After quoting thirteen chapters in a row from the Book of Isaiah, Nephi concedes that the words of Isaiah were “hard for many of my people to understand.” Why was that? Because “they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1). What is this manner of prophesying, and how can it help us understand Isaiah’s writings?
The Anglican bishop Robert Lowth is credited with identifying a fundamental technique in Hebrew literature known as parallelism. Basically, it means that Isaiah will tell you the same thing multiple times in different ways.
If you were having a conversation and the other person didn’t appear to understand your last comment, you would probably repeat yourself. Depending on the situation, you might paraphrase your statement, using slightly different words to express the same thought. That might increase your probability of being understood the second time.
Isaiah does this constantly. Almost everything he says, and certainly every significant statement, will be repeated immediately, and usually in different words. So if you don’t understand something Isaiah says, read on, anticipating that his next statement will mean the same thing. Looking at his statements in pairs will increase your probability of understanding his message.
Yea, for thus saith the Lord:
Have I put thee away,
or have I cast thee off forever?
If you aren’t sure what Isaiah means by “put thee away,” the next phrase is helpful: it means the same thing as “cast thee off forever.” The Lord is asking whether His people believe that He has distanced Himself from them.
For thus saith the Lord:
Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement?
To whom have I put thee away, or to which of my creditors have I sold you?
Yea, to whom have I sold you?
This is a major point, and Isaiah emphasizes it with multiple repetitions and two separate metaphors:
- If I broke up the family, show me the divorce documentation.
- If I sold you, show me who bought you.
In other words, don’t accuse me of wrongdoing when you have no evidence to back up the accusation.
Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves,
and for your transgressions is your mother put away.
This is a major point, made clear by the parallel structure. You have distanced yourselves from me, not the other way around. You did this by choosing to sin.
Wherefore, when I came, there was no man;
when I called, yea, there was none to answer.
The Lord has never stopped trying to reach us. But we have not been willing to let Him in.
O house of Israel,
[Here comes the plea…]
is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem,
or have I no power to deliver?
This is the main point. You are suffering because you chose to distance yourselves from me, and you are refusing to respond to my continued invitations. But I still have the power to save you, as soon as you are ready to let me help you.
The Lord then provides a list of miraculous things He can do, to prove the point that He does have the power to save us, if we will let Him.
So, by taking parallel phrases as a unit and assuming that Isaiah is saying the same thing multiple times using different words, the meaning becomes clear:
I did not distance myself from you. You distanced yourself from me. I continue to knock, but you are not answering. I still have the power to save you.
Today, I will remember that I can learn simple and pure gospel principles from Isaiah if I’m willing to take the time to understand his words. I’ll be grateful for the parallelisms which give me extra opportunities to gain understanding.