The Vision of Isaiah
These next five chapters in Isaiah constitute the Messiah section. While many other topics and people are mentioned, the central focus is on Christ and the events of his life.
Isaiah had a vision of the servant of God the Father, the messenger of the great Elohim. This vision, vast and encompassing in nature, presents aspects of the personality, attributes, life, message, calling, power, purpose, audience, coming, and culminating effect of the Servant. Isaiah describes in verse form this majestic vision in chapters 40-66.
Typical of Semitic literature, Isaiah uses dualism (1) to show that his vision was not of one person alone, but of all great and significant servant messengers of Elohim. The purpose of such a presentation is to compare–and to a lesser degree contrast–“noble and great ones.” Certainly Isaiah intends to demonstrate how these servants work together in harmony to accomplish the work of the Father.
From the preface (Chapter 40) of the vision, it is clear that these messengers have three titles plainly distinguishing the three offices or callings involved:
1. Elias – the herald (2)
2. Elijah – the restorer (3)
3. Messiah – the anointed (4)
In general, in our present discussion of chapters 49-53, Isaiah is Elias, Joseph Smith is Elijah, and of course Jesus is the anointed, the Christ. These chapters will show how three key servants, Isaiah, Joseph Smith, and Jesus, have similar experiences and callings.(However, in his use of dualism in these verses, others will also be mentioned or alluded to. 5)
Joseph Smith, understandably an expert on the subject, defines these roles or callings in this way: “The spirit of Elias is first, Elijah second, and Messiah last. Elias is a forerunner to prepare the way, and the spirit and power of Elijah is to come after, holding the keys of power, building the Temple to the capstone, placing the seals of the Melchizedek Priesthood upon the house of Israel, and making all things ready; then Messiah comes to His Temple, which is last of all” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.340). (6)
Isaiah’s Book of Poetry
After the preface to the vision , Chapter 40, Isaiah writes twenty-six poems, all relating to his vision of the servant of God. Often Bible readers come to this arrangement expecting a narrative or exposition similar to other scriptures; such prejudice will only complicate an already challenging study.
If Isaiah were writing his work today about this vision, it would be published as a collection of poems. The book could possibly be called His Servant. Poems with a similar dominant theme would be grouped together in chapters. While the poems might share items or insights, each would be separate and distinct in itself. When one reads a book of poems, one does not expect them to move chronologically, or to deal with topics progressively. (Only one long epic poem would do that.) Though the collection of poems shares a common theme and overlaps in many ways, each poem can and does stand on its own. Some chapters would have introductions or explanatory notes, but most would simply present the poems.
Using this analogy, the preface would have only one thing in it, one poem, that which we call Chapter 40 of Isaiah. The poem could be titled “The Vision.” The first chapter of the book, designated “The Servant,” would have four poems in it that generally deal with the role of God’s servants. Each succeeding chapter would likewise present a poem or poems centered around a common theme. The outline of the book would be something like this:
Preface “The Vision” 1 poem Isaiah 40
Chapter 1 “The Servant” 4 poems Isaiah 41-44
Chapter 2 “Cyrus” 3 poems Isaiah 45-47
Chapter 3 “Israel’s Afflictions” 1 poem Isaiah 48
Chapter 4 “The Messiah” 5 poems Isaiah 49-53
Chapter 5 “Zion” 4 poems Isaiah 54-57
Chapter 6 “Redemption” 2 poems Isaiah 58-59
Chapter 7 “Review of Zion” 1 poem Isaiah 60
Chapter 8 “Messiah Summation” 1 poem Isaiah 61
Chapter 9 “The Second Coming” 5 poems Isaiah 62-66
The five poems in “The Messiah” section might be titled thus:
“Messiah: The Restorer” Isaiah 49
“Messiah: The Deliverer” Isaiah 50
“Messiah: The Lawgiver” (7) Isaiah 51
“Messiah: The Redeemer” Isaiah 52
“Messiah: The Savior” Isaiah 53
Then the message of all five of these poems would be specifically tied together in the “culminating” poem we know as Isaiah 61, titled something like “Jehovah Messiah.”
With the exception of seven sentences toward the end of The Vision–fittingly, towards the end of Chapter 66, every single word in Chapters 40 through 66 is poetry.
Poetry presents its own special challenges, and benefits, to readers. The benefits are often overlooked, but they can be profound. Certainly the book of Isaiah lends itself well to music, as many celebrated songs attest. Since hymns and songs are simply poems put to music, Isaiah has already done much of the work of creating dramatic, moving, powerful songs. Also, the flowery and figurative language of poems naturally lends itself to memory because of its striking, unique construction. Who can forget a memorable phrase such as “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow,” or a turn like “line upon line; here a little, and there a little”? (8)
The difficulties of poetic study are unfortunately better understood. Poetry differs significantly from prose in several ways. Though symbolism is present in all types of literature, it is more likely to be encountered in poems, and to be more critical. “A major difficulty in understanding the book of Isaiah is his extensive use of symbolism, as well as his prophetic foresight and literary style” (Bible Dictionary). Imagery is also more important in poetry. The structure of poems differs significantly from prose and drama, and presents unique challenges to gospel students. Because of these, scholars generally say that poetry needs to be read three to five time more than a prose message to understand what is being said. Certainly reading Isaiah five times more often than say Genesis would assist in understanding it equally well. It is helpful to remember that extra study is required just as it is with other complex poetry, since Isaiah is the Shakespeare of the scriptures, the Wordsworth of the Bible.
Poetry as a Genre
“Literature . . . can be used as a gear for stepping up the intensity and increasing the range of our experience and as a glass for clarifying it. This is the literary use of language, for literature is not only an aid to living but a means of living.
“Literature . . . exists to communicate significant experience–significant because concentrated and organized. Its function is not to tell us about experience but to allow us imaginatively to participate in it. It is a means of allowing us, through the imagination, to live more fully, more deeply, more richly, and with greater awareness. It can do this in two ways: by broadening our experience–that is, by making us acquainted with a range of experience with which, in the ordinary course of events, we might have no contact–or by deepening our experience–that is, by making us feel more poignantly and more understandingly the everyday experiences all of us have.
“It is not primarily to communicate information that novels and short stories and plays and poems are written.
These exist to bring us a sense and a perception of life, to widen and sharpen our contacts with existence. Their concern is with experience. We all have an inner need to live more deeply and fully and with greater awareness, to know the experience of others and to know better our own experience. Poets, from their own store of felt, observed, or imagined experiences, select, combine, and reorganize. They create significant new experiences for their readers–significant because focused and formed–in which readers can participate and which they may use to give themselves a greater awareness and understanding of their world.
“Poetry. . . . has been regarded as something central to existence, something having unique value to the fully realized life, something that we are better off having and spiritually impoverished without.
“Initially, poetry might be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language.
“The difference between poetry and other literature is one only of degree. Poetry is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature, saying most in the fewest number of words. It is language whose individual lines, either because of their own brilliance or because they focus so powerfully what has gone before, have a higher voltage than most language has. It is language that grows frequently incandescent, giving off both light and heat.” (9)
Semitic Literary Style: Parallelism
“In the Arabic language, for example (and this generalization would be more or less true for all Semitic languages), paragraph development is based on a complex series of parallel constructions, both positive and negative. This kind of parallelism may most clearly be demonstrated in English by reference to the King James version of the Old Testament. Several types of parallelism typical of Semitic languages are apparent there because that book, of course, is a translation from an ancient Semitic language, a translation accomplished at a time when English was in a state of development suitable to the imitation of those forms.
1. Synonymous Parallelism: e.g. Psalms 112:2
2. Synthetic Parallelism: e.g. Psalms 116:2
3. Antithetic Parallelism: e.g. Psalms 1:6
4. Climatic Parallelism: e.g. Psalms 29.1
“The type of parallel construction here illustrated in single sentences also forms the core of paragraphs in some Arabic writing. Obviously, such a development in a modern English paragraph would strike the modern English reader as archaic or awkward, and more importantly it would stand in the way of clear communication. It is important to note that in English, maturity of style is often gauged by the degree of subordination rather than by coordination.” (10)
Isaiah as Poet
Poets differ from others in that they are “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility,” and through long and deep meditation are able to recreate strikingly the emotions of experience for others. (11)
What is meant by the word “poet”? What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. (12)
Isaiah is not the first to combine poetry with prophetic power: Moses, Miriam, Deborah, etc. did so as well. Though it is not necessarily usual to associate these two gifts, there may in fact be some connection.
The poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science. Emphatically may it be said of the poet, as Shakespeare hath said of man, “that he looks before and after.” [Hamlet IV.iv.37.] He is the rock of defense of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. (13)
Isaiah qualifies as an extraordinary writer not only because of his poetic/prophetic insight, but most importantly because of his ability to convey the experience of his vision to us, to recreate in himself and his listeners the emotions of that event.14 Well is he called “The Prophet” by ancient Israelites.
How Beautiful upon the Mountains
How welcome on the mountains
Are the footsteps of the herald
Announcing peace, [Shiloah]
Heralding good news, [Gospel]
Announcing salvation, [Jesus (Joshua)]
Telling Zion, “Your God is King!”
Hark! Your watchmen raise their voices,
As one they shout for joy;
For every eye shall behold
The LORD’s return to Zion. [Jehovah’s]
Raise a shout together,
O ruins of Jerusalem. [City of Peace]
For Jehovah will comfort His people,
Will redeem Jerusalem! [City of Peace]
Jehovah will bare His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations
And the very ends of the earth shall see
The victory of our God. [Eloheinu]
As he usually does in his writings, Isaiah sets the background for this stanza of “The Redeemer” poem by calling to mind a contemporary/historical event or example his listeners will know (much like the parables of Christ and others). In this case, the incident is the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, specifically the miracles the Lord performed (“[baring] His holy arm”) that caused “all the nations” of the region to fear Israel (parting the Red Sea, defeating all their enemies, etc.).
I will send my fear before thee, and will destroy all the people to whom thou shalt come, and I will make all thine enemies turn their backs unto thee. (Exodus 23:27)
That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty: that [they] might fear [Jehovah] your God for ever. (Joshua 4:24, edited)
THEN sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying,
I will sing unto the LORD,
For he hath triumphed gloriously:
The horse and his rider
Hath he thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and song,
And he is become my salvation:
He is my God,
And I will prepare him an habitation;
My father’s God,
And I will exalt him.
The LORD is a man of war:
Jehovah is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his host
Hath he cast into the sea:
His chosen captains also
Are drowned in the Red sea.
The depths have covered them:
They sank into the bottom as a stone.
Thy right hand, O LORD,
Is become glorious in power:
Thy right hand, O LORD,
Hath dashed in pieces the enemy.
And in the greatness of thine excellency
Thou hast overthrown them
That rose up against thee:
Thou sentest forth thy wrath,
Which consumed them as stubble.
And with the blast of thy nostrils
The waters were gathered together,
The floods stood upright as an heap,
And the depths were congealed
In the heart of the sea.
The enemy said,
“I will pursue,
I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil;
My lust shall be satisfied upon them;
I will draw my sword,
My hand shall destroy them.”
Thou didst blow with thy wind,
The sea covered them:
They sank as lead
In the mighty waters.
Who is like unto thee,
Among the gods?
Who is like thee,
Glorious in holiness,
Fearful in praises,
Thou stretchedst out thy right hand,
The earth swallowed them.
Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people
Which thou hast redeemed:
Thou hast guided them in thy strength
Unto thy holy habitation.
The people shall hear,
And be afraid:
sorrow shall take hold
On the inhabitants of Palestina.
Then the dukes of Edom
Shall be amazed;
The mighty men of Moab,
Trembling shall take hold upon them;
All the inhabitants of Canaan
Shall melt away.
Fear and dread
Shall fall upon them;
By the greatness of thine arm
They shall be as still as a stone;
Till thy people pass over,
Till the people pass over,
Which thou hast purchased.
Thou shalt bring them in,
And plant them in the mountain
Of thine inheritance,
In the place, O LORD,
Which thou hast made
For thee to dwell in,
In the Sanctuary, O Lord,
Which thy hands have established.
The LORD shall reign for ever and ever.
For the horse of Pharaoh went in
With his chariots and with his horsemen
Into the sea,
And the LORD brought again the waters
Of the sea upon them;
But the children of Israel
Went on dry land
In the midst of the sea.
Having brought clearly to the mind of his listener “The Song of Moses,” Isaiah proceeds to develop an image in this poem from contemporary life–the sentinels who normally stand guard on the walls of Jerusalem, but who in this case are particularly alert awaiting word of the battle the general has led the troops forth to engage in.
The herald, coming from the battle, announces peace, the peace to be celebrated and enjoyed because of victory. By using the Hebrew word shalom (peace), the prophet has alluded to Shiloah and Shiloh, names of Christ, recalling the patriarchal blessing of Judah at the hands of Israel.
The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. (Genesis 49:10)
The LORD spake also unto me again, saying, Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son; Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks: And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel. (Isaiah 8:5-8)
The good news is, of course, the gospel (“gospel” means “good news,” although the Hebrew object is understood).
VERILY I say unto you, that it is my will that my servant Jared Carter should go again into the eastern countries, from place to place, and from city to city, in the power of the ordination wherewith he has been ordained, proclaiming glad tidings of great joy, even the everlasting gospel. (D&C 79:1)
When Isaiah uses the Hebrew yeshu’ah, he reminds us that Christ’s name in Hebrew is Yeshu’ah, or Yoshua (“Joshua”–there is no ‘J’ in the Hebrew alphabet), meaning “God [Jehovah] is Salvation.” Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua. (see “Jesus” in the Bible Dictionary)