Nephi recognized that even though they had left Jerusalem only one hundred years or so after Isaiah concluded his writings, Isaiah was a difficult book for his people to understand (v. 1). Nearly twenty-six hundred more years have passed since that time. If it was hard for Nephi’s people who came from the same geographical area and time period to understand Isaiah, his words would in turn be even more difficult for us to understand today. The passage of time is not the only thing that makes Isaiah hard to understand. To come to an understanding requires that we diligently study Isaiah’s words as the Savior commanded (3 Nephi 23:1). To search is to carefully and thoroughly examine in an effort to discover the message. To search is also to inspect or explore possible places of concealment. Nephi tells us how to do this.
Nephi gives three ways to understand Isaiah. The first is to understand the manner of prophesying among the Jews (v. 1). However, Nephi had not taught his “ children after the manner of the Jews” because of the works of darkness and abominations that had been among the Jews (v. 2). Jeremiah, who was a prophet in Jerusalem at the time of Lehi, confirmed the existence of these dark conditions in Jerusalem. He had warned: “A conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 11:9). Similar to Nephi, Alma also commanded his son Helaman not to teach the people of the secret abominations of the Jaredites “lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed” (Alma 37:25–32). His reluctance to teach concerning this manner among the Jews was probably a preventive measure to avoid introducing similar works among his people. Nevertheless, Nephi understood Isaiah’s words, and the Jews to whom these words were addressed also knew their meaning (vv. 5–6). Preventing the introduction of abominations and works of darkness among the people of today is still desirable. Through the Book of Mormon we can learn the message of Isaiah without such knowledge.
Nephi knew about the regions round about Jerusalem, and had taught his children about the judgments of God which had come upon the Jews because of their abominations (v. 6). This helped interpret the words of Isaiah. He wanted those who received his record to know that the judgments of God would come upon all nations according to the words God had spoken (v. 3). We will have a better understanding of Isaiah if we also know of the geography of the lands given to Abraham and his posterity, the judgments of God that had already come upon them (their history), and what will happen to the nations in the future (the prophecies). Knowledge of the geography and history of the land can be obtained from the scholars of the world, but these scholars do not always recognize the judgments of God within the histories they write. Nephi and others from the Book of Mormon who quote and give interpretive commentary upon Isaiah’s writings recognize the hand of God in the history of the Jews.
Some have supposed that learning the Hebrew language would teach us the manner of prophesying among the Jews. While that would be beneficial in other ways, it is not the key to understanding Isaiah. The Hebrew text has also lost plain and precious parts from its text. However, there are a few things we learn from both the Hebrew and the English text. We learn that the Jewish prophets almost always followed a pattern of warning with a message of doom (destruction) followed by a message of hope (the restoration in the future days). They also used dual prophecy, both in time and in places. Jacob spoke of the same prophecy of Isaiah being fulfilled by the Jews (2 Nephi 6, Isaiah 49:22–26), that Nephi had said would be fulfilled in the Isles of the Sea (1 Nephi 21–22). Jesus quoted Isaiah 52:8–10 as a prophecy to the Lamanites (3 Nephi 16:16–20), and later quoted it as being fulfilled among the Jews (3 Nephi 20:30–35). These patterns can be seen in both the English and the Hebrew texts. The key to understanding Isaiah is in the text and commentary of Isaiah found in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine and Covenants.
The second way given by Nephi to understand Isaiah was to be “filled with the spirit of prophecy” (v. 4). The spirit of prophecy and of revelation comes through “much prayer and fasting” (Alma 17:3). Nephi told us what he had learned from Isaiah by the Spirit. His comments after quoting Isaiah should be a primary source for obtaining and understanding of Isaiah. The Spirit will also teach us things written or not written by Isaiah. As we live worthy to receive the Spirit, the Spirit will bear record of the correct interpretation of Isaiah and its application to our lives (see 2 Nephi 32:2–5).