On Reading and Preaching Through Isaiah

When the Lord chose the book of Isaiah to be the sermon series this year, I was filled with fear and trepidation. One factor is the length of Isaiah. Sixty-six chapters is a lot of chapters! But far more intimidating is the nature of what is in Isaiah. It is a difficult book to understand. Granted, some of the most beloved verses in all the Bible are found in Isaiah. So too, however, are some of the most confusing and befuddling. To cherry-pick the book of Isaiah for devotional reading allows a reader to easily select memorable verses and enjoy some of the most sublime passages in all of Scripture, while skipping over the obscure, confusing or downright befuddling passages. To read or preach through Isaiah doesn’t allow such a luxury.

I regularly hear people comment that Isaiah is difficult to read and understand. Sometimes they express their frustration by saying, “When I come to church and listen to the sermon, I understand what Isaiah is saying, but when I read it for myself, I am so confused.”

This reminds me of the experience of the Ethiopian man in Acts 8.  When asked by Philip if he understood what he was reading in Isaiah responded, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts. 8:31).  It is normal to need a guide to understand Isaiah, especially on one’s first few times through the book. One of the most helpful guides I found when preparing to preach on Isaiah is the 2017 book by Ben Witherington, entitled Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality and Hermeneutics. I would not necessarily recommend this for the average person in the congregation, but I simply mention it to bear witness to the fact that everyone needs help. My job as a preacher is to be your guide through the book of Isaiah.

For those who may be struggling with reading Isaiah, I hope the advice of John Calvin commenting on the story of the Ethiopian man in Acts 8 will be encouraging to you:

“Nobody will be so raw and ignorant as not to get some benefit out of reading [Isaiah], yet perhaps he will understand every tenth verse fully…We ought to accept eagerly and with a ready mind those things which are clear, and in which God reveals His mind; but it is proper to pass by those things which are still obscure to us, until a clearer light shines. But if we shall not be wearied by reading, the final result will be that constant use will make us familiar with Scripture.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, cited by Holmgren and Holmgren, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices From the History of Biblical Interpretation)

I have found Calvin’s advice to be true for me.  On my first reading through Isaiah, I only understood about one tenth of it. But reading and re-reading, praying and listening to other parts of Scripture, as well as seeking help from commentators and others allowed the mysteries of Isaiah to begin to open up. And I discovered Isaiah to be the most powerful, beautiful and poetic presentation of God I’ve ever read.

I hope this is an encouragement to you. If you are reading Isaiah and not understanding much of it, you are in good company. But keep going. The first several times are always the most confusing. But do not lose heart. God will meet you in your efforts. He will expand your understanding, open your mind, and speak to you in amazing ways.



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