Jacob’s Commentary on Isaiah 50–1 (2 Nephi 7–8)

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Trying to understand why both Nephi and Jacob used Isaiah so extensively in the small plates, or plates reserved “for the special apurpose that there should be an account engraven of the bministry of my people” (1 Ne 9:3) suggests that Isaiah has a special place in their ministry. In fact, Jacob says that he will follow the pattern his brother Nephi has set: “I will read you the words of Isaiah. And they are the words which my brother has desired that I should speak unto you …because ye are of the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 6:4–5).

His largest continuous quote of the prophet comes from Isaiah 50 and Isaiah 51 and 52:1–2. (2 Nephi 78). However, before Jacob begins reading he offers this commentary as he quotes from Isaiah 49:22: “I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles…” (2 Nephi 6:6). By beginning here, it may suggest that the Isaiah chapters he is about to quote have some instructions to the Gentiles.

But then, as Garold N. Davis explains, in the verses that follow (2 Nephi 6:7–18), Jacob aligns his preface to Isaiah 50 and 51 in a way that “is consistent with Lehi’s and Nephi’s commentaries on Isaiah… Jacob tells us in 2 Nephi 6 that:

  • “those who were at Jerusalem” have been scattered (verse 8);
  • they will return (verse 9);
  • Christ will be born among them, but they will reject and crucify him (verse 9);
  • those at Jerusalem will be scattered again, “driven to and fro” (verses 10–11);
  • but the Lord will remember the covenant and will “set himself again the second time to recover them” (from Isaiah 11) through the Gentiles (verses 12–14).

“After this prefatory outline, Jacob then quotes Isaiah 50 and 51.”

Jacob then uses his understanding of Isaiah 50 to introduce the prophet’s metaphor of divorce to explain the scattering of Israel: “Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever?” the Lord asks and then answers the question with this reproach: “For your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away” (verse 1). Isaiah then asks Israel if this separation could have been prevented had they only had faith in the Lord’s power: “O house of Israel, is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem, or have I no power to deliver?” (verse 2).

Davis enlightens our understanding as to why Jacob’s used Isaiah 50 and 51 to explain the “imagery of scattering and eventual gathering” of Israel. Then he points out,  that “at the outset of 2 Nephi 9, Jacob clearly tells why he has quoted these two chapters and what their major message is:

“I have read these things [Isaiah 50–51] that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel” (verse 1).

Davis continues, “One aspect of this covenant, as Jacob goes on to explain, is that the time will come when Israel “shall be restored to the true church and fold of God; when they shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise” (verse 2).

As Jacob continues, in 2 Nephi 9, he “suddenly shifts the emphasis from this temporal gathering to a universal and spiritual gathering and suggests a second and even more important aspect of the covenant mentioned in verse 1: “I speak unto you these things that ye may rejoice, and lift up your heads forever, because of the blessings which the Lord God shall bestow upon your children” (verse 3). Jacob then proceeds to give a powerful sermon on universal death, the resurrection, and the atonement: “Our flesh must waste away and die” (verse 4), but Christ will die for all men and bring about a general resurrection (verses 5–6). Were it not for an “infinite atonement,” the “first judgment [i.e., when mortals were, through Adam, cast out from the presence of God] . . . must needs have remained to an endless duration” (verses 6–7). Not only would we have died through a physical separation from God, but our spirits, without this “infinite atonement,” would “have become . . . devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself” (verse 9).

Jacob refers to this double separation as a double “monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit” (verse 10). But “because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, . . . which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave. And this death . . . , which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead; which spiritual death is hell” (verses 11–12). Now we understand why Jacob stated at the outset of the commentary that all mankind should “rejoice, and lift up [their] heads forever” (verse 3). Jacob’s commentary expands on these points through verse 20, and with this commentary in mind we can now go back to Isaiah 50 and 51 (2 Nephi 7–8) and consider Isaiah’s meaning in light of Jacob’s commentary.

It seems clear that in Jacob’s interpretation of Isaiah 50 and 51 the salvation spoken of may include, but goes much deeper than, the physical gathering of scattered Israel. Isaiah turns to the role of the Savior in gathering all mortal humanity from the ultimate scattering, death: “Is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem, or have I no power to deliver?” (2 Nephi 7:2). The verbs redeem and deliverseem to take on a more universal character when Isaiah then makes specific reference to the suffering of Christ: “I gave my back to the smiter, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (verse 6).

Second Nephi 7 (Isaiah 50) ends with the rather enigmatic comment that those who try to walk by the light of their own fire “shall lie down in sorrow” (verse 11). If I understand and apply Jacob’s commentary in 2 Nephi 9 correctly, this metaphor has reference to the universal death that will come upon all mortals, and this theme then continues throughout Isaiah 51. As a word of caution, I should point out that when Jacob talks about the double monster, death and hell—that is, death of the body and death of the spirit—in 2 Nephi 9 as commentary on Isaiah 50 and 51, he is not suggesting that all mortals are doomed to suffer these two deaths. Rather, he is describing the result if a vital condition were not in place, a rhetorical style common to Book of Mormon writers. For example, beginning in 2 Nephi 9:7, Jacob details the sad state of all mortality “save it should be an infinite atonement.” This rhetoric is similar to Nephi’s phrasing “save Christ should come . . .” (2 Nephi 11:6), Alma’s “except it were for these conditions . . .” (Alma 42:13), or Abinadi’s “And now if Christ had not come . . .” (Mosiah 16:6). Following are a few quotations from Isaiah 51 (2 Nephi 8) with my own interpretive comments, both of which I believe correspond to Jacob’s commentary in 2 Nephi 9: “Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged” (2 Nephi 8:1). Look to Christ, the Holy One of Israel, for your salvation from the grave. “Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah, she that bare you” (verse 2). Remember the covenant that through Abraham’s seed will come the Messiah, through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed.7 “The Lord shall comfort Zion. . . . Joy and gladness shall be found therein” (verse 3) because of the atonement that will overcome death.

The reader who proceeds through 2 Nephi 8 (Isaiah 51) with Jacob’s commentary from chapter 9 firmly in mind will see the possibility that Isaiah 51 is a powerful commentary on the saving power of the “infinite atonement” (2 Nephi 9:7). For example, having in mind Jacob’s discussion of physical and spiritual death and his characterization of death and hell as an “awful monster” (verse 10), the interesting parallelism in 2 Nephi 8:9 takes on a new dimension: “Art thou not he that hath cut Rahab [i.e., death] and wounded the dragon [i.e., hell]?” Then the verbs ransomed and redeemed in verses 10 and 11 take on a broader meaning, and of course “sorrow and mourning shall flee away” (verse 11), because of the infinite atonement that overcomes death and hell.

The remainder of 2 Nephi 8 continues to sustain the theme of the atonement that so clearly informs Jacob’s commentary. “Among all the sons [Jerusalem] hath brought forth” (verse 18) there is no salvation (see verse 17), as there is no salvation in the law of Moses. The only sons left are “desolation and destruction” (verse 19)—that is, death and hell—and these two sons “lie at the head of all the streets” (verse 20), as death and hell lie at the end of every life, “save it should be an infinite atonement” (2 Nephi 9:7). Who, then, will comfort us, and why should we rejoice. The ultimate comfort—salvation—is of the Lord: “The Lord and thy God pleadeth the cause of his people; behold, I [the Lord and thy God] have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again” (verse 22). Christ has overcome death by drinking the bitter cup himself.

Certainly Jacob’s commentary on Isaiah 50 and 51 allows a deeper, more personalized reading of these chapters than would otherwise likely be considered.

In 2 Nephi 10, Jacob’s commentary on Isaiah continues, and his discussion of what he has just quoted from Isaiah also serves as an introductory commentary on the next group of Isaiah writings, 2 Nephi 12–24 (Isaiah 2–14).

Once again Jacob identifies the major themes that always accompany his citing of Isaiah. From 2 Nephi 10 we read that

  1. Christ will come and the Jews will reject and crucify him (verse 3);
  2. the Jews will be “scattered among all nations” (verse 6);
  3. according to the covenant, the house of Israel will be “restored in the flesh, upon the earth, unto the lands of their inheritance” (verse 7);
  4. the gentiles “shall be great in the eyes of [God]” in bringing about this gathering (verse 8).

Jacob’s sermon shows further consistency with the teachings of his brother Nephi and his father, Lehi, because Jacob again quotes from Isaiah 49: “Yea, the kings of the Gentiles shall be nursing fathers unto them, and their queens shall become nursing mothers [Isaiah 49:23]; wherefore, the promises of the Lord are great unto the Gentiles” (2 Nephi 10:9; compare 1 Nephi 10:12, 14; 15:13–15; 22:8). Jacob then takes this promise to the gentiles one step further with a commentary on Isaiah 49:23: “I [God] will soften the hearts of the Gentiles, that they shall be like unto a father to them; wherefore, the Gentiles shall be blessed and numbered among the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 10:18).

With these background commentaries on Isaiah by Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob, we can better anticipate and understand the long section of Isaiah comprising 2 Nephi 12–24 (Isaiah 2–14).

 

Author: Garold N. Davis |  Ph.D. in German literature from Johns Hopkins University. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Southern Oregon College, and the University of Colorado before coming to Brigham Young University, where he was a professor of German and comparative literature at the time he wrote this in 1998.

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Darryl Alder is a retired professional, with an adopted family of four, and a lovely wife of 40+years. He has blogged for a variety of sites and loves to bake, garden, camp, and study ancient scripture, all of which is reflected in his posts at AbigailsOven.com, EternalCore.org, SearchIsaiah.org and various Scouting blog sites

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