Nephi quotes Isaiah for much of the text of Second Nephi. Over the years, I have met many folks who say that they “like to skip Isaiah” because they do not understand it. Many wonder why Nephi quotes so much from Isaiah. The purpose of this post is to show why Nephi chose certain chapters from the text of Isaiah. By understanding this, we gain a greater insight not only into Nephi’s message to us, but also how these chapters in Isaiah relate to the modern reader.
The prophet Nephi uses Isaiah in the small plates in order to “persuade (us) to believe in the Lord (our) Redeemer”(1 Nephi 19:23) and that we may “lift up (our) hearts and rejoice… that we may “liken (the words of Isaiah) unto you and unto all men” (2 Nephi 11:8). The observations Nephi makes at the conclusion of his Isaiah insertion is also insightful. By carefully reading Nephi’s commentary, looking for patterns in the overall structure of the text, we gain further insight as to why he includes the portions of Isaiah into the text of the Book of Mormon.
2 Nephi contains several chapters from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2-14 as contained in 2 Nephi 12-24, and a significant portion of Isaiah 29 in 2 Nephi 27. Nephi concludes his writing by tying several elements together: the vision of the Tree of Life with its corresponding visionary explanation, the words of Isaiah, and illustrations of the mists that the Jews, Nephites faced anciently along with the mists facing the Gentiles in the last days. We will refer to these mists as blindness. By exposing these mists for what they are, Nephi helps us to see the Savior more clearly.
A word on blindness
President Ezra Taft Benson had much to say about how we should use the Book of Mormon. I believe he had Nephi’s discourse on the mists of our day in mind when he said: “The Book of Mormon exposes the enemies of Christ. It confounds false doctrines and lays down contention. It fortifies the humble followers of Christ against the evil designs, strategies, and doctrines of the devil in our day. The type of apostates in the Book of Mormon are similar to the type we have today. God, with his infinite foreknowledge, so molded the Book of Mormon that we might see the error and know how to combat false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts of our time.” (President Ezra Taft Benson, The Book of Mormon is the word of God, Ensign, January, 1988)
Jewish blindness- 2 Nephi 25
Nephi spends significant space on the plates explaining the problems resulting from Jewish blindness. The Jews did not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah when he came to them in the meridian of time. Nephi writes that the Jews need not “look forward any more for another Messiah…” (2 Nephi 25:16) and that “at the last day (Nephi’s words) shall be given them for the purpose of convincing them of the true Messiah, who was rejected by them… for there is save one Messiah spoken of by the prophets, and that Messiah is he who should be rejected of the Jews.” (2 Nephi 25:18)
Nephi uses different ways to get his message across to those who are looking for “another Messiah” – “there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved” (2 Nephi 25:21), he speaks of the “deadness of the law” (2 Nephi 25:27), that he “keep(s) the law of Moses, and look(s) forward unto Christ” (2 Nephi 25:24), that it is through Christ “we look for a remission of (our) sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). His message is plain: the Jews sought for another Messiah. Jesus was not what they expected. This type of blindness is common today. There are many illustrations of times when individuals miss the mark because the truth is not what they are looking for. It is true that some reject the Church today because it does not meet their preconceived expectations.
Nephite blindness – 2 Nephi 26
2 Nephi 26 begins with Nephi addressing “you, my children, and my beloved brethren” (2 Nephi 26:1). Nephi explains that Nephite blindness came about as a result of them “selling themselves for naught” (2 Nephi 26:10) acting out of pride and foolishness, they will reap destruction. We read later in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites “set their hearts upon riches,” rejecting Christ and giving themselves up to the sin of pride (Helaman 13:20-26). Because the text of the Book of Mormon illustrates Nephite blindness so well, perhaps Nephi does not spend as much time with this mist. The modern materialism among us today is a great illustration that Nephite blindness is a current problem.
Gentile blindness – 2 Nephi 26:20 – 2 Nephi 29
There is a break in the text at 2 Nephi 26:20 where Nephi begins his discourse on Gentile blindness. He gives his attention from 2 Nephi 26:20 to the end of chapter 29 outlining Gentile blindness. If I had one verse to summarize his message I would use 2 Nephi 26:20 – “the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches (ekklesia – an assembly, group, or congregation); nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning, that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.”
These chapters outline several issues that have troubled leaders of our day. In 2 Nephi 26:27-28, 33 Nephi addresses the problem of exclusion. From the United States of America to Rwanda, nations and peoples have divided, excluded, and fought each other based on race or other dividing characteristics. This is a problem that Nephi foresaw, and he spends considerable time addressing. The gospel of Christ does not exclude anyone, all are alike unto God (2 Nephi 26:33).
Because the Lord has brought forth this marvelous book in our day, the adversary is hard at work getting the Gentiles to not even read it. This is the message of much of 2 Nephi chapters 27 and 29. I believe the illustration of a man unable to read a sealed book (Isaiah 29:10-11) has multiple fulfillment. Usually members of the Church interpret this passage to apply to the discussion Martin Harris has with Dr. Charles Anthon, but it seems reasonable to suppose that every time an individual rejects the Book of Mormon without ever reading it that the book is sealed to them personally.
Why Nephi uses Isaiah
As stated earlier, Nephi has a strong determination to point people to Jesus Christ (1 Nephi 19:23). Because of his dissertation at the conclusion of Isaiah’s remarks, it stands to reason that Nephi uses Isaiah to point out the types of blindness that the Jews, Nephites, and Gentiles faced and are now facing today. Nephi uses Isaiah to issue a strong rebuke to the blindness and mists of our time, while at the same time holding out hope to the faithful saints. This is the threefold mission of Nephi as he uses Isaiah to make his point: 1) Jesus is the Christ – our only hope, 2) see the mists for what they are and listen to his rebuke, 3) for the faithful followers of Christ – have a reason to hope and hold on faithful until the end.
Worldly alliances 2 Nephi 17-18 & Isaiah 7-8
There are three outstanding scripture blocks in the Isaiah chapters that Nephi uses to get his point across. The first block of scripture has to do with worldly alliances. For a proper understanding, 2 Nephi 17 and 18 (Isaiah 7 and 8) should be read together. They constitute a pattern of prophecy whose fulfillment came in the days of Isaiah and King Ahaz (about 734 B.C.) and more deeply in the miraculous birth of the Savior Jesus Christ. In the face of an alliance between Syria and Israel, Ahaz, the king of the southern kingdom of Judah, was tempted to make an alliance with a greater foreign power. The word of the Lord to king Ahaz was simple and direct: “Take heed, and be quiet, fear not, neither be fainthearted” (2 Nephi 17:4). In other words, the Lord was telling Ahaz not to trust in the arm of flesh, but to have trust in the Lord.
To amplify the message, Ahaz was told that a woman was with child, and that before the child would know to choose good or evil, the alliance of Syria and Israel would be finished. The child was, in prophetic similitude, called Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (2 Nephi 17:14-16). This was a prophecy for Isaiah’s day.
As to a future fulfillment, a virgin would conceive and bear a son – the Only Begotten Son of God. This would be, in a literal sense, “Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
By placing this prophecy in the text Nephi is offering a consolation to all of those who feel tempted to make worldly alliances. There are many illustrations of this in the lives of our readers, young and old. Every type of gospel class will come up with cases from real life to help see Isaiah’s point come alive. From the scriptures there are many powerful examples. Lehonti made an alliance with a wicked man and it cost him his life (Alma 47:1-18). From Genesis we read where Lot pitched his tent towards Sodom (Genesis 13:12), having the better land, while Abraham “(would) not take even a shoelatchet” from the princes of the world (Genesis 14:23). It is by not aligning himself with the world that Abraham had the ability and foresight to rescue Lot from the destructive power of Sodom and Gomorrah.
As the Church continues to grow in number and increases its exposure to the world, it is inevitable that the world will continue in its attempt to persuade the Church or its members to align with the ever-changing values the world upholds. Like shifting sands, the things the world values will continue to change and evolve to what is the popular fashion of the day. These chapters in the Book of Mormon stand as a witness to us that there is strength in holding to the Lord’s standard.
Take a stand – 2 Nephi 20 & Isaiah 10
2 Nephi 20 must be read in conjunction with Isaiah 36-37 as well as 2 Kings 18-19. Fearful that the Assyrian army would completely destroy Jerusalem just like the other cities and nations that fought against it, Hezekiah sought Isaiah’s counsel. The Lord assured Hezekiah that the Assyrian army was a tool used to scatter Israel, but that if he would stay faithful, Jerusalem would remain safe and the Assyrian army would not destroy the city (2 Nephi 20:15, Isaiah 37:33-35).
The story as told in Isaiah 37-38 is a powerful reminder that even when our back is against the wall, the Lord will defend those who honor him. In this life or in the next, time always vindicates the prophets and those that sustain them. As the army approaches Jerusalem as retold in 2 Nephi 20:27-32, imagining the fear the inhabitants of Jerusalem faced helps make these passages come alive. By putting ourselves in the shoes of those that faced this very real threat, the words of Isaiah have significance in our lives.
Hezekiah’s stand can be seen in the lives of members of the Church today. When faced with having to choose between serving the Lord as a mission president and the potential of never again having the opportunity to work in his profession, Elder Richard G. Scott took a stand and chose to serve the Lord. He was threatened by his superior that if he chose to serve his mission that, “…you are finished, not only here, but don’t ever plan to work in the nuclear field again.” His decision to trust in the Lord did indeed yield positive results. He was employed in the nuclear field following his missionary service (Richard G. Scott, Do What is Right, BYU Devotional, March 3,1996).
Stay true in captivity – 2 Nephi 23-24 & Isaiah 13-14
Even after your enemy has you within his power, Isaiah seems to be telling us that there is hope. 2 Nephi 23:1-16 is a rebuke for the proud of Jerusalem, a city that was laid waste in 586 BC. These verses are a stern warning to those that would not repent. It is as if Nephi includes this chapter to remind us how similar our world is to the culture of the city he left to come to the New World.
2 Nephi 23:17-22 and 24:1-8 are a message of comfort to the Babylonian captives. The Medes (2 Nephi 23:17) came from Persia and easily conquered Babylon in 538 BC. The walls were destroyed twenty years later, after which the city never again became the capital of an independent and strong Mesopotamian power. Isaiah is right on the mark with his prophecy of this once powerful nation (2 Nephi 23:19-22). Even though the Jews were to spend time in captivity, they would yet return to their homeland, rebuild the temple, and have a period where they would have a degree of peace and prophetic direction in their lives.
Another powerful message comes across in 2 Nephi 24. While in captivity, it is vital that you hold on! Realize that those who follow the adversary will have to face the music. This is illustrated in 2 Nephi 24:9-27. This passage is an image of the prisoners in Hell welcoming Lucifer to join them, and when they see him, they will experience a horror that they did not anticipate. They shall “narrowly look upon (Lucifer), and shall consider (him), and shall say: Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms?” (2 Nephi 24:16). I imagine these souls saying to themselves, “This is the man I was willing to serve? But he is nothing! What was I thinking?”
This moment comes to all those who realize they have been following the wrong leaders. Throughout history it would be fascinating to sit down with individuals who followed horrible dictators through their worldly conquests, only to realize that their hero was “just a man”. I imagine in the final days of Adolf Hiter in the bunker in Berlin there were many who felt an intense and awful sadness that they had dedicated so much of their time, treasure, and energy following such a weak and unprincipled man.
We read about this type of experience later in the Book of Mormon when those that followed wicked King Noah came to themselves and saw him for what he really was. It is safe to assume that before the duped followers of King Noah burned him, that they “narrowly looked upon him” (Mosiah 19:11, 20). Often when I ask the question, “Have you or someone you care about had the experience of realizing that someone you followed or trusted did not have your best interest at heart?” Gospel students offer up many examples ranging from serious boyfriend/girlfriend relationships to real estate ventures gone bad. It seems that as we go through mortality that Isaiah’s words have an all too real relevancy in today’s world.
To the Saints of the Latter-days and to the Jews of Isaiah’s time the message is the same: even in captivity, know that this too shall “come to pass”. Because this is true we should do all we can to serve the Lord whether we are enjoying freedom or suffering in captivity. A possible illustration of this idea can be seen among those we know who are going through difficult times. How hard would it be to stay faithful, continuing to participate in the ordinance of the sacrament, if you were divorced and had to get all of your children to church every Sunday without the help of a spouse? We probably all know someone in this type of situation. I have many friends and acquaintances who have had to work through this type of trial, staying true to the what they know, even when in horrible circumstances.
Nephi uses Isaiah’s words to instruct the faithful reader in the last days. His counsel to be mindful of the various types of blindness illustrated, to avoid worldly alliances, stand strong in the face of adversity, and deal with captivity with faithfulness all have application in our lives today. With every illustration Nephi offers up, there is an application that can readily be made in the lives of young people.