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- v. 10: How are we to understand verse 10? Just reading the verse it sounds like the Lord wants the people not to understand Isaiah's words so that they won't be converted and healed. But from other parts of the scriptures we know that the Lord is sorrowful when we do not follow his words and that he wants us to return to him. How do we reconcile verse 10 with those other scriptures?
- "Hear ye indeed, but understand not." Compare this with the initial reaction of the those in 3 Ne 11:4ff who, though talking about Christ, did not understand the voice until the third time when they "did open their ears to hear it" (v. 5). There also, the eyes, ears and heart/center ("did pierce them that did hear to the center") figure prominently.
- Structure of hearing-seeing theme. The fact that hearing is mentioned before seeing here may be significant, especially because that is the order of things in the creation account of Genesis 1: God is heard speaking first, before creation is described as being created (visibly). This may also be significant to consider because faith is often described in terms of having faith in the word of God, regarding something not seen (cf. Heb 11:1; Alma 32:21; Ether 12:6). In this verse, hearing and understanding are first paired, then seeing and perceiving. In verse 10, the heart is mentioned first, but then ears are (again) mentioned before the eyes. However, verse 10 then repeats these three organs of perception in reverse order, forming a chiasm with eyes forming the center of the chiasm. This structural pattern might also be profitably thought in relation to the order of Isaiah's experience in the preceding verses where he first sees the Lord on his throne (verse 1), then the voice of the Lord is described in verse 4. Then, in verse 5, the idea of hearing is (implicitly) referred to through the mention of lips, after which eyes are mentioned again.
- Cross-references. The concepts of eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand are used in many places in the scriptures (many times in a way that seem theologically problematic—see discussion below): Deut 29:4; Ps 69:23; Isa 29:10; 42:18, 20; 43:8; Jer 5:21; Ezek 12:2; Matt 13:13; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-27; Rom 11:8 (cf. Rom 9:18); 1 Cor 2:9; 2 Cor 3:12-16; 2 Ne 16:10; 21:3; 27:29; Mosiah 2:9; 27:22; D&C 1:2; 76:12; 128:2; 136:32; Moses 6:27.
The angel's approach: Following Isaiah's double articulation of his inarticulateness (see commentary at Isa 6:5), the seraphim respond--not God. This seems to follow a pattern, with both angels and Isaiah speaking to each other, rather than directly to the Lord enthroned. The angels who receive Isaiah's words hover at some distance from the Silent One. The seraph responds to Isaiah by moving "unto" him, emphasizing again the implied distance between Isaiah and the angels. By moving towards Isaiah, the angelic chorus is drawing Isaiah into their midst. In other words, the angels in the next two verses seem to perform a sort of rite of atonement meant to include the soon-to-be-prophet into their council. Both the narrative and the direct address of these two verses must be understood in these terms. the verses underscore that the atonement at work on this Day of Atonement is one of initiation, even of apotheosis. Isaiah does not describe a lone seraph flying towards him, but rather "one of the seraphim." This seems to indicate that the "one" represents the entire angelic company. Again, the text makes it evident that the approach of the angel signifies a rite of atonement, of initiation: Isaiah is to become, as it were, an angel, and join the council/chorus.
The live coal: The approaching seraph is described as having "a live coal" in his hand. The Hebrew word translated as "a live coal" is rtzph, which is generally assumed to have this meaning only here and in one other text, a similar passage (see 1 Kgs 19:6) centering on Elijah's experience of the shocking silence of God. The word as it appears in most texts, however, just means something like "pavement." It is generally suggested, then, that the word be translated here "hot rock" (even "molten rock"?). In other words, an angel, with the purpose of initiating him into the angelic circle, approaches Isaiah with a glowing stone. For Latter-day Saints, this may call to mind D&C 130:11, where the Prophet Joseph explains that "a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word." If the "live coal" the angel brings to Isaiah might be understood to be connected with this text, then the angel brings him a "new name" by which he is to be initiated into the "celestial kingdom," the angelic chorus.
Altar: Isaiah notes that the angel had taken the stone "from off the altar." While its tempting to see this as altar as the altar of sacrifice, there is at least one major difficulty facing such an interpretation: all of the action of Isaiah's narrative takes place within the two rooms of the temple, at the very point, in fact, of contact between those two rooms (at the veil). The only altar that stood within the temple was the altar of incense that stood precisely where Isaiah himself is standing as all of this takes place. As these events transpire, Isaiah is at the precise moment of the Day of Atonement ritual in which he uses the altar of incense to fill the Holy of Holies with a cloud of smoke. It would appear that the stone which purifies Isaiah's lips, and possibly provides him with a new name, comes from the altar that stands immediately before the veil/presence of the Lord. If Rev 8:4 can be read in connection with the present passage, then the incense altar itself may be a token of prayer offered before the veil. If the altar itself is to be understood as a token of a truer order of prayer, then Isaiah's reception (onto his mouth) of a glowing coal (with a new name) taken from that altar might represent Isaiah's introduction to that order of prayer. Isaiah is being initiated into a truer order of prayer apparently enjoyed by the angels.
In summary: Through poetic imagery, Isaiah describes a ritual that unites him with a company of angels. First, one of the seraphim bridges the gap between Isaiah and the angels and apparently performs an atonement for Isaiah which initiates him into the angelic order. The angel who comes to perform the task retrieves from the altar of incense a glowing coal or stone, which might well represent the stone with the new name mentioned in D&C 130:11. By placing the stone on Isaiah's mouth, perhaps allowing him to speak the new name, the angel initiates him into a truer order of prayer, the unison praising of the LORD which Isaiah had interrupted in verse 3. All of this, of course, opens onto the following verse, where the narrative continues.
Another note on the Seriph's are they were created by God to worship God. These were never created as humans or to be humans, but as worshipers before God. They were fly above Him calling out "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory." The Lord here is Jehovah: self-existant One. Jehovah Alighty is holy.
The angel speaks: That the angel speaks to Isaiah while placing the stone on his mouth is highly significant. Thus far in the narrative, speech has indicated a distance from the Lord, as well as a boundary between the angels and Isaiah. By addressing Isaiah, the angel crosses that boundary--again confirming the initiatory character of offering the stone. The verb used to describe the angel's speech is of note: it is the one used to describe Isaiah's blurting out--not the one used to describe the summons of the seraphim. In other words, not only does the angel speak to Isaiah, he speaks to him as Isaiah had spoken of himself. The subject of the angel's words is, of course, also Isaiah: the angel breaks off praising the Lord to speak to Isaiah. In doing so, the angel descends to Isaiah's level. Just as Isaiah had spoken of himself, the angel speaks of him--to him, to be sure, but of him as well. And with that movement, Isaiah becomes part of the angelic throng.
What the angel says: Echoing Isaiah's inarticulate speech, the angel addresses Isaiah with an inarticulate word of his own (hnh), here translated "Lo". The word means something like "behold" (its most common translation) or "here" (as in, "here, take this"), but it, like `wy, has no derivation or etymology. However, as with Isaiah's blurted word, "Lo" has a meaning, and the difference between the meaning of this word and the meaning of the word Isaiah spoke marks the distance between the two--a distance crossed by the angel with the stone. Isaiah's `wy is an ejaculation of one at a complete loss, meaningful precisely because it marks the dissolution of all meaning, of orientation. As Isaiah sees God he loses his bearings and expects to be destroyed so thoroughly, that all he can say is `wy. On the other hand, the angel's hnh is inarticulate in a completely different manner. The angel's hnh is inarticulate because it stands outside the system of articulation and points to that very system of articulation, saying in effect "take a look here at this thing and what I'm saying". Put side by side: `wy is inarticulate because it marks the breakdown of articulation; hnh is inarticulate because it precedes articulation, because it points to the possibility of articulation. Isaiah's word might better be called anti-articulate, and the angel's non-(in)articulate. The exchange between the two (Isaiah first, the angel in response) might well be read as the dissolution of articulation, followed by the reassembly of articulation: the angel restores to Isaiah what he has lost in theophany.
The restoration of speech: In addition to the use of the inarticulate hnh, the angel reestablishes the possibility of speech through a specific "thing": "this hath touched thy lips...." The angel's hnh has reference to the rock, to the stone that bears the new name. In other words, a name beyond names re-introduces to Isaiah the possibility of articulation. If a vision of God destroys all possibility of speech, precisely because God outstrips all articulate language, then a name that comes, as it were, from another world, from another language (the "tongue of angels"), might well return to his tongue the possibility of speech. In fact, that the angel proceeds from his inarticulate hnh to perfectly articulate speech (and articulate speech that does not--this is vital--merely interpret the inarticulate word with which he begins) shows that the stone itself, as absolute reference for this restorative speech, makes possible the restoration of speech. If the angels can praise the Lord (by their trisagion, etc.), then it is in the language of this new name that they can do it. The name on the stone provides a foundation, a proper name that makes language possible in an angelic tongue. Isaiah's reception of the stone is his reception of the tongue of angels.
Lips are purged: The words of the speaking seraph makes this reception explicit. Though Isaiah previously mentions his "mouth," the angel focuses on the prophet's "lips," his "language" (see the commentary for Isa 6:5). In other words, whereas Isaiah had emphasized the source of his voice ("mouth"), the angel focuses on the articulation of that sound in language ("lips"). With the touch ("stroke") of the rock, Isaiah's iniquity (literally a question of guilt) is "turned away." There may be a connection between this verse and Isa 53:6, where the same words are used in a rather different manner. Here, an angel opens the mouth of Isaiah by striking it--translated "touched," but meaning "struck"--and thereby turning from him his iniquity. In the fourth "servant song," the one who "openeth not his mouth" is "struck with the iniquity of us all." At any rate, here the angel emphasizes this "turning away" by adding the phrase "thy sin [is] purged." The word translated here as "sin" is the Hebrew kht`, literally "miss" as in "to miss a target." The word is understood to have reference to "inadvertent" sins, the simple (unavoidable?) ritual uncleanness that results from life. Before looking at the word translated "purged," it might be well to note that both terms here ("iniquity" and "sin") are key terms in Lev 16:1ff, the chapter that describes the proceedings of the Day of Atonement. The atonement is performed precisely to deal with these sins and iniquities. It is all the more significant, then, that the word translated here as "purged" is kphr or literally "atonement." It is the very word translated as "atonement" in the phrase "Day of Atonement."
Atonement: The meaning of atonement in the OT is a difficult subject, one grappled with by the best (and worst) scholars in the tradition. Without pretending to plumb those depths, a working understanding of OT atonement might be offered: atonement is understood in the Old Testament as a question of repairing the broken covenant through ritual sacrifice (as Margaret Barker has argued). It is often pointed out that kphr means "to cover," but this is not quite accurate: kphr would mean less to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve in providing them coats of skins in the Garden than to repair those coats of skins when they have worn through and so become defiled. Atonement is a return to a previous covenantal status. In other words, through the rites of atonement, the covenant (in this case perhaps the Abrahamic covenant) is restored, the land is returned to the people of the promise, and the commission to promulgate the message of the benevolent YHWH is again issued (as will happen to Isaiah in verse 8). If the Arabic cognate to kphr is of any help, atonement might also be understood in terms of a binding together by embrace (as Hugh Nibley has argued): in a ritual double robing, two figures were made one in an ancient Arabic rite also called "atonement." Either way, the meaning of atonement seems broadly to be the process of restoring a covenant relationship, a literal at-one-ment.
Initiation provides atonement: That Isaiah receives at-one-ment through receiving the stone is highly significant. It seems to point to his initiation into the order of the angels, his ability to speak their tongue. He becomes at-one with the angelic chorus and speaks alongside them. It seems also to point to Isaiah's covenant relationship--just beginning--with the Lord Himself, as Isaiah is about to answer the call to become a prophet--one with the spirit of prophecy who has the gift to speak the angelic tongue. It must always be kept in mind that these words are spoken to Isaiah by the seraph bearing the stone. Isaiah's first step in approaching the Lord is marked by his initiation into the angelic order, by his joining the angels in their noisy celebration of their God. The angel's speech introduces Isaiah into the articulate tongue of angels by bestowing upon him the (new) proper name necessary to that tongue, and by telling him explicitly that by receiving it he is atoned. It might even, then, be argued that this chapter marks a sort of disruption of the OT understanding of the Day of Atonement: the purpose of the rites was not primarily for the people, but for the high priest, so that he might stand before God in the prophetic office. The heavenly rite interrupts the earthly rite to initiate Isaiah into the company and tongue of angels.
A more basic exploration of this verse might best be performed before detailed consideration of the sudden shift here in the language theme. Despite, then, the sheer oddness of the fact that the Lord speaks suddenly, that Isaiah hears the Lord's word directly, it would be best to look for a moment at the words of the Lord, and then at the response Isaiah himself offers.
The collective council. By His words, the Lord immediately draws the angelic throngs into a direct relationship with Him: the parallel "Whom shall I send" and "who will go for us" make an explicit connection between the "I" of God and the "us" of the collective council. That Isaiah speaks up in response confirms absolutely the insights above: Isaiah has become a part of the angelic council itself.
Send. The Hebrew word for "send" is shlch which means to send off on a task. The Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation) translates the verb as apostolein, literally to send away, but a word that later became very significant: the word "apostle" comes from this verb. It might be, in fact, that the title of apostle was created based on this very verse: the apostles were understood as those who were sent because of their response like Isaiah's here, those sent to do the same task (the task laid out in detail in verses 9-13). In the parallel phrase, the Lord uses the verb hlkh, "to walk" or "to travel." This word is intimately tied to the Abrahamic stories: Genesis 12-17 is titled lkh lkh in Hebrew, "to walking with you," a title reflecting Abraham's perpetual wandering. In other words, the Lord asks who will leave the absolute groundedness of the council to wander in the fallen realms below, without orientation, without bearings. The Lord here considers a sending that opens up an empty realm in which to travel: to be an apostle, to be sent by God, is to leave off the security of the angelic chorus to wander in the groundless world below.
Pole of reference. It is significant that in the very instant that Isaiah joins the heavenly council, there is some question of leaving it. His reception into the council has been seen to have been marked by an absolution, by the erection of an absolute pole of reference (even a new proper name), enabling him at last to speak again (and to speak of something absolute, not to articulate his own inarticulateness). As soon as the absolute pole of reference is established, Isaiah can return to the earth, can come down where there is no absolute pole, because he can speak a new language. Because the call to be sent is issued in the voice of the Lord that can only be heard when one speaks with a new tongue, it is a call to speak to others in a tongue that has an absolute pole of reference, but amongst those who speak with no such absolute pole of reference. But again, such considerations of the language theme must only be returned to below.
Here am I. Consideration of Isaiah's response both closes a brief consideration of the conversation and opens the altered theme of language. He opens his response with another inarticulate word, in fact, the inarticulate word with which the angel addressed him in verse 7: hnh. But, because he speaks the inarticulate word of the seraph, Isaiah's inarticulation has changed fundamentally: just as when the angel spoke inarticulately and thus made reference to the very possibility of articulation, Isaiah here makes reference to an absolute, pointing also to the very possibility of articulation. He follows his inarticulate pointing to articulation by speaking more articulately than he has throughout the chapter. The reference of his inarticulation is not, however, the stone or the new name; rather, he makes reference to himself: "Here am I," it is translated, but he says hnny, "here-I" or "behold, I" (this is the same response Abraham gives when God calls him to sacrifice Isaac in Gen 22:2 and Moses gives God in Ex 3:3). The absolute pole of reference Isaiah establishes inarticulately is his own now-angelic self. That pole of reference established, Isaiah commands the Lord to "send me," (in the LXX, apostolein me, "apostle me!"). The language echoes Abr 3:27, the words of Jesus Christ in the pre-mortal council. This obvious parallel is suggestive: Isaiah appears not only like the Savior, but perhaps has returned, oddly, to the very pre-mortal council itself. It has been suggested above that the heavenly council is at work all the time (see commentary at Isa 6:2). It might now be suggested that because the council is at work beyond the veil (which might be interpreted to be the veil of temporality), the council is beyond time: "before" means in Hebrew "to the face of." Though this is somewhat speculative (see Margaret Barker on the subject: "Beyond the Veil of the Temple" in The Great High Priest), it may be that Isaiah walks right out of history when he joins the council, and he is sent back into it as he leaves the council.
But beyond speculation, the theme of language must again be considered. It has already been seen that Isaiah's word of response to the direct address of the Lord matches up with the angelic discourse of verse 7. In other words, the prophet speaks inarticulately only because he points toward the true possibility of articulation, making reference to an absolute point of reference for his language. Isaiah's language has clearly shifted beyond the fallen, template-less language of those who have "unclean lips" (cf. v. 5). Speaking the tongue of angels, he can address the Lord by making absolute reference to himself. Perhaps more problematic, more profound, and certainly more fruitful is the fact that the Lord Himself--only a few verses ago the paragon of perfect silence--speaks to Isaiah, and with a "voice." The meaning of this change must be explored.
The Lord speaking. The Lord is presented in verses 1-3 as the Silent One in contrast with the noisy angels; but in verse 8 He is presented as speaking. The Lord, it seems, changes at some point between the event of verse 1 and the event of verse 8. While that is a possibility, a much more likely explanation already presents itself: there has certainly been a change, but that change has taken place with Isaiah, not the Lord. In other words, the voice of the Lord in verse 8 speaks now, not because the Lord has changed, but because Isaiah has been changed so as to hear what was once only silence to him. The silence of the Lord in verse 1 is a silence from the point of view of the one with unclean lips; the voice of the Lord in verse 8 is heard from the point of view of one with the tongue of angels. The figure of God presented in this chapter, in other words, is double, and irreducibly double: one is not, apparently, to decide between these two possibilities. God is silent to the fallen and vocal to the redeemed. The duplicity of the figure derives, unquestionably, from the two phenomenological possibilities bound up in man. This is as much as to say that the apparent change in God can be interpreted in two ways: on the one hand (from the point of view of the one who speaks with the tongue of angels), the silence of the Lord was a divine reticence to speak unintelligibly to fallen man; on the other hand (from the point of view of the one with unclean lips), the eventual speech of the Lord is really just an articulate silence, a silence interpretable by those who have the gift of tongues. In the end, the text presents neither a speaking God, nor a silent God. It presents rather both an articulate prophet and an inarticulate prophet.
At the same time, there is a sense in which the silence of God prevails. Again, the two pictures Isaiah presents (that of verses 1-3 and that of verse 8) are one and the same. In verses 1-3, the silence of God is set against the vocal angels who speak to each other. The scene undeniably embodies a call-response structure: the angels respond to the silence of God by speaking, as if they were, so to speak, the voices of that silence. This is apparently the way Nephi understands the scene in 2 Nephi 31-32 (which must be--can only be--a commentary on this very chapter 6 of Isaiah!). When Nephi pauses to explain more carefully the "tongue of angels" in 2 Ne 32:2, he makes clear that this is his interpretation. He asks a rhetorical question in an almost annoyed tone (annoyed precisely because the answer to the question should, he is convinced, be completely understood already by anyone reading his text): "And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost?" In response to his own question, he interprets the scene presented in verses 1-3 of Isaiah 6: "Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ" (2 Ne 32:3). The point seems clear: the tongue of angels is to speak the words of the Enthroned One (it is, in 2 Ne 31:13, Christ--the "Holy One of Israel"--who is enthroned and praised by the angels), to give voice to the silence of the throne. And if Nephi is seconding the vision of the silent figure on the throne, whose silence is spoken by the gathered throng of angels, then the call-response structure of verse 8 (in Isaiah 6) becomes clear: the words "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" are indeed spoken by "the voice of the Lord," but that voice is probably best interpreted to be the "literal" voices of the angels (might this in and of itself explain the "us" at the end of that question?). In short, the angels might well have spoken these words to Isaiah as the voice of the Lord, to which Isaiah himself responds, giving voice to Christ (in Christ's very words: "Here am I, send me"). Isaiah's Christic response matches perfectly the Christic call--and every word is spoken by the angels.
But however this passage is interpreted, the background of verses 9-13 is clear: the prophetic mission to which Isaiah is to be called is spread across the terrible gulf that divides two languages, one the tongue of angels, the other the tongue of men. In the one language, one speaks the very words of the Word, speaks, in fact, the Word (who functions as an absolute--and absolutely silent?--pole of reference, thus grounding the angelic tongue absolutely); in the other, one speaks so many words, but can only point insecurely towards the Word, speaks, in fact, only words (words without any pole of reference, hence always inarticulate). This linguistic background determines every term in the remainder of the narrative.
Another note on this: The council spoken of here is God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...the perfect Trinity altogether as one. Isaiah does not become a part of this council, but simply overhears God speaking and responds "Here am I...send me." This was to go and preach to Israel.
Go. The Lord again speaks (if only through the vocal angels) to Isaiah. His words this time begin with a command: lkh, "go," the imperative form of the verb in "who will go for us?" In fact, lkh is the very command issued to Abraham by Pharaoh that thus becomes the title of Genesis 12-17 (see more discussion of this point in v. 8 above). Isaiah's call here may be viewed as a direct consequence of the covenant made with Abraham (see esp. Abr 2:9-11). The word lkh is also the same command God uses in several other key call narratives: commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:2, translated "get thee"), commanding Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt (Ex 3:10, translated "come"), Jeremiah's call (see esp. the send-and-call theme in Jer 1:7), Ezekiel's call (see Ezek 3:1, 4, 11) and the Brother of Jared's call (Ether 1:41). The movement implied in this command seems to reinforce the movement of the angels mentioned in verses 2 (the two wings used to fly) and 6 (the angel that flew to Isaiah to give him the live coal) as well as movement of the "posts of the door" in verse 4—thus, in contrast to Isaiah's initial immobility in being confronted by the Lord, Isaiah is now commanded to go. This contrast also seems to reinforce a change that has occurred in Isaiah—instead of being one of the people with unclean lips (and implied immobility), Isaiah is now one of the council who is able to move and speak with the tongue of angels.
Way of language. The very command to "go" is clarified as a "saying": "Go, and [go] saying to this people." Isaiah's charge is now rendered a way of language. The Lord now speaks to Isaiah the words he is supposed to speak to the "people." The Lord in fact uses the very word Isaiah used for people in verse 5—Isaiah is being sent to a people of fallen language who are without the absolute pole of reference that Isaiah has found, symbolized by the stone which separates the new prophet from the people. Thus, Isaiah was initially silenced and inarticulate at the sudden vision of the Lord and is now called to articulate a divine message to the people of unclean lips from whence he came. Underscoring this doubling theme, Isaiah is commanded to command the people to hear the divine message.
Understand and perceive not? It seems that the Lord is telling Isaiah to command the people not to hear, not to understand and not to perceive (in the Masoretic text, "understand" and "perceive" are in the 2nd person imperative form). This unusual command has generated a lot of commentary on verses 9-10. One common approach is to simply assume an ironic tone in this command. A footnote in the NET translation expresses this approach: "This ironic command is comparable to saying to a particularly recalcitrant individual, 'Go ahead, be stubborn!'" Another approach is to assume that this is a prophecy rather than a command. In fact, the LXX uses a future tense of the verbs rather than an imperative. However, to simply read this verse as sarcastic or as a prophecy may be oversimplifying the meaning of this verse.
Hardening theme. It is important to recognize the context of Isaiah's charge in light of the arraigning tone in chapters 1-5. Given Israel's disobedience, it may be inevitable that Israel will not understand or perceive. This same theme arises in several other scriptural contexts. For example, in Mark 4:12, Christ seems to suggest that the reason he is speaking in parables is so that those who have rejected him will be confused. Alma 12:10-11 also seems to suggest this. Whereas we might think God would lovingly continue to offer repeated chances for others to accept and understand the word of God. However, for whatever reason, it seems this is not the pattern that God follows. Instead, God seems to actively impede the understanding of those who harden their hearts ("until they know nothing concerning the mysteries"). In fact, it is the active part which Isaiah's preaching is to play that makes this verse unsettling and therefore interesting. For example, in Ezek 3:4-7 (and 12:2-3) and Amos 9:1ff the prophets are commanded to preach unto a people who will not listen, but there the preaching is not linked to the hardening of the people's hearts—their hearts are already hard. But here (and in Mark 4:12 and Alma 12:10-11) God—through the preaching of the word—is seen take a nontrivial role in the hardening of the people's hearts. It may be that if God did not punish those that began to harden their hearts by forcing the issue, forcing a decision, then the possibility of a true "undone" type of conversion experience like Isaiah had would not be possible (see more on this below).
The first major occurrence in the Old Testament of this hardening theme seems to be in Ex 4:21 (see discussion at Ex 7:3). Another noteworthy "hardening" passage is Deut 29:2-6 where Moses first recounts "the signs and those great miracles" (v. 3) which God manifested to them, then in verse 4 Moses explains to Israel that "the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see and ears to hear, unto this day." Here God is depicted as actively taking part in Israel's hardheartedness. However, other passages in Deuteronomy indicate that this action was a result of choices that Israel had made. In particular, Deut 9:6, 13, 27 and 31:27 describe Israel as a "stiffnecked" people who manifested stubbornness, wickedness, rebelliousness and sin. Also, in Deut 10:16 Israel's own ability to change their fate is manifest in God's command for them to "circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked."
Another Old Testament passage with a similar hardening theme is 1 Kgs 22:19-22. There, Micaiah has a similar vision, seeing the Lord "sitting on his throne" (1 Kgs 22:19; Isa 6:1; cf. also Amos 9:1, "I saw the Lord") surrounded by heavenly hosts (1 Kgs 22:19 ; Isa 6:2; see also Amos 9:5 "the Lord, God of hosts") asking for a volunteer to effectively blind the hearer(s) to the truth (in 1 Kgs 22:20 Ahab is to be deceived into going to battle whereas Isaiah in 6:10 is to "shut their eyes").
In D&C 121:12ff God tells Joseph Smith that he will "blind the minds" of Joseph's accusers. There, the blinding that God imposes seems to be a direct result of the unrighteousness of the accusers and the lack of understanding seems to be a consequence of the fact that "their hearts are corrupted." The people Isaiah is to preach to may be similar to Joseph Smith's accusers, thus Isaiah's charge is to be the means by which God effects a blinding of the minds of the people.
For more on this hardening theme, see To See and Not Perceive: Isaiah 6:9-10 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation (no. 64 in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series) by Craig Evans.
Invitation to become undone? The tension between hearing vs. understanding and seeing vs. perceiving suggests an overwhelming aspect of the word Isaiah is to offer. Isaiah is to command the people to shm'w shmw, to "hear, hearing," but not (and here the command is doubled) to interpret (byn is the verb, and it means to distinguish between sounds, hence to interpret, to recognize difference, to insert oneself into the play of differences at work in language). The people are to be commanded, apparently, to given an ear to a "booming, buzzing confusion." Isaiah is to command them to dedicate themselves to what they cannot understand at all: the people are to take up (and to take up radically) an unfulfillable intentionality, to intend what they cannot at all discern (for sheer volume or for sheer silence?). That the people are commanded to take up the angelic position at a visible distance from the Lord (though without understanding) is confirmed by the second (double) command: Isaiah is to command the people to r`w r`w, to "see, seeing," but not to know (the verb yada in Hebrew means more literally to have a direct relation to something, perhaps confirmed most clearly in its usage as a term for sexual activity). Like the excess that causes the ears to fail, an excess is to be given to the eyes of the people Isaiah teaches, so that they cannot know what stands immediately in their presence. To be thus overwhelmed may be a way of understanding God who is beyond comprehension (cf. D&C 76:116).
The commands to hear but not understand and see but not perceive may thus have a subversive double meaning. That is, although at first blush it may seem that understanding and perceiving are what the people should strive for, in fact it may be that, in order to be truly converted and healed (cf. verse 10), the people need to give their attempts at understanding and perceiving and let God endow them with understanding and perception in the manner Isaiah was received such via the live coal after declaring himself undone. Although understanding and perceiving are typically cast in a positive light in the scriptures (e.g. D&C 136:32), Isa 11:3 describes a righteous judge that "shall not judge by the site of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears." This raises possible doubts about the desirability of seeing and hearing. It may be that, in order to have a complete conversion experience (like Isaiah's being undone), the people need to first have their eyes shut, their ears made heavy and their hearts made fat (v. 10) and then let God give them new eyes, new ears, and a new heart, or have God open their eyes, ears and heart (cf. 2 Kgs 6:17, 20; Mosiah 27:22; D&C 76:12; D&C 136:32; Moses 6:35; Abr 3:12).
In this sense, it seems that the people are commanded to take up a position like the angels, except without their (the angels') tongue. They are to hear (the silence) and to see (the One on the throne), but without any ability to speak the words of the silence they see (3 Ne 19:32; 28:14). Just as Isaiah was suddenly thrust into the angelic chorus by the shocking theophany of verse 1, Isaiah is to command the people to step into the blinding, deafening presence of God. They are to be given an excess, one that overflows their capacities, and so renders the whole experience completely senseless. Isaiah's commands, commanded by the command of the Silent One, are such that the people will be invited to recognize, if only they can, that their lips are unclean, that they do not have the exalted language necessary to the experience they are to have. In excess: Isaiah, speaking with the tongue of angels, is to overflowingly invite the people to be overflowed. In fact, the imagery of overflow is used in Isa 28:9-13 in a very similar passage: there it is too a question of the prophetic, angelic tongue sounding like pure babble to the people.
Ultimately, it seems Isaiah's charge is to force the issue with the people. D&C 1:2 states that none can escape the voice of the Lord, "there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated." The question is, it seems, what will the people do when the God's voice thus confronts them. The predominant negative tone in these first six chapters of Isaiah suggests that most Israelites will not respond to this invitation as Isaiah has done, but will instead remain blind to the truth.
In verse 10, the Lord turns from quotation of the words Isaiah is commanded to speak to the people to His own discussion of Isaiah's task, as a sort of further clarification. There is an obvious linguistic connection between verses 9 and 10, both using the verbs "hear" and "see." That, however, verse 10 goes on to add a third verb to this pair--or rather, to add a third body part: the heart--is significant. In other words, the Lord Himself marks an important difference between the words Isaiah will employ and the phenomenological reality of the existential encounter in which Isaiah will speak those words: though Isaiah will mention both seeing (eyes) and hearing (ears), the event will also involve--though Isaiah cannot speak of it--the heart (and its associated "understanding"). The point seems clear: the situation will overflow Isaiah's words, or, put another way, Isaiah's words will overflow themselves, causing more than they can explicitly discuss. Isaiah's task is obviously more than his words, but it is to be accomplished, apparently, by (and only by) his words. In other words, Isaiah will explicitly call the ears and the eyes of the people, but what he ultimately aims at accomplishing is to call the people's heart as well.
In fact, the triplet of eyes, ears, and heart is fruitful in and of itself. While the eyes project outward and the ears receive inward, the heart mediates the two directionalities as the impetus of the roving gaze and the receptacle of the captive ears. It is in this regard that one might note that lb, "heart," means more literally "center." As the center of things, the heart is the home of seeing and hearing, the seat of the economy (oikonomia means literally "the law of the home"), of in and out, of phenomenological exchange. This central role of the heart, its (at least) double nature, confirms the excess it embodies: the heart is characterized by abundance, but excess, even as it is here the excess that overflows the words Isaiah speaks in the event in which he speaks them. The heart--confirmed by Isaiah's careful words--is at once the home (and home is where the heart is) or center and characterized as the seat of excess (love at home?). That Isaiah's words (which exclude the heart) function ultimately to call the heart can now be interpreted more precisely: it is at once a call to love (a call to charity, adoration, or devotion) and a decentering. The latter might be clarified: it is a call that summons one beyond his or her economy, out of the home. In other words, as a call to charity, it is a call to leave home (one's love of self) for the love of another (leave, cleave). Isaiah's call functions as an invitation to another's home, to knock at a door--or really, the veil--that opens onto the home (the heart) of God. The call: come to a new home, and receive a new heart.
But all of this seems to ignore the clear negative tone of verse 10: Isaiah is not sent to call hearts to love, but to close them up against God! Such an interpretation is, however, somewhat rash. Some major questions of translation and interpretation must be gone through first. Some ambiguities must be rooted out and explored first. For example, Isaiah is first commanded to "make the heart of this people fat." This verse is, it appears, the only place in the Hebrew scriptures where the root shmn is taken as a verb (as an imperative, in fact). As such, any translation is by nature suspect. The most important noun cognate to this verb is shmn, "(olive) oil," used nearly 200 times in the OT. Other words derivative from the same root denote "fatness," but not as a physical character. Rather, shmn denotes that which is abundant, rich (like rich food), etc. In other words, the root, as a verb, might be better translated "to oil," "to grease," or even, though this may seem somewhat a stretch, "to anoint." Any of these translations seems perhaps just as enigmatic as the KJV rendering, however. It is certainly clear that, whatever the phrase means, it is not clear whether it is a good or a bad thing. The prophet is then commanded to "make their ears heavy." The Hebrew khbd means to be heavy (in the imperative, to weigh something down), used in both positive senses (khbd becomes khbwd, "glory") and negative senses (khbd can mean to burden, even to be weighed down with sin). Just as the hearts of the people is to be subjected an ultimately ambiguous work on Isaiah's part, the ears are to be treated in a way that remains unclear in the text. And again, it is not at all clear what it would mean to "weigh down the ears." Finally, Isaiah is commanded to "shut their eyes." Again the Hebrew manifests an ambiguity. Due to the verbal form of an imperative, it is unclear whether the root sh'h or the root sh' is being used. If the former, then the meaning would be: "look to their eyes," and could even be translated "let their eyes regard." If the latter, then the meaning would be: "blind their eyes" or "smear over their eyes." Though these possible translations make more sense than those offered in the cases of heart and ears, the same indecidable ambiguity is present again. Obviously, the KJV translation cannot be read without at least some discretion.
All of these details, at last, allow one to proceed to the work of interpretation, difficult as such a task now appears to be. What is at play in this most interesting clarification on the Lord's part? Perhaps the best approach is to ignore entirely the implicit summons buried within the ambiguities: the clarification of what Isaiah is supposed to be doing is not necessarily to be understood either as a positive or as a negative task. In other words, each of the commands given to Isaiah employ verbs with literal, physical, earthly meanings; even if each of them might be drawn up into a heavenly (or again, into a hellish) symbolic system, they remain--in the first place, and until they are so taken up--verbs that describe simple, physical actions. In other words, one should probably read the first half of this verse in an almost banal way before interpreting anything into it: Isaiah, grease up the heart of this people, weigh down their ears, and smear over their eyes. Leaving off the positive/negative dichotomy, a common aspect had amongst the three commands immediately becomes obvious: all three imply an adding-onto, a pouring-onto, a covering-with. Isaiah's command is neither to shut nor to open, but to give. In other words, Isaiah is to make an offering, to present a gift; whether that gift is received or not is ultimately not Isaiah's concern (cf. Ether 12:36-37).
What all of this means is that Isaiah's task is not so much clarified in the first half of verse 10 as it is qualified: the further words of the Lord do not attempt to explain to Isaiah that he is to seal up the people for destruction, but that he is to offer his words as a sort of gift, one that might or might not be received. The ambiguity of the terms is, then, precisely deliberate: a gift can be received as a token of the charity that thereby overwhelms the recipient; a gift can be received as a poison that closes giver and receiver within a painful economy of exchange, even altercation. Isaiah might, on the one hand, be offering oil for anointing an old heart to make it new, words of glory to ears that would otherwise hear nothing, and healing to eyes that have long since lost the ability to see. He might, on the other hand and at the same time, be giving only grease to the heart, burdening the ears, and smearing filth over the eyes. In the end, Isaiah is to call, but he is unable to respond to that call for the people.
But despite the ambiguities of the first half of the verse, the second half seems to be rather clear. It might, in fact, be read as an explanation of why Isaiah is to do the ambiguous actions of the first half of the verse. Implied by the emphatic "lest" is that the Lord wants Isaiah to do these things precisely so that the people are not "converted" and "healed." It must be admitted that a variety of emendations might be made to get around such a "negative" reading. Perhaps the most interesting one of these emendations--in fact a reading that would not ultimately require emendation to the actual letters written in the text--would be to choose to read "convert, and be healed" (more literally "return, and be healed") as imperatives (rather than held under the sway of the "lest") addressed to Isaiah: "lest.... And then, Isaiah, return and be healed." Though this particular emendation was not common in ancient commentaries and translations, other attempts to weaken the meaning of the verse were prevalent in rabbinical writings and in the Targums. But regardless of all of these possible emendations, the text's grammar seems to be coherent enough and well represented elsewhere to cast some doubt on any such effort. The New Testament quotations of this verse seem to imply that it was understood negative (see, for example Mark 4:10-12). It seems clear that it would be better to read the verse precisely as it stands in the KJV (with, perhaps, the clarification of "convert" in terms of "returning").
Two important implications come with the second half of the verse, then, that must be considered carefully. First, it seems to be implied that not seeing, not hearing, and not understanding are to be equated with not being converted and not being healed. Second, and perhaps the consequence of the first implication, the verse implies that the Lord does not want His people to be converted and healed. Each of these major implications must be investigated in turn.
In regards to the first implication, it must immediately be conceded that a rash oversimplification is at work. While, for example, it is clear that the Lord does not want the people to "see with their eyes," it is not clear which part of this phrase is objectionable. Only a reading that emphasizes the word "they" above all others is bound to conclude that the Lord does not want the people to see at all. Other words in the phrase might be, however, of greater emphasis: the Lord might not want them to see with their eyes, might not want them to see with their eyes, might not want them to see with their eyes, etc. It might be, in other words, a question of the Lord wanting the people to do something other than seeing with their eyes (closing them in prayer, perhaps), of Him wanting them to see through the eyes of some other person (Isaiah or the Lord Himself, perhaps), of Him wanting them to see with something other than their eyes (with their "spiritual eyes" perhaps). The same difficulty and multiplicity of possible interpretations can be read into the other two phrases: how is one to read the Lord's desire that the people not "hear with their ears" and "understand with their heart"?
Given these difficulties, the first implication drawn above is already somewhat problematic: it is not at clear that not seeing/hearing/understanding is to be equated with not being converted/healed. Rather, the interpreter is called upon first to seek an understanding of what exactly is at work in the business of eyes/ears/heart, before he or she turns to interpret the question of conversion and healing. And this complication of the first implication might well do great damage to the second: if it is not clear exactly what relationship prevails between Isaiah's overwhelming gift and the apparent non-conversion and non-healing of the people, then it is not yet clear whether or not the Lord desires specifically that the people never be converted, or never be healed. Interpretive work must replace broad impressions.
Hence, the task for the interpreter is to try to understand what it is that the Lord is trying to accomplish with sending Isaiah to overflow the eyes, ears, and hearts of the people, by bringing these several body parts of the people into the logic of charity or of the gift. Above, several rough and ready possibilities for interpretation of these three phrases were offered, and these might become a point of departure for responsible interpretation of the second half of this verse. It is possible, in fact, to read the several possibilities provided above as all characteristic of Isaiah's own theophany: he lost his seeing entirely from his eyes. In other words, all the emphases above play together in Isaiah's own overwhelming experience: his eyes, his ears, even his very heart were all overwhelmed and he sensed only an immediate destruction coming upon him. As explored in the commentary for verse 5, the only reason a violent destruction did not entirely consume the prophet was because of his uttered inarticulation, his "covenant with death." In other words, distracted from his eyes by the sight, from his ears by the silence, and even from his heart by the impending violence of his death, Isaiah lived finally through his mouth! Might not the same shift be at play in this verse?
In other words, if Isaiah's seeing/hearing/understanding the Lord in verse 1 was precisely what overthrew his eyes/ears/heart and turned him over to his mouth (but now lips without guile--uttering the most honest inarticulation), might not the purpose of Isaiah's radical gift be to accomplish the same for the people? He is, in short, to distract them from their bodies/souls into the guileless shout of self-interpreted inarticulate speech: into the recognition, then, of the absolute lack of a pole of reference in the speech (even in their bodies/souls: body/soul as expression). Fundamental distraction: Isaiah is to draw the people, not from the presence of the Lord, but into it so that they will be forced thereby into the point of decision that hovers between inarticulate speech and absolute destruction.
The apparent equation between this overwhelming distraction and not being converted/healed suggests, it seems, that very few respond as Isaiah, with the inarticulate, guileless speech of the lips, that very few respond to the call that overflows the senses. However, a grammatical curiosity might here go some way toward explaining this "apparent equation." The word "lest" (Hebrew: pn) is almost universally followed by the imperfect form of the verb (which implies that the action of that verb remains undone). This is the case here with the three verbs "see," "hear," and "understand." In other words, the "lest" marks those three actions are still unsure (what would be called "subjunctive" in English grammar). However, on occasion in the OT, imperfect verbs that follow pn are followed in turn by verbs in the perfect form (which implies an action that has been completed, is absolutely past). The construction is curious and calls for thought. Since the verb(s) following the pn are imperfect, it is clear that there is some action that someone hopes does not happen (here the Lord "hopes" that the people will not see, hear, and understand--all imperfect verbs). When an imperfect is followed by a perfect (all of this after pn), the implication seems to be that if the actions still unaccomplished (the imperfect verbs) become accomplished, then the actions confined to the following perfect verbs will become a "done deal." In other words, unless the seeing/hearing/understanding can be stopped up, the "returning" and "being healed" of the people is inevitable. Stated as a rule: the imperfect form of the verb conditions the following perfect verbs, undoes their implied completion, but only if the imperfection can remain as such; if the action of the imperfect verbs ever happen, then the perfect verbs will follow necessarily.
The relation, then, between seeing/hearing/understanding and returning/being-healed is more complex than at first appears. They two sets are not equated by any means. But if seeing/hearing/understanding happens, then returning/being-healed is inevitable. If seeing/hearing/understanding is stopped short, however, returning/being-healed becomes a question (though it might still happen). The grammatical construction here seems to imply, then, that the Lord is not so much trying to make it impossible for the people to return and be healed as He is trying to force them to make a radical decision, putting them into a moment of temptation or of extreme danger, where they might be converted/healed, but where they might also face a violent destruction. The overwhelming experience Isaiah is to give to the people is ultimately a raising of the stakes: rather than just returning to the Lord's favor through repentance and being healed at the next Day of Atonement gathering so as to start the whole ridiculous process over again, the Lord forces an either/or. Will the people join the angelic throng who collectively survives the presence of the Lord, or will they instead descend into absolute destruction? Perhaps the overarching negative tone of the verse (a tone only marginally called into question by the present considerations) suggests that very few will be as Isaiah himself in response.
A final comment might complete this lengthy consideration of verse 10. The either/or forced by the Lord is not to be understood as a moment of radical clarity. Isaiah's sudden vision did not seem to present him with two obvious options bound to a question he had time to deliberate on. Rather, the suddenness and shock of the experience forced him to react as he himself would "naturally" respond. His inarticulate cry was not a responsible decision, but a response that marked a million decisions that had gone before. If Isaiah is to give the people a similar experience, he ultimately is proving them, seeing if they will trust the prophet of the Lord even though he speaks only in babble (tsw ltsw, tsw ltsw, qw lqw, qw lqw in Isa 28:10). Will they believe even though (perhaps precisely because) it is absurd? The implication is that the prophetic gift is one that cannot be compromised for Isaiah. Though Paul will later call for an interpreter when a prophet speaks with this angelic tongue (see 1 Cor 14:28), Isaiah's call allows him no such mediation: the people must believe inarticulately before articulation becomes even the remotest possibility.
- Idol polemic? G. K. Beal, in Vetus Testamentum, v. 41, (1991), "Isaia VI 9-13: A Retributive Taunt against Idolotry" (pp. 257-278), argues that this is a polemic against idolotry (cf. Ps 115:5-8; Ps 135:15-18).
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