A common complaint about reading the Book of Mormon is the difficulty in understanding the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi. (As a missionary in Guatemala, I remember one companion saying that if you shot the Book of Mormon with a gun, not even a bullet would get through the Isaiah chapters!) Although the language and symbols can be hard for the modern reader, we actually understand these chapters better than we think we do. At least, we understand what Nephi wants us to understand.
Nephi did not quote Isaiah for 13 chapters straight because he wanted us to understand everything in them. His purpose was actually much more narrow. He explains this purpose right before he extensively quotes Isaiah. In 2 Nephi 11, Nephi explains: “And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah … for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him. And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. … Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ” (2 Nephi 11:2-4).
Nephi’s stated purpose in quoting Isaiah is to teach and testify of Jesus Christ. He is essentially calling witnesses to the stand that can testify by their own experience that the Savior will come. Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah all share a special witness of Christ. What they all have in common is that they have seen him in vision long before he would come to the earth in the flesh. They are the original “three witnesses” at the start of the Book of Mormon, long before Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer would place their testimony at the front of the book.
As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has explained, “It is interesting to note that there were three earlier witnesses—special witnesses … These three great prophetic witnesses of the premortal Jesus Christ—Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah. These three doctrinal and visionary voices make clear at the very outset of the Book of Mormon why it is ‘another testament of Jesus Christ’… Their writings constitute a full 135 of the  pages from the small plates. By the time one has read Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah in these first pages, a strong foundation has been laid for what Nephi called ‘the doctrine of Christ’” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 33–35).
Nephi compiled these three powerful witnesses because he was deliberately crafting his book to focus on and testify of Jesus Christ. Specifically, Nephi quoted chapters from Isaiah that deal with two main topics—and both are Christ. These topics are the first coming of Christ (including his birth, ministry, and death) and the second coming of Christ (including the Restoration that precedes it and the Millennium that follows it). Knowing this focus ought to help us understand the Isaiah chapters, or at least understand what Nephi wants us to understand.
To illustrate with my students the importance of focusing on Christ when studying 2 Nephi, I like to show on the screen a close-up of an image and have them try to guess what they think it is. After struggling and guessing, I reveal to them the bigger picture from which the close-up image comes. It is a painting of Christ. I show them that the image they have been discussing is a close-up of an unimportant, peripheral detail in the painting. Then I ask them how this activity illustrates the mistake many make when they study Isaiah in 2 Nephi. My students are quick to discover that we often get so caught up focusing on some obscure, unimportant detail that we miss the main point and fail to focus on Christ.
In my experience, that is exactly the problem with how we often study the Isaiah chapters of the Book of Mormon. We focus so much on an obscure symbol or event or character that we don’t understand that we fail to focus on Christ and miss the point! Nephi’s point is to teach us about Christ, so if it is not about Christ, then it really is incidental to Nephi’s message.
One of the best resources to help us maintain this focus on Christ is the chapter headings. The chapter headings identify and briefly explain the prophecies related to Christ’s first and second coming. By reading them carefully as we study, we can be alerted to what verses we should focus on. This practice will give us confidence that we understand what Nephi wants us to understand better than we usually think we do.
Why Isaiah is Confusing
As we rely on the chapter headings to identify and interpret the passages about Jesus Christ, we will begin to recognize that these prophecies are hidden among extraneous details about wars and other current events of Isaiah’s day. It begins to feel almost like Isaiah was trying on purpose to be obscure and confusing. That’s because he was.
Isaiah receives his call to serve as a prophet in 2 Nephi 16 (Isaiah 6). Although there are many confusing symbols to distract us, the first verse and the chapter heading make clear at the start that “Isaiah sees the Lord.” (This was why Nephi considered Isaiah such a special witness of Christ.) Isaiah feels unworthy to stand in the Lord’s presence, so the Lord cleanses him through a symbolic purification process and then asks, “whom shall I send?” (v8). Recognizing that this is the reason he has been brought into the presence of the Lord, Isaiah quickly responds by saying, “Here am I; send me” (v8).
Having accepted his prophetic call, the Lord then gives Isaiah an unusual commission. He is told, “Go and tell this people—Hear ye indeed, but they understand not; and see ye indeed, but they perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes—least they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand” (v9-10). As other translations of these verses make clear, this basically means “Go and tell this people that they can hear you but not understand you.”
Because the people of Isaiah’s day were not ready to receive his message about Christ, the Lord called Isaiah to teach these things in a way that would be difficult to understand. Isaiah used symbolic language and hid his prophecies in the middle of unrelated events of his day. Like the parables that Jesus taught (see Matt. 13:13-15), “the reason for this method … was to veil the meaning” (Parables, Bible Dictionary). This is a major reason for why Isaiah is so confusing.
Understanding Nephi’s Isaiah
After Nephi finishes his extensive quoting of Isaiah, he admits something that might surprise us. He writes, “Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews. For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1-2). Notice that. Nephi acknowledges that Isaiah is hard to understand, he then explains that the way to understand Isaiah is to know how the Jews prophesied, and yet, despite how helpful it is to know that, he concludes by saying that he did not teach much of it to his people.
Nephi elaborates more on this later when he explains, “I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews, and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews. But behold, I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews; but behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about; and I have made mention unto my children concerning the judgments of God, which hath come to pass among the Jews, unto my children, according to all that which Isaiah hath spoken” (v5-6).
Nephi is explaining in these verses that he grew up in Jerusalem, he knows its geography and history, so he understands the events and people and locations that Isaiah is describing. However, Nephi plainly declares that he did not teach this to his children. He only mentioned that Jerusalem had been destroyed, just as the prophets had warned. Again, this lack of effort to explain these things further supports the point that Nephi wants us to understand Jesus Christ. He is not concerned if we understand the other things that Isaiah is talking about. He is trying to drive home a single message and he does not want his children or the reader to be distracted from it.
That is the irony of the Isaiah chapters. The things that most of us find confusing are not the things Nephi is concerned about us understanding. He wants us to understand the prophecies about Jesus Christ and these are the things we actually do understand. In fact, we understand these prophecies better than those in Isaiah and Nephi’s day because they have already been fulfilled or are being fulfilled in our day. As Nephi explained, “in the days that the prophecies of Isaiah shall be fulfilled men shall know of a surety, at the times when they shall come to pass. Wherefore, … I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them; wherefore, for their good have I written them” (2 Nephi 25:7-8).
When Nephi says that “the words of Isaiah are … plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), he is not bragging. He really believes that. And he is right. The things that Nephi wants us to understand are plain unto us. If they are not, then the chapter headings make them plain to us. For example, we understand that “the mountain of the Lord’s house” that every nation will gather to in the last days refers to the “latter-day temple” and the “gathering of Israel” (2 Nephi 12:1, chapter heading). We know this because we have personally gone to those temples to gather Israel on both sides of the veil to prepare the world for Christ’s second coming (see President Russell M. Nelson, youth devotional, June 2018).
We understand what it means that “a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son” (2 Nephi 17:14, chapter heading) because we have grown up knowing the story of Christ’s birth and can even read where Matthew explained the fulfillment of that very verse (see Matt. 1:22-23). This prophecy of Christ is more clear to us now than it ever would have been in Isaiah’s day!
We understand what Isaiah meant when he said that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (2 Nephi 19:6) because we have probably all heard this sung at Christmas time as part of Handel’s Messiah!
We look forward to the day when Christ will come again and “judge in righteousness,” when “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,” and the “knowledge of the Lord” shall “cover the earth in the Millennium” (2 Nephi 21:6, 9, chapter heading). We have sung hymns of this day (Hymn #2 verse 4), had Church lessons and conference talks of this day, and received additional information by modern revelation about this great Millennial day (see DC 101:23-34). We understand all these prophecies of Christ better than any previous day because we have lived to see their fulfilment or anticipate their fulfillment in this dispensation.
I hope that knowing Nephi’s intention inspires us all to focus on the prophecies of Jesus Christ as we read the Isaiah chapters. When we come across historical events, geographical locations, or personal names we are unfamiliar with, we shouldn’t stress. We should keep reading. We should keep looking for Christ in Isaiah’s prophecies. If we understand the other things, that’s great, but it should not be our focus. Not if we are going to understand what Nephi wants us to understand—Jesus Christ.
As Nephi explained after quoting the Isaiah chapters, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:16).