Book of Mormon Commentary on Isaiah

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“Book of Mormon Commentary on Isaiah,” Ensign, Sept. 1998, 54

Old Testament

Book of Mormon Commentary on Isaiah

Prophetic commentary by Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, and the Lord himself helps us understand Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon tells us that in the last days the “Gentiles” will have a “record of the Jews” containing the “covenants of the Lord” and “many of the prophecies of the holy prophets” (see 1 Ne. 13:20–25). Since the “nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles” (1 Ne. 13:3) will have the writings of the biblical prophets, including those of the prophet Isaiah, the question naturally arises, Why would Mormon include 21 nearly complete chapters of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon? Why this duplication of scripture?1

To one who believes in the divine stewardship of the production, transmission, and translation of the Nephite records, the inclusion of these writings from the prophet Isaiah must surely be attributed to a divine purpose. In fact, Nephi himself indicates that this repetition of Isaiah passages is for the benefit of the people “in the last days” and especially for the benefit of his own descendants: “For I know that they shall be of great worth unto [mine own people] in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them; wherefore, for their good have I written them” (2 Ne. 25:8; emphasis added).

Two Benefits from the Duplication

One benefit from the duplication of Isaiah is the correction of some errors in our English translation, the King James Version. The Isaiah text in the Book of Mormon is an inspired rendering of text taken originally from the brass plates of Laban and which consequently predates our current Isaiah texts by several centuries. After Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem with the writings of Isaiah on the brass plates, some changes apparently occurred in the Isaiah manuscripts from which our current Bibles have been translated. One interesting example of change occurs in 1 Nephi 20:2 ([1 Ne. 20:2] Isa. 48:2), in which the King James Bible states that the priests of ancient Israel “stay themselves on the God of Israel,” while the Book of Mormon text of this passage states that “they do not stay themselves on the God of Israel” (emphasis added).

To illustrate, here is another significant change through the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation. Isaiah 29:10 [Isa. 29:10] reads, “For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.” But 2 Nephi 27:5 [2 Ne. 27:5] corrects this passage to read: “The Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep. For behold, ye have closed your eyes, and ye have rejected the prophets; and your rulers, and the seers hath he covered because of your iniquity” (emphasis added).2

In addition to the fact that this duplication of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon corrects textual errors—some minor, some major—a second benefit for this duplication of Isaiah is that the Book of Mormon Isaiah text comes complete with a number of specific commentaries about that text, an advantage the biblical Isaiah does not have. By following closely these commentaries on Isaiah by Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, and especially the Savior, we learn that next to the message of the Atonement of Christ, the major message of Isaiah and consequently of the Book of Mormon is the restoration of the house of Israel in the last days.

The Scattering and Gathering Foretold

When Nephi returned to the tent of his father, Lehi, following his marvelous vision (see 1 Ne. 11–14), he found his brothers disputing one with another concerning the things their father had taught them about the house of Israel, the olive tree, and the Gentiles (see 1 Ne. 15:2, 7). Nephi gives them a brief explanation of their father’s words, emphasizing that in the “latter days” (see 1 Ne. 15:18) the house of Israel would be remembered and restored again. It is at this point that the prophet Isaiah is mentioned for the first time in the Book of Mormon,3 and the major theme of the restoration is introduced:

“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake much unto them … concerning the restoration of the Jews in the latter days.

“And I did rehearse unto them the words of Isaiah, who spake concerning the restoration of the Jews, or of the house of Israel; and after they were restored they should no more be confounded, neither should they be scattered again” (1 Ne. 15:19–20; emphasis added).

Nephi informs us that his concern for the restoration of the house of Israel was first impressed upon him by his father. From 1 Nephi 10 (Nephi quoting Lehi), we learn the following:

  1. Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Jews would be carried away (see 1 Ne. 10:3).

  2. They would return and “possess again the land of their inheritance” (see 1 Ne. 10:3).

  3. The Messiah would come and “take away the sins of the world,” but he would be rejected and slain and then “rise from the dead” (see 1 Ne. 10:4–11).

  4. The house of Israel would be scattered “upon all the face of the earth” (see 1 Ne. 10:12–13).

  5. The Gentiles would receive “the fulness of the Gospel,” and then the house of Israel would be gathered together and “come to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer” (see 1 Ne. 10:14).

Nephi’s own commentary on Isaiah begins in 1 Nephi 19, where he tells us that in order to “more fully persuade them [Nephi’s people] to believe in the Lord their Redeemer” he would turn particularly to the prophet Isaiah (see 1 Ne. 19:23). With this context and commentary as preparation, Nephi then copies from the brass plates those sections that now constitute Isaiah 48–49. A question from Laman and Lemuel prompts Nephi’s further commentary. “What meaneth these things which ye have read?” they ask (1 Ne. 22:1). In answer to their question, Nephi summarizes:

  1. The house of Israel would “be scattered upon all the face of the earth, and also among all nations” (see 1 Ne. 22:3).

  2. God would then “raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles” who would continue the scattering of Israel (see 1 Ne. 22:7).

  3. Then God would “proceed to do a marvelous work among the Gentiles,” which would greatly benefit scattered Israel; “wherefore, it is likened unto their being nourished by the Gentiles and being carried in their arms and upon their shoulders” (see 1 Ne. 22:8). The Lord would also bring “his covenants and his gospel unto those who are of the house of Israel” (see 1 Ne. 22:9–11), “and they shall be gathered together to the lands of their inheritance; and they shall be brought out of obscurity and out of darkness; and they shall know that the Lord is their Savior and their Redeemer, the Mighty One of Israel” (1 Ne. 22:12). Nephi’s commentary on Isaiah 48–49 in 1 Nephi 19 and 22 is entirely consistent with his father’s teachings, which Nephi gave us earlier in chapters 10 and 15.

Jacob continues the pattern set by his brother Nephi: “I will read you the words of Isaiah. And they are the words which my brother has desired that I should speak unto you … because ye are of the house of Israel” (see 2 Ne. 6:4–5).

Jacob then quotes again from Isaiah 49:22 [Isa. 49:22]: “I will lift up my hand to the Gentiles …” (2 Ne. 6:6). Next Jacob prefaces the message he is about to quote with a repetition of Lehi and Nephi’s commentary:

  1. “Those who were at Jerusalem” had been scattered (see 2 Ne. 6:8).

  2. They would return (see 2 Ne. 6:9).

  3. Christ would be born among them but they would reject and crucify him (see 2 Ne. 6:9).

  4. Those at Jerusalem would be scattered again, “driven to and fro” (see 2 Ne. 6:10–11).

  5. The Lord would remember the covenant and “set himself again the second time to recover” the house of Israel (quoting from Isa. 11:11) through the Gentiles (see 2 Ne. 6:12–14).

After this preparatory outline, Jacob quotes Isaiah 50 and 51 (2 Ne. 7–8). At the outset of 2 Nephi 9, Jacob clearly tells us why he has quoted these two chapters and what their major message is: “I have read these things [Isa. 50–51] that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel” (2 Ne. 9:1; emphasis added).

One aspect of this covenant, as Jacob then goes on to explain, is that the time will come when Israel “shall be restored to the true church and fold of God; when they shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise” (2 Ne. 9:2).

Light on the Atonement

Jacob’s commentary in 2 Nephi 9 opens with a discussion of the gathering of Israel in the last days. Then it moves to a powerful discussion of Christ’s mission, particularly on the saving power of the “infinite atonement” (see 2 Ne. 9:7).

In 2 Nephi 9:10 [2 Ne. 9:10], Jacob discusses the two deaths, “that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.” This commentary gives added meaning to several passages in Isaiah 51 that Jacob has just quoted in 2 Nephi 8. Isaiah writes, “Art thou not he that hath cut Rahab [i.e.,the same as Jacob’s “death”], and wounded the dragon [i.e., the same as Jacob’s “hell”]?” (2 Ne. 8:9). Isaiah’s use of the words “ransomed” (Isa. 51:10) and “redeemed” (Isa. 51:11) takes on broader meaning as “sorrow and mourning shall flee away” (Isa. 51:11) because of the infinite Atonement that overcomes death and hell.

“Among all the sons [Jerusalem] has brought forth” (see Isa. 51:17–18) there is no salvation, as there is no ultimate salvation in the law of Moses and in the prophets. The only sons left are “desolation and destruction” (Isa. 51:19), i.e., death and hell, and these two sons “lie at the head of all the streets” (Isa. 51:20) as death and hell lie at the end of every life. The question then arises, “By whom shall I comfort thee?” (Isa. 51:19).

The answer is Jesus Christ, who has overcome death by drinking the bitter cup himself: “The Lord and thy God pleadeth the cause of his people; behold, I [the Lord God] have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again” (Isa. 51:22). Jacob’s commentary on Isaiah 50–51 allows a reading of these chapters that would not likely be considered otherwise.

In 2 Nephi 10 [2 Ne. 10], Jacob’s commentary on Isaiah continues. Once again Jacob identifies the major themes that accompany his reading of Isaiah. From 2 Nephi 10 we read:

  1. Christ would come, and Israel would reject and crucify him (see 2 Ne. 10:3).

  2. Israel would be “scattered among all nations” (see 2 Ne. 10:6).

  3. According to the covenant, the house of Israel would be “restored in the flesh, upon the earth, unto the lands of their inheritance” (see 2 Ne. 10:7).

  4. “The Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of [God]” in bringing about this gathering (see 2 Ne. 10:8).

Jacob then shows his consistency with his brother Nephi and his father, Lehi, by quoting from Isaiah 49, the same book Nephi had quoted in 1 Ne. 21: “Yea, the kings of the Gentiles shall be nursing fathers unto them, and their queens shall become nursing mothers; wherefore, the promises of the Lord are great unto the Gentiles” (2 Ne. 10:9). Jacob then takes this promise of the Lord to the Gentiles one step further with a commentary on Isaiah 49:23 [Isa. 49:23] when he says, “I will soften the hearts of the Gentiles, that they shall be like unto a father to them; wherefore, the Gentiles shall be blessed and numbered among the house of Israel” (2 Ne. 10:18; emphasis added).

Nephi’s Prophetic Insights

With these background commentaries on Isaiah by Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob, we can better anticipate and search out Isaiah’s meanings in the long section of Isaiah comprising 2 Nephi 12–24 (Isa. 2–14). Nephi’s major commentary on these 13 chapters comes by way of summary and conclusion in 2 Nephi 25, the chapter immediately following the long Isaiah quotation.

Nephi tells us in 2 Nephi 25 that Isaiah’s metaphoric and poetic language is difficult to understand (see 2 Ne. 25:1–6), but that he, Nephi, will give us his own version of Isaiah’s prophecy “according to my plainness” (see 2 Ne. 25:7).

An important part of Nephi’s commentary is to identify the time of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies:

“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. …

“… For I know that they shall be of great worth unto [mine own people] in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them” (see 2 Ne. 25:7–8; emphasis added).

Nephi then gives his own prophecy “in plainness,” which is also his commentary on the 13 chapters of Isaiah he has just quoted. Nephi’s prophecy follows the familiar pattern of the rejection of Christ and the scattering and restoration of the house of Israel (see 2 Ne. 25:9–17).

Using as a guide Nephi’s commentary on Isaiah in 2 Nephi 11 and 25, especially verses 9–17, we can make our way more confidently through these 13 chapters of Isaiah. Nephi concludes his summary of the long quotation of Isaiah by quoting two significant passages from Isaiah in 2 Nephi 25:17 [2 Ne. 25:17]: “And the Lord will set his hand again the second time to restore his people from their lost and fallen state [quoting from Isa. 11:11]. Wherefore, he will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder among the children of men [quoting from Isa. 29:14].”

It is interesting to note that Nephi’s statement that the events depicted in Isaiah 11 would take place “in the last days” (2 Ne. 25:8) was confirmed at the time of Moroni’s visit to the Prophet Joseph Smith. We read in Joseph Smith—History 1:40 [JS—H 1:40], “In addition … he [Moroni] quoted the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, saying that it was about to be fulfilled.”

The commentary in 2 Nephi 26 and 27 is the most helpful explanation we have of Isaiah 29 in the Book of Mormon. It differs from earlier commentaries by providing not only introductory and summarizing remarks but also the most specific scriptural intertextual commentary on the matter.

The first 11 verses of 2 Nephi 26 prophesy of the eventual destruction of the Nephite nation, a branch of the house of Israel, concluding with, “And when these things have passed away a speedy destruction cometh unto my people” (2 Ne. 26:10). Nephi then turns his attention to Isaiah’s prophecy about the restoration of the Nephite nation in the last days. Without Nephi’s commentary, no reader would be able to correctly understand this chapter of Isaiah.

Nephi begins: “But behold, I prophesy unto you concerning the last days; concerning the days when the Lord God shall bring these things forth unto the children of men.

“After my seed and the seed of my brethren shall have dwindled in unbelief, and shall have been smitten by the Gentiles …” (2 Ne. 26:14–15). Then with only a “yea” as a connector, Nephi begins quoting from Isaiah 29:3 [Isa. 29:3], changing Isaiah’s first-person narrative into third-person narrative: “Yea, after the Lord God shall have camped against them [i.e., against “my seed and the seed of my brethren”] round about, and shall have laid siege against them with a mount, and raised forts against them; and after they shall have been brought down low in the dust, even that they are not, yet the words of the righteous shall be written, and the prayers of the faithful shall be heard, and all those who have dwindled in unbelief [i.e., “my seed”] shall not be forgotten” (2 Ne. 26:15).

Nephi continues this methodical explication throughout 2 Nephi 26 and 27 (Isa. 29) by quoting sections of Isaiah, then commenting, then resuming his quoting more of Isaiah.

It is perfectly reasonable, of course, that Nephi should want to give such a careful commentary on Isaiah 29. Nephi understood that Isaiah was prophesying about Nephi’s own people, his “seed” who had “been brought low in the dust,” who had “dwindled in unbelief” (2 Ne. 26:15), and who “in the last days” would be brought back as part of the rebuilding of the house of Israel. Moreover, Isaiah was prophesying about the record of Nephi’s own people, which record later would become the Book of Mormon. We can only imagine the excitement and gratitude Nephi must have felt when through “the spirit of prophecy” (2 Ne. 25:4) he began to understand this section of Isaiah and realized that Isaiah was prophesying specifically about his people.

Nephi continues this intertextual commentary on Isaiah 29 throughout chapters 27 and 28, but beginning with chapter 28, verse 30, Nephi’s revelation becomes identified clearly as the Lord’s revelation: “For behold, thus saith the Lord God …” It is the Lord who continues speaking throughout the remainder of chapter 28 and through the entire chapter 29.

The Savior’s Commentary on Isaiah

The last full Isaiah chapters quoted in the Book of Mormon that discuss the restoration of the house of Israel are Isaiah 52 and 54. These two chapters are accompanied by a lengthy and detailed commentary by the Lord himself in 3 Nephi 16 and 20 to 22. It is here that the Savior tells of visiting his other sheep, then turns his attention to the destiny of the house of Israel. Again we read that the house of Israel will be scattered and that they will be gathered again in the last days by a Gentile nation:

“O house of Israel, in the latter day shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them. …

“And then will I remember my covenant which I have made unto my people, O house of Israel, and I will bring my gospel unto them. …

“… I will remember my covenant unto you, O house of Israel, and ye shall come unto the knowledge of the fulness of my gospel.

“But if the Gentiles will repent and return unto me, saith the Father, behold they shall be numbered among my people, O house of Israel” (3 Ne. 16:7, 11–13).

The Savior then turns to a familiar quotation from Isaiah 52:8–10 [Isa. 52:8–10]: “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice …” The quote concludes with, “The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God” (see 3 Ne. 16:19–20).

The Savior indicates a sequence of events for Israel’s gathering in 3 Nephi 20 and especially 21, which he introduces by saying, “I give unto you a sign, that ye may know the time when these things shall be about to take place—that I shall gather in, from their long dispersion, my people, O house of Israel, and shall establish again among them my Zion” (3 Ne. 21:1). The verses that follow explain when this gathering will take place. The Lord incorporates several quotations from the prophet Isaiah into this explanation, including the familiar statement about the “marvelous work” (see 3 Ne. 21:9).

Then in 3 Nephi 22 the Savior quotes Isaiah 54 in its entirety. Verse 3 is perhaps the significant verse relative to the Gentiles’ role in restoring Israel: “For thou [house of Israel] shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left, and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited” (emphasis added). The Savior’s comments that “great are the words of Isaiah” and that they should be searched diligently are also very instructive (see 3 Ne. 23:1–2).

The scope of this article has not allowed an in-depth study of the Isaiah passages and has not allowed the comparing of the larger Isaiah passages quoted in the Book of Mormon with their commentaries. This brief overview should, however, help readers realize that the key to understanding Isaiah, at least those portions of his prophecies that deal with the restoration of the house of Israel in the last days, can be found in the Book of Mormon commentaries on Isaiah.

Illustrated by Gary L. Kapp

Left: The Crucifixion, by Harry Anderson; above, right: detail from painting by Harry Anderson

Photo by Steve Bunderson

Nephi Writing on Gold Plates, by Paul Mann

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett