How Can I Understand Isaiah?

By Ryan S. Gardner

Seminaries and Institutes

and David A. Edwards

Church Magazines

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Keep some basic ideas in mind, and you’ll be well on your way.

For a lot of us (including adults), the book of Isaiah is like physics—we know it’s important, but we just don’t think we’ll ever get it. In fact, a while ago a young man asked the New Era to print an article to help him understand Isaiah. Though we certainly can’t explain Isaiah verse by verse in a magazine article, we can give you a few keys and, hopefully, some motivation and confidence.

Five Keys for Studying Isaiah

Now, to help you have some confidence as you study, here are five basic keys to focus on that can help you understand Isaiah’s writings.

1. Realize you already know a lot.

If you know the basics of Heavenly Father’s plan, you’re a long way toward understanding Isaiah. Also, all of the things you do regularly to learn about the gospel (Sunday meetings, seminary, family home evening, personal study, prayer) help you in studying Isaiah, because those basic teachings are woven throughout Isaiah’s writings—premortal life, the role of Jesus Christ, and the importance of faith, repentance, obedience, and keeping covenants. Plus, according to Nephi, living in the latter days (when Isaiah’s prophecies have already been or are being fulfilled) makes you more likely to understand Isaiah (see 2 Nephi 25:7–8).

2. Know Isaiah’s main topics.

Isaiah covers three main topics:

  • Jesus Christ—His birth, His mission, His Atonement, and His Second Coming, which ushers in the Millennium

  • The last days, particularly the Restoration, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the gathering of Israel, and the establishment of Zion

  • Events of Isaiah’s day, such as wars; the wickedness, apostasy, scattering, and captivity of Israel; and Assyria’s and Babylon’s fall (see the map on page 21).

3. Take advantage of the words of latter-day scriptures and prophets.

Modern revelation from God has shed light on Isaiah’s writings. For instance, one of your best resources for understanding Isaiah is the Book of Mormon. Nephi in particular explained what the major topics of Isaiah’s prophecies were, as well as what things will help us better understand Isaiah.

4. Get to know Isaiah’s world.

Nephi said Isaiah was difficult for his people to understand because they didn’t know two things: (1) “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” and (2) “the regions round about” Jerusalem (2 Nephi 25:1, 6).

  • “The manner of prophesying among the Jews.” This phrase has to do with language and style. “A major difficulty in understanding the book of Isaiah is his extensive use of symbolism, as well as his prophetic foresight and literary style; these take many local themes (which begin in his own day) and extend them to a latter-day fulfillment or application. Consequently, some prophecies are probably fulfilled more than one time and/or have more than one application” (Bible Dictionary, “Isaiah”).

  • “The regions round about” Jerusalem. Isaiah refers to many places by name, so it makes sense that knowing the geography of the area would help you understand his writings.

5. Commit to study by the Spirit.

Nephi said that “the words of Isaiah … are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4). As the Apostle John learned, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). So Nephi is saying, in other words, that Isaiah is easier for people to understand if they have a testimony of Christ. Deepen that testimony and you’ll deepen your understanding of Isaiah.

As you study by the Spirit, you will feel the truth of the Savior’s words: “Great are the words of Isaiah.”

Illustrations by John Kachik