“If, as many suppose, Isaiah ranks with the most difficult of the prophets to understand, his words are also among the most important for us to know and ponder. …
“… His prophetic words can and should shine brightly in the heart of every member of the Church.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah, Ensign, Oct. 1973
If you are seriously asking, how to understand Isaiah, The Church of Jesus Christ has published several suggestions:
- Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah by Bruce R. McConkie
- Five Keys for Studying Isaiah, by Ryan Gardner, Church Education System, and David Edwards, Church Magazines, offer
- The Old Testament Student Manual Kings-Malachi has about a dozen suggestions.
- Understanding Isaiah and Other Challenging Scriptures, Elder Dallin H. Oaks converses with a group of seminary students about how to understand the book of Isaiah.
With all of these choices, we don’t have much to add, but first, let’s take Elder Oaks’ conversation with a group of seminary students shown above as he helps them with questions about understanding Isaiah:
First Student: Ok, so it’s kind of hard to understand some of the Old Testament. How do you suggest to understand it for us, because some of the …like Isaiah, for example, it’s pretty hard to understand?
Elder Oaks: I agree. The Savior told the people in the Book of Mormon, “great are the words of Isaiah”, and he singled Isaiah out as the most important thing to study.
It is not easy to understand because, it’s written in, as Hebrew poetry. And it’s hard to understand. A lot of symbolism, but it must be important, or the Savior wouldn’t have said, “great are the words of Isaiah,” and wanted them to study it.
As I read Isaiah, I think the reason it’s important, is it’s filled with prophecies of the coming of Messiah, and the mission of the Lord, like those great chapters around 50 in Isaiah that speak of the Messiah suffering for our sins and being wounded for our transgressions, for instance.
I think your student study guide serves you very well in its introduction, because it talks about the importance of looking for the meaning of words, how to use the Bible dictionary, and what to look for in the headings of the Scriptures, and how to use the footnotes, and it describes what I’ve called a type, which is something that represents a larger idea, like the serpent that Moses raised in the wilderness, and the people looked on the serpent and it’s representing a larger idea that’s simply a snake on a pole.
If you read carefully, these introductory pages, just the first half dozen pages, you’ve got a lot of help in how to understand some of these difficult-to-understand passages.
Return Missionary: Can I add onto that a little bit. Something that I appreciated on my mission, and I shared with you guys a little bit, I don’t know if you remember this in the beginning of our time together, but we did a study of the Book of Mormon where it was blessings and actions. And so instead of looking for those hard things in Isaiah that are difficult to understand, we would look through, ok, what do I need to do and then what’s the result of that where the Lord will bless me from that action.
That kind of pulls you away from the difficulty of it, and at least for me, that’s helped me so much, especially in Isaiah, because it is hard. Even me, as a teacher that’s supposed to teach you guys, it can be really challenging sometimes just trying to understand, ok, what is the main message that’s getting across here. So, with that poetry, it’s just difficult.
Here are five other ideas from the Church to help you understand Isaiah:
- Don’t just read Isaiah, study his works and put in some real effort. The Old Testament Student Manual states: “When the Lord commanded the Nephites to study Isaiah’s words… He said, ‘Search these things diligently” (3 Nephi 23:1; emphasis added).” The manual states that it is not enough to just “read Isaiah’s writings. To come to an understanding of the book of Isaiah, you will have to diligently study and search by prayerfully pondering Isaiah’s teachings, analyzing them, and relating them to other scriptures.”
- Understand “The manner of prophesying among the Jews.” This phrase from 2 Nephi 25:1 has to do with the language and style Isaiah uses. The LDS Bible Dictionary says, “A major difficulty in understanding the book of Isaiah is his extensive use of symbolism, as well as his prophetic foresight and literary style; these take many local themes (which begin in his own day) and extend them to a latter-day fulfillment or application. Consequently, some prophecies are probably fulfilled more than one time and/or have more than one application.” Learning about Ancient Hebrew poetic styles and symbols will help you understand this prophet.
Commit to studying by the Spirit. The prophet Nephi stated that “the words of Isaiah …are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4). We also learn from John the Revelator, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). The Old Testament Student Manual states: “prophets deliver their message through inspiration from the Holy Ghost, a correct understanding of their message must come from the same source (see 2 Peter 1:20–21; D&C 50:17–22). Righteous people who are serving the Lord and seeking to do His will can obtain the spirit of prophecy by searching the scriptures diligently and giving themselves ‘to much prayer, and fasting’ (Alma 17:3).
Together these verses promise that it will be easier to under Isaiah if we work to strengthen our testimony of Jesus Christ. Gardner and Edwards state, “Deepen that testimony and you’ll deepen your understanding of Isaiah.” This makes sense since Isaiah’s is the strongest messianic voice in the Old Testament. They concluded: “As you study by the Spirit, you will feel the truth of the Savior’s words: ‘Great are the words of Isaiah.’”
“Use the Book of Mormon,” Elder McConkie suggests. He explained that because the works of Isaiah were preserved on the Brass Plates of Laban, those words were more correct than those we find in our Bible. He explained that 32 percent of Isaiah is found in the Book of Mormon in 414 verses with an additional 34 verses paraphrased, which is another three percent. But here is what is most important Elder McConkie wrote, “the Book of Mormon prophets interpreted the passages they used, with the result that this volume of latter-day scripture becomes the witness for and the revealer of the truths of this chief book of Old Testament prophecies. The Book of Mormon is the world’s greatest commentary on the book of Isaiah.”
Get to know Isaiah’s world. Nephi knew that his since his people had left Jerusalem they would not understand Isaiah well unless they learned about “the regions round about” Jerusalem (2 Nephi 25:6). Throughout the book of Isaiah, the prophet refers to cities and other geographic features in and around the Fertile Crescent. To understand name places that Isaiah uses, turn to your Bible Maps 5–6 in the LDS scripture study helps. For example, look at this and read Isaiah 7:1–2, to see how understanding the “regions round about” helps with your understanding:
Knowing some history along with the geography of the middle east around 700 BC will also go a long way in helping your understanding, check out our Historical Background of Isaiah for a timeline, charts, and other maps.