Sunday School Lesson #39

Lesson 39: Isaiah 50-53

The chapters are among the most beautiful in the Bible; they are an important part of Western literary culture, even for non-believers.

As I have done with the previous chapters of Isaiah, I’ll try to outline how the people of Jerusalem might have understood these prophecies. Doing that will help us understand better the ways in which those prophecies are also about later events. As you read the outline, ask yourself how to understand these verses as applying to us, individually and as a church? It seems reasonable to assume that the chapter had meaning for the Israelites at the time it was given, as well as it has meaning for later people, for example Abinadi (Mosiah 14:2-12) , who quotes from Isaiah 53, and for example, Jesus speaking to the Nephites, who quotes from Isaiah 52 (3 Nephi 16:18-20). What meaning might these prophecies also have for us today that they didn’t have for others?

For those who are interested in chiasms, biblical scholars identify one in Isaiah 50:4-51:8:

A: 50:4-9
B: 50:10-11
C: 51:1-2a
D: 51:2b-3a
C’: 51:3b
B’: 51:4-6
A’: 51:7-8

Chapter 50

This chapter continues the theme of chapter 49, indeed, the last verses of chapter 49 (verses 24-26) are certainly part of the thought of the first verses of chapter 50. They are part of the Lord’s response to Jerusalem in Isaiah 49:24: “Shall the prey be taken from the mighty or the lawful captive delivered”? In our terms, “Can anyone take away the booty of the victor, or can the slave who has been taken lawfully be saved”? The division into chapters and verses, a modern innovation, has created an artificial division in the text.

In these verses we see the captivity of Babylon, that Jerusalem (Zion) will complain that it has been forgotten (49:14-16), but that, nevertheless, the Lord will not have forgotten it.

Verse 1: Though Zion has been exiled, no divorce decree was given and no bill of sale was made to the Lord’s creditors (after all, he owes nothing to anyone): the exile will be only temporary. Divorce at the time required that the husband write a writ of divorcement. One solution to poverty at the time was to sell one’s children into temporary slavery in order to pay off creditors. Isaiah uses those images to explain the Lord’s relation to Zion.

The metaphor of slavery and being redeemed from slavery is important in the Old Testament and even more important in the New, especially in the writings of Paul. Since slavery was part of ancient Near Eastern culture, the metaphor of redemption—being bought out of slavery—was obvious to those hearing these prophecies. How might we translate that metaphor into a metaphor that makes sense in our culture today?

Verses 2-3: Those who have not listened to the Lord’s message are rebuked and reminded of the Lord’s power.

Verses 4-6: The consolation that began in chapter 49 is interrupted. The Lord’s servant speaks for himself: though the Lord taught him to speak eloquently and he sustained those who were weary, he was smitten and spit on.

Verses 7-9: Though the servant was abused, he was not ashamed to teach what he had been sent to teach. He trusted in God’s protection. (Compare Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 52:13-53:12 to verses 4-9.)

Verses 10-11: The servant addresses the Lord’s people directly: those who fear the Lord should listen to his servant, though they walk in darkness, but those who make their own light will be burned up by that light.

Chapter 51

There are three poems in this chapter, verses 1-8, verses 9-16, and verses 17-23. In theme, the speakers uses the stories of the creation and the first patriarchs to make his point: the creation, the Patriarch’s, Israel’s history and destiny, all come together in the promise of salvation. Nevertheless, Israel remains sleepy and must be roused to attention.

Verses 1-2: Consolation is once again the theme: those who follow the Lord should remember their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, as the Lord remembers his covenant with those ancestors.

Verse 3: Speaking as if the fulfillment of prophesy has already occurred, the Lord says he will comfort Zion just as he comforted Abraham and Sarah: they were barren, as Zion will be barren, but they were made fruitful, and Zion too will be fruitful, like the Garden of Eden.

Verses 4-5: Jerusalem is called to listen to the Lord who will provide instruction (law) and judgment for all people.

Verse 6: Though the world and human life are transitory, the salvation the Lord offers is permanent, as is his righteousness.

Verses 7-8: Since the Lord’s salvation and righteousness are forever, those who have his law in their hearts need not fear the taunts and reproach of human beings.

Verses 9-10: A desperate prayer asking God to awaken and defend Zion, as he did in the past when he defeated Egypt (Rahab = “stormy� or “arrogant�) and killed the pharaoh (the dragon) by parting the Red Sea and allowing the recently freed children of Israel to pass through it unharmed.

Verse 11: Comparing the return of Judah from Babylon to the return of Israel from Egypt, the prophet says that those whom the Lord has ransomed will return with singing and joy.

Verses 12-16: The Lord reminds Jerusalem of who he is, namely the Creator. He will not allow captive Israel to die in the captivity, and he will make Israel his messenger to all other nations, the foundation for his redeeming work.

Verses 17-20: The Lord calls on Jerusalem (Judah) to awaken from the drunken stupor and the consequent destruction and degradation into which sin has brought it. In the poem that begins with verse 17, Israel is portrayed as a widow whose sons are too weak to help her.

Verses 21-23: Jerusalem’s troubles will be transferred to those who oppress it.

Chapter 52

Verses 1-12 are a poem, in this case an enthronement hymn: Jerusalem is portrayed as taking the throne. Isaiah 42:13-15 and 53:1-12 are another poem about the suffering servant. As before, the modern divisions in the text have artificially broken that poem.

Verses 1-3: The prophet calls on Jerusalem to awaken (compare 51:9) and to prepare for its redemption. The Lord will redeem it, but will not pay to do so (compare 50:1) because those who took Jerusalem captive paid nothing for it. Recall that the metaphor of redemption is a metaphor of being purchased from slavery: a person redeemed a slave by paying the slave’s owner for the slave and then setting him or her free.

Verses 4-6: Just as when Israel was captive in Egypt, the Assyrians have oppressed the Lord’s people and they have blasphemed the Lord’s name, presumably by boasting that they have overpowered his people and, therefore, must be stronger than he. But the Lord’s people will know that they can trust in his name. (Compare Mosiah 5:7-8.)

Verses 7-12: The return of Israel from exile: a messenger will go before them, announcing their return and their salvation; the watchmen of Jerusalem will see them coming and announce their arrival with joyful singing of praise; so those in exile are to leave Babylon and to do so without defiling themselves because they will carry the Lord’s vessels; unlike the departure from Egypt, this departure will not be in haste, though as in that departure, the Lord will guard them back and front.

Verses 13-15: The word translated “deal prudently” (“prosper” and “succeed” in other translations) suggests an act done wisely, with understanding, intelligently. The Lord’s servant will not only succeed, he will be lifted up, in fact he will be lifted up very high. He will triumph. In spite of that, people will be astonished because the intensity of his suffering will deform him. He will shed his blood on the nations, and their rulers will be amazed, seeing and learning what they had never imagined.

Chapter 53

Though this is part of the same poem we have been reading in chapter 52, the speaker changes. Now the Gentiles speak.

Verses 1-9: What the kings would never have imagined: the servant didn’t seem like anyone to be admired, but he came forth like a tree growing miraculously in the desert (2); though he was despised, it was not because of his sins, but because of our sins: he suffered on our behalf, we who had all gone astray (3-6); though he suffered, he did not complain (7); in the end he was executed and buried with the wicked and the rich (8-9); all this in spite of the fact that he had done nothing violent or deceitful (9).

Verses 10-12: This suffering was the will of the Lord: Having offered his soul as a sacrifice for sin, the servant will see those who are his seed, and his life will be lengthened so that he can fulfill the purposes of the Lord. This will satisfy him, and the knowledge he gains by this sacrifice will allow him to justify many before God. Because he will have suffered death for sinners, God will give him his reward and he will conquer his enemies.


It is not difficult to see that, however they fit with the history of Judah, these chapters are also prophecies of the Savior. They give us a beautiful description of the need for the Atonement and of its accomplishment. As you read them, however, see if you can also understand them in other ways: of what other persons and events is the Atonement a type? Look at particular groups of verses and ask yourself what ways you can understand them. For example, think about various ways to understand 50:4-9 and 10-11; 51:1-3, 9-11, and 17-20; 52:1-6 and 7; and all of chapter 53. How many ways can you reasonably understand 52:7-12? Do verses 10-12 of chapter 53 say anything to us about our. suffering?

8 comments for “Sunday School Lesson #39

  1. Mike
    October 2, 2006 at 9:41 am

    Are not large portions of these passages quoted in the Book of Mormon in First Nephi? Their presence in two locations in our standard works and especially in a place likely to be read often (how many times have people started to read the B.of M. and never made it past a few dozen pages?) tell me they are very important. They parallel many of our modern challenges.

    I might have missed a prior discourse on this topic. Forgive me if we have and I was asleep. Another aspect associated with these passages I think we should not ignore. These chapters find themselves at the crux of the Deutero-Isaiah problem. Does anyone on this website want to go there with me?

    I would much appreciate a concise and clear explanation of the problem and possible solutions from better trained minds than mine. Last time I taught Gospel Doctrine, after much prayer and wrestling with the Spirit, I felt we should discuss it even though I felt inadequate as a teacher. As I recall many class members were quietly aware of the problem and disturbed by it and found it useful to know of others who had similar thoughts and how they struggled to resolve it.

    Or is this subject just so old and worn out that it is not worthy of the attention of this rarefied audience and has been forgotten?

  2. Julie M. Smith
    October 2, 2006 at 10:14 am

    This is how I would explain the Isaiah problem to a GD class:

    The problem: The majority of Isaiah scholars believe that Isaiah was written by two (or three) writers. (This in itself isn’t a problem for us.) They believe this because the style, word choice, themes, tone, and references to current events place ch 1-39 in a different historical period than the later chapters. The problem with this is that they date the later chapters to AFTER Lehi left Jerusalem, which makes it impossible for Lehi to have taken those chapters with him, but those chapters are included in the Book of Mormon.

    The (possible) solutions:
    (1) Isaiah was a prophet, which implies that he was capable of knowing things that had not yet happened, including the names of political leaders mentioned in the later chapters.
    (2) Isaiah originally wrote the whole thing, but later editing made the later chapters appear to have a later date. (An example: if you had to date a First Presidency letter that said to “avoid pornography wherever it is found–books, magazines, videos, DVDs, or the Internet” you’d have to date it mid-1990s or later. But what if it were actually written in the 1960s and later edited to include the new technology?
    (3) The changes in tone, style, word choice, etc., are not as definitive as most people make them out to be and may in fact be countered by themes and structures running throughout the entire book.
    (4) The changes of tone, style, word choice, etc. are not in themselves indicative of more than one author. If you believe that Jesus is behind the ‘woe’ sayings in Mt 23 but also behind the “suffer the little children . . .”, then you can see how one speaker/writer could take on more than one tone.
    (5) There are no good logical explanations and this is one of those things that you just have to take on faith: you either believe that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be and shrug at the Isaiah problem, or you prioritize the Isaiah problem in your thinking and shrug at the Book of Mormon.

    I’m partial to (2) with a touch of (5), but I suppose the others are possible as well.

    “Or is this subject just so old and worn out that it is not worthy of the attention of this rarefied audience and has been forgotten?”

    We don’t matter. If it is bothering your class members, you should address their concerns. When I feel the need to address something like this, I try to shoot for this approach: There is something that people consider a problem [and I want you to hear about it in a ‘safe’ environment first, from someone who is not bothered by it] and there are a variety of solutions suggested [which I will mention _very_ briefly without insisting that one is correct].

  3. October 2, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    I like Julie’s approach to these kinds of problems: “Here, briefly, is a problem that some people see. Here, briefly, are some possible answers. Now on to understanding what the scriptures teach.”

  4. Nehringk
    October 2, 2006 at 2:10 pm

    “I like Julie’s approach to these kinds of problems: “Here, briefly, is a problem that some people see. Here, briefly, are some possible answers. Now on to understanding what the scriptures teach.â€? ”

    Well put, Jim and Julie. This approach satisfies both my pragmatic and spiritual leanings, and is what I have tried to do in my own study and teaching. But having it articulated so succinctly is quite helpful — thank you both!

  5. Mike
    October 2, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you. That is sort of where I was trying to take it; but this is much better. Very clear. I was stumbling in the dark, this is like dawn’s morning light. I guess it really can be a problem. I also favor solution #5. But if you add up all the other problems that I have (which at my last count number about 30) it requires that many shrugs. I feel like a cold wet dog. But this is helpful. Thank you again.

    What do you think of the possibility of the lesson manuals ever having this kind of helpful information? Perhaps in footnotes and in very fine print. I would eat it up. Perhaps others would not.
    Then again the last time I taught I got the lesson material right off the church website. The footnotes are already right here, if I can learn where to look.

    One point that came up in the discussion 4 years ago was that the Protestants have not decided where they stand on this issue. Some argue for the unity of Isaiah others for the multiple authors. (So we don’t have to decide either?) What was pointed out to me as inconsistent is that LDS usually argue for the unity of Isaiah and yet they tend to accept the multiple authorship of Jeremiah. Whereas Protestants tend to see the issue as similar for both books, one way or another. But we don’t have any problems with Jeremiah in the Book of Mormon and we don’t really accept the inerrancy of the Bible. So we can afford to allow for multiple authors here or there. What do you think? They are two different books with different evidence on this issue, but with many similarities.

    Also, just of interest: One class member was from Angola, a very intelligent man, multi-lingual etc. But without the benefit of a western education and the subtle but pervasive influence of scientific thinking on his ideas. He thought this problem might be evidence of time travel, that the spirit of Deutero-Isaiah traveled back to Proto-Isaiah and spoke to him. He compared it to Moroni and Joseph except in the other direction. It was a fascinating but scientifically impossible idea, that Joseph in the translation process went back and influenced Mormon in his writings on the gold plates. I can’t see anyone in academia accepting that, but it does solve so many problems. I am not advocating this particular solution, but it points out that if we think broadly and bravely enough, who can tell what answers we might find. My African friend loves me for tackling these problems and he loves to struggle with them. He has a core basic belief that required so much mind bending that this is just a little bit of housesweeping compared to burning his old house of beliefs and superstitions down. So he keeps sweeping, when he has time, which isn’t often.

    One final antedote inspired by the comment about “safe environment” above. I was asked to substitute-teach a rowdy 17-18 year old class many years ago. They were all out in the parking lot and wouldn’t come in the church and were not willing to listen to a regular lesson. I could run pretty fast back then and after physically chasing them down and bull-dogging a couple of the boys back to a picnic table, I got them all to gather around with the promise that I would teach them something controversial and not boring; if they would stop running off. I was getting pretty mad at these kids and wanted to shake them up right good.

    Since we were supposed to be doing Isaiah and I couldn’t come up with anything else, I layed out the problem of Deutero-Isaiah for them. I distinctly and painfully recall beginning by telling them that they could take their shallow testimonies and put them in the trash can for this lesson. And I really didn’t have an answer for them at the end. Only that recent Biblical scholarship, if believed, proved the Book of Mormon was pious fiction. I told them that it was up to the youth of the next generation to solve these kind of problems and they had better start taking church more seriously or they would not be up to the task. Later, I thought how stupid could I have been, young minds and such, leading the youth astray, etc. Persuasion, gentleness, meekness, all out the window.

    These young rowdies were not the least bit disturbed or impressed and they thought it was all pretty stupid and almost as boring as a regular lesson. The Stake President’s daughter rather flippantly announced at the end that she didn’t think it was even worth tattling to her father about. She told me he didn’t listen to anything she had to say anyway, so not to worry.

    I think we over-estimate the potential damage these controversies can do to young people, except when given to us by deceptively hostile voices in times of vulnerability. One of those youth told me a few years later that he ran into some difficult theological problems while in college in Utah and he remembered wrassling with me that day. He couldn’t remember what I had said specifically. But he could remember that there was a guy back in his home ward way down in the South who was aware of serious problems in church theology and that I was also active and serious about trying to teach them. Like, no teacher had ever bothered to physically chase them down and force them to listen to a lesson before or since. He thought to himself that I probably was familar with this new problem and I probably had an answer that was good enough for me and that was good enough for him for the time being. (Which I didn’t. I told him there had to be people in Utah smarter than me and he needed to go and seek them out).

    We all live on borrowed light to some degree or another. It was like what the anti-s say about Nibley: It is not what he says that keeps the light of faith alive, because few actually read his books. But that he says something. For me it is good to say something sensible, which you have done.

    Anyway this is just rambling. Thanks again.

  6. October 29, 2006 at 2:15 am

    I lean toward Julie’s solution #1 since Ammon said “A seer is greater than a prophet” for a “seer is a revelator and a prophet also.” “A seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light.” (Mosiah 8:17) Nothing is too difficult for the Lord to reveal. In the BofM names for future people are given, i.e. Joseph and Hyrum and in the D&C the prophecies of the eventual civil war beginning place is given. Prophets can and do write things that are only known through revelation. For a people who’s church is based on revelations of the Spirit and a modern day prophet who talks with God, LDS should embrace the concept of a seer, which Isaiah was.

  7. October 29, 2006 at 2:16 am

    I lean toward Julie’s solution #1 since Ammon said “A seer is greater than a prophet” for a “seer is a revelator and a prophet also.” “A seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light.” (Mosiah 8:17) Nothing is too difficult for the Lord to reveal. In the BofM names for future people are given, i.e. Joseph and Hyrum and in the D&C the prophecies of the eventual civil war beginning place is given. Prophets can and do write things that are only known through revelation. For a people who’s church is based on revelations of the Spirit and a modern day prophet who talks with God, LDS should embrace the concept of a seer, which Isaiah was.

  8. m&m
    October 29, 2006 at 2:38 am

    Thanks for your clear and concise thoughts.

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