Section 113: Book of Isaiah
The Church’s many troubles in Kirtland have been previously discussed above. Joseph had been seriously ill during the summer of 1837, and he was gone from Ohio much of the remainder of the year on a mission to Canada and a trip to establish sites for stakes at Far West. By the time Joseph returned to Kirtland in December 1837, the spirit of apostasy and persecution had grown so strong that the lives of church leaders were in peril. Many of the faithful leadership had already moved to Far West. Brigham Young was forced to leave Kirtland on December 22, having infuriated the mob by his unfailing public support of the prophet Joseph. Finally, on January 12, 1837, the Lord warned Joseph to leave Kirtland as soon as possible to save his own life. The Lord also warned Joseph to counsel the remaining saints to leave (Jesee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:255). Joseph left that very night and eventually arrived with his family at Far West on March 14, 1838, after a hard winter journey. Although the last large group of faithful saints did not leave Kirtland for Missouri until July 6, 1838, and faithful saints from the East and from Europe continued to gather to Kirtland until the 1840s, the Ohio period of church history had essentially come to an end. The headquarters of the Church and the designated gathering place for the saints was now the city of Far West in Caldwell County, Missouri.
Between 1836 and 1838, at the request of non-Latter-day Saints in Missouri, the saints in Missouri had largely moved from Clay County and other places to Caldwell County, which had been created primarily as a place of settlement for them. By the winter of 1838, the city of Far West was thriving and thousands of saints had settled on tens of thousands of acres of land they had purchased, cleared, and improved. A temple site in Far West had been dedicated in order that the blessings of heaven might continue to be poured out upon the saints.
Even in Far West there was strife within the Church, partially in reaction to the troubles in Kirtland. Shortly before Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon arrived in Far West in March 1838 (they arrived March 14, 1838), the Church in Missouri had rejected the leadership of David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer (February 5-9, 1838), and the latter two men had been excommunicated. Shortly thereafter on April 12 and 13 repectively, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were also excommunicated.
In mid April 1838, a month after his arrival in Missouri, Joseph began keeping a record book for the First Presidency known as the Scriptory Book of Joseph Smith (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 159; Cook, Revelations, 224-25; the text of this record can be found in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:211-316). Sometime between March 16 and March 29, under circumstances that are unknown, Joseph posed several questions concerning passages in Isaiah 11 and 52. The answers to these questions were recorded at Far West in the Scriptory Book of Joseph Smith sometime in April 1838 in the handwriting of George W. Robinson, the First Presidency clerk at that time. Another copy, in the handwriting of Willard Richards and dating from before the death of Joseph Smith, is also found in the Manuscript History of the Church. This copy dates the revelation as March 1838 (Woodford, “Historical Development,” 2:1495-96). Because the answers provided by Joseph Smith to these questions clearly indicate that they were received by revelation, Brigham Young later directed that they be added to the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The question-and-answer format of this revelation is similar to that of section 77, with which section 113 shares other similarities, including the use of “figurative expressions” (D&C 77:2) common to apocalyptic imagery. As in section 77, the questioner in section 113:1-6 is unidentified, but since the answers are recorded as revelation to the prophet Joseph, he probably posed the questions to the Lord in both sections. It may be recalled that Isaiah 11 was part of the angel Moroni’s first message to the young Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:40), and it is therefore understandable that this chapter and its meaning would continue to be of special interest to the Prophet.
Section 113 is one of three sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that deal with scripture interpretation. The other two are sections 74 (1 Corinthians 7:14) and 77 (book of Revelation).
Acknowledgment is given to Kent P. Jackson and his essay “Revelations Concerning Isaiah” found in Studies in Scripture, Volume One, The Doctrine and Covenants, 330-34. We will draw upon material in that essay for the following analysis.
D&C 113 The Book of Isaiah
1 Who is the stem of Jesse spoken of in the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 5th verses of the 11th chapter of Isaiah?
2 Verily thus saith the Lord: It is Christ.
verses 1-2 Isaiah 11 is a prophecy concerning these latter days and deals not only with the period of restoration in which we now live but also with the period of the Millennium. When the angel Moroni first appeared to the boy Joseph Smith, he quoted Isaiah 11, informing Joseph that it was about to be fulfilled (JS-H 1:40). This is a further indication that Isaiah was writing in chapter 11 about the latter days. In the 11th chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah speaks of an individual called the “stem of Jesse” who will judge the inhabitants of the earth in righteousness.
Before trying to understand these two verses, let us consider the tree analogy used by Isaiah. Picture in your mind’s eye a stout tree with a solid root structure under the ground. Protruding from the ground is a trunk, stump, or “stem.” Branches, shoots, or “rods” are growing out of that trunk. When the tree is used as an analogy to illustrate genealogical succession, the sequence is root to trunk to branches, or root to stem to rod.
The roots of Isaiah’s tree represent the descendants of Jesse, the house of David. Jesse himself is the ancestor of the roots, and therefore, in our analogy, we may consider him the seed of the tree from which the roots sprang. Jesse was the father of David and thus was the father of all the kings of Judah. The trunk or “stem” of the tree, which is referred to as the stem of Jesse, represents one particular descendant of Jesse. This verse explains that this stem is Jesus Christ. Jesus descended from Jesse.
3 What is the rod spoken of in the first verse of the 11th chapter of Isaiah, that should come of the Stem of Jesse?
4 Behold, thus saith the Lord: It is a servant in the hands of Christ, who is partly a descendant of Jesse as well as of Ephraim, or of the house of Joseph, on whom there is laid much power.
verses 3-4 Isaiah refers to a “rod” (branch or shoot according to the tree metaphor) that will “come out of” (descend from or grow out of) the “stem of Jesse”—a descendant of Jesus Christ The Lord indicates that this “rod” is a “servant . . . of Christ,” who is partly a descendant of Jesse, the tribe of Judah, and partly a descendant of Ephraim, of the house of Joseph, “on whom there is laid much power.” We will assume that this “rod” is Joseph Smith (see 2 Nephi 3:17 in which Joseph Smith is identified with a “rod”). Elder Bruce R. McConkie expressed his opinion: “Are we amiss in saying that the prophet here mentioned is Joseph Smith, to whom the priesthood came, who received the keys of the kingdom, and who raised the ensign for the gathering of the Lord’s people in our dispensation? And is he not also the ‘servant in the hands of Christ, who is partly a descendant of Jesse as well as of Ephraim, or of the house of Joseph, on whom there is laid much power?’ (D&C 113:4-6). Those whose ears are attuned to the whisperings of the Infinite will know the meaning of these things” (Millennial Messiah, 340).
We already know of Joseph Smith’s descent from Joseph (see 2 Nephi 3:7). We have no evidence, however, of Joseph Smith’s being a descendant of Jesse other than these verses. Perhaps the descent from Jesse refers to something other than genealogical ancestry. Might it, for example, refer to the lineage of those holding the keys of the Kingdom of God on the earth, the so-called patriarchal order?
verse 4 “on whom there is laid much power” Two years earlier, on April 3, 1836, Joseph Smith had received the fulness of the keys of the priesthood under the hands of heavenly messengers in the Kirtland Temple (D&C 110:16).
5 What is the root of Jesse spoken of in the 10th verse of the 11th chapter?
6 Behold, thus saith the Lord, it is a descendant of Jesse, as well as of Joseph, unto whom rightly belongs the priesthood, and the keys of the kingdom, for an ensign, and for the gathering of my people in the last days.
verses 5-6 Here is introduced the second of the two latter-day servants of Christ. He is at least in part a “root” or descendant of Jesse and the tribe of Judah. This individual is also understood to be the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. who, in the latter days, shall function as an ensign for the Gentiles and for the gathering of Israel. We should not be confused by the use of the term “root” in Isaiah’s tree metaphor. There is no need to assume a genealogical sequence from root to trunk to twig (rod). In the Old Testament, “root” is often used to mean offspring and not ancestor, since it stems from the trunk as does the twig. Thus “root of Jesse” does not necessarily mean Jesse’s ancestor which Joseph Smith clearly is not.
verses 7-10 The other two questions answered in section 113 are regarding Isaiah 52, a prophecy of the redemption and restoration of Israel in the last days.
A word of caution regarding the interpretation of ancient scripture is perhaps appropriate here. As we read the inspired writings of the prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, we ought always to keep in mind that more than one interpretation of their revelations may be possible. Fundamentally, these prophets were speaking to the people of their own day and addressing the issues and problems that existed then. We may find application in their words to us and to our time, and it may be legitimate and appropriate to do so, but the application to our time may not be what the prophet had primarily in mind. An interesting specific example is our modern interpretation of Ezekiel 37:15-17. Since Orson Pratt pronounced that these verses— which include the concepts of the “stick of Judah” and the “stick of Joseph”—refer to the Bible and the Book of Mormon, that meaning has become thoroughly and irreversibly entrenched in our culture. The question one might ask is, “What did Ezekiel intend by those verses?” When Ezekiel wrote, between 592 and 570 BC, the people of Judah were held captive by Babylon. Ezekiel lived in a colony of exiles from Jerusalem. He addressed, in his writings, the whole of Israel. In his day Israel was in shambles. The Kingdom of Judah was separated from the Kingdom of Israel (the Kingdom of Israel had been taken captive between 732 and 722 BC by Assyria), and Judah was in chains living under Babylonian domination. His people doubtless would have petitioned him, “Ezekiel, where is God? Are we not the covenant people? Have we been abandoned by God?” At this time of great anguish it seems likely that Ezekiel would have wanted to reassure them that they had not, in fact, been abandoned by God, but that one day God would take the two parts of Israel broken off from one another and reunite them in their own land and under their own rule, out of bondage. Read verses 21 and 22 of Ezekiel 37. It seems less likely that the captive Israelites would have been comforted to know that there would eventually be a Bible and a Book of Mormon centuries hence. Now, certainly, it may be that God intended Ezekiel 37:15-17 to speak to these of our day and announce that there would be both a Bible and a Book of Mormon, but it is not clear that Ezekiel was aware of this interpretation. Joseph Smith never referred to the “stick of Joseph” meaning the Book of Mormon (the Lord through Joseph did, however, use the term “stick of Ephraim” in referring to the Book of Mormon in D&C 27:5). Another thoughtful exegete, Brother James E. Talmage, also avoided ever referring to this modern interpretation.
Hugh Nibley has explained the use of the word stick in Ezekiel 37:15-17:
Ezekiel is probably referring here to an institution which flourished among the ancient Hebrews but was completely lost sight of after the Middle Ages until its rediscovery in the [nineteenth] century. That is the institution of the tally-sticks. . . . When a contract was made, certain official marks were placed upon a stick of wood in the presence of a notary representing the king. . . . The stick was split down the middle, and each of the parties kept half as his claim-token. . . . When the time for settlement came and the king’s magistrate placed the two sticks side by side to see that all was in order, the two would only fit together perfectly mark for mark and grain for grain to “become one” in the king’s hand if they had been one originally (Approach to the Book of Mormon, 319-20; see also Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 15-22, 286-87, 298).
7 Questions by Elias Higbee: What is meant by the command in Isaiah, 52d chapter, 1st verse, which saith: Put on thy strength, O Zion—and what people had Isaiah reference to?
verse 7 “Questions by Elias Higbee” Elias Higbee was the elected judge of Caldwell County, Missouri, and a member of the Far West Stake high council. He had joined the Church in 1832 and moved to Jackson County. Expelled with the saints in 1833, he moved to Caldwell County, where he lived at the time section 113 was received. Later, Judge Higbee was driven from the state of Missouri in 1839, losing all he possessed. He went to Washington with Joseph Smith to seek redress from the federal government and continued to serve as a lobbyist for the Church in Washington. Judge Higbee died June 8, 1843, in Nauvoo of cholera. Joseph Smith preached at his funeral (Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants, 134-36).
“the command in Isaiah, 52d chapter, 1st verse” The command of the Lord to “Put on thy strength, O Zion” is the rallying cry for the latter-day Israel, particularly to their priesthood leaders, to gather Israel: “Roust out your priesthood leaders.”
8 He had reference to those whom God should call in the last days, who should hold the power of priesthood to bring again Zion, and the redemption of Israel; and to put on her strength is to put on the authority of the priesthood, which she, Zion, has a right to by lineage; also to return to that power which she had lost.
9 What are we to understand by Zion loosing herself from the bands of her neck; 2d verse?
verse 9 The “bands of her neck” refers to the bonds, chains, or fetters used to restrain a captive. Israel is about to become free from the curses that God has placed upon her, especially the curses of being scattered among the Gentiles and losing the priesthood, and she will receive revelations from God.
10 We are to understand that the scattered remnants are exhorted to return to the Lord from whence they have fallen; which if they do, the promise of the Lord is that he will speak to them, or give them revelation. See the 6th, 7th, and 8th verses. The bands of her neck are the curses of God upon her, or the remnants of Israel in their scattered condition among the Gentiles.
verse 10 “the scattered remnants are exhorted to return” In Hebrew, the word translated “return” also means “repent.” This is another indication that the “return” of Israel will come about through the acceptance of the principles of the gospel.
Brief Historical Setting
In the spring of 1838 while many, including several General Authorities, were leaving the Church, a stabilizing influence was provided by the three senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve—Thomas B. Marsh, David W. Patten, and Brigham Young. In April 1838, Brother Patten received his own personal revelation [D&C 114 -David W. Patten]. He was a man of great physical and spiritual strength, and he possessed boundless courage. He was tragically killed by Missourians at the Battle of Crooked River a few months later in October 1838.
A few months of peace followed the saints’ settling in Far West. The Lord instructed them to establish themselves there and build a temple. The Lord also decreed that Far West would be the new “gathering place” [D&C 115 -Far West].
- Michael J. Preece