My Soul Delighteth in the Words of Isaiah

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Today in Sunday School we covered Isaiah as quoted in the Book of Mormon, primarily in 2 Nephi. In the teacher’s manual there are five points about why Nephi included so many of the words of Isaiah. Two of the points are related and were incompletely discussed in class. The manual is partially misleading because it ties Isaiah to our own rejoicing, as if it is a feel good pep talk. That misses the point.

Nepali quoted Isaiah in part “To help us (his readers) rejoice” (2 Nephi 11:5–6, 8). What the scriptures say is this: “And now I write some of the words of Isaiah, that whoso of my people shall see these words may lift up their hearts and rejoice for all men. Now these are the words, and ye may liken them unto you and unto all men.” (2 Nephi 11:8; emphasis added).

Isaiah can help us rejoice but we rejoice specifically “for all men [and women].” We rejoice for all because Isaiah taught of the salvation that comes through Christ. He taught of resurrection, propitiation, and restoration. We rejoice for all people because all might return to God and have eternal life because of Christ’s atonement. Isaiah doesn’t help us rejoice, his words help us rejoice for all people.

The next point in the Sunday school manual is related: “To reveal God’s judgments” (2 Nephi 25:3). We rejoice for all because of promises given through Christ’s atonement. Those who reject those promises by rejecting the prophets, by not repenting when sinful, by refusing properly authorized ordinances are subject to God’s just judgments. All are subject to those judgements – for their progression or their damnation. So we can rejoice for all people but such rejoicings can turn to weepings with rejection of God’s laws.

Isaiah in the Book of Mormon Side by Side with the KJV

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Jesus taught: “And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah. For surely he spake 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 Nephi 23:1-3).

My brother has a website that shows side-by-side comparisons of all the extensive Isaiah quotes in the Book of Mormon. Differences are shown in color. This is an interesting project and is helpful for those who are want to learn what the Book of Mormon adds to our understanding of Isaiah’s teachings. Many of the changes are minor but some are significantly clarifying.

Isaiah Spake Many Hard Things

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“Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” (2 Nephi 25:1).

What did Nephi mean when he said that Isaiah spake things that were hard for his people to understand? The obvious answer to that question is elucidated by the last part of the verse: “for they [knew] not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” His people did not generally have the education or experience or knowledge to fully understand Isaiah’s prophecies. Maybe they didn’t have the desire to understand Isaiah. I think this holds true for many people today. The common ‘complaint’ I hear about Isaiah is that the book is difficult to understand. It can be if you do not understand that Isaiah’s language is highly symbolic but at the same time it is very direct and literal, meaning it refers to specific events. It’s also repetitive; meaning that Isaiah states the same thing multiple times in multiple ways.

I will not get into ways of understanding Isaiah – the best way is to spend time reading the book and praying for understanding – because that is not the purpose of this post. I wanted to share another quote and insight from Hugh Nibley about what he thinks is the reason that Isaiah is “hard…to understand”. I have been quoting him a lot recently because I have been reading his Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, which is a transcript of lectures he gave in his Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University in the 1980s.

“‘Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand.’ Isaiah himself often mentions the fact that the people ask him to speak smooth things [i.e., the people want Isaiah to tell them only things that make them feel good and that they want to hear]. They want to hear smooth things. I am not going to teach you smooth things, he says. If I just gave you the smooth things you want, you wouldn’t need them…. If the scriptures told us only what we wanted to hear, of course we wouldn’t need them.

“You notice it all changed under the rabbis; the interpretations became different. Isaiah is much too literal [for them], etc. Then, of course, they accepted the University abstractions and became more philosophical and intellectual in the interpretation of everything.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, 2004, p.249).

In short, Hugh Nibley’s explanation of why Isaiah is hard to understand is because Isaiah does not speak “smooth” things to the people, he told them things that were hard to hear because he condemned their wickedness. He was a prophet who simply “told it like it was.” I think Hugh Nibley’s insight adds to our understanding of Isaiah. Yes, his writings can be difficult to understand because of his language and his symbolism, but then again, the book of Isaiah is not as difficult to understand as many people believe. Isaiah simply wrote many difficult things for the wicked to understand, for he prophesied about the Messiah and the temple and the way to salvation. He wrote of many things that would transpire in the last days – in our day – the restoration of the gospel, the building of temples, and so forth. Great are the words of Isaiah.

Do Good and Love God, Part 5

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What is it about Isaiah’s prophecies that are so powerful? Most of his prophecies focus on Jesus Christ, especially Jesus as our Messiah and Redeemer. On the Atonement – the Savior’s propitiation for our sins – Isaiah wrote, “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: ye we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. Be he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:3-7). How much clearer could Isaiah be about Jesus’ role as Redeemer and as our Savior?

Isaiah also wrote much about the temple and temple-related doctrines. “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:2-3). Isaiah wanted the people and all of us to know that the Savior, living pure, and the temple should be central in our lives. The Savior’s Atonement should be particularly central. Those are some of the “best” things we should focus on.

Link to part 4 of of this essay.

Do Good and Love God, Part 4

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Jacob, brother of Nephi, again taught the importance of Isaiah (at his brother’s suggestion), “I will read you the words of Isaiah…. And I speak unto you for your sakes, that ye may learn and glorify the name of your God” (2 Ne. 6:4). From the prophecies of Isaiah we learn the name of our God but more importantly we learn to glorify His name. What is the name of our God? Jehovah, who was born into this world in a humble manger. Jesus Christ is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the Old Testament. He is our Savior and Redeemer. He is the Son of the Eternal Father. While Jesus and Heavenly Father are distinct personages, They are one in purpose and one in power. “The members of the Godhead are infinitely more one than separate, they just happen to be separate beings” (Robert L. Millet, 1998, heard in class at BYU).

Jacob continued, “And now, the words which I shall read are they which Isaiah spake concerning all the house of Israel; wherefore, they may be likened unto you, for ye are of the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 6:5). We too, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are of the house of Israel and can liken the words of Isaiah to ourselves. Nephi loved Isaiah’s words, “I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken is words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him…. Whoso of my people shall see these words may lift up their hearts and rejoice for all men.” (2 Nephi 11:2,8). There are many more references to the words of Isaiah being great (see 2 Ne. 25:1; 2 Ne. 25:4-7). The Savior, after His resurrection, commanded the people of Nephi to read and study Isaiah’s words.

Jesus taught, “Ye remember that I spake unto you, and said that when the words of Isaiah should be fulfilled – behold they are written, ye have them before you, therefore search them” (3 Ne. 20:11). Again he commanded, “And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Ne. 23:1). We must not only search Isaiah’s words but also search them diligently.

Link to part 3 of this essay.

Do Good and Love God, Part 3

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So, in the end, the innate goodness of humankind is really not separate from God; however, I believe people can be good without being directly inspired by God. My point is that there are things that people do or there are events that happen that are good or bad but this does not mean that God caused them or is responsible for them. Why is this important to understand? Because there are good things, as I wrote before, but just because something is good does not mean it is something we should expend a lot of energy and effort on; we should focus most of our efforts on the better and best – things that are inspired directly by God; things that lead us to do good continually and serve and love God.

What are some of these best things in life? In the Doctrine and Covenants we are commanded to “teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom” (D&C; 88:77). The doctrine of the kingdom is certainly one of the best things. Related to this verse is the following from the Doctrine and Covenants, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C; 88:118). What are some of the other “best” things we can do? Teach one another words of wisdom, seek out the best books (particularly the words of wisdom in those books), seek learning but particularly learning by study and faith. Those are all some of the “best” things we can, or rather, we must focus on.

The scriptures are included within the category of the “best books” but that category is not exclusive to scriptures. There are many other non-scriptural books that can be included in the “best books.” However, there are no books that are better than the scriptures. One of the books that we should particularly focus on is the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is the most-quoted prophet in the scriptures. His prophecies are particularly prevalent in the Book of Mormon. Nephi talked about the importance of Isaiah, “And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them 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 scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). Isaiah is a powerful source of knowledge about the Savior.

Link to part 2 of this essay.

Fasting and Prayer, Part 2

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The book of Isaiah contains many plain and precious truths of the gospel that have rarely been expressed as succinctly and beautifully by other prophets. There is a reason that Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the scriptures. There is a reason the Savior specifically told the Nephites to read his words. In Isaiah chapter 58 we learn much about the law of the fast, about fasting. Isaiah criticizes those who “fast for strife and debate,” (Isa. 58:4) who fast for the wrong reasons and are irritable and short-tempered. If we do not fast with sincere purpose, we are just starving ourselves for little benefit. We are more likely to “exact all [our] labours” (Isa. 58:3), or in other words, make sure others know we are suffering. This is what the Savior taught about on His sermon on the mount. “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” (Matt. 6:16). Then the Lord continues with how we should fast. “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:17-18).

Returning to Isaiah, we learn more about fasting. When we fast we should bow our heads down and express sorrow for sins, becoming penitent before the Lord. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6). Through fasting we can free ourselves from the bondage of sin. We can be free from oppression and lightened of burdens. The yoke we use to pull our heavy cart of sin can be replaced by the Lord’s, which is easy and light [see 2 Ne. 15:18; Matt. 11:30].

Isaiah continued with things that we should do in conjunction with fasting. “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isa. 58:7). When we fast, we should also help feed the hungry and care for the poor and clothe the naked. That is what our Fast Offerings do today. They go to those in need in our ward, then stake, then the wider church. Through our offerings, we literally can bless the lives of our neighbors. Fasting gives us opportunity to stop focusing on ourselves so that we can focus on those around us.