The Book of Isaiah has been a stumbling block for readers probably since it was written, about 700 B.C. Still, the fact that Jesus called the words of Isaiah “great,” and commanded the Nephites to search them diligently (3 Nephi 23:1), means that therein lies a deliberate test. If people would do as he commanded—for which he always “prepares a way”—they would soon realize that Isaiah holds the key to all the scriptures, even the Book of Mormon.
Nephi, Jacob, and Jesus all rely on Isaiah when prophesying about the last days. Isaiah’s thoughts and expressions so completely permeate their words, that their main point of reference in predicting Israel’s restoration and the destruction of the wicked are the words of Isaiah. For that reason, one must understand the salient points of Isaiah’s message in order to comprehend what they are saying. The hit-and-miss approach to Isaiah that has prevailed for so long, therefore, forms a part of the condemnation we are under for treating the Book of Mormon lightly (cf. D&C 84:54–57).
The nature of the Book of Isaiah is such that its individual parts are woven together into a single fabric, so that isolating one piece without considering the rest simply does not work. Book of Mormon writers never do this; but we do it all the time. Understanding Isaiah is like learning a new language. There comes a time when you have acquired enough of a vocabulary and feel for the language that you are confident, for the first time, to engage someone in conversation. Until that point, you hardly dare say a word. That breakthrough, that elation, comes after serious exertion and respect for the language, its thought patterns and grammatical structures.
You can’t just insert an English word here and there when speaking Mongolian and expect the villager to understand. Nor can we insert our own ideas into the writings of Isaiah and expect to make sense of them. And yet, entire superstructures have been built upon unsupported ideas put forth by modern professors of religion. Such efforts come from a lack of respect for what Isaiah and Book of Mormon writers are actually saying and from hasty attempts to “use” them for our own purposes.
Because Isaiah has his own definitions of things—which he establishes through rhetorical connections, linking ideas, chains of events, overarching structures, mini-structures, parallelisms, chiasms, allegories, key words, codenames, etc.—searching is an essential key to understanding his words. So is the “spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), which is the “testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 19:10) that we receive through the Holy Ghost (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Peter 1:21). But do we suppose the Holy Ghost would confirm Isaiah’s words to our understanding if we had not first kept Jesus’ commandment to search them diligently? Because in so many ways the Book of Isaiah is itself a “sealed book,” several simultaneous approaches are necessary to unseal its message.
Another key integrally related to searching is the “manner of the Jews,” or Jewish methodology. Nephi, speaking primarily of Isaiah, says, “The Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5). While we give lip service to that idea, and speak of symbolisms, etc., in reality we don’t give it much credence or consider that the Jews may have something to teach us. We have the gospel, what else is there? What there is are the words of Isaiah, and we don’t understand them. Who among us, for example, “supposeth that they are not [of worth]”? “Unto them will I speak particularly,” Nephi says (2 Nephi 25:8). Because the manner of the Jews is too broad a subject to cover in this mini-study, I refer the reader to publications dealing with it. Suffice to say that we will never understand Isaiah’s words without venturing deeply into that process.
Jesus gives a fourth key when he says, “All things that he [Isaiah] spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake” (3 Nephi 23:3). The Jews teach this very principle to this day, namely, that the Hebrew prophets speak on two levels, the first pertaining to the time in which they lived and the second to the last days. Applying this principle to Isaiah, according to Jesus’ words, “all things that he spake” address two audiences and time frames simultaneously: first, the Lord’s people in Isaiah’s day (the Jews)—the things that “have been;” and second, the Lord’s people today (Latter-day Saints)—the things that “shall be.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes expresses this concept when he declares, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us” (Ecclesiastes 1:9–10).
Nephi can thus say, “I have made mention unto my children concerning the judgments of God, which have come to pass among the Jews . . . according to all that which Isaiah hath spoken” (2 Nephi 25:6). In other words, Isaiah’s prophecies had by that time (559–545 B.C.) been fulfilled, including the Assyrian wars and Babylonian captivity. But then Nephi adds, “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” (2 Nephi 25:7). That second fulfillment of Isaiah’s words he assigns to “the last days” (2 Nephi 25:8).
To what people, then, is the Lord speaking in the thirteen chapters of Isaiah Nephi has just quoted for the benefit of modern readers, if not to us (2 Nephi 12–24; cf. Isaiah 2–14)? That these chapters reprove the Lord’s people and describe his coming judgments are things we cannot simply relegate to people other than ourselves. If we would “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23), then we would not apply some things to Isaiah’s time and others to today, or the good parts to ourselves and the bad to the Jews, to the Nephites, or to some anonymous category of “the wicked.”
Nephi knew full well that Isaiah has us wade through the scolding or reproving parts of his writings before he introduces us to God’s glorious promises. If we believe Jesus’ key to Isaiah of “what has been shall be,” then who, today, are “Zion,” “Babylon,” “Egypt,” and “Assyria”? By examining Isaiah’s characterizations of them, we would soon discern that they speak of living entities in the world today. Just as we accept the idea of “Zion” and “Babylon” as codenames of two opposing spiritual entities patterned after ancient ones, so we will inevitably conclude that “Egypt” and “Assyria” represent two modern superpowers resembling those of Isaiah’s time who, as Isaiah describes them, will fight a war to end all wars.
For ample literary evidence in support of Jesus’ key to Isaiah that “all things that he spake have been and shall be” (3 Nephi 23:3), see Avraham Gileadi, Isaiah Decoded: Ascending the Ladder to Heaven (San Diego, Hebraeus Press, 2002, 1012).