Hearken to the Lord

Week Thirty-Seven: Isaiah 1–12

I love the words of Isaiah. I have to admit that wasn’t always the case. As I read the Book of Mormon, I would quickly read over those Isaiah chapters. Then, I realized that the Lord’s command was not only for the Nephites, but for me as well: “Search these things. Yea a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah.”[i] So, I realized that I needed to learn to love the words of Isaiah.

I’m excited to study Isaiah with you. Isaiah’s words are so layered and full of spiritual meaning. Every time I read his words, I find a new thought or insight. There are also so many ways to read Isaiah. In this first chapter, we will explore a few different ways to read and understand his poetic words through parallelism, analogy, symbolism, and time, as well as through latter-day revelation.

Parallelism can be found in parallel structures, constructions, or in a balance of meaning within a verse, a chapter, or the whole book of scripture.

A favorite book that I have on Isaiah is one where the author took the words of Isaiah and wrote them as poetry. Most of the book of Isaiah is poetry, except for the middle story of King Hezekiah and the salvation of the Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah often wrote in couplets, where two phrases say the same thing but in different ways. Isaiah used repetition to strengthen his points. In this first chapter, Isaiah uses this parallel construction or couplets throughout.

Let’s look at verse 16 to find the parallel phrases. First, “Wash you, make you clean.” Do you see how these two phrases are making a similar point? Both are commands for us to do something. We must wash and make ourselves clean. How do we wash ourselves spiritually? When we were first baptized, our sins were washed away. Then every Sunday, when we partake of the sacrament, we are washing ourselves spiritually again and covenanting to make ourselves clean during the coming week.

The next two phrases state: “Put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil.” Again, two different ways of making a similar point. What is the difference between “put away” and “cease”? Maybe we need to first put away our sins in order to cease from doing them. These are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves as we look at these parallel phrases. Ask yourself, how are these phrases the same, and how are they different? Why has Isaiah made them slightly different? Is he trying to teach me something through those differences?

Isaiah used chiasm as well to emphasize his main point. Each point leading up to the central point has a parallel point on the other side of the central point. For example, the entire book of Isaiah can be viewed as a one big chiasm with the central point being chapters 35 through 42, which contain prophecies of the Savior’s first and second coming and the story of Israel’s destruction and Judah’s salvation from Sennacherib. The chapters of Isaiah on either side of those central chapters make parallel points about the Savior, His Comings, and Israel’s destruction, repentance, and return.

The entire first chapter can also be read as a chiasm. Read the first few verses and the last few verses of this chapter and ask yourself: How are these verses similar? Then, read the next verses at the beginning and end of the chapter. The pinnacle point is found in verses 16-20 with verses 18-19 being the main lesson to be learned.

“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.”

The main point of this chapter and the entire book of Isaiah is repentance and being willing to obey the commandments of the Lord. Look for the analogies and symbols Isaiah uses for us to understand this concept. Analogies and symbols are words, phrases, and stories that can represent relationships or linkages between concepts and experiences that are otherwise very different. These can include comparisons between everyday objects with spiritual concepts.

In the scripture we just read, Isaiah analogizes color with the process of repentance, as we move from sin (or scarlet) to becoming clean and forgiven (or white). Why did the Isaiah use the word “wool” at the end of this analogy? Wool is taken from sheep. The Lord is our shepherd. How does that one word “wool” help us understand repentance better?

Focusing on words and phrases to figure out what Isaiah is trying to teach you will help you as you deeply immerse yourself in his words and gain a personal message for your own life. For example, in chapter one, look for the phrase “give ear.” What does it mean to give ear? Do I take off my ear and give it to the Lord? And who is supposed to give ear? And what should I give ear to? In verse 2, the Lord said “give ear, O earth.” In verse 1, the Lord said: “give ear unto the law of our God.” In both of these verses, the word “hear” is used as well. How are the words “hear” and “give ear” similar and how are they different? These are the kinds of questions I would ask myself as I look at a single word or phrase.

Isaiah is often describing different times in the world’s history in the same verse or phrase. Often, as a reader, we want the words we read to reference one time period or have one meaning. Isaiah will often teach us about the First and Second Coming, contrasting similarities and differences between these two times in the same phrases. Isaiah will also teach us about the country of Israel leaving the Lord and returning to the Lord. Countries, congregations, and individuals can all apply the spiritual concepts Isaiah is teaching us.

Isaiah told Israel: “Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.” “Zion shall be redeemed with judgement, and her converts with righteousness.” Are these verses in reference to the Babylonian destruction that was to come and to the return of Israel to Jerusalem under Cyrus? Or is the prophet referring to the early Christian saints and their battle against the Romans? Or is he referring to our day as we prepare for the Second Coming of our Savior? The prophet Isaiah is referring to all three. He is viewing the history of man through spiritual principles. We can take these eternal concepts and relate them to many different time periods.

Finally, latter-day scriptures are a great resource for gaining additional insights into the words of Isaiah. The footnotes in your scriptures give you latter-day references to read along with your Old Testament study.

This first chapter is the introduction to the words of Isaiah. The book of Isaiah was not written chronologically. Similar to our own Doctrine and Covenants, this first chapter was given to Isaiah after some of the other prophecies had been given to him. Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants was also given as an introduction to the following latter-day prophecies. Read Isaiah chapter one and Doctrine and Covenants section one and notice the similarities between these two introductions. The themes are the same. Both start with the same plea: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken”[ii] and “Hearken, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high…for verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men….”[iii] There are many more similarities between these two scriptures than just the opening. In both, the Lord teaches us specifically about how important it is that we are obedient and that we follow Him. If not, we risk destruction and eventual ruin. But if we follow Him, we will be saved in His glory and enjoy living in Zion forever.

The end of Isaiah chapter one promises us: “And I will restore thy judges as at the first and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with judgement and her converts with righteousness.”[iv]

The end of Doctrine and Covenants section one tells us: “And also the Lord shall have power over his saints, and shall reign in their midst and shall come down in judgment upon Idumea or the world.”[v]

May we find joy in the Lord this week as we study the words of Isaiah.

[i] 3 Nephi 23:3

[ii] Isaiah 1:2

[iii] D&C 1:1-2

[iv] Isaiah 1: 26-27

[v] D&C 1:36

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