“That They May Know the Judgments of God”

Brant Gardner

Culture: Nephi presents the modern reader with a dilemma we usually miss because we also find Isaiah “hard… to understand.” It appears logical to us that Nephi explains Isaiah because it is difficult to understand. Yet Nephi is not specifically concerned with Isaiah’s difficulty per se, nor with explaining Isaiah. Rather, he notes that Isaiah is difficult for those who “know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.”

In this verse and the next, Nephi provides clues about the cultural shift that has already occurred in the New World. This cultural shift in the New World is not only the reason that Isaiah is difficult, but it is also the reason that his people may not see how closely it describes the Nephites in the New World rather than just the Jews of the Old World.

Redaction: Up to this point, Nephi (already in the New World and leader of a separate community), has written a retrospective account. He began it about thirty years after the family’s departure from the Old World and covered the ten years that had passed from founding his community to his present with great rapidity (2 Ne. 5:28, 34). Estimates of Nephi’s age upon departure vary, but it seems likely that he began writing his history when he was somewhere near fifty and aged another ten years in fewer than ten verses.

Then, beginning in 2 Nephi 5, he writes a contemporaneous record, not a retrospective one. This section continues through the end of 2 Nephi. Although there are few markers of time, almost certainly Jacob gave his sermon before Nephi made his copy and commentary of Isaiah. In his expansion on Isaiah’s themes, written contemporaneously rather than historically, Nephi’s narrative style shows some differences.

To this point, Nephi’s narrative is rather well controlled, with a particular focus on sacred lessons placed in and drawn from historical events (e.g., his vision, his obtaining the plates through the Spirit’s guidance, his conflicts with his brothers, etc.). In reporting discourse, he generally quotes scripture, followed by a tightly reasoned discourse applying that text to the current situation. He follows the same form in reporting Lehi’s final blessings/sermons.

Beginning with chapter 25, however, the arguments, though dealing with powerful information, are less tightly structured and less compellingly reasoned. His recounting of his vision of the future occupies chapters 25–27, and Nephi then repeats much of the same information in his more personalized address to his future readers in 28–31. Perhaps the discursiveness and more frequent tangential asides are the simple result of advancing age. However, nothing in the narration suggests that his prophetic powers or testimony have been dimmed. I hypothesize, rather, that these effects result from writing directly on the plates, instead of taking the time to think and rethink his arguments, structuring them for greatest persuasiveness.

These remaining chapters seem to have been thought about and composed simultaneously. He writes as through he is speaking to his people, but he is addressing a people he sees in vision. The result is a more spontaneous and intimate revelation of his thoughts and feelings, not masked by reworked structure. He is speaking straight from the heart without reorganizing his argument.

Chapters 25–30 of 2 Nephi not only follow the inserted copies of Isaiah, but they also use those chapters to form the proof-texts for Nephi’s vision. What Nephi begins in chapter 25 is not an explanation of Isaiah. Nephi tells us in verse 7 that: “I proceed with mine own prophecy, according to my plainness.” His purpose in writing is to discuss his vision, not Isaiah’s meaning. Why then relate this vision to Isaiah? Nephi has “likened” (1 Ne. 19:23) Isaiah to his own people and to their future. With the Isaiah texts that Nephi entered into his record, he has a divine precedent and proof of the validity of his vision. The Isaiah texts serve to prop up Nephi’s vision. They are not explained by it. The elements of this vision are so closely aligned to those of Nephi’s vision of the tree of life that it is virtually certain that it is the vision referred to. Where his earlier recounting of that vision was placed in the context of his family’s exodus, this version is grounded more deeply in revered prophecy. Isaiah becomes the conceptual framework for Nephi’s new explanation of his seminal vision.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2