The writings of Isaiah contain prophecies and instruction that are of vital importance to us in the latter days. However, because of Isaiah’s artful writing style much of the information is hidden. Of all the writers who have ever written Isaiah is the undisputed master of style, poetic form, and the use of literary devices to communicate much more instruction and prophetic insight than are apparent upon first reading.
Bruce R. McConkie presented ten keys to understanding the writings of Isaiah.1 These are:
• Gain an over‑all knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and of God’s dealings with His earthly children.
• Learn the position and destiny of the House of Israel in the Lord’s eternal scheme of things.
• Know the chief doctrines about which Isaiah chose to write.
• Use the Book of Mormon.
• Use latter‑day revelation.
• Learn how the New Testament interprets Isaiah.
• Study Isaiah in its Old Testament context.
• Learn the manner of prophesying used among the Jews in Isaiah’s day.
• Have the spirit of prophecy.
• Devote yourself to hard, conscientious study.
These keys are essential elements in any serious study of the writings of Isaiah and are the basis for this commentary. Some are easier than others to apply or master, but none of these elements can be ignored. Each key is discussed in some detail in the following paragraphs.
1. Gain an Over‑all Knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and of God’s Dealings with His Earthly Children
Isaiah’s purpose in writing was not to set forth and explain the doctrines of salvation. He wrote to people who presumably were already well-versed in the principles of the gospel, including the supernal reality that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah who atoned for us by giving up His own life. An understanding of these doctrinal truths is prerequisite to gaining an understanding of the prophecies of Isaiah.
Because of Christ’s incomparable gift, two things happen to us that otherwise would not happen. First, we will all be resurrected. It makes no difference if we were good or bad, or even if we knew about Jesus Christ during our lives. We will all be resurrected because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.2 The title “Savior” used by the Lord reflects this great gift, given freely to all through the Lord’s grace.3 Paul summarizes: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (emphasis added).4 The negative effects of the fall of Adam have been overcome through Christ’s sacrifice. Thus, Isaiah foretold: “He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces…”5 Paul recapitulates: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”6
Second, those of us who repent and keep God’s commandments will be forgiven of our sins. This is not a free gift, unlike the first part; it is conditional, based upon our repenting of our sins and following the Lord’s commandments.7 The title “Redeemer” used by the Lord reflects His role in providing the means for us to be forgiven of our sins.
Although redemption is not free because there are things we must do to obtain it, the possibility and opportunity for repentance from our sins is still part of the greatest gift of all, given to us through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.8 If the Savior had not taken upon Himself the sins of the world in the garden of Gethsemane and then taken our sins up on the cross with Him where He died, there would be no way for us to return to our heavenly home. He paid the price of sin for us if we repent, thus becoming the great Intercessor.9 It enables Him to extend mercy to the repentant while still satisfying the demands of justice.10 This part of the Atonement—exaltation in the kingdom of heaven—includes the privilege of dwelling forever in God’s presence.11
The risen Lord summarizes:
And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost….
Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin.
Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved.12
LeGrand Richards taught: “You see that [salvation] does not come just by confession that you believe in Jesus Christ. You have got to do the works and be judged according to your works.”13
Our part of the Atonement includes having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repenting of our sins, being baptized by immersion for the remission of sins, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. These principles and ordinances are presented in the Fourth Article of Faith.14 Beyond these requirements, we must wear out our lives in service to God and our fellow men. In order to attain exaltation, the highest level of salvation, we must also avail ourselves of other saving ordinances and obey other eternal laws and commandments of God.
From time to time throughout the history of the world, God has sent forth prophets to declare the glad tidings of the gospel to mankind on the earth. There have been at least seven such times, called “dispensations,” when these things have been made known through divine revelation. Earlier dispensations are identified according to the prophets who led them including Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ. Following each dispensation there occurred a falling away—an apostasy15—in which the revealed truths brought to earth by divine messengers or through the Holy Ghost to prophets were gradually abandoned and forgotten.
Paul wrote of the “dispensation of the fulness of times” in which the Lord would “gather together all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and on earth.”16 The dispensation of the fulness of times is the culminating one, which will usher in the glorious second coming of the Lord. Joseph Smith was the prophet who began this dispensation.17 Born in 1805,18 he translated the Book of Mormon, publishing it in 1829,19 and organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830.20 Since his time, the Church has been led by an unbroken chain of divinely-inspired prophets. Much of Isaiah’s writings deal with the dispensation of the fulness of times, leading up to the second coming of Jesus Christ. We would be well-advised, therefore, to understand and heed the words of Isaiah.
2. Learn the Position and Destiny of the House of Israel in the Lord’s Eternal Scheme of Things
As part of an earlier dispensation, God made sacred covenants with the prophet Abraham. He said to Abraham:
By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.21
Because of his obedience, Abraham was promised that his posterity would be numerous beyond measure and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed because of them. The Abrahamic covenant applies to his descendants through his son, Isaac,22 and his grandson, Jacob23—who became known as Israel24—down to the present day.
Isaiah’s greatest interests center in the posterity of Jacob. His most detailed prophecies describe what would happen to the people of the Abrahamic covenant through ensuing periods of apostasy and restoration. The role of the descendants of Jacob in the dispensation of the fulness of times—the restoration of the gospel, together with restoration of covenants from former dispensations preparatory to the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ—is of vital interest to each of us because we live in the times of fulfillment. Isaiah is, most importantly to us, the prophet who foretold the restoration.
Peter also foretold this restoration. He declared that Christ should be received into the heavens until a time of “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”25 This restoration would include “every truth, doctrine, power, priesthood, gift, grace, miracle, ordinance, and mighty work ever possessed or performed in any age of faith.”26 As Isaiah’s prophecies attest, this restoration would culminate in the Lord’s glorious return to the earth where He will vanquish all His foes and reign in benevolent triumph for a thousand years.27
3. Know the Chief Doctrines about Which Isaiah Chose to Write
Although Isaiah did not set forth and explain the doctrines of salvation since his intended audiences would already believe and be well-versed in them, he wrote about certain subjects that would have a significant bearing on events in the future. His chief doctrinal concerns fall into seven categories:28
• Restoration of the gospel in the latter days through Joseph Smith
• Latter‑day gathering of Israel and her final triumph and glory
• Coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a new witness for Christ and the total revolution it would eventually bring in the doctrinal understanding of men
• Apostate conditions of the nations of the world in the latter days
• Messianic prophecies relative to our Lord’s first coming
• The Second Coming of Christ and the millennial reign
• Historical data and prophetic utterances relative to his own day, which may serve as types for events that will take place during the latter days
Isaiah’s emphasis throughout his writing is on the gathering of Israel, the dispensation of the fulness of times and the restoration of all things.
Although major restoration of doctrines, priesthood keys, Church organization, saving ordinances and ancient scripture has already taken place and modern scripture has come forth, there is still much that Isaiah has prophesied that will yet come forth in our own time as part of the dispensation of the fulness of times, preparatory to the Second Coming of Christ.
The restoration of the wondrous truths known to Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham has scarcely commenced. The sealed portion of the Book of Mormon is yet to be translated…. The greatness of the era of restoration is yet ahead. And as to Israel herself, her destiny is millennial; the glorious day when “the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High”29 is yet ahead. We are now making a beginning, but the transcendent glories and wonders to be revealed are for the future. Much of what Isaiah—prophet of the restoration—has to say is yet to be fulfilled.30
If we cannot readily comprehend Isaiah’s pronouncements regarding the future, we can begin by looking back to prophecies already fulfilled, including our Lord’s first coming. We can enjoy Isaiah’s incomparable skill and literary style, acknowledging that some things have been fulfilled and obtaining thereby the faith to comprehend the nature of things prophesied that are yet to be fulfilled. Isaiah is truly the foremost prophet of the latter-day restoration.
4. Use the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is, in fact, an important key to understanding Isaiah’s writings. Approximately a third of Isaiah’s writings are quoted or paraphrased in the Book of Mormon, placed there by the ancient American prophets whose writings collectively comprise the Book of Mormon. Nephi, who had originally lived in Jerusalem, says:
…That I might more fully persuade them [his rebellious brethren] 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.
Wherefore I spake unto them, saying: Hear ye the words of the prophet, ye who are a remnant of the house of Israel, a branch who have been broken off; hear ye the words of the prophet, which were written unto all the house of Israel, and liken them unto yourselves, that ye may have hope as well as your brethren from whom ye have been broken off; for after this manner has the prophet written.31
Just as Nephi did for his brethren, he and others of the Book of Mormon prophets do for us, their latter-day readers: They prophetically interpret the passages they quoted. As a result, the Book of Mormon is the foremost commentary on the writings of Isaiah, and truly the authoritative witness for and revealer of the truths contained therein.
Nephi, Jacob, and Abinadi all quoted extensively from Isaiah in their teachings. The resurrected Lord Jesus Christ quoted and interpreted passages from Isaiah 5:29,32 Isaiah 52:8-10,33 11,34 and 15;35 and Isaiah 54,36 together with passages from other Old Testament prophets, during His ministry to the Nephites. His approval of the writings of Isaiah is especially notable:
And now, behold, I say unto you, that 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.
For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles.
And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake.37
The purpose for these quotes in the Book of Mormon is to highlight Isaiah’s teachings on repentance and the judgments of God; God’s covenants and promises to the house of Israel; prophecies concerning the Messiah; and prophecies concerning the latter days.38
McConkie says: “May I be so bold as to affirm that no one…in this age and dispensation…can understand the writings of Isaiah until he first learns and believes what God has revealed by the mouths of his Nephite witnesses as these truths are found in [the Book of Mormon].”39
5. Use Latter-day Revelation
In our own day, the heavens are no longer sealed. Duly called and ordained prophets and apostles living upon the earth have been receiving revelation from God since the earliest beginnings of the restoration.40 Moroni, the last of the ancient Nephite prophets, appeared as an angel to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823. As part of his instructions to the youthful prophet concerning the imminent coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he “quoted the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, saying that it was about to be fulfilled.”41
Doctrine and Covenants, a compilation of revelations from the Lord received by the Prophet Joseph Smith and others during the Restoration and accepted as scripture by the general membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is especially rich in quotes and explanations of Isaiah’s prophecies. Section 113 contains a series of questions regarding passages in Isaiah, answered through revelation by the prophet Joseph Smith. Passages thus explained include Isaiah 11:1-4; 11:10; 52:1-2; and 52:6-8.
McConkie says: “As reference to the footnotes in the Doctrine and Covenants will show, there are around one hundred instances in which latter‑day revelation specifically quotes, paraphrases, or interprets language used by Isaiah to convey those impressions of the Holy Spirit borne in upon his [Isaiah’s] soul some 2,500 years before.”42 The present (1981) edition of the Doctrine and Covenants contains over 275 footnotes referencing passages in Isaiah.
In their conference talks and other inspired messages, modern-day prophets and apostles on occasion allude to or explain the writings of Isaiah, revealing to us the true meaning and intent of the passage. Our efforts to understand the meanings of Isaiah’s writings should include these modern works. A website, http://scriptures.byu.edu, provides an easy method of finding passages from the four Standard Works that have been quoted or explained in conference talks by LDS General Authorities and published in conference issues of the Ensign magazine.
6. Learn How the New Testament Interprets Isaiah
Isaiah is quoted at least 74 times in the New Testament,43 typically clarifying a meaning or attesting to fulfillment of a prophecy. Most of these are found in the writings of Paul, with Isaiah quotations or paraphrasings occurring at least 28 times in the Epistles. Matthew quotes Isaiah passages nine times, and Luke cites Isaiah nine times also. Peter and John each cite Isaiah seven times, Mark has six quotes and James paraphrases Isaiah at least once. All of these citings help to establish Isaiah’s meaning.
7. Study Isaiah in its Old Testament Context
Isaiah was not alone in preaching and prophesying to ancient Israel. Other Old Testament prophets, facing the same situations as Isaiah, had much to say on many of the same subjects but used different literary styles. Such correlations are an invaluable aid in understanding Isaiah. Footnotes and cross-references, abundant throughout Isaiah—and, indeed, throughout all of the scriptures—are the easiest way to approach Isaiah’s meanings from this perspective.
8. Learn the Manner of Prophesying Used Among the Jews in Isaiah’s Day
Isaiah lived in times of great iniquity in which those whose responsibility it was to attend to the spiritual nurturing of the people were themselves bent on subverting the way of the Lord. Not only did they lead people astray; they tampered with the scriptures and their meanings.44 Isaiah wrote in a style that was deliberately difficult to understand. He encoded his prophecies in types and shadows, used structural devices to conceal deeper meanings, and placed treatments of apparently unrelated subject matter together so that his writing appears to the uninitiated almost as a patchwork “crazy quilt.”
The result of these efforts prevented the unworthy from receiving more of the truth than they could endure, which would have subjected them to the “greater condemnation.”45 In addition, it protected the integrity of Isaiah’s writings to some extent. Lacking the Holy Spirit and thus the capability of understanding Isaiah’s deeper meanings, those intent on subverting the truth were hindered by their inability to recognize it. The extent of the damage done by these scriptural vandals, as shown by careful comparisons of Biblical and Book of Mormon Isaiah texts, was to delete significant words and phrases. This was foreseen by Nephi who prophesied that “many plain and precious things” would be “taken away from the book…of the Lamb of God.”46 Some of these deletions interfere with chiastic structures that are replete in Isaiah’s works, but they are preserved in equivalent passages in the Book of Mormon. Presence of these chiastic structures, preserved in the Book of Mormon but disrupted by deletion of words and phrases from the Hebrew text from which the Bible was translated, speaks volumes about the authenticity of the prophetic mission and work of Joseph Smith.
Modern scholars have made a careful study of Isaiah’s literary methods and style including governing structure, forms of speech, parallelism, chiasmus, metaphors, and meanings inherent in the original Hebrew language version but not as apparent in translations into English or other modern languages.47 Studies of Isaiah’s literary style provide invaluable aid in understanding Isaiah’s manner of writing and prophesying and are discussed in Chapter 3: Literary Artifices Used by Isaiah.
9. Have the Spirit of Prophecy
“The words of Isaiah,” Nephi said, “…are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.”48 The Apostle Peter proclaimed that having the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”49
Interpretation of prophecy is, therefore, not an exercise in supposition or speculation. Not only did the prophecy come forth by means of the spirit of prophecy; its interpretation, understanding and application into one’s personal life must also be by the spirit of prophecy, which is the Holy Ghost.
In this commentary, reliance has been placed on the pronouncements of inspired prophets as to the interpretation of Isaiah’s words. The purpose of this effort is to bring together what has already been said about Isaiah’s writings and applying the keys to understanding that have been provided, as opposed to blazing new interpretive trails. However, once an understanding of Isaiah’s intent and methods has been developed, it is truly amazing what insights can be obtained as guided by the Holy Spirit. McConkie summarizes:
In the final analysis there is no way, absolutely none, to understand any scripture except to have the same spirit of prophecy that rested upon the one who uttered the truth in its original form. Scripture comes from God by the power of the Holy Ghost. It does not originate with man. It means only what the Holy Ghost [intends that] it means. To interpret it, we must be enlightened by the power of the Holy Spirit. It takes a prophet to understand a prophet, and every faithful member of the Church should have “the testimony of Jesus” which “is the spirit of prophecy.”50 This is the sum and substance of the whole matter and an end to all controversy where discovering the mind and will of the Lord is concerned.51
10. Devote Yourself to Hard, Conscientious Study
Undertaking a detailed study of Isaiah is truly a daunting task. Bringing together all that has been said, combined with application of the interpretive keys provided, requires diligent study and more than a little of resolve and perseverance. Praying, reading, pondering analyzing, cross-referencing, and finally understanding the writings of Isaiah—“verse by verse, thought by thought, passage by passage, chapter by chapter”52—are what is required in order to gain the full understanding.