Abide: Isaiah 40-49

  • Jesus promises in the Gospel of John that he will not leave us comfortless, but that He will come to us. He promises in Matthew that he will give us rest when we are weary and heavy-laden. In my experience, though, that isn’t at the first instance of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional. God asks us to find answers, to knock, to work and watch and fight and pray with all our might and zeal. How do we do that? And how can we think about being comforted by the Divine while also knowing that divine lessons often come in the pursuit of finding that comfort? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • Jesus promises in the Gospel of John that you will not leave us comfortless but that He will come to us. He promises in Matthew that He will give us rest when we are weary and heavy laden. We have to seek that comfort. The comfort doesn’t come at the first instance of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, spiritual or emotional. God asks us to find answers, to knock, to work and watch and fight and pray with all of our might and zeal. How do we do that? Especially when we’re in pain, when we need help? How can we think about being comforted by the Divine while also knowing that divine lessons often come in the pursuit of finding that comfort? We’ll discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communication Specialist at the Neal A Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal, a research fellow at the Institute. And each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission, to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world of religious ideas. 


    Joseph Stuart: Today, we are once again joined by Truman Callens, one of our research assistants, and an ancient Near Eastern Studies major here at BYU, from Seattle, Washington. After he graduates he plans to go to grad school to study theology and sacred texts. Truman, welcome back to the podcast. 


    Truman Callens: It’s good to be here. Thank you. 


    Joseph Stuart: As always, it is our pleasure. Now, Kristian, we’re looking at Isaiah 40 through 49 today. What were you thinking about as you prepared for this episode?


    Kristian Heal: I couldn’t help as I was looking at these verses, thinking back to my mission. I was a missionary in the England Bristol mission from 1989 to 91. I really loved my mission, it was a transformative experience for me. It was as a missionary that I gained a testimony of the love of God for all of his children, and my firm belief that God is active in the world, working to save and to bless and to teach his children through every means and every religion at his disposal. As a missionary, I came to see that I was part of a much bigger plan, a much bigger picture of God’s work in the world. I felt like I’ve been blessed my entire life for my missionary service. One of the most memorable experiences of my mission happened in the second year, when a newly appointed area President, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, came to speak at our mission. We’re always excited to have visiting authorities come, General Authorities come to the mission. And I was trying to sit up front and kind of be ready, poised to take notes. It quickly became apparent that this was not the usual General Authority visit. Elder Holland marshaled his considerable and well known rhetorical gifts to wake up a mission that was, in his view, significantly underperforming. And to be honest, yes, a mission that was in fact, significantly underperforming. He reasoned with us. He rebuked us, he shamed us, he pleaded with us. And finally, he told us that if our mission was a horse, he would shoot it. It was rumored that Elder Holland even broke a pulpit during one of these talks, he was so earnest. That may or may not be true, but it sounds true given the talk that I heard. Within a few months, we had another general authority visit. This time Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the 12 apostles. He came to come for a mission that was still reeling from that rebuke. Elder Holland’s talk is like the first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah. Elder Ashton’s words of comfort are like the chapters covered in this week’s reading, “comfort, ye comfort ye my people say if your God speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished. That her iniquity is pardoned, for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” I cannot read the opening words without thinking of Handel’s Messiah. It’s right for Christians to read these verses messianically. Jesus is the comfort that God sent to his ancient covenant people and to the whole world. But the first audience of these chapters is a people in exile, or people who have lost everything that gave them a sense of identity: their land, Jerusalem, the city of David, the city of Zion, and the temple. This is a people in exile, because they failed to hearken to the words of the prophets. But now, having received that double portion of punishment, God announces their redemption to the heavenly Council, which is seen as the setting for the opening of chapter 40. In these chapters, the Jews are comforted, and God promises to deliver them through Cyrus the Persian king, who overthrows Babylonia, and brings them back to Jerusalem, and the promised land in a new Exodus. I wonder in this connection about my mission, which was closed just over a decade after Elder Holland’s rebuke. 20 years later however this year, there will be once again a New England Bristol mission and kind of a restoration as it were. Sometimes perhaps to receive a renewal seems that a period of exile is necessary. We were warned, and we were comforted. And now there’s this restoration and the work of the Lord rolls forward.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks so much for that Kristian. Now, Truman, in your research this week, you also looked at comfort. How does Isaiah establish this theme of comfort in Isaiah 40 through 49? 


    Truman Callens: For Israel, for those that were actually in exile, it obviously is going to take more than just the words comfort or it’s going to be okay, or Isaiah was called to add substance to the call of comfort. What I really realized is that in Isaiah’s message what he does to establish and to give substance to comfort was defining and establishing the nature of God. He really confronts the question of who is God, and the results in Isaiah’s dealing with this question, the result is the theology of monotheism. And so I would really say that the theology of monotheism is how Isaiah establishes and backs up and adds substance to comfort.


    Joseph Stuart: So before the episode we were discussing the terms of manolotry versus monotheism, can you help us to see the difference in those definitions?


    Truman Callens: I think it kind of surprises people when we talk about monotheism being introduced in Isaiah and that we don’t always realize that for most of Israel’s history, basically up until this point, they practiced monolatry. Which manolotry is when you worship a single god, but you believe and recognize the existence of other gods. And we see that throughout the Old Testament. Even though the religions today that use the Old Testament, Islam and Christianity, and Judaism are all strictly monotheistic religions. Within the Old Testament, we see Israel openly recognizing the Egyptian gods, and the gods are the Canaanites, and the gods of the Babylonians. And so that’s kind of what manolotry is, is that they believed that the Lord was the God of Israel, he was the God that was placed over the community of Israel, and that they worship that one God, but not to the exclusion of other gods.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, even you know, the first of the 10 commandments, I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me sort of acknowledges implicitly, there are kind of other gods that you could put before me. It’s a really kind of put in point that you’re making there Truman, that we’re kind of making this transition from this world of gods to a world in which there is really one God.


    Joseph Stuart: I had never thought about the first commandment that way and I find that really helpful. So why does monotheism help Israel to feel comforted? 


    Truman Callens: Yeah, and I think we have to kind of look at what’s going on in the historical context right now is that if we’re practicing monolatry, and we’re in the city of Jerusalem, we’re practicing monolatry, we worship our God, the other gods are doing their things. But then we get conquered by Babylon. So Israel gets conquered by Babylon, they’re taken away. And the practice of monolatry dictates that you should now assimilate to whatever culture you’re part of. And now you should be worshiping, possibly the Babylonian gods, or recognized that the Babylonian gods are superior to your God, which of course, would end the worship of the Lord, and would end the practice of the Israelite religion. And so monotheism is so important and such a big comfort, because here it actually establishes that the Lord is a universal God. And that whatever happens within the world, or to Israel is under the control of God. And I think it’s really important to remember just kind of in general, that developments in theology often follow cultural needs and demands. And we see that with continuing revelation that we see today and throughout history. And this is kind of part of it, is that Israel really needed this idea that their god was the only God. And so this was revealed through Isaiah.


    Kristian Heal: It’s interesting as we talk about this as a second Exodus, to see the difference in those two. To see the difference between those two, the Exodus story is all about Yahweh, showing that he is the mightiest of gods, that he’s stronger than the gods of Egypt. He comes in, performs these miracles, there’s a certain sort of reaction to them. But it’s about this kind of, I’m great, he kind of goes with them kind of into the edge of the land. And there’s the sense that He is the God of the land of Israel. So you still have this picture in the Exodus. And so it’s really fascinating to think of this as a kind of a new Exodus with an entirely new theological vision that’s being presented.


    Truman Callens: Well, it’s quite extraordinary that the event that should have destroyed the worship of the Lord, should have destroyed the worship of Yahweh was the activator for what placed Yahweh as the cosmic director above anything else. That he wasn’t sitting in the cosmic system with other idols and Gods flowing with it, but he was actually sitting outside of it. And so in a way this reverse Exodus, going into exile, developed the and solidified Israel in a way that was just as profound as the Exodus and even sometimes more profound,


    Kristian Heal: And ended up in fact, kind of framing the whole, the scholarly kind of consensus is that Genesis chapter one, the introduction of a cosmic creator, is written in this kind of same context. So that the whole Bible is then reframed in these, but we still sense these kinds of tensions as different kind of theological worldviews, kind of juxtapose and about each other. But that’s really a fascinating and important kind of insight coming out of it.


    Joseph Stuart: Makes me grateful for the Lord’s preface to the Doctrine and Covenants where he declares in section one that the church is both true and living, that God gives us the comfort we need, in the context that we need them. But in your research, Truman, how do you see Isaiah, especially these chapters 40 to 49, or 40 to 55, establishing monotheism, rather than monolatry.


    Truman Callens: Yeah, and this is kind of where we kind of dive into the text a little bit. And I think studying Isaiah can be hard, I think everyone agrees, studying Isaiah is difficult. And we can get caught up because there’s the shifting images change so fast that it’s hard to catch hold of a particular thing, kind of, you know, most people wouldn’t read this part of Isaiah and see monotheism in it. But if you really look at it, a lot of the things that Isaiah is talking about is all working to establish this idea. So we get themes, like they talk a lot about revelation, or God talks a lot about revelation and how he is able to see the past perfectly and know what’s happening in the future. So in like 46:10, the Lord says, “I make known the end from the beginning, from the ancient times, what is still to come.” And so if the Lord is truly the cosmic director that makes that, that means that he knows what has happened and what’s going to happen. And so sometimes we see it in a microcosmic kind of thing of he’s just talking about Revelation. But really, he’s using that to establish monotheism. And that’s the same with a lot of the denunciation of idols that we see throughout these chapters, is that as you read these sections, 40 through 49, and through 55, there’s a lot about idols. And I especially like chapter 44, where he talks very plainly about idols and says stuff, like the things that your idols are made of are the things that you also burn and use to cook your food. And you have to hold up your idols and make them so they don’t fall down, and you have to carry them around. And if they really represented real gods, if they really represented true deities, you wouldn’t have to do these things. And so then again, you have the Lord establishing himself through denunciation of idols. And then of course, kind of what we talked about creation imagery, you have a lot of creation imagery. So in 45, verse 12, the Lord really explicitly states, “it is I who made the earth and created mankind on it, my own hands stretched out the heavens.” So that, again, is just a really good example of God as creator of the earth, of the heavens and of mankind, all three of those things established in one verse. And that that really means that God has to be the director and has to be the only God in existence. 


    Kristian Heal: I really like 44. I think the rest of it’s a fun chapter. Because it is this sort of sustained parody day sort of wonderfully biting sort of parody of the worthlessness of all of these other so-called Gods. That there’s, there’s nothing there, right, that these are entirely kind of work of your hands. And it is, you just have to kind of imagine yourself exactly as you said, Truman, kind of imagine yourself in exile, surrounded by these kind of gods, the glory of Babylon, you know, the kind of thing that we see in the kind of Ishtar gates and the, you know, this kind of glory, mighty, almost unstoppable kind of empire. And this new theology emerging in response to that, I think that’s really what’s so wonderfully potent.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for sharing that you two. I’m also thinking, just in my experience as an educator, thinking about the ninth article of faith and trusting that God will yet reveal many great and important things related to his kingdom. But that doesn’t mean that adjusting to the new revealed truth is always easy, or that we simply forget everything that we have known before. So it’s this constant moving back and forth of incorporating revelation into our lives, while also recognizing that there was truth beforehand, as well. Truman, what are three things that you might recommend that we could keep in mind as we’re going over this section, to think about how to incorporate what the Lord newly reveals to us?


    Truman Callens: That’s an interesting question. Three things in kind of studying these chapters. I think, number one, I would say that it’s important to understand how God is defined here and also just throughout scriptures because when we know who God is, that naturally leads us to understanding who we are in relation to God. And not only on a personal level, but Isaiah really focuses on the nation of Israel and establishing, furthering the establishment of who Israel is in relation to God. And that’s super important for us today. Because the things that the Lord talks about about restoration is restoration to Jerusalem, but also the greater restoration of Israel that we’re participating in now. First thing that I would say about studying these chapters is look for the relationship between Israel and God, because that is our relationship between Israel and God. Number two, I really can’t understate the importance of understanding historical context and cultural context. I think we are very fast to read and apply as fast as we can to our lives, read a verse and apply it, read a verse and apply it without understanding the big picture. And I think that’s a lot easier when we read the Book of Mormon, because it was expressly written for the Jews and the Gentiles in the latter days. And that is us, that’s us here. And it comes more naturally because we are the audience. But Isaiah wasn’t expressly writing to us here today. And so once we understand the meaning of his words to his original audience, we can actually pick up that entire context and that entire meaning, and then superimpose it on our culture today. And so that’s how we should really be deriving application into our lives from these chapters, is understanding it in its original context, and then superimposing it on us. And then number three, I would just say, this isn’t a stopping point. What we say here, what I’ve said here, what we say in this podcast isn’t necessarily answers to questions and like end all be all this is it, this is what Isaiah is. This is to kind of get the ball rolling, get you thinking. And I think the key term that I’d like to focus on is a continually developing understanding that we may understand a piece of something now, but as we read Isaiah and study Isaiah throughout our lives, our understanding of the text, and God will continually develop. Those are the three things that I would say about these chapters.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s really helpful. Thanks for sharing that, Truman. I think that it also points to a difficulty sometimes, and not exclusively to Latter-day Saints by any means, of looking to academic tools to better understand sacred scripture, or recognizing that academic authority is not the same thing as religious authority, as priesthood authority in a Latter-day Saint context. Kristian, can you tell us more about how you approach scripture, both as a scholar of ancient texts, and as a faithful Latter-day Saint?


    Kristian Heal: This is something I’ve been really thinking a lot about during the course of this podcast. And it’s been really wonderful to think about these questions of kind of what is scripture, particularly in conversation with the wonderful group of students that we’ve had working together with us as researchers on this podcast, and for me, has become a sort of a question that I keep returning back to, as we’ve wrestled with, particularly the kind of historical underpinnings and I agree with Truman, the first place to start in exegesis in sort of interpreting scripture, that the Old Testament is to try and understand what the text said, in the world in which it is written, I think that we can then kind of begin from that point.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, like it says in Ecclesiastes, there are no new things under the sun, right? Although the Lord may not speak to us about the exact situation that we find in Isaiah, or Exodus or any other book, that we can take the principles to like situations and think about how it applies into our lives. 


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. I think that sort of a really valuable point. And then scripture kind of grows from there. It grows in terms of its application in different different places in different ways. Ultimately, and this is sort of an important point, scripture is something which is sort of useful, and something which is, is sort of turning to our benefit and turning to our good. I like this principle as taught by Joseph Smith, he said, Joseph taught, to all the brethren, “I told the brethren,” he said “that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion. And a man would get nearer to God by abiding by his precepts than by any other book.” So notice here that Joseph’s claim to the correctness or rightness of the truth of the Book of Mormon is connected to its virtuous scripture, at the work that it’s doing. As scripture, the Book of Mormon will lead a person nearer to God by abiding by his precepts than by any other book. This is the power of scripture. Scripture is inspired and useful. “All scripture” Paul said to Timothy, “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the servant of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” This definition of scripture is so rich and so powerful. Scripture is not history, or poetry, or law, though it contains all of those things, and is written using those genres. And to understand it more, we have to understand all of those things. But instead, scripture is the inspired word of God that has, as Henry Sweet said a century ago, a singular capacity for imparting religious edification. So perhaps another way to say this is scripture may begin life as prophecy or poetry or law, or history, or something happens to it, in the process of it becoming a sacred text, in the process of it becoming perhaps canonized, we would use the word in the process of it being accepted as the word of God. And in that new status that it becomes, it has all of these properties that Paul said to Timothy that it had, it has become profitable in our lives as something which can help transform us. And I think about this with respect to Isaiah, because Isaiah, like the Pentetuch, the first five books of the Bible, are two places in the Old Testament where scholars have kind of exploded a traditional view of these texts. They have exploded traditional notions of authorship, of composition, of kind of structure, of understanding it. They’ve exploded, a sense of, of kind of what this is, as a text, right, it’s drawn out Ancient Near Eastern parallels, see how kind of the dynamics of how these texts are created with the book of Isaiah, as we discussed at the beginning of these, this section on Isaiah, we see this kind of historical structure, the development of it over time. But we find then that what we’re doing in that process is kind of understanding the literary composition of scripture. But what we’re not doing by that is kind of understanding something about scripture itself because scripture is not literature, it’s something different. It starts off in this way, and this is the kind of case that I find myself increasingly making. 


    Joseph Stuart: I think in some ways, it’s important to think that scripture, as you say, isn’t just literature or law, or prophecy or poetry. But that it’s something that as individuals and as communities we agree is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It leads us to God in a way that you can’t necessarily footnote, but that you can measure its impact in your own day to day life.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it is this, it is connected deeply to I think, your community. And it looks different within each community. The Hebrew Bible is a different text than the Christian Old Testament, which is a different text than the old testament of the Latter-day Saints that helped the addition of the book of Moses, and through the Joseph Smith translation. And the Book of Abraham is a different text with, with different theological kind of views, different assumptions, different interpretations. And it’s a wonderful and may in many ways, it kind of exciting activity, to kind of seek light from these texts in those contexts.


    Joseph Stuart: I find this really exciting as someone who, since we’re talking about missions, my mission presidents both encouraged me to look for truth wherever I could find it. But I think in some ways, this can feel less certain. Now, let me be clear, I don’t feel less certain about my place in the plan of salvation, or about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. But it does lead me to be maybe a little bit more humble about the interpretations of scripture that I have, it leads me to think that there are other ways of interpreting texts. Have you had a similar experience?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I’m kind of inclined to think that certainty is the sort of killer of creativity. That once we think we know, once we think we’re sure about what a text means, we’re no longer open to the possibilities of scripture. And if anything, this is the sort of these different approaches that we take. And I think we’ve tried continually on this podcast to explore the polyvalence of scripture that it is meaning different things in different places to different people, and that it means something particular to us as Latter-day Saint readers, but we can also be enriched by the way that it has influenced and been read and interpreted by others.


    Truman Callens: I love the old adage where there’s two rabbis, there’s three opinions. And I think that’s something that we don’t always pick up on in Christianity, where we really try to focus on finding the exact right interpretation. When I think that way, at least in my studies as now looking at the scriptures from a Christian perspective, but also from the perspective of the other traditions that use it, especially the the Jewish tradition, I’ve learned a lot that interpretation that scriptures stay alive through interpretation, and that the religion itself can stay alive because you can reinterpret the texts for every situation repeatedly. And that’s what keeps it alive. That’s what gives its living nature. But as soon as you pin it down to a certain time in a certain place in a certain meaning that pins it down, and then you leave it behind in it, it loses its value. 


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, that’s lovely. In many ways, it’s about us as a sort of instruments of interpretation. And in that sense, I really love the approach that we get in the Book of Abraham, where Abraham presents himself as a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possesses greater knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness. This suggests that righteousness is not orthodoxy or right belief, but instead, the act, object and result of discipleship. We are not righteous, but followers of righteousness. And as we grow in our knowledge, so we grow in our capacity to follow righteousness, you should end up with this kind of grading this cycle. And if we take that to the scriptures, the scriptures follow us in this kind of one eternal round, delivering new and sort of different insights. Each time we kind of approach them and read them, and draw upon them, whether we’re viewing them from a Jewish perspective, from an early Christian perspective, from a Latter-day Saint perspective from the restoration, it’s this constant seeking and receiving of light.


    Joseph Stuart: Now when I went to BYU, and then eventually in graduate school too, I’ve received this recurring advice to not read too much, or to maybe limit what I’m learning about, not only the Latter-day Saint faith and tradition, but also about religions of the world. And while those pieces of advice are always well meaning that just never rang true to me, what might you say to someone who is offering that advice to others?


    Kristian Heal: I think there is no need to be afraid of scholarship about the scriptures, or learning in general, or learning in particularly about the book of Isaiah. We don’t need to be afraid of these things, particularly as Latter-day Saints because I think our religion is so capacious in its capacity to absorb and accept truth. I love the advice that the famous scientist Henry Eyring was given by his father, before he went off to Arizona State University as an undergraduate. He was told “in this church, you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.” We are seekers as Latter-day Saints, as Elder Uchtdorf told us, we are like gatherers. We’re looking for truth wherever we can find it. And this is one of the great doctrines and empowering ideas of the restoration. We don’t need to be afraid of new knowledge. We don’t need to be afraid of truth wherever we find it. Because that is to use a sort of an old idea, Mormonism in its essence.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a perfect place for us to end today. Have a blessed week. 

    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute podcast. Could you please rate review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @BYUMaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. And sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu.edu.Thank you and have a great week.