The Limits of Sense

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Isaiah 11:3-4, from 11:1-10 [NRSVUE] (Lectionary text for Dec. 4, 2022)

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Isaiah 35:5-6a, from 35:1-10 [NRSVUE] (Lectionary text for Dec. 11, 2022)

It is the seeming rejection of sense perception that catches me when I read Isa 11. Not the ‘wolf living with the lamb’ or any of the peaceable kingdom images. Not the ‘shoot’ coming from the ‘stump of Jesse,’ the ‘little child’ leading; the promised ’root’ Paul claims as Christ [Rom. 15:12]. It’s the fact that this coming one shall not judge by his eyes nor decide by his ears [Isa 11:3].

That forswearing of senses strikes at odds with the prophet’s earlier proclamation to ‘Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes’ [Isa 6:10]. If sensory deprivation is prophesied as the LORD’s judgment, and restoration of vision and audition is prophesied as the LORD’s coming grace [Isa 35:5-6], then how am I to understand the mission of this promised shoot? The one who ‘shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear’ but will judge with righteousness and decide with equity [Isa 11:3-4]? Isaiah 11 sets sight and sound in opposition to righteousness and equity, complicating the idea of a simple progression from blindness to sight. This text describes vision and audition as senses whose usefulness is suspect.

I compare translations; consult lexicons; search scholarly articles. The shoot from the stump of Jesse shall ‘delight in the fear of the LORD,’ or perhaps shall ‘sense’ in the fear of the LORD (as the JPS translation suggests). ‘Fear of the LORD’ is the sixth of the spirit-gifts which shall rest upon him: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the LORD [Isa 11:2]. A variety of values (near-synonyms?) for that which should undergird right judgment. Not the seeing of eyes nor the hearing of ears but fear of the LORD, the ‘beginning of wisdom’ [Prov. 9:10].

Does it seem backwards to describe knowledge as a spirit-gift, rooted in reverence? Do we trust what is taught or do we conceive of learned interpretation as less reliable than direct perception? Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Our senses are how we apprehend the world around. Our senses are the basis of our witness of and in the world. We know what we saw, we declare, we know what we heard.

Except we don’t. Not really. Sight is interpretation. When we look at light and dark, lines set on a page or shapes shifting in the world around, we don’t just see but interpret the form and the movement. More than that, until we learn it, we may not even see it.

This is what I learned from learning Syriac. Syriac script is consonantal. Vowels are written as tiny marks added around the consonants like some sort of decorative surround. Syriac vowel shapes are varied, and when first I encountered them they seemed to me random squiggles. They were to me literally indecipherable. I consistently floundered in my guesses as to which vowel was which until finally the professor said, Can you not see the letters? She enlarged the pages double-sized so that the squiggles stood out clear to my sight. Only then could I see: each was distinct, had a different shape, stood for a different sound. I had to learn the details writ large before I was able to see them writ small.

I couldn’t see them until I knew them.

We don’t know what we see; we see what we know.

We cannot judge by our own sight until we are taught how to see.

The prophet does not reject sense perception so much as require its right re-ordering, calling us to learn righteousness and equity. Instruction is promised; the Word will flow from Zion [Isa 2:1-5]; calling people to walk God’s holy highway and to sing joy [Isa 35:8-10].

The sprig sprung from Jesse’s line is like the ‘child who has been born for us’ [Isa 9:6] or the ‘servant’ whose tongue is taught [Isa 50:4]. The church reads these as Jesus, who told those who asked to ‘Go and tell what you hear and see’: blind eyes seeing, deaf ears hearing [Matt 11:4-6]. (Jesus’ juxtaposition of sense terms suddenly makes me wonder if he thought by his answer to open the ears and eyes of those who had asked!)

The sprig sprung from Jesse’s line may be read as Jesus. Yet reading Jesus in this text does not exhaust its possibilities. It promises not only ultimate judgment and ultimate restoration, but also proposes a way to wait in the meanwhile. I cannot see and hear and study to save myself. But I can be reminded that my sight and hearing are limited by what I know and re-called to look and listen and study to be in relationship with the world. Copy righteousness and equity over and over until their shapes are fixed in my hand and my eye. Recite fear of the LORD with my lips and mouth. Walk God’s instruction with my feet. Practice sight and hearing and pray sense enlarged with ‘the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea’ [Isa 11:9].

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