The Prophet Isaiah by Rembrandt, 1639

Inscribed above the door of the United Nations building in New York are the immortal words in which the prophet Isaiah proclaims his vision of peace on earth:

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Indeed the vision of Isaiah, written in the eighth century BCE, bears some striking parallels with the concept of a United Nations Organisation. The UN was created as a response to the savage aggression which threatened human civilisation in the Second World War; Isaiah wrote as the Assyrians descended on the Middle East, leaving a trail of terror and devastation; and both Isaiah and the founders of the UN imagined a better world based on international co-operation and justice.

The opening words of the Book of Isaiah set the historical context with some precision. This, we are told, is the “vision of Isaiah, which he saw…in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah”. These are four kings who successively ruled the southern Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, between about 780 and 698 BCE.

The critical date is 722 BCE, the year in which the army of the Assyrian Empire destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and deported its population. As Isaiah wrote, the southern Kingdom of Judah was being laid waste and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was under threat.

The Assyrian terror aroused a deep soul searching as people sought explanations, consolation, and a vision of hope. The result was the development of new and powerful religious philosophies, crystallised in the work of the Hebrew Prophets, although their writings go much deeper than a simple reaction to catastrophe.

Isaiah is the pre-eminent example, with the grandeur of his poetry, the power of his extraordinary vision of peace on earth and his condemnation of hypocrisy, immorality and social oppression.

The Context of Isaiah's Prophecy

Isaiah sets the scene as he describes the Assyrian invasion:

“He will raise a signal for a nation afar off,
and whistle for it from the ends of the earth;
and lo, swiftly, speedily it comes!

None is weary, none stumbles,
none slumbers or sleeps,
not a waistcloth is loose,
not a sandal-thong broken;
their arrows are sharp,
all their bows bent,
their horses’ hoofs seem like flint,
and their wheels like the whirlwind.

Their roaring is like a lion,
like young lions they roar;
they growl and seize their prey,
they carry it off, and none can rescue.
( 5: 26-29)

Your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, overthrown by aliens…

If the LORD of hosts
had not left us a few survivors,
we should have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah.” (1:7,9.)

In the context of this national disaster, the Prophets struggled for an explanation – how can a benevolent God permit such terror and desolation? For the Prophets the message of consolation became a call for national righteousness and the promise of a Divine restoration:

“How the faithful city
has become a harlot,
she that was full of justice!…
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Every one loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the fatherless,
And the widow’s cause does not come to them.” (1:21-23)

“Come now, let us reason together,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land… (1:18-20)

And I will restore your judges as at the first,
and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
the faithful city.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” (1:26-27)

Isaiah's Social Ideal

Isaiah as represented by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Isaiah further develops the idea of a righteousness founded in social justice, and contrasted with hypocrisy and empty ritual. This passage is part of the Biblical reading in synagogues on the fast of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur):

“Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?…

If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters fail not.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.” (58:3-12)

Other condemnations of social oppression appear throughout. A couple of examples:

“The LORD enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the faces of the poor?’
says the Lord GOD of hosts. (3:14-15)

Shame on you! You who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until not an acre remains,
and you are left to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
‘Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.'” (5:8-9)

Isaiah's Vision of Peace on Earth

In the context of the Assyrian devastation, Isaiah articulated a longing for a universal peace, similar to the United Nations ideal of peace under international law, in which the nations would live in harmony under a divine system of justice.

“And the many peoples shall go and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
to the House of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways
And that we may walk in his paths’
For the Law shall come from Zion
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus he will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples.” ( 2: 3-4)

The era which Isaiah visualises is symbolised by another image of peace which has captured the world’s imagination:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion … together.” (11.4)

The vision appears in the context of a messianic figure, a descendant of the line of David, who would restore the Jewish people to their land in an era of universal peace and justice. The word ‘mashiach’ (‘messiah’) in Hebrew means simply ‘anointed one’, a figure who is human rather than divine, and it is a reference to the anointment of the Jewish kings as a symbol of their authority.

For Christians, however, the Messiah predicted by Isaiah is seen as a divine being who appears at the time of the Roman oppression, and there are therefore a number of references to the Book of Isaiah in the New Testament. (See, for example, John 12: 37-41 referring to Isaiah 53: 1 and 6: 9-10, and Romans 9: 27-29.)

Other Themes

The Book of Isaiah is a treasure house of poetry, narrative and spiritual and ethical ideas to be dipped into rather than read from beginning to end. Magical visions of encounters with angels appear next to prose narratives of war and peace, “oracles” foretelling the fate of nations, and one amazing curse (3.16) on the haughty women who “walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet”. The common phrase “No peace for the wicked” is also from Isaiah (57.21).

Passages from the poetry of Isaiah appear throughout the Jewish liturgy. Some examples:

A high point of the synagogue service tells of the angels calling to one another

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6:3)

When the Torah is read, the congregation sings from Chapter 2.3:

“Out of Zion shall come forth the Law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

The Jewish funeral service includes these words from Isaiah 55:6-9,

“Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The identity of Isaiah

Isaiah the person is known only from the evidence of his Book itself. In the prose section in Chapter 36 he appears as an important figure in a straightforward history. The date is set precisely, “in the fourteenth year of the reign of Hezekiah”, that is, in 729 BCE. The narrative begins with the arrival from Lachish of an emissary from the Assyrian King Sennacherib.

This historical dating is verified by a triumphal Assyrian bas-relief, now to be seen in the British Museum, which describes and celebrates the siege and destruction of the Judean fortress city of Lachish at that time – archaeologists have also uncovered the ruins of the city.

Isaiah sends a letter to Hezekiah – “This is the word of the Lord” – promising that Jerusalem will be delivered, and 185,000 Assyrian soldiers are miraculously struck dead. Hezekiah is also struck down with a dangerous illness. Isaiah comes to his side and Hezekiah survives to write a poem of thanks which is recorded in Chapter 38.

Then comes a series of poems of praise and gratitude, followed suddenly and quite anachronistically at the end of Chapter 44 by a reference to the re-building of Jerusalem under Cyrus, King of Persia, who is specifically named. In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the rebuilding under Cyrus began in 535 BCE, over 200 years after the Assyrian siege of 729 BCE.

Scholars have therefore concluded, both from the anachronism and the Hebrew style, that there must have been a “Second Isaiah” and that there may be at least two books which have been combined.


The writings of the Hebrew Prophets which emerged from the devastation which swept the Middle East between the eighth and the sixth Centuries BCE represent an important contribution to the culture of the Western world. For English-speakers, some of that contribution is reflected in the poetry which has become part of the language through the genius of the translators who created the Authorised Version.

However, it is interesting to consider the extent to which the ethical principles of Isaiah: the ideas of peace as a positive value, of freedom from social oppression, of justice and welfare as the objectives of government, and the value of righteousness as against power and riches, have come down to us from the eighth century BCE as elements in our present civilisation.

Note: Quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, with some words from the New English Bible.

© Ian Lacey AM 2007