Isaiah’s writings are poetic because they are beautiful. His eloquence, his ability to pack much meaning into few words, and his extensive use of literary and structural artifices to achieve his literary purposes reveal an artistic skill that would require many years to cultivate and develop. In fact, Isaiah’s level of literary skill is unattainable by all but a very few who have ever lived.
What is poetry? Far from being simply a literary form in which rhythm and rhyme are characteristic, poetry is a complex art form in which beauty is an important objective intended by the writer. All arts—including music, painting, dance, design, sculpture, drama, and written poetry and prose—share elements that embody what we consider as beauty. These elements include rhythm, color or mood, variety within unity, pattern, repetition, contrast, and motion or action—all of which influence human emotions. Isaiah’s writings are poetry and are beautiful because they bear a profound emotional impact, delivered to his readers by his skillful use of these elements.
Marvelously, Isaiah’s rhythms and patterns are of thoughts, rather than word sounds or rhymes. Therefore, his poetic expression generally is not lost in translation; the beauty of Isaiah’s writing is manifest in any language.
The spiritual aspect of Isaiah’s writings is seamlessly united with his extraordinary artistic expression. The emotional impact imparted by his artistic skill is amplified by his unfailing spiritual perception and prophetic insight into the past, present and future. The reader, when empowered by the Holy Ghost, understands things spiritually as well as responding emotionally. Thus, the pure light of revelation is manifest in Isaiah’s writings in an extraordinary way.
Bruce R. McConkie’s keys for understanding the writings of Isaiah,1 presented in the previous chapter, are the same approach used by Nephi in the Book of Mormon. They result in a “broad-brush” interpretation, clearly describing Isaiah’s meanings but not interpreting on a word-for-word or even a sentence-by-sentence-basis. McConkie’s eighth key, “Learn the manner of prophesying used among the Jews in Isaiah’s day,” has been a stumbling block among Latter-day Saints for generations. Lack of understanding has resulted in readers skipping over the Isaiah portions of the Book of Mormon—rich in beauty and meaning though they may be. Nephi explains his rationale:
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.
For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.2
We need not fear that learning such methods will lead us into the same abominations as the Jews of old; rather, the Jews spoken of by Nephi lacked the spirit of prophecy and, perhaps mostly by default, concentrated on the mechanical aspects of Isaiah’s writings. Nephi’s approach went to the opposite extreme—concentrating on the spiritual content at the expense of the mechanics. We can avoid this pitfall of the ancient Jews by applying all ten of McConkie’s keys, especially the ninth: “Have the spirit of prophecy.”
At the time of McConkie’s writing there was not much information or guidance available on the methods of prophesying among the Jews. Fifteen years later, in 1988, a seminal work by Avraham Gileadi presented useful interpretive keys.3
According to Gileadi, the manner of learning among the Jews has not changed since the days of the prophets. In today’s rabbinical schools,
[T]he Jews rely on interpretive devices such as types and shadows, allegorical language, literary patterns, underlying structures, parallelisms, double meanings, key words, code names, and other mechanical tools. Their approach is entirely mechanical…. In their oversized books, a small square in the center of each page encloses the single verse or passage being studied…. I recall spending an entire month of my time in rabbinic school debating just one verse, exploring it from every angle…. The Jews, exclusively, use this approach.4
Even the rather simple analyses presented in this commentary are a far cry from the dogmatic approach, too often prevalent in the mainstream religions of today, where a passage has only one approved interpretation. A superficial, dogmatic approach eliminates the possibility of intended multiple levels of meaning, which is an important characteristic of Isaiah’s writing.
Gileadi presents a range of literary devices used by Isaiah, some of the more common of which are summarized here.5
1. Forms of Speech
Isaiah utilizes many small literary patterns, termed “forms of speech” by Gileadi.6 These include the following:
Lawsuit. —Single passage that may include several verses of scripture in which the Lord indicts Israel as if in a courtroom. Sentencing is often held in abeyance, granting a period for possible repentance.
Messenger Speech. —Here the prophet functions as the Lord’s emissary. He delivers a message from the Lord to the people or their king, describes how he was called and sent by the Lord, presents a list of sins committed by the people, and announces the ensuing punishment.
Woe Oracle. —A series of curses the Lord pronounces upon Israel for breaking the covenant. Taking a specific form, these always include citings of specific transgressions, thus establishing cause and effect.
Prophetic Lament. —Bemoaning a calamity or misfortune, a prophetic lament begins with the word “How” and expresses sorrow for the fallen state of the people.
Priestly Sermon. —Here the prophet assumes the role of priest or teacher, expounding doctrines, urging repentance, and exhorting the people to follow the correct path.
Parable. —A story in which one thing is likened to another allegorically, to depict a sequence of causes and effects.
Song of Salvation. —Israel, or her prophetic spokesman, sings praises to the Lord acknowledging His intervention that has resulted in deliverance.
Gileadi7 points out that Isaiah uses “sea” and “river” as metaphors for the King of Assyria and his invading armies. The King of Assyria, further, represents powers of evil or chaos whenever and wherever they occur throughout human history.
There are many other metaphorical terms used by Isaiah which, if we know that they are metaphors, greatly enhance our understanding. Consider the following passage from Isaiah 30, which includes several metaphors: “And there shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every high hill, rivers and streams of waters in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall.”8
“Water,” as used here, is a metaphor meaning inspiration and blessings from heaven,9 whereas “mountains” and “hills” are metaphors meaning nations of the earth, both large and small.10 This prophecy was in part fulfilled with the great slaughter in which thousands of people were killed in one day when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell under terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Somehow, this horrific event will result in the blessings and inspiration of heaven being made available to many nations of the earth.11
The next verse describes, using a different metaphor, the abundance of inspiration and revelation from God that would be made available to the nations of the earth in that day: “Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days….”12 The light of the moon and of the sun, augmented as described, is a well-known metaphor meaning inspiration and revelation.
The first part of this verse is chiastically equivalent to the first part of the previous verse, so that the identical meaning of the two metaphors is clear. Furthermore, the focal point of the structure of these two verses is “the great slaughter, when the towers fall.” The meaning is that this very traumatic, cataclysmic event and the ensuing conflict is the pivot point for the coming forth of greater inspiration and spiritual blessings to be poured out upon the nations of the earth. More about chiasmus and other poetic structures is presented in greater detail in the next introductory chapter.
The final phrase of this verse is “…in the day that the LORD bindeth up the breach of his people, and healeth the stroke of their wound.”13 This means that the described great outpouring of guidance and inspiration will result in healing the affliction of the people and comforting those who suffered great loss.
3. Hebrew Language
As is the case with any language, it is difficult to translate from the Hebrew and convey precisely the same meaning. This is especially true for words which have double definitions. Gileadi14 cites the case of Isaiah’s prophetic call, described in Isaiah 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.15
In Hebrew, the word Seraph literally means “a fiery/burning one….” Isaiah’s use of “fiery ones” to describe angels that stand about the Lord, instead of the common word for angels (“messengers”) emphasizes the nature of Isaiah’s vision—the angels, here, do not serve as messengers but exemplify a cleansed or purified state.
Each seraph possesses six wings. The term in Hebrew…also means “veils.”
Gileadi translates it thus: “With two they could veil their presence, with two conceal their location, and with two fly about.” Rather than describing actual physical features, then, this describes the seraph’s capabilities or qualities. An understanding of the Hebrew language thus greatly magnifies one’s understanding of the meaning of this passage.
A valuable source of Hebrew meanings is presented in footnotes of the 1979 LDS edition of the King James Bible. These meanings provide added insight and show where the King James translation deviates from the original Hebrew meaning. Additionally, lexicons are available that enable a more precise understanding of specific words on the basis of their original Hebrew meanings and context.16
In admonishing the Nephites to search the writings of Isaiah diligently, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ said “…great are the words of Isaiah, for surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel. And all things that he spakehave been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake” (emphasis added).17
How can something spoken by Isaiah effectively refer to the past and the future at the same time? Simply put, Isaiah uses ancient events as models, or types, of what is to be. Gileadi18 reports that more than 30 events appear in the book of Isaiah that set an ancient precedent and prefigure a series of latter‑day events. Isaiah was not a historian; he never mentioned the carrying away of the Ten Tribes, which was a historical event of climactic importance that occurred in his own day. Therefore, reference to historical events is not for purely historical purposes. His prophecies encompass the past, present and future, with recurrent fulfillment in different dispensations. Assyria and Egypt, the superpowers of Isaiah’s time, are code words for similar superpowers in the latter days. Our difficulty and challenge is to properly recognize today’s actors on Isaiah’s stage.
5. Multiple Meanings of Words
Some key words used in the scriptures have several different meanings. Understanding which meaning is implied in a particular passage leads to understanding of the writer’s intended meaning. When multiple word meanings are intended, each meaning represents a distinct layer of meaning for the passage. For example, the Hebrew word “Zion” means—literally—“parched place.”19 During the time of David it was the name of a stronghold near Jerusalem;20 the Ark of the Covenant was brought from there to the temple at Jerusalem by Solomon.21 The temple mount in Jerusalem was also known as Mount Zion,22 whereas Zion, or daughter of Zion, is used by many scriptural writers as a poetic synonym for Jerusalem.23 Zion also refers to the latter-day spiritual gathering—the restoration of the fulness of the gospel from heaven and establishment of a people who would abide by its principles.24 Zion, therefore, is a group of the righteous—the pure in heart—living in peace and harmony, regardless of their location.25 In some scriptural passages Zion clearly has dual meanings—the latter-day spiritual gathering, as well as being a synonym for ancient or latter-day Jerusalem, the place for physical gathering.26 The latter-day Jerusalem is designated as a place for the gathering of the returning tribes of Israel, whether at the original site of Jerusalem or another place.27 A “New Jerusalem” for the gathering of certain of the lost tribes would be established upon the American continent.28
Consider Isaiah’s statement “for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”29 “Zion” in this case means a people—or less importantly, a place—that would be established in the latter days for the spiritual gathering of the Lord’s covenant people.30 If “Jerusalem” is taken to mean the ancient city, the meaning of the passage is that like ancient Jerusalem, there would be prophets in the modern Zion from whom the word of the Lord would go forth. If, on the other hand, “Jerusalem” is taken to mean the modern righteous gathering of the descendants of Israel, the passage means that there would be two places from which the inspired word of the Lord would emanate throughout the world—both Jerusalem and Zion. It is likely that Isaiah intended both meanings.
6. Synonyms for Jesus Christ
Isaiah uses multiple synonyms for the Lord Jesus Christ. Each has a particular purpose, emphasizing a particular aspect of the mission or role of the Lord. Failure to recognize them as titles for the Lord can cause misunderstanding of Isaiah’s meaning. Forty-eight titles are recognized in this commentary.31 In alphabetical order these are: Counsellor;32 Creator of Israel;33 Creator of the ends of the earth;34 Everlasting God;35 God of David;36 God of Israel;37 God of Jacob;38 God of thy salvation;39 God the LORD;40 God of the whole earth;41 God of truth;42 Holy;43 Holy One;44 Holy One of Israel;45 Holy One of Jacob;46 Immanuel;47 Jehovah;48 King of Israel;49 King of Jacob;50 lofty One;51 Lord GOD;52 Lord GOD of hosts;53 LORD God of Israel;54 LORD JEHOVAH;55 LORD of hosts;56 LORD our God;57 Lord the LORD;58 LORD thy God;59 Maker;60 mighty One of Israel;61 mighty One of Jacob;62 Redeemer;63 Redeemer of Israel;64 Rock of thy strength;65 Saviour;66 Shiloah,67 Stem of Jesse;68 The everlasting Father;69 the First and the Last;70 the King;71 the living God;72 the Mighty God;73 the Prince of Peace;74the Saviour;75 thy Maker;76 thy Redeemer;77 thy Saviour;78 Wonderful;79 your King.80