Pilar Echeverria. Image from BigStockPhotos.com
Editor’s note: This article, by the author of Isaiah for Airheads, is the second of a hree-part guide to the inner workings of the book of Isaiah. Read part 1 here.
If we’re going to get in the bus and drive through Isaiah National Forest, we’re going to need the keys – you’ll find them in 2 Nephi 25. (Also, you will find ten spare keys in Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s article, “Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign, Oct 1973, p. 78.)
As you know, the largest block of Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 12-24. Immediately after Nephi quotes these chapters, he gives us keys to understand them. Briefly, the keys are:
1. Learn the manner of prophesying among the Jews
2. Have the spirit of prophecy
3. Know the regions round about (or the geography)
4. Live in the last days (2 Nephi 25:1-8)
Let’s look at each key.
Key # 1: Learn the Manner of Prophesying among the Jews
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)
As an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, I took a rigorous class called Business Writing. I was taught a formula for writing that is consistent with our modern culture – “Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said. Be concise, use simple words rather than complex, mutli-syllable phrases. Be brief, clear, and direct. Deny the listener the right to misunderstand.”
Isaiah did not take that class. His method of writing was taught somewhere else on campus, perhaps in the Humanities Writing class. Isaiah was a poet, and an intellectual. He was also what LDS scholar Victor L. Ludlow called a “deliberately difficult” prophet. I suspect the Humanities Writing class had instructions more like these:
Conceal what you’re going to say. Never use the same noun twice when referring to a person, group or place (Isaiah uses five different names to describe the same place in one instance). Speak of future events in past tense at times. In fact, have no time frame – move in and out of past, present and future without telling the reader what you’re doing. Use complex symbolism rather than simple parables. Never let anyone know whether you’re being literal or figurative.
All of these come under the heading of the “manner of prophesying among the Jews.” We’re going to need this key as we enter the forest. We simply cannot read Isaiah in the same way we would read the newspaper.
Key #2. Have the Spirit of Prophecy
…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. (2 Nephi 25:4)
This verse usually brings the response, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Nephi, you were a prophet!” Most of us feel we could never be like Nephi. But wait – don’t sell yourself short. You’re no slouch yourself. You may not be large in stature, but you’re a child of God with the Gift of the Holy Ghost. John the Revelator taught that the testimony of Christ is the spirit of prophecy (Revelation 19:10).
Do you have a testimony of Christ? Of course you do. Here’s an interesting question – how did you get it? It must have come by revelation. Therefore, you have the spirit of prophecy. The prophet Joseph Smith taught:
God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 149).
In your righteous desire to search the words of Isaiah, as Jesus has commanded us to do, the Lord will “prepare a way” for you to keep this commandment. So, yes, in this way, you have the spirit of prophecy.
Key #3. Know the Regions round about
I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about (2 Nephi 25:6)
Nephi had the advantage of having grown up in Jerusalem, only about 140 years after Isaiah made his prophecies. We’re having to learn about the land of Judah much later. My hunch is that it looks a little different after 26 centuries. There are 108 different place names in Isaiah. Sometimes when we read all these names, most of which we don’t know how to pronounce, we feel lost. But if you don’t know much about Holy Land geography, take heart. You’re in good company. One day, while the prophet Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, he looked up and asked,
“Emma, does Jerusalem have a wall around it?” “She said: ‘Yes, Joseph, Jerusalem has a wall around it. Everybody knows that.’ He said, ‘Thank goodness; I thought I was being deceived.’ And he went right on translating the record. (Events in Life of Prophet, “Elect Lady,” LDS Church News, 1994, 09/10/94).
If Joseph Smith didn’t know that much about Jerusalem while translating, then we don’t need to feel lost as we begin to learn our Holy Land geography.
You don’t need a Master’s Degree in ancient geography to understand Isaiah. You don’t have to memorize the maps section in the back of your Bible either. In fact, I suggest if you can just remember four kingdoms, you’ll be in great shape. And the winners are:
Assyria – the military superpower to the northeast
Babylon – the cultural, commercial center to the east
Israel – the kingdom just north of Judah, in an apostate condition
Syria – the kingdom just north of Israel
(I might also have mentioned Egypt, but you’ve all heard about Egypt, and it would mess up my system of fours.) You might say I have a BIAS for the four above. BIAS = Babylon, Israel, Assyria, and Syria. Just try to remember these four, and I’ll refresh your memory as to who they are when they come up again.
Key #4. Live in the Last Days
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 25:8)
Nephi makes an intriguing statement that begs a question: Why? Why will we understand Isaiah in the last days?
Perhaps it is because we will notice the things Isaiah prophesied happening all around us. We’ll witness the growth of the Church, the building of temples, and the gathering of Israel. Perhaps the Lord will pour out his spirit upon us as we follow the prophets by more faithfully studying the scriptures. Perhaps it’s because we’ll have more resources to help us understand Isaiah than ever before. For example, we have:
- Restoration scriptures which help clarify Isaiah passages, like the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
- In printings since 1981, a synopsis at the beginning of each Isaiah chapter in the Book of Mormon, which contain helpful summaries and doctrinal points. Also, the footnotes in the Book of Mormon and in Isaiah add clarifying comments and other references.
- The LDS Bible Dictionary which contain articles on Isaiah, the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. I strongly recommend you read this articles which have been sitting in the back of your scriptures all these years (some have jokingly called the Bible Dictionary the “sealed portion.”)
- Maps of the Holy Land in the back of the scriptures
- Modern prophets who have commented on Isaiah in their writings and in General Conferences.
- Books and articles from faithful LDS Scholars on understanding Isaiah.
In short, there has never been a better time for us to search – not skim, not skip, not avoid – but really search Isaiah. Now that we have our map, now that we know our four guides, the four trees to look for, and are equipped with Nephi’s four keys, we are better equipped to enjoy the richness and beauty of Isaiah National Forest.
Where Are You Going, and When Will You Be Home?
On this tour, we’re only going to take a brief look at the Isaiah chapters which are included in the Book of Mormon.
Isaiah in the Old Testament consists of 66 chapters. The Book of Mormon includes only about a third of those chapters. If you’ll take a look at the chart below, you’ll get a sense of the Old Testament message of Isaiah, and the portions of that message included in the Book of Mormon.
(2 Nephi 12-22)
come upon the wicked nations of the world.
(2 Nephi 23, 24)
(2 Nephi 26, 27)
(1 Nephi 20, 21; 3 Nephi 20, Mosiah 14, 3 Nephi 22)
(Source: The Old Testament for Latter-day Saint Families, p. 469.)
You may have noticed that most of the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon are the first chapters and last chapters of Isaiah in the Old Testament – dealing with the initial scattering of Israel, and the latter-day gathering of Israel. So when Isaiah in the Book of Mormon speaks of the House of Israel, they’re either coming or going – being scattered, or gathered.
The normal way of being “scattered” is by becoming spiritually “scatterbrained.” In other words, the scattering is spiritual first (you lose your testimony) and literal second (you lose your real estate). The “gathering of Israel,” according to the scriptural definition, will also be spiritual first. Those who are gathered come to understand and accept Jesus as the Messiah, which is the spiritual gathering, then they are gathered physically to specific lands or, on modern times, to stakes of Zion.
Keep Your Hands and Arms Inside the Bus At All Times
We’re finally ready to look at the Isaiah “trees” or chapters. As we approach each tree, we’ll use the same “from big to small” formula.
First – We’ll read the synopsis of each chapter and ask, “What are the trees?” represented in this chapter?
Second – We’ll ask, “Who is our guide? Who was he talking to when he quoted Isaiah? How can the context help us understand this chapter?”
Third – We’ll ask, “What keys can we use?” to aid us in understanding the text
Then, we’ll try to restate the message of each chapter in one paragraph. We’ll try to look at the tree all at once (we don’t want to miss the tree for the leaves).
Next, we’ll divide the tree (where possible) into parts or branches. We’ll see if the groups of verses can help us better understand the chapter.
Then, we’ll go out on a limb and look at individual leaves. (If we get stumped, we’ll call the branch president).
Finally, we’ll ask, “How does this tree help me today?” This is our application section. We’ll try to make the message of Isaiah relevant to our time, and to our lives.
This book was meant to be read along with your scriptures, so if you could clear some space on the table and open to 1 Nephi 20, we’ll get ready to go on a serious nature walk.
Now Entering Isaiah National Forest…