figurative language

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Learning to look at the words of Isaiah and understand his meaning has a lot to do with being able to understand figurative language. The words are the same we might use, but they are used in such a way as to build images and relationships between God and His covenant people that are unconventional to us.

As you read the verses below then look at my explanation of them, consider going back and rereading the verses to see if you can see my explanation in those verses for yourself. You might very well see additional meanings or other meanings. My explanations are not the definitive word on Isaiah, but my understanding of what I can find in his words.

It is, for whatever reason, very important to the Lord that we, His children, understand all that God is doing in His dealings with us. He wants us to see that punishments come to an end, and that blessings can be forever, but only if our obedience is forever. These verses also demonstrate to us that God is serious about His covenants with us. He will continue to deal with our behavior and our promise, our possibilities for as long as it takes for us to return to Him and find the happiness He has always wanted for us. He knows this process of reclaiming Abraham’s family is one that takes thousands of years to complete. It is a good thing He is patient.

2 Nephi 8 (Isaiah 51)

Hearken unto me, ye that follow after righteousness. Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged.

Israel considered themselves those “that follow after righteousness.” Isaiah tells them to look back at the source from whence they came. He uses the comparisons of looking at the quarry from whence you were hewn, or from the hole in the ground from whence you were digged. It was important to Isaiah that the people remembered where they came from, and the circumstances that made them who they were.

Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah, she that bare you; for I called him alone, and blessed him.

Abraham and Sarah, the covenant couple is the source for the whole nation of Israel. The phrase “I called him alone” I don’t think means that God called Abraham to be a lone man, but that God called Abraham, and only Abraham – him alone – to be God’s prophet. The purpose of calling Abraham was to bless him, because of his personal faithfulness.

For the Lord shall comfort Zion, he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of melody.

Zion/Israel suffered a lot. Most of their sufferings were because of their own disobedience and from the fact that over and over again they made covenants then broke them. But Israel was God’s covenant people, not because they made a covenant with God, but because He made a covenant with them. So no matter how they behaved, God’s claim on them as Abraham’s family held true from generation to generation. The Israel that lived at any one particular time in history may have not had any interest in God and His covenants, but God is faithful and never forgets the covenants He makes. So God continues to work for the salvation of Abraham’s seed from generation to generation, despite Abraham’s seeds wayward ways. This relationship with Abraham’s posterity was built into the plan for our salvation.

The Lord had always planned on blessing all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s posterity, no matter what any individual within that family may have done or how they may have behaved. God declared it and it would happen as He declared it. This is why He has kept on working with Abraham’s posterity from generation to generation, for He has used Israel’s behavior to work His miracle of blessing all the nations of the earth with His covenants. The promises of God still hold true. He will eventually turn Israel’s suffering into life in a garden of Eden. Eventually they will live a life of thanksgiving.

We don’t usually think of a covenant lasting more than just our lifetime, because we can’t see beyond our own time on earth. But God’s covenant with Abraham has lasted more than three thousand years, and will continue on into the eternities. Once God makes a covenant, He never breaks it. If there is any breaking to be done, it is by the other party in the covenant process. God is faithful to His word, always and forever. Covenants are not meant to be temporary. They are always eternal in nature. Think about that when you think of your Temple covenants and your covenant of baptism.

Hearken unto me, my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation; for a law shall proceed from me, and I will make my judgment to rest for a light for the people.

Isaiah is looking forward to the coming of the law Christ will bring. That law will both judge the people and be a light or an example and a way for them to follow.

My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth, and mine arm shall judge the people. The isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust.

Does anyone else find it interesting that the Lord is so concerned that His people know and understand the full scope and scale of His work with His own people? And not just with Israel, but through Israel He will bless everyone on earth. The people of Israel lived in the Middle East, yet so many references in their own scriptures refer to the importance of the isles of the sea, and the Western Hemisphere is one of those isles. Isaiah lived a hundred years or so before Lehi. His prophecies include Lehi’s posterity in the Americas.

The reference to God’s arm refers to His power and strength to accomplish things. References to God’s hand or hands refers to His ability to do things. For example, when God tells Israel that they are under the shadow of His hand, think of holding a baby bird cupped in one hand while the other hand covers the bird to protect it. This kind of top and bottom protection is what Isaiah is talking about. This harkens to the ancient custom of placing your hand on the top of a person’s head to indicate that they are now under your protective care. This was sometimes done to a bride by her new husband to indicate that he had accepted the responsibility to care for her from then on. This is an ancient practice.

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment; and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner. But my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.

This verse refers back to Psalms 102:25-28. David understood that physical things can fade and pass away, but what God does is eternal in nature. I suggest you read the verses referred to in Psalms. They are powerful in content.

Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart I have written my law, fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings.

For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool. But my righteousness shall be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation.

Only God’s people can know what righteousness is, for they are the only ones with which He makes covenants. We need not fear the censure of mankind, because we know that God’s salvation is eternal, while those who currently revile us will pass away. Sometimes the scriptures refer to mankind like grass that may look good, but when the heat of the sun comes out it is scorched and dies quickly.

Awake, awake! Put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake as in the ancient days. Art thou not he that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?

10 Art thou not he who hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

11 Therefore, the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy and holiness shall be upon their heads; and they shall obtain gladness and joy; sorrow and mourning shall flee away.

Isaiah glories in the Lord. He references the parting of the Red Sea and the passing of Israel through on dry ground. They are the ones for whom Christ would suffer. Jesus would pay for their sins, that is, those who believe in him and keep his commandments. Those who keep God’s commandments become holy and “obtain gladness and joy.” In multiple places the scriptures refer to God wiping away the tears of those who have suffered. Why? Because they have been obedient to His commandments. It is the people of the covenant who are redeemed.

12 I am he; yea, I am he that comforteth you. Behold, who art thou, that thou shouldst be afraid of man, who shall die, and of the son of man, who shall be made like unto grass?

13 And forgettest the Lord thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth, and hast feared continually every day, because of the fury of the oppressor, as if he were ready to destroy? And where is the fury of the oppressor?

14 The captive exile hasteneth, that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit, nor that his bread should fail.

15 But I am the Lord thy God, whose waves roared; the Lord of Hosts is my name.

These four verses paint an overall picture of our relationship with God. Men will die. They are like grass, meaning temporary. Why do you forget your maker, He who literally made the heavens and the earth for you? Why do you fear those who oppress you, or threaten to do so? Where is their power to hurt the soul? This is a rhetorical question, because they don’t have any power to hurt us, except to hurt the body. They can’t touch our soul.

God continues in the last two verses to tell us that those who have been exiled (a reference to Israel being scattered) will not die in a pit somewhere, nor will they starve. He promises that their bread will not fail. They will taken care of, for He is their God. He is the Lord of Hosts and we are His people.

16 And I have put my words in thy mouth, and have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion: Behold, thou art my people.

What a tender image this verse presents. He has given us His word, his gospel, and He has given us the sign of his everlasting protection – He has covered us in the shadow of his hand, that symbol of everlasting protection. The creation of the heavens and the earth was accomplished so He could say to us that we are His people. Refer back to Moses 1:39 where God states that He does all that He does for one purpose, and that is to bring about our exaltation and eternal life.

17 Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury—thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling wrung out—

God’s people have had to experience His fury, His wrath. Why? Because of their continued and extended disobedience. As a result they have had to experience the dregs of the cup of trembling which is literally centuries of punishment. The dregs of a cup are the bits of tea leaves that settle at the bottom of the cup. As an example, having to consume what has been left in the bottom of the cup is usually nasty to the taste and very undesirable. In this case the Lord is saying that the dregs of this cup are the worst of the worst. This is the nature of the punishment the Lord has promised to Israel because of their longstanding disobedience. But the day will come when their punishment will end, but not for a long while.

18 And none to guide her among all the sons she hath brought forth; neither that taketh her by the hand, of all the sons she hath brought up.

19 These two sons are come unto thee, who shall be sorry for thee—thy desolation and destruction, and the famine and the sword—and by whom shall I comfort thee?

20 Thy sons have fainted, save these two; they lie at the head of all the streets; as a wild bull in a net, they are full of the fury of the Lord, the rebuke of thy God.

Of all of the sons of the nation of Israel, of all who seek to lead her into prosperity again, there are only two who will survive, and God names those to be 1. desolation and destruction, and 2. famine and the sword. Okay, that is depressing. Isaiah, speaking for God asks the rhetorical question, “If these are your only two sons left alive then who is left to bring you comfort?” God says that these two sons are everywhere. They can be found at the head of every street in the city, and like a wild bull caught in a net they are full of fury, the rebuke of thy God. This is a great visual to show us that when God is against you there is no place to hide.

If you ever find yourself not taking the rebuke of God for your sins lightly, just come back and reconsider these verses. God’s rebuke is nothing to be scoffed at, for when He punishes the sinner He doesn’t go easy on them. Israel had hundreds of years to repent, but over and over again they rejected God’s pleas for compliance. It was their own happiness God was trying to give them, but they were stubborn and rejected every attempt at a reconciliation with Him. Their centuries long punishment was one of their own doing. God knew that it would take thousands of years of isolation and punishment for them to finally find their way back to Him and to find the happiness He had offered them all along. We are nearing the end of their punishment now. It is in this dispensation that they will finally begin to return to Him. We are now in the process of beginning to gather Israel back into the fold.

21 Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, and not with wine:

This is an example for which I have no experience. I don’t know the nature of drunkenness, but I know God is only using that state of inebriation to describe the state of decision making ability of the people of Israel. Their decisions were made with just as much solid thinking as though they had been drunk when they made their choices. Yet they weren’t drunk with wine, but from the spiritual stupor of their own wicked behavior.

22 Thus saith thy Lord, the Lord and thy God pleadeth the cause of his people; behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again.

23 But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; who have said to thy soul: Bow down, that we may go over—and thou hast laid thy body as the ground and as the street to them that went over.

24 Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean.

25 Shake thyself from the dust; arise, sit down, O Jerusalem; loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion.

The first two verses tell Israel that the day of her suffering, and time of her punishment will come to an end. When they have paid the price brought upon them by their forefathers, the Lord will remove the cup of His fury. Instead of them having to deal with that centuries old suffering God will hand that cup to those who have spent so much effort punishing His people. Those who treated God’s people like they were no better than the pavement in the street, to be walked upon, He will see to it that they receive their punishment.

Now is the time for Israel to regain their sense of belonging, their sense of heritage as the Lord’s people. Isaiah refers to Jerusalem as the embodiment of all the house of Israel. The day will come when there will be no more unclean and non-covenant people for them to deal with. It will be a time for them to take off the shackles and the bands from their necks as slaves, put on the clothing of their inheritance, their beautiful garments, and once again take their place as God’s chosen people.

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The Figurative Language of 2 Nephi 8 (Isaiah 51)