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Most biblical scholars consider the prophet Isaiah the greatest of the Hebrew prophets – and he is also the most quoted of them all. Who was Isaiah – and what can he teach us today?
Scholars agree that Isaiah’s large book in the Bible contains the distinct works of at least three men from three separate historical periods.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah himself could only have authored chapters 1 to 39, called First Isaiah. Chapters 40 to 55 are called Second Isaiah, and were likely written by a person living in Babylonia during late exilic times. Chapters 56 to 66 are called Third Isaiah, and were written by an individual living in postexilic Jerusalem. The identities of the writers of Second and Third Isaiah are not known.
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But we do know that Isaiah himself was of noble birth and lived in Jerusalem. According to the Book of Isaiah, he had a long ministry that started in the last year of the reign of King Uzziah of Judah, about 739 BCE, and lasted through three other kings of Judah, until the last year of the reign of King Hezekiah in 687 BCE.
We also know that Isaiah lived in complex, turbulent times, both politically and religiously, during the decline of the northern kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BCE and threatened the southern kingdom of Judah, as well.
Isaiah relentlessly opposed the sins of the leaders and the wealthy in Israel and Judah, condemning their arrogance and hypocrisy in exploiting the poor and corrupting justice, as follows:
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. – Isaiah 10:1–2.
Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’ – Isaiah 29:15.
Isaiah also condemned the peoples’ superstitions, idolatry, and reliance on militarism rather than trust in God. He said their kingdoms would fall. However, Isaiah sought to give comfort through his prophecies regarding the far future. Isaiah received glimpses of that future which were famously gentle, soothing, and hopeful:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord. – Isaiah 2:2‒5.
From a Baha’i perspective, these verses convey literal meanings, but in symbolic terms.
For Baha’is, the last days refer to the end of the prophetic cycle that started with Adam and ended with Muhammad, and the beginning of what the Baha’i teachings call the Cycle of Fulfillment, which started in 1844 with the Dispensations of the Bab and then of Baha’u’llah.
The mountains can refer to religion and spirituality, or to institutions. The Baha’i teachings say that the Lord’s House refers to the Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected global governing body of the Baha’i Faith. The World Centre of the Baha’i Faith and the Seat of the Universal House of Justice stands on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel – therefore, the spiritual guidance of the Baha’i Faith issues from Mount Carmel. In addition, the Lord’s house may apply to Baha’i national and local institutions, which are called National Spiritual Assemblies and Local Spiritual Assemblies. Thousands of them exist in every part of the world today.
Zion originally was the name of a hill where a Jebusite fortress stood. King David conquered this fortress town and made it his capital, Jerusalem. After David moved the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple, the Temple became known as Zion and symbolized the presence of God. Over time, the meaning of Zion expanded from the Temple Mount specifically to the Holy Land and its people in general, including Mount Carmel. The term “Jerusalem” came to indicate the renewed word of God that would issue from Zion. In his writings, Baha’u’llah elaborated on this theme:
The time foreordained unto the peoples and kindreds of the earth is now come. The promises of God, as recorded in the holy Scriptures, have all been fulfilled. Out of Zion hath gone forth the Law of God, and Jerusalem, and the hills and land thereof, are filled with the glory of His Revelation. Happy is the man that pondereth in his heart that which hath been revealed in the Books of God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.
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God’s plan for humanity may be symbolized by the house, the kingdom of God on Earth ruled by justice and equality. Baha’u’llah gave a spiritual blueprint for how a united humanity can accomplish this great goal. The peace brought by beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is the global peace, foretold by Baha’u’llah, that humankind must inevitably achieve in the course of its efforts to bring the kingdom of God to Earth.
Isaiah’s prophecy that all nations shall flow unto it is particularly fulfilled every five years when Baha’i delegates from every country travel to the Baha’i World Centre to vote for members of the Universal House of Justice. In addition, thousands of Baha’i pilgrims, visitors, and tourists come each year to visit the shrines, gardens, and offices of the Baha’i World Centre.
The light of the Lord literally means Baha’u’llah, whose name translates from the Arabic word baha to the “glory” or the “light” of God.
Twenty-five centuries ago, Isaiah foretold the reality of Zion today.
Eileen Maddocks is the author of the trilogy The Coming of the Glory: How the Hebrew Bible Reveals the Plan of God. Volume 1 was released in 2020. Volume 2 will be released in April 2022, and Volume 3 a year or two later. Her blogs and video presentations can be accessed on her website (eileenmaddocks.com).
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