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Understanding Isaiah

Isaiah prophesied of Christ mormonIsaiah presents perhaps the most important book of scripture in the Old Testament.  Included are important prophecies of the coming of Jesus Christ, his ministry and nature.  Prophecies of the last days and the regathering of Israel are also there.  Jesus quoted Isaiah more often than any other Old Testament prophet.  In addition, whole chapters are quoted and placed in the Book of Mormon, the choice of the ancient prophets who decided they must be included.  This is remarkable, because parts of the Book of Mormon were sealed, not to be revealed until a much later time, and because the existing Book of Mormonwas abridged by Mormon, with certain scriptures left for later.  Mormon chose to keep about one third of Isaiah’s writings.  Nephi, a Book of Mormon prophet from around 600 B.C., said the following:

“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.

“For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.  Wherefore, I write unto my people, unto all those that shall receive hereafter these things which I write, that they may know the judgments of God, that they come upon all nations, according to the word which he hath spoken.

“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. But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn.
“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.
“But behold, I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews; but behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about; and I have made mention unto my children concerning the judgments of God, which hath come to pass among the Jews, unto my children, according to all that which Isaiah hath spoken, and I do not write them.
“But behold, I proceed with mine own prophecy, according to my plainness; in the which I know that no man can err; nevertheless, 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” (2 Nephi 25:1-8).
Nephi, with his father, Lehi,  had led their familyout of Jerusalem just before the city was destroyed by Babylon.  Thus, they were citizens of Judea, though descendants of Joseph.  By the time they had been in the Americas for awhile, the growing family group knew little about the dealings of the Jews.  They were not very long removed from Jewish culture, yet they found Isaiah difficult to understand.
This vindicates us a little, those of us who also find Isaiah challenging.  There are certain reasons why Isaiah is difficult to grasp:
  1. Isaiah was a poet who used poetic structure, imagery, and rhyme in his verses.  These come through in Hebrew, and especially to those in the ancient culture who understood and appreciated the poetic form.
  2. Isaiah was a poet who spoke in “future-present” tense.  Thus, it is difficult to decipher whether he is speaking of past, present, or future events.
  3. Isaiah was a poet who spoke of Christ the Messiah with Christ’s own voice, and then of the people observing Christ in their own voice.
  4. Isaiah used imagery readily understood by the people in his own culture and time period.  These allusions are foreign to us.

Jesus Christ visited the Nephite people after His resurrection.  He taught them and organized His church just as he had done in the Holy Land.  Christ said about Isaiah:

“Great are the words of Isaiah. For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel” ( 3 Nephi 23:1–2 ).

Latter-day Mormon revelation is contained in the Doctrine and Covenants.

“The Doctrine and Covenants makes approximately one hundred references to Isaiah’s writings by quoting, paraphrasing, or interpreting his teachings. The close connection between Isaiah’s words and those of the Doctrine and Covenants is apparent in Doctrine and Covenants 113 , which contains inspired interpretations of chapters 11 and 52 of Isaiah . The key to understanding Isaiah 65 is in Doctrine and Covenants 101 ; Doctrine and Covenants 133 opens up an understanding of Isaiah 35 , 51 , 63 , and 64 . Numerous examples of Isaiah’s phraseology can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants; compare Doctrine and Covenants 133:3, 15, 27, 40–53, 67–70 with Isaiah 52:10, 12 ; 51:10 ; 64:1–4 ; 63:1–9 ; 50:2–3, 11 .”

There are certain keys to understanding Isaiah.

  1. Isaiah could be considered “advanced scripture.”  The reader should be ready to invest extra effort in reading and studying his words.  Isaiah taught a people who were ripening in iniquity.  His words were meant for those who could hear with spiritual ears and see with spiritual eyes.  As Christ taught in parables, Isaiah taught in poetry.
  2. “The spirit of prophecy” is necessary to understand Isaiah’s words.  The spirit of prophecy is a testimony of Jesus Christ conveyed through the Holy Ghost.  The more a person comprehends Christ, His mission, His nature, the better the person will understand Isaiah.
  3. A knowledge of the nature of prophesying among the ancient Jews is helpful.  The elements included the following:
    1. The Law of Moses — a law of repentance and restitution, plus patterns of worship to prepare the Israelites to receive Christ.
    2. Imagery and figurative language — Isaiah used agriculture, the seasons, and ore refining in his imagery, among other vehicles.
    3. Dualism and esoteric language — Babylon represents not only the empire, but the world and its carnal indulgences.
  4. It is necessary to know something about Holy Land geography.
  5. Learn of the judgments of God and how He has fulfilled prophecy over time.
  6. Gain an understanding of the historical setting of Isaiah.
  7. Read the Book of Mormon along with Isaiah, especially the first two books of Nephi and the Book of Jacob.
  8. Try reading one verse and then jotting down a one-phrase summary.  Then read the list of summaries.

*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Old Testament Institute Manual.

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