Great are the Words of Isaiah
by John A. Tvedtnes, FARMS

Aside from the Pentateuch (the first five books, attributed to Moses), no book of the Old Testament has received as much attention as that of the prophet Isaiah. Many modern scholars believe that the book is the product of at least two, perhaps up to five different authors, writing at different times. Others have argued for a single author. The earliest copy of Isaiah, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dates to the second century B.C., and is essentially like the Isaiah found in our Bible, though with many minor variations. Two major Isaiah scrolls were found near the Dead Sea, along with fragments of 16 other copies of the book. One of these scrolls contained all 66 chapters of Isaiah, which is the longest prophetic book in the Bible. At 24 feet, it is also the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Other Old Testament books rely on the writings of Isaiah. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who lived a century after Isaiah’s time, patterned many of their prophecies, in both theme and style, after his. Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, surrounded by the winged beings crying “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:1-7) is reflected in the visions recorded in Ezekiel 1:1-28 and Revelation 4:1-9. Even one of Isaiah’s contemporaries, Micah, seems to have quoted from the prophet’s work (compare Isaiah 2:2-4 with Micah 4:1-3). The historical accounts found in Isaiah 36-39 are repeated in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32, though the latter includes additional material.

The book of Isaiah seems to have been rather popular in the time of Christ, and it is the most frequently-quoted prophetic work in the New Testament, where the prophet is called by the Greek form Esaias. His words are quoted more than thirty times in the New Testament, including all four gospels. Six of these quotes are found in the gospel of Matthew and five in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. When Philip met the Ethiopian Eunuch whom he subsequently baptized, he found him reading the book of Isaiah, which Philip told him spoke of Christ (Acts 8:27-38).

When asked about himself, John the Baptist replied by citing Isaiah 40:3-4, saying, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias: (John 1:23; see also Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-5).

Jesus, too, began his ministry by reading from Isaiah 61:1-3 and stating that this passage referred to him (Luke 4:16-21). This was but one of many passages of Isaiah that the Jews considered to be prophecies of the Messiah to come. Indeed, most Isaiah prophecies quoted in the New Testament are said to have been fulfilled in Christ. The abundance of such passages in Isaiah is reflected by the fact that much of Handel’s Messiah uses words derived from that prophet’s writings. In the Book of Mormon, Nephi wrote, “And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23).

Indeed, the Book of Mormon includes extensive quotes from the book of Isaiah, along with many briefer citations. Nephi cited chapters 2-14 and 48-49 of Isaiah (Nephi 20-21; 2 Nephi 12-24), while his brother Jacob quoted chapters 50-51 (2 Nephi 7-8). The prophet Abinadi cited parts of Isaiah 52 and all of chapter 53 and explained them as referring to Christ to come (Mosiah 14-15). During his visit to the Nephites, Jesus recited all of Isaiah 54. Both Jesus and Nephi borrowed numerous passages from Isaiah when uttering their own prophecies.

After repeating Isaiah 54 to the Nephites, Jesus instructed told them, “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” (3 Nephi 23:1). A great number of Isaiah’s words are, in fact, found scattered throughout the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, suggesting that Isaiah’s verbiage is the basis for much subsequent prophecy.

Now nearly 2700 years old, the Book of Isaiah is one of the oldest regularly-read books from ancient times. Translated with the rest of the Bible into a large number of languages, it is part of the most widely-distributed book in history. Coupled with the fact that Isaiah is so widely quoted in other Bible books and the Book of Mormon (the second most widely-distributed book in history) and is the source not only of much of Handel’s Messiah, but the basis for dozens of other Christian hymns, it is not unlikely that Isaiah may be the most widely-read author of all time. For all that, because of its poetic style and enigmatic reference to future events, much of the book is very difficult to understand in any language, including the original Hebrew. For all these reasons, it merits our close attention.

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