Isaiah Makes Me Smile
By Marvin Payne

I’m reading Isaiah. No, really. That way I can read the Bible and the Book of Mormon at the same time. I like Isaiah. No, really. It’s a part of the Book of Mormon that I actually look forward to every time. No, really.

The prophets have been pretty high on the notion that we should “liken the scriptures” to our own lives. The Book of Mormon, of course, wasn’t even read (except in “leaked” previews) by the people who lived during its writing. (Of course, if you have King Benjamin speaking at you from a tower right in front of your tent, why wait around for the May Ensign?) The voice from the dust keeps saying “It’s for you guys! For modern people!”

Well, Isaiah too. For us. The people to whom Isaiah spoke “live and in person” knew which river was which, which king was thumbing his nose at which other king, and could just glance around them and know exactly to whom they were in captivity at any given moment. They could tell a cedar of Lebanon from an oak of Bashan. Easy. When Isaiah found fault with round tires like the moon, all those people had to do was look right in their, well, wherever an ancient person might have kept their round tires like the moon, in order to determine whether or not Isaiah was condemning them in particular.

But I don’t. I mean, know any of that stuff. Some people do, and they write many books calculated to ease our panic about the Isaiah parts by telling us exactly what that ancient prophet meant-which rivers, which kings, which captivities, which trees, and which tires. But I don’t. Now, this may sound like I’m rejoicing in ignorance (one of the snares Isaiah warns against is calling evil good, or, in this case, calling stupid smart), but I think that my not knowing the ancient circumstances and applications of what Isaiah wrote is the key to my enjoying him so much. You see, I don’t know enough to liken what I find in Isaiah to anything but my own life. I read Isaiah and think, in verse after verse, “Wow, that sure sounds like me” or “Wow, that sure sounds like exactly what’s going on around me” or “Wow, I heard somebody say that very thing day before yesterday” or “Wow, I think I’m about to say that very thing in about ten minutes!”

It’s like this. Which church is the Great And Abominable Church of the Devil (or “GAA” as we referred to it when we were missionaries)? Well, it’s described in amazing detail in the First Book of Nephi, chapter thirteen.
Causes the humble saints pain? Check.
Seeks and celebrates wealth and the very latest expensive fashions? Check.
Prostitutes that which is most sacred to make a buck? Check.
Withholds knowledge in order to hold power over others? Check.
Doesn’t teach the actual Gospel? (The vision is vague on this, but I think we may confidently infer) Check.

Admittedly, the GAA here isn’t the vision of Isaiah-it’s the vision of Nephi, who is a major-league Isaiah fan, much to the consternation of people who don’t read the scholarly treatises or this month’s Backstage Graffiti. But the GAA vision is like Isaiah in its “likening” potency. We could get all ancient and say the GAA is Rome. Well, to the degree that Rome matches the checklist, it is. We could get less ancient and say the GAA is the apostate Universal Church (in all its mutually-excommunicating segments). Well, of course it is. To only the degree that said church matches the checklist, though, and not by definition alone. Let’s get un-ancient entirely. Is the GAA the National Socialist Party in mid-twentieth-century Germany? Slam dunk! (Except the question of how fashionable the clothing was is kind of subjective-nice cars, though, the great big convertibles for parades.) The GAA was the Warsaw Militia on the Carthage Jail stairs. At least some circles in unnamed Wall Street firms would no doubt qualify for  membership cards. (We often call such circles “cells.” “Cells” is what we also usually say terrorists come in, now that we don’t have the Communist Party to kick around anymore.) 

But let’s also get un-institutional. Maybe the GAA isn’t always an Institution. Propping up Rome and the medieval Church and the Nazi Regime were individual people. Even something as iconic and monolithic as the Rolling Stones is really just four guys and somebody sitting in for whoever’s deceased. It’s people. Rome without Nero and his sidemen was quite beautiful, before the fire. The buildings that are left over from the medieval Church are awesome. The Mercedes convertibles without Nazis in them are pretty cool. Even the Great and Spacious Building in Lehi’s dream might be an admirable piece of work without the mocking and prideful time-share holders hanging out of all the windows.

So, getting un-ancient, un-institutional, and dangerously unorthodox for a moment, is the Great And Abominable Church of the Devil ever, well, us? There’s a checklist three paragraphs ago.

Back to Isaiah and why I like what he wrote. The language sounds great, even if a particular bit doesn’t seem all that likenable right off the bat. Sometimes to ask Isaiah what he means is like asking a piece of music what it means. As often as not, how it feels is what it means. What does a peach pie mean? Well, it means how it tastes. The language of Isaiah is musical and delicious enough that we’ll return to it until the likenability suddenly pops off the page at us like a kiss from a frog, which is great if we’re a princess, but sometimes just a rather novel surprise if we’re not.

Just start. Here are a few jewels from the very first couple of chapters, which is as far as I am right now. From chapter one: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” If you can’t liken that, then good luck with your future as a likener. Who among us would rather liken that sweet invitation to anybody other than ourselves? 

It’s barely into chapter two that “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains” and folks will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.” This is so clear that the scholars feel embarrassed when they write about it (boy, I know I do).

The question for us to ask ourselves is something like, “Hey, what am I doing with this sword and spear when everybody around me is polishing plowshares and pruninghooks?” (I feel compelled to note here that neither of these latter implements require concealed carry permits-except in England, where I understand that even Swiss Army knives are against the law.)

It’s today Everybody! And “in that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and the bats.” Even if this scenario weren’t eminently likenable, it’s plenty entertaining to imagine moles and bats sitting across from these graven images and scratching their furry little heads. You will find, I am confident, neither a mole nor a bat in the entire length and breadth of this land (or the entire lengths and breadths of the innumerable lands populated by Meridian Readers who write the Meridian Editors secret thank-you notes for giving them Backstage Graffiti) which is in the slightest doubt as to Whom God is. It gets even more entertaining to imagine these little critters trying to make sense of the labyrinthine derivative-based financial instruments that Isaiah’s gold and silver idols more-often-than-not represent. Even rodents can see through the emperor’s new clothes and have a good laugh.

Go on to chapters three and four and substitute for the word “Jerusalem” the word “Albuquerque.” I’ll substitute “Alpine.” (In the spirit of alliteration and in conformity with the beliefs, nay, testimonies of the Meridian Editors, some of you may substitute “Alpha Centauri.”) No, really. Try it. It works just fine-totally sensible. Take comfort in the chapter four fate of those who remain in these three modern communities. You may be entitled to it.

But on the way there, don’t miss one of the best parts of the whole book-no, the whole Old Testament. It’s the parade of the daughters of Zion, as unreal as any circus and as real as any afternoon at the mall, as they “walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet.” (What used to make this passage less liken-friendly was the nose jewels. I mean, who could relate to nose-jewels? Welcome to the Twenty-first Century, where we make a tinkling with our noses.)

Don’t get me going on wimples and crisping pins. I have no mercy.

My first real frog kissing page-popper this time around is from chapter three: “The shew of their countenance doth witness against them; and they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not. Woe unto their soul! For they have rewarded evil unto themselves.” We have Pride parades. “Proud to be Black” (okay, cool), “Proud to be Irish” (okay, except in certain Protestant neighborhoods of Northern Ireland), Proud to Drive a Plymouth (okay, but suddenly of no real help to General Motors). But we also have “Proud to be _______________” (insert here any appropriate example of “disobedient,” “confused,” “unfaithful,” or “I’ve got a better way than God’s.” For example, the Nazis were enormously proud of being “superior,” and had “Proud to be Superior” parades). Be gentle and helpful, but liken away like gangbusters. (I always have to remember, though, that the sword of likening is two-edged and is no respecter of persons-liken righteous likening, for with what measure ye liken, so shall ye be likened.)

Clear, clear, clear-that’s what Isaiah is all about, clarity. We may rejoice that as clearly as he saw our critters and our communities and our nose jewels and our pruninghooks (very handy implements, by the way-I last used ours a month ago in the cherry orchard on the corner of our property. It’s three trees planted on the Mother’s Day when we gave Mom a present of a cherry orchard. Hanging on hooks from all the branches are little football-sized pine mini-logs, to train the trees to give us reachable cherries. Our neighbors say we’re growing firewood from our trees. Ha, ha, the joke’s on them-we don’t even have a fireplace), Isaiah saw our Savior. I’m not even looking here for the best vision, I’m merely looking for the next one. And so I skip a chapter and here it is.

“I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

“Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”

And the Lord did. Sent Isaiah. Right here to Albuquerque, Alpine, and Alpha Centauri. To make me smile. To make me tremble.

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