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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

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Though fifth in the order of time, the writings of the Prophet Isaiah are placed first in order of the prophetical books, principally on account of the sublimity and importance of his predictions, and partly also because the book which bears his name is larger than all the twelve minor prophets put together. Concerning his family and descent, nothing certain has been recorded, except what he himself tells us, Isaiah 50:1 , namely, that he was the son of Amos, and discharged the prophetic office "in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah," who successively flourished between A.M. 3194 and 3305. There is a current tradition that he was of the blood royal; and some writers have affirmed that his father Amoz or Amos was the son of Joash, and consequently brother of Uzziah, king of Judah. Jerom, on the authority of some rabbinical writers, says, that the prophet gave his daughter in marriage to Manasseh, king of Judah; but this opinion is scarcely credible, because Manasseh did not commence his reign until about sixty years after Isaiah had begun to discharge his prophetic functions. He must, indeed, have exercised the office of a prophet during a long period of time, if he lived to the reign of Manasseh; for the lowest computation, beginning from the year in which Uzziah died, when he is by some supposed to have received his first appointment to that office, brings it to sixty-one years. But the tradition of the Jews, which has been adopted by most Christian commentators, that he was put to death by Manasseh, is very uncertain; and Aben Ezra one of the most celebrated Jewish writers, is rather of opinion that he died before Hezekiah; which Bishop Lowth thinks most probable. It is, however, certain, that he lived at least to the fifteenth or sixteenth year of Hezekiah; which makes the least possible term of the duration of his prophetic office to be about forty-eight years. The name of Isaiah, as Vitringa has remarked after several preceding commentators, is in some measure descriptive of his high character, since it signifies the salvation of Jehovah; and was given with singular propriety to him, who foretold the advent of the Messiah, through whom "all flesh shall see the salvation of God," Isaiah 40:5; Luke 3:6; Acts 4:12 . Isaiah was contemporary with the Prophets Amos, Hosea, Joel, and Micah.

Isaiah is uniformly spoken of in the Scriptures as a prophet of the highest dignity: Bishop Lowth calls him the prince of all the prophets, and pronounces the whole of his book to be poetical, with the exception of a few detached passages. It is remarkable, that his wife is styled a prophetess in Isaiah 8:3; whence the rabbinical writers have concluded that she possessed the spirit of prophecy: but it is very probable that the prophets' wives were called prophetesses, as the priests' wives were termed priestesses, only from the quality of their husbands. Although nothing farther is recorded in the Scriptures concerning the wife of Isaiah, we find two of his sons mentioned in his prophecy, who were types or figurative pledges; and their names and actions were intended to awaken a religious attention in the persons whom they were commissioned to address and to instruct. Thus, Shear-jashub signifies, "a remnant shall return," and showed that the captives who should be carried to Babylon should return thence after a certain time, Isaiah 7:3; and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, which denotes, "make speed (or run swiftly ) to the spoil," implied that the kingdoms of Israel and Syria would in a short time be ravaged, Isaiah 8:1; Isaiah 8:3 . Beside the volume of prophecies, which we are now to consider, it appears from 2 Chronicles 26:22 , that Isaiah wrote an account of "the acts of Uzziah," king of Judah: this has perished with some other writings of the prophets, which, as probably not written by inspiration, were never admitted into the canon of Scripture. There are also two apocryphal books ascribed to him, namely, The Ascension of Isaiah, and The Apocalypse of Isaiah; but these are evidently forgeries of a later date, and the Apocalypse has long since perished.

The scope of Isaiah's predictions is threefold, namely,

1. To detect, reprove, aggravate, and condemn, the sins of the Jewish people especially, and also the iniquities of the ten tribes of Israel, and the abominations of many Gentile nations and countries; denouncing the severest judgments against all sorts and degrees of persons, whether Jews or Gentiles.

2. To invite persons of every rank and condition, both Jews and Gentiles, to repentance and reformation, by numerous promises of pardon and mercy. It is worthy of remark, that no such promises are intermingled with the denunciations of divine vengeance against Babylon, although they occur in the threatenings against every other people.

3. To comfort all the truly pious, in the midst of all the calamities and judgments denounced against the wicked, with prophetic promises of the true Messiah, which seem almost to anticipate the Gospel history, so clearly do they foreshow the divine character of Christ.

Isaiah has, with singular propriety, been denominated the evangelical prophet, on account of the number and variety of his prophecies concerning the advent and character, the ministry and preaching, the sufferings and death, and the extensive permanent kingdom, of the Messiah. So explicit and determinate are his predictions, as well as so numerous, that he seems to speak rather of things past than of events yet future; and he may rather be called an evangelist than a prophet. No one, indeed, can be at a loss in applying them to the mission and character of Jesus Christ, and to the events which are cited in his history by the writers of the New Testament. This prophet, says Bishop Lowth, abounds in such transcendent excellencies, that he may be properly said to afford the most perfect model of prophetic poetry. He is at once elegant and sublime, forcible and ornamented; he unites energy with copiousness, and dignity with variety. In his sentiments there is uncommon elevation and majesty; in his imagery, the utmost propriety, elegance, dignity, and diversity; in his language, uncommon beauty and energy; and, notwithstanding the obscurity of his subjects, a surprising degree of clearness and simplicity. To these we may add, that there is such sweetness in the poetical composition of his sentences, whether it proceed from art or genius, that, if the Hebrew poetry at present is possessed of any remains of its native grace and harmony, we shall chiefly find them in the writings of Isaiah: so that the saying of Ezekiel may most justly be applied to this prophet:—

"Thou art the confirmed exemplar of measures, Full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty."

Ezekiel 28:12 .

Isaiah also greatly excels in all the graces of method, order, connection, and arrangement: though in asserting this we must not forget the nature of the prophetic impulse, which bears away the mind with irresistible violence, and frequently in rapid transitions from near to remote objects, from human to divine. We must likewise be careful in remarking the limits of particular predictions, since, as they are now extant, they are often improperly connected, without any marks of discrimination; which injudicious arrangement, on some occasions, creates almost insuperable difficulties.

Bishop Lowth has selected the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth chapters of this prophet, as a specimen of the poetic style in which Isaiah delivers his predictions, and has illustrated at some length the various beauties which eminently distinguish the simple, regular, and perfect poem contained in those chapters. But the grandest specimen of his poetry is presented in the fourteenth chapter, which is one of the most sublime odes occurring in the Bible, and contains the noblest personifications to be found in the records of poetry. The prophet, after predicting the liberation of the Jews from their severe captivity in Babylon, and their restoration to their own country, Ezekiel 28:1-3 , introduces a chorus of them, expressing their surprise and astonishment at the sudden downfall of Babylon, and the great reverse of fortune that had befallen the tyrant, who, like his predecessors, had oppressed his own, and harassed the neighbouring kingdoms. These oppressed kingdoms, or their rulers, are represented under the image of the fir trees and the cedars of Libanus, which is frequently used to express any thing in the political or religious world that is supereminently great and majestic: the whole earth shouts for joy; the cedars of Libanus utter a severe taunt over the fallen tyrant, and boast their security now he is no more, Ezekiel 28:4-8 . This is followed, Ezekiel 28:9 , by one of the boldest and most animated personifications of hades, or the regions of the dead, that was ever executed in poetry. Hades excites his inhabitants, the shades of princes, and the departed spirits of monarchs. These illustrious shades rise at once from their couches as from their thrones; and, advancing to the entrance of the cavern to meet the king of Babylon, they insult and deride him on being reduced to the same low state of impotence and dissolution with themselves, Ezekiel 28:10-11 . The Jews now resume the speech, Ezekiel 28:12; they address the king of Babylon as the morning star fallen from heaven, as the first in splendour and dignity, in the political world fallen from his high state: they introduce him as uttering the most extravagant vaunts of his power and ambitious designs in his former glory; these are strongly contrasted, in the close, with his present low and abject condition, Ezekiel 28:13-15 . Immediately follows a different scene, and a most happy image, to diversify the same subject, and give it a new turn and additional force. Certain persons are introduced, who light upon the corpse of the king of Babylon, cast out and lying naked upon the bare ground, among the common slain, just after the taking of the city, covered with wounds, and so disfigured, that it is some time before they know him. They accost him with the severest taunts, and bitterly reproach him with his destructive ambition, and his cruel usage of the conquered; which have deservedly brought upon him this ignominious treatment, so different from what those of his high rank usually meet with, and which shall cover his posterity with disgrace, Ezekiel 28:16-20 . To complete the whole, God is introduced, declaring the fate of Babylon; the utter extirpation of the royal family, and the total desolation of the city; the deliverance of his people, and the destruction of their enemies; confirming the irreversible decree by the awful sanction of his oath, Ezekiel 28:21-26 . How forcible, says Bishop Lowth, is this imagery, how diversified, how sublime! How elevated the diction, the figures, the sentiments! The Jewish nation, the cedars of Lebanon, the ghosts of departed kings, the Babylonish monarch, the travellers who find his corpse, and last of all Jehovah himself, are the characters which support this beautiful lyric drama. One continued action is kept up, or rather, a series of interesting actions are connected together in an incomparable whole: this, indeed, is the principal and distinguished excellence of the sublimer ode, and is displayed in its utmost perfection in this poem of Isaiah, which may be considered as one of the most ancient, and certainly one of the most finished, specimens of that species of composition which has been transmitted to us. The personifications here are frequent, yet not confused; bold, yet not improbable; a free, elevated, and truly divine spirit pervades the whole; nor is there any thing wanting in this ode to defeat its claim to the character of perfect pathos and sublimity. There is not a single instance in the whole compass of Greek and Roman poetry which, in every excellence of composition, can be said to equal or even to approach it.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Isaiah'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​i/isaiah.html. 1831-2.
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