We examine the Book of Mormon with urgency this year because its message is coming closer and closer to fulfillment. The quotations from Isaiah in 2 Nephi give us cause for concern because they foretell “the judgments of God” to come upon all nations.
At the same time, though, Nephi copies the words of Isaiah into his record because they bring him hope and joy. “My soul delighteth in his words,” says Nephi. “I write some of the words of Isaiah, that whoso of my people shall see these words my lift up their hearts and rejoice for all men” (11:2, 8). In this lesson, Nephi invites us to take delight in studying and likening to ourselves the words of Isaiah.
Why do we delight and rejoice in the words of Isaiah? Nephi cites two reasons:
These truths are delightful to the soul. Isaiah teaches hope in Christ beautifully and memorably, and that the sublime promises to the fathers are yet to be fulfilled in our own lives.
Isaiah teaches these central truths in powerfully allusive language and imagery that have baffled and intrigued readers for centuries. Yet once we become attuned to Isaiah’s poetry, his message is straightforward. We also have the advantage of the twenty-fifth chapter of 2 Nephi, which explains Isaiah’s message plainly and simply.
The passages Nephi quotes teem with allusions to historical figures and incidents that have little meaning to us today. Isaiah also uses poetic images that we don’t readily understand because we are far removed from his time. There are disorienting shifts of topic and tense. Nevertheless, with a little study and an understanding of Isaiah’s methods, it is not difficult to make sense of the passages. Furthermore, the words of Isaiah “are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” — it is therefore essential to seek the Spirit to understand these sacred words (25:4).
Additionally, faithful temple-goers bring an extra dimension of understanding to these words of Isaiah. The Isaiah passages in 2 Nephi outline the entire plan of salvation as taught in holy places. In Isaiah, Israel rebels against God and is cast out of the promised land of Palestine into the world at large. Here Israel must struggle with affliction and adversity, learning the need to repent and look to Christ for a remission of sins. At length, Israel renews the ancient covenants and is restored to the new Zion, a new celestial identity.
The Story of Mankind
Brother Avraham Gileadi points out that “this pattern reflects the story of man himself. God casts Adam out of paradise, and out of his presence, into a dreary world. There Adam makes his way, comes to himself, and realizes who he is and what his destiny is to be. Then begins his struggle to return home. If he succeeds in returning to his Heavenly Father, he assumes great glory.”
Isaiah sees all of this in panorama as he is endowed with a celestial vision in the temple at Jerusalem. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim.” The Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple contained this throne. The vision took place at the time of incense, or at the time of prayer, for “the house was filled with smoke.” An angel purifies Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar of sacrifice, a symbolic rite that enables him to speak with inspiration. Thus, the vision of Isaiah takes place within the holiest precincts of the temple (16:1-6).
To a great extent, the Isaiah passages are about a fundamental controversy between this true temple of God and Satan’s attempt to counterfeit the temple. In Isaiah we encounter the “great and spacious building” that represents the temple of this world, the “golden city” in which money, pride, and the haughtiness of the hypocrite hold sway. Lucifer reigns here as if he were a god, the “son of the morning” who has fallen because of his pride. “I will ascend into heaven,” he says, “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation. . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High” (24:4, 13).
His “golden city” is typified by the kingdoms of this world, which he controls, such as Babylon, Assyria, and Sodom. Their rapacious kings symbolize Satan himself: the Assyrian king; the king of Babylon; and Rezin, the king of Syria. Their names are interchangeable: all are interested only in power, plunder, and self-aggrandizement. All are consumed with their own glory and greatness.
All nations, including Israel, are duped into spiritual bondage under the yoke of these “gods” of this world and into service in their temples of money. “Their land is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures ... Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their hands ... and the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not” (12:7-9). It is a place of spiritual slavery: “the people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbor” (13:5), particularly for the poor: “Ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor, saith the Lord God” (13:15).
The apostate Israelites also become slaves to sin, for they are shaved “with a razor that is hired, by them beyond the river [Euphrates], by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet; and it shall also consume the beard” (17:20). In ancient times, captive men were shaven to indicate that they were slaves.
The kingdom of this world worships wealth, symbolized by the jewelry of the “daughters of Zion” who also have become slaves of Satan: “their tinkling ornaments, chains, bracelets, bonnets, ear-rings, rings, nose jewels, the changeable suits, mantles, wimples, crisping-pins, fine linen,” etc. Sexual depravity holds sway: their sin is “even as Sodom,” and the daughters of Zion “walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go” (13:9, 16). They perversely “call evil good, and good evil”; they “put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (15:20).
The Lord allows these satanic kings to tempt and try his people; unfortunately, they fall prey. The congregation of Israel goes along willingly with the satanic system. Idolatry, impurity, oppression, and the pride born of wealth characterized the Israel of Isaiah’s day just as it did 100 years later in Lehi’s day. Isaiah knew that such people would not be allowed to remain in the land consecrated by covenant to the fathers. Just as the Lord banishes the unworthy from his holy temple, or Adam and Eve from the garden, he banishes Israel from the Promised Land.
As a token of this impending banishment, Isaiah gives his own child an ominous name: “Maher-shalal-hash-baz,” which literally means “hasten to the spoil, rush on to the prey.