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Over the next few weeks, we will share a few, brief articles demonstrating the kinds of powerful truths that can be discovered in the writings of Isaiah. As we share insights regarding Isaiah’s writings, we’ll also demonstrate how to use the new, Opening Isaiah: A Harmony tool (https://rsc.byu.edu/opening-isaiah).
Today’s passage is a challenging one, Isaiah 10:28-33, filled with obscure geographical details that are meaningless to most modern readers:
28 He is come to Aiath, he is passed to Migron; at Michmash he hath laid up his carriages: 29 They are gone over the passage: they have taken up their lodging at Geba; Ramah is afraid; Gibeah of Saul is fled. 30 Lift up thy voice, O daughter of Gallim: cause it to be heard unto Laish, O poor Anathoth. 31 Madmenah is removed; the inhabitants of Gebim gather themselves to flee. 32 As yet shall he remain at Nob that day: he shall shake his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem. 33 Behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled.
Remember Nephi’s statement that he could understand the writings of Isaiah better than his people because, “I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about” (2 Nephi 25:6). Modern audiences have the same problem as the Nephites did. We do not know the areas described and so reading this passage to understand what it means and why it might matter to us can be a very frustrating endeavor. Without the proper tools, most readers will give up at this point and move on to greener pastures.
We created Opening Isaiah: A Harmony to help with just such passages. First, the footnote for Isaiah 10:28 guides your reading of these verses without intruding on the scriptural text itself: “Vv. 28–32 describe the Assyrian army’s southward course to Jerusalem. The description begins fifteen miles northeast of Jerusalem. A rift exists between Michmash and Geba, causing the army to leave its baggage train behind. See Map Isaiah 10:28–32.”
These verses are describing a future approach of the Assyrian army against Jerusalem. In the ancient world, this would have been a horrifying prospect, and you can sense the tension that Isaiah skillfully builds as you progress through the phrases, using the map to track the Assyrian army as it progresses, closer and closer to the city. No one stood against the Assyrians. And when the Assyrians conquered, they used devastating techniques to completely demoralize a people – branding, scourging, tearing out the tongue, stripping naked, placing a ring in the nose to lead the leaders away. Those listening to Isaiah’s words would have deeply felt the shock of the approaching army.
If you look carefully at the map between Michmash and Geba, you’ll notice that there is a rift at that location, causing the Assyrian army to slow down and lay up their carriages, trying to decide how to navigate the difficult terrain. Those listening to Isaiah’s prophetic imagery might have caught their breath at this point, hoping that the rift would somehow prevent the oncoming tide of destruction. But as quickly as hope had emerged, it disappears. In the very next phrase, the army is rapidly past the rift and has already arrived at Geba. The agonizing approach continues. The surrounding villages flee in terror. The people wail so loudly in fright that their voices can be heard all the way to Laish (too far away to even be shown on the map).
And then, just as rapidly, something changes again. The army halts at Nob, remaining there, and the leader shakes his fist at Jerusalem. Another look at the map shows that the Mount of Olives stands between Nob and Jerusalem. Apparently, the Assyrian leader has climbed the Mt. of Olives in order to look angrily down on Jerusalem. But he never does enter the city.
The footnotes for Isaiah 10:32 and 10:33 again provide guidance. The footnote at verse 32 states, “The Assyrian army has apparently arrived at the summit of the Mount of Olives and stands looking over at Jerusalem.” The footnote at verse 33 gives a couple of ways to understand the text: “Although destruction by the Assyrians appears inevitable, they are instead stopped at this location and are hewn down, saving Jerusalem. Or, the hewn-down forest could instead refer to those destroyed by the advancing Assyrian army, prior to the army’s halt at Nob that allowed a remnant to be preserved.”
Indeed, the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, would later come against Jerusalem in 701 BC, although he took a different route than the one Isaiah pictures in these verses. The Assyrians would arrive all the way to the gates of Jerusalem and would lay the city under siege. But Isaiah 37:36 records that an angel of the Lord went out in the night and destroyed 185,000 of the Assyrian army, causing the army to turn back without taking Jerusalem. The holy city and the temple were miraculously preserved.
Even Sennacherib’s own, boastful court records reveal the fact that Jerusalem was one of the few cities that he never did conquer. “Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number…. and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape…”
Sennacherib’s record then surreptitiously moves on, never claiming that he defeated the city of Jerusalem, because he was surprisingly unable to do so. His boast of having Hezekiah “shut up in Jerusalem…like a bird in a cage,” connects beautifully with Isaiah’s description, “he will shake his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 10:32). Whether the next verse, Isaiah 10:33, details the destruction of the Assyrian army, or whether it details how the wicked of Judah were destroyed by the approaching Assyrians, but that God saved a righteous remnant in his city of Jerusalem, the end of the story is clear: God would miraculously preserve his people, even in the face of overwhelming odds.
The story continues in Isaiah 11:1, when a branch miraculously springs forth from one of the stumps of the decimated forest. Indeed, a Messiah would spring forth from the remnant of the house of Judah, or, as Isaiah 53:2 puts it, a tender plant would grow up out of dry ground.
Latter-day Saints, of course, know the importance of the Mount of Olives, where the Garden of Gethsemane was found (see Mark 14:32), and where the Messiah would break the bands of sin and death. And again, at the Second Coming, as the Jews will be gathered in the Kidron Valley to the west of the Mount of Olives, scriptures teach that the Messiah, who ascended into heaven from the Mt. of Olives after his forty-day ministry (see Acts 1:9-11), would again descend to the Mount (see Zechariah 14:4; D&C 45:48), and would there rescue and be recognized by his covenant people, the Jews (see Zechariah 13:6; D&C 45:51-52).
Isaiah 10:28-32, then, becomes a profound prophecy of the saving power of the Messiah, and a testament that God is willing and able to save his people, even when the forces arrayed against them seem overwhelming. No wonder that Jesus commanded the Nephites to “search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1). As we do, using all of the resources available to us, we will find a powerful witness of Jesus Christ and a guide that will point us to him who is mighty to save.