Nephi's Keys to Understanding Isaiah

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(This is an excerpt from the book Isaiah for Airheads.)

If we're going to get on the bus and drive through Isaiah National Forest, we're going to need the keys—you'll find them in 2 Nephi 25 (see also McConkie, "Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah," Ensign, October 1973, 78–83).

As you know, the largest block of Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 12–24. Immediately after Nephi quotes these chapters, he gives us the keys to understand them. Briefly, the keys are:

  1. Learn the manner of prophesying among the Jews
  2. Have the spirit of prophecy
  3. Know the regions round about (or the geography)
  4. Live in the last days (see 2 Nephi 25:1–8)

Let's look at each key.

Key #1: Learn the Manner of Prophesying among the Jews

Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews (2 Nephi 25:1).

As an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, I took a rigorous class called "Business Writing." I was taught a formula for writing that is consistent with our modern culture: "Say what you're going to say, say it, then say what you've said. Be concise, use simple words rather than complex, multi-syllabic phrases. Be brief, clear, and direct. Deny the listener the right to misunderstand."

Isaiah did not take that class. His method of writing was taught somewhere else on campus, perhaps in the "Humanities Writing" class. Isaiah was a poet and an intellectual. He was also what LDS scholar Victor L. Ludlow called a "deliberately difficult" prophet (Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, 126–38). I imagine "Humanities Writing" class to have instructions more like these:

Conceal what you're going to say. Never use the same noun twice when referring to a person, group, or place (Isaiah uses five different names to describe the same place in 2 Nephi 17). Speak of future events in past tense at times. In fact, have no time frame—move in and out of past, pres-ent, and future without telling the reader what you're doing. Use complex symbolism rather than simple metaphors. Never let anyone know whether you're being literal or figurative. Keep 'em guessing!

This approach is consistent with "the manner of prophesying among the Jews." We're going to need this key as we enter the forest.

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