Yeshayahu's Visions of Mashiach1


This topic has not yet undergone editorial review


The prophecies of Yeshayahu 2:1-4 and Yeshayahu 11 are among the most well-known in Sefer Yeshayahu, and are generally understood as visions of the Messianic era.  In fact, some of the most resonant images of the era emerge from these prophecies, which have inspired Jewish belief and have been depicted in art and general culture over the centuries.  There are several questions, both about the simple meaning of the prophecies and about the vision represented by its Messianic images, which are key to understanding these chapters.

The Messianic Era or Yeshayahu's Era?

The most fundamental question about Yeshayahu 2:1-4 and Yeshayahu 11 is whether these chapters actually refer to the Messianic era. On the one hand, their content seems Messianic in nature2 and does not seem an accurate depiction of Yeshayahu's own historical reality. Moreover, Chapter 2 is introduced by the phrase “אַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים”, which often has an eschatological connotation. On the other hand, Chapter 11 does not include any such introduction, and interpreting either of the prophecies to refer to the Messianic era requires understanding how they fit into the context of the surrounding chapters, in which Yeshayahu prophesies about events of his own time period, such as the reign of Chizkiyahu and the threat posed by the Assyrian kingdom.3

Literal or Figurative Prophecies?

Yeshayahu 2:1-4 and Yeshayahu 11 contain evocative Messianic images of peace and harmony, such as the dwelling of the wolf with the lamb: 


(ו) וְגָר זְאֵב עִם כֶּבֶשׂ וְנָמֵר עִם גְּדִי יִרְבָּץ וְעֵגֶל וּכְפִיר וּמְרִיא יַחְדָּו וְנַעַר קָטֹן נֹהֵג בָּם. (ז) וּפָרָה וָדֹב תִּרְעֶינָה יַחְדָּו יִרְבְּצוּ יַלְדֵיהֶן וְאַרְיֵה כַּבָּקָר יֹאכַל תֶּבֶן. (ח) וְשִׁעֲשַׁע יוֹנֵק עַל חֻר פָּתֶן וְעַל מְאוּרַת צִפְעוֹנִי גָּמוּל יָדוֹ הָדָה.

(6) And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, And the leopard shall lie down with the kid; And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them. (7) And the cow and the bear feed; Their young ones shall lie down together; And the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (8) And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, And the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk's den.

These verses require us to consider whether the images are meant to be interpreted literally or allegorically. If the verses speak of Messianic times, then understanding such images literally leads to a vision of a universally peaceful, harmonious era that includes a radical change in the natural order of the world.  A figurative interpretation, by contrast, implies a belief in a Messianic era that is characterized by peace and prosperity, but not by a fundamental change in natural law.  The interpretation of these verses, thus, has significant ramifications for how one envisions the defining qualities of the Messianic era and the nature of the change that will take place with the arrival of Mashiach. If, on the other hand, the verses refer to Chizkiyahu's reign, one must question whether the verses can possibly be read literally, as we have no evidence that any such miracles transpired in his time.

Parallel Between Yeshayahu and Mikhah

Yeshayahu 2:1-4 is almost identical to the verses that appear in Mikhah 4:1-3. Who was the original author of the parallel verses, and how does the parallel contribute to our understanding of Yeshayahu's prophecies?   Despite the overall similarity, there is one substantive difference between the prophecies: Mikhah 4:5, contiguous to the verses that form the parallel, describes each nation walking in the name of its own god, whereas Yeshayahu prophesies that all of the nations will turn to Hashem (2:2).  How are we meant to understand the difference between the prophecies?  Do they indicate a significant difference in the visions of the two prophets?