Cover image: The Mocking of Christ, by Carl Heinrich Bloch.

On October 8, 1871, in downtown Chicago, things seemed normal at 8:30 pm in a city of over 375,000 people. Chicago was a fast-growing metropolis. Spurred on by an industrial boom, Chicago had grown to be the second largest city in the United States and one of the largest cities in the world. Its huge economy attracted thousands of immigrants from Europe and Central Europe.

As a result of the extreme growth, real estate investors from all over the world flocked to build enough housing and buildings to accommodate the influx of population. New inventions in construction, tools, banking, trade, and a host of other advancements attracted investment from many people.

That night in October, on DeKoven Street, in a small barn, a cow knocked over a lantern and a fire started to burn the wood structure.  Before fire crews could be summoned, the adjacent building also caught on fire. The preceding summer had been exceptionally dry and, as a result, there was a lot of dry fuel for the fire.

In the 1870’s, most of the houses were made entirely from wood and had highly flammable tar roofs. This allowed the fire to leap from house to house easily. The fire grew so fast that the fire department got behind quickly. The Chicago fire department had 185 firefighters and seven horse drawn steam pumpers to protect the city.  But the firefighters were initially sent to the wrong address and by the time they got underway, there was no stopping the fire.

Soon the fire reached the business district. The firefighters hoped as the fire reached the river, it would serve as a firebreak, but along the river’s edge were lumber yards and barges.  When the fire reached these huge sources of fuel, it exploded and flaming debris blew across the river, landed on roofs, and set ablaze the South Side Gas Works.  As the fire spread on the other side of the river and moved toward the heart of the city, the mayor of Chicago reached out to adjacent cities for help.  The fire burned unchecked from building to building, block to block.  By 2:30 pm the next day, the courthouse at the center of the city had burned to the ground.

Thankfully the next day, a rainstorm was on its way, but the winds preceding a storm, whipped the fire in multiple directions.  Finally, late in the day on October 9, it started to rain and the fire succumbed to the moisture and firefighter’s efforts. The Chicago fire destroyed more than 2,000 acres, 73 miles of roads, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property, which was about a third of the city’s value. Over 90,000 of the city’s 324,000 residents were left homeless. Three hundred people died.

Real estate speculators and investors lost millions. Horatio Spafford was one of them. Like so many devasted by the fire, Horatio worked hard to recover from his losses. He had a growing family and the losses required they work doubly hard to regain their financial footing. Not long after the fire, Horatio’s friend was preaching in England and invited Horatio and his family to spend time there. So, Horatio’s wife and four daughters boarded the steamship Ville du Havre and set out for England. Horatio planned to follow shortly thereafter.

The steamship set out with 313 passengers on board. Halfway across the Atlantic, about 2 am, the ship encountered an iron clipper named the Loch Earn. Both ships neglected to avoid the other. As they were about to collide, the captain of the Loch Earn turned his ship sharply, but the Ville du Havre came across his bow, and he hit her broadside. The passengers were all awakened by the collision. At first, the crew and the captain thought the ship was intact, but the truth was the Ville du Havre was nearly broken in two.

Commotion and chaos overtook the passengers as the main mast collapsed smashing several lifeboats and killing a number of people. As passengers tried to grab life preservers and push lifeboats into the water, they found that the lifeboats had been painted and were stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few lifeboats were pulled free, and a limited number of passengers fought desperately to be one of the few to get aboard the small craft.

The crew of the Loch Earn helped 26 passengers and 61 crew of the Ville du Havre out of the water, but tragically 226 passengers perished.  Anna Spafford survived, but her four daughters, Annie, age 12; Maggie, 7; Bessie, 4; and their 18-month-old baby all drowned.

As a parent, how do you cope with such a loss?  What would you say to your husband?  Well, Anna sent a telegram to her husband that said, “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”

Now, perhaps not to Horatio’s and Anna’s extent, I think we all experience loss, feel burned out, under water in our efforts, or struggle from time to time.  Perhaps our struggles are self-inflicted or the result of sin, or perhaps we are facing circumstances that came about simply in life’s due course. Regardless, it is likely that all of us have experienced loss and struggle.  It is hard to think that comfort or relief can be found.

Well, Horatio Spafford immediately boarded a ship and struck out for England to reach and comfort his grieving wife. “At one point during his voyage, the captain of the ship, aware of the tragedy that had struck the Spafford family, summoned Horatio to tell him that they were now passing over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred.

As Horatio looked down at the billowing waves and thought about his daughters buried there, words of comfort and hope filled his heart and mind. He wrote them down, and they have since become they lyrics of a well-beloved hymn, It is Well With My Soul.  One of those versus says,

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll—
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well with my soul.[i]

There is peace and comfort in Jesus Christ. He has carried our sorrow. Isaiah 51:3 says, “For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places and will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord.”  In the midst of our ocean or wilderness, Jesus Christ has power to redeem, he has power to save.  He has indeed, “Borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

A Few Principles of Study

As we study Isaiah 50-57, its helpful to remember a few scriptural principles to aid our study.  First, as Elder Oaks taught, “A scripture is not limited to what it meant when it was written but may also include what that scripture means to a reader today.”[ii]  As we read Isaiah, we can liken the scriptures unto ourselves because the scriptures have meaning for our day.  Second, we can ask, “How can I take the ‘them, there and then’ of Isaiah and apply it to the ‘me, here, and now’ in my life today?”

For example, in Isaiah 50:5-7, Isaiah speaks as the messiah saying, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair.…”. He continues, “For the Lord God will help me; therefore, shall I not confounded: therefore, have I set my face like a flint and I know that I shall not be ashamed.”

To set your face like flint, means you are set as hard as flint, unmovable and resolute.  What is the Lord resolute in?  Both his commitment to fulfil the father’s plan, to “give his back to the smiters,” condescend to this earth for mankind, and also to redeem Zion.  Perhaps we can follow his example and set our face like flint to remain on his covenant path and not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16).

When I think of resolute, I think of several of the signers of the declaration of independence.  Now you may think that the signing of the declaration was something akin to your state representatives voting for a bill.  Not even close.  Those who put their name on that document of freedom did so knowing full well that, if they failed in their assertions and cause, they would likely be tried and killed by King George.

Like you and me, the signers of the document were not perfect.  They were imperfect people resolved to a cause.  One month prior to the signing of the declaration, Richard Henry Lee put to the Continental Congress a resolution that would change history.  That resolution said, “That these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states” and the connection with Great Britain be dissolved.

It would take weeks of persuasion and debate and consideration before all 56 signers and others would fully commit to the cause.  Why? Because that resolution and the acts that followed were treason and punishable by death.

Now one of the most famous signers of the declaration is John Hancock.  Why? Because his signature is so large and even flamboyant looking on the document itself.  Some have attributed this to Hancock’s a lack of humility or a flaw on his part.  I don’t think so.  Legend has it that he signed his name so large so “fat old King George could read it without his spectacles.”

If Hancock was going to sign his name, he was going to lean into it, to make is certain that whoever read this document would know he was fully committed to the cause. Because of his position over the second congress, he was also the first person to sign. I’ve always thought he was setting the tone for the rest of the signers, some of whom were not leaning into the cause like they might otherwise do.

Many people believe that all the signers affixed their name to the document on July 4.  Not so.  Only John Hancock signed on July 4th.  Most of the other 55 men signed the document on August 2nd and a few even later.  My point is this:  John Hancock resolved to commit to the cause and others followed as a result.

Isaiah Speaks About The Messiah

In Isaiah 53:1-5, we are given some of the most powerful and oft-repeated statements about the Messiah.  In particular, the following:

  • He shall grow up as a tender plant
  • He hath no form, comeliness or beauty that we should desire him
  • He was despised and rejected
  • He was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief
  • We hid our faces from him and esteemed him not
  • He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows
  • He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities
  • With his stripes we are healed

The same words are repeated in the Book of Mormon in Mosiah 14. Many of us, at one time or another, in life have hid our faces from Jesus and esteemed him not.  In our weakness, perhaps we hid our faces because we did not want him to see us.  In our worldly pursuits we did not esteem him or his gospel as much as we did the world.

But in the end, regardless of what we have done or what we have neglected to do, there can be redemption through Jesus Christ.  Because of the stripes he bore on our behalf, because he suffered for us and bled from every pore, we can be healed.  Indeed, he was wounded for our transgressions.  Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray.”  And yet he was bruised for our transgressions.

President George Q. Cannon said, “No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, [God] will never desert us. He never has, and He never will. He cannot do it. It is not His character [to do so]. He is an unchangeable being; the same yesterday, the same today, and He will be the same throughout the eternal ages to come…. He will stand by us. We may pass through the fiery furnace; we may pass through deep waters; but we shall not be consumed nor overwhelmed. We shall emerge from all these trials and difficulties the better and purer for them, if we only trust in our God and keep His commandments.”[iii]

He Will Justify Many

Isaiah 53:11 speaks for the intelligences of the universe and for the father himself.  Every intelligence shall “see of the travail of his soul and shall be satisfied.”  Christ will satisfy the demands of justice and “justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities.”

When we repent and come to Christ and put on his name and walk in his path, we are justified through the Savior’s grace.  This is the only way that we can be pardoned from the punishment we might otherwise receive.  And despite what we may think from time to time, we cannot be justified through our good works.  As King Benjamin taught, we could serve God with our whole souls and it would never be enough, we would still be “unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).  As Elder Uchtdorf said, “Because of Jesus Christ, our failures do not have to define us.  They can refine us.”[iv]

Labor For What Matters Most 

In Isaiah 55:2-3 we get the advice of a lifetime, “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.  Incline your ear and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live and I will make an everlasting covenant with you….”

Why do we spend time or money or effort on things in life which don’t really matter?  It seems that in search of peace, happiness, or self-approval, we search google and listen to the voices of the world.  But the peace that we are seeking can be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I believe this one of the greatest trails of our generation is the excess time we have to seek for what can satisfy our soul. Go back 100 years in the history of the United States and the average life expectancy for men was 56 years old.  That’s hard for us to imagine. If you lived a century ago, you spent the bulk of your life bread winning and providing for the necessities of life.  Because your parents died on average at 48 years of age, there wasn’t much wealth passed on from generation to generation.

And if you lived then, sickness, disease and injury took a major toll on the quality of life.  But today, if we have a tooth infection, bladder infection or even many types of cancer, modern science and medication allows us to recover and return to a high quality of life.  One hundred years ago, if we had these ailments, we would be bed ridden for months or even years.  As a result, there was not a lot of excess time.

In 2022, the average life expectancy is 79 years.  And amazingly, every three years that life expectancy will increase by an additional year.  That means for someone like me in my late 50’s, the average life expectancy when I reach my 80’s will have increased to 89 years of age.

What does all this mean?  It means hundreds of millions of men and women have a life in which, compared to past generations, have unprecedented amounts of discretionary time.  Our lives today are filled with an exponential number of choices.  More than any generation in history, we must learn to avoid distraction and direct our life.  Given our time and ease, we are tempted to labor for that which does not satisfy.  If there is a plague in our generation today, it is more ease, time, leisure, and choices.

We can use our time on this earth to wisely craft a meaningful life, a life of purpose, a covenant life.  Or we can labor for that which does not satisfy.  In my life or yours, does the buzzing of your cellphone direct more of your attention than the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Perhaps.

As we examine the habits we can change, it may be helpful to focus on what a few famous authors call “keystone habits.”  Keystone habits have ripple effects. For example, exercising regularly leads to more energy and results in better sleep.  So, if you change that habit, you have more strength to attack other habits.

Prayer is a keystone habit, that directs our attention to weightier matters each day.  Sunday worship and daily study can provide us with a view of life and the wherewithal to act differently throughout the day.  The ripple effect of such habits can and do keep us focused on what matters most.

Do What is Great While it is Small 

Isaiah 57:6-7 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.  Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God for he will abundantly pardon.”

Years ago, my stake president told me, “Obedience is easier to maintain than create.”  What he was saying is this:  if you can get into the habit of keeping a commandment, it is easier to stick with that habit than to lose the habit and try to generate the repentance or energy necessary to reverse course and get back living the habit.

This is a vitally true and important principle.  Similarly, Isaiah is telling us to seek the Lord while he can be found.  Stick with the small and simple things that keep you close to Jesus Christ.  This will protect you and keep you from the forsaken way.  In other words, do great things while they are small, and this will protect your path.

For those who have forsaken the covenant path, Isaiah adds that they can return and repent. And God will abundantly pardon them.

I believe God will abundantly pardon.  I rejoice in the fact that Jesus was bruised for our iniquities, that we can come unto him and find redemption, and that we have a savior who is full of grace and who understands how to measure his grace to us.

As you read and ponder on Isaiah 50-57, I hope you see and feel the majesty of the great plan of redemption of which you and I are a part.  I hope that the words of Isaiah can, like the words that came to Horatio Spafford, help make all well with you and your soul.

[i] Lloyd Newell, Music and the Spoken Word, June 24, 2017.

[ii] Dallin H. Oaks, Scripture Reading and Revelation, Ensign, January 1995.

[iii] George Q. Cannon, Freedom of the Saints, 2:185.

[iv]Dieter F. Uchtdorf, God Among Us, Liahona, May 2021, 8–9.