The Book of Isaiah (Hebrew: ספר ישעיהו) is the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible Canon and the first of the Major Prophets in the Christian Old Testament Bible Canon. It is identified by a superscription as the words of the 8th-century BCE prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, but there is evidence that some of it was composed (or re-composed) during the Babylonian captivity and later.
The long (66 Chapters) Book of Isaiah can be divided in two major topics: From chapter 1 to 33 promises judgment and restoration for Judah, Jerusalem and the nations; From chapters 34 to 66 presume that judgment has been pronounced and restoration follows soon. It can thus be read as an extended meditation on the destiny of Jerusalem into and after the Exile.
One important part of the book describes how GOD will make Jerusalem the centre of His worldwide Rule through a royal saviour (a Messiah) who will destroy her oppressor (Babylon); Very outstanding from Jewish standards, this time the prophet Isaiah “annointed” the Messiah the foreign Persian king Cyrus the Great, who is merely the agent who brings about YAHWEH’s kingship. Isaiah speaks out against corrupt leaders and for the disadvantaged, and roots righteousness in GOD’s Holiness rather than in Israel’s covenant. Isaiah 44:6 contains the first clear statement of monotheism: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no GOD”. This model of monotheism became the defining characteristic of the Abrahamic Religions: the post-Exilic Judaism, and the basis for Christianity and Islam.
Isaiah was one of the most popular works among Jews in the Second Temple period (c. 515 BCE – 70 CE). In Christian circles, it was held in such high regard as to be called “the Fifth Gospel”, and its influence extends beyond Christianity to English literature and to Western culture in general, from the libretto of Handel’s Messiah to a host of such everyday phrases as “swords into ploughshares” and “voice in the wilderness“.
The New Testament frequently cites Old Testament Scriptures to support the claim of the Early Christians that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ from Greek) expecting through faith the Second Coming. The majority of these quotations and references are taken from the Book of Isaiah, but they range over the entire corpus of old Jewish writings.
Furthermore many Jews do not regard any of these references having been fulfilled by Jesus, and in some cases do not regard them as messianic prophecies at all.
References in Isaiah
Therefore the LORD Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
In Isaiah 7, 14 the prophet Isaiah, addressing king Ahaz of Judah, promises the king that GOD will destroy his enemies; as a sign that his oracle is a true one, Isaiah predicts that a “young woman” (“almah“) standing nearby will shortly give birth to a child whose name will be Immanuel, “GOD is with us”, and that the threat from the enemy kings will be ended before the child grows up. The almah has been identified as either the mother of Hezekiah or a daughter of Isaiah, although there are problems with both candidates. “Rashi also came to the conclusion that the Immanuel prophecy could not refer to Hezekiah, because ‘if you count up the years of Hezekiah you will find that Hezekiah was born nine years before his father [Ahaz] ascended the throne.’ Hence, Hezekiah was born nine years before the prophecy was given, and yet the prophet says: ‘Behold the virgin shall (future tense) conceive…’ ”
The gospel of Matthew presents Jesus’s ministry as largely the fulfillment of prophecies from Isaiah. In the time of Jesus, however, the Jews of Palestine no longer spoke Hebrew, and Isaiah had to be translated into Greek and Aramaic, the two commonly used languages. In the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7, 14 the word almah meant a young woman of childbearing age who had not yet given birth and who might or might not be a virgin, and the Greek translation rendered almah as parthenos, the Greek word for “virgin”. Scholars agree that almah has nothing to do with virginity, but many conservative American Christians still judge the acceptability of new bible translations by the way they deal with Isaiah 7, 14. The virgin birth is found only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke; there is no reference to the birth of Jesus in Mark’s gospel or the Gospel of John, nor in the epistles of Paul, who says that Jesus was “born of a woman” without mentioning that the woman was a virgin.
Isaiah 8, 14
“And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 8, 23 – 9, 1 (9, 1-2)
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan…”
According to both Jewish and Christian interpretation, the prophet Isaiah was commanded to inform the people of Israel in a prophecy that Sennacherib‘s plunder of the Ten Tribes was at hand, and that Nebuchadnezzar‘s spoil of Jerusalem, in later years, was coming nearer.
During the Syro-Ephraimite War, Isaiah opposed an alliance with Assyria, and counseled Ahaz to rely instead on the assurances of the Davidic covenant. This view was not well-received at court. Assyria absorbed the lands of Zebulon and Naphtali to form the provinces of Galilee, Dor, and Gilead. Judah became a vassal kingdom of the Assyrians.
The reign of Hezekiah saw a notable increase in the power of the Judean state.Hezekiah was successful in his wars against the Philistines, driving them back in a series of victorious battles as far as Gaza. He thus not only retook all the cities that his father had lost, but even conquered others belonging to the Philistines. He also looked to attempting to reincorporate some of the desolate northern territories into the kingdom of Judah and thus restore the boundaries of the country as it was under David. At this time Judah was the strongest nation on the Assyrian-Egyptian frontier. The “messianic oracle” (“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; Upon those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”) may have coincided with the coronation of Hezekiah and looked toward the deliverance of the Israelites living in the northern provinces.
According to Jewish tradition, the salvation of which he speaks is the miraculous end of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem (see Isaiah 36 and 37) in the days of the Prince of Peace, King Hezekiah, a son of King Ahaz.
Matthew cites the messianic oracle, when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee:
“And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” Matthew 4, 12-16.
The interpretation of Isaiah 9, 1-2 by the author of the Gospel of Matthew has led Christian authors to hint at its messianic applications.
Isaiah 9:6,7 (9:5,6)
“For a child has been born to us, a son given to us, and the authority is upon his shoulder, and the wondrous adviser, the mighty GOD, the everlasting FATHER, called his name, ‘the prince of peace.'”Isaiah 9, 5
Newer Jewish versions do not translate the verse as follows:
- Isaiah 9, 6 (9, 5) For a child is born unto us, a son hath been given unto us, and the government is placed on his shoulders; and his name is called, Wonderful, counsellor of the mighty GOD, of the everlasting FATHER, the prince of peace, (Lesser)
- Isaiah 9, 6 (9, 5) For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele- joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom; (JPS 1917)
This long name is the throne name of the royal child. Semitic names often consist of sentences that describe GOD; thus the name Isaiah in Hebrew means “YAHWEH saves”; Hezekiah, “Yahweh strengthens”; in Akkadian, the name of the Babylonian king M’rodakh-Bal’adan (39, 1) means “Marduk has provided an heir.” These names do not describe that person who holds them but the god whom the parents worship.
This verse is expressly applied to the Messiah in the Targum, i.e. Aramaic commentary on the Hebrew Bible.
Some Christians believe that this verse refers to the birth of Jesus as the Messiah. The verse reads in Christian bible versions:
“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty GOD, The Everlasting FATHER, The Prince of Peace.”Isaiah 9, 6
Isaiah 11, 12
“And he shall set up a banner for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” Isaiah 11, 12
Some commentators view this as an unfulfilled prophecy, arguing that the Jewish people have not all been gathered in Israel. Some Christians refer to the foundation of the State of Israel as fulfillment of this prophecy. Others argue that the fulfillment is that Jesus as Messiah brings all nations to himself (cf. 11, 10 “Nations will seek his counsel / And his abode will be honored.”) citing John 12, 32 (“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”) and Paul in Romans 15, 12 when he quotes Isaiah 11, 10, emphasizing the inclusion of the gentiles into the people of GOD.
“In the days to come, The Mount of the LORD’s house Shall stand firm above the mountains And tower above the hills; And all the nations Shall gaze on it with joy.” Isaiah 2, 2
Some Christians believe that Jesus the Messiah is the ultimate “house” or dwelling place of GOD, as is told in John 1, 14 (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”) and 2, 19-21 (“Jesus answered them, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”). Through him the messianic community becomes a temple in 1 Corinthians 3, 16 (“Do you not know that you all are GOD’s Temple and that GOD’s Spirit dwells in you?”‘) and Ephesians 2, 20-22 (“…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the Messiah Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for GOD by the Spirit.”). It is through the Messiah’s exaltation all nations are drawn to him, as in Luke 24, 47 (“…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”).
Isaiah 28, 16
“Therefore thus saith the LORD GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.”
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53, 5
“But he was pained because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wound we were healed.” Isaiah 53, 5 (JPS The Judaica Press Tanakh with Rashi‘s commentary
Isaiah 53 is probably the most famous example claimed by Christians to be a messianic prophecy fulfilled by Jesus. It speaks of one known as the “suffering servant,” who suffers because of the sins of others. Jesus is said to fulfill this prophecy through his death on the cross. The verse from Isaiah 53, 5 is understood by many Christians to speak of Jesus as the Messiah.
Modern Jewish scholars, like Rabbi Tovia Singer as well as Rashi (1040–1105) and Origen (184/185 – 253/254 CE), view the “suffering servant” as a reference to the whole Jewish people, regarded as one individual, and more specifically to the Jewish people deported to Babylon. However, in aggadic midrash on the books of Samuel, a compendium of rabbinic folklore, historical anecdotes and moral exhortations, Isa 53, 5 is messianically interpreted.
One of the first claims in the New Testament that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of Jesus comes from the Book of Acts chapter 8 verses 26-36, which describes a scene in which GOD commands Philip the Apostle to approach an Ethiopian eunuch who is sitting in a chariot, reading aloud to himself from the Book of Isaiah. The eunuch comments that he does not understand what he is reading (Isaiah 53) and Philip explains to him that the passage refers to Jesus: “And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? Of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.”
The (suffering) Servant, as referring to the Jewish people, suffering from the cruelties of the nations, is a theme in the Servant songs and is mentioned in Isaiah 41, 8-9, Isaiah 44, 1, Isa 44, 21, Isa 45, 4, Isa 48, 20 and Isa 49, 3.