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Isaiah by the Day: A New Devotional Translation

Isaiah by the Day: A New Devotional Translation. By Alec Motyer. Scotland: Christian Focus, 2011.

Reviewed by Matthew Claridge–

No book review can ever be fully objective, but I should warn readers this review particularly falls short of that goal. Alec Motyer holds a special place in my own spiritual and theological development. While serving in a local church during my undergraduate days, I was given the responsibility to teach the adult Sunday school hour. For reasons mysterious to myself, I began studying through Isaiah. Honestly, at the time, I was not too excited about the Bible. I was more interested in Christian philosophy and apologetics than in the Christian Book itself. Ravi Zacharias was one of my greatest heroes, and it was to his kind of ministry I gravitated. It was important in my formative years that Ravi demonstrate the intellectual as well as poetic coherence of the Christian faith. Through him, I was introduced to G.K. Chesterton, perhaps the embodiment of an intellectually and poetically satisfying Christian faith. Nonetheless, at no fault of his own given his ministry objectives, I also came away with an inflated view of my own intellectual powers and a “source-theory” of Christianity that leaned more heavily on culture than on the text of scripture. Alec Motyer changed all that.

Again, in a mysterious coincidence, I picked up Motyer’s stand-alone commentary off the shelf at the library as my primary resource while working through Isaiah. For most people, including myself, reading the OT prophets was a frustrating experience. It is impossible to see the flow of thought, everything seems disjointed and random, images and metaphors (not to mention inaccessible cultural references and place names) are thrown together in something analogous to Cajun gumbo. The resulting indigestion was not particularly edifying.

Why are the prophets so difficult to read? Looking back now, I think the problem for myself, and perhaps for others, is that I viewed the Bible too narrowly in “propositional” terms. Yes, the Bible is often nothing less than “propositional,” but it is just as often something more. It was that something “more” of which I had only a little inkling. I had learned from a young age to read the Bible as a collection of proverbs, instructions, and moral stories scattered around like candy colored eggs in an Easter egg hunt. The prophets simply did not conform to those “reader expectations.”

As I worked and read through Motyer’s commentary, two blessed and glorious epiphanies occurred. First, I realized I had been reading the prophets in an entirely inappropriate way. I had divorced my interest and love for the mythopoetic from the scriptural worldview, as if the Bible were a sterile set of ethical precepts and not an epic story of creation and redemption. Through Motyer, I discovered that the Bible is as much interested in painting a world to inhabit as it is in encouraging the type of action that occurs in that world. Instead of allowing the symbol-laden world of Scripture to baptize my imagination, I was trying to pigeon hole my view of Scripture into my preconceived ideas of a religious text.

Various genres of scripture appeal more strongly to the mind, heart, or will; the prophets clearly appeal most strongly to the heart. They appeal to our imagination, allowing us to forge connections across Scripture through imagery, nostalgia, wanderlust, the sound of words, the remembrance of words, the stories of old, and “the undiscovered country.” Whereas many (by no means all) of the Psalms accomplish something similar by focusing on the subjective experience of the individual or community in relation to God, the prophets develop a more objective experience of the numinous by drawing our attention to the grand sweep of God’s redemptive story. The prophets are the bridge between the Testaments, the enchanted “wood between the worlds,” to draw from Lewis’  The Magician’s Nephew. Motyer was the first to open my eyes to this wider horizon through Isaiah.

Second, having recognized its evocative nature, Motyer was able to explain Isaiah’s poetic structure. In other words, the flow of thought began to make sense. Whereas I was attempting to read the prophets like one of Paul’s epistles—with pedantic and logical transitions—Motyer helped me realize that the structure of the prophets is more akin to a narrative. There is exposition, conflict development, climax, and denouement. There is a narrative arc to the prophets that builds tension, hope, and release. I did not have the vocabulary for it then, but this was biblical theology in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

I have often wondered how I could re-create the same experience I had working through Motyer’s commentary without basically reproducing the year-long exposition it took for me. I need not wonder any longer. Motyer has satisfied that hope with this new book, Isaiah by the Day: A New Devotional Translation, which takes the reader on a 71-day journey through the entire prophetic book. Each day contains Motyer’s original translation, textual notes, literary and historical summaries, and a section on application. At every point, Motyer is careful to keep the reader well-informed of the bigger picture as it is all too easy to get lost in this enchanted wood.

I can envision this book as a great gift to many a hungry soul looking for a deeper, more enriching vision of the biblical faith. Clearly, Motyer is possessed of the same eagerness that others might experience Isaiah the way he introduced him to me: “I send you this invitation as one who loves everything about [Isaiah]—the way he writes, his mastery of words, the rhythmic beauty of his Hebrew and, above all, the magnificent sweep of his messianic vision” (4).

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has two children, Alec and Nora.

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