The sad descriptions of YHWH’s people in their darkest moments serve to illuminate what YHWH wants for and from those people when health is restored.
The text of the Bible’s Book of Isaiah probes at matters of knowing and understanding, sometimes from the dark side of its absence, at others from the side of health and blessing.
In the book’s programmatic first chapter, Judah/Israel is contrasted with farm animals when it comes to knowing and understanding.
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1:3 ESV)
Mere habit, the raw animal instinct for having physical needs met, is enough for ox and donkey to claim the advantage over what Isaiah describes as a willfully imperceptive people. The Hebrew words at play are ידע and בין. If the reader will tolerate a cheap pun, Isaiah will make hay with these words as the book presses his argument forward.
Isaiah underscores the extremity of Judah’s imperception by choosing not to attach the expected direct object to each of these verbs. It is not that they do not know this, not understand that. Tragically, they neither know nor understand at all.
In the book’s unique ordering of events, the infamous prophetic commissioning of the prophet does not occur until certain things have first been placed on record. In chapter six, finally, Isaiah meets ‘the King’ in a temple vision. He is, he says, undone by the sight. Soon the severe mercy of Isaiah’s prophetic calling takes shape. It must have seemed all severity and no mercy.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.”’ (Isaiah 6:8–9 ESV)
The book will soon make clear that this savage scraping of the barrel’s perceptive bottom has redemptive ends. Israel will re-learn to see, to hear, to know, to understand. First, though, she must be led to the awful extreme of her self-chosen logic. She must experience the blunt force of true blindness, of genuine deafness.
The words again are ידע and בין, their order reversed this time. Israel/Judah must stop knowing and seeing so that she can—in time and by way of the Lord’s mercy and justice—learn again how to know, how to understand.
One can imagine a people where such knowledge and understanding lie at character’s core. A community in which seeing and hearing produce their full perceptive fruit by leading their subjects to deeply accurate and empathetic engagement with each other and with their world.
How the heart longs to belong to such a people, to stand in its middle—surrounded by the wise, the just, the merry—with knowledge and understanding.