Thursday, December 12, 2013

Isaiah 18 on Signs of the Restoration


1 Woe to the land shadowing with wings,
which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:
2 That sendeth ambassadors by the sea,
even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, saying, Go, ye swift messengers,
to a nation scattered and peeled,
to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto;
a nation meted out and trodden down,
whose land the rivers have spoiled!
3 All ye inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth,
see ye, when he lifteth up an ensign on the mountains;
and when he bloweth a trumpet, hear ye.
4 For so the Lord said unto me,
I will take my rest,
and I will consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs,
and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.
5 For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect,
and the sour grape is ripening in the flower,
he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks,
and take away and cut down the branches.
6 They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains,
and to the beasts of the earth:
and the fowls shall summer upon them,
and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.
7 ¶In that time shall the present be brought
unto the Lord of hosts
of a people scattered and peeled,
and from a people terrible from their beginning hitherto;
a nation meted out and trodden under foot,
whose land the rivers have spoiled,
to the place of the name of the Lord of hosts,
the mount Zion. 
(Isaiah 18)
This is a tricky chapter because there is a lot of imagery in it that is difficult to connect together into anything that we recognize.  I have studied it carefully, and I have also looked online to see what others have said to try to explain it, and there is a lot of disagreement about what it means.  Most commentaries make interesting points, but also ideas that seem to go of into left field, so I recommend you search and read and decide for yourself.  There are also things I still don’t understand myself, so I expect to grow in my understanding as well.

One thing that seems helpful is to first to pick out some recognizable features.

In our scriptures, we can start by noting the chapter summary:  The Lord will raise the gospel ensign, send messengers to his scattered people, and gather them to Mount Zion.   The summary seems to focus upon the words “ensign,” (v3) the phrase “Go, ye swift messengers” (v2), and “scattered” (v2, 7) and the phrase “to the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, the mount Zion” (v7). 

However, there is more to the chapter than just messengers and gathering.  There is an extensive puzzling description of the people to whom this prophecy is addressed (v1-2), there is a time when the Lord rests and considers (v4), there is a time when a harvest of sour grapes ripens and is pruned (v5), a scene of devastation when animals and birds feed for years on what is left (v6), and a present brought to the Lord at Mount Zion of a people (v7). 

If we read this with our testimony of the restoration of the gospel, perhaps we gain a better understanding.  I believe that the verse that should grab our attention most immediately is verse 3:
All ye inhabitants of the world,
and dwellers on the earth,
see ye, when he lifteth up an ensign on the mountains;
and when he bloweth a trumpet, hear ye.
The ensign on the mountains is an image that we understand and will automatically recognize.  We have a church magazine called the Ensign (though that didn’t become its name until late in the 20th century).  The house of the Lord established in the tops of the mountains (Isaiah 2:2) is another type of ensign.  General conference is another kind of ensign, a standard waved in the eyes of the world.  Isaiah tells the entire world to take notice when they see the ensign lifted up.

As for the blowing trumpet image, it is one that we also recognize in the statue of the angel Moroni blowing his trumpet from the tops of most of our temples.  For a long time that image was put on the cover of our missionary Book of Mormons.

I think the ensign and the blowing trumpet were signs that Isaiah gave in this scripture to the rest of the world to warn them to sit up and take notice when the restored gospel would begin to come forth from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Another part of this verse that we understand because of our testimonies of the restored gospel is verse 7:
In that time shall the present be brought
unto the Lord of hosts
of a people scattered and peeled,
and from a people terrible from their beginning hitherto;
a nation meted out and trodden under foot,
whose land the rivers have spoiled,
to the place of the name of the Lord of hosts,
the mount Zion. 
We understand the idea of bringing a people as a present to the place of the name of the Lord, to mount Zion in several senses.  People converted to the gospel bring themselves as a present to the Lord as they submit to His will.  But further, as Latter-day Saints, we know that converted people also begin to do temple work for their ancestors, in effect bringing a present to the Lord in the temple of the names they do vicarious ordinance work for.  It reminds me of Joseph Smith’s teaching:

Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation. (D&C 128:24, emphasis added)

The “land shadowing with wings” could be interpreted as the land of America.  America has been ever “shadowed with wings,” or protected by heavenly powers.  It also has lots of air transportation, but this interpretation may be less helpful, since other nations also have air transportation. 

to a nation scattered and peeled -- The United States is indeed quite scattered, such as with Alaska that is disconnected from the main part of the United States, and Hawaii, that island clear out in the Pacific ocean.  It has unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands.  As for “peeled,” one site says that it can also be translated as “obstinate,” “independent-minded,” or “smooth” (clean-shaven?)  (http://www.icr.org/books/defenders/3998/)  “Peeled” could also refer to the manner that America peeled away from Great Britain to obtain its independence. 

to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto -- This could refer to the way the United States has become a dominant superpower.  Even in its first years, it was “terrible,” in that oppressive mobs have frequently combined to express displeasure and to mete out vigilante justice. (It was after all, a mob that participated in the Boston Tea Party, even if we have sacralized that part of our history.)

To a nation meted out and trodden down – “meted out” could be referring to the way a nation has been measured and surveyed for settlement.  “a nation…trodden down” evokes the image of a place being walked all over, and this may be referring to cities that have many pedestrian areas, but also to the way the nation had built roads everywhere.  In Israel in Isaiah’s day, roads where made by people who just walked in the same place over and over until the ground was so compacted that nothing grew on it.  If Isaiah saw our concrete and asphalt roads in vision, he probably wouldn’t think that we had put any substance down to make the road, he would think that we had trod over the ground so much that the ground naturally became like that.  If he saw all the roads in our cities and our highway systems, he would have indeed called us a nation trodden down.

whose land the rivers have spoiled! – Some think that “spoiled” is to be interpreted as “divided.”  America is divided by a number of large rivers, such as the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Brazos, the Ohio, and more.  At http://www.enchantedlearning.com/usa/rivers/ I found a list of 28 United States rivers that were over 600 miles long!  Still, spoiling can also be interpreted as destruction and carrying away property by river flood.  America has had a number of devastating floods during its history that have caused huge amounts of damage.  The flooded Missouri River in 1993, for instance, caused $15 billion in damages and was the second costliest on record (Top 10 Historic U.S. Floods, http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2070796_2070798_2070783,00.html).

Verses 4-6 are trickier.
4 For so the Lord said unto me,
I will take my rest,
and I will consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs,
and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.
 5 For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect,
and the sour grape is ripening in the flower,
he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks,
and take away and cut down the branches.
 6 They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains,
and to the beasts of the earth:
and the fowls shall summer upon them,
and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.
I looked up pruning grapes on the internet to see if understanding that might help with understanding these verses.  I learned that pruning is done both early and late.  Early pruning establishes which branches will bear fruit.  Late pruning during the summer helps balance the productivity of the vine with leaf and shoot growth.  It seems to me that Isaiah meant for the grapevine to represent the house of Israel and he was trying to show how the Lord would prune unproductive branches out to be destroyed.  The imagery of fowls and beasts summering and wintering on the plucked branches makes me think that it means that Gentiles would benefit from the destruction. 

I think there are lessons we can get from this idea of early pruning (cutting off springs) and late pruning (cutting down branches).  The Lord is willing to cut off unrepentant individuals from the church whether they are new or old members.  Looked at it another way, He will purify the church of iniquity whether it is early in its history, or later in its history. 

What does this mean in verse 4 that the Lord will “consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest”?  The metaphor is peculiar.  What principle are we to learn about the Lord and how He is considering?  How might we draw comfort from this?

The first question we might ask is, “What do we know about how dew forms?”  Dew is formed when water vapor in the air is cooled past the dew point and condenses into water droplets.  The hotter it is, the more water that air can hold, and the more humid it will feel. 

A “cloud of dew” could also loosely be called a “clear heat” because you can see straight through this water vapor in the air; it doesn’t appear as clouds.  Visible clouds would be fog, which wouldn’t be a clear heat.  So “cloud of dew” and “clear heat” are synonyms. 

One principle I might learn is this -- just like a cloud of water can be in the air without us seeing it, the Lord is there in the temple, even though we can’t see Him.  Just like we know water is in the air by how humid the air feels, we can sense the presence of the Lord through the Spirit.  Just like the herbs wait for dew to condense and water them, we Saints wait for the time when the Lord will appear and nourish us.  We might also say that we are nourished already as the doctrines of the priesthood distill upon our souls as the dews from heaven (see D&C 121:45).

I personally find this comforting since it confirms to me that I am seen and known by the Lord.