STQ: Isaiah

March 29, 2004 | 16 comments
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We are all familiar with the words of the Savior to the Nephites after quoting Isaiah 54: “ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah.” (3 Nephi 23:1). In preparation for another week of Isaiah study (this is my third time teaching the book of Isaiah, the two prior attempts being in Gospel Doctrine), I decided to give in to my inner skeptic and ask this Seminary Thought Question: What is so great about the words of Isaiah?

Just to be clear, I am not implying through my impudence that Isaiah’s words are not great. Instead, I am interested in pinning down their utility to a group of high schoolers in the United States in 2004. Jesus seems to have anticipated the general question, stating: “For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles. And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake.” (3 Nephi 23:2-3). He seems to be saying that Isaiah spoke about the house of Israel; therefore, Isaiah’s words are relevant to the Gentiles. Presumably because the Gentiles will receive the Gospel. Of course, he is speaking to the Nephites, who are of the House of Israel, but his words are explicitly aimed at another audience: “Therefore give heed to my words; write the things which I have told you; and according to the time and the will of the Father they shall go forth unto the Gentiles.” (3 Nephi 23:4)

Bottom line: the words of Isaiah are especially important for the Gentiles (us) because they tell of God’s dealings in the last days (“all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel”), which dealings implicate the Gentiles. So far, so good?

Assuming I am right to this point, I circle back to the concern that animated the original question and consider what a group of teenagers in the United States in 2004 can reasonably expect to get from the study of Isaiah. One plausible answer: they can perceive that Isaiah has accurately prophesied the birth, life, and death of Jesus, the Great Apostacy, and the Restoration, among other things (of course, none of these interpretations of Isaiah is free from dispute), and they can infer that his still-unfulfilled prophesies concerning the last days will also come to pass.

As we have seen, however, tying even the most-quoted passages of Isaiah to specific events in the last days is dicey. So I wonder how we should approach the book of Isaiah. Should we be looking for clues that unravel current events (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Salt Lake Olympics, the war(s) in Iraq, etc.)? If this seems unrealistic, is Isaiah any more valuable as a Last Day’s Guidebook than the book of Revelation?

By the way, after I had written all of the foregoing, I discovered that Nibley had written on this very question here. This essay is comprised of a fairly scattered set of thoughts, but the main focus is on Isaiah-as-spiritual-advisor rather than Isaiah-as-seer. In quintessential Nibley style, he describes Isaiah’s message as one designed to make successful people (also referred to as “beautiful people,” “party people,” and the “fast set”) uncomfortable. If Nibley is right, Isaiah’s words are great because they teach us how to behave, not because they teach us of the tectonic movements of world events.

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16 Responses to STQ: Isaiah

  1. Lyle on March 29, 2004 at 6:56 am

    Given what my FARMS friends have tolde me; the words of Isaiah are nearly 100% undisturbed. Meaning we don’t have to worry as much about mistranslations by wicked scribes, etc.

    Also, re: tying verses to specific current events. Scripture often seems to have multiple prooving instantiations. To me, it would seem that God and/or an inspired Isaiah correctly predicting multiple events with the same words, i.e. tailoring the language so that it applies to all of them, should increase, not decrease, our respect for them.

  2. Jim F. on March 29, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Perhaps the most general answer to your question is that Isaiah shows us the long-suffering of the Lord and his faithfulness to his promises: in the long run he will save Israel. That is a message of hope for individuals and for the Church as a whole. I take Nibley’s insight to be an important part of that general message, so perhaps the way to put it is something like this: a certain kind of despair is necessary–we need to recognize our failure to be what God would have us be–but it ought not to be a despair at God’s power to save.

  3. clarkgoble on March 29, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    I think the assumption that Isaiah is undisturbed is difficult to accept. At a bear minimum someone compiled the books. While I’m somewhat distrustful of the philology that concludes multiple authorship, there does appear to be structural differences in the texts. Then there is the issue of Cyrus’ name. I’m afraid I can see at a minimum latter editing of Isaiah.

    Even if one sees more unity and less corruption in Isaiah than most scholars, saying that that text, unlike most others, survived unmodified requires some basis for the argument. I see no reason to assume that somehow other texts would be modified including the Torah while Isaiah would not.

  4. lyle on March 29, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Clark:

    The argument is: Isaiah is so hard to understand that the scribes/etc. didn’t know how to mess Isaiah up because they didn’t even really know what he was talking about.

    Also, you can go over the FARMS literature that shows that something above 99% of the Dead Sea Isaiah Scroll is the same as the current Book of Isaiah.

  5. clark goble on March 29, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    I think that if there were scribal modifications it would have happened before the DSS. Probably around the time of the Babylonian exile.

  6. Sara Greenwood on March 29, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    Isaiah is valuable because he testifies of Christ. There is no need to identify what historical events match his prophecies. Read the prophecies with your class and ask them how each passage is a type or shadow of Christ.

  7. Mark Butler on March 30, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    According to Jesus Christ Isaiah’s words are great because “all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake” (3 Ne 23:3)

    In other words, they testify not only of the Lord’s work with ancient Israel, but what the Lord’s plans are for modern Israel. And they are plain to those with the spirit of prophecy (2 Ne 25:4).

    The Book of Mormon is the grand key to understanding the words of Isaiah. Jesus Christ’s own paraphrase of Isaiah in 3 Ne 20 and 21 is particularly significant.

  8. Gordon Smith on March 31, 2004 at 12:09 am

    Sara and Mark,

    We may be too far beyond this thread for anyone to notice, but thanks for your comments. I quite enjoy reading the book of Isaiah, and I think I have had some experience with the spirit of prophecy, at least in reading parts of the book. Certainly, continued effort has helped me to understand more as time has passed.

    I tend to disagree with Sara’s notion that Isaiah’s words are particularly important because of their testimony of Jesus. Isaiah is elegant and poetic and beautiful, but I find the Gospels more useful in getting to know Jesus.

    As I stated in my original post and as Mark suggests in his comment, the words of Isaiah are important because he speaks of the Lord’s plans for modern Israel. This is the point I have not quite mastered: what is it that we are supposed to know about the last days from Isaiah? My sense is that Mark is probably right about 3 Nephi 20 and 21 being key. These give some specific guidance about the Restoration, though mostly just a general sense of the “plot” for the last days.

  9. Mark Butler on March 31, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    Gordon,

    There is considerable controversy among LDS scholars over the correct interpretation of Isaiah. The controversy revolves around to what degree various of the servant songs refer to latter day prophets rather than to Jesus Christ alone. The traditional Christian view, which is supported by the majority of LDS scholars (notably McKonkie), is that the servant songs refer only to Jesus Christ, whether his first or second coming, or both.

    A good size minority attribute a good number of prophecies to Joseph Smith. A very small minority (who are very quiet these days) are convinced Isaiah, Jeremiah, et al, prophesied of a major latter day prophet like unto Enoch or Moses who would prepare the way immediately preceding the Second Coming. This figure is known variously as the latter day David, the root of Jesse, the Branch, etc.

    This is a great take-off point for self-appointed prophets, of course, so the discussion as been muted since Avraham Gileadi’s excellent book _The Last Days_ was pulled from the shelves of Deseret Book in 1993 or so.

    Joseph Smith said the following:

    “Although David was a king, he never did obtain the spirit and power of Elijah and the fullness of the Priesthood; and the Priesthood that he received, and the throne and kingdom of David is to be taken from him and given to another by the name of David in the last days, raised up out of his lineage.” (Teachings of Joseph Smith, p. 339).

    Here is an unusually suggestive scripture:

    “And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose name is The BRANCH; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD: Even he shall build the temple of the LORD; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both” (Zechariah 6:12-13).

    However, that scripture must be weighed carefully against scriptures that give this figure Messianic attributes, like the following:

    “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” (Jer 23:5-6)

    On this question, all substantive interpretation of Old Testament prophecy turns, in particular the order in which various events will be fulfilled, whether before the second coming, or after.

  10. Gordon Smith on March 31, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    Mark, Believe it or not, there is some mention of this “other prophet” in the Institute manual. I didn’t really know what to make of that, so I appreciate the background.

    By the way, last night my wife and I were discussing the ambiguity of Isaiah’s Messianic prophesies. Because of The Messiah and the fact that most people only know a few snippets from Isaiah, many of us have the sense that he was obviously talking about Jesus, but I find most of the passages very nebulous. I read parts of Gileadi’s book back when it came out. What is he doing now?

  11. Thom on March 31, 2004 at 1:53 pm

    Gordon,

    My thoughts echo those of Jim and Sara. The most important way I think teen-agers in 2004 can read Isaiah is to “look for” an answer to the following question:

    In what ways do the words of Isaiah more fully pursuade me that Jesus is the Christ?

    As the kids seek to answer this question, the types and shadows of Christ become more apparent, and His love and mercy for us come through to the kids.

  12. Mark Butler on March 31, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    I agree, one definitely should not teach a particular interpretation of Isaiah beyond that given in the rest of the Standard Works, _especially_ to high school students. You can teach the answer to the general question according to that given by Jesus Christ himself in 3 Ne 23. You might also teach that the Lord does make such mysteries manifest unto some of his Saints, on condition that they treat them with proper care. (Alma 12:9, D&C 76:5-10).

    Other than that I believe the direction of the Prophet is only to teach the doctrines that have been revealed in clarity to the whole Church.

  13. Michaela on June 21, 2004 at 1:12 pm

    Isaiah’s prophecies can have multiple fulfillments. You recognize the fulfillments by matching them to situations. Also, there is hope that we will eventually understand Isaiah, because Nephi prophesied that we would, and he also said that we would know when they are fulfilled. (2 Ne 25:7-8)
    I personally think a few things may have been removed from Isaiah. Once, just for fun, I decided to do a word-by-word comparison between 2 Nephi 12 and Isaiah 2 just to see what the differences were. I underlined all the words in 2 Nephi 12 that weren’t in Isaiah 2. Nephi’s version makes it seem like a more great and dreadful day than Isaiah’s, believe it or not.. but try it for yourselves and see!
    One of the cool things Isaiah prophesies about is the marvelous work and a wonder. Yes, we consider that to be the coming forth of the gospel, but Isaiah has a list of things that will happen: 1) the wisdom of the wise perishes 2) them that seek deep to hide their counsel from Lord will be shown that the Lord knows all their works 3) forests turn into fruitful fields, while fruitful fields turn into forests 4) the deaf hear the truth, the blind see out of darkness
    5) the meek increase while the terrible ones are brought to nothing 6) the people who were mistaken come to understanding. Basically things are turned upside down, beginning from the time that the Book of Mormon was delivered to an unlearned man to read, instead of a learned man. This is one of the many cool things that Isaiah talks about.
    Why should teenagers care about Isaiah? Isaiah talks a lot about the second coming of Christ and what things will be like for the righteous, and for the wicked. Teenagers should pay attention to Isaiah and try and understand him so that they can avoid doing the things he condemns, and so that they can be encouraged to hang in there when things really get tough, because things will get worse.
    Isaiah is constantly repeating himself and paraphrasing what he just said, so lots of times you can figure out what he means by using one phrase you understand as a hint to understand the other phrase he says that means the same thing. For instance, 2 Nephi 27:35 says “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” The comma in the middle separates 2 phrases that just mean the same thing – people that complain because some aspect of the gospel seems wrong to them will learn what they need to know to be happy about it. (I was one of those people just yesterday in Sunday school, in fact.)
    I spend a lot of time thinking about some of the strange phrases Isaiah used. I try to imagine what common experience he was trying to convey. I go look in the topical guide for scriptures containing words in phrases I don’t understand. If I can’t figure it out myself, I pray about it and ask the Lord what Isaiah meant, and then I think about it and allow the Spirit to direct my thoughts, and many times I realize what it is Isaiah means, and it turns out to be something so simple! It’s a challenge, and lots of fun!

  14. Michaela on June 21, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    Isaiah’s prophecies can have multiple fulfillments. You recognize the fulfillments by matching them to situations. Also, there is hope that we will eventually understand Isaiah, because Nephi prophesied that we would, and he also said that we would know when they are fulfilled. (2 Ne 25:7-8)
    I personally think a few things may have been removed from Isaiah. Once, just for fun, I decided to do a word-by-word comparison between 2 Nephi 12 and Isaiah 2 just to see what the differences were. I underlined all the words in 2 Nephi 12 that weren’t in Isaiah 2. Nephi’s version makes it seem like a more great and dreadful day than Isaiah’s, believe it or not.. but try it for yourselves and see!
    One of the cool things Isaiah prophesies about is the marvelous work and a wonder. Yes, we consider that to be the coming forth of the gospel, but Isaiah has a list of things that will happen: 1) the wisdom of the wise perishes 2) them that seek deep to hide their counsel from Lord will be shown that the Lord knows all their works 3) forests turn into fruitful fields, while fruitful fields turn into forests 4) the deaf hear the truth, the blind see out of darkness
    5) the meek increase while the terrible ones are brought to nothing 6) the people who were mistaken come to understanding. Basically things are turned upside down, beginning from the time that the Book of Mormon was delivered to an unlearned man to read, instead of a learned man. This is one of the many cool things that Isaiah talks about.
    Why should teenagers care about Isaiah? Isaiah talks a lot about the second coming of Christ and what things will be like for the righteous, and for the wicked. Teenagers should pay attention to Isaiah and try and understand him so that they can avoid doing the things he condemns, and so that they can be encouraged to hang in there when things really get tough, because things will get worse.
    Isaiah is constantly repeating himself and paraphrasing what he just said, so lots of times you can figure out what he means by using one phrase you understand as a hint to understand the other phrase he says that means the same thing. For instance, 2 Nephi 27:35 says “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” The comma in the middle separates 2 phrases that just mean the same thing – people that complain because some aspect of the gospel seems wrong to them will learn what they need to know to be happy about it. (I was one of those people just yesterday in Sunday school, in fact.)
    I spend a lot of time thinking about some of the strange phrases Isaiah used. I try to imagine what common experience he was trying to convey. I go look in the topical guide for scriptures containing words in phrases I don’t understand. If I can’t figure it out myself, I pray about it and ask the Lord what Isaiah meant, and then I think about it and allow the Spirit to direct my thoughts, and many times I realize what it is Isaiah means, and it turns out to be something so simple! It’s a challenge, and lots of fun!

  15. Michaela on June 21, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    Isaiah’s prophecies can have multiple fulfillments. You recognize the fulfillments by matching them to situations. Also, there is hope that we will eventually understand Isaiah, because Nephi prophesied that we would, and he also said that we would know when they are fulfilled. (2 Ne 25:7-8)
    I personally think a few things may have been removed from Isaiah. Once, just for fun, I decided to do a word-by-word comparison between 2 Nephi 12 and Isaiah 2 just to see what the differences were. I underlined all the words in 2 Nephi 12 that weren’t in Isaiah 2. Nephi’s version makes it seem like a more great and dreadful day than Isaiah’s, believe it or not.. but try it for yourselves and see!
    One of the cool things Isaiah prophesies about is the marvelous work and a wonder. Yes, we consider that to be the coming forth of the gospel, but Isaiah has a list of things that will happen: 1) the wisdom of the wise perishes 2) them that seek deep to hide their counsel from Lord will be shown that the Lord knows all their works 3) forests turn into fruitful fields, while fruitful fields turn into forests 4) the deaf hear the truth, the blind see out of darkness
    5) the meek increase while the terrible ones are brought to nothing 6) the people who were mistaken come to understanding. Basically things are turned upside down, beginning from the time that the Book of Mormon was delivered to an unlearned man to read, instead of a learned man. This is one of the many cool things that Isaiah talks about.
    Why should teenagers care about Isaiah? Isaiah talks a lot about the second coming of Christ and what things will be like for the righteous, and for the wicked. Teenagers should pay attention to Isaiah and try and understand him so that they can avoid doing the things he condemns, and so that they can be encouraged to hang in there when things really get tough, because things will get worse.
    Isaiah is constantly repeating himself and paraphrasing what he just said, so lots of times you can figure out what he means by using one phrase you understand as a hint to understand the other phrase he says that means the same thing. For instance, 2 Nephi 27:35 says “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” The comma in the middle separates 2 phrases that just mean the same thing – people that complain because some aspect of the gospel seems wrong to them will learn what they need to know to be happy about it. (I was one of those people just yesterday in Sunday school, in fact.)
    I spend a lot of time thinking about some of the strange phrases Isaiah used. I try to imagine what common experience he was trying to convey. I go look in the topical guide for scriptures containing words in phrases I don’t understand. If I can’t figure it out myself, I pray about it and ask the Lord what Isaiah meant, and then I think about it and allow the Spirit to direct my thoughts, and many times I realize what it is Isaiah means, and it turns out to be something so simple! It’s a challenge, and lots of fun!

  16. Michaela on June 21, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Isaiah’s prophecies can have multiple fulfillments. You recognize the fulfillments by matching them to situations. Also, there is hope that we will eventually understand Isaiah, because Nephi prophesied that we would, and he also said that we would know when they are fulfilled. (2 Ne 25:7-8)
    I personally think a few things may have been removed from Isaiah. Once, just for fun, I decided to do a word-by-word comparison between 2 Nephi 12 and Isaiah 2 just to see what the differences were. I underlined all the words in 2 Nephi 12 that weren’t in Isaiah 2. Nephi’s version makes it seem like a more great and dreadful day than Isaiah’s, believe it or not.. but try it for yourselves and see!
    One of the cool things Isaiah prophesies about is the marvelous work and a wonder. Yes, we consider that to be the coming forth of the gospel, but Isaiah has a list of things that will happen: 1) the wisdom of the wise perishes 2) them that seek deep to hide their counsel from Lord will be shown that the Lord knows all their works 3) forests turn into fruitful fields, while fruitful fields turn into forests 4) the deaf hear the truth, the blind see out of darkness
    5) the meek increase while the terrible ones are brought to nothing 6) the people who were mistaken come to understanding. Basically things are turned upside down, beginning from the time that the Book of Mormon was delivered to an unlearned man to read, instead of a learned man. This is one of the many cool things that Isaiah talks about.
    Why should teenagers care about Isaiah? Isaiah talks a lot about the second coming of Christ and what things will be like for the righteous, and for the wicked. Teenagers should pay attention to Isaiah and try and understand him so that they can avoid doing the things he condemns, and so that they can be encouraged to hang in there when things really get tough, because things will get worse.
    Isaiah is constantly repeating himself and paraphrasing what he just said, so lots of times you can figure out what he means by using one phrase you understand as a hint to understand the other phrase he says that means the same thing. For instance, 2 Nephi 27:35 says “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” The comma in the middle separates 2 phrases that just mean the same thing – people that complain because some aspect of the gospel seems wrong to them will learn what they need to know to be happy about it. (I was one of those people just yesterday in Sunday school, in fact.)
    I spend a lot of time thinking about some of the strange phrases Isaiah used. I try to imagine what common experience he was trying to convey. I go look in the topical guide for scriptures containing words in phrases I don’t understand. If I can’t figure it out myself, I pray about it and ask the Lord what Isaiah meant, and then I think about it and allow the Spirit to direct my thoughts, and many times I realize what it is Isaiah means, and it turns out to be something so simple! It’s a challenge, and lots of fun!

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