I know as soon as you hear the phrase “cedars of Lebanon,” your eyes glaze over. I think we usually raise the white flag and don’t even really bother trying to read Isaiah because we are convinced we aren’t going to understand it. Then we feel guilty because we know that Nephi delighted in Isaiah, that Jacob drooled over his words, and that Jesus commanded (yes, commanded!) us to read Isaiah’s “great” words. About 1/3 of the chapters of Isaiah are quoted in the Book of Mormon, with about one quarter of Nephi and Jacob’s writings consisting of Isaiah quotations. We’ve sat through countless lessons on the importance of Isaiah and laundry lists of tips for reading Isaiah. The problem is that the helps usually don’t help very much.
I’d like to propose three “helps” for reading Isaiah that I think actually help.
First, compare what is in the Book of Mormon with a modern translation of Isaiah. I’ve posted multiple times (see here, here, and here) about the difficulty of understanding the KJV. Since the Book of Mormon quotes the KJV for Isaiah, it is a problem here as well. So here is what you are going to do: with Book of Mormon Isaiah passages in hand, you are going to go to the NetBible and look up the reference in Isaiah. You can also click on the word “parallel” near the upper left corner and see a half dozen more translations. You can then fairly easily fix in your mind what the text plainly says, and then return to the KJV or Book of Mormon text. But now, you’ll be about 80% of the way there in understanding what the text means. As an example, consider 2 Nephi 7:11
Behold all ye that kindle fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks, walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks which ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand—ye shall lie down in sorrow.
This verse is virtually identical to Isaiah 50:11, which in the NetBible reads
Look, all of you who start a fire
and who equip yourselves with flaming arrows,
walk in the light of the fire you started
and among the flaming arrows you ignited!
This is what you will receive from me:
you will lie down in a place of pain.
The NIV has this
But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
You will lie down in torment.
I’m sure the first thing you notice is that it is written as poetry (in lines), not as prose (in paragraphs)–more on that in a minute. The language and punctuation make the meaning much clearer. Now that you have the gist of the verse, you can return to your study of the KJV.
Second, pay attention to the structure of the text. Something like 90% of Isaiah is written in poetry, and it is a mistake to read biblical poetry as if it were prose. The nice thing about Isaiah is that the poetry in it is really quite simple: you only need to know one thing. (For a fuller treatment of how to read biblical poetry, see Kevin Barney’s great Ensign article.) Here’s the one thing: biblical poetry relies on the relationship between lines of poetry–not (for our purposes) rhyme or rhythm or anything like that. The lines in Isaiah are almost always what is called synonymous parallelism; you don’t need to know that term, you just need to know that Isaiah seems like he is constantly repeating himself not because he’s crazy but because he’s writing poetry. Let’s put letters in front of the lines from the NIV version:
A But now, all you who light fires
A and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
B go, walk in the light of your fires
B and of the torches you have set ablaze.
C This is what you shall receive from my hand:
C You will lie down in torment.
The A lines are virtually identical; you don’t need to parse them for differences in meaning or feel put out that he’s being so dang redundant. Same with the B lines. The C lines aren’t precisely identical, but close enough for our purposes–the expectation that they will be virtually identical may contribute to making the theological point that what the Lord says you will receive, you’ll receive!
The example I’ve used above is a very interesting verse once you get your mind around the text: usually in the scriptures, light is a good thing. But here, people are kindling and following their own lights, and the result of that is sorrow from the Lord. There’s a lot to think about there: What am I doing that is kindling and following my own light? How can I avoid that? How do I know which light is which? What caution does this verse imply about people who are, shall we say, well-lit?
I’m strongly convinced that a lack of awareness of biblical poetry is an enormous stumbling block to the reader of Isaiah–you might subconsciously sense that he is being terribly redundant, but you don’t really know what to make of it, and it becomes easy to lose his train of thought. Read the text as lines of poetry that are synonymous with each other, and things will be much smoother. Here’s another example that I chose because it isn’t a simple AABBCC:
A Yea, for thus saith the Lord:
B Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever?
A For thus saith the Lord:
B Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement?
C To whom have I put thee away,
C or to which of my creditors have I sold you?
C Yea, to whom have I sold you?
D Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves,
D and for your transgressions is your mother put away.
(2 Nephi 7:1)
Surely ABABCCCDD is much more complicated (and certainly atypical), but if you just sat down with the lines here, you could have figured out that pattern yourself. And I’ll note that the process of trying to determine the pattern is an enormously beneficial one, as it requires you to study the lines of text, figure out what they mean, and how they relate. It is truly the heart and soul of “pondering” the scriptures. I can’t imagine trying to read Isaiah without a copy of the text printed as poetry and with ABCs in the margin.
Third, pay attention to the speaker and the audience. Probably the loopiest thing about Isaiah is that the text will suddenly, without warning, and multiple times within the same chapter, shift who the speaker and who the audience is. You need no outside information in order to figure out what is going on; you just need to read the text multiple times, and then, once you have it figured out, re-read the text now that you know who is speaking to whom. For example, consider 2 Nephi 7 (=Isaiah 50). In verses 1-3, the Lord is speaking to rebellious people. But in v4, the speaker and audience shift suddenly and without warning: now “the servant” is speaking and the audience is more general. (We usually interpret “the servant” to be a prophetic representation of the voice of the mortal Jesus Christ, but that’s a topic for another day!) I think lots of readers get lost here–without consciously thinking about who is speaking and to whom they are speaking, it is very difficult to follow the train of thought.
So, three simple things: look at a modern translation, read poetry as poetry, and pay attention to the (constantly shifting) speaker and audience.