Search the Words of Isaiah
by David Lamb
In Third Nephi 10:27 Jesus gives a commandment to study the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
Yea, a commandment I give unto
you that ye search these things
diligently, for great are the
words of Isaiah.
In Second Nephi 11: 1-3, 8, Nephi comments on the fact that Isaiah's writings are difficult to understand unless one is familiar with things of a Hebraic nature.
Now 1, Nephi, do speak somewhat
concerning the words which I
have written, which have been
spoken by the mouth of Isaiah.
For behold, Isaiah spake many things
which were hard for my people to
For they know not concerning the manner
of prophesying among the Jews.
For I, Nephi, have not taught them
many things concerning the
manner of the Jews ....
And I know that the Jews do understand
the things of the prophets,
And there is none other people that
understand the things of the prophets,
which were spoken unto the Jews, like unto them,
Save it be that they are taught after the
manner of the things of the Jews [emphasis added].
When we make a cursory comparison of the commandment of Jesus with the words of Nephi, we are faced with what appears to be a dilemma. While Jesus is telling us to study the writings of Isaiah, Nephi is telling us that we will not be able to understand the message. Is this a dilemma? The answer, of course, is no. Close examination of these two scriptures reveal that they are in agreement.
Nephi advises that the words of Isaiah cannot be understood unless the reader is familiar with things of a Hebraic nature. The words of Jesus complement this idea as our Lord admonishes us to "search" the words of Isaiah.
To search not only means to read thoroughly, but also means to conduct a painstaking investigation or examination in an effort to uncover elements which are concealed.
Both Jesus and Nephi give us a clue to understanding the writings of Isaiah-become familiar with things of a Hebraic nature. Both Jesus and Nephi admonish us to investigate the Hebrew world; study the customs, the geography, the history, the imagery and manner of thought. Only by becoming immersed in the culture can we grasp the messages of Isaiah and the other prophets.
Verses of scripture which other wise are seemingly straightforward can be enhanced and their meaning greatly expanded when we apply an understanding of Hebrew culture and imagery. A beautiful example of this is found in the first chapter of Isaiah.
As the book of Isaiah opens, we find the prophet calling the people of Judah to repentance, pleading with them to forsake their sinful ways and return to the Lord their God. In verse 18, Isaiah uses beautiful Hebraic poetry and imagery in assuring the people that God will truly forgive them and wash away their sins if they will repent.
"Come now and let us reason
together," saith the Lord;
"Though your sins be as scarlet, they
shall be as white as snow;
Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool [emphasis added]..."
While the meaning of verse 18 is clear, a new layer of understanding can be gained by "searching" certain aspects of ancient Near Eastern culture and Hebrew imagery. The Hebrew word for "crimson" is tola, and has a twofold meaning. The primary meaning refers to a "worm." The secondary meaning applies to the color crimson itself.
The secondary meaning evolved because in the ancient Near East, a vivid scarlet or crimson dye was derived from a certain type of worm (Coccus Ilicis) which lived on the Kermes oak tree. When crushed and placed in hot water, this worm produced a brilliant crimson color which was permanent and colorfast. Thus the word tola became associated with the color crimson.
Isaiah's message uses beautiful Hebraic imagery to describe the power of God's insurmountable love and forgiveness for sinful mankind. just as the ancient crimson dye produced an indelible stain upon the cloth, so our sins appear to be a permanent stain upon our lives, impossible to remove. Yet, through the cleansing power of Jesus Christ, the permanent stain of sin can be washed clean, allowing us to enter into the presence of God as spotless and pure as naturally white, undyed wool.
God's glorious declaration applies to us today, even as it did to the nation of Israel during Isaiah's day. God is calling us to repentance, assuring us that even though our sins are as red and seemingly permanent as the crimson dye of the tola, he is able to forgive our sin, purify our hearts, and renew our lives through the atoning death and resurrection of his Only Begotten Son.
Isaiah 1:18 is an example of God's call to repentance and promise of total forgiveness, beautifully conveyed by Isaiah, and enhanced by application of Hebrew culture and imagery. Truly, the words of Third Nephi 10:27 are profound, ". . . search these things diligently, for great are the words of Isaiah" [emphasis added].
Harris, R. Laird; Archer, Gleason L. Jr;
Waltke, Bruce K.
1980 Theological Wordbook of the
Old Testament. Moody Press, Chicago.
Wilson, Marvin R.
1989 Our Father Abraham.
William Eerdman's Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This article taken from the Zarahemla Record, issue 60 March /April 1992.