What I’m Reading: Isaiah

Over Christmas of 2022, I decided to read the biblical book of Isaiah. A number of selections form Isaiah occur every year in the lectionary readings at my church during Advent, and I decided to delve further.

I’ll be honest, Isaiah has never been my favorite book to hear readings from. It seems so dour, with what strike me as constant predictions of Israel’s demise and non-stop reprimands of the Israelites for failing to live up to God’s standards. But I wondered if a complete reading might change my mind. Unfortunately, the answer is no. This is a difficult book, with tons of repetition. There are parts of it that are quite beautiful, though, and I did come to a better understanding of what the book is about.

The book is divided into three parts: the first part consists of warnings to Israel and other nations of their upcoming destruction and humbling by God, the second part is a brief historical interlude when we learn about Isaiah’s life (this was the most interesting part to me), and the third part prophesies Israel’s salvation by God and the eventual defeat of all its enemies. Many of the early chapters are described as visions of Isaiah’s, while later chapters are introduced with the phrase “This is what the Lord says,” or close variations. I suppose that explains the repetition–Isaiah had recurring visions that so disturbed him he wrote each one down, no matter that the imagery and themes of the visions repeat and overlap. Apparently, it’s generally accepted among scholars today that the earlier parts of the book were genuinely written by the prophet Isaiah, while the later parts were by one or more other authors who wrote in the centuries after him.

Many of the most famous phrases of the Bible that have passed into common usage are found in Isaiah. These include a description of a peaceful future for the world after God has defeated Israel’s enemies when people will “beat swords into ploughshares” and “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” The title of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech comes from a line in Isaiah, and the part of his speech calling for “justice to roll down like water” is also from the book. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles also quoted Isaiah frequently, so that it is hard to go more than a chapter in the book without coming across a line later alluded to in the New Testament.

So I definitely understand more about Isaiah now and am glad I read it. Nevertheless, I retain more original judgment that it’s a difficult book to read, at least if one is going straight through. Isaiah may be considered the most important of the prophets, but I’ve found nearly every other Bible book I’ve read, including other prophets, to be more interesting and personally rewarding.

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