In my scripture study, I’m starting to study Isaiah. And so far, it’s going alright!
I’m starting with two chapters from Joseph Spencer’s amazing and incredible book A Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record. The book is mainly about Nephi, the Book of Mormon prophet, uses Isaiah, but there’s two chapters in the beginning that introduce Isaiah’s book generally. And it’s Isaiah’s book that I want to understand first.
The first thing I learned is that Isaiah’s book is split into two halves. I drew up some sketchnotes to figure this out.
The first half? It’s about God’s judgment on God’s covenant peoples and the gentile nations; it’s about writing a book and sealing it up; and it mainly focuses on the 8th century BCE, when Assyria was the dominant power–and threat.
The second half? It largely centers on Babylon in the 6th century BCE, after Israel had been defeated by Babylon and was set to return from their exile; it’s about opening the book that was written, and reading it; and it’s about God restoring his covenant people withe help of the gentiles.
I like starting with the big picture stuff because it gives me a map of where I’m going. Mentally, I’m going to wade through a lot of judgment with some promise of better times, when God is going to save his people; and then I’m going to wade through a lot of God saving and restoring his people. And I’m going to be bouncing across two very different time periods to do it!
It was also interesting to realize that Isaiah is the first prophet whose writings we have, bound up in a book. As Spencer points out:
In the first half of the Book of Isaiah, primarily focused on judgment, there’s a strong emphasis on writing, on the actual work of writing prophecies down. It’s an essential theme, since Isaiah was among the earliest of the Hebrew prophets whose oracles were put into writing. Before his era—that is, before Amos (his near-contemporary and the earliest of the so-called “writing prophets”)—prophecy seems to have been considered a kind of in-the-moment affair, an oral business that was supposed to accomplish something important but basically temporary. So what we get with the prophets before Isaiah’s day are really just stories. We have stories about Elijah, but no book of Elijah. But something about Hebrew prophecy changed at the time of Isaiah… Because he was called to prophesy, but to a people who couldn’t receive his word, he helped to launch an era during which prophecy was understood to be directed to a later age rather than to the prophet’s own people. And that’s why it was to be written down.
Rad, right? But it all makes sense. Isaiah wasn’t writing to his people then and there (as much as he would have liked to, I think). He was writing to a future people, a people who would actually listen. That’s got to be frustrating, but at least he understood what would happen, what his mission really was.
There’s more, but those are the main strokes. I think my next goal is to get a sense of the two histories, particularly what was going on with Assyria and Babylon. Then I think I’ll try to get a sense of who Isaiah is. And then I’ll come back to the book: Joseph Spencer has another chapter on the theology of the book, and I have another commentary by Gary Smith on the same subject. So it might be a little while before I get into the actual text, but I think this preliminary stuff will be good!