The prophet Isaiah did not invent the language of seeking God, but he speaks it as his native tongue.
The whole business so quickly degrades into meaningless platitudes that we must hurry along to some further inspection. Oddly, an oracle against Egypt may be the best place to begin.
Egypt shall be drained of spirit, And I will confound its plans; So they will consult the idols and the shades And the ghosts and the familiar spirits. (Isaiah 19:3 JPS)
English translations typically settle on the verb to consult or to inquire of when rendering the Hebrew word דרש. These are adequate translations because they capture the reality that the subject is in need of knowledge that he or she expects to come by revelation from some external religious source. Consult and inquire of do just fine up to that point.
Yet in Isaiah’s discourse, there is an assertive moving after, a thrusting towards, even a desperate neediness that is missing in such English translation. Oddly, the verb to seek, which in English-language religious circles so perversely devolves into the esoteric and the contemplative, seems better here. It connotes that something hidden is much desired and that it will take some energy on behalf of the ones who need it if they are in fact to lay hands on it.
If that’s the case that calls for a certain English translation, then what can we say of Isaiah’s deployment of the expression?
Before we come to the kind of seeking and searching that the prophet commends, we should look at the ironic ways in which seeking revelation is in fact an exercise in futility. The Isaian discourse sees seeking after spiritual sources other than Yahweh to reflect a confusion, even a moral stupidity, that is the opposite of true wisdom. In Isaiah 19.3, which is representative of this diagnosis, consulting with or seeking the idols and the shades, and the ghosts and the familiar spirits happens because the Egyptians have become drained in spirit and because Yahweh has confound(ed) their plans. The wise, the stable, the reliable don’t do this kind of thing. Confused people, like doomed Egyptians for example, seek religious revelation from unreliable sources.
This is not a one-off satire. The book of Isaiah sustains its critique of this particular kind of lostness. Alas, it is not just benighted Egyptians who fall prey to such asinine folly (see, importantly, Isaiah 1.3). Israel/Judah finds the prophet’s light shone on their behavior as well:
And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19 ESV; the first two examples render דרש, the third makes the verb explicit in English though it is only implied in Hebrew.)
The people did not turn to him who struck them, nor inquire of the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 9:13 ESV)
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! (Isaiah 31:1 ESV)
Seeking in the wrong place is a contemnible failure to engage reality. Failure to seek YHWH probably comes to the same thing; that is, in Isaiah it likely denotes not a failure to seek at all, but rather a seeking after other sources rather than the single true and reliable one.
If this rather long discussion of failure to seek well serves as an adequate introduction to Isaiah’s use of the dialect of searching and seeking, let’s move on to what it means for this prophet to seek well. Unsurprisingly, the answer is both nuanced and variegated. We are after all, reading the book of Isaiah, where things are only occasionally complicated but nearly always complex.
First, we discover that seeking justice is laid before us as an arguable synonym for seeking YHWH.
When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:15–17 ESV)
(T)hen a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness. (Isaiah 16:5 ESV)
Indeed, there appears explicit recognition that one can fake seeking YHWH, going through the religious motions without giving a damn about YHWH’s passion for justice. We ought not overlook that Isaiah 58.2 plays sarcastically upon two venerable religious activities—seeking YHWH and delighting in his ways—that are great when they come in the context of lives aligned with YHWH’s broader purposes but an abomination when they stand on their own as superficial piety that has run tragically amok.
Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:2 ESV)
Astonishingly, Isaiah does not relegate properly seeking to the esoteric margins of piety, but rather holds it at the core of life’s defining convictions. It can be argued that Isaiah would contend that seeking justice (משפט) is nearly the same as seeking YHWH. One’s search may begin in the barrio or at the court where the privileged line up against the defenseless poor or in the temple at morning prayers, but all of these for Isaiah are cut from the same cloth. The reduction of any of it to simple religious performance makes YHWH disgusted, weary, and sick.
Finally, when we find our way among the Isianic texts that depict proper seeking, we find that this searching can be mediated. We discover also that divine grace seems to catch up with and then finally to outrun the human activity of seeking YHWH.
With regard to mediation, the ‘book of YHWH’ appears in a way that suggests that seeking is at the very least multi-faceted. Apparently, one can read or listen one’s way to YHWH’s revelation.
Seek and read from the book of the Lord: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate. For the mouth of the Lord has commanded, and his Spirit has gathered them. (Isaiah 34:16 ESV)
And then, perhaps unsurprisingly as one becomes intimate with the dynamics of mercy’s acceleration that tease the reader who dares to track with this book’s long march forward, we find that Israel/Judah and perhaps even responsive gentile nations not only seek but become sought by YHWH.
In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10 ESV)
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6 ESV)
And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken. (Isaiah 62:12 ESV)
I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name. (Isaiah 65:1 ESV)
Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me. (Isaiah 65:10 ESV)
It seems then that seeking YHWH, for this prophet, means caring about and thrusting after his purposes in a way that excludes alternative revelation and embraces YHWH’s care for the community’s well being, especially for those who become cast off in the exercise of influence and power. It is an activity that associates easily with community crisis, though probably not exclusively. In the effort, one discovers paradoxically that to seek YHWH is also to discover that YHWH ‘seeks back’ in a way that relativizes Judah’s and our efforts to discover and live in his purpose.
‘Who ya’ gonna’ call?’ is a question that might have sounded familiar to those who walked within hearing range of this prophet. Isaiah might even have allowed himself to be numbered among the Ghostbusters when it came to debunking the range of futile options on offer when Israel/Judah found herself in need of rescue and revelation.
The question remains pertinent these centuries hence.
Who ya’ gonna call?