To most people, reading the book of Isaiah is like reading something written in a foreign language. That is to say, they often feel that his words make very little sense to them. Therefore, most people have trouble understanding why Jesus commanded the Nephites to diligently search the words of Isaiah and then wonder even more why Jesus said his words are so great. Even those who do understand Isaiah admit that his writings are not easy to follow. However, there are a few things that can help us better understand Isaiah's message even if we may not understand everything he says.
One is to realize that Isaiah was writing to the people of his day, not ours. As such, he talks about things that are very familiar to him but are mostly unknown to us. By that I mean he talks about specific people, places, and events without giving any clarifying explanation of who, where, or what he is talking about. And the reason is because these things were well known to those he is writing to.
For example, in chapter 7 we read, "And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind. Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field" (vs 1-3).
The first thing we are confronted with in these verses are the names of a lot people we don't know very well - Ahaz, Jotham, Uzziah, Rezin, Pekah, and Remaliah. A careful reading will reveal these are the names of kings of certain countries, but even here we may have trouble. Today the average person might be aware of who the nations of Syria and Israel are but unless a person has some knowledge of biblical history they many not know about the kingdoms of Ephraim and Judah or who exactly is the house of David. Also, in theses verses, Isaiah is talking about military and political alliances during times of war between these countries, but without carefully studying this chapter even that fact may be missed. However, the people of Isaiah's day clearly understood what he was referring to because all of these people were currently living and all of these events were happening during their lifetime. But today when we read these words we're in effect studying ancient and forgotten history. When the Lord told Isaiah to take his son Shear-jashub and go to "the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field" most people back then probably knew exactly where that was but today we have no idea where that is or even what he is talking about.
Another example of this is found in chapter 8:3-4 which reads, "And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz. For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria." To some these verses may seem almost unintelligible but they make more sense when we realize that Damascus was the capitol or seat of power of the kingdom of the Assyrian empire and that Samaria was the capitol of the kingdom of Israel (also known as the kingdom of Ephraim). When we further realize that these two countries entered into a confederacy with one another to fight against the kingdom of Judah (which Isaiah belonged to), then we can better understand Isaiah's words that he later wrote in verses 12-13: "Say ye not, A conderacy, to all them to whom this people sall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread."
What Isaiah was telling his people was. "Don't be afraid because Syria and Israel have entered into a confederacy with one another to conspire against us. Rather, be afraid of the Lord and if you will make yourselves holy before Him then it will be Syria and Israel who will have need to fear because their confederacy will come to nothing. In fact, before my son Maher-shalal-hash-baz is old enough to talk it will be their riches and spoils of war that will be taken from them." On the other hand, if we don't understand who these people are and what is happening with them then Isaiah's words could very easily seem confusing.
Another reason why Isaiah is hard to understand is because he often uses word pictures as a means of illustrating his point. For example, in 48:4 we read, "Thou art obstinate and thy neck is an iron sinew and thy brow brass." If we take these words literally rather than realize that Isaiah is painting a picture with words then this verse would seem rather strange and difficult to understand. To make this verse more understandable we could rewrite it as saying: "You are obstinate in that you will not bend your will to mine, saith the Lord. It's as though the sinews in your neck were made out of iron and your eyebrows were made out of brass. You are like metal that is hard and cold. You lack warmth and compassion. You are rigid and firm in your ways and will not let Me shape and form you to My character."
In chapter 7 we read, "In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard" (vs 20). If we take this verse literally then it almost seems like an incomprehensible statement, but when we realize that this is a picture that Isaiah is painting with words, then Isaiah's message becomes clearer. What he is telling his people in this verse is that if they do not repent then God will bring the Assyrians (who are on the other side of the river) down upon them and they will completely destroy the kingdom of Judah. However, instead of saying this straightforwardly, Isaiah paints a picture with words. Since a razor is used to shave hair, the picture Isaiah paints is of Assyria being like a razor whom God has hired to shave (i.e. cut off, destroy) every part of Judah, This not only includes shaving the hair of their head, which is their king, but the hair of their feet and even their beard as well. In other words, the entire nation of Judah, from their "head" to their "feet," will become "shaved" or destroyed.
In addition to this, Isaiah is often very poetical in the way he writes and poetry often uses word pictures to express itself. For example, in 48:18 he writes: "Then had thy peace been as a river and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea." Again, if we take these words literally they make very little sense but if we take them as poetry then it's easier to see they are no different than a poet telling the one they love, "Your eyes are as warm as the autumn sun and whenever you look at me my heart is like the butter upon the bread that melts."
Another reason why Isaiah is hard to understand is because he gives quite a few prophecies. But prophecy, in most cases, is deliberately vague and unknowable in meaning until after the prophesied event has occurred. For example, in chapter 7 we read, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings" (vs 14-16).
Today, as believers in Christ, we clearly understand what this verse is saying but that's only because we have the advantage of reading it with 20/20 hindsight. However, the people of Isaiah's day had no way of knowing who he was referring to. In fact, when put into context, this prophecy seems to be talking about the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Syria rather than the coming of Christ. When read in this light, these verses are still hard to understand, especially to the Jews of today.
In chapter 29 we read, "Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered. And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed" (vs 9-11).
Even today among both Christians and Jews there is widespread disagreement over how to interpret these verses of prophecy. It is clear that Isaiah is painting a word picture of someone behaving like a drunkard who can't walk straight but it is not clear who that someone is or why they are behaving that way. Isaiah then paints another word picture when he likens this situation to someone who is asleep with their eyes closed, except here he explains that the prophets are the eyes of the sleeping person. But what about the sealed book and how does that relate to the drunkard and the closing of the eyes? Without first knowing what this prophecy is referring to these verses of scripture are nearly impossible to understand, therefore to the only way we can really know what this prophecy is about is after it has been fulfilled.
Yet, even with these helpful hints, Isaiah can still be hard to follow at times. Because of that, those who read the Book of Mormon often wonder why there are so many verses of Isaiah quoted in it. As such, many people have a tendency to skip past those parts when they come to them. Therefore, it might be helpful to explain the general message that Isaiah is trying give. When combined with the other hints already given above it might make Isaiah a little easier to read and understand.
As already stated, Isaiah is better understood when we know the history surrounding his writings, so let's begin our explanation there.
After the death of King Solomon, the nation of Israel was thrown into a state of civil war that ended with them being split into two nations. The northern part of the old kingdom, which contained ten of the twelve tribes, retained the name of Israel and their capitol was located in the city of Samaria. Although they were sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Ephraim, their people were known as the Israelites. The southern portion of the old kingdom, which comprised the remaining two tribes, took the name of Judah, with Jerusalem being its capitol and its people were known as the Jews. Even though the Israelites and Jews were all descendants of the patriarch Jacob and once use to be a united people, after this civil war they now had a hated for each other. The newly formed kingdom of Israel, especially, many times sought to conquer its sister state, Judah, sometimes by entering into an alliance with other countries to help them achieve their goal. Fearful of not being able to defend themselves, the kingdom of Judah argued over which countries they could align themselves with for protection. This strained relationship between these two countries continued to exist for hundreds of years
Since the temple of Solomon was located in the city of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Israel could not go there to worship their former God, Jehovah, so they built their own temples and worshipped false gods. This very much displeased the Lord and He warned them of utter destruction if they persisted in such evil. However, the kingdom of Judah was not much better when it came to worshipping false idols, and they too came under the same condemnation by God. Part of the reason for their lack of faithfulness to the Lord was because they adopted the lifestyle and practices of other countries around them, especially those whose help they wanted in time of war. These practices included worshipping the false gods of these foreign nations.
One of the kingdoms Israel aligned itself with was the mighty Assyrian empire, located just north of them. Several times these two countries attempted to conquer the kingdom of Judah to the south but failed to do so each time. However, in 720 BC Syria attacked the kingdom of Israel itself, completely destroying it and then took its men, women, and children captive, scattering them throughout the Assyrian empire. To this day, these people have never returned to their homeland nor have they ever gathered themselves together to form their own nation again. Hence, they have become known as the ten lost tribes of Israel.
The prophet Isaiah lived in the kingdom of Judah both immediately before and after this destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and his message of repentance was directed primarily to the Jews. Throughout his writings there is a consistent theme that repeats itself many, many times. The message Isaiah delivered was a condemnation of their behavior, calling them to trust in the Lord and to follow His ways, and warning them that if they didn't heed his counsel they would someday be utterly destroyed just as Israel had been. However, he also repeatedly prophesied that even if they were destroyed, God would someday gather them together again as a nation. This prophecy not only included the Jews but the Israelites as well. He also prophesied about the coming of the Messiah whom we know as Jesus Christ and foretold his life and mission to save people from their sins.
To better understand the message of Isaiah perhaps it might be helpful if we take a look at a condensed and paraphrased version of his words that were given to him by the Lord. He wrote:
Listen to me, you who call yourselves the children of Israel. I am the one who made this earth and its heavens. Assemble yourselves together and listen to what I have to say. Come near to me and listen to what I tell you. I am the Lord, who is your God. It is I who shall teach thee so that you can profit from what I will tell you. I am the one who will lead you in the way you should go.
You claim you belong to the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but you don't deal in truth or in righteousness. You call yourselves the people of the holy city but you will not rely upon the God of your fathers whose name is The Lord of Hosts. Look, O Judah, what you have done to the city of Jerusalem. It used to be a place of holiness wherein righteousness once dwelled but now you have turned it into a den of thieves and murderers. You have polluted my holy house with your wicked ways and left my holy commandments to follow after false gods. You saw what I did to your sister, Israel but you did not fear for yourself. Instead, you followed after her ways and did all that she did that was abominable in my sight. Therefore I will do to Jerusalem and her idols what I did to Samaria and her idols.
Did I not love you when you were poor and destitute? Did I not clothe you with fine linen as I made you prosperous in the land? Did I not give you riches of gold, silver, and precious stones? You once were the weakest of all nations and I made you the greatest of them all. And what thanks have you given me? Your women clothe themselves in the fine linen I have given them in order to play the part of a harlot, mincing and prancing as they walk the streets, seducing men to do that which is wicked in my sight. You have taken the riches I have given you and used them to pay those who hate me in order to buy their favor. You have deserted my house and have fled to the house of my enemies to worship their gods. Yet, what have these false gods given you in return for your loyalty to them? Nothing! And yet you still cling to them and treat me as a discarded rag despite all I have done for you.
I gave you beautiful children so that I might raise up a nation to myself who will honor me and follow my ways. But instead of teaching them righteousness you have placed them upon the altar of the heathen god Baal and offered them up as a slain sacrifice to him. I have extended my hand continually unto you and yet you turn away from me as though I have leprosy. I call onto you but you will not listen. I bless you and you curse me. Even when the poor, the needy, and the naked among your own people beg for your help their cry is in vain because you ignore them.
Among all those who call themselves my people I find none that are righteous, no not one. You have all gone astray, everyone of you. The entire nation has become laden with sin and wickedness. From the head of your nation to the very lowest of its people there is no soundness in you. Your entire body is sick and your heart is set on wickedness.
Then you come to my holy temple and burn your sacrifices and light your incense, and keep the holy days and feasts I have required of you through my servant Moses and you think that such behavior is pleasing to me. But I say unto you, your burnt offerings are an abomination in my sight, your sweet incense stinks in my nostrils, and I am disgusted with your holy days and feasts. All of your so-called righteousness is like filthy rags before my face. Now when you raise your arms to call upon me, I close my eyes so I won't see you. When you pray unto me I close my ears so I will not hear you.
I am a patient God but you have provoked me to anger because you will not listen to me. Therefore, I will bring other nations down upon you and they shall slaughter you in great numbers. I will break your strong cities like a potter's clay pot that has been broken into so many pieces that nothing will be found of it, not even a shard. I will leave your land desolate. I will turn your laughter into wails of sorrow. I will cause your singing to become a song of lament. I will take your vineyards and trample them into the dust of the earth. I will take the fatness from off of your bones and leave you hungry and lean. I will take your children away from you and they shall serve other masters. The beauty of your women will fade. Instead, they will become wrinkled and old looking as they work as slaves for the heathen nations. And when they give birth, instead of joy they will feel only sorrow knowing the hardships and troubles that await their children. Your strong men will be used as oxen to do the heavy work their masters will require of them and they will consider it a curse to live a long life.
Oh, had you only listened to my commandments, then you would have had peace and your children would have become numerous like grains of sand. Get yourself away from living the way the Babylonians do and stop behaving like the Chaldeans. Instead, rely on me rather than on them. Sing praises to my holy name instead of singing with my enemies in a drunken stupor. When your fathers were led through the deserts after leaving Egypt, did I not take away their thirst by causing water to come out of a rock? If even now you would turn from your wicked ways and keep my commandments and rely on me you shall yet be saved.
But if you won't listen to my voice or the voice of my servants behold, in my wrath and fierce anger I will make your land desolate and shall destroy all the sinners from out of it. I will give power to the Gentiles to crush you. Your homes will be laid low to the ground and become the dwelling place of wild beasts. Your gardens and orchards that once produce fruit abundantly will become barren and produce only thorns and thistles. The Gentile nations will do with you as they please and shall scatter you to the ends of the earth and you will become a despised and hated people.
But it shall only be a small moment that I will forsake you and then with great mercy I shall gather you. It shall come to pass that I will once more stretch forth my hand to recover a remnant of my people. In a time that is acceptable to me I will hear the cries of my people Israel and will save them. I will gather them together as a hen gathers her chickens. I will free them from captivity even from the mightiest of nations. I will fight against those who fight against you and I will be the one who saves your children. Those who once tried to harm you will become fewer and fewer and will live in far away places. Those who oppress you I will feed them their own flesh and they will become drunken with their own blood.
You shall come from far away places, from the north, from the south, from the east and from the west and I will make a path for you to follow. In that day you will be able to say, Let us go forth for we are free. And I will be the one who will lead you and I will be your guide. No longer will you be thirsty or hungry and you will break forth into singing because the Lord has comforted you.
But before that day comes you will say, The Lord has forsaken us and has forgotten the promises he has made to our fathers. But can a mother forget her own child? You are my children and I can never forget you. I have engraven your name on the palms of my hands. As I live, the day will come when the Gentile nations you once served in affliction will become your servants. All the nations of the earth will gather themselves to you and I will bless them so they will bring your sons in their arms to the land of their inheritance and your daughters they will carry upon their shoulders. Kings and queens shall nourish you and provide all that you need. They shall bow down to thee with their face toward the ground and lick the dust off of your shoes. In that day you will finally know that I am the Lord and that those who patiently wait on me shall not be ashamed. All your children will be taught in the ways of the Lord and there will be great peace among them. In that day everyone will know that I am the Savior and Redeemer of Israel, that I am the mighty One, the mighty God of Jacob.
This was the message Isaiah gave to his people. Many years later, the prophet Jeremiah delivered a similar message of destruction to Judah if they would not repent, but he wasn't the only that did so. There was another prophet by the name of Lehi who also lived during that time who went about making the same declaration. Both of these men live around 600 BC. By this time the Babylonian empire was the predominate power in the area and had already conquered the kingdom of Judah. But, instead of completely destroying it, they allowed the Jews to remain where they were but existing a vassal state under the control of King Nebuchadnezzar. The message of both Jeremiah and Lehi was that if the Jews didn't repent of their wickedness the Lord would completely destroy all of Judah like He had done to the nation of Israel. Lehi left Jerusalem before that event took place, but Jeremiah didn't and was taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar's army when it sacked Jerusalem in 600 BC.
Since the Nephite and Lamanite people we read about in the Book of Mormon were descents of those who had originally come from the kingdom of Judah, Isaiah's prophecies concerning the gathering of Israel also pertained to them as well. This is why the Nephite prophets quoted from Isaiah so much. In fact, in a vision, Nephi, the son of Lehi, saw that his own people would eventually follow the same wicked behavior of the Jews and would therefore be completely destroyed themselves for the same reason. Therefore, when Nephi read the writings of Isaiah, he was struck by the profound similarity between what Isaiah told Judah and what he had seen in a vision concerning his own people. That's what prompted him to say, "that I might more fully persuade them (my people) to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all [his] scriptures (i.e., words) unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (1 Nephi 19:23). In other words, Nephi sought to help his people profit and learn from the mistakes of their brethren, the Jews, by comparing (likening) what Isaiah said to their own situation.
From the very first book to the last, one of the great, consistent messages of the Book of Mormon is that God would not only scatter Israel (which included the Nephite nation) but that He would then someday gather them together again. During His visit to the Nephites Jesus Himself spent a considerable amount of time discussing this very subject (see 3 Nephi, chapters 16, 20-22), explaining that when they saw their records come forth to them again from the Gentiles that this would be the sign that God had begun His work of fulfilling His promise to recover or gather His people (3 Nephi 21:7). The prophet Mormon abridged the Nephite record with just this very thought in mind and his son Moroni ended his father's record by quoting Isaiah 52:1,2 and talked about the fulfilling of the promises God had made to the house of Israel (Moroni 10:31), which promise was to gather them together once more.
But the way the gathering will be accomplished is through bringing the lost tribes of Israel to a knowledge of their Messiah who is Jesus Christ. This is what the Book of Mormon is all about. It's "to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they might know the covenants (i.e., promises) of the Lord that they are not cast off forever - and also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ" (title page of the Book of Mormon).
In all of his commentaries on Isaiah the prophet Nephi describes the relationship between Christ and the scattering and gathering of Israel. Israel was scattered precisely because they rejected their God and refused to keep His commandments. The Jewish nation was completely destroyed and scattered after they rejected Jesus and cried for Him to be crucified. The Nephite nation likewise was destroyed when they no longer followed the teachings of Christ, their Savior. The gathering of these people can only occur when they return to the worship of the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As such, the message of Christ is central to the restoration of the House of Israel and the Book of Mormon is the instrument by which God intends to bring Israel to a knowledge of their Messiah.
This is why the Nephite prophets felt the writings of Isaiah were so great. His words not only prophesied about the coming of the Messiah but they foretold the time when God would gather His people together before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. This is why Isaiah is quoted so much in the Book of Mormon and why all the ancient Nephite prophets kept a record of what they believed. They wanted their future posterity to know what the promises of God were to the House of Israel (which they were a part of), as well, and who it is they should look to for their salvation which is essential in order for them to be gathered again (2 Ne. 25: 26).
When we realize that this is the message of the Book of Mormon it can better assist us in understanding Isaiah.
To read a paraphrased rendering of the 20th and 21st chapters of 1 Nephi click here