2 Nephi 16 tweet: Seraphim, wings x6, cry holy x3. Isa sees God, his lips r purged. God says close hearts, ears + eyes. Destruction will leave a holy seed.

In the last post I looked at Isaiah’s call to prophesy; in this post I’ll look at what exactly it was he was commissioned to do. I’ll look at just 5 verses (2 Ne 16:9–13), but there is a lot going on in these verses and they’re important for us to understand in order to comprehend both Isaiah’s mission and how Nephi is using Isaiah’s writings in his larger project. As in previous posts, I’ll be working through these verses with the help of Joe Spencer’s book, The Vision of All.1

The Remnant

Before I look at the verses, there are a couple of concepts that need outlining. Firstly, one of the recurring themes in the Old Testament in general, but especially in Isaiah’s writings, is that of the remnant. We have already come across this theme in Nephi’s vision and in Nephi’s quotation of Isaiah:

In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious; the fruit of the earth excellent and comely to them that are escaped of Israel. (2 Ne 14:2)

This group – them that are escaped of Israel – are those that Isaiah usually calls the remnant. Much of Isaiah’s writings were prophecies of devastating war, but it would seem that all of the destruction that he saw was supposed to produce among Israel a righteous remnant. This surviving remnant is holy and they were then to be led back to a land of promise in a manner reminiscent of the exodus (see 2 Ne 14:5–6).

When we remember that the title page explicitly states that the Book of Mormon was written to a remnant of the house of Israel to bring to their knowledge God’s covenant with them, we realise that it is vital that we appreciate that the concept of the remnant – a consistent theme of Isaiah – is central to the stated purposes of the Book of Mormon.

Writing Prophets

Secondly, as we read Isaiah’s commission, we ought to keep in mind the idea of what Joe Spencer calls “writing prophets.” Drawing on the work of Isaiah scholar, Gerhard von Rad, Spencer puts it this way:

Before Isaiah’s time – think here of the stories of Elijah and Elisha – prophets didn’t write; they simply went about performing miracles and delivering oracles. But during Isaiah’s generation, there’s suddenly this phenomenon of “writing prophets”: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah. Von Rad argued that this turn to written prophecy went hand in hand with the idea of a divinely hardened people. When Isaiah is forced through his commission to recognize that his contemporaries won’t listen to a word he has to say, he (along with other prophets from his generation) begins to realize that his message is for a people to come only after his death. Hence von Rad marked a connection between Isaiah’s commission in Isaiah 6 and a crucial passage in Isaiah 8. In the latter chapter, Isaiah commands his few followers to “bind up the testimony” he’s been offering, to “seal the law” among his disciples (2 Ne. 18:16).2

Spencer makes the point that because of his divine commission, crucially, Isaiah was to produce a written record that could be sealed up and kept for a later generation in exactly the same way as Nephite prophets would have to. (We’ll see this more clearly when we get to Nephi’s use of Isaiah 29 and the words of a sealed book.) That makes Isaiah, in Spencer’s words, “a proto-Nephite prophet.” Isaiah knew, as Nephi, Mormon and Moroni would come to know, that his own people wouldn’t receive his message. So he captured his prophecies in writing so that they could one day be read by a people – a remnant – who were prepared to hear his message. And in so doing, he modelled for Nephite prophets the approach they would have to take to ensure their words were heard.

Isaiah’s Commission

So with these ideas in mind, can we make some sense of what Isaiah was asked by God to do? Here’s what we have in verses 9 and 10:

And he said: Go and tell this people—Hear ye indeed, but they understood not; and see ye indeed, but they perceived not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes—lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed. (2 Ne 16:9–10)

The past tense of “understood” and “perceived” complicate somewhat the reading of this command to Isaiah. However, Royal Skousen, who is the leading expert on the textual history of the Book of Mormon, makes a pretty decent argument that the original text would have read “Hear ye indeed, but they understand not; and see ye indeed, but they perceive not.” If that’s the case, it would seem as though God told Isaiah what to say to the people – hear ye, see ye – but then interjected to make clear that the people were past understanding.3 That reading seems okay to me, but the real challenge comes in verse 10. What sense are we to make of God’s apparently deliberate intent to thwart his people’s repentance/conversion? This is where we need to keep in mind the idea that God was seeking to establish a righteous remnant. Spencer puts it this way:

The God of Nephi’s Isaiah, as much as the God of the Bible’s Isaiah, commissions this particular prophet to prevent Israel’s repentance. They don’t understand, and they don’t perceive … but God here sends out a prophet whose task is to make sure that doesn’t change. They’re to remain in their hardened state; God wishes nothing be done to recover them. And that’s something that’s hard to feel terribly comfortable about, no? This isn’t the God we like to talk about in the twenty-first century. Yet this is the God of Isaiah, the God who hides his face from Israel to accomplish his own purpose.4

If this seems a strange thing that challenges our ideas about God, we should remember that Jesus drew on these Isaiah verses to explain why he taught in parables (see Matt 13:10–16). So we have to grapple with this idea that there seemingly are times when God really does hedge up the way to our understanding. What implications do you think this has for our relationship with God and how we read the scriptures or listen to the words of prophets?

If this is challenging to us I think it was to Isaiah as well. He responds: “Lord, how long?” You can almost hear him saying, “Wait, what? This is just a temporary thing, right?” But the Lord makes clear, “No, your mission is to prophesy until the cities are wasted and the land is completely desolate.” (See 2 Ne 16:11–12)

This must have been utterly depressing to Isaiah. So in the final verse the Lord offers him a glimmer of hope:

But yet there shall be a tenth, and they shall return, and shall be eaten, as a teil tree, and as an oak whose substance is in them when they cast their leaves; so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof. (2 Ne 16:13)

This is an instance where reading a version other than the KJV can help to clarify what Isaiah was saying. This verse in the NRSV reads:

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.

This still isn’t particularly clear and it’s worth reading a couple of Bible commentaries on this verse, but from everything I’ve read, the Lord seems to be telling Isaiah that the purpose of all this destruction of which Isaiah is to prophesy, is to bring about a remnant, or holy seed, who will be sanctified and prepared to receive the Lord’s word, which Isaiah will seal up. Spencer puts it this way:

Isaiah’s commission is to help see to it that the remnant is produced, even as he records the prophecies that must be sealed up and saved for that remnant’s eventual perusal.

That’s Isaiah’s message. In fact, everything about Isaiah focuses on this remnant. He is given the divine responsibility to help see to the production of the remnant, pressing Israel towards its fate … his prophecies are written and sealed up so that they can be read by the remnant once it’s finally produced.5 

Accordingly, the next few chapters of Isaiah/2 Nephi describe how this remnant will come to pass.

Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 17

  1. Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record
  2. Ibid. p.181
  3. Ibid. p.185-187
  4. p.187
  5. p.190