I like Isaiah, and I’m not afraid to admit it.
I’m not afraid to admit it in public (or at least in Sunday School), which has earned me a tiny reputation as “That Crazy Girl Who Likes Isaiah, Right?” Ummm… yeah. That’s me. Crazy Girl, right here.
I’ve liked Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet, since I was really small. Perhaps because I was introduced to him as a child, I’ve never found Isaiah particularly difficult as scripture. When you start out doing new things, everything is hard–might as well tackle the “hard” stuff at the same time, right?
As a teen, I grew to love the poetic language, and the ways Isaiah worked to distill immense concepts into easily-understood symbols and images. I love the way he molds words, and structures phrases for beautiful, shimmering movement along the way. Take a quick survey of just how many hymns have been inspired by small passages of Isaiah: his language is poetry, and perfectly suited to inspire the poet and the lyricist, as well as the preacher and scriptorian.
Frankly, too many readers wimp out, see Isaiah heading the passage, and slump in defeat, crying “Isaiah is HARD”, without even the slightest attempt to understand, and in doing so, they’re missing out. Few whine about the Psalms or Proverbs being “too hard”… giving up on Isaiah means missing out on some of the best parts of our scriptural foundation!
The way I see it, there are a few things to keep in mind when reading Isaiah:
Determine in which voice he is speaking. Off the top of my head, Isaiah sometimes speaks as himself, a prophet of God; sometimes in Messianic voice, as though Christ is speaking; sometimes as the voice of God the Father; sometimes as the Church. He can also change voice during one passage, so determining which voice is being used can help clarify as whom he is speaking, and thus influence the meanings we can take from the passage. (Give the poor man a break… he had a lot to communicate, and only so much time fit it all in. Sometimes you change voices or perspectives when telling a story, too.)
Isaiah is one of the prophets who was given a long view by God, through visions. His task was made difficult by the need to not only act as God’s voice on earth for the people of his own day, but to distill eternal concepts and future events (like the Atonement) into language that could still be understood thousands of years later, by people who would read many different translations of his words. That he could be shown so many things and times by God, and still manage to translate them to finite human symbols is a miracle, and a masterpiece of language. That he could do it with so many poetic passages that still thrill the soul today is a second miracle, hand in hand with the first.
Isaiah does speak symbolically at times; remember, he is trying to give us grand concepts that will withstand time. However, he’s not always symbolic, and symbols are not necessarily complex or difficult to understand! Just as Christ taught in parables, to increase the understanding of the people around Him, so does Isaiah use everyday symbols for eternal concepts. His use of contemporary and historical events as symbols of future events are parables. His parables can be just as readily tackled as those given by Christ, if we have ears to hear. Symbols are not insurmountable.
The beautiful thing about symbols is that they are concrete enough to be understood, but infinite to the point that we can read the same passages at various stages in life, and God will show us, through His Spirit, the concepts we need to learn at that moment in our lives. Symbols are multi-layered, and changeable. They allow for that first, simple, accessible lesson, while providing additional meat and nourishment for those ready to hear and understand.
I remember the sheer delight on my Eldest’s face one Sunday when she was about six, when she discovered she could read the words in the hymnal without a lot of difficulty. She leaned over to me, and said, “Do you mean that grown-up words are the same words I can read??” It’s the same with symbols: those same things that speak to the beginning learner can speak infinitely as we mature spiritually. God truly is no respecter of persons; He provides access to His truths right where we stand today.
We don’t need “Isaiah for Dummies.” God provided in Isaiah a prophet who was already equipped to speak to dummies, if we dummies will give even the slightest bit of effort that direction.