Isaiah is among the most prominent of Old Testament prophets, whose spiritual and literary contributions are without equal. His is a book of divinely-inspired poetic prophecy, best known for his declarations concerning the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. His prophecies are not limited to the coming of the Savior, however. Isaiah was shown an all-inclusive vision or revelation of the history of the world, including its wickedness and righteousness and how the life, mission, and infinite sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ occupies an essential, central role in the spiritual and temporal history of the world. The resurrected Lord said of Isaiah: “And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake” (emphasis added).1 Isaiah’s prophecies encompass the past, present and future, with recurrent fulfillment in different dispensations. We who are now experiencing the trials and challenges of mortal life should pay careful attention to Isaiah’s writings. The latter days—our days—are the times of fulfillment of many of Isaiah’s prophecies.2 Victor L. Ludlow, in his commentary on the book of Isaiah, stated: “Above all the ancient prophet-writers, Isaiah will be the best guide through the perilous last days of the dispensation of the fulness of times.”3
Isaiah’s writings are intentionally difficult to understand. The Lord instructed Isaiah: “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.”4
Because of apostasy and wickedness among his people, Isaiah encoded his prophecies so that only those with sufficient spirituality and insight could understand. Isaiah’s purpose is not to convince unbelievers, but to provide vital, saving information to those who already believe.5 Not only did Isaiah’s encoding prevent the unworthy from receiving more than they could comprehend, which would subject them to the “greater condemnation;”6 it protected the integrity of Isaiah’s writings to some degree as well. Those bent on altering the scriptural record to suit their subversive needs by taking away “many plain and precious things” from the “book of the Lamb of God”7 had too little insight to be able to do much damage to Isaiah’s cryptic writings.
Numerous scriptural and other authoritative resources are available to us in our day to enable us to understand the words of the Prophet Isaiah. In addition to their presentation in the Old Testament, Isaiah’s written words are quoted elsewhere in the scriptures—both ancient and modern—more than any other ancient prophet. Each citing provides valuable information on how Isaiah’s prophetic words are to be understood.
Primary sources for Isaiah’s writings that are available to us include:
• The King James Version of the Bible
• Portions of the Book of Mormon in which Isaiah’s writings are quoted and explained
• The Doctrine and Covenants, in which The Lord describes events that will lead up to His glorious Second Coming—often paraphrasing or expanding upon the words of Isaiah that describe the same events
• The Pearl of Great Price, which contains Joseph Smith’s account of the latter‑day Restoration including the fulfillment of some of Isaiah’s prophecies pertaining to the dispensation of the fulness of times
• The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, in which the youthful prophet applied the Urim and Thummim to a reading and revision of the King James Bible—the same divinely‑prepared instrument he used in translating the Book of Mormon from the reformed Egyptian
• Recently‑discovered ancient manuscripts from near the Dead Sea, including a version of the Book of Isaiah in the original Hebrew that predates the currently‑used Masoretic text8 by several hundred years
• The New Testament, which provides valuable comparisons illustrating how Isaiah’s prophecies pertained to the dispensation of the meridian of time
• Writings and speeches of latter‑day apostles and prophets, who rely heavily upon the words of Isaiah
These sources comprise the basis for this commentary, to establish and substantiate Isaiah’s intended meanings.
1. Bible—King James Version
The King James Version of the Bible,9 translated in A.D. 1611 from the Hebrew Masoretic and Greek texts, is accepted as scripture by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among its English-speaking adherents.10 More recent English translations of the Bible seek to eliminate the archaic language characteristic of the King James Version; however, newer translations lack the beautiful poetic writing attributed to William Tyndale and King James’ panel of translators.11
In this commentary each verse is presented in the familiar words of the King James Version, followed by explanations as to its meaning, including wording from other primary sources.
A weakness of other LDS-oriented commentaries is their reliance upon Bible translations other than the King James Version. It seems better to begin with the familiar wording—archaic language and all—whereas use of a less-familiar Bible translation requires a reader accustomed to the King James Version to first connect with the familiar wording, either from memory or by referring to it on the written page.
Occasionally other English translations, as well as translations in modern languages other than English, are compared when doing so provides insight.12
2. The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon includes 21 chapters from Isaiah, quoted either in whole or in part,13 and includes inspired interpretations and commentary by the ancient prophets whose writings collectively comprise the Book of Mormon. Isaiah’s writings were included in the brass plates, a volume of scripture engraved on metal that was in the possession of Lehi and his family as they departed Jerusalem in 600 B.C. The Isaiah source for the Book of Mormon thus predates all other sources available to us by several hundred years.
When the Lord Jesus Christ visited His ancient Nephite followers following His death and resurrection, He quoted and explained passages from Isaiah.14 His explanations presented in the Book of Mormon apply particularly to us,15 providing vitally important information for our time.
Wording of the Isaiah quotes in the Book of Mormon parallels that of the King James Version. This similarity indicates that Joseph Smith may have used the Bible as a lexical aid, or at least applied its familiar wording from memory as part of the translation process. However, there are differences in more than half of the 433 verses of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon, whereas about 200 verses have the same wording.16 A careful study shows that most of the differences represent subsequent deletions from the purer Isaiah text that was possessed by Lehi in 600 B.C.17 Some of the deletions identified in the Bible text interfere with Isaiah’s intricate poetic chiastic structures, indicating that those who altered the text did not fully understand his literary style. Presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in an unaltered form is powerful evidence of the veracity of the work of the prophet Joseph Smith.18
3. Doctrine and Covenants
The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) is a compilation of revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith, together with other inspired documents, that represents the Lord’s will for His saints in the latter days.19 Scattered throughout the Doctrine and Covenants are prophecies of events that will lead up to the Lord’s glorious Second Coming—the same events prophesied anciently by Isaiah and other prophets. The Lord’s words to the Prophet Joseph Smith often paraphrase or expand upon the words of Isaiah, providing a valuable resource for understanding Isaiah’s prophecies for the latter days.
4. Pearl of Great Price
The Pearl of Great Price is a compilation of writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Of particular interest is his account therein of events leading up to the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He described the First Vision; visits of the angel Moroni, the ancient conservator of sacred records written upon gold plates; his obtaining and translating the sacred record; and publication of the Book of Mormon.20 These events mark the fulfillment of some of Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the latter-day restoration. This account enables us to understand in what ways we might recognize other prophecies of Isaiah as they are fulfilled before our eyes.
5. New Testament
Events recorded in the New Testament—the scriptural account of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, which was abundantly foretold by the Prophet Isaiah—provide valuable comparisons, illustrating how Isaiah’s prophecies pertaining to the dispensation of the meridian of time were fulfilled. Isaiah is quoted at least 57 times in the New Testament.21 Some of the same prophecies, although fulfilled during the mortal ministry of the Savior, are to be fulfilled again in the latter days. Accordingly, the New Testament provides another means for us to understand how prophecies foretelling latter-day events are to be fulfilled.
Quotes from Isaiah found in the New Testament typically follow the wording of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating from the third century B.C. that was more readily available during New Testament time. The Septuagint is useful in comparing New Testament quotes from Isaiah; however, modern Bible scholars point out that its translator “produced an exceptionally liberal translation that included the translator’s personal reflections and interpretations…. The translator permitted his own biases to govern the translation process.”22 The Septuagint is therefore not considered as an irrefutable primary source by many Bible scholars, nor is it the most useful resource in gaining an understanding of Isaiah’s meanings. An English translation of the Septuagint is available on the internet.23
6. Joseph Smith Translation
The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is an inspired revision of the Bible, made in response to commandment from the Lord to Joseph Smith.24 In making the revision the youthful prophet applied the Urim and Thummim, the same divinely-prepared instrument used in translating the Book of Mormon from the reformed Egyptian, to a reading of the Bible. The JST is represented in part as footnotes in the current LDS edition of the King James Bible; longer passages are placed in an appendix.25 A more complete rendition, Joseph Smith’s “New Translation” of the Bible, places Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version adjacent to the original King James text for each altered passage.26
7. Dead Sea Scrolls—The Great Isaiah Scroll
An important scripture treasure discovered in 1947, the Great Isaiah Scroll (designated as 1QIsaa) is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls. Dating from the period between 150 and 100 B.C., it predates the Masoretic text—the source for our modern King James Version and most other translations of the Bible in a host of modern languages—by almost a thousand years.27 The Great Isaiah Scroll has been utilized in many new translations of the Bible since 1950.28
Donald W. Parry, a Brigham Young University Professor of Ancient Scripture, combined four primary sources in producing his modern translation of Isaiah, presented in Harmonizing Isaiah.29 Since he carefully identified the four sources including the Great Isaiah Scroll, his work is an important source for clarifications in English that come to the modern world from the Great Isaiah Scroll.
8. Modern-day Apostles and Prophets
Since they are sustained by the general Church membership as prophets, seers and revelators, modern-day apostles and prophets constitute an important primary source for understanding Isaiah’s writings and how they apply to our time. Talks given in General Conference are published in Conference Reports and, since 1970, in the Ensign. An LDS General Conference Scriptural Index is available on the internet that correlates passages of scripture with talks given by General Authorities in which the passages of scripture are cited.30 Talks published in the Ensign since 1970 are also available on the internet, linked at the same website. Quotations from Isaiah are well represented in General Conference talks and provide valuable insight in understanding Isaiah’s message.
9. Other Resources
Two commentaries written for the LDS reader have proven valuable in the present study. Victor L. Ludlow’s Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, published in 1982,31 was commissioned to be written as a textbook for the Church Educational System of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.32 It has been used by its author and many other teachers for many years in teaching Isaiah courses. Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry and Tina M. Peterson’s Understanding Isaiah, published in 1998,33 is another valuable resource; a strong point of their commentary is its treatment of Isaiah’s parallelisms which they carefully diagram for the benefit of the reader. Writers of both commentaries enrich their discussions of Isaiah through their knowledge of the Hebrew language and ancient Jewish and Middle Eastern history.
Avraham Gileadi’s The Book of Isaiah: A new translation with interpretive keys from the Book of Mormon34 was written in 1988 from the point of view of a Jewish convert to Mormonism. His interpretive keys for understanding Isaiah’s writings represent a valuable contribution. For the first time, many realized that it is possible to understand the writings and prophecies of Isaiah which had long been an enigma to readers of the Bible and Book of Mormon alike.
An understanding of the original Hebrew meaning of some words is useful. An excellent source is The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon,35 if used with a transliterated lexicon available on the internet.36
Isaiah Testifies of Jesus Christ
Why study Isaiah? Isaiah is the foremost Messianic prophet, foretelling the coming of Christ in great detail. Key passages from Isaiah concerning Christ and His earthly ministry are quoted and explained by New Testament writers, many of whom were personal witnesses of the foretold sacred events. These writers declare the fulfillment of some of Isaiah’s prophecies and set forth a correct interpretation. But do we really understand the depth of meaning of these and other important passages? We hear lines of scripture from Isaiah being sung in Handel’s Messiah, but does their deeper significance escape us?
Isaiah 40:3 states: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Most likely, we cannot read these words without the familiar music of Handel’s Messiah flooding our minds.37
John the Baptist is he of whom Isaiah wrote. Matthew, in the New Testament, acknowledges the fulfillment of this prophecy:
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias [Isaiah], saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,
And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.38
The New Testament authoritatively verifies Isaiah’s meaning.
The next verse, Isaiah 40:4, asserts: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” These words are also familiar, set to music in Handel’s Messiah.39 But what does this passage mean? How does it relate to the mission of John the Baptist, if at all? Does it foretell cataclysmic structural changes in the earth’s topography, or is its meaning metaphoric? The answer comes from a comparable passage in the New Testament. James, the brother of Jesus,40 admonishes: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.”41
The last phrase, which describes the temporary mortal state of man, is a quote from Isaiah that relates to John the Baptist and his preparatory mission. By including “as the flower of the grass he shall pass away,” James connects the first part of the passage to its Old Testament source. In Isaiah 40:6, the Prophet foretells the message to be delivered by John the Baptist: “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.”
From James, then, we understand the meaning of Isaiah 40: 4 as a metaphoric description of the united social order established under the gospel in several dispensations, apparently to be introduced by John the Baptist. The united social order that was established is described in Acts: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.”42
The Lord describes in Doctrine and Covenants—using words similar to those of James—how the saints are to set up the law of consecration in the latter days to provide for their temporal needs: “But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low” (emphasis added.)43
An understanding of poetic chiastic structures, used extensively by Isaiah, provides further interpretive insight. The highway in the desert foretold in Isaiah 40:3 is spiritual, meaning the “narrow way” with a “strait gate,” “which leadeth unto life.”44 The phrase “make straight in the desert a highway” is chiastically equivalent to the phrase “and the crooked shall be made straight” in verse 4. What was crooked that needed to be made straight? Through apostasy, the knowledge of the Plan of Salvation had become corrupted; the narrow way had become “crooked.” John the Baptist’s mission, Isaiah foretells, was to restore the knowledge of the Plan of Salvation in advance of the coming of the promised Messiah. A description of chiasmus and its interpretive value is given in Introduction 4.
Not only do the phrases “make straight in the desert a highway” and “the crooked shall be made straight” foretell the mission of John the Baptist and the advent of the mortal Messiah; they are a type for—meaning typical of—events in the latter days, to occur before the Second Coming of the Messiah in glory to the earth. Following the Great Apostasy at the close of the apostolic era, a Restoration—a straightening out of crooked paths again—would be needed to prepare the way for the coming Lord. As a type, the role of the prophet Joseph Smith and his successors in building up Zion in the wilderness is foretold in these same passages. Use of types is characteristic of many of Isaiah’s prophecies, indicating that they are to be fulfilled more than once.
As described above, in our day many helps are available to assist us in gaining an understanding of Isaiah’s writings. A main purpose for this commentary is to demonstrate that there is sufficient information available to understand Isaiah if we will but put forth the necessary spiritual effort and study. Nephi states: “…Nevertheless, in the days that the prophecies of Isaiah shall be fulfilled men shall know of a surety, at the times when they shall come to pass.”45 Modern scripture is an important means by which “men shall know of a surety” in our day, when many of Isaiah’s prophecies are to be fulfilled.
Isaiah presents a world-view that puts religious matters at the very center of what is important. Our religious observance, accordingly, should be vastly more than mere attendance. Whether nations live or perish depends on whether children are taught the Plan of Happiness at their parents’ knees and whether that nation as a whole abides by those sacred principles.46 Endless weeks and years of routine ceremonial observances are no substitute for self-discipline and true adherence to the principles of the gospel.47
An important reason for studying and understanding the writings of Isaiah is that here and now, in our own time, his prophecies are being fulfilled before our eyes. Perhaps even our temporal and eternal salvation during the foretold times of cleansing depend on our detailed understanding of his message and our heeding his warnings.48 Further, a diligent study will lead us to a stronger conviction that Jesus Christ—the Messiah foretold by Isaiah and many other prophets—is truly the Savior of the world, and through Him the way is made possible for us to return to our heavenly home to live in eternal glory.