Abide: Isaiah 1-12
Isaiah. Latter-day Saints have a special relationship to this Old Testament prophet. Not only do we recognize prophets across all dispensations, but his words were carried by Lehi’s family to the Americas. How do we think about Isaiah? What should we know about the construction of the book of Isaiah? We discuss this, and much more, on this episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Joseph Stuart: Josh, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Joshua Sears: Thanks. Nice to be here.
Kristian Heal: So Josh, just before we jump into the book of Isaiah, tell us a little about your research and teaching on the Old Testament.
Dr. Joshua Sears: Well, like you guys just read, I’ve got three different degrees in the Old Testament, which I like to joke is two more than most people need. And graduate school is a lot of fun. It’s mostly a lot of study of different languages so that you can learn to read both the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible in its original languages, as well as texts from all the different cultures that were around them at the time. So lots of fun doing those things. Here at BYU, I’ve taught classes like Book of Mormon, New Testament, Jesus Christ and His Everlasting Gospel. And actually this fall semester, I’m teaching an Isaiah class for the first time which is a lot of fun for me. I took that from Victor Ludlow when I was an undergraduate a lot of years ago, so it kind of feels like coming full circle, and getting to teach that again is a lot of fun.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for sharing that. For BYU students, be sure to look for that class in the catalog. Now Dr. Sears, you spent a lot of time thinking about the Bible, studying the Bible and how Latter-day Saints can more effectively study the Bible themselves. You’ve also written a very interesting article on study Bibles that we will link in the show notes. What tools and resources would you recommend to someone looking to dig deeper into the book of Isaiah?
Dr. Joshua Sears: Well, I would say the first thing you want to do to start out to understand Isaiah is read the text of Isaiah. But to do that, my big recommendation for people is always get yourself a modern English translation of the Bible. I’m not suggesting that people ditch the King James Version or our Latter-day Saints scriptures. I think that should still be your primary text you’re looking at, but I’m suggesting on the side there, have another translation as a supplemental text. You don’t have to spend money, these things are free on the internet. There are free apps you can get, but just something on the side, you can compare back and forth easy enough. And I would estimate that a big percentage of the difficulty we have with Isaiah starts right there with the old English language of the King James Version, whereas a modern translation just makes that go so much easier, not only because it gives the modern kind of vocabulary and you’re not struggling with 16th century English, but also because it’ll present Isaiah in poetic stanzas. Most of the book of Isaiah is poetry and it will put it in poetic stanzas, it makes it easier to follow the poetry and see what’s going on. So there’s just so much right there that will immediately jump off the page and make a little more sense if you’re comparing with a modern translation as you go. Once you’ve got that, of course, there’s a whole bunch of books and resources that you can turn to. And you kind of have to just look for what helps you with the things that you’re wanting to get out of the text. If you want to take an academic approach and dive deep in ancient history, there are academic commentaries, a whole lot of them that you can get on Isaiah, and wade through those. If you’re looking for something that pulls out modern day spiritual little nuggets and insights, there are plenty of books that do that. There’s a bunch of resources, but I would start there. Just make sure that you’re staying in the text first and foremost, and I really think that a modern translation on the side, you get a lot of mileage out of that.
Kristian Heal: I really like the Jewish Study Bible, sort of a study Bible that keeps you in the text, but there’s helpful footnotes and there’s the apparatus. I think that’s wise to remember to sort of do the text first, rather than sort of being guided constantly by commentaries, all sorts of other people.
Dr. Joshua Sears: Exactly. Commentaries can be super helpful and the notes in a study Bible can be super helpful because a little bit of hint about what’s going on can give you a lot of mileage. You’ll go a long way with that. At the same time, though, you’re right, if you are constantly letting other people tell you what it means it doesn’t give you the opportunity to use your own brain and to feel the Holy Ghost and to see what the text has to say to you too. So there’s always a balancing that happens there.
Kristian Heal: So Isaiah is one of the great books of the Old Testament, perhaps the greatest, and also a tricky book, a difficult one for people to read and to understand, but also feels like there are many Isaiahs. There’s the historical figure of Isaiah; the canonical book of Isaiah; there’s the Isaiah read within Jewish communities anciently and continually; the Isaiah of the Great Isaiah Scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls communities; and then the Isaiah of the New Testament, this book which prophesied so thoroughly of Jesus and is woven through the Gospels and other New Testament books; the Isaiah of the Book of Mormon, which becomes key to understanding this text and is so foundational to it; and even the Isaiah of last days prophecy. With so many of these books seems kind of layered on top of each other, how do you read Isaiah in a way that allows you to kind of separate these layers? Or how do you navigate this kind of phenomenon of these multiple Isaiahs?
Dr. Joshua Sears: I think with this, like all literature, you tend to find what you’re looking for and you see what you’re looking for. Biblical scholars tend to zero in on the original context of Isaiah, what these words would have meant to the original author and his contemporary audience. Christians have the opportunity to use a New Testament lens to read Isaiah to find the mortal ministry of Jesus, and Latter-day Saints, with the Book of Mormon’s explanation of Isaiah “as touching all things” (3 Nephi 23:2), have the opportunity to read Isaiah at various points in history. And there’s an explanation from President Dallin H. Oaks that I find helpful to frame how we read Isaiah, and this is what he says, this is from the January 1995 Ensign: “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 are scattered after the crucifixion of the Son of God. Still another meaning or fulfillment of the same prophecy seems to relate to the events intending the Second Coming of the Savior.” So I don’t think President Oaks is trying to be exhaustive in all the interpretive possibilities there. But I think for Latter-day Saints, these three time periods are the most helpful settings in which to interpret and liken Isaiah. And that means that you can read nearly any given prophecy in different settings. What did it mean to the people in ancient Israel? Is there a way it symbolically refers to Jesus’ mortal ministry? How can it be likened to the last days? Even though we do have these options available to us though, many readers can be uncomfortable letting a prophecy mean multiple things at the same time. So my colleague here at BYU, Kerry Muhlestein, just published a new commentary on Isaiah and he makes this insightful observation. I’ll read this: “Members of the Church … tend to take many of the prophecies that have a millennial day fulfillment and focus only on that fulfillment, disregarding other intended fulfillments. Similarly, if a passage has a clear fulfillment in Christ’s mortal ministry, this becomes the singular interpretation in most cases. This tendency robs us of much of the richness of Isaiah. I believe that we will better understand the messianic and millennial fulfillments if we understand the way the same prophecy has applications in its immediate historical context.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom there because I’ve observed this with a lot of people. A lot of people want to skip learning about the ancient Israelite setting for these prophecies because they think it’s either unimportant next to a meridian of time setting or a latter-day setting. Or they might even feel that if you interpret something as having an application in ancient Israel that that is threatening their readings that they’ll have in other time periods. I don’t think that we need to see these different historical settings, though, as interpretive competitors. I think they can all get along. My experience is that, in fact, the better I understand that ancient Israelite meaning, the more it enriches my interpretations in those other contexts later. And one more note on this issue is the way that we go about finding Jesus Christ in Isaiah relates to all this. For most Latter-day Saints, finding the Savior in Isaiah is a top priority and that makes sense. But I think we do people a disservice when we perpetuate the idea that finding the Savior in Isaiah means—and only means—looking for descriptions of his birth, mortal ministry, and death. You certainly should look for prophecies about those things, but if you limit yourself to just that you’re going to really miss out on a lot. If you’re reading the prophecies, for example, in an ancient Israelite setting, Isaiah’s time, you can look at what the Lord, Jehovah, is doing right then and right there as he speaks with Isaiah and responds to what’s going on with the Israelites. Since our theology is that Jehovah is the premortal Jesus Christ, seeing what the Lord Jehovah does is seeing what Jesus does and you don’t have to look for obscure symbols about his birth or anything like that, you can just look and see what he’s doing on any given page, just all the time, constantly, everything he does. You can also look for prophecies that applied what the resurrected Christ is doing in the latter days to gather Israel and prepare the world for his second coming. So my point here is that there’s various ways of finding Jesus in Isaiah, and we want to be careful not to think that hunting for his mortal life is the only way to do that.
Joseph Stuart: That was extremely helpful. Thank you, Josh. Now let’s get to the book itself. To begin with, could you give us one of those 10,000 foot overviews of the historical context that lies behind the book of Isaiah, for instance, he lived during the late eighth century BCE. What else should we know about that time period?
Dr. Joshua Sears: So I’ve read the book of Isaiah being called “crisis literature.” Isaiah didn’t live in a time when everything was great, and there was not much to talk about and so he just, you know, wistfully thinks about the last days or something. He lives in a time when it’s just tumultuous. There’s so much going on. There’s lots of upheaval in culture, and society, and politics, everything going on. So the book in its immediate context addresses, basically, two or three major eras. First, there’s the eighth century BC, that’s Isaiah’s lifetime, addressing the crisis of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians are expanding, they’re conquering a bunch of neighboring kingdoms and they’re looming on the horizon as the big bad guys that we have to worry about there. And during Isaiah’s lifetime, the northern kingdom of Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians, it falls and they lose their government there. And during his lifetime, the Assyrians also attack where he lives, the southern kingdom of Judah, and they barely squeak on by, they last another century there. But that’s when he lives, during all these attacks and everything going on. Later in the book, it covers the Babylonian conquest when Judah finally falls to the Babylonians. And towards the end of the book, it seems to also address the end of the Babylonian exile and when the Persians help the Jews kind of return back to Jerusalem. So there’s that kind of spread and that’s what Elder Oaks is referring to as “Isaiah’s day” and the events of “the next generation.” So the Assyrian attacks and then the Babylonian attacks are where you get most of your contextual stories.
Kristian Heal: Within the book of Isaiah itself, we have a few references to this figure, Isaiah, son of Amoz. What emerges as a picture of that particular sort of prophet from the text of the book of Isaiah?
Dr. Joshua Sears: Yeah, doesn’t tell us a lot about him as a person, but we do get some things that are really helpful. So the opening verse gives us a timeframe. It says that his ministry takes place during the reign of four different kings, and based on the dating of those kings, that means Isaiah’s ministry is about 740 to 700 BC, more or less, so about 700 years before Jesus. And at the same time, there’s other prophets there. There’s Hosea, Amos, Micah, are probably all active during Isaiah’s lifetime, he might have known these prophets as well. Isaiah is what we sometimes call a court prophet. He’s not some poor shepherd that God calls to leave his flocks and go preach to the people. He’s highly educated, and he appears to constantly have the ear of the king, or at least it’s not hard to go talk to the king. There’s even Jewish traditions about him marrying into the royal family. So he’s very much connected with the palace right there in Jerusalem, and the government, and what’s going on. And because he lives in Jerusalem, which is the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah, he’s mostly concerned with that country. He does speak some directly about the northern kingdom of Israel, but less than he does Judah. In his personal life, we know that Isaiah is married. He refers to his wife as “the prophetess” in chapter 8, and he’s also got kids. We get the names of at least two of them, and their names, in fact, are important because he gives them a name that symbolically helps communicate his message. So every time people hear the names of his children, they’re kind of reminded of what his messages were.
Joseph Stuart: The book of Isaiah doesn’t function as a work of history, at least in the way that we think about history today. What should we know about genre, about how it’s set up as a piece of literature in thinking about the contents of the book?
Dr. Joshua Sears: Yeah, that’s a really complicated question. I liked this comment by Robert Alter. He’s a noted Jewish scholar, and he’s produced his own translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, and published several books on Hebrew narrative and poetry. So in his kind of summary of Isaiah, he starts off by saying, “The Book of Isaiah may well be the greatest challenge that modern readers will find in the biblical corpus to their notions of what constitutes a book.” And what he means by that is the structure is really complex, and people have had a lot of different ways of trying to figure out how this is put together. There’s a whole bunch of sections, and those are made up of subunits. But the relationship between the sections and the subunits is sometimes unclear. We can tell the ordering is not chronological because there are things presented kind of out of chronological order, so that’s not the overriding concern in the book. So I’ll just try to see if I can run through some of the major sections here and give people an idea of how this breaks down. So chapters 1-12 is often seen as kind of a large unit, although chapter 1 is sometimes thought to have been written later as an introduction to the entire book. And other chapters within 1 through 12 seem to have different origins and were maybe edited together into this section at one point. Just to give you an example of what I’m talking about, Isaiah as a character doesn’t appear anywhere in chapters 1 through 5, but then in chapter 6 we get a first person narrative given in Isaiah’s voice, and it’s often interpreted as his prophetic call to the ministry, even though in the book we’ve already read five chapters of prophecies. Then you get to chapter 7, where Isaiah is now described in a third person narrative. So rather than “I, Isaiah” said this and did this, it’s “he, Isaiah” did this and said this. And then in chapter 8, you switch right back to a first person account in Isaiah’s voice. So you can see there’s some complexity there, why is it doing different things in different places? So chapters 1-12 are kind of an anthology there. Chapters 13-23 contain judgments against various foreign nations. So as best we can tell these oracles against Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, they’ve kind of been collected together into a grouping here based on that common theme of prophecies against foreign nations. Chapters 24-27 are sometimes called the “Isaiah apocalypse” because they show some early features of what would later be characterized as apocalyptic writings in Jewish literature, so that’s kind of a unit right there. Chapters 28-35 contain a set of various prophecies. Chapters 36-39, that’s another third person narrative about the character of Isaiah, and that’s apparently borrowed straight out of Second Kings. They’ve got nearly identical chapters over there, and they’re about Isaiah there in Second Kings, so someone appears to have placed them here because they’re about Isaiah. Many of the chapters up to that point, chapter 39, deal with all the Assyrian crises, again the Assyrian empire’s on the move and they’re going to come attack and everything. But at chapter 40, you get a time jump, about a 150 year gap between what was coming before and what you get in chapter 40, when the Jews are in captivity, now in Babylon. So in between there, in the time of the time jump, you get Lehi, the start of the Book of Mormon, you get the destruction of Jerusalem and all those things. But Isaiah 40, in the chapters that follow, skip all past that and jump straight into the Babylonian exile. So the prophecies here are generally hopeful and consoling, promising the people that the Persian King Cyrus has been raised up by God, and he’s going to conquer Babylon. And soon, they’ll all be able to leave Babylon, return home, and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. So within chapter 40 to the end of the book, 66, there are still some subunits where you can see some unifying features, bringing different kinds of themes together. So for example, chapters 40-48 talk a lot about Cyrus, about the impending fall of Babylon, and about the futility of idol worship, and about the contrast between the “former things” that Jehovah had told the people before and the “new things” that he’s now revealing. But all of these themes stop, and then you move on to a bunch of new subjects starting in chapter 49. So you can tell some groupings are still going on there, but the subunits in that section are a lot less clear. So scholars have a whole bunch of different ways that they subdivide 40-66, although many scholars do believe that the final cluster of chapters shift from “Babylon’s about the fall” to “okay, we’re free now, and how do we deal with our new challenges?” So you can kind of sense a little bit of a shift there. That’s the book, a bunch of different things, doing a bunch of different things, and so that’s why there’s a lot of complexity there that people have tried to figure out.
Kristian Heal: This is not a book to sort of deal with on a Sunday afternoon, necessarily. It’s one which I think invites a long period of thoughtful engagement and study for those who are inclined to do so, I suppose, and it can be rewarding. One of the problems that I think that Latter-day Saints have sort of faced is this idea from recent scholarship of this kind of historical progression of the book that you have this first section 1 to 39, written during the period of the Assyrian conquest. And then we kind of jump to this period for chapters 40-55, written during the Babylonian exile, and then the remainder of it, possibly relating to another period still. However, how have Latter-day Saints responded to this, this idea of a kind of historical division of the book?
Dr. Joshua Sears: So scholars as far back as the 1700s were noticing the different time periods and the divisions there. And they started speculating that the book of Isaiah was not written by just one man during one lifetime, but it was written by multiple authors over a long period of time. And that became basically the scholarly consensus by the end of the 19th century. Scholars have marshaled together a considerable number of arguments to make that case. So for example, they’ll cite things like changes in the Hebrew language in various sections, or differences in the narrative voice, like we mentioned, some parts say “I, Isaiah” and others are “he, Isaiah.” They also look at things like the jump from the eighth and sixth centuries, like we mentioned—why is it so detailed about this period, and then this period, but not other periods? And the fact that the later chapters quote from Jeremiah and other texts that post date the lifetime of Isaiah in the eighth century. So at first, as this idea became more common in academia, there was some resistance to the idea from Christians and other conservative religious readers, but mostly, scholars and readers, even religious ones, have come to accept that idea now. It’s a very well accepted thing. There’s a strong academic consensus, and you talk to Jews, Catholics, and most other Christians, and it’s not that big of a deal to think that there were multiple authors in the book. Latter-day Saints had been the big exception towards kind of generally accepting that. And the sticking point for us is really the Book of Mormon. So the Book of Mormon authors quote from Isaiah chapters 48-53, and the Book of Mormon authors say they’re getting those texts from the brass plates of Laban. But according to the scholarly consensus, those chapters weren’t written yet when Lehi left Jerusalem; they’re written several decades later, at least, during the time of the Babylonian exile. And the Book of Mormon also quotes from Isaiah chapters 2-14 and 29, and most scholars think that those texts, if they did exist before Lehi, would have been edited a great deal after Lehi’s lifetime, but the Book of Mormon presents them almost exactly as they would read later. So this creates a potential problem which Latter-day Saints scholars have been responding to for over 100 years. This is not a new issue. So I’ve looked at kind of the whole history of how Latter-day Saints scholars have thought about this issue. And I think it’s safe to say that most Latter-day Saints scholars have taken the position that the academic consensus is just wrong. That’s kind of our traditional response to this, they’ll argue that because the Book of Mormon quotes from different parts of Isaiah that proves the whole book must have been written by Isaiah in the eighth century. But there have also been Latter-day Saint scholars who have tried to reconcile these different perspectives. So as an example, Hugh Nibley thought it was very possible that prophets after Isaiah continued to update his words, to add to his words, and kind of keep the book growing. And he pointed out that since the Book of Mormon doesn’t claim that Isaiah chapters 40-47, or 54-66 were on the brass plates and ever quotes them, then you can’t use the Book of Mormon to argue that they were in fact, written early. Another avenue for reconciliation has been to argue that other authors did add to Isaiah’s writings, so the academic consensus got that right, but that the academics get the dating of those additional texts wrong, and that if you put the composition of those chapters, say right around 600 BC, so that they can get added to the brass plates in the nick of time, then that might explain some of the features that make those chapters look different from the earlier ones. Another approach by some Latter-day Saint scholars has been to ask how divine intervention might have affected the way things played out. So, what if the brass plates contain revealed chapters that were put there for Nephi to have, even though they wouldn’t be revealed to the Jewish public until decades later? What if the chapters Nephi was working with read differently than what we have in the English translation of the Book of Mormon, but the translation was made to match the King James Bible in a way that obscured the differences between Nephi’s early version of Isaiah and the way Isaiah was edited later in history? These of course are all just speculative ideas, you can’t prove any of these, but they do remind us that if you accept this notion that God reveals things to prophets, then the normal rules and tools that you use to identify authorship and when things were written might not always apply. There might be special circumstances going on there. So the bottom line is, Latter-day Saints have tended to be skeptical of suggestions that Isaiah was written by different authors at different times, but the Book of Mormon evidence does leave open some options for people to reconcile the academic observations if they choose to do so, if they find that persuasive. It’s not a situation, I think, where you have to either accept the scholarship or accept the Book of Mormon with no options of fitting them together. I think people have tried to do that and there are some options for that, but people will have different opinions on whether you should do that and how you should do that. But I think there are options out there.
Joseph Stuart: So more recently, scholars in the academy seem to emphasize signs of unity in the book, suggesting a more complex compositional history, and a more significant and intricate, purposeful literary structure and unity. What are some of the best parts of these approaches? I’m thinking about scholars here like Brevard Childs, Hugh Williamson, John Goldingay, or Marvin Sweeney.
Dr. Joshua Sears: Yeah, so this is a shift in Isaiah scholarship that’s been going on for about 30 years now, since like the late 80s, early 90s. And what the scholars have done is to say, look, simply dividing up the text into pieces isn’t enough, you have to also figure out why an editor put these pieces together in the way he did. So that was a common criticism of the 19th century early scholarship on this, was they were just chop, chop, chop, you know, and just leaving all these fragments of different bits and pieces of authors without any, you know, it leaves the book kind of in tatters. So this is kind of a response to that. So you might think, for example, that there’s a really sharp division between that Second Kings chunk that’s quoted in 36-39, and then the jump to the Babylonian exile in chapter 40. It’s just kind of a big gap there. But if you look more closely, the end of chapter 39 does contain a story about the Babylonian threat looming on the horizon, and that’s straight from Second Kings, it’s there. So it might make sense to use chapter 39 as kind of a bridge into that Babylonian setting that happens in chapter 40. So that’s just one simple example of how, looking more closely, you can see ways in which these are tied together really intricately. So this recent scholarship has stressed that the whole book of Isaiah is greater than the sum of its parts, that there are indeed themes and language that permeate the entire book and that there’s more cohesion to the entire thing than scholars 150 years ago tended to give it credit for. Although to be clear, this shift in how scholars see Isaiah isn’t really a reversal to the idea that there was just one author of the entire book. The consensus is still very strong that there were multiple hands involved and that there was a lengthy period of development. But the conclusion now is basically that the book is not a random hodgepodge of unrelated material, and that its editor saw different sections as building off of and responding to other sections in a way that at the end creates a very powerful synergy.
Kristian Heal: Yeah. That creates, I think, a sense of confidence in reading this book as a book of scripture, that we’re going to see themes running through it, that we can read themes that we’ll see in the opening chapter will appear in the closing chapter, the theology that advances, the ideas of Israel and the kind of gathering and restoration are sort of there throughout the book, even though certain sections may have distinct characteristics.
Dr. Joshua Sears: Exactly. And the reality is that for more than 2000 years, most communities have read the book from beginning to end, chapters 1-66. So there’s a lot of value in reading it as that whole, that’s how, most Jews and Christians and others have been reading the book. And it’s a legitimate question to ask about, you know, if a scholar goes through and chops it up into these editorial layers, maybe that tells you some things about its literary development or the historical periods, sure, but is that really where the value lies for theological reading? A lot of people will argue that no, because there’s so much you can get from taking it all together.
Joseph Staurt: Yeah. This is actually something that I think about with Doctrine and Covenants 121, where we have selected portions that have been stitched together and then canonized as a single section, where most Latter-day Saints don’t think about the reality that it came from several different letters, and that it’s not always presented in chronological order. I think it’s important to remember that it’s not just the prophets who are inspired, but that we literally believe that Moroni and Mormon edited the Book of Mormon, to present it in the best way possible.
Dr. Joshua Sears: Exactly. And that editing process can create something that’s different but amazing out of the whole thing. So go back to your example of section 121, how Joseph writes these letters from Liberty Jail and then decades later, they’re chopped up and stitched together into sections 121, 122, 123. That ends up creating something that’s new and different, but in some ways, brings out new things to it. So for example, section 121 opens with Joseph pleading, “Oh, God, where our thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?,” and verses 1-6 have him just pleading, “Where are you?” And then in our current Doctrine & Covenants, verse 7 has the Lord’s answer, you know, “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine inflictions shall be but a small moment.” And in the original letter, those two parts are actually separated by pages, I think, it’s not a direct question and here’s the answer right away, but it’s edited together now to look like that. And the question followed immediately by the response, without all the stuff in between, actually creates a very powerful dynamic as Joseph pleads from his heart and God gives that answer. So I think it’s a good example in a modern text, where we can see the process of how the editing itself can bring together these parts and create something new out of it that is very striking and is in some ways better than it would have been originally.
Kristian Heal: It’s been great to talk about the book of Isaiah in general terms and to get this kind of deep and useful introduction. Perhaps we can turn now to the readings for this week, which are chapters 1-12. There’s some interesting features, as you’ve already sort of suggested about this, the way that it’s structured, the placement of this great chapter in chapter 6. What’s going on in these opening chapters and how do they frame the book?
Dr. Joshua Sears: Yeah, so like we mentioned above, chapters 1 through 12 appear for the most part to address the situation in that late eighth century, Isaiah’s lifetime when the Assyrian Empire was causing problems. So that’s your original context. Judah and Jerusalem, where Isaiah lived in these chapters, they’re constantly chastised for their wickedness and he goes through a whole bunch of things they’re doing wrong. And they’re warned that the Lord’s judgments will come upon them if they don’t repent. So it’s constantly alternating between critiquing what they’re doing wrong, and the warning of the judgments that are coming. The “day of the Lord” is here, right? So at first, that judgment is described in just general terms, you know, “something bad is going to happen.” But then you get a clue starting in Isaiah 3:25, which says, “Thy men shall fall by the sword, and thy mighty in the war.” So judgment is going to come by the sword, it kind of identifies that, and then just keeps building. So Isaiah 5, the end of the chapter, verses 26-30, adds more details by describing foreign invaders who are going to travel all the way to Judah and then wreak havoc there, so you get that. Finally, Isaiah 7:17 gets even more specific by identifying specifically the Lord’s tool of judgment as being none other than the king of Assyria. And then in the chapters after that, the Assyrians are identified specifically several more times. Over the course of the chapters, it kind of builds as this very general looming threat gets more and more specific there. But it isn’t all doom and gloom in these chapters, either. So chapter 4 contains the first hint that there’s going to be a righteous remnant who’s going to survive all of this, and that the Lord is going to be with them and help them rebuild following all the devastation that’s going to happen. In chapter 6, verse 13, Isaiah is told that a tenth will remain and that they’ll regrow like a sprout from a fallen tree. Chapter 9 promises that “great light” is going to follow the “darkness,” and then chapter 10, verses 20 to 23 again promises that this remnant is going to survive and return to the God of Israel, and he’ll be with them, and they’re going to regrow, it’s going to be wonderful. So you have this kind of hopeful thread running through all the judgment and destruction, and from elsewhere in the Bible we know the righteous king Hezekiah did manage to help a remnant in Jerusalem survive the Assyrian siege. There was this dramatic divine intervention where an angel takes out their army and they’re forced to flee. So that’s the kind of background story that they seem to be alluding to. Then you get to the end of chapters 11 and 12, which describe a glorious messianic age when Jehovah is going to slay the wicked, give justice to the poor, bring peace and prosperity to the earth. So that might have some initial application to the miraculous deliverance you get from the Assyrians, maybe there is some way they saw relevance in that there, but it also seems to move far beyond that to this glorious future yet to be realized. Something we’re still waiting for, right? In fact, that’s one of the scriptures Moroni quotes to Joseph Smith when he shows up in his bedroom saying, “this is going to be fulfilled soon.” So something I’m still kind of eagerly awaiting!
Joseph Stuart: Well, thanks for that overview. Is there a particular passage or selection of passages that you find particularly compelling or inspiring from these first 12 chapters of Isaiah?
Dr. Joshua Sears: Yeah, I think one of my favorite parts is chapter 2, the first several verses there. This is quoted in Second Nephi 12, and it’s a very famous passage, right? This is the “last days,” “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” So as Latter-day Saints, we really love this one. And it’s interesting to think about, I mentioned before that some scholars think Isaiah 1 was maybe composed at the end of the book’s compositional history, as kind of an intro to the whole book, and it has a lot of ties to the very last chapter as well. That just creates an interesting situation where if chapter 2 is, say, the original beginning, it’s a very interesting beginning to have, because most of chapter 2, like I said, he’s just laying it into his contemporaries being like, “You guys are wicked, you’re gonna get destroyed.” It’s all that, but in these opening verses, Isaiah seems to paint a picture of what the world could be like if we were to do things differently. And I think what he might be describing, to explain it one way, what the world will look like when the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled? Because this passage is really saturated with images and phrases from our classic scriptures in Genesis about the Abrahamic covenant. That “in thee and thy seed all the nations of the earth are going to be blessed,” right there. So it says, “It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it” (Isaiah 2:2). And that phrase, “all nations,” you know, your Abrahamic Covenant bells should be going off in your head, because again, Genesis. This is from Genesis chapter 18, chapter 22, chapter 26. It’s got this central idea that the Abrahamic covenant is about Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, they will go out and “all nations” of the earth will be blessed by them. That’s the key phrase right there. So when it says “all nations” here, I think it’s harkening back to that, to be like, “Yeah, let’s do this, let’s share this with everybody, everybody can come participate.” “And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). And that I think goes also back to Genesis there. So there are several little places in Genesis where God, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is explaining this covenant to them, and he tells them, “One thing I want you to do is walk before me,” that’s Genesis 17:1. And then in the next chapter, in 18:19 of Genesis, he wants Abraham and his descendants to “keep the way of the Lord.” And then that’s what you get right here, right? “He will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). You see these phrases just popping up right back here. So I kind of picture this is, when the Abrahamic covenant is finally fulfilled, what’s the world going to be like? Well, everybody’s coming together. They’re worshiping the God of Israel and you get that kind of religious unity there, “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). And then there’s social implications to this too: “He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). And I think a major component of the Abrahamic covenant just isn’t the straight missionary work that we do, but it’s also just making the world a better place for everybody, promoting peace and helping build up our communities here. And this imagery here is so beautiful of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. I think if Isaiah were talking to today’s world, he might describe it as, “we’re going to take our nuclear missiles and melt them down to scrap metal for playground equipment.” That’s kind of the topsy-turvy thing that he’s talking about. Let’s stop making stuff to hurt other people, and instead devote those resources to feeding people and helping people. And you know, when I think about President Nelson encouraging us to gather Israel, to do our part to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant, and I think of what Isaiah is describing here, that really gives me a lot of motivation that yeah, if that’s the solution to the world’s problems, let’s do this. Let’s make the world a better place. Let’s share the gospel. Let’s do these things. Let’s bring everybody together and unite the human family because that’s worth working for.
Joseph Stuart: Amen, and amen. Have a blessed week, y’all.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)