Teaching Isaiah with a Restoration Focus by Improving Historical Awareness

Study Resources

Shon D. Hopkin

Isaiah lived and taught over twenty-seven hundred years ago—a prophet from a foreign land, a foreign culture, and a foreign time for all modern readers. Before his words would ever be read in the latter days, they first had to be intelligible and applicable to the ancient Israelites that the Lord called him to lead. Isaiah’s body has long since been placed in the earth, and many Christian readers today consider the messages of the “Old” Testament to be outdated and irrelevant

Nephi provided two crucial thoughts that encourage Latter-day Saints to read his words with a focus on the powerful truths of the restored gospel. First, he “read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah” to “more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer,” describing his efforts to “liken all scriptures unto [them], that it might be for [their] profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23, emphasis added). Second, he declared, “I know that [the writings of Isaiah] 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, emphasis added).

Notwithstanding the ancient date of Isaiah’s teachings, Isaiah classes at BYU each semester fill to overflowing with intelligent, articulate college students who are excited to study and learn from his words. The students feel that way, for the most part, because they have learned from Nephi and from the words of the resurrected Christ that “great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1). They want to know what those ancient words might mean for them today, believing that those “in the last days” shall “understand them” (2 Nephi 25:8). The restored gospel—including the teachings of the New Testament about Jesus Christ—provides a crucial lens by which we can understand what Isaiah means for us today.

Along with this Restoration focus, I have found that carefully studying and distinguishing what Isaiah’s original audience might have understood in their day gives added depth, breadth, and beautiful nuance to a Restoration-oriented likening of Isaiah. I’ll give just one example of how improving our historical awareness and reading the scriptures in their historical context (a lifelong journey for all scripture readers), increases and enhances a Restoration understanding.

Most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with other Christians, are thrilled to read the grand prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This verse points powerfully to the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as taught in Matthew 1:22–23, and we should never lose sight of that most important of prophetic fulfillments.

Understanding the historical context of this verse—“What would this prophecy have meant to King Ahaz who first received it?”—only enhances its power and applicability. The verses immediately following the Immanuel prophecy (Isaiah 7:15–16) demonstrate that the sign of the young woman giving birth would be fulfilled first in Ahaz’s own day. (The Hebrew word ‘almah that was originally spoken by Isaiah and that is translated as “virgin” in the King James Version means “young maiden.” Only in its Greek translation was a word chosen that literally means “virgin.”) According to Isaiah 7:15–16, before the prophesied child would be old enough to recognize the difference between good and evil, the threat from the combined power of Israel and Syria would be gone. As king of Judah, Ahaz could trust in the Lord and did not need to fear or make concessions to foreign powers. Although there is some debate about who this child may have been, the flow of the text seems to me to indicate that it was Isaiah’s own child, since Isaiah states shortly thereafter that his own wife, “the prophetess,” “conceived, and bare a son” (Isaiah 8:3). This interpretation coincides with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s understanding of this passage, which he describes as a “dual or parallel fulfillment” prophecy.[1]

The historical context of the scriptural record creates the evocative image of a weak and vacillating king—the most powerful political force in Judah—who is too terrified to trust in the Lord, as he is confronted with the simple, powerful faith of a young woman—Isaiah’s wife, the prophetess—who has enough trust in the Lord that she is willing to give birth to a child amid impending doom. The birth of the child will be a testament to Ahaz that “God is with us,” that no matter how dark things may appear, God still has a plan and is still in charge, as demonstrated each time he sends a child to the earth, with all the hope and promise that childbirth entails.

As powerful as the image would have been for Isaiah’s original audience, it is enhanced in the New Testament when the virgin maiden, Mary the mother of the Son of God, faithfully submits to the will of the Lord and has the courage to give birth to the child of promise par excellence (Luke 1:30–38). Jesus’s birth amid the threat of Rome, of political bondage, of spiritual bondage, and of death will signify for all eternity that God’s plan of mercy will prevail.

And the image retains its power when “likened” again to our own latter-day situation, when once again many are overcome by fear but when God will continue to demonstrate the promise of Immanuel, that he “is with us,” with the birth of each new child. As despair and anxiety increase and buffet God’s children in the latter days, faithful women and men—mothers, fathers, teachers, family members, and friends—will continue to show their faith in the midst of worldwide commotion by rejoicing in the birth of children and by teaching them of their divine origin and their role in God’s great latter-day work. When the winds of extreme individualism and rampant materialism appear too threatening, latter-day women and men can take strength in the powerful image of Mary and in the first image of Isaiah’s faithful wife, whose courage was greater than that of a king and whose act of love outshone the might of surrounding political powers.

This is just one of literally hundreds of examples when a Restoration-guided understanding is enhanced and strengthened through increased historical awareness. The depths of the teachings from this great Old Testament prophet—as with the depths of the restored gospel—are yet to be fully explored by any of us as we in “the last days” seek to “understand them” (2 Nephi 25:8).

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[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘More Fully Persuaded’: Isaiah’s Witness of Christ’s Ministry,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Study, 1998), 6.