We have all experienced it. Newly committed to the read through the Book of Mormon, we eagerly start with the familiar words, “I, Nephi, having been born …,” and the reading seems to be going well. And then they come. The dreaded “Isaiah chapters.” These chapters are dense, difficult, and demanding.
You are tempted to just skip over them, but they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t important, right? Nephi “delights” in Isaiah’s words (2 Nephi 11:2), and the Savior himself declares them “great” (3 Nephi 23:1), but for you they are more like “great and dreadful.” How can you get more out of the Isaiah chapters?
Book of Mormon Central has been churning out KnoWhys—short insights into some detail in the Book of Mormon—at an astonishingly rapid rate, and the for the last few weeks they have zeroed in on the Isaiah chapters. With more than a dozen KnoWhys on Nephi and Isaiah, these provide a diverse set of tools to aid in your personal study. The Isaiah KnoWhys from Book of Mormon Central generally take four different approaches to the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi, each of which can provide a framework for further individual study of Isaiah.
One approach Nephi uses is likening. Book of Mormon Central offers several insights into what Nephi might have meant by this. For example, when Nephi first quotes from Isaiah in 1 Nephi 20–21, he says that he “did liken all scriptures unto” his family (1 Nephi 19:23). But have you ever thought about how he likened them? What connections did he see between Isaiah 48–49 and his family’s experience? Book of Mormon Central suggests several possibilities, but they are far from exhaustive. Perhaps the next time you study these chapters you could ponder how Nephi saw his own experiences within those chapters.
Nephi also promised to “liken” Isaiah 2–14 Isaiah to his people (2 Nephi 11:2). So how did Nephi apply these parts of Isaiah to his followers and their situation? Book of Mormon Central offers a couple of examples. Perhaps he understood the temple they had just built to be “the house of the Lord,” prophesied of in Isaiah 2, just as modern prophets apply it to the Salt Lake temple today. Likewise, Nephi could have easily seen native peoples that the Lehites had interacted with as fulfilling several of the Gentiles’ roles in Isaiah’s writings. What are some other ways these chapters in Isaiah could be applied to Nephi’s people in the New World?
The Nephite Prophetic View
To get ready for studying Isaiah 2–14 in 2 Nephi 12–24, Book of Mormon Central introduced a 4-stage framework based on Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11–14:
Stage 1: Christ’s coming (1 Nephi 11);
Stage 2: his rejection and the scattering of the Jews (1 Nephi 12);
Stage 3: the day of the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13); and
Stage 4: the restoration of Israel and the ultimate victory of good over evil (1 Nephi 14).
This same framework can be applied to other places where Nephi uses Isaiah, like 1 Nephi 19–22, 2 Nephi 6–10, and Nephi’s interpretations in 2 Nephi 25–30. This can prove a useful lens through which to read these Isaiah chapters, looking for each of these stages in Isaiah 2–14.
To make it more interesting, though, you can not only look for these themes, but also compare Isaiah’s words with Nephi’s in 1 Nephi 11–14. Book of Mormon Central, for example, compares Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11 with Isaiah’s prophecies quoted in 2 Nephi 12–24, and get illuminating results. They also explored ways each of the other three stages are manifest in Isaiah’s writings and how they compare with Nephi’s own prophetic visions.
In each instance, Book of Mormon Central is only just scratching the surface. There is a lot more to explore for each of these stages. The “Nephite Prophetic View” can thus be employed productively by anybody seeking to get more out of these Isaiah chapters. And with each one, it starts to become clear that Nephi deeply identified with Isaiah. No wonder Nephi went to pains to include Isaiah as one of his three witnesses of the Messiah. In marvelous poetic fashion, Isaiah described many of the same things Nephi had witnessed in vision. How could Isaiah not resonate with Nephi?
Another approach to these chapters is to consider the “keys” Nephi offers in 2 Nephi 25. Once again, Book of Mormon Central helpfully outlines this lens of study:
Understand the “manner of prophesying among the Jews” (v. 1)
Do not do “works of darkness” or “doings of abominations” (v. 2)
Be filled with the spirit of prophecy (v. 4)
Be familiar with the regions around Jerusalem (v. 6)
Live during the days that the prophecies of Isaiah are fulfilled (v. 7)
As an example of how this can enhance our study of Isaiah, Book of Mormon Central applies key 1 to a phrase found through Isaiah 2–14—“for all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still”—to show how understanding ancient Israelite thought changes how we read this passage. What other insights await us if apply Nephi’s keys while reading Isaiah?
Finally, Nephi invites his latter-day readers to “liken” the scriptures themselves as well (2 Nephi 11:8). Nephi himself provides some Latter-day applications. He likens Isaiah 49 to the latter-day (1 Nephi 22:6–14), for instance, and Book of Mormon Central argues that given such an application, Joseph Smith could be understood as the “servant” in Isaiah 49:1–6. How can the rest of the chapter be applied to the latter-day Restoration?
Isaiah 11 also seems to be applied to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, if not by Nephi, at least by Moroni. Nephi’s most extensive application to the Latter-days, however, is his appropriation of Isaiah 29. Book of Mormon Central proposes that 2 Nephi 27 should not be read as Nephi quoting Isaiah 29, something Nephi never claims to be doing throughout 2 Nephi 25–30. Instead, he is applying and adapting the Isaiah’s words to his own vision of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
Nephi had seen the Restoration and coming forth the Book of Mormon in vision (1 Nephi 13:32–42). When Nephi read about “a book that is sealed,” taken by men to “one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee,” and then subsequently taken to “him that is not learned” (Isaiah 29:11–12), he found apt words to adopt in describing certain events which would unfold in the life of Joseph Smith (2 Nephi 27:15–19).
While this is not only one way to approach the relationship between Isaiah 29 and 2 Nephi 26–27, it opens up interesting ways to study how Nephi is personally interacting with Isaiah. Have you tried reading the two prophecies side by side to see what Nephi is doing?
Conclusion: Delighting in the Great Words of Isaiah
Today there is a rich array of tools for Latter-day Saints to use in better understanding Isaiah, and what his writings are doing in the Book of Mormon. The recent slew of KnoWhys from Book of Mormon Central provides us with a number of different paths to follow for enriching study of Isaiah’s “great” words (3 Nephi 23:1). The application of several approaches to Isaiah derived from Nephi’s own words illuminates Isaiah’s writings in wonderful ways and begins to shed light on why Nephi “delighted” (2 Nephi 11:2) in the words of this great Israelite poet and prophet.