Monday, September 13, 2010

Old Testament Lesson #36 "The Glory of Zion Will Be a Defense"

Isaiah 1-6

Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is commonly considered one of the most challenging piano pieces ever written.  It is not often performed because it is so difficult to play (although it is often used in international competitions for the very same reason), and it requires skill on the part of the listener to understand it and enjoy it. 

You can hear the great Russian pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, play this piece with the New York Philharmonic if you click here. (By the way, Rachmaninoff, when he heard Horowitz perform it, said he would never play it himself again.)

1) Listen to the first 24 seconds of music, and notice the beautiful melody that is played on the piano. This is the main theme of the piece, the part you will find yourself singing the rest of the day, if you listen to the entire movement. This phrase is an antecedant, or a question.  You can hear how it is open-ended; it goes upwards; it sounds incomplete.  Later on, of course, there is a similar phrase that "answers" it, and provides a feeling of closure.

2) Listen to those 24 seconds again, and this time, notice that it is not a single note that is being played, but two notes in different registers.  The pianist's skill deceives us into thinking it is one note at a time, but having the two sets of strings ringing at once gives a richer, more beautiful ringing sound.

3) Listen to it again and hear how the bassoon brings in its voice in the background to provide a complementary melody.  It adds a melancholy feel.

4) Listen again, and notice the first thing you actually hear, before the piano or the bassoon, is the bass violin providing a backbeat, lending a sense of urgency.  (The Beatles were not the first to use a backbeat.)  Although you don't really notice it, it draws you in, and carries you away throughout the piece.  It keeps you from relaxing.  It provides an anxious heartbeat.

5) If you continue to listen beyond the first 24 seconds, you hear this main theme repeated in the string section, with the pianist accompanying.  You hear it come up again and again, with different feelings, sometimes with great dissonance and chords that crash together with great pathos.  (Unfortunately, YouTube only allows 10-minute segments, so you don't get to hear the entire movement played by Horowitz.  You can find it in other places on the internet, however, played by other pianists.)

I love this piece more every time I listen to it, because I pick up something new each time.  I also love it because I was able to hear it for the first time at the International Tchaikovsky Competition at the Moscow Conservatory during the one evening my husband and I had available on my first reluctant trip to Russia--an amazing coincidence.  I had never heard the complete concerto live, and, being a pianist and a piano teacher myself, I had long wanted to, so this blessing was tailored to my desire.  So, in addition to enjoying the depth and meaning of the piece itself, there is a depth and feeling of love that accompanies it for me, as I remember my Heavenly Father's gift to me that day.  Hearing this performance was a high point of my "musical life."  I don't think I will ever tire of listening to Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, and having learned something about the composer since, I have a great desire to meet him myself in the next life.

There are all kinds of music to enjoy.  Some of it is just fun, and very easy to understand, like, "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.  She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah."  The message is: She loves him.  A three-year-old could figure it out.  But this concerto isn't lightweight, wallpaper-type music that you can listen to in the background while you are doing something else.  It requires rapt attention.  You have to sit down in front of the speakers.  You have to close your eyes.  You have to be uninterrupted.

Isaiah is to gospel literature as Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto is to music. Isaiah requires commitment.  You don't just breathe it in; you have to sit down at the table with your knife and fork.  But, like the concerto, you can also enjoy it and gain something from it in your very first reading, and each time you come back to it, you can pick up a little more.  As significant events happen in your spiritual life, the Lord may speak to you through the scriptures, and then you add the depth of feeling that accompanied that experience.  You are moved as you hear Isaiah performed musically, such as in Handel's Messiah (40:1-5, 11; 53:3-6), in the hymn, "How Firm a Foundation" (41:10; 43:2), and in other sacred songs (40:31; 52:7).  You gain a desire to one day meet the Author of those passages, Jesus Christ.  Additional feelings may be evoked when you see Isaiah in unexpected places, such as in front of the United Nations Building in New York City, below (2:4). 

Each time you read it, you love it more, and you understand it better. There are so many levels, you will never reach the bottom of Isaiah. In fact, Isaiah was commanded to make his writings hard to understand (6:9-10) that those who were not sincere would not be quickly converted, fall away, and then be held responsible for knowing better than they were willing to behave. You have to pay a price to understand Isaiah, therefore you receive more joy with each bit of understanding you gain. Christ commanded the Nephites to "search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah" (3 Ne. 23:1) "Note the word diligently. Casually doesn't work; we've already tried that" (Gary Poll).

You can study Isaiah so many ways:

1) You can simply read it, enjoying the rhythm and beauty of the words.

2) You can pick it apart into tiny pieces, word by word, noting minute details, and researching them in depth.  (See ideas for storing your information in a previous entry.)

3) You can watch for repetitions of the main themes.  (See ideas in the next section.)

4) You can follow different aspects, like the different voices of the orchestra, such as the geography, the poetic style of the day (see a previous blog entry for help with that), the symbolism, references to mountains and temples, the historical time periods, etc.

5) You can take advantage of the many references and commentaries available in the LDS scriptures, starting with the footnotes about alternate translations and the Joseph Smith Translation, and the commentary provided in the Book of Mormon.  The best references for interpreting scriptures are always other scriptures.  Elder Bruce R. McConkie said you cannot really understand Isaiah without the Book of Mormon.  It is "the world's greatest commentary on Isaiah."  Not only does the Book of Mormon quote 446 verses of Isaiah, and comment on many of them, it also brings the Spirit of the Holy Ghost, which will heighten understanding.  So read the Book of Mormon as you read the Old Testament.

6) Each time the Old Testament comes around in Sunday School study, you could purchase another book of commentary by an LDS gospel scholar. Unlike the Ethiopian in Acts 8:27-31, we have no need to ask, "How can I understand except some man should guide me?" when so many books are available to us.

7) You can create an "emergency spiritual food storage" for times of trial to come, by highlighting in a different color all the verses you find about the mercy and love of the Lord.   


The Lord is Ever Merciful

"A correct knowledge of God's character traits and attributes, his personality and disposition, is of vital import in mankind's quest for exaltation...We must know a Being who asks our all before we can place trust, faith, and ultimately, our complete submission on the altar. Isaiah addresses this theme at the very onset of his writing and weaves it as a cord throughout." (Mark Eastmond)

Pattern of the Old Testament:
1)Statement of the problem; 2)Consequences, 3)Statement of the Cure, 4)Reason for Hope

1) The Problem:  The children of Israel don't know they belong to God. (1:2-4)
2) The Consequences:  Wounds, bruises, sickness, desolation. (1:5-7)
3) The Cure: Wash you, put away evil, relieve the oppressed, seek justice for the fatherless. (1:16-17)
4) The Hope: Sins as scarlet will be white as snow, the good of land will be a reward. (1:18-19) (Michael Wilcox)

God's Plan to Fulfill His Covenant

"Isaiah blends the imagery of the tabernacle from his day, the mortal and postmortal mission of Christ, and the restoration of the gospel and construction of temples in the latter-days to reveal the Lord's plan for restoring the children of Israel to the covenant.  Isaiah blends these ideas over and over, going back and forth in both time and event, leaving readers to engage themselves more in the finished tapestry than to look for each individual thread."

1) Many of the house of Israel will die before receiving the covenant.
2) Christ must come and open the way for all people to be taught the gospel and enter into the presence of God.
3) "Mountains" (temples) will provide a way whereby all, including the dead, may receive the covenant.
4) The Gentiles of the latter days will be instrumental in helping ancient Israel receive the covenant.  (Michael King)

Isaiah is written in "3-D," or is multi-dimensional.  There is more than one meaning, more than one angle to take.  We can look at it from the front and see one thing, and walk around it to the back side and see another.  Rather than reading it literally, we need to put on our "3-D glasses" to see the meaning of the symbols.  In addition, Isaiah is full of dualism in that most of the prophecies were to be fulfilled in two different time periods. 

Keeping these things in mind, here are some ideas on chapters one and six.


1:1 is the title.
1:2 states the main problem.
1:3 People are dumber than animals.  At least animals are aware of where their food comes from.  People turn away from the Source.  Wickedness does not promote rational thought ("doth not consider").
1:5 "Head" denotes the leaders of the people; "heart" denotes the core of the people.
1:6 "Putrifying sores" tells how spiritually diseased they are.  They have not even used simple first aid to clean the wound.
1:7  The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans all conquered the children of Israel.  This also has connotations in the 20th-21st Centuries.
1:8  A "lodge" is a little shade hut for a gardener; not a secure place.  About the shoddiest construction the Jews would have known.
1:9  If God hadn't intervened, there would have been nothing left.  Although it is assumed to be at the bottom of the Dead Sea, there is no remnant of Sodom and Gommorah that has ever been found by archeologists.  It has completely vanished from the earth without a trace.
1:10 "Rulers of Sodom"--a slap in the face to the Israelites.  An equivalent insult in our day might be to compare someone to Hitler.
1:11  Why pretend to worship?  Like people who are schemers and cheaters or viewers of pornography during the week, but are still taking the sacrament every Sunday in their suits and ties.
1:13  For "new moons," see Bible Dictionary, p. 738.  The people are simply "following the dots," but the worship is empty.
1:16  "Wash you" means to be baptized or, if already baptized, to renew the covenant.  "Cease to do evil--learn to do well" are linked: When you leave behind your sins, you need to fill that void with good works.
1:18  Scarlet and crimson were some of the very few colorfast dyes of ancient days.  Wool takes a lot of work to be made nice and white: the shearing, washing with fuller's soap, scrubbing, carding.
1:21  A harlot takes something sacred and holy and sells it for money: it's not just wicked, it's profane.
1:22  Dross is the waste from the metal processing.  (David J. Ridges)


6:1  "Train" refers to the hem of his garment, signifying his great power, the great robe of his righteousness, filling the temple of Heaven.
6:2  The word seraphim comes from the Hebrew root sarap, which means "to burn."  Therefore, in this context it means "the burning ones," or "the bright, shining ones," which describes the glorious condition of the angels who are in the Celestial Kingdom near God's throne.  (See D&C 109:79)  That they have two wings covering their eyes may refer to being veiled, as in temple clothing, from the glory of God.  The two wings covering their feet may also denote temple clothing and the holiness of the ground upon which they walk.  The wings with which to fly symbolize the ability to act quickly and unimpeded.
6:3  Repeating something three times, such as "Holy, holy, holy," signifies the ultimate, the maximum.  This is the Hebrew superlative.  This particular cry points to the Godhead.  "Lord of hosts" refers to the Captain of the Heavenly army.  "Lord of Hosts" is used 62 times in Isaiah.
6:4  "Posts of the door moved."  The passageway trembles when the Lord speaks.  The presence of smoke indicates the presence of the Lord (Rev. 15:8).
6:5  "I am undone" means "I am destroyed," or "I am lost," for (or because) he has found himself unworthy in the presence of the Lord.  Isaiah realizes his nothingness and unworthiness next to God, much as did Moses (Moses 1:9-11).
6:6-7  But one of the seraphims flies to him with a live coal (remember, the "burning" is because of holiness, as in verse 2), which he has taken from the altar that symbolizes Christ's Atonement.  When he touches Isaiah's lips (the entrance to the inward parts of the body), Isaiah is cleansed and purified. It is similar to our sacrament, in which taking a token into our mouths allows us to be forgiven through the Atonement, and purifies us once again with the Holy Ghost.
6:8  "Here I am" in Hebrew signifies more than mere presence, but readiness to do what is asked.  In fact, it shows a willingness to give one's life for the person asking.  This is the same phrase Christ used.  Isaiah is a type of Christ.
6:9  Check all the footnotes at the bottom of the page for Christ's references to this commandment given to Isaiah to make the scriptures hard for the casual reader to understand.  Also see John 12:37-41.
6:10  "Heart" in ancient Hebrew refers to the center of thought and motivation, therefore the New Revised Standard Version reads, "Make the mind of this people dull."
6:11-12  "How long" will men choose spiritual blindness?  The answer: Until they are desolate--to the end.
6:13  A small remnant of the people will be preserved, and as a tree that is dormant or felled, that stump will regenerate because its substance is the holy seed:  Christ and his gospel.  (Parry, Parry and Peterson, plus my own interpretation)

Gary Poll, "Keys to Understanding Isaiah," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2002.

Mark Eastmond, "Images of Mercy in the Writings of Isaiah," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 196-197.

Michael Wilcox, "Finding Themes and Patterns in the Scriptures," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2008.

Michael L. King, "Isaiah's Vision of God's Plan to Fulfill His Covenant," Covenants, Prophecies, and Hymns of the Old Testament: The 30th Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, p. 162-179

David J. Ridges, "Isaiah Made Easier," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2002

Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry, Tina M. Peterson, Understanding Isaiah, p. 62-67.


Anonymous said...

You listed Sources: Gary Poll, "Keys to Understanding Isaiah," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2002 and Michael Wilcox, "Finding Themes and Patterns in the Scriptures," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2008
but where do you get copies of Education Talks. The byu.broadcasting and speeches page doesn't have these particular ones and I don't see them anywhere else either. Is there a webpage or hardcopy somewhere, I hope?

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

You probably can't find them. They are from my personal notes taken while attending the lectures. Sorry.

Anna said...

THANKS for the ideas of using a concerto for introducing the idea of Isaiah! Especially Rachmaninoff! As a fellow musician, this was an idea I could really grasp!

Also, I teach a SS class full of extremely intelligent teenagers. This worked well to not hear groans about studying Isaiah.

They were as excited as I was! Thanks for all of your work. It is greatly appreciated by a lowly like me who loves the scriptures but has sooooo much learning to do!

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

Anna, thanks for letting me know that worked with teenagers. I thought it would, but I haven't had the opportunity to teach SS to that age group myself. (One of the church callings on my wish list...)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your help .It has made me feel a bit less frightened of my s.s. class and a lot more informed .
Margaret from Scotland

Unknown said...

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Heidi said...

I consult your blog every week I teach. Your insights and research have been invaluable in helping me prepare thoughtful lessons. Thank you for your sharing your talents.