The readings this week begin and end with the prophet Isaiah. Let’s take our cue from that.
On Monday, Isaiah chapter 1 opens with a clear-eyed condemnation of worship that had become an empty show — all outward ritual and no care for the poor. On Saturday, the Gospel of Matthew closes with a quotation from Isaiah chapter 42, showing its fulfillment in Jesus. Reflecting on Isaiah’s prophetic work can teach us something about facing our own times with faith, hope and courage.
Isaiah didn’t live in easy times! He received the prophetic call in the year 742 BC. His prophetic career spanned three kingships and occurred in the midst of the Assyrian crisis — which saw the Northern kingdom of Israel destroyed in 722 BC, followed by Assyrian forces marching right up to the walls of Jerusalem in 701 BC. He warned the people to reform their ways; they didn’t listen, which led to trouble. He warned King Ahaz not to ally himself with Assyria; he didn’t listen, which led to trouble. He warned King Hezekiah not to ally himself with Egypt against Assyria; he didn’t listen, which led to trouble.
The nation was careening from one moral and political and religious disaster to another, headed toward the greatest of all Old Testament disasters — the Babylonian Exile. There was more than enough reason for Isaiah to become bitter and discouraged.
And yet, right in the midst of all that darkness, Isaiah gave some of the most profound prophecies of the Messiah that we have from the Old Testament. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call him Emmanuel.” “A child is born to us, a son is given us … they name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” “He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.”
In Isaiah’s prophetic vision, the darkness of his own times wasn’t all that was happening. The darkness was real. But even in the midst of it God was working, drawing His people toward purification and healing.
If Isaiah had looked at the darkness with merely human eyes he would simply have raged against his time. But because he received the prophetic vision of God in faith, he could name the sins and errors of his time both with great clarity and with great hope. That hope fostered — and can still foster — the courage to keep working because we see that human sin, though it has its power, doesn’t get the last word. God does.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Old Testament has a twofold value: in itself, as the record of God’s relationship with His people, and in pointing toward the New Testament, where that relationship is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
This week, I wonder if we might add something else. The Old Testament — as exemplified by Isaiah — gives us a pattern for approaching our own dark times with faith, hope and courage.