Introduction to the Book of Isaiah
The name Isaiah means "Jehovah is salvation." The collection of Isaiah's writings, the book of Isaiah, comprises one of the most important books of the Old Testament. His words are so significant that he is quoted more in the New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Dead Sea Scrolls than any other Old Testament prophet. It is assumed that Isaiah personally recorded his prophecies or at least supervised their recording. At least twice he was commanded to preserve his messages as a testimony for later ages (Isaiah 8:16; Isaiah 30:8). His works were not only passed on to later generations, but they also became a prophetic foundation used constantly by later prophets and apostles. Without a doubt, the writings of Isaiah constitute the most important prophetic discourses of the Old Testament.
Jesus quoted Isaiah throughout his ministry, and Jesus also promised that all of Isaiah's prophecies would be fulfilled. Isaiah has the distinction of having written the only book among the writings of the ancient prophets of which the Savior specifically commanded the Nephites: "Search these things diligently, for great are the words of Isaiah" (3 Nephi 23:1-3; Mormon 8:23). While approximately one-third of the biblical writings of Isaiah are quoted in the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Moroni admonished his future readers to search also the rest of the prophecies of Isaiah (see Mormon 8:23).
It seems likely that Isaiah's prophecies were regularly used and highly recommended by Christ and the Book of Mormon prophets because of two themes that pervade his writings: (1) the status and future of God's covenant people, and (2) the ministry and mission of the Messiah.
Actually, little is known about the personal history of Isaiah. The key to becoming acquainted with the man Isaiah is the careful study of his words. As we do so, his noble character, sensitive compassion, political astuteness, literary genius, and prophetic insight become apparent.
Isaiah was the last major prophet to teach all the Israelite tribes before they began to scatter from the Holy Land. The applicability of his prophecies can be expanded from an ancient Israelite setting to a latter-day universal context. This universality is especially evident in the last half of Isaiah's book, although many of his early pronouncements also have at least a double fulfillment, with application to his own time and also to a later age. It is obvious that he was allowed by revelation to see the future and destiny of our world. Isaiah was not the first prophet for whom the Lord pulled aside the curtain of the future. Enoch, for example, saw a panorama of the future but he described only highlights (Moses 7). The brother of Jared also saw the history of the world from the creation to the Millennium, but his record was hidden in the sealed portion of the plates of Mormon to be revealed sometime in the future. Only the prophets Isaiah, Nephi, and John the Revelator have been allowed to record for public consumption a cohesive account of the future events of the world.
Isaiah's warnings and prophecies cover almost three thousand years of Israelite history. They foretell the first and second coming of the Messiah, the restoration of the gospel in the latter days, the latter-day gathering of the house of Israel along with their final triumph and glory, the events occurring before the Millennium, some characteristics of the Millennium, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a new witness for Christ, and the apostate conditions of the nations of the world in the latter days. His writings also, of course, contain historical data and prophetic utterances relative to his own day.
Although he was a prophet primarily to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, Isaiah also spoke many prophecies concerning nations that neighbored or interacted with them, such as Philistia, Moab, Phoenicia, Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt (e.g., Isaiah 10; 13-16; 19-221; 23).
According to his own writings, Isaiah did not perform many miracles. He did promise a miraculous deliverance to Jerusalem (Isaiah 37), and, after prophesying health to Hezekiah, he gave a sign by having the sun's shadow recede ten degrees on the sun dial (Isaiah 38). His greatest power came not as a law giver like Moses, or a miracle worker like Elijah, but as a prophet and seer who foretold many future events in the history of the world. Jesus said of Isaiah, "Surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel" (3 Nephi 23:1-3).
Over ninety percent of Isaiah's writings are in poetic form. He was an eloquent master of the Hebrew tongue, and his vocabulary exceeds that found in any other Old Testament book. He delivered his prophetic messages in such sophisticated and exalted poetry that his writings attain heights of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic expression almost unparalleled in the world literature.
Generally, Old Testament prophets delivered their messages orally at the city gates or in a public assembly place such as the temple courtyards in Jerusalem. Their important warnings and prophecies were written down by the prophet himself, his scribe, or one of his disciples. These written prophecies had only a limited circulation, however, and most ancient Israelites did not have any prophetic writings or scrolls in their own homes. They learned of the prophetic messages as they were repeated and discussed orally.
Isaiah seems to have possessed a messianic preoccupation. For example, of the 431 verses of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon, some 391 refer to the attributes or mission of Jesus Christ (Monte Nyman, Great Are the Words of Isaiah, 7).
Many biblical scholars who have studied Isaiah do not believe that one author wrote the entire book of Isaiah. They would tend to divide the book as follows: Chapters 1 through 39 are called "First Isaiah," and they would agree that the eighth century prophet Isaiah wrote those chapters. "Second (deutero) Isaiah" includes chapters 40 through 55, and scholars would speculate that these chapters were written by a different author some time after the period of the Jew's exile in Babylon. The Babylonian captivity of Judah did not take place until 586 BC, more that one hundred years after Isaiah's death. One reason for this speculation is that it is assumed by many biblical scholars that Isaiah could not have predicted so many events so accurately in the future. The author who wrote these chapters, whoever he was, must have written about the events after they happened. Also some would allege differences in the style of writing in these chapters. "Third (trito) Isaiah" includes chapters 56 through 66, and, again, a third author is suggested as a probability by some scholars. They speculate that it was written about 450 BC after many of the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem.
For us in the Church, the easiest solution to this controversy is to believe that Isaiah, the eighth century prophet, was the author of the entire book, since Lehi's family obtained the brass plates from Laban between 597 and 589 BC, and the translation of those brass plates, found in the Book of Mormon, contains Isaiah's writings, including "First" and "Second" Isaiah. The last ten chapters of Isaiah, while not quoted in the Book of Mormon, include much material that is treated in the earlier chapters, so there is a unity and consistency between the last ten chapters and those quoted previously.
It is important to know that Isaiah's writings may be interpreted on different levels. For example, we may regard them as applying largely to the house of Israel or, alternatively, to each individual reader.
Consider the following brief outlines of the book of Isaiah:
1. The Israelites find themselves in deep trouble politically because of apostasy and rebellion (chapters 1-39). The Lord then scatters and exiles the Israelites into the world where they interact with different peoples and events (chapters 40-55). At a point in time Israel realizes her wrongdoing, comes to her senses, realizes her true identity, repents of her sins, and renews her allegiance to the Lord. She then is gathered home, which gathering is a great and marvelous latter-day event (chapters 56-66).
2. An alternate outline on a more intimate and individual frame of reference might go something like this: God casts Adam and indeed all mankind out of his presence into the dreary world because of their tendency to commit sin. There mankind struggles, and some of them learn their true identity. These repent of their sins and have an opportunity to return home to their Father in heaven in a glorious homecoming. The general theme, then, is troubles at home, exile abroad, and a glorious homecoming.
As mentioned previously, many of Isaiah's verses might apply to this general theme on more than one level. He sometimes appears to be writing to and warning the people of his own day in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, though these same warnings are often applicable to the future scattered Israel or Israel of the latter days-even those of the pre-millennial or millennial periods.
Isaiah likely wrote other records which are lost to us. For example, he apparently wrote a history of the Judean king Uzziah (see 2 Chronicles 26:22).
Despite the importance and universal applicability of Isaiah's writings, his record is one of the most difficult records in the Bible to understand. Why is this so? Two reasons seem most pertinent:
1. Isaiah, like all prophets, was under certain divine restrictions, and it is obvious that he deliberately obscured the full meaning of many of his writings. They will not be understood by all, as many are not "able to bear it," but to the Lord's righteous servants will be given the key to understanding (see Luke 8:10).
2. He wrote in a sophisticated, eloquent, complex, imaginative, and "poetic" style that was familiar to his educated contemporaries but unfamiliar to most of us today.
Isaiah was a man of profound humility who attributed every talent he possessed to the goodness of God. Understandably, however, his nonbelieving audiences interpreted this professed humility to be the most blatant kind of pride and boasting. Isaiah's claim to be "a servant of God" and his insistence that his visions, eloquence, and political insights all came from God were considered blasphemous by nonbelievers.
Isaiah was like other prophets who preceded him in that he was called to bear testimony to a people whom he knew would reject his message. He suffered much abuse at the hands of apostates and nonbelievers (Isaiah 49:4; Isaiah 50:5-6).
The Prophet Joseph Smith and the Writings of Isaiah
The young prophet Joseph Smith was taught by heavenly personages including the Savior himself and Moroni and others. These marvelous teachers often used the prophecies of Isaiah as their "lesson material." This method for teaching Joseph began as early as the spring of 1820 in the sacred grove when Joseph asked the Father and the Son which of all the churches he should join. Jesus paraphrased the words of Isaiah, "They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They teach for doctrines the commandments of men" (JS-H 1:19; compare Isaiah 29:13). On September 21, 1823, Joseph was visited by the angel Moroni. It is interesting to note the technique Moroni used to teach Joseph. He quoted scriptures, some from Isaiah's writings. He then taught when they would be fulfilled and also "offered many explanations" (JS-H 1:40-41). Among the Isaiah passages Moroni quoted was all of Isaiah 11 which prophesies of this final dispensation, and Moroni said that the prophecies therein were about to be fulfilled. Later on, the prophet and Oliver Cowdery cited thirty-one scriptural references Moroni used to tutor Joseph (Kent P. Jackson, From Apostasy to Restoration [Salt Lake City: Deseret book, 1996], 104). On this list are nine references in addition to Isaiah 11. They include Isaiah 1:7; Isaiah 1:23-24; Isaiah 1:25- 26; 2:1-4; 4:5-6; 11, 13, 14; and 43:6.
As a result of all this scriptural immersion, the Prophet Joseph became thoroughly conversant with Isaiah's prophecies and obviously was taught marvelous insights into the meaning of those writings. Joseph's mind became thoroughly imbued with them. They became a part of his own language, and his discourses and correspondence were laced with Isaiah's phrases and passages. The revelations Joseph received and recorded show evidences of Isaiah's influences. This is particularly evident in Doctrine and Covenants passages referring to the latter days (Lois Jean Smutz, "Textual Parallels to the D&C [sections 65 to 133] as found in the Bible" [ masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971], 255).
There seem to be three major topics Joseph gleaned from Isaiah's writings, and he often cited Isaiah's words as he taught these three topics:
1. A "voice from the dust," a book to be brought forth to the world-the Book of Mormon. One example is Isaiah 29:11-12.
2. The restoration and the latter-day gathering to Zion.
3. The mountain of the Lord-the latter-day temples.
The Isaiah Materials in the Book of Mormon
Roughly one third of Isaiah's 66 chapters are found in the Book of Mormon. The following table summarizes the Isaiah materials and where they are located in the Book of Mormon. Many of the Book of Mormon Isaiah passages have important differences from the corresponding verses in the King James Version of the Bible-that is, word changes or additions that significantly alter or enlarge the meaning of the biblical verses. Many other Isaiah verses in the Book of Mormon have minor wording or punctuation changes that do not alter the verse's meaning, and about one-third are exactly the same as the corresponding biblical passages.
Book of Isaiah Book of Mormon
chapter 2 2 Nephi 12
chapter 3 2 Nephi 13
chapter 4 2 Nephi 14
chapter 5 2 Nephi 15
chapter 5:26 2 Nephi 29:2 (phrase only)
chapter 6 2 Nephi 16
chapter 7 2 Nephi 17
chapter 8 2 Nephi 18
chapter 9 2 Nephi 19
chapter 9:12-13 2 Nephi 28:32
chapter 10 2 Nephi 20
chapter 11 2 Nephi 21
chapter 11:4-9 2 Nephi 30:9-16
chapter 11:11 2 Nephi 6:14 (phrase only)
2 Nephi 25:11
2 Nephi 25:17
2 Nephi 29:1
chapter 12 2 Nephi 22
chapter 13 2 Nephi 23
chapter 14 2 Nephi 24
chapter 22:13 2 Nephi 28:7-8
chapter 25:12 2 Nephi 26:15
chapter 28:10 2 Nephi 28:30-31
chapter 29 2 Nephi 27
chapter 29:3-5 2 Nephi 26:15-18
chapter 29:13 2 Nephi 29:8
chapter 29:14 1 Nephi 14:7
1 Nephi 22:8
2 Nephi 25:17-19 (phrase)
2 Nephi 29:1
chapter 29:15 2 Nephi 28:9
chapter 29:21 2 Nephi 28:16
chapter 29:6-24 2 Nephi 27:2-35
chapter 40:3 1 Nephi 10:8
chapter 45:18 1 Nephi 17:36
chapter 48 1 Nephi 20
chapter 49 1 Nephi 21
chapter 49:22 1 Nephi 22:6
1 Nephi 22:8
2 Nephi 6:6
chapter 49:23-26 2 Nephi 6:7; 2 Nephi 6:16-18
chapter 49:23 1 Nephi 22:8
2 Nephi 10:9
2 Nephi 29:1-2
2 Nephi 6:13
chapter 50 2 Nephi 7
chapter 51 2 Nephi 8
chapter 52:1 Moroni 10:31
chapter 52:1-2 2 Nephi 8:24-25
chapter 52:1-3, 6-15 3 Nephi 20:32-45
chapter 52:7 1 Nephi 13:37
chapter 52:7-10 Mosiah 12:21-24
chapter 52:8-10 Mosiah 15:29-31
3 Nephi 16:18-20
3 Nephi 20:32-35
chapter 52:10 1 Nephi 22:10-11
chapter 52:12 3 Nephi 21:29
chapter 52:13-15 3 Nephi 21:8-10
chapter 53 Mosiah 14
chapter 53:7 Mosiah 15:6
chapter 53:8, 10 Mosiah 15:10-11
chapter 54 3 Nephi 22
chapter 54:2 Moroni 10:31
chapter 55:1-2 2 Nephi 9:50-51
chapter 55:1 2 Nephi 26:25