by Hugh Nibley
from Old Testament and Related Studies,
edited by Welch, Gillum, and Norton,
Deseret Book Co.,
Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
The book of Isaiah is a tract for our own times, and our very aversion to it testifies of its relevance.
What he denounces as an exercise in desperate futility is not pagan practices but actually the people's otherwise faithful observance of ordinances that God gave to Moses,
Let's take some verses from the first chapter:
1:11. You are not going to appease God by trying to buy him off with pious motions of religious observance and endless meetings.
1:12. God has not required all this display of piety from you.
1:13. Your most dedicated observances, if done in the wrong spirit, are actually iniquity - not to your credit but to your loss.
1:16. The blood and sins of this generation are on you. 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. Plainly, God does not take pleasure in these rebukes. He does not gloat, as men would, 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 for them, and that is why Isaiah is speaking.
1:19. You need only listen and follow, and all will be well.
1:21. You can do it - because you once did. And then you lost it all by going over to unbridled sex and different forms of murder.
1:22. And all for what? For property and pleasure; for silver that is now as worthless as garbage.
1:23. Your leaders set the worst example. They work with crooks. Everybody is on the take while the poor don't get a break in court, and a widow can't even get a hearing.
1:25. This calls for a thorough house-cleaning.
1:27. There is going to be a Zion redeemed with, among others, many converts from the outside.
1:28. The unrighteous 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.
I want to talk about those qualities Isaiah describes as pleasing to God and those he despises. They both come as a surprise.
The worst of vices are, without exception, those of successful people.
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 observandces of dress standards. Thanking God for all he had given them, 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. The Jews observed with strictest regularity all the rules that Moses gave them - "and yet they cry unto thee, while others perish." (Alma 31:27,28)
Like the Zoramites, covetous Israel was quite pleased with itself, just as in these last days.
By far the commonest charge Isaiah brings against the wicked is "opppression," ashaq. The word means to choke, to grasp by the neck and squeeze, to take the fullest advantage of someone under your power: in short, to maximize profits.
It is all centralized in "Babylon, ... the golden city," - "the oppressor." (Isaiah 14:4.)
It is a competitive and predatory society. Everyone is looking out for himself.
This 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." (D&C 1:16)Babylon's 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:
"Woe to the crown of pride, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower." (Isaiah 28:1)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 strange 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.
Just as Nephi "did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (I Nephi 19:23), so we may not pass these charges off as not applying to ourselves just because we live in another time and culture. Is the modern scene really so different?
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. 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 neighbor; the child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient, and the base against the honorable." (Isaiah 3:5)
Everything will get out of control.
The one who sets the supreme example for the people is that most inspiring and ambitius of all spirits. "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" (Isaiah 14:12) He is out to rule the world, which he does, with disastrous effect.
Such conditiions actually did prevail in the world from time to time, always with the same combination of social,economic and political hysteria.
Notice the strong emphasis on economy and finance. "Ye do always remember your riches," says Samuel the Lamanite, and for that very reason you will lose them. They are cursed and will "become slippery" is the way he puts it. (see Helaman 13)
Plainly, men are held responsible by God to show some sense. Self-deception costs dearly. They have despised his word and trusted oppression and perverseness, and they persist in it. These are tough-minded people. They will hold out in their ways with great tenacity. Nothing will move them.
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." (Isaiah 59:8) "This reads like a prospectus of TV fare.
It is profitable to break the rules only as long as there are people simple and gullible enough to keep them. And if you can't play the game, you can expect to become a victim.
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.
"Woe unto them 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," "filling the judgment-seats" with their own people, "letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money." They "justify the wicked for reward."
"Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees" - serving their own interests by the laws and regulations which 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 companions of thieves;
"every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards." (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 acquited their great estates, from the earliest of Greek preachers, to the last of the Roman satirists.
"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, whose merchants are princes, whose traffickers are the honorable of the earth, the Lord intends to stain the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honorable of the earth." (Isaiah 23:1,8,9)They are a restless lot, these enterprising people.
"The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt." "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. 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-hole of moral depravity.
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.
"I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible." (Isaiah 13:11)
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.
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! 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 you will be safe. How can god deliver you if you have no army? You need us. God is on the side of the big battalions."
This 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.
Assyria vanished overnight and was never heard of again, while lesser nations as ancient as Assyria who could not afford to gamble for supremacy in the winning of battles are still with us.
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. In Zion, we are promised there will be no poor. 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. There he calls the tune.
Whoever refuses to put up with this sort of thing must expect to take a beating. Everyone is cheating, and God does not like it at all. 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.
If they [Babylon] go on justifying themselves, God will not curtail their agency; he will give them all the rope they want.
After describing the world as it is and 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.
With Babyon 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. The whole earth is at rest.
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.
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)