2 Nephi 19 tweet: Darkness, oppression R over 4 unto us a child is born. But Eph is proud & God’s hand is stretched out still X3. Eph will B fuel 4 fire.
These Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi don’t really work as standalone chapters. In the Isaiah chapters, probably more than any others in the Book of Mormon, context is crucial. None of this is going to make much sense if we don’t appreciate the political situation (i.e. the Syro-Ephraimite crisis) in which Isaiah was speaking. And we should also bear in mind the original chapter breaks of the Book of Mormon covering the Isaiah chapters and how they suggest that Nephi was using Isaiah to tell three successive stories.
v1–4: The last post concluded with Isaiah prophesying that Judah would walk in darkness because they had rejected his words and would instead seek after “familiar spirits” and “wizards that peep and mutter.” However, as we pick up the prophecy in Isaiah 9/2 Nephi 19, Isaiah provides a more hopeful message that this darkness won’t last forever. “The people that walked in darkness” will instead “have seen a great light … upon them hath the light shined” (2 Ne 19:2). This is because they will eventually rid themselves of the burden of Assyria. God will have “broken the yoke” that weighs so heavily on Israel (v4).
v5: The KJV of v5 is hard to make sense of. Modern translations read something like, “every soldier’s boot and every bit of clothing (which would be bloody) will be burned.” The picture is of the end of a military campaign, where the outfits of soldiers would no longer be needed and will actually serve as fuel for fire. Of this imagery, Donald Parry makes the following point:
According to the law of Moses, boots, garments, weaponry, chariotry, and other items used during war were not to become part of the booty or spoil of the victors. Such property was under a ban and had to be burned with fire (compare Joshua 7:23—26; 11:6, 9; Ezekiel 39:9—10; Psalm 46:9).1
v6–7: How will Judah manage to get Assyria off their backs? With the rise of a new king. There’s a prediction at the outset of Isaiah 9 of a “child” to be “born” with “the government … upon his shoulder” (v6). Isaiah is prophesying of a time to come when those who have struggled under Assyria’s weight will be delivered by a righteous king.2
King Hezekiah fulfilled this prophecy. Under his leadership and with divine help, Judah was able to withstand the might of the Assyrian army. It is tempting to connect this prophecy to those previously given about a child to be born (i.e. consider the connection between Isaiah 7:14, 8:4 and 9:6). But as discussed previously, identifying the child (or perhaps children) of these other prophecies isn’t easy – it may have been Hezekiah, or it may have been Isaiah’s own son.
Obviously, for Christians, Hezekiah as fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy is merely a shadow or type of its ultimate fulfilment in the coming of the millennial Messiah.1 But it’s not clear (nor necessary) that Isaiah had in mind the Second Coming of Christ when he spoke of “The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace,” as even these titles would have been applied to mortal kings in Old Testament times. However, regardless of whether or not Isaiah saw the millennial Christ, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters Nephi probably did read Christ into this prophecy.
v8–12: But with verse 8 we begin a new topic and there is a distinct shift in tone. No sooner does Isaiah announce this good news about the righteous king who will save Judah and Jerusalem in a future day, than he goes back to the fate of Judah’s enemies. This is a judgment against the northern kingdom – a “word unto Jacob” – for failing to obey. The northern kingdom (Ephraim) is arrogant in its defiance of Assyria, despite the obvious gains the enemy makes against its little coalition of local nations. They ridiculously claim that their losses – “the bricks are fallen down,” and “the sycamores are cut down” – will be followed by gains: “We will build with hewn stones” instead of mere bricks! “We will change [lowly sycamores] into cedars!”2
But of course they’ll fall before Assyria and be destroyed and scattered. Their own allies will in fact turn against them, “the Syrians before and the Philistines behind” (v12).
v12: At the end of v12 we read the phrase “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still,” which is repeated three times in this chapter.
I had always understood this image of the Lord’s outstretched hand as a sign of God’s mercy towards Israel, i.e. that despite his anger, the Lord continues to reach out to wayward Israel. However, in the ancient Israelite and broader ancient Near Eastern context, the meaning of this phrase was quite the opposite. The Book of Mormon Central website has a piece about the Lord’s stretched out hand. It says the following:
John Gee, a Latter-day Saint and professional Egyptologist, explained, “The English sentence is constructed to say that in spite of the punishments afflicted (‘for all this’), the punishments do not satisfy the Lord’s anger (‘his anger is not turned away’).” Gee continued, “In other words, to the contrary (‘but’), the hand of the Lord is still ‘stretched out.’” Gee thus concluded, “So a stretched out hand, by any careful reading of the English, is a hand administering punishment,”3 or, at least, threatening or beginning to do so.3
Alternative translations of this phrase make this clear. For example, the NET Bible translates the phrase in this way:
Despite all this, his anger does not subside, and his hand is ready to strike again.4
v13–17: Israel will be cut off and cut down. Their leaders have misled them and destruction awaits. Even the fatherless and the widows will not find mercy. Of this point, Julie Smith asks the following questions:
It seems difficult to imagine why the Lord’s judgment would extend to widows and orphans–it seems cruel and certainly contrary to the picture of widows and orphans as the paradigmatic defenseless people with a special claim to mercy in the Bible. What justifies the Lord’s treatment of widows and orphans in this section? What does that treatment teach us about widows and orphans?5
v18–21: The imagery of these last few verses is pretty horrific. In a terrible parallel with v5 in which the clothing of war will be “fuel of fire” because its no longer needed, in these verses the people of Israel themselves will be “the fuel of the fire” (v19). The northern kingdom will end up destroying itself, “Manasseh Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,” both set against Judah (v21). Julie Smith offers the following commentary on the last two verses of the chapter:
The first two lines [of v20] picture someone snapping up food from all directions, but it doesn’t take away their hunger pains. They were so extremely hungry that they tried eating their own flesh! It is possible that the word translated as “flesh of his own arm” should be translated as “offspring,” either way, the image is of someone resorting to the unthinkable in order to satisfy their hunger.
The first line [of v21] probably means that Ephraim was fighting against Manasseh and vice versa. The second line says that Ephraim and Manasseh fought against Judah. This verse pictures the tribes of Israel consuming each other, much as the individual in v20 consumed himself. The parallel is made that the tribes of Israel warring against each other makes about as much sense as a man eating his own arm.5
This is a very dark scene and raises questions about the role of prophets and the nature of prophecy. Reading these deeply troubling prophecies of Isaiah, and given Nephi’s own traumatic prophetic vision, it is easy to see why Nephi saw in Isaiah a kindred spirit and why he felt he was able to liken Isaiah’s words about Israel and Judah to his own displaced people.
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 20
- Joseph Spencer. The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, p. 197