Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah
Elder Bruce R. McConkie
of the Quorum of the Twelve
(Ensign, October 1973, 78)
If our eternal salvation depends upon our ability to understand the writings of Isaiah as fully and truly as Nephi understood them—and who shall say such is not the case!—how shall we fare in that great day when with Nephi we shall stand before the pleasing bar of Him who said: “Great are the words of Isaiah”? (3 Ne. 23:1.)
To Laman and Lemuel, the words of Isaiah were as a sealed book. There older brothers of young Nephi could read the words and understand the language written by Israel’s great seer, but as for envisioning their true prophetic meaning, it was with them as though they read words written in an unknown tongue.
The risen Lord commanded the Nephites and all the house of Israel, including us, and, for that matter, all the nations of the gentiles, to “search … diligently … the words of Isaiah. For surely he spake,” the Lord said, “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.” (3 Ne. 23:1–3.)
Laman and Lemuel are but prototypes of most of modern Christendom. They were almost totally unable to understand the difficult doctrines of this ancient prophet, and for their lack of spiritual discernment they found themselves on the downward path leading to everlasting destruction.
When father Lehi “spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord,” they rebelled against his teachings and refused to “look unto the Lord” to learn their true meaning. Asked by Nephi, “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” to learn the true meaning of the prophetic utterances, they responded, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.”
Then Nephi quoted to them—in the language of the Lord God himself—the great promise and law whereby any man can come to know the true meaning of the revealed word: “If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.” (See 1 Ne. 15:1–11.)
Nephi said: “… my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah. …” (2 Ne. 25:5.) Personally, I feel about Isaiah and his utterances the same way Nephi felt and think that if I expect to go where Nephi and Isaiah have gone, I had better speak their language, think their thoughts, know what they knew, believe and teach what they believed and taught, and live as they lived.
It just may be that my salvation (and yours also!) does in fact depend upon our ability to understand the writings of Isaiah as fully and truly as Nephi understood them.
For that matter, why should either Nephi or Isaiah know anything that is withheld from us? Does not that God who is no respecter of persons treat all his children alike? Has he not given us his promise and recited to us the terms and conditions of his law pursuant to which he will reveal to us what he has revealed to them?
If the Lord Jehovah revealed to Isaiah that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,” whose very name shall be “God is with us” (Isa. 7:14); if this “child” shall be “The mighty God, The everlasting Father,” who shall reign “with judgment and with justice” forever (Isa. 9:6–7); if he is to “make his soul an offering for sin,” and place his “grave with the wicked” (Isa. 53:9–10); if his redemptive promise to all men is: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise” (Isa. 26:19); if he shall gather Israel in the last days and bring “the ransomed of the Lord … to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads” (Isa. 35:10); if his people “shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion” (Isa. 52:8); if these and a great host of other glorious truths were known to Isaiah and Nephi, should they be hidden from us? Why should either of these prophets know what we do not know? Is not the Lord Jehovah our God also?
Let us freely acknowledge that many people find Isaiah hard to understand. His words are almost totally beyond the comprehension of those in the Churches of the world. Nephi said, “… Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand. …” (2 Ne. 25:1.) Even in the true church, among those who should be enlightened by the gift of the Holy Ghost, there are those who skip the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon as though they were part of a sealed book, which perhaps they are to them. If, as many suppose, Isaiah ranks with the most difficult of the prophets to understand, his words are also among the most important for us to know and ponder. Some Latter-day Saints have managed to open the seal and catch a glimpse of the prophetic wonders that came from his pen, but even among the Saints there is little more than a candle glow where this great treasure trove is concerned.
But the seeric vision of Isaiah need not be buried under a bushel; his prophetic words can and should shine brightly in the heart of every member of the Church. If there are those who truly desire to enlarge and perfect their knowledge of the plan of salvation and of the Lord’s dealings with latter-day Israel—all in harmony with his command to search diligently the words of Isaiah (3 Ne. 23:1)—I can give them the key which opens the door to that flood of light and knowledge that flowed from the pen of that witness of Christ and his laws who in many respects was Israel’s greatest prophet. Here, in fact, are my ten keys to understanding Isaiah:
1. Gain an Over-All Knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and of God’s Dealings with His Earthly Children.
The book of Isaiah is not a definitive work that outlines and explains the doctrines of salvation, as do 2 Nephi and Moroni in the Book of Mormon, for instance. Rather, it is written to people who already know—among other things—that Jesus is the Lord through whose atoning blood salvation comes, and that faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and righteous works are essential to an inheritance in his Father’s kingdom. To illustrate, it takes a prior knowledge of preexistence and the war in heaven to recognize in Isaiah 14 the account of Lucifer and his hosts being cast down to earth without ever gaining mortal bodies.
2. Learn the Position and Destiny of the House of Israel in the Lord’s Eternal Scheme of Things.
Isaiah’s love and interests center in the chosen race. His most detailed and extensive prophecies portray the latter-day triumph and glory of Jacob’s seed. He is above all else the prophet of the restoration.
As foretold by all the holy prophets since the world began, the Lord’s program calls for a restitution of all things. That is, every truth, doctrine, power, priesthood, gift, grace, miracle, ordinance, and mighty work ever possessed or performed in any age of faith shall come again. The gospel enjoyed by Adam shall dwell in the hearts of Adam’s descendants before and during the great millennial era. Israel—the Lord’s chosen and favored people—shall once again possess the kingdom; they shall dwell again in all the lands of their inheritance. Even the earth shall return to its paradisiacal state, and the peace and perfection of Enoch’s city shall dwell on the earth for a thousand years.
These are the things of which Isaiah wrote. Of all the ancient prophets, he is the one whose recorded words preserve for us the good news of restoration, of the gospel coming again, of the everlasting covenant once more being established, of the kingdom being restored to Israel, of the Lord’s triumphant return, and of a reign of millennial splendor.
3. Know the Chief Doctrines about Which Isaiah Chose to Write.
His chief doctrinal contributions fall into seven categories: (a) restoration of the gospel in latter days through Joseph Smith, (b) latter-day gathering of Israel and her final triumph and glory, (c) coming forth of the Book of Mormon as a new witness for Christ and the total revolution it will eventually bring in the doctrinal understanding of men, (d) apostate conditions of the nations of the world in the latter days, (e) messianic prophecies relative to our Lord’s first coming, (f) second coming of Christ and the millennial reign, and (g) historical data and prophetic utterances relative to his own day.
In all of this, once again, the emphasis is on the day of restoration and on the past, present, and future gathering of Israel.
It is our habit in the Church—a habit born of slovenly study and a limited perspective—to think of the restoration of the gospel as a past event and of the gathering of Israel as one that, though still in process, is in large measure accomplished. It is true that we have the fulness of the everlasting gospel in the sense that we have those doctrines, priesthoods, and keys which enable us to gain the fulness of reward in our Father’s kingdom. It is also true that a remnant of Israel has been gathered; that a few of Ephraim and Manasseh (and some others) have come into the Church and been restored to the knowledge of their Redeemer.
But 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. All things are not to be revealed anew until the Lord comes. 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” (Dan. 7:27) 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.
Isaiah is everywhere known as the messianic prophet because of the abundance, beauty, and perfection of his prophetic utterances foretelling the first coming of our Lord. And truly such he is. No old world prophet, whose inspired sayings have come down to us, can compare with him in this respect. Moreover, the first coming of the Messiah is past, and so even those among us who are not overly endowed with spiritual insight can look back and see in the birth, ministry, and death of our Lord the fulfillment of Isaiah’s forecasts.
But if we are to truly comprehend the writings of Isaiah, we cannot overstate or overstress the plain, blunt reality that he is in fact the prophet of the restoration, the mighty seer of Jacob’s seed who foresaw our day and who encouraged our Israelite fathers in their spiritually weary and disconsolate state, with assurances of glory and triumph ahead for those of their descendants who would return to the Lord in the last days and at that time serve him in truth and righteousness.
4. Use the Book of Mormon.
In the book of Isaiah, as recorded in the King James Version of the Bible, there are 66 chapters composed of 1,292 verses. Isaiah’s writings, in an even more perfect form than found in our Bible, were preserved on the brass plates, and from this source the Nephite prophets quoted 414 verses and paraphrased at least another 34. (In a half a dozen or so instances duplicate verses are quoted or paraphrased.) In other words, one-third of the book of Isaiah (32 percent, to be exact) is quoted in the Book of Mormon and about another 3 percent is paraphrased.
And the Book of Mormon prophets—note this carefully and let its significance dawn upon you—the Book of Mormon prophets interpreted the passages they used, with the result that this volume of latter-day scripture becomes the witness for and the revealer of the truths of this chief book of Old Testament prophecies. The Book of Mormon is the world’s greatest commentary on the book of Isaiah.
And may I be so bold as to affirm that no one, absolutely no one, in this age and dispensation has or does or 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 that volume of holy writ of which he himself swore this oath: “… as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.” (D&C 17:6.) As Paul would have said, “… because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself” (Heb. 6:13), saying in his own name that the Book of Mormon, and therefore the writings of Isaiah recorded therein, are his own mind and will and voice. The saints of God know thereby that the sectarian speculations relative to Deutero-Isaiah and others being partial authors of the book of Isaiah are like the rest of the vagaries to which the intellectuals in and out of the Church give their misplaced allegiance.
5. Use Latter-Day Revelation.
The Lord by direct revelation has also taken occasion in our day to interpret, approve, clarify, and enlarge upon the writings of Isaiah.
When Moroni came to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823, that holy messenger “quoted the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, saying that it was about to be fulfilled.” (JS—H 1:40.) Section 113 in the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 113] contains revealed interpretations of verses in chapters 11 and 52 of Isaiah [Isa. 11; Isa. 52]. Section 101 [D&C 101] holds the key to an understanding of chapter 65 [Isa. 65] of the ancient prophet’s writings, while chapters 35, 51, 63, and 64 [Isa. 35; Isa. 51; Isa. 63; Isa. 64] are opened plainly to our view because of what the Lord has to say in section 133 [D&C 133]. 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 born in upon his soul some 2,500 years before.
There are also, of course, numerous allusions to and explanations of the great seer’s words in the sermons of Joseph Smith and the other inspired teachers of righteousness of this dispensation. So often it takes only a prophetically uttered statement, revealing the age or place or subject involved in a particular passage in the writings of any prophet, to cause the whole passage and all related ones to shine forth with their true meaning and import.
It truly takes revelation to understand revelation, and what is more natural than to find the Lord Jehovah, who revealed his truths anciently, revealing the same eternal verities today and so tying his ancient and modern words together, that we may be blessed by our knowledge of what he has said in all ages.
6. Learn How the New Testament Interprets Isaiah.
Isaiah is a prophet’s prophet; his words live in the hearts of those who themselves are authoring holy writ. He is quoted at least 57 times in the New Testament. Paul is his chief disciple, calling upon his word some twenty times in his various epistles. Peter uses him as authority in seven instances. He is also quoted seven times in Matthew, five times each in Mark, Luke, and Acts, and four times in both John and Revelation. Some of these quotations are duplicates, some are messianic in nature, and all establish the revealed meaning of the original writing.
7. Study Isaiah in Its Old Testament Context.
Other Old Testament prophets preached the same doctrines and held out the same hopes to Israel that were the burden of Isaiah’s own expressions. To know fully what Isaiah meant, it is essential to know what his fellow prophets had to say in like circumstances and on the same matters. For instance, Isaiah 2:2–4 [Isa. 2:2–4] is quoted in Micah 4:1–3. After Isaiah gives this great prophecy about all nations flowing to the temple built by gathered Israel in the latter days, he describes certain millennial events that will follow this gathering. Micah does the same thing in principle except that his list of millennial events refers to other matters and thus enlarges our understanding of the matter. And so that we shall be sure of these things, the risen Lord quotes from chapters 4 and 5 of Micah, as will be seen by reference to 3 Nephi, chapters 20 and 21. [3 Ne. 20; 3 Ne. 21]
8. Learn the Manner of Prophesying Used among the Jews in Isaiah’s Day.
One of the reasons many of the Nephites did not understand the words of Isaiah was that they did not know “concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” (2 Ne. 25:1.) And so it is with all Christendom, plus many Latter-day Saints.
Nephi chose to couch his prophetic utterances in plain and simple declarations. But among his fellow Hebrew prophets it was not always appropriate so to do. Because of the wickedness of the people, Isaiah and others often spoke in figures, using types and shadows to illustrate their points. Their messages were, in effect, hidden in parables. (2 Ne. 25:1–8.)
For instance, the virgin birth prophecy is dropped into the midst of a recitation of local historical occurrences so that to the spiritually untutored it could be interpreted as some ancient and unknown happening that had no relationship to the birth of the Lord Jehovah into mortality some 700 years later. (Isa. 7.) Similarly, many chapters dealing with latter-day apostasy and the second coming of Christ are written relative to ancient nations whose destruction was but a symbol, a type, and a shadow, of that which would fall upon all nations when the great and dreadful day of the Lord finally came. Chapters 13 and 14 are an example of this. Once we learn this system and use the interpretive keys found in the Book of Mormon and through latter-day revelation, we soon find the Isaiah passages unfolding themselves to our view.
9. Have the Spirit of Prophecy.
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 thinks it means. To interpret it, we must be enlightened by the power of the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet. 1:20–21.) 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.” (Rev. 19:10.) “The words of Isaiah,” Nephi said, “… are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.” (2 Ne. 25:4.) 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.
10. Devote Yourself to Hard, Conscientious Study.
Read, ponder, and pray—verse by verse, thought by thought, passage by passage, chapter by chapter! As Isaiah himself asks: “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine?” His answer: “them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” (Isa. 28:9–10.)
Let us then glance hastily through the 66 chapters that comprise the writings of this man, who according to tradition was sawn asunder for the testimony of Jesus which was his, and outline enough to guide us in a more detailed analysis.
Keys to Interpretation of Isaiah
For our purposes now, two things only need to be added to our recitations relative to Isaiah the seer, Isaiah the prophet of restoration, Isaiah the messianic prophet:
1. Scriptural understanding and great insight relative to the doctrines of salvation are valuable only insofar as they change and perfect the lives of men, only inso far as they live in the hearts of those who know them; and
2. What Isaiah wrote is true; he was God’s mouthpiece in his time and season; the glories and wonders he promised for our day will surely come to pass; and if we are true and faithful we will participate in them, whether in life or in death. This is my witness.