Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
Nephi’s record of the writings of Isaiah make up the bulk of this lesson. Why does Nephi cite these particular chapters of Isaiah? Why invest so much energy and space to these writings?
Intriguingly, some scholars consider the section of Isaiah that Nephi includes in chapters 12-22 to be one single composition—a long poem that stands by itself. It is a huge chiasm (a poetic form in which major concepts are presented and then repeated in reverse order). (See Guido Benzi, “A Prophetic Menorah: Structure and Rhetoric of Isaiah 2:1-12:6,” Salesianum, Vol. 80 (2018), pp. 7-14.)
The poem begins, “The word that Isaiah, the son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (12:1) and ends with the last verse of chapter 22, or pages 81-93 of 2 Nephi. My theory is that Nephi saw this passage as a unit within the Isaiah portion of the brass plates and therefore cited the whole thing. The poem was vital to him because it focuses on the mission of the Savior.
The poem rotates around the coming of the Messiah, the “sun in the center,” so to speak: 2 Nephi 17:10-17. “The Lord himself shall give you a sign—Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [God is with us!].” This prophecy of Jesus Christ is so significant, so fundamental, that Isaiah builds around it the entire poem that scholars call “the book of Immanuel.”
The action of the poem is the battle between Christ and Satan for the souls of the covenant people of the Lord, so it is very relevant to us who are caught up in that battle just as the ancient Israelites were. The scope of the poem is our entire mortal experience on this earth, so it is very instructive to us as we make our way along the covenant path. The resolution of the poem: despite our pride and foolishness, if we place our faith in Immanuel, our Savior, we will gain the inevitable triumph over sin and death.
The poem begins with an invitation to the temple to hear the word of the Lord: “It shall come to pass in the last days, when the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of God of Jacob: and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (12:2-3). This invitation to come and make covenants with God is open to all and particularly to us in the latter days when the Lord’s house is available to all. The Lord extends to us a covenant of peace, for we shall no longer “lift up swords against” each other. Outside the temple is warfare; inside is peace.
As we come to the temple, we encounter the prophet’s voice: “O house of Jacob, come ye and let us walk in the light of the Lord; yea, come, for ye have all gone astray, every one to his wicked ways” (2:5). As King Benjamin did at the gates of the temple, the prophet reminds us of our recklessness. The covenant people have left the path and gone after “silver and gold”; the land is “full of idols”; they’re infected with pride (“the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not”). A list of sins follows (chapters 12-14), along with the miserable consequences of those sins. Particularly striking are the sorrows that fall on the prideful “daughters of Zion” (13:16-24).
But they will not suffer forever: “When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem,” he will re-create Zion. “And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and a covert [canopy] from a storm and from rain” (14:4-6). The atonement of Christ is symbolized here by the promise of the renewed temple, a place of peace and safety.
That is also the promise of the mirroring section in chapters 20-22, where the prophet describes the restoration if Israel in the latter days: “In that day, the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people. . . . the remnant of Israel . . . shall stay upon the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth” (20:20, 21:11). The spread of the gospel is prophesied in 21:12: “He shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” All the righteous will gather in the restored temple. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain [symbol for the temple], for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (21:9). We are reminded that the temple is the symbolic source of living water.
In chapter 18, the living water of Christ is contrasted with the destroying waters of the devil. “Foramuch as the people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly,” says the prophet, “the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria and all his glory; and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks, and he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck” (18:6-8). “Shiloah” is another name for Christ (see Gen. 49:10). To refuse the “waters of Shiloah” is to refuse the living water, or the token of baptism (see 1 Ne. 20:1). The king of Assyria is the devil in his role of destroyer as he floods the promised land with death-dealing armies. Still, even in this torrent of evil, Christ stands as a rock of safety: “He shall be for a sanctuary”—the temple is the great symbol of Christ (18:14).
In the second great section of the poem, chapter 15, we are brought into the court of the temple that represents the garden of the Lord, a place of the choicest fruits, “a vineyard in a very fruitful hill. And he fenced (walled) it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it.” The tower represents the temple, a fortress of heavenly protection. But in this Eden, man (“the men of Judah”) brings forth “wild grapes” (in Hebrew, “useless, rotten things”) (15:1-2). As the natural consequence of sin, fallen man loses the garden and is thrust into the dreary world, a wasteland of “briers and thorns” (15:6), a place of captivity where he is humbled. Here “the mean man shall be brought down” (15:15): the original Hebrew reads “Adam shall be brought down and humbled.” He becomes as dust (15:24). So we are all Adam and Eve, driven into a desolate world of scarcity and confusion where men “call evil good, and good evil, that put darkness for light, and light for darkness . . . bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (15:20). All around them they see “darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof” (15:30).
By contrast, in the mirroring section (chapter 19), hope dawns for lost and fallen man in the form of a Savior: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (19:2). To this point, the king of Assyria (Satan) has governed the world, the symbolized by the “yoke and staff” and “rod of the oppressor.” But now, “thou hast broken the yoke . . . and the staff . . . and the rod. . . .for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (19:4, 6).
Satan’s day of power ends as the Savior comes to rule. “Of the increase of government and peace there is no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth, even forever” (19:6). The Lord dismisses the king of Assyria “in one day” (20:17) and leads his people into the temple.
In the third section of the poem, chapter 16, we go with Isaiah into the Holy of Holies where he is presented to the Lord: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (16:1). Beings in brilliant white (“seraphim”) surround the Lord, and incense (representing prayer) fills the house of the Lord. Isaiah seems to see the calling of Jesus Christ: “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said: Here am I; send me” (16:8). This scene is reproduced in Abraham 3:27, when the Father asks the “Whom shall I send?” and the Son of Man responds, “Here am I, send me.”
Clearly, this passage shows us the pattern of what it means to become a savior. As Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior of all, we too, like Isaiah, can also become saviors as we answer the call of our Father to assist him in his work: “Whom shall I send?” How will we respond when we hear the call?
In the holiest of places, the Lord extends the call to become a savior. We covenant with him to consecrate all we are and all we have to the saving work of the gospel, just as Isaiah did. Fulfilling that calling will be a daunting challenge: “Go and tell this people—Hear ye indeed.” Most will not respond: their hearts are “fat,” their ears “heavy,” and their eyes “shut.” Among the children of our Father in Heaven there will be a “great forsaking in the midst of the land”—in other words, a pattern of apostasy. Still, the work bears fruit, for “there shall be a tenth, and they shall return . . . the holy seed shall be the substance thereof” (16:13). A “tenth” means a fraction of the house of Israel will return to the covenant. Just as life remains in the stem of a tree that is cut down, so Israel will revive from what appears to be dead and forgotten roots.
Nephi understands the beautiful gospel message of this great poem and yearns for his people to understand it. Like us today, however, they weren’t used to the poetic “manner of prophesying among the Jews.” So, he explains the meaning of the poem in chapter 25. The message is plain enough. He urges them to remember the pattern of destruction that comes from breaking the commandments: “As one generation hath been destroyed among the Jews because of iniquity, even so have they been destroyed from generation to generation” (25:9). They will continue in this state until “they shall be persuaded to believe in Christ, the Son of God, and the atonement which is finite for all mankind.” This will take place when the Lord “will set his hand again the second time to restore his people from their lost and fallen state. Wherefore, he will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder among the children of men” (25:16-17).
For these reasons, says Nephi, “we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (25:23).
Isaiah’s great poem recorded so carefully in 2 Nephi 12-22 teaches above all that we cannot save ourselves from the “briers and thorns” of mortality—sin and suffering—no matter how we may strive to do so. Isaiah consistently teaches us to look to Christ: The “virgin shall conceive and bear a son”; “for unto us a child is born . . . of the increase of his government and peace there is no end, upon the throne of David“; “sanctify the Lord of Hosts . . . and he shall be for a sanctuary”; “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”; “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse . . . and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might . . . with righteousness shall he judge.” It is the grace—loving kindness, favor, and mercy—of Christ that saves us “after all we can do.” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf says, “Sometimes we misinterpret the phrase ‘after all we can do.’ We must understand that ‘after’ does not equal ‘because.’ We are not saved ‘because’ of all we can do.” (“The Gift of Grace,” General Conference, April 2015.) We are saved because of the Atonement of Christ.
As Isaiah continually pointed to the Savior as our only hope of rescue from the storms of mortality, we must do the same. That is why “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ . . . that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (25:26). We are all called to do as Isaiah did: to follow the covenant path into the presence of the Lord and to bring as many as we can with us.