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.
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.