We are all familiar with the words of the Savior to the Nephites after quoting Isaiah 54: “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). In preparation for another week of Isaiah study (this is my third time teaching the book of Isaiah, the two prior attempts being in Gospel Doctrine), I decided to give in to my inner skeptic and ask this Seminary Thought Question: What is so great about the words of Isaiah?
Just to be clear, I am not implying through my impudence that Isaiah’s words are not great. Instead, I am interested in pinning down their utility to a group of high schoolers in the United States in 2004. Jesus seems to have anticipated the general question, stating: “For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; therefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles. And all things that he spake have been and shall be, even according to the words which he spake.” (3 Nephi 23:2-3). He seems to be saying that Isaiah spoke about the house of Israel; therefore, Isaiah’s words are relevant to the Gentiles. Presumably because the Gentiles will receive the Gospel. Of course, he is speaking to the Nephites, who are of the House of Israel, but his words are explicitly aimed at another audience: “Therefore give heed to my words; write the things which I have told you; and according to the time and the will of the Father they shall go forth unto the Gentiles.” (3 Nephi 23:4)
Bottom line: the words of Isaiah are especially important for the Gentiles (us) because they tell of God’s dealings in the last days (“all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel”), which dealings implicate the Gentiles. So far, so good?
Assuming I am right to this point, I circle back to the concern that animated the original question and consider what a group of teenagers in the United States in 2004 can reasonably expect to get from the study of Isaiah. One plausible answer: they can perceive that Isaiah has accurately prophesied the birth, life, and death of Jesus, the Great Apostacy, and the Restoration, among other things (of course, none of these interpretations of Isaiah is free from dispute), and they can infer that his still-unfulfilled prophesies concerning the last days will also come to pass.
As we have seen, however, tying even the most-quoted passages of Isaiah to specific events in the last days is dicey. So I wonder how we should approach the book of Isaiah. Should we be looking for clues that unravel current events (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Salt Lake Olympics, the war(s) in Iraq, etc.)? If this seems unrealistic, is Isaiah any more valuable as a Last Day’s Guidebook than the book of Revelation?
By the way, after I had written all of the foregoing, I discovered that Nibley had written on this very question here. This essay is comprised of a fairly scattered set of thoughts, but the main focus is on Isaiah-as-spiritual-advisor rather than Isaiah-as-seer. In quintessential Nibley style, he describes Isaiah’s message as one designed to make successful people (also referred to as “beautiful people,” “party people,” and the “fast set”) uncomfortable. If Nibley is right, Isaiah’s words are great because they teach us how to behave, not because they teach us of the tectonic movements of world events.