God Singing: Reflections on God as a Hebrew Psalmist

Part Two

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A second approach for studying Isaiah 40 comes from an article by Matthew Nickerson in which he discusses parallels in Nephi’s psalm (2 Ne. 4) a to what he calls “the five structural units of the biblical psalm type referred to as “the individual lament” (see video above or readIs “Nephi’s Psalm” Really a Psalm?). The five structural units identified by Nickerson as part of the “Individual Lament include the following:

  • An invocation,
  • A complaint,
  • A confession of trust,
  • A Petition, and
  • A Vow of Praise

Nickerson’s article, among other things, references the work of other LDS scholars who identify these psalmist elements in Nephi’s psalm. My desire here is to draw attention to these structural elements and to examine Isaiah 40 in relation to these elements. Isaiah the prophet pre-dates David the psalmist, but Chapter 40 provides strong evidence that the traditions informing the writing of psalms are already in place or developing hundreds of years before David. More specifically, I am arguing here for God as the singer of the holy song.

So often the God of the Old Testament is portrayed as the mean and vengeful, eye-for-an-eye deity. Christ is often seen as bringing to the concept of God, the image of the loving Father, replacing the harsh, judgmental God of Moses. Reading Isaiah 40, may cause us to rethink or re-vision our view of the Messianic creator who “[measures] the waters in the hollow of his hand, [metes] out the heaven with the span, and [comprehends] the dust of the earth in a measure” (40:12) and yet cries out to his people “let me feed you, gather you, and carry you to my bosom (40:11).

First an Invocation:
Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her
Iniquity is pardoned (40:1-2).
Second, A complaint:
“The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold,
And casteth silver chains.
He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation
  Chooseth a tree that will not rot;
He seeketh unto him a cunning workman
To prepare a graven image that shall not be moved.   (40:19-20)
Third, a confession of Trust:
I have loved you—sent you prophets to teach you
(“Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning?  (40:21)
“Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard?          (40:28)
I am the great God, the creator of heaven and earth.
I will send my messenger to prepare the way before me. When I come I will gather you with my
Strong arm and carry you to my bosom.
I faint not
Fourth: A Vow of Praise:
“Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of
The earth? It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants of the
Earth are as grasshoppers” (40: 21-22).
“Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth
“Hast thou not heard that the everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth,
fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding”  (40:28).
Fifth, A Petition:
Note: Instead of a petition—to what higher power would the God of Heaven and earth make a
request?—we get a Promise: “they that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they
shall walk and not faint” (40:31).

So, two caveats, two variations to consider: the Vow of Praise precedes the Petition and the Petition is, in fact, a Promise. Still, we have an impressive catalogue of similarities to the traditional psalmist pattern, and the only major difference arises from the nature of the singer of the song. (These differences are not too surprising given that Isaiah comes very early in the historical scope of the development of the psalm.)

And perhaps these differences can be overlooked when we acknowledge that the singer/psalmist in Chapter 40 is not the prophet Isaiah, nor is it the woeful, lamenting worshiper of God, as we see, for example, later in King David. The singer, the psalmist, is God Himself, celebrating his goodness, his greatness, and his love for his people and celebrating his desire to bless and ennoble them.

In conclusion, it is common to divide Isaiah into three sections, chapters 1-35 as speaking to Israel’s struggles with Assyria and pre-figuring her struggles with Babylon—specifically “warnings and judgments”; chapters 36-39 as transition chapters noting an “historical interlude”; and chapters 40-66 as dealing with the redemption of Israel (Ball & Winn, chapter thirty-three, p.104). It is easy to see why Isaiah Chapter 40 is chosen to head those chapters that deal with Israel’s redemption. In a similar fashion, it is easy to see from Chapter 40 why Nephite prophets like Nephi and Jacob would have been drawn in by references to God’s goodness, his greatness, and his love for the people of the House of Israel. Likewise, it should not be surprising that these Book of Mormon writers would be inspired and influenced by the poetic strategies they found demonstrated in the writings of Isaiah, for as the Book of Mormon Christ put it, “. . . great are the writings of Isaiah. . . ” (3 Nephi 23:1).

Read Part One of this post God Singing: Reflections on God as a Hebrew Psalmist


Sources

Ball, Terry and Nathan Winn. Making Sense of Isaiah: Insights and Modern Applications. Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT.

Christensen, Reg. Unlocking Isaiah: Lessons and Insights that Draw Us To The Savior. Covenant Communications, Inc., 2013. American Fork, UT.

Podcast. Feb. 10, 2016. KnowWhy #30. Book of Mormon Central. http://knowwhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/is-nephis-psalm-really-a-psalm.

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Michael was an Associate Professor of English, Brigham Young University-Hawaii and is retired living in Provo.

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