Through Advent With Isaiah

Jesaja_(Michelangelo)

“The Prophet Isaiah” by Michelangelo (c. 1511), one of the seven Old Testament prophets painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, in the Vatican

It’s the First Sunday of Advent. The Book of the prophet Isaiah is always one of the sources for readings in the season at Morning and Evening Prayer in Advent, and has been for a very long time. I will attempt in the next 24 days to briefly say a few things about the prophet and the texts as we work our way to Christmas.

The first reading today in the Revised Common Lectionary for Holy Communion is from Isaiah 2.1-5:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
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 any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah identifies himself as the son of Amos. From other information we learn that he lived in the mid-8th on, perhaps from 740 BCE to about 686 BCE. There is no good reason to think that he was not an historical figure – he really did live.

This is a hopeful, forward looking vision. Isaiah sees Jerusalem not as it was in his time, a small town which served as the cultic centre of the small nation known as Judea, but as he hoped it would be – the pilgrimage destination of all the nations of the world, where peoples would gather to receive instruction from the Lord, leading to the resolution of conflicts and the coming of peace.

Jerusalem today is the a holy city and centre of three world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whose total population today is some 3.8 billion. So Isaiah’s vision has been partially fulfilled. However, it is also a city of deep divisions, not just between these three religions of Abraham, but within them as well. Jerusalem has been fought over repeatedly in the past century, and in my living memory it was a divided city. The vision of Jerusalem as the City of Peace (one interpretation of its Hebrew name) is still a distant vision.

Curiously, this passage is also found, with some differences, in Micah 4.1-7 (which was today’s first reading at Morning Prayer). This suggests that the text is allusive and complex. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah’s, but they do not refer to each other except by sharing this common text. The prophetic message of Micah is similar to what is in Isaiah, but the text of the book is much shorter, only seven chapters.

Isaiah is a prophet of hope. He is also a prophet of warning. We’ll start looking into this more tomorrow.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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