Book Overview - Isaiah
by Joseph Benson
THE BOOK OF THE PROPHET ISAIAH.
WE are now come to a part of the Scriptures entirely different from those we have gone through; to a revelation of God’s word and will, delivered chiefly in prophetic visions: in which a multitude of symbolical representations, signifying things to come, and making known the will of God, and, in part, his counsels, were divinely impressed on the prophets’ minds; and this not only respecting things near at hand, but those also that were to come to pass in distant ages. “Prophecy,” says a learned and ingenious writer, “may be styled an influx of the divine mind upon the human, to inform it of those things, or truths, with which before it was unacquainted, to the knowledge of which it could not attain by its own natural powers; and likewise to awaken within it, and clear up to it, those truths which are engraven on our very nature, how much soever they may be obscured.” Or, in the words of Joseph Albo, a famous Jewish rabbi, it is “An influence from God upon the rational faculty, either by the mediation of the fancy or otherwise; and this influence, whether communicated by the ministry of an angel or otherwise, makes a man to know such things, as, by his natural abilities, he could not attain to the knowledge of.” This rabbi hath distinguished prophecy into these four degrees: The first and lowest is, when the imaginative power is most predominant, so that the impressions made upon it are too rapid and turbulent for the rational faculty to discern the true mystical and spiritual sense of them clearly; and, in this case, the prophets expressed themselves chiefly in parables, similitudes, and allegories, in a dark and obscure manner, as is very manifest in Zechariah, and in many of Ezekiel’s prophecies. This declining state of prophecy the Jews suppose to have principally taken place when they were carried captive into Babylon. The second degree of prophecy is, when the strength of the imaginative and rational powers, equally balance one another. The third is, when the rational power is most predominant; in which case, the mind of the prophet is able to strip those things that are represented to it in the glass of fancy, of all their materiality and sensible nature, and apprehend them more distinctly in their own naked essence. The last, and highest, is the Mosaic degree; in which all imagination ceases, and the representation of truth descends not so low as the imaginative part, but is made in the highest stage of reason and understanding.
In the former times of the Israelitish commonwealth, after Moses, the prophets, to whom God made known his will, and whom he raised up to reprove, warn, exhort, or instruct his people, delivered their messages only or chiefly by word of mouth: we read but of one that was communicated in writing, and that was a message from Elijah to Jehoram, king of Israel, recorded 2 Chronicles 21:12. The histories of those times, however, which are left us, were compiled by prophets, under a divine direction, and when the Old Testament is divided into the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms; the historical books are, for that reason, reckoned among the prophets; Solomon’s writings, and some others, being classed with the Psalms. But, in the latter times of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, some of the prophets were divinely inspired to write their prophecies, or abstracts of them, and to leave them upon record for the benefit of after ages, that “the children which should be born might praise the Lord” for them, and, by comparing the event with the prediction, might have their faith confirmed. And, as we have reason to think, these later prophets spoke more fully and clearly of the Messiah and his kingdom than their predecessors had done; probably, on that account, God inclined them to record their prophecies, in order that they might both afford encouragement to the pious Jews, that looked for the consolation of Israel, and might minister edification to us Christians, upon whom the ends of the world are come; as David’s Psalms had been written for the same reason; and that thus the Old and New Testaments might mutually give light and lustre to each other. It must be observed, however, that there were many other faithful prophets, at the same time, who spoke in God’s name, and did not commit their prophecies, or any part of them, to writing, but who were, nevertheless, of those whom God raised up and sent, partly to assist the pious and faithful priests and Levites in teaching the people, and partly to supply the lack of service of such as were unfaithful and negligent. And the contempt of them, and the other prophets, and of their messages, in the end, brought ruin, without remedy, upon that senseless and infatuated people, who knew not the day of their visitation.
The holy prophets, who wrote their prophecies, and whose writings are contained in the sacred Scriptures, are sixteen. Of these Isaiah is first in place, and, as seems probable, in time also. Or, if Hosea began to prophesy and write before him, Isaiah certainly began soon after, as is evident by comparing Isaiah 1:1, with Hosea 1:1; and he appears to have prophesied above sixty years, computing from the year in which Uzziah died, when he seems to have been first solemnly called to the prophetical office, (see Song of Solomon 6:1,) to the end of Hezekiah’s reign, whom he is said to have outlived. St. Jerome, in his preface to this book, tells us he was of noble birth; and the Jews say he was of the blood royal of Judah. That, however, is uncertain. But undoubtedly he was the prince of all the prophets, whether we consider the great extent and variety of his prophecies, the excellence and sublimity of those mysteries which were revealed to him and by him, the majesty and elegance of his style, the noble metaphors and striking imagery wherewith he illustrates and adorns his writings, or the incomparable liveliness and power of his sermons. He is universally and justly esteemed the most eloquent of all the prophets. Grotius compares his eloquence to that of Demosthenes. “In the prophet we meet with all the purity of the Hebrew tongue, as in the orator all the delicacy of the Attic taste. Both are sublime and magnificent in their style, vehement in their emotions, copious in their figures, and very impetuous when they set off things of an enormous nature, or which are grievous and odious. Whatever of its ancient sweetness and sublimity the Hebrew poetry preserves, it is all to be found in this exquisite book.” See Bishop Lowth’s admirable translation of it, with the Preliminary Dissertation and notes annexed. It is the constant tradition, both of Jews and Christians, that Isaiah was put to death with a saw at the beginning of the reign of Mannasseh; to which the apostle is generally thought to refer, Hebrews 11:37.
The great and principal objects of Isaiah’s prophecies are, the captivity of Babylon; the return of the Jews from this captivity, and the reign of the Messiah, whose person, offices, sufferings, and kingdom he so evidently and fully describes, that some of the ancients called him the fifth evangelist. And, accordingly, it is observable, that there are more quotations in the New Testament taken out of this book than out of the books of all the other prophets. “I divide the book of Isaiah,” says Vitringa, “into the title prefixed to it, and the matter contained in it. The matter is two-fold, prophetical and historical, which are interwoven together. The prophetical is divided into five parts; the first of which, from the first chapter to the thirteenth, contains five prophetic sermons, immediately directed to the Jews, and also to the Ephraimites, whom the prophet variously reproves, exhorts, consoles. The second part, from the thirteenth to the twenty-fourth chapter, contains eight sermons, in which the fate of other nations is declared. The third part, from the twenty-fourth chapter to the thirty-sixth, explains the penal judgments denounced by God upon the disobedient Jews, and the enemies of the church, with the most ample promises given to the true church; and is comprehended in three sermons. The fourth part, from the fortieth chapter to the forty-ninth, sets forth, in four sermons, of a consolatory kind, the manifestation of the Messiah in the flesh, with its circumstances and effects, and the signs preceding it; particularly the deliverance of the Jewish Church from their exile in Babylon. The fifth part exhibits, in five sermons, from the forty- ninth chapter, the fate and events of Jesus Christ, his person and kingdom; with which this most noble prophecy closes. The historical part relates some notable events of those times, in which God was pleased to make use of the ministry of Isaiah, and, beginning with the thirty-sixth, ends with the thirty-ninth chapter.” Or, according to another, perhaps still more accurate division of the sections of this book, in the first five chapters the prophet describes the corruptions of Judah, admonishes them what would be the fatal consequences of their sins, and most pathetically exhorts them to amendment of life, showing that, without it, all sacrifices, and the most exact observance of the outward ceremonies of religion, were vain. But, amidst the terrible evils that he denounces against those that continued in sin, he promises God’s peculiar protection and happiness to the righteous; and, to comfort them, intersperses promises of a return of far better times, taking into this view the glorious times of the gospel which were to perfect the divine dispensations. In the six following chapters he promises, in the name of the Lord, the deliverance of Jerusalem, then besieged by the Syrians in confederacy with Israel, and denounces the speedy destruction of both those kingdoms; but, at the same time, he foretels the future destruction of Judah by the Assyrians, though it was to be delivered from its present calamities. From the thirteenth to the twenty-ninth chapter are prophecies against several kingdoms; namely, Babylon, the Philistines, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Kedar, Arabia, Tyre, Samaria, and the ten tribes; against all which he denounces God’s severe judgments, but interspersed with indications of future mercy to them in bringing them to the knowledge of himself. From the twenty-ninth to the end of the thirty-fifth chapter are prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, by the Babylonians, but mixed with consolatory promises of future happiness. The thirty-sixth, thirty-seventh, and thirty-eighth chapters contain an account of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judea, and the sickness of Hezekiah, which happened at the same time; that history being a key to explain several passages in the foregoing prophecies; for he had foretold this siege of Jerusalem, and when it came to pass, though things seemed reduced to the last extremity, declared, that the city would be delivered from it, without receiving the least damage; and that the author of it, Sennacherib, would be followed with exemplary punishment from God. The fortieth and four following chapters contain a discourse in demonstration of the existence and perfections of Jehovah, the only living and true God, of the truth of the Jewish religion, and of the folly and vanity of idolatry, with some promises of the coming of the Messiah. In the four following chapters he foretels the reign of Cyrus, and the deliverance and return of the Jewish people from their captivity at Babylon. From the forty-ninth chapter to the end are more express prophecies of Christ, of the kingdom he would establish among men, of his sufferings and future glory, of the preaching of the gospel, and the calling of the Gentiles to the knowledge of the true God.
St. Jerome says of Isaiah, that his writings are, as it were, an abridgment of the Holy Scriptures; and that the instructions they give in morality and divinity are highly excellent. Certainly this prophet corrects with so much power, admonishes and exhorts so pathetically, describes the true nature of religion and virtue, and exposes all false notions of them, in so strong and clear a manner, that this book of his will be eminently useful to pious minds in all ages, for conviction of sin, and direction in duty; and we cannot read it, with due attention, without being greatly profited thereby. It may be proper to add here, that Bishop Lowth considers Isaiah as delivering all his visions, prophecies, or messages from God in Hebrew poetry, like the song of Israel at the Red sea, that of Deborah, recorded Judges 5., or the Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32., on which see the notes.
the Second Week of Lent