Isaiah’s Original Historical Context

Part 3 of Finding Doctrine and Meaning in Book of Mormon Isaiah

Isaiah’s Original Historical Context

In their series: “Finding Doctrine and Meaning in Book of Mormon Isaiah,”  published in the Religious Educator 15, no. 1, in 2014RoseAnn Benson and Shon D. Hopkin wrote that Isaiah the prophet was regularly given access to the kingly court of Judah. There he prophesied about the consequences of the wickedness of both kingdoms (Israel and Judah); he tried “to persuade those who would listen to return to the faithful worship of the Lord,” they wrote.

Together they explained that Isaiah’s era included strife between the Kingdoms of Israel (the northern kingdom) and Kingdom of Judah (the southern kingdom) during the reigns of King Ahaz (c. 734 BC; see 2 Kings 16:5) and King Hezekiah’s. This included Hezekiah’s religious and temple reforms (c. 728 BC; see 2 Kings 18:4), the removal of Israel (the northern kingdom) by Assyria (c. 721 BC; see 2 Kings 17:23), and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, Assyria’s King, during King Hezekiah’s rule (701 BC; see 2 Kings 18:17).

Pointing then to Isaiah 7 (2 Nephi 17) as an example, Isaiah, “mentions the plotting of the king of Israel and the king of Syria to replace King Ahaz of Judah with a puppet king who would join together with them against the Assyrian Empire (see 2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28).”  This account assumes as readers, we are aware of the geopolitical mess that led to the attempt to dethrone Ahaz. This makes it important for us to know that Ahaz was a wicked king who had taxed both the patience of Isaiah and of the Lord. Finally, Isaiah instructed him to seek a sign from God, which he feigned to do. Weary of the whole matter through Isaiah, “the Lord provided his own sign; Isaiah prophesied of the birth of a child called Immanuel, literally ‘with us is God,’ indicating divine help (see Isaiah 7:14; 2 Nephi 17:14),” Hopkin and Benson wrote.

Continuting, they wrote, “Appreciating the historical, literary, and doctrinal background of Isaiah is useful in gaining deeper spiritual insights that then help us liken the scriptures to ourselves appropriately. [12] Isaiah’s words had meaning for the people of his day as well as for those of future time periods. For example, Isaiah likened Jerusalem to ancient Old Testament cities and “address[ed] them directly by name as actually being Sodom and Gomorrah.” [13] Nephi and Jacob, who understood the historical, literary, and doctrinal background of Isaiah’s writings, could properly liken Isaiah’s prophecies to their own people, thus providing an additional level of prophetic application. This background knowledge will help today’s readers better understand the original purposes of ancient prophecies before they endeavor to apply them further. [14]”

(Read this complete series at: “Finding Doctrine and Meaning in Book of Mormon Isaiah,” Religious Educator 15, no. 1 (2014): 95–122) and follow it as a series:

[12] Exegesis is the process of “reading out of” a text the original meaning; whereas eisegesis is “reading in” to the text one’s own preconceived notions and is not the same as “likening.” Understanding how a principle applies to “them, there, then” helps correctly apply to “us, here, now.” See Eric D. Huntsman, “Teaching through Exegesis: Helping Students Ask Questions of the Text,” Religious Educator 6, no. 1 (2005): 108–10
[13] Nibley, “Great Are the Words of Isaiah,” 224.
[14] Students frequently hurry to make modern application of Isaiah; however, latter-day prophets have elucidated both ancient and modern meanings of passages of Isaiah that support the process of first understanding their original meanings and then seeing how other prophets have applied them. For example, Jeffrey R. Holland explained in his October 2000 general conference address the ancient meanings of the Lord’s admonition “be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord” (Isaiah 52:11) and then made application to latter-day priesthood bearers. In this talk, Elder Holland explained that this scripture referred to “the recovery and return to Jerusalem of various temple implements that had been carried into Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. In physically handling the return of these items, the Lord reminded those early brethren of the sanctity of anything related to the temple. . . . They themselves were to be as clean as the ceremonial instruments they bore.” He also quoted the Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, “If a man . . . purge himself [of unworthiness], he shall be a vessel . . . sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” Therefore, Paul says, “Flee . . . youthful lusts: but follow righteousness . . . with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:21–22). Following the explanation of Old Testament and New Testament usages of the phrase, Elder Holland applied the scripture to latter-day priesthood bearers: “In both of these biblical accounts the message is that as priesthood bearers not only are we to handle sacred vessels and emblems of God’s power—think of preparing, blessing, and passing the sacrament, for example—but we are also to be a sanctified instrument as well. Partly because of what we are to do but more importantly because of what we are to be: . . . clean.”  Jeffrey R. Holland, “Sanctify Yourselves,” Ensign, November 2000, 38–39.

Authors: RoseAnn Benson and Shon D. Hopkin| Benson ( was an adjunct professor of ancient scripture and Hopkin ( was an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this article was published.

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