Problems in Reading Isaiah with Understanding


The major difficulty in following the train of thought in Isaiah is not the use of poetic hyperbole which abounds, or the flights of fancy using figurative language, nor the criptiveness of pithy sayings used often, nor is the major difficulty found in his seeing the future while speaking of it as already past, neither is the use of "play on words," though this ranks among the top, the major problem to overcome. Neither is the major difficulty of unlocking the obscurities of Isaiah found in the very real hindrance of our own ignorance of the geography nor the paltry information we retain about the contemporaries of Isaiah, especially the Kings of Judah, Israel, Damascus, and most important, Assyria. There are other difficulties and the major one is not the subtleties inherent in the Hebrew language which defy translation, no,-- none of these very real difficulties presents as much of a difficulty as the style Isaiah uses within a particular division of his prophetic vision as does his habit of changing scenes without notice. The unfolding of the visions is much like a stage play with constantly changing scenes. But in reading a play there will be headings, like "Act 1 Scene 3" which are on the program. Isaiah comes with no such program but he changes "scenes" often with out notice. Sometimes the change of scene is within a verse as the changes from speaking of the Messiah back to Assyria in 9:1 and between 9:2 and 9:3 and then back again in the midst of 9:5 and back to Assyria in 9:8.

Biblical Historical Background and Geography:

There is a need to know the details of the kings of Israel and Judah and to be able to place the life of Isaiah in that context since he mentions many events and geographical locations. Knowledge of the geographical limits of each nation, Assyria, Babylon, Syria, and the location of the tribes of Israel, all 13, their origins and subsequent history is a need for the one understanding Isaiah. To a lesser degree knowledge is needed for events contemporaneous with Isaiah's life-time for Edom, Moab, Egypt, Phoenecia and Philistia

World Historical Context

The history of the Assyrian Empire from about 750 B.C. to the fall of Nineveh when the Babylonians received the kingdom and the subsequent history of the fall of Jerusalem and exile of the Jews until their return at the command of Cyrus the Persian to the second commonwealth is necessary background to understanding Isaiah. Especially important is the sequence of Kings and events from 745 to about 700 B.C.

Vocabulary and Sentence Structure

Reading the prophets, especially Isaiah, in Hebrew is not like reading a new language when compared to the relatively easy reading of the narrative material of Genesis and the historical books. But a different vocabulary and sentence structure is a part of Isaiah's style. The different vocabulary words and differing usage of other words found in the Law and historical books adds a dimension which calls for caution in reading, especially for students not fluent in speaking the Hebrew language because much is taken for granted in Hebrew idiom

Poetic and Historic Hyperbole

You must be aware of hyperbolical use of "all" and "every" as well as places where it is implied. The fact that the nation of Israel lost statehood in 722 B.C. and all were carried into captivity is modified by historical references that indicate that many individuals, even cities and villages, survived in Assyrian-controlled-Israel after the fall of Samaria Hyperbole is a part of all prophetic literature and must be taken into account.

Mystical vision

Isaiah says that he received his messages in visions. That would include dreams, trances and mystical voyages. These visionary "trips" produce language that is highly descriptive and full of similes and symbols. Extensive alliteration causes confusion even to the careful reader. Also, visionary repetition of important events three or more times does not indicate three or more events but rather the certainty of the event. The over throw of Satan under the symbol of Leviathan the dragon in chapter 27 is an example.

Translation: Especially in Isaiah, Some Things Defy Translation

Isaiah uses many literary devices that are not translatable. One of the major devices is the use of a play on words. Sometimes it is simply the use of rhyming words or acronyms. For instance Isaiah 8:22 and 9:1 (In Hebrew the same verses are 8:22, 23) Isaiah repeats forms of the two words (mu'aph and mutsaq) in both verses which in his contrast are a link to the meaning of the passage. The play on these words makes it clear that it refers to the invasion of Tiglath Pilezer III. That 9:1 is linked to 8:22 and therefore the preceding two chapters is not as apparent in English. At other times words are used that have double meaning. At least one of the words that Isaiah uses has a double meaning that is only understood as a double meaning in the light of prophetic fulfillment. That is the use of the word "nazer" Heb. which is fulfilled in Mat. 2:23 where it is obviously linked to Isaiah 11:1. But that is only one of the eleven or so times Isaiah uses the word. The Hebrew reader should be startled in those places where Isaiah uses this word in contexts that are clearly messianic. These contexts also contain the word "salvation" that in Hebrew is "yeshua" which is also the name Jesus.* This is only one of the startling "flights into mysticism" available in Isaiah that defies translation.

*"Is it a light thing that you are my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the Nazarenes of Israel? I have also given you for a light of the Gentiles to be my Yeshua unto the ends of the earth."


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