There’s a joke among Latter-day Saints that there was once a man who always carried around a pocket-sized Book of Mormon in his jacket. One day he was mugged in the street and shot in the chest. Fortunately, the bullet hit the Book of Mormon, which saved his life. As he examined the book later he found that the bullet had made it through First Nephi and the first few chapters of Second Nephi. But stopped there. Amused, he thought to himself, “Even a bullet can’t make it through the Isaiah chapters!”
For those not familiar with the Book of Mormon, there are several chapters from Isaiah quoted in full within its first hundred pages. Readers cruising along with the narrative sections preceding often find the Isaiah chapters intimidating and impenetrable. It’s a common enough experience among my co-religionists that this joke hits home. And it also makes for a useful introduction to my subject, putting Isaiah in context.
Isaiah has a reputation for being very difficult to understand. What I’d like to suggest is that Isaiah isn’t actually intrinsically difficult to understand but it often is difficult to understand in the way it’s read. The way it’s often read is without the historical context that gives that background for what is going on in the book, what Isaiah is responding to and talking about. The Book of Mormon even points this out. Nephi says Isaiah isn’t difficult for him to understand because he knew “concerning the regions round about” Jerusalem (2 Nephi 25:6). That’s actually a very helpful place to start. What are the regions round about? The main regions to know about are:
And it also helps to know something of the rulers involved in the geopolitics of Isaiah’s time. This will make many of the apparently difficult passages in Isaiah much more comprehensible.
Over the course of hundreds of years, from the time of Isaiah to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the superpowers that dominated Mesopotamia were, in succeeding order: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was in existence from 911 – 609 BC. It was then conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire which lasted from 626 – 539 BC. It was then conquered by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which lasted from 550 – 330 BC, with the conquest of Alexander the Great. In this succession of empires the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were relatively minor powers that were tossed around, besieged, conquered, and deported. Although Israel and Judah were minor powers in comparison to the other kingdoms, the Bible has a much more prominent place in our culture today than the records of any of these empires. And so we see much of this history through the eyes of Israel and Judah. Isaiah is one of these observers who was also very prolific and expressive.
The Geopolitical Landscape
Judah and Israel
Judah and Israel are the two Hebrew-speaking nations that (usually) worship the LORD God, YHWH. I say “usually” because both, Israel especially, tend to worship other gods, either instead of or along with the LORD God. And that’s why the LORD’s bulldog prophets Elijah and Elisha were out there railing against idol worship. These kingdoms had been united under Saul, David, and Solomon. But they split after Solomon’s death. Judah is the southern kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem. Israel is the northern kingdom with its capital in Samaria.
Isaiah lived in Judah, the southern kingdom, from the 8th to 7th century BC. He was active during the reigns of four kings of Judah:
The kings to the north in Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime were:
Pekah, the son of Remaliah (737–732 BC)
Hoshea (732–722 BC)
In the early books of Isaiah Pekah is often referred to as “the son of Remaliah”. And he was involved in some alliances with other Kingdoms against the Kingdom of Judah.
By far the dominant power in the region during this time was the Assyrian Empire, sometimes called the Neo-Assyrian Empire by historians to distinguish it from an earlier empire. The Assyrian Empire lasted from 911 to 609 BC. Isaiah’s lifetime coincides with some of its most historically significant rulers. These include:
Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC)
Shalmaneser V (727–722 BC)
Sargon II (722–705 BC)
Sennacherib (705-681 BC)
Shalmaneser V was very important in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel because he conquered it and scattered its people. For Isaiah and Judah the two major Assyrian rulers will be Tiglath-Pilesar and Sennacherib.
Aram and Egypt
Two other important kingdoms worth remembering are Aram and Egypt. Egypt should be quite familiar to everyone. It was no longer as dominant a power at this time but it was still significant. Aram, also known as Aram-Damascus, is sometimes called just “Syria”, as it is in the King James Version. This can be a little confusing since the KJV translation talks about Syria and Assyria. So it’s important to keep track of these and remember that they are separate kingdoms. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah it is אֲרָם (aram). And it’s where the name for the Aramaic language comes from. To avoid confusion with Assyria I like to call it Aram or Aram-Damascus. Aram, or Syria, was centered around the city of Damascus. The most important Aramean ruler mentioned in Isaiah is:
Rezin (754 BC–732 BC)
Rezin was also, as we shall see, the last king of Aram.
Egypt is also important in the geopolitical scene because they entered an alliance with Aram-Damascus and Israel and later with Judah.
The Geopolitical History
The first important geopolitical event to know about in Isaiah is the alliance between Aram and Israel against Judah. At this time Judah was ruled by Ahaz, Israel was ruled by Pekah, son of Remaliah, and Aram (or Syria) was ruled by Rezin. Aram and Israel formed an alliance to take over Judah and install a new ruler to replace Ahaz. The reason they wanted to do this was to compel Judah to join them in opposing the Assyrian Empire, which at this time was ruled by Tiglath-Pilesar. This failed however. Ahaz actually entered an alliance with Tiglath-Pilesar of Assyria. And it didn’t work out too well for Aram and Israel. Tiglath-Pileser marched on Damascus, annexed it into his empire, and killed Rezin. He also took portions of Israel and deported portions of its population. Pekah was assassinated shortly after, his rule usurped by Hoshea.
These events are described in Isaiah chapter 7. This is the same chapter that talks about Immanuel and a young girl or “virgin” conceiving (more on that shortly). I’ll read Isaiah 7:1-16 and insert some comments on the history mentioned above. If you’ve struggled painfully through this passage before hopefully it will be a little easier with the above in mind. I think most listeners will be most familiar with the King James Version so I’ll use that translation.
“And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim.”
So that’s just a description of the situation we’ve described. Note here that “Ephraim” is another way of referring to the Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim being one of twelve tribes of Israel that was dominant in the north.
“And his [Ahaz’s] heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind. Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field; And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal: Thus saith the Lord God, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.”
So here Isaiah is going to the king of Judah, Ahaz, to tell him not to fear this alliance against him, that it’s not going to prevail. We read here that Pekah and Rezin were planning to install their own puppet, “the son of Tabeal”, as king in Ahaz’s place.
“For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son.”
So these names should all be familiar now. The capital of Aram (or Syria) is Damascus and it’s headed by Rezin. The capital of Israel is Samaria and it’s headed by Pekah, Remaliah’s son. And Isaiah is prophesying that they’re not going to last.
“If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established. Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”
The LORD tells Ahaz, through Isaiah, to ask for a sign to convince him of all this.
“But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”
Ahaz doesn’t want to ask for a sign, presumably out of piety. But Isaiah and the LORD aren’t buying it.
“And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign.”
So Ahaz is going to get a sign whether he likes it or not. And what is the sign?
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.”
So the sign is that a child is going to be conceived and born and before the child is grown Rezin and Pekah will be gone. In other words, this is going to happen soon. So it’s meant to be reassuring for Ahaz.
Who is this child in the prophecy? Well, if you’ve heard this verse quoted around Christmas you know it’s certainly used theologically by Christians to refer to Jesus. I will make the case in a minute that this is actually a valid theological reading. But, it seems not to be the primary meaning in the original context. The primary meaning of the prophecy is referring to a child who would be born very soon, who would still be a child by the time Rezin and Pekah fell from power. So that couldn’t be Jesus. We don’t know for sure who the child referred to is. It could just be a random, nameless child. But this is often thought to be referring to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, the next king of Judah.
So what of Christ? And doesn’t the prophecy refer to conception and birth by a virgin? What other virgin has conceived and given birth than Mary the mother of Jesus? First it’s important to note that “virgin” is probably not the best English translation of the Hebrew word used here. In Hebrew the one conceiving is an עַלְמָ֗ה (almah), a “young woman”, not necessarily a virgin; which would be בְּתוּלָה (betulah). An almah could be a virgin and maybe this woman even was at the time of the prophecy. But that also doesn’t necessarily mean she was a virgin when she gave birth or that she conceived as a virgin. That probably wouldn’t occur to a reader prior to the virgin birth of Christ. The primary reading it would seem here is that the miraculous sign is not a virgin birth but the rapidity of the downfall of Rezin and Pekah, that it will occur before the child matures.
Why is this so often translated as “virgin” rather than simply “young woman”. One reason is that in early Christianity the most common version of Isaiah that Christians would have been familiar with was the Greek translation, the Septuagint. And in the Septuagint almah is translated as παρθένος (parthénos), which to the readers in the time of early Christianity was understood to mean, more particularly, a virgin.
But can this prophecy also refer to Christ? I think it certainly can and the New Testament uses it in that way, in Matthew 1:21-23.
“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
In our postmodern age we aren’t unacquainted with the idea that texts can have multiple meanings that can extend far beyond the intent of the author. And maybe Isaiah even had a double meaning in mind. Either way we as Christians can certainly read Isaiah with a cristological lens. I’m actually quite partial to finding cristological types all over the place, even in the natural world and in daily life. In Latter-day Saint scripture, in the Book of Moses, there’s a wonderful passage in Moses 6:63 that says:
“And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.”
I think that is fantastic theology. And I think finding a typology of Christ in this prophecy in Isaiah is completely legitimate theologically. So I’m something of a non-partisan, liberal-conservative hybrid in my interpretation of this scripture.
One other point of interest in this scripture is that the title given to the child, “Immanuel” means “God is with us”. That’s:
im, “with” + anu, “us”, a first person plural pronominal suffix + el, “God” or “a god”.
Kings were thought to be representatives of the LORD God so this could be applicable to Hezekiah. But applying it to Christ, as the incarnation of God in human form among other human beings on earth, certainly makes sense for Christian theology.
Another scripture that becomes much clearer with the geopolitical history in mind is Isaiah 8:5-10.
“The Lord spake also unto me again, saying, Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son; Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks: And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel. Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far countries: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for God is with us.”
Worth noting here that that last line, “for God is with us” in Hebrew is: כִּ֥י עִמָּ֖נוּ אֵֽל, ki immanu el. And that’s the message that Isaiah wants to drive home here. God is with us so we don’t need to associate ourselves with Aram and Israel. We ought to take in the waters of Shiloah rather than rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son, the kings of Aram and Israel respectively. Here the humble and unassuming House of David is metaphorically compared to the gently flowing waters of the Shiloah, a relatively small stream that supplies water to Jerusalem. But the LORD is going to bring in Assyria, like the waters of the Euphrates. Assyria will wipe out Aram and subdue Israel. It will also come up against Judah and “reach even to the neck”. More on that later. But none of these powers will prevail. “Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces.”
What is this about Assyria passing through Judah, overflowing and going over, reaching even to the neck, and stretching out his wings to fill the breadth of the land? This is a prophecy of the siege on Jerusalem by Assyria in 701 BC. This is a fascinating episode in biblical history because it’s also recorded in extra-biblical sources. Both the Bible and Assyrian sources record the events of this siege. By this time the king of Assyria was Sennacharib. Hezekiah entered an alliance with the kingdoms of Sidon, Ascalon, Ekron, and Egypt against Assyria. Sennacherib attacked the rebels, conquering Ascalon, Sidon and Ekron and defeating the Egyptians and driving them from the region. He marched toward Jerusalem, destroying 46 towns and villages in his path. Assyria finally besieged Jerusalem. Both the Bible and Assyrian records concur that Jerusalem was not conquered. They differ on the reason. According to Sennacharib’s account Judah paid him tribute so he left. But according to the Bible an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers at Jerusalem after Hezekiah prayed in the temple (2 Kings 18-19). In the end Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “It shall not stand: for God is with us.”
The LORD’s Chastisement of Judah
Although Judah is ultimately spared from Assyria it is clear that the LORD is in many ways displeased with what he is seeing in Judah. And though Judah, unlike Israel, is not conquered by Assyria, it is eventually conquered by Babylon. Since Judah is under the covenantal protection of the LORD God this defeat is justified by Judah’s disobedience to the terms of the covenant. Because of this much of Isaiah lists Judah’s offenses and expresses the LORD’s displeasure.
We should note here that modern biblical scholarship theorizes that while the first half of the book, chapters 1-39, is the work of the historical Isaiah, the remainder is thought to be the work of one or more authors writing as Isaiah, but after the conquest by Babylon a couple centuries later. This is often called “Second Isaiah”. These later books are much more consoling and forgiving in their tone, more to the effect of forgiving an already chastened and conquered people than of condemning a sinful and as-yet-unpunished people. In both cases Judah’s offenses are a recurring topic. Let’s look at some examples.
“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. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. 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.”
So it’s quite clear here that the LORD is not pleased with what he’s seeing. And there’ll be a lot more where that comes from. There’s plenty of divine displeasure to spare in Isaiah. Later in the book Isaiah will repeat the warning, “his hand is stretched out still”, וְעֹ֖וד יָדֹ֥ו נְטוּיָֽה ve-od yad-o netuyah (Isaiah 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). Sometimes people interpret the English translation as a message of comfort, the LORD extending his hand in forgiveness. A nice thought, but no. The intended message is that the LORD’s hand is still stretched out to smite. “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” Nevertheless, Isaiah also has plenty of messages of comfort. For example, another verse from this first chapter:
“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. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”
So we see the forgiving side of the LORD as well.
Let’s look at a few more examples of the condemnation, not to dwell on that but because they might be a little confusing and it’s helpful to review them so that they make more sense the next time you read them.
“And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly: None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.”
There are a few places where, in the KJV, Isaiah refers to and “ensign”, נֵ֤ס (nes), which is a flag or banner. Sometimes it’s a good thing. And sometimes it’s definitely not. This is one of those verses where it’s not. Here Isaiah is saying that the LORD is putting up an ensign or banner for nations like Assyria and Babylon to come in and invade. And they’re going to attack hard. “None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken.” This isn’t going to be a casual march. They’re coming in ready to fight. And it’s a well-outfitted, well-trained military machine. “Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.” I’ve heard this passage sometimes interpreted as Isaiah’s vision of a steam locomotive, like he was trying his best to describe a nineteenth century technology in his 8th century BC terms. That’s a creative take, but unnecessary. In context, a literal interpretation makes plenty of sense here already. The Assyrians’s arrows are sharp, their bows are bent and ready to fire, their horses hoofs are kicking up sparks like flint, and their chariot wheels are spinning like a whirlwind. They’re coming in fast. So watch out! I’ll share a positive example of the “ensign” in a bit. But a few more verses of condemnation.
“Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, The rings, and nose jewels, The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, The glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.”
There are a lot of strange and unfamiliar words used here, especially in the KJV. I’m not sure when I last used “wimples” or “crisping pins”. So what’s happening here? The gist is that the LORD is condemning the people, particularly the women among the people here, for their pride, materialism, and ostentatious display of wealth. All those funny words for their jewelry listed off here; these people are basically blinged out to the max. That’s the takeaway here. And the LORD is going to put a stop to that in a big way. All this fine apparel is going to be taken away and they’ll be stripped naked. They’re hair that was all done up is going to fall out to the point of baldness and instead of being perfumed they’re going to reek. So a dramatic shift from pride to utter shame.
“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! In mine ears said the Lord of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant. Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them. And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands.”
This is another verse of condemnation that might be a little confusing, with its terms like “homer” and “ephah”. The important thing to know here is that these are units of measure and the gist is that in spite of all their landed wealth they’re not going to get much harvest out of it. Similar to the condemnation of haughtiness in the previously quoted passage, the LORD here is condemning the materialism of the wealthy. By joining house to house and field to field “till there be no place” the wealthy are taking up all the land and dispossessing the poor. Under normal circumstances having all the land would mean that you’ll have abundant harvest and food. But the LORD says no such thing will happen. In spite of all their land, the wealthy will get hardly any harvest from it.
Enough of the condemnation. Now for something positive. Although Isaiah prophesies that the LORD will smite and scatter his people by the might of other nations, like Assyria, he also prophesies that the LORD will gather them again.
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.”
Here the ensign for the nations is set up not to bring in enemy nations to invade the LORD’s people, but rather to gather the LORD’s people from among the nations to which they were scattered: from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from the islands of the sea. That, and the LORD’s people will no longer be divided, between Judah and Ephraim. Instead they will be reconciled.
This message of forgiveness, of gathering the scattered people, is amplified in the later passages that are sometimes called “Second Isaiah”.
“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.”
These exultant phrases from the later chapters of Isaiah are especially resonant and, in my opinion, some of the greatest in all scripture.
Like Nephi in the Book of Mormon, we can understand Isaiah better with some acquaintance with the “regions round about”, understanding the events occurring during Isaiah’s lifetime that he was responding to and prophesying about. Most significantly these include the imperial ambitions of Assyria, the superpower of the region. As a counselor to Judah’s kings — including Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah — Isaiah remarked on the intrigues and ventures of neighboring kingdoms as they jockeyed and attempted to shift the balance of power from the massive Assyrian bulk to their northeast. At this same time Isaiah was prophesying against his own people in Judah for their sins, especially their pride and oppression of the poor. These two prongs of prophecy, of the threat of Assyria and of the sins of Judah, converged as Isaiah warned that the LORD would bring the might of Assyria, and later of Babylon, to bear on the LORD’s people, to be smitten and scattered. But the Book of Isaiah also contains promises of reconciliation and restoration. As the title page of the Book of Mormon puts it, “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel.. that they are not cast off forever.” Isaiah prophesied that the LORD and his people could come and reason together and that after their chastisement his kindness would return and not depart. These are the broad themes of the remarkable Book of Isaiah.