CLICK HERE to read Isaiah 1.
The book of Isaiah begins with an introduction to the prophet, יְשַׁעְיָהוּ. Jewish tradition says that he was the son of the brother of the king (the nephew of king Amaziah). This would also explain how he was so educated both in politics and in history, as well as his poetic writing, and how he had access to the royal courts to testify to them (and why it cost him so high a price to do so). He lived in the southern kingdom of Judah in 8th century B.C.
As a teenager, he would have heard about and known of the Assyrian invasion of Israel to the north by Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 15:19) during the days of King Uzziah (or Azariah), who was Isaiah’s cousin (the son of Amaziah) and also Uzziah’s son, Jotham (2 Kings 15; Hosea 1:1; Micah 1:1).
When Ahaz became king while the surrounding countries were at war, he was able to hold Jerusalem safe against Syria attacking from the north – but he could not fight them off. He asked Tiglath-Pileser for help in battling against Syria and Israel, and this Assyrian king quickly swooped down from behind and conquered all of Syria (even destroying Damascus) (see 2 Kings 16).
By the time Isaiah was grown and had begun his ministry, Tiglath-Pileser had established himself as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, conquering all of Syria, Philistia, Israel, and Babylon – yet still Assyria and Judah were allies. However, this left a very tiny little kingdom of Judah surrounded by a very large kingdom of Assyria.
This is actually significant in ways more than just geography.
Prior to the Israelite people being divided into two kingdoms (Israel in the North and Judah in the South), they were organized by their twelve tribes. This was a family organization, and they were led by local leaders chosen from amongst them. During this time, prophets such as Elijah and Elisha did move amongst the people and testify to them and prophesy to the people – but they were prophets to individuals, or groups within the nation, to priesthood leaders. Their messages were for the people as a whole, but the people were united as families and so the messages of these prophets are recorded within the history of those groups or nations (i.e., 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings).
However, when the people did not heed these prophets, and as individuals did not follow the laws that would protect them, their society began to shift and change until the people also rebelled politically. The people no longer followed patriarchal prophets leading families, and so begged for kings. Society shifted from being organized by families to being organized by political parties under monarchies.
Like with King Mosiah (chapter 29), this worked well for the people, as long as it was a righteous king. It was not God’s way, but with a people who had strayed, it was a “new normal”, an adjusted standard for a people who could not go back to how things had been. In the case of the Israelites, the righteous king was King Solomon. But after him, things began to fall apart because the kings were no longer righteous – and because the people (as a whole) were focused on political leaders instead of listening (as individuals) to the prophets.
The united kingdom fell apart in rebellion, dividing the people into two kingdoms. Jeroboam led a revolt of the northern tribes (nine of them: Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, Dan, Menasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, and Gad), in a civil war separating the north from the south. The southern kingdom, led by Rehoboam, included the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon.
When the people were now associated with kingdoms against each other (think Nephites and Lamanites) instead of being united through family organization, no longer could prophets be sent to individuals and families. Because the people were no longer organized by families and no longer led by patriarchs, they were no longer aligning themselves with God through priesthood leadership. Instead, they sought their own power through political leadership.
The people, as individuals, had stopped listening to prophets. When organized by families, this was the priesthood government. The father was the “prophet”, or patriarch, for that individual family, with groups of families led together by prophets, or patriarchs for that group of family, or tribes. This was the same pattern as we now have with our own families, grouped together in wards led by a Bishop, with wards grouped together in stakes.
With this organization rejected, the people, as individuals, had rejected the prophets.
The prophets could no longer testify to the people, because the people no longer listened.
The people listened only to their political leaders, rather than their priesthood leaders.
So now, for the first time, God began to send prophets to political leaders, so that the people, as a whole, could still be rescued.
Elijah and Elisha and their messages to the people were given individually and directly, with their work and testimonies recorded in the histories of the people. Judgments were for individuals and groups of people who would not heed the warnings and repent and turn to the Lord. Individuals suffered the consequences of their own sins, and found mercy only when they as individuals repented and turned to the Lord.
But now, with the people as individuals having rejected the organization (physical/Aaronic) of families and the (spiritual/Melchizedek) priesthood leadership that comes with that organization, the people as a whole, as a nation, were in trouble. Now, prophets like Amos and Hosea and Isaiah and Jeremiah were sent to the political leaders of these two divided kingdoms instead of priesthood leaders to the families of Israel.
Because the people, as a nation, have chosen the way of the world, their history begins to be recorded by the world of those who conquer them, and the testimonies of the prophets stand alone – literally, in their own books named after each prophet, instead of being included in the history of the people like in the books of Samuel or the Kings. Judgments and warnings come to the nation as a whole, rather than individuals. Because the nation as a whole has rejected the prophets, have refused to repent, the nation as a whole will suffer the consequences.
The Family Proclamation says:
we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.
This is the time in which Isaiah lived.
This is the time in which we live.
Isaiah groups up in this time, with the people were fighting amongst themselves, one people divided into two kingdoms against each other. One kingdom was scattered and destroyed (the northern kingdom of Israel, just like the Nephites) and the other kingdom was barely left standing (the southern kingdom of Judah, just like the Lamanites). About the time Isaiah begins his ministry, King Ahaz is desperate to save his kingdom and makes his alliance with Assyria (now led by Shalmaneser V) against Israel and Syria. This is the only reason the kingdom of Judah is still surviving, though surrounded. Isaiah urges the people to recognize these warning signs, and to learn from those who did not repent, and warns them that Judah will also be destroyed if the people do not repent and turn toward the Lord.
The people do not listen. Ahaz dies, and the next king is Hezekiah. Hezekiah is a righteous king, and will no longer let the Assyrian king be a bully. But when pressured, he fails to call for the counsel of the prophet and instead rebels against the alliance (2 Kings 18:7), making an alliance with Egypt instead (Isaiah 30). The Assyrian king invades Judah (2 Kings 18:14-16; Isaiah 36-37), but Hezekiah led the people to listen to the prophets and turn to the Lord and did so by his own example. Because of this, the Assyrians suffer one of the greatest losses in history – from which they never recover – and the people of Judah have peace for the rest of Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chronicles 32).
And that’s just verse 1.
That’s why people can be intimidated by studying Isaiah, because it is so packed. But if you take these layers, all in the first verse, and hold them as you study Isaiah, you will see the same patterns and context again and again and know it without having to re-learn it each time.
The same is true of the language. Once you begin to understand some of the symbols and their meaning, then Isaiah unfolds like a language and its dictionary. And instead of being confused by the poetry, it is easy to use as a key to identifying patterns that explain what Isaiah is trying to say.
The more you read Isaiah, the more sense it starts to make.
This is Isaiah, a prophet to the people as a whole because they have rejected God’s laws as individuals.
The only way to save the people as a nation is for individuals to return to God.
This is Isaiah’s message to the people of Judah, and it is his message to us.
His message opens with the Lord crying out, mourning the breaking of a covenant. He calls out for the the witness that He has kept his part of the covenant (providing for and teaching and guiding the people), and a witness against the people for not having kept their part of the covenant (obedience to His laws so that they can become like Him):
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me (verse 2).
If the people had kept their covenants, they would have become righteous as He is righteous, even holy as He is holy. They would have become His holy people, His house, the House of the Lord (holiness to the Lord). He knows who they can become, and grieves that the people do not understand their own potential:
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider (verse 3).
Even animals know who provides for them and who protects them, but the Israelites have forgotten and do not even think about it. Because they do not think about who their Savior is, because they do not consider who it is that provides for them and protects them, they do not think to become like Him. Because they do not realize they can become like Him, to be holy as He is holy, they do not even try to be holy.
Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward (verse 4).
As a whole, as a nation, the people – collectively- have turned away from holiness. Rather than progressing forward in true power, they have turned away from God after an illusion of their own power. Rather than spiritual power, they seek political power. Rather than humbly submitting to God’s laws, they proudly create their own. Rather than uniting together as a people at-one with each other and their God, they use each other to culturally justify their bad behavior. Rather than being a redeemed people by finding liberty through law, they abuse freedom with unrighteous dominion (abuse of power) under a guise of civil rights. Rather than being wise and learning from the past to move forward, they are actually regressing into the past with the foolishness that comes by a poor use of agency.
These are the days in which Isaiah lived.
These are the days in which we live.
The Lord mourns not only them not reaching their potential, but also grieves for them the consequences they are enduring – and will continue to endure as long as they continue to rebel. The Lord is sad for the people, that they would choose such suffering instead of choosing peace. He grieves that the people as a whole are rebelling and seeking after their own power to conquer others, instead of being at-one and using His power to rescue others.
Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint (verse 5).
The whole head (leadership) is sick, and the whole heart (inspiration) faint. It’s out of balance, and it’s out of order. There is confusion, and lack of focus, and no direction. The people “lack the courage to repent and ask the Lord to forgive them” (Skousen, p. 146). This is in contrast to those who do keep covenants, those with true priesthood power, those who have clear vision and inspired progress forward, as described in Isaiah 40:31:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
The difference, He says, is in sound doctrine (“the sole of the foot”) and priesthood leadership (“the head”) and the atonement (the “ointment”).
From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but the wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollifed with ointment (verse 6).
Without sound doctrine, and priesthood leadership, and the atonement, we are left in a worse state than in which we began. Without sound doctrine, we do not know what medicine to use. Without priesthood leadership, the medicine cannot be applied. Without the atonement, there is no healing.
Without healing, we are destroyed – both as individuals and as a nation.
Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers (verse 7).
Our “country” is our nation. Desolate means bleak, empty, forlorn, depressing. It is an abandoned feeling, the loss of something that once was, the spare land left after even the debris has blown away. There is nothing left. The Lord could see what was going to happen to them as a nation (as had happened to nine tribes already).
Our “cities” are our families. We are burned with fire when we are convicted by the Holy Ghost, when the Spirit tries to purify us of what is not-of-God so that we can be holy as He is holy. When we respond to this burning, we are purified, even so much as to become part of the fire, part of the Light, enveloped in the sheckinah, the Lord’s presence, so that we are made of fire, made of Light, and not burned by it (see also 1 Nephi 17). When we do not respond to this burning, then it hurts us and the consequences “burn” us. This also all points to the eventual and literal burning of the earth, where what is of-God remains and survives (like Passover), and what is not-of-God is destroyed. The Lord could see that the people, as a nation, would be destroyed because the people, as individuals, had destroyed families.
Our “land” is our inheritance, both physically and spiritually. Because the people were rejecting the gospel, God’s plan for happiness, that inheritance – the gospel and its blessings – would be given to others. The blessings are granted through ordinances, and the people had surrendered their right to those ordinances. This is where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16). While the Jews had access to the ordinances initially (first), and the Gentiles did not (last), the ordinances would be restored through the Gentiles (last now first) and then later restored to the Jews (first now last).
As the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city (verse 8).
Without these ordinances, the people are only a shadow of what they once were. Instead of having a temple, they will only have synagogues. Instead of living the “mansion” as possessors of the ordinances, of the priesthood, of the church, they will merely live in a worker’s cottage to care for the vine (the vine being the scriptures, so studying and memorizing and passing down the laws). Instead of a permanent place of literal land and spiritual power, they will be scattered by the times and seasons by other powers, they will only have a lodge – the sukkah, the temporary shelter used only for harvest season and then left abandoned. It is an image of not having the basic things required for normal life, both in the physical sense of not having enough land, enough safety, and enough provisions, as well as the spiritual sense of not having the spiritual things needed to live: the priesthood and its ordinances (and so also the Temple).
This would be the actual, physical state of the people as well. The Assyrian army conquered them by military tactics that included slaughtering, raping, looting, and burning the entire country. There would not only be a spiritual “burning” to call families to repentance, but also a literal burning of cities as a consequence for making deals with those outside-the-covenant. After the Assyrians came through, the people (“daughters”) of Jerusalem (“Zion”) would literally huddle in the leftovers of the ruined city with no shelter or food.
Go back to verse 7 now because it is a good example of bicola, a kind of form in Hebrew poetry. It means there are two (bi) phrases of cola, which is the emphatic repetition of meaning. Look for repeated nouns or synonyms that make parallels to repeat a teaching for emphasis. In this verse, the bicola begins and ends with desolation (in bold), while the first set explain what is being desolated (country/cities, underlined) and the second set explain who is doing the desolating (strangers, underlined).
It helps to write them as you see them:
Your country is desolate
your cities are burned with fire:
Your land, strangers devour it in your presence,
and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.
Note that “strangers” means those-outside-the-covenant and is significant because they are “in your presence”. He is saying that those outside the covenant, who are destroying you and making you desolate, are there by your own invitation. He is saying that you chose to lose your inheritance by letting, allowing, permitting, passively approving those not-of-the-covenant to rule over you, by making deals with them, by doing things their way instead of God’s way. He is saying these are your own natural consequences for crossing the line into enemy territory, for inviting the enemy into your homes to destroy your families.
Verses 9 and 10 start with a monocolan, followed by more bicolan:
Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant,
we should have been as Sodom,
and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom;
give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
In verse 9, the prophet promises that a remnant of righteous (individuals) will be preserved so that the people (collectively) can eventually be redeemed. It is a promise that is consistent with Heavenly Father’s plan, the premortal plan for His children to be redeemed, the plan for the Savior to come for all of us (see also Romans 9:29 and Isaiah 10:22).
In verse 10, he tells those who are NOT the remnant to listen up and pay attention. The Lord tells the people that they have missed the whole point. He tells them that they have lost the power of the priesthood and the privilege of ordinances because they have lost sight of the atonement, as evidenced by the people’s lack of obedience (obedience being the evidence of the people’s love for God). He tells them it is all meaningless, fake ordinances and powerless leaders and empty sacrifices, if the people are not changed as part of the process. They cannot just go through the motions externally without doing the work internally.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats (verse 11).
We know the answer: a broken heart and contrite spirit (See Psalm 51:17; 2 Nephi 2:7; 3 Nephi 9:20; 3 Nephi 12:19; Moroni 6:2; D&C 59:8). The people, having rejected God’s laws and refusing to listen to the prophet’s warnings, have hearts that are hard and spirits that are cold. The Lord wants no more of it (verses 13-15). Instead, He calls the people to the internal sacrifice, to righteousness, to return to holiness:
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow (verses 16-17).
This verse refers to the ordinance of baptism, by which we are washed and made clean. He tells the people to be clean (worthy) so that He can help them be righteous. He tells them to act in faith by doing good, and to be at-one instead of being at war. He tells the people to reclaim their priesthood by serving those without access to it (the fatherless and widows).
He tells them that if they will do these things, He can exchange what is not-of-God for holiness. He can remove from them the burden (curse) of their sins, and free them by His righteousness. His atonement will meet the demands of justice, so they might find mercy.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool (verse 18).
Their willingness to live His laws, and their obedience to those laws as evidence of their willingness, will return to them their inheritance of being able to live with Him, where He lives, in His presence (verse 19). This is celestial-ness, to be where He is.
But they cannot live there if they are not able to live the laws of that place (verse 20). If they are not faithful, they will not be prepared to live where He is. If they do not seek His righteousness, their own sin will trap them in consequences they themselves choose (verse 21). Their value that comes from their potential becomes diluted when they choose a lesser future (verse 22). Instead of being kings, they will be only rebellious princes; instead of having angels to assist them, their companions will be thieves (verse 23) (see also Mosiah 27).
This is not okay with the Lord. He has promised them that they can become a holy people, and so He does not give up on them. Instead, he uses their chosen consequences to deliver justice (verse 24) and to purge the people of what is not-of-God (verse 25). He will re-instate righteous priesthood leaders to lead the people back to Him (verse 26).
We are given the same promise of blessings or loss of those blessings in D&C 64:34-35. Elder Charles W. Penrose declared that these words apply to us as individuals, as well as to Israel as a nation:
Now here is the pattern: Those who believe and repent must be taken down into the water and be buried from their old lives, must put off the old man with his deeds, must be buried in the likeness of Christ’s burial and raised up again in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection. Then, when they come forth from the water, if they have believed, repented, and been baptized by a man sent of God to baptize—then, ‘though their sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ They are cleansed, they come forth to a new birth, they are born of the water, and every time they partake of the holy sacrament they witness to God that they will continue in his ways, and walk in his paths, that they have put on Christ, and that they will remember him to keep his commandments in all things. Now when people are thus properly cleansed, and purified and made white, like unto newborn babes on entering into the world, without blemish or spot, then their tabernacles are fit to receive the Holy Ghost.”
(In Journal of Discourses, 22:91.)
Here, as Nephi said (1 Nephi 20:1), Isaiah is talking about baptism (see verse 16 above) and the ordinances by which we return to the Lord. Regardless of growing up in church or not, each of us must have our own conversion experience. We must continue deepening that conversion in the ongoing process that is our progression, and by this: His grace, love, and mercy demonstrated by the atonement, and the evidence of our acceptance of it, we will be redeemed.
Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness (verse 27).
Besides the personal and family blessings that He is promising, it is also a promise for the land (a promise made here to the Lamanites) and a promise made for the people, collectively, as a nation. It was given to King Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
Those who do not choose this redemption plan will be consumed by justice, suffering the full force of the consequences they have chosen (verse 28). They will be ashamed of the “seeds” (choices) they planted, and confused by the “garden” (consequences) that grows (verse 29). They will be left without color in their leaves, or “beauty” (righteousness), left like a tree stripped of its leaves, and be ugly and empty and dried up and wasted like a garden without “water” (cleansing of the atonement, nourishment of the Spirit).
There is also a layer here that alludes to sexual sin that Isaiah foresaw would destroy the people. Fertility cults that the Israelites learned from neighbors not-of-the-covenant involved many of these symbols, including the trees from which the idols were made. These idols will not fill them or nourish them the way the Spirit can, nor love them the way our Heavenly Father loves us. The idols cannot advocate for them the way the Savior can. He says the people will know, one day, how guilty they are, and burn in that guilt (spiritually, emotionally, and mentally) or have it purged out of them by the burning of the Holy Spirit that cleanses.
The last verse says this:
And the strong shall be as tow,
and the maker of it as a spark,
and they shall both burn together,
and none shall quench them.
This takes some defining.
“Tow” is material that will not burn. He is saying the hot shots of the day that have all the power and get all the attention are only just an illusion, a false fuel, empty calories, nothing but dust in the wind. They have no actual power.
The “maker” of the tow are those who support or sustain such nonsense, the ones who built them up, the ones who paid the money and gave the attention and called in the votes for the “tow”, these false-idol-people.
He is saying that those who have no power, no fire, will one day be “burned” by those who once support them, and that they will all fall together. Together they will suffer the consequences of their behavior and choices, and together they will be destroyed by those consequences. There will be no relief from the consequences because they have already denied what was offered them.
These are the days in which Isaiah lived.
These are the days in which we live.
We are choosing both our immediate and eternal consequences with every choice we make. He wants us to turn to him with broken hearts and contrite spirits, repentant and reliant on Him so that we can choose righteousness and receive the ordinances that prepare us for Him sincerely with humble hearts. He wants us to work in His name (priesthood power) to care for those around us, especially those without the same access to Him. These are the conditions of His House, His Presence, His Family. He wants us to choose wisely, that we can be with Him and be like Him, even holy as He is holy.
Holiness to the Lord,
the House of the Lord.