Insights Into Isaiah: A Light to the Gentiles Isaiah 48 through 54

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Victor: Greetings. I’m Victor Ludlow, a professor of ancient scripture here at BYU, and we’d like to welcome you to our discussion of the chapters of Isaiah. With me today are some of my colleagues from BYU across the table is Jeff Chadwick, who is actually from our church history department, a specialist in the Middle East. Welcome. To his right, is Richard Draper, who is one of our new testament scholars here in the college, and we welcome you Richard.
Richard: It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
Victor: And Paul Hoskisson and I are longtime friends. He’s one of our greatest in ancient near eastern linguists on our faculty. We’re glad to have you with us today.
Paul: It’s good to be here.
Victor: Today, we’re going to continue our discussion of some Isaiah chapters that are found in the book of Mormon. It’s the second major set of books of Mormon chapters. We’re all usually familiar that there was a big block of Isaiah, specifically chapters 2 through 14 that are quoted there in second Nephi, but these chapters 48 through 54 are also found, all of them in the book of Mormon. It’s just that they’re are scattered through different books as quoted and cited by different individuals. We just got into these chapters in the last round table discussion with chapter 48, which along with chapter 49 where we’ll begin today, was quoted by Nephi in 1st Nephi. And this was right after Lehi and his family had arrived in the new world, and as we made some comparisons, chapters 48 and 49 deal with covenant Israel and covenant blessings with covenant warnings that are given in these chapters. Apparently, they were developed by Isaiah to help teach the southern kingdom of Judah after the northern tribes of Israel were taken by the Assyrians, after Assyria had actually attacked and almost destroyed Judah. He wanted Judah to begin as a covenant people and so he gave them some important teachings that Nephi saw relevance and application to his people in the new world, they’d also undergone some great challenges making their way to their new land of destiny. Now chapter 49 is where he addresses Covenant Israel, almost like in a court setting with some different statements and accusations. And to set the stage for this, let’s just take a minute and talk about some of the basic elements of a covenant, and of a covenant people, because you’ll find all of these elements in these two chapters, 48 and 49. In fact, they’re almost like a reader’s digest, condensed version of the book of Deuteronomy where Moses is trying to do the same thing. And the basic elements of a covenant or an introduction of the covenant parties, there’s some type of a historical context that is presented. There are certain stipulations, conditions of the covenant that are laid out. There’s some type of ordinances or rights associated with the formal institution of the covenant, such as baptism that’s mentioned at the beginning of chapter 48.
Paul: And in the Old Testament there would’ve been some kind of sacrificial offering or something of that time.
Victor: Right. This idea of cutting the covenants, the slaughtering of a sacrificial animal or something. But then there are certain consequences of the covenant that are laid out. And this is particularly in chapter 49, there are witnesses that are called forth and are a part of the whole covenant process and then the idea that it’s in the record, it’s in the scripture, this idea of perpetuation and continuation is a part of it.
Richard: You might want to just point out too Vic, that this contains a covenant, not an agreement. That an agreement is equal to equal party situation, where a covenant is something that is imposed by one who is over, and the people have the right to accept or reject the covenant, albeit with consequence in each instance.
Victor: Right. And so, it’s a solemn agreement, I guess we could say where it initiates with the divine and it’s here with the people. Now, one of the problems that I think Bible readers and Latter-Day Saints have with these Isaiah passages are not just what’s there, but how it’s presented. Paul help us understand how is it that Isaiah packages this in such great literary form and yet it’s so frustrating for us to try to understand it.
Paul: Isaiah is probably one of the greatest poets who ever lived. If you read Shakespeare or Gerta or Pushkin, or even Omar Khayyam, you have wonderful literature, but Isaiah is every bit as good a poet as any of those, but he’s talking about sacred things which makes him, in my mind anyway, much more of a poet and much more important as a writer than any of the others. And as he says in chapter 50, this is an introduction to the section of Isaiah. “The Lord hath given me the tongue of the learned that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.” The Joseph Smith translation adds a little bit there. It says, “to speak a word in season unto Thee, o House of Israel when ye are weary.” Isaiah is calling, as to speak to Israel when it is weary, when it has forsaken the Lord. And try and cheer them up and say, hey, there’s a better way. Now to do this, he’s got to be careful not to offend anybody by being too explicit about the kinds of things that Israel had rebelled against, too explicit about the Messiah, and who he is going to be. So, Isaiah is going to use a lot of big words, even in Hebrew, and he’s going to use some beautiful illusions and allusions and metaphors and allegory to get across his point. And one of them is the one that you’re talking about there that you just mentioned Victor, about the covenant that is made. So, if you go back to chapter 49, verse 3, this is introduced as the kind of covenant that you mentioned Richard here, “thou art my servant O Israel in whom I will be glorified.” The relationship is spelled out there, Israel is the servant, God is the master.
Victor: Very important. These first few verses here also are a part of one of these servant songs that have been mentioned earlier. We found the first example of this back with chapter 42. This is the second one. It basically goes through these first verses of chapter 49. Help us out Jeff. What is a servant song or who could be this servant?
Jeff: Well, one of the things we have to remember about Isaiah when we read Isaiah and we see this also in the other books of the Old Testament. It was the manner of prophesying among the Jews that Nephi talked so much about in second Nephi, 25. That is that these prophecies and even the symbols and the metaphors in them are very often interpretable on multiple levels. When I teach Isaiah in a classroom, I like to say Isaiah is a multiple use profit and so is much of the Old Testament. So, the servant in these servant poems or these servant songs can be interpreted, I think primarily, as the Messiah of Israel, Jesus Christ.
Victor: The servant of all servants.
Jeff: Sure, but because he is the King of Israel, he is inherently part of Israel and even reflective of Israel so that the servant can also be interpreted as Israel itself doing the work of the Lord. And in Isaiah 49, the first few verses, what we specifically see is the servant speaking as Israel. Israel is personified as a person and in fact you have Israel, speaking to Israel, almost like the servant here is speaking to his own alter ego. And what we have here happening is essentially a personified triumphant Israel, who knows the end from the beginning. Speaking to Israel in around 700 BC that’s been beaten down and deported and only Jerusalem has been left of it. So triumphant Israel in 49, is speaking to downtrodden Israel, telling it, the day of your redemption and restoration will come.
Richard: You might want to point out too, that the transition is between verse 3 and 4, when the Lord says in Verse 3, “Thou art my servant O Israel,” he is talking about this Latter Day, strong, vibrant, righteous Israel. And then that Israel then responds with verse 4,”I have labored in vain, I’ve spent my strength for naught, and in vain: yet surely judgment is with the Lord and my work with my God.” You see the labor that has been given and not successful. And yet this positive Israel knows that there’s going to be a tremendous outcome in the end, and then we pick up that momentum from there.
Victor: Let me just shed another little dimension on this verse 3 that we’ve all loved and quoted here. “Thou art my servant O Israel.” Now, Israel literally means one who prevails with God, with Elohim and so yes it applies to his son that definitely prevails with the Father, but also with a covenant people who can prevail like Abraham, like Jacob and others who could prevail with God, and receive certain promises and blessings. So, this could expand not only to ancient Israel, but could apply to those of modern covenant Israel if they are honoring their covenant, they can prevail with God. They can be a true Israel one who prevails with God, but as you mentioned there, Richard, unfortunately verse 4, we often feel like we have done a lot of work in raising families, home teaching, and it just doesn’t seem to be appreciated. So, it’s not only the ancient prophets that felt frustrated as a servant of the Lord.
Jeff: That’s downtrodden Israel speaking in verse 4, I’ve labored, and it’s been in vain, but it’s triumphant Israel that understands the end from the beginning, that’s speaking in verses 1, 2 and 3, saying, “the Lord has called me from afar, from my mother’s womb.” And in verse 2, we have that beautiful illusion to Israel when it understands its destiny being a polished shaft in the quiver of the Lord.
Paul: I think it’s important here to realize also that, the Israel that understands and that is going to fulfill all of this is now, it’s today. It’s the Israel of today, which is saying, this will all come to fruition. Don’t worry about your troubles back in 700 BC. It’s going to work out in the end.
Richard: And I really like that coming out of verse 5, “And now, saith the Lord that formed me from the womb, to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him.” So, the modern Israel’s job is to reach out to the whole house of Israel and to bring them forward, to bring them into the kingdom to bring them to Latter Day Messiah.
Jeff: Right. It’s interesting too, that one of the greatest prophets of Israel ever to live, speaking now, not of Isaiah, but Joseph Smith used verse 2, when referring to himself. He called himself a polished shaft in the quiver of the Lord.
Victor: I like the way Joseph expresses this, and he obviously is using some of the imagery of this verse in his teachings. He says, “I am like a huge rough stone rolling down from a high mountain, and the only polishing I get, is once when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priest craft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women.” He summarizes, “All hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus, I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.” Just like this imagery there, where the Lord has hidden him in his quiver, ready to come forth and do the great work that he was able to do.
Jeff: It’s interesting, the Prophet Joseph Smith seems to have done just what the Savior commanded, and that is to search Isaiah diligently because not only in his own teachings, but in the revelations that come through him in the doctrine and covenants. There is more imagery from the book of Isaiah in Joseph Smith’s literary donations or contributions to us than almost any other biblical source. Can I just mention something before we run onto, because chapter 49, we wouldn’t want to miss that great imagery of the gathering? That’s the whole point. Victorious Israel knows and is telling downtrodden Israel, just wait In the Latter Days, you’ll be gathered. And starting at verse 12, we see in the Latter Days, places where that gathering will come from. Verse 12 says, “Behold, these,” referring to returning Israel, “shall come from far, lo, these from the north and from the west and these from the land of Sinim.” Which by the way, is just a transliterated Hebrew word? And in modern Hebrew, the word Sinim is China. In modern terms, it will be the land of the Chinese, but the nation state system that we have today didn’t exist in those days. And the land of Sinim, in Isaiah is a reference to the Far East. In other words, Israel would come back from where they had scattered too, which was not just Assyria, but over into East Asia, into North Asia and of course, west into Europe. And from there all over the world, the gathering of Israel is to be worldwide because that’s where the Lord scattered them.
Richard: Just one other point, very briefly Vic, is in verse 6, we see that the raising is not just to the tribes of Jacob, but as the Lord says, “I will also give thee for a light to the gentiles.” So, we see the leavening of the Gospel through Israel to all the world.
Paul: And captive Israel is mentioned again in verse 24 – at the end of the chapter, “Shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captive delivered.” The answer, of course for Isaiah is Absolutely. And so, you get them in chapter 50, the resumption of the covenant that you talked about earlier, except this time in the metaphor of the relationship between a husband and a wife.
Victor: Let’s move on to the chapters 50 and 51. We’ll maybe discuss them as a set here, because that’s how they’re presented in the Book of Mormon. They’re actually the first Isaiah chapters to be quoted in 2nd Nephi. This was earlier in 2nd Nephi, where Jacob is speaking, and Nephi includes that in his writings here. So, you might not recognize this in your Bible text here, because unfortunately they don’t have the references here. I’ve written them in here and I noticed some of you had done the same thing.
Jeff: I wrote mine right in my chapter heading, where you would normally expect to see it. 2nd Nephi 7.
Paul: The footnote has it though. The footnote has the reference to chapter 7.
Victor: It has the reference there, but I put up here in the chapter heading because chapter 50 is 2nd Nephi 7, and chapter 51 is 2nd Nephi 8. What about this reference of, I mean, there was a prophet contemporary with Isaiah that talked about a woman and a covenant and going astray and coming back. What is this imagery of divorce, marriage is representing Israel here, that we find in these chapters?
Paul: The longest version of it is in Ezekiel 16, but I think we can shorten it a lot and say that throughout the scriptures, the Old Testament, New Testament and on into the doctrine and covenants, this metaphor of the God of Israel being the husband, and Israel being the bride…
Jeff: Or the church in the New Testament.
Paul: Or the church, in the New Testament. The church in Latter Days, as being the bride, invited to the wedding feast, is used here as a metaphor of the relationship between the church and Israel that is the church/Israel and God. And Paul uses that of course, again, to talk about the relationship between Christ and the church and so on and so forth. And the question now is, this downtrodden Israel, who has abandoned her husband, the Lord comes to her and says, “Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement?” And the answer of course is, there isn’t one. There has never been a divorce. God is still the husband in this metaphor, and to whom have I put your way, well, I didn’t put your way and I didn’t sell any of my creditors. And those days you could sell your wife or your children to pay off your debts and he doesn’t do that. God doesn’t do that. So, the answer is, they’re still married, and God is going to take his wife back in the latter days when she becomes triumphant.
Jeff: If Israel feels distant from the Lord, if we feel distant from the Lord, it’s not because the Lord has sent us away, as it says in chapter 50, verse 1, “Behold for your iniquities, you have sold yourselves.” If we ever get distant from God, we have to ask ourselves, who moved?
Richard: Let me just point out one thing, just a textural kind of thing, and that is in verse 1 we have the Lord speaking. That really isn’t a transition into verse 2, and therefore it can be read as though it’s the Lord that’s continuing to speak, but what we have here is the servant’s response to what the Lord says in verse 1, so it is the servant that’s saying, “Wherefore when I came, there was no man when I called, there was none to answer.” So, again we have this idea of the servant responding. The Lord’s made these promises and initially it looks like they haven’t come to pass, and yet as the servant moves on, wow, the Lord really has done it all.
Jeff: And you see that it’s the servant speaking as you look at verse 5 and 6, because it’s definitely in that voice. “The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.”
Paul: And one of the problems that Israel has had, is I think is brought out in verse 11 at the end of the chapter. “They’ve tried to kindle a fire themselves and to live by the light of this fire which they have lit rather than living by the light which the Lord wanted to provide them.” In the latter days, that fire is going to be eclipsed by the restoration.
Victor: So, right in the middle of this chapter, we just have to clarify, we do have another one of these little servant songs or poems, verses 4 through 9 that is kind of the pivotal point of this chapter, as Israel is trying to come back into a covenant relationship and instead of just living by its own light or whatever. Now in chapter 51…
Jeff: Vic, before we run, let’s just point out, that servant and what he says he’s done in verse 6 of Chapter 50, “I gave my back to the smiters, my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” And while that’s clearly representing Israel and the indignities it suffers in order to be a light to the gentiles, it’s a great foreshadowing of what the King of Israel, the Messiah did, relating strongly to the mistreatment of the Savior in Matthew 27, when he was beaten and even spit upon.
Victor: Exactly. Alright. Chapter 51 and the last chapter that Jacob quoted there, is found in 2nd Nephi 8. To me, it seems like we’ve got a little more hope out of this chapter. A little something, a little more positive that Israel can look forward to.
Richard: In fact, I call this the beckoning chapter, okay. This is because of what the Messiah’s done, this is what you are to do. You are to harken, you are to listen. You are to awake. So, the Lord’s really pulling them in on this one. They are some concrete things you need to do now.
Jeff: It’s interesting too, that it seems to be addressing the gentile nations, I mean Israel is calling out to scattered Israel, but it’s addressing it as if it doesn’t know who it is, as if it’s a gentile nation. Verse 1 of 51, “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look to the rock from whence you’re hewn, to the hole out of which you’ve been digged.” Verse 2, “Look to Abraham, your father and to Sarah that bare you.” The whole really has this lineage and doesn’t know it, but that’s where we have to have them look back to the Israelite covenant if they’re to be gathered to the Gospel, and in verse 2 he says, “I called him alone and blessed him and increased him.” The promise to Abraham was that through him and his seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed, and we’re seeing that in these days.
Richard: Exactly, and not only that, we were seeing the outgrowth of that in verse 3, that beginning word for is causal for this reason – that Zion shall be comforted, that Zion is going to come forth, there’s going to be a real power here in the last days.
Jeff: And those elements that seem to go together with the restoration of different branches of the House of Israel, whether it’s Judah or whether it’s the gathering of the Latter-Day Saints in Verse 3, we see waste places being comforted. The wilderness being like Eden, the desert becoming like the garden of the Lord.
Paul: And that which has been done to downtrodden Israel will eventually be turned around and given to the gentiles who have been the oppressors of the House of Israel as it mentions there, beginning in verse 17, at the end of the chapter.
Victor: And again, in verses 18 and 19, the idea of not only gathering, but in the book of Mormon it mentions a couple, 2 sons that come forth, you’ll notice some cross references to Revelation referring to 2 servants of the Lord in Jerusalem in the last days. I mean, there’s obviously… God has set some things apart for Israel to receive in the last days and there are going to be some powerful, wonderful servants who were going to help bring this about. Anything else that you would like to highlight here as we finish these chapters 49 through 51 here today?
Jeff: We know as we start to wrap up, we have to try and think, what is this group of chapters telling us? And it’s really telling us that the Lord, of course, knew and designed the end from the beginning and by personifying the people of Israel, as a person talking to its own downtrodden self, the Lord is telling us through Isaiah that we need to have our hearts be cheered. We need to consider ourselves comforted and blessed because indeed his hand is reaching forth to gather Israel from all nations. And I think that’s summarized best maybe in chapter 51, verse 11, “therefore, the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their head and they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.” And then maybe just one other one in verse 15 and 16, “I am the Lord, thy God that divided the sea, hearkening back to the origin of the people of Israel,” coming through the Red Sea with Moses. Well those were our ancestors, every bit as much as they were the ancestors of the Jewish people. And that Israelite heritage goes back for many people of the world, if they only knew, if they would only accept the covenant. Verse 16, “I’ve put my words in thy mouth, I’ve covered thee in the shadow of my hand, that I may plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth and sand design thou art my people.”
Richard: Sure, that’s exactly what it’s all about, is to show that the covenant is still in effect that you have said already Paul. The marriage was never dissolved, it was a separation but not a divorce. And therefore, you still are my people and you need to come to me and if you’ll come to me again, I will be your God. You will be my people. We’re never allowed to forget that.
Victor: In fact, the verse you quoted earlier Jeff, verse 11, chapter 51, “Therefore the redeemed of Israel shall return.” Am I wrong to assume that this return could be not just a physical return, but return like a spiritual repenting, turning around, turning back to the Lord…
Jeff: That’s the nature of the return…
Paul: The JST adds a little sentence, a little phrase in there that emphasizes that they will return with singing unto Zion an everlasting joy, and holiness shall be upon their heads. That holiness is what it’s all about.
Jeff: Because the return of lost Israel is to come to the covenant of Israel, which is the restored Gospel. So, repentance and baptism is the act of returning and being gathered to those who are gathered of lost Israel.
Victor: Well, in fact, the term holiness actually describes a people that have been consecrated for a sacred purpose, and you’re not really consecrated for a sacred purpose if you haven’t entered into a covenant and that covenant has been accepted by the covenant granting party through some type of verification through the spirit, and obviously Isaiah had that spirit and understanding and although his words may be difficult, thank you for your help in letting us try to understand his words today. Thank you.

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1 COMMENT

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    In December of 2017, Donald Trump made history by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Why is this big news? Because by this the Jewish people of Israel are now able to press forward in bringing about the Third Temple prophesied in the Bible.

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