Why Is Isaiah So Difficult to Understand?

Near the beginning of his book, Isaiah describes how he was called as a prophet. In a vision, he saw the Lord sitting on a throne surrounded by angels. Isaiah must have arrived in the middle of a meeting, because the Lord asks the assembled group without explanation, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Without knowing what he is volunteering to do, Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8, 2 Nephi 16:8).

The Lord then explains the nature of the assignment:

Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.
Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed (Isaiah 6:9-10).

It sounds like the Lord is telling Isaiah to intentionally obscure his message, so that it won’t be understood.

The Book of Mormon rendering of this passage is more balanced, shifting some of the responsibility for the failed communication to the listeners:

Go and tell this people—Hear ye indeed, but they understood not; and see ye indeed, but they perceived not.
Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes—lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and be healed. (2 Nephi 16:9-10).

But when Jesus quoted this passage, he shifted the responsibility entirely to the listeners. Explaining to His disciples why He taught in parables, He said:

Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear (Matthew 13:11-16, with Joseph Smith Translation in verse 12).

So, Isaiah was called to preach to an unreceptive audience. Like the Savior, he utilized parables and figurative language in an effort to reach them. But similar to the parables of Jesus, Isaiah’s words will only be meaningful to us if we make the effort to see past the symbolism and understand the underlying principles which we can apply to our lives. Isaiah is difficult because the principles he teaches require some effort to fully understand. He packages those principles in a way that require effort on the part of his audience, and if they are unwilling to pay that price—if they close their eyes and ears and harden their hearts—then his message will be entirely lost on them.

Today, I will remember that receptiveness requires effort. God is willing to help me understand the words of His prophets, but their messages may not always be easy to hear or to understand. I may need to do some work to extract value from Isaiah’s words, but that work will demonstrate to God that I genuinely want to hear and understand His messages for me, and that I truly want to be converted and healed.

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