As described previously, 2 Nephi 16 (Isaiah 6) marks the start of part 2 of Nephi’s re-telling of Isaiah’s three-part story. In part 2, Isaiah will describe how the Lord, through the destruction that will come upon Israel, produces a remnant capable of understanding Isaiah’s prophecies. In this post I’ll look at the call of Isaiah as described in v1–8 and then in the next post how that call sets up Isaiah to prophesy concerning the remnant (v9–13). As in my last post, I’ll be relying heavily on the work of Joe Spencer to make sense of this chapter.
The first thing to note is that Isaiah’s experience is comparable to two other experiences in Nephi’s record. First, right at the beginning of his record, Nephi recounts the experience of Lehi, who after the pillar of fire, saw in vision the heavens open and God upon his throne surrounded by angels, who he notes were “in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Ne 1:8). Second, at the end of his record, Nephi promises that following the baptism of fire, the faithful will be able themselves to acquire the “tongue of angels” and shout praises to God (2 Ne 31:13). These two experiences – Lehi’s vision of fire and of angels and a generalised description of how we all might experience this fire and speak as the angels – appear as bookends to Nephi’s writings. Then in the heart of the more sacred part of his record (see here for an explanation of Nephi’s more sacred part of his record), Nephi shares Isaiah’s prophetic call. And we’ll see that the elements of fire and the voice or tongue of angels are central to Isaiah’s experience as well.
At the beginning of Isaiah’s experience, we find him in the throne room of the temple in the presence of the Lord, surrounded by seraphim (the Hebrew word for seraphim suggest fiery divine beings). Each one of these seraphim had six wings; two wings covering the face; two wings covering the feet; and two wings to fly.
As per D&C 77:4, we might infer that the wings to fly symbolise the power, to move, to act, etc. But is there some other symbolism at work here as well? Spencer writes:
Let’s note what’s going on with the seraphim’s other wings. Two serve as a sort of veil, covering the face. And two serve as a sort of apron, covering the groin. (“Feet” was a euphemism for genitalia in ancient Israelite culture…) These seraphs, then, doubly mark their humility before the Lord, veiling their faces and covering their shame.1
We should keep in mind this vision of angels in the presence of God appropriately veiled and covered as we consider the rest of Isaiah’s temple experience.
Unless we’re familiar with ancient Israel’s temple rituals and culture, what Isaiah describes next is difficult to make sense of. So again, I’ll turn to Spencer to provide some explanation:
Only once a year in ancient Israel was anyone permitted into the most holy place, the temple’s holy of holies, and that was on the Day of Atonement.
To approach God’s throne was, of course, a terrible thing. The rabbis describe the practice of tying a rope around the ankle of the high priest, so that, if the appearance of the Lord should strike him dead, the priests could drag his corpse from the holy of holies without having to enter that most sacred space themselves. In part to prevent such a thing happening, a major feature of the Day of Atonement consisted of the high priest preemptively placing a shovel of incense through the veil, filling the holy of holies with smoke before passing into the presence of the Lord. [See Leviticus 16:13] The high priest fully expected the Lord to appear, and so every precaution had to be taken so that he wouldn’t actually be able to see the Lord, whose glory would strike him down. Now bring all this back to Isaiah 6. As Isaiah watches the heavenly scene, the house fills with smoke. It’s the Day of Atonement, and he seems to be the high priest. Yet before the incense can fill the holy of holies, Isaiah sees the Lord seated on the ark of the covenant. The thunderous praise of the seraphim has drawn Isaiah’s eyes to God before he’s ready to see him.2
This begins to explain Isaiah’s distress when he proclaims:
Wo is unto 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. (2 Ne 16:5)
Isaiah has seen God face to face and fully expects to be annihilated. What is interesting though is the reason Isaiah’s gives for his expected destruction, i.e. he is “a man of unclean lips … in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” What does that mean? Again, I’ll turn it over to Spencer:
The key here would be to note that the Hebrew word translated “lips” – that’s a literal translation, of course – is one of two that Israelites used to refer to language, the other being “tongue”… What if we read Isaiah 6 in this light? That is, what if we read Isaiah as attributing his fear before the appearance of the Lord in major part to his inability to speak the divine language? … He has “unclean lips,” and he dwells among “a people of unclean lips.” God’s divine language is shared with the seraphim, but Isaiah’s human language is shared with his too-human neighbors.3
At this point a seraph flies to Isaiah, “having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar” (2 Ne 16:6). The coal from the altar purges Isaiah’s sin; we might say that the fiery coal changed Isaiah so that he could join the seraphim in speaking with the tongue of angels. Spencer reads this symbolism in an interesting way. Firstly, he describes the coal from off the altar as “a glowing coal, a kind of white stone.” While he admits that it is doubtful that Isaiah or Nephi had this in mind, he connects this glowing coal with the white stone with a new name written on it (see Rev 2:17 and D&C 130:9–11).4 (As an aside, we might also consider whether there is a connection with the brother of Jared’s glowing stones.)
Secondly, Spencer considers from what altar the seraph took the live coal. He suggests that given where this is all taking place, i.e. the incense-filled holy of holies, the coal must have come from off the altar of incense positioned immediately before the veil of the temple. The smoke from the altar of incense was intended to symbolise the prayers of the people constantly ascending to God. Or, as Spencer puts it, “there’s an altar that stood immediately before the veil, and there went up from it – as it were through the veil and into the presence of the Lord – a true (temple) order of prayer.” He goes on:
Branded with a new name, perhaps, or initiated into the temple order of prayer, perhaps, Isaiah can join the angelic throng, can pass through the veil into the Lord’s presence, and can receive there a specific mission he’s to perform in Israel.5
Spencer is clear that his interpretation of Isaiah’s experience is a strictly LDS interpretation, and he admits that his reading would not hold much water with any non-Mormon biblical scholar. However, he suggests that this reading may inspire us to take more seriously our own temple experience and our symbolic contact with angels there. Importantly, in connecting Isaiah’s call with Lehi’s experience at the start of his record, and his instruction to his people at the end of his record, Spencer believes Nephi provides for his readers a paradigm for how to acquire the tongue of angels and receive a personalised commission from God.
In the next post I’ll consider Isaiah’s specific commission and the implications for latter-day Israel of Isaiah’s commission being included in Nephi’s writings.
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 16:9–13
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p 172–3
- Ibid. p 173–4
- Ibid. p 175
- Ibid. p 175
- Ibid. p 176