The Holy Prophet Isaiah

“I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me!” (Isaiah 1:2) quoted a father against his unruly sons in the country of Israel. Unfortunately, the King James translation above does not do justice to the beautiful poetry of the Holy Prophet Isaiah. The meter and rhythm of the words and their rhyme as quoted in the ancient Hebrew of Isaiah  is not matched by anything in English. The words sounded more like “Ba-nim Gi-dal-ti Ve-romam-ti, Ve-hem Pash-oo Bi!” (syllables in bold receive an accent) and they had the effect of stopping the ear of those of us that heard him.  That father would then go on to quote the rest of the poetic words out of memory and those that heard him would be mesmerized by the words of Isaiah recited live. He had memorized them out of the synagogue lectionary because the words were as haunting and piercing as they were to those that heard them 2800 years ago.

The Prophet Isaiah the son of Amos lived in the latter half of the 8th century B.C. and is presumed to have died early in the 7th. He was called to prophetic service for over 60 years during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Singularly, he is one of the most important prophets to Judaism (ancient and present) and Christianity, and even influenced music and literature up to our age including significant portions of Handel’s Messiah. Overall, there are at least 71 passages in the New Testament in which the book of Isaiah is either quoted, cited or paraphrased. Except for the book of Psalms, no other Old Testament book is quoted or referred to more times in the New Testament. Jesus even began his ministry with a quote from the prophet (Luke 4:16-20). Both Jewish and Christian tradition report him as having been martyred by being sawn in half with a wooden saw which may possibly be the reference of Heb. 11:37. As such, Saint Isaiah is counted among one of the earliest martyrs.

The English transliterated name Isaiah was originally pronounced Ye-sha-ya-hu in Hebrew and means “salvation (is) of the Lord”. In the Greek Old Testament it was transliterated as Esaias which is the name used in the New Testament. His name has significance in relation to the Hebrew name Ye-ho-shu-a (Joshua in English, or Jesus in Greek) which means “the Lord is salvation”. The two names, our Savior’s and Isaiah’s, have exactly the same root words of “Lord” and “salvation”, only transposed. Thus Isaiah’s name was highly prophetic of his role in uttering key prophetic insights concerning the Messiah, as well as of the heavy use made of his book in the New Testament which is about the salvation of the Lord.

The Fathers of the Church agreed that Isaiah was the greatest of the literary Prophets. Isaiah’s poetry, descriptive, lyric, or elegiac is unsurpassed by any other writer of the Old Testament. This was partially recognized by the imagery of the book. But since its poetic impact was partially lost in translation it was not until the 19th century, when there was a growth in appreciation and study of Hebrew poetry, that we now have a deeper understanding of his masterful use of language. The Holy Spirit used Isaiah’s learned abilities to give us writings of uncommon elevation and majesty. He was probably attached to the royal court and was thus educated with a masterful use of the language as well as knowledge the political and moral circumstances of the nation. His language was adapted with care to the occasions and his audiences going from severe austerity to motherly tenderness.

More importantly is the content of the book, some of which may be due to his prophetic school rather than singularly from his pen. Isaiah’s book contains both moral and prophetic warnings to Israel for straying from God, as well as messages of hope and love for the deliverance of the future. He clearly enunciated God’s high expectations of Israel. Israel was to be holy to God and an example to the gentile nations of God’s deliverance, benevolence, and wisdom. However it also becomes clear that Israel did not fulfill that task. Thus in the book of Isaiah there is the rise of a description of the servant of God. That description poetically shifts back and forth from the reference to Israel who had failed as God’s servant to a unique individual who would fulfill the task that was not carried out by Israel. When one reads carefully, one comes to see that this unique individual has unusual qualities, even pointing to divine ones. Suddenly this unique individual becomes a suffering servant, one who suffers for the whole world and bears their burdens and sins. Who could this suffering servant be? The Jewish people said that the servant must be Israel but it is clear from the message that Israel had failed the task. When the gospel came along, the first Jewish Christians perceived the reference of Isaiah and even preached it to the gentiles (Acts 8:26-35). This insight about his writings and many more like it were expanded by the church Fathers.

Isaiah’s book is thus far more than a simple prediction of the future. It is a book of God’s judgment, of the care necessary to give to the poor and downtrodden, of God’s mercy and of God’s love and forbearance for his people as well as God’s promise to restore them in the end with his salvation.

Isaiah also touches the liturgy of the church in important ways. One of the most important comes through his original vision of heaven (Isaiah 6). In this vision Isaiah sees God on a throne which is covered by six-winged Seraphim. Isaiah hears the Seraphim continuously praising God with words that he transcribes and that would eventually end up in St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy as the Trisagion Hymn: “Holy, Holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory”. (For particular reasons, rather than translate “of hosts”, the Greek Bible transliterated the Hebrew word “Sabaoth”, which was transliterated again into the English liturgy).

Thus the Holy Prophet Isaiah, for his unique and poetic contribution as God’s prophet, as one who first heard the Trisagion in a heavenly vision, as one who prophesied of the coming of the Messiah and as one who was martyred in the service of God, is honored by the church on May 9.

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