Isaiah’s Writing Style

Part 2 of Finding Doctrine and Meaning in Book of Mormon Isaiah

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Isaiah’s Writing Style Discussed

President Boyd K. Packer observed: “Just as you settle in to move comfortably along, you will meet a barrier. The style of the language changes to Old Testament prophecy style. For, interspersed in the narrative, are chapters reciting the prophecies of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. They loom as a barrier, like a roadblock or a checkpoint beyond which the casual reader, one with idle curiosity, generally will not go.” [1]

President Packer’s observation regarding the barrier of the Isaiah chapters raises several questions: Why is Isaiah so difficult? Is he deliberately challenging? Why does he use poetic parallelism rather than employ a more straightforward style like Nephi, who writes “mine own prophecy, according to my plainness; in the which I know that no man can err” (2 Nephi 25:7)?

In Isaiah’s call to be a prophet, known as his “throne theophany,” [5] he was given this instruction:

“Go and tell this people—hear ye indeed, but they understood not; and see ye indeed, but they perceived not. [6] Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes—lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed” (2 Nephi 16:9–10; compare Isaiah 6:9–10).

The New Testament references this Isaiah passage several times (see Matthew 13:10–15; Mark 4:12; John 12:37–41; Acts 28:25–28) and makes the statement one of consequence—they did not understand or perceive because they hardened their hearts and blinded their minds. Nephi makes a similar claim in the Book of Mormon, that by “looking beyond the mark” the Jews dulled their spiritual capabilities. Jacob explained,

“They despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand; . . . [therefore] God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it” (Jacob 4:14)[7]

In other words, both Nephi and Jacob connected Isaiah’s style of prophecy with the cultural background of the Israelites, created as a result of their desires, and called by Nephi “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1). [8] Nephi and Jacob did not emulate certain features of that manner of teaching in their own prophecies; nevertheless, they valued Isaiah’s prophecies highly and testified that they came from the Lord.

Isaiah’s poetic language does reveal great truths in profound ways to those willing to invest time, humility, and faith, even as it hides those truths from the spiritually immature. [9] As an additional challenge to the Nephites and to latter-day readers, Isaiah’s similes and metaphors were often based in agricultural and geographical details that were no longer familiar to the Nephites and are not part of a modern understanding.

Isaiah’s major poetic technique is the use of parallelisms—the repetition of a thought, idea, grammar pattern, or keyword. [10] His writing is further characterized by its potential for multiple applications. This means that many of his prophecies had a historical fulfillment in his day, and others were fulfilled in future times—such as among the Nephites, and at the time of Jesus Christ—and some even have yet to be fulfilled, such as in the latter days at Christ’s Second Coming. [11] For example, after Nephi’s extended quotation of the words of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 12–24, he proceeded to interpret and apply these words first to the Jews (2 Nephi 25:9–20), then to the descendants of Lehi (25:2126:11), and then to the Gentiles in the latter days (26:12–30:18). Although it may be helpful to understand each poetic device and each potential level of application for the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon, readers need not comprehend every simile, metaphor, allegory, poetic meaning, or application to find overarching themes and doctrines.

(read this entire article Here: “Finding Doctrine and Meaning in Book of Mormon Isaiah,” Religious Educator 15, no. 1 (2014): 95–122)

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[5] This is a revelation of God before his throne and sometimes accompanies the calling of a prophet. For further discussion, see Daniel C. Peterson and Steven D. Ricks, “The Throne Theophany/Call of Muhammad,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000); see also Blake Thomas Ostler, “The Throne Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form Critical Analysis of the First Chapter of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 26, no. 4 (1986): 67–95.
[6] The Book of Mormon and KJV differ slightly in verse 9. The KJV is written in the present tense without pronouns; however, the Book of Mormon passage is in the past tense with pronouns that identify who is at fault— “they,” meaning the people, not Isaiah or God (2 Nephi 16:9; Isaiah 6:9).
[7] Nevertheless, Nephi prophesied that after the marvelous work and a wonder comes forth that “the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness” (2 Nephi 27:29), a reversal of the curse upon the hard-hearted.
[8] It is evident throughout the scriptures that prophets were often considered outsiders belonging to a minority group deemed heretics (see 3 Nephi 10:15–16). Nephi preceded his quoting of Isaiah’s symbolic prophecies by first reciting the clearly-worded predictions about the “very God of Israel” by the prophets Zenock, Neum, and Zenos (1 Nephi 19:7). He would be “lifted up,” “crucified,” and “buried in a sepulchre” with signs in the heavens and earth at his death (1 Nephi 19:10–12). Lehi was mocked and almost killed by the people in Jerusalem for his teachings—not only did he testify of their wickedness and abominations, he also “manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah” (1 Nephi 1:19–20), suggesting that clearly teaching about the anointed one could arouse murderous opposition. Just as Lehi’s plain testimony enraged the Jews of his day (see 1 Nephi 1:20), their plain and bold testimonies had earlier caused Zenock to be stoned and Zenos to be killed (see Alma 33:17; Helaman 8:19; 3 Nephi 10:15–16). Interestingly, the only portions of the writings by Zenock, Neum, and Zenos that have survived are those quoted by Nephi and other Book of Mormon prophets (see, in addition to the above, Jacob 5; Alma 33:3–17). Their prophecies were taken from the original record of the Jews (see 1 Nephi 13:24–29; Jacob 4:14, emphasis added) and will only come forth in their entirety when the brass plates or other sacred writings become available (see 1 Nephi 5:17–18; 13:39).
[9] Interestingly, in Matthew 13:14–15, Jesus refers to the same verses of Isaiah as those quoted by Nephi and alluded to by Jacob (see previous paragraph in paper). Jesus uses this section of Isaiah to explain why he is speaking in parables, so that only the spiritually mature will hear and understand. Jesus’s understanding of the purpose of parables, then, forms a helpful parallel to Nephi and Jacob’s understanding and use of Isaiah.
[10] Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1982), 32.
[11] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, writing of Isaiah’s manner of prophesying, stated: “These parallel prophecies with application in more than one age create much of the complexity in Isaiah, but they also provide so much of the significance and meaning that his writings contain.” Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, Deseret Book, 1997), 78.

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

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