How do you solve a problem like Isaiah? There’s no two ways about it, reading Isaiah – reading Isaiah in the Book of Mormon – is hard. As I’ve mentioned previously, the problem with Isaiah is that we just don’t really understand what Isaiah is saying and therefore, what Nephi is doing by quoting from him so extensively. Therefore, the tendency is to skim read or skip completely the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. But help has arrived! In just the few pages I’ve read so far, Joseph Spencer’s The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record has done more to clarify what Isaiah is saying and, perhaps more importantly, what Nephi is doing with Isaiah, than anything else I’ve read before. The reviews I’ve read of Spencer’s book have been overwhelmingly positive.1,2 Adam Miller’s review in particular is worth reading in its entirety. In it he states:
Make no mistake: this book is remarkable. We’ve never seen anything quite like it in the history of Mormonism. And once you’ve seen it, you’ll wonder what on earth we have been doing for the past 200 years.1
As outlined in his review of Spencer’s book, Miller’s thesis on the purpose of the Book of Mormon is an interesting one, told only half-jokingly:
The Book of Mormon is the world’s most extravagant booby trap, a trap entirely designed to trick us into reading and understanding the one part of the Bible that nobody wants to read. The Book of Mormon itself is the cherry-flavored shell, the chocolate glaze, the spoon full of sugar designed to make Isaiah finally go down. Because only what God reveals there can save us and only what God promises there can heal our world.
Isaiah isn’t simply some scriptural padding, meant to round out the Book of Mormon and get Joseph past the 500 page mark. The Book of Mormon is itself just an elaborate vehicle, a carefully designed and disguised delivery mechanism for injecting Isaiah into the heart of our religious experience.1
If this is true, and I’m starting to think it may well be, we better get serious about understanding Isaiah’s message. I’ve used this quote before but it’s worth considering again, as Bruce R. McConkie said:
It just may be that my salvation (and yours also!) does in fact depend upon our ability to understand the writings of Isaiah as fully and truly as Nephi understood them.3
So over the next several weeks I plan on working through Spencer’s book, at least the chapters that relate to 2 Nephi 12–24 (Isaiah 2–14) to see if I can’t finally begin to understand what Nephi is doing with Isaiah. In this post, I’ll review Spencer’s top line comments regarding the structure and content of 2 Nephi 12–24, and conclude with some final thoughts about 2 Nephi 12–15, which I’ve already posted on here and here. Then in the next post I’ll look at Isaiah’s call as described in 2 Nephi 16 (Isaiah 6).
As a starting point perhaps we should consider the chapter breaks in the original Book of Mormon for 2 Nephi 11–24. These were as follows:
Chapter VIII: 2 Nephi 11–15 (Isaiah 2–5)
Chapter IX: 2 Nephi 16–22 (Isaiah 6–12)
Chapter X: 2 Nephi 23–24 (Isaiah 13–14)
Regarding these chapter breaks, Spencer provides the following overview:
We won’t get far in the “Isaiah chapters” if we don’t have an eye on the fact that Nephi seems to want us to see these chapters of Isaiah as telling us three successive stories. First, Isaiah 2–5 tells of Israel’s waywardness, of a general abandonment on Israel’s part of their covenantal responsibility, and the consequence of all this is announced to be chaos within and oppression from without. Second, Isaiah 6–12 tells of how God plans to do something with this situation, aiming to use Israel’s ill-timed waywardness to reduce the covenant people to just a remnant – a people within the people who will be prepared to pursue righteousness and the fulfilment of Israel’s covenant obligation. Third, Isaiah 13–14 tells of the subsequent fall of Israel’s enemies, an event that makes way for the full redemption of the covenant people. Nephi seems to have chosen out these thirteen chapters of Isaiah and divided them into three sequences in order to tell this three-part story.4
To give this three-part story a bit more detail, Spencer discusses how in the first sequence of Nephi’s quotation – that is, in Isaiah 2–5 (or 2 Nephi 12–15) – the reader is presented with a stark contrast between what’s to come and where things are at present. That is, in a future day, Israel and the Gentile nations will gather together in peace to worship the true God. But in Isaiah’s day (and Nephi seems to liken his writings to modern-day Israel too) Israel was failing in its responsibility to the nations. The result is that the nations do indeed gather to Israel but not to worship Israel’s God, only to lay her in ruins. Of Israel’s apostasy and destruction Spencer notes:
There’s a promise already of a remnant who’ll escape, but the emphasis is unmistakably on the perfect inversion in the present of what’s to be anticipated in the future.4
Spencer goes on:
Then in the second sequence of Nephi’s quotation – now in Isaiah 6–12 (or 2 Nephi 16–22) – our attention is turned to the process of producing the remnant that’s only mentioned in passing in the first sequence.4
The whole of the second part of Nephi’s three-part Isaiah story works through the devastating process by which the Lord reduces Israel to a remnant that is able to make sense of Isaiah’s message and do the work of fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant by which the Gentile nations are converted to peace and the worship of the one true God. Understanding the genesis and nature of this remnant is complex but central to Isaiah’s message (and in turn Nephi’s use of Isaiah) and so I’ll spend some time exploring Isaiah’s vision of the remnant in future posts.
Finally, Spencer explains:
In the third sequence – in Isaiah 13–14 (or 2 Nephi 23–24) – the last obstacle for fulfilment of Isaiah’s inaugural vision is removed. The imperial power that ruins all nations and closes the door on all things Abrahamic finally collapses.4
With that said, I’ll conclude with just a couple of additional thoughts on 2 Nephi 12–15 (Isaiah 2–5).
In a little bit more detail concerning the first part of the three-part story (Isaiah 2–5 as presented in 2 Nephi 12–15), Spencer highlights how it’s essentially one simple story, told twice over. Each half of of this twice-told story opens with an anticipation of glorious things to come – in 2 Ne 12:1–4 we read of the time when the nations will give up war and come to the temple (established in the top of the mountains) to worship the true God; and in 2 Ne 14:2–6 we read of the time when Israel’s remnant is holy and ready to receive their messianic ruler. This vision of a glorious future is contrasted with Israel’s present wickedness, which is defined by their oppression the poor (2 Ne 12:15–11; 13:8–15; 15:1–12, 18–23).
Of this stark divergence from what God intends for Israel, Spencer emphasises:
In each half of Isaiah 2–5, we’re then told that all this leads to collapse within Israel and attack from without Israel, culminating in a war that leaves Israel in ruins (2 Ne 12:12–13:7; 13:16–14:1; 15:13–17, 24–30). But all this is the work of the Lord, with the possibility that a remnant will remain (2 Ne 14:2–6 again), ready to return to the Lord (2 Ne 12:1–4 again).4
Next week’s reading (as it has been for about a month now!): 2 Nephi 16
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record