If you and I were to say that "so and so is a prophet," we would probably mean that the person seems to have the ability to foretell the future. But the biblical meaning of the word "prophet" is actually fuller than that. In Sacred Scripture, a prophet is one who spoke, acted, or wrote under the extraordinary influence of God so that we-God's people-could receive a divine message. The prophets were inspired and prompted by the spirit of God to tell us what God wants us to know. Indeed, we acknowledge this fact as one of our core beliefs as Catholics. At the conclusion of the sermon on Sunday, when we pray the Creed, we always say that we believe in the Holy Spirit, who "has spoken through the prophets."
Unfortunately, we-God's people-do not always give the prophet a good reception. We have a way of not wishing to hear what the prophet has to say because his message usually contains both a measure of God's disappointment-if not anger-with us, as well as some straight talk about our urgent need to "straighten up." Interestingly, the prophet himself does not undertake his mission expecting to be successful. He knows that he will probably be rejected, that he must accept apparent failure. Yet in fidelity to God he speaks anyway.
Isaiah is the first and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. A nobleman from Jerusalem, he lived in the 8th century BC. Like many of his fellow prophets, Isaiah was not always very warmly received by his countrymen. The tradition is that he was martyred by being sawed in two. But for 40 years prior to his death, he persevered in delivering God's message.
In particular, the book of Isaiah emphasizes the holiness of God. In fact, the part of the Mass we call the Sanctus comes from chapter 6 of Isaiah where he says, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory." Isaiah (6:3) had a vision of the all holy God, which caused him to write those words and these: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." Isaiah (6:5) says this because the sin of man is incompatible with the holiness of God. Only by separating ourselves from sin can we hope to be in God's presence. So Isaiah labors to awaken a sense of sin among the chosen people, by warning them that God's law cannot be violated without consequence. Thus, the prophet presents to the people the two possible outcomes the future will bring to them: either salvation-which begins with a softening of the heart-or punishment-which results from a hardened heart.
After the psalms, the book of Isaiah is the most quoted book of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Sadly, the four gospels quote texts from Isaiah to describe the poor reception that the message of salvation often received. Although that prophetic message is filled with hope, it can be hard to hear because it presents an "either/or" proposition.
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