Isaiah: Journey Before Destination

In Jacob 6:4, Jacob tells us that his brother Nephi asked him to talk about Isaiah that we “may learn and glorify the name of [our] God.” While all of scripture has the power to bring us closer to the Lord and help us become like Him, the writings of Isaiah seem special somehow. In 2 Nephi 11:2, Nephi tells us that his soul “delighteth” in the words of Isaiah. In Mosiah 14, Abinadi quotes an entire chapter of Isaiah when teaching King Noah and his priests. And most noteworthy of all, in 3 Nephi 13:1, the Lord Himself said, “great are the words of Isaiah,” and commanded us specifically that we “ought to search these things…diligently.”

I’ve often wondered why Isaiah was so important for us to study. But the question of “Why?” hasn’t helped me nearly as much as the question of “How?” How can we study Isaiah, a book of scripture that Nephi openly admits is difficult for people to understand if they aren’t deeply familiar with the prophesying of the Jews? What goal should we aim for? How can we read these verses so that we realize the purpose for which God gave them to us, that is, to search them diligently so that we may learn and glorify the name of our God?

One way of doing this could be borrowed from an ancient mode of study still used among Orthodox Jews of the Lithuanian tradition today. It’s called torah lishmah (תורה לשמה), or “scripture study for its own sake.” Rabbis and their students who adhere to this tradition claim that scripture study has no goal or outcome that comes at the end of a process. Rather, they believe that the purpose of immersing ourselves in the word of God is in who we become in the journey of study. They claim that somehow we change, we become different people—better people—when we dive deeply into the scriptures. If they’re difficulty to understand, all the better, they say, because the challenges of the journey to understand such scripture build us into the kinds of people who are willing to sacrifice of our time and energies to see God more clearly.

The gift of God to those who immerse themselves in scripture study for its own sake and not for recognition or finding an answer that they can discard the moment they uncover it is twofold. First, the promise that God Himself will attend their learning journey in a partnership as sacred and personal as the relationship God had with Moses when He revealed Torah to him at Sinai. And second, that as they plunge into scripture and make life changes, even repent, based on the things they learn, God promises them, so they say, that they will see the world as God sees it. As they do this, they come to truly see their brothers and sisters through the eyes of Heaven, or, as Elder Wirthlin once said it, to see others not “in terms of yesterday and today,” but “in terms of forever…as the glorious beings [they] are capable of coming.”[1]

So, whatever our level of familiarity may be with the culture and customs of Ancient Israel, I invite you to take comfort and solace in a bit of light from our Jewish siblings. It’s okay if it’s confusing right now. It’s not so important where you are as where you’re going. What’s important is that we try, for in the very act of trying we come to know Him, and that is really the whole point, isn’t it?

You are Not Alone

In the midst of what can sometimes feel like a lot of complicated passages, 2 Nephi 7 begins with some of Isaiah’s simplest. As I’ve repented throughout my life and felt like God and others couldn’t possibly forgive me, or when blessings haven’t come when I was so certain I needed them, the Lord’s words here have comforted me. I invite you to imagine that, right before this verse, you’ve just had a heartfelt talk with Father about how far away He sometimes feels, or how answers to prayer seem impossible to find, or the voice of the Spirit seems to have fallen silent. This verse is His eternal reply to these and any other questions asking whether He has forsaken us or, in the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?”[2]

“Thus saith the Lord [to any and all such questions]:”

“Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you?”

In other words, He asks, “What are you talking about? Where’s the proof that I’ve forsaken you? Did I sign anything saying I’ve sold you or disowned you? Who would I have sold you to?”

Another passage by Isaiah in 1 Nephi 21 tells us the same thing:

“Behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not. For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.”

Speaking for the Lord, Elder Holland repeated the same message for our day:

“However late you think you are,” he said, “however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.”[3]

This is one of the precious pearls of Isaiah: that no matter what, no matter what, God is always there for us, always there with us. It’s not just that He suffered for our sins in Gethsemane, nor that, as Alma 7:11-14 and 2 Nephi 9:21 both explain, He suffered every pain and heartache we have ever or will ever feel. It is all this and more. He, after seeing all our imperfections and stubborn pride and rebellion (big and small), He sticks around. Why? 1 Nephi 19:9 gives us the answer: “because of His loving kindness…towards the children of men.” He loves us. He loves you. So, when despair and hopeless threaten and tempt you to think that He has abandoned you, remember the words of Isaiah and know that He has not, does not, nor ever will leave your side. Never ever.

Walk in His Light Rather than Our Own

The last verses of 2 Nephi 7 hold a promise and a warning. “Who is among you,” the Lord asks, “that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light?”

Translation? Is there anyone that follows the Prophet and keeps the commandments who doesn’t have the Lord’s light in their lives to help them? No, definitely not. Everybody who does these things will have His light to bless them. That’s a promise.

But there are some who, rather than obey the Lord and walk in His light, would choose to make their own light and walk in that. To this, the Lord responds in the next verse:

“Behold,” He says, “all ye that kindle fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks which ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand—ye shall lie down in sorrow.”

Translation? As for all of you who prefer to walk your own path and not obey my voice, the Lord says, go ahead. Walk in that light for a while. Try out those little sparks you’ve kindled to light your way in the darkness of the world. But know this, He concludes: if you try to light your own way, it’s not going to go well.

“I will be a light unto them forever,” says the Lord in 2 Nephi 10:14, “that hear my words.” His is the light that, as the Joseph Smith Translation of John 1: 4-5 says, “shineth in the world, and the world perceiveth it not.” Importantly, verses 8 and 9 clarify that John, though an Apostle, “was not that light, but came to bear witness of that light, which was the true light, which lighteth every man who cometh into the world.”

This is the light that will light our way. Creating our own light instead of following His is the very definition of priestcraft. In 2 Nephi 26:29, the Lord explains that, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world.” In contrast, the Lord commands us in 3 Nephi 18:24, “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.” Even when letting our light shine as the Lord told us to in the Sermon on the Mount, it must always be His light that we hold up, rather than our own.

So, as disciples of Christ, let us trust Him. His way, His path and His light will keep us safe in the otherwise dark and dreary waste of this world. Our hastily kindled sparks may light a way for a time, but they cannot light the way, and certainly not forever. If we lay down our prideful kindling at His feet, His light and love will show us the straight and narrow path that leads to life eternal at its end, and joy and happiness all along the way.

[1] “The Great Commandment,” Joseph B. Wirthlin, General Conference, October 2007.

[2] Doctrine and Covenants 121:1

[3] Holland, Jeffery R. “The Laborers in the Vineyard.” General Conference April 2012.