Sometimes, we throw up our arms and give up before we’ve even started with Isaiah. We will never begin to understand the value of Isaiah, if we continue in our ways of learned helplessness. To be pragmatic: get a new translation (go to net.bible.org and you can compare 10 different translations), learn about the historical context, and start. Put in the effort. I sometimes wonder if Nephi liked Isaiah so much because, if we take the time, Isaiah opens all of scripture much more easily.
These chapters include the third (Isaiah 50) and fourth (Isaiah 52-53) Songs of the Suffering Servant. These poems are about a servant of YHWH (Yahweh or Jehovah). The context for this writing is the conquer of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria and their potential liberation. The strength of the Assyrian armies superseded that of Israel, beyond that, YHWH tells them that their own sins were at the root of their failure.
In 41:8 the Lord tells Israel that they are the servant, and this has been the center of rabbinic interpretation for centuries. Christians have also been interpreting Isaiah in messianic terms for centuries, just not as long. These chapters begin with the Lord reminding us that we are His—even when we sin—both individually and collectively. When all things feel in commotion, this is a poignant reminder that God is all powerful.
If we doubt the power of God, the YHWH asks,
Is my hand too weak to deliver you?
Do I lack the power to rescue you?
Look, with a mere shout I can dry up the sea;
I can turn streams into a desert…. (50:2 NET)
Isaiah then asks the Lord,
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over? (51:9 NIV)
In the Babylonian creation narrative, Marduk (the head of the Gods the Babylonian equivalent of YHWH) fights against Tiamaat (the Goddess of Chaos who rules the cosmic seas with her monsters: Leviathan—the sea serpent and Rahab—the dragon). Here the God of Israel reminds us that he will always be triumphant over chaos. Chaos need not overtake us, the Lord can make a path for us through the chaos.
At those times when we feel that the heavens are silent, or we are questioning, as did Joseph F. Smith, asking God, “Why is it so?” and feeling like “The heavens seem like brass over our heads.”—we can know the answer will come. The timing of the Lord is not always our own, but the Lord will come to us in his time. The children of Israel did not avoid captivity, nor were they delivered quickly, but it would come.
Nor need we beat up ourselves for struggling as Elder Neil L. Andersen said in general conference, “This is mortality.” Uncertainty, questions, and struggles are a necessary part of our mortal experience, but we can be sure that the help of the Lord will come.
Certainly the Lord will console Zion;
he will console all her ruins.
He will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the Garden of the Lord.
Happiness and joy will be restored to her,
thanksgiving and the sound of music. (51:3 NET)
Restoration is not just about knowledge; the gospel is about restoring our whole souls from brokenness to joy, completeness, and our original celestial state. Through Isaiah the Lord likewise promised us added strength in that waiting time: But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew [their] strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; [and] they shall walk, and not faint. (40:31 KJV)
It wasn’t just the children of Israel—”All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” (53:6 KJV) Sin, despair, and brokenness will be a part of our mortal experience, but they need not last forever. “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments…” (52:1 KJV) Repent when we need to repent and continue to trust in the Lord. Restoration is waiting.
As recorded in Mosiah 14, Abinadi took Isaiah’s words to prophesy of Christ. Christ took all of the bad upon himself and returned good.
Surely he has borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows;
yet we did esteem him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed. (Mosiah 14:4-5, comp. Isaiah 53)
His pain willingly chosen opens the way for our complete healing and redemption, if we believe him. Whether it be individual or collective, our God provides a way through the chaos and leads us to redemption.