The Advent in Isaiah: Part I
Isaiah is “the most evangelical of the prophets,” a seventeenth century Anglican Divine, Anthony Sparrow, observes. And, certainly, of all the prophets it is safe to say that Isaiah is, perhaps, the best known and, perhaps, even the most read of all of the Books of the Prophets, at least in the liturgies of the Church, and the one prophet, too, whose words have inspired some of the greatest music of all times. One has only to think of Handel’s Messiah or many of the Bach cantatas.
In the Advent season particularly, readings from The Book of the Prophet Isaiah stand out and compel our attention. Readings from Isaiah, for instance, are prominent in the wonderful service of Advent Lessons and Carols. In the season of the preparation for the celebration of Christ’s holy birth, images and phrases from Isaiah help to shape our understanding of the mystery and the wonder of the Incarnation. For that reason The Book of Isaiah is read at the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and in the Sunday Offices throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons and into Epiphany. There is, it seems, a prophetic conjunction between Isaiah and the central themes of the Christian Gospel.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah spans at least two centuries and while it is all collectively The Book of Isaiah, it is probably the work of several writers over several centuries from the latter half of the 8th century to the latter half of the 6th century BC. The scholarly consensus, more or less, is that The Book of Isaiah is best appreciated as three books or one book having three distinct sections: First Isaiah, chapters 1-39; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55; and, Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66. Readings from each of these three divisions of the book figure prominently in the Christian Church’s understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation.
We may take four passages as examples of ‘the Advent in Isaiah’: Isaiah 11.1-9; Isaiah 60.1-6; Isaiah 7.10-15; and Isaiah 40.1-11. The first two will be the focus for this session; the last two at the next.