A time to study Isaiah
by Kerry Muhlestein
It seems to me that this year, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have fervently embraced the Come Follow Me program, we have come to learn from and love the Old Testament more than ever before. I have high hopes we will have that same experience with Isaiah. Many have loved Isaiah for a long time. Many have struggled with Isaiah despite wrestling with his writings for years. Many find some things they love and yet feel that overall Isaiah is confusing. With the spiritual scriptural momentum we are carrying with us, and with all of the resources that are being made available, wherever each person is in their ability to learn from Isaiah, we can all come out of the next five weeks of Isaiah study with an even greater love for and understanding of Isaiah.
Perhaps the most useful thing I can do this week is point out several resources that can help people understand Isaiah. In my experience of teaching students about Isaiah for almost three decades now, with half a decade spent teaching a lot of courses that covered only the book of Isaiah, I have found that one of the greatest keys in helping students understand Isaiah is getting them to believe that they can understand him. Using the resources I will outline here should give you the skills and knowledge to be able to understand Isaiah more than you have in the past, and as you start to do so, you will grow in your excitement about Isaiah and this will again enhance your abilities.
I am writing this and subsequent essays because I am dedicated to helping the Saints understand Isaiah. I will list many resources. Several of them will be my own since I have been putting a lot of time and effort into creating resources designed to help us during this period of our Come Follow Me study.
First, there are a host of podcasts that can help you understand Isaiah. Meridian Magazine has a weekly podcast available on their website that will walk you through portions of Isaiah each week. Come Follow Him, a podcast with a huge following, will cover the readings fairly thoroughly, as the regular hosts John Bytheway and Hank Smith speak with guest scholars each week. Scriptures in a Minute does several very short, and occasionally longer episodes that are designed to help you understand Come Follow Me reading assignments in very understandable bite sized pieces. One of the hosts, Cali Black, has an Instagram called Come Follow Me Study where she posts wonderful little helps daily, with a bigger picture on Mondays (Tuesday this week due to the U.S. holiday). Book of Mormon Central also has a nice podcast dedicated to helping you understand Isaiah. There is a YouTube channel by an LDS graduate student named Johnathan Riley, called Isaiah for Latter-day Saints, which goes through each chapter of Isaiah in depth. I should note that I have not vetted everything any of these sources have said, so I cannot vouch for their accuracy. I have loved what I have seen from them.
I have tried to exponentially gear up for Isaiah on my own podcast, called The Scriptures Are Real. For this week I have posted seven episodes. Some are about an hour long, some are only a few minutes long. Some explain strategies for understanding Isaiah providing examples from the reading, and some are just going into depth on a few specific passages. Some are videos I made for my university classes on the background of Isaiah or on specific verses in Isaiah that I am making available for everyone. I think there is enough on my podcast to help most members get a lot out of Isaiah at whatever speed and depth they would like.
I have also made a resource page for understanding Isaiah at my website: outofthedust.org. (Disclaimer: I don’t make beautiful websites, it is not my strength. But if I make them myself, I can add to them fairly easily, so I am putting lots of stuff up on this ugly website. Hopefully it is helpful.)
Of course there are also many useful commentaries. I particularly enjoy those by Donald Parry, Victor Ludlow, and Terry Ball. Kelly Ogden and Andrew Skinner wrote a two-volume commentary on the whole Old Testament that includes some great commentary on Isaiah.
I also recommend my own commentary, called Learning to Love Isaiah. I wrote it not only because I want to help the Saints understand Isaiah, but because I also saw a need that I wanted to fill. To my knowledge, there was not an LDS commentary on Isaiah that treated every verse. So I wrote one that did. Further, while I love the commentaries I have mentioned that are by my friends, and I think they are excellent, I also think that most LDS commentaries focus heavily on Millennial fulfillments of Isaiah’s prophecies, but not very much on its original context or other fulfillments. I feel strongly that if we understand the original context we are able to apply Isaiah’s teachings to our own lives with a much greater accuracy and power. Thus, I wrote my commentary which has the KJV text in one column, and my commentary in another, with all sorts of background information, and references to the Book of Mormon also provided.
I think that what may be helpful in this series of essays is for me to include two kinds of excerpts from my commentary each week. One will be either a strategy for studying Isaiah or some kind of background information, and another will be an excerpt from the commentary on some specific verses.
Helpful Background Information
“When did Isaiah prophesy? Isaiah had a long ministry. He prophesied from the time of King Uzziah through King Hezekiah, and probably a little into Manasseh’s reign. This would date his ministry from around 740 or 750 BC until around 695 BC, a long ministry indeed. He overlapped with the ministries of Hosea and Micah, and perhaps even Jonah, Amos, and Joel at the end of their ministries and the beginning of his own. If his ministry did not overlap with these prophets, he was still almost certainly influenced by them, since he was a young boy toward the end of their lives. Isaiah’s writings share a certain affinity with those of Amos, demonstrating what appears to be the influence of the older prophet’s work on a young Isaiah. A prophet named Zechariah (not the one who has a book named after him in the Bible) had visions and advised Uzziah, the man who was king when Isaiah began his ministry (see 2 Chronicles 26:5). He may have also influenced Isaiah, especially since they were in the same place at the same time and fulfilled similar roles in the royal court. Micah and Isaiah grew up within twenty-five miles of each other, and their ministries were largely contemporary though they came from very different backgrounds. Surely, they were familiar with each other.
“Isaiah warned of and witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom, which began in 732 BC when many Israelites were scattered by the Assyrians and was completed in 721 BC when the Assyrians fully destroyed the kingdom and took many of its inhabitants captive and sent them abroad. He was at the height of his ministry when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, attacked and nearly destroyed all of Judah in 701 BC. Isaiah’s writings are highly poetic and highly symbolic. They are often sufficiently vague that they are intended to have two or more fulfillments. The Savior himself commanded that we study Isaiah (see 3 Nephi 23:1). Isaiah’s story is covered historically in 2 Kings 15–20” (from Learning to Love Isaiah, a Guide and Commentary, by Kerry Muhlestein (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 3-4).
Commentary for Isaiah 9:6
“Several descriptions of the deliverer are provided here. Deliverance comes from someone who, as a child, was destined to be a ruler. The government being on his shoulder means that rulership will rest on him; it also refers to how he was symbolically designated ruler by an emblem placed upon the shoulder portion of the robes worn by ruling officials in Judah (see Isaiah 22:22). Hezekiah, who was born to be king and nobly took that role upon himself, was a clear fulfillment of this prophecy. Christ is an even clearer fulfillment of this prophecy (as is emphasized in CFM); He is the great Davidic King on whose shoulder rests all power.
“The ruler spoken of will be a wonderful counselor. Hezekiah proved to be such, largely because he accepted counsel from Isaiah. Again, Christ is the most wonderful of all counselors.
Hezekiah does not fit the description of being the mighty God. However, he surely represented God and was a sign that God was with Israel. Christ is truly the mighty God. Christ is also the Father of heaven and earth, and the father of our spiritual lives and exaltation. He represents the Father to us, both in Isaiah’s day and ours. While the kings of Judah were considered a father to their people, and Hezekiah’s role would make it so that he was always considered such, Christ is clearly the primary and most important fulfillment of this prophecy.
“Hezekiah, after much tribulation, brought peace to his oppressed people and thus could be termed a prince of peace, as was Melchizedek (see Alma 13:18). Christ is THE Prince of Peace, the One who, after conquering all our enemies, brings us true and everlasting peace (as is emphasized in CFM).
“In all of this, we can see that, as is often the case, the great figures of the Old Testament serve as types, or figures, of Christ. These events in Hezekiah’s day allow us to fully appreciate, recognize, and understand Christ. The more we learn of these earlier stories, the more power we can draw from Christ Himself” (from Learning to Love Isaiah, a Guide and Commentary, by Kerry Muhlestein (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2021), 3-4), 82-83).
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Kerry received his B.S. from BYU in Psychology with a Hebrew minor. He received an M.A. in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from BYU and his Ph.D. from UCLA in Egyptology, where in his final year he was named the UCLA Affiliates Graduate Student of the Year. His first full time appointment was a joint position in Religion and History at BYU-Hawaii. He is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. He has been teaching about Isaiah for almost three decades, and has been teaching classes specifically on Isaiah for several years, and has written a verse-by-verse commentary on Isaiah. He and his wife, Julianne, are the parents of six children, and together they have lived in Jerusalem while Kerry has taught there on multiple occasions. His 2022 FAIR Conference presentation on “Keys to Understanding Isaiah” can be viewed here.