Book Review: Joseph Spencer’s “The Vision of All” Part I, A Commentary on Nephi’s Isaiah

I’m always grateful for an honest attempt to explain Isaiah to us lay members of the Church. When reading the Book of Mormon, it is made clear that understanding Isaiah is absolutely vital. But the moment we hit 2 Nephi’s extensive quoting of Isaiah, we give up. We’re caught in this endless conundrum, always feeling a little guilty for not caring enough to do a deep dive. Spencer explains the problem well at the beginning of his lecture series:

Well, we can’t [ignore Isaiah]. Instead, we tend to develop one of two problematic relationships to Isaiah. Either we feel a kind of guilt about the fact that we don’t give much attention to Isaiah’s writings, or we feel a kind of pride about how hard we work at understanding Isaiah. Nephi says that “the words of Isaiah . . . are plain unto all they that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Ne. 25:4), so we either fret and worry that we’re not spiritual enough to have that gift, or we pat ourselves on the back since the work we’ve put into understanding Isaiah seems to mean that we’re worthy of that gift. Let’s call this the Isaiah complex, an illness peculiar to those who cherish the Book of Mormon. My aim, over the twenty-five lectures you’ve volunteered to sit through, is to start the process of healing that illness.

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I have made my attempts at tackling Isaiah, but I just never felt like I had enough resources to do it justice. I relied on a few commentaries (I tried to use “Isaiah for Airheads” by John Bytheway, but I gave up on it. It doesn’t do it justice!). Perhaps I’m just to lazy to think independently for myself! But Spencer sympathizes, in passing calling out all the Sunday School teachers who have ever swept the Isaiah chapters under the rug:

Let’s get started, but let me first explain what we won’t be doing with Isaiah 2–14 or 2 Nephi 12–24. We won’t be skipping over these chapters in order to focus all of our attention just on 2 Nephi 25:1–8 while leaving most of the hard work for you to do on your own. Have you ever noticed how often people do that? If you’re familiar with Book of Mormon commentary, you’ll know that this is the usual move: to cover thirteen chapters of Isaiah in just a couple of pages, and then to follow that with a longer, closer reading of Nephi’s so-called “keys” to reading Isaiah. Do you remember that passage at the opening of 2 Nephi 25? It’s all the Sunday School lesson on the Isaiah chapters focuses on every four years also. There Nephi says a bit about knowing geography and history, about having the spirit of prophecy, about living in the last days, and so on—and all these things are supposed to help make sense of Isaiah. So teachers and commentators tend to give their attention just to what Nephi says there, recommending these “keys” as the way in to Isaiah. Now, I don’t know about you, but that always rubs me the wrong way. If someone can’t provide me with some solid commentary on Isaiah’s actual writings, why should I trust his or her commentary on Nephi’s keys for understanding Isaiah?

I have had one other commentary on Isaiah that I found very engaging by Denver Snuffer, “Nephi’s Isaiah.” He interprets Nephi’s extensive quoting of Isaiah slightly differently than Spencer. He takes a key verse of Nephi’s for interpreting the included quotes:

“And behold, the things which this apostle of the Lamb [John the Revelator] shall write are many things which thou hast seen; and behold, the remainder shalt thou see. But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write; for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them. And also others who have been, to them hath he shown all things, and they have written them; and they are sealed up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the Lamb, in the own due time of the Lord, unto the house of Israel.”

Like other prophets before and after him, Nephi was able to see in one grand vision the history of the entire world. But he was commanded not to write of it in its entirely; that was reserved for John the Revelator. To get around this strict command, Nephi chooses to quote someone else who had already written on the subject: Isaiah. Interesting interpretation, and one that asks us to take Isaiah seriously.

Spencer argues that Nephi’s quoting of Isaiah has a different purpose, and one that fits into the overall purpose of the Book of Mormon as a whole: to restore Christianity to its foundations in the Abrahamic convenant. Isaiah is one of the best commentaries on the Abrahamic covenant, and Spencer explains how the Bible in the hands of the Gentiles removed that foundational element.

The book is arranged in a series of lectures that appear to be taken from an actual lecture series in a class. As such, they are conversational in nature, but very well-done. I appreciate the ease with which they can be understood. It is good to have a copy of your scriptures by so you can follow along in the Book of Mormon.

One of the best things I found that Spencer does is help give the reader some structure around the Isaiah chapters, as well as First and Second Nephi. Some of the profound things I learned were:

  • 2 Nephi 6-30 are “the more sacred things” that Nephi was commanded to write. 1 Nephi and the introduction to 2 Nephi was context that Nephi wasn’t commanded to write by the Lord, but supporting context that he thought would help his descendants understand Isaiah.
  • 1 Nephi is divided into two parts: Chapters 1-9 are a summary of the lost Book of Lehi, and Chapters 10-22 are an account of his own reign and ministry not found in the Book of Lehi.
  • The two halves of 1 Nephi mirror each other: Chapter 1-5 deal with recovering the records. Chapters 6-9 deal with developing a new prophetic tradition in Lehi’s vision. Chapters 10-15 are Nephi recounting his version of his father’s dream (mirroring Chapters 6-9), and Chapters 16-22 are Nephi quoting Isaiah and explaining it to his brothers (mirroring the recovery of the record).
  • The original chapter divisions in the Book of Mormon that were done away with in favor of shorter Bible-like chapters in the 1870s make some of this structure a lot more clear. I’ve GOT to get a copy of Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon.

This eBook is just the first half of Spencer’s Vision of All, and I look forward to reading the second half!

 

Quotes:

The abomination of the great and abominable church would seem to be this, above all: that they reframed the Bible so that its message concerning the Abrahamic covenant effectively disappeared.

Over the course of the second century A.D., there was a complex and almost systematic effort by Gentile Christians (who were by that point the majority) to downplay the covenantal status of the Jews.

The purpose of the Book of Mormon, according to Nephi’s vision, is to refocus Christianity on its Abrahamic foundations, to restore to Christianity the idea that the Gentiles aren’t a kind of replacement Israel, but that they’re to be grafted into the everlasting covenant that’s still vouchsafed to Jacob’s children.

The first half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of judgment (both of covenant peoples and of Gentile nations), while the second half of the book is taken up primarily with the theme of restoration (of the covenant people thanks in part to the assistance of the Gentile nations).

Isaiah’s task as prophet was (as Isaiah 6 makes clear) to address himself to a people hardened in advance against his message, with the result (as Isaiah 8 makes clear) that he found it necessary to write and then to seal up his prophecies for a later generation that would be prepared to receive them. Because he was called to prophesy, but to a people who couldn’t receive his word, he helped to launch an era during which prophecy was understood to be directed to a later age rather than to the prophet’s own people. And that’s why it was to be written down.

The point of God’s working through Assyria is to prune the house of Jacob back so that it’s made up just of those who will “return . . . unto the mighty God.” (The word “return” here has, in Hebrew, a strong sense of repentance or conversion.)

Isaiah’s chief purpose wasn’t to predict the Messiah. His chief purpose—we’ll be making this clearer and clearer—was to outline the stakes and status of the Abrahamic covenant in history.

The first half of First Nephi, treated as two and only two stories told in two and only two original chapters, is aimed at distilling from Lehi’s record just two points. In abridging his father’s writings, Nephi wants us to know (1) how he and his family came to have a collection of Old-World prophetic writings and (2) how he and his family came to launch their own New-World prophetic tradition. From Lehi’s experiences and writings, we’re just to glean this: Nephi had in his possession the written prophecies of those they were leaving behind, and he had in his possession the oral prophecies of the leader of the colony they were themselves going to found.

First and rather generally, let’s note a contrast due to the fact that Nephi finds in Isaiah strong anticipations of the future, of a future focused indelibly on the Abrahamic covenant. In 2 Nephi 2, however, in what seems to be Lehi’s only sure attempt at interpreting Isaiah in the text, we see Nephi’s father finding in Isaiah an indication about the past, a past that helps to explain the general human condition.

For Lehi, it seems that Isaiah works in something like the way Latter-day Saints tend to think all scripture works: as a set of isolated texts that can be studied for their doctrinal and practical value.

Nephi reads Isaiah systematically, but he does so without an interest in things like doctrine or practice. He seems more interested in developing a kind of theology of history, or a historical theology—as we’ll see. And that requires sustained reading with an eye to questions that aren’t about our everyday concerns, about living the life of faith.

Do you see the basic picture here? Israel’s off in exile in Babylon, and they’re not happy about it. They complain to God about the situation, and his response is that he’s got bigger plans than they realize. He isn’t interested solely in raising up and restoring Israel; he’s interested in redeeming the whole world—the Gentiles included! And so he’s drawn them away from their lands, away from their precious lands of promise, to situate them among the nations, among Gentiles who’re watching them closely. There he can do something much bigger than Israel has ever anticipated. He can redeem them while everyone’s watching, and then the Gentiles might join in the worship of the Lord also.

Sure, there was this rather local deliverance of the covenant people among the Persians and the Babylonians, and maybe all of a few thousand Gentiles were converted as a result. Isaiah foresaw that. But Nephi seems to think we find in the very same prophecy a more general pattern, a way that God scatters bits and pieces of Israel all over the world, so that the redemption of each and every branch of Israel will gather in more Gentiles.

But of course, as soon as Noah’s children have children, we end up with violence all over again. It takes a new form, however, after the flood. We don’t get a lot of talk of secret combinations and universal violence. Instead we enter the age of the empires, massive nations slaughtering one another and wielding power by commanding control over life and death. We get the violence of national wars instead of the violence of fraternal conflicts. Or we might say that we get fraternal conflict now worked out at a kind of global level, the clash of nations in horrific displays of bloody power. And now we might say that God finds himself in a kind of dilemma. The earth is filling up anew with violence, but he’s made a promise not to flood the earth and start over. A new strategy is necessary.

And so God calls Abraham. He takes one man and through him launches a new nation—or really a non-nation, a nation that won’t work like a nation.

They’re to rework the very order of the world, replacing the national with the familial, war with peace. This is what the stories of Abraham in the Book of Genesis are all about, remember. Abraham is the figure of hospitality and peace. He’s the guy who makes peace with Egypt, with Lot, with the king of Sodom, with Melchizedek, with Abimelech, with Ephron the Hittite. He’s the guy who welcomes the strangers in and feeds them, the same strangers that nearby nations (Sodom, Gomorrah) treat with terrible violence (rape as a way of putting the newcomers into their place). Abraham is the figure of faith and obedience, but also of hospitality, of peacemaking.

They see their covenantal relationship with God to mean that they’re different from other nations only in that God backs them up.

Paul spends his time thinking about the status of the covenant people after the Messiah’s advent, about what it means finally to see Israel and the Gentiles worshipfully working together to establish universal peace. And this is the burden of the gospels as well.

“It is a light thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth” (v. 6). With these words, Isaiah offers a crucial corrective to Israel’s self-understanding. They seem to think that their whole work is to look out for their own redemption, to see that they do what’s necessary to secure the Lord’s blessing. But when they express their inevitable frustration at failing, the Lord responds by making clear that there’s a bigger picture. It’s too “light,” too easy, just to redeem Israel. God’s got his eyes on the whole world.

In Isaiah 49, we get the same story twice over, the story of Israel’s redemption from exile. And in each telling of the story, the point is to correct Israel’s terribly narrow view of the covenant that binds them to the Lord. Their focus is consistently on just their own redemption, their own benefit. But each telling of the story finds Israel corrected by the Lord on this point. It turns out that their covenantal status is part of a larger project, one that’s meant to make of their eventual redemption a kind of beacon to the whole world. Here the nations can find a God who keeps covenant and redeems people. Here the nations can find a God who seeks to establish real peace. Here the nations can find a God who would have all people reconciled in genuine worship.

Rather, it seems he’s taken the vision as a lens through which to read the whole of Isaiah’s writings, and he’s found himself attracted to a couple of passages that suggest that—even if Isaiah didn’t always see it himself—the Old-World prophet had in view events of major world-historical importance.

Nephi’s what we might call a holistic reader. He’s less interested in isolated or contextless passages of Isaiah than he is in larger swaths of the Isaianic text. He finds himself somewhat fixated by occasional passages, of course, but he’s always careful to see these passages as particularly important moments integral with a larger context.

But what to say of this prophecy? I think if we were to put its thrust in the simplest possible way, it would be this: Isaiah 2–14 opens with a clear anticipation of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. And that is reason for Israel, as Nephi puts it, to “rejoice for all men.” Remember the focus of the Abrahamic covenant, something we discussed a bit some lectures back. In response to proliferating violence—violence that results either from private selfish desires or from self-definition in terms of national identity—God called Abraham to launch a two-faceted program: the first of direct or even private hospitality for individuals, and the second of a more general pursuit of peace through the redefinition of human beings as part of one universal family. Abraham’s children, Israel, would have the responsibility of reconciling all the nations (the Gentiles) to each other by inviting them to worship the true God. And Isaiah opens his prophecy with a clear anticipation of that program finally coming to full fruition. The nations at peace, subjecting themselves to God’s righteous judgment as they come up to the temple where Israel worships the only God that is God.

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