2 Nephi Chapter 16
In this chapter (Isaiah 6), Isaiah describes how he received his call to be the Lord's prophet through a direct vision from the Lord in the year 742 B.C. In that year, times were perilous for Judah. King Uzziah, who had righteously ruled Judah for over forty years, had died earlier that same year, and his son Jotham ruled in his stead. Jotham was not particularly wicked, but he was the first of a series of less able and less righteous rulers. Socioeconomically, Israel had become divided into a poor oppressed class and a wealthy and generally corrupt one. Spiritually, many Israelites continued to observe traditional religious practices, but their hearts had turned from the Lord. Also in that same year, Assyria, under the capable leadership of Tiglath-Pileser III or Pul, as he is known in the Bible, had been threatening Palestine for three years.
As a general outline, chapters 12 through 15 of 2 Nephi serve to emphasize Israel's separation from the "master of the vineyard," and chapters seventeen through twenty-one promise deliverance and the "millennial day." Chapter sixteen serves to connect the first group with the second. Chapter sixteen easily divides into two parts. Isaiah's vision of the Lord comprises verses 1 through 7, and his actual call is found in verses 8 through 13.
There is no need to suppose that the full priesthood authority of the office of prophet was given to Isaiah during this vision experience alone. This authority must have come through proper priesthood channels, though we are not given a record of his actual ordination.
Joseph Smith informs us that Isaiah's vision was also a time when his calling and election were made sure and he was given the gift of the Second Comforter, Jesus Christ (TPJS, 150-51). For more discussion of this phenomenon, see Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 2, chapter 16, Calling and Election Made Sure.
1 In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
verse 1 "In the year that king Uzziah died" As stated above, king Uzziah died in about 742 B.C. Details of his reign are recorded in 2 Kings 15:1-7 where his name is rendered Azariah, and in 2 Chronicles 26.
Isaiah relates his story in the first person. Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord Jehovah sitting upon a high and lofty throne. His "train," or the skirts of his robe, "filled the temple." Isaiah was likely in the temple in Jerusalem at the time of this vision, but it seems likely that the "temple" here referred to is the throne room or holy of holies of the heavenly or celestial temple.
2 Above it stood the seraphim; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
verse 2 Attending the Lord and standing above his throne were animal-like creatures that reside in God's presence called seraphs or seraphim. The singular form is seraph. Seraphim are apparently a high order of animals that serve the Lord in his heavenly court. Their name comes from the Hebrew root sarap, which means "to burn." The name seraphim is plural and therefore means "the burning ones" or "bright, shiny ones" which likely refers to their glory.
Isaiah describes them as having three pair of wings. With one pair ("twain" means two), the seraphs cover their faces (one modern translation renders it "veil their presence"), with another pair they cover their legs (the same translation renders it "conceal their location"), and with the third pair they fly about. Exactly why the seraphim covered their face and feet and whether this covering is symbolic or literal is unknown. Below, in verse 6, Isaiah will describe them as having "hands" also.
Actually the wings themselves could be figurative here rather than literal. D&C 77:4 describes the wings as being symbolic of the power to move or to act.
Many animals and plants live in God's presence, and it is likely that we have never heard of or seen many of them. John the Revelator saw and heard such animals in God's presence (Revelation 5:8-14), and Joseph Smith recorded how these animals praised and glorified God (TPJS, 291-92).
In D&C 109:79, Joseph Smith describes Seraphs in God's presence. Joseph refers to them as "bright, shining seraphs." Joseph also taught that God dwells in "everlasting burnings" and that righteous beings (human and animal) dwell with him in a state of continual burning or glory (TPJS, 372-73, 347, 361).
Another type of winged heavenly creature that deserves mention is the cherub (singular) or cherubim (plural). Ezekiel teaches that cherubim also have hands and faces (Ezekiel 10:7; Ezekiel 10:14). Mesopotamian tradition and art represent them as winged bulls with human faces, but this need not necessarily correspond with the truth.
An alternate explanation of seraphim and cherubim is that they are angels in the celestial presence of God who belong to the human family, and that the descriptions of their non human parts ("wings") is only figurative and symbolic. Perhaps their "wings" are figurative representations of their power to move and to act.
3 And one cried unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.
verse 3 One of the seraphs cried unto another praising God.
"Holy, holy, holy" This threefold exclamation also plays a significant role in John the Revelator's vision of the heavenly temple (see also Revelation 4:8). This cry of "holy, holy, holy" may refer to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
verse 4 Isaiah describes a door whose posts, or foundations, moved or trembled as one seraph spoke. Perhaps the trembling or quaking was also due to God's presence. What door? Perhaps this is the door leading into the Holy of Holies of the celestial temple, or perhaps the heavenly doorway leading to the celestial kingdom itself. The concept of a door leading into God's presence (the "pearly gates") is spoken of in other scriptural verses (John 10; 2 Nephi 9:41; Isaiah 22:22).
The "smoke" that filled "the house," the temple, is likely the same as the "cloud of darkness" that filled the temple at the dedication of Solomon's temple. A cloud of darkness filled the temple and then became a radiant medium of glory as the Lord appeared (1 Kings 8:10-12). Thus the smoke could be a symbol of the glory of God (Exodus 19:18).
5 Then said I: Wo is unto me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.
verse 5 Recognizing that he is in the presence of the Lord, Isaiah is struck with his own feelings of unrighteousness and unworthiness, the immensity of his personal sins ("woe is me; I am lost!"), and the realization of his own mortal weakness ("for I as a man of unclean lips"). The expression "unclean lips" means unworthiness. It seems likely that Isaiah's confession comes, not from a life that is grossly sinful, but rather from the profound humility resulting from his finding himself in the Lord's presence.
It is interesting that the usual reactions of a man on finding himself in a divine presence are often marked feelings of unworthiness, fear of judgment, or even impending destruction. Often the first message given to such a favored man is "Fear not" or "Peace be with you." After this, the favored mortal usually feels comfortable-free from guilt, and he regards the visitation to be a blessing not a condemnation (Exodus 3:6; Judges 6:22-23; Moses 6:31-32; Helaman 5:43- 48; JS-H 1:17).
6 Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar;
verse 6 "Then flew one of the seraphim unto me" The original text of the Book of Mormon contains Hebrew-like constructions that have been removed from the text of the Book of Mormon because of their non-English character. An example of a typical Hebrew form is the double plural form "seraphims." It was found in both the original text of the Book of Mormon and is also found in the King James Bible (Isaiah 6:6). It has been removed and replaced by the more appropriate English form, seraphim.
"having a live coal in his hand" The live coal (fire) here suggests a purifying agent such as the cleaning power of the Holy Ghost.
The "altar" here is a place where sacrifices are offered in similitude of the atonement. If the vision is of the Jerusalem temple, this altar could be the great altar for burnt offerings in front of the temple or the incense altar in the holy place before the veil.
7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said: Lo, this has touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
verses 6-7 The "live coal" represents divine fire and the cleansing or purging power of the atonement just as our ordinances of baptism and the sacrament represent the same. By touching Isaiah's lips, the coal not only purged him from being a "man of unclean lips" but it also consecrated him to speak in righteousness as a mouth piece of the Lord (Jeremiah 1:9).
The word "purged" here actually means to be removed through ritual washing.
8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said: Here am I; send me.
verse 8 Now, forgiven of his sins and worthy to be in God's presence, Isaiah overhears the Lord's voice addressing an unknown congregation-perhaps a heavenly council. The plural pronoun "us" suggests that there were others in God's heavenly throne room. In John's vision of the heavenly temple (Revelation 4-5), we read of exalted saints and others near God's throne in heaven (Genesis 1:26; Genesis 3:22; Genesis 11:7).
Isaiah volunteers for the calling even before it is directly offered to him in a manner reminiscent of the Lord's own response in that Great Council in the pre-existent phase of our existence (Abraham 3:27). Although some great prophets like Enoch, Moses, and Jeremiah were initially reluctant to accept their prophetic callings, Isaiah responds without hesitation.
verses 9-10 During his mortal ministry, the Savior will later refer to these verses of scripture as he explains to his disciples why he veils the truths in his teachings by teaching in parables (Matthew 13:10-15). Apparently Jesus intended that those who were spiritually sensitive should understand his teachings, while those who were spiritually deaf should not. The implication is that the latter group had not earned the privilege of hearing a clear and explicit explanation of sacred truths. Another suggested reason for parables is that in using parables as a teaching method, the Savior was mercifully protecting the unprepared from being held responsible for those teachings.
9 And he said: Go and tell this people-Hear ye indeed, but they understood not; and see ye indeed, but they perceived not.
verse 9 The Lord charges Isaiah to go and preach the gospel to the people. Implicit in this charge, as evidenced by the following verse, is the idea that Isaiah should preach and write in a partially hidden or veiled form which would be difficult for the spiritually hard hearted or disbelieving to understand. He further prophesies that they will in fact hear and see but not comprehend:
And he (the Lord) said (to Isaiah), Go and tell this people (the Lord's charge to Isaiah): Hear and see indeed. And what will be the response of the people? They shall neither understand nor perceive.
As has been noted previously, notice the use here of the "prophetic perfect" verb tense. Even though he is prophesying of events in the future, Isaiah speaks in the past tense ("they understood not; and . . . they perceived not"). This was common verb construction form among the Hebrew prophets.
10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes-lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed.
verse 10 At first reading it seems that Isaiah is here being charged to deliberately confuse the people because the Lord does not want them to repent and be "healed" spiritually. We know that this cannot be true. The Lord wants all of his children to eventually repent and return to his presence. There can be no mistaking, however, that the Lord is charging Isaiah to teach and write in such a way that the truths contained in his teachings will not be easily understood by the spiritually unprepared. Isaiah is commanded to deliberately keep them in the dark. There is no question but that Isaiah responded to this charge. His writings are, in fact, difficult to understand. His style, symbolism, and poetry are not interpreted readily. Now we know that he intended his writings to be difficult to understand.
"Fat hearted" means "hard hearted" or unresponsive to the gospel message.
"lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed" It seems clear that the Lord did not want part of Isaiah's audience to fully understand Isaiah's teachings at that particular time. A valid question is why not? It is clear from this verse and from Christ's teachings in Matthew 13:10-15 that certain sensitive gospel truths are not for the eyes and ears of the unworthy. We do know from Christ's earthly ministry that it is possible to cast "pearls" before "swine" (Matthew 7:6). The intent of Christ's warning not to cast "pearls" before "swine" which are the spiritually unprepared and unworthy would seem to be to protect those truths from being trampled under foot-that is, ridiculed and cheapened.
This verse, however, implies that if an unprepared and unworthy individual were to hear a clear explanation of precious truths, it may result in his untimely conversion. Is this true? Is it possible that a man may be converted too easily, without sufficient effort on his part, by a premature, too-clear explanation of gospel truths? It would seem to be most unlikely that an unworthy "hard hearted" individual would be converted even on hearing important and precious truths explained clearly.
We are still left with this verse's strong implication that an unworthy or unprepared individual might be converted and "healed" by an untimely, presumably premature, clear presentation of gospel truths. What is the answer to this dilemma? The problem is created by the word lest.
The solution to this misinterpretation is simple. The first part of the verse states that the people of Isaiah's day will be insensitive and unresponsive to the eternal truths of Isaiah's message because of their rampant iniquity and the grossness of their hearts. Hence, "For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed." The word lest may be interpreted here as "were it not so." In other words, Were it not so that this people's hearts were unresponsive, then "they [would] see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and [would] understand with their heart, and [would] be converted, and I [would] heal them.
11 Then said I: Lord, how long? And he said: Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate;
verse 11 After he was called, Isaiah asked the Lord how long he would prophesy and preach before his words would be understood and believed. The Lord answered that Isaiah's prophecies would not be understood until after Judah was ravaged, its cities depopulated, and its land left desolate. To what specific time period is this likely referring? See the commentary for verse 13 below.
12 And the Lord have removed men far away, for there shall be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.
verse 12 Another event prophesied by Isaiah to occur before the people of Judah would begin to repent was that its inhabitants would be scattered to far places leaving even the formerly populated areas in the midst of the land uninhabited. This is an allusion to the scattering of Israel that will occur between 732 and 722 BC, 587 B.C., and AD 70.
"the Lord have removed men far away" This expression refers to the scattering of Israel. Note the past perfect tense used in referring to future events.
"a great forsaking in the midst of the land" The Lord will be forsaken by his people, and therefore his people will not be allowed to remain in the "midst of the land." Rather, they will be scattered.
13 But yet there shall be a tenth, and they shall return, and shall be eaten, as a teil-tree, and as an oak whose substance is in them when they cast their leaves; so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.
verse 13 Finally, Isaiah prophesies that a righteous remnant (a "tenth") of Judah shall return to Jerusalem. This could refer to those of Judah who returned from Babylonian captivity in about 538 B.C. and rebuilt the temple which had been leveled by Babylon. It might also refer to a few righteous in Israel after the Roman purging in AD 70 or even a few righteous there today or in the future those who repent, return to the Lord, and receive the spiritual gifts necessary to understand Isaiah. This verse does not seem to have reference to the gathering of the lost ten tribes of Israel since they will not return as a "tenth" but as a great host which shall have greatly multiplied (Isaiah 54:1-3).
In this verse this remnant is compared to the shoots of a teil tree or an oak tree. A teil tree is a linden tree which is a tree of fine white grain and dense heart-shaped leaves. It has the ability to sprout up new shoots even from an old stump which has been cut down. The oak also has the ability to regenerate after it has shed its leaves and been pruned.
The remnant of Judah that returns to Jerusalem shall have been "eaten," that is, pruned or purged of its unrighteous elements. Those who return will likely be of a new generation.
Even though the "tree" of Judah has been defoliated, pruned, or its stump burned up, its stump still maintains the capacity for growth-the essence of life, the "holy seed." The "holy seed" are those righteous, covenant few who maintain the ability to regenerate this chosen line of people and to spread the message of Christ's gospel to the world. The "holy seed" could also refer to the Savior. The word substance refers to the results or consequences of the regeneration of the holy seed.
It is probably fair to conclude that the general pattern of the call of a prophet of God is illustrated in this chapter by the call of the prophet Isaiah. Every prophet has been called in a heavenly council, thus the authority for each call may be traced directly to the throne of God (TPJS, 365).