I will be studying the writings of Isaiah this week and wanted to learn a little more about the man and how to understand his writings. The first thing I learned is that there are not many facts about his life. He was the son of Amos and prophesied during the approximate period 740-701 B.C. He was married to a woman who is referred to as “the prophetess.” We do not know if she actually prophesied or was simply married to a prophet. The couple had two sons: She’ar-Ya’shuv (“A remnant shall return;” Isaiah 7:3 Shear-jashub) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (“Spoil quickly, plunder speedily” Isaiah 8:3).
Isaiah lived during the period of time when Israel and Judah were two prosperous kingdoms that struggled with idolatry. The kingdoms were in danger because the people were unrighteous – “spiritual weakness” and “political peril” (Book of Mormon Student Manual,Religion 121-122, p. 44). The regional bully at the time was the Assyrian empire that caused both Israel and Judah to “cower” under their power. Assyria began the “scattering of Israel” when they carried away many Israelites from the northern kingdom.
Warnings from the Lord through His prophet Isaiah came concerning the consequences of wickedness and the calamities that would result; these warnings included the scattering of Israel and “the loss of blessings of the covenant.” Isaiah told the people that their only escape from the punishments would be to turn to the Messiah, but they did not turn to Him.
Many of Isaiah’s prophecies had multiple fulfillments - in his time, in the meridian of time, and at the millennial day. He prophesied of the coming of the Savior and the fact that He would be born of a virgin. He gave many of the details of the scattering of Israel as well as the gathering of Israel and the restoration of the gospel covenant in the latter days.
Nephi, an ancient American prophet explained why Isaiah was so difficult for his people to understand. He gave the following specific reasons for this difficulty: (1) They did not know “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1), (2) They were not “filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), and (3) They were not “taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5).
People in our day have the above listed difficulties as well as others. The student manual lists these additional reasons why people today have problems understanding Isaiah: (1) “Most of Isaiah’s writings are in poetic form. The beauty and depth of poetry in one language does not easily translate into other languages.” (2) “Many of Isaiah’s prophecies are dualistic in nature. Consequently, the prophecies can be fulfilled in many circumstances at different times in history.” (3) “Isaiah used extensive symbolism. Many of the objects and events he referred to were contemporary to his day and are difficult for us to understand today.”
We should study and come to understand Isaiah. The Savior commanded the Nephites: “And now, behold, I say unto you, that 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” (Book of Mormon – Another Testament of Jesus Christ, 3 Nephi 23:1).
Since we have “no greater written commentary and guide to understanding Isaiah than the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants” (Bible Dictionary, p. 707), we would be wise to study what those scriptures say about the writings of Isaiah. We should also seek the “spirit of prophecy” as suggested by Nephi (2 Nephi 25:1). We all have the right to seek understanding through the light of Christ and the power of the Holy Ghost. If we are sincere in our request, the Lord will bless us to understand Isaiah.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915-1985) of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles suggested a third action we can take if we are serious about understanding Isaiah. “Read, ponder, and pray – verse by verse, thought by thought, passage by passage, chapter by chapter! As Isaiah himself asks: `Whom shall he teach knowledge? And whom shall he make to understand doctrine?’ His answer: `them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.’ (Isaiah 28:9-10.)” (“Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign, Oct. 1973, 83).
I realize that I am not alone in my difficulty in understanding, but I know I can. I had an experience some years ago when I was searching for an answer to a serious problem. I was just beginning Isaiah in my scripture study. As soon as the children left for school that morning, I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my scriptures. I took the time to talk with Heavenly Father, to explain the problem I had, and to seek His divine assistance. I remember telling Him that I needed the answer that day, and I would continue studying and praying until I received an answer. I began reading the first chapter of Isaiah and found what I thought to be my answer. Then I continued studying and praying for several hours. I found that I actually understood what I was reading. I also received one of the clearest and most pointed pieces of personal revelation that I have ever received. I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to solve the problem I took to the Lord.