The Vision of Isaiah
These next five chapters in Isaiah constitute the Messiah section. While many other topics and people are mentioned, the central focus is on Christ and the events of his life.
Isaiah had a vision of the servant of God the Father, the messenger of the great Elohim. This vision, vast and encompassing in nature, presents aspects of the personality, attributes, life, message, calling, power, purpose, audience, coming, and culminating effect of the Servant. Isaiah describes in verse form this majestic vision in chapters 40-66.
Typical of Semitic literature, Isaiah uses dualism (1) to show that his vision was not of one person alone, but of all great and significant servant messengers of Elohim. The purpose of such a presentation is to compare–and to a lesser degree contrast--“noble and great ones.” Certainly Isaiah intends to demonstrate how these servants work together in harmony to accomplish the work of the Father.
From the preface (Chapter 40) of the vision, it is clear that these messengers have three titles plainly distinguishing the three offices or callings involved:
1. Elias - the herald (2)
2. Elijah - the restorer (3)
3. Messiah - the anointed (4)
In general, in our present discussion of chapters 49-53, Isaiah is Elias, Joseph Smith is Elijah, and of course Jesus is the anointed, the Christ. These chapters will show how three key servants, Isaiah, Joseph Smith, and Jesus, have similar experiences and callings.(However, in his use of dualism in these verses, others will also be mentioned or alluded to. 5)
Joseph Smith, understandably an expert on the subject, defines these roles or callings in this way: “The spirit of Elias is first, Elijah second, and Messiah last. Elias is a forerunner to prepare the way, and the spirit and power of Elijah is to come after, holding the keys of power, building the Temple to the capstone, placing the seals of the Melchizedek Priesthood upon the house of Israel, and making all things ready; then Messiah comes to His Temple, which is last of all” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.340). (6)
Isaiah’s Book of Poetry
After the preface to the vision , Chapter 40, Isaiah writes twenty-six poems, all relating to his vision of the servant of God. Often Bible readers come to this arrangement expecting a narrative or exposition similar to other scriptures; such prejudice will only complicate an already challenging study.
If Isaiah were writing his work today about this vision, it would be published as a collection of poems. The book could possibly be called His Servant. Poems with a similar dominant theme would be grouped together in chapters. While the poems might share items or insights, each would be separate and distinct in itself. When one reads a book of poems, one does not expect them to move chronologically, or to deal with topics progressively. (Only one long epic poem would do that.) Though the collection of poems shares a common theme and overlaps in many ways, each poem can and does stand on its own. Some chapters would have introductions or explanatory notes, but most would simply present the poems.
Using this analogy, the preface would have only one thing in it, one poem, that which we call Chapter 40 of Isaiah. The poem could be titled “The Vision.” The first chapter of the book, designated “The Servant,” would have four poems in it that generally deal with the role of God’s servants. Each succeeding chapter would likewise present a poem or poems centered around a common theme. The outline of the book would be something like this:
Preface “The Vision” 1 poem Isaiah 40
Chapter 1 “The Servant” 4 poems Isaiah 41-44
Chapter 2 “Cyrus” 3 poems Isaiah 45-47
Chapter 3 “Israel’s Afflictions” 1 poem Isaiah 48
Chapter 4 “The Messiah” 5 poems Isaiah 49-53
Chapter 5 “Zion” 4 poems Isaiah 54-57
Chapter 6 “Redemption” 2 poems Isaiah 58-59
Chapter 7 “Review of Zion” 1 poem Isaiah 60
Chapter 8 “Messiah Summation” 1 poem Isaiah 61
Chapter 9 “The Second Coming” 5 poems Isaiah 62-66
The five poems in “The Messiah” section might be titled thus:
“Messiah: The Restorer” Isaiah 49
“Messiah: The Deliverer” Isaiah 50
“Messiah: The Lawgiver” (7) Isaiah 51
“Messiah: The Redeemer” Isaiah 52
“Messiah: The Savior” Isaiah 53
Then the message of all five of these poems would be specifically tied together in the “culminating” poem we know as Isaiah 61, titled something like “Jehovah Messiah.”
With the exception of seven sentences toward the end of The Vision–fittingly, towards the end of Chapter 66, every single word in Chapters 40 through 66 is poetry.
Poetry presents its own special challenges, and benefits, to readers. The benefits are often overlooked, but they can be profound. Certainly the book of Isaiah lends itself well to music, as many celebrated songs attest. Since hymns and songs are simply poems put to music, Isaiah has already done much of the work of creating dramatic, moving, powerful songs. Also, the flowery and figurative language of poems naturally lends itself to memory because of its striking, unique construction. Who can forget a memorable phrase such as “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow,” or a turn like “line upon line; here a little, and there a little”? (8)
The difficulties of poetic study are unfortunately better understood. Poetry differs significantly from prose in several ways. Though symbolism is present in all types of literature, it is more likely to be encountered in poems, and to be more critical. “A major difficulty in understanding the book of Isaiah is his extensive use of symbolism, as well as his prophetic foresight and literary style” (Bible Dictionary). Imagery is also more important in poetry. The structure of poems differs significantly from prose and drama, and presents unique challenges to gospel students. Because of these, scholars generally say that poetry needs to be read three to five time more than a prose message to understand what is being said. Certainly reading Isaiah five times more
“Literature . . . can be used as a gear for stepping up the intensity and increasing the range of our experience and as a glass for clarifying it. This is the literary use of language, for literature is not only an aid to living but a means of living.
“Literature . . . exists to communicate significant experience–significant because concentrated and organized. Its function is not to tell us about experience but to allow us imaginatively to participate in it. It is a means of allowing us, through the imagination, to live more fully, more deeply, more richly, and with greater awareness. It can do this in two ways: by broadening our experience–that is, by making us acquainted with a range of experience with which, in the ordinary course of events, we might have no contact–or by deepening our experience–that is, by making us feel more poignantly and more understandingly the everyday experiences all of us have.
“It is not primarily to communicate information that novels and short stories and plays and poems are written.