I am on a medication that is very expensive. Every year, in order to receive it at a discounted price, I have to phone the company and answer a few questions. During this call I also have to listen to a 10 minute scripted commentary about the drug. The young woman I was speaking with was enunciating very clearly her words, even though it was quite clear that English was not her first language. I could understand the individual words she was saying but I still had no idea what she was talking about. I think it was part legalese and part accent, but I only had occasional glimpses that made sense.
Reading Isaiah for me was a lot like this. I clearly knew what the individual words were but I still had no idea what they were saying or meaning. Occasionally something would make sense, but overall I was totally lost. Because of this, I dreaded reading or studying Isaiah, even though members of my church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have long been admonished to study Isaiah. Even Christ tells the Nephites about the importance of Isaiah. In 3 Nephi 23:1 He said, “And now, behold, I say unto you, that 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.” So it’s not just a suggestion but a commandment! And Christ tells us to be diligent and that Isaiah’s words are great. Clearly I was missing something.
Guilt is good sometimes, if it motivates change. I also had a desire to be obedient. So, I decided I would make another effort at studying Isaiah, at trying to make it comprehensible to me. I wanted to understand what it was truly saying and not just read the words. I had my scriptures and a study guide and so I began. It ended up taking me a year and several months, going from verse to verse, writing extensive notes next to each verse. It’s probably good I didn’t know how long it was going to take me because It might have been even more overwhelming.
Part way through I wondered why I was doing this because it was so taking so long and it was sometimes tedious. It also seemed like to a lot of gloom and doom to me. But, I kept at it. At one point I thought if I had written Isaiah I could have said the same things in about 5 chapters. It just seemed like there was so much death and destruction.
But every so often I would find something that truly was beautifully written, almost like poetry. But then it turns out that much of Isaiah is poetry, just not the kind I’m used to. I loved how he described the Savior in Isaiah 9:6: “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, Counsellor, The mighty God, The Prince of Peace.” These words are so beautiful they were set to music by Handel in his oratorio Messiah.
There were other things that stood out to me as beautiful too and I began to understand not just the cultural differences but also his ways of expression that differ greatly from our society’s way of thinking. I kept at it and slowly I began to understand it better.
I don’t know at what point I began to actually enjoy my studying. I don’t know when I changed my thinking from dread to pleasure, but I noticed that when I was reading something else written in the old testament I thought, “Isaiah would have said that so much prettier!” What a shock it was when I actually recognized what I was thinking.
Somehow I began to think of much of Isaiah as beautiful. Oh there’s still a lot of death and destruction, because a lot of Isaiah is also history and people often make very poor choices. But in between the gloom and doom there are also some beautiful passages where Isaiah is testifying of our Savior and His love for us. Passages where he tells us the blessings of keeping the commandments, where he teaches us about the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gathering of Israel. Beautiful words that testify that Jesus is the Messiah! No wonder Christ said “great are the words of Isaiah.”
Even though I have really only scratched the surface of studying Isaiah and I recognize I have so much more to learn from it. I can honestly say I no longer dread the thought of studying his great words. Instead, I treasure his promises like those found in Isaiah 54 where Christ promises peace, mercy and everlasting kindness to His followers. These beautiful words teach me of the Savior’s love and bring me peace and joy. These words teach me that if I am diligent, I can find beauty in the words of Isaiah.