It has been quite a ride through the three major sets of Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon, from the application of Isaiah’s remnant theology (48-49) to the American continent in 1 Nephi 20-21, to the great prophet’s words of comfort to the exiled Jews (50-51) in 2 Nephi 7-8, to the long block of chapters (2-14) in 2 Nephi 12-24, which tie together Isaiah’s Messianic passages and his prophecies of a fallen Israel redeemed as the City of Zion.
These are difficult chapters—chapters that many of us have been taught to endure rather than understand. And we begin to understand them, they just get harder, as both Nephi and Isaiah are doing a lot of complicated things at once. They are warning (and comforting) their people, predicting the future, testifying of Christ, and letting us know what to expect in the last days. And, for Latter-day Saints at least, they are doing all of this in 400-year-old King James English that obscures the fact that most of Isaiah is also poetry.
But for all of this, I believe, the dreaded Isaiah chapters all contribute to one great argument that we can state very succinctly, and almost everything important in our religion proceeds from it: that God is good.
Few people today will find this earth shattering, but it was really not a common belief in the ancient world. Nobody ever asked if Zeus, or Moloch, or Dagon were “good.” What a silly question! Gods were supposed to be powerful. They were supposed to command respect. And they were supposed to take one’s side in battle against other people and their gods. Moral goodness had nothing to do with the equation.
Under the accepted rules of Ancient Near Eastern theology, then, Israel’s destruction by Babylon should have meant the end of their relationship with Yahweh. It either meant that He no longer cared about them, or, more likely, that he just wasn’t up to a battle with the powerful Babylonian deities. Either way, the relationship should have come to an end right there and then.
But it didn’t, and that changed everything. The figure we now refer to as Deutero-Isaiah said some remarkable things, which Jacob did us the favor of repeating in the Book of Mormon. He told the Jews on both continents that God was still God—that he still loved his people and wanted them to be happy. Isaiah extended a remarkable invitation to the Israelites: stick with God and renegotiate the covenant, and someday you will be redeemed. And the Israelites agreed.
The main theme of Isaiah is the redemption of Israel, and the name he uses for redeemed Israel is “Zion.” This is why Nephi expends so much space on Isaiah’s Zion chapters. But Nephi takes the idea even further. It is not just collective Israel that will be redeemed by the Messiah; individuals, too, will be redeemed by Christ. The redemption of a nation will become a symbol of the redemption of each individual. And the reason is the same: God is good.
As Latter-day Saints, we know that God is good, but sometimes we don’t act like we know it. We often practice our religion as though the most important thing about God were His power and not His goodness. This makes God something to fear—somebody that we need to propitiate or else. . . . The principle requirement of such a deity is obedience, and the principle rationale for obedience is either the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. Humanity has always interacted this way with powerful gods that it fears.
What Isaiah and Nephi present to us is something so radically different that, even 2500 years later, most of us have a hard time internalizing it. They show us a God whose claim to our affections proceeds from His goodness instead of His power—a God with whom we can have a relationship based on mutual love, rather than a divine tyrant who will either give us stuff or make us suffer in direct proportion to how well we obey.
After 40 years of wandering, reading the scriptures, and communicating with the divine, Nephi finally understood the most important thing that Isaiah ever said: God is good. When modern readers really understand this too, we will never see anything quite the same way again.