I remember a talk by Elder Neal A. Maxwell to the effect that the further a person progresses spiritually, the greater the paradoxes he experiences. Certainly, the descent phase of testing that precedes spiritual ascent on Isaiah’s ladder to heaven increases in intensity so that it matches the spiritual rebirth that follows on the next level of ascent. But this personal spiritual journey also has its counterpart in the collective journey of God’s people. They too undergo a time of testing that is the prelude to ascending to a higher spiritual level so that they may welcome their Savior.
Should we not ask, then, what that collective descent phase—so fraught with paradoxes—might look like so it will not catch us unawares? Didn’t the prophet Isaiah predict this very condition for our day so we may recognize it as a sign of the times? Didn’t he prophesy that the people of Ephraim and their leaders would try to escape an “overflowing scourge” by making a “covenant with death”—with worldly organizations and human institutions that are destined to pass away when the Lord cleanses the earth of wickedness before his coming in glory (Isaiah 28:14–22)?
Let’s face that we haven’t yet received the many records the Lord promised the saints because we have “treated lightly the things [we] have received,” thus bringing “the whole church under condemnation.” With our minds “darkened,” we have instead been experiencing the promised “scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion” (Doctrine & Covenants 84:54–58). Instead of receiving greater light and knowledge, we have been seeing the start of an “overflowing scourge” and “desolating sickness” in the land (Doctrine & Covenants 45:29–31).
While all suffer a people’s collective punishment, as Isaiah shows, the Lord prepares a way of escape for individuals—“disciples” of Jehovah himself, who “stand in holy places”—even as the mass of God’s people are taken captive (Psalms 24:3–7; Isaiah 8:13–17; Doctrine & Covenants 45:32). These individuals’ decent phase of being persecuted by the collective—by the political and ecclesiastical institutions they served—constitutes an “acceptable sacrifice,” promising them a glorious and empowering ascent phase (Isaiah 19:19–22; 56:6–8; 61:6–7; 65:13–24; 66:5).