Old Testament

Episode 93: Isaiah 2.0 with Joseph M. Spencer

In this episode of the LDS Perspectives podcast, Laura Harris Hales discusses tips for understanding Isaiah in the Old Testament with Joseph M. Spencer, author of The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record.

The Book of Isaiah is a high-context scripture that overwhelms most readers. But because of its conspicuous presence in the Book of Mormon, it begs to be examined more closely. The Book of Mormon can inform us on how those prophets likened or interpreted Isaiah, but our study is incomplete without studying what Isaiah may have meant when it was written and in its Old Testament context. But figuring that out takes a bit of work. Spencer suggests four strategies for a serious study of Isaiah:

  1. Don’t rely solely on the King James Version of the Bible. It is 400 years old and contains archaic language. Consult a modern translation like the NRSV. If you want, you can even compare the verses in the KJV to the NRSV for clarity.
  2. Don’t stress if every verse or word doesn’t make sense. Use context clues to figure out basic ideas.
  3. Don’t get lost in the details. Isaiah contains a lot of imagery. Not all of it is crucial to understanding its basic message.
  4. Don’t look for the Messiah in every passage. More likely than not Isaiah isn’t talking about the Messiah but rather a messiah like King Hezekiah.

Also, keep Isaiah’s big picture in mind. For one, the Isaianic writings have many meanings. Just as Book of Mormon prophets saw Isaiah differently, modern scholars promote different interpretations. It might be wise to avoid the mindset that any particular verse has one set meaning.

Isaiah is also written systematically, which helps us understand the message. The first part of the book is about the creating of a remnant and the second is about deliverance. The prophets in the first part of the book are counselled to write, but in the second half they are told to read. There are patterns to look for, and Isaiah’s theme is covenantal. Israel is the chosen people of the Lord and the promises of the Abrahamic covenant will be restored in time to the remnant.

Join us for this fascinating discussion where we re-examine some popular Isaiah passages in light of their Old Testament context.

About Our Guest: Joseph M. Spencer holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of New Mexico. Currently, he is an assistant professor in the ancient scripture department at BYU. He has published extensively on Latter-day Saint scripture and theology in BYU Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, where he serves as editor. He is co-editor of the book series Introductions to Mormon Thought, which he is co-editing with Matt Bowman for the University of Illinois Press. Dr. Spencer is also associate director of the Mormon Theology Seminar.

Episode 93 Transcript

The Vision of All: Twenty-Five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record

******

LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 93: Isaiah 2.0 With Joseph M. Spencer

(Released September 5, 2018)

This is not a verbatim transcript.

Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity, and timestamps are approximate.

LAURA HALES 00:00 This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Joe Spencer to talk about the book of Isaiah. Joseph M. Spencer, an assistant professor in the Ancient Scripture department at BYU, earned a PhD in philosophy at the University of New Mexico and has published extensively on Latter-day Saint scripture and theology in BYU Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, where he serves as editor. He’s also the co-editor of the book series Introductions to Mormon Thought, which he is co-editing with Matt Bowman for the University of Illinois Press, and the associate director along with Adam Miller of the Mormon Theology Seminar.

It’s his book, The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, which we’ll delve into today with a special emphasis on the material pertaining to the writings of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Welcome, Joe.

JOE SPENCER 01:06 Thank you.
LAURA HALES 01:08 I actually read this book for a second time in preparation for this interview, and I enjoyed it so much more because like the book of Isaiah itself, your book is jam-packed full of information. You need to process it a little bit.

We don’t actually think of the word “fun” when we’re talking about studying Isaiah, but that’s exactly what you’ve tried to do in this book. How did you go about making Isaiah accessible for the mainstream member who wants to start studying more deeply?

JOE SPENCER 01:52 This is a project I was doing on the side of a much larger project on Isaiah in the Book of Mormon that I’m still working on. Mostly, I was trying to get my thoughts out of my head, and I struck on the idea of writing a sort of lecture series. I’ve never given it publicly as a lecture series, but it sounded like a fun sort of literary experiment to write it in as chatty and classroom voice-y kind of way as I could. It was a lot of fun to write. I’m used to writing thick academic prose.
LAURA HALES 02:23 It’s amazing that you can write in both styles. So many people can’t.
JOE SPENCER 02:28 It’s taken a lot of work.
LAURA HALES 02:32 Because it is such a unique style, and because I think that’s part of the allure of the book, I’m going to use your words off and on—
JOE SPENCER 02:39 Sure.
LAURA HALES 02:40 —through this interview. Let’s start with the first sentence of the book where you say, “We Latter-day Saints are trying to make sense of Isaiah.” You go on to describe it as a “weight we carry.”

What do you think the root of that burden is?

JOE SPENCER 02:58 The simplest answer to that is just that right in the Book of Mormon, we have Jesus Christ himself saying, “Get serious about this book. You’ve got to read it. You’ve got to make sense of it. You’ve got to study it.” We feel collectively a kind of responsibility to take it seriously, and then we read a chapter or two, and we think, “What do we do?” It becomes a kind of burden, an albatross around our neck, or something that we carry. We feel we’ve got to do something. We’ll buy every book in sight that has something to do with it in the hopes that we’ll feel better about it.
LAURA HALES 03:31 You start off “Lecture 1: Two Reactions to Isaiah” with, “Admit it, the very mention of Isaiah’s name is enough to put you in a mood. I don’t know which mood, but some kind of mood. Why can’t we simply be indifferent to Isaiah?

What do you say to that?

JOE SPENCER 03:52 If you look around at what’s been said about Isaiah, or even just average interactions with Isaiah, my experience has been that you tend to find one of two reactions. And that’s what I mean by two moods, right?

There’s one reaction to Isaiah that’s sort of like, “No idea what’s going on here at all. I know I’m supposed to care about this. I can’t even get started. Who knows?” And a kind of guilt is associated with that.

The other attitude that you tend to find is one where someone gets a little symptomatically excited about Isaiah in a way that makes you wonder what they’ve got up their sleeve, right? Where they think they’ve solved the puzzle, and they’ve got all the answers, and they can show you exactly what it all points to in the last days or something like that. Of course, they’ve got a mood as well. A mood of a kind of perverse excitement, maybe, or something.

Isaiah, maybe because of this sense of burden or responsibility we feel toward it, is going to affect us; we can’t be indifferent to it. But we do tend to go in these two, almost polar opposite, directions.

LAURA HALES 04:50 You take a unique approach to studying the book of Isaiah. Instead of starting in the Old Testament, you start in the Book of Mormon. You use the Book of Mormon’s use of Isaiah to understand Old Testament Isaiah. Why do you do that?
JOE SPENCER 05:09 I suppose there are two answers to that. One is a kind of historical accident. That is, I got interested in Isaiah through the Book of Mormon. I just happened to have gotten interested that way. The Isaiah I began studying was the Isaiah of the Book of Mormon; I think there’s a lot of richness there. It wasn’t a bad way to start.

I’ve discovered along the way a kind of second reason to do this. One thing that’s really remarkable about the Book of Mormon’s treatment of Isaiah is it’s not monolithic. That is, Nephi has one way of approaching Isaiah, but Abinadi has a very different way of approaching Isaiah. I think you can distinguish Lehi and Jacob from Nephi. When Jesus Christ himself comes in 3 Nephi, he’s got yet another approach to understanding Isaiah.

The Book of Mormon discourages in a certain way what is maybe a very natural reaction on our part to read Isaiah as if there’s one definite meaning, and I’ve got to figure out that meaning. This is a real benefit to reading Isaiah starting from the Book of Mormon. It doesn’t tell us, “Here’s the meaning. Now you’ve got to sort that out and so on.” But, instead says, “Here’s a range of possible ways of reading it and different circumstances under which it might be read in different ways.” We don’t get locked too quickly into a certain kind of definite approach.

LAURA HALES 06:25 It’s definitely a healthy approach.
JOE SPENCER 06:27 I hope.
LAURA HALES 06:30 You start out your discussion of the interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon with Nephi having a vision, and there’s an angel, and you say, “I don’t know about you, but I’m struck first by the angel’s question at the outset, ‘Knowest thou the meaning of the book?’ The angel’s explanation, it seems to me, is supposed to answer the question, so we ought to make sure we understand it.”
JOE SPENCER 07:01 Yeah.
LAURA HALES 07:01 We need to understand the meaning of the book. How do we go about doing that?
JOE SPENCER 07:08 And here, the book very specifically seems to be the whole of the Bible within which, of course, Isaiah has a place. What’s I think very striking about the angel’s explanation of this book, that Nephi sees in his vision, is that whereas we tend to think of the Bible as a predominantly Christian book, everything in the Old Testament pointing to Christ, and everything in the New Testament explaining his life and his doctrine, here the angel’s explanation of the Bible is very Old Testament. It proceeds out of the mouth of a Jew. It’s a book that’s filled with the covenants given to Israel. It’s filled with the prophecies of the holy prophets. He literally says nothing about Christ. He says nothing about apostles in that explanation. It is all Old Testament. And that itself seems to be suggestive—if when we come to reading Isaiah or, in some sense, the whole of the Bible, the beginning place, as Nephi wants us to see it in light of his vision, is going to be Old Testament, covenantal, prophetic themes—rather than this dominant picture we have of going after Jesus Christ first.
LAURA HALES 08:13 There’s an 1,800-year tradition of doing that.

The angel also says, ‘They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and precious. Also, many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.’ Did you catch that? The abomination of the great and abominable church would seem to be that they reframed the Bible so that’s its message concerning the Abrahamic covenant effectively disappeared.

What was the reframing?

JOE SPENCER 08:50 This is a difficult question, in part because I’m a philosopher, not a historian. I’m not soaked in the documents of early Christian history. As I read what Nephi is giving us, the picture seems to be something like this—he seems to put it very early in Christian history, I think. There seems to be a kind of deliberate, and I would say top-down, re-envisioning of what the coming of the Messiah meant. Stripping it in some sense of its Old Testament feel, of its Israelite, covenantal, prophetic content. And, of course, that has massive effects on history.
JOE SPENCER 09:27 I say that they’re just interpreting Nephi, but I think we can actually get more concrete about it. Like I say, I’m not a historian, but talking to historians and reading as widely as I can in history, I think it’s actually possible to reconstruct the process that the Book of Mormon has in mind.

You can track in early Christian history the development of a non-Jewish reading, if you will, or a non-covenantal reading of the Old Testament. In the first century, in the writings of Paul, in the Gospel of Mark, it’s very clear that even by the end of the first century, beginning of the second century, the dominant picture is one where the Gentile converts have replaced historical Israel. The covenant was not about them, it’s about us—European Christians. And that was the dominant picture in Christianity right up until the Holocaust when Christians began asking questions about that tradition.

LAURA HALES 10:22 In laying a framework for studying Isaiah, you start by discussing the purpose of the Book of Mormon as it relates to Israel. Will you share that with us?
JOE SPENCER 10:34 I think this is apparent straight from the title page of the Book of Mormon. We often read that part in the second paragraph and say, “Okay, here we get the purposes of the Book of Mormon laid out point-by-point.” And we tend to say, “Note it’s key purpose is to show that Jesus is the Christ, the everlasting God.” That is unmistakably there. But even before the title page says anything about Christ, it says, “It’s to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel, the things done for their fathers and to let them know the covenant, that they’re not cast off.”

Right from the title page, the Book of Mormon states for the reader, “Here’s the purpose.” It’s about making clear these covenants and showing a very specific remnant of Israel their part in that. Even the statement there about Jesus where it says, “Also to Jew and Gentile, to show them that Jesus is the Christ, the everlasting God,” but then it goes on, “manifesting himself unto all nations.” And that seems to be the picture—the traditional Christian picture where Jesus came in one time and one place is too narrow, and it misconstrues what God has done in history with the covenant people. It’s a bigger picture, and that runs, I think, from the title page right through the entire book.

LAURA HALES 11:45 The message that Christianity was not a replacement for Israel would have been quite foreign in 19th century America.
JOE SPENCER 11:52 Yes, absolutely. There’s a great deal of talk of Abrahamic covenant kinds of things in early American history. But the primary, the dominant, interpretation there is one where—it’s a Calvinist interpretation—we, Europeans, who have come and settled in the New World, we are the covenant people. It’s very predominant in Puritan theology. It’s a really radical gesture that the Book of Mormon is making in the context of the 19th century because it’s claiming, “No, it turns out the Native Americans, the people you have come and crushed and displaced and so on, that’s Israel. That’s the covenant people. Gentiles are here to help build the city for them.”
LAURA HALES 12:39 Nephi obviously believed that the book of Isaiah had something to do with the topic he was discussing. So, who or what was Isaiah?
JOE SPENCER 12:50 I think Nephi is very careful here. He sees Isaiah as talking about a different people and a different time than Nephi’s own people in the distant future. But Nephi does what he calls “likening.” He “likens” what he reads in Isaiah to what he has seen in vision about his own people. The best way that the Book of Mormon gives us to read the book of Isaiah is not as a book about the last days, but as a book that lays out a covenant pattern, you could say, that God uses in dealing with his people that Nephi says God’s going to do again, and again, and again.

To ask the question who or what is the book of Isaiah, or who is Isaiah, what is the book of Isaiah, is to ask a question about a book that’s primarily in itself focused on a pretty narrow slice of history. Though the patterns and structures in it are so rich—the way it outlines what was happening in Isaiah’s own day are patterns that are so rife with content that they can be repeated. So, we find life still in Isaiah though Isaiah himself, I think, is looking at a pretty narrow little picture.

LAURA HALES 13:57 Let’s move to Old Testament Isaiah. Who and what is that book of Isaiah?
JOE SPENCER 14:05 It’s a complicated question for a Latter-day Saint because there’s this classic question about authorship in the book of Isaiah. Most scholars today don’t really care about that question much anymore. The consensus has long been—sort of in secular Isaiah scholarship if you want to put it that way—that there are multiple authors behind Isaiah stretched out over several centuries. Most scholars just assume that. It’s not a live debate.

That would be a problem for the historicity of the Book of Mormon at least on a straightforward read because the Book of Mormon uses parts of Isaiah that are supposed to have had their origins after the time Nephi’s family would have left Jerusalem. There’s a kind of difficulty if a Latter-day Saint can’t too quickly or too simply buy in wholesale to what’s happening in Isaiah scholarship. At the same time, there’s a lot of really rich stuff going on in Isaiah scholarship that I think Latter-day Saints stand to learn a great deal from.

How to answer to the question is difficult. Who was Isaiah? We can say something about who Isaiah of Jerusalem was—eighth century, living at a very specific time and context. We could say more about that if you want. There are parts of the book that seem to have their origins or have a lot of trappings of a later time—mid-sixth century Babylon or later.

It’s a kind of open question for Latter-day Saints on how to make sense of that.

JOE SPENCER 15:40 The themes of the book of Isaiah are clear, regardless of how one talks about authorship. One of the things that developed over the course of the 20th century generally was the idea that there was a kind of Isaianic school. There’s Isaiah of Jerusalem himself and then those who later added to the book, or developed it, whether editorially, or by adding whole content They formed a kind of tradition or school.

Most of what’s happening in Isaiah scholarship today, sort of cutting edge if you will, is trying to reconstruct the process of that development. If that’s the right hypothesis. They are reconstructing the development of the book of Isaiah over the course of several generations. People invested in the importance of those original prophets’ messages.

LAURA HALES 16:33 Describe the literary structure of Isaiah.
JOE SPENCER 16:36 In general terms, you can divide it right into two halves. The first half or so, it’s kind of hard to know exactly where to draw that line, but the first half or so tends to focus primarily on judgement.

Israel, during Isaiah’s day, is just not getting the picture of what God is trying to do with this nation, and the result is going to be exile, and ruin, and destruction, and so on. It’s interspersed with these promises of a time to come where that will be reversed. The whole second half of the book is intensely focused on restoration.

Where there has been judgement, now—and usually where the people draw the line is between chapters 39 and 40—the book opens with comfort. “Comfort my people.” Right? “You’ve received double for all your sins, now come back. Come back.” This cleanly divides the book into two halves in this way.

LAURA HALES 17:29 Another difference is that the first half emphasizes writing, while the second half emphasizes reading. How would the emphasis on writing be a departure from past methods of prophesying?
JOE SPENCER 17:48 If you read in what’s often what the scholars call “the former prophets,” by which we mean the prophets being described in 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Samuel, that kind of thing, we have prophets who don’t have books that they wrote, right? Samuel—I mean there’s a book called 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel—but it’s not his book. He doesn’t write it. It’s a story about him, told by someone else. Same goes for Elijah, Elisha, and so on and so forth. But when you come to Isaiah, something’s happening in the eighth century. Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, these prophets from the eighth century often get called “the writing prophets” because something has changed.

In a lot of ways, Isaiah is the richest of these because he seems to account for it, explain it. He’s a prophet who is speaking to a people who will not listen and God himself seems to be behind that and making the people not listen. As a result, Isaiah decides these prophecies that are welling up in him have got to be for a people that aren’t around yet. So, write them up. Seal them up. Wait for someone who will listen.

LAURA HALES 18:54 What does the shift to reading in the second part of Isaiah imply?
JOE SPENCER 19:02 This is, I think, a really interesting detail, and it’s probably worth saying right out of the gate that this is something that’s only emerged very recently in Isaiah scholarship—to read the second half this way. I’ll actually drop two names here: Edgar Conrad and Hugh Williamson are the two scholars who have really pushed this reading.

Through the second half, you’ve got these moments where—they’re usually translated in the King James Version as “cry” or “cry out”—but the verb in Hebrew can be translated as “read.” If what we have here in the second half is an opening of the book that was sealed up in the first half—now, as there’s comfort and restoration, and so on happening in the second half—part of that is now we have a people who is finally prepared to unseal the book that Isaiah has sealed up, to read it, and to receive the promised blessings of restoration, which is peace.

LAURA HALES 19:51 To start our discussion of the first half of Isaiah’s theme of judgment, you used this quote, “Let’s tease the first one out with this quote, ‘As history unfolds, the divine plan makes itself known.’ God, it turns out, is up to something with this messy history.

You’ve got my interest.

JOE SPENCER 20:16 Isaiah’s has a key concept running through the first half of the book. Sometimes it’s the word “work,” sometimes it’s the word “plan,” but it’s a very clear thing. God has got an organization. He’s got a scheme he’s trying to accomplish in history. It looks messy—my goodness, we’ve got these empires and these complicated political relations. Isaiah’s in the thick of it and so on.

What God is doing is using this history to winnow—it sounds really dangerous—but to winnow Israel down to just the remnant that will be prepared and ready. That’s not a foreign idea for a Latter-day Saint because this is how the Book of Mormon ends— tragically, with tens of thousands of people falling, but left behind is the remnant that could finally be prepared. Isaiah seems to be working with a very similar idea. This is what God is doing in history. It’s a mystery, but it’s what he’s up to.

LAURA HALES 21:12 It wouldn’t be a foreign concept to the Israelites either.
JOE SPENCER 21:16 No, not at all. In fact, the literature on this remnant idea shows that it’s common in Egyptian thought, it’s common in Babylonian thought, and it’s in Assyrian thought. This would be a familiar concept to Israelites then and certainly, say, to Jews now looking back on their history. This is a common idea.
LAURA HALES 21:36 The message of the second part of Isaiah is of deliverance. How do the authors tell that story?
JOE SPENCER 21:43 It’s a really interesting story and one that—this is what gets Nephi so excited about Isaiah—is not just a sort of simple deliverance or a simple restoration. Instead, it’s a, “You’re going home, but you’re going home not because of any goodness on your part.” It’s a gesture of grace. “I’m going to take you home. But the way I’m going to take you home is through the Gentiles. These people that you have ignored and dismissed and so on, who have now ravaged your lands and taken you away into exile. They’re going to take you home, carry you on their shoulders, and hold you in their arms and restore you. It will be such a miraculous event, this restoration, that all the Gentile nations will wake up and see that this God is God.” This is the story of restoration here, not just, “Now it’s over. You get to go home,” but, “We’re going to do this in a way that gets the whole world involved.”
LAURA HALES 22:38 Early in our study of Isaiah, you give us some strategies for studying the book. The first one is to use alternate translations.
JOE SPENCER 22:49 I think this is actually really crucial. One of the biggest hurdles for reading Isaiah is just a language problem. The King James version is 400 years old and a lot of language has changed. People stumble reading Shakespeare for a reason, right? One of the best things I think people can do is to get a good modern translation. I prefer the New Revised Standard Version. And I highly suggest reading it side by side with the King James because then you can look back at the King James and go, “Oh, I see what was going on there even if it looked devastatingly confusing at first, it’s readable.”
LAURA HALES 23:26 It’s like the CliffsNotes—
JOE SPENCER 23:28 That’s right.
LAURA HALES 23:28 —for your Gospel Doctrine class. Everybody else is reading the King James Version, and you have your New Revised Version, and you’re like, “I know what it means.”
JOE SPENCER 23:36 Right? What’s nice is that almost all of these modern versions are available online for free. You don’t have to go out and spend any money. You could literally just pull it up on your phone and look at a verse.
LAURA HALES 23:51 You also mentioned that we shouldn’t get lost in the details.
JOE SPENCER 23:54 This is crucial. I think that someone could read a weird verse, and say just, “1,000 silverlings? I don’t know what’s going on here.” And then either get sort of obsessive or throw their hands up.

The best way to make sense of this is to watch for larger patterns. Can you track the basic story? Think about how a child learns language. Right? Something like that, “Okay, I know those four words that just got used, can I use context clues to reconstruct a general picture that’s enough to go on? Great.” I think that’s the way to do it. You read through a chapter, and you’re going, “These eight verses mean nothing to me,” but do the other ones tell a story? And if so, don’t get worried about the details for now.

LAURA HALES 24:30 We don’t need to understand every metaphor.
JOE SPENCER 24:32 Exactly.
LAURA HALES 24:33 Nor do we need to stretch every metaphor.
JOE SPENCER 24:36 Boy, howdy. If there’s any danger I find at an average everyday level in reading Isaiah, it’s that people try too hard to find something in some obscure metaphor, and it gets wacky.
LAURA HALES 24:48 And you use a couple of examples in the book that are really funny. The last one, “Stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah. He’s there, but not necessarily where we think he is.”
JOE SPENCER 25:03 I have to be so careful with this one. I’ve been criticized a bit for making that statement. People will be like, “What? What do you think you’re saying? And don’t you realize that’s what Isaiah’s talking about?” I should clarify what I mean there. What I don’t mean is Jesus isn’t important or Jesus has nothing to do with the Old Testament. No, no, no, no. That’s way misunderstanding what I’m saying.

My concern is that we tend to read the book of Isaiah only looking for Jesus. And the result is, “Okay, I don’t know what’s going on—that kind of looks like Jesus. Good. Now, I don’t know what’s going on—that kind of looks like Jesus.” We’re really just skimming and looking for things that maybe we can tie to Christ. I think that’s a mistake.

It makes it hard to read most of the material for one, because even if there are places where Isaiah is very clearly talking about Christ, we’re talking about 4 or 5 passages in 66 chapters. We should be looking for the rest of the material first, and then we can get clear about things that may speak about the Messiah.

LAURA HALES 26:04 Let’s go there. Let’s talk about the Messiah in Isaiah. What is a messiah?
JOE SPENCER 26:12 This is a crucial question. It’s easy for us to see this through the lens of Christianity. It’s what we’ve inherited, and in that picture, the Messiah means something like “God in the flesh.” No ancient Israelite would have thought of it this way.

The word messiah just means anointed one. There were two primary kinds of people who were anointed in Old Testament times, if you will—kings and priests. To speak of the Messiah is to speak of the anointed one—the priest or the king.

What’s really key here is what develops through this complicated history surrounding the house of David. People are familiar with King David, of course, this glorious king who has this kind of tragic ending and so on. He receives a promise that his dynasty, his family, will remain on the throne indefinitely. Of course, they end up being, a lot of them, terrible, and idolatrous, and eventually the Jews are hauled off into exile.

How on earth do you make sense of this promise when the history doesn’t seem to make much good on it? And so, there slowly develops, very clearly in Jewish history, this anticipation of a king still to come. David’s promise is focused on something that’s going to set things right here eventually. This is how they see it: “We’re waiting for a king who will finally set us straight, who will have the right relationship to God. That’s the Messiah.”

LAURA HALES 27:35 The Messiah or a messiah?
JOE SPENCER 27:37 I mean any promised king would be a messiah, right? By the second century, third century BC, it becomes a kind of picture of the Messiah. Most typical scholars today would say before that point we’re not dealing with any strong concept of “The Messiah.” But eventually, there emerges a really clear picture—by late Second Temple Judaism, second or third century BC.
LAURA HALES 27:58 I guess we need to differentiate from the Messiah in the New Testament. That’s what I was thinking when you said, “The Messiah,” I’m like, “Oh no, but they’re different people. They have different roles.”
JOE SPENCER 28:10 That’s right.
LAURA HALES 28:11 In Old Testament, “The Messiah” would do what?
JOE SPENCER 28:15 Precisely what I was talking about, so it would be a king. A king would come who would be righteous, who would judge in righteousness, and who would establish peace. Nothing more, nothing less. They would assume it would be human. That it would just be a kind of God-sent king. Eventually, this is going to take a very different shape in history.
LAURA HALES 28:34 Like after the death of Christ?
JOE SPENCER 28:36 The way that most New Testament scholars see this is that the earlier the material in early Christianity, the more human Jesus looks. He’s the messiah that was anticipated. No question. But he’s the messiah in this very traditional sense.

The later you get, later in the first century, the more there’s the sense that Jesus was God come in the flesh. That’s debated. It’s worth saying, that’s the picture that’s dominant or the consensus. There are scholars who go, “No, there are traces of Christ being God in some of this early stuff,” so that’s still an unfinished question.

LAURA HALES 29:11 You mentioned that you’ve gotten some pushback when you say, “Stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah.” I was speaking with my husband, and I said, “Isaiah doesn’t talk about the Messiah coming,” meaning the New Testament Messiah, and he goes, “But Handel!”

You have given us three chapters or verses that are traditionally interpreted from the book of Isaiah by members of the LDS church as being messianic. Let’s go over them.

JOE SPENCER 29:48 Sure.
LAURA HALES 29:48 First is Isaiah 7, which talks about the virgin’s son. Joe, how much more clear could it be?
JOE SPENCER 30:01 Unfortunately, it’s very obscure. For one, the word that’s translated as virgin just means young woman. The ancient Greek translation rendered it parthenos, which means virgin. You can see how this sets early Christians up for reading that passage in a very specific way, but the word itself in Hebrew just means a young woman.

In context, it’s really clear what Isaiah is talking about is, “Okay, these nations are going to be destroyed. How long is it going to take? Okay, some woman here is pregnant. By the time she has a child, and that child knows the difference between good and evil, these nations will have been destroyed.” If the prophecy were, “Okay, 750 years from now, Christ will be born, and by then, these nations you’re worried about going to be—”. This isn’t helping the king he’s talking to. Right? In context, it’s clear that Isaiah’s not, directly at least, speaking about what we would understand to be the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

JOE SPENCER 30:58 I really like that early Christian authors—the early Christian fathers as we call them—often distinguished between what the prophet was talking about and what the Spirit of God in the prophet was talking about. I’d like to see that distinction revived.

We should be really clear that Isaiah himself is not talking about that, but we, with the spirit, could see it as saying something more than what is historically there. But then we’ve got to be honest about what it’s also historically doing.

LAURA HALES 31:27 “A child is born. His name shall be Wonderful, Counselor.”
JOE SPENCER 31:32 Here, we’ve got a situation where the context is very clear. There’s devastation, and there’s destruction, thanks to the Assyrian Empire. How is Judah, this nation, going to get out of this?

Isaiah announces, “Someone is coming to the throne. There’s this child that’s taking the throne.” In context, it’s relatively clear that what we’re talking about is Hezekiah, who in fact, later in the book of Isaiah, as well as in the book of Kings, defends Jerusalem against Assyria successfully. This is the child that’s born in context of the book of Isaiah.

This one, I mean it’s worth saying, with chapter seven it’s very, very clear from the context, we are not talking about this very distant coming New Testament Messiah. Though we can read it that way and other ways. Chapter nine, it’s a little murkier, right? It’s pretty obvious that it’s Hezekiah from context, but it’s kind of weird to call the king “The Mighty God.” It’s almost like there’s a certain Christian messianism or something that’s beginning to get a foothold or something like that. A strict historical reconstruction, however, makes it really clear we’re talking about events in the eighth century.

LAURA HALES 32:40 The third one we’re going to talk about is referred to affectionately as “the branch.”
JOE SPENCER 32:45 Yes. Isaiah 11. This one’s really fraught for Latter-day Saints, not only because there’s this long-standing Christian tradition of reading it in terms of Christ but also because we have D&C 113, which then does all kinds of other things with it. For the moment, we’ll just bracket the Doctrine and Covenants and say we can get to that some other time or something.

Here is where I think we get something like genuinely messianic prophecy. And I think there is a solid scholarly consensus that by the time you get to Isaiah 11, we’re looking to a distant future. Hezekiah does not fit the bill.

We’re talking about a coming king who is going to render peace and establish global peace. The whole earth will be covered with the knowledge of God and the animals will get along and all this kind of thing. So here, it gets bigger. The picture is too big to fit Hezekiah. It’s almost as if over the course of chapters 7, 9, and 11, we’re moving broadly away from local circumstances to genuinely messianic.

JOE SPENCER 33:47 Now that said, does Isaiah 11 have a kind of direct, specific reference to Jesus Christ? I think Isaiah wasn’t thinking that way. He was thinking deliverance for this nation. With the spirit that we might bring to the text, we can look at it and go, “Well, here’s how deliverance really comes.” But it’s probably not what was in Isaiah’s own head.
LAURA HALES 34:08 Earlier you gave us some strategies for a serious study of Isaiah. In conclusion, let’s look at Isaiah’s big picture. What things should we keep in mind about the contents of the book of Isaiah?
JOE SPENCER 34:27 That is a great question, and it’s kind of hard to sum up. There are themes to watch for, above all.

Watch for the theme of the remnant. It’s one of the most dominant themes. As you’re reading the book, watch for what’s being said about the remnant. What’s happening with Israel? At one point are they wicked? At what point are they potentially righteous? What is God doing with them to get them to the right place? And what role is the remnant playing?

It’s really important to keep clear in your head when we’re dealing with judgement and when we’re dealing with restoration. Recognize this kind of constant shift that’s happening—judgement, judgement, restoration, judgement, judgement, restoration. And then eventually, full-blooded restoration.

JOE SPENCER 35:11 When we have an understanding of what’s at stake in all of that, the remnant, and the restoration, how do we read these themes? Is it that the book of Isaiah is primarily about Israel’s covenant—Israel’s relationship to God. That’s what we’re watching in it.

The Messiah is going to be a part of that story, but that’s the story, the bigger story within which the Messiah is playing a role.

To read it carefully, we’ve got to track what is happening with Israel’s relationship to God. And it’s a systematic story. It unfolds point-by-point. The nations have a certain role to play. Israel has a certain role to play. There are times where what we’re dealing with is Israel astray. There are times where what we’re dealing with is Israel repentant. And we’ve got to watch that unfold point-by-point.

JOE SPENCER 35:51 The other thing to say generally here, and this kind of goes back to where we began, is that the Book of Mormon teaches us to read the book of Isaiah having multiple meanings. It can’t be narrowed down to, “Boom, here’s the meaning. Here’s what it’s predicting. This was fulfilled by this and that was fulfilled by that.”

It’s a book that over and over again can teach us God’s dealings in history with the covenant people. I really like the phrasing that you get from Second Nephi (2 Nephi 6), but it’s Jacob talking. He says, “Okay, so my people,” this is the first time we hear Jacob’s voice, but he says, “I’ve talked to you lots in the past. And when I’ve talked to you in the past, I’ve taught you many things from ancient history. I’ve taught you things from the past. But today, I want to teach you about what is and what is to come.” Two things, right? We want to move to the present, and we want to look at the future. And he says, “I’m going to read you Isaiah.” That’s an interesting move, right? He wants to say, “We can look at what’s going on right at this moment,” they’re literally living through this on the other side of the world. Babylon is hauling Jews off into exile at that moment. “Here’s what is, but also, here’s what’s to come.”

JOE SPENCER 36:56 We can see in Isaiah many meanings. We can find its historical reconstructed meaning. What was Isaiah talking about then? But we can also read it with the spirit and find over and over again the way that these patterns are unfolding and the way God deals with us individually and as a whole people.
LAURA HALES 37:13 Thanks, Joe. I appreciate you spending time today with us.
JOE SPENCER 37:16 Of course.
LAURA HALES 37:17 Hopefully, listeners won’t immediately tense the next time they flip to Isaiah. They’ll say, “Hey, I’m cool with this. I can understand this with the help of maybe your book and a study Bible, and I can get through this and see what—
JOE SPENCER 37:34 I hope so.
LAURA HALES 37:34 —Isaiah had to say.” Thanks.
JOE SPENCER 37:36 Of course.

Disclaimer:     LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.

Similar Posts