Victor Ludlow, Author of “Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet” Part 1 (of 3)

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Ken: Hello everyone, this is Ken Krogue from SearchIsaiah.org. We have Victor Ludlow here with us today. We want to take some time with several different episodes that we’re going to spend with Victor.

Victor, you were one of the very first scholars in the LDS Church to focus on Isaiah; you were one of the first teachers at BYU that taught Isaiah. Tell us about your background and how you even got involved with talking about Isaiah?

Victor: I did my undergraduate studies at BYU in history minoring in Hebrew. Then did my graduate studies at Harvard and Brandeis Universities in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. All with the idea of coming back to BYU to help develop a Near Eastern Studies program and have some good experiences so I could teach the standard works especially the ancient scriptures.

I was asked to primarily teach Old Testament with some  Book of Mormon as well. Just a couple of years in I was teaching a graduate seminar for a master’s program. We had four seminary teachers and Institute teachers. It was called “Prophets of the Old Testament,” so it was the prophetic books of the Old Testament. It was just a one-semester class.

As we would meet for the first time and talk about what a challenge it would be even just to handle those books of the Old Testament in a one semester. Of course, what were they most interested in, and it was apparent that they wanted to spend more and more time proportionate to all the Old Testament prophetic books on Isaiah specifically. We would spend well over half the class on Isaiah, and the other got to spend less time on; they wanted more time on Isaiah. Well, I think they just sensed teaching, whether the Book of  Mormon. The Old Testament, or even the New Testament, that Isaiah was an important  Old Testament prophet.

This carried over into the other scriptures. So if they were going to study the prophets of the Old Testament, the one for most that had teachings and gospel insights would probably be Isaiah.

At any rate, we had undergraduate students that wanted to take it, and I’d petition the Dean they said no this is just for you to teach the graduate students. So a semester or so later I came back to the Dean again is it possible that we could have a separate class on the prophets of the Old Testament or just on Isaiah for undergraduate students. A one-hour class so with only meet 15 hours during the semester.

That was in the mid-1970s. We offered it as a special topics class: the writings of Isaiah. It soon became so popular we needed to add a second section and everything else. It was just that popular that eventually it was developed into a two-hour class with many sections.

I would teach it but other faculty members, some of whom you’ve had here on some of your series,  started teaching sections of it as well. Then it began to spread out into various Institutes around the Church.

Once I was invited to be a guest professor at BYU-Hawaii because they wanted me to come and mainly teach that class so that their students and faculty there could be exposed to a better understanding of Isaiah. So they could offer it for their students there in the future.

It’s just developed over the ages, and then it led to other projects. I received the commissioner’s research fellowship when Jeffrey R. Holland was the church commissioner. They wanted me to write some resource material on Isaiah for the church office building for their curriculum writers and for any of the Brethren that wanted to use it.  That became the book Isaiah Prophet, Seer, and Poet.  Later that was cleared to be used at the Institutes and all throughout the church.

Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet

Ken: Let’s talk about that book. Isaiah: Prophet, Seer and Poet.  You wouldn’t think those three topics would go together; everyone knows about prophet and seer, …but poet?

Victor: Well yes, like you say obviously he was a prophet. One who taught and warned and testified. That’s what a prophet does.

He was a magnificent seer not only in the key events and issues of his time but of the Savior’s first coming and of those times leading up to his second coming.

But the means by which he wrote was in poetry. Primarily very little prose. Almost all of his book, nearly all of the 66 chapters, are in poetry. That’s how he presented his material, the format. Partially because the ancients were primarily an oral learning society.

Ken: I see. How did the poetry fit in?

Victor: Well think of words, say like in LDS hymns. You may not have a hymn book, but if you’re in a setting where they want to sing a hymn, you can sing along because you know the hymns;  they are in poetry; they are in music. So you’ve had the repetitions, and you can recall them.

That’s how they learned. They rarely would have written copies of the prophetic words. They certainly didn’t have internet or anything like that to look it up. They had to carry it around up here (pointing to head). It came primarily through the ears not through the eyes as they heard it.

Ken: How did how did the King James translators do with making sure the poetry survived in the translation?

Victor: Well for one the King James translation itself, little over four hundred years ago was prepared primarily to be read from the pulpit. Not read in the home because most the people were illiterate. So that’s why it has such a beautiful cadence and a rhythm. So it could be read, but it wasn’t a poetic style that has to do with sounds.

When we usually think of poetry, we think of the rhyme, stressed and unstressed, and meter, and all of these elements. It was called semantic parallelism. The semantics of something has to do with the meaning of something. It is not the sound, but it’s the idea’s message, the sense.

Now a good translator, if they are translating from one language to another, they are not concerned about how many syllables there are and whether they rhyme or not. They want the message to get across.

Any translation, not just the King James scholars, but any modern English translation or other foreign language translations like German, French or Spanish, they try to get those messages across. Then once you know about these patterns of this semantic parallelism, they’ll jump out at the page, and you’ll recognize it, whatever language you’re reading it in.

Synonymous parallelism occurs when a theme in the first line repeats itself in the second line but in slightly different words. For example:

(a) he was wounded for our transgressions,
(a’) he was bruised for our iniquities (Mosiah 14:5/Isaiah 53:5).

Here’s another:
(b) for my name’s sake will I defer mine anger, and
(b’) for my praise will I refrain from [cutting] thee . . . off (1 Nephi 20:9/Isaiah 48:9).1

Ken: I just read Unlocking Isaiah. You went into some depth about the different kinds of parallelism that occurs within Isaiah.  I had no idea I was lucky to understand the phrase parallelism. Then you gave me five or six variations on that. Can you just give us a quick overview of the different, not too in-depth, but kinds of parallelism?

Hebrew Parallelism: Synonymous 

Victor: Well, it is usually in couplets.  There are different ways these couplets connect with each other. They may be two different ways of saying the same message, like two different words that can be synonymous, like car and automobile. There are two different words but they mean the same thing.

Antithetic parallelism results when a thought in the second part of a couplet contrasts with a theme in the first. For example:

(a) I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High.
(b) Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit (2 Nephi 24:14–15/Isaiah 14:14–15).

Here’s another:
(a) Say unto the righteous that it is well with them; for they shall eat the fruit of their doings.
(b) Wo unto the wicked, for they shall perish; for the reward of their hands shall be upon them! (2 Nephi 13:10–11/Isaiah 3:10–11).

Here’s a noted example found in Isaiah but not in the Book of Mormon:
(a) If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the earth:
(b) but if you refuse and disobey, you will be devoured by the sword (Isaiah 1:19–20).2

Well, with these parallelisms there is usually a phrase or a verse or part of a verse and then it’s repeated again. If it’s the same message twice that would be a synonymous parallelism.

Hebrew Parallelism: Antithetic

On the other hand, when they contrast with each other, like in the book of Proverbs there’s a lot of antithetic parallelisms.

Like an antonym; opposite good and evil, happy and sad, the good man does this, the fool does that.

So two parallel ideas but contrasting with each other would be an antithetic parallelism.

Emblematic parallelism is when the ideas or concepts from two halves of one line or from two different lines are compared by means of a simile or metaphor. For example (with emblematic parallels shown in italics and comparative prepositions in bold):

(a – a’) All we, like sheep, have gone astray (Mosiah 14:6/Isaiah 53:6).

Another example:
(a – a’) Then had thy peace been as a river,
(a – a’) and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea (1 Nephi 20:18/Isaiah 48:18).3

Hebrew Parallelism: Emblematic

Another favorite common type is called emblematic parallelism. This is where one presents a symbol, then that symbol, the emblem, carries over into the other line. So then it’s usually joined with an English word like “thus and thus” is like this and that or “as” such and such is as thus and thus this and that.

Ken: So when you learn these tools you can start seeing what Isaiah was trying to share with us in the meaning.

Victor: Right, sometimes the meaning comes into focus if you hear it, and you hear it again.  The little more complicated types, they might have five or six types of parallelism.

A classic example from the New Testament, because it’s not just in the Old Testament, but through other writers of the Old Testament, you take the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount of the Savior: Blessed, blessed, blessed, they’re  beatitudes, so he’s trying to get a message across when he does it with eight different steps of… the world does this, but you have heard this, but if you do this…sort of thing, and that shows up later in the Sermon on the Mount as well, so it’s these parallelisms. By the time you put them together where it’s just two of them or a few of them or maybe a half a dozen or more of them…oh, okay, I think it’s finally starting to sink in.

Ken:  So, it takes a little bit more work than just reading it like a novel, doesn’t it?

Victor:  That’s right. Although it helps, like in some of the more modern English translations, if the poetry is printed in a poetic style. So, you see this stanza, this stanza, then you can immediately see, oh these belong together, and these belong together and then you can jump into it and try to tag what the message is.

Ken:  So, you can get copies of Isaiah that are written in more of a poetic format than they might find in the King James?

Victor: Yeah, because King James is just printed like it’s all prose.

Ken:  I see. Any come to mind that are your favorites? In fact, I understand you were pretty tied to the original Luther Bible having served a mission in Germany?

Victor:  I loved it. Luther did a marvelous job. Joseph Smith was very impressed with that translation. He was aware of it, he thought it was the best available at the time.

There were some excellent English ones. The New International version, there’s even a new King James version, there’s a number of them that any of them help because you don’t read them to replace the King James, but to compliment.

It’s kind of like having two eyes. We’ve got one neck, one chin, one mouth, one nose, but two eyes, and we don’t need them to see shape, we don’t need them to see color, but they give us depth perception.  Even though the eyes are fairly close together, they see things from two slightly different perspectives and it gives us depth perception. So, two similar, but different English versions of a particular verse, we see it from two different perspectives.

Ken:  So, there’s the surface reading where you just read it and then a comparative reading where you start comparing different versions, different expressions. So, there are many levels in Isaiah isn’t there? And, I remember, Nephi himself said he was taught in the way in the learning of the Jews.

The Manner of the Jews

Victor:  The manner of the Jews.

Ken:  Can you talk a little bit about that? What does that mean?

Victor:  Well, it would help to know Hebrew, but Leman and Lemuel knew Hebrew, but they didn’t understand.  It’s to appreciate that when a prophet is speaking as inspired through the spirit from the divine, that there are some key messages that are delivered. But those messages have to be filtered through our own perspective, background, learning experience, righteousness, sensitivity and so forth.

Now, Isaiah met a challenging audience of his time, of some great noble fellow prophets like Micah, King Josiah, and others. And yet there were bitter enemies of righteousness, even among the Jewish community.

Similarly, Jesus, when he’s teaching has great diversified types of people that he’s trying to communicate, not just in age and education, but spiritual and religious background. So, they each faced similar challenges, but they used two different ways of approaching that.

Jesus taught in parables. Simple. You can quickly and easily identify a moral lesson to the parable, but you have to stretch a little bit to see, well. Is there also a higher spiritual lesson in this particular parable and what might it be so that we’re not out in left field when the parable really should have us on a soccer field? So, he started with the simple parables, challenges us to build and search.

Likewise, Isaiah facing a similar challenge in complex audience, he spoke deliberately at this higher, sophisticated, poetic level. And so, we have to search and study and evaluate, and then we gradually begin to understand. But as we understand it, then we begin to appreciate the powerful message that is there.

Ken:  So, Lehi saw Jerusalem in flames and being destroyed. And he sent his family back to get the plates. They had to go back three times. They went back again for the family of Ishmael. Then they went out into the wilderness, eight years. And I’ve looked on Google maps. So that wasn’t an eight-year journey. I’m a slow walker, but we could have done it in half a year.

There were some things out there in that wilderness period of time that Nephi was learning.  He saw the vision of the Tree of Life that his father saw. An angel taught him about it. He saw visions of our day. He saw John the Revelator and, or rather his vision.

But yet in first Nephi 14, he was forbidden to tell us and then we don’t hear a lot more of the things he saw. Then he builds a ship, sails over here, and then all of a sudden, he inserts Isaiah. It’s like out of nowhere. Two full chapters. And then we have a little bit more commentary and then a big chunk of 2nd Nephi between Jacob and Nephi, is back to inserting Isaiah.

You know, just last week, President Oaks was quoting Christ where he said, we’re commanded to search diligently. It’s hard. Why was Isaiah inserted? Why’s it so important to our day, but so hard to read?  Was Nephi trying to tell us something?

Victor:  Well, he introduces it and then tells us different ways and reasons why Isaiah is important, and the Savior commands us to search Isaiah.

Isaiah again was a seer, a marvelous seer, not only of the early house of Israelite history of his own time but the key events of the Savior’s ministry as he came on earth. And then some of these key events of his second coming that are highlighted also in Isaiah, and important events leading up to that second coming.

In fact, in the scriptures, there are more prophecies about events leading up to the second coming, very few leading into, seeing into the second coming and that thousand years. We really aren’t quite sure what it’s really going to be like, but we get all these prophecies, from John and Isaiah and other Old Testament, New Testament prophets, even Joseph Smith, about these events leading up to the second coming.

Isaiah is one of the key ones that gives us those key events and issues and challenges leading up to the second coming so that we can better understand him, understand them, as we live in those time periods. But also maybe begin to appreciate how these things connect and although there may be some great times, there was also some dreadful times, but they’re part of the same seeing, leading up to the second coming.

Ken:  You’ve spent a big portion of your life studying and teaching Isaiah.  What has Isaiah and his writings meant to you?

Victor:  That’s a good question.  I see a man, although, we don’t know much about his personal family background, obviously well educated, a master of the Hebrew language. I mean he is to Hebrew, like Shakespeare is to English, like Goethe is to German. I mean a genius of composition and expression. It’s just very unique. But more than that, he has this keen visual insight starting with his very own calling, recorded in chapter six or chapter 16 in 2nd Nephi where he’s told to be difficult. Even deliberately difficult in his expression.

Ken:  Wow, and he did it.

Victor:  Oh, he’s done a good job. He’s done it. But, so that people can read it and they know the words. But you string them together and try to connect them and get the message out of it, that’s not so easy.  But that pondering is rewarded according to our diligent, intellectual and spiritual efforts in understanding.

Ken:  So, we have to pay the price.

Victor:  You have to put in the intellectual and spiritual energy to get the message out. And then with that, then it becomes easier and easier to understand because you recognize his patterns. You build upon this and that, and that leads to this and that, and all of a sudden, he’s not intimidating. Challenging still, yes, but he shouldn’t intimidate.

Ken:  Oh, wonderful. Well this great book, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer and Poet well both are great books, that book is on it’s like 15th printing?

Victor:  Oh, no it’s way past that.

Ken:  People didn’t think it was going to do as well as it’s done?

Victor:  Not initially, no.  But I mean, now you can, even if they don’t have it in stock, say at a Deseret book outlet or whatever, you can order it and every couple of weeks they electronically print more copies. Copies on demand: they’ll print it, bind it, ship it to you and, within two weeks.

But any rate. No, they questioned it when I had the Commissioners Research Fellowship and I had written an 1100-page manuscript during that year that they wanted to publish the material. Not all of it, but one of the editors went through the whole 1100 pages.

I reviewed them with him, and we sat down for a few days together. The two of us with our copy side by side, and it was amazing how often we agreed, well this part here, these three pages, we could condense it down to just this material here. Then we can skip this and do this and so that we would still retain, say 85 percent of the essential insights. But not have as many illustrations or examples, and just concentrate it.

Originally, they were planning to do 2000 copies, which for the time was very satisfying. But it was going to be the most expensive book they had printed up to then because I had alternate English translations for each chapter of Isaiah as a part of it. That way they could read the King James and be exposed to some of these other English translations.

And so, they thought, oh, we’ve got to do at least 3000 copies or we’re not going to make any money. And of course, they have to make money because they’re not subsidized by tithing or anything else. But they got a ridiculously cheap offer to print by a new printing press down in the south that had these big new printing presses and all these rolls of paper without much business. And so, they were quoting a ridiculously low per volume pricing. But you had to do, like in their case, at least 5,000 copies. But they realized the price per unit was so small, even if they only sold 3000, they’d still make money.  If they sold all 5000 then they really…well they sold 5,000 copies in about five weeks.

Ken:  Oh, my heavens. Wow. They went to town.

Victor:  And so, it hasn’t sold of course, that well since then, but especially every four years as we study Isaiah in the Old Testament, we have a revived interest and then intervene in every other year in between as we get a third of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.

That’s when we again get that feeling that, okay, maybe I better try to tackle it this time. You know, the word Isaiah, just to hear it, it’s kind of like hearing words like dentists, taxes, IRS. I know. I know, but oh, that hurts thinking about it, but again, it doesn’t need to be intimidating.

Ken:  Well thanks everybody. In our next episode with Victor, we’re going to talk about how to get ready. We’re coming into the Sunday school season again where Isaiah is about to be taught. So that’s our next episode. Join us. We’ll talk to you again soon.


Footnotes

1–3 Victor Ludlow, Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book

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4 COMMENTS

  1. This interview is just like his class at BYU. What is the “beautiful message” of Isaiah? Bro. Ludlow would never answer that question. He would simply restate that as you read and ponder the powerful message of Isaiah you will come to understand the Book better. I’ve read all of Ludlow’s books. In my opinion, they are foundational and good for the beginner.

    • You are correct, his materials probably are best for beginners in Isaiah, but that is where we all start. In ten months of working on this blog, I have concluded this about Isaiah’s beautiful message: his book is a first witness for Christ, before the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. As Elder Holland puts it, “Isaiah is by every standard the messianic prophet of the Old Testament and as such is the most penetrating prophetic voice in that record.” Beyond that, personally, I found renewed faith in the atonement and grace through my reading.

  2. Like most I understand the importance of the Book of Isaiah and his writings but I struggle to really understand. I am thankful for your work and sharing your knowledge and the wisdom of todays scholars.

  3. This man’s work, Victor Ludlow, makes Isaiah very understandable. Over the next few weeks, we hope to have five more vidcasts with him. We hope they help.

    Thank you for reading with us and hang in there. Ten months ago I had no idea what I didn’t know about Isaiah and now I know more, I know that I can know more. Pondering this prophet’s writings can really open one’s mind to things.

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