Sunday School Lesson 36: Isaiah 1-6

TS_scrollScriptural Background

The Savior tells us, “great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1), and he commands us to search them diligently. (Towards the end of Book of Mormon history, Mormon repeats that command: Mormon 8:23.) Nephi tells us that his soul delights in Isaiah (2 Nephi 11:2), but he also tells us that many of his people did not share his experience: “Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand” (2 Nephi 25:1). A good number of us have had the experience of Nephi’s people rather than of Nephi.

Nephi explains why his people don’t understand Isaiah: First, he says, “They know not concerning the manner of prophesying of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1). Then he adds, “The words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4). We need two things to understand Isaiah: we must understand the manner of prophesying of the Jews and we must have the spirit of prophecy.

If we wish to understand Isaiah (and the scriptures tell us that we must1), Nephi suggests, we have to learn how the Jews prophesied (2 Nephi 25:5). That means paying attention to the language of scripture in a way that we might not when reading contemporary English texts. To some degree that is what we have been doing for the last week or two. Think about Hosea’s and Joel’s prophesies. To understand them, we had to think in terms of types and shadows, seeing a particular event as revealing something about another event or even about more than one other event. Though that is not the only thing that characterized the prophesies of Nephi’s age, it was perhaps the most important. Also important were poetic and rhetorical devices of various sorts, including chiasmus, which many have heard of.

This use of poetic and rhetorical devices is the consequence of the ways that the Israelites thought about language. For them, language reveals the world, not just by referring to things in it, but by revealing its structure. For example, they appear to have believed that the similarity of words or the fact that words share a common root allows us to see something about the structure of the world. We can see an example of this in Numbers 15:38-40, which instructs the Israelites to wear fringes or tassels on their shawls in remembrance of the commandments. To us the designation of fringes as such a reminder, is arbitrary. Anything else could have done the same thing. For the Jews, however, the fact that both the word for “fringes” (sisit) and the word for “obedience” (sits) have the same consonants in the same order shows that the two are connected.2 For them it is not accidental that they have been told to wear fringes in remembrance of the commandments. I think we can assume that ancient Israelites thought in similar terms. Rhetorical and other linguistic effects do the same thing: they reveal things about the world that we might otherwise overlook.

Of course, many of these linguistic effects are lost or modified in translation. And we may overlook them because we do not believe that language reveals the world that way, though we can presume that since they did believe that language is connected to the world in that way, their belief will show itself in their writing. Whatever the difficulty that the ancient Israelites might have had understanding Isaiah, for us that difficulty is multiplied several fold by the fact that we do not understand that way of seeing the world, at least not immediately, and we almost all are reading a translation.

Kabbalah (a mystic tradition in Judaism) relies heavily on this Israelite way of thinking about the world, but not all those who have the view are kabbalists. Of course, we no longer think about the world in these terms, but if we are to understand the First (“Old”) Testament, particularly, and, to a lesser degree, the Second (“New”) as well as the Book of Mormon, we need to understand that this way of thinking about language and the world is at the heart of biblical thinking. The use of types and shadows, poetical and rhetorical figures, and word play is not an accidental feature of biblical writing. It is the way that biblical writers showed their understanding of the world and the revelation of God in the world.

The second thing that Nephi tells us we need to understand Isaiah, the spirit of prophecy, shows how we are to look for such things as types and shadows. As every missionary has learned, Revelation 19:10 defines the spirit of prophecy as “the testimony of Jesus.” We can understand that phrase in two, related ways, as “the testimony that Jesus is the Christ” and as “the testimony that Jesus bore,” in other words, the gospel he taught. Though we often focus on the first meaning, and it is not irrelevant, the second meaning is more important as we read Isaiah: as we read, we ought to look for events that we can understand as types of the things that Jesus taught, as well as events in his life and in the events most associated with his reign. Nephi’s testimony is that the words of Isaiah, better than the words of Moses (and, presumably, other Old Testament prophets) will work to convince us that Jesus is our Redeemer (1 Nephi 19:23).

Recall that the plague of locusts in Joel refers to an actual plague of locusts as well as to the invasion of the Assyrians and to other destructions, so speaking of that plague can lead Joel to speak not only of it, but also of the last days, as he does in Joel 2:28-32. Thus, by reading Joel’s prophecy with the spirit of prophecy—with an eye on the good news of Jesus Christ and the events associated with that gospel—we understand what Joel’s prophecy means, both for those living at the time of Joel and for ourselves. We must read Isaiah in the same way.

That requires that we learn something about the particular events about which Isaiah speaks. For just as knowing that Joel was speaking of a plague of locusts helped us understand better what he had to say about our own day, knowing something about the historical events that are more-or-less contemporary with Isaiah’s prophecy will help us understand better what Isaiah is speaking of and how we can understand those with the spirit of prophecy, in other words, as types and shadows of other events.

Historical Background

Isaiah’s name means “help or deliverance of God.” We know very little about him. Word Biblical Commentary (24:xxv-xxvi) summarizes what we do know:

Isaiah was a prophet who lived and worked in Jerusalem from about 750 to 700 b.c. All that is known of him is contained in a few passages of the book that bears his name.

Isaiah is said to have worked under four Judaean Kings (1:1): Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. A marvelous picture of the future of Jerusalem (2:1–4) and a chilling description of Babylon’s fall (13:1–22) are directly attributed to him.

He and his son Shear-Yashub carried God’s message to Ahaz about 734 b.c. (7:1–17). Another son bore a shatteringly symbolic name, Maher-shalal-hash-baz “Swift-plunder hastening-booty” (8:1–4). Isaiah was divinely commissioned to walk about Jerusalem unclothed as a walking sign of God’s displeasure with Jerusalem’s pro-Egyptian policies (ca. 714 b.c. chap. 20). And he prophesied Jerusalem’s deliverance from Sennacherib’s siege in 701 b.c. (chaps. 36–37 = 2 Kgs 18:13–19:37), was a witness of Hezekiah’s recovery from a mortal illness (chap. 38 = 2 Kgs 20:1–11), and delivered the Lord’s condemnation of Hezekiah’s hospitality for Merodach-Baladan’s delegation from Babylon (chap. 39 = 2 Kgs 20:12–19).

We also have various traditions about Isaiah, though all seem to begin long after he lived. According to tradition, his father, Amoz, was also a prophet and the brother of King Amaziah. Tradition also says that Isaiah was executed by King Manassah, the son of Hezekiah. According to the Talmud (a collection of Jewish oral teachings compiled in written form after the time of Christ), Isaiah’s many prophecies were compiled into one book by King Hezekiah or his scribes.

Like most Old Testament prophecies, Isaiah’s were probably delivered orally and written down afterward. That explains another reason that ancient prophets used rhetorical, poetic, and other linguistic devices: they were a way of helping people listening to the prophet understand and remember without a written record.

When Syria and Israel (Ephraim) were at war with Judah, Isaiah assured King Ahaz that both would be destroyed by Assyria, but he warned him against seeking help from Assyria. (See Isaiah 7.) The war with Syria and Ephraim was only a harbinger of what was to come, for at the time (the 8th century B.C.), the two great powers of the region, Egypt and Assyria, were vying with each other for control. Their wars would be fateful for Judah, which was situated immediately between the two. (The Assyrian-Egyptian war did not end until 670 B.C., when the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, conquered Egypt.)

In 732 B.C., Assyria took Damascus, the capital of Syria, and ten years later (722 B.C.) Assyria conquered Samaria (Israel). Assyria was at Judah’s door and threatening. For all intents and purposes, Judah was under Assyria’s control, though it had not yet been conquered. In about 708 B.C., in response to a new vigor in Egypt generated by the rule of Ethiopian kings there and with the resulting revitalized army, Judah was tempted to ally itself with Egypt and assert its independence from Assyria—this in spite of the fact that previous alliances with Egypt had always ended in disappointment and even ruin for Israel. Isaiah warned King Hezekiah against making the alliance with Egypt. His advice was to submit to the Assyrians and trust in God, but Hezekiah did not take Isaiah’s advice. (For the story of Hezekiah, see 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32, as well as Isaiah 36-39 and Jeremiah 15:4.) Before the Assyrian king, Sennacharib, invaded Judah, Hezekiah fell ill. Isaiah told him to prepare to die, but in answer to the king’s prayer, Isaiah told him that the Lord had added fifteen years to his life. In 701 B.C., Sennacharib overran all of what remained of Israel. This may have been at least partly in response to the new alliance between Egypt and Judah. The Assyrian army was threatening Jerusalem in Judah, but Isaiah promised Hezekiah that the Assyrian army would be destroyed, as they were when 185,000 of their men were miraculously killed in one night.

That victory, however, was only temporary. Slightly more than 100 years later, in 587 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, which had replaced Assyria as the dominant power in the region, captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking its inhabitants captive into Babylon.

Isaiah 1

The Jerome Biblical Commentary says that Isaiah 1 is a brilliant synopsis of the whole message of Isaiah. How accurate do you think their claim is?

Verse 1: This introductory verse tells us that the vision Isaiah has received is “concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” What does that mean? Why isn’t it also about the northern kingdom, Israel? This verse is one of the indications that Isaiah is a collection of prophecies rather than only one prophecy. (See, for example, the similar heading for chapter 2.)

Verses 2-15: A lawsuit is announced: witnesses are summoned (the beginning of verse 2); the person bringing the suit is named (last half of verse 2); he gives a brief of his charges (verses 2-3) and he announces the accused (end of verse 3); testimony is given by witnesses (verses 4-9); and testimony is given by the plaintiff (verses 10-15). Why is a lawsuit an appropriate response to a broken covenant?

Verses 2-4: Why does the Lord compare Judah to children and to farm animals?

Verses 5-6: Here is a better translation of the beginning of verse 5: “Where would you like to be struck?” How does that change our understanding of verse 6? What is the image here?

Verse 7: This verse and the three which follow probably describe Sennacherib’s invasion well—he claimed to have destroyed 46 walled cities and villages without number in his attack. Does it have application to our personal lives as well as to events in history?

Verse 8: The “daughter of Zion” is probably Jerusalem. As in many poor countries today, vineyards and gardens had small huts or platforms in them in which someone could sit during the day and sleep during the night to assure that the crop wouldn’t be stolen, a humble version of the tower in the vineyard of which the Savior speaks in the parable of the wicked husbandmen (Matthew 21:31-39, Mark 12:1-8). What is the Lord saying about Jerusalem?

Verses 9-10: What is the point of the comparison of Judah to Sodom and Gomorrah? What does it mean to say that a remnant is left? Why is the command to “hear” addressed to the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah? What does the command to hear mean? How do we hear the Lord?

Verses 11-17: We see here what the Lord wants his people to hear. In verse 11, is the Lord saying that he does not want them to perform temple sacrifice? (Compare 1 Samuel 15:22, Amos 5:21-24, Hosea 6:6, and Jeremiah 7:21-23.) How does the beginning of verse 13 explain the Lord’s objection to their sacrifices? (The word translated “vain” could also be translated “empty” or “deceitful.”) What is the relation between religious ritual and practice, on the one hand, and righteous living, on the other? (Recall the charge of Micah 2.)

Since it was common for people to pray by lifting their hands above their heads toward heaven, the reference to spreading one’s hands in the first part of verse 15 is a reference to prayer. How are Judah’s hands full of blood (15)? The condemnation of verses 11-15 is followed by the Lord’s demand in verses 16-17. What does it mean to put away one’s evils from before the Lord’s eyes?

Verse 18: This is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, though the clause “Come now, and let us reason together” is almost always used contrary to its meaning in this verse. The verb translated “reason” means “to decide” or “to judge.” (See Genesis 31:37 for another use of the same verb.) So, this famous clause means something like, “Let us take up your case in court.” With that in mind, how do you explain the verse as a whole? What outcome is the Lord predicting for the lawsuit that he has instigated?

Verses 19-20: This is the essence of the Lord’s promise in Isaiah as well as in the Book of Mormon. How does this promise fit with what we saw taught in Ecclesiastes and in Job? Is there a contradiction? Does this promise have anything to do with why Isaiah was Nephi’s favorite prophet? It isn’t difficult to imagine Laman and Lemuel using this verse against Lehi and Nephi: “Look,” they might say, “The Lord has promised that if we are good, we will prosper. We are living in Jerusalem and prospering. Why should we believe that he wants us to leave this situation and move into the desert toward a land we know absolutely nothing about?” Given this verse, how might Lehi or Nephi have answered this imaginary argument? What in our own lives might be comparable to leaving a comfortable situation and moving into the desert?

Verses 22-23: The Lord repeats his condemnation. Can you explain the metaphors of verse 22? Why is adultery so often used as a metaphor for apostasy? To what kinds of problems does verse 23 point?

Verses 24-27: The Lord tells Judah what his response will be. Who are the enemies of whom he will be avenged (24)? What does the metaphor of purging away dross suggest will happen to Judah (25)? Why is the promise that the judges and counselors will be restored an important promise (26)? What does the Lord say that it will take for Judah to become righteous?

Verses 28-31: The Lord’s condemnation in 22-23 was followed by his promise. Now he pronounces woe against the unrighteous. What does it mean to forsake or abandon the Lord (28)? How has Judah done that? How do we do it? Note: “tow” in verse 31 means “tinder.” In that verse, to what is Isaiah referring? What is like tinder and, so, easily burned?

Isaiah 2

Isaiah 2-4 form one, discreet unit. What is the overall point of this unit?

Verses 1-5: Compare these verses to Micah 4:1-5. How do you explain what you see in that comparison? What promise is made in these verses? When and how do we see it fulfilled? Must we wait for it to be fulfilled in the future? In other words, is there any sense in which we live in this condition now? How would Isaiah’s audience have understood this prophecy? It isn’t unusual to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but here we have only “the God of Jacob.” Why? “The law” and “the word of the Lord” are parallel at the end of verse 3. Do they mean the same thing? If so, what might that say about what the word “law” means here? What does one do with plowshares and pruning hooks? Is it significant that the weapons of destruction are turned into plowshares and pruning hooks rather than some other utensil that is not a weapon? How is verse 5 a conclusion to verses 1-4?

Verses 6-9: The prophet has been speaking to Judah in the previous verses. To whom is he speaking here? “They please themselves in the children of strangers” means “They make covenants with foreigners.” What is wrong with that? Do we do anything that is parallel? How so?

Verses 10-21: Verse 11 is a synopsis of these verses. What sin does it describe?

Verse 22: What is the prophet saying to the Lord?

Isaiah 3

This chapter shows us the decline of civilization, law, and order in Judah, and it interprets that decline as the result of God’s judgment rather than its cause: Judah is living in chaos because of its sin. Chaos isn’t a judgment of God, but the natural result of sin. If chaos is the natural result of sin, can we avoid chaos simply by ceasing to sin? If so, why can’t we save ourselves?

Verses 1-4: Who does Jerusalem stand for? Judah? What is the Lord taking? From whom is he taking it? What does verse 1 have to do with verses 2 and 3? Is verse 4 predicting something good or something bad? How can you tell?

Verses 5-7: What will be one result of the absence of leadership in Judah?

Verses 8-12: In verses 10 and 11, notice that the righteous and the wicked get the same reward, namely what they have produced. Verse 12 repeats the material of verses 1-4.

Verses 13-23: In verses 14-15, we see the Lord make the same charge against Judah that he made through the prophet Joel: they oppress the poor. How is oppression of the poor a type or shadow of apostasy as well as a sin in itself? Why is care for the needy such a central part of the gospel? Is that care a type of something higher? What judgment is the Lord pronouncing on Judah’s leaders (13-14)? What are “stretched forth necks and wanton eyes”? What does it mean to say that the women are “mincing” as they walk (16)? How is the accusation against the women the same as that against the men? What do their sins have in common? What does the Lord threaten in verse 17? How is the threat of verses 18-23 related to their sin?

Verses 24-26: Verse 24 is a summary of what will happen to women and verse 25 is a summary of what will happen to men. Verse 26 sums up what will happen as a whole.

Isaiah 4

Verse 1: Compare this verse to Isaiah 3:6. Is there any reason to think that perhaps this verse should have been placed in chapter 3 rather than chapter 4?

Verses 2-6: As verses 3-4 make clear, this is another description of the Messianic age. What is the point of the cloud by day and the fire by night? (Compare Exodus 13:21.) What does this image tell us about what is to come? In the Book of Mormon, verse 5 is slightly different than it is here. (See 2 Nephi 14:5.) What does the Book of Mormon version include that we do not see here? What difference does that make?

Isaiah 5

Verses 1-2: Compare this parable of the vineyard to Jacob’s account of Zenos’s parable in Jacob 5. What does Isaiah focus on and why?

Verses 3-6: How does this differ from Zenos’s parable? Why?

Verse 7: We see a play on words here that cannot be captured in translation: the Lord looked for judgment (mishpat), but he found only oppression (i.e., bloodshed—mishpach); he looked for righteousness (tzaqa) and found instead a cry of distress (saqa). What is the point of that word play? In other words, what does it teach us?

Verse 12: Like the other prophets, Isaiah teaches that God is involved in history and that part of the Israel’s sin is that they do not see that. How do we see his hand in history? If we don’t, do we also sin?

Verses 7-25: What are the two complaints that the Lord makes of Judah in verse 7? The Lord expands on these two points, indicting Judah on six counts in verses 8-25.

First count: they “join house to house” (8-10). What does that mean?

Second count: they are drunken and self-indulgent (11-17), ignoring the work of the Lord. Verse 13 says they are captive “because they have no knowledge.” In how many ways can we be in captivity? What does it mean to be captive for want of knowledge? The word “knowledge” translates a Hebrew word that could also be translated “cunning” or “know-how.” What is the implication of that translation? Or it could also be translated “without knowing why.” What is the implication of that translation?

Third count: they “draw iniquity with cords of vanity,” in other words slender or useless cords (18-19). Little sins gradually lead to great ones.

Fourth count: they wilfully pervert goodness and truth (20).

Fifth count: they are arrogant, thinking themselves wise. What is the difference between wisdom and prudence? (21).

Sixth count: they are self-indulgent and they twist justice for their own purposes (22-23).

When and how might these counts apply against us?

Verses 24-30: Isaiah describes the Lord’s response to the iniquity of Judah: they will be ripe for destruction (24); in his anger, the Lord has stretched his hand out against them and will continue to do so (in other words, he will punish them with his might—25); he will call a powerful nation to attack Judah (26-30). We understand verses 26-29 to be a prophecy of those called to Zion in the last days rather than a prophecy of Assyria’s attack on Judah. How is our understanding justifiable?

Isaiah 6

Verses 1-4: Isaiah’s vision of the glory of the Lord. Uzziah died in about 740, having reigned for forty years.

Verse 5: What is Isaiah’s response to the vision? How do you explain that response?

Verses 6-8: What does the glowing coal symbolize? Why is it significant that the seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with the coal from the altar? How is his mouth significant? How is the altar significant? Why fire? As we have seen in previous chapters, Judah has been defiled. Now Isaiah has been cleansed, to be the one clean thing through which the whole can be cleansed. Compare verse 8 with Moses 4:1-2. (See also Abraham 3:27; Genesis 22:1 and 11; 31:11; 46:2; and Exodus 3:4.) Is Isaiah a type of Christ? How so?

Verses 9-10: What is Isaiah’s message to Judah? In these verses, it seems not to be “repent.” How should we understand what Isaiah is to say to Israel in verse 10?

Verses 11-13: The only way to end the sinful state of Judah is to destroy it and exiled its inhabitants. How is this situation similar to that of the world at the time of Noah? How is the Lord’s response the same in both? How is it different?


1. For more understanding of the importance of Isaiah in the latter-days, see also: 1 Nephi 15:20; 19:23; 2 Nephi 6:4-5; 2 Nephi 11:8; Helaman 8:20; 3 Nephi 20:11-12; and Joseph Smith History 1:40.

2. De Caqueray, N. Cited in Marléne Zarader, The Unthought Debt: Heidegger and the Hebraic Heritage, trans. Bettina Bergo (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2006) 47, n. 35

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