John Goldingay on Prophesying in Isaiah

The book is Isaiah: New International Biblical Commentary, by John Goldingay, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001. I often say to people who ask, “If you own only one commentary on Isaiah, this one is short, but it will probably be the best introduction you can get to the book.”

What kind of “divine inspiration” could we expect to find in Isaiah? The Nerd knows that some people say, “It’s biblical.” The Nerd doesn’t think “it’s biblical” explains anything to a thinking person. And the Nerd reasons that since God made brains and gave human beings the privilege of being the only fully reasoning creatures on this planet, he wants us to think. So instead of saying, “Isaiah is divinely inspired because it is between the covers of a modern printing of a thing we call the Bible,” he wonders what Isaiah says about his own words and scenes and poems.

John Goldingay makes much of the fact that the words of Isaiah are introduced as a vision, not a message per se. Isaiah saw. He did not receive a verbatim message. He was given a scene, multiple scenes, a peek into deeper reality. In Goldingay’s words:

A prophet is one who has seen something, and has seen something because Yahweh has made the seeing possible. It is as if God opened a window in heaven. Indeed Isaiah speaks in almost these terms in chapter 6 telling us how he came to be “sent” to the people by Yahweh. He saw the Lord seated on a throne in heaven. With horror he realized that he had seen the King, Almighty Yahweh. And often the vision he was given to share was horrific rather than pretty (see 21:2). Yes, a prophet saw visions.

Furthermore, in addition to showing Isaiah things, Hashem sends him as a messenger, which must entail giving him some words or a message. Goldingay does not think this means a set of words are given which Isaiah must repeat verbatim. He says:

A sovereign leaves the representative to frame the detail of the words, of course, but they still have the sovereign’s authority. Presumably the same is true of Yahweh and the prophet. Yahweh give the gist of the message; the prophet frames the actual words, though these then have all Yahweh’s authority (and this process explains, in part, why Isaiah’s words differ from — say — Jeremiah’s).

Goldingay concludes that Isaiah saw things and was given things to put in his own words. The sovereign did not reveal to the messenger everything. He saw and said things that seemed horrific to him as well as beautiful. His words seem like polar opposites sometimes. The future will be beautiful. The future will be terrifying. Most people turn it in their minds into a simple story (terrible for a while and eventually beautiful) but it’s more complicated than that.

Maybe that’s why the first words are about Isaiah’s collected words being a vision. Things seen are ambiguous. Scenes give a glimpse without answering everything. At the center of this is the key vision Isaiah saw: Adonai seated on a high and lofty throne, majestic and frightening, inspiring and fearsome.


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