Ellis T. Rasmussen, “The Prophets and the Mission,” in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 139–50.
Chapter 8: The Prophets and the Mission
Ellis T. Rasmussen
There is nothing unusual about peoples or cultures considering themselves chosen of the gods, having some special privileged relationship with a special deity, with some designated responsibility imposed through a covenant with him. It has been quite common throughout the ages. It may have had its origin in the relationships of our first ancestors with the Creator. As we see from the record of human and divine relationships portrayed in our Judeo–Christian scriptures, not only Adam but his patriarchal successors enjoyed a covenantal relationship with the Lord. Through it they knew what they could expect from him and what their duty to him was, to perpetuate his good way of life. They expected this relationship to bring benefits in this world and membership in his eternal kingdom to come. (See Moses 5:6–12, 14–15; 6:22–23.) Many peoples since then have assumed such relationships, and some have been quite bigoted in their religious self-view. Those who have not had the true concept of the universal Father who cares for all people have thought they were chosen and would be blessed because of who they were. Some invented local gods concerned only with local people. Sometimes even the true heirs of the patriarchs developed false ideas about their status and mission. The chosen people of the living God were really chosen to bring salvation to all other people, other families, other nations.
This concept is nowhere better expressed than in the scriptural records of Abraham’s call:
Now the Lord had said unto Abram,
Get thee out of thy country
and from thy kindred,
and from thy father’s house,
unto a land that I will shew thee:
And I will make of thee a great nation,
and I will bless thee and make thy name great;
and thou shalt be a blessing:
And I will bless them that bless thee
and curse him that curseth thee:
and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 12:1–3; italics in this and succeeding scriptural quotations added for emphasis.)
The matter is made even more explicit in another passage, this one from Abraham’s own record:
Behold, I will lead thee by my hand,
and I will take thee,
to put upon thee my name,
even the Priesthood of thy father,
and my power shall be over thee.
As it was with Noah so shall it be with thee;
but through thy ministry
my name shall be known in the earth forever,
for I am thy God. (Abraham 1:18–19.)
And I will make of thee a great nation,
and I will bless thee above measure,
and make thy name great among all nations,
and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee,
that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations.
And I will bless them through thy name;
for as many as receive this Gospel
shall be called after thy name,
and shall be accounted thy seed,
and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father;
And I will bless them that bless thee,
and curse them that curse thee;
and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood)
and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood),
for I give unto thee a promise
that this right shall continue in thee,
and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or
the seed of the body)
shall all the families of the earth be blessed,
even with the blessings of the Gospel,
which are the blessings of salvation,
even of life eternal. (Abraham 2:9–11.)
Moses and the prophets of Israel reiterated, perpetuated, defined, and clarified this concept—that to be chosen of God is to be appointed to his service. According to them, as we may see in the scriptures, the chosen in any age of the world may expect blessings and divine favor only as rewards for service. The contract or covenant of the chosen with God may be simply stated: If you will be my messengers and exemplars, I will be your teacher, guide, and defender, and I will prosper you.
Moses revealed these things quite precisely to Israel’s hosts encamped at Sinai when he was trying to get them ready to assume their functions as God’s servants. In the words of God, he said:
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians,
and how I bare you on eagles’ wings,
and brought you unto myself.
if ye will obey my voice indeed,
and keep my covenant,
then ye shall be a. peculiar treasure unto me above all people:
for all the earth is mine:
And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. (Exodus 19:4–6.)
Later, in his farewell address before his departure from his people at Mount Nebo, Moses charged them to be obedient:
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments,
even as the Lord my God commanded me,
that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.
Keep therefore and do them;
for this is your wisdom and your understanding
in the sight of the nations,
which shall hear all these statutes, and say,
Surely this great nation
is a wise and understanding people.
For what nation is there so great,
who hath God so nigh unto them,
as the Lord our God is
in all things that we call upon him for?
And what nation is there so great,
that hath statutes and judgments
so righteous as all this law,
which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5–8.)
Lest the Lord’s calling and appointment of the Israelites to serve him should cause them to feel proud and become bigoted, Moses also warned them in the words of the Lord:
Not for thy righteousness,
or for the uprightness of thine heart,
dost thou go to possess their land:
but for the wickedness of these nations
the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee
and that he may perform the word
which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 9:5.)
Moses indeed continually lectured the Israelites on this matter, citing historical examples of their transgressions and other inadequacies, and calling on them to repent and teach the law by their works as well as their words.
The chosen people were to teach others the good law and true worship, but were not to let those others teach them unrighteous ways and idolatrous worship. Moses usually gave the Israelites that admonition when he warned them not to marry the daughters or sons of other peoples. He warned that such marriage partners would too easily turn them away from their responsibilities to the true God and turn them to the easier, lustful, sensually exciting ways of the fertility gods and goddesses. (For examples, see Exodus 34:14–16 and Deuteronomy 7:3–6. Many more examples may be found in the Topical Guide to the scriptures, published in the appendix of the LDS edition of the Bible, under such topics as “Idolatry” and “Israel, Mission of.”)
It was some seven centuries after Moses that the great writing prophets wrote the books known as the major and minor prophetic works of the Old Testament, most of which came in two waves in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Those were the grim days of apostasy when Israel’s northern tribes and their kings, and later the remaining Israelite nation of Judah, turned aside to idolatrous theologies and morals. The prophets were called to preach repentance and to call the chosen people to return to their covenant mission. Their prophetic messages were written to the Israelites of their own time, but they are valid for any era; indeed, they address many teachings, promises, and warnings to descendants and heirs of the Abrahamic mission in the last days.
In this matter, as in many others, Isaiah pronounced the message most clearly. In a great arraignment of Israel, preserved as the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, he charged the Israelites with rebellion against God; they were “laden with iniquity”; their children were “corrupters”; they had “gone away backward,” learning and doing the abominations of the wicked instead of converting the wicked to the Lord’s good way of life (see Isaiah 1:2–4). Their leaders were as the “rulers of Sodom,” and the people following them were as the “people of Gomorrah”; therefore their sacrifices were “vain oblations”; their sabbaths, assemblies,” feasts, and even their prayers were seen as hypocritical and unacceptable to God (see Isaiah 1:13–15). Yet even then, if they would wash (the familiar ritual of an outer washing symbolic of an inner cleansing), “cease to do evil,” and “learn to do well,” by doing good to and for others, then the Lord would be willing to “reason together” with them. Through repentance the miracle of forgiveness was still available, even though their “sins be as scarlet” and “red like crimson.” They could still be blessed to “eat the good of the land.” But if they refused to repent and rebelled further, they would “be devoured with the sword.” And this message was not merely Isaiah’s opinion, for, as he concluded, “the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (See Isaiah 1:16–20.)
A little earlier, during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and King Jeroboam of Israel, Amos similarly gave all Israel, north and south, a scathing prophetic rebuke and a call to repentance. The Lord had called him from following the flocks near Tekoa and from harvesting the sycamore fig (the tree has a mulberrylike leaf and a small figlike fruit which must be scored or pierced to ripen and sweeten) in the lower valleys of Judah. His charge was, “Go, prophesy unto my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). Amos’s response was direct; he cried to the recreant priests and people, “Now therefore hear thou the word of the Lord” (Amos 7:16). He set both his native tribe of Judah and her ten sister tribes to the north into the same evil context as six of their decadent neighbors, making the Israelite nations numbers seven and eight on his list— symbolizing a full roster plus one. He blamed them as he blamed each of the neighboring gentile nations “for three transgressions . . . and for four.” Three symbolized fulness, and four symbolized overflowing evil in each of the seven nations plus one! (See Amos 1:3–2:8.)
As Ezekiel later observed, the chosen people had become like the other nations of Canaan—as if the Amorites had fathered them and the Hittites had mothered them (see Ezekiel 16:3, 45). They had beome children of their environment and had forgotten what it meant to be a child of God.
Amos said that the people of Judah had “despised the law of the Lord”; they had “not kept his commandments”; their “lies caused them to err” (Amos 2:4). Northern Israel he charged with selling righteous and poor people; cheating poor and meek people; committing immorality, infidelity, and idolatry; and profaning the holy name of the Lord (see Amos 2:4–8). With irony he declaimed, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). They had known their God and his law, and they had known his blessings; therefore more had been expected of them.
Hosea, who also prophesied in the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah and the last six kings of Israel, summed up the evils of the apostate chosen people with chilling succinctness:
Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the Land.
By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood.
Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away. (Hosea 4:1–3.)
For such failing in their calling, such perversions, and such abominations, the northern tribes of Israel would be lost until the last days of the world. Only then would remnants of their descendants be gathered together “and appoint themselves one head”; then at last would it “come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God” (see Hosea 1:6–7, 9–11). But in the interim, as Ezekiel later observed, they would be “scattered through the countries” and remain “among the nations whither they shall be carried captives” until, as the Lord said, “you shall remember me” (Ezekiel 6:8–9).
Now, what is it that Israel should have done as a chosen people, and what part of the mission remains for the latter-day covenant people of the Lord to do?
Both Isaiah and his young contemporary, Micah, gave us a picture of the situation in the last days when at last the mission will begin to be fulfilled:
And it shall come to pass in the last days,
that the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established in the top of the mountains,
and shall be exalted above the hills;
and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say,
Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
and he will teach us of his ways,
and we will walk in his paths:
for out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among the nations,
and shall rebuke many people:
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruninghooks:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come ye,
and let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2:2–5; compare Micah 4:1–7.)
The concept that all nations, all families of the earth, will enjoy the blessings of affiliation in covenant relationships with the God whom Israel served, and with the Davidic Messiah to come, is also seen in Isaiah’s picture of that peaceful time told in the words of chapter 11 of his book: the “root of Jesse” will indeed provide an ensign for all peoples; he will “set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:10, 12). In a later passage Isaiah dramatically depicted the peaceable assimilation into a peaceful kingdom of the very widely separated former enemies:
And the Lord shall smite Egypt:
he shall smite and heal it:
and they shall return even to the Lord,
and he shall be intreated of them,
and shall heal them.
In that day there shall be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria,
and the Assyrian shall some into Egypt,
and the Egyptian into Assyria,
and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.
In that day shall Israel be the third
with Egypt and with Assyria,
even a blessing in the midst of the land:
Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying,
Blessed be Egypt my people,
and Assyria the work of my hands,
and Israel mine inheritance. (Isaiah 19:22–25.)
This divinely assimilated combination of peoples was also described in a concise overview of the Lord’s processes of bringing it about: “For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land: and the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob” (Isaiah 14:1).
The function of the chosen people to bring about these blessed conditions is to be an active, faithful servant: “But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend” (Isaiah 41:8). In the remainder of that chapter, following that declaration, the Lord promised his servant help, protection, and power to overcome enemies, and then proclaimed (in the beginning of the next chapter): “Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:1). Later on in the same message the Lord continued, “I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6).
Sometimes there is a combination of functions of prophet, people, and Messiah involved in the prophetic anticipation of the extension of the message and power of salvation to all: ‘ ‘It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:3–6). Centuries later, in the temple at Jerusalem, one Simeon, a devout old man waiting for a fulfillment of promise to him, saw in the baby Jesus “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
The scriptures show quite explicitly that the chosen people function as messengers and witnesses for the Lord after he has gathered and redeemed them (see Isaiah 43:1, 5, 10, 12, 25, etc.). Elucidation of such functions, along with descriptions of the results of such work, are seen in Isaiah chapter 44. Jacob the servant-Israel the chosen—is assured of seed, of offspring, who shall yet spring up; and then others shall come to them: “One shall say I am the Lord’s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel” (Isaiah 44:1–6).
Everyone who thirsts is invited to partake of the waters, and of the wine and the milk, without money and without price, according to another revelation through Isaiah. The invitation reads in part:
Incline your ear, and come unto me:
hear, and your soul shall live;
and I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
even the sure mercies of David [i.e., salvation by the Savior].
Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people,
a leader and commander to the people.
Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not,
and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee
because of the Lord thy God,
and for the Holy One of Israel;
for he hath glorified thee. (Isaiah 55:3–5.)
In the next chapter of Isaiah the Lord assures all that his salvation is near and that the man is blessed “that layeth hold on it,” be he the “son of the stranger” who has joined himself to the Lord, or the former marked slave—“the eunuch”—or of the “outcasts of Israel’’: “for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” And “the Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.” (Isaiah 56:1–8.)
The duty of the people of the covenant, the people of the mission, plainly is to “arise” and to “shine,” for when their “light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon” them (Isaiah 60:1), then
the Gentiles shall come to thy light,
and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Lift up thine eyes round about, and see:
all they gather themselves together,
they come to thee:
thy sons shall come from far,
and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.
Then thou shalt see, and flow together,
and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged;
because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee,
the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. (Isaiah 60:3–5.)
Zechariah later portrayed these same scenes:
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion:
for, lo, I come,
and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord.
And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day,
and shall be my people:
and I will dwell in the midst of thee. (Zechariah 2:10–11.)
And the last prophet of the Old Testament summed it up:
For from the rising of the sun
even unto the going down of the same
my name shall be great among the Gentiles;
and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name,
and a pure offering:
for my name shall be great among the heathen,
saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 1:11.)
The first writers of the New Testament took up the theme and confirmed it: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations” (Matthew 24:14; compare Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47). Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was called to implement an important dispensation of it (see Acts 9:15; 11:1–18). He understood clearly that it was intended from the beginning that the blessings of Abraham should come upon the Gentiles (see Galatians 3:7, 14, 26–29; Romans 2:10; 8:15–17; 9:24; 11:13; Ephesians 3:6). Latter-day revelation refreshes and reiterates the charge: “The voice of warning shall be unto all people,” and the testimony must again go from the chosen people of the Restoration unto all the world (see D&C 1:4; 84:62; compare also D&C 65:2 and Daniel 2:35). These were the things anticipated by the prophets of the Old Testament. The covenants of old would be established anew and written, not on tablets of stone but in the heart, in the new hearts of the newly chosen people of the Lord (see Ezekiel 16:60–63; 36:26; Jeremiah 31:31–34). All who feel these things in their hearts have what is called a “testimony,” and all who are willing hearted among them go forth to bear it as a mission unto the nations, unto all families of the earth.