If you have read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover, have you every wondered why an ancient American prophet would find the writings of Isaiah so important that he would include a third of them in his personal record? Just under 5% of the Book of Mormon quotes or makes reference to this prophet of Israel. Few prophets have been quoted as much as Isaiah in any book of scripture, particularly by the Savior, Jesus Christ, himself.
Ironically, if you are like me, you have heard many running jokes about how difficult these writings are to understand and apply. Misunderstanding may be like the prickly part of a pineapple that surrounds a delicious fruit. Regrettably, this difficulty stops many from going deeper than the surface.
Personally, I find the writings of Isaiah to be exquisite and beautiful. While I don’t pretend to understand everything, I have learned a few simple keys that unlock the fruit and make it easier to digest. First, consider why the fruit is worth the effort.
Early in the writings of Nephi, we learn that he was commanded by the Lord to keep two separate records. The Large Plates of Nephi contain the record of his father, their journeyings in the wilderness, and the history of Nephi’s people. The Small Plates of Nephi contain a record of his ministry and his prophecies, as well as the prophecies of Isaiah, because they will more fully persuade us to believe in Jesus Christ. Nephi teaches us to liken these scriptures to ourselves that we may also find hope in the promises of the Lord. (1 Nephi 19:23-24)
Near the conclusion of the Book of Mormon, Moroni finishes the record of his father, Mormon, and gives us some council relative to these writings. In Mormon 8:23, he says, “Search the prophecies of Isaiah. … those saints who have gone before me… shall cry, yea, even from the dust will they cry unto the Lord; and as the Lord liveth he will remember the covenant which he hath made with them.” Moroni knew that both the writings of Isaiah and the faith of his fathers in those writings would be fulfilled and would not be in vain.
In subsequent verses in this chapter, Moroni continues, “Behold, look ye unto the revelations of God; for behold, the time cometh at that day when all these things must be fulfilled. Behold, the Lord hath shown unto me great and marvelous things concerning that which must shortly come, at that day when these things shall come forth among you. Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” (Mormon 8:33-35) What wonderful instruction we have been given from a prophet who not only believed but has seen our day.
If it were not enough to have the validation of the first and last prophets to write in the Book of Mormon regarding Isaiah, the Savior, Himself, instructed us to search Isaiah’s writings with a promise that they would be fulfilled. During His visit to the ancient people of the Americas following His resurrection, He said, “Ye remember that I spake unto you, and said that when the words of Isaiah should be fulfilled — behold they are written, ye have them before you, therefore search them — And verily, verily, I say unto you, that when they shall be fulfilled then is the fulfilling of the covenant which the Father hath made unto his people, O house of Israel. And then shall the remnants, which shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth, be gathered in from the east and from the west, and from the south and from the north; and they shall be brought to the knowledge of the Lord their God, who hath redeemed them. (3 Nephi 20:11-13)
Jesus adds emphasis to this instruction in 3 Nephi 23:1-4, and Isaiah becomes the only prophet I know of whom the Lord commands us to search his writings specifically. “And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah. For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles. And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake. Therefore give heed to my words; write the things which I have told you; and according to the time and the will of the Father they shall go forth unto the Gentiles.”
Being told that Isaiah’s writings are important does not make them any easier to understand. If anything, it makes the task more daunting. When we are told to do something we don’t know how to do, it is not uncommon to freeze and do nothing. However, the prophet Nephi recognized this and provided some keys to help improve understanding so we can liken them to ourselves. 2 Nephi chapter 25 provides a summary of the things Nephi felt were important about Isaiah’s writings.
Key #1 – Look for Symbolism
Nephi said, “Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” (2 Nephi 25:1) The manner of prophesying among the Jews often used symbolism – using an object that the people were familiar with to represent something else. The association enhanced meaning. While we may not be as familiar with the cedars of Lebanon today, we can still glean meaning from Isaiah’s reference.
In Isaiah 2, or 2 Nephi 12, Isaiah speaks about the proud who walk in their own way rather than walking in the light of the Lord. His reference to the cedars of Lebanon in verse 13 might be completely lost unless we realize it isn’t the cedars he is concerned with. In 2 Nephi 12:13 we read, “Yea, and the day of the Lord shall come upon all the cedars of Lebanon, for they are high and lifted up; and upon all the oaks of Bashan.” The important part of the verse is that the cedars are high and lifted up. In this chapter, other examples are cited, but it is the adjectives that are important, not the symbols. Lofty, haughtiness, proud, lifted up, and high are used repeatedly. While knowing what the symbols meant would provide additional insight and depth, Isaiah has already told us what the symbols mean.
Looking at this chapter as a whole provides a beautiful contrast between the work of God and the work of His children. While Isaiah refers to high mountains as a comparison of pride, he begins the chapter with a reference to the Lord’s mountain, or the holy temple – a subtle message that we should seek the Most High God rather than supplant him with our own ambition. In 2 Nephi 12:2-3 we read, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, when the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths….”
Because of his choice of contrast, perhaps Isaiah intended to suggest that we are proud when we do not worship in holy temples. Isaiah will often contrast symbols with other symbols.
Key #2 – Seek for the Spirit of Prophecy
Nephi describes the next key in 2 Nephi 25:4. “Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.”
The apostle John tells us “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (Revelation 19:10) Remember, the spirit of prophecy was not intended to be a mystery. It is the role of the Holy Spirit to reveal the mysteries, not create them. When we receive a testimony of the Savior, we gain a comfort and an assurance of things that will happen that may not have happened yet. When we gain a knowledge about a law or principle of the gospel, such as tithing, we know the Lord will bless us for our sacrifice, based on previous experience in obeying the law.
Nephi tells us that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that “he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost….” (1 Nephi 10:18-19) The Lord may not reveal to us every detail of a mystery, but he will certainly show us the parts that are pertinent for our application, if we seek them. Thus, we don’t have to know everything, we only need to see the parts the Lord wishes for us to apply.
Pray for the spirit and look for applications without having to have a complete understanding. Look for the gist, not the full explanation. This, at least, is a great place to start.
Key #3 – Learn More about the Jews
Nephi explains that another difficulty in understanding Isaiah has to do with training. “Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.” (2 Nephi 25:5)
Years ago, I remember asking my seminary teacher what would be the best way to be taught the manner of things the Jews were taught. His response was both profound and simple, and was something to the effect of, “Rather than take a class about the Jews, why not just study their scriptures. If you want to understand Isaiah, spend a little more time reading the Old Testament.” As you begin to understand their context, you will see allusions and references more clearly.
In Isaiah 7, or 2 Nephi 17, we learn of a little dilemma for the kingdom of Judah. “And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying: Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.” (2 Nephi 17:1-2)
If you don’t know anything about Jewish history, this passage will offer very little that can be applied to today. Between names, geography, and poetry, these first two verses of the chapter can be a little intimidating. Understanding Isaiah requires that the reader slow down a bit and focus a little more on what is being said. Anyone who loved and admired the teachings of Elder Neal A. Maxwell can appreciate the pace required to comprehend what is being said.
A few minutes in the Bible Dictionary looking under Israel, Kingdom of, will help unlock the meaning of this chapter. This summary will help explain how the kingdom of Israel was divided into two kingdoms. At the time of Isaiah, Ahaz was the king of Judah, or the southern kingdom. Unfriendly to the southern kingdom, Pekah, who was a prince of the northern kingdom had established an alliance or confederacy with the neighboring country of Syria. Their purpose was to depose Ahaz and set another king in his place. Simply put, there are three countries, two of which are plotting against the kingdom of Judah where the temple was.
The Lord tells Isaiah to meet with Ahaz and prophesy that the alliance will come to not. Isaiah also prophesies that the northern kingdom will no longer be a country within 65 years. He further warns Ahaz of a similar fate for Judah. History shows that the northern kingdom was carried away by Assyria and become known as the “lost tribes of Israel.” Part of the southern kingdom was later taken into captivity by Babylon with Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar.
In the following chapter, the Lord tells Isaiah, “Say ye not, A confederacy, to all to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. Sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” The important thing for us to remember is not the geography lesson; it’s the idea that a confederacy against the Lord, or his people, is not a good idea. We are better off siding with God than turning to the world to form an alliance.
Look for the lesson hidden in the specifics.
Key #4 – Look at a Map
Most Nephites including Nephi’s brothers, Jacob and Joseph, had never been to Jerusalem. Nephi, however, lived in Jerusalem and knew concerning the regions round about. While Nephi chose not to teach his children after the manner of the Jews, he had insight into the scriptures that was helpful to understand. (2 Nephi 2:6)
A phrase that is used a number of times in the Old Testament, though not in Isaiah, is “from Dan even to Beer-sheba.” A look at the Bible Maps under The Division of the 12 Tribes will show that these two locations are at opposite extremes of Israel, Dan in the North, and Beersheba in the south. The expression is the equivalent of “from one end to the other.”
Isaiah will often make references to geographical locations. Sometimes these are very important, and sometimes they are merely used as examples that have no required relevance for our day. A good rule of thumb is to know where countries like Syria or Babylon are in relation to Israel. An awareness of some capitol cities can also be helpful. Understanding that Damascus is a city in Syria, or that Nineveh is the capitol of Assyria, will help bring meaning to Isaiah’s comparisons. Lesser known cities may not be as critical for the application. A good rule of thumb is to look for an obvious meaning. If it isn’t there, look to see if there is a general reason that Isaiah is giving a geography lesson. Chances are that his point really has nothing to do with geography.
Key #5 – Watch for the Signs
When Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith as a resurrected being to tell him about the record that he would translate, Moroni quoted the words of Isaiah and said his words were about to be fulfilled.
In addition to Moroni, Nephi gives us similar assurance that these words have great relevance to our day. In 2 Nephi 25:7-8 he said, “in the days that the prophecies of Isaiah shall be fulfilled men shall know of a surety, at the times when they shall come to pass. Wherefore, they are of worth unto the children of men, and he that supposeth that they are not, unto them will I speak particularly, and confine the words unto mine own people; for I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them; wherefore, for their good have I written them.”
Those who are watching will see and understand. While some things may not be as clear, as the prophecies of Isaiah begin to be fulfilled, they will be very clear and of great worth in the last days. Watching will allow us to make greater connections between our lives and the prophesies of hundreds of years ago.
Isaiah wrote during a time when the house of Israel was turning from the Lord. His purpose was to turn them back. Thus, his message contains important scriptures relating to the role and mission of Jesus Christ and the covenants He has made with His people. Many of those covenants would not be fulfilled in Isaiah’s time but would be remembered later, in our time.
Deciding to decipher Isaiah may be considered an act of faith. Like the parables the Savior taught, even his disciples didn’t understand them and had to ask what they meant. Each time they asked, Jesus taught them. After giving his disciples the parable of the sower, Jesus said, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” His disciples asked why he spoke in parables, and he replied, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever receiveth, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever continueth not to receive, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
“And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of [Isaiah] which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive…. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not hear them.” (JST Matthew 13:9-18)
As I study Isaiah, I try to keep a few things in mind. The Savior himself commanded us to search his writings because of the power of the covenants made by the Father to His children. Moroni emphasized that these writings were about to be fulfilled. Nephi stated that his writings would be of great worth and he gave us some valuable keys to unlocking the meaning. Jesus tells us that we will only receive if we seek to understand, and to him who seeketh shall be given more.
Understanding doesn’t come all at once, but setting a course and following that direction consistently will help us arrive at the appropriate destination. It will help us to behold what Isaiah saw, both in understanding and in fulfillment of prophecies given hundreds of years ago.
In addition to understanding what Isaiah meant, I have gained great peace and comfort in knowing that God makes and keeps His covenants. Though we may forget Him from time to time, He does not forget us. “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” (2 Nephi 19:12, 17, 21) Father loves His children and He wants to bless them. Jesus has worked out an infinite sacrifice and has graven us on the palms of His hands. These images and symbols are real, and reading Isaiah makes beholding these things even clearer.
This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.