Isaiah’s ability to speak to many time periods at once
By Kerry Muhlestein
I have found that one of the great keys to understanding Isaiah is to see how his writings apply to more than one time period. By that I mean that the same verse or set of verses are intended to be fulfilled in more than one time era. I believe that often Isaiah was inspired to write in a way which allowed his writings to be fulfilled in ways and times even he did not foresee. In my own experience, when I can see the original context and fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, I am better able to apply it to myself, and I draw more power from it.
In fact, the time that I first felt I was truly understanding, and loving, Isaiah, was when I went through an exercise that helped me see multiple fulfillments. I used three different translations of Isaiah. I would read a set of verses in one, asking how it would have applied to ancient Israel in Isaiah’s day. I read another, asking how it would apply to modern covenant Israel in our day. Then I read the third looking for how it applied to me as a covenant Israelite individual. It was rare that I did not find meaning for all three scenarios. Further, seeing what happened for the real people in Isaiah’s day opened up a host of understandings of what the same verses meant for me as a real individual in my day. It was a revolutionary experience for me in terms of feeling like the Lord was speaking to me through Isaiah.
This has not ended. Even after years of studying and teaching Isaiah, I find that he speaks to me most powerfully and moves me to change in my own life when I am thinking of how Isaiah’s words would have applied to his immediate audience, and then I ask myself how they are similar to me. I believe that this can be a meaningful experience for everyone.
With that in mind, for this week’s essay I will share some brief excerpts from my book, Learning to Love Isaiah, that discuss the concept of multiple fulfillment prophecies, and also an excerpt from the commentary section that illustrates the concept. The commentary excerpt will only focus on understanding the original context, and touches briefly on Messianic fulfillments. I will leave it to the reader to then ask how it can apply to their own life or to the conditions of our day.
Helpful Tools for Understanding Isaiah
“Another element that makes Isaiah’s prophecies both powerful and difficult is that most of his prophecies are intended to have more than one fulfillment (as is very briefly discussed in CFM). Isaiah typically wrote his prophecies in just a vague enough way that they would have a fulfillment in his day as well as in other periods of time. As President Dallin H. Oaks said, “The book of Isaiah contains numerous prophecies that seem to have multiple fulfillments. One seems to involve the people of Isaiah’s day or the circumstances of the next generation. Another meaning, often symbolic, seems to refer to events in the meridian of time, when Jerusalem was destroyed, and her people scattered after the crucifixion of the Son of God. Still another meaning or fulfillment of the same prophecy seems to relate to the events attending the Second Coming of the Savior.”
. . .
“Our modern culture particularly struggles with this aspect of Isaiah. We want one symbol to mean one thing, and we want to know the one interpretation or meaning of a prophecy. We struggle with ambiguity, and we tend to dislike holding three or four meanings in our mind and giving credence to all of them. Isaiah is masterful at using a symbol or description that applies to multiple people or situations, yet when he does so, there may be elements that apply more strongly to one fulfillment and others that apply better to another, with none (or only one) of the fulfillments being perfectly suited to Isaiah’s entire description. For Isaiah and his immediate audience, this was not only powerful, but was genius. To us, it is often confusing and undesirable. If we want to better understand Isaiah, we must become increasingly comfortable with ambiguous meanings that do not always have one-to-one correspondences. We must be able to juggle in our minds several fulfillments of a single description.
“I think we do a disservice to ourselves and our faith community when we label a particular fulfillment as the fulfillment. That prevents us from seeing some of the other powerful ways it can and should be applied. I also believe it is not faithful to Isaiah’s genius or intent. If we are going to allow Isaiah to speak with the intent he carefully crafted his writings to convey, then we need to allow for and seek out multiple meanings” (from Learning to Love Isaiah, a Guide and Commentary, by Kerry Muhlestein (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 7-8).
Commentary for Isaiah 22:15-22
“In the second part of this chapter, the Lord through Isaiah uses two people to typify the people of Judah. The first, Shebna, is typical of the majority of Judah who have become wicked. Shebna was an important official. He was the treasurer and steward of the king’s house. He seems to have had his heart set on worldly wealth and prestige. Thus, he had built for himself a sumptuous tomb in a prominent place. Like Judah, he desired those things valued by the world. Yet God promised him that having his heart set upon the wrong things made it so that he received neither his desired earthly nor heavenly reward. He would be taken into captivity and die in shame and sorrow there, never being able to take advantage of his lavish tomb. We can see how Shebna stood as a symbol for all of Judah and for many of us in our day.
“It is interesting that the lintel of the tomb of Shebna has been found. Clearly the entrance to an extravagant tomb, it no longer even lies in Jerusalem but is housed in the British Museum where thousands see it every year and are reminded not of Shebna’s prestige and wealth but rather of his fall.
“Shebna is to be replaced by Eliakim, who represents both Christ and those who choose to follow Christ rather than the world. The more we understand Eliakim, the immediate context of this prophecy, the more we will understand what Isaiah is trying to teach us about Christ in this prophecy.
“As part of assuming the office of steward and treasurer, Eliakim will be put in priest-like robes that were apparently part of this office, signifying his position of governance. Because these robes appear to be similar to those of priests, they would also likely carry temple symbolism. Part of the robe probably included some kind of insignia on the shoulder, perhaps a royal insignia that was representative of Davidic kingship. This must be part of the symbolism Isaiah referred to earlier when he spoke of laying the government upon the shoulder (of a Judean king and Christ; see Isaiah 9:6). Eliakim is given such power that when he decrees something, no one (except, presumably, the king) can undo it, and if he decrees that something should not happen, none could make it happen.
“All of this is set in language specifically designed to point toward Christ (as CFM invites us to recognize). It is Christ who truly has the powers to seal so that it can’t be broken and to break that which was sealed before. It is Christ who is the ultimate Davidic king and father to all those who will be saved” (from Learning to Love Isaiah, a Guide and Commentary, by Kerry Muhlestein (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 190-191).
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Ensign, January 1995.
Kerry received his B.S. from BYU in Psychology with a Hebrew minor. He received an M.A. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from BYU and his Ph.D. from UCLA in Egyptology, where in his final year he was named the UCLA Affiliates Graduate Student of the Year. His first full time appointment was a joint position in Religion and History at BYU-Hawaii. He is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. He has been teaching about Isaiah for almost three decades, and has been teaching classes specifically on Isaiah for several years, and has written a verse-by-verse commentary on Isaiah. He and his wife, Julianne, are the parents of six children, and together they have lived in Jerusalem while Kerry has taught there on multiple occasions. His 2022 FAIR Conference presentation on “Keys to Understanding Isaiah” can be viewed here.