My Bible study this week took me to the Book of Isaiah, and I’ll tell you right up front that this is not a feel-good book. It doesn’t preach love your neighbor and all will be right with the world. The goal of the Biblical prophets was to warn God’s people, and others, about the judgement and destruction that was to come, and if they could accomplish this mission by scaring the bejiminy out of them, so be it.
Additionally, Isaiah is loooong—66 chapters of confusion and poetry. Sidebar about poetry: there’s a lot of poetry out there that I like—Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost are in my top ten—but poetry that is written in classic Hebrew and then translated to English loses the flow and meter that I enjoy in many poems. Isaiah makes for difficult reading, even with the annotations in my Bible (Zondervan New International Version). So far, I haven’t had any “aha!” moments regarding Isaiah, so I approach today’s Sunday musings with little joy and a lot of trepidation and a prayer that I can make some sense out of what, at first glance, seems to be a long litany of gloom and doom. So with few original thoughts, I’ll refer to the experts a lot, and since I plan to summarize what they say, I’ll annotate them right up front. Experts like David Guzik, Matthew Henry, Chuck Swindoll, and yes, even Wikipedia.
Swindoll believes that the book of Isaiah is important because it gives us a comprehensive picture of Jesus Christ, covering the prophetic announcement of His coming, His Virgin Birth, His ministry, His death, and His upcoming return. For those of us who grew up going to Sunday School, Isaiah is the source of many familiar phrases:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come.” 60:1
“…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…” 1:18
“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’” 6:8
I’m pretty certain that George Frideric Handel can be credited with the world’s familiarity with Isaiah’s prophecies: his oratorio Messiah is drawn from 81 Bible verses, with 21 of those verses coming from Isaiah. Here’s the most well-known:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” 9:6
Who was Isaiah? He’s one of the prophets whose death was most likely described in Hebrews 11:37—“They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword….” According to non-Biblical sources, Isaiah was tied inside a sack, placed within the hollow of a tree trunk, and then sawed in half.
All we know about Isaiah’s parentage is that his father was named Amoz. Because Isaiah often spoke with kings, there is some speculation that he may have been an aristocrat or he may have belonged to a priestly family. His wife was also a prophetess, and they gave prophetic names to their two sons: Shear-yashuv (A Remnant Shall Return) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Speed-Spoil-Hasten-Plunder). I have to wonder if they used nicknames. But I digress.
Isaiah’s prophecies are pretty well summed up in Chapter 16:”Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good….” The people of Judah had turned away from God and failed in their responsibilities as His children. They were unrepentant (multiple times), and they had refused God’s offer of salvation (multiple times). Because of their spiritual blindness, God told Isaiah to get their attention by stripping off his clothes for three years: “At that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying ‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,’ and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.” If the same thing happened today and God told someone to walk around naked for three years, you can imagine the result. Of course, the Naked Cowboy walks around in Times Square every day, but to my knowledge the cowboy does not claim to be a prophet…. Again, I digress.
I mentioned that Isaiah is not a feel-good book, and it doesn’t preach love everybody and we’ll all live happily ever after. That’s only partly true, because in the final chapters of Isaiah, the prophet tells God’s people “Listen to me.” Because historically, God’s people have had trouble listening, Isaiah used the phrase three times in this chapter. Isaiah prophesies that God’s salvation will be forever, and His light will shine for both the nation of Israel and to all nations. In other words, there will be a happy ending.
Is the Book of Isaiah relevant today? Isaiah lived during the 8th century BC. There was a lot of evil and discontent in his world: the headlines during Isaiah’s time were about “promulgators of discriminatory laws, venal judges, greedy landgrabbers, fancy women, thieving and carousing men of means, and irresponsible leaders, both civil and religious.” Isaiah declares, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil….” (5:20) Have you read today’s headlines? Is any of this sounding familiar? Isaiah told the people to listen. He told them three times. I’m no prophet, but I do know that God is still telling us to listen to Him. This week, my goal is to still the thoughts that swirl around in my head and to keep my mind open to what God is telling me. Listen. Listen. Listen!
Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God
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