Editor’s note: This article, by the author of Isaiah for Airheads, is the first of a two-part guide to the inner workings of the book of Isaiah.
The Gospel Doctrine Disconnect
It’s happened to all of us. We walk into Sunday School, and we see written on the blackboard, “Great are the words of Isaiah,” and we think to ourselves, “Oh, great — the words of Isaiah.”
For many of us, the Isaiah chapters are just a barrier in the Book of Mormon — something you have to “get through” to get to the rest. Only the Hebrew scholars get it and understand it. There’s even an old joke about an LDS soldier whose life was saved because a Book of Mormon was in his shirt pocket. When asked how such a small book could stop a bullet, the soldier replied, “Hey — nothing gets through second Nephi.”
It’s kind of a sad joke, because we must get through Isaiah, and not just “get through it” but enjoy it, learn from it, and be blessed by it, because Jesus really did say, “Great are the words of Isaiah.” In fact, he said, “a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1). So this becomes really serious, because searching Isaiah is one of the Savior’s commandments.
Who Do We Think We Are?
So our first step is to change our attitude. Rather than just “getting through” Isaiah, let’s resolve to “get something from” Isaiah. Let’s not get bogged down; let’s get fired up! We don’t need to be Hebrew scholars — we are sons and daughters of God with the gift of the Holy Ghost. Children of God should never be intimidated by scripture. Isaiah is not a trial; it’s a treasure!
Actually, Isaiah is a more like a treasure hunt — it’s a challenge — and there’s a greater sense of satisfaction when you do a little detective work and can finally say, “Hey, I get this, I understand this!” The Isaiah chapters were contained on the plates of brass. Nephi brought these chapters to us at the peril of his life, and we’ll probably have to answer to him and to the Lord if we just skip them.
Remember too that Jesus’ book list is short. How many books has the Lord actually commanded us to read? His book list is a lot shorter than Oprah’s. He has not commanded us to see every movie, watch every game, or read every book on the New York Times bestseller list. His reading list is sorted by author, not by sales. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The books he has commanded us to read and search were all written by God through his prophets.
“And they said of their instructor, Behold, his head is an empty void, and out of his ears leaketh much air.”
As a new Book of Mormon instructor at BYU, when I got to the Isaiah chapters, I would just start with the first chapter and plow on through, explaining what I knew as I went. Sometimes students would ask thoughtful, serious, and wonderful questions. More often, after a particularly difficult Isaiah passage, they’d ask very pointed questions, like, “What does that mean?”
These students (or more likely their parents) paid tuition, and they wanted to know. C’mon “professor” Bytheway, what does that mean? (I’d quickly explain that I wasn’t a professor, just an instructor, as if that would satisfy them). At times, I felt like a complete airhead. And that’s why I’ve entitled my book, Isaiah for Airheads (which is a commentary on my brain, not yours).
Sometimes, after our class discussion, my students would walk out the door muttering, “I’m still as confused as ever,” to which I would reply, nodding wisely, “Yes, but now we’re confused on a higher level, and about more important things.”
“Forest? What forest? I don’t see a forest in here, just a bunch of trees.”
Later, I realized that this “plow through the Isaiah” chapters approach was like “missing the forest for the trees.” We use that expression to describe someone who’s so caught up in the details that they miss the overall picture. After teaching the Isaiah chapters a few times, I began to notice some prominent themes (this is one of the great benefits of teaching, because the teacher often learns more than the student).
I began to see the forest of Isaiah, and it was beautiful. I began to notice grand, important, and recurring themes that helped me better understand the words of this great prophet. I noticed what prompted the Book of Mormon prophets to quote Isaiah passages, and why. Now, after more than a decade of teaching, I look forward to these chapters, and I love watching my students experience “aha!” moments as we “get through” second Nephi.
Now, a disclaimer — I wish that I could say, “After reading this article, you’ll understand Isaiah.” but that’s not possible. Isaiah is not a freebee — it’s not a no-brainer. Even the scholars disagree on the meaning of the things Isaiah said. Perhaps the Lord doesn’t want it to be easy.
Someone once said, “What we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.” I suppose you’ve got to pay the price to obtain some blessings, but that’s okay. It’s a great moment when we finally say to ourselves, “I’ve had it. This time I’m going to really try to understand Isaiah.”
Scenic Byway Ahead
Let’s map out what we’re going to do in this series: We’re going to take a whirlwind tour through what we’ll call, “Isaiah National Forest.” Before we get on the bus, we’ll become acquainted with Isaiah’s “Four Guides,” “Four Trees,” and “Four Keys:” With these tools, we’ll have all the equipment we’ll need for our journey.
Are We There Yet?
The road to Isaiah National Forest begins on I-775 and enters the forest on I-740. Why? The “I” is for Isaiah, and 775 is because Isaiah was born in about 775 B.C., and 740 because he began his ministry in about 740 B.C.
As you can see, there are four “Guides” or personalities who quote Isaiah in the Book of Mormon: They are:
Nephi (1 Nephi 20-21, 2 Nephi 12-24, 2 Nephi 27)
Jacob (2 Nephi 7-8)
Abinadi: (Mosiah 14)
Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 22, and in much of 3 Nephi 20).
I call them “Guides” because not only do they quote Isaiah, but thankfully, they also comment on what they’ve quoted. As we travel through Isaiah National Forest, we’ll get off at these exits and see what they have to say.
I Think that I Shall Never See, a Poem as Lovely as a…
In this article, we’re not going to look extensively at individual chapters, or “trees” of Isaiah; there isn’t time or space. There are many commentaries that do just that. They look at each tree leaf by leaf. Some get very excited about Hebraic poetic constructions, antithetic parallelisms, emblematic parallelisms, chiasmus patterns and other things I can’t even pronounce. They are experts at Isaiah National Forest, because they’ve lived there, and studied the forest for years. I love them, and respect them, but this author is not a forest ranger. I’m just a boy scout who loves visiting this forest and who wants to share it with others. So we’re going to step back and view the forest, or “look at the situation as a whole.”
On our whirlwind tour of Isaiah National Forest, you’re going to see four types of trees, and they all start with the letter “C.” Or, put to the tune of the song, “Popcorn Popping,” “You’ll look out the window and what will you see? Four types of trees that all begin with “C.” These are the trees:
I suggest that any tree you see in Isaiah National Forest will be one of these, or more likely a hybrid of these:
Current Events (current to Isaiah’s day)
Just knowing about these four trees could change the way you approach Isaiah National Forest forever, because anytime you encounter an Isaiah chapter, you’ll be able to say with confidence, “Well, I know it’s either going to be about Covenants, Christ, Current events, or Coming Events.” That alone gives you an overall view of the forest, and may help you feel a little less intimidated by the trees.
Let’s talk about the First Tree, Covenants:
Which covenants? you may ask. Baptismal covenants? Marriage covenants? Good question. One of our guides, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob (Nephi’s younger brother) gives us the answer — “And now, my beloved brethren, I have read these things that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel (See 2 Nephi 9:1-3). So, which Covenants are we talking about? Covenant Israel — or in other words, the Covenants God made with the House of Israel.
I don’t think it’s possible to understanding Isaiah unless you understand the Lord’s interest in the House of Israel.
This is another question that comes up frequently in my Book of Mormon class: “What does all this house of Israel stuff mean?” I’ve had this question come up in the presence of new converts, members of other faiths and even members of non-Christian religions. How would you explain what we mean when we say, “house of Israel” to a group who has never heard the phrase before, or who has heard it but never understood it? Here’s my best shot in one paragraph:
God made a covenant with Abraham, that through his seed, all the families of the world would be blessed. Abraham and his seed are to “bear the ministry,” or in other words, are responsible to carry to gospel message to the world. Abraham had a son named Isaac, who had a son named Jacob. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and therefore, the “house of Israel” means the family or descendants of Jacob. The covenant obligation and blessing continues through all the descendants of Jacob, or house of Israel (See Abraham 2:9-11).
One time, while sharing this material at Especially for Youth, I asked one of the young men to define the house of Israel. He did it in two words: “It’s us.” Bravo to his seminary teacher. He was right. The covenant God made with Abraham continues in us, and we have the blessing and burden of taking the gospel to the world. Elder David A. Bednar taught:
Missionary work is a manifestation of our spiritual identity and heritage. We were foreordained in the pre-mortal existence and born into mortality to fulfill the covenant and promise God made to Abraham. We are here upon the earth at this time to magnify the priesthood and to preach the gospel. That is who we are, and that is why we are here — today and always (Ensign, November 2005, 47).
Elder Bednar made a distinction between “going on a mission” and “becoming a missionary.” Missionary service isn’t just something we do — it’s something we are, because we are Abraham’s seed. In other words, as a member of the house of Israel, we have a covenant obligation to bless the families of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons new missionaries are required to receive their patriarchal blessing, is so that they can have their lineage declared, and have it confirmed by revelation that they have the right and obligation to teach the gospel and bless the families of the world.
I am a Child of God — But, Isn’t Everybody?
One of the most powerful phrases in our theology is sung by primary children. I’ve always loved, and often taught, the wonderful principle contained in the song “I am a child of God.” If I may be so bold, our understanding of our heritage as members of “Covenant Israel” takes our identity to a whole new level. Not only are we children of God, but we are part of a chosen lineage, the house of Israel.
Some people are hesitant to talk about the idea of a “chosen people” thinking it sounds self-congratulatory and elitist. A few ideas may help soften that reaction. First, being “chosen” doesn’t mean we’re chosen sit on thrones and be admired. It’s more like being chosen to mow the lawn, or bring in the harvest. We’re chosen to work, chosen to accomplish a difficult mission, chosen to “bear the ministry” to all the world. But we do enjoy the blessings of the gospel during the task! Those who are truly chosen feel no arrogance, but sense a tremendous obligation to do the Lord’s work.
Second, “chosen-ness” does not begin on earth. If we have no problem with the idea that what we do here on earth will affect our place in the next life, we should have no problem with the idea that what we did in the pre-mortal existence has affected our standing here. As strange as it may sound, you were of the house of Israel before you were born! Elder Melvin J. Ballard taught:
There was a group of souls tested, tried, and proven before they were born into the world, and the Lord provided a lineage for them. That lineage is the house of Israel, the lineage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their posterity. Through this lineage were to come the true and tried souls that had demonstrated their righteousness in the spirit world before they came here. (George Q. Cannon, Millennial Star, 57:563-564.)
Remember too that rarely does Isaiah praise the “chosen” house of Israel — what he does most of the time is tell them (and tell us) to get with the program and start behaving as chosen people are supposed to behave.
Also, being chosen is not a permanent status — it’s possible to become un-chosen. The Doctrine and Covenants explains, “Why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men…” (D&C 121:34-35). Chosenness comes because we’ve made good choices up to this point in our eternal existence. To remain chosen means to continue to follow Christ and keep our covenants.
Lastly, because the house of Israel has already been scattered all over the world, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t of the house of Israel already. The scattering of Israel through the ages had the effect of spreading the chosen family throughout the world. So, in a sense, we’re all chosen. Most people just don’t know it. Our job is to tell them, or, scripturally speaking, to “gather” them, by bringing the Lord a harvest of souls.
This Tree Looks a Lot Like That Tree
The Covenant tree is especially prominent in Isaiah National Forest. Much of Isaiah’s writing is to remind covenant Israel to repent — to reprimand them when they are not living up to their covenant obligations, and to warn them of trials to come because of their disobedience. Again, God’s covenant with Abraham continues through the house of Israel and is both a blessing and a burden — the blessing is that the priesthood would continue through Abraham’s and Jacob’s numerous posterity, and the burden of covenant Israel is to be obedient and to bless all the families of the world by teaching them the gospel and binding them together with the sealing powers of the priesthood.
One of the key things the restoration of the gospel restored was a knowledge of covenants. Ever heard the phrase, “plain and precious things”? Normally, we think of lost scripture when we hear that phrase. Well, lost scripture is half the story. Let’s read it again:
They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away (1 Nephi 13:26, emphasis added)
The new and everlasting covenant encompasses all the gospel covenants, and if we’re going to be saved, it’s going to be in part by covenants. And that is why Covenants are one of the four trees in Isaiah National Forest. If you read Isaiah, you’re going to hear him address Covenant Israel over and over and over again.
Our Next Tree Christ
Our second type of tree in Isaiah National Forest is Christ — or to use the Hebrew word with the same meaning, the Messiah. We can expect Isaiah to testify often of the coming of Christ and his mission. You’ll often read in the italicized synopsis at the beginning of each chapter, “Isaiah speaks Messianically.”
In this context, it’s instructive to take a look at the name “Isaiah.” Have you ever taken a class in Hebrew? Neither have I. But the fact is, you know more than you think! Take a look at these names:
Nehemiah = comfort of the Lord
Zedekiah = the Lord is righteousness
Obadiah = servant of the Lord Jeremiah = exalted of the Lord
Zechariah = the Lord has remembered
Hezekiah = the Lord gives strength
Hallelujah = Praise the Lord
Isaiah = The Lord (Jehovah) is salvation
What do these names all have in common? The “yah” sound. Now, look at the definitions of these names. What do they all have in common? Yes, “The Lord.” Therefore, we can deduce that “yah” means “Lord” and it does. Jehovah (or LORD in small caps in the King James Old Testament), was pronounced “Yawveh.”
Thus, Isaiah’s name indicates something of his mission. His name means “Jehovah is salvation,” or, in bumper sticker language, “Jesus Saves” which indeed he does. Thus, we should expect that Isaiah would testify of the saving power of the Messiah, or Jesus Christ.
King Noah and his wicked priests thought that obedience to the Law of Moses brought salvation. So what did Abinadi do? He quoted Isaiah, whose name means what? Jehovah is salvation (not “the law is salvation”). Among other things, Abinadi said,
For behold, did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? [God redeems, not the law] Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began — have they not spoken more or less concerning these things? (Mosiah 13:33)
After testifying to the wicked priests that Jehovah brings salvation, Abinadi quoted Isaiah 53 — perhaps the most recognized Messianic chapter in Isaiah.
Now, while we’re on the subject of names, you might be interested to see some other Old Testament characters who also have the name of God within their names.
Gabriel = Man of God
Samuel = Name of God
Daniel = A Judge is God
Ezekiel = God will strengthen
Israel = One who prevails with God
Bethel = house of God
Emmanuel = With us is God
Nathanael = God has given
Michael = who is like God
Ishmael = God heareth
Again, we see a common ending, “-el” in each of these names. El means “God” as in Eloi or Elohim. Interesting, isn’t it. If you know the meaning of the “-el,” and if you know that Bethlehem means “house of bread,” (the town where the “bread of life” was born), you should also deduce that “Beth-el” means “house of God.” See? You know more Hebrew than you think.
Why the Speed Bump?
As we share the Book of Mormon with our friends, we are often secretly hoping that they won’t get stuck in 2 Nephi and give up. Why are the Isaiah chapters placed so early in the account? Did the Lord have a reason?
We all remember the three witnesses to the gold plates, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Well, at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, we get another three witnesses — three witnesses of Christ. Perhaps this is why the Isaiah chapters are placed early in the Book of Mormon, which is a barricade for some investigators. Just before the 2 Nephi block of Isaiah chapters, Nephi mentions these other three witnesses:
And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words…for he verily saw my redeemer [there’s one], even as I have seen him [there’s two]. And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him [there’s three] as I have seen him …Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. (2 Nephi 11:2,3)
Hopefully, the investigator will see right away that the Book of Mormon is indeed another testament of Jesus Christ. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explains the placement of the Isaiah chapters (and mentions our first two trees) in this statement:
After reading these three witnesses from the small plates of Nephi, the reader knows two things in bold relief: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that God will keep his covenants and promises with the remnants of the house of Israel. (Christ and the New Covenant, p. 34.2.)
Has Come, or Will Come?
The challenge the early prophets had, was to get people to believe in a being that hadn’t come to earth yet. I often ask my students, “Which do you think would be harder — to convince your mom that you will clean your room, or that you did clean your room? If you already did clean your room, all you have to do is walk your mom down the hall, open the door and say, “Behold!” All Mom would have to do is look. To convince her that you will clean your room, sometime in the future, would be tougher to do.
Nephi and other ancient prophets had the task of convincing the people to believe in the Messiah who would come, in the future. (It’s interesting to note, therefore, that Korihor and other anti-Christs tried to convince the people that “no man can know of anything which is to come.” See Alma 30:13, Jacob 7:7)
Isaiah testifies of the coming of Christ! That is our second tree in Isaiah National Forest. According to Isaiah scholar Monte Nyman, of the 425 verses of Isaiah that are quoted in the Book of Mormon, 391 deal with the ministry and attributes of Jesus.
Some may ask, “Brother Bytheway,” why did you list Christ as the second tree? Shouldn’t he be first? Good question. I did it in this order, because it’s the same order in which the Title Page of the Book of Mormon lists our first two trees:
Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things that Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever — And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations (Title Page, Book of Mormon, italics added)
It’s also interesting to note, that the Book of Mormon closes with a statement about covenants and Christ.
And awake and arise from the dust … that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled. Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness (Moroni 10:31-32).
From first page to last page, and every page in between, the Book of Mormon speaks of Covenants and Christ.
To summarize, if you were given the task of writing a book that would convince people that Jesus is the Christ, you would be wise to include the writings of Isaiah, whose message is addressed to Covenant Israel, and whose name and mission was to teach that Jehovah is salvation.
Our Third Tree is Current Events
Isaiah speaks often of things happening during his time. Of the “wars and the perplexities of the nations” of his day, nations such as Assyria, Syria, Babylon and Israel (We’ll take a look at the geography in Isaiah’s time a little later).
Remember, that Isaiah was an advisor to the Kings of the kingdom of Judah — one of his most common themes was, “Don’t make alliances with other nations! Let God be your ally, let God be your King!” A similar message is repeated dozens of times throughout the Book of Mormon. “Keep the commandments and you’ll prosper in the land” and “serve the God of the land or be swept off.” In other words, you won’t have to worry about what other nations or peoples are up to, if you just follow the Lord.
One of the reasons that these current events are important to us, is that they often foreshadow events of the last days. For example, when Isaiah speaks of the fall of Babylon, he is echoing Lucifer’s fall in the pre-mortal existence, and foreshadowing the fall of Satan’s kingdom in the latter-days. Thus, when we encounter the current events of Isaiah’s day, we can look for latter-day types or prophecies in our day.
The Bible Dictionary contains nine pages of biblical chronology in three columns printed in about an eight point font (these pages are still stuck together in most Bibles). That’s a dizzying amount of stuff to remember. I’m only asking you to remember four events — just four! In my experience, remembering these four “current events” with help considerably as we navigate Isaiah National Forest.
The Four Events are:
I’ll explain a little more to help you get these events in your head.
The House of Israel is a Mobile Home
One of the things that used to confuse me when reading Isaiah, was when I’d stumble across a negative reference to Israel. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?” Not until I read “Israel, Kingdom of” in the LDS Bible Dictionary (sometimes referred to as the sealed portion), did I get the whole picture.
The house of Israel moved around a lot. As you know, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egypt, and eventually, the whole family followed him down there to escape the famine. Later, the children of Israel were put into bondage by the Egyptians, and were finally led out by Moses. After wandering in the wilderness for forty years, Joshua led the house of Israel back in the Holy Land area. Upon their return, the land was divided among the twelve tribes.
Eventually — and here’s the important part — the northern ten tribes became the kingdom of Israel, and the southern tribe became the kingdom of Judah (about 925 B.C.). This period of time is often referred to as the “divided kingdoms.”
Although Isaiah’s message was addressed to all the children of Israel, Isaiah’s ministry was within the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was the capital city, and Judah was the dominant tribe. The northern kingdom of Israel was in an apostate condition, their capital city was Samaria, and Ephraim was the dominant tribe. That explains the negative references to Israel — meaning the kingdom of Israel — which often occur in Isaiah’s writings.
Eventually, the Assyrians came down out of the north and took the kingdom of Israel, or the ten tribes, captive, as Isaiah repeatedly warned they would. They became the “lost tribes” of Israel. A century or so later in 587 B.C., (just after Lehi left Jerusalem), the Babylonians came and took Judah captive, but they were allowed to return in 537 B.C by Cyrus the king. (Over 500 years later, Jesus came to earth among the tribe of Judah, or the Jews — that one portion of the entire house of Israel.)
Another reason references to Israel can be confusing to airheads like me, is because the term “Israel” can be used in so many different ways. There’s the person Israel (formerly known as Jacob), there’s Israel’s posterity which are often called “Israel,” or “house of Israel,” and there’s the kingdom of Israel. Again, reading “Israel, Kingdom of” in the Bible Dictionary was one of the single best things I ever did to help me understand Isaiah (you’ll find it on page 708. You might also look in the map section in the back of your scriptures for the “The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.”) In my teaching, therefore, I’ll try to be very careful to distinguish the kingdom of Israel, the place, from Covenant Israel, the people.
Our Fourth Tree is Coming Events (Prophecy)
As a rule, prophets see the future, and Isaiah was no exception. Consider this statement from Elder Bruce R. McConkie:
Isaiah’s “most detailed and extensive prophecies portray the latter-day triumph and glory of Jacob’s seed. He is above all else the prophet of the restoration.” (Ten Keys… #2.)
This was a startling statement to me at first. Isaiah is the prophet of the restoration? I had always thought of Isaiah as talking about lots of geography, and kings and wars and current events of his own day. But take a look at a few of these oft-quoted phrases from Isaiah — they’re all about events in Isaiah’s future, or about events in the latter days!
Events in Isaiah’s future include such statements as, “A virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son” (2 Ne 17:14), or “For unto us a child is born” (2 Ne 19:6). Events of the latter-day restoration include, “I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people” (1 Ne 21:22), “The Lord’s house shall be established in the tops of the mountains” (2 Ne 12:2), and, “The words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the house tops” (2 Ne 27:11).
Isaiah also speaks about Coming Events for us, in the millennial day. A common phrase used in Isaiah is “in that day.” A quick scan of the footnotes will often reveal that when Isaiah says “in that day,” he is often prophesying about conditions during the millennium.
Isaiah is indeed the “prophet of the restoration,” and although his ministry began in 740 B.C., he saw things that we have yet to see, which is one reason his words remain relevant today.
And That’s Our Treatise on Trees
So, that’s our introduction to Isaiah National Forest. We’ll look out our window, and what will we see? Four grand themes, or four types of Trees, labeled Covenants, Christ, Current Events and Coming Events.
In Part Two, we’ll get in the bus and began our tour. But before we do, who’s got the keys? They’re not in the glove compartment. Oddly enough, the keys are stored between the pages in 2 Nephi 25.