Isaiah: Four Latter-day Keys to an Ancient Book

Avraham Gileadi

Avraham Gileadi, “Isaiah: Four Latter-day Keys to an Ancient Book,” in Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 119–38.

The book of Isaiah has effectively remained a “sealed book’’ until the last days because only in the last days have the means to its interpretation become available. On the one hand, the Book of Mormon alone brings together the keys essential to understanding Isaiah, while on the other, time itself sets the stage for Isaiah’s prophecies to be fulfilled (cf. 2 Nephi 25:8). In the Book of Mormon, two keys for understanding Isaiah are given by Nephi and two by the Savior, though all overlap. The first two keys, which appear in 2 Nephi 25:4 and 5, may be defined respectively as the spirit and the letter of prophecy. The spirit of prophecy is spoken of as making “plain” the words of Isaiah, while the letter of prophecy causes one to “understand” them. The third and fourth keys, which appear in 3 Nephi 23:1 and 3, consist of the requirement to “search” the words of Isaiah in order to make meaningful connections, and the necessity of viewing his prophecies typologically: of seeing the past, things that “have been,” as a type of the future, things that “will be.” Used together, these keys enable us to penetrate the deepest mysteries of the book of Isaiah and in the process recognize the book for what it is, namely, a blueprint for the last days. I will first discuss the spirit and letter of prophecy.

The spirit of prophecy, which comes with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21) and is synonymous with a testimony that Jesus is the Christ (see Revelation 19:10), elucidates and serves as a confirmation of the letter of prophecy. In the relevant passage from 2 Nephi 25:4, Nephi states, “The words of Isaiah . . . are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.” On the other hand, the letter of prophecy is a method or “manner” of conveying the Lord’s word and its interpretation “taught” among the Jews, and must therefore be learned by us if we want to understand. In 2 Nephi 25:5, Nephi states:

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.

It is significant that the spirit and what I have called the letter of prophecy are thus mentioned together, the spirit of prophecy being a vertical approach to the scripture and the letter a horizontal approach, each complementing the other.

Obtaining the spirit of prophecy, that is, obtaining personal revelation through the Holy Ghost, is an essential feature of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and is generally experienced beyond the application of the basic principles of the gospel. Its dependence on the spiritual growth and worthiness of the person receiving it renders its full treatment unnecessary here. Let it suffice to say that the Prophet Joseph Smith described the workings of the Holy Ghost upon the mind as “strokes of pure intelligence flowing into you,” [1] while Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 depicts the action of the Holy Ghost as a burning of the bosom which serves to confirm whether a thing is right and true. In the same light, Paul maintains that the things of God are known only by the Spirit of God (see 1 Corinthians 2:11), and that for mortals to comprehend words written or uttered under the influence of the Holy Ghost, they too must be touched by and possess that same Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:10–16). Although less dramatic in its operation, the spirit of prophecy may be compared to the gift of tongues and to that of the interpretation of tongues. Both are gifts of the same Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:4–11), the prophet exercising the first for our sake, and we the second if we would avail ourselves of it.

The letter of prophecy is essential to Jewish learning and includes a knowledge of “regions round about” the land of Israel (see 2 Nephi 25:6). The concerted use of both the spirit and the letter of prophecy is prerequisite, however, to gaining a full understanding of the words of Isaiah, and thus several examples of the letter of prophecy will assist in clarifying this second key.

There exists today a fairly wide knowledge of the ancient Near East, the cradle or setting in which the prophecies of Isaiah were given. The literature we have from the ancient Near East is an indispensable resource for understanding Isaiah, not only because it yields a fuller account of ancient Near Eastern history than that contained in the Bible, but because it provides the clearest models of the literary forms and structures used in the composition of the book of Isaiah, as well as of the covenant theology which permeates it. Form criticism, which has preoccupied biblical scholars since the turn of the century, deals almost exclusively with identifying the various literary forms found in individual passages of the books of the prophets, prominently among them the book of Isaiah. Such forms, brought together by Claus Westermann, [2] include the Messenger Speech, the Lawsuit, the Proclamation of Judgment, the Woe Oracle, the Lament, the Ethical Sermon, and the Parable. Although the claims of liberal scholars on behalf of form criticism are excessive and often unsupported, we do learn from form-critical studies that virtually every passage in the book of Isaiah, down to its smallest components, is not part of a random accumulation of revelatory material, but instead possesses a recognizable literary form that is intended to convey a particular message.

This literary dimension alone would demand the highest respect for the book of Isaiah. It is, however, but one of several such literary dimensions, each of which is designed to convey a message or set of messages. In addition, the book contains a number of broad literary structures, each of which also conveys meaningful messages. Three of these broad structures are attested in literatures prevalent in parts of the ancient Near East before the time of Isaiah, and in the book of Isaiah all are superimposed upon one another, testifying to a carefully planned and highly sophisticated literary composition. A proper appreciation for this last literary dimension of the book of Isaiah prepares the way for viewing the book as an organic whole. Because all of these structures are based on various literary forms and plots, their total effect is a complex but clearly defined progression of thought comprehending the “end from the beginning” (see Isaiah 46:10) in which what is now ancient history in the book of Isaiah is subordinated editorially to a latter-day setting. In simple terms, this means that all that is prophesied in the book of Isaiah in its final edited state will be fulfilled in its entirety only in the latter days, and that it is in this latter-day context alone that we can legitimately and fully understand it. I will return to this concept in my discussion of the fourth key.

Central to Isaiah’s thought is a theology of covenant, a theology also pertinent to the letter of prophecy, and consistent with ancient Near Eastern patterns prevalent in his day. At the root of biblical and Isaianic covenant theology lies the suzerain-vassal relationship defined in ancient Near Eastern political treaties, notably those of the Hittites and Assyrians. This relationship was first explored by Mendenhall in discussing the book of Deuteronomy and was seen elsewhere in the Old Testament by such scholars as Weinfeld, Calderone, and Fensham. The latter discovered that the covenant relationship between the Lord and his people Israel, and between the Lord and certain individuals, is similar to and appears to be modeled upon the ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaty (before 1400 B.C.). Within this relationship, the Lord, as suzerain or Great King, assured Israel, his vassal, of divine blessings, so long as Israel would abide by the terms of the covenant. Prominent among ancient Near Eastern covenant blessings was the suzerain’s promise of an enduring inheritance of land by the vassal and his seed or offspring, and of protection in case of mortal danger. Israel, as the Lord’s vassal, was called his “son” and “servant,” reflecting, in part, the familial terms used in ancient Near Eastern treaties to define the suzerain-vassal relationship. Failure to abide by the terms of the covenant, on the other hand, paved the way for the prosecution of the vassal and the coming upon him of a long series of divine curses. The six-point literary formula of ancient Near Eastern treaties, including lists of blessings and curses (cf. Deuteronomy 28), was inscribed on tablets and duly sworn to by the parties concerned. [3]

As an illustration of this point, Job’s companions were convinced of his transgression precisely because his calamities took the form of ancient Near Eastern covenant curses. However, Job proved to be an exception to the rule, and he thus served as a type of Christ. In Isaiah chapter 53 the suffering “servant” incurs the legal prosecution and covenant curses ensuing upon a vassal’s failure to keep covenant, with the exception that there is mention in that chapter of his having “seed’’ or offspring (see Isaiah 53:10), signifying the innocence of the servant. Since the loss of seed or offspring was the first and major ancient Near Eastern covenant curse, such a loss would have meant that the servant was, in fact, guilty. But like Job, the Savior, whose atonement for transgression is herein prophesied, was an exception to the rule. Some idea of the larger influence of ancient Near Eastern covenant patterns in the book of Isaiah is indicated by the fact that virtually all the judgments of God enumerated in the book represent common ancient Near Eastern covenant curses.

A phenomenon in the book of Isaiah which does not appear in ancient Near Eastern treaty patterns, however, is that of curse reversals, such as barrenness turned to fertility (cf. Isaiah 5:6; 27:2, 3), famine to productivity (cf. Isaiah 3:1; 30:23), and darkness to light (cf. Isaiah 9:2; 60:1, 2). Curse reversals, brought about by divine intervention some time after the curses have been in effect, are an Isaianic phenomenon (as pointed out by Fensham) and constitute one of the book of Isaiah’s most important identifying characteristics.

An entire vocabulary also forms part of the ancient Near Eastern background of Isaiah’s covenant theology. Already noted is the “father-son” and “master-servant” relationship between the suzerain and the vassal. The verb “love,” too, defines their relationship: if the vassal abides by the terms of the covenant, he is said to “love” the suzerain; if he does not, he is said to “rebel” against him. The suzerain, on his part, extends “mercy” and “compassion” to the vassal, both terms being ancient Near Eastern synonyms of covenant, as are “peace,” “lovingkindness,” “good,” and “evil.” The antithetical statement “I make peace and create evil” (Isaiah 45:7), therefore, need not cause any theological controversy over whether God created evil. “Peace,” in ancient Near Eastern terminology, means covenant or covenant blessing, the Hebrew term “peace” (salom) possessing the additional meanings of “well-being” and “completeness.” Within the same context, the Hebrew term “evil” (ra; ra a) signifies covenant curse, and entirely lacks its English equivalent’s connotation of an absolute, an abstract idea created in the minds of sophists and philosophers. So also, the exhortation to “do good” (see Isaiah 1:17), in the language of Isaiah, is an exhortation to keep covenant with the Lord, the rewards of such righteousness taking the form of covenant blessing, namely, eating the “good” of the land (Isaiah 1:19; cf. 3:10). Failure to “do good,” on the other hand, brings “evil,” or covenant curse, namely, the people’s destruction (see Isaiah 1:20; cf. 3:9, 11), the Hebrew term “evil” (see above) possessing the additional meanings of “disaster,” “calamity,” and “misfortune.” Throughout his book, Isaiah’s theology presupposes this formal and enduring covenant relationship with the Lord, leaving no middle ground for those not for or against such a relationship.

As a work of prophetic poetry (except for a few biographical sections and one or two supplementary pieces of prose), the book of Isaiah is again better understood within its ancient Near Eastern background. The phenomenon of synonymous parallels, the chief feature of ancient Near Eastern poetry, assists in obtaining Isaiah’s definition of a given term. In verses containing parallelisms, an idea or concept is generally stated twice, the second statement qualifying the first and vice versa. Within such parallelisms, each line commonly possesses a subject, a verb, and an object, each of which may function as a synonym of its parallel counterpart. Thus the expression “Zion shall be ransomed with justice and those of her who repent by righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27), by parallelism, defines “Zion” as “those of her who repent,” a concept similarly stated in Isaiah 59:20. The phenomenon of antithetical parallels, on the other hand, as in the line “I make peace and create evil,” assists in obtaining definitions of terms through contrast. What is important to this analytical approach is not necessarily what a term in Hebrew is purported to mean in the dictionary or lexicon, though that is important, but how Isaiah uses it in the text, what he intends to say by it, something I have called a “rhetorical definition.” Essential to determining the meanings of terms based on this method, evidently, is some knowledge of Hebrew, or, alternately, the use of a translation consistently accurate against the Hebrew, if such exists. Having made my own translation of the Masoretic text of Isaiah into English, and in the process having compared every term employed in twelve of the most authoritative versions of the Bible, I retain strong reservations about depending for an interpretation on a single English translation of Isaiah, as one translation alone can never say all that the Hebrew says.

Although “Zion,” as we saw above, is identified indirectly by parallelism as those of Israel who repent and are ransomed (see Isaiah 1:27), it is elsewhere identified directly as the place of return for the ransomed of the Lord (see Isaiah 35:10; 51:11). A total Isaianic definition of Zion thus consists of both a people and a place—both narrowly defined within Isaiah’s scheme of a latter-day deliverance. Juxtaposed with Zion is “Babylon,” a term defined by context. Chapter 13,of Isaiah, purportedly about Babylon (cf. Isaiah 13:1), nevertheless identifies its subject as “sinners,” “the world,” “the wicked,” and so forth (see Isaiah 13:9, 11), while in the same chapter a divine judgment upon Babylon implies a judgment upon the entire earth (see Isaiah 13:13, 14). Thus, like Zion, the term “Babylon” represents both a people and a place, though the latter is evidently much more broadly defined. The juxtaposition of Zion and Babylon in the book of Isaiah, a juxtaposition which takes various forms, [4] allows us to obtain a further definition of each by virtue of their contrast. According to this contrast, Zion is by inference what Babylon is not, and Babylon, by the same token, is what Zion is not. If Babylon in the book of Isaiah consists of the wicked of the world who are destroyed in a day of universal judgment (see Isaiah 13:9, 11, 13, 14), then Zion must be the righteous of the earth who are saved in this universal judgment. On the other hand, if Zion consists of those of the Lord’s people who repent, are ransomed, and return home (see Isaiah 1:27; 35:10), then Babylon must be those who do not repent, nor are ransomed, nor return home.

Isaiah’s extensive use of metaphors forms an integral part of the letter of prophecy. In the verse, “Hark! a tumult on the mountains, as of a vast multitude. Hark! an uproar among kingdoms, as of nations assembling” (Isaiah 13:4), the parallel occurrence of the terms “mountains” and “kingdoms” denotes “mountains” to be a metaphor of “kingdoms,” a concept similarly stated in Isaiah 64:1–3, where the term “mountains” appears as a metaphor of “nations.” This concept has important implications in a passage such as Isaiah 2:14, where the cataclysm of nature, in the form of the leveling of high mountains in the day of the Lord’s coming in power, carries with it as well the idea of social upheaval. In this passage, the levelling of high mountains allegorically implies a leveling of exalted kingdoms or nations. Interestingly, the Book of Mormon version of the passage actually includes this idea within a series of geophysical objects (cf. 2 Nephi 12:14cd).

The same allegorical identity of mountains as nations allows one to read the idea of world political prominence into the passage in Isaiah 2:2 dealing with the “mountain’’ in which the law and word of the Lord are restored. According to the Hebrew, the passage reads: “In the latter days the mountain of the Lord’s house shall become established as/in the head/top of the mountains,” the Hebrew term ro s having as its primary meaning the English word “head,” and as secondary meanings the words “chief” and “top.” The Hebrew preposition be, translated “in” in the King James Version, is considered a bet essentiae by most scholars, and could thus be translated “ a s . “ Not surprisingly, it actually occurs as the preposition ke, meaning “as,” in the Dead Sea scroll of Isaiah, IQIsaa. In the Sinai covenant, Israel was promised as a covenant blessing that it would become the “head” of the nations (cf. Deuteronomy 28:10, 13). We see, therefore, that two valid but different interpretations are possible from a single passage in Isaiah, both of which contribute to an understanding of events in the latter days. On the one hand, we find the idea of world political prominence centered in the nation in which the law and word of the Lord are restored, while on the other we find the actual spiritual center of that restoration located in the tops of the mountains, a geographical location.

Isaiah’s use of metaphors extends to a group of royal metaphors designating the king of Assyria/Babylon and the Davidic king. [5] Both appear under the guise of the “hand” of the Lord-the (left) “hand” of punishment (cf. Isaiah 5:25; 10:4; 14:26), or the royal executioner of ancient Near Eastern tradition, and the (right) “hand” of deliverance (cf. Isaiah 11:11, 15; 41:10, 13), or the royal executive (cf. Psalm 80:17). Both appear as a royal “ensign” or “banner” (Heb. nes), the one rallying wicked nations from beyond the horizon to punish the Lord’s people for their wickedness (see Isaiah 5:26; 13:2), the other rallying the righteous from among all nations to Zion (see Isaiah 11:10, 12; 49:22), a safe place in the day of judgment. The king of Assyria/Babylon also appears as the “rod” and “staff” of the Lord’s punishment (see Isaiah 10:5; 14:5), and the Davidic king as a staff and “flagellum” to punish this tyrant (see Isaiah 10:26). All of these terms are royal metaphors. The king of Assyria/Babylon again appears under the metaphors of the Lord’s “anger” and “wrath,” of which he is the instrument (cf. Isaiah 5:25; 10:5; 13:5, 9), and as an “ax” and “saw” to hew down the wicked (see Isaiah 10:15; 14:8; 37:24). The Davidic king consistently appears as the Lord’s “righteousness” (cf. Isaiah 41:2, 10; 51:5), a divine and royal attribute and forerunner of “salvation” (see Isaiah 46:13; 56:1); the latter is a metaphor for the Lord himself (see Isaiah 12:2; 62:11). The king of Assyria and his confederation of wicked nations are further depicted as “River” (Nahar; see Isaiah 8:7; 11:15) and “Sea” (Yamm; see Isaiah 5:30; 10:26; 17:12), well-known powers of Chaos of ancient Near Eastern mythology. In the same context, also mythological, the Davidic king is portrayed as a “light” illuminating the darkness of those in captivity (see Isaiah 9:2; 42:6; 49:6), representing a power of Creation. Distinct patterns of alternating themes of Chaos and Creation in the book of Isaiah tell of the Davidic king’s eventual victory over the forces of Chaos. [6]

The letter of prophecy, then, assists in unraveling what several ancient sources call the “hidden things” spoken by Isaiah (Sir. Isaiah 48:25), a message “recorded in parables” to hide its intent from the worldly wise (Asc. Isaiah 4:20). The prophecy that Israel, when strengthened by the “right hand” of the Lord (Isaiah 41:10, 13), will thresh “mountains” into “dust” and into “chaff” (Isaiah 41:15) need present no difficulty when the various terms used are recognized for what they are. The terms “dust” and “chaff” are chaos motifs, signifying that Israel and its Davidic king (cf. Isaiah 41:2, 25), the “right hand” of the Lord (Isaiah 41:10, 13), will make chaos of the wicked nations when they have served the Lord’s purpose in punishing Israel. It is important to keep in mind with regard to the letter of prophecy that the book of Isaiah contains built-in checks in the form of parallelisms and other interrelationships that assist the reader in avoiding the pitfalls of spurious interpretation. The letter of prophecy is both inductive and verifiable; it is a principle of interpretation which builds upon itself, but which is always in harmony with other scriptural principles of interpretation. Where the letter of prophecy is applied consistently, and where its use is inspired and influenced by the spirit of prophecy, a vast wealth of information pertinent to and essential for the last days unfolds to the reader from the words of Isaiah.

This leads to a third key opening up a new dimension for understanding Isaiah, namely, the Savior’s commandment to diligently search his words. After quoting Isaiah at length, the Savior states: “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.’’ (3 Nephi 23:1.) The command to search diligently the words of Isaiah is plainly intended to mean something other than an emphasis upon the necessity of reading them. It implies that without a concerted inquiry one cannot properly understand the words of Isaiah, and ultimately that nothing less than an all-out investigation will yield the desired results. It means that Isaiah’s words are too “great” to be comprehended by a surface reading only. His book exhibits all the characteristics of a great literary masterpiece and, as such, requires serious effort to be understood. The Savior’s recommendation assures us that the knowledge to be gained is worth the effort.

As has just been briefly demonstrated, the letter of prophecy necessarily involves a diligent searching of the scripture, for without it we cannot apply the letter of prophecy. We have seen that it is impossible to determine Isaiah’s use of words as metaphors, or to arrive at a rhetorical definition of terms, without searching the text. Similarly, we have seen that one cannot understand some of the deeper implications of the book of Isaiah without a working knowledge of its ancient Near Eastern context and of the author’s view of this context as an underlying presupposition, and, in that light, conducting a search of the text for informative underlying parallels. Again, we have been made aware that it is impossible to discern the various literary forms and structures employed in the book of Isaiah, and the message conveyed by each, except by a diligent search based on a knowledge of similar forms and structures in other literatures. Finally, it is evident to one who has studied a Hebrew biblical text that one cannot gain a full idea of the language of Isaiah from a translation alone. To better understand it, one must come to terms with the Hebrew and so capture the various levels and nuances of meaning conveyed by the prophet’s choice of words. This, again, requires diligent searching.

The last point can be readily demonstrated in each and every verse of the Book of Isaiah; but for the sake of brevity, I will cite only a few examples from the sixth chapter of Isaiah. In it, there is a description of “seraphs” about the throne of the Lord (Heb. seraphim; see Isaiah 6:2), a term meaning “fiery ones” or serpents (Heb. serapim; cf. Numbers 21:6, 8; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 14:29). The latter are evidently intended to serve as a symbol for the kind of seraphs spoken of in Isaiah chapter 6; their peculiar name perhaps characterizes them, in the language of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as beings who “dwell amid everlasting burnings.” [7] These “fiery ones” are depicted as having “wings” (Heb. kenapayim), a biblical term which also means “veils” or “covers.” Indeed, with these “wings” they can “veil,” “cover,” or “hide” (Heb. yekasseh) their “face” (Heb. panaw), a term which also means “presence.” Further, they can hide their “feet” or “legs” (Heb. raglaw), which may equally refer to their “footing,” the place where they are standing, or simply their “location.” Lastly, they have the power to “fly about” (Heb. ye opep), but this is not necessarily a reference to flying like birds by means of flapping wings! What we have here, in reality, is not a description of some bizarre creatures unknown to us, but of angels and their power to conceal themselves from men and to move freely through space. In the manner of angels, they sing a hymn of praise, beginning with “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3). The threefold occurrence of the adjective “holy” represents the superlative, which has no other means of expression in biblical Hebrew. A more correct translation would therefore be “Most holy is the Lord of hosts,” including all the overtones of meaning of the various terms used.

The next line of the verse, “the whole earth is full of his glory,” is probably an inadequate translation of the text (Heb. melo kol ha ares kebodo) based on what various translators thought it signified. Such mistranslations are often the case when translators are at a loss as to the sense or doctrine of a particular phrase. A knowledge of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ often assists in arriving at a more correct translation. In the present example, the world translated “full” (Heb. melo) is not an adjective, but is the noun “fulfillment,” and its synonyms are “fulness” and “consummation.” In the biblical text, moreover, this noun, not the noun “earth,” is the subject of the sentence. A literal translation of the passage, therefore, is “the consummation of the whole earth is his glory,” or even, “the fulfillment of the full measure of the earth is his glory.” These renderings are more in harmony with the restored gospel’s teachings concerning the earth fulfilling the measure of its creation, and concerning this purpose of the creation as the Lord’s work and glory.

One could go on at length expounding the problems and mechanics of translation and their usually negative effect on the meaning conveyed to the reader, but two more examples must suffice. Verse 5 of chapter 6 mentions Isaiah’s being struck “dumb” (Heb. nidmeti), an expression commonly translated “undone” or “ruined.” Actually two Hebrew roots are possible, nadam and dama, the first meaning “silenced” or “made dumb,” the second meaning “perished” or “ruined.” The fact that the prophet “said” what he did (Heb. omar) may simply mean that he “thought” it to himself; both definitions are valid renderings of the Hebrew verb. The idea of Isaiah’s being struck dumb makes more sense than his perishing, not only because he actually survives, but in light of the opening-of-the-mouth rite which follows (see Isaiah 6:6, 7), preparatory to his commission as a prophet (see Isaiah 6:8, 9). A rite of the “opening of the mouth” is also found in ancient Near Eastern texts as an Egyptian temple ritual. [8]

A final example of problems in translation of the Hebrew is from verse 13 of chapter 6. There a “tenth” of the people are depicted as remaining in the land or returning to their cities and homes after a great calamity has taken place (cf. Isaiah 6:11, 12). But this tenth itself is “burned”; the Hebrew term (leba er) has three distinct meanings, two of which apply directly. The King James Version’s rendering of it as “eaten” is doubtless based on the verb’s secondary meaning of “annihilated” or “consumed”; its primary meaning is “burned,” as has been mentioned. In this verse, some of the people are represented as surviving this “burning” or “annihilation” of the tenth, the tenth itself being likened to a “terebinth” tree (Heb. ela) or an “oak” (Heb. alon), whose “stump” (Heb. massebet) remains alive when the tree is “cut down” or “felled” (Heb. salleket). The King James Version’s rendering of the word “stump” (Heb. massebet) as “substance” is again based on a secondary meaning in the Hebrew, its primary meaning being “that which stands erect,” such as a “pillar” or a “stump”; in its present context it refers to that which is left standing. In other words, the “holy seed,” left standing after a twofold calamity, is likened to the stump of a terebinth or an oak, each having the capacity to grow into new trees after it is cut down. This “holy seed” or “consecrated offspring” (Heb. zera quodes) is to become a new tree, symbolizing a new Israel, if we pardon the prophet’s habitual mixing of metaphors! The key word in this verse is the “tenth” (Heb. asiriya), a term which also means “tithe” (Heb. asiri). As any learned Jew can tell you, the unusual ya ending further signifies that it is a special tithe, the “tithe of ya,” or Jehovah. In other words, Isaiah is using the imagery of the tithe of the tithe. Anciently, the Israelites paid a tithe of their increase to the Levites, who, in turn, paid a tithe to the priests, the family of Aaron (see Numbers 18:24–29). The “holy seed” in verse 13 thus represents the tithe of the tithe, anciently called the “holy portion,” the portion consecrated to Jehovah (see Numbers 18:26). It is this 1 percent of the population that wholly escapes destruction on the Lord’s day of judgment.

The commandment to search the words of Isaiah also extends to applying an acute discernment to what is being said between the lines. An example of this in chapter 6 is the significance of the cleansing ember taken with tongs from the altar (see verse 6). The altar is that of atonement, and Isaiah’s remission of sins (verse 7) is thus by virtue of that atonement. Furthermore, the location of this scene of atonement between two verses in which Isaiah both sees and hears the Lord (verses 5 and 8) must be considered significant to this atonement. Verse 10 contains the Lord’s prediction of the general reaction of the people to Isaiah’s prophesying, in which Isaiah is in the unfortunate role of hardener of the heart. But it also contains a five-point formula for salvation, namely, seeing with the eyes, hearing with the ears, understanding with the “mind” or “heart” (Heb. lebab), “returning” or “repenting” (Heb. sab), and being healed. This leaves the door open for the deliverance of at least a righteous remnant, namely, those who follow this formula. This indeed proves to be the case (cf. Isaiah 10:21, 22).

An interesting example of what may be found by reading between the lines occurs in verses 11 and 12 of Isaiah chapter 1. At the beginning of verse 11 the “purpose” or the “why” (Heb. lamina) of temple-going is asked. The answer is provided at the beginning of verse 12 in the line, “When you come to see me.” The active verb (Heb. lir ot) has been given a passive vocalization by the Masoretes (Heb. lera ot; viz., “to appear”) in contradistinction to the proper passive form of the verb (Heb. lehera ot), suggesting that the Masoretes did not believe that the people could actually see the Lord in the temple. The verb “to see” is followed in the text by the direct object “my face” (Heb. panai), which also means “my presence,” or simply “me.” This confirms that the active form of the verb “to see” is the correct one, as no intervening preposition appears in the Hebrew text. The “purpose” of temple-going, therefore, according to Isaiah, is to be received into the “presence” of the Lord.

Another and final dimension of searching the words of Isaiah consists of the recognition of key words. The passage predicting the restoration of the gospel in the latter days cited earlier, for example (see Isaiah 2:2–5), contains in each of its four verses a key word linking this passage to Israel’s return from dispersion. In verse 2, the verb “flow” or “stream” (Heb. naharu) characterizes “nations” or “Gentiles” (Heb. goyim) streaming to Zion. But why did Isaiah choose this particular verb in favor of more common verbs, such as “go” and “come”? He did so because both the word “flow” and the key idea of nations or Gentiles streaming to Zion occur in other, related contexts in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 60:5 and 66:12, they appear in the context of Israel’s return, but without any time identification such as “the latter days” in Isaiah 2:2. This textual correlation involving the term “flow” accomplishes two things. First, it identifies the streaming of the nations to Zion in Isaiah 2:2 with Israel’s return, an idea not explicitly stated in that verse; and secondly, it identifies the return in Isaiah 60:5 and 66:12 with the latter days, an idea not stated there. This does away with the necessity seen by scholars, for example, of linking Israel’s return to the Jews’ historical return from Babylon and the resultant linking of the greater part of Isaiah’s prophecies with the remote past. It also reemphasizes the fact that Isaiah did not always write in plain terms, and demonstrates particularly well the necessity of searching the text for clues to better understanding.

Verse 3 of Isaiah chapter 2 again links the scene of representatives of all nations going to Zion to the idea of Israel's return. The verb "go up" or "ascend" in this verse (Heb. naaleh) is a pilgrimage motif and key word. Two or three times a year, in the seasons of religious festivals, the ancient Israelites "went up" or "ascended" to Jerusalem from throughout the land of Israel to make a pilgrimage to the temple of the Lord (see Psalm 122:1-4; cf. Zechariah 14:16-18). This pilgrimage was traditionally made in remembrance of the exodus out of Egypt under Moses, the period of wantering in the wilderness, and the return to the land of the fathers under Joshua. Later, it became a prophetic type of the latter-day return of Israel from throughout the earth (cf. Jeremiah 31:6), and Isaiah uses the imagery of a pilgrimage to Zion in this very context in 30:29; 35:8-10; and 1:10, 11. By means of the key verb "go up" or "ascend" in Isaiah 2:3, he thus again identifies the idea of Israel's return with the scene of the nations going to Zion depicted in this verse, and the return itself with a latter-day setting.

Similarly, the verb “judge” or “arbitrate” (Heb. sapat) in verse 4 occurs elsewhere in the book of Isaiah, but only in contexts in which Israel’s return has already taken place and its king rules (cf. Isaiah 11:3, 4; 16:5; 51:5). In verse 5, the term “light” (Heb. or) is a key word linking this verse to a scene of Israel’s return from throughout the earth in Isaiah 60:1–4. There the “light” is the glory of the Lord which attracts “nations” and “rulers,” “sons” and “daughters” to Zion. In another context in the book of Isaiah, the “light” is the law itself, going forth as divine “precepts” to all nations (51:4), and in yet another, mentioned previously, it is a metaphor for the Davidic king. Every one of these definitions of the term “light” can and must be applied to Isaiah 2:5 in order for the verse to be fully understood. Needless to say, this is not possible without diligent searching or, for that matter, without the spirit and the letter of prophecy, a principle of interpretation that overlaps all others.

A fourth key, given in conjunction with the key of searching, is that Isaiah spoke of things that “have been and shall be.” In 3 Nephi 23:3 the Savior stated, “All things that he [Isaiah] spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake.” One interpretation of this statement is that doubtless some of Isaiah’s prophecies were fulfilled in his own day, while others remained to be fulfilled. But the Savior’s peculiar description of all things spoken by Isaiah as things that “have been and shall be” occurs elsewhere in the scriptures only to denote a typological view of history. The writer of Ecclesiastes expounded the idea that what has been is a type of what shall be. I quote from Ecclesiastes 1:9: “That which has been shall be; that which was done shall be done: there is nothing at all that is new under the sun.” This accords with the traditional Jewish method or. “manner” of interpreting the written prophecies, namely, that of seeing them as applicable on at least two time planes: first, the historical situation prevailing in the prophet’s own day, to which his prophecies formulate a response; and second, the latter days, of which the ancient events of Israelite history are a type. [9]

So Nephi, who understood that many prophecies of Isaiah, up to and including the Babylonian captivity, had already been fulfilled in his day (cf. 2 Nephi 25:10), spoke as if the prophecies of Isaiah had yet to see fulfillment. After quoting Isaiah at length, he made the statement that “in the days that the prophecies of Isaiah shall be fulfilled men shall know of a surety” (2 Nephi 25:7); in conjunction with this he claimed 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). The prophecies which Nephi had just written, however, were chapters 2 to 14 of Isaiah, prophecies which, for the most part, related to the period before the Babylonian captivity. There thus appears to be a contradiction in his words, unless it is realized that Nephi, too, as a Jew, viewed the words of Isaiah typologically. Perhaps the strongest evidence for this typological view of the prophecies of Isaiah consists of the various superimposed literary structures to which I referred previously. The existence of these structures, which span the length of the book, not only attests to a master plan of composition, a broad literary framework to which an original collection of prophecies has been subordinated, but establishes an entirely new plane for their interpretation, one that transcends their historical relevance and allows us to re-read them in an eschatological or latter-day context.

From the Savior’s statement that Isaiah spoke of things which “have been and shall be,” we infer that the ancient events of biblical history were a type of those to come. Isaiah himself uses the major events of biblical history as themes upon which to build his prophecies. Just as there was anciently a Chaos, a Creation, a Flood, and a Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, so, according to Isaiah, there will be a New Chaos, a New Creation, a New Flood, and a New Sodom and Gomorrah Destruction, though in a different order. Just as there was anciently a Passover, an Exodus, a Descensus of the Lord on the Mount, and a Wandering in the Wilderness, so there will be a New Passover, a New Exodus, a New Descensus, a New Wandering in the Wilderness, and, in effect, a new version of every other event that constituted a historical precedent. The Lord asked through Isaiah, “Who foretells what happens as I do, and is the equal of me in appointing a people from of old as types, foreshadowing things to come?” (Isaiah 44:7.) It is this coming together of all the ancient types, in fact, that characterizes the last days, enabling those who live through that time to apply the prophecies of Isaiah to their own situations for their profit and learning more than any previous generation.

On the basis of the key that “what has been shall be,” one may therefore conclude that, with regard to prophecies concerning the events of his own day, Isaiah spoke on two levels, the first pertaining to what was then transpiring, the second to the latter days. Both periods of Israel’s history were seen by the prophet in vision (cf. Sir. Isaiah 48:25), and thus he prophesied of “all things” concerning the Lord’s people, according to the Savior (3 Nephi 23:2). Isaiah’s literary genius, or that which made his words “great” (3 Nephi 23:1), was his inspired competence at including both his own time and the last days in a single prophecy, one in which the former events served as the type of the latter.

This key of interpreting the prophecies of the book of Isaiah typologically is necessary in order to understand the modern relevance of ancient names and entities such as Assyria, characterized by Isaiah as the great world power from the north, the first to conquer the world (except Zion/Jerusalem) by military force; Egypt, the greatest political and military power up to that time, to whose vast force of horsemen and chariots other nations look for protection in the day of the Assyrian flood; Babylon, characterized as a great materialistic and idolatrous world dominion, representing all that is destroyed in a fiery holocaust; Zion, a new Israel created out of the chaos of Babylon, comprising the righteous who participate in a New Exodus out of Babylon before destruction comes. By means of this great key to the book of Isaiah, we may read the names of ancient entities as code names for latter-day entities, providing an invaluable source of knowledge for those who will see the events so foreshadowed.

It is my belief that by extending our search to decoding and correlating the contents of the book of Isaiah, we are able to unseal the message of this enigmatic book. It is also my belief that although the above keys for understanding Isaiah are scholarly in nature, their application is by no means limited to scholars. We may each apply them for our own benefit, gaining insights perhaps completely overlooked by so-called experts in the field. While some of the views I have expressed may eventually be modified, I am convinced that to the degree of our obedience to the Lord’s commandments as we apply the above keys, and to the degree that we possess the Holy Spirit, which comes of this obedience, no scripture in the book of Isaiah will remain hidden from our eyes, and every interpretation may be put to the test.


[1] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1938), 151.

[2] Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech (1966).

[3] Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1975), 2:266–69.

[4] Avraham Gileadi, “A Holistic Structure of the Book of Isaiah” (PhD dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1981).

[5] Avraham Gileadi, The Apocalyptic Book of Isaiah: A New Translation with Interpretative Key (Provo, UT: Hebraeus Press, 1982).

[6] For a fuller study of this idea, see Gileadi, “A Holistic Structure of the Book of Isaiah.”

[7] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 347.

[8] See Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975).

[9] See Daniel Patte, Early Jewish Hermeneutic in Palestine (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975).