The words of Isaiah -- to us
As we read Isaiah, it can often feel like an exercise in cryptography: Here are all these words -- let's decode them and see if we can make them mean something.
Nephi said, "My soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah" (2 Ne. 25:5), but he also said, "My soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn" (25:4).
Plainness? Isaiah? Raise your hand if you found Isaiah "plain" on first reading. Anyone? No?
Yet Isaiah was not writing allegorically, where one thing always means another. He used metaphors and analogies, but their meaning was instantly clear to the people of his time -- they were used for clarity, not obscurity; to reveal the Lord's intentions, not conceal them.
Isaiah referred to aspects of the life and culture that the people saw all around them, but we now know that culture only because Isaiah refers to it.
Even Nephi admits this, when he says that he delights in the words of Isaiah "for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews," and nobody else understands what the prophets said to the Jews "save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews" (25:5).
The translators of the King James Version rendered Isaiah's words powerfully in the language of their day, but now that language is archaic, and sounds foreign to us.
So as I prepared to teach Isaiah to my Sunday school class of American teenagers, it occurred to me that it might be good for them to have the experience of hearing how the words of Isaiah fell on the ears of the people of his own time.
Using Isaiah 22 as my model, I wrote a version as if it were the voice of a prophet speaking to America today. Chariots become tanks, archers are jets; Elam becomes Iran, and Kir becomes Korea.
Instead of referring to things that my students have never seen, I refer to things they're familiar with, so they will understand them instantly. Meanwhile, I tried to recreate Isaiah's poetic flow of language that swept ideas into the people's understanding with such vigor and clarity.
Since I'm no speaker of Hebrew, nor an expert on Isaiah, no one should think for a moment that this is a "new translation" or even a commentary or clarification of Isaiah 22. I don't pretend to have any special understanding.
The only purpose for what I wrote is to give a demonstration of how Isaiah's prophecies might have sounded to the people of his time.
What I've done, in the terms of popular music, is "cover" Isaiah 22, replaying his tune with modern instruments and rhythms. My version does not "improve" Isaiah and certainly cannot replace his words.
I read aloud this "cover" of Isaiah 22 and it worked: My students realized how the words of Isaiah must have "hit home" to the people who first heard it. I hope this means that they will never hear Isaiah again as something distant, obscure, or even difficult.
But it's not enough to update the imagery. I took them through several layers of interpretation.
First, Isaiah spoke to the geopolitical situation of his day. His people were surrounded by powerful enemies and every male citizen was expected to serve as a soldier; when nations were defeated they served in bondage to their conquerors, or were carried off in captivity.
So his warnings could be interpreted very specifically: God will allow Israel to be made captive, because of their pride and faithlessness.
But Isaiah's words were also prophecies of Christ, who would redeem his people, and of future prophets who would bring back knowledge that was lost.
Isaiah 22 (and many other chapters) can be taken, metaphorically or specifically, as explanations of how God always deals with his people. He raises them up, teaches them, gives them light; but when they reject these gifts, he leaves them to themselves, and lets the vicissitudes of history wash over them, or even wash them away.
These words spoken to a nation are also metaphorically true of every individual. We are all chosen heirs of the kingdom of God, and yet we cast away our birthright, embrace sins of one kind or another, and are lost.
We can be carried away in captivity of the flesh or of pride, of greed or ambition; but when we are in the depths of despair, filled with fear, overcome by suffering, he promises: I will send you one who will save you from all of this, and give you the chance to rise and return home, more prosperous than before, with your birthright once again returned to you.
Isaiah invites at least five levels of reading:
1. Specific contemporary prophecies about the immediate future of the nation to which he is speaking.
2. Prophecies of Christ's first coming, explaining what his atoning sacrifice will mean.
3. Prophecies about the Restoration, Christ's second coming, and the end of the sinful world.
4. General explanations of how God deals with his chosen people when they behave badly or well.
5. General explanations of how God deals with us as individuals.
And he does all these things at the same time.
When he says, "Behold, the Lord will carry thee away with a mighty captivity, and will surely cover thee" (Isa. 22:17), he is saying this to the people of his time -- a prophecy long since fulfilled.
He is also saying that any nation that rejects him will lose its freedom; and that when individuals succumb to temptation, they become captives.
When Eliakim the son of Hilkiah is spoken of as a "nail in a sure place" (22:20, 23), he is also prophesying of Christ; when he says that this "nail" will be cut down and fall (22:25), he is prophesying of the crucifixion -- and of the apostasy after the death of the Apostles, and of what happens when we cut faith in Christ out of our hearts.
So, with these layers of reading in mind, here is my attempt to revive in modern readers the experience of hearing Isaiah as his contemporaries did.
What's wrong with you now, you that are demonstrating in the streets? You that are full of grievance, you that are drunk, or drugged in a stupor of ecstasy, you that quarrel?
Your people are killed, but not in battle. Your rulers hide behind gates with guards to protect them; the refugees and immigrants that fled to you now barricade themselves against the riot in the streets.
Don't look at me, I said. I will weep bitterly -- don't try to comfort me -- because my people are looting their own banks, pimping their own daughters, trampling their own crops, tearing down the walls of their own houses, then crying to the mountains and complaining that their God has abandoned them.
Iran has missiles ready to fire, Korea has bombs that can burn up cities; your most fertile valleys will be overrun by tanks, and the enemy's warplanes fly over your cities.
You thought you were protected, but I have removed your shelter; all your armies cannot protect you, there is no forest where you can hide. Your fortifications have been breached, the ocean is no longer a moat behind which you can rest, and now you desperately tear down your houses to build flimsy stockades, for you are already besieged. You pile up dams to store water from dried-up rivers, for the drought has already begun.
It was God who built you up, God who made you rich, God who protected you from all your enemies. Once you celebrated as if these were all of your own making, devoured it all in great feasts, got drunk on plenty, and said, Life is short, so let us live well before we die!
Thus you tore down the buildings he gave you, overspent the treasury he trusted to you, stripped the fertile fields and made them a desert, and now you are hungry and poor and unprotected and you weep that God has abandoned you. It was you that cast away all his gifts and exposed your own nakedness.
Thus says the Lord God of hosts, Go to the accountant who tended all your funds, and say, Why are we bankrupt? Why has our house been replaced by a sepulcher? Why are our towers all tombs and our great buildings replaced by caves in the rock?
In reply I ask: Why have the children I made free chosen the captivity of death? I offered them life, and they gave back to me only handfuls of dirt to bury them with.
In the middle of your rave he will violently shudder the floor; you will fall to the ground. As you strut in your glory he will toss you like a ball into the hands of your enemy.
You will go like prisoners into the death camps, staggering past the empty shells of your tanks and the wreckage of your fallen jets, the relics of a superpower that forgot the God that raised it up.
In your faith and humility I gave you freedom and made you great. Will I now preserve you in your arrogance and unbelief, when you treat my gifts with such contempt?
In that day I will call one to take the oath of office under the bright banners; I will commit the government of this people into his hand. He will be a father to your citizens, and the guardian of all your children.
The keys of the Promised Land will I put into his palm, and I will wrap all its banners around his shoulder, so that what he opens, none can shut, and what he shuts, none can open.
I will set him in place like a nail that bites through the drywall to the stud behind, and he will be the bright hope of his people. Upon this nail they will hang all the glory of a great nation, the future of all the children who are born in it, the harvest of their fields and production of their factories, whether carried in cups or canisters, trains or trailers, or stored in cellars, warehouses, or sheds.
Then, says the Lord of numberless armies, the nail that is fastened in the sure place will be pried out. The burden that hung upon it will fall, will spill and be lost, for the Lord has spoken it.
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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