Normally I’d begin with a link to my podcast and transcript… except it appears that while I wrote 90% of a podcast in 2010, I never recorded it. Amos was the last podcast I put up. Consider this an intro to Isaiah.
I have a confession. I’ve never really cared much for Isaiah. I’ve always found other parts of the Old Testament more interesting. When writing a podcast, I always go consult my preexisting notes I’ve prepared from personal study or teaching Institute. And as it turns out, I have no specific notes on Isaiah, I’ve never dedicated any lessons solely to the Book of Isaiah. I’ve treated him briefly with Kings where he fits historically, but never separately.
Our next five lessons are on Isaiah chapters. There are 48 Old Testament lessons and five on Isaiah, more than 10% of our OT time is spent talking about Isaiah. Clearly, someone in Salt Lake thinks Isaiah is worth devoting lots of time to, and this is probably based on statements such as 3 Nephi 23:1, “great are the words of Isaiah.” The New Testament authors thought so as well, as Isaiah is frequently quoted in the New Testament along with Psalms and Deuteronomy.
One thing we all know about Isaiah is that “Isaiah is hard.” Among the prophets, Isaiah in particular is a very “high context” speaker, referring to many people, places and events that he assumes hisontemporary caudience knows. We need to know, as Nephi put it, “the things of the Jews” to really unpack and understand him, which I will try to do a bit.
Let’s start by talking a little about the nature of prophesy in the Old Testament, and how to understand it. In particular, let’s talk about the more-rare aspect of prophecy, that of speaking of future events. You might think that it’s quite clear when someone is speaking in the future or in the past, but when we come to prophesy and ancient Hebrew, it’s not the case. There are at least two reasons for this, one that we might call grammatical and the other what we might call contextual or interpretational.
In English, we clearly distinguish between the timeframe of a statement, whether it is past, present, future. These are our basic tenses, though we can also get into things like future perfect, and preterit and so on. The majority view of ancient Hebrew is that it has no tenses, only aspect. Aspect is tricky to explain, but describes whether an action is viewed as an ongoing-process or a point-in-time event. In English, this is the difference between “I was eating” and “I ate.” Both of those sentences are past tense, but with different aspect. Hebrew does not have different verb forms to indicate whether something is past, present, or future. In terms of grammar, it has only 2 verb forms. The exact same form may indicate past, present or future. How do you determine, then, whether we’re talking about past present or future? Primarily through syntax and context, but these aren’t absolute. Consequently, it’s often hard for us to tell if Isaiah is speaking of something that in his day had already happened, was then happening, or was yet to happen in the future.
This is compounded by the second problem. Fulfillment of prophecy is often a very fuzzy question of interpretation, recognition and interpretation. My favorite illustration of the messiness of this, which I used to hand out to my students at BYU, is a Dilbert cartoon, set in the land of Elbonia, where Dogbert’s airplane has crashed. Two peasants discuss his arrival. Says the first “the holy scrolls said a dog will fall from the sky!” “They do” asks the other, puzzled. The first replies “Actually, they say ‘never shave your duck.’ But it’s not literal. You have to interpret.” To which the second says, “You mean I CAN shave my duck?!!” (See here for original.)
Scripture read as futuristic prophecy is often ambiguous enough that it can be fulfilled multiple times in multiple ways, or at least, made to fit multiple fulfillments and multiple contexts. The role of the prophet vis-à-vis God also plays a role here. Does a prophet have a particular context in mind, or is revelation just as ambiguous to him as to us? Or, put another way, in any given prophecy, how much is external to the prophet? Clearly, there is both inspiration and prophetic shaping or filtering in every prophecy, but is it 20% inspiration and 80% prophet? 100% inspiration makes the prophet a mindless robot, and 100% prophet makes him a false prophet, so where is the balance? If the prophet has a particular context in mind, is it still fulfillment of prophecy when someone interprets that prophecy to fit a different context?
Let’s take an example. Nephi quotes several chapters of Isaiah, and gives them a particular interpretation. He also tells us fairly explicitly that he is REinterpreting and REapplying Isaiah, putting him in a different context than Isaiah likely intended. This is what 1 Nephi 19:23 means, when he says “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”
If this sounds like a radical understanding of Nephi, I’ll point out that Elder McConkie also understood Nephi to be RE-interpreting Isaiah, applying it to a new situation that Isaiah had not necessarily had in mind when he gave it. Did Isaiah have the Nephites in mind? I suspect not, but I can’t say for certain, of course.
The Jewish Study Bible summarizes the problem of interpreting Isaiah this way-
“It is sometimes not clear where a particular prophecy begins and ends, and, especially in the first half of the book, one can sometimes debate whether a passage intends to comfort or castigate the nation. In many cases, verb forms are ambiguous and we cannot be sure whether the passage predicts crucial events that will take place in the future or meditates on events that have already come to pass.”
So, to summarize, it’s very difficult to pin down prophecy, because of tense issues in Hebrew, because of ambiguity both in the intended context of the prophecy (if there is one) and the difficulty in interpreting and recognizing fulfillment of prophecy. In some ways, perhaps, Isaiah’s ambiguity (particularly in the KJV) is what has made him so powerful and tantalizing to people, as he can be understood to say many different things.
What of Isaiah himself?
Like Hosea, Micah, and Amos, Isaiah prophesied in the 8th century, in the lead-up to the Assyrian invasions of the northern and southern kingdoms. Isaiah speaks repeatedly of the Assyrians, as well as the then-very-unimportant Babylonians (this is a problem in some regards, but we’ll talk about it later). To give him a common LDS reference point , Isaiah begins his ministry probably about a century before Lehi was born. In terms of years, then, Lehi is to Isaiah, as Thomas Monson to Joseph Smith. That’s the amount of time separating them, roughly speaking. According to the introduction in Isa 1:1, Isaiah actively prophesied for several decades, perhaps as long as forty years. We tend to think of ancient prophets as old men with a few exceptions. Think of the traditional painting of Abinadi as an old sinewy grey hair, but also Alma as a younger man. If Isaiah went for four decades, that likely means he began fairly young. “In spite of superior diet and medical care, monarchs in stable Judah during this period did not live 70-80 years.” Instead (if the data is reliable), kings averaged 66. Life expectancy for the average person was likely around or under 50 (there’s some uncertainty and assumptions built into that.)
Isaiah is different from other prophets in at least one respect; He appears to have been someone inside the political/religious establishment, not an outsider. Isaiah is connected to royalty and the temple, the two Israelite loci of power. Isaiah’s
direct access to King Ahaz (Isa. 7:3–24), his familiarity with Shebna, the royal chamberlain (Isa 22:15), and his prominent position during the reign of King Hezekiah, when he was summoned to provide oracles for the city and prayers for the king (Isa 37–38), suggest that Isaiah had some court position—possibly of a scribal nature. It is of interest, in this regard, that [Chronicles] refers to him as a royal historian: “The other events of Uzziah’s reign, early and late, were recorded by the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz” (2 Chron. 26:22). From this [insider] vantage point, he responded to the turns of political power with God’s word to him.”- JPS Torah Commentary, Haftarot
So much for the man. What about the book in his name?
First, we need to understand that the Old Testament prophets were primarily oral preachers and speakers, not writers. The book of Isaiah, therefore, is primarily an anthology of his oral prophecies, collected, edited, and in all likelihood expanded. (Note that the lengthy quote of Isaiah in 2 Nephi lacks Isaiah chapter 1.)
Scholars have not been able to pin down one over-arching master pattern in how they are arranged, it’s just a collection of Isaiah material that has been preserved and edited for us. One thing that nearly everyone agrees on, though, is that they are not arranged in chronological order. For example, most view Isaiah 6 as the record of Isaiah’s calling as a prophet, but what then of the 5 chapters before that? Those who argue that the first few chapters are in chronological order point out that before chapter 6, Isaiah talks about repentance, but never again, really, after chapter 6. They point to the verses in chapter 6 that imply God’s judgment has passed and it’s too late for the Israelites, such as Isa 6:9-11, which have God’s command to Isaiah,
“Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”
(Isa 6:9-12 NRSV)
Second, Much of Isaiah is poetry, which we’ve talked about before, and I’ll again recommend Kevin Barney’s Ensign article and my Sperry Symposium. Besides poetry, Isaiah also really likes wordplay and puns, which are rarely detectable in translation. Let’s look at Isa 5:7 for example. The KJV reads, “he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.”
Substituting in the Hebrew words and translating into modern idiom a little, it says
“he looked for justice/mishpat
but behold, bloodshed/mishpaḥ!
(He looked) for righteousness/tsedaqah,
but behold, a cry/tse’aqah!”
(That would be a cry for help, from oppression.)
Third, the events and prophecies of Isaiah, like other prophetic books, happen at the same time as the events found in the historical books of Kings and Chronicles. For example, Isaiah gives us his account of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in Isa 36, but this is also found in 2Ki 18 and 2Ch 32. We find a similar kind of overlap in the New Testament as well, as many of Paul’s letters are written during the time period covered by Acts. When we come to the NT curriculum for Gospel Doctrine, we read them concurrently, so we read a portion of Acts for the same lesson that covers 1 Corinthians, for example. This breaks up the canonical order of the books, but helps people make more sense of the history and how the books fit together.
We don’t do that with the Old Testament, and I’m not sure why not, but I think many people are under the impression that the canonical order we read in *is* the chronological order. So chapter 1 is kings, and then chapter 2, what happens next, is Isaiah. At the very least, few people understand that Isaiah is happening at the same time 2 Kings and Amos and Micah are happening. It’s rare to find someone in the Church who has a good grasp on the timeline, geography and so on of all these books in the Old Testament, so you’ll have to consult some books or online resources or a study Bible to get at it yourself.
Below, some notes from the JPS Torah Commentary on these early chapters.
“Speaking for the voiceless and downtrodden, Isaiah rails against real-estate magnates and land speculators “who add house to house and join field to field” (Isa 5:8); against clever dissemblers and manipulators “who call evil good and good evil; who present darkness as light and light as darkness” (Isa 5:20); and against distorters of justice and due process, “who vindicate him who is in the wrong in return for a bribe, and withhold vindication from him who is in the right” (Isa 5:23). Over against this, the prophet tries to give the people positive instructions in order to redress their crimes. “Devote yourselves to justice,” he teaches, “aid the wronged; uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (Isa 1:17). Otherwise, God Himself will arise to plead the cause of the needy (Isa 3:13), and a terrible divine doom will befall the nation. Zion shall then be left like a lone booth in a vineyard (Isa 1:8). “Great houses shall lie forlorn,” and the “people will suffer exile for not giving heed” to its “multitude victims of hunger” and “masses parched with thirst” (Isa 5:9, 13).”
Isaiah is very strong on justice, equity, and religious sincerity.
“No amount of manipulation of the sacred Temple service can replace good deeds, he proclaims. Those sinners who come to the courts of the Temple with animals for sacrifice and pious prayers on their lips fill God with “loathing.” The rites of holy assemblies performed along with the disregard of the distressed are unforgivable iniquities, says the prophet; the Lord has no need of sacrifices, but requires devotion to justice and equity (Isa. 1:10–17). There is therefore no denunciation here of the Temple ritual per se, but only of the desire to have it both ways: to raise hands filled with iniquity in prayer to God, and yet hope for forgiveness; to withhold food from the poor, and yet offer sacrifices in hopes of divine atonement; to speak lies in the street, and still proclaim pious solemnities in God’s courts. First things first, says the prophet: injustice is atoned for by justice; only then may the holy shrine be a place of consecration. Rituals cannot manipulate God or undo injustice.”
In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a visionary experience, a throne theophany, and takes his place in God’s divine council. (There is a LOT on this theme in the Old Testament. See here and here and here for some current LDS perspectives. )
Isaiah realizes where he is, and says
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
At which point he is “cleansed.”
“It is not apparent that Isaiah is guilty of any specific violation. Rather, the point is that any human being is impure in relation to God. The gulf between the Holy One and humanity is one of the key themes of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah is purified, but at a cost. His lips are touched with a burning coal (suggested by the burning of incense in the temple). The implication is that the human condition can only be purified by the painful and radical remedy of burning. This will have implications for the fate of the people of Judah.”- JPS Torah Commentary.
Somewhat like Bilbo Baggins in the council of Elrond, Isaiah surprisingly volunteers for the assignment.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Isaiah receives an assignment, and redescends to the mortal plane to carry it out.
- Paul Hoskisson, Isaiah 6: a Latter-day Saint Reading
- Donald Parry, Visualizing Isaiah. Parry, a BYU Hebrew prof, has written much on Isaiah, including Understanding Isaiah and co-editing Isaiah in the Book of Mormon , but I’ve sometimes found his LDS work to make too many unjustified assumptions. (That may be due to the fact that his LDS work is published through Deseret Book.)
- Another LDS author, Avraham Gileadi, has also written much about Isaiah. Gileadi was a rabbinical student in Israel when he converted to the LDS Church, later writing a dissertation on Isaiah under Hugh Nibley. Yes, Gileadi was excommunicated in ’93, but he was rebaptized in’96 and his record wiped clean (meaning he probably should not have been excommunicated in the first place.) See his wikipedia entry, and his webpage response to it.
- If there’s one thing I’d recommend on the Book of Mormon and interpretation of Isaiah, it’s Gee and Roper, “‘I Did Liken All Scriptures Unto Us’ Early Nephite Understandings of Isaiah and Implications for ‘Others’ In the Land” from a Sperry Symposium in 2003. PDF. Similarly, S. Kent Brown, here.