Do you feel like a dummy when you open Isaiah? I do. That’s why I’ve entitled this new Blog Bible Study series Isaiah for Dummies. Much like its many practical counterparts– Windows for Dummies, Football for Dummies, etc.–this series assumes we’re all beginners. You and I don’t have to pretend we know anything. We don’t even need to hide our ignorance.
That’s a relief, isn’t it?
For example, is Isaiah your “go to” for Bible quotes? Can you rattle off a verse or two from memory when the situation calls for it? Nope. Me neither. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re dummies, but that we’re like children when we need comfort. Our go-to verses tend to be the ones we learned when we were small and weak. When we needed our heavenly Father’s encouragement. When we didn’t have to know it all, but found comfort in the fact that God knows.
Isaiah for Dummies and Children
At times of weakness, many of us turn to a favorite Psalm. Perhaps you memorized Psalm 23 as a child and can still recite the whole thing, starting with the familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… .” Or maybe the Gospel of John occupies a permanent place in your soul with its 7 “I am” statements: I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the true vine. Any one of these familiar statements immediately brings Jesus into our thoughts and kindles hope in our hearts.
But Isaiah? Well…no. Oh, maybe a few familiar Christmas passages like, “For unto us a child is born (Isaiah 9:6).” Handel’s Messiah Oratorio can be credited for making that one sing. Other Christmas passages might have been engraved on our minds through yearly repetition. “Comfort, O Comfort my People” ( Isaiah 40:1) and “All We Like Sheep” (Isaiah 53:6) come to mind.
I personally delight in the way Handel’s music makes me picture those wayward sheep wandering in all directions! It makes me shake my head and say, “Oh yes, Lord. That’s me. I need you to come find me and bring me home.”
But apart from those few passages? For most of us, Isaiah is a closed book. I’m inviting us not to feel like dummies, but to become like children.
Introducing Our Tour Guide
Fortunately, our church has just started a sermon series on Isaiah, which has prompted me to pillage my husband’s book shelves looking for a good commentary to study on the days between Sundays.
“Honey!!” I yelled from his office, “Where’s that book by Motyer on Isaiah? You didn’t give it away did you?!” Fortunately, he hadn’t. This is the hardback book he handed me, complete with a ribbon to mark your place. It’s the perfect “Isaiah for Dummies” guide. Let me tell you what’s inside:
First, you’ll find a 4 page introduction telling you what to expect. Dr. Alec Motyer, who died in 2016, was a much loved Irish Biblical scholar, teacher and writer. Like a good teacher, he tells his reader how to use his book to help you understand Isaiah’s book. His introduction gets right to the point, giving you and me the 5 main divisions of Isaiah. That’s really helpful when you’re facing 66 chapters!
Second, he talks about Isaiah’s use of language. This is one of the most delightful parts, in my opinion. Apparently Isaiah wrote “very stylish Hebrew.” Since my Hebrew is a little rusty–make that non-existent–I would never have realized that on my own. Through the rest of the book, Motyer gives side notes to explain not just what a verse means, but what’s cool about how Isaiah says it.
Third, he divides the whole book into 71 readings, making his devotional guide last at least 71 days. If you’re like me, you’ll want to pace yourself. If you miss a day, it’s OK. But it’s also nice to know that this study will keep you company for several months.
Fourth and most helpful, after helping us understand the reading of the day, Dr. Motyer gives us a “Thought for the Day” paragraph to help us apply that day’s passage to our own life of faith.
For Such A Time As This
Isaiah isn’t just “for dummies,” it is the perfect book of the Bible to study right now. God gave it to us “for such a time as this.”
Remember when Queen Esther’s uncle told her that she had come to the palace “for such a time as this”? With those words he was urging her to look beyond her personal comfort so she could play her part in God’s saving plan. Uncle Mordecai taught Esther God’s perspective, not to enrich her devotional life, but in order to instill courage for the risky task she was called to do.
We often read our Bibles looking for personal comfort, but Isaiah turns out to give us more than emotional help. Isaiah gives us dummies God’s perspective on the tumult of world history in his day. We need that perspective for our day.
Isaiah gives us dummies God’s perspective on the tumult of world history in his day. We need that same perspective for our day.
You and I often oversimplify the evening news, reducing it to “the good guys versus the bad guys.” Who you label as good or bad depends on whether you tend to watch CNN or Fox News.
What surprises me is that God doesn’t do that. In Isaiah God doesn’t simply give his people a simplistic message, You’re the good guys, right? Right! Now stay away from those bad guys and trust me! OK? For some reason I always assumed that this was the gist of the first 39 chapters.
But it isn’t. Instead, Isaiah actually begins by calling God’s people to account. It turns out that they are the problem, not the solution. Assyria and Egypt were the super powers of his day, and little Israel was tempted to keep herself safe by making deals first with one, then with the other.
How Isaiah is Changing This Dummy
Apparently, Israel needed to repent more than she needed to be rescued. Her enemies weren’t simply out there, they were in her own heart. Isaiah addresses the nation with sharp rebukes, captured by message by Dr. Motyer’s abrupt phrases:
Wash! Make your hands clean!
Remove your evil practice from before my eyes!
Give up wrong-doing!
Reform the oppressor!
Deal justly with the orphan!
Take up the case of the widow!
Isaiah 1:16-17, Motyer’s translation
This language shocks me. I find myself surprised by Isaiah’s God. Just when I think I’ve figured him out, he turns my world upside down. He doesn’t start by denouncing the “bad guys,” but by rebuking his people. Isaiah is changing the way I read the daily news, by:
- coaching me to repent before I form judgments.
- telling me not to make alliances with my enemies, but to pray for them.
- reminding me that God is the Savior of my friends and enemies alike.
The message of the gospel always turns our world upside down.
Give yourself an early Christmas present. Buy the hardback commentary for yourself. Take notes on the pages of the book. Mark your place with the bookmark.
And come. Bring your ignorance and fears, your judgments and anger, your hunger and thirst to this study.