Ack, this is bad. I was doing so well for the first half of last year, and I certainly slowed down in the second half, but still. I didn’t expect my progress on Isaiah to be this close to the speed of molasses. Slllooowly dripping molasses. It’s not entirely unexpected though. The last few books I’ve read have been in the short to medium length range, which spoiled me a little. Isaiah, however, was 66 chapters. Combine a long book with content quality that is somewhere between mind-numbing and nearly useless, and you’ve got me taking 4 full months to complete the damn thing (and then even longer to write this review). Well, and an extremely busy and stressful stretch at work certainly has not helped either.
But honestly, Isaiah felt like such a waste of time that it had me wondering where it would rank in a “Most Useless Bible Books” list. The books that have felt very useless to me thus far have been the ones that a) rehashed stories from previous books (e.g. 1st and 2nd Chronicles), and b) were very repetitive and added very little new information or revelations that hadn’t already been covered in previous books (e.g. Psalms). Isaiah, for the most part, is guilty of BOTH of these things (though I know Christians will disagree with me on this for one specific reason, which I address in the “Interesting Stuff” section a little ways down this review).
This book is named Isaiah because it is supposedly told by the 8th century prophet Isaiah ben Amoz. Wikipedia has a good breakdown of the book’s story sections:
- Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), containing the words of Isaiah
- Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), the work of an anonymous 6th-century author writing during the exile
- Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from exile.
Wiki also mentions that “virtually no one maintains that the entire book, or even most of it, was written by one person.” I haven’t been great at remembering the exact timeframes of each book, and Wiki tells us Isaiah lived during the 8th century BC. But based on the story being told, it seems that this book starts off in the same timeframe and setting as 2nd Kings. We’re just now getting the story from Isaiah’s point of view instead.
And using the word “story” is being generous here; it’s not so much a story as it is a bunch of prophecies by Isaiah about Judah and Jerusalem. I like Wikipedia’s summary: “It can thus be read as an extended meditation on the destiny of Jerusalem into and after the Exile.” The first verse of chapter 1 of the book is, “[This is] The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah [a.k.a. Azariah], Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” Remember those guys? Look here, from 2nd Kings. Right hand side, the Judah side, starting 6 rows down (starting with Azariah). So you see there that the story starts before both Israel and Jerusalem are destroyed and the Jews are forced into exile. It then continues all the way through the exile, and through to the return from exile. (Remember the rebuilding of Jerusalem happens in Ezra and Nehemiah).
So what types of oracles/prophecies does Isaiah give? It basically goes like this:
- Hey people of Judah, you suck!! You are assholes. You never listen to God or appreciate him. You insolent little bastards. So he is going to abandon you. You will be forced into exile.
- Hey foreigners, you suck!! You are assholes. You will mistreat God’s insolent little children. So God is going to destroy you.
- Hey everyone, you suck!! So God is going to destroy the entire earth!! He will put a curse on it and all of the earth’s inhabitants are gonna BURN with only a few surviving!!
- But WAIT!! The Lord is gracious to you, people of Zion (and I guess Israel in general?); he will rise up and show you compassion! He will free you from the rule of foreign nations (the rule that he caused you to fall under in the first place)!
- Hey Babylon, you’re gonna FALL, baby!!
- Some other various boring/repetitive oracles.
So that’s the gist of what the book is about. Due to the way it’s written, I think I’m actually gonna switch up the order of my Good Stuff/Bad Stuff sections this time around:
I’m starting with the Bad Stuff section this time because I’m gonna keep this short. The bad stuff in Isaiah is the same repetitive crap we’ve heard 8 bazillion times before in every other Bible book. It’s stuff like:
- Chapter 30: “31. The voice of the Lord will shatter Assyria; with his rod he will strike them down. 32. Every stroke the Lord lays on them with his punishing club will be to the music of timbrels and harps, as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.”
- Chapter 34: “2. The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. 3. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will stink; the mountains will be soaked with their blood.”
Just take those two examples, multiply them by like 66, sprinkle in the requisite misogyny, and you’ll get the idea. Same psychotic shit, different Bible book. Snooze.
There are a few good verses (i.e. oracles from Isaiah) in here. Stuff like:
- Chapter 1: “17. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
- A prophecy from chapter 2: “4. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Well that certainly sounds like it would be nice. I’ll believe it when I see it.
- Chapter 10: “1. Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2. to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”
- Chapter 56 says that God will accept foreigners as long as they follow all his rules. Some of his rules may be insane, but hey, at least he’s claiming he’ll treat them just like he treats his own people.
- Chapter 58: “10. and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
It’s these plus maybe 3 or 4 others in the entire 66 chapters. Better than nothing, but not all that impressive.
Other than a few funny things (see next section), there was really only one thing I found interesting in the entire book of Isaiah, and that is the couple prophecies about “Immanuel.” These come in chapters 7 – 9. An excerpt:
7:13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 7:15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 7:16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
Apparently, this prophecy is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew as proof of the divine status of Jesus. However, the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible points out the following: “The King James Version mistranslates the Hebrew word ‘almah’, which means ‘young woman’ as ‘virgin’. (The Hebrew word, ‘bethulah’, means ‘virgin’.) In addition, the young woman referred to in this verse was living at the time of the prophecy. And Jesus, of course, was called Jesus — and is not called Emmanuel in any verse in the New Testament.”
I’ll be interested to see how this is referenced once I get to Matthew.
EDIT: I just saw something that made me realize that I forgot to reference chapter 53 in this as well, which is actually longer and more Jesus-sounding than the Immanuel bit. The book of Isaiah was so long that by the time I got done with it, I had forgotten about ch. 53 and missed it in my (long) notes. If you read this chapter out of context, it sounds almost exactly like a description of Jesus. It’s actually the last of four “Songs of the Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, and you have to read the last couple/few verses of Isaiah 52 to get the beginning of the “song”. The first three songs are chapters 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 50:4-9.
The gist of these chapters/verses in Isaiah seems to be that Jewish folks interpret “the servant” as a representative for all of Israel, while Christians look at it as a prophecy about the coming of Christ. Frankly, I had read it as the former (all of Israel) when reading all the 4 “songs” in the context of the book, which I think is why I found them so forgettable. Chapter 41 (shortly before the “songs”) even specifically says, “8. ‘But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, 9. I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.'” These chapters are all about the era of Jewish exile that started at the end of 2nd Kings, so I read them as being very specifically about the Jews trying to break free of their oppressors (e.g. the Babylonians) during this time period.
So, interpret these verses how you will, but as it is with much of the Bible, I don’t think anyone will every truly know what the original intent and meaning was (or even who wrote these chapters, for that matter).
OH wait!! Before I get to the next section, I almost forgot about one other semi-interesting thing from Isaiah – it contains what is apparently the only mention of Lucifer in the entire Bible:
14:11 Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. 14:12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!
And the interesting thing about this is that these verses are not referring to “Satan”, but rather to the king of Babylon at the time that the Jews are to be freed. It’s in a passage of verses that starts with: “3. On the day the Lord gives you relief from your suffering and turmoil and from the harsh labor forced on you, 4. you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon:” Blah blah taunt taunt, and then this Lucifer bit. The word “Lucifer” is actually removed entirely from the New International version. Pretty interesting. Wikipedia has more info on it, of course.
Despite how dull and tedious this book is, there is one other entertaining thing about Isaiah, which is all the freakish and fantastical creatures mentioned within its verses. Several of these “animals” have been featured in previous books as well, but for some reason, Isaiah seems to contain a LOT of them in one book. Here’s a little tour:
The Cockatrice: A two-legged dragon with a rooster’s head. “11:8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.”
The Satyr: From Wikipedia: “In Greek mythology, a satyr is one of a troop of male companions of Pan and Dionysus with goat-like (caprine) features, including a goat-tail, goat-like ears, and sometimes a goat-like phallus.” “13:21 But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.”
Dragons: We all know what those are. “13:22 And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.” A “fiery flying serpent” is mentioned a couple times as well.
And finally, we have Rahab, the mythical sea monster. “51:9 Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?”
Ahhh … where have all these amazing creatures gone in these dark and dreary modern times? I know that at least some of these are probably just the result of bad translations and/or references to popular (at the time) legends that were meant figuratively, but still. Entertaining nonetheless.
But before you think this is the end of the funny stuff … hold up, I have ONE last funny thing for ya – One of the most awkwardly worded verses in the Bible thus far (the story and I think the verse were actually first told in 2nd Kings but I didn’t have time to mention it there): “37:36 Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.”
So, given all this, what rating shall I give to Isaiah? It offered me very little except wacky creatures and zombies, and it contained plenty of the same bad stuff we’ve gotten in most of the other books. The “good stuff” was kept to a minimum, and beyond that it only gave a couple semi-interesting clues about Jesus and Lucifer. So I’ll give it a:
I’m rating this book on the level of some of the worst books I’ve read so far because it just felt SO pointless, offered me so little new concrete information, and it was incredibly difficult to get through. And sadly, the next book after this may be more of the same. It’s Jeremiah, yet another prophet who seems to have lived during the timeframe of 2nd Kings, and whose book is 52 effing chapters. Hey, it’s better than 66, at least? Uggh. I’m reaching the home stretch of the Old Testament though, and that is practically the only thing keeping me going at this point.