We have reached the pivotal point in the Book of Mormon when the Nephites and Lamanites have parted ways after arriving in the promised land. Before it actually happened, Nephi had quoted a couple of the chapters of Isaiah from the brass plates to his family, and expressed his admiration for that wonderful prophet; all the while trying to help them all understand these important teachings. Phrases like “liken all scriptures unto us”, “for our profit and learning”, or “plain and precious”pop into mind. So then, why is it still so difficult to understand the words of Isaiah? Even Jesus Christ, when visiting the Nephites after His resurrection declared, “Great are the words of Isaiah.” (See 3 Nephi 23:1.)
If Isaiah’s words are so important for us, why do we struggle so much trying to understand him? In the Old Testament, the 66 chapters of Isaiah provide 1,292 verses for us to ponder. Throughout the Book of Mormon, 425 of these verses (33%) are recounted by the likes of Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi…and Jesus Christ. Of the 425 Isaiah verses in the Book of Mormon, 391 (92%) refer to the attributes or mission of Jesus Christ. Maybe what we can really get out of the words of Isaiah is an appreciation for the importance of the life of our Savior, and the importance of His life to ours. Over the next couple of weeks we will be learning, as Nephi and Jacob cite from Isaiah, many aspects of the Lord’s life and how they affect our lives – at the time of Nephi, as well as in our own day.
This week we learned some of the reasons why it is difficult to understand the teachings of Isaiah: we have not been taught as the Jews; Isaiah speaks in a poetic form that doesn’t necessarily carry over in the translation from Hebrew to English; and he uses many symbols to describe objects and events that could be taking place in his day, in our day, or in the day of the millennial reign of our Redeemer Jesus Christ.
As we now get set to take on the majority of the 425 Isaiah verses quoted in the Book of Mormon, we do have some guidelines to help us better understand them: when we study the scriptures, we need to seek the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and the spirit of prophecy; then we can also revert to the ol’ tried-and-tested read, ponder and pray. We are not going to come out of the Isaiah chapters in Seminary with a sound understanding of what he is teaching. It’s a project – maybe even a lifetime project – to understand the words of Isaiah. I have heard it said that, “You can’t teach Isaiah; Isaiah needs to be experienced.” Our studies in seminary are simply the beginning of that experience for you, and your study habits away from class will be indicative of the testimony that you build in your youth, which will serve as the foundation for your adult life and learning.
Last year we studied the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Christ taught in parables, and you had to be in tune to the Spirit in order to understand the meaning of them. Maybe Isaiah was just like Christ in his manner of teaching, and we need to be in the spirit of Isaiah in order to understand his teachings!?!? Let’s just take it one verse at a time through 2 Nephi, and not get too overwhelmed by the symbolism and verbiage used by Isaiah. Over our lifetime, depending upon our efforts, we will gain an understanding soon enough. In the meantime, let’s try to focus upon why 92% of the Isaiah verses in the Book of Mormon refer to Christ. Obviously, Isaiah and Nephi both understood the greatness of His life yet to come, and are simply trying to get us to understand this at their level. Can we do it? Do we want to do it?