Cherishing and Interpreting the Words of Isaiah

Isaiah writes

Nephi grew up and received his education as a youth in the Holy Lands of Israel. All of his life he studied and taught the revelations of Isaiah. Nephi knew, however, that those born after his family’s journey to “the land of promise” (1 Nephi 4:14) did not know “concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Ne. 25:1). Consequently, thirty years after leaving Jerusalem, God commanded Nephi to make the Small Plates upon which he was to inscribe “that which is pleasing unto God” (2 Nephi 5:28-32). For this spiritual record Nephi would include both: “the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children” (2 Nephi 4:15).

Brass plates

His first transcripts of the writings of Isaiah are found in 1 Nephi 20-21. The “Ideas for Personal Scripture Study” for the January 27-February 2, 2020 resources in the Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families emphasizes why these chapters are so important: “Isaiah wrote to all the children of Israel, and Nephi saw that this included his own family specifically—and it includes [us].”

Translation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon

When we compared 1 Nephi 20-21 with the King James Version of Isaiah 48-49, we learned that Joseph Smith did not simply copy the biblical manuscript—he translated it from another source - the golden plates. We counted nearly 400 additions, deletions, and changes to these two Isaiah chapters. Punctuation and grammar revisions, though seemingly small, help us know how to read and link phrases, clauses, and sentences. Most differences involved adding or changing words and phrases that restore crucial insights about Isaiah’s text.

A few examples of additions and the reordering of wording (changes are highlighted in bold) are listed below:

  • Hearken and hear” (1 Nephi 20:1) emphasizes that we should not only “hear” God’s commandments but also “hearken” or be obedient to them.

  • out of the waters of baptism” (1 Nephi 20:1) indicates that Isaiah understood the importance of the ordinance of baptism.

  • The King James Version wording “I am the first, and I also am the last” (Isaiah 48:12) is reordered to “I am the first, and I am also the last” (1 Nephi 20:12). This keeps the two phrases parallel and follows the Mosaic tradition for identifying the name of the Lord: “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (Exodus 3:14).

10 commandments
  • yea, and he will fulfill his word which he hath declared by them” (1 Nephi 20:14) affirms the verity of the promises made by the Lord’s prophets.

  • And thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I have sent him, the Lord thy God who teacheth thee to profit, who leadeth thee by the way thou shouldst go” (1 Nephi 20:17) testifies of the eternal mission of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ
  • And notwithstanding he hath done all this, and greater also” (1 Nephi 20:22) testifies of the miracles God performed for Jacob and Moses and further miracles.

  • And again: Hearken, O ye house of Israel, all ye that are broken off and are driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people; yea, all ye that are broken off, that are scattered abroad, who are of my people, O house of Israel” (1 Nephi 21:1) describes that the descendants of Israel will be scattered all over the world because of disobedient preachers and apostasy.

  • for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established; … for they shall be smitten no more” (1 Nephi 21:13) promises that the Israelites will be re-gathered and saved.

  • but he will show that he hath not” (1 Nephi 21:14) emphasizes that God has not forsaken His children.

Each one of these additions, deletions, and changes restores precision and clarity to the words of Isaiah.


These changes also help us understand how Joseph Smith approached the translation of Isaiah in the Joseph Smith Translation of the bible. David Rolph Seely, an instructor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, quoted the research of Robert J. Matthews: “The Prophet and a scribe would sit at a table, with the Prophet having the King James Version of the Bible open before him. Probably he would read from the King James Version and dictate the revisions, while the scribe recorded what he said” (“The Joseph Smith Translation: ‘Plain and Precious Things’ Restored,” Ensign, Aug. 1997; cited from Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, a History and Commentary (1975, 39).

Nephi’s Interpretations of Isaiah

Nephi did not just quote Isaiah; he added his own prophetic interpretations. Nephi’s key points are clearly outlined in the 1981 chapter headings that have been added as a study help for 1 Nephi 22:

  • “Israel will be scattered upon all the face of the earth—“ (1 Nephi 22:1-5)

  • “The Gentiles will nurse and nourish Israel with the gospel in the last days—“ (1 Nephi 22:6-7)

  • “Israel will be gathered and saved, and the wicked will burn as stubble—“ (1 Nephi 22:8-22)

  • “The kingdom of the devil will be destroyed, and Satan will be bound.” (1 Nephi 22:23-29)

Thankfully, Nephi’s interpretations are made in “plainness, in the which … no man can err” (2 Nephi 25:7). From them, we can gain a clearer understanding of past, present, and future revelations. Note the clarity of Nephi’s concluding admonition: “I would that ye should consider that the things which have been written upon the plates of brass are true; and that they testify that a man must be obedient to the commandments of God. … Wherefore, if ye shall be obedient…, and endure to the end, ye shall be saved at the last day. And thus it is. Amen” (1 Nephi 22:30-31).

reading with children

Understanding Isaiah through the Book of Mormon

Elder Bruce R. McConkie explains why Latter-day Saints should cherish both the words of Isaiah and the Book of Mormon: “Isaiah’s writings, in an even more perfect form than found in our Bible, were preserved on the brass plates, and from this source the Nephite prophets quoted 414 verses and paraphrased at least another 34. … In other words, one-third of the book of Isaiah (32 percent, to be exact) is quoted in the Book of Mormon and about another 3 percent is paraphrased.


'And the Book of Mormon prophets—note this carefully and let its significance dawn upon you—the Book of Mormon prophets interpreted the passages they used, with the result that this volume of latter-day scripture becomes the witness for and the revealer of the truths of this chief book of Old Testament prophecies. The Book of Mormon is the world’s greatest commentary on the book of Isaiah” (“Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign, Oct. 1973, italics added).