On Not Skimming Isaiah

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.





9 comments for “On Not Skimming Isaiah

  1. ji
    February 9, 2012 at 9:06 am

    Thanks! I love the poetry help, as so much of the scriptures really is poetry… I wonder what he KJV would look like if written in lines rather than in paragraphs?

  2. February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am

    I love reading Isaiah aloud. Whenever I’m memorizing a passage, I always write it out in poem format. We have other translations of the bible that use separate formatting structure for the poetry and prose, but I don’t have a copy of the KJV that shows the poetry, which is unfortunate because I love the archaic language of the KJV.

  3. Julie M. Smith
    February 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Rachel, I agree. I’ve worked on memorizing little bits of Isaiah in English and in Hebrew and it has been very, very rewarding.

    I’ve used this website for an audio version in Hebrew:


  4. clark
    February 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    A nice book I suggest for people is Ludlow’s Isaiah: Prophet, Seer & Poet. It’s from the early 80’s and so it is a little dated. (Really from before the flourishing of Book of Mormon scholarship) However it’s basically an extended commentary on the tropes, type settings, and most importantly poetry of Isaiah. He has a newer book Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon but I’ve not read that so I don’t know if it is a reworking of the older book.

    I think diagramming the structure of chapters of Isaiah is a great tool to understand. Recognizing that especially the Book of Mormon usage of Isaiah works on multiple layers simultaneously (the period prophecies about, a more general culture/national critique, the individual etc.) helps as well – especially when trying to figure out how Jacob and Nephi apply largely political prophecies to individual atonement.

  5. Jonovitch
    February 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Julie, you rock.

    I’m in the middle of Isaiah with my kids (reading the Old Testament helps them fall asleep). I’ve known about these three basic tips for many years, but you laid them out very clearly and concisely.

    Reading the scriptures should not be more difficult than necessary. It should be easy and accessible to everyone.


    P.S. If the Church ever gets around to making new editions of the standard works, one of the first things it should do is embrace ancient poetic structure everywhere it’s warranted. (Also, readability would greatly improve if the overbearing, difficult-to-read chapter-and-verse structure were significantly diminished.)

  6. Marie
    February 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Yes. The poetry of Isaiah is typically mentioned the first Isaiah week in Sunday School, but I don’t know that we’re reminded enough thereafter that Isaiah is largely poetry, and even if we remember that in our reading, without line breaks it can be hard to untangle. I, too, love the language of the KJV, but given the time I’m willing to devote to personal scripture study, if I’m studying something more opaque like Isaiah I rarely look much at all at the KJV anymore: for many years it’s mostly the NIV study Bible for me (I even bring it to church every week in case something in it can answer a KJV question in Gospel Doctrine). I love it for the poetry formatting (throughout the Bible), the headings within chapters that signal subject changes, Christ’s words in red print, and the terrific footnotes. And it’s amazing how much of the difficulty in Isaiah–and elsewhere in the Bible–is simply a matter of archaic or overly-literal translation. At BYU we were supposed to use the NIV for both my Isaiah class and my New Testament classes. And easy access to the online parallel Bible translations has made things even more fun (I’ve mainly used Biblios.com, but I like yours better–thanks for the link).

  7. Lucy
    February 9, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Thanks for this post. Nephi is one of the best guides to Isaiah: “Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.” #4 – Yes. It’s true. Ludlow’s Isaiah: Prophet, Seer & Poet is a great resource as well.

    The irony is that I am reading this verse surrounded by an android phone, a Kindle, and several computers… “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.”

  8. Don
    February 10, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Thank you so much! Your advice is simple, yet wonderfully helpful.

  9. Kirsten
    February 11, 2012 at 3:09 am

    Thanks, Julie! Great post, and great past time to be memorizing Isaiah in Hebrew. I stand awed, as ever.

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