Mormon apologists say that the “sealed document” mentioned in verse 11 prophesies the Book of Mormon, one of four sacred scriptures used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the Book of Mormon, Jesus came to the American continent sometime after His Ascension (Acts 1:9-11) in order to teach the Israelites who had emigrated there earlier. Mormon founder Joseph Smith is said to have “unsealed” the Book of Mormon document when he was given the ancient plates by the angel Moroni in order to translate and print the scripture in 1830. However, the passage in Isaiah has nothing to do with Mormonism or the Book of Mormon. It is really referring to the nation of Israel, with God criticizing the Israelites for their hard hearts. Their lack of judgment, Isaiah writes, is like attempting to read a document that is sealed.
By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson
The following is from chapter 33 in Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013). To get additional help in answering LDS questions, we recommend purchasing the book. Click here to see more.
In a 2007 general conference address, Apostle Russell M. Nelson insisted that the Bible predicted the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:
How do scriptures of the Restoration clarify the Bible? Many examples exist. I will cite but a few, beginning with the Old Testament. Isaiah wrote, “Thou shalt . . . speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.” Could any words be more descriptive of the Book of Mormon, coming as it did “out of the ground” to “whisper out of the dust” to people of our day? But Isaiah was not the only Old Testament prophet who foretold the Book of Mormon. Ezekiel wrote: “Take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel . . . : then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel. . . : And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand.” Today, Saints living in many nations of the earth gratefully hold the Bible (the stick of Judah) and the Book of Mormon (the stick of Ephraim) bound as one in their hands. (“Scriptural Witnesses,” Ensign, November 2007, 44). For more on the Ezekiel passage referened by Nelson, click here.
As far as the Isaiah passage is concerned, Apostle James Talmage wrote a century earlier:
Isaiah’s striking prediction that the nation thus brought down should “speak out of the ground,” with speech “low out of the dust” was literally fulfilled in the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon, the original of which was taken out of the ground, and the voice of the record is as that of one speaking from the dust. (The Articles of Faith, p. 278).
What Nelson and Talmage say would seem to make sense for someone not having their Bible open to Isaiah 29. Since Mormons are taught that Joseph Smith retrieved the gold plates from a stone box hidden in the ground, Nelson and Talmage assume that the “voice” whispering from the dust or out of the ground must be a reference to the Book of Mormon. According to Brigham Young University professor Charles R. Harrell, Latter-day Saints go beyond the traditionally accepted allegorical meaning of this passage and its fulfillment in ancient Israel to see a literal book that came to light in the latter days through the “unlearned” prophet Joseph Smith.
“The vision of all” is spoken of in the Book of Mormon as a literal vision of all things—a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof” (2 Ne. 27:7)—that would be recorded in a sealed book (i.e.,the sealed portion of the gold plates) to come forth in the latter days. The “learned” individual is interpreted as being Charles Anthon, a professor of Greek and Latin languages at Columbia College (later Columbia University), who reportedly said he could not read the book “for it is sealed” (2 Ne. 27:15–20; Isa. 29:11). (This is My Doctrine, 92)
Harrell disagrees with the traditional LDS understanding of these passages and concedes that “Isaiah isn’t talking about a literal book, much less one that would come forth in the future.” (Ibid).
Pointing out that the wording used in Isaiah 29 (“as of one that hath a familiar spirit” in verse 4) it “an archaic way of referring to a necromancer or medium who communicates with the dead,” Harrell writes on page 51:
Non-LDS Bible commentators make two observations that preclude the “one that hath a familiar spirit” from having direct reference to Joseph Smith. First, they point out that Isaiah 29 is specifically addressing the current situation of wickedness in Jerusalem or “the city where David dwelt” (Isa. 29:1). There is no mention of any other people or place. Second, it doesn’t say that this nation will speak through some actual person, such as Joseph Smith. Rather, the voice of the nation would be “as” (v. 4) a person who has a familiar spirit. This is, the voice of Jerusalem’s inhabitants will be no more than a peep and mutter.
He then writes,
The other verse in Isaiah 29 presumed to be a reference to Joseph Smith speaks of a “book [that] is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee and he saith, I am not learned” (v. 12). Latter-day Saints tend to interpret the “book” as the gold plates and the one “not learned” as Joseph Smith. This interpretation derives from a rewording of this passage in the Book of Mormon which speaks of the gold plates coming forth in the latter days as a sealed book that “shall be delivered unto a man [i.e. , Joseph Smith]” (2 Ne. 27:9; JS-H 1:63-65). The problem with this interpretation is that Isaiah is not prophesying of an actual book delivered to a real person. Rather he is reprimanding the Jews for their spiritual blindness–“For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep” (Isa. 29:10–and likens the nations to an unlearned person trying to read a sealed book. . . . When read at face value, Isaiah seems to be merely comparing Israel’s inability to discern the word of God to an unlearned person’s inability to read a book.
On page 52, Harrell traces this misinterpretation to Joseph Smith who saw the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah 29. Nelson, like many LDS leaders before him, ignores the key passages in Isaiah 29 that set the historical stage for what follows. While he began his conference message with verse 4, verses 1–3 state,
“Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt! add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be sorrow: and it shall be unto me as Ariel. And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee.”
It can be readily seen that God is going to distress Ariel, which is another name for Jerusalem, or the City of David, where God had commanded sacrifices be made unto Him. Whether Isaiah had in mind an actual military assault on the city or was speaking metaphorically regarding Jerusalem’s spiritual blindness has been a matter of debate. However, no non-Mormon scholar sees Isaiah’s warning as a prediction regarding a future book.
For other passages discussing common passages used by Latter-day Saints, click here.
Also see “Does Ezekiel 37:15-20 predict the coming forth of the Book of Mormon?”