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In this next installment in a series of brief articles about Isaiah, we’ll demonstrate some lessons that can be learned by comparing the King James Version, Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith Translation side by side. We’ll also take a look at one of the nice insights provided by the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are the earliest available Hebrew copies of Isaiah’s writings. These insights are gleaned from the new resource, Opening Isaiah: A Harmony, available at https://rsc.byu.edu/opening-isaiah.
We’ll use Isaiah 2:9 to compare what can be learned from the KJV, BoM, and JST columns. Notice that all three columns provide a slightly different reading. The KJV reads: “And the mean man boweth down, and the great man humbleth himself: therefore forgive them not.”
The Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 12:9, reverses the instructions provided in the KJV column: ““And the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not: therefore forgive him not.” In the Book of Mormon, the mean (or common) man does not bow down, and neither does the great or noble man. Still, the message is that they (or “he”) shouldn’t be forgiven. So the behavior has been reversed, but with the same result.
Surprisingly, the JST provides still another reading: “And the mean man boweth down, and the great man humbleth himself not: therefore forgive him not.” In this version, the mean (or common) man is bowing down, but the great or proud man does not bow down, so the great man should not be forgiven by the Lord.
How is it possible that all three would have different readings, and especially that the JST would provide a different reading than the Book of Mormon? Isn’t the Book of Mormon the earliest version of Isaiah?
We suggest that all three of these records, including the KJV, are equally valuable, and that each preserve a differing, but important witness. Isaiah 2 is discussing the sins of idolatry, and the KJV needs to be understood from that perspective. Since both the common man and the great man are bowing down to idols, neither of them should be forgiven by the Lord.
The Book of Mormon was written to testify of Christ, and is consistently Christ-centered. It may provide an earlier or more-accurate witness, but it may also provide a witness of Isaiah’s teachings that has been adapted by Nephite prophets to meet the needs of their own teaching. From that perspective, 2 Nephi 12:9 is stating that neither the common man nor the great man are bowing to the Lord, and therefore, they should not be forgiven. One possible indication that the Book of Mormon is a message adapted particularly for Nephi’s needs is that it does not perfectly fit the original context of Isaiah 2, which was talking about the people’s false worship of idols.
So, what about the JST? Why would it provide still another version of Isaiah than that found in the Book of Mormon? To answer that question, a little more context is needed.
After the critique of the Israelites’ idol worship in Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3 goes on to prophesy that the unrepentant Israelites will be carried away by Assyria and Babylonia. Only the women, the children, and the destitute—those who could not threaten rebellion—would be left in the land. The people would be so devoid of typical leadership strength that even a child would lead them (see Isaiah 3:4). They would be so poor that simply owning a set of clothing would be seen as sufficient to make someone a leader.
In D&C 1, the Lord appears to use imagery from Isaiah 2-3 when he talks about calling Joseph Smith from among “the weak things of the world [to] come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones” (D&C 1:19). He would call a child, Joseph Smith, to lead his latter-day work and the gospel would be proclaimed “by the weak and simple… before kings and rulers.”
Carrying the analogy further, God would give the authority of the priesthood – often symbolized as clothing that is put on (see D&C 113:8) – to Joseph Smith, so that the one who owns the sacred clothing of priesthood authority would be called to lead the weak and simple, the righteous remnant of the last days. He would then endow others with priesthood authority, and they would go forth, clothed in power, to preach the gospel to the great of the earth.
This modern-day application of Isaiah’s ancient context, provided by the Lord in D&C 1, offers an insight into the JST version of Isaiah 2:9, in which the mean or common man bows down, while the great or noble man does not bow down. Thus it will be in the latter-day period for which the JST was written, the day in which we are living. God will call the common, the weak and the simple, because they are willing to submit their hearts to the Lord. Meanwhile, the great and the proud will refuse to bow down.
Recognizing the distinct ways that prophets have likened Isaiah’s message throughout the centuries helps us better appreciate why the Lord would command his people to “search the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1). They were powerful anciently and they are still powerful today.
Before concluding, we’ll point to just one location among many in the Dead Sea Scrolls column that provides an interesting reading. The KJV of Isaiah 53:11 reads, “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.”
The Great Isaiah Scroll has a different reading: “From the travail of his soul, he shall see light, and shall be satisfied.” The DSS may thus point to the reality that the suffering of the servant—and to Christians, of course, the servant is Christ—would generate light or power that would satisfy him and sustain him in the midst of his travail.
Many other insights await as the careful reader ponders the different witnesses available today, each providing new insight into the inspired writings of the great prophet, Isaiah.