did Isaiah have in mind? Some have seen the servant as inspired by Jeremiah, others as a self-portrait, and others as at least in part the nation’s calling. Perhaps the prophet is simply offering a vision of the kind of person God wants: what true calling means. It is a vision that Christians see reaching its fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth in such a way that it is impossible for them to read these texts without hearing the gospel story.

If the first section of Isaiah perhaps has more prophecies focussed on the calling of a true king, and the second on the calling of a true servant, the final section has a significant vision of the promised kingdom, Jerusalem triumphantly restored, where there will be true justice and peace. All these themes occur throughout the book, and help make it feel like a unity, but they can be seen as emphases of their particular sections.

The readings from Isaiah in the lectionary are too numerous to mention. However, their significance will often derive more from relating them to the gospel of the day than from their context in the book of Isaiah. With Isaiah more than any other book of the Old Testament, the Christian theological tradition tends to overpower the historical context. This is especially true in Ordinary Time; let me take two examples to illustrate.

In Year A, Proper 22, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time has a reading from Isaiah 5, which portrays God as the owner of a vineyard, a metaphor for his people Israel. The gospel reading has Jesus telling a parable about the owner of a vineyard, and the disrespect its tenants show him. In Year B, on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 19, an excerpt from one of the servant songs relates to a gospel in which, after Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tries to teach his disciples that the cross is the way of true service.

Essentially, prophecies from the book of Isaiah, all three sections, do so much to shape the Christian gospels, that now, especially when reading from Isaiah in the liturgy, the gospel inevitably shapes our understanding of what Isaiah is about. There is perhaps no other book of the Old Testament where it is so hard to imagine what Jewish readers hear when they listen to the same text. Whether it is helping us interpret Christmas with “unto us a boy is born”,4 or Good Friday with “he was wounded for our transgressions”,5 Christians read Isaiah as a book about Jesus, almost a fifth gospel.6


Notes

  1. Sennacherib’s monumental inscription is now in the British Museum, it includes a reference to shutting Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage”. See https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=295077&partId=1
  2. Scholars tend to refer to the Isaiah who prophesied in Jerusalem beginning in 740BC as First Isaiah, or occasionally Isaiah of Jerusalem, and to the one who prophesied in Babylon around 540BC as Second Isaiah, or Isaiah of Babylon. For convenience’s sake, rather than because people think they all came from the same author, chapters 56-66, largely coming from the time after the Exile, are sometimes referred to as Third Isaiah.
  3. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the Old Testament Reading for Good Friday. The responsorial psalm is Psalm 22. The passion narratives of all four gospels echo phrases from these two readings which underscore their value, and help the early Christians interpret the crucifixion as God’s triumph prepared for by the prophets, rather than a disastrous end to the Jesus movement. An excerpt from the suffering servant passage is also read as the related reading on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 24, Year B.
  4. Isaiah 9:6
  5. Isaiah 53:5
  6. One scholar in fact titled his book on Isaiah The Fifth Gospel, (John SawyerCambridge University Press, 1996)

One thought on “The New Testament’s favourite Hebrew prophet: Isaiah

  1. The choir at St John the Divine in Victoria recently sang Isaiah 12 as the ‘Psalm’ for the day. The music is based on the inferred interpretation of the accents in the Hebrew text by Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura. The translation and setting in English is mine.
    .

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