The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7

This is the last in a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7 Jesus taught: “Judge not”, “Ask, and it will be given to you”, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them”, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life”, “You will know them by their fruits”, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”. As Jesus teaches about the narrow gate and difficult way consider what it means to live according to “The Way” as a disciple of Christ.

This will be the third and last episode of this trilogy on the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve decided to give the Sermon on the Mount special attention for personal study. Preparing and presenting my thoughts on these passages has been a good way for me to organize and record my thoughts. I hope it’s also of some value to readers and listeners. I see the New Testament as the central text of Christian life and the Sermon on the Mount is among the most important sections of the New Testament. Definitely in the top tier. This is where we really get to see who Jesus is and what he is about. And also who God is and what God is about. As Jesus said: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). By studying the Sermon on the Mount we’re learning about Jesus and we’re learning about God. We’re learning about “The Way”, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), which is also Jesus Christ (John 14:6), “I am the way” – Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos). The Sermon on the Mount shows The Way we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. And as we will see in Matthew 7, The Way is strict and narrow, so it’s important to pay close attention to it’s exposition in scripture.

Part of what got me into a close reading of this sermon in particular is what I perceive to be something of a Christian identity crisis. “Who are we?” and “What are we about?” 

I’m thinking especially of Christianity in the United States but I’m sure similar challenges occur in other countries. It’s by no means a settled conclusion that just by calling ourselves Christians or followers of Christ, by making a declaration to the world and to ourselves that we are his followers that that makes it so. As we’ll see in this chapter, that is often not the case. How to find our way? In the Bible certainly. And I think the Sermon on the Mount especially is a great place to look for the fundamentals.

So let’s dive in.

Matthew 7:1-5

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This is a tough one. How do you not judge? And what does it mean to judge? This is one of those verses like Matthew 19:24, that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” where we always want to say, “hmm, it must really mean that.” And soften it somewhat to make it more practical. It’s probably apparent that I’m skeptical of that method of interpretation. But that’s not to say it’s not at all legitimate or can’t be justified. Jesus was, afterall, a very nonliteral, metaphorical and parabolic teacher. So sometimes his teachings shouldn’t be taken literally. But this passage doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for that kind of interpretation. The message seems pretty clear: do not judge – Μὴ κρίνετε (Me krínete). So how does that work in practice?

Part of what makes this passage difficult is that it’s certainly not the case that just anything goes. There is still such a thing as right and wrong and understanding the difference is a form of judgment, if not of individuals, than at least of certain actions, even if abstracted from specific instances and specific individuals. So for example, if someone says that it’s wrong to do something it’s not sufficient to just say, “Oh, don’t judge!” That wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of Christ’s teachings. So, don’t try to use that as a lame excuse for your own bad actions. Jesus taught tons of things to do and not do. Even saying “Judge not” is saying not to do something. In terms of actions it’s making a judgment about judgment. So this isn’t some kind of loophole to get away with whatever you want; it’s not a shield for your own sins. There’s still right and wrong, even as Jesus says, “Judge not.” So how does this all fit together?

Let’s work our way back from the end of the passage where Jesus says: “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” So we’re not supposed to just leave things as they are with everyone. We are supposed to help each other and that includes moral help, helping people to repent of their sins and change for the better. We might say that involves some kind of judgment. But it seems to be a different kind of judgment than the kind Jesus has in mind when he says “do not judge”. What is the difference?

One pitfall is hypocrisy. “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite!” So one problem is not having your own self in order before going out to reform others. I struggle a little with this because even in this case the motivation seems honorable. “Let me remove the speck from your eye”. The person has a speck in their eye. They need help. What’s wrong with trying to help someone else out with their moral problems even though we have our own or maybe even worse moral problems? Can’t we just say we’re all screw ups trying to straighten ourselves out together? I think maybe we can, as long as we’re not pretending. Or, if I can make up a word, as long as we’re not hypocrite-ing, one meaning of the verb ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrínomai) being “to pretend”. The problem here may be less having a plank in your eye than pretending that you don’t have one. But of course, better still is to actually “remove the plank from your own eye” as Jesus says, to be even more effective in helping others to remove the specks from their own eyes. And maybe to be on the safe side, to be in more precise alignment with Jesus’s teachings, one ought just to be complete that process first. It might be like how they say on the airplane that with a loss in cabin pressure you should put on your own mask first and then help others put theirs on.

All of this I think should be understood in reference to that first commandment in the chapter, “Do not judge,” which I see as a kind of center of gravity for all the rest of this. Whatever interpretations we may make of the other parts of the passage, they should conform to that. Not judging is the baseline rather than an afterthought.

There’s a similarity here of the teaching that “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged” to the supplication in the Lord’s Prayer in the previous chapter that God “forgive us our debts, as – Ὡς (Hos) – we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12). There’s a similar consistency in the measure – μέτρον (métron) – used. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) How strictly do you want to be judged? Do you want to be judged harshly or laxly? Do you want your words to be interpreted in the worst possible way or in the most charitable way? If we want to be judged laxly and charitably we should be lax, charitable, and forgiving toward others.

Matthew 7:6

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

On one level the meaning here isn’t too hard to grasp. Some things are special and should be treated as special. Special things should be separated from common things. This is an idea that runs throughout the Bible. On another level though it’s not entirely obvious why this verse is here. What does it have to do with the verses that precede and follow it? Is it to be understood as a separate saying in isolation or does it relate to the other verses?

First on the subject of specialness or separation, looking at the cultural context in the ancient Israelite thought, in Hebrew the word for “holy” is קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh), which also carries the sense of separation. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorized that many cultures have this concept of separation between the “sacred and profane”. By “profane” Eliade just meant not sacred, something common or part of normal daily life, something not special or separate from the usual. The Torah talks a lot about how priests and people would need to be cleansed before coming into sacred spaces like the tabernacle. So this idea here that Jesus is getting at, that you don’t just mix special things with normal or dirty things, has a very rich cultural background.

Does this saying connect to the others? It’s not totally clear. But we can speculate or try to make an (I think) acceptable interpretation, whether or not it was originally intended. The most plausible connection I’ve seen is that pearls represent the “brother” who we might be inclined to judge. And that in judging a brother we are treating them dismissively as not-special, as common and profane things. Reminds me of a little alliterative maxim I have, “people before principles”, which I justify from Jesus’s teaching that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Principles are important but it’s also important to remember that they exist for people. Sabbath violation was one of the things Jesus and his followers were always being judged for and he repeatedly told people to step back and think about the bigger picture, what the Sabbath is and how it serves man. Can be applied to other commandments as well and that’s something to think about when there’s that temptation to judge.

Matthew 7:7-12

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

This saying reminds me of others in the Sermon on the Mount, like in chapter 6 about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field just being taken care of without having to worry. It seems like a similar kind of childlike trust in God providing. “You need something? OK, just ask.” Jesus even compares it to a parent-child relationship. When a child needs something the parents take good care of them and give them what they need.

Now the first thoughts I have reading this are: (1) I’ve asked for things before and haven’t gotten them and (2) kids ask for things all the time that parents either don’t give them because they shouldn’t or don’t give them because they can’t. My daughter has asked me for a “real spaceship or a “real magic wand but those are currently either outside my budget or outside the constraints of reality (as far as I’m aware).

A few thoughts on this. One is that, thinking of this saying in relation to the sayings about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field, those earlier sayings were, in part, about simplicity. We aren’t supposed to even worry about what to eat, drink, or wear. That’s pretty basic stuff. Jesus just says we’ll be taken care of. But you’d think we shouldn’t expect any great extravagance in what we’ll be provided, at least not in terms of worldly expectations. So that might apply as well to the “Ask, and it will be given to you” saying.

Another interesting thing here is that there’s a similarity to the Lord’s prayer from chapter 6, where Jesus says that we should ask to be forgiven our debts, in accordance with the way we forgive our debtors; that there’s a symmetry here between the way we treat others and the way the Father treats us. And we see that here again. The “Golden Rule” verse is often taken in isolation, and I think that’s fine. But it’s worth noting that the verse has a “Therefore” – οὖν (oun). So it’s a kind of conclusion taken from the previous verses. “Therefore, whatever you want men (οἱ ἄνθρωποι) to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” What is this being concluded from? Just before this Jesus had compared the Father to earthly fathers who give good things to their children, like food. Fathers give “good gifts” – δόματα ἀγαθὰ (domata agatha) – to their children. It would seem that this is what we should all be doing to each other. We all desire to receive good gifts, therefore we should also give good gifts to mankind – οἱ ἄνθρωποι (hoi anthropoi).

Matthew 7:13-14

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

This is an important saying in relation to the theme I’ve been using to frame the whole sermon, that the Sermon on the Mount shows us The Way, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) that is Christianity and that is also Christ himself. What does Christ here say about ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)? Essentially it’s no cakewalk.

We learn here that  ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) is something that most people do not follow. Instead, most people follow the way of ἀπώλεια (apoleia), destruction. I think here again of the contrast between our animal human nature and the καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), the “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Way taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not really compatible with human nature. That’s why we need to die to sin and rise as new creatures in Christ (Romans 6:1-11).

I think this should be simultaneously and paradoxically both unsettling and reassuring. On another occasion Jesus also spoke of the narrowness of ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) saying it would be easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). Well that’s certainly unsettling. So his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With men this is impossible but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26) That’s why it’s both unsettling and reassuring. It is impossible for our human nature. But we don’t have to rely on our human nature. The human being becomes a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation” in Christ by the power of God, through whom all things are possible.

That it’s through God that we are enabled, rather than through our own strength, might help to understand this in comparison to another of Jesus’s somewhat different sayings:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This saying about things being “easy” and “light” sounds different than the other about things being “narrow” and “difficult”. And that’s why I bring it up, because I want to get the comprehensive view scripturally with all its complexity; to avoid facile proof texting. As a tentative explanation I speculate that the difference has to do with entering the kingdom and on whose strength it can be accomplished rather than with the severity of the path, independent of the destination. If you’re just wanting a good time and not seeking the kingdom of heaven the “wide” and “broad” way is much more agreeable. But if you’re trying to enter the kingdom of heaven the wide and broad way is literally impossibly difficult, i.e. impossible. But to enter the kingdom of heaven the narrow and difficult way is, somewhat surprisingly, infinitely easier by comparison because it’s actually possible and because it is done through the strength of the Lord.

It’s interesting that Jesus said of the wide and broad way, “there are many who go in by it.” I wonder if since there are so many more that follow that path it starts to seem like the dominant and even natural human tendency. And that anything else could seem anomalous or a deviation. I think we scientifically enlightened moderns might be inclined to look at the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Oh, that’s nice and quaint but really not consistent with a more realistic, honest understanding of human nature from modern psychology and economics, etc.” The nature of human nature is a point of contention on many fronts, scientifically, ethically, and politically. And that’s all useful stuff to consider in terms of stuff like secular public policy or running a business. But it doesn’t really impinge on or detract from the Sermon on the Mount or ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), The Way of Christ, because Christ doesn’t work within the constraints of human nature as it is. He completely transforms it.

I don’t think this is just fideistic or wishful thinking. This is something we can actually observe to have happened both in the lives of individuals and in entire civilizations. The world of classical antiquity, of the Roman Empire, is a vastly different world than the one we know today. And I don’t just mean because of developments of science and technology. Even more significant has been transformation in the way we think about the value of ordinary people. This is a cultural change that scholars like N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart talk a lot about in their books.

It’s worth considering, going back to that secular public policy and running a business, how to live as a Christian in those settings, since we presumably shouldn’t “check our religion at the door” when we enter secular spaces. The Way concerns not only individuals but is ultimately about a βασιλεία (basileia), a kingdom. Jesus’s pronouncement, his Gospel is that the βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (basilea ton ouranon), the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is coming. All of society and its institutions are to be transformed into a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”. The alternative is ruin, a path that leads to ἀπώλεια (apoleia).

Matthew 7:15-20

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

I remember reading this saying in a class in college and some of the students thought it didn’t make much sense. Nowadays that actually seems like an appropriate response to a saying of Jesus. That’s how the people who listened to him back then reacted too. What seemed off was the idea that good couldn’t come from bad and that bad couldn’t come from good. Because that seems contrary to experience. I like that observation because I think it highlights something that we might otherwise pass over, either out of familiarity or respect for the text. If what Jesus said is right something deeper than our surface-level experience must be going on here.

I wonder if this points to a distinctly Christian ethic. What seemed odd to me and my classmates was that actions and agents should be so tightly linked. We usually think about the goodness or badness of actions independent of the goodness or badness of the people doing them. But Jesus seems to be speaking of things differently. Recall that the action of giving alms, thought of independently would seem to be a good action. But for Jesus it’s not so simple. It also depends on why a person is giving alms, which seems more closely related to the moral character of the person. Are they the type of people who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people they serve or the type of people who are just seeking praise? Similar thing with not committing adultery. You might say not committing adultery is a good action, or non-action as it were. But for Jesus, again, it’s more complicated. One can be adulterous in character even without committing adultery in actions.

But that wouldn’t explain everything because Jesus also teaches this as a way to distinguish true prophets from false prophets. How can you discern the character of someone claiming to be a prophet whose outward actions seem good, if their internal character is actually evil and deceitful? The two types would seem to be indistinguishable from the outside. Another scripture that may help with this is in Acts 5, when people are worried about all the people that are following Jesus’s apostles and if they should actively persecute them to try and stifle it. You could say they’re worried about people following a false prophet. But one of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, proposes something different:

“Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.’” (Acts 5:34-39)

What stands out to me here in Gamaliel’s very astute counsel is that he’s taking the long view. It seems that false notions have a way of imploding on themselves, while truths are self-sustaining and endure. There’s a similar idea of an underlying rationality to history in which it works out its own logic, negating or confirming different ideas through large-scale and long term trial and error. This was roughly Hegel’s philosophy of history. Gamaliel pointed out that there were a lot of intense but short-lived religious movements, that sparkled and fizzled. But truth endures. And I think the author of Acts gave an account of this story, basically to say, look, Gamaliel’s prediction was right and Christianity did endure, which is a testament to its truth.

Another aspect to this is that sometimes false prophets can seem convincing in the short term and, on the flip side, true prophets can seem eccentric and erratic in the short term. A lot of people thought Jesus was crazy. Those closest to him said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) A lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible did some pretty weird stuff. But, their teachings endured. So the short term, close-up view can be insufficient. And it doesn’t even mean that everything the prophets did makes sense or was good. Again, a lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible not only did some weird stuff but also did some morally questionable stuff. But the things that they taught endured.

Matthew 7:21-23

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

I had a conversation with a friend recently where we were wondering if the reputation of Christianity has been irreparably tarnished by association in popular thought with materialism, militarism, and various forms of prejudice. It’s that Christian identity crisis I mentioned earlier. We both think that Christianity is an important foundation for many of the liberal and tolerant values of Western culture. So what happens if Christiany becomes discredited in the West? Will liberalism and tolerance eventually go with it? How long can liberalism persist only on inertia and habit?

But I’m cautiously optimistic. I do think that Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of many people but that’s also happened many times in history and will probably continue to happen many more times. But I’m optimistic because, even though we Christians have repeatedly not lived up to the teachings of Christ, we haven’t been able to sink it, and Christ’s church repeatedly bounces back in spite of us. Thank God Christianity can withstand the liability of its sinful adherents.

Another reason I am optimistic is because Jesus said that claiming Jesus and devotion to him has little to do with actual discipleship. In this passage Jesus said there would be people who prophesy, cast out demons, and do many wonders in his name, yet he will not know them. So invoking the name of Christ is not sufficient. 

In another chapter, Matthew 25, Jesus told a parable in which he says to the righteous – οἱ δίκαιοι (hoi díkaioi):

“‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

They didn’t even know. The primary meaning of this parable would seem to be that the way to serve and love Christ is to serve and love the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi) – through them. But another meaning, I suspect, may be that many people serve Christ without even being aware of Christ or thinking about Christ, but nevertheless they are serving Christ because they are serving the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi). Is Christ harmed if his name is defamed but many still follow his teachings? I see Christ’s teachings persisting among many good, secular people.

Now, my optimism isn’t boundless. There have been periods where abandoning the “constraints” (as they seemed) of Christ’s teachings predictably coincided with dehumanization and brutality. This is a contestable take but I don’t think it’s incidental that the mechanized, industrialized warfare and systematic genocide of the World Wars were preceded by a zeitgeist, a wave of culturally fashionable ideas that abandoned the notion of all humanity being, equally, made “in the image of God” – בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (betzelem elohim). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality” (Sklavenmoral) because of its respect for the the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi), the kind of people that earlier, more heroic cultures would have dismissed as pathetic. Nietzsche’s characterization very well may have been a contributor to the dehumanizing zeitgeist. Or it was at the very least indicative of the kind of thinking in vogue at the time.To compare with my earlier comments on Gamaliel and the “fruits” of certain ideas, philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, argued that the Enlightenment, with its instrumentalization of rationality, contained the elements that led to the developments of fascism, genocide, and mass technological warfare. It seems that people in the West felt severely chastened for some generations after that. But there’s nothing to say it can’t happen again. So it’s something to be vigilant and watchful for. There need to be valiant Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffers to face the Hitlers of the world.

But getting back to this passage in the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is required, if proclamation alone is not sufficient? “But he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” It is required to actually do his will. And so Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable on this point.

Matthew 7:24-27

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

This is similar and related to the earlier passage, as well as the saying about feeding, giving drink, housing, clothing, caring for, and visiting in prison the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), the least. It’s crucial to actually do these things. It’s not sufficient to just invoke the name of Christ in self-servicing actions. That would be a weak and insufficient foundation that will not endure. A strong foundation in Christ’s teachings consists in living according to ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos),  “The Way”. How we treat the least, the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), is everything. It is absolutely definitive of our discipleship to Christ and imitation of the image of Christ, who is The Way.

Matthew 7:28-29

“And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

People were repeatedly “astonished” at Jesus’s teachings; the words ἐξεπλήσσοντο (eksepléssonto) and ἐθαύμασαν (ethaúmasan), “astonished” and “amazed”, come up again and again, and seem to me like one of the most common reactions to Jesus, anger maybe being a close competitor. Makes you imagine and want to know what it would have been like to be in his presence to hear him teaching.

Even at a distance of two thousand years and through the medium of the testimonies of the scriptures I find myself “astonished” and “amazed” at Jesus’s teachings. They’re life-shaping and life-changing.

The Sermon on the Mount is challenging. It’s the core and the marrow of Christ’s gospel. I think it gives a singular view of Christ, “The Way” that is Christ and that we follow as Christians, as disciples of Christ.

So that’s the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve found this close study very rewarding. And if you’ve listened to it I hope you’ve found it useful and edifying. Thank you much!

Isaiah In Context

Isaiah has a reputation for being very difficult to understand. I’d like to suggest that Isaiah isn’t actually intrinsically difficult to understand, as long as we read him in historical and prophetic context. Putting Isaiah in context includes understanding the events that he was responding to and prophesying about. These include the imperial activities of Assyria, the superpower of the region. As prophet to Judah’s kings, Isaiah remarked on the intrigues and ventures of Assyria and neighboring kingdoms. At the 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 surrounding nations and of the sins of Judah, converged as Isaiah warned that the LORD would bring the might of enemy nations to bear on the LORD’s people, to be smitten and scattered, while he also promised eventual gathering and reconciliation.

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:

Assyria
Babylon
Persia
Judah
Israel
Aram
Egypt

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:

Uzziah
Jotham
Ahaz
Hezekiah

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.

Assyria.

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.

Isaiah 7:1-16

“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.

Isaiah 1:2-4

“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:

Isaiah 1:16-19

“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.

Isaiah 5:26-28

“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.

Isaiah 3:16-24

“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.

Isaiah 5:8-12

“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.

Isaiah 11:11-13

“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”.

Isaiah 54:7-10

“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.

Review

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.

God’s Dynamic Character

Mike and Todd discuss the work of Jack Miles and the different experiences and perspectives on God found in the Bible. Approached as a biography, the Bible crafts a fascinating and dynamic story of God’s developing character and God’s developing relationship with humanity. God is at times creator, destroyer, liberator, lawgiver, conqueror, executioner, wife, Holy One, recluse, puzzle, and Ancient of Days. And then, for Christians, the development and new birth of God as human being, co-sufferer, and teacher of nonviolence and universal love.

“But Also For the Interests of Others”

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

“I gotta go home. What do I owe ya?”
“The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
(The Good Place, Season 2, Episode 12)

What do we owe to each other? This is the question that runs through all of what is now one of my favorite television shows, The Good Place. This question has stuck in my head the last few days. And as a Christian it’s got me thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and live in imitation of Christ.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul said: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) I think there is a radical shift in perspective, call it a new life, being born again, in coming to look out not for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. We could call it maturity, while noting that it’s a kind of maturity that we don’t just reach naturally. It’s not maturation of the old man into a more developed version of the old man. It’s a complete rebirth and transformation into a new creature.

For all of this Christ is the model and the means. Paul continues in his exhortation to the Philippians saying, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8) These are some of the most important verses in the New Testament and have been foundational to the development of the doctrine of Christ’s nature and Godhood. But what I’d like to focus on is the exhortation embedded in it; the ethic.

Jesus’s teachings repeatedly feature a theme of reversal, particularly in the ways that we esteem ourselves and others.

“And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

There is a repeated message of shifting focus away from self and onto others. Paul said to the Philippians that this was exactly Christ did at a level fundamental to the very nature of his mortal existence. He “emptied Himself”; ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν (heauton ekenōsen). That verb, κενόω (kenóō), “to empty out”, is significant in Christian theology for the “kenosis” of Christ, the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will to become entirely receptive to the will of the Father. But this isn’t only teaching about Christ’s nature. Paul is calling for the Church to do this as well, to imitate Christ in his kenosis of self. Rather than being self-centered we are to de-center ourselves from our own circle of concerns, maybe even put ourselves on the outside edge of that circle, looking in, to center the interests of others.

Another thing Jesus said was that, “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). This could be understood, perhaps in the first instance, as a warning. If you try to be greater than others you’ll end up being a servant instead. But I think the positive interpretation, that we ought to act as servants to others, that this is true greatness, is also consistent with Jesus’s teachings. And it’s consistent with Paul’s message to the Philippians. Christ took “the form of a bond-servant”, a δοῦλος (doulos). And I think here of the image of Jesus kneeling and washing his own disciples’s feet.

What does it look like to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? A few years ago in my church’s worldwide general conference one of the church’s leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, quoted Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who said: “It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” I come back to that idea a lot. Was Solzhenitsyn saying that we shouldn’t defend human rights? Certainly not. Having been a victim of the Soviet gulags himself he would be the last person to say that. But I think he was onto something quite astute. Rights don’t carry much force without human obligations. We have to think about others. We have to think about one another.

A community has to have people who look out for the interests of others. This is what Paul wanted to see among the Philippians. He said these things would make his “joy complete” (Philippians 2:2).

The author of comparative religion Karen Armstrong has focused a lot on kenosis in her writing and it is clearly on view in the 2009 Charter for Compassion that she spearheaded. The second sentence in that Charter states that, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”

These are ideas that impact me deeply:

“Regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

“Dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.”

“What do we owe to each other?”