1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Isaiah

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21874041911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 14 — IsaiahThomas Kelly Cheyne

ISAIAH. I. Life and Period.—Isaiah is the name of the greatest, and both in life and in death the most influential of the Old Testament prophets. We do not forget Jeremiah, but Jeremiah’s literary and religious influence is secondary compared with that of Isaiah. Unfortunately we are reduced to inference and conjecture with regard both to his life and to the extent of his literary activity. In the heading (i. 1) of what we may call the occasional prophecies of Isaiah (i.e. those which were called forth by passing events), the author is called “the son of Amoz” and Rabbinical legend identifies this Amoz with a brother of Amaziah, king of Judah; but this is evidently based on a mere etymological fancy. We know from his works that (unlike Jeremiah) he was married (viii. 3), and that he had at least two sons, whose names he regarded as, together with his own, symbolic by divine appointment of certain decisive events or religious truths—Isaiah (Yesha’-yāhū), meaning “Salvation—Yahweh”; Shear-Yāshūb, “a remnant shall return”; and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, “swift (swiftly cometh) spoil, speedy (speedily cometh) prey” (vii. 3, viii. 3, 4, 18). He lived at Jerusalem, perhaps in the “middle” or “lower city” (2 Kings xx. 4), exercised at one time great influence at court (chap. xxxvii.), and could venture to address a king unbidden (vii. 4), and utter the most unpleasant truths, unassailed, in the plainest fashion. Presumably therefore his social rank was far above that of Amos and Micah; certainly the high degree of rhetorical skill displayed in his discourses implies a long course of literary discipline, not improbably in the school of some older prophet (Amos vii. 14 suggests that “schools” or companies “of the prophets” existed in the southern kingdom). We know but little of Isaiah’s predecessors and models in the prophetic art (it were fanaticism to exclude the element of human preparation); but certainly even the acknowledged prophecies of Isaiah (and much more the disputed ones) could no more have come into existence suddenly and without warning than the masterpieces of Shakespeare. In the more recent commentaries (e.g. Cheyne’s Prophecies of Isaiah, ii. 218) lists are generally given of the points of contact both in phraseology and in ideas between Isaiah and the prophets nearly contemporary with him. For Isaiah cannot be studied by himself.

The same heading already referred to gives us our only traditional information as to the period during which Isaiah prophesied; it refers to Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah as the contemporary kings. It is, however, to say the least, doubtful whether any of the extant prophecies are as early as the reign of Uzziah. Exegesis, the only safe basis of criticism for the prophetic literature, is unfavourable to the view that even chap. i. belongs to the reign of this king, and we must therefore regard it as most probable that the heading in i. 1 is (like those of the Psalms) the work of one or more of the Sōpherīm (or students and editors of Scripture) in post-exilic times, apparently the same writer (or company of writers) who prefixed the headings of Hosea and Micah, and perhaps of some of the other books. Chronological study had already begun in his time. But he would be a bold man who would profess to give trustworthy dates either for the kings of Israel or for the prophetic writers. (See Bible, Old Testament, Chronology; the article “Chronology” in the Encyclopaedia Bíblica; and cf. H. P. Smith, Old Testament History, Edin., 1903, p. 202, note 2.)

II. Chronological Arrangement, how far possible.—Let us now briefly sketch the progress of Isaiah’s prophesying on the basis of philological exegesis, and a comparison of the sound results of the study of the inscriptions. If our results are imperfect and liable to correction, that is only to be expected in the present position of the historical study of the Bible. Chap. vi., which describes a vision of Isaiah “in the death-year of King Uzziah” (740 or 734 B.C.?) may possibly have arisen out of notes put down in the reign of Jotham; but for several reasons it is not an acceptable view that, in its present form, this striking chapter is earlier than the reign of Ahaz. It seems, in short, to have originally formed the preface to the small group of prophecies which now follows it, viz. vii. i.-ix. 7. The portions which may represent discourses of Jotham’s reign are chap. ii. and chap. ix. 8-x. 4—stern denunciations which remind us somewhat of Amos. But the allusions in the greater part of chaps. ii.-v. correspond to no period so closely as the reign of Ahaz, and the same remark applies still more self-evidently to vii. 1-ix. 7.[1] Chap. xvii. 1-11 ought undoubtedly to be read in immediate connexion with chap. vii.; it presupposes the alliance of Syria and northern Israel, whose destruction it predicts, though opening a door of hope for a remnant of Israel. The fatal siege of Samaria (724–722 B.C.) seems to have given occasion to chap. xxviii.; but the following prophecies (chaps. xxix.-xxxiii.) point in the main to Sennacherib’s invasion, 701 B.C., which evidently stirred Isaiah’s deepest feelings and was the occasion of some of his greatest prophecies. It is, however, the vengeance taken by Sargon upon Ashdod (711) which seems to be preserved in chap. xx., and the striking little prophecy in xxi. 1-10, sometimes referred of late to a supposed invasion of Judah by Sargon, rather belongs to some one of the many prophetic personages who wrote, but did not speak like the greater prophets, during and after the Exile. It is also an opinion largely held that the prophetic epilogue in xvi. 13, 14, was attached by Isaiah to an oracle on archaic style by another prophet (Isaiah’s hand has, however, been traced by some in xvi. 4b, 5). In fact no progress can be expected in the accurate study of the prophets until the editorial activity both of the great prophets themselves and of their more reflective and studious successors is fully recognized.

Thus there were two great political events (the Syro-Israelitish invasion under Ahaz, and the great Assyrian invasion of Sennacherib) which called forth the spiritual and oratorical faculties of our prophet, and quickened his faculty of insight into the future. The Sennacherib prophecies must be taken in connexion with the historical appendix, chaps, xxxvi.-xxxix. The beauty and incisiveness of the poetic prophecy in xxxvii. 21-32 have, by some critics, been regarded as evidence for its authenticity. This, however, is, on critical grounds, most questionable.

A special reference seems needed at this point to the oracle on Egypt, chap. xix. The comparative feebleness of the style has led to the conjecture that, even if the basis of the prophecy be Isaianic, yet in its present form it must have undergone the manipulation of a scribe. More probably, however, it belongs to the early Persian period. It should be added that the Isaianic origin of the appendix in xix. 18-24 is, if possible, even more doubtful, because of the precise, circumstantial details of the prophecy which are not like Isaiah’s work. It is plausible to regard v. 18 as a fictitious prophecy in the interests of Onias, the founder of the rival Egyptian temple to Yahweh at Leontopolis in the name of Heliopolis (Josephus, Ant. xii. 9, 7).

III. Disintegration Theories.—We must now enter more fully into the question whether the whole of the so-called Book of Isaiah was really written by that prophet. The question relates, at any rate, to xiii.-xiv. 23, xxi. 1-10, xxiv.-xxvii., xxxiv., xxxv. and xl.-lxvi. The father of the controversy may be said to be the Jewish rabbi, Aben Ezra, who died A.D. 1167. We need not, however, spend much time on the well-worn but inconclusive arguments of the older critics. The existence of a tradition in the last three centuries before Christ as to the authorship of any book is (to those acquainted with the habits of thought of that age) of but little critical moment; the Sōpherīm, i.e. students of Scripture, in those times were simply anxious for the authority of the Scriptures, not for the ascertainment of their precise historical origin. It was of the utmost importance to declare that (especially) Isaiah xl.-lxvi. was a prophetic work of the highest order; this was reason sufficient (apart from any presumed phraseological affinities in xl.-lxvi.) for ascribing them to the royal prophet Isaiah. When the view had once obtained currency, it would naturally become a tradition. The question of the Isaianic or non-Isaianic origin of the disputed prophecies (especially xl.-lxvi.) must be decided on grounds of exegesis alone. It matters little, therefore, when the older critics appeal to Ezra i. 2 (interpreted by Josephus, Ant. xi. 1, 1-2), to the Septuagint version of the book (produced between 260 and 130 B.C.), in which the disputed prophecies are already found, and to the Greek translation of the Wisdom of Jesus, the son of Sirach, which distinctly refers to Isaiah as the comforter of those that mourned in Zion (Eccles. xlviii. 24, 25).

The fault of the controversialists on both sides has been that each party has only seen “one side of the shield.” It will be admitted by philological students that the exegetical data supplied by (at any rate) Isa. xl.-lxvi. are conflicting, and therefore susceptible of no simple solution. This remark applies, it is true, chiefly to the portion which begins at lii. 13. The earlier part of Isa. xl.-lxvi. admits of a perfectly consistent interpretation from first to last. There is nothing in it to indicate that the author’s standing-point is earlier than the Babylonian captivity. His object is (as most scholars, probably, believe) to warn, stimulate or console the captive Jews, some full believers, some semi-believers, some unbelievers or idolaters. The development of the prophet’s message is full of contrasts and surprises: the vanity of the idol-gods and the omnipotence of Israel’s helper, the sinfulness and infirmity of Israel and her high spiritual destiny, and the selection (so offensive to patriotic Jews, xlv. 9, 10) of the heathen Cyrus as the instrument of Yahweh’s purposes, as in fact his Messiah or Anointed One (xlv. 1), are brought successively before us. Hence the semi-dramatic character of the style. Already in the opening passage mysterious voices are heard crying, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”; the plural indicates that there were other prophets among the exiles besides the author of Isa. xl.-xlviii. Then the Jews and the Asiatic nations in general are introduced trembling at the imminent downfall of the Babylonian empire. The former are reasoned with and exhorted to believe; the latter are contemptuously silenced by an exhibition of the futility of their religion. Then another mysterious form appears on the scene, bearing the honourable title of “Servant of Yahweh,” through whom God’s gracious purposes for Israel and the world are to be realized. The cycle of poetic passages on the character and work of this “Servant,” or commissioned agent of the Most High, may have formed originally a separate collation which was somewhat later inserted in the Prophecy of Restoration (i.e. chaps. xl.-xlviii., and its appendix chaps. xlix.-lv.).

The new section which begins at chap. xlix. is written in much the same delightfully flowing style. We are still among the exiles at the close of the captivity, or, as others think, amidst a poor community in Jerusalem, whose members have now been dispersed among the Gentiles. The latter view is not so strange as it may at first appear, for the new book has this peculiarity, that Babylon and Cyrus are not mentioned in it at all. [True, there was not so much said about Babylon as we should have expected even in the first book; the paucity of references to the local characteristics of Babylonia is in fact one of the negative arguments urged by older scholars in favour of the Isaianic origin of the prophecy.] Israel himself, with all his inconsistent qualities, becomes the absorbing subject of the prophet’s meditations. The section opens with a soliloquy of the “Servant of Yahweh,” which leads on to a glorious comforting discourse, “Can a woman forget her sucking child,” &c. (xlix. 1, comp. li. 12, 13). Then his tone rises, Jerusalem can and must be redeemed; he even seems to see the great divine act in process of accomplishment. Is it possible, one cannot help asking, that the abrupt description of the strange fortunes of the “Servant”—by this time entirely personalized—was written to follow chap. lii. 1-12?

The whole difficulty seems to arise from the long prevalent assumption that chaps. xl.-lxvi. form a whole in themselves. Natural as the feeling against disintegration may be, the difficulties in the way of admitting the unity of chaps. xl.-lxvi. are insurmountable. Even if, by a bold assumption, we grant the unity of authorship, it is plain upon the face of it that the chapters in question cannot have been composed at the same time or under the same circumstances; literary and artistic unity is wholly wanting. But once admit (as it is only reasonable to do) the extension of Jewish editorial activity to the prophetic books and all becomes clear. The record before us gives no information as to its origin. It is without a heading, and by its abrupt transitions, and honestly preserved variations of style, invites us to such a theory as we are now indicating. It is only the inveterate habit of reading Isa. xlix.-lxvi. as a part of a work relating to the close of the Exile that prevents us from seeing how inconsistent are the tone and details with this presupposition.

The present article in its original form introduced here a survey of the portions of Isa. xl.-lxvi. which were plainly of Palestinian origin. It is needless to reproduce this here, because the information is now readily accessible elsewhere; in 1881 there was an originality in this survey, which gave promise of a still more radical treatment such as that of Bernhard Duhm, a fascinating commentary published in 1892. See also Cheyne, Jewish Quarterly Review, July and October 1891; Introd. to Book of Isaiah (1895), which also point forward, like Stade’s Geschichte in Germany, to a bolder criticism of Isaiah.

IV. Non-Isaianic Elements in Chaps. i.-xxxix.—We have said nothing hitherto, except by way of allusion, of the disputed prophecies scattered up and down the first half of the book of Isaiah. There is only one of these prophecies which may, with any degree of apparent plausibility, be referred to the age of Isaiah, and that is chaps. xxiv.-xxvii. The grounds are (1) that according to xxv. 6 the author dwells on Mount Zion; (2) that Moab is referred to as an enemy (xxv. 10); and (3) that at the close of the prophecy, Assyria and Egypt are apparently mentioned as the principal foes of Israel (xxvii. 12, 13). A careful and thorough exegesis will show the hollowness of this justification. The tone and spirit of the prophecy as a whole point to the same late apocalyptic period to which chap. xxxiv. and the book of Joel; and also the last chapter (especially) of the book of Zechariah, may unhesitatingly be referred.

A word or two may perhaps be expected on Isa. xiii., xiv. and xxxiv., xxxv. These two oracles agree in the elaborateness of their description of the fearful fate of the enemies of Yahweh (Babylon and Edom are merely representatives of a class), and also in their view of the deliverance and restoration of Israel as an epoch for the whole human race. There is also an unrelieved sternness, which pains us by its contrast with Isa. xl.-lxvi. (except those passages of this portion which are probably not homogeneous with the bulk of the prophecy). They have also affinities with Jer. l. li., a prophecy (as most now agree) of post-exilic origin.

There is only one passage which seems in some degree to make up for the aesthetic drawbacks of the greater part of these late compositions. It is the ode on the fall of the king of Babylon in chap. xiv. 4-21, which is as brilliant with the glow of lyric enthusiasm as the stern prophecy which precedes it is, from the same point of view, dull and uninspiring. It is in fact worthy to be put by the side of the finest passages of chaps. xl.-lxvi.—of those passages which irresistibly rise in the memory when we think of “Isaiah.”

V. Prophetic Contrasts in Isaiah.—From a religious point of view there is a wide difference, not only between the acknowledged and the disputed prophecies of the book of Isaiah, but also between those of the latter which occur in chaps. i.-xxxix., on the one hand, and the greater and more striking part of chaps. xl.-lxvi. on the other. We may say, upon the whole, with Duhm, that Isaiah represents a synthesis of Amos and Hosea, though not without important additions of his own. And if we cannot without much hesitation admit that Isaiah was really the first preacher of a personal Messiah whose record has come down to us, yet his editors certainly had good reason for thinking him capable of such a lofty height of prophecy. It is not because Isaiah could not have conceived of a personal Messiah, but because the Messiah-passages are not plainly Isaiah’s either in style or in thought. If Isaiah had had those bright visions, they would have affected him more.

Perhaps the most characteristic religious peculiarities of the various disputed prophecies are—(1) the emphasis laid on the uniqueness, eternity, creatorship and predictive power of Yahweh (xl. 18, 25, xli. 4, xliv. 6, xlviii. 12, xlv. 5, 6, 18, 22, xlvi. 9, xlii. 5, xlv. 18, xli. 26, xliii. 9, xliv. 7, xlv. 21, xlviii. 14); (2) the conception of the “Servant of Yahweh”; (3) the ironical descriptions of idolatry (Isaiah in the acknowledged prophecies only refers incidentally to idolatry) xl. 19, 20, xli. 7, xliv. 9-17, xlvi. 6; (4) the personality of the Spirit of Yahweh (mentioned no less than seven times, see especially xl. 3, xlviii. 16, lxiii. 10, 14); (5) the influence of the angelic powers (xxiv. 21); (6) the resurrection of the body (xxvi. 19); (7) the everlasting punishment of the wicked (lxvi. 24); (8) vicarious atonement (chap. liii.).

We cannot here do more than chronicle the attempts of a Jewish scholar, the late Dr Kohut, in the Z.D.M.G. for 1876 to prove a Zoroastrian influence on chaps. xl.-lxvi. The idea is not in itself inadmissible, at least for post-exilic portions, for Zoroastrian ideas were in the intellectual atmosphere of Jewish writers in the Persian age.

There is an equally striking difference among the disputed prophecies themselves, and one of no small moment as a subsidiary indication of their origin. We have already spoken of the difference of tone between parts of the latter half of the book; and, when we compare the disputed prophecies of the former half with the Prophecy of Israel’s Restoration, how inferior (with all reverence be it said) do they appear! Truly “in many parts and many manners did God speak” in this composite book of Isaiah! To the Prophecy of Restoration we may fitly apply the words, too gracious and too subtly chosen to be translated, of Renan, “ce second Isaïe, dont l’âme lumineuse semble comme imprégnée, six cent ans d’avance, de toutes les rosées, de tous les parfums de l’avenir” (L’Antéchrist, p. 464); though, indeed, the common verdict of sympathetic readers sums up the sentence in a single phrase—“the Evangelical Prophet.” The freedom and the inexhaustibleness of the undeserved grace of God is a subject to which this gifted son constantly returns with “a monotony which is never monotonous.” The defect of the disputed prophecies in the former part of the book (a defect, as long as we regard them in isolation, and not as supplemented by those which come after) is that they emphasize too much for the Christian sentiment the stern, destructive side of the series of divine interpositions in the latter days.

VI. The Cyrus Inscriptions.—Perhaps one of the most important contributions to the study of II. Isaiah has been the discovery of two cuneiform texts relative to the fall of Babylon and the religious policy of Cyrus. The results are not favourable to a mechanical view of prophecy as involving absolute accuracy of statement. Cyrus appears in the unassailably authentic cylinder inscription “as a complete religious indifferentist, willing to go through any amount of ceremonies to soothe the prejudices of a susceptible population.” He preserves a strange and significant silence with regard to Ahura-mazda, the supreme God of Zoroastrianism, and in fact can hardly have been a Zoroastrian believer at all. On the historical and religious bearings of these two inscriptions the reader may be referred to the article “Cyrus” in the Encyclopaedia Biblica and the essay on “II. Isaiah and the Inscriptions” in Cheyne’s Prophecies of Isaiah, vol. ii. It may, with all reverence, be added that our estimate of prophecy must be brought into harmony with facts, not facts with our preconceived theory of inspiration.

Authorities.—Lowth, Isaiah: a new translation, with a preliminary dissertation and notes (1778); Gesenius, Der Proph. Jes. (1821); Hitzig, Der Proph. Jes. (1833); Delitzsch, Der Pr. Jes. (4th ed., 1889); Dillmann-Kittel, Isaiah (1898); Duhm (1892; 2nd ed., 1902); Marti (1900); Cheyne, The Prophecies of Isaiah (2 vols., 1880–1881); Introd. to Book of Isaiah (1898); “The Book of the Prophet Isaiah,” in Paul Haupt’s Polychrome Bible (1898); S. R. Driver, Isaiah, his life and times (1888); J. Skinner, “The Book of Isaiah,” in Cambridge Bible (2 vols., 1896, 1898); G. A. Smith, in Expositor’s Bible (2 vols., 1888, 1890); Condamin (Rom. Cath.) (1905); G. H. Box (1908); Article on Isaiah in Ency. Bib. by Cheyne; in Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible by Prof. G. A. Smith. R. H. Kennett’s Schweich Lecture (1909), The Composition of the Book of Isaiah in the Light of Archaeology and History, an interesting attempt at a synthesis of results, is a brightly written but scholarly sketch of the growth of the book of Isaiah, which went on till the great success of the Jews under Judas Maccabaeus. The outbursts of triumph (e.g. Isa. ix. 2-7) are assigned to this period. The most original statement is perhaps the view that the words of Isaiah were preserved orally by his disciples, and did not see the light (in a revised form) till a considerable time after the crystallization of the reforms of Josiah into laws.  (T. K. C.) 

  1. On the question of the Isaianic origin of the prophecy, ix. 1-6, and the companion passage, xi. 1-8, see Cheyne Introd. to the Book of Isaiah, 1895, pp. 44, 45 and 62-66. Cf., however, J. Skinner “Isaiah i.-xxxix.” in Cambridge Bible.