Isaiah and the Messianic Era

Before reading this essay, it might be helpful to take a look at chapters two and eleven from the Book of Isaiah:

Despite what one might expect, the book of Isaiah is not a narration of past or future events. Of course our prophet was sometimes shown what lay ahead for the Jewish people and he did often include rather vague references to these events among his moral lessons. But even moderate familiarity with the material makes it clear that storytelling does not lie at the core of Isaiah’s message. This is true of the book in general and it is no less true of those many passages dealing specifically with the messianic age.

So what are we to learn from Isaiah’s messianic teachings?

Let’s explore from three angles:

  • the transition from “this world” to the “next”
  • the attributes unique to the new era (once it has fully materialized), and
  • the human qualities that will characterize the messiah himself and his mission.

The Transition

Redemption (גאולה) is going to happen.

“Do not fear for I am with you, from the east I will bring your children and from the west will I gather you. I will say to the north ‘give’ and to the south ‘do not withhold, bring my sons to me from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth.'” (43:5-6)

Redemption will bring vast changes.1 Jerusalem is to be told…

“Raise your eyes about you and see how all of them are gathering to come to you, your sons from afar will come, your daughters will be raised at (your) side. (60:4)

The midrash (Yalkut #500) illustrates:

“‘Raise your eyes and see…’ at that time the Holy one, blessed be He, will bring Eliyahu and Messiah with a jar of (anointing) oil in their hands and their staffs in their hands, and all Israel will gather before them, the Divine Presence to their front, the prophets to their rear, the Torah to their right and the heavenly angels to their left. They will accompany them to the Valley of Yehoshafat and all the nations will be gathered there, as it is written (Joel 4:2) ‘and I will gather all the nations and take them down to the Valley of Yehoshafat and I will judge them there concerning My people and inheritance, Israel, who have been scattered among the nations, and my land, their portion.'”

Whichever way this is to be precisely understood, we are expected, at the very least, to visualize a time in which God’s historical role and authority will be plainly clear to every eye. No longer will Divine Glory lie unattended and ignored.

“And the glory of God will be revealed and all flesh together will see that the mouth of God has spoken.” (40:5)

All the prophetic promises for redemption will be fulfilled. Both for those whose faith had weakened in the face of growing doubt and for those who ridiculed and fought against it, redemption will authenticate once and for all the Torah’s historical vision. The emotional impact of Israel’s miraculous return to the independent and peaceful settlement of their land will restore the inner conviction needed to create an ideal Torah society.

Israel’s international reputation will similarly be rehabilitated, as the nations will respond in disbelief (see 53:1-3). No longer will Israel be the nations’ scapegoat. The entire world will join the joyous celebration:

“For with joy you will go out (from exile) and in peace you will come in (to your land), the mountains and hills will break into joyous song before you and all the trees of the forest will clap hands.” (55:12)

Great changes are indeed awaiting us. But what will spark them? How will they begin?

Intense Torah Life

“Awake! Awake! Wrap yourself in your strength, O Zion. Wrap yourself in the clothes of your glory, Jerusalem the holy city, for no more will the uncircumcised and impure enter you. Shake off the dust, rise, captive Jerusalem! Release the chains from your neck, imprisoned Daughter of Zion.” (52:1-2)

This is it. These are the words that call to Israel to rise from their exile. But who will speak these words? How will we hear? And how are we to respond? Isaiah continues:

“For thus said the Lord: ‘for nothing were you sold and without money will you be redeemed'” (52:3)

You were not sold into exile for God’s profit, but as a direct result of your sins. Your redemption too will come not through the payment of some ransom, but from the removal of your sins…teshuva. This call to cast off the corruption and filth of exile is the real the meaning of “Awake! Awake!” From whose mouth will the call come? From Isaiah’s and those of his fellow prophets. We’ve known the words all along; the call has reverberated without stop through the centuries. The process has begun and will be complete as soon as we sufficiently change:

“Today, if you will but listen to His voice.” (Psalms 95:7)2

It would therefore seem that everything hangs on the state of the Jews’ relationship with their Torah. But such knowledge only has value if it can be applied in some practical way. Just saying “improve” is too vague. Even generations led by outstanding individuals needed a narrower focus. That’s why, for instance, Isaiah urged his own generation to focus primarily on six principles, praising…

“One who walks with righteousness and speaks honestly, despises the profits of corruption, shakes bribes from his hand, seals his ear before capital evidence and shuts his eyes from seeing evil.” (33:15 – see also Makkos 24a)

What then are Isaiah’s specific suggestions for the generation of redemption – or, more practically, for any generation that seeks to make itself the generation of redemption?

“The poor and the helpless seek water but there is none; their tongues are weak from thirst. I am the Lord, I will answer them; the God of Israel, I will not abandon them. I will channel rivers upon (barren) heights and in valleys (I will channel) springs. I will turn the wilderness into a lush meadow and a parched land into springs of water” (41:17-18)

We have no reason to assume that our land will not benefit from such physical improvements, but these words are also to be read as a metaphor:

“The prophet foretells the end of days…(in which Israel) will wander in search of the Word of God and not find it. But when His anger will subside, He will prepare for them ‘bread and water’…(meaning, greater) understanding of Torah and the prophets.” (Rashi)

Simple Torah study and observance aren’t enough. God, it would seem, anxiously desires that we also thirst for them. We must long for Torah knowledge and feel pain in its absence. Is this not the first element of the program that will define the generation of redemption?

What else can trigger redemption?


“Turn, turn! Leave that place, do not touch what is defiled! Go from it’s midst, protect those who carry God’s vessels. For not in haste shall you leave, nor quickly shall you travel, for the Lord goes before you and the God of Israel gathers you.” (52:11-12)

The prophet warns us to avoid defilement even as we leave our exile. Presumably he was worried we might allow the alien values of the nations among whom we’ve lived to dilute our religious loyalty. But isn’t it a bit strange to show this concern just now, in our very last moments among the nations and just as we, so to speak, cross the threshold from exile for the last time? At a time when our rescue and historic triumph are finally within reach, will we not be the least susceptible to outside influence?

What follows? “For not in haste shall you leave…” Exile’s end shall be a gradual and deliberate process free of confusion and panic. It won’t be an escape, but a step-by-step program with plenty of opportunity for careful, thoughtful planning. No excuses. No room to claim ignorance.

Why? Is it not that God expects us to use this time to put our spiritual lives in order? Will we not analyze our behavior and even our thoughts to weed out whatever doesn’t belong? Could this not be the right time to comprehensively reassess even the way we study Torah and the way we observe mitzvos? We’ve picked up a lot of baggage through our adventures of the past thousands of years: some of it will fit redemption quite nicely but other parts will have to go.

Isaiah, then, is calling for an historical period of self-analysis. When will it start? In the very first moments of redemption as we begin to pack our things for our greatest journey. Or perhaps more accurately: the packing and the journey will begin once we’ve begun our introspection.

Enhancing God’s Glory

All of creation will celebrate the end of our exile which, in turn, will bring greater glory to God.

“Rejoice O heavens for God has acted, let the lowest land trumpet. The mountains will break out in joy (along with) the forest and every tree in it, for God has redeemed Jacob and through Israel He will be glorified.” (44:23 – see Radak both here and to 46:13)

Without doubting the simple truth of these words, we are justified in wondering what benefit there is for us in hearing them. Aren’t there countless profound matters spread throughout God’s universe of which we’re not aware? Why did Isaiah consider this one crucial?

Perhaps we’re meant to emulate the natural world: if even mountains are portrayed bursting with joy at the greatness of the moment – thereby enhancing God’s glory in this world – shouldn’t we follow their lead? More to the point, could an active, conscious effort to adopt a broader and deeper love for God both for ourselves and among our neighbors and friends not be part of redemption’s very purpose? Could its practice therefore not jump-start the whole process?


“Man will be brought down and the powerful will be humbled, do not favor them. Come beneath a rock and hide in the dust from fear of God and from the glory of His greatness.” (2:9-10)

As redemption will produce a greater sensitivity to Godliness, more will be expected of us. Our public actions will thus be measured against a much higher standard.3 Somehow – whether through miraculous intervention, the creation of an official institution (like Sanhedrin) or even common communal consensus, the Torah’s morality will gain currency and those who have fallen short of its demands will face consequences.

“For this is the day set for God of Hosts on all the haughty and overbearing and on the (dishonestly) elevated, that he shall be humbled. And on all the ceders of Lebanon, the overbearing and the elevated and on all the trees of the Bashan.” (2:12-13)

The powerful who abused their positions for personal gain and the arrogant who thought themselves above the law will be the primary targets of this social restructuring. Presumably, authority will now be entrusted only with those who will reliably yield it for the common good.

“And they will come into rocky caves and into tunnels (beneath the) earth out of fear of God and the glory of His greatness when He will rise to smash the land. On that day a man will hurl into animal holes his idols of silver and idols of gold that were made for him to worship. To (flee) into rock cracks and cliff-side caves our of fear of God and of the glory of His greatness when He will rise to smash the land.” (2: 19-21)

One transformative effect of God’s messianic judgment will be the stark realization of the gap between current and ideal behavior. Until it happens, we can’t know if this change will occur all at once or gradually over the course of years, but these verses teach us that even the most hardened enemies of God’s morality will eventually be overcome with shame, remorse and fear. The most trusted and precious instruments of their pre-redemption lives (“idols of silver and idols of gold”) will be hurriedly abandoned in the rush to hide.

The Messianic Era

In National Life

It’s no secret that the time of redemption will be characterized by widespread peace. Isaiah may not clearly tell us how or exactly when this peace will arrive, nor even if it will necessarily envelop the entire world, but he does seem to suggest that it will come through specifically peaceful means – and not with the violence of force. War, in other words, won’t be beaten out of existence, but its many incentives will disappear.

“For the nation and kingdom which will not serve you4 will be lost and the nations (will be) destroyed.” (60:12)

The Daas Sofrim notes the passive-voice grammatical construct of יֹאבֵדוּ (“will be lost”) and יֶחֱרָבוּ (“will be destroyed”) and draws the obvious conclusion that these nations will lose their independent identities through some evolutionary process reflecting, perhaps, a failure of will or loss of purpose rather than in a final catastrophic war.

Similarly, even long-standing – and often violent – divisions between Jews will lose their underlying impulse:

“The jealousy of Ephraim will retreat and Judah’s oppressors will be cut, Ephraim will no longer be jealous of Judah and Judah will no longer oppress Ephraim.” (11:13)

Without jealousy, why fight?5

Still, conflict can sometimes exist even without the destructive presence of jealousy. Even decent, rational people can sometimes raise legitimate territorial or political claims amongst each other. It would seem that the messianic age will provide an answer to even that possibility: Justice.

“And he (Messiah) will judge between the nations and rebuke many peoples and they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruners, no nation will raise sword to another and they will no longer learn warfare.” (2:4)

The Torah’s message of fairness will be so powerful that distant nations will find themselves drawn to its guidance.

Beyond peace, the messianic years promise good, stable government – and this is something whose significant benefits are often overlooked. If concern for public welfare is pursued with greater urgency than any other goal then there’s at least the chance that Right will be done.

“The wolf and the lamb will graze as one and the lion along with cattle will eat straw. And the snake’s bread will be dust, he will not do harm nor destroy anywhere on My holy mount, says the Lord.” (65:25)

If, however, a leader serves himself and his social class first, life will quickly become very difficult for a great many citizens

Note the reference in the above passage to the lion feeding on straw (something currently entirely unnatural). The Talmud6 offers this rather obscure, but apparently related, observation:

“It was said in the study house of Rabbi Yannai: ‘a lion does not roar from (eating) a box of straw but, instead, from a box of meat.'”

With the words “a lion does not roar…” (אין ארי נוהם) there is no doubt that the sages were subtly referring to this passage in Proverbs7:

“The lion roars and the bear mauls (as) an evil ruler lusts for his helpless people.”

Meaning that a leader who seeks to use his population for his own private benefit is compared to a roaring lion – inspiring dread among all who hear. According to the Talmud mentioned above, this roar – along with its attendant corruption, will only be heard after a good box of meat. In Messianic times, so to speak, leaders will “feed” exclusively on straw – a “diet” designed to produce mild and caring individuals.

In Private Life

Exile (גלות) brought our people such a steady torrent of troubles that they came to appear almost normal. Yet when the frightening details of our threatened exile were first announced, they must have represented a significant departure from previous experience or at least from previous expectations (why else would they be effective as threats?). Here’s a small illustrative sample:

“A woman you will betroth but another man will take her, a house you will build but in it you will not live, a vineyard you will plant but you will not enjoy even its first harvest. Your bull will be slaughtered before you but you will not eat from it, your donkey will be stolen from before you and not returned, your flock will be given to your enemies and no one will stand up for you. Your sons and daughters will be given to another people and your eyes will seek vainly (for their return) but you will have no strength. ” (Deuteronomy 28:30-32)

Our subsequent national history has repeatedly proven these predictions correct. There have been times and places through the millennia – perhaps representing the majority of our experience – in which the insecurity and helplessness described by those verses were all too recognizable.

Perhaps, though, suffering and insecurity aren’t actually man’s natural state. Perhaps we only face them when they are the only method through which God’s desires for us can be achieved. Perhaps, once we have grown sufficiently morally sophisticated to earn redemption, we will discover a world which places before us no obstacles (besides the dilemmas imposed by our own free-will).

“And I will rejoice with Jerusalem and celebrate with My people and no cry nor groan will again be heard in it (Jerusalem). There will never again be youth or elder who will not fill their days, for a lad of one hundred years shall die and a sinner of one hundred years shall be cursed.8 And you will build houses and dwell in them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No one will build so that another will dwell, no one will plant so another will eat, for My people’s days will be like the days of a tree and My chosen ones will outlast their handiwork.” (65:19-22)

Houses today can easily last for hundreds of years, but who today expects to keep them that long? Even Jews fortunate enough to live in Israel would be reluctant to assume that their current home will remain the property of their family for generations. Who can honestly expect to remain happily with his growing family at his side for his entire life? Yet it is just this kind of stability and dependability that promises to be a hallmark of post-redemption life.

It would seem that we, as Jews, are meant to enjoy a permanent and satisfying relationship with our physical property – especially in the Land of Israel. This is the default experience. Its absence, on the contrary, is an historical anomaly.

Our intellectual lives – either our intellectual capacity or our sensitivity to Godliness – will also benefit from redemption:

“Then the eyes of the blind will be uncovered and the ears of the deaf opened. Then the lame will dance like a ram and the tongue of the mute will sing, for water will break out in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The dry land will become a meadow and the thirsty ground, pools of water…” (35:5-7)

Radak comments that, until redemption, Jews will be considered blind, deaf, lame and mute and that these deficiencies will be overcome. Naturally, this doesn’t necessarily mean people who suffer physically from these ailments, but those who had previously encountered difficulties absorbing the principles and attitudes required for a Torah life would experience a positive change.

Even the passage “The dry land will become a meadow…” could refer to this improved access to Torah thoughts, comfortably reflecting this famous passage:

“Behold days are coming, says the Lord, God, and I will send hunger in the land, not hunger for food, and not thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11)

And it must not be forgotten that the most basic quality of all – happiness – will be available in greater abundance once we’ve crossed into the messianic age:

“Rise up and shine, for your light has come and the glory of God shines on you. For behold, the darkness covers the land and dark cloud (covers) peoples and on you God shines and His glory will be seen on you.” (60:1-2)

“As we have already explained, ‘light’ refers to joy and general goodness while ‘darkness’, its opposite, on distress and on approaching evil.” (Radak)

The Man

Before we can intelligently discuss the messiah’s personality and career, we feel the need to offer one more observation concerning his work’s ultimate goal. Here’s how Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, in an essay on Isaiah9, described it:

“This future will not be the ultimate victory of “belief,” but the victory of Law. [Although] the victory of “belief,” the breakthrough of the consciousness of God in the breasts of all men and nations, might well precede it….As long as mankind sought God only for its fate and not with its actions, only looking for comfort and help from Him, but not to the Torah and the Law for individual and national guidance – for so long the true dawn will not come.”

In other words, the messianic age, to achieve its purpose, must see mankind transformed into a race whose actions are guided by Godly values. Messiah is to be an embodiment of that ideal, a man whose every word and deed is born of his clear vision of what God’s moral will would demand of him. The transition from our present troubled world to the world of redemption can therefore occur only when God’s law – and especially His law as applied to the defense of the poor and dispossessed – is widely accepted and observed. No protestations of belief or loud demonstrations of determination can take its place.

How is Messiah to so perfectly represent the ideal servant of God? Dr. Mendel Hirsch10 summarizes Isaiah’s detailed description11 of Messiah the man thus:

“Then, in broad strokes the Prophet pictures the work of deliverance of this Messiah. He is, in very truth, the bearer of the spirit of God; realization of the Zedek-ideal, God’s teaching of what is right, amongst all mankind, is what his mission is. He, himself, is penetrated through and through with the spirit of the fear of God, trust in God and God’s righteousness form his strength and courage are ‘wherewith he girds his loins’. Before the loftiness of his personality and his words, all evil disappears. Thus, under the reign of the realization of the Zedek-ideal, the kingdom of universal peace on earth dawns.”12

Now we can examine some details from Isaiah’s rich description of the messiah as a man:13

“And the spirit of God will rest on him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of decision and strength, a spirit of knowledge and the fear of God.” (11:2)

Messiah will have the ability to understand what happens around him and absorb it all effectively. And he will have the intelligence to firmly and correctly choose a course of action, and the vigorous energy needed to carry out those decisions…all in the humble spirit of fear of God, for without that, all knowledge loses its meaning.14

“He will understand through the fear of God, he will not judge by what he sees nor clarify by what he hears.” (11:3)

He will base his judgment exclusively on the moral values of Torah justice and not on temporal trends or philosophies.15

“He will judge the helpless with justice and justly rebuke the poor of the land and he will smite the land with the staff of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will kill the evildoer.” (11:4)

Rather than through violence, the force of his moral teachings, bearing as they do the spirit of God, will end lawlessness and fashion a community of engaged citizens actively seeking justice. It will, after all, be his words that “kill” and “smite”. Perhaps Messiah will also be called to lead Israel out to physical war16 – but such battles could hardly be the agent of true moral change; the real work will begin after the final military campaign is complete.

“And justice will gird his waist and faith will gird his loins.” (11:5)

“But still this Messiah is only a man. The more wonderful his achievements, the clearer is it here declared that he is only a human being. And that no supernatural miraculous powers enable him to accomplish these achievements. The source of his strength lies solely in the thing which he serves, the justice-ideal, and his complete devotion to this ideal, his faithfulness to God and his confidence in God is what give him such power. For that is “faith” (אמונה) in the strictest meaning of the word, that devotion which makes the one one serves into his אומן and אמן: his tutor and constructing master-workman; it is completely giving oneself up to the ideal.” (Dr. M. Hirsch)

A mere catalog of Isaiah’s messianic teachings would, if left to itself, shamefully ignore the grandeur and intense poignancy of his greater vision. Let this image of a lonely and abandoned Jerusalem slowly awakening to the realization that her redemption has finally arrived serve as at least a taste of the prophet’s burning spirit:

“And Zion said ‘God has abandoned me, God has forgotten me.’ Could a woman forget her infant; have no compassion on the child of her womb? If even these could be forgotten I will not forget you! Behold you are inscribed on My hand, your walls stand before Me always. Your children are hurrying; those who smash and destroy you are leaving. Lift your eyes around you and see: they all gather and come to you, I swear, says the Lord, that you will yet clothe yourself in them and tie themselves to yourself as (the jewelry of) a bride. For your destroyed and desolate places and your ruins: are they now too narrow for their inhabitants? Those who swallowed you are now distant! Once again they, the sons for whom you grieved, will say in your ears ‘this place is too small, give me a place in which I might dwell. And you will say in your heart ‘who bore me these, for I was grieving and alone, exiled and wandering. Who raised them, behold I was left alone, where were these?’ Thus says the Lord God ‘behold I will raise My hand to the nations, lift up my sign to peoples and they shall bring your sons in the folds of their garments and your daughters on the shoulder shall they carry.'” (49:14-22)

1The Talmudic opinion (see Berachos 34b) that would limit messianic change exclusively to political autonomy (שיעבוד מלכיות בלבד), refers only to miraculous change, but all would agree that we will face many forms of significant social upheaval.

2See Sanhedrin 98a

3The standard won’t be new – no Torah principles will be changed – but universal respect for the standard will be assumed

4Targum understands “you” to refer to Jerusalem – that ideally, all nations should choose to accept the guidance of the Godly ideals represented by the holy city.

5What will cause jealousy to disappear (presumably along with many other weaknesses of character)? Perhaps it will be a natural reaction to long-term exposure to the Divine Presence in our lives. Perhaps, too, the clarity of mind associated with the messianic age will allow us to more objectively assess life’s-priorities – relegating the narcissistic hunt for glory and treasure to oblivion. Or, as is suggested by Deuteronomy 30:6, our personalities might simply be miraculously altered.

6Brachos 32a


8That is to say, if one were to die at the age of only one hundred, he would be singled out as “just a child” or suspected of some sin – but normal people will not die that young.

9Collected Writings of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Vol. IV page 228

10A son and faithful heir to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s legacy

11See Isaiah chapter eleven

12Commentary of Dr. M. Hirsch to the haftaros – last day of Passover

13The thoughts on chapter eleven which follow are mostly based on Dr. M. Hirsch’s aforementioned commentary to the haftaros

14As Rabbi S.R. Hirsch himself writes near the end to his extended commentary to Exodus 25

15That is, of course, not to say that he will be oblivious to the complexities of modern society, but that the principles underlying his judgment will be those of the Torah

16The Rambam (פ’ יא הל’ מלכים הל’ ד) certainly thinks so