Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 1

When Nephi copied out chapters from Isaiah, he did so "that whoso of my people shall see these words may lift up their hearts and rejoice" (2 Ne. 11:8). Isaiah's words prompt rejoicing, at least in part, because he testifies of Jesus Christ's willingness and ability to cleanse us from sin: "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" (Isa. 1:18).

Modern revelation clarifies the meaning of Jesus Christ's invitation to reason with him: "And now come, saith the Lord, by the Spirit, unto the elders of his church, and let us reason together, that ye may understand; let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face. Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man , because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand" (D&C 50:10-12). Reasoning with the Lord is not a process of convincing him that we are worthy or ready to be forgiven; he already understands our spiritual status perfectly. Rather, reasoning with Jesus Christ is a process by which we come to understand and accept his will. The Bible Dictionary explains that "prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them" (752-53).

Of course, (then) Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught that this verse of Isaiah--contrary to popular interpretation--does not refer to an individual's relationship with the Lord but to Israel's collective covenant relationship with God: "This quotation from Isaiah is quite generally misunderstood. It is clear from a careful reading of this first chapter in Isaiah, that this remark had no reference to individuals at all, but to the House of Israel . . . So we see that this passage does not apply to individuals and individual sins" (Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:179-80). As previously noted, the opinions of apostles are not infallible, and this is one case where I'm going to have to disagree with Elder Smith. Not only do I think this verse applies to individuals, I'd be willing to wager a whole lot of bananas that Isaiah wrote it with reference to one individual in particular: Job.

After Job has lost everything and is struggling to maintain his faith in God, his three "friends," Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to persuade Job that he should acknowledge that he has brought God's judgments on himself through sin. Job responds with the lament that, "I am afraid of all my sorrows, I know that thou [God] wilt not hold me innocent. If I be wicked, why then labour I in vain? If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; yet shalt thou [God] plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me. For he is not a man, as I am, that I should answer him [God], and we should come together in judgment" (Job 9:28-32). Compare Job's lamentation with these verses from Isaiah: "Wash youmake you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 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" (Isa. 1:16-18). Four linguistic and thematic parallels tie the passages together, suggesting that Isaiah writes in response to Job, presenting his words as an answer to Job's complaint.

Recognizing Isaiah's interest in responding to Job provides insight on three fronts:

First, one of Isaiah's concerns is presenting an anthropomorphic God. Job is concerned that God "is not a man, as I am," so it would do no good to reason with him or "come together in judgment." Isaiah reassures Job and Job-like sufferers everywhere that Jesus Christ understands the mortal experience, our pains, sorrows, temptations, and physical ailments. This passage is one of the Bible's hidden gems that highlights the essential similarities between God and man.

Second, Job--who has lived a good life but suffered anyways--worries that God is unforgiving and capricious, more interested in finding a reason to condemn than a reason to forgive. Isaiah assures Job that he has God all wrong; Jesus Christ is searching for opportunities to forgive and forget our sins, not reasons to cling to them. Isaiah rejects the idea of a distant, powerful, willful Calvinist God; Job worries about a God of justice, but Isaiah promises a God of mercy.

Third, understanding that Isaiah responds to Job can also help to answer a scholarly debate about the date of Job. Most scholars suggest that Job is a book no older than the 4th century BC; since we know that Isaiah was written no later than the 7th century BC (so that Nephi could take it with him to the Americas), Job is also older than the 7th century BC. Of course, the same point might be made by Jacob, who paraphrases Job: "For I know that ye have searched much, many of you, to know of things to come; wherefore I know that ye know that our flesh must waste away and die; nevertheless, in our bodies we shall see God" (2 Ne. 9:4). Compare Jacob's reassurance with what is arguably the most famous verse in Job: "And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26). Jacob suggests that he--and many other Nephites--have internalized the promise of Job, which means that they certainly had access to his words. God promises that all things shall be established in the mouth of two or more witnesses, and these two prophets (Isaiah and Jacob) establish the antiquity of Job, as a book of scripture extant before the 7th century BC.

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