Nephi’s 3 Witnesses—Part 2: Isaiah’s Messianic Witness through Nephi’s Eyes

Isaiah in stained glass, St. Matthews Lutheran Church

As I mentioned last week (quoting Elder Jeffrey R. Holland), “The testimonies of Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah have been given as the three great early witnesses who stand at the gateway to the Book of Mormon, declaring their testimony of Christ.”[1]  If these three witnesses of Christ (see 2 Nephi 11:1–3) are truly to be understood as “sentinels at the gate of the book,” in Elder Holland’s words,[2] then I suspect none is a more effective gatekeeper than the second of the three witnesses—Isaiah. Comical stories about how not even a bullet can get past the dreaded “Isaiah chapters” abound in Sunday Schools and firesides across the Church. Even the most ambitious and enthusiastic readers have felt their resolve dissolve trying to plow through 2 Nephi 12–24.

Yet Nephi “delighted” in Isaiah’s words (2 Nephi 11:2). For Nephi, it seems that in Isaiah he sensed a kindred spirit, if you will. After his sweeping vision of the Savior’s birth, ministry, and death and so much else, I imagine Nephi never read Isaiah—or any other prophet on the plates of brass—the same again. How could he? That vision was no doubt paradigm shifting for the young prophet.

While his vision no doubt impacted how he read virtually all the scripture he possessed, Isaiah’s writings were especially Messianic, and thus more susceptible to interpretation in light of Nephi’s own foreknowledge of Christ’s life and ministry. As Elder Holland noted, “Isaiah is by every standard the messianic prophet of the Old Testament and as such the most penetrating prophetic voice in that record.”[3] Thus, Nephi’s soul “delighted” in Isaiah’s words was because in them he sensed something of his own prophetic view of the grand design. Isaiah, Nephi said, “saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him” (2 Nephi 11:2).

Nephi’s vision also provides a lens into the passages of Isaiah he quotes with regard to the scattering of Israel, the rise of the gentiles, and the ultimate gathering of Israel in the last days. But for my purposes here I’ll focus on 5 examples of how Nephi likely related Isaiah’s Messianic witness to his own prophetic knowledge of Jesus Christ.

1. The Messiah in the Divine Council

Nephi’s sweeping vision where he sees the life and ministry of Christ begins on “an exceedingly high mountain,” where the Spirit interviews Nephi and finds him worthy to receive greater light and knowledge (1 Nephi 11:1–6). This passage evokes several motifs that suggest Nephi was admitted into the divine council, where a specific member of the council (the “angel”) then instructed him and imparted to him prophetic knowledge.

Isaiah’s own prophetic call also happened in the midst of the divine council (2 Nephi 16/Isaiah 6). In Isaiah’s divine council vision, a seraphim approaches him with a hot coal and places it on his lips, thus purging Isaiah of his sins and making him worthy to be in God’s presence (2 Nephi 16:6–7/Isaiah 6:6–7). David Bokovoy reasoned: “Though the literal identity of this fiery angelic being is ambiguous in the text, one possible LDS reading would interpret the seraph who cleanses Isaiah as an allusion to Christ.” Thus:

Interpreting the Lord seated upon the throne as God the Father and the seraph who heals Isaiah as an allusion to Christ would allow the chapter to serve as an illustration of Isaiah’s role as an eyewitness of Jesus who, as Nephi observed in his commentary, had been sent to testify of the Redeemer.[4]

It’s not hard to see how Nephi himself could have interpreted Isaiah’s vision this way, especially since it would make it more reminiscent of Lehi’s divine council vision (1 Nephi 1:8–14). Read this way, Isaiah received a witness of Christ, and even experienced his cleansing power, during a divine council vision—just as Nephi had.

2. A Virgin Bearing a Messianic Child

As the interpretation of the Tree of Life unfolds for Nephi, he sees a “virgin … bearing a child in her arms” (1 Nephi 11:20). The child, the angel explains, is “the Lamb of God, even the Eternal Father” and the “everlasting God” (1 Nephi 11:21, 32).[5] I imagine this almost immediately called to Nephi’s mind Isaiah’s words: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son” (2 Nephi 17:14/Isaiah 7:14), and: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (2 Nephi 19:6/Isaiah 9:6). As Christians have done now for 2000 years, Nephi no doubt began seeing in these passages references to the Christ child he himself saw in vision.
 
3. The Messiah as the Fruit of a Tree

For Nephi, the image of the virgin with her child is given as an interpretation of the Tree of Life, in a way that evokes the imagery of the goddess Asherah (a Heavenly Mother-like figure), who was a symbol of divine wisdom. The divine child, therefore, is the fruit of the tree, and Nephi is also told that the “rod of iron” leading to the tree is the “word of God” (1 Nephi 11:25).

Isaiah also saw a Messianic figure springing forth from a tree, with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding” and wielding “the rod of his mouth” (2 Nephi 21:1–4/Isaiah 11:1–4). Once again, the imagery and symbolism is similar enough that it likely reminded Nephi of his own vision.

4. The Engraven Palms of the Messianic Servant

As Nephi’s vision continues to unfold, he sees the child grow and eventually be “lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Nephi 11:32–33). Although he does not describe such details, he presumably saw that nails would be driven into the Savior’s hands.

This may have reminded Nephi of another of Isaiah’s Messianic promises. “For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?,” asks the Messianic Servant, in a rhetorical question that no doubt called to Nephi’s mind the previous image of the virgin and her child. But the Servant continues: “Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me” (1 Nephi 22:15/Isaiah 49:15). Again, after having the vision he had, it’s hard to imagine Nephi did not make the same connection to this passage that Christians have been making for the last 2000 years.

5. Messianic Ministry to Those in Darkness

After the Savior’s mortal ministry, Nephi sees his own seed afflicted by mists and vapors of darkness, “mountains tumbling into pieces,” and cities destroyed (1 Nephi 12:4–5). But then he sees that the Lamb of God “showed himself unto them” and for several generations afterward his people enjoyed prosperity and righteousness (1 Nephi 12:11–12).

To Isaiah, the Lord promised the people of the “isles of the sea” that in the “day of salvation” he would “preserve” them, and cause them to “inherit the desolate heritages.” Then, he would “go forth to them who sit in darkness.” The people would then “be smitten no more; for the Lord hath comforted his people” and they would enjoy prosperity (1 Nephi 21:9–13/Isaiah 49:9–13). While Latter-day Saints often see reference to the Savior’s ministry in the Spirit World here, it’s not hard to imagine Nephi understanding it as a reference to the Messiah’s appearance to his own people.

Final Thoughts

In highlighting Isaiah’s role as one of Nephi’s three witnesses of Christ, I’ve tried to read Isaiah through Nephi’s eyes. Nephi probably never read scripture the same again after receiving his sweeping prophetic vision in 1 Nephi 11–14. How could he? It would seem such foreknowledge would color the way you interpreted everything from that point on. Many of the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah have clear imagery and wording reminiscent of Nephi’s vision, no doubt helping him “liken” Isaiah’s words and contributing to his conclusion that Isaiah had seen “my Redeemer, even as I have seen him” (2 Nephi 11:2).  



[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1997), 95.
[2] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 36.
[3] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 75.
[4] David E. Bokovoy, “On Christ and Covenants: An LDS Reading of Isaiah’s Prophetic Call,” Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 3 (2011): 45.
[5] The phrase “son of” before “Eternal God” and “Everlasting God” was a later addition in both cases, meant to clarify Jesus’s relationship to the Father. The original text called the Christ child himself “Eternal God” and “Everlasting God,” and so I’ve followed those readings here.

Comments