2 Nephi 7:1-11 – LeGrand Baker – Isaiah 50
As far as I can tell, a major problem with reading Isaiah is that one tries to read the obvious and can’t find it. To identify the obvious, is simply to know the matrix which holds everything in place and makes all the pieces form their mosaic. That matrix is usually thought to be the historical context in which Isaiah lived and was writing. That works sometimes, and parts of Isaiah can, actually must, be understood that way. But his place in history is often not the major context from which he is writing. Isaiah saw the Council (ch. 6). He knew the plans of the Council, and how those plans would be carried out, both in terms of the Saviour’s atonement, and in terms of the history of this world. That is the context from which he writes. It seems to me that as soon as one drops his writings into that context, they become much more easy to understand.
The problem is that unless one knows what the scriptures say about the atonement, and about the temple, and about the plan of salvation, one cannot have the foggiest idea what much of that context is. So one is not able to identify either the matrix which holds Isaiah together, or the pattern which it creates. So, as I see it, the key to understanding Isaiah is the atonement.
In this chapter, the key to understanding the atonement, is the legality of the enthronement and sealing powers of the temple. The key to understanding the temple, is to know what the scriptures say about the whole plan of salvation — both as an historical sequence from the beginning to the end — an as the “way” one can successfully “walk” that sequence.
Before we look at Isaiah 50 (2 Ne. 7) a quick review of its context may be useful. In the Book of Mormon, Isaiah 48 (1 Ne. 20) is talking about the war in heaven and the Prophet Joseph’s part in that conflict. [ The Bible’s version of that chapter was changed so it is about Cyrus. See Stephen Ricks and my commentary on First Nephi
Isaiah 49 (1 Ne. 21) is about the Prophet’s restoring temple worship, then about his role in the beginnings of the gathering of Israel. Those were both quoted by Nephi. Now we have Nephi assigning Jacob to begin at the place where he left off and comment on further chapters of Isaiah.
In the preceding chapter (2 Ne. 6) Jacob quoted some of the last part of Isaiah where Nephi had left off, (2 Ne. 6:6-7 is Isaiah 49:22-23). Thus, Nephi’s comments on those chapters of Isaiah 48-49 are tied with Jacob’s comments on 50-52. Isaiah 50 (2 Ne. 7, the one we are doing this week) is Jehovah’s address to scattered Israel.
During Isaiah’s lifetime he had experienced the dramatic and sudden collapse of the state of Israel. The Assyrians had cut a swath of total defeat from Nineveh (their capitol) in the northern part of the fertile crescent in both directions, from Babylon in the southeast, to Egypt in the southwest. When they were finished only the little island of Jerusalem was left unconquered. They took the people of the ten defeated tribes of Israel and moved them to the northern part of their kingdom. Tradition says that after the Assyrian were themselves defeated, the exiled Israelites moved further north of their own accord. Eventually they became “lost.”
Isaiah 50 is the Lord’s lament at their scattering, and his promise that they will be restored again. It is also the Saviour’s promise, delivered in legalistic terms, that because of the atonement, they will be restored again.
There is always the temptation to read individual sections of Isaiah as though they were separate unites, rather than a part of a flow of a major idea. One may do that with this chapter and see it as a Messianic prophecy. That works well, even out of context.
This, Isaiah 50, is a beautiful chapter in isolation, if read only as a prophecy about the Saviour’s atonement, but in tandem with the next chapter, it is a powerful explanation of the significance of their temple drama, of the power of the atonement, and of the surety of the restoration; showing that the work and purposes of the Father, his Son, and the Council are indefeasible.
If one understands Isaiah 50 in the temple context in which it is written (that is, Isaiah 49 is the promise that the Prophet Joseph would restore the temple, and Isaiah 51 is overflowing with temple imagery), then it appears Isaiah 50 is not a break in the train of thought, but a natural transition between 49 and 51. If that is so, then the legalistic form of Isaiah 50 (2 Ne. 7) is the Saviour’s promise that by virtue of the atonement, and therefore by virtue of the enthronement and sealing blessings of the temple, Israel will be restored again.
In next week’s chapter, (Isaiah 51, 2 Ne. 8) Isaiah will expand this idea. He will reach into the beginnings creation to show the plans and purposes of the Council, and then move through human history until he gets to the events of Revelation 11 and beyond, in order to show that those plans have been, are being, and will yet be brought to their full fruition. Chapter 50 is an appropriate introduction to that whole panoramic view of the purposes of God.
So let’s read this chapter as a testimony of the atonement and an invitation to the Israel of our own day to participate in the blessings of the temple.
In verse one, the Lord offers three reasons why Israel may have been “cast off.”
1 Yea, for thus saith the Lord: Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? For thus saith the Lord: Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? (2 Nephi 7:1).
The rank of the child of a king is not determined by the rank of the father but by the rank of a mother. If the wife is a daughter of a great king, her child will inherit a great deal, one such son will inherit the throne itself. Lower ranking wives are called concubines. Their children could not inherit at all. If a king divorced a wife, it would be the same as divorcing all of her children also. In that case, her children, no matter what their mother’s rank had been, could not inherit. Here, Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying to Israel, I have not divorced your mother, therefore you are not disinherited.
1b To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you?
Yea, to whom have I sold you?
If a father got deeply in debt, he could give his children as slaves to his creditor in lieu of the
money owed. This was not a perpetual enslavement in Israel, for the Law of Moses provided for their eventual release. But if the children were sold outside of Israel then there was no such provision, and the enslavement was probably for life.
1a Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.
Israel is both enslaved and disinherited, but it was not their Father’s doings. They have exchanged their freedom for their sins, and their birthright for transgressing the law.
2 Wherefore, when I came, there was no man; when I called, yea, there was none to answer. O house of Israel, is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem.
“Redeem” means to ransom or to purchase. Under the law of Moses this was the obligation of the next of kin.
2b or have I no power to deliver? Behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make their rivers a wilderness and their fish to stink because the waters are dried up, and they die because of thirst.
Throughout the ancient world, the most powerful local or national god was the one who had control of the weather—i.e. the waters which came from the heavens. Here God asserts his authority over the sea and the rivers, both of which are recipients of the waters from heaven. But, also by his authority are there storm clouds in the heavens:
3 I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.
4 The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season unto thee, O house of Israel. When ye are weary he waketh morning by morning. He waketh mine ear to hear as the learned.
5 The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.
6 I gave my back to the smiter, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
7 For the Lord God will help me, therefore shall I not be confounded. Therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.
8 And the Lord is near, and he justifieth me. Who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who is mine adversary? Let him come near me, and I will smite him with the strength of my mouth.
9 For the Lord God will help me. And all they who shall condemn me, behold, all they shall wax old as a garment, and the moth shall eat them up.
The Tanakh, the official Jewish translation of the Old Testament, renders verses 5-9 very beautifully:
The Lord God opened my ears, And I did not disobey,
I did not run away,
I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair. I did not hide my face
From insult and spittle.
But the Lord God will help me–
Therefore I feel no disgrace;
Therefore I have set my face like flint;
And I know I shall not be shamed.
My Vindicator is at hand–
Who dares contend with me?
Let us stand up together! [footnote: i.e., asopponents in court.]
Who would be my opponent?
Let him approach me!
Lo, the Lord God will help me–
Who can get a verdict against me?
They shall all wear out like a garment,
The moth shall consume them.
That translation emphasizes the legal aspect of the atonement with which the chapter began when the Lord asked, “Where is the bill of divorcement? What is the evidence that you are a slave?”
The next verses are a reference to the Lord as the tree of light, i.e. the tree of life which is represented in the temple as the candlestick (actually a lamp stand), the Menorah, which is the tree of light. It is the same concept as is in Alma 32 where the tree of life is described as a tree of light (v.35: “after ye have tasted this light….”).
10 Who is among you that feareth respects, honors the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light?
The answer, which is not given, is: There are none who fear the Lord who walk in darkness without light.
The final verse in this chapter is addressed to those who do not fear the Lord, but presume to be their own source of light.
11 Behold all ye that kindle fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks which ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand–ye shall lie down in sorrow (2 Nephi 7:1-11).