2 Nephi 15 tweet: The Lord’s vineyard 2b left desolate. Wo x 6. Rotten roots & blossoms as dust. The Lord calls an army to carry Israel away captive.  

Perhaps I should have noted this earlier, but in the original Book of Mormon chapter divisions, the current 2 Nephi 11–15 comprised a single chapter. The modern chapter divisions were created to match with the chapter and verse divisions of Isaiah in the standard versification of the Bible, but it may be profitable to ignore these divisions and read Isaiah 2–5 / 2 Ne 12–15 as a whole. These chapters can be read as an extended condemnation of Judah.

Concerning Isaiah 5, Thomas Constable said:

It starts out deceptively as a casual song, transforms into a courtroom drama, and ends with pure condemnation. Isaiah lured his listeners into hearing him with a sweet song and then proceeded to burn them with fiery preaching. . . The prophet’s original audience did not realize what this song was about at first. It started out sounding like a happy wedding song, but it turned out to be a funeral dirge announcing Israel’s death.1

In verse 4 the Lord asks the following question:

What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?

This is essentially the same question the Lord asks three times in Zenos’ allegory of the olive tree:

What could I have done more for my vineyard? (See Jacob 5:41, 47, 49)

What do you think we are supposed to learn by considering this question and its connection with the allegory of the olive tree? Do you think the connection is deliberate? Does Jacob 5 help us make more sense of these Isaiah chapters?

In verse 7 we read:

For the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, and behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold, a cry.

Something that is missed in the English translation of this verse is Isaiah’s deliberate use of wordplay; comparable, for example, to how we might play with the words convenience and covenants – words that have a similar sound but convey contrasting meanings. Of this verse Thomas Constable notes:

The good fruit God looked for was justice (the righting of wrongs; Heb. mishpat) and righteousness (right relationships; Heb. tsedaqah), but the bad fruit the vines produced was oppression (the inflicting of wrongs; Heb. mispakh) and violence (wrong relationships; Heb. tse’aqah; cf. 60:21; 61:3). Isaiah used paronomasia (a pun) to make his contrasts more forceful and memorable. Instead of mishpat God got mispah, and instead of sedaqa He received se’aqa.1

In verses 8–25 a series of woes or accusations are levelled at Judah. Joe Spencer summarises them as follows:

(1) The people have bought up all the land so that the poor have to pay rent (verses 8–10)

(2) The focus is on constant play and party, without any interest in what God is doing historically (verses 11–17)

(3) The people want signs to prove to themselves that the prophets are serious (verses 18–19)

(4) Everything is turned around backward—good as evil, evil as good (verse 20)

(5) No one sees his or her own ignorance (verse 21)

(6) Drunkenness is a constant pursuit (verses 22–23)2

I’ll consider just a couple of these woes that I think are related, namely “wo unto them that call evil good, and good evil” and “wo unto the wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight!” I think they are related because good ends up labelled as evil and vice versa due to us trusting our own experience and reasoning, i.e. we are wise in our own eyes.

There is an obvious problem with the issue of good and evil labelling. That is, I think there are very few people who think “this is evil, but I’m going to wilfully call it good” or “this is good, but I’m going to deliberately call it evil”. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt that most people are that rebellious. Instead, I think this is an issue of self-deception, or of being overly reliant on our own wisdom or understanding of the world, i.e. of being wise in our own eyes.

Long before Richard Dawkins became a professional atheist, he wrote a pretty ground breaking book called The Selfish Gene. In the foreword to that book, Robert Trivers wrote the following:

If deceit is fundamental in animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced. Thus, the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution.3

Of this idea, Steven Pinker said those words might have the highest ratio of profundity to words in the history of the social sciences.4

To make sense of what Trivers is saying we need to accept the theory of organic evolution as the means by which life was created (see here for why I think evolution is reconcilable with the doctrines of creation and the Fall). For those who can accept that, what Trivers is saying is that because animals practice deception in order to survive and flourish (mimicry and camouflage being obvious examples), evolution must have selected for animals that can spot this deception. This ability to spot deception in turn selects for animals that self-deceive, because the animal that believes the deception it is practicing is more convincing (and therefore more fit for survival) than the animal that knows it is deliberately trying to deceive.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that evolution has selected for creatures, and ultimately humans, that self-deceive. If we are hard-wired in this way, it suggests that we ought to be a little more humble regarding what we think we know, i.e. we should be a little less wise in our own eyes. (If you’re interested in more of this, Trivers recently wrote a book about the idea.)

Finally then, what is the result of all these woes? Apostate Israel will be cut off from ancestors (“their root shall be rottenness”) and from posterity (“their blossoms shall go up as dust”) (v24). The Lord then calls for nations to come and destroy Judah (v26). This army “come with speed swiftly” (v27), fully prepared for war. They come with arrows on the string, galloping at full speed in their chariots and sounding the war cry as they come to battle (v28). They seize their prey and carry it off (v29), leaving behind only “darkness and sorrow” (v30). A truly terrifying spectacle.

As a side note, of these verses Joe Spencer notes:

There’s absolutely nothing right about the popular idea among Latter-day Saints that these verses are describing missionary work, that Isaiah saw trains carrying missionaries to the whole world – hoofs like flint, wheels like a whirlwind, a roar like a lion, etc. The imagery is unmistakably that of war, with weapons held by those coming in chariots behind their horses, yelling as they come to battle. At any rate, we should be noting that it all ends in darkness and sorrow. Points for creativity for that interpretation, but it just isn’t a good interpretation of the text.2

This aligns with other translations and the commentaries that I’ve read of Isaiah 5 (e.g. see the NetBible translation of these verses here). Furthermore, that the verses at the end of this chapter would be a vision of latter-day missionary work doesn’t really fit with Isaiah’s condemnation of Judah or with what Nephi is trying to do with Isaiah. In short, this is a thoroughly depressing vision (in keeping with 2 Ne 12–14 / Isaiah 2–4) of what will befall Judah/Jerusalem.

  1. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/isaiah-5.html
  2. https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2012/02/13/book-of-mormon-lesson-9-my-soul-delighteth-in-the-words-of-isaiah-2-nephi-11-25-sunday-school/
  3. The Selfish Gene, p19–20
  4. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8874911/Pinker_Representation.pdf?sequence=2