2 Nephi 11 tweet: N delights in words of Isa & likens 2 N-ites. N, Isa + J saw Redeemer – 3 witnesses. N delights in Christ & covenants.
Have you heard the one about the missionaries who get caught up in a drive-by shooting? One of the missionaries gets shot and as his companion stoops over him to find out how badly he is hurt, he opens his eyes, gets up, and dusts himself off. Miraculously, he is completely unharmed! He reaches inside his coat pocket and pulls out his Book of Mormon, with the bullet still lodged in it. He opens the book, looks at his companion and exclaims, “Can you believe it, elder? Even bullets can’t get through Second Nephi!”
This joke neatly summarises the challenge of dealing with the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. We’ve dealt with Isaiah before in patches (see here and here), but here we are essentially faced with 13 uninterrupted chapters of Isaiah (2 Nephi 12–24) that we are largely unequipped to understand properly. The temptation is to skip over these chapters quickly. The Book of Mormon Sunday School lesson manual covers them in just one week. We might even have prophetic sanction to skim read Isaiah. Boyd K. Packer said:
[The writings of Isaiah] loom as a barrier, like a roadblock or a checkpoint beyond which the casual reader, one with idle curiosity, generally will not go. You, too, may be tempted to stop there, but do not do it! Do not stop reading! Move forward through those difficult-to-understand chapters of Old Testament prophecy, even if you understand very little of it. Move on, if all you do is skim and merely glean an impression here and there. Move on, if all you do is look at the words.1
However, Elder Packer was explicitly addressing those who have never read the Book of Mormon. For those who are (or should be) more comfortable with the Book of Mormon, I don’t think we get such an easy pass. Perhaps more relevant for those who are already somewhat familiar with Nephi’s use of Isaiah is the following, somewhat unnerving statement, by Bruce R. McConkie:
It just may be that my salvation (and yours also!) does in fact depend upon our ability to understand the writings of Isaiah as fully and truly as Nephi understood them.2
I’ve talked previously about a more existential Isaiah problem. But perhaps for most of us, the more immediate problem is that we just don’t really understand what Isaiah is saying and therefore, what Nephi is doing by quoting from him so extensively. I think this actually strikes at the heart of understanding prophecy and revelation. That is, in order to understand revelation and therefore open ourselves up to receive more revelation, I think we need to put in the hard work of reading difficult-to-understand scripture. Perhaps we imagine that revelation flows naturally to the prophets, but my sense is that it is actually a very difficult process to try and encapsulate in words the mind and will of God. You can sense Joseph Smith’s frustration in trying to capture the essence of scripture when he describes the written word as “the little, narrow prison, almost as it were, total darkness of paper, pen and ink; and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.”3
We live at a time where we have grown accustomed to immediate answers in easily digestible formats. This is the age of Google and Wikipedia, blog posts (ha!) and tweets. But if writing scripture is such hard work, then perhaps we should expect reading and understanding scripture to be as equally challenging. So while it’s tempting to cover 2 Nephi 12–24 pretty briefly with a bunch of tweets and a couple of cursory glances towards what Isaiah actually said, instead, over the next few posts I’ll actually try and engage with the text in an effort to make some sense of Nephi’s purpose in relying so heavily on Isaiah.
To conclude this post I’ll highlight a couple of keys that I’ll be using to try and help me to better understand Isaiah.4 Firstly, it’s always worth bearing in mind an overall summary of the book of Isaiah. Peter Quinn-Miscall, in his commentary, explains the book as follows:
The opening of the book of Isaiah announces that the book is a vision and not a narrative work or a collection of proverbs. We see and imagine it just as much as we hear and understand it. The vision that is the book of Isaiah is a grand poem that encompasses God, the entire universe, humanity, and the sweep of history from creation on. Within this panorama the poet focuses on the fortunes of one people, Israel, in two trying periods of their history: the Assyrian invasions of the late eighth century B.C.E. and the Babylonian invasions of the six century B.C.E. plus the following Persian period of reconstruction … He employs these events to present the vision of God and humanity, and what life lived in God’s presence, on God’s Holy mountain, is like.5
Secondly, I think it’s helpful to compare the Book of Mormon Isaiah text to a modern translation of Isaiah. Now I know that using anything other than the KJV is tantamount to heresy in some quarters; however, modern Apostles have used modern translations of the Bible to good effect in the Ensign and General Conference.6 As beautiful as the language of the KJV may be, its beauty doesn’t always aid comprehension. Consulting a modern translation may go a long way in helping understanding about what Isaiah was saying. There are plenty of free sources of modern translations available on the internet, e.g. NetBible.
Thirdly – and this is something that reading most modern translations will reveal – Isaiah is for the most part written as poetry. Seeing the structure of the poetry can help you realise that when Isaiah seems to be constantly repeating himself, actually he’s just writing in a poetic form. Julie Smith uses the following example to illustrate how reading a modern translation with poetic structure can facilitate understanding. The KJV translation of Isaiah 50:11 reads:
Behold all ye that kindle fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks which ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand—ye shall lie down in sorrow.
Whereas the NIV translation with poetic structure reads:
A But now, all you who light fires
A and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
B go, walk in the light of your fires
B and of the torches you have set ablaze.
C This is what you shall receive from my hand:
C You will lie down in torment.4
Finally, when reading Isaiah, pay attention to who the speaker is and who the audience is because it can change multiple times within a chapter. Smith puts it this way:
Probably the loopiest thing about Isaiah is that the text will suddenly, without warning, and multiple times within the same chapter, shift who the speaker and who the audience is. You need no outside information in order to figure out what is going on; you just need to read the text multiple times, and then, once you have it figured out, re-read the text now that you know who is speaking to whom. For example, consider 2 Nephi 7 (=Isaiah 50). In verses 1-3, the Lord is speaking to rebellious people. But in v4, the speaker and audience shift suddenly and without warning: now “the servant” is speaking and the audience is more general. I think lots of readers get lost here–without consciously thinking about who is speaking and to whom they are speaking, it is very difficult to follow the train of thought.4
So four keys: 1. keep in mind Isaiah’s overall purpose; 2. use a modern translation; 3. read Isaiah as poetry; 4. pay attention to the shifts in speaker and audience.
In conclusion, in describing 2 Nephi, Jeffrey R. Holland said:
Standing like sentinels at the gate of the book, Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah admit us into the scriptural presence of the Lord.7
That should convince us that a proper study of Isaiah is worth the effort.
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 12–14
- For a few examples, see Neal A. Maxwell, “Lest Ye Be Wearied and Faint in Your Minds,” Ensign, May 1991, 90; “The New Testament —Matchless Portrait of the Savior,” Ensign, December 1986, 23; Jeffrey R. Holland, “Miracles of the Restoration,” Ensign, November 1994, 34; and Robert D. Hales, “In Memory of Jesus,” Ensign, November 1997, 26.
- Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 36.