Isaiah For Airheads (Hardcover w/CD)
If you think understanding the passages from Isaiah is like trying to find your way through a dense dark forest, then you'll appreciate the enjoyable Isaiah for Airheads. After many years of personal study and preparations, John Bytheway has created and mapped out the “Isaiah National Forest.” He offers the reader 'four guides, four trees and four keys — useful tools for approaching any Isaiah chapter, specifically those found in 2 Nephi. In addition, he explains latter-day relevance for each chapter and shows how these scriptures can strengthen our homes, families, and testimonies. A talk CD is included in the back of the hardcover book, featuring John's unique teaching style. After reading and listening to Isaiah for Airheads, you'll echo the feeling, “great are the words of Isaiah!”
Click here to download your free study guide to Isaiah from John Bytheway.
- Published: August 2006
About the Author
John Bytheway is an instructor at the Brigham Young University Salt Lake Center. He served his mission in the Philippines and earned a master’s degree in Religious Education at BYU. He has published dozens of books and audio programs and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Kimberly, and their six children.
Isaiah National Forest
Are We There Yet?
The road to Isaiah National Forest begins on I-775 and enters the forest on I-740. The “I” is for Isaiah, and 775 is because Isaiah was born in about 775 B.C., and 740 is because he began his ministry in about 740 B.C.
As you can see, there are four “guides” or personalities who quote Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. They are:
- Nephi (1 Nephi 20–21; 2 Nephi 12–24; 2 Nephi 27)
- Jacob (2 Nephi 7–8)
- Abinadi (Mosiah 14)
- Jesus Christ (3 Nephi 22, and in much of 3 Nephi 20).
I call them “guides” because not only do they quote Isaiah, but thankfully, they comment on what they’ve quoted. As we travel through Isaiah National Forest, we’ll get off at these exits and see what they have to say.
I Think That I Shall Never See, a Poem as Lovely as a . . .
In this little book, we’re not going to look extensively at individual chapters, or “trees” of Isaiah; there isn’t time or space. There are many commentaries that do just that. They look at each tree, leaf by leaf. They get very excited about Hebraic poetic constructions, antithetic parallelisms, emblematic parallelisms, chaistic patterns, and other things I can’t even pronounce. These commentators are experts on Isaiah National Forest because they’ve lived in there and studied the forest for years. I love them, and respect them, and have included their books in the bibliography.
But this author is not a forest ranger. I’m just a boy scout who loves visiting this forest and who wants to share what I’ve noticed with others. So we’re going to step back and view the forest, or “look at the situation as a whole.”
On our whirlwind tour of Isaiah National Forest, you’re going to see four types of trees, and they all start with the letter “C.” Or, put to the tune of the song, “Popcorn Popping,” "You’ll look out the window and what will you see? Four types of trees that all begin with ‘C.’" These are the trees:
I suggest that any tree you see in Isaiah National Forest will be one of these, or more often a hybrid of these:
- Current Events (current to Isaiah’s day)
- Coming Events
Just knowing about the existence of these four trees could forever change the way you approach Isaiah National Forest because anytime you encounter an Isaiah chapter, you’ll be able to say with confidence, “Well, I know it’s either going to be about Covenants, Christ, Current Events, or Coming Events.” Armed with that awareness of the individual trees, you’re less likely to be intimidated by the forest.
Let’s Talk about the First Tree: Covenants:
Which covenants, Brother Bytheway? Baptismal cove-nants? Marriage covenants? Good question. One of our guides, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob (Nephi’s younger brother) gives us the answer—in fact, immediately after Jacob quoted two chapters of Isaiah (2 Nephi 7–8), he said, "And now, my beloved brethren, I have read these things that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel" (see 2 Nephi 9:1–3). So, which covenants are we talking about? Answer: Covenant Israel—or in other words, the covenants God made anciently with the house of Israel.
Now, this is important, so we’ll print it in italics—I don’t think it’s possible to understand Isaiah unless you understand the Lord’s interest in the house of Israel.
This is another question that comes up frequently in my Book of Mormon class. “Hey, Brother Bytheway, what does all this house of Israel stuff mean?” I’ve had this question come up in the presence of new converts, people of other faiths, and even believers in non-Christian religions. How would you explain what we mean when we say “house of Israel” to someone who has never heard the phrase before or who has heard it but never understood it? Here’s my best shot in one paragraph.
God made a covenant with Abraham, that through his seed all the families of the world would be blessed. Abraham and his seed are to “bear this ministry,” or, in other words, hold the priesthood and be responsible to carry to gospel message to the world. Abraham had a son named Isaac, who had a son named Jacob. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, and therefore the “house of Israel” means the family or descendants of Jacob. The covenant obligation and blessing made with Abraham continues through all the descendants of Jacob, or house of Israel (see Abraham 2:9–11).
Phew. Did I hit the basics? One time, while sharing this material at Especially for Youth, I asked one of the young men to define the house of Israel. He did it in two words: “It’s us.” Bravo to his seminary teacher. He was right. The covenant God made with Abraham continues in us (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and we have the blessing and burden of taking the gospel to the world. Elder David A. Bednar taught:
Missionary work is a manifestation of our spiritual identity and heritage. We were foreordained in the premortal existence and born into mortality to fulfill the covenant and promise God made to Abraham. We are here upon the earth at this time to magnify the priesthood and to preach the gospel. That is who we are, and that is why we are here—today and always. (“Becoming a Missionary,” Ensign, November 2005, 47)
Elder Bednar made a distinction between “going on a mission” and “becoming a missionary.” Being a missionary isn’t just something we do—it’s something we are—because we are Abraham’s seed. In other words, as members of the house of Israel, we have a covenant obligation to bless the families of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons new missionaries are required to receive their patriarchal blessing is so that they can have their lineage declared and have confirmed by revelation that they have the right and obligation to teach the gospel and bless the families of the world.
I Am a Child of God—But, Isn’t Everybody?
One of the most revealing truths in our theology is sung by Primary children. I’ve always loved, and often taught, the wonderful principle contained in the song “I Am a Child of God” (Hymns, no. 301). If I may be so bold, our understanding of our heritage as members of “covenant Israel” takes our identity to a whole new level. Not only are we children of God, but we are part of a chosen lineage, the house of Israel.
Some people are uncomfortable talking about the idea of a “chosen people.” They think it sounds self-congratulatory and elitist. A few ideas may help soften that reaction. First, being “chosen” doesn’t mean we’re chosen to sit on thrones and be admired. It’s more like being chosen to mow the lawn (or more appropriately, to bring in the harvest). We’re chosen to work, chosen to accomplish a difficult mission, chosen to “bear this ministry” to all the world. But we do enjoy the blessings of the gospel while performing the task! Those who are truly chosen feel no arrogance, but instead sense a tremendous obligation to do the Lord’s work.
Second, that “chosen-ness” did not begin on earth. If we have no problem with the idea that what we do here on earth will determine our station in the next life, we should have no problem with the idea that what we did in the premortal existence has determined our station here in mortality. As strange as it may sound, you were of the house of Israel before you were born! Elder Melvin J. Ballard taught:
There was a group of souls tested, tried, and proven before they were born into the world, and the Lord provided a lineage for them. That lineage is the house of Israel, the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their posterity. Through this lineage were to come the true and tried souls that had demonstrated their righteousness in the spirit world before they came here. (Three Degrees of Glory, 218–19)
Remember too that rarely does Isaiah praise the “chosen” house of Israel—what he does most of the time is tell them (and tell us) to get with the program and start behaving as chosen people are supposed to behave.
Also, being chosen is not a permanent status—it’s possible to become un-chosen. The Doctrine and Covenants explains: "Why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men" (D&C 121:34–35). Being chosen happens because we’ve made good choices up to this point in our eternal existence. To remain chosen we must continue to follow Christ and work to keep our covenants.
Last, because the house of Israel has already been scattered all over the world, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t of the house of Israel already. So, in a sense, we’re all chosen. Most people just don’t know it. Our covenant obligation is to tell them, or, scripturally speaking, to “gather” them, by bringing the Lord a harvest of souls.
This Tree Looks a Lot like That Tree
The covenant tree is especially prominent in Isaiah National Forest. Much of Isaiah’s writing is to remind covenant Israel to repent—to reprimand them when they are not living up to their covenant obligations and to warn them of trials to come because of their disobedience. Again, God’s covenant with Abraham continues through the house of Israel and is both a blessing and a burden—the blessing is that the priesthood would continue through Abraham’s and Jacob’s numerous posterity, and the burden of covenant Israel is to be obedient and to bless all the families of the world by teaching them the gospel and binding them together with the sealing powers of the priesthood.
One of the key elements the restoration of the gospel returned to earth was a knowledge of covenants. Ever heard the phrase, “plain and precious things”? Normally, we think of lost scripture when we hear that phrase. Well, lost scripture is only half the story. Let’s read it again:
They have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away. (1 Nephi 13:26; emphasis added)
The new and everlasting covenant encompasses all the gospel covenants, and if we’re going to be saved, it will be through Jesus Christ and by being obedient to his commandments and by honoring the covenants we make with him. And that is why the covenant tree is one of the four most prominent trees in Isaiah National Forest. When you read Isaiah, you’re going to hear him address covenant Israel over and over and over again.
Our Next Tree: Christ
Our second type of tree in Isaiah National Forest is Christ—or to use the Hebrew word with the same meaning, the Messiah. We can expect Isaiah to prophesy often of the coming of Christ and to testify of His mission. You’ll often read in the italicized synopsis at the beginning of each chapter, “Isaiah speaks Messianically.”
In this context, it’s instructive to take a look at the name Isaiah. Have you ever taken a class in Hebrew? Neither have I. But the fact is, you know more than you think! Take a look at these names and their meanings:
Nehemiah = comfort of the Lord
- Zedekiah = the Lord is righteousness
- Obadiah = servant of the Lord
- Jeremiah = exalted of the Lord
- Zachariah = the Lord has remembered
- Hezekiah = the Lord gives strength
- Hallelujah = praise the Lord
- Isaiah = the Lord (Jehovah) is salvation
What do these names all have in common? The “yah” sound. Now, look at the definitions of these names. What do they all have in
common? “The Lord.” Therefore, we can deduce that “yah” means “Lord,” and it does. Jehovah (or LORD in small caps in the King James Old Testament) was pronounced “Yawveh.”
Why am I telling you this? Because Isaiah’s name indicates something of his mission. His name means “Jehovah is salvation,” or, in bumper sticker language, “Jesus Saves,” which indeed He does. Thus, we should expect that Isaiah would testify of the saving power of the Messiah, or Jesus Christ.
King Noah and his wicked priests thought that obedience to the law of Moses brought salvation. So what did Abinadi do? He quoted Isaiah, whose name means what? Jehovah is salvation (not “the law of Moses is salvation”). Among other things, Abinadi said:
For behold, did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? [God redeems, not the law] Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have they not spoken more or less concerning these things? (Mosiah 13:33)
After testifying to the wicked priests that Jehovah brings salvation, Abinadi quoted Isaiah 53—perhaps the most recognized Messianic chapter in Isaiah. (We’ll take a closer look at Mosiah 14/Isaiah 53 later in this book.)
Now, while we’re on the subject of names, you might be interested to see some other Old Testament characters who also have the name of God within their names.
Gabriel = man of God
- Samuel = name of God
- Daniel = a judge is God
- Ezekiel = God will strengthen
- Israel = one who prevails with God
- Bethel = house of God
- Emmanuel = with us is God
- Nathanael = God has given
- Michael = who is like God
- Ishmael = God heareth
Again, we see a common ending, “-el,” in each of these names. El means “God,” as in Eloi or Elohim. Interesting, isn’t it? If you know the meaning of the “-el,” and if you know that Bethlehem means “house of bread” (the town where the “bread of life” was born), you should also deduce that “Beth-el” means “house of God.” See? You know more Hebrew than you think.
Why the Speed Bump?
As we share the Book of Mormon with our friends, we are often secretly hoping that they won’t get stuck in 2 Nephi and give up. Why are the Isaiah chapters placed so early in the account? Did the Lord have a reason?
We all remember the three witnesses to the gold plates: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Well, at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, we get another three witnesses—three witnesses of Christ. Perhaps this is why the Isaiah chapters are placed early in the Book of Mormon, which is an obstacle for some investigators. Just before the 2 Nephi block of Isaiah chapters, Nephi mentions these other three witnesses:
And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For . . . he verily saw my Redeemer [there’s one], even as I have seen him [there’s two]. And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him [there’s three] as I have seen him. . . . Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. (2 Nephi 11:2–3)
Hopefully, the investigator will see right away that the Book of Mormon is indeed another testament of Jesus Christ. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explains the placement of the Isaiah chapters (and mentions our first two trees) in this statement:
After reading these three witnesses from the small plates of Nephi, the reader knows two things in bold relief: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that God will keep his covenants and promises with the remnants of the house of Israel. (Christ and the New Covenant, 35)
Has Come, or Will Come?
The challenge the early prophets had was to teach people to exercise faith in a Being who hadn’t yet come to earth. I often ask my students, “Which do you think would be harder—to convince your mom that you will clean your room, or that you have cleaned your room?” If you’ve already cleaned your room, all you have to do is walk your mom down the hall, open the door, and say, “Behold!” All Mom would have to do is look. To convince her that you will clean your room, sometime in the future, would be tougher to do.
Nephi and other ancient prophets had the task of convincing the people to believe in the Messiah who would come, in the future. (It’s interesting to note, therefore, that Korihor and other anti-Christs tried to convince the people that “no man can know of anything which is to come” [Alma 30:13; see also Jacob 7:7.])
Isaiah testifies of the coming of Christ! That is our second tree in Isaiah National Forest. According to Isaiah scholar Monte Nyman, of the 425 verses of Isaiah that are quoted in the Book of Mormon, 391 deal with the ministry and attributes of Jesus (see Great Are the Words of Isaiah, 7).
Some may ask, “Brother Bytheway, why did you list Christ as the second tree? Shouldn’t He be first?” Good question. I listed the trees in this order because it’s the same order they are listed in the title page of the Book of Mormon:
Which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things that Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.
It’s also interesting to note that the Book of Mormon closes with a statement about covenants and Christ.
And awake, and arise from the dust . . . that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled. Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness. (Moroni 10:31–32)
From first page to last page, and on every page in between, the Book of Mormon speaks of covenants and of Christ.
If you were given the task of writing a book that would convince people that Jesus is the Christ, you would be wise to include the writings of Isaiah, whose message is addressed to Covenant Israel, and whose name and mission was to teach that Jehovah is salvation.
Our Third Tree: Current Events
Isaiah speaks often of things happening during his time—of the “wars and the perplexities of the nations” (see D&C 88:79) of his day, nations such as Assyria, Syria, Babylon, and Israel. (We’ll take a look at the geography in Isaiah’s time a little later.)
Remember, Isaiah was an advisor to the kings of the kingdom of Judah, and one of his most common themes was, “Don’t make alliances with other nations! Let God be your ally, let God be your King!” A similar message is repeated dozens of times throughout the Book of Mormon: “Keep the commandments and you’ll prosper in the land” and “serve the God of the land or be swept off.” In other words, you won’t have to worry about what other nations or peoples are up to, if you just follow the Lord.
One of the reasons that the current events of Isaiah’s time are important to us is that they often foreshadow coming events of our own time—the last days. For example, when Isaiah speaks of the fall of Babylon, he is echoing Lucifer’s fall in the premortal existence and foreshadowing the fall of Satan’s kingdom in the latter days. Thus, when we encounter the current events of Isaiah’s day, we can look for types of latter-day events or prophecies concerning our day.
The LDS Bible Dictionary contains nine pages of biblical chronology in three columns printed in about an eight-point font (these pages are still stuck together in most Bibles). That’s a dizzying amount of stuff to remember. I’m only asking you to remember four events—just four! In my experience, remembering these four “current events” will help considerably as we navigate Isaiah National Forest.
|721 B.C.||701 B.C.||587 B.C.||537 B.C|
|Assyrians||Assyrians attack||Babylonians||King Cyrus|
|capture the||the southern||take the||allows the|
|northern||kingdom of||kingdom of||Jews to return|
|kingdom||Judah and||Judah into||to Judah||of Israel||surround Jerusalem||captivity|
|(the ten tribes)||but do not|
Don’t think you have to memorize these now. This page will still be here later. Let me try to explain a little more to help you get these four events into your head.
The House of Israel Is a Mobile Home
One of the things that used to confuse me when reading Isaiah was when I’d stumble across a negative reference to Israel. Wait a minute, I’d think, aren’t they supposed to be the good guys? Not until I read “Israel, Kingdom of” in the Bible Dictionary (sometimes referred to as the “sealed portion”), did I get the whole picture.
The house of Israel moved around a lot. As you know, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egypt, and eventually the whole family followed him down there to escape a famine. Later, the children of Israel were put into bondage by the Egyptians and were finally led out of Egypt by Moses. After wandering in the wilderness for forty years, the house of Israel was led by Joshua back into the Holy Land area. Upon their return, the land was divided among the descendents (tribes) of the twelve brothers into twelve kingdoms (see Map One, page 22).
Eventually (about 925 B.C.)—and here’s the important part—the northern ten tribes became the kingdom of Israel, and the southern tribes, consisting of the descendants of Judah and Benjamin, became the kingdom of Judah. This period is often referred to as the time of the divided kingdoms (see Map Two, page 23). Although Isaiah’s message was addressed to all the children of Israel, Isaiah’s ministry was to the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem was the capital city and Judah was the dominant tribe. The northern kingdom of Israel was in an apostate condition, their capital city was Samaria, and Ephraim was the dominant tribe. That explains the negative references to Israel—meaning the kingdom of Israel—which often occur in Isaiah’s writings.
Eventually (721 B.C.), the Assyrians came down out of the north and took the kingdom of Israel, or the ten tribes, captive, as Isaiah repeatedly warned they would. As these people were assimilated into other nations, they became the “lost tribes” of Israel. Later, the Assyrians attacked the kingdom of Judah and almost took the city of Jerusalem but were eventually defeated by a miracle (701 B.C.). A century or so later, in 587 B.C. (just after Lehi left Jerusalem), the Babylonians came and took Judah captive, but the Jews were allowed to return to the Holy Land in 537 B.C. by Cyrus the king. (Over 500 years later, Jesus came to earth among the tribe of Judah, or the Jews—that one portion of the entire house of Israel.)
Those then are the four events.
Another reason references to Israel can be confusing to airheads like me is because the term Israel can be used in so many different ways. There’s the person Israel (formerly known as Jacob); there’s Jacob/Israel’s posterity, who are often called “Israel” or “house of Israel”; and there’s the kingdom of Israel. Again, reading “Israel, Kingdom of” in the Bible Dictionary was one of the single best things I ever did to help me understand Isaiah. (You’ll find it on page 708.) In this book, I’ll try to be very careful to distinguish the kingdom of Israel, the place, from covenant Israel, the people.
Our Fourth Tree Is Coming Events (Prophecy)
As a rule, prophets see the future, and Isaiah was no exception. Consider this statement from Elder Bruce R. McConkie:
[Isaiah’s] most detailed and extensive prophecies portray the latter-day triumph and glory of Jacob’s seed. He is above all else the prophet of the restoration. (“Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah,” Ensign, October 1973, 80.)
This was a startling statement to me at first. Isaiah is the prophet of the Restoration? I had always thought of Isaiah as talking about lots of geography and kings and wars and current events of his own day. But take a look at a few of these oft-quoted phrases from Isaiah—they’re all about future events as foreseen by Isaiah! His prophesies include assurances that the Messiah would come into the world: “A virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son” (2 Nephi 17:14), and “For unto us a child is born” (2 Nephi 19:6). Events that were to take place as a part of a latter-day restoration include: “I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people” (1 Nephi 21:22), “The Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains” (2 Nephi 12:2), and “The words of the book which were sealed shall be read upon the house tops” (2 Nephi 27:11).
Isaiah also speaks about coming events in our time, things that will transpire in the millennial day. A common phrase used by Isaiah is “in that day . . .” A quick look at the footnotes will often reveal that when Isaiah says “in that day,” he is prophesying about conditions during the Millennium.
Isaiah is indeed “the prophet of the restoration” and, although his ministry began in 740 B.C., he saw things that we have yet to see, which is one reason why his words remain relevant today.
And That’s Our Treatise on Trees
So, that’s our introduction to Isaiah National Forest. We’ll look out our window, and what will we see? Four types of Trees, labeled Covenants, Christ, Current Events, and Coming Events. Now, let’s get on the bus and begin our tour. But before we do, who’s got the keys? They’re not in the glove compartment. Oddly enough, the keys are stored between the pages in 2 Nephi 25.
by Megi - reviewed on February 05, 2008
This book is AWESOME! I get so excited every time I sit down to read it because I am actually understanding Isaiah for the first time in my life. John Bytheway makes it seem so simple and so applicable to my life. I knew it would be good because Bytheway is always good, but I didn't know how exciting it would be to really disover these scriptures as if I've never read them before. I don't have enough room in my margins to write all of the notes that I want. Thank you, Brother Bytheway!!
by Darral - reviewed on June 02, 2008
It is extremely difficult to write an easy to understand yet useful book on a difficult subject. Too little and too simplistic and it doesn't help; too much and too detailed and it overwhelms the lay reader. I think John Bytheway has achieved a useful balance for those who would like to be more comfortable with Isaiah, without becoming obsessive about it.
by Cory - reviewed on September 19, 2008
This book really helps you to understand Isaiah! It is amazing!
by Jamie - reviewed on March 20, 2009
This is a great read-along book for anyone who struggles with understanding Isaiah. It contains insights about all of the Book of Mormon Isaiah chapters and for me, it really opened Isaiah and made it exciting to read. Although we've been commanded to study and learn these particular passages, I've always felt as though I were standing on the other side of a locked door when it comes to them. This book presents the keys and gives a break-down that literally guides you through the chapters and helps the reader become independently engaged in unlocking these amazing treasures. I've read it completely through while following along with the scriptures and have begun again breaking them down a few verses at a time and then journaling about them so I can write my own commentary to help me better retain what I'm learning. In doing so, I've discovered why we are commanded to know them and understand them. Isaiah knew so much about our day and the calamities and challenges we would face as a people and particularly a nation. He also discusses what are now current worldwide events but in his day, future prophecy. These chapters are amazing and well worth the time to reveal!
Great help with 2 Nephi!
by Erik - reviewed on February 21, 2014
I really enjoyed the way that John presents the materials, break everything down in to trees and branches. Been through the book twice in the last few months and have been really impressed. Great work Mr. Bytheway