About 2,500 years ago a giant of heart and soul stepped onto the stage of history, and we don’t even know his name.
The writings of this person of unknown name are found in chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah, often called Second Isaiah. The biblical book of Isaiah is really three books covering a tumultuous 200-year span in Hebrew history. By 742 BCE, when the first Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) began his prophesy, the country was in disarray. Assyria was gaining power and soon overran Israel and left Judah shaking in its shadow. The worst happened and in two waves, around 600 BCE Judah was invaded, the country laid waste, the temple destroyed and the elite of the country taken as captives to Babylon – Babylon having taken over power from Assyria.
They were a defeated and humbled people. Yahweh, their God, had failed them. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem)” (Psalm 137:1). If ever God was dead, God was dead for those people.
Not only had their God failed them, it was also their fault. The prophets, up to that point, had made it very clear that when things went wrong it was because of the people’s failure to obey the dictates of Yahweh. “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel ... You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).
After 50 years many of them had adjusted to their situation. Had not the prophet Jeremiah told them to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce?” (Jeremiah 29:5). Still, something was missing. They longed for their land and their religion.
That’s when the unknown author of Isaiah 40 to 55 appeared with a startlingly new and different message.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:1-2). To a people who had lived under a cloud of guilt and bereavement these words would come as sunshine after rain. Rather than being berated for their sins they are hearing words of comfort and forgiveness. Look up, look forward. Hope lies in the possibilities before us.
The real game changer, however, was our hero’s view of divinity. The original Hebrew divinity was a tribal, local, god. One among many others. “You shall have no other gods before me (Egodus 20:3) assumes there were other gods, but Yahweh was theirs.
Now comes a new vision of divinity. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28). God is not a local, tribal God, but the universal deity that is the creator and cause of everything.
This unknown prophet was a game-changer. He introduced a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about ultimate things. He gave us the image of an all-powerful, all-knowing, God that has shaped the thinking of the one-god religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – ever since.
Now, however, the cycle of awakening is again in progress. With the coming of the scientific age, the theistic image of God has run its course. Like the tribal image of old, it has lost its power to hold us.
Now the dark side of the resulting materialistic, rational, mind-set is staring us in the face. The pressing crisis of global warming and environmental disaster hangs over us like Damocles sword. And it is now quite clear that we are responsible. Like the Hebrews of old, we share the absence of a spiritual foundation and bear the burden of responsibility for our present crisis.
We need a new Second-Isaiah. And such a presence is appearing in many a guise. A renewed vision of a new heaven (spirituality) and a new earth is taking shape. Not one person but many. Many of the scientists, spiritual leaders, even the occasional politician, are prophets of our age. We are all one, the earth is our home, we are children of the universe.
Hear what our present day prophets are saying, and be one yourself.
Don Murray is a retired United church minister. He lives in Shortts Lake.