This post is partially in response to an interesting comment I received on my previous post. My post is in no way meant to be critical of the comment or commenter.
My previous post was not fleshed out to really get into the topic of understanding Isaiah. That wasn’t the purpose. It’s purpose was simply to present one perspective of the issue that I had not really thought much about before (an insight provided by Hugh Nibley). Between that post and one comment I received, I spent some time thinking about what it means to understand the scriptures. So here is my reply to the comment as well as my expansion on the theme.
Here is part of the comment to which I am referring: “So while your point is well taken, there is much more to the story than meets the eye. This point of view does not usually come by praying and studying Isaiah. It requires considerable historical background and immersion in tradition, ancient history, comparative mythology. That is, it requires a real investment in time and effort to understand. But I highly recommend it to you.”
That’s the other side of understanding Isaiah that I did not fully address. Historical context always helps elucidate the scriptures. Once you understand Isaiah’s symbolism, his prophecies become clearer. I’ve read a book about Isaiah that provided insight into the symbolism and historical and cultural context of Isaiah – it was very helpful – but I’ve found (this might just be true only for me) that my keenest insights that have direct and personal application to me (in other words, the most important lessons that I can learn from Isaiah) have come simply from reading and praying.
Gospel and scripture commentary books (or blogs or websites) are beneficial – I do keep posting quotes by Hugh Nibley and other gospel scholars (I certainly hope that I am considered one) – but the real power is in the scriptures themselves, especially when coupled with the power of the Holy Ghost. This is not to say, again, that we should not do in-depth studies of the context of the scriptures – it can be very helpful and informative; however, I do not believe that it will ever be as important and personally meaningful and converting as simply reading the scriptures and turning to the Lord for understanding. This is a balance I try to maintain. It is too easy to get caught up in the ‘intellectual’ side of the scriptures (e.g., history, culture, symbolism, linguistics) while negating the spiritual side (i.e., the side that leads to repentance and sanctification through the Spirit and the Atonement of the Savior). Studying about the gospel or the scriptures is not the same as studying the scriptures. So Isaiah can be difficult to understand but then again, it really is not as difficult as we often think.
Nephi provides the key to understanding Isaiah: “Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy. But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn” (2 Nephi 25:4; emphasis added). The spirit of prophecy comes to those who are filled with the Spirit of God and who ask to the spirit of prophecy. The spirit of prophecy is founded upon the testimony of Jesus Christ; in essence, a prophet is someone who testifies of Christ (note however, that a testimony does not give authority; one does not become an Elijah or a Joseph Smith or a Thomas S. Monson just because one has a testimony of Jesus Christ – that particular calling as a prophet comes only to those called by God by those who have the proper priesthood keys). To those filled with the spirit of prophecy (which comes by asking God for it and through righteousness and the Holy Ghost), the words of Isaiah will be plain.
We have been commanded to search the words of Isaiah (see 3 Nephi 23:1) and while it is important to try and “understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, [by being] taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5), I would hope that we as students of the scriptures will focus more on conversion than context. If context strengthens your conversion, then it is wonderful but we need to have balance in our studies of the scriptures. Pharisees and scribes became overly focused on the symbolism and the “nitty-grittiness” of the scriptures and laws that they lost sight of the spirit of them.
I am not disagreeing with toekneenose’s comment, I am merely offering my opinion in that I believe that we need to be moderate in our approach to the scriptures; moderate meaning that we should not let our study of context outweigh our study of the scriptures themselves (I’m not implying that toekneenose does that at all). We miss a lot of meaning in the scriptures if we do not understand the context and the language and whatever else – I think that increasing our knowledge that way is important; however, we miss the most important aspect of the scriptures if that is our main focus. Again, what is most important is what the scriptures mean to you at a particular moment in your life as you listen to the Spirit. Are the scriptures effecting change in your life, are you being converted, or are you simply becoming a knowledgeable Pharisee? Is your faith in Jesus Christ increasing, or is only the perceived circumference of your head increasing? Those are questions I ask myself and ponder upon with regularity. My personal belief is that, on average, I should be spending most of my ‘scripture study’ time reading and thinking about the scriptures and the basic doctrines of the gospel with only a smaller portion of my time spent on commentary or context.