Nephi, Isaiah and the Constitution

This Saturday I’ll be giving a lesson to our tri-stake Single Adult’s group on “Great are the words of Isaiah”.  As I’ve been preparing the lesson, I came upon some thoughts I wanted to share here.

Likening Unto Us

One of Nephi’s most well-known phrases is “likening unto us” the words of Isaiah.  This has a[ppropriately been expanded by most Mormons to include all scripture. However, I often think we do much harm by misapplying the term to what we actually do, rather than to what Nephi encourages us to do.

And I did read many things unto them which were written in the books of Moses; but that I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah; for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning. (1 Ne 19:23)

Later, after expounding more of Isaiah’s words, Nephi again discusses his purpose:

Now I, 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 many of my people to understand; 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; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.

 Wherefore, I write unto my people, unto all those that shall receive hereafter these things which I write, that they may know the judgments of God, that they come upon all nations, according to the word which he hath spoken.

 Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy. But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn.

Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things 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 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. (2 Ne 25:1-5)

This is perhaps why Isaiah is so difficult for so many LDS to understand: they do not first learn to know the history and thinking of the ancient prophet and Jews, prior to likening it unto themselves.  Nephi was able to liken Isaiah to his people, and explain the chapters he quoted as a pesher/commentary.  Without him as a medium, his people could not understand the words Isaiah well enough to apply them properly to themselves.

For us to properly apply Isaiah (or any other scripture) to ourselves, we must first properly receive the knowledge and method of thinking of the original author. Isaiah is complex, with chiasmus, parallelism and other poetry. He uses symbols that were understood in his day to describe the events of his day.  Can we truly understand Isaiah, who wrote about Israel, Judah, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Syria, and several other nations, if we cannot find those locations on a map?  How are we to understand Isaiah chapter 14’s prediction of gloom and doom for Lucifer, if we do not really know who Isaiah is speaking about? (Nebuchadnezzar, Nimrod, Satan, and any others who follow in their path).

This requires us to do research, or at least have a guide to help us along. Nephi was a trained guide for his people, and he noted the Holy Ghost can also be a guide. But he also notes that knowledge is necessary to truly understand these things.

The Constitution

Now, how does this apply to the Constitution?  LDS believe the Constitution to be a document inspired of God. Without it, the Restoration of the gospel would not have been possible. The nation’s forefathers appeared to Wilford Woodruff in the St George temple, demanding their temple work be completed for them, such was their calling.

For many Americans, we believe we can “liken [the Constitution] unto us”, simply by giving it a quick read and then applying it in whatsoever way we feel is appropriate in the moment. For many, it is a living document that is begging to be changed and updated to meet the needs of a changing world.

Yet, new revelation and truth are founded upon previous revelation and truth. They are not created in a vacuum.  If we are ignorant of the original intent of the Founding Fathers, Adam Smith, the Federalist Papers, the real history of freedom and slavery, the principles of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, the need for basic freedoms and rights given by the Creator and not the government, and the need for personal responsibility, then we are abusing the Constitution just as many abuse Isaiah and the scriptures.

For example, today’s Common Core attempts to teach history without delving into history. Of the Founding Fathers, only George Washington is mentioned. Martin Luther King jr does not have a role in the Civil Rights Movement.  It seems almost to be an intentional destruction of our history, so we can color outside the lines of the Constitution, just as many Americans and LDS attempt to color outside the teachings in the writings of the prophets: Free sex? No problem.  Changing marriage traditions? No problem. As Nephi explained:

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. (2 Ne 28:8)

Or as Isaiah tells us:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isa 5:20)


For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)


Let’s stop giving lip service to the scriptures and the other important documents. Let us study them, the history, the key concepts behind them, and ponder them, so that we may truly understand and make choices based upon the best the Lord has given us, truly likening all things unto ourselves.

17 thoughts on “Nephi, Isaiah and the Constitution

  1. Calling for actual scholarship with respect to the book of Isaiah?

    Demanding an originalist interpretation of Constitutional thought and theory?

    Clearly, you’re an extremist wacko. 🙂

  2. It’s always interesting to see how people claim to know the Constitution yet have never really read it and pondered it and never considered the intent of the writers. The same thing of course happens with the scriptures, as you describe here.

  3. I have always found that if I really put my effort into reading and understanding the old testament books that lead up to Isaiah that when I get to Isaiah that it makes a lot of sense. I also like to read Isaiah with my wikipedia concordance. It helps me get all the terain and people mentioned mean something by being able to see names and faces.

    On the topic of understanding our sacred documents and worldview of our founders I get the feeling that we dont do enough study and are suffering for it.

  4. So, there probably was a good point here. I just got distracted by the inclusion of Common Core. Common core is only English and Math, so that whole argument doesn’t hold up.

  5. Kevin L,


    “The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (“the standards”) represent the next generation of K–12 standards designed to prepare all students for success in college, career, and life by the time they graduate from high school.”

    It looks like more than just Math and English, so I am not sure where you are coming from.

  6. Mike, thanks for responding on Kevin’s response. I’m not sure where he was coming from, either. I clearly did not distract from my post by including Common Core. Perhaps this is another example of not doing the research?

    I do know that Joseph Smith said we cannot be saved in ignorance, and yet Latter-day Saints seem to live a blissful life of ignorance among their ignorant American counterparts. Instead, we should all realize how little we know, in comparison to all the truths there are in the universe, and then get busy seeking to learn all we can.

  7. So that quote appears to be hard for folks to understand. English. The combination of language arts and literacy. Literacy, understanding the written language, is central to success in history, science, and technical fields. When one does the full research or reading the standards it becomes very clear that they refer to building the skill of literacy in any of those domains. The standards make no attempt to establish core competencies in any of those fields.

  8. Kevin, in this case, the term “literacy” means the “competence or knowledge in a specific area”. So, when we quote the goal of Common Core:

    “The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (“the standards”) represent the next generation of K–12 standards designed to prepare all students for success in college, career, and life by the time they graduate from high school.”

    We find that “Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects” means having a high competency in these areas. They become “the standards” of what makes a person intelligent and marketable.

    However, many have pointed out that math is changed so that correct answers are not as important as the journey/methodology used, history is not about people/places/events, and English Language Arts is not about grammar and spelling. They are designed to prepare people for jobs that requires no high mental activity and make educators look good because more kids are graduating.

    Of course, we should also note that there was only one main law given to slave owners on how they were to treat their slaves: they could not teach them to read and write. Ignorance keeps people enslaved. I see it daily in my work and church work, as I work with those who are less educated or poorly educated.

  9. Brilliant post Rame. Excellent points to consider. Unfortunately many LDS, and people in general, enjoy remaining blissfully ignorant.

  10. As a bit of a tangent, it’s very important to understand the context of a thing.

    For example, Brigham Young had promised the men joining the Mormon Battalion that they would never have to fight an actual battle. Came true, though the march to San Diego and back home to the Saints was very difficult.

    Others, such as Franklin Richards, presumed that all a leader has to do is proclaim a statment, “You will be protected,” and God would honor the request for protection and any opposing the leader making the promise lacked faith and was in opposition to God. But Franklin was not inspired sufficiently when he promised the handcart pioneers that they would enjoy warm weather and be able to travel to Utah in safety, despite the late date.

    In another instance, the Book of Mormon contains the tale of the 2060 stripling warriors, who believed they would be spared because their mothers had promised they would be spared, and they could not doubt, for their mothers knew it.

    Now silly people presume that if a mother hopes her child will be safe, this hope will be granted. They appear not to have understood that the mothers of the stripling warriors had lost their husbands and fathers, slaughtered when they would not raise arms against their brethren the Lamanites. These women were then faced with watching the Nephites be destroyed. And here were their sons, who had never taken the oath to avoid war, who could, perhaps, make a difference in the salvation of all the Nephites and the people of Ammon, both of whom were under attack.

    So these mothers, who had lost their men, went to God begging a blessing of protection for their sons, who they were consecrating to the salvation of the Nephites and the people of Ammon. It was in this extremity that God whispered His promises to these women. It was not a simple hope based on ignorance.

    And so in our day mothers and children sometimes become disillusioned. “My mother had faith, but I was hurt or killed or damaged anyway,” the imagine. But what they never realized is that this protection won by the mothers of the striplings was a unique blessing, one granted based on extreme sacrifice and an incredible love for their fellow-men.

  11. Ram, I realize your post isn’t really about the Common Core and I hate to derail the conversation, but what you’re saying about education seems shortsighted.

    “math is changed so that correct answers are not as important as the journey/methodology used, history is not about people/places/events, and English Language Arts is not about grammar and spelling”

    That’s exactly the way things SHOULD be.

    For math, with enough memorization you can teach any dummy a list of algorithms that get the right answer to math problems in a textbook, which is exactly how I was taught math in high school. That method, however, teaches nothing about how and why numbers work and is useless if you don’t happen to know the right algorithm for a particular problem (and most real-world math problems don’t work like textbooks). Thus, math starts to look useless in the real world to students. Meanwhile, teaching proper methodology, promoting numeracy over rote memorization, is more difficult but in the end produces a student who actually understand how numbers work and can approach real-world problems with confidence. It goes without saying that getting the “right answers” naturally follows.

    Likewise, the reason most high schoolers hate history is because they’re taught little more than a bunch of names, dates, and events. We don’t teach students the process of gathering evidence and constructing arguments, which is the interesting part, and what historians actually do. Names, dates, and places are critical, but they’re just the raw materials, and I’ve found that once you understand the process of creating an argument, remembering all the mundane details is much easier and more interesting. Again, teach the process and the results follow.

    And finally, English and Language SHOULD be more than grammar and spelling. In fact, it should be about writing, reading, writing, and more reading, with a tiny amount of the rest on the side. A student who can read and write will learn to communicate effectively, and, bonus, will pick up most of the spelling and grammar rules along the way. Again, I know a lot of people who can write sentences that are reasonably correct grammatically but have no idea how to construct or respond to an effective argument, because that’s how they were taught in school.

    Whether Common Core or any other pedagogical method accomplishes any of that is another argument, but what you want and the educational methods you seem to prefer–at least as you’ve communicated here–are completely at odds with each other. You can’t develop skills for “high mental activity” without the building blocks.

  12. This post made my little history teacher’s heart happier than a bird with a French fry. There is so much to learn from studying history. It’s the best drama/comedy/tale of humanity no one ever wrote. History is an exciting subject, that’s why I chose to teach it. And it can be and should be taught as exciting and vibrantly as possible.

    As for common core. The standards are only English and math *right now*, but there are plans to expand them to all areas of study, including the SAT/ACTs and now the AP exams. What Rame said about them is right. If you actually study this issue, beyond the official common core website, and the MSM, you will find the evidence of this.

  13. Thoughtful—and provocative enough to keep my mind running at high speed during a 13-mile bike ride last night. In the end, I couldn’t see doing what you’re doing. Partly because I am very wary of using a Church forum to articulate my thinking about the U.S. Constitution. But partly because on the constitutional side, if I were to present an arguable complete picture, it just gets way too complicated—and may not lead to your conclusion. For example:
    • I’d have to carefully distinguish between the words of Isaiah, a prophet whose words are “the word of God, the word of God as far as it is translated correctly,” and a document created collectively by a group of “wise men whom [God] raised up unto this very purpose.” Inspiration can be attributed to both, but there’s a substantial difference in degree.
    • I’d have to talk about not just the Revolution and Articles of Confederation period, but also the Civil War, since much of what we see today in terms of constitutional law is the result of the 14th Amendment. And I’d encourage them to read history—perhaps starting with biographies of the delegates to the constitutional convention and those who sat in the First Congress, the conventions that ratified the constitution and the legislatures that ratified the Bill of Rights, and the Congress that proposed the Civil War amendments and the legislatures that passed those amendments.
    • I’d have to carefully consider the logic and result of the “liken unto use” comparison, in light of how we really use scripture today. For Isaiah, today we only have his words. It seems unlikely to me that when he spoke them, he had a vision of our day and spoke with words specifically chosen to address it. We apply his words anyway because we believe that although Isaiah spoke the words, they are the word of God, and that God could see our day. If I assume that the U.S. Constitution had the same divine source (though see my first point), then I might also have to assume that although the drafters did not have a vision of our day, God did. We (and by that I mean the Church, including inspired leaders) “liken scriptures to ourselves” all the time by using the words of particular verses as we are inspired to do today, to meet today’s needs. So if I were to make the parallel you suggest, I’d have to admit that the same can be done with the U.S. Constitution.

  14. Jrl, good comments. The thing is, people do liken the words of Isaiah and the Constitution all the time without first considering their background. Basically, people do the cafeteria version of the things they read, picking and choosing what parts they want to consume, and ignore the rest. They do not consider the nutritional value of the things they select, only whether they are enticing to the eyes, nose and palate.
    Regardless of whether we place Isaiah and the Constitution on the same inspired level or not, reason tells us that things of such great importance must be studied seriously before attempting to adapt them to our day.

    We do violence to history, religion, and politics when we don’t do the homework to really understand the foundation of the sacred writ first. Nations collapse, religions fall away from the truth, and history is repeated when people attempt to liken unto themselves without first understanding the things they are likening.

    Yes, for the Constitution, that would also have to include a study of the Civil War and the 14th Amendment. Is the current attempts to use the 14th Amendment to provide gay rights and marriage appropriate? Or is it a misuse by judges to create new law without first seriously contending with the original intent and context of the law? Would abolitionists who put forth the 14th Amendment have the same thought towards SSM, and apply it equally? Or was it written with a narrow focus on slavery only? And if our ancestors had a narrower reading of the 14th Amendment, what considerations should be made today before expanding that interpretation? Or are we emotionally choosing what feels right in the world, and then looking at the Constitution and finding what will fit our needs by tweaking the interpretation?
    Many early Latter-day Saints (and some even in the 20th century) were against amalgamation, and read their theories into the scriptures. Many Christians justified slavery because of non-historical readings verses in the Bible on the curse of Cain and Canaan. Are we doing the same thing with our Constitution today?

  15. Meg and Joyce, thanks for your comments. I agree that context is very necessary (and so is history – I have a MA Teaching/History).

    We misunderstand the story of the 2060 Stripling Warriors. We don’t understand history because of failed/failing programs like Common Core. Chahlie is right that we need a system that stimulates and challenges, teaching critical thinking skills, etc. Sadly, Common Core is not that program. The Japanese method of teaching math would do so much more for us: teaching concepts in depth, unlike what we do here of quickly bouncing from topic to topic.

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