A funny thing it is, that a prophet should have his own habits of speech. We think of old, dead men (white ones or, say, ancient Mediterranean ones) as unfeatured, as a little disembodied, as very much unlike us.
We are unique, detectable by our speech, our pose, our way of thinking. Not them.
In fact we are with those ancient figures just one flesh. What we feel so intensely, they must have felt. Some of their nights, like too many of ours, must have seen sleep flee them. They must have laughed uproariously, must have known the surge both of adrenaline and joy. Each must have been a little unique, as we—can one speak of uniqueness across a class of human beings—are individuals, each with a characteristic nod here, a verbal tic there, a point of view.
Isaiah and the traditioners of his words have a penchant for the repeated imperative. The same word, doubled back on itself, daring the banality of repetition in order to harvest the fruit of urgency. This was Isaiah’s way. In time, it would be abstracted from his warm flesh, his loosened tongue, perhaps his way with a pen. It would be called Isaianic when he was no longer around to agree or disagree.
Astonish yourselves and be astonished (התמהמהו ותמהו); blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! (Isaiah 29:9 ESV)
Comfort, comfort (נחמו נחמו) my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1 ESV)
Awake, awake (עורי עורי), put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? (Isaiah 51:9 ESV)
Wake yourself, wake yourself (התעוררי התעוררי), stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering. (Isaiah 51:17 ESV)
Awake, awake (עורי עורי), put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. (Isaiah 52:1 ESV)
Depart, depart (סורו סורו), go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. (Isaiah 52:11 ESV)
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy (לכו שברו … לכו שברו) wine and milk without money and without price. (Isaiah 55:1 ESV)
And it shall be said, ‘Build up, build up (סלו סלו), prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.’ (Isaiah 57:14 ESV)
Go through, go through (עברו עברו) the gates; prepare the way for the people; build up, build up (סלו סלו) the highway; clear it of stones; lift up a signal over the peoples. (Isaiah 62:10 ESV)
Why this personal dialect?
Emphasis, no doubt. A ‘speaking to the heart’ of Jerusalem and—occasionally—to others as well. A poetic tenacity of appeal, rendered more rather than less true by its poetry.
The short oracle directed to Zion/Jerusalem at the outset of the book’s fifty-second chapter digs deep in order to activate the personified city’s engagement with YHWH’s purpose.
Awake, awake (עורי עורי), put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake yourself from the dust and arise; be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. (Isaiah 52:1–2 ESV)
So much of the prophet’s rhetoric is guided by this singular intent: to wake a captive and passive people to urgent, faithful strength.
Verbs so kinetic as almost to form their own verbal whirlwind line up, one after another, almost without pause.
Awake, awake! … Put on strength! … Put on your beautiful garments! … Shake yourself! … Arise! … Be seated! … Loose bonds!
The experience of salvation, here in Isaiah and throughout the biblical witness, is always responsive. It never initiates. Grace happens and people, sometimes, find a way to answer it, to long so much for it as to lean into it. Yet, always, we respond. YHWH breaks though some impassible wall, shatters the cement of our safe room, shows up just when we’ve given him up for long lost. Then we answer.
The experience of salvation is never to initiate.
And yet, paradoxically, salvation is always, ever active engagement.
We awake. We flex long flaccid muscles for the first time in years. We throw on party clothes. We sing and we shout. We dance. We loose bonds that have for too long passed as immoveable facts on the ground. We pry open the door of a cell.
Salvation, in Isaiah as everywhere, responds with active engagement.
Failing this, it’s just a pious tale not really worth the hearing.