Most people that I know do not like to read the Book of Isaiah. His writing is cryptic, couched in strange symbols, and a mix of centuries-old cultural references and millennial prophecies. Those wishing to read Isaiah often seek out textual helps like Reg Christensen’sChristensen, Reg. Unlocking Isaiah or the Ball and Winn text Making Sense of Isaiah. Latter-Day Saints who take the time to read Isaiah probably do so for several reasons. First, they engage because Nephi and Jacob, both Book of Mormon prophets, expressed intense appreciation for the writings of Isaiah and because Christ on visiting the American remnant of the House of Israel first declared “…great are the writings of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1) and then directed Nephite attention to the prophet’s writing. Additional encouragement to study Isaiah has come from the moving and unforgettable music from Handel’s Messiah.
Like many Latter-Day Saints, I find myself drawn to Isaiah, in spite of the difficulties, for the reasons stated above and because of my study of the Book of Mormon. Lately, I have been focusing on Nephi’s psalm (2 Ne. 4) and Alma’s psalm in Alma, Chapter 29. I have become convinced that the use of Hebraic chiastic structures and parallel phrasings grew out of the Nephite familiarity with Isaiah’s poetic strategies as they would have found them on the Brass Plates of Laban.
While the reading/studying of Isaiah has been a struggle for me, I came upon Isaiah 40 with surprise and amazement. The struggles I had experienced with so many Isaiah chapters gave way to a clarity of vision and a measure of pure joy for which I was not prepared. Part of it may have been from recalling, as I read in Isaiah passages from Handel’s Messiah—actually hearing in my mind measures sung by The Mormon Tabernacle choir—and part of it may have come from discovering lines I had heard hundreds or thousands of times before “and they shall mount up with wings as eagles” (Isaiah 40:31), not knowing that these words came from Isaiah.
In any case, reading Isiah Chapter 40 brought an exciting affirmation that the words of Isaiah are, truly, “great,” and deserve our thoughtful study. In the paragraphs which follow I would like to share some of the insights I have come to as I have tried to study this impressive chapter from the Old Testament. In particular, I would like to share insights from two approaches that may provide food for thought: three chiastic strategies clearly apparent in Chapter 40 and five traditional elements of psalmist structure. One critical measure of the value of a work is when serious, up-close study increases our awareness and appreciation for the work studied.
First, a look at three powerful aspects of chiastic strategy in Isaiah’s, or rather, God’s song as we find them in Chapter 40:
The first chiastic strategy we find in Isaiah 40 is the use of Bookends. Bookends are phrases, sentences or thematic units that both begin and end a literary structure. In the chiastic structure ABCDDCBA, the bookends would be the units A and B which begin the passage and the parallel (though often reversed) units B and A which close the passage. These parallel units can be parallel, similar or exact, in language or in theme, the similarity both echoing and reinforcing the message found in the body of the passage.
In Isaiah 40, the Lord through his prophet, begins his song with the imperative command, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people (40:1). In the closing verses (26-31) he declares the how and the why of the comfort: “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things . . . . the creator of the earth fainteth not, neither is weary . . . .He giveth power to the faint . . . .they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength (shall be comforted). They shall mount up with wings as eagles; (with the comfort given as commanded) they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.”
The message from the beginning to the end is that the God of Israel loves his people and wishes to comfort and bless those who wait on (or serve) him.
Exactly how God wishes to comfort his people becomes clear as the text proceeds from the opening verses towards the close of the chapter, and this brings us to the second chiastic strategy I would like to focus on: The thematic or dramatic Center. The Center is not always the exact center by verse count, but is interior to the homily. In this song, the dramatic center comes with verses 9 through 11:
“Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold the Lord God will come with a strong hand and his arm shall rule for him. Behold his reward is with him and his work before him.” All of this followed by these next lines, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; He shall gather the lambs with his arm and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”
The heart, the emotional center for the text tells us that God will comfort his people by feeding them, gathering them with his strong arm to his bosom and gently leading them. This psalm, then, this song of God is a song of redemption: as the opening bookend declares, “Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished; that her iniquity is pardoned” and the pardon comes from the creator of heaven and earth who wishes to gather his people to his bosom.
While the chiastic structure often results in a balanced passage—ABCDDCBA, a variation that itself is almost a tradition is to weight the closing of the structure by relying on what some refer to as a Climax, so that the structure as a whole builds in intensity right up to the closing phrases. This is not to diminish the dramatic Center but to carry the reader to an emotional close that will confirm all that has preceded the close. In many instances, this movement to a climax is not a feverish move to a closing high note, but clearly that is what we have here in Chapter 40. The song begins with a soulful “comfort ye my people,” moves to its central theme of redemption through God’s great love and his power to save, and rises in the end to a vision of the comforted and saved rising up like eagles.
Bookends, a dramatic Center, and a rousing Climax: not surprising that agnostics and atheists join with believers to teach and celebrate much of the Bible as literature.
Read part two of this post God Singing: Reflections on God as a Hebrew Psalmist—part 2
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.