03. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (1 Isaiah)

Call to faithfulness (Isaiah 1:10-11, 14-20)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 4, 2007)

The prophet Isaiah ministered among the Hebrew people about the same time as Hosea, the latter part of the eighth century B.C.  His message in many ways echoes that of Amos and Hosea.  However, we need to note some important differences.

Whereas Amos and Hosea prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel, Isaiah’s work centered in the southern kingdom, Judah.  Isaiah entered the scene at the time of the death of King Uzziah, whose long reign ended around 742, and continued his work until at least 701, during the kingship of Hezekiah.  Hence, in contrast especially to Amos’ apparently very short-term witness, Isaiah had a sustained public ministry.

Isaiah operated much more within the corridors of power than Amos and Hosea.  He gained the ear of the powerful, and, according to the story (see Isaiah 36–37 and II Kings 18–20) exerted great influence over King Hezekiah in saving Jerusalem from the attack of the Assyrians.  In fact, no doubt because of his responsiveness to Isaiah, King Hezekiah was recognized by the writer of I and II Kings as one of only two kings who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (II Kings 18:3), including removing the high places where false worship took place. The other faithful king was Josiah (II Kings 22:2).

As we see from our Isaiah 1 verses, though, the content of Isaiah’s proclamation differed little from Amos and Hosea.  His ministry provides some hope that an authentic prophetic message, based on loyalty to the core of Torah (the law of Moses), might indeed shape the broader culture and embolden people in power truly to do what is right.

Right rituals, wrong actions

What’s society’s problem, according to Isaiah?  Like Amos, he condemns the people for living with a terrible contradiction.  They do the prescribed religious activities. They offer God a “multitude of sacrifices,” (1:11) and “many prayers” (1:15).  But what they do is evil (1:16).  They ignore the core of God’s expectations for them.  They do not seek justice.  They do not care for the vulnerable people in their midst–the “oppressed,” the orphans, the widows (1:17).

Isaiah offers hope.  Think about it, he says.  He has in mind the content of the law codes.  Here God has made clear the best, the most fruitful, the most reasonable path for health and wholeness.  “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land” (1:19).  If not, “you shall be devoured by the sword” (1:20).  King Hezekiah did lead the people in obedience for a time, and the sword of the Assyrians was turned aside.

The longer story, though–as we will see as we continue to look at the work of the prophets–is that Hezekiah and Josiah, even in their impressive works of reform, could not stem the tide of unfaithfulness and destruction in the ancient Hebrew nation state.

Nations or communities of faith?

To whom is the message of prophets like Isaiah most relevant today?  The Old Testament assumes that the message of faithfulness to Torah should shape nation states.  And the story of Isaiah and Hezekiah gives us some hope that this might happen.

However, I think the survival of the prophetic vision (and its embodiment in Jesus) depends more on the conviction that the truthfulness of this vision and its appropriateness for people of faith does not depend upon kings and emperors.  That is, we ordinary people and our faith communities must seek to “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow” (1:17) regardless of what the “rulers of the Gentiles” (Mark 10:42) say and do.

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