A scion of the royal Davidic dynasty, Isaiah became one of the preeminent prophets of Israel during the first Jewish commonwealth. Son of the prophet Amotz,1 and nephew of the Judean king Amatzia,2 he was uniquely positioned to serve as an effective prophet of G‑d, unintimidated by royalty and able to extend rebuke when necessary.3

Meet Isaiah

Although Elijah, Elisha, and other great prophets preceded Isaiah, he stands out as one of the most prominent in Jewish history.4 The Book of Isaiah comprises a full 66 chapters—the largest of all the prophetic works in the Biblical canon—and his words are cited extensively throughout the Talmud and Midrashic works.

The Sages teach that Isaiah was privy to a most sublime level of prophecy. His visions were communicated at a level and frequency that resulted in his gaining a sense of serenity such that he was less excitable about the experience. This can be compared to one who resides in the capital city and is accustomed to seeing the king and his entourage on a regular basis. Although he is near the king, being in the king’s presence does not elicit a rapturous reaction. The other prophets, however, such as Ezekiel, can be compared to those who dwell in remote villages who rarely have the opportunity to see the king. Their reaction upon seeing the king is characterized by great excitement and exuberance.5

Isaiah the Prophet

Isaiah’s spiritual stature and prophetic qualities rivaled those of Moses.6 Both comprehended the subject of their prophecy during its transmission, explains the Midrash.7 Some Jewish mystical works teach that Isaiah shared the same soul as Moses, and therefore suffered from a speech impediment.8 And according to some sources, his lifespan also paralleled Moses’ 120 years.9

Isaiah displayed remarkable humility and self-sacrifice when called upon to serve as G‑d’s emissary. Although the Jews had previously spurned prophet-delivered Divine messages, often subjecting the prophets to torture and death, Isaiah responded to G‑d’s call with alacrity and joy,10 saying, “Behold, here I am, send me!”1112

The Positive Prophet

Isaiah is recognized as a true lover of Israel.13 He took pains to find merit on behalf of Israel and sought to justify their actions.14 His righteousness and selflessness before G‑d earned him the merit of foretelling the abundant good that will be extended to the Jewish people during the Final Redemption, and the profundity of the Divine consolation they will experience after their long and difficult exile.15

The Hebrew name of Isaiah, Yeshaya,16 connotes salvation – yeshuah,17 and it was Isaiah who conveyed G‑d’s message of hope and deliverance for all time.18 “The book of Isaiah,” says the Talmud, “is consolation in its entirety.”19 While Moses chastised the people saying, “And you will be dispersed amongst the nations,” Isaiah foretold, “And it shall come to pass on that day. . .[that] those lost in the land of Assyria and those exiled in the land of Egypt shall come [back].”20 Isaiah’s prophecies carry a predominantly positive message, within whose tapestry is interwoven stern warnings of the impending destruction of the Temple. But even his prophecies containing ominous messages allude to consolation as well.21

Isaiah tried to couch his messages in terms that could be absorbed by the people. When he prophesied the good that awaited the righteous and the darkness that would befall the evil, the Jews asked, “What is holding back the arrival of the good, when will the ‘morning’ arrive?”

Isaiah answered, “As soon as you desire it, G‑d is willing.”

“What is withholding it?” they pressed further.

Teshuvah,” said Isaiah, your heartfelt return to G‑d.22

The positive influence of Isaiah’s prophecies reverberated well beyond his lifetime. The sages teach that they neutralized, to some degree, all the ominous prophecies about the Temple’s destruction delivered by Jeremiah many years later.23

Notable Prophecies

The 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah do not follow chronological order.24 This is evident from the placement of the sixth chapter—regarding King Uziyahu (646 – 594 BCE), which preceded the prophecy of chapter one—addressing King Achaz, who lived later (578-562 BCE). When King Uziyahu attempted to perform the incense burning sacrifice in the Beit Hamikdash—a function reserved specifically for kohanim (priests)—he was struck with leprosy and seriously incapacitated.25 On that very day, Isaiah delivered his first prophecy.26

Isaiah’s prophecies were generally directed at the Jewish people, but some related to the surrounding non-Jewish nations as well. For example, he addressed the destinies of Babylonia,27 Moab,28 Egypt,29 Edom,30 Tyre,31 and others.

Regarding Sennacherib

For years, Isaiah prophesied that G‑d would send an invader to the Jewish people as retribution for their sins. Finally, during the kingship of Hezekiah, it came to pass.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded the Land of Israel. He swept through the kingdom of Judah, conquering every fortified city until he reached Jerusalem and laid siege to it. Inside Jerusalem, the mood was dark. The king, Hezekiah, was inclined to listen to his advisors and surrender. Isaiah, however, exhorted him not to; G‑d would protect them.32

That night, the entire Assyrian army was miraculously annihilated. In the span of only a few hours, the situation went from bleak to bright, just as Isaiah had foretold.

Hezekiah’s Health

One of the well-known episodes involving the prophecy of Isaiah conveys the important principle governing prophecy in general: that G‑d may suspend a negative prophecy if humankind responds to it with repentance.33

The Talmud34 relates that King Hezekiah became deathly ill and inquired of Isaiah as to the reason for his predicament. Isaiah informed him that he was to die for failing to adequately procreate. When Hezekiah protested that he had done so to avoid having evil progeny, a fate he had portended through prophetic vision, Isaiah chided him saying, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He? One must perform his obligations to G‑d and allow G‑d to do as He decides.”

When King Hezekiah asked Isaiah for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Isaiah informed him that the decree of his death had already been issued and was now irreversible. Hezekiah dismissed Isaiah’s conclusions, contending that “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, one should not prevent himself from praying for mercy.” One may still hold out hope that his prayers will be answered.

Hezekiah prayed and was granted many more years of life. He married Isaiah’s daughter, and their son Menashe ultimately inherited the throne of Judah. As feared, Menashe perpetrated some of the darkest evils imaginable.35

Prophecies of Hope

Many of Isaiah’s hopeful and uplifting messages have been captured in the collective liturgy of the Jewish people and enshrined in our daily prayers.

It is customary—in many communities—to conclude each of the daily prayers with these words, uttered by Isaiah:36

[They] contrive a scheme, but it will be foiled; conspire a plot, but it will not materialize, for G‑d is with us.

During the Purim episode, Jewish children who had committed these words to memory proclaimed them before Mordechai when he inquired as to what they had studied. When asked by Haman, “What have those children told you that you find so amusing?” Mordechai answered, “They have brought me good tidings!”37

Isaiah’s call for the Jewish people to return to G‑d, for the wicked to abandon their evil path, and for all people to seek out G‑d when He is close,38 is a mainstay of the haftarah that is read on all public fast days. It speaks of the glorious Time to Come when all the nations of the earth will recognize G‑d as the ultimate sovereign and seek His teachings as they emanate from Jerusalem (“For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of G‑d from Jerusalem”),39 where they will worship Him.40

The words of Isaiah’s vision of peace among the nations are emblazoned upon buildings and edifices the world over, allowing humankind to dare dream of better times:

..and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.41

And a wolf shall live with a lamb, and a leopard shall lie with a kid; and a calf and a lion cub and a fatling [shall lie] together, and a small child shall lead them. And a cow and a bear shall graze together, their children shall lie; and a lion, like cattle, shall eat straw. And an infant shall play over the hole of an old snake and over the eyeball of an adder, a weaned child shall stretch forth his hand. They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the land shall be full of knowledge of the L‑rd as water covers the sea bed.42

Isaiah's Death

The wicked King Menashe alleged that Isaiah’s prophecies were in stark contradiction to the teachings of Moses43and amounted to heresy.44 Under this pretext, he had Isaiah put to death.45

Due to his premature passing, Isaiah was deprived of the opportunity to transcribe his prophecies, as most prophets did before their death. Instead, King Hezekiah’s aides, inspired by his teachings,46 committed them to writing.47

According to some sources, Isaiah was buried in [the old city of] Jerusalem as an exception to the rule barring burial of the dead in Jerusalem.48