Prophetic Formulas (Part 1): Yeshaya & The Assyrian Sequence

Neviim are called to act as godly agents of history. Prophetic rhetoric procedurally harnesses ongoing historical developments to hopefully shape a substandard historical present into an envisioned holy future. As a result, despite the connotatively inadequate appellation of “prophets,” Neviim are far more concerned with the present than the future1. While the Neviim of different time periods respond to their own unique historical circumstances, sometimes certain fundamental commonalities underlie their futuristic visions. In this short series we will contend with one such underlying commonality which lies imbedded within the historical visualizations of the Neviim Yechezkel and Yeshaya. When distilled of their historically incidental and circumstantial overlay, what skeletally remains are essentially parallel prophetic “equations” for their immediate futures. Both Neviim attempted to implement and actualize this historical formula to its fullest extent in their own historical contexts, though neither succeeded. The presence of a common historical formula is, once pointed out, not exactly shocking, as both Neviim, though separated by over a century, remain employed by the same God. What remains notable is the specific extent of the commonalities, which we will lay bare, and the common misconceptions concerning the particularly iconic Yechezkel section in question, more commonly known as “Gog u’Magog”.

We will begin with Yeshaya. Based on all we have been saying about the role of the Prophet, it follows that the historical superscription at the opening of a sefrei nevuah is crucial to understanding the rhetoric of the neviim it represents.

Isaiah 1:1:

חֲזוֹן, יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן-אָמוֹץ, אֲשֶׁר חָזָה, עַל-יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם--בִּימֵי עֻזִּיָּהוּ יוֹתָם אָחָז יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ, מַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days of Uzziah, Yotham, Achaz, and Chizkiyahu, kings of Yehuda.

This period of time, in its fullest possible extent, lies from about 180-100 years prior to the destruction of the First Temple. Though the reigns of the earlier two kings, Uzziah and Yotham, were marked by ardent military success and unqualified victorious endeavor, if certain spiritual shortcomings, the latter kings, Achaz and Chizkiyahu, faced catastrophic foreign military threats. Due to dire circumstances, the nation of Yehuda under Achaz became an Assyrian vassal-state in exchange for military protection provided by the Empire, the regional superpower at the time.

This state of affairs lasted until Achaz’s son Chizkiyahu succeeded him and openly revolted against Assyrian authority, prompting a devastating Assyrian retaliatory invasion of Yehuda. Ultimately, Jerusalem itself became the last Judean bastion, every other fortified city having already been conquered by Assyria. However, one night the Assyrian army encamped around the city suffered miraculous losses at the hand of a malach (angel) of God, and Jerusalem was saved.

Let us begin in Yeshaya chapter 6, wherein the Navi, within this historical context, receives his prophetic mission in a splendorous vision of God’s celestial throne room. The relevant charge, given in 6:9-13, provides the Navi with a rough timeline of imminent events and his part in setting these sequential events into motion:

Isaiah 6:9-13:

ט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֵךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ לָעָם הַזֶּה: שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמוֹעַ וְאַל-תָּבִינוּ, וּרְאוּ רָאוֹ וְאַל-תֵּדָעוּ. י הַשְׁמֵן לֵב-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְאָזְנָיו הַכְבֵּד וְעֵינָיו הָשַׁע: פֶּן-יִרְאֶה בְעֵינָיו וּבְאָזְנָיו יִשְׁמָע, וּלְבָבוֹ יָבִין וָשָׁב--וְרָפָא לוֹ. יא וָאֹמַר, עַד-מָתַי אֲדֹנָי; וַיֹּאמֶר עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם-שָׁאוּ עָרִים מֵאֵין יוֹשֵׁב, וּבָתִּים מֵאֵין אָדָם, וְהָאֲדָמָה, תִּשָּׁאֶה שְׁמָמָה. יב וְרִחַק יְהוָה, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וְרַבָּה הָעֲזוּבָה, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ. יג וְעוֹד בָּהּ עֲשִׂרִיָּה, וְשָׁבָה וְהָיְתָה לְבָעֵר: כָּאֵלָה וְכָאַלּוֹן, אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁלֶּכֶת מַצֶּבֶת בָּם--זֶרַע קֹדֶשׁ, מַצַּבְתָּהּ

9 And He said: 'Go, and tell this people: hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. 10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, and understanding with their heart, return, and be healed.' 11 Then said I: 'Lord, how long?' And He answered: 'Until cities be waste without inhabitant, and houses without man, and the land become utterly waste, 12 And the LORD have removed men far away, and the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land. 13 And if there be yet a tenth in it, it shall again be eaten up; as a terebinth, and as an oak, whose stock remaineth, when they cast their leaves, so the holy seed shall be the stock thereof.'

A. God tells the Navi to sabotage the understanding and perception of the nation, lest they rally their cause and perform effective repentance.
B. The ensured lack of penitence will cause a devastating Divine punishment to be inflicted upon the nation.
C. The surviving national remnant of this disaster will again be Divinely persecuted.
D. Finally, like a felled tree from which a vital stump remains, the remnant will experience a holy regrowth.

All the material Yeshaya provides in chapters 1-39 must be viewed through the formulaic prism of this basic prophetic sequence. The holy regrowth in the final step, contextually, represents the Messianic Era, a threshold achieved through the national actualization of highly virtuous behavior, both societally and religiously. It is the charge of every Navi to attempt to usher the nation past this threshold through calls for reformation and repentance, a fairly unpopular post. Unusually, the behavioral situation in Yeshaya’s historical context has deteriorated to the point where God upends the standard prophetic routine. The new plan is to actively drive the nation away from penitence, generating a cataclysmic national punishment. The disaster will act as a purging method of judgment, as well as force the nation to genuinely return to God in supplication and penitence borne from desperation. This will ensure that the righteous remnant which survives, following two stages of refining annihilation, will have returned wholeheartedly to God and allow them to achieve the redemptive Messianic Era.

On the ground, this underlying sequence plays out ubiquitously in Yeshaya’s subsequent speeches, wherein he presents seemingly mundane geopolitical events as components of the Divine formula he has received. This represents an essential public role of the Navi, the ability to perceptively reveal history as Divine action and reaction. Where the nation sees international politics, the Navi sees the hand of God playing out an equation, and must convey this perception to his audience. Let us examine the material from 10:5 through the end of chapter 11 as a paradigmatic manifestation of this formula.

A. Unfortunately not explicit here (can’t be too easy), though more than clear elsewhere (28:13, 29:9-14) is the deliberate confounding of the nation which sets the sequence in motion.
B. 10:5-19; The regional superpower at the time, the invincible Assyrian Empire, unknowingly at the behest of God, lays siege to Jerusalem, the absolute last Judean bastion to survive the Assyrian onslaught. This speech is spoken from within the newly laid siege, so subsequent steps are still prophetically theoretical.
C. The Navi looks ahead to when, following the resolution of the invasion, a “שְׁאָר יָשׁוּב שְׁאָר יַעֲקֹב--אֶל-אֵל גִּבּוֹר”, (A remnant shall return, the remnant of Jacob, unto God the Mighty).
C2. Following, or perhaps in tandem with, this return is 11:1, wherein “וְיָצָא חֹטֶר מִגֵּזַע יִשָׁי”, And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, meaning, a Messianic king from the Davidic line. The righteous king will act as a global unifier, leading to a universal recognition of God, the ingathering of the exiled Northern Tribes, and the destruction of enemies. It is abundantly clear from context that Chizkiyahu, the righteous and prophetically lauded King reigning during these events, was envisioned as ideally filling this role. The occurrence of his character may have theoretically been the impetus which motivated God to, as is usually not the case, aggressively force the nation towards the Messianic, because a king who could realistically act as the necessary Messianic catalyst is a particularly rare opportunity.

As the historical appendix (Ch. 36-37) describes, following Chizkiyahu’s prayer, the Assyrian army is miraculously decimated and Jerusalem is saved, but no remnant returned, and the Messianic threshold was not achieved.

The troublesome question, which we will contend with in the future, remains: what of the second stage of disaster? The sequence we just examined in Chapters 10-11 only accounts for a single stage of Assyrian disaster, though a second stage is specified in the outline Yeshaya receives in chapter 6. Even on the still theoretical plane, Yeshaya here and throughout his 39 chapters — while otherwise adhering closely to the presented sequence — omits this particular step of the formula. To enlighten us to that effect, we will have to examine another prophetic formula, more popularly known as “Gog u’Magog” from Sefer Yechezkel.

1. For a more elaborated exposition of this role, see my introduction to Sefer Amos.

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