As was true of the preceding several chapters, such as chapters 52-53, it is easier in these chapters for us to see their symbolic meaning than it is to see it in many of the early chapters in Isaiah. Nevertheless, I think it helps, even in a case like this, to begin by understanding the literal meaning of the chapters—what the people of Jerusalem might have heard and understood. Doing so will often add depth to our understanding of the symbolism.
Speaking of scripture study, Brigham Young asked, “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?” His questions suggest that this should be our starting place. Then, when we are reading writings such as those of Isaiah, we should ask ourselves “What else could this represent or refer to?”
So here are some descriptions of what is happening in the chapters for this week’s lesson, followed by questions about the reading.
According to Baltzer, chapter 54 takes the form of a description of part of a wedding: the bride arrives (verse 1); there is rejoicing over her arrival (verse 1); those who celebrate build a tent for the marriage (verses 2-3); the husband’s messengers arrive with their announcements (verses 4-5, 6, 7-8, 9, and 10); and the husband arrives and is crowned (verses 11-14) (Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, translated by Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001], 430-31).
According to Watts, this is a drama: first a dialogue between the heavens (verses 1, 2-3, and 5) and the earth (verses 2, 4, and 6), then speeches directed at Zion by the Lord (7-10 and 16) and by Darius (11-15 and 17) (John D. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 25: Isaiah 34-66, Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, eds. [Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1987], 233-35).
The moral of that comparison? If you have difficulty figuring out what is going on when you read Isaiah, don’t feel alone.
I’m more persuaded by Baltzer than by Watts—though I don’t have anything more to rely on than my intuitions. Scholars who know what they are doing might find Watts much more persuasive. But given my intuitions, I will assume that Baltzer’s overview is better: this is a dramatic description of a wedding ceremony. Using that as background, I’ve given the following description of how one might understand the chapter as a whole symbolically.
Verses 1-3: The prophet has a vision of the rejoicing of those who return from exile like brides coming to a wedding: they will fill up the place of their habitation and they will be more numerous than they were before they were cast off.
Verses 4-6: Though Jerusalem has been like a forsaken wife, she will forget the shame and humiliation she suffered, because she will be redeemed by the Creator.
Verses 7-8: Her status as a forsaken betrothed (exile) will have been only a small moment; the marriage (redemption) will be forever.
Verses 9-10: The Lord compares Jerusalem’s captivity and return to the flood and the Noahic covenant: his promise never to flood the earth again is comparable to his promise to no longer be angry with Jerusalem and to shower kindness on her.
Verses 11-12: The beauty of the wedded bride (redeemed Zion).
Verses 13-14: The blessings of redemption: the Lord will teach their children and protect Jerusalem and her children.
Verses 15-17: Expanding on the last of these blessings, the Lord promises that, though Zion may have enemies, they will not succeed.
Baltzer and Watts see this chapter in ways that follow on their understanding of chapter 54. For Baltzer it begins with a crier inviting people to the wedding feast (465). For Watts it is a point in the drama when the crowd is addressed (245-46).
Verse 1: Those who hunger and thirst will be satisfied at no expense to them.
Verse 2: Why do they spend money and energy on things that do not fulfill them? Instead, they should listen to the Lord and they should delight in the things that fatten the soul.
Verses 3-5: The Lord will make an everlasting covenant with those who listen to him, the covenant with David. And David will be a witness to and leader of the people, not only the people of Israel, but also the people of nations that Israel doesn’t know. Those nations will see what the Lord has done for Israel and come to it.
Verses 6-7: Given such a great blessing, those addressed should repent and return to the Lord who will pardon.
Verses 8-11: Though pardon may seem impossible to human beings, the Lord’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. The difference is that his word always comes to fruition. As a result, we know that his promise to redeem and prosper Jerusalem will be accomplished.
Verses 12-13: When Jerusalem leaves Babylon, the earth itself will rejoice; it will be transfigured.
Many biblical scholars see a break between the content and tone of the previous chapters and this chapter (and those that follow). In Isaiah 56-66, the prophet seems concerned primarily with the question of whether redeemed-and-expanded Zion will be able to continue to stand after the return from Babylon. Though the answer will be “yes” (Isaiah 66:12-14), the need for repentance and the danger of God’s judgment ought not to be taken lightly.
Verses 1-8: The reward of those who live justly, keeping the Sabbath: whether Israelite or convert, they will come to the mountain of the Lord and worship joyfully in the temple.
Verses 9-12: Isaiah stops to reflect on the condition of the people as he prophesies: they are led by blind and greedy leaders who think that nothing is going to change, but Jerusalem will be devoured because of them.
Verses 1-6: The Lord’s vengeance on Edom, one of Israel’s traditional enemies. (As you read these verses, remember that the word “edom” means “red.”)
From Isaiah 63:7 through Isaiah 64:11 is a prayer of confession of Israel’s sin and of thanksgiving for the Lord’s deliverance.
This chapter is the Lord’s answer to the prayer of chapters 63 and 64.
Verses 1-7: Israel’s rebellion and disobedience brought it suffering: the Lord “measured their works to their bosom” (verse 7), in other words, he paid them according to the desires of their hearts.
Verses 8-12: Though the Lord would be justified in destroying Israel as a whole, for the sake of his servants he will not. But he will destroy those individuals who forsake him.
Verses 13-16: Those who have been faithful will be fed, their thirst will be quenched, and they will rejoice, but the unfaithful will remain hungry, thirsty, and sorrowful. In fact, the name of those who have been unfaithful will become a curse, and those who have been faithful will receive a new name.
Verses 17-25: The marvelous transformation that will occur to the earth and the inhabitants of the earth when Israel is redeemed: the heavens and the earth will be renewed, there will be a new Jerusalem, God and humanity will rejoice together, there will be neither infancy nor old age, people will live peacefully and fruitfully in their homes, their prayers will be answered before they ask, and the animals will live peacefully together.
Here are some particular study questions that you may wish to consider, in addition to thinking about other ways to interpret the chapters in question.
Isaiah 55-56: Try using the idea that this describes a wedding as the key to understanding these verses. What kind of interpretation does that metaphor allow you?
Isaiah 54:2: How does the command “Enlarge the place of thy tent” apply to us today? Why is the image of the tent, with its ropes and stakes, so important to us?
Isaiah 54:4-10: How do these promises have meaning today? To whom do they have meaning? To ancient Israel? To the Jews today? To the LDS Church? To individuals?
Isaiah 54:13-14: How do these promises have meaning today? To whom do they have meaning? To ancient Israel? To the Jews today? To the LDS Church? To individuals and families?
Isaiah 55:3-4: Of whom was David a symbol to those in Jerusalem listening to Isaiah? To those at the time of Christ? To us? How can David serve as a symbol of these things? How do you square David’s sins with the fact that he is so frequently used as a positive symbol in the Hebrew Bible. What might that teach us?
Isaiah 55:1-7; 56:3-8: Who can partake of the Lord’s promises to Israel? What did this mean to those in Jerusalem as they listened to Isaiah and contemplated the coming captivity in Babylon? What do you think it might have meant to those who heard Christ’s message during his earthly mission? What did it mean when the gospel was restored in the nineteenth century? Does it mean the same today that it meant at the beginning of the Restoration?
Isaiah 56:1-8: Why does the Lord use Sabbath-keeping as the symbol for all obedience and just living?
Isaiah 65:17-25: Why would millennial promises have been of interest to the people at Isaiah’s time? Can we understand them as anything but millennial promises? Why were these particular verses of interest to those at the time of Christ? Why are they of interest to us today? Are there differences in meaning depending on which audience is reading these verses? If so, what does that tell us about scripture and prophecy.
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