As the Savior emphasized to the Nephite people, “great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Ne. 23:1). It is with this reminder and caveat that I approach writing a post on the first chapters of the book of Isaiah. Attempting to give any type of summary, nevermind an in-depth analysis, of these chapters is a daunting task. Please don’t expect to get out of this post a verse-by-verse commentary or an explanation of most of the complex images found in these chapters. Unfortunately, the time I have available to me this week for writing this post will only allow me to touch on some of the more important or interesting aspects found, of my choosing. It is probably not wise to try to use this post to prepare a Sunday School lesson (you will likely be disappointed), but I do hope that I can provide something of interest that will help you to fulfill Christ’s instruction to “search” the words of Isaiah (3 Ne. 23:1; 20:11).
A Word on the Study of Isaiah
We all know that Isaiah is notoriously difficult to get through at times. He seems to be speaking a different language (and I don’t mean Hebrew) with all of his fantastic imagery and historical/geographical references. Although Isaiah is arguably the most complex book in the Bible, it is also likely the most often quoted. Although he makes use of his words extensively, the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi recognized that his people had a hard time understanding Isaiah — principally because they were so far removed from the life situation that provided the background to Isaiah’s thoughts and style. Nephi explained:
Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words…which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews. For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews…
[T]he words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy…
Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.
But behold, I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews; but behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about; and I have made mention unto my children concerning the judgments of God, which hath come to pass among the Jews, unto my children, according to all that which Isaiah hath spoken, and I do not write them (2 Ne. 25:1–6).
Nephi summarizes here why his people didn’t understand Isaiah and why he did. Basically, they didn’t understand because they were not from Jerusalem and weren’t familiar with the way that the Judahites expressed things in prophecy. Nephi was from Jerusalem and was familiar with the “regions round about”, the “manner of the things of the Jews” and also the socio-political events that had happened to them in the fairly recent past (judgments of God) — plus Nephi had the benefit of having the “spirit of prophecy” or personal revelation from God that helped him to see the meaning of these things plainly.
When we read through Isaiah, we see references to people, places, and events that may be unfamiliar to us (it doesn’t help a whole lot that many of us are reading an antiquated King James’ English either). For example, consider the following verses from Isaiah 3:
16Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: 17Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. 18In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, 19The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, 20The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, 21The rings, and nose jewels, 22The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, 23The glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. 24And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.
Here Isaiah provides a very detailed description of how the proud and rich women of Jerusalem dressed and comported themselves. While we can get some idea of what he’s talking about and try to imagine these haughty women, there are some aspects that really stretch our capacity to visualize well what he is referring to. We can (and most often do) just skip the details and move on, eager to just reach the end of the chapter! If we did desire (and there are better examples than the one cited above) to really understand a passage, we could apply ourselves a bit more to learning what life, geography, and events were like in the region and time that Isaiah lived in.
Of course we could spend a lifetime getting an education in the culture and history of the ancient Near East, but that is not entirely practical for most. You can always look in the Scripture aids provided by the Church (Bible Dictionary, Institute manuals, chronologies, etc.), or look into buying, borrowing, or otherwise accessing a scriptural commentary that you find helpful. Unfortunately, the move to Scotland deprived me of some of my favorite Isaiah commentaries, but I have found the following useful for an LDS study of Isaiah:
- Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, Poet by Victor Ludlow
- Understanding Isaiah by Donald Parry, Jay Parry and Tina M. Peterson
There are many others, but these are two that I have used and they are very accessible and useful. These types of guides, while they may not answer every question you would like to have answered, they can provide you with significantly more information about Jewish culture, geography, and history than you may be privy to on your own.
Above all else, after we have done our best to understand what Isaiah was trying to depict, we should do as Nephi suggested, and “liken” his words unto ourselves:
I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning (1 Ne. 19:23).
And now, the words which I shall read are they which Isaiah spake concerning all the house of Israel; wherefore, they may be likened unto you, for ye are of the house of Israel. And there are many things which have been spoken by Isaiah which may be likened unto you, because ye are of the house of Israel (2 Ne. 6:5; see also 2 Ne. 11:2, 8).
Background to Isaiah
Isaiah, the son of Amoz (not the prophet Amos), was a prophet in Judah in the 8th century B.C. He served as prophet from before the death of King Uzziah (around 740 B.C.), through the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (who died 698 B.C.). In all it seems that Isaiah was prophet for around 40 years!
According to Jewish tradition (Talmud), Isaiah was related to the royal family of Judah — his father, also considered a prophet, was the brother of King Amaziah(Megillah 15a). There are biblical passages that suggest that he had easy access to the royal palace and family, and had considerable influence there. His involvement in royal circles and as an advisor to the king(s) likely influenced the content of his prophecies, and he is considered to be the most “political” of the prophets. There was much need for inspired political advice in those turbulent times in the Kingdom of Judah.
During Isaiah’s lifetime, the Kingdom of Israel (10 Tribes of the North), together with the other regional powers, would make war against Judah, Israel would be conquered by Assyria, and much of Judah would be devastated by that empire as well. Much of this destruction came as the reigning king ignored or went against the explicit instructions of the prophet.
Jewish tradition holds that he was accused of blasphemy and for speaking out against Jerusalem by the wicked King Manasseh and was sawed in half while hiding in the hollow of a log. Isaiah’s prophecies were influential to both later prophets and to Jewish and Christian believers for millenia. His famous prophecies of the coming Messiah would be especially prized by followers of the Abrahamic faiths, including the Book of Mormon prophets.
It must be kept in mind that the words of Isaiah are not necessarily in chronological order. For example, some scholars believe that the section of Isaiah starting with chapter 6 should be put first, as chapter 6 gives a narration of Isaiah receiving his calling as prophet in the divine council. However, this information is not essential to our understanding of his message. We should also note that his words seem to have been abridged or summarized at times, as we see at the beginning of chapter 1, where verse 1 declares the proceeding words to be the “the vision of Isaiah” that he received during the reign of four different kings – either this is meant to be an introduction to his prophecies, or that was one very long vision (maybe that was his excuse to his wife for sleeping in all those 40 years)!
Chapter 1 starts of by declaring how the Jews, the Lord’s children and chosen people, had turned against Him. Depending on when this particular revelation was given, Isaiah describes the judgments of God that had just recently, or would very soon, come upon his people. The people would be destroyed, except for a “very small remnant.” The Lord of Hosts (“hosts” referring to angelic armies) left only this small remnant, because if He didn’t, Jerusalem would have become just like Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa. 1:9).
In verses 11-15, it appears that the Lord is rejecting the rituals and practices of the Law of Moses that Israel had been commanded to keep (note that these verses are not referring to idolatrous/pagan practices, but to legitimate aspects of the keeping of the Law):
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. 12 When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. 15And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood.
Why had God commanded Israel to do these things if He finds them so abominable? The problem is not with the practices themselves, but the vain manner in which they had been performed. The Jews were keeping the ritual performances of the law, but without purity, sincerity or full purpose of heart. They remembered the outward motions, but had forgotten the inner, spiritual purpose. The rituals were of no use when the people had forgotten the powerful meaning and purpose behind them. Contrast this with the way in which Nephi and his family kept the Law, with their eyes focused on the coming of Christ:
24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled. 25 For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments (2 Ne. 25:24–25)
15Yea, and they did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them. 16Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come (Alma 25:15–16).
In order to perform the Law of Moses with the correct spirit, the Lord counselled Judah to make themselves clean through a number of practices that resemble what we would consider the “first principles and ordinances of the Gospel.” He instructs them to:
- Wash you, make you clean (Isa. 1:16; cf. 1 Ne. 20:1; baptism).
- Put away the evil of your doings/cease to do evil (repent).
- Learn to do well, showing charity to those in need (Isa. 1:17).
All they had to do is repent and the Lord would turn away his wrath. The Lord was willing to work with them and be merciful despite their numerous transgressions. He says, famously (vs. 18):
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
The process would be as easy as this:
19If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: 20But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
The time for Judah’s procrastination of repentance was over — the Lord was not beating around the bush. He laid the consequences out before them in a plain manner, as we see also from there to the end of the chapter.
Note the use of the image of Jerusalem as a harlot in verse 21. We see that this manner of describing the unfaithfulness of the “holy” city is common to prophecy in that period (as I pointed out in my posts on Proverbs and Hosea).
The first verses of this chapter are very frequently quoted in Mormon literature and are said to be fulfilled by the LDS practice of building temples in these last days, especially the temple of Salt Lake City in the top of the mountains. Verses 2-5 describe in very specific language events that Isaiah saw would happen in a future time:
- In the last days, a temple (the Lord’s House was thought to represent a holy mountain) would be built at the top of the mountains, exalted above the hills. All nations would flow to it. (see the exact same prophecy in Micah 4)
I imagine that most non-LDS interpreters would assume that this passage was referring to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. This very well may be the case, but as I’ve mentioned before, biblical prophecies can have more than one fulfillment, and can be “likened” very well to the building of the Salt Lake Temple in the mountains, which has seen individuals from practically every nation flow to it. Elder LeGrand Richards said: “How literally [ Isaiah 2:3 ] has been fulfilled, in my way of thinking, in this very house of the God of Jacob right here on this block! This temple [Salt Lake], more than any other building of which we have any record, has brought people from every land to learn of his ways and walk in his paths.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1971, p. 143.)
The scenario that Isaiah describes is the eschatological projection of the theology/practices of the ancient New Year Festival (which I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog). At this festival, the Israelites were to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to participate in rituals at the Temple (which was seen to be “at the top of the mountains”). The ideal situation that was imagined is that “all nations” would participate in this pilgrimage to pay homage to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Isaiah prophetically envisions the ideology of the pilgrimage to the Temple as something that will be fully fulfilled as a reality in the “last days.”
- (Isa. 2:4) On the occasion discussed above, the Lord will judge the nations (who are supposed to be present); there will then ensue an era of peace where the peoples will modify their weapons of war so that they can be used for peaceful purposes (e.g., agriculture); they will no longer learn to make war.
This verse brings out another aspect of the New Year festival, that it is a time for Yahweh’s judgment. Yahweh judges the nations that have rebelled against Israel’s King. After the wicked are punished, the world is renewed and Yahweh reigns over all the earth in peace. We see in this a prophecy of Christ’s millennial reign on Earth after the destruction of the wicked at his Second Coming.
If you look at verse 3, you see the phrases: “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” This is interpreted in the LDS community to refer to two different holy cities: Zion, which is to be built in the Americas, and Jerusalem in the Old World. Most biblical interpreters, however, would say that Isaiah is merely employing a parallelism here — he is using a poetical device that repeats the same idea using different words. Zion and Jerusalem are the same place. That doesn’t mean that the American Zion is not a revealed truth, nor does it mean that Isaiah never saw a separate city of Zion — I think we are justified in saying that the name Zion can refer to more than one place. A verse that perhaps supports the idea of more than one holy city is Isaiah 64:10:
Thy holy cities (plural) are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.
Another item from this chapter that should be pointed out (and this is nothing new — it’s found in the footnotes) is verse 16:
And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.
The Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the OT) begins slightly differently, with the phrase:
And upon all the ships of the sea,
Interestingly, the Book of Mormon version of this verse (2 Ne. 12:16) contains both lines:
And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.
The likely explanation for this is that the Brass Plates that Nephi’s family had preserved an older version of the text that still had both phrases.
This chapter speaks of the punishments that Judah will suffer because of their pride and rebelliousness.
It appears that one of Judah’s problems was their choice of leadership. Their leaders were leading them down the wrong paths (see Isa. 3:12). Because of the faults of the leadership, the whole nation fell.
The Lord announces a time when there would be no man fit to rule the people. At this time the Lord says that the poor, the weak, women, and children would rule them.
4And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them.
6When a man shall take hold of his brother of the house of his father, saying, Thou hast clothing, be thou our ruler, and let this ruin be under thy hand: 7In that day shall he swear, saying, I will not be an healer; for in my house is neither bread nor clothing: make me not a ruler of the people.
12As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them…
The Old Testament Institute manual says the following regarding these verses:
Isaiah described the eventual fall of Judah and Jerusalem in terms of the noted officials and respected persons of his day. These included government, military, educational, and religious leaders. With the loss of such individuals, the nation would fall under despotic reign at the hands of youthful puppets. Finally, it would rush toward anarchy as the last struggles for power were exercised within the ruling family. (See Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 7:1:130–35.) The people would be so desperate for leadership that they would select rulers because they were able to dress decently, but even family leaders would refuse to help. The Book of Mormon provides textual clarification for verse 6 , showing that the people pleaded that the ruler not let ruin come upon them (see 2 Nephi 13:6 ).
To Be Continued…
(Sorry I simply have not been able to finish this post yet, but I thought I’d put up what I have so far…there are many other important issues to discuss — especially chapter 6 — and I hope to finish the lesson very soon)
(Update: I have included Tina M. Peterson as a co-author of the book “Understanding Isaiah.” My apologies for inadvertently omitting her name previously.)