The greatest of the Hebrew prophets of whom literary monuments remain. He resided at Jerusalem, and so contrasts with Micah, the prophet of the country districts. He was married (Isa. viii. 3), and had children (vii. 3, viii. 3). His bearing indicates that he could maintain his dignity in the highest society, as is shown by his freedom toward Ahaz (vii.) and his acquaintance with Uriah, the chief priest (viii. 2). The heading in Isa. i. 1 refers to Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah as the kings under whom he prophesied. This and similar headings, however, have no historical authority, being the work of later writers whose statements had no documentary basis and were purely inferential. It is true, moreover, that no prophecy can be shown to be as early as Uzziah's time, except indeed the kernel of ch. vi. "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord," etc. (vi. 1, R. V.), seems to come from a cycle of prophetic narratives, some of which (comp. viii. 1-3, 5; ii. 16), rightly or wrongly, claimed the authorship of Isaiah. Certainly the whole man is reflected in the grand vision of ch. vi. No personal consideration holds him back (contrast Jeremiah) from offering himself as the Lord's spokesman, and though assured that no exhortation will affect the callous consciences of his hearers, he still goes in and out among his people as if hope existed; and perhaps (human nature is inconsistent) hope still persisted even when reason altogether denied its right.
The story of him who "by vileness made the great refusal" (to apply Dante's well-known words), who might have led his people to social and personal reformation, by the wise counsel of the prophet, is recorded in ch. vii. Isaiah was no statesman, and yet the advice which he gave the king was as good from a political as from a religious point of view. For why should Ahaz pay Assyria for doing work whichan enlightened regard for its own interest would certainly impel it to perform? Why should he take the silver and gold in the Temple and in the palace, and send it as tribute to the Assyrian king?
It is to be noted that in ch. viii. Isaiah's wife is called "the prophetess." By her solidarity with her husband she is detached from the unholy people among whom she dwells, and made, as it were, sacrosanct. His children, too, are "signs and omens" of divine appointment; and one may conjecture that if Isaiah ever pictured the worst disaster coming to Jerusalem, he saw himself and his family, like Lot of old, departing in safety (for some work reserved for them by God) from the doomed city. Ch. xx. describes the strange procedure by which Isaiah, as it were, "gave an acted prediction" of the fate in store for Mizraim and Cush (Egypt and Ethiopia), or, as others think, for Mizrim and Cush (North Arabia), on which the peoples of Palestine had counted so much as allies. From ch. xxxvi.-xxxix., perhaps, much assistance can not be expected in the biography of Isaiah, for in their present form they are certainly rather late. No more can be said of Isaiah from direct documentary information. His words are his true biography. In them is seen the stern, unbending nature of the man, who loved his people much, but his God more.
Isaiah has all the characteristics of a classic writer—terseness, picturesqueness, and originality. But was he also a poet? It is hard to think so. Could such a man condescend to the arts necessary to the very existence of poetry? Isa. xxxvii. 22-29 is assigned to him. But the narration in which it is placed is thought by many critics to be late, and the phraseology of the poem itself seems to point away from Isaiah. On the late tradition of the martyrdom of Isaiah in the reign of Manasseh see Isaiah, Ascension of.
According to the Rabbis Isaiah was a descendant of Judah and Tamar (Soṭah 10b). His father was a prophet and the brother of King Amaziah (Meg. 15a). While Isaiah, says the Midrash, was walking up and down in his study he heard God saying, "Whom shall I send ?" Then Isaiah said, "Here am I; send me!" Thereupon God said to him," My children are trouble-some and sensitive; if thou art ready to be insulted and even beaten by them, thou mayest accept My message; if not, thou wouldst better renounce it" (Lev. R. x.). Isaiah accepted the mission, and was the most forbearing, as well as the most ardent patriot, among the Prophets, always defending Israel and imploring forgiveness for its sins. He was therefore distinguished from all other prophets in that he received his communications directly from God and not through an intermediary (ib.). When Isaiah said, "I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (vi. 5) he was rebuked by God for speaking in such terms of His people (Cant. R. i. 6).
In the order of greatness Isaiah is placed immediately after Moses by the Rabbis; in some respects Isaiah surpasses even Moses, for he reduced the commandments to six: honesty in dealing; sincerity in speech; refusal of illicit gain; absence of corruption; aversion for bloody deeds; contempt for evil (Mak. 24a). Later he reduced the six to two—justice and charity (ib.). The chief merit of Isaiah's prophecies is their consoling character, for while Moses said, "Thou shalt perish in the midst of the nation," Isaiah announced deliverance. Ezekiel's consoling addresses compared with Isaiah's are as the utterances of a villager to the speech of a courtier (Ḥag. 14a). Therefore consolation is awaiting him who sees Isaiah in a dream (Ber. 57b).
It is related in the Talmud that Rabbi Simeon ben 'Azzai found in Jerusalem an account wherein it was written that Manasseh killed Isaiah. Manasseh said to Isaiah, "Moses, thy master, said, 'There shall no man see God and live' [Ex. xxxiii. 20, Hebr.]; but thou hast said, 'I saw the Lord seated upon his throne'" (Isa. vi. 1, Hebr.); and went on to point out other contradictions—as between Deut. iv. 7 and Isa. lv. 6; between Ex. xxxiii. 26 and II Kings xx. 6. Isaiah thought: "I know that he will not accept my explanations; why should I increase his guilt?" He then uttered the Unpronounceable Name, a cedar-tree opened, and Isaiah disappeared within it. Then Manasseh ordered the cedar to be sawn asunder, and when the saw reached his mouth Isaiah died; thus was he punished for having said, "I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips" (Yeb. 49b). A somewhat different version of this legend is given in the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin x.). According to that version Isaiah, fearing Manasseh, hid himself in a cedar-tree, but his presence was betrayed by the fringes of his garment, and Manasseh caused the tree to be sawn in half. A passage of the Targum to Isaiah quoted by Jolowicz ("Die Himmelfahrt und Vision des Prophets Jesajas," p. 8) states that when Isaiah fled from his pursuers and took refuge in the tree, and the tree was sawn in half, the prophet's blood spurted forth. From Talmudical circles the legend of Isaiah's martyrdom was transmitted to the Arabs ("Ta'rikh," ed. De Goeje, i. 644).