If we’re going to get on the bus and drive through Isaiah National Forest, we’re going to need the keys—you’ll find them in 2 Nephi 25 (see also McConkie, “Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign, October 1973, 78–83).
As you know, the largest block of Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 12–24. Immediately after Nephi quotes these chapters, he gives us the keys to understand them. Briefly, the keys are:
- Learn the manner of prophesying among the Jews
- Have the spirit of prophecy
- Know the regions round about (or the geography)
- Live in the last days (see 2 Nephi 25:1–8)
Let’s look at each key.
Key #1: Learn the Manner of Prophesying among the Jews
Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, 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 (2 Nephi 25:1).
As an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, I took a rigorous class called Business Writing. I was taught a formula for writing that is consistent with our modern culture: “Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said. Be concise, use simple words rather than complex, multi-syllabic phrases. Be brief, clear, and direct. Deny the listener the right to misunderstand.”
Isaiah did not take that class. His method of writing was taught somewhere else on campus, perhaps in the Humanities Writing class. Isaiah was a poet and an intellectual. He was also what Latter-day Saint scholar Victor L. Ludlow called a “deliberately difficult” prophet (Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, 126–38). I imagine Humanities Writing class to have instructions more like these:
Conceal what you’re going to say. Never use the same noun twice when referring to a person, group, or place (Isaiah uses five different names to describe the same place in 2 Nephi 17). Speak of future events in past tense at times. In fact, have no time frame—move in and out of past, present, and future without telling the reader what you’re doing. Use complex symbolism rather than simple metaphors. Never let anyone know whether you’re being literal or figurative. Keep ’em guessing!
This approach is consistent with “the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” We’re going to need this key as we enter the forest.
Key #2: Have the Spirit of Prophecy
For because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy (2 Nephi 25:4).
This verse usually brings the response, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Nephi. You were a prophet!” And most of us feel we could never be like Nephi. Hey, not so fast. Don’t sell yourself short. You may not be large in stature, but you’re a child of God with the gift of the Holy Ghost. John the Revelator taught that the testimony of Christ is the spirit of prophecy (see Revelation 19:10).
Do you have a testimony of Christ? Of course you do. How did you get it? It must have come by revelation. Therefore, you have the spirit of prophecy. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
“If any person should ask me if I were a prophet, I should not deny it, as that would give me the lie; for, according to John, the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy; therefore, if I profess to be a witness or teacher, and have not the spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus, I must be a false witness; but if I be a true teacher and witness, I must possess the spirit of prophecy, and that constitutes a prophet” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 269).
Joseph Smith also taught that “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 149).
In your righteous desire to search the words of Isaiah, as Jesus has commanded us to do, the Lord will “prepare a way” for you to keep this commandment. So, yes, in this way, you have the spirit of prophecy.
Key #3: Know the Regions Round About
I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about (2 Nephi 25:6).
Nephi had the advantage of having grown up in Jerusalem, only about 140 years after Isaiah made his prophecies. We’re having to learn about the land of Judah much later. My hunch is that it looks a little different after twenty-six centuries. There are 106 different place names in Isaiah (see Parry, Understanding Isaiah, 5). Sometimes when we read all these names, most of which we don’t know how to pronounce, we feel lost. But if you don’t know much about Holy Land geography, take heart. You’re in good company. Consider this example:
“Though translating an ancient record, Joseph himself was clearly unschooled in things ancient. For example, during the translation he came across words concerning a wall around Jerusalem and stopped and asked Emma whether there had been walls around Jerusalem. She affirmed that that was so. Joseph simply hadn’t known” (Maxwell, Lord, Increase Our Faith, 67).
If Joseph Smith didn’t know that much about Jerusalem while translating, then we don’t need to feel lost as we begin to learn our Holy Land geography.
The truth is, you don’t need a master’s degree in ancient geography to understand Isaiah. You don’t have to memorize the maps section in the back of your Bible, either. In fact, I suggest if you can just remember four kingdoms, you’ll be in great shape. And the winners are:
Babylon—the cultural, commercial center to the east of Judah
Israel—the kingdom just north of the kingdom of Judah, in an apostate condition
Assyria—the military superpower to the northeast
Syria—the kingdom just north of the kingdom of Israel
(I might also have mentioned Egypt, but you’ve all heard about Egypt, and besides, it would mess up my system of fours.) You might say I have a BIAS for the four above. BIAS = Babylon, Israel, Assyria, and Syria. Just try to remember these four, and I’ll refresh your memory as to who they are when they come up again.
Key #4: Live in the Last Days
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 25:8).
Nephi makes an intriguing statement, which begs a question: Why? Why will we understand Isaiah in the last days?
Perhaps it is because we will notice the things Isaiah prophesied happening all around us. We’ll witness the growth of the Church and the gathering of Israel. Perhaps the Lord will pour out his Spirit upon us as we follow the prophets by more faithfully studying the scriptures. Perhaps it’s because we’ll have more resources to help us understand Isaiah than ever before. For example, we have:
- Restoration scriptures, which help clarify Isaiah’s meaning, such as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
- In printings since 1981, a synopsis at the beginning of each Isaiah chapter in the Book of Mormon, which contains helpful summaries and doctrinal points. Also, the footnotes in the Book of Mormon and in Isaiah add clarifying comments and point us to other references.
- The Bible Dictionary, which contains articles on Isaiah, the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah, Babylon, Assyria, and more.
- Maps of the Holy Land in the back of the scriptures.
- Modern prophets who have commented on Isaiah in their writings and in general conferences of the Church.
- Books and articles from faithful Latter-day Saint scholars in which they analyze for us Isaiah’s meanings.
In short, there has never been a better time for us to search—not skim, not skip, not avoid—but really search Isaiah.