Nature in Symbol and Simile in the Book of Isaiah

In no other part of Scripture, except perhaps in the Psalms, is the language so rich with the life and the movement of the natural world as in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Gardens and trees, rivers, fountains and pools soothe the eyes of the reader with their cool green and crystal Their refreshing sounds and pictures occur again and again; and this is not surprising when we consider that water is a symbol of the Word and of spiritual blessings, and a garden, of the spiritual flourishing of believers. Birds soar and glide and sing, animals run and leap, winds blow. All is animated; all is informed with the marvelous elixir of life.

“Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of tooter: in the habitation of dragons where each lay, shall be grass, with reeds and rushes.” Here are striking contrasts in the human, animal, and vegetable worlds: the halting step and swift, graceful movement; silence and song; barrenness and luxuriant growth. So is the spiritual transformation of a people portrayed. For the book of Isaiah is the book of a people renewed and invigorated by the divine life of the Spirit of God.

Even the foretelling of the birth of the Savior, though given precisely in bare, literal statement, is, when repeated, clothed in the imagery of the garden : “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Again the symbols are from the garden or field when Isaiah speaks of the believers as corn and their purified state after rebirth as thrashing. “O my thrashing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.”


But the green spears of living growth, so salutary to the eye, and the flowers all various in form and color are pitifully short-lived, so much so that their brevity gives poignance to the pleasure they afford. And so Isaiah uses them also to set forth for his people the brevity of life. “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth…surely the people is grass.”

And what is man within himself? Strong? Invulnerable? Impervious? Hardly. But how to tell of a man’s agitations? For Isaiah the literal statement will not do. It would not carry to his people the freight of his meaning. It would convey the intellectual concept but not the emotional essence. And so again he creates a picture, and once again a picture infused with life. He is telling of Ahaz and of the nation as they learn that “Syria is confederate with Ephraim,” and he says, “…his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.”

But the people of God are ultimately safe and secure. Can you think of a more alert guard than a pair of birds over their nest-full of young, ready to fly at any approaching invader? This is the figure the prophet uses to portray the protection God provides His people. “As birds flying,” he says, “so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem.”

In the symbolism of Scripture the earthly powers are portrayed as “mountains” and “hills”—great and massive, physically, and apparently indestructible. They rise above Israel proud and formidable. But the prophet gives the people the encouraging words of the Lord: “Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel: I will help thee, . . . Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them, small, and shalt make the hills as chaff·”

Many of the creatures of the natural world serve as symbols of destruction or desolation. There is hardly a more vivid and accurate image of relentless, systematic devastation than that of grasshoppers in hordes devouring every green thing in their path. This is the picture God evokes through Isaiah in his indirect warning to the enemies of Israel. ”’Woe to thee that spoilest,…when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled;…And your spoil shall be gathered like the gathering of the caterpillar: as the running to and fro of locusts shall he run upon them.”

With the destruction and impoverishment of the enemy, Jerusalem will enjoy a state of peace and security—symbolic of the felicitous state of the new Jerusalem that is to be. Again the prophet conveys his message in the concrete language of poetry: “Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation,… there the glorious Lord wiII be unto us a place of broad ricers and streams;…”

The metaphor of the mountains beaten and crumbled for the sake of God’s people has its spiritually significant counterpart in the simile of the cloud. Here the comfort and reassurance of Isaiah’s message soars to its zenith as the divine author speaking through Ilim goes to the heart of the matter: “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me, for I have redeemed thee.” Though the sun is not mentioned we can complete the simile for ourselves. As the warmth of the sun’s rays evaporates the cloud, so the love of God “blots out” the sins of His people.

Between that temporary era of peace and well~being for Israel and the eternal, perfect felicity of all believers in the new creation, our earth and our starry heavens, which have been a source of wonder to men of all times, will disintegrate. In fore-telling this almost unimaginable event the prophet again uses the familiar green world of vine and tree: “And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree.”

The sight so familiar to us all, of the falling leaf, the plummeting fruit, here makes the dissolution of our universe a real and certain thing. The stars that have for millennia held their place in…the vast, wheeling pattern of the heavens will suddenly slip their moorings and fall away like a leaf, like a fig.