We are accustomed to reading Isaiah's seven prophecies of comfort in the synagogue on each of the seven Sabbaths following the ninth of Av. Most of these prophecies are concentrated between chapters forty and sixty-six in the book of Isaiah.
The book of Isaiah is exceptionally well-ordered chronologically. It opens with the period of King Uzziah (mentioned explicitly in chapter six), moves on to the period of King Ahaz (mentioned explicitly in chapters seven and fourteen), then to the period of King Hezekiah (mentioned explicitly in chapters thirty-six to thirty-nine), and concludes with King Manasseh. Manasseh is not explicitly mentioned in the book of Isaiah, neither in the introductory verse, nor in the chapters that we claim were written during his reign - chapters forty to sixty-six.
In what follows we shall attempt to prove the veracity of this claim and, consequently, to understand why most of the comfort prophecies are concentrated in these chapters. This will also allow us to understand why the seven prophecies of comfort were taken specifically from this part of the book of Isaiah.
Our rabbis teach us that, as a rule, only righteous kings are mentioned in introductory passages of the books of the Prophets (see also Rashi on Hoseah 1:1). A wicked king is mentioned only if his father was righteous and his son was righteous, for he becomes a link in the sequence. (A good example of this is Ahaz, whose father and son were both righteous.)
This being the case, it makes perfect sense that Manasseh is not mentioned in the introductory verse of Isaiah (1:1). It was clear to the sages that Isaiah lived and was active in the days of Manasseh, for they handed down a tradition to this effect and they teach us that Manasseh murdered Isaiah, who was his own maternal grandfather (Yevamot 49b). Manasseh is considered the worst of the kings of Judah, and Scripture does not conceal its criticism of him (Second Kings 21:2-9, 16):
"And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the nations, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel . . . and he reared up altars for Baal, and made an Asherah . . . and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord . . . And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he made his son to pass through the fire, and practiced soothsaying, and used enchantments, and appointed them that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit: he wrought much evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him. And he set the graven image of Asherah, that he had made, in the house of which the Lord said to David . . . But they hearkened not; and Manasseh seduced them to do that which is evil more than did the nations, whom the Lord destroyed before the children of Israel . . . Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; beside his sin wherewith he made Judah to sin, in doing that which was evil in the sight of the Lord."
Scripture holds Manasseh responsible for the divine decree to destroy Jerusalem, though in practice it was not carried out until the reign of Zedekiah (ibid 12, 13):
"Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I bring such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever hear of it, both his ears shall tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab; and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipe a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down."
Jeremiah the Prophet also tells us (15:1-3):
"Then said the Lord unto me: Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me, yet My mind could not be toward this people; cast them out of My sight, and let them go forth. And it shall come to pass, when they say to you: Whither shall we go forth? then you shall tell them: Thus says the Lord: Such as are for death, to death; and such as are for the sword, to the sword; and such as are for the famine, to the famine; and such as are for captivity, to captivity. And I will appoint over them four kinds, says the Lord: the sword to slay, and the dogs to drag, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and to destroy. And I will cause them to be a horror among all the kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem."
Neither is Manasseh mentioned in chapters forty to sixty-six, apparently for the same reason that he does not appear in the opening of the book of Isaiah. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern quite clearly the actions of Manasseh in these chapters. Let us bring two examples (Isaiah 57:3-7; 59:2-7):
"But draw near to here, you sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer and the harlot. Against whom do you sport yourselves? Against whom do you make a wide mouth, and draw out the tongue? Are you not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood, You that inflame yourselves among the terebinths, under every leafy tree; that slay the children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks? Among the smooth stones of the valley is your portion; they, they are your lot; even to them have you poured a drink-offering, you have offered a meal-offering. Should I pacify Myself for these things? Upon a high and lofty mountain have you set your bed; to there also did you go up to offer sacrifice."
"Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. None sue in righteousness, and none plead in truth; they trust in vanity, and speak lies, they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity . . . their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their paths."
If the situation is so terrible, why are there so many prophecies of comfort? The apparent answer to this question is that the prophet does not busy himself providing us with a description of reality. The prophet is not a newspaper reporter. The task of the prophet is to act as a channel for the word of God. Therefore, in the golden age of Uzziah, the prophet warns of trouble ahead, days of Assyrian conquest. In the dark days of Manasseh, on the other hand, the prophet encourages the nation and promises them that after punishment will come redemption.
The punishment and apparent absence of God which came in the wake of Manasseh's sins were liable to cause despair and a sense that God had abandoned Israel, Heaven forbid. Comes the prophet Isaiah and announces that there is hope, there is a brighter future in store. The redemption will eventually come, despite the terrible transgressions.
Let us pray that we too merit seeing the continuation of the realization of Isaiah's comfort prophecies: "Comfort my people, comfort them, says your God."