Cover image: “Facing Eternity” by Del Parson.

Isaiah 40-49

I am the law and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life…. This is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me. [1]

[dfads params='groups=2870&limit=1&orderby=random']

The question posed by this lesson is how does the book of Isaiah help bring us to Christ?

Isaiah brings us to Christ through a beautiful recounting of the many ways in which He is our Savior. The most wonderful thing God has done for us is to provide a Savior. I testify that He is real. I testify of His saving power. If we will repent and “always remember Him, to keep His commandments,” He will literally turn all things for our good and ultimately free us from the “captivity of Babylon,” which represents the telestial world we live in.

By contrasting the hopelessness of those in Babylon with the hope we have in Christ, Isaiah teaches us what it means to have an all-powerful, all-wise, all-knowing Savior. If we really understood what that means, our hearts would be free of the pains of this world.

In this lesson we will ponder the ways in which Jesus saves us from the sorrows of Babylon.

Babylon — The Great Counterfeit

Babylon is the Greek name for the ancient city Bab-il, the traditional site of the Tower of Babel. The term “bab-il” means “gate of the god.” “Mighty men of old” arrogated to themselves the treasures of the earth and constructed the tower of “bab-il” as a counterfeit temple dedicated to the dethronement of the Lord and to the enthronement of Satan, the false “god of this world.”  The magnificent complex at Babylon was the archetypal “great and spacious building,” which according to Nephi represents the pride of the world.

The great failing of Israel — indeed of the whole world — is this dethroning of the true Savior in our hearts and the enthroning of a counterfeit “savior.”  We worship in the temple of Babylon. Thus, Babylon represents the false gods we worship that cannot save us, the false temple that entices us with its grandeur and gloss, and the false promise of happiness in wickedness.

Ancient Israel was taken captive by Babylon because the people dethroned the Holy One from their hearts and enthroned idols. We may not bow down to idols of wood and metal, but to some degree we are all captives of Babylon for the same reason: We too often forget — or even refuse — to look to the Savior for help.

People turn their backs on the Savior for many reasons. Some do so willfully because they are captivated by the treasures of the earth, the lures of the flesh, or the honors of men that are so prized in Babylon. Some put their faith in other gods — political, social, or intellectual gods — proud ones who put themselves in the place of God and promise what they cannot deliver.

To the proud, Isaiah is the voice of warning.

I am convinced, however, that many who are “poor in spirit” — the lonely, the anxious, the sick, the aged, the poor, the downhearted — also fail to turn to the Savior simply because they lack faith that He can, or will, help them. Perhaps they feel unworthy of His help, or beneath His notice.

To the poor in spirit, Isaiah is the voice of comfort.

To them, the prophet’s primary message is that Jesus Christ is indeed a Savior — as He himself says — “to the poor in spirit who come unto me.” [2] Consider what that means. The only people who need a savior are those who are held captive in some way. They are the captives of sin, of fear, of hopelessness, of death. But if they will turn to Him, they will be free.

Jesus Christ saves us from the captivity of sin

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” [3]  

A more accurate translation of the Hebrew would be “speak to the heart of Jerusalem,” and the word “iniquity” means more than just sin — it means guilt, shame, scandal.  The Savior soothes all guilt and shame because He has paid the debt for it all. “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee. [4]

Naturally, in our most self-condemning moments, we have a hard time accepting that this could be true, that what is worst in us could be blotted out as if it had never happened, that someone else could make up for the hurt and heartache we have caused.  Amulek taught that if a man murders, justice will not require in recompense the life of the murderer’s brother; how then can one man atone for another?

The answer is simple: he can’t. But God can: Jesus Christ is the Eternal God whose sacrifice for our sins is “infinite and eternal.” [5] Isaiah declares that the Atonement is truly infinite: “Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end.” [6] To the repentant, the past is gone, all shame is erased, all wrongdoing is made right: “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” [7]

Because of Christ, the inner “warfare” we fight with ourselves, the cruel guilt we inflict on ourselves, is ended. We are freed of debt, released from guilt, absolved from blame, and returned to a pure and innocent status before God. What else is there to do but celebrate? 

Sing, O ye heavens; for the Lord hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel. [8]

Jesus Christ saves us from the captivity of fear

The antithesis of faith is fear. It is fear that drives many people into the deceptive, illusory shelter of that “great and spacious building” of Babylon.

Many are afraid of the mockery of the proud, so they are duped into “following the crowd” even if the crowd is headed for disaster. They become slaves to fashion, totally under the control of the “gods of this world” who dictate what to wear, what to watch, what to listen to, and even what to think.  But vogues change by the minute so that those who fear the opinion of the crowd are forced to continue the flow of cash into the coffers of the “merchants of Babylon.” [9]

Some fear death or terrorists or the bomb or old age or wrinkles or poverty or bad weather. And some, as Franklin Roosevelt said, are just addicted to fear itself — nameless, unreasoning anxiety. It is an age of fear.

The false security promised by Babylon’s political leaders, financial planners, and pop psychologists (“astrologers, stargazers, monthly prognosticators”) [10] is no salvation from fear.  In this telestial world we will not be free from adversity — trials are part of the Lord’s plan for shaping us for better things.  “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” [11] As with Job, our hardships are intended to refine us so that we may come forth “as gold.” [12]

Nevertheless, those who come unto Christ have no reason to fear anything because He is, quite simply, in charge. We are in His hands from birth to death, and nothing that happens to us escapes His control. “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb: And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you.” [13]

Isaiah emphasizes that the whole universe is before God, that He “sitteth upon the circle of the earth” and observes it all unceasingly (see Facsimile 2 in the Book of Abraham for a fascinating depiction of God overseeing the “circle of the earth”).  The Savior is continually vigilant in watching over those who come unto Him: to the fearful ones Isaiah says, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?” [14]

Because we have a Savior, we need not fear the difficulties of life. He knows what we must bear in order to grow into His likeness; but He also knows what we are capable of bearing and is ever present to help us through it. “Thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee… Thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee… Fear not: for I am with thee.” [15]

Jesus Christ saves us from the captivity of hopelessness

Perhaps the most devastating effect of the Babylonian captivity of the spirit is hopelessness.

The condition of mankind without a Savior is hopeless. The symptoms of despair are everywhere. Some symptoms are dramatic: people’s hearts fail before terrorism, war, and disaster, earthquake, flood, and fire. Perhaps even harder to bear is the often hidden day-to-day misery of those who feel that their lives have no meaning, those of whom Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” [16]

This psychological despair is traceable to the embrace of Babylon and the rejection of the Savior by the mass of mankind.  He pleads with us: “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.” [17]   Because it will not hearken, the world suffers from troubled sleep, discouragement, and a failure of confidence — what modern observers call “the Age of Anxiety.”  “There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.” [18]

Babylon has no solution to human despair. An intellectual priesthood, usurping the place of the priesthood of the Son of God, gropes in the dark for answers to fundamental questions: Who are we? Why do we live? What is our place in the universe? Isaiah says of the false priests of Babylon, “Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee; and thou hast said in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me.” [19]

The University of Babylon, as always, listens only to itself as the ultimate authority, but the philosophies of men lead circuitously back to the same questions they are supposed to answer and leave us no wiser. “Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion.” [20]  As for the despondent seeker who looks to Babylon for answers, “He feedeth on ashes: a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul.” [21]

Because only Jesus Christ can deliver the soul, only He can save us from despair. His infinite love is the only answer to the spiritual poverty of hopelessness. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” [22] Those who trust Him are fed not with ashes but with the food and water of life — and abundantly.

As Isaiah promises, “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.  I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.” [23]

When nourished by the Savior’s hand, the sterile spiritual landscape of the captive soul (so heartbreakingly illustrated in the poet T.S. Eliot’s image of “The Waste Land”) comes richly to life.

The world is filled with the despairing — and often their anguish is not the result of personal sin. Even faithful people sometimes feel that the Lord has forgotten them:  “Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.” Never forget the Savior’s moving response to those who cry out to Him: “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.” He asks us quite simply to have faith in Him and always remember Him as he always remembers us: “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” [24]

Jesus Christ saves us from the captivity of death

Of course, the root of human despair is death. If all that we are ends in darkness and the grave, then what is there to hope for? Babylon has no answer to death. Isaiah says of the proud ones of Babylon, “They shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame” because they cannot. [25]

Death is the ultimate captivity, but Jesus Christ is the Savior from death. He alone has power to open the graves, “to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” [26] When the mother sees once again the little one she lost in death, when the husband once again embraces the wife lost to cancer, when the man once again holds in his arms the beloved grandfather who blessed his boyhood — then we will at last understand what it means to have a Savior.

Enthrone the Savior in your heart

After 70 years of Babylonian captivity, the Jews were saved when Cyrus, a Persian warlord, defeated the Babylonian king and took the throne for himself. Cyrus released the Jews from bondage, allowing them to return to their promised land and restore the temple which the Babylonians had destroyed. 

Isaiah likened Cyrus to the promised Messiah who would release the captives of spiritual Babylon:

“Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; …I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron… I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts.” [27]

So will Jesus Christ break down the gates of our spiritual captivity, the bars that seem so much like iron: sin, fear, hopelessness, and death. He brings to each soul who comes unto Him purity, courage, hope, and life. Who would fail to turn to such a Savior?

Yet we do. We often do fail to turn to Him. “Thus saith the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; For your sake I have sent to Babylon, and have brought down all their nobles… But thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel.” [28]   Even though the Lord has done so much for us, we somehow reason ourselves into overweening self-reliance and simply fail to call on Him for help.

Elder Gene R. Cook tells a plain story about how his family learned to call on the Lord for help. At one point they were agonizing over a family car that had been in an accident and needed expensive repairs. They depended on the car, but funds were limited and they didn’t know what to do. He remembers:

“As we discussed our problem, it was as if a light turned on. We asked ourselves, ‘Have we really asked God?’ The answer was, ‘Yes, we have been praying about the problem, but not very specifically, and not with real intent. We have been relying too much on our own strength.’ We bowed our heads together and prayed fervently that God would inspire us in that very moment, that he would tell us what to do.

“At the conclusion of our prayer, the name of a man in our neighborhood popped into my mind. I remembered that on the day of the crash, my son had told me about this fellow, who used to work in a body shop. I called him on the phone.” With this man’s help, Elder Cook and his son were able to repair the car at very little expense. [29]

Have we developed the habit of turning to the Lord for help? Of honestly, specifically, and with real intent asking for inspiration in our time of need? Of welcoming Him into our hearts instead of shutting Him out when He desires to help us?

In ancient times, a king was welcomed to his throne in a great processional, often after victory in battle. A new highway would be built for the king and his parade of soldiers; workers would level the road and straighten it to make a path for the royal progress to the throne.

Isaiah counsels us to “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” [30] This appeal is an invitation to welcome the Lord into our hearts, to enthrone Him there instead of the proud, deceptive king of Babylon who desires only to keep us enslaved. The Book of Mormon teaches that we are free to choose whom we will enthrone in our hearts: “They are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” [31]

Let us make a highway for the Savior — straight and true — into the heart of each one of us: for beside Him there is no Savior. [32]

______________________

 

[1] 3 Ne. 15:9-10.

[2] 3 Ne. 12:3.

[3] Isa. 40:1-2.

[4] Isa. 44:22.

[5] Alma 34:11, 14.

[6] Isa. 45:17.

[7] Isa. 44:25.

[8] Isa. 44:23.

[9] Isa. 47:15.

[10] Isa. 47:13.

[11] Isa. 48:10.

[12] Job 23:10.

[13] Isa. 46:3-4.

[14] Isa. 40:22, 28.

[15] Isa. 43:1-5.

[16] Henry David Thoreau, Walden. Houghton-Mifflin, 1995, page 1.

[17] Isa. 48:18.

[18] Isa. 48:22.

[19] Isa. 47:10.

[20] Isa. 41:29.

[21] Isa. 43:20.

[22] Isa. 40:11.

[23] Isa. 41:17-18.

[24] Isa. 49:14-16.

[25] Isa. 47:14.

[26] Isa. 42:7.

[27]  Isa. 45: 1-2, 13.

[28] Isa. 43:14, 22.

[29] Gene R. Cook, Raising Up a Family to the Lord. Deseret Book, 1996, pages 79-80.

[30] Isa. 40:3.

[31] 2 Ne. 2:27.

[32] Isa. 43:11.