Signs and Symbols in Jerusalem: A glossary of places, people, and what they tend to represent for Isaiah

Ahaz was the king under whom Jerusalem at last succumbed to Assyrian invasion -- for Isaiah, he exemplifies Israel's foolhardy insistence upon trusting futile political alliances rather than God. Ahaz was the son of Jotham and the grandson of Uzziah; he ruled between about 735 and 720 BC.

Aram, often called 'Syria' in modern translations, formed a coalition with Israel's northern kingdom in an attempt to present a united front against the Assyrian Empire in the 730s BC. The name 'Aram' means 'Highlands'; it refers to the elevated region to the northeast of Palestine ruled by powerful kings in the capital city of Damascus.

Assyria was the instrument of God's judgment and punishment upon an Israel gone astray. Under King Tiglath-Pileser III in the 7th century BC, Assyria began aggressively expanding its territory in the Middle East; later, under King Sennacherib, the empire at last succeeded in forcing Jerusalem to pay tribute.

Bashan’s territory represents natural richness and abundant resources, especially forest and pastureland. It was located to the Northeast of ancient Israel, conquered by the Jews in Numbers 21.

For the Burning Ones, see Seraphim.

The 'Branch of God' is the Messiah whom God will send to save the world at his appointed hour. The idea is that this holy redeemer will be descended from the lineage of Israel's kings, like a branch emerging from a family tree.

King David was the gold standard for sovereignty in Israel; the downfall of his line was the great catastrophe which God's anointed saviour was expected to rectify. In the 10th Century BC, David became Israel's first great king: his descendants in the tribe of Judah ruled in the holy city of Jerusalem, and it was prophesied that the Messiah would be one such descendant.

Egypt was the arechytpical example of Jewish subjugation and liberation; it was the last place before Babylon where the people of Israel had been enslaved. Their liberation in the 13th century BC, described in the Book of Exodus, was the root of all their hope and the central demonstration that God would not abandon them.

Ephraim was the northern kingdom of Israel which split off from the southern territory of Judah under the rebel king Jeroboam in the 10th century BC (see 1 Kings, esp. 11:26 and following). It was also be called Israel or Jacob, although both of those words are also used by Isaiah to refer to the Jewish people as a whole, without acknowledging the political split that happened under Jeroboam. The capital city was Samaria, and that name too can be used to designate the whole northern kingdom.

For Gomorrah, see Sodom and Gomorrah

Isaiah uses the word 'Israel' to mean all Jews chosen by God to live in the promised land, even though that land was not a unified territory in the prophet's time. The actual Jewish nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms by Isaiah's day: the southern one, called 'Judah' after its ruling tribe, contained the capital of Jerusalem; the other, in the north, was called 'Israel'. See 1 Kings, esp. 11:26 and following, and for the northern kingdom specifically see Ephraim

Jacob's name (or ‘Jacob’s house’) often stands in for the Jewish people, because Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and his children founded the tribes of Israel (see Genesis 25-49). He himself was given the name Israel when he wrestled with God (Genesis 32:22-32). The name can sometimes also refer only to the northern territory, for which see Ephraim.

Jotham was the last holdout against the encroaching powers around southern Israel. When Aram and Ephraim tried to force an alliance, he resisted until his death around 735 BC, at which point his weaker son, Ahaz, took over.

The Jews’ possession and management of Jerusalem was considered a sign of the favour they had found with God, whereas if they sinned and incurred his anger the city would be lost or corrupted. Jerusalem was the political and religious center of the territory promised by God to his chosen people from Abraham onwards (Genesis 12, 15, 26; Joshua 1:1-9, etc.).

The Jordan river could often represent the distinction between God's chosen people and the rest of the world, because it was the boundary line which the Jews had to cross to enter their promised land of Israel.

Judah represents royalty and nobility in ancient Jewish society. Among the twelve tribes of Israel, Judah was the one from which came the famous kings David and Solomon, and it was the one from which it was predicted the Messiah would come (on the political territory of Judah in the period of the divided kingdoms, see 'Israel').

The mountain ranges of Lebanon represent natural beauty and grandeur – it was a place of sweeping hillsides, grand vistas, tall cedar trees, cool waters, etc. (see e.g. Psalms 29:6, 72:16, 104:16-18). Lebanon is at the Eastern outskirts of Israel’s territory, and although the Israelites tried to capture it they never did (see Judges 3:1-3).

For Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, see Swift-to-Plunder-Sprint-at-Prey.

Manasseh's opposition to Ephraim meant the total self-destruction of Israel: Manasseh was the tribe of Jacob, who had originally given his name to the entire united Israel and later to the northern kingdom. But by Isaiah 9, the whole nation of Israel is eating itself alive.

Midian was proof that God could beat even the worst odds. In the 12th century BC the Jews found themselves outnumbered and embattled by this southeastern foe, but God empowered Gideon (judge of the Israelites) to defeat the Midianites with only 300 soldiers. See Judges 6-8.

Zebulun and Naphtali were the first parts of Israel to be conquered by Assyria. They fell in 733 BC.

Pekah son of Remaliah and Rezin ruled northern Israel and Aram, respectively; they joined together in an ultimately fruitless alliance against the Assyrian Empire. To Isaiah, this alliance typified the futility of human endeavor as an alternative to trusting God. Aram and northern Israel made two attempts at bullying southern Israel into joining their doomed coalition, and these led to a crisis in Jerusalem around 735 BC (see 2 Kings 15:37).

The Philistines were nemeses of the Jews whose presence in the Hebrew Bible usually connotes foreignness or hostility. Originally from the Aegean (east of Greece), they settled territory near and around ancient Israel from the 12th century BC onwards – they were defeated by King David in the 10th century (see 1 Samuel 17; 2 Samuel 5), but their conflicts with Israel remained ongoing.

Remaliah was father to Rezin, on whom see Pekah.

On Rezin, king of Aram, see Pekah.

For Samaria, capital of northern Israel, see Ephraim

The presence of 'Seraphim' (a Hebrew name meaning 'Burning Ones') lets us know that we are drawing near to God's own infinitely exalted majesty. Seraphim are traditionally the highest-ranking angels in God's kingly retinue – after them come Cherubim, and farther down the hierarchy still are the better-known archangels such as Michael and Gabriel. (This tradition comes to us from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite's 6th-century AD treatise, Celestial Hierarchy – Chapters 6-10.)

Shear-Jashub is Isiah's firstborn son, a tangible human symbol of God's faithfulness to Israel even during the catastrophic Assyrian invasion. His name means 'a remnant shall return,' which refers to the prophecy that God will preserve a small group (a 'remnant') of faithful Jews who will survive the period of exile in Assyria and return at last to Jerusalem.

The pool of Shiloah was a symbol of Jerusalem's trust in God. It was the city's water-supply, filled by the vulnerable spring of Gihon (where kings in the line of David were crowned). Because Gihon could easily be attacked, those living in Jerusalem had to trust that God would protect them from their enemies; looking elsewhere for water represented a vote of no confidence in God.

Sodom and Gomorrah stand in for the heights of venality, corruption, sin, and indecency. God's obliteration of these cities in punishment for their wrongdoing is recorded in Genesis 18-19.

'Swift-to-Plunder-Sprint-at-Prey' translates Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, the name of Isaiah's second son (after Shear-Jashub). The name indicates that Assyria is hurtling towards Israel to conquer it; the boy's presence was therefore a constant physical reminder of the devastation to come.

Tarshish stands in for the triumphs of human craft and commerce because of its huge trading ships, which carry metals and other valuable raw materials over long stretches of treacherous ocean. It may be the name of a place in Spain or North Africa, or it may simply be a word of Phoenician origin meaning ‘metal mine’ or ‘open sea.’ See Ezekiel 28:2-5.

Uriah and Zechariah were noblemen whose word would be trusted when they testified that Isaiah had predicted Assyria's onslaught before it occurred. Zechariah was the maternal grandfather of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz and king of southern Israel. See 2 Kings 16:10–16; 18:2.

King Uzziah represents, in a single person, the prideful fall from grace which Israel has undergone according to Isaiah. Uzziah ruled in Judah and Jerusalem during the height of its prosperity (around 791-39 BC), but this made him over-confident in God's favour so that he performed blasphemous acts of self-aggrandizement such as burning incense in the temple (see 2 Chronicles 26).

For Zebulun, see Naphtali.

For Zechariah, see Uriah.

Zion represents the seat of Jerusalem’s divine majesty: God is said to dwell there, as are rightful and just kings (David, the Messiah, etc.). It is a mountain to the South of Jerusalem captured by King David in the 10th century BC – see Isaiah 8:18, 24:23; Psalms 2:6, 74:2.
(For the phrase the phrase 'Zion's Daughter', referring collectively to all the Jews chosen by God to occupy Israel and especially Jerusalem, cf. commentary on Chapter 3.)

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