The importance of the prophetic writings of Isaiah is well known to members of the Church, especially to those who have read the Book of Mormon. The Savior, himself, expressed the significance of Isaiah’s writings when, after quoting a chapter of Isaiah, He said: “And now, behold, I say unto you, that 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 Ne. 23:1).
The Book of Mormon quotes from several chapters in Isaiah. Interestingly enough, the chapters quoted are either from the beginning of Isaiah’s writings (such as Isa. 2-14 in 2 Ne. 12-24) or towards the end (such as Isa. 48-49 in 1 Ne. 20-21; or Isa. 50-51 in 2 Ne. 7-8; or Isa. 53 in Mos. 14; or Isa. 54 in 3 Ne. 23). Rarely is anything from the middle chapters of Isaiah quoted (only Isa. 29 in 2 Ne. 27). This is interesting in light of the following.
Many scholars have noted that the Book of Isaiah can be divided into two major sections. Chapters 1-39 are characterized by doom, focusing predominantly on God’s judgments against Israel and her neighbors. Chapters 40-66 are characterized by hope with Israel’s future gathering and redemption at its nucleus. It may seem odd then that in an attempt to cause his reader to “rejoice for all men” (2 Nephi 11:8), the prophet Nephi quoted Isaiah 2-14, the beginning of “the book of doom.” Nevertheless, a close examination of the Book of Isaiah as a whole reveals that a general overall theme of hope prevails throughout the book: the children of Israel are the covenant people of God and through Israel all the world will be made glorious in His sight.
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah, though very gloomy, are an integral part of this theme. These chapters can be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-6 form an introduction showing “proud, arrogant, sinful Israel is anything but the servant of God” nevertheless Israel will be “the means through whom God’s light and blessing will come to the world” (John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986, p. 54.) Chapters 7-39 focus on whom Israel should place their trust as opposed to whom they actually did. Together, these chapters show that placing trust in the “arm of the flesh” leads to destruction and dishonor while trusting in Jehovah will bring peace, safety, and the glory of God. The focus of this writing will be to discuss Isaiah 1-6. These chapters form the introduction of Isaiah’s prophecies and lay the foundation of the overall theme of Isaiah.
ISAIAH 1 – THE INDICTMENT AGAINST ISRAEL
The first chapter of Isaiah introduces his prophetic writings. It was probably not his first prophecy but has been placed as the first chapter because it sets the stage for what follows. It has often been called by scholars “The Grand Arraignment” because the structure of the chapter reflects a court scene.
Accusation against Israel (vss. 2-6). Moses commanded the children of Israel that once they entered the land of Canaan, they were to enter into a covenant with the Lord through a special ritual. As part of the covenant ritual, the children of Israel were to literally yell out all the blessings and curses that would follow either their obedience or disobedience to the covenant (see Deut 27-28). Moses then concluded his command, saying, “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing (Deut. 30:19).
In the opening verses of Isaiah 1, the Lord calls upon the same heaven and earth to now hear the Lord’s accusation against Judah: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.” Judah’s sin is worse than what animals would do (vs. 3). They are a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity.” The Lord uses the metaphor of sickness to describe their spiritual condition: “the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.” The heaven and earth that witnessed the covenant made by Israel at Shechem, must now witness that the covenant has been broken.
Consequences (vss. 7-15) In these verses, the Lord describes various curses that have come upon them as evidence that the accusation is true.
“Your country is desolate” the Lord states, “your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.” These curses are evidence that Judah had indeed broken the covenant made with the Lord.
It must be understood that though it is often said by the prophets of the house of Israel that they had forsaken the Lord, that meant that Israel had relegated him to only one of the many gods they worshiped. Evidence of this can be found in the challenge issued by Elijah: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Ki. 18:21). The challenge implies that they had been following both. Therefore, in the temple of Solomon, the people of Judah were still performing the rituals associated with Jehovah worship as prescribed by law, though the Lord had considered that they had forsaken him. But through Isaiah, the Lord spoke against their worship, saying it was empty and vain for it did not reflect an inner sincerity of repentance and devotion to Jehovah alone. When they prayed to God with uplifted hands (vs. 15), as was the practice in ancient times (see 1 Ki. 8:22, 38, 54; Ez. 9:5; Job 11:13; Ps. 28:2; 63:4; 134:2; Lam. 2:19; 3:41) the Lord hid his eyes. Praying with uplifted hands (thus exposing both hands and heart) was a sign to the Lord that their hands were clean and heart pure – the prerequisite for temple worthiness (see Ps. 24:3-4). But their hands and their hearts were filthy. Therefore the Lord would not hear their prayers (vs. 15).
Promise of a pardon ( vss. 16-20). However, at the conclusion of the accusation made against Israel, the Lord promised them a pardon. “Wash you,” the Lord pled, “make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” If they would repent he would forgive their actions. “Come now,” he told Israel, “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.” He promised, “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.” But he warned, “if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”
These verses contradict the common misconception that the God of the Old Testament is considered a harsh God, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love. Such an attitude betrays an ignorance of the Old Testament. The children of Israel entered into their covenant with God in the days of Joshua probably about 1250 – 1200 B.C. Isaiah began his prophetic career about five hundred years later, about 740 B.C. Between the covenant made at Shechem and Isaiah’s time period, the children of Israel violated the covenant repeatedly. Though Israel experienced many curses, they never experienced the ultimate curse, destruction and scattering. The curses they experienced were designed to humble rebellious Israel and turn their hearts back to their god (for example, see the story of Elijah in 1 Ki. 17-18; note particularly 18:36-37). What does this tell us about God? It tells us He is a loving and forgiving God, willing to work with His children. It tells us that He has tremendous patience and long-suffering, not the harsh God He is accused of by the ignorant
Sentencing (vss. 21-31). In these verses the Lord discusses the condition of Judah at the time of Isaiah, which if left unchanged will be the cause of their destruction. Judah had become like silver mixed with dross or wine diluted with water. But the Lord stated the purpose of all the curses he intended to bring upon Israel: “And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin” (vs. 25). This would happen as a result of Israel’s scattering. But when she finally repents, the Lord would restore her to her former beauty.
ISAIAH 2-5 – THE REAL VS. THE IDEAL
Isaiah 2-5 is a study of the real versus the ideal.
In these chapters, Isaiah compares the Israel of his day with Israel’s idealistic future. Using a map as an analogy can help in understanding the layout of these chapters. In order for a map to be of any value, the one using it must be able to locate two places: first, the present position, and second, the desired destination. When these two places are discovered, how to get from the present location to the place of destination can be determined. Isaiah 2-5 is much like a map. These chapters reveal where Israel, the chosen people of the Lord of Isaiah’s time, is spiritually located (the real), where Israel is spiritually headed (the ideal), and how God will bring Israel from the real to the ideal state. Nephi hoped that those who read Isaiah 2-5 would rejoice like one who is lost and has found a map that would soon see him to safety. Hence, he hoped his reader would “rejoice for all men” (2 Ne. 11:8).
John Oswalt has noted that Isaiah 2-4 “runs in a full circle from the ideal to the real and back to the ideal again” (The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, p. 113). Isaiah begins by showing Israel’s future where all people will hold God and his ways above all else in the world (2:2-4). This is followed by a description of what Israel was like in the days of Isaiah: Israel was consumed with the ways of the world, placing their trust in the teachings and practices of the gentiles instead of their God (2:5-9). Isaiah then reveals how God will bring about the ideal glory that he intends for his chosen people: Israel will be humbled by removing all things in which she has misplaced her trust (2:10-4:1). The pericope ends in full circle with the ideal state of the House of Israel once again depicted, only in different terms (4:2-6). Then in chapter five, Isaiah returns to Israel’s real state of condition in verses1-23 followed by a prophecy of how Israel’s idealic future will be brought about in verses 24-30.
THE IDEAL (2:2-4)
These verses portray an age quite unlike the time of Isaiah. Isaiah began his prophetic career in Jerusalem during the first year of the reign of Jotham (c. 740 B.C.). The kingdom David had united was at this time divided into two nations: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. For the most part, these cousin nations were warring nations that rarely united except under the threat of a common enemy (for example, see 2 Ki. 3). At the time of this prophecy, Israel and Judah did have a common enemy, Assyria. Assyria was a rising power with an aggressive economic policy which included conquering and controlling various kingdoms that made up the ancient Near East. In so doing, Assyria was threatening to become the major political and economic force in the Near East.
During this time, the northern kingdom of Israel was suffering from both political disarray (e.g., 2 Kings 15:8-28; Hosea 7:1-7; 10:3-15) and moral corruption (e.g., Amos 2:6-7; 4:1-3; 5:11-27; 6:1-6). The worship of Jehovah and his commandments had all but ceased to exist among them (e.g., Hosea 4:1-5; 6:1-3; 8:1-4; Amos 5:4-9). Pagan idolatry had taken the place of Jehovah worship (e.g., Hosea 4:6-19; Amos 5:25-26). In so doing, the people of Israel had placed their trust in everything but Jehovah. They trusted in political alliances and standing armies to thwart their enemies. They trusted in the wealth, knowledge, social, and religious practices of the surrounding pagan nations. It is obvious from the statements of Amos that Israel’s trust in the ways of the world had “rent the fabric of society, setting brother against brother, class against class, section against section, till Israel no longer held together as a nation” (John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia: Westminster, 2nd ed. 1981, p. 270). In such a disintegrated condition, Israel was in no position to withstand the onslaught of the advancing Assyrian juggernaut.
The southern kingdom of Judah, where Isaiah lived, had not descended to the depths of the northern kingdom’s depravation. Nevertheless, she was following the same path. For the righteous, living during Isaiah’s time and the years following which saw the downfall of Judah, there must have been a feeling of hopelessness. It might have appeared that what the Lord had intended for the covenant people of Israel was lost; for it was the Lord’s intent through the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that Israel be a blessing and influence to the world.
This was to be accomplished by bringing the world the gospel (see Abraham 2:6-11). Instead, the influences of Israel’s pagan neighbors were steering the covenant people away from God into the forbidden, repugnant practices of the world.
It was during this period of apparent hopelessness that Isaiah prophesied of a time when the people of all nations would hold Jehovah as the only god; when all mankind, Israel and gentile, would come and learn the ways of the Jehovah and live after the manner of his laws and precepts. In this state they would live in peace and harmony; war would cease to exist as men turned from trusting in their selfish desires to living the ways of the Lord. The scene described by Isaiah in 2:2-4 depict the state of mankind during the millennial reign of Christ.
The mountain of the Lord’s house. Isaiah made lavish use of imagery throughout his writings. The prophecy in 2:2-3 is no exception. Like a landscape artist, Isaiah portrayed Israel’s idealistic future as a majestic mountain with a temple on top that towers above the surrounding hills. Indeed, the observer of this painting hardly notices the hills. The thing that captures the eye is the mountain and the temple.
Most ancient Near Eastern societies viewed their gods as living in mountains: Olympus for the Greeks; Cassius for the Phoenicians; Saphon, Hermon, Tabor, and Carmel for the Canaanites; and Sinai for the Israelites were all mountains upon which the respective societies considered their god(s) as living. When temples were built to house deity, the temples were often considered “mountains.” If possible they were built on mountains or high places. If not, the structure of the building was designed to represent a mountain (such as the Mesopotamian ziggurat). The phrase “mountain of the Lord’s house” literally means “the temple of Jehovah” where the teachings of God’s are taught. More than just a building, this phrase implies the whole Kingdom of God.
In this sense, Isaiah portrayed a time in the last days, “when the mountain of the Lord’s house” or the teachings and ways of Jehovah “shall be exalted above the hills” or the false religions of the world. Note the use of the derogatory term “hill” instead of “mountain.” Perhaps Isaiah was referring to the false religions of his day as hills in comparison to God’s true religion. Everything about this verse, indeed the whole chapter (see verses 10-17 in particular), focuses on God and his ways being exalted above the ways of the world.
And he shall judge among the nations. During the Millennium, the Lord will “judge (Heb. shafat) among the nations.” Shafat means to judge, to govern, or to act as a law-giver. Following upon the heels of verse three where we are told that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” we are now informed that the law and word of God will come from the Lord himself. He will govern the affairs of men. His laws will prevail among the nations.
Beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. During this ideal time when all nations are seeking the ways of God, peace will reign supreme among all peoples. Instead of each nation seeking their own selfish interests which often leads to war, they will turn their instruments of war and destruction into instruments of good. During this time they will learn the ways of God and not “learn war any more.”
THE REAL (2:5-9)
The general accusation (2:5) The Book of Mormon version (2 Ne. 12:5) of Isaiah 2:5 reads: O house of Jacob, come ye and let us walk in the light of the Lord; yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways. The italicized portion is not found in the present version of the Bible. This changes the meaning of this verse.
Having shown the future of Israel as being a time when all nations are following Israel’s lead in living the ways of God, Isaiah now turns to reality in his day: Israel is following the nations of the world and their gods. Isaiah sums it up in a general accusation: those of the House of Jacob have “gone astray, every one to his wicked ways” (emphasis added). In 1831, the Lord made a similar statement regarding the world among whom scattered Israel had become a part. Said he, “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (D&C 1:16).
Specific charges In 2:6-9, six specific charges are levied against Israel. Each indictment reveals a different way that Israel had placed their trust in the practices of the nations surrounding them rather than of the ways of God. The charges are as follows.
(1) They be replenished from the east (vs. 6). Though this phrase is ambiguous, for it does not tell us what Israel replenished themselves with, the intent is clear. East often has a negative connotation in the scriptures. This was first established in the story of Adam and Eve. After they had fallen, they were driven eastward out of the presence of God to live in the lone and dreary world (Gen. 3:24; Alma 12:21; 42:2; Moses 4:31). Yet God’s presence remained westward in the garden of Eden (Moses 5:4). Similarly, at the time of Isaiah, the majority of Israel’s enemies (e.g., Edom, Moab, Ammon, Damascus, Assyria, and Babylon) lived east of the promised land. These nations with their pagan practices were the “ways of the world” that Israel was to remain separate from. Yet, it was these nations who proved to the have the greatest negative influence upon Israel (for example, see, 1 Sam. 8:19-20). Instead of rejecting the pagan practices and ideologies of these nations, Israel continually replenished themselves with them.
The charge? Instead of living the commandments of God, Israel practiced the commandments of men.
(2) They hearken unto soothsayers (vs. 6). Instead of “and are soothsayers like the Philistines” as in the KJV, the Book of Mormon version (2 Ne. 12:6) states, “they hearken unto soothsayers.” Rather than hearkening to the revelations of God through his prophets, Israel adopted the heathen practices of soothsaying and magic. This was expressly forbidden in the law of Moses (see Lev 19:26; Deut 18:9-14), for by these practices the gentiles sought to gain control and manipulate the gods and thus their own destinies. The scriptures teach that we are not to “counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand” (Jacob 4:10).
The charge? Instead of seeking and following the revelations of God, Israel sought for and followed the revelations of Satan.
(3) They please themselves in the children of strangers (vs. 6). This is a most perplexing phrase. The Hebrew word translated “please” means to strike hands. The nine other uses of this word in the Hebrew Bible fail to give us any understanding of the present context. Several scholars, however, have concluded that this phrase suggests that Israel was making business or political alliances with foreign nations, in so doing the agreeing parties would strike or shake hands (see, for example, Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, p. 122; R. E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 44; and John D. W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 24, Isaiah 1-33, Waco: Word, 1985, p. 30.). If this is so, this would indeed be a grievous sin for the making of political alliances revealed a lack of trust in God as their protector.
The charge? Instead of making and honoring covenants with God, Israel made covenants with men to obtain their worldly desires.
(4) Their land also is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures (vs. 7). Israel had set their hearts upon the riches of the world and trusted that wealth would supply them with all their wants and desires instead of God. Wealth, in and of itself, is not evil. However, riches have a tendency to cause men to rely on their own strength and to forget that their physical and spiritual salvation is in all cases dependent upon God.
The charge? Instead of seeking to “build up the Kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness,” Israel sought for “the things of this world” (JST Matt. 6:38).
(5) Their land is also full of horses, neither is there any end of their chariots (vs. 7). Israel had built up a standing military force to defend themselves from their enemies. Prudent as this may seem, it was forbidden in the law of Moses to do so (Deut 17:16-17) for this would create within Israel a reliance upon their own strength instead of the power of God.
Israel was not to trust in the “arm of the flesh” but in the “arm of God.”
The charge? Instead of trusting in the Lord to fight their battles, Israel placed their trust in their own strength.
(6) Their land is also full of idols (vs. 8). Idolatry is the ultimate form of self-exaltation for through the use of idols the idolater tried to control the gods to accomplish their own desires. There is an interesting word play found in this verse in the Hebrew text. The word used by Isaiah in this verse for idol is elilim which literally means “worthless gods.” The Hebrew word for God is elohim. Israel was worshiping elilim instead of elohim; they were worshiping worthless, non-existing gods instead of “the true and living God” (1 Ne. 17:30; see also Jer. 10:10; 1 Thes. 1:9).
The charge? Instead of worshiping the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5), Israel worshiped “the work of their own hands.”
It is easy to see why the Lord was so aggravated with Israel. Instead of relying on God and following his directions, Israel was depending on the ways of man, whether it be soothsayers, political alliances, wealth, military power, or idols, to control their destiny and to obtain their desires. The Book of Mormon’s version (2 Ne. 12:9) of verse nine fixes squarely the reality of Israel: neither the poor nor the rich humble themselves before God and follow His paths.