2 Nephi 18 tweet: Syr+Eph ruined b4 MSHB can talk. Jdh: flood instead of gentle H2O. No confederacy; God 2b sanctuary. No peeping wizards; sealed law instead.
Nephi is deep into his use of Isaiah and so to make sense of this chapter we really need to appreciate what’s just come before. So you’ll probably need to have read my earlier posts on Isaiah – at least the one that provides an overview of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis – to make sense of what’s being talked about here. It’ll be some time yet before we can really make sense of why Nephi thought this ancient Israelite history would be relevant to latter-day readers, but we catch a glimpse in this chapter as we read of a testimony sealed up for the remnant of which Isaiah has previously prophesied.
v1–4: Isaiah 8 is a prophetic word announced to the people of Judah. The name of Isaiah’s child – Maher-shalal-hash-baz – is given for a sign of God’s work among Israel and roughly means quick to plunder the spoils. The child’s name and the associated prophecy make clear that it won’t be long “before the riches of Damascus [Syria’s capital] and the spoil of Samaria [Ephraim’s capital] shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.” The child will be a constant reminder that God predicted the event and brought it to pass.
v5–8: But the people in Judah don’t want to listen to this. Given that the Syrian/Ephraimite armies are on their doorstep, they consider it too risky to trust in Isaiah’s prophesy of Syria and Ephraim’s demise; instead they want to join the coalition against Assyria. Their resistance to the word of God is described using a striking image. Judah “refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly” (v6); they don’t like the gentle brook that provides their city with life-sustaining water. And the result of their resistance is that “the Lord bringeth upon them the waters of the river, strong and many,” i.e. the king of Assyria with all his military might (v7). In the place of the waters of Shiloah, they’ll get a flood, “reach[ing] even to the neck” (v8).1
As a side note, some Isaiah scholars believe that the Immanuel of Isaiah 7 and 8 (see Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz are one and the same. For example, Isaiah 8:3 is a birth account that could easily be understood as recording the fulfilment of the birth prophecy of 7:14. Also, the removal of Judah’s enemies would take place before the child of both prophecies reached a specified age (compare Isaiah 7:14–16 with 8:4).2 (See my previous post for why Immanuel is probably not a prophecy about Christ.)
v9–10: These verses highlight that Judah is seriously considering giving in to Syria and Ephraim and joining their coalition or confederacy. So Isaiah tells them to go ahead and see how their lack of faith will turn out: “Associate yourselves, O ye people!” he says, “and ye shall be broken in pieces” (v9). They’re free to join the coalition, but “it shall come to naught” (v10).
The NET Bible notes on v9 state:
One could paraphrase, “Okay, go ahead and prepare for battle since that’s what you want to do, but your actions will backfire and you’ll be shattered.” This rhetorical use of the imperatives is comparable to saying to a child who is bent on climbing a high tree, “Okay, go ahead, climb the tree and break your arm!” What this really means is: “Okay, go ahead and climb the tree since that’s what you really want to do, but your actions will backfire and you’ll break your arm.” The repetition of the statement in the final two lines of the verse gives the challenge the flavor of a taunt (ancient Israelite “trash talking,” as it were).2
v11–15: At this point Isaiah decides to clearly explain to the people of Judah what the Lord has told him about all of this business. He explains that the Lord has told him not to follow in the path of Judah and guided him away from supporting the confederacy of nations: “Say ye not, A confederacy, to all to whom this people shall say, A confederacy” (v12). While the people “stumble and fall,” (v15), Isaiah is to let God be his “fear” and his “dread” (v13), and He shall be his “sanctuary” (v14).
v16–18: Here the text turns from the word of the Lord to Isaiah, to Isaiah’s own instructions to the people. That is, because the people won’t hear any of what he has to say, Isaiah tells them to “bind up the testimony” he’s offered, to “seal the law” for a later people that’ll finally be ready to receive his message (v16). In the meantime, Isaiah himself is content just to “wait upon the Lord” (v17). Isaiah and his disciples look to a future time when a remnant will redeem Israel.3
v19–22: To explain the obscure last few verses of the chapter I’ll use Jose Spencer’s commentary:
Interestingly, Isaiah sees an intervening series of events happening between his own time and that future of redemption and renewed possibility. He anticipates there being some who recognise too late that the prophet was right. Remembering Isaiah only when his prophecies of destruction are fulfilled – that is, after the prophet’s death but before the time of the remnant’s redemption – these people decide to stage a séance! They seek out “familiar spirits” and “wizards that peep and mutter,” hoping “for the living to hear from the dead” (2 Ne 18:19). But Isaiah’s anticipatory response to this nonsense is simple: “To the law and to the testimony!” (v20). He hopes such fools will recognise that the answers they seek are to be found in the sealed writings of Isaiah, in a text directed to the surviving remnant. Unfortunately, such misguided people will “curse … their God” (v21) and then “be driven to darkness” (v22). They won’t seek out Isaiah’s writings or join those who will be preserved to read them when they can be opened again.4
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 19
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p. 195
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p. 196
- Ibid. p. 196