Insights Into Isaiah: The Man, The Mission, The Message


Richard Draper, Associate Dean of BYU Religious Education: Welcome to the first of our round table discussions, dealing with the book of Isaiah. With me today are three of my colleagues, Professor Robert Millett, Professor Ann Madson, and Professor Victor Ludlow. We are quite frankly, delighted to be a part of this round table discussion and to share with you our witness and testimony of the greatness of Isaiah, his mission, and his word.

We find that many Latter-day Saints have their first introduction to Isaiah, interestingly enough, not in the Bible, but in the book of Mormon. One of the tragedies, I feel is those who would counsel someone to skip through the Isaiah portions because they’re too deep or too difficult. These portions were put in the Book of Mormon for a reason.

And that reason we find at least in part in the Second Book of Nephi, the 11th chapter. I wonder if we could all go there and just take a look at this for a moment here.

Nephi tells us why it was that he inserted these wonderful chapters in verse 2:

“And now I, Nephi, write amore of the words of bIsaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily csaw my dRedeemer, even as I have seen him.”

So, wouldn’t you say that that’s probably the primary reason is; it’s the witness of Jesus Christ? That’s the reason he’s in there.

Also will, will we notice in verse 3, he writes:

“And my brother, Jacob, also has aseen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of bthree, God hath said, I will establish my word.

Why is it, if the testimony is so ringing here that people find Isaiah distant, in fact,  perceived as being very difficult, what would you say?

Victor Ludlow: I think, first of all, you’re talking of a prophet that lived 2,700 years ago, and a culture quite different than our own. In addition, he’s facing a situation with a rebellious Israel and a variety of challenges in his general relationship with Kings and with the people. But he’s using poetic patterns; he’s using symbols; and he’s using a historical context that we have a hard time relating to.

Robert Millet: Perhaps not too different than why we are fascinated by but understood little of the Book of Revelation. Different styles, different approaches, numbers, and strange beasts. And in this case, we’re talking symbolism.

We’re also talking about geography, with which most of us are totally unfamiliar. We’re talking about historical moments that we probably don’t know of. But we’re very familiar to Nephi. And so in his case, he loves reading about this.

And I’ve often thought about this way. Victor said 2,700 years removed from us, but only 150 years removed from the Nephites. So it’s as if Nephi looked to Isaiah like we look to the prophet, Joseph Smith.

Richard Draper: Yes, very good. Much more collapsed in time, right there.

Ann Madsen: Isaiah was already important to them. He already was loved by them.

But I think the fact that he writes symbolically is what puts most people off. We’re so worried when we look at something and it talks about a metaphor. We can relax about that if we just learn to see things in our minds. Let the metaphors speak to us; see a picture in our minds of what he’s saying; you can’t speed read Isaiah.

Richard Draper: So don’t impose the 20th century on a prophet from the first millennium BC.m Let him speak. Don’t resist him, let him speak to us. Right?

Victor Ludlow: But don’t be discouraged in this as Lamen and Lemuel, who had a hard time understanding Isaiah. And Nephi says it’s because they “understand not the manner of prophesy” and where we have additional prophets and scriptures, we have wonderful aids in our footnotes and the topical guide. We have tools available to us that they didn’t have available for them and other resources so this manner of prophecy is something that is a challenge, but it is something that’s very accessible to us with these tools and additional resources.

Robert Millet: He also says, and this doesn’t bar anybody, it may be difficult to some people, but it’s not difficult to those who are filled with the spirit of prophecy. Now that may frighten someone. But all that really means is the spirit of revelation.

That is, what our prayer becomes as we’re studying Isaiah is, “Please help me as best I can understand what Isaiah would’ve seen, what Isaiah would’ve understood, help me to see things from his perspective. And the only way that can ever happen to have that kind of spiritual empathy is by the holy ghost.

Ann Madsen: One of our best tools, I think, is the temple, which is a house of symbols. It’s full of symbols.

Latter-day Saints who attend the temple will find many things in Isaiah that a scholar across the world would never see. But because the temple has highlighted something for us. Then when we read it in Isaiah, (and those of you out there who are thinking, well, maybe I’ll try this now that they’re gonna help me with it a little bit), think about your temple experience and take Isaiah with you to the temple. In your mind and come back again and look at Isaiah with fresh eyes. It’s one of the tools that we have.

Richard Draper: Oh, good. Why don’t we now talk about the man, because another thing that, Nephi says is the reason he can understand it is because he’s familiar with the times and the places and so on. So Vic, open the door on Isaiah for us. Tell us about the man.

Victor Ludlow: Just in a quick perspective here. Within the old Testament, the basic storyline covers about 900 years from Moses, about 1300 BC to Malachi about 400 BC. And if you take that 900-year period and divide it into three-thirds, about 300 years into it as David, the golden age of Israelite history, we come into the next third around 700 BC.

This is when Isaiah is on the scene of history. So he is about two-thirds the way through the century. But before Isaiah were the great prophets, Elijah and Elijah; but contemporary prophets with Isaiah are people like Jonah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah.

So he’s not the only prophet at the time. And it was a time when the two kingdoms of Israel, the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the Southern kingdom of Judah had been coexisting for about 200 years.

I like to say like siblings that have to share a bedroom. Sometimes they are best of friends and sometimes the worst of enemies as it were. But it was a time, unfortunately, when Israel was about to scatter.

This Northern kingdom and the Israelites were about to scatter. The house of Israel had been together ever since the days of Jacob, whether it had been in Egypt, wandering through the wilderness or in their land as tribes, as two kingdoms, they had been together. But right in the middle of Isaiah’s ministry, they’re going to start to scatter among the nations. So this is the last great prophet to speak of all of assembled Israel.

Richard Draper: And maybe even trying to possibly warn them, such that the scattering doesn’t have to be inevitable. Although it’s almost, in the Northern kingdom, a kind done deal. Isn’t it?

Robert Mullet: My heart goes out. I think of these people like Isaiah or like a Mormon and a Moroni who know the inevitability of the outcome. And then like Mormon says, but we have a labor to perform. And Isaiah had a labor to perform in spite of what seemed to be the obvious destruction.

Ann Madsen: And you see Isaiah going through these cycles of saying, this is what is going to happen. You’re going to be scattered. You’re going to go throughout the world.

And then in the next breath, or just a little bit, and this is what makes it hard to read  I think sometimes too, he’ll say, but this wonderful thing is going to happen later. And then you go back again and you get a beautiful scene.

And so you go through the cycles of the judgments of God and then the blessings that will be there for the righteous. We can all identify with that. We are the children of Israel. We can identify with those blessings. And also with some of the other things, he puts us nose to nose with. He doesn’t let us off the hook.

Robert Millet: I think Richard, the other thing that we, we could touch on as to why Isaiah’s a little tougher to understand for many of us is, is because it, even though his ministry covers some, some 40 plus years, it’s not in chronological order. The writings themselves are not in chronological order.

I remember Bob Matthews saying that for him, it was like taking Joseph Fielding Smith’s three volumes of “Doctrines of Salvation,” cutting the spines off, and then shuffling the pages. Now, when you read, you got good stuff, but you turn the page and you say, oh, what happened? Where did that come?

And we have to know and recognize with the help of our, of our chronology chart in the Bible dictionary, which is very useful to be able to know when we’re suddenly in the days of Isaiah or we’re in the days of Ahaz and t to be able to know that we’re moving time periods.

Ann Madsen: And it’s really important. I think to get that framework in your head, to look at the Assyrian empire it’s as well, it’s not just ascending, it’s really at its ascendancy. And they need to know which are the big kingdoms and which are the little kingdoms. oab does not compare with Assyria. You need to know Egypt and Assyria are kind of coming together with all the little ones around. But each prophecy to the country sounds equally important.

Once you have that framework, then you really can put Isaiah in context usually. You can usually find, don’t you think, that you can find where he’s writing about then fits?

Victor Ludlow: (11:48)
I think so it’s, it’s kind of like when we take the, the writings of the modern prophets, like president Kimball or Benson or Hinckley and so forth, and, and they’re organized more topically, you don’t read them in the order in which he delivered them or in the church news, when we have these wonderful little excerpts of, of the different messages of the, of the living prophet, there were sometimes five, 10 years apart mm-hmm . And it’s interesting to see some things that were before nine 11 and after nine 11, there’s a little different tone of voice sometimes with some of the themes. And, and if you understood that in the historical context, then you could appreciate this, the subtleties and, and, and as we begin to open up this material in Isaiah we’re, we’re hoping our viewers will be able to see some of these subtleties and some of these frameworks to look at it so that it won’t be so intimidating for him. And

Speaker 4: (12:43)
The one thing that is a thread that goes through the whole book is Isaiah, the man it’s him himself, he himself, um, he, he mourns for the enemies that are gonna be destroyed. He said, you know of, and then he mourns for my people. He says, and you, you feel the deep devotion that he has to Jehovah, and yet his hurt and pain, as he has to tell them what’s gonna happen to them. You know, he, he tells in one part for the, for the, um, people of Judah to take in the Moabites who have already been overrun by the, as Syrians, uh, let them come in, bring in the refugees, you know, it’s, you can see this all the way through. You can find him here and there in the writings, but you have to be looking. And it’s one, it’s kind of a fun treasure hunt to look for Isaiah himself at the edges of his prophecies.

Speaker 1: (13:48)
Yeah. Very well. That brings us to, uh, to his mission. So why don’t we go over to chapter six and let, let’s take a look at, uh, at the call of Isaiah Anne, would you, uh, mind kind of putting chapter six in a, in a perspective about how old is Isaiah and, uh,

Speaker 4: (14:06)
I don’t know how old he was, but he was old enough by then.

Speaker 1: (14:08)
That’s that’s, that’s the right answer. He’s old enough. He’s not,

Speaker 4: (14:12)
Jeriah, he’s a young person. Who’s saying I’m too young. I can’t do this. Um, but he’s, and he’s also, I think if you wanna put it in context, you wanna talk about that. It takes place in the temple. Now my students often say, well, so was he in the temple? And I said, only if he was the high priest and they say, was he the high priest? No, he’s in the holy of Holies. I mean, he’s there. And, uh, and there, and he’s gonna have in the context, if you think of the way the temple looked at that time, it had a veil. It had the behind the veil was the mercy seat that acted as a throne for God, with the two chair, him touching their wings behind it, like a beautiful throne. And he at, at a moment and will read it in a minute, uh, uh, a little coal, like a coal that we would use for cookouts is taken with tongs that are always in the temple for this purpose and taken just on the other side of the veil. Yeah, just on the other side of the veil. And, and that’s touched to his lips. This is, we’ll talk about that. I don’t wanna take that until we let’s read his real words.

Speaker 1: (15:26)
Yeah. Why, why don’t we just, uh, go ahead and, uh, just take a look here at verse one in the year that king U Isaiah died. I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up and his train filled the temple. Probably if there’s one thing we can say about Isaiah is he saw right. He is a sea. Well,

Speaker 2: (15:47)
When this vision opens up and he sees these things and there’s all kinds of things in his field of vision, but the most impressive thing, the thing that immediately rivets his attention, I saw the Lord. Yeah. And then his other physical senses come into play. He sees these sheriffs and he hears them and he feels things, but, uh, his he’s in it, his whole body is in and he sees, he feels

Speaker 3: (16:12)
What I think scholars have called a throne. Theophany this is a, this is a situation where a person is caught up to the throne of God to receive their mission and their commission. That is the instructions come. And it, in this case, like with Ezekiel, it comes in a very dramatic, colorful way with, with tariffs and, and, and flames and, and so forth.

Speaker 4: (16:32)
And he’s right there in the temple. I mean, in his either, if it’s a vision or if he’s been brought there, he’s in the holy temple, he’s in the place that is thought to be the holiest. And it’s the Joseph Smith. It’s, A’s a, theophany, it’s a, oh,

Speaker 3: (16:51)
Well, it’s Moses saying. And now I know that yes, man is nothing, which thing I never had suppose notice it’s as they cry out. Holy holy, holy verse three. Now

Speaker 1: (17:01)
This is the Sarah theme,

Speaker 3: (17:02)
Right? Yeah. Is the Lord of host. I mean, inevitably, you’re going to, if you’re human feel your own sense of inadequacy, which is what Moses felt, which is what Joseph Smith felt, which is what every person who has been caught up to God’s presence must surely feel

Speaker 2: (17:16)
That’s right. And this repetition of, of the holy holy holy, I mean, holy is something or someone that is consecrated for a sacred purpose set apart. And, and, and the threefold repetition is their way of putting it into the superlative. I mean, he’s not just holy, he’s not a lot. Holy. He is the most holy one. And he has been consecrated for a sacred purpose. And, and then apparently just as, as all of this is happening among him, Isaiah realizes he’s in this state of, of this perfect being and he is far from perfect. And so it’s almost sad that here’s this wonderful, powerful, spiritual experience opening up. But the first feeling that really hits him hard is fear. Whoa, it’s me. I’m undo. I’m unclean. I live among unclean people. Uh, oh my, why am I here? I’m about ready to be destroyed. I’m not worthy to be here. And this should be a beautiful experience. And he’s in its fear is, is the first

Speaker 1: (18:13)
What’s interesting is, is this is not a bad man. I mean, we, we could expect a bad man to feel these things. This is a very good man. And yet still overwhelmed by the holiness of the Lord,

Speaker 3: (18:25)
Which, which, which makes this all the more important as a calling. In other words, when Isaiah leaves this experience, he is never the same. Mm-hmm . And I think that’s, what’s so important about profits when they’re called after that calling, they never see things the same way.

Speaker 1: (18:39)
And you were, you had an insight, I think.

Speaker 4: (18:41)
Well, I, I just had one other little key to give our listeners that when we see capital L capital O capital R capital D in the king James version, that means Jehovah. That means JWE. That means Jesus Christ for us as latter day saints. So holy holy, holy is Jehovah Jehovah of hosts. And that would be subtle. It would be Jehovah of hosts and host, connoting the symbol of armies and, and power angelic

Speaker 2: (19:11)

Speaker 4: (19:12)
Yes. Angelic hosts. And I, I think, you know that whenever I read this, I, I feel differently about it. I try to think, what did he really feel like? And I think we’ve talked about it. He felt guilty. He felt dirty. He felt not clean enough to be there, but I bet there was more to it than that. I bet there was a joy and a, and an amazement, like when job says, finally I saw the Lord, you know, I finally found him,

Speaker 1: (19:40)
Or at least there will be once, once we get through verse seven, right? I mean, there’s, there’s gonna be something happen.

Speaker 4: (19:45)
The other comment I had to say about that was that when, when thes Feme are saying, holy cut to each other, um, I remember once when I read it and I thought they know who Jehovah is, they know about the atonement. That’s why their praising, when I was younger and read the scriptures, I thought, why is there so much praise? Why is everybody always saying, hallelujah, ho I think as I’m older, that I understand why there’s so much praise.

Speaker 3: (20:19)
Well, look how the book of revelation, that the beautiful language, where they sing out worthy is the lamb is the

Speaker 4: (20:24)
Lamb always

Speaker 2: (20:25)
Increasing multitudes. And so,

Speaker 4: (20:27)
Yeah. Yeah. That’s beautiful. Okay. I’m sorry. But

Speaker 2: (20:30)
He won, he won’t stay in this state. Fortunately, uh, as we mentioned earlier, one of the sariffs takes a coal from the altar and touches his lips. Now that’s interesting. I, I picture a sheriff being this larger than life hovering in the air, kind of an agelic animal, creature

Speaker 1: (20:46)
We or something. Yeah.

Speaker 2: (20:47)
And you would think, you’d think his, his head or shoulder or heart, but he touches his lips. And I think there’s some beautiful symbolism there. Oh yes. I mean, first of all, Isaiah earlier had said was me, I’m a man of unclean lips. Uh, well, that’s in verse five where he says this, but then when he’s touched here, his mouth in verse seven and touched my lips, then the inequity, well, he had used lips as a symbol of uncleanliness. So if, if we clean your lips then symbolically your whole bodyc, but

Speaker 3: (21:18)
Like what I was gonna say, like what the Lord said to Eena in his case, open your mouth and I’ll fill it. Right. You know, because

Speaker 2: (21:25)
He’s gonna be a mouthpiece. And so lips and mouth and the spokesman and all of that is also very symbolic as he’s about ready to be called as a mouthpiece or profitable.

Speaker 1: (21:35)
I’ll do it. Go

Speaker 4: (21:36)
Ahead. No, no, I’m sorry. Well, I’s just, I get to excited.

Speaker 1: (21:39)
I was just going to say that it is interesting. You mentioned holy, holy holy in relation to the atonement. Well, we here, we see the power of that atonement actually coming on Isaiah as his, he is purged. He has cleansed at this particular moment. It is interesting too, that when Isaiah receives the, the cleansing, then the Lord says, who shall I send? And Isaiah’s ready. Uh, send me. And then of course, we come to the mission, the actual mission itself.

Speaker 4: (22:08)
And then he said, here, am I send me, hi, the me?

Speaker 1: (22:11)
Yeah, here am I send me

Speaker 4: (22:12)
The interesting thing about that is that later in the end of Isaiah, the Lord says that back. Yep. To him. And here am I.

Speaker 2: (22:20)
And in this charge that he receives in verses nine and 10, this is one passage. One will want to compare in second, ne I 16, where it’s clarified a little bit where Isaiah, isn’t just told to tell the people to hear, but not understand, but no he’s told to tell the people here, but the Lord tells him, but they will not understand. See, but they will not perceive. And so that verse change, the next verse is basically the same. A challenge of making things difficult may be even deliberately difficult. It’s interesting. Some 700 years later, the savior uses this same phraseology to describe to his disciples why he starts speaking in parables. So they will hear, but they’re not gonna be held completely accountable. They’re going to have to have well, as we talked about earlier, some of these gifts of testimony of prophecy, of, of, of other resources to understand you get the message out there. They won’t necessarily understand it because the way you’re going to express it, Jesus used simple parables. Isaiah used symbolic poetry, both of them with the same end in mind, I’ll present the message and they can pick it out according to their level of understanding,

Speaker 1: (23:34)
Which is important. Go, go ahead, Ella.

Speaker 4: (23:36)
I just wanted to give you the SEP agent that puts the flesh on the bones that he just gave us. It says you will ever be hearing, but never understanding. It’s descriptive. You will ever be seeing, but never perceiving this people’s heart has become callous. They hardly hear with their ears and they have closed their eyes. So it’s descriptive instead of imperative. Yeah. So

Speaker 1: (23:59)
This is from

Speaker 4: (24:00)
The Greek translation, the Greek Greek translation in the SEP two.

Speaker 1: (24:02)
So what, what we’ve got is Israel, is it a POS in a position where one more rejection of God’s word is gonna tip them into the abyss? What’s interesting is the Lord sends Isaiah not to withhold the gospel message, but proclaim it in a very powerful way. And the question is, why would the Lord do that? And the answer is the only thing that can save them is the very thing that will condemn them. But if the Lord does not give them the message, then he can be impugned. His righteousness can give, he has left

Speaker 4: (24:34)

Speaker 1: (24:34)
With excuse. Exactly, exactly. Right. And the Lord always saves his face. All right. He is the one who can be trusted and therefore, by giving them the message, then these people have only themselves to blame for what will

Speaker 4: (24:47)
Happen. And he send this great profit to do

Speaker 1: (24:49)
It. Exactly. Right. So thank you very much. It’s been good to be with you to me. You too.

Speaker 6: (24:57)
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Dr. Victor L. Ludlow is a scholar of Isaiah and Judaism. He graduated with high honors from BYU and was a Danforth Fellow at Harvard and Brandeis Universities, where he received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology. He has authored numerous articles and the books: Unlocking the Old Testament; Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet; Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel; and Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. His most recent audio lecture is “Latter-day Insights: The Middle East.” Courses Taught: Writings of Isaiah, Judaism and the Gospel, Book of Mormon, Old Testament Areas of Expertise: Professor Ludlow's scholarship explores the areas of Bible studies, the Middle East, Jewish history and theology, and comparative Latter-day Saint theology, with a special emphasis upon covenants. Areas of Research: Isaiah, Covenants, Judaism, History of the House of Israel, Agency, Gospel Principles Languages: German (fluent), Hebrew (reading), some Arabic, French, and Latin


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