Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Prophecy as Potential: The Consolations of Isaiah 1-12 in Context

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Prophecy as Potential: The Consolations of Isaiah 1-12 in Context

Article excerpt


Historically, Isaiah's prophetic career spanned the reigns of the righteous Judean kings Uzziah and Jotham, when there was peace and prosperity but with it arrogance and social oppression; that of the wicked Ahaz, when the Assyrians became a world power; and that of Hezekiah, one of the most righteous kings in biblical history. Isaiah predicted and witnessed the Assyrian invasions that brought down the Northern Kingdom and then devastated nearly the entire Southern Kingdom. He also predicted and witnessed the stunning annihilation of the Assyrian armies outside of Jerusalem in Hezekiah's time.

Beyond the historical plane, Isaiah is remembered fondly for his breathtaking prophecies of hope. The Talmud goes so far as to characterize the Book of Isaiah as "all consolation," despite its many harsh condemnations and predictions of doom (Bava Batra 14b). For whom were those consolations intended? Were they predictions of short-term events, for Hezekiah's glorious period, or were they originally intended as long-term messianic predictions? In this essay, we will survey Isaiah 1-12, considering Isaiah's consolations in their surrounding contexts. (1)


In Chapter 1, Isaiah decries the wickedness of Jerusalem. The prophet presents two options for societal change: Repent, in which case the red stains of sin will turn to white; otherwise, a refining process will begin, bringing destruction and leaving behind a righteous remnant.

Following this introduction, the Book of Isaiah presents one of its most celebrated visions of consolation:

   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. 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 instruction shall come forth from Zion,
   the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Thus He will judge among
   the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat
   their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
   Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never
   again know war (2:2-4).

Isaiah subsequently resumes his condemnations and ominous predictions.

Commentators suggest several approaches to understand this vision in light of its surrounding context:

1. Following the less attractive option of non-repentance in Chapter 1, redemption will come through judgment, not instead of it. The wicked will be purged, and this ideal vision will follow for those who merit redemption (Rashi, R. Eliezer of Beaugency).

2. This prophecy is being used primarily as an exhortation, not a consolation. To reach this ideal state, Israel must repent. Otherwise, there will be a great purge, as outlined in the subsequent prophecies (Abarbanel, Malbim).

3. Redemption is absolute--it will happen, despite the impending destruction (Kara). From this point of view, this prophecy is an island of futuristic consolation amidst a sea of contemporary doom.

Regardless of how it fits into its surrounding context, Ibn Ezra (on 2:2) expresses that which is assumed by many commentators: This prophecy must be referring to the messianic age, since there have been constant wars from Isaiah's time to the present day, and therefore it has yet to be fulfilled.


After that brief glimpse of a brighter future, Isaiah returns to condemning his society. Verses 2:5-9 describe the extent of religious corruption, and verses 2:10-4:1 foretell an ugly series of disasters that will befall the people. Several commentators maintain that these predictions were realized during the reign of Ahaz (for example, Radak, Abarbanel, Malbim).

Then, the Book of Isaiah follows with another prophecy of consolation:

   In that day, the radiance of the Lord [tzemah Hashem] will lend
   beauty and glory, and the splendor of the land [will give] dignity
   and majesty to the survivors of Israel. … 
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