2 Nephi 17 — LeGrand Baker — Overview of Isaiah’s writings
The book of Isaiah divides naturally into two halves, separated by the history of king Hezekiah in chapters 36-39. The Hezekiah story is not only the dividing line between the two halves of Isaiah, it is also a testimony of personal triumph, and as such, it is a promise to all who will obey the Lord. In the story, Hezekiah becomes ill and is told by Isaiah to put his house in order, because he is going to die. Hezekiah does not want to die because his purpose in life is not fulfilled. Therefore he complains to the Lord, “I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living.” (38:11) After Hezekiah’s lament, the Lord instructs Isaiah to return to the king and tell him he may live for fifteen years more. In the portion of the chapter which seems to have been written by Hezekiah himself, the king rejoices, “What shall I say? he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it: I shall go softly all my years in the bitterness of my soul. [I won’t complain any more] O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.” (38:14-15) I take it that Hezekiah’s statement, “he hath both spoken unto me, and himself hath done it” means that the Lord has fulfilled Hezekiah’s greatest desire and the king has seen his Saviour.
Thus this dividing line which separates the two halves of in the writings of Isaiah is evidence of the fulfillment of the hope issued by the first half, and an appropriate introduction to the second half. Let me explain further.
The second half of Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40 and continuing until the end (but excluding 44:28 through 47 which was probably not written by Isaiah but added during the Babylonian captivity. I explain that in my comments on 1 Ne. 20), the second half of Isaiah follows the pattern of the Israelite New Year Festival, which was their 22 day annual endowment session. It begins with the Council in Heaven, tells of the creation, Gods covenants with men on earth, and concludes with the ultimate triumph of Jehovah. This second half may also be described as containing the plan or the decisions of the Council. Also, of the pattern of every individual life. Consequently it contains prophecies about the Saviour, and about the Prophet Joseph’s restoration of temple work, and salvation for the dead. It is thus a prophetic history of the actualization of ideas, and it may also be seen as the outline of the life which each individual must follow if one is to receive the fulfillment of the promises given to Hezekiah.
In contrast, the first half of Isaiah is more of a prophetic history of world events than of individual experiences. This first half is also divided into two parts, with chapter 6 (Isaiah’s visit to the Council) being the dividing line. Before chapter 6 it is what I believe to be a prophecy of the events of the 21st century. After chapter 6, is a review of world history beginning with Isaiah’s time and concluding with the millennium.
Elsewhere, the Book of Mormon draws from almost all parts of Isaiah, but here in this part of Second Nephi, Nephi quotes the entire portion from chapter 2 through 14. I presume the reason for his doing this is that chapters 2 through 5 are most relevant to the events of our times, and chapters 8 through 14 are most relevant to the events of his time.
Even though Nephi and his family have left Jerusalem before the final Babylonian captivity, they seem never to have lost their intense awareness that their roots remain in the Holy City. Near the beginning of Second Nephi, Nephi records his father’s saying, “I have seen a vision, in which I know that Jerusalem is destroyed; and had we remained in Jerusalem we should also have perished.” (2 Nephi 1:4) Later, Nephi himself, offers a second witness that this is so when he writes, “ Wherefore, it hath been told them concerning the destruction which should come upon them, immediately after my father left Jerusalem; nevertheless, they hardened their hearts; and according to my prophecy they have been destroyed, save it be those which are carried away captive into Babylon.” (2 Nephi 25:10)
Isaiah began to prophesy about 758 BC. In chapter 7, his writings begin by decrying the wickedness of the people of the kingdom of Israel and prophesying of their destruction by the Assyrians. Later on, in 721 BC, he watched with sadness as those prophecies were fulfilled, and the 10 tribes were captured and carried away from their homeland. Isaiah also wrote of a similar fate which would befall the Jews when they would be captured by the king of Babylon. Isaiah died sometime after the beginning of the reign of Manasseh, who reigned from 697 to 642 BC, so Isaiah had been dead less than a hundred years when Nephi was a boy, and he and his family left Jerusalem. When they left, Babylon had already defeated the Jews once, but soon after they left the city would be utterly destroyed and the people carried into captivity.
This story is ancient history to us, but to Nephi it was in his immediate past and in his immediate future. (In our perspective, Isaiah was as close to Lehi as Wilford Woodruff is to us, and the war with Babylon was closer than the Berlin Wall or the next presidential election.)
Given the immediacy of both Isaiah’s prophecies and of their fulfillment, it is little wonder that Nephi chose to include those parts of Isaiah’s writings as a part of his own testimony that the Lord is God, that he rules in heaven and on earth, and that his purposes will be fulfilled in his own way.