What is the Book in Isaiah 29:11?
NCW 63, August-October 1999
Q. Please would you explain what the “book” in Isaiah 29:11 is. A Mormon tells me it is the Book of Mormon and another man says it is the Bible. Which is true?
Neither. Mormons claim that Isa.29:11-12 was fulfilled when one of their early leaders, Martin Harris, took a transcription of the some of the “gold plates” to a New York scholar, Professor Anton, to have it deciphered. Allegedly the professor said that he could not read a sealed book but confirmed that the heiroglyphs were authentic. According to the Mormon account he later changed his mind and tore up the certificate he had given Harris after he had been told where the plates had come from. Anton denied all knowledge of such a visit and it is the belief of many that the Mormons concocted the whole story to give credance to their new book of scripture. Whatever the truth of the matter, Isaiah was not talking about any book.
It is surprsing (and yet not surprising) how the cults quote scripture out of context, ripping out proof texts in support of their own preconceived doctrines. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are expert at this. Sadly, this practice is beginning to become common place amongst evangelicals also inspite of a long and noble tradition of sound Bible scholarship. The average evangelical Christian has only a superficial knowledge of his Bible and, more seriously, this is beginning to be true of many of their leaders, most especially those coming out of the charismatic movement. It is most important to understand the context of any passage of scripture, historically as well as religiously, for it is all too easy to read into a passage something that is not there.
Having said this we must not be so narrow minded as to suppose that scripture - and especially prophecy - does not also have a spiritual dimension which may have nothing to do with the spiritual context. The Hebrews have long had a four-fold system of interpretating scripture called p’shat (simple), remez (hint), drash/midrash (search) and sod (secret). At different times in the history of both Judaism and the Christian Church different emphasises have been laid on different modes, according to the prevailing spiritual climate (see The Four Modes of Scriptural Interpretation in the Olive Branch, pp.1062-1065).
Prophetic literature, such as the Book of Isaiah, certainly lends itself to esoteric exegesis, known otherwise as allegorical or homiletical interpretation. This particularly mode was especially popular in the Middle Ages. It certainly has its value but should not be seen as the primary mode nor necessarily the spiritual intent of the writer. Since all truth is multi-faceted and multi-layered we must not be so blind as to suppose that the Lord cannot reveal many (sometimes unrelated) things through a particular passage. However, we must always have in mind the primary focus, which is the originally intended message. That means we must always begin with p’shat mode. If a passage is clearly not p’shat we may then move on to an examination of other possible meanings.
Isaiah 29 is without the slightest doubt primarily to be understood in the literal, simple p’shat sense. Let us take a close look at that now.
The whole of chapter 29 of Isaiah is a prophecy of judgment against false religion out of which false hope had sprung. The reason for Judah's political failures were her religious failures, and it is this that the prophet addresses. The message of Isaiah consists first of the pronouncement of judgment against the city of religion; secondly, against the people of religion; and thirdly, a declaration of the reason for the judgments (Isa.xxix.1-14).
In the first 8 verses (xxix.1-8) he pronounces woe against Jerusalem whom he addresses as Ariel. There is doubt as to the meaning of this word to be sure, and therefore as to the reason Isaiah made use of it in this connection. The Targum interprets it as meaning the altar-hearth, and this accords nicely with the fact that the burden of this message is that of denunciation of a false religion. The city is addressed as the place of the true altar of Yahweh. She is seen as indifferent, adding year to year by the rotation of her feasts. Against that Yahweh will move in judgment, in order that she shall indeed be Ariel, that is, the true altar of God.
The judgment which the prophet described would pass. The foes laying siege to the city would be driven back like dust and chaff, and suddenly too. This discomfiture of the enemy would be brought about by the visitation of Yahweh in thunder, in earthquake, in noise, in whirlwind, and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. All this is a figurative description of the judgment which actually fell upon Assyria. The distress of the enemies following upon this discomfiture is graphically described. They who had hoped to possess will find themselves defeated. They have dreamed of eating and drinking, but in the moment of waking they find themselves faint and hungry.
These are the opening verses of the passage we are discussing and they are plain (p’shat) to understand. Now we move on to the next section (xxix.9-12) which is all about the JUDGMENT OF RELIGIOUS PEOPLE, i.e. those who are not trusting in Yahweh but are trying to find salvation through formalistic religion. What is the first judgment on such people? Blindness. They are also drunken and they stagger, because Yahweh has withheld from them prophets who are eyes, and seers who are the true heads of the people. Consequently the true vision or outlook upon all national affairs is concealed, so that neither the learned nor the illiterate are able to read and understand the signs of the time. It has nothing to do with any "Bible" for this was nowhere anticipated in the Bible nor propesied.
At this point we need to remember that the Bible (from the Gk. biblos, meaning literally a “Library”) is a collection of books or scrolls and not a single one. So even if the passage were about a literal book it could not be the Bible and would have to be, perhaps, the Book (Scroll) of Isaiah. But is even this interpretation warranted? No, because Isaiah isn’t remotely talking about a future sacred book, Bible or Book of Mormon. He is simply comparing the reaction of the drunken spiritual stupor of the Jerusalemites, lost in their formalist religion, to a literate person, or even an illiterate one, being presented with the Word of God (or ANY written word, even non- sacred) on a scroll: it would be a closed text to them. This is NOT a prophecy about a future holy book of scripture coming forth though it may certainly be read homileticly to mean that for the spiritually blind the Bible - or any sacred writing - is sealed. But it has nothing to do with Mormon golden bibles or the Protestant Bible of today. (Interestingly, even if the passage did refer to the Bible, how would we know which canon? Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic?)
It is perhaps appropriate to insert a few remarks here on the verses that follow, viz. xxix.13-14, for the final movement of Isaiah's message is that of the reasons for Yahweh's judgments which he has described. The problem was the FALSENESS OF THEIR RELIGION. The people drew nigh with their mouth and with lips but their heart was far from God, and the fear they had of Him was simply that which they had learned by rote. Out of that religion of formalism had grown the false hopes already denounced, and Yahweh announced His determination to work wondrously among them, so that they should discover the folly of the wisdom of their wise men.
And formalism remains a big problem throughout many churches, both orthodox Christian as well as Mormon. But there is the opposite extreme too, especially amongst people like Mormons, NCCG, pentecostals and others who acknowledge modern revelation. The inhabitants of Jerusalem in Isaiah's time were quite different for they made no claims to revelation though they had their false prophets saying, "All is well". Today we have been beseiged by counterfeit religions claiming divine revelation and ascribing everything to "the Spirit". Because they experience something supernatural they suppose it must be of God. But we know this is not so. Even the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was wise enough to recognise that revelation could come from three sources - man, God and the devil. Learning to discern the three takes a lifetime of experience. Which is why God established the local Church with grades of Prieshood which, when functioning properly, afford protection from the winds of doctrinal speculation and change.
I have noticed how the literal p'shat meaning of scripture is often discarded by those acknowledging contemporary revelation, inspiration, etc. And God, in His wisdom, has given us people like the Baptists who, whilst often monochromatic in their interpretation of the Bible, do at least acknowledge the p'shat Word. As New Covenant Christians we must carefully choose our mode of interpretation, but as my article at the end of the Olive Branch (opt.cit.) underlines, we must begin with the literal, as the Baptists do. Only when that has been done may we begin to venture into the more speculative, and hard-to-pin-down esoteric modes.
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Last updated on 14 September 1998
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