LDS Sunday School students will soon take a quick leap through 66 chapters of Isaiah in five forty-minute lessons. All too often, some uniquely Mormon interpretations are given to these chapters which merit a critical analysis. In this post I present six Mormonisms often used with the first few chapters of Isaiah which I believe hinder a deeper and more accurate understanding of these prophetic writings. Let us know if any of these interpretations show up in your Sunday School class!
1. Isaiah 2:2,3 Popular LDS commentary on this verse identifies it as Isaiah’s vision of people from many lands coming to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Many prophecies of Isaiah are dual and can be applied to more than one time, situation or people. I am aware that latter-day prophets and apostles have related this verse to the Salt Lake temple or even to the Conference Center from which the word of the Lord is issuing forth in these days. However, if we insist too strongly on this Mormon-centric view, we can miss the primary application which this verse has to the millennial reign of the Messiah. The word “mountain” as used in the Bible is a metaphor for “nation,” “government,” or “political system.” In verses 2 and 3 Isaiah is speaking of the millennial condition when Christ shall establish the political Kingdom of God upon the earth. This will be established “in the top of the mountains,” or in other words “as the head of the nations.”
2. Isaiah 2:3 Isaiah wrote that the word of the Lord will come from Jerusalem, and the law will come from Zion, the New Jerusalem, located in Jackson County, Missouri. There will be two distinct centers of influence for God’s people.
This may be, but verse 3 should not be used as a proof-text. Here we have a synonymous chiastic parallel where
the Law = the Word of the Lord, and
Zion = Jerusalem (one and the same)
The chiastic structure of this phrase indicates that Isaiah equated Zion with Jerusalem (the one located in Israel!) If we accept this, we will be able to learn more about Zion as it relates to the ancient City of David.
3. Isaiah 2:9 In the Book of Mormon, verse 9 is clarified by adding the word “not” to the following statement: “And the mean man boweth [not] down and the great man humbleth himself [not], therefore forgive him not.”
This verse actually makes much more sense in its original context, without the extra “not” added in the Book of Mormon version. Verse 8 speaks of idols which are found throughout the land. And the mean (common) man and the great (important) man boweth down (to these idols). This version makes more sense coming as it does right after the description of people worshipping idols, the work of their own hands.
4. Isaiah 2:13-17 , see also 2 Ne 12:13-17 Some Mormons still insist that this passage is an example of the restoration in the Book of Mormon of passages that were lost in the Old Testament. As noted in footnote 16a, “The Greek (Septuagint) has ‘ships of the sea.’ The Hebrew has ‘ships of Tarshish.’ The Book of Mormon has both, showing that the brass plates had lost neither phrase.”
Pike and Seely have shown the challenges of accepting this interpretation. I love the poetry of the passage and find that the addition of the extra phrase and other interjected words spoils the beauty of the chiastic tripled bicola. Isaiah used poetic conventions frequently to emphasize his points. The Book of Mormon addition does not enhance the poetic structure of the passage, but instead inhibits it. The Greek “ships of the sea” and the Hebrew “ships of Tarshish” are probably different translations of one original phrase and it is not necessary or preferable to include both. Observe the perfection of the Masoretic text with the pattern of w- (conjunction) + al (preposition “upon”) followed by kol- (“all/every”) and then two words (here in English translation):
For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be
upon every one that is proud and lofty,
and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:
and upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up,
and upon all the oaks of Bashan,
and upon all the high mountains,
and upon all the hills that are lifted up,
and upon every high tower,
and upon every fenced wall,
and upon all the ships of Tarshish,
and upon all pleasant pictures (fine craft)
and the loftiness of man shall be bowed down,
and the haughtiness of men shall be made low;
and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.
(if all this fascinates you, there is a well-reasoned apologetic view here. But I stand by my opinion.)
5. Isaiah 3:16-26 The Daughters of Zion and their apparel show the dangers of worldliness and immodesty.
If your Sunday School teacher identifies this passage (as does the lesson manual) with modesty in dress, s/he has missed the boat! The daughter of Zion, is a poetic term for the covenant people of Israel, and the items of clothing stand for different types of authority. In the Old Testament, authority was passed down with the symbolic action of transferring clothing. Thus the significance of the passing of Elijah’s mantle to Elisha, and Jonathan’s dressing David with his own clothes in 1 Samuel 18. As the son of the reigning king, Jonathan symbolically transferred his claim to the throne to his friend by stripping himself of his clothing and weapons and bestowing them upon David. In Isaiah, the covenant people are struck down because of their pride. Each of the articles of clothing worn by the daughter of Zion represent some authority or privilege which is being misused and thus removed by the Lord.
6. Isaiah 4:1 The Mormon speculation on this verse goes as follows: With so many men killed in war, righteous single priesthood holders are in short supply. Thus, plural marriage is reinstituted, with many women stating they will support themselves in order to receive priesthood covenant protection.
My examination of the Hebrew of this verse makes me confident in translating “one man” as “a certain man.” The verse thus teaches that in the latter day seven women (symbolic number of completeness, denotes the covenant people) shall take hold of a certain man (guess who that would be?) and ask him “let us be called by thy name,” which will take away their reproach (effects of atonement). In my view this verse is Messianic and has nothing whatsoever to do with polygamy.
As Latter-day Saints, we certainly have many resources in our scriptural records and our doctrine to interpret the Book of Isaiah. But I think we need not go overboard in trying to overpersonalize these passages. As important as it is to apply Isaiah’s writings to ourselves, we must not lose the historical connotations and meanings within the text. Since we have only 5 weeks to cover this important book of scripture, let us carefully choose the scripture blocks we will discuss, and maintain a focused and accurate exegesis of the material.