Isaiah really gets dragged through the mud quite a bit in Mormon culture. In all our new goals to re-read the Book of Mormon, give it a week or two and you will hear things like “I hit the Isaiah chapters, and it’s a doozy!” or “I had to skip those Isaiah chapters, or I would have given up!” Funny, considering Nephi considered this part of his record the “more sacred” part, and we try to flip through them as quickly as we can, consoling ourselves that even Nephi said they’re hard to understand.
I’ve done it myself. That’s party why I pulled out Spencer’s “Vision of All” in the hopes that he would provide me with some sort of baseline with which I could approach Nephi’s Isaiah. This second half deals directly with the largest chunk of Nephi’s Isaiah quoting: 2 Nephi 6-30. Even if you skip most of the Isaiah chapters, you do get the idea that history in important from Nephi, and that there is more to the gospel than faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost; they are part of a larger structure of sacred history and God’s plan from the foundation of the world. This book gets really deep really fast, and includes things like:
- Nephi uses Isaiah’s encounter with God as a model for every right encounter with God, and invites us to have a similar experience.
- Just like the Book of Mormon was written, sealed up, and hidden away for a latter-day audience, Isaiah used a similar pattern, sealing up his writings for a generation who would be prepared to understand.
- One hard saying of Isaiah’s is his call to preach isn’t to soften hearts, but to harden them, to expose those who aren’t willing to listen to God’s word so they can be condemned. This is all a part of God preparing a righteous remnant who will survive the last days.
- Isaiah’s central purpose in his writings isn’t prophesying of Christ, but rather outlining Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. Surely Christ is a part of that, but we often lose Isaiah’s whole narrative when we solely jump to the one’s we’ve been trained to here as prophesying of Christ.
I really liked Spencer’s proposal that Nephi’s approach to Isaiah is how we should model our own scripture study. We should spend time getting to know the overarching narrative, avoiding “prooftexting” (reading individual verses with no idea of context, and making the verse say whatever we want it to say. Mormons tend to do it a lot because we don’t like to invest a lot into learning the overall narrative), and only then looking at subtle nuances in wording and seeing the possibilities of what the scriptures are saying. Nephi calls this likening. He takes Isaiah’s prophesies that were meant for a Jewish audience in 800-600 BC, and applies them to his own people. Nephi can do this, because he understands Isaiah and has also had his own apocalyptic vision. He knows the big picture, and can creatively use Isaiah to help tell his own prophetic story.
It seems to me that scripture reading should take a lot of right-brained thinking. We need to be more willing to engage with the scriptures that we have been if we truly wish to liken them to ourselves.
A great series of lectures! I hope they get more people excited about Isaiah.
Finally, Nephi goes beyond the prophetic tradition by inviting every one of his readers to experience the same sort of thing. All of Nephi’s readers are to become prophets, in a way, imitating the experiences of Lehi and Isaiah, paradigmatic prophets from both the Old- and the New-World traditions.
Our little digression of the past couple of minutes has been aimed just at making clear how much Nephi seems to have invested in Isaiah’s experience. He sees in it the model for every right encounter with the Lord.
In other words, Isaiah is a proto-Nephite prophet. He knows in advance that his people won’t receive his teachings, and so he writes for a “latter-day” audience, for a people still to come. He prophesies and he writes, but then he seals up his prophecies and his writings so that they can be read by a people finally ready to receive the message.
but God here sends out a prophet whose task is to make sure that doesn’t change. They’re to remain in their hardened state; God wishes that nothing be done to recover them. And that’s something that’s hard to feel terribly comfortable about, no? This isn’t the God we like to talk about in the twenty-first century. Yet this is the God of Isaiah, the God who hides his face from Israel to accomplish his own purpose. And what’s that purpose? We’ve already stated it a dozen times: the production of a remnant, sanctified and prepared to receive the Lord’s word.
What makes messianic prophecy messianic prophecy is the way it looks beyond these “everyday” messiahs, who were all over ancient Israel, to a messiah you couldn’t find in Israel’s midst. Messianic prophecy essentially looks at all the available messiahs and finds only reason to despair, but then it looks to a future in which some messiah of messiahs will show up and set things right. We do this sort of thing all the time ourselves, don’t we? You’re in college, taking class after class from boring professors. At some point, you begin to daydream about a class where the professor is genuinely interesting, genuinely engaging. You might find yourself working up a kind of description of this ideal professor, waiting for her or his arrival in the classroom. You’re looking for what you’re already experiencing—a professor—but one who finally gets things right. That’s something very like messianic prophecy. So to ask whether this or that biblical text is a messianic prophecy is most basically to ask whether it anticipates someone coming along eventually, occupying more or less an already-established institutional position, but finally doing so in a way that makes the institution work.
the Lord himself declares that the rod of Jesse emphatically isn’t Christ, but rather “a servant in the hands of Christ, who is partly a descendant of Jesse as well as of Ephraim, or of the house of Joseph, on whom there is laid much power”
The Jaredites, you’ll remember, are entirely eradicated. Moroni highlights this point several times, and he’s clear about the fact that he’s writing the Jaredite story as a kind of warning to the Gentiles of the last days. “Hey! Listen up! You’ve got no promise unless you join with the covenant people!”
Nephi hopes that his own people will get just one major message as they struggle their way through Isaiah’s writings, and that’s the idea that judgment comes only after prophetic warnings have first been given.
Ouch. Seriously? Nephi’s willing to hit his people with that one? “Look, Isaiah’s writings would be simple enough if you just had the spirit of prophecy!” We’ve got to be prophets to understand this? Then who’ll ever get to the bottom of Isaiah? Just a few people who happen to have received the spiritual gift of prophecy? Sometimes we read this verse and we say that Nephi’s encouraging those who wish to understand Isaiah to pray for inspiration, but that’s a pretty drastic weakening of Nephi’s words. He says that Isaiah’s words are plain—got that? plain!—to anyone with the spirit of prophecy—got that? prophecy! We’re not talking here about everyday guidance by the Spirit. We’re talking about high-octane prophetic experience. And Nephi expects everyone to have that sort of experience?
Spencer, Joseph M.. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record (Part 2 of 2) (Kindle Locations 1497-1504). Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.
“Isaiah’s perfectly clear to those like me who’ve been given to experience an apocalyptic vision of the world’s history, to those like me who’ve received in pure grace the prophetic gift of seeing the larger stakes of the Abrahamic covenant. But I know that most of you won’t ever have that sort of experience. Perhaps you could, but I recognize that most of you won’t. But because I have had that sort of experience, I can tell you about what I’ve seen, and that should give you a kind of foothold. You need the spirit of prophecy to make Isaiah plain, so let me give you a few words deriving from the spirit of prophecy that was given to me. And that should help you to get started, anyway.”
Here’s the shock. Nephi takes Isaiah’s reference to a necromantic practice—to wizardry!—and turns it into something positive. The Nephite prophets will have their voices heard only thanks to an effort at translation that’s more like a séance (although it isn’t a séance, obviously)— than like a work of translation. Nephi has apparently seen the process of translating the Book of Mormon in vision, and he sees that it wasn’t at all like the scholarly, academic work of translation. Joseph Smith didn’t sit down with dictionaries and lexicons, using years of study of the relevant languages to cast the source text in a target language. He was more like a familiar spirit, like a toad or an ape used by a wizard. He’s a medium, the channel through which the Nephites’ words are delivered to the latter-day world. As Nephi puts this point, “the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead” (2 Ne. 27:13).
Now, the first thing we’ve got to note is this: Nephi distinguishes carefully between two things, between “the words of the book” and “the book” itself. We just saw in verse 6 that he sees God bringing forth “the words of a book,” but now look at verse 7. There he explains this: “And behold, the book shall be sealed.” So there’s a clear difference between the book and its words, between what we might call the physical, material artifact (the book) and its transmissible intellectual content (the words of the book). Nephi’s surprisingly careful throughout this whole chapter to keep these distinct. And perhaps we can already see why. The book itself is sealed, while the words are being brought forth to everyone. So what’s the book? I think that’s clear. It’s the gold plates, the actual physical artifact that was buried in the Hill Cumorah. And what are the words of the book? That’s just what we call the Book of Mormon, the text we print and circulate and read. That’s a fair—if not simply obvious—interpretation, isn’t it?
So let’s go back to the text. What does Nephi actually tell us? The man with the book gives the words to another, who takes those words (never the book) to the learned, plural. And what’s their response? What does every learned person say when they’re confronted with the Book of Mormon? “And the learned shall say: ‘Bring hither the book, and I will read them’” (2 Ne. 27:15). That’s the learned response to the Book of Mormon. “I want evidence. I’m not going to give this thing a second thought until you can furnish me with the gold plates themselves. If there isn’t physical, tangible, material evidence for this whole thing, why should I bother at all? And how would I know that some rube of a farm kid has given me anything of any substance anyway? Let’s get the original text, the gold plates, into the hands of some scholars and see what the thing actually says when we’ve figured out the underlying language. Who could trust the thing at all until good scholarly work has been undertaken, making sure it’s done well?” Isn’t that the learned response? It’s Charles Anthon’s response. And it’s our response still today, isn’t it?
He tells us pretty clearly here that God’s placed a seal on material evidence so that we have to wrestle with the words alone. We’re supposed to be reading a book that speaks like a voice from the dead, like a ghostly voice during a séance. It’s disembodied, cut off in a crucial way from all the material artifacts we prefer to deal with. It speaks like a familiar spirit, and we’re uncomfortable with that. Why should God set up a situation like that? Here’s Nephi’s answer. “I am God, and I am a God of miracles,” he has God say. “And I will shew unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever. And I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith” (v. 23). God’s set all this up in such a way that we’re forced to take the Book of Mormon on faith. Once we’ve passed through the trial of our faith, perhaps we’ll get some kind of witness, maybe even evidence. But that can’t be where we begin. The Book of Mormon is meant to work against the dominant conception of knowledge on offer in secular modernity.
What if we were to take Nephi’s use of Isaiah as giving us a picture of what we ought to do with scripture? What if we too were to seek the spirit of prophecy, and then were to read the Book of Mormon closely and inventively enough to see the latent possibilities at work in this text? What if we were to read as faithfully and as inventively as Nephi? Does that sound paradoxical? I think it is. But I think it’s precisely what we ought to be doing in our close study of scripture. Real fidelity to the text also turns out to be creative in a certain sense. We have to read scripture so closely that we see the crosscurrents of meaning that organize the fluid mechanics of the text. There’s no one definite meaning. At the same time, we can’t make the text say whatever we want. Somehow, we have to read so faithfully that we can see the ways the text calls us to read it against its own grain. That requires more work than we’re used to giving to scripture study, and it requires more grace than we’re used to receiving as we study.