Cover image: Isaiah Writes of Christ’s Birth (The Prophet Isaiah Foretells Christ’s Birth), by Harry Anderson.
We are approaching the time of the year where, in the Come Follow Me curriculum, we will study Isaiah. The import of this prophet is highlighted by the fact that we will spend a full five weeks studying his writings. The Come Follow Me program seems to have generated a tremendous amout of spiritual momentum in that it seems like we are studying and focusing on our scriptural texts more than ever before.
Isaiah will represent an important benchmark for this momentum. We recognize the importance of Isaiah. Besides the fact that his book is receiving a great deal of Come Follow Me curriculum time, we have other indicators that we should put intense energy and focus into studying Isaiah. Nephi and his brother Jacob certainly felt Isaiah was important. Further, the Savior Himself, speaking of Isaiah, said “ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1).
Yet Isaiah is not easy to understand. Even in ancient times students of the scripture felt that they needed someone to guide them in order to understand the deep writings of this great prophet (Acts 8:31). As a result, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel a certain amount of frustration and guilt over studying Isaiah. They want to follow the Savior’s admonition and study and draw from the great words of this prophet. Yet when they try, their efforts are not met with as full success as they would like.
Fortunately, there are some keys that can help us get more out of Isaiah. Here are a few of those keys, designed to help you get more out of studying Isaiah this year than you have in the past.
- Slow down. Isaiah was one of the most gifted writers of all time, perhaps the most gifted writer ever. He put a tremendous amount of work, inspiration, and talent into crafting his writings. We should not expect to pull out of them what he put into them if we dash through them. We cannot study Isaiah the same way we studied the narratives of the kings we just finished reading. Take the time to follow the other keys that are outlined below, and to do it well. In my opinion, you will get more out of your study if you only do 15% of the assigned reading, but do it well, than if you do 100% of it, but do it quickly. Slow down and put the effort in. When you do so, tremendous rewards are awaiting you.
- Unpack the symbols of Isaiah. Isaiah was a master of using symbols and images. He uses these tools to help us picture and feel the things he is talking about. Be careful in taking things too literally in Isaiah. Instead, ask yourself what he wanted you to feel when he describes something. If he describes owls and dragons inhabiting a place, ask yourself what kind of an image is he trying to create? What does he want you to picture and feel when he employed that image, and how does that feeling fit into the larger message he is writing about?
Ask yourself repeatedly if Isaiah is using a symbol. When he speaks of plowing, or planting, or threshing, ask yourself if he is really talking about those things, or if he is using them as tools to teach about something else. Most often we will recognize that they are symbols; then do the following. A) Study the literal symbol. If Isaiah is talking about threshing, take the time, doing online research or using a good commentary, and become a mini-expert on what happens with threshing. Don’t overlook this first step, make sure you understand the ins and outs of the literal symbol. B) Then, ask yourself what these details could symbolize. What are the various possible symbolic meanings behind threshing? Why did Isaiah choose this symbol instead of another? C) Then ask yourself how those meanings might apply to your life. What are the various different ways they might apply? “The symbols Isaiah uses can and usually should have more than one meaning. Explore various possible interpretations of the symbols and what you can learn from each of them.” Are there layers of meaning that should be teased out and applied in multiple ways to your current situation? I suggest writing down all the different potential meanings and then see how many personal applications you can draw from each one.
- Shine the light of history on Isaiah. We should not be surprised to learn that much of what Isaiah did was interacting with the people and situations around him. God sent him first and foremost to the people of his own day. Thus, we will understand his prophecies better if we can understand his original context. Here are a few key historical points that are crucial for understanding Isaiah. A) Isaiah was prophesying during time when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were in danger of being destroyed. He warned both kingdoms, as well as all the kingdoms around them. The Kingdom of Israel did not listen. During Isaiah’s ministry they were conquered and scattered by Assyria. Many of Isaiah’s prophecies address this situation. B) Because of the threat of Assyrian invasion, the Kingdom of Israel allied themselves with Syria. They also wanted Judah to join this alliance, but Ahaz, king of Judah, did not want to. As a result, Syria and Israel went to war against Judah, and threatened to assassinate Ahaz and put someone favorable to their cause on the throne instead. In reaction, Ahaz asked Assyria to come help him, which they did (destroying and scattering both Syria and Israel). But this led to Assyria controlling Judah and making them a vassal state. C) Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, eventually decided that the yoke of Assyrian domination was too great. He decided to rebel against Assyria. In preparation for this he reached out to Egypt to form an alliance with them. He also built fortifications in Jerusalem. Isaiah warned him to trust in God instead of these earthly measures, and Hezekiah heeded Isaiah. He led Jerusalem in a huge religious reform and a national repentance effort. As Assyria marched through the kingdom of Judah, destroying every fortified city and ravaging the countryside, Hezekiah was casting idols out of Jerusalem and helping his people renew and keep their covenant with God. As a result, God spared Jerusalem. D) After the deliverance of Jerusalem, Isaiah taught his people to thank the Lord and rejoice in what God has and would yet do for them. Knowing this brief history will help make sense of the majority of chapters in Isaiah.
- Look for multiple fulfillments of Isaiah’s prophecies. We often look only to fulfillments in the Last Days or the Meridian of Time, but we miss out on much of the power of Isaiah if we limit his prophecies in this way. His prophecies almost always have a meaning in their original context. Understanding these meanings will help us draw more meaning about how the prophecies apply to other time periods. Understanding the history outlined above will help us draw meaning from the original context, and that will help us better understand how these prophecies apply to many time periods. The tendency of most LDS scholars and members to focus on only one time period is one of the reasons I wrote my own commentary on Isaiah, called Learning to Love Isaiah. I felt that our people needed to be able to see how many ways Isaiah’s prophecies can be fulfilled. Further, when focusing on every time period, it allowed me to provide commentary on every verse in Isaiah, rather than skip many verses in a limited focus on only Latter-day fulfillments. You will find a great deal more power in Isaiah if you allow him to speak to us of many time periods in the way he intended to.
- Look for references to the Abrahamic Covenant. “Because the Abrahamic covenant was so central to Israelite religious thought, and because Isaiah referred to it so often, we will find ourselves better able to understand Isaiah if we recap the essential elements of that covenant. Certain promises and obligations that are part of the Abrahamic covenant provide real keys to understanding Isaiah. 1) Developing a special relationship with God as a people. 2) The promise of innumerable posterity. 3) The promise of inheriting a land. 4) The promise of divine protection. 5) The promise of prosperity. 6) The promise of the rights to self-governance and rulership. 7) The right to the gospel and its ordinances. 8) The promise that God would always help Israel return to Him when they had strayed. 9) The obligation to love God. 10) The obligation to keep the commandments.” Further, whenever the covenant was not kept, these promises were reversed. Israel and Judah did not return to neutral ground when they broke the covenant; instead they received the opposite of the blessing: destitution instead of prosperity, bondage instead of land and rulership, etc. “Isaiah does not usually refer to the covenant by name. Instead, he refers to the covenant elements listed above. When he speaks of having so many children that the tent must be made bigger (see Isaiah 54:2), he is referring to the fulfillment of the blessing of innumerable posterity. When he speaks of houses being desolate (see Isaiah 6:11; 13:22), he is referring to the dwindling that accompanies breaking the covenant. When we attune ourselves to how Isaiah uses these covenant references, we will find many Isaiah passages opening further to enlighten us.”
Most of these steps you can accomplish adequately on your own. There are many valuable online resources which can help you. For example, netbible.org allows you to look at several translations of the text at the same time. This can help you see different nuances of meaning. That same site allows you to look up Hebrew words, even if you don’t know Hebrew. Another resource is scriptures.byu.edu/mapscrip, which allows you to look at any chapter in the Bible and automatically populates a map with the places named in that chapter. Because Isaiah often refers to geographic locations, this tool can be very helpful. The meaning of many symbols can also be reliably researched online. For example, when Isaiah mentions the difference between planting wheat and fitch in Isaiah 28, one can easily find websites that explain how to plant each of those crops. This will help you in your efforts to understand the literal symbols Isaiah is using.
While these resources allow you to get more out of Isaiah as you put more effort into it, sometimes it is faster and easier to use a commentary that has already done much of this work for you, and that can help you see the way different portions of the text interact with each other. The use of commentaries can shed a tremendous amount of light on Isaiah, but there is a danger associated with relying on commentaries. The inherent temptation when using a commentary is to lean so strongly on the commentary that we don’t spend the kind of time with the actual scriptural text that we should. I strongly caution against this. Make sure your emphasis is on the text of Isaiah itself, and that commentaries supplement, not replace, that text. A commentary that has both the scriptural text and the commentary in it will help with this concern, but it is not the only solution.
I believe that with the spiritual momentum we are carrying into our study of Isaiah this year, that if we will put the time and effort into our study, and will employ some of the skills mentioned above, that each of us can have our most successful year of studying Isaiah. The blessings, understandings, and edification that can come as a result will be astonishing.
 Kerry Muhlestein, Learning to Love Isaiah, A Guide and Commentary (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 5.
 Muhlestein, Learning to Love Isaiah, 4.
 Muhlestein, Learning to Love Isaiah, 4.