"Great Are the Words of Isaiah"

Hugh W. Nibley

Nibley, Hugh W., “Great Are the Words of Isaiah” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 177–195.

Hugh W. Nibley (1910–2005) was professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

I have reached the stage where I have nothing more to say. As far as I am concerned, the scriptures say it all. “Behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah. For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles. And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake” (3 Nephi 23:1–3). That quotation alone spares us the trouble of an apology for Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is a tract for our own times; our very aversion to it testifies to its relevance. It is necessary to remind us of its importance, however, because Isaiah’s message has not been popular, and he tells us why. The wicked do not like to be told about their faults. Every society, no matter how corrupt, has some good things about it—otherwise it would not survive from year to year. Isn’t it much pleasanter to talk about the good things than the bad things? The people of Zarahemla, said Samuel the Lamanite, wanted prophets that would tell them what was right with Zarahemla, not what was wrong. There is a great danger in that: the many things that are right with any society can hardly damage it, but one serious flaw can destroy it. One goes to the physician not to be told what parts are functioning well but what is making him ill or threatening him with the worst.

But, says Isaiah, the people of Israel want to hear smooth things: “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things” (Isaiah 30:10). And ever since, the process of interpreting Isaiah has been one of smoothing him out. Consider some conspicuous examples of this.

  1. The idea that Isaiah is moralizing, not talking about doctrine. Yet he starts out calling Israel God’s children (Isaiah 1:2); he insists on this all along—God is their Father. It is the first article of faith. But they won’t see it (Isaiah 1:3); they want nothing of the doctrine (Isaiah 1:4). They don’t see anything that they don’t want to see, says Isaiah. They are functionally blind. They have deliberately cut the wires, and then they complain that they get no message. Isaiah is full of obvious things that nobody else sees, especially for Latter-day Saints. The rabbis have always made fun of the suggestion that he is actually referring to Christ. But we go further than that. We see in the Book of Mormon even the particular calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. And who is to say that we are wrong?
  2. The idea that the God of Isaiah is the savage, vengeful Old Testament God of wrath, the tribal God. This means we do not have to take Him too seriously. It lets us off the hook. But Isaiah’s God is kindness itself. “Come now, and let us reason together,” he says, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). There is nothing authoritarian about him; he is constantly willing to discuss and explain. His most threatening statements are instantly followed by what seems a reversal of mood and judgment. He is always willing, ready, waiting, urging, patiently pleading; it is Israel that will not hear, it is they who break off the discussion and walk away, turning their back upon Him and asking Him to please be quiet.
  3. The idea that Isaiah is addressing special groups. Indeed he talks about good people and bad people—but they are the same! Woe to Israel! Good tidings to Israel! One and the same Israel. And not just to Israel but to all mankind; he addresses the nations and their leaders by name. And not only to his generation does he speak, but to all. Nephi applied the words of Isaiah to his own people in the desert “that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). Six hundred years later, Jesus Christ called upon the Nephites to do the same thing, and the angel Moroni handed the same message over to our generation. Isaiah has just one audience because he has but one message. He is addressing whatever mortals upon the face of the earth happen to be in need of repentance. This takes us to our next point.
  4. The idea that there is more than one Isaiah and that they all tell different things. Since there is only one message and one audience, this is a mere quibble. The message is a happy one: “Repent—and all will be well—better than you can ever imagine!” Only to those who do not intend to repent is the message grim. Isaiah does not distinguish between the good and the bad but only between those who repent and those who do not. He does not ask where we are—he knows that—but only the direction in which we are moving. Of course, only those can repent who need to, and that means everybody—equally. Does not one person need repentance more than another? Ezra and Baruch protested to God that while Israel had sinned, the Gentiles had acted much worse, and asked why they should be let off so much more easily. But God was not buying that argument. You can always find somebody who is worse than you are to make you feel virtuous. It’s a cheap shot: those awful terrorists, perverts, communists—they are the ones who need to repent! Yes, indeed they do, and for them repentance will be a full-time job, exactly as it is for all the rest of us.
  5. The doctors, Jewish and Christian alike, love to labor the idea that for Isaiah, the supreme and unforgivable sin was the worship of idols. Well, he says that idolatry is foolish and irrational but never that it is the unforgivable sin. The darling illusion of the schoolmen is that as modern, enlightened, rational thinkers they have made a wonderful discovery: that wood or metal dolls or images cannot really see or hear, and so on. They labor the point to death. But the ancients knew that as well as we do. That is exactly why they patronized the idols. There is the famous story of the Eloquent Peasant from the Middle Kingdom in Egypt that tells how the rascally manager of an estate, when he saw a peasant passing by on his way to the market with a load of goods, cried out, “Would that I had some idol that would permit me to rob this man’s goods.” A dumb image would offer no opposition to any course he chose to take. That was the beauty of idols: they are as impersonal and amoral as money in the bank—the present-day as well as the ancient equivalent of a useful idol.
  6. This is matched by the idea that the greatest of moral and intellectual virtues was the acknowledgment of the one and only God. Again, that was another ancient commonplace. Isaiah does not denounce polytheism as the greatest of sins. Indeed, a number of researchers have shown that polytheism as such is nowhere condemned in the Bible. But Isaiah does lay heavy emphasis on oneness. There is to be no compromise. There is only one way for a person to go, one God for Israel or the one human race to serve. To defuse this uncomfortable teaching, the doctors have converted it into a theological exercise for the schools.
  7. The idea that Isaiah is denouncing pagan practices before all else. But it is the rites and ordinances that God gave to Moses and that the people were faithfully observing that Isaiah describes as an exercise in desperate futility.

Isaiah Chapter 1

The quickest way to get an overview of the immense book of Isaiah is simply to read the first chapter. Scholars have long held that this is not part of the original book but a summary by a disciple. If so, that makes it nonetheless valuable, and indeed it is remarkable that this, the most famous chapter of Isaiah, is never quoted in the Book of Mormon. Let’s take it verse by verse.

1:2. The people of Israel are God’s children—He is their Father. This is the doctrine they have forgotten, and they will be in no condition to receive it again until they have undergone the moral regeneration that is the burden of Isaiah’s preaching.

1:3. That doctrine they have rejected. They refuse to hear it.

1:4. Because they can’t live with the doctrine in their sinful state, they have run away from it. This is inexcusable; God does not look upon it with forbearance. He knows that they are quite capable of understanding and living by the gospel. Accordingly, He is more than displeased; He is angry.

1:5. Yet it is not He who has been giving them a hard time. They decided to go their own way, openly revolting against Him. And their system is simply not working. They are not able to cope with the situation mentally, nor do they have the spirit to carry it through. Men on their own are pitiful objects.

1:6. The whole thing is sick, sick, sick. Every attempt to correct the situation fails miserably. Nothing works.

1:7. The result is internal depression and international disaster.

1:8. God’s chosen people are holed up, trusting in their miserable defense, trapped by their own walls.

1:9. The reason they survive at all so far is that there are still a few righteous, a small remnant of honest people among them.

1:10. So it is time they were considering the alternative, which Isaiah herewith offers them.

1:11. You are not going to appease God by trying to buy Him off, by going through the pious motions of religious observances, your meetings and temple sessions.

1:12. It is not for you to decide what to do to please God—it is for Him to decide, and He has not required all this display of piety from you.

1:13. Your most dedicated observances, even following God’s ancient prescriptions, if done in the wrong spirit are actually iniquity—not to your credit but to your loss.

1:14. God is not impressed but disgusted by it.

1:15. Even when you pray, God will not hear you. Why not? Answer: Because there is blood on your upraised hands.

1:16. The blood and sins of this generation are on you in the temple. What blood and sins? Your evil ways.

1:17. What evil ways? What should we be doing? Answer: Dealing justly, relieving those oppressed by debt instead of collecting from them, giving a fair deal to the orphans and assistance to the widow; in other words, showing some thought for people without money.

1:18. God is not being capricious or arbitrary. He is eminently reasonable. Is His way the only way? Let Him tell you why, and then see if you do not agree: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” Then a surprising statement: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Plainly God does not take pleasure in these rebukes; He does not gloat as men would (for example, Thomas Aquinas) over the punishment in store for the wicked. He loves them all and holds forth the most wonderful promises for them. There is a way out, and that is why Isaiah is speaking, not because he is a puritanical scold.

1:19. Have they had enough? They need only to listen and to follow advice and all will be well.

1:20. But you cannot go on as you have been. You will be wiped out by war if you do. “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” The “consumption decreed” (D&C 87:6) is another quotation from Isaiah.

1:21. You can do it—because you once did. And then you lost it all—went over to unbridled sex and murder.

1:22. And for what? Property and pleasure, for silver that is now as worthless as garbage and wine that is flat.

1:23. The leaders set the worst example. They work with crooks; everybody is on the take: “Every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards,” while the poor don’t get a break in court and a widow can’t even get a hearing.

1:24. God wants nothing to do with such rascals; He is going to get rid of them. They have made themselves His enemies.

1:25. This calls for a thorough housecleaning. All that dross must be purged away.

1:26. To bring back the old order, to “restore thy judges as at the first” (as quoted in the well-known hymn). It is still possible, and God is going to bring it about. There will yet be “the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”

1:27. Zion is going to be redeemed with many of these same sinful people living in it, along with a lot of converts from the outside.

1:28. All the rest will have to go, but not because God chooses to throw them out. They will walk away from safety right into destruction; with eyes wide open they will forsake the Lord and be consumed.

1:29–31. These verses are the only references to paganism—popular cults that will wither and be burned up—not be destroyed, however, because they follow pagan manners or forms, as the doctors, ministers, and commentators love to tell us, but because they were part of the cover-up for avaricious, hard, and immoral practices.

The Worst Vices

For the rest of the time I want to talk about those human qualities Isaiah describes as pleasing to God and those qualities He despises. They both come as a surprise. As to the second, the traits and the behavior Isaiah denounces as the worst of vices are without exception those of successful people. The wickedness and folly of Israel do not consist of indolence, sloppy dressing, long hair, nonconformity (even the reading of books), radical and liberal unrealistic ideas and programs, irreverence toward custom and property, contempt for established idols, and so on. The wickedest people in the Book of Mormon are the Zoramites, a proud, independent, courageous, industrious, enterprising, patriotic, prosperous people who attended strictly to their weekly religious duties with the proper observance of dress standards. Thanking God for all He had given them, they bore testimony to His goodness. They were sustained in all their doings by a perfectly beautiful self-image. Well, what is wrong with any of that? There is just one thing that spoils it all, and that is the very thing that puts Israel in bad with the Lord, according to Isaiah. The Jews observed with strictest regularity all the rules that Moses gave them—”and yet . . . they cry unto thee” and yet they are really thinking of something else. “Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, . . . all their precious things . . . their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish” (Alma 31:27–28; emphasis added).

God sums up the cause of anger against Israel in one word: “For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth.” With what effect? It didn’t faze the guilty, but “he went on frowardly in the way of his heart” (Isaiah 57:17). Like the Zoramites, covetous Israel was quite pleased with itself, just as in these last days. Modern Israel was put under “a very sore and grievous curse” because of “covetousness, and . . . feigned words”; that is, greed and hypocrisy (D&C 104:4). By far the commonest charge Isaiah brings against the wicked is “oppression,” ‘ashaq. The word means to choke; to grab by the neck and squeeze, grasp, or press; to take the fullest advantage of someone in your power; in short, to maximize profits. It is all centralized in “Babylon, . . . the golden city,”—”the oppressor” (Isaiah 14:4), which gives us instant insight into the social and economic structure of Isaiah’s world. It is a competitive and predatory society, “Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand [they do not know what is going on, because everyone is looking out for himself]: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter” (Isaiah 56:11).

The charge applies to our own day, when “every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (D&C 1:16). Babylon had flourished long before Isaiah’s day, and it was to flourish long after. At that particular time it was on the way up again, but the word is used throughout the scriptures as the type and model of a world that lived by the economy. Its philosophy is nowhere better expressed than in the words of Korihor: “Every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and . . . every man conquered according to his strength, and whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17).

In Isaiah, the successful people are living it up. It is as if they said, “Come ye, . . . I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink” (Isaiah 56:12). We’ll have drinks and a party at my place. And tomorrow more of the same, but even better, even richer. The economy looks bright; all is well.

Isaiah has a good deal to say about the beautiful people in words that come uncomfortably close to home:

28:1. “Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which are on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine!”

28:2. “Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong [wind], which . . . shall cast down to the earth with the hand.”

28:3. “The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, shall be trodden under feet.”

28:7. “But they also have erred through wine . . . ; they stumble in judgment.”

He describes the party people, the fast set: “Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them!” (Isaiah 5:11). They are stupefied by the endless beat of the Oriental music that has become part of our scene: “And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands” (Isaiah 5:12). And of course there is the total subservience to fashion: “Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go” (Isaiah 3:16)—in the immemorial manner of fashion models. An instructive list of words from the boutiques that only the fashion-wise will know tells us that “the Lord will take away . . . their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings, and nose jewels” (Isaiah 3:18–21), and of course clothes, “the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins” (Isaiah 3:22). Their beauty aids will defeat their purpose as their hair falls out and their perfumes are overpowered (see Isaiah 3:24).

Naturally there is the more lurid side of sex, the more reprehensible: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; . . . ye people of Gomorrah. . . . How is the faithful city become an harlot!” (Isaiah 1:10, 21). Just as Nephi “did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23), so right at the outset Isaiah here not only likens Jerusalem to the long vanished cities of Sodom and Gomorrah but addresses them directly by name as actually being Sodom and Gomorrah—showing us that we may not pass these charges off as not applying to us because we live in another time and culture. Is the scene so different?

The costly fashions reflect a world in which people are out to impress and impose themselves on others. Everyone is after a career, everyone is aspiring to be a VIP: “The mighty man, and the man of war, the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient. The captain . . . , and the honourable man, and the counsellor, and the cunning artificer, and the eloquent orator” (Isaiah 3:2–3). What about them? “I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them” (Isaiah 3:4). So much for their authority—and why? Because everyone is out for himself in this game of one-upmanship: “And the people shall be oppressed, every one by another, and every one by his neighbour [there’s competition for you!]: the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient [what else can you expect?], and the base against the honourable” (Isaiah 3:5). Everything will get out of control. A man will take hold of his brother, saying, “You have clothes, so you be our ruler; you be responsible for this mess!” But he will refuse the great honor, saying, “Don’t try to make me a ruler—I’m flat broke!” (see Isaiah 3:6–7). Because everybody will be broke, Isaiah continues: “For Jerusalem is ruined” (Isaiah 3:8)—all because they stubbornly think they can go it alone: “Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, that take counsel, but not of me: and that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin” by justifying themselves at every step (Isaiah 30:1). The rebellious people, the lying children will not hear the law of the Lord. The law of God have they rejected; they reject the law of sacrifice. Oh yes, they sacrifice, but they do not do it the way the Lord wants them to—”Have I required this thing at your hands?” (see Isaiah 1:12). They have violated the law of chastity, for Israel is a harlot. They have violated the law of consecration, for they are idolators—coveting for themselves is now their consecration. They have rejected the law of God, for they will not do things His way, as they covenanted (see Isaiah 30).

The one who sets the supreme example for the people is that most inspiring and ambitious of all spirits. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, . . . I will exalt my throne . . . : I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation” (Isaiah 14:12–13). He is out to rule the world, which he does, with disastrous effect; the result is depression and ruin: “Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; . . . as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him. The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the Lord hath spoken this word” (Isaiah 24:1–3).

Isaiah knows how to describe a world in total collapse, and we have a rich and very ancient lamentation literature, both of the Egyptians and the Babylonians, appearing periodically over thousands of years, along with abundant business documents, letters, and ritual texts to confirm that such conditions actually did prevail in the world from time to time exactly as Isaiah tells them, always with the same combination of social, economic, and political hysteria. Notice the strong emphasis on economy and finance in the passage just cited. “Ye do always remember your riches,” says Samuel the Lamanite, and for that very reason you will lose them (see Helaman 13:22, 31). They are cursed and will “become slippery” is the way he puts it, and Isaiah has a comparable expression: “The land shall be utterly . . . spoiled. . . . [It] fadeth away . . . because they [the people] have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” to suit themselves (Isaiah 24:3–5). “Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth” (Isaiah 24:6); few men are left, everything is desolate; there are no crops, it doesn’t rain; therefore, many people are gone into captivity because they have no knowledge, and their honorable men are famished; the multitude is dried up with thirst. “For it is a people of no understanding: therefore he that made them will not have mercy on them, and he that formed them will shew them no favour” (Isaiah 27:11).

Societal Woes

Plainly, men are held responsible by God to show some sense. Self-deception costs dearly; the Lord “frustrateth the tokens of the liars, and maketh diviners mad; . . . turneth wise men backward, and maketh their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25). They have despised His word and trust oppression and perverseness and persist in it. These are tough-minded people. They hold out to the end, like the breaking of “a high wall.” They will hold out in their ways with great tenacity. Nothing will move them. Like a high dam when it breaks, it breaks all at once. (This is the principle of “the 29th day.”) First the wall begins to bulge, and then everything goes: the “breaking cometh suddenly at an instant” (Isaiah 30:12–13). He will not spare even a shard. The smashup is quick and complete.

All this because everything is out of line. No one can trust anyone else in this freely competitive society. “None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies” (Isaiah 59:4). “The act of violence is in their hands. They shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are the thoughts of iniquity” (see Isaiah 59:6–7). This reads like a prospectus of TV fare. Such a course can only leave a trail of distrust: “The way of peace they know not; . . . they have made them crooked paths” (Isaiah 59:8); “speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood. . . . Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey” (Isaiah 59:13, 15). It is profitable to break the rules only as long as there are people simple and gullible enough to keep them. And if you don’t play the game, you can expect to become a victim. Isaiah does not applaud such realism: “Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee!” (Isaiah 33:1). The Lord goes even further in our dispensation, telling us that we have no right to cheat even those clever people who are trying to cheat us: “Wo be unto him that lieth to deceive because he supposeth that another lieth to deceive” (D&C 10:28).

Naturally Isaiah takes us into the law courts: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20)—that being the rhetorical art, the art, as Plato tells us, “of making good seem bad and bad seem good by the use of words,” which in the ancient world came to its own in the law courts. “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! . . . which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him!” (Isaiah 5:21, 23). This recalls how the Gadianton robbers, when they finally got control of the government and the law courts, when “they did obtain the sole management of the government,” at once turned “their backs upon the poor and the meek” (Helaman 6:39), “filling the judgment-seats” with their own people (Helaman 7:4), “letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money” (Helaman 7:5). They “justify the wicked for reward,” says Isaiah (5:23), and he warns them in their own legal language that God will bring charges against the elders of Israel and “the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses!” (Isaiah 3:14; emphasis added). The stuff that is in your houses really belongs to them. “What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:15). “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees [in their untouchable authority], and that write grievousness which they have prescribed” (Isaiah 10:1)—serving their own interests by the laws and regulations they make, “to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!” (Isaiah 10:2).

Everything is rigged; everybody is on the take; the harlot city is full of murderers; the princes are rebellious, companions of thieves; “every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them” (Isaiah 1:23). Even when right is plainly on his side, the poor man doesn’t stand a chance, for “the churl . . . deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right” (Isaiah 32:7). “For the vile person will . . . practise hypocrisy, and . . . utter error . . . to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail” (Isaiah 32:6). Real estate is a special province for such people, and the ancient record is full of the slick and tricky deals by which they acquired their great estates, from the earliest of Greek preachers, Hesiod and Solon, to the last of the Roman satirists, including the terribly modern Petronius. “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!” (Isaiah 5:8).

Isaiah has a lot to say about trade and commerce, “The burden of Tyre,” the crowning city, “whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honourable of the earth.” The Lord intends “to stain the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honourable of the earth” (Isaiah 23:1, 8–9). They are a restless lot, these enterprising people: “Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord. . . . But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt” (remember Lehi’s “filthy waters”) (Isaiah 57:19–20). “There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). Babylon is at once restless and busy, selfish and carefree; “None seeth me,” she says; there is “none else beside me” (Isaiah 47:10). She has all the technical and commercial know-how at her command. All the experts are working for her—the charmers, the astrologers, the expert analysts, the skillful accountants—and all will be burned as stubble. In the thirteenth chapter of Isaiah, we see the burden of Babylon, the vast activity, the noise, the bustle, the self-importance, the consuming hunger for profits in this great world center that is also another Sodom, a sink of moral depravity.

Pride of Nations

By a great miracle King Hezekiah of Judah was snatched from death and given fifteen more years of life. In an outburst of joy and gratitude, he voiced his thanks and his infinite relief at knowing that God was able to give whatever one asked of Him, even life itself; what is the security of all the world’s wealth in comparison to that? And then a significant thing happened. Ambassadors arrived from Babylon, and Hezekiah simply could not resist showing them through his treasury, displaying his wealth and power. “Then came Isaiah the prophet unto King Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from . . . Babylon. Then said he, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All that is in mine house have they seen. Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house . . . shall be carried to Babylon” (Isaiah 39:3–6). The man couldn’t resist showing off, and by his vanity he only whetted their greed. They liked what they saw and came back later to fetch it. He had played right into their hands.

Isaiah is very much into the international picture in which the fatal flaw is the assumption that things are in the hands of the great men of the earth, while in fact there are no great men but just ordinary guys with disastrous delusions of grandeur. Haughty is a favorite word with Isaiah.

“And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible” (Isaiah 13:11).

“I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir” (Isaiah 13:12).

“The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:11).

“Behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled” (Isaiah 10:33).

“The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish. The earth also is defiled. . . . Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left” (Isaiah 24:4–6).

What makes a nation great? Power and gain is the answer we give today; the thing is to be number one in military and economic clout. They thought so in Isaiah’s day too: Woe unto them that rely on horses and chariots because they are powerful, but “look not unto the Holy One of Israel”; “The Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit” (Isaiah 31:1, 3). No real security is to be gained by alliances, no sword either of the strong or of the weak power shall overcome Assyria; the Lord had His own plans for Assyria, and no one could have guessed what they were. Where does security lie? In digging the defenses of Jerusalem you are merely digging your graves! The only true defense is the calling of the priesthood in the temple. If you play the game of realistic power politics, you can’t expect any but the usual reward.

The Assyrians guaranteed security. They were the top nation militarily. “Go along with us,” they said to Jerusalem (and Isaiah has preserved their letters), “and you will be safe. You are fools. How can God deliver you if you have no army? You need us. God is on the side of the big battalions.” This is what is called Realpolitik, which has repeatedly destroyed its practitioners in modern times. When Isaiah tells the people to trust God and not Egypt, the people say that that is not realistic! So here come the Assyrians, those super-realists, with their irresistible might—and they were wiped out in their camp as they were sleeping. The great nations? “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance” (Isaiah 40:15). All the nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted to Him as less than nothing and vanity because they pretend to be something (see Isaiah 10:33). “For Tophet is ordained of old” and is waiting for them right now—(“a prison have I prepared for them,” the Lord tells Enoch [Moses 7:38]). “Yea for the king it is prepared”—for Assyria. “He hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it” (Isaiah 30:33). Don’t be impressed by “the mighty man, and the man of war, the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient” (Isaiah 3:2). There is only one in whom you can put your trust. Assyria vanished overnight and was never heard of again, while lesser nations as ancient as Assyria who could not afford to gamble for supremacy on the winning of battles are still with us.

“Clean Hands, and a Pure Heart”

As surprising as the traits Isaiah despises are those he prizes—not drive, initiative, industry, enterprise, hard work, thrift, piety—none of the Zoramite virtues, though they are truly virtues when they are not vitiated by selfish motives or a morbid obsession with routine. And let me observe in passing that work is, after all, not a busy running back and forth in established grooves, though that is the essence of our modern business and academic life, but the supreme energy and disciplined curiosity required to cut new grooves. In Isaiah’s book, the qualities that God demands of men are such as our society looks down on with mildly patronizing contempt. Isaiah promises the greatest blessings and glory to the meek, the lowly, the poor, the oppressed, the afflicted, and the needy. What! Is being poor and oppressed an achievement? Are we encouraged to join the ranks of the down-and-outers? What possible merit can there be in such a negative and submissive stance? Well, there is virtue in it, and it is the presence of Satan in the world that is the deciding factor. We are promised there will be no poor in Zion. That is because Satan will not be present there with his clever arrangement of things. But he is the prince of this world, freely permitted for a time to try men and to tempt them. Here he calls the tune.

And how does he try and tempt us? In the worldwide mythology of the human race, the devil is the lord of the underworld who sits on the treasure of the earth in his dark kingdom; he is Pluto, the god of wealth, who by his control of the earth’s resources dictates the affairs of men. Aristophanes’ last play, the Plutus, is one long, bitter commentary on the kind of people who succeed in this world. Indeed, “the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes” is a stock theme of the world’s literature from the Egyptian story of the two brothers through Lazarus and Dives to the vicissitudes of the Joad family in the Grapes of Wrath. If we believe Isaiah, the Son of Man Himself was “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53:3), from which one concludes that to be highly successful in this life is hardly the ultimate stamp of virtue. For Satan’s golden question, “Have you any money?” has a paralyzing and intriguing effect that enlists all but the noblest spirits in the great conspiracy: “And judgment is turned away backward,” says Isaiah, “and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey” (Isaiah 59:14–15). Whoever refuses to put up with this sort of thing, in their words, must expect to take a beating. “The Lord saw it,” continues Isaiah, “and it displeased him that there was no judgment” (Isaiah 59:15). Everybody is cheating, and God does not like it at all. “Behold the world lieth in sin at this time, and none doeth good, no not one, . . . and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them according to this ungodliness.”[1] Such were the opening words of the Lord in this dispensation spoken to the Prophet Joseph in the grove. The words “the world lieth in sin” call for a more particular statement in the manner of Isaiah, and we find the same expression explained in D&C 49:20: “It is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin” (emphasis added). Mammon is a jealous god; you cannot serve him and any other master. To escape the powerful appeal of the things of this world and the deadly threat that hangs over all who do not possess them takes a meek and humble soul indeed—and a courageous one.

What does Isaiah say that God demands of those who would be justified? First of all, they must be clean of all defilement: “Wash you, make you clean,” he says in the first chapter (Isaiah 1:16). Don’t make your prayers when your hands are covered with blood. And the person with clean hands and a pure heart, says the Psalmist, is one “who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:4). Isaiah agrees: it is “he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil” (Isaiah 33:15). The people fasted as God had commanded and asked Isaiah in perplexity why God had not heard them. In reply he told them, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness . . . and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, . . . [to] bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him . . . ?” (Isaiah 58:6–7). This is a reminder that our own fasts require an offering for the poor. God is not impressed by the magnificent temples people build for Him—He owns it all anyway, “but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isaiah 66:2; emphasis added). If they go on justifying themselves—”yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations” (Isaiah 66:3)—God will not curtail their agency; He will give them all the rope they want: “I also will choose their delusions, . . . because when I called, none did answer; . . . they . . . chose that in which I delighted not” (Isaiah 66:4).

After describing the way of Israel, the burden of Damascus, the burden of Egypt, the burden of Babylon and of Assyria—in short, the world as it is and as it should not be—Isaiah in glowing terms depicts the world as it should be—as it was meant to be and as it was created to be. “He created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). Under His rule, He is the Lord and there is none else. Unto Him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. “In that day . . . the fruit of the earth shall be excellent” (Isaiah 4:2). All that remain are Zion and Jerusalem. “The Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 4:4).

With Babylon gone from the scene, a huge sigh of relief goes up; at last the world is quiet and at rest. The golden city, the oppressor, is no more (see Isaiah 14:4). The whole earth is at rest. “Good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). “Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders” (Isaiah 60:18). On the contrary, “with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). “Where is the fury of the oppressor?” (Isaiah 51:13). “Ho, . . . he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? . . . Come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live” (Isaiah 55:1–3). Wonder of wonders, in that day a man will be worth more than gold—a complete reversal of values. At the same time the forests return and the trees rejoice: “No feller is come up against us” (Isaiah 14:8). Isaiah often equates the growing wickedness of the world with the brutal and wasteful exploitation of nature, which has reached an all-time climax in the present generation. We all know his most poetic lines: “The leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6–7). In my school days this was the prize illustration of the unrealistic Isaiah, zoological nonsense. It was not the “nature red in tooth and claw” of our own neo-Darwinian world. Since then a lot has been learned about the true nature of certain savage beasts. “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). “The wilderness and the solitary places shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, . . . In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water” (Isaiah 35:1–2, 6–7); “that they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this” (Isaiah 41:20).

And this happy world is for everybody, even as Isaiah’s message of warning and promise of forgiving is for everyone. The sons of the stranger, taking hold of the covenant, “even them will I bring to my holy mountain.” They will come to the temple, which will “be called an house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7). The Lord God, who gathers the “outcasts of Israel” and all the “beasts of the field,” says there won’t be any watchdogs to frighten them off anymore; it will be a happy time of man and beast (see Isaiah 56:8–10). “Great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1). We have been commanded to search them, study them, ponder them, take them to heart, and understand that the calamities and the blessings therein are meant for our own generation. May the words of this great prophet prepare us for these calamities and blessings is my prayer.


[1] Milton V. Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 159.