1 Nephi 21

1 Nephi 21 Introduction

"Isaiah 49 is a most remarkable prophecy, one intended by the spirit of revelation to embrace multiple fulfillments. The Book of Mormon version of the prophecy, which contains significant textual restorations, greatly enhances our understanding of Isaiah's message and the workings of the spirit of prophecy. The text is a marvelous messianic prophecy, as well as a detailed description of Joseph Smith and the Story of the latter-day restoration. It can also be properly argued that this prophecy applies to Isaiah, or that it is a description of major events in the history of the nation of Israel. Such interpretations are not inappropriate, as long as they do not obscure its greater meaning as it applies to Christ and Joseph Smith. Since Nephi lived a considerable time before the coming of Christ, it was appropriate that he view this prophecy primarily as it applied to the coming of the Savior. Since we live a considerable time after Christ's mortal ministry, it is appropriate that we see this prophecy primarily as it applies to events of our day. Isaiah's detailed knowledge of the latter-day restoration, the role of Joseph Smith, and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, sustain this conclusion. The word of God is most durable. We will here interpret the prophecy as it applies to the Prophet Joseph Smith, for such was the pattern of our Lord in the interpretation of Isaiah he gave among the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 21:9-11)." (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987-1992], 1: 157.)

1 Ne 21:1 O ye house of Israel, all ye that are broken off...Listen, O isles

Near the end of 1 Nephi 19, Nephi remarks that the Lord will remember his covenants with the house of Israel and he will remember 'the isles of the sea.' We have already established that Nephi considered his family a branch of Israel scattered to an isle of the sea (see commentary for 1 Ne 19:10). Therefore Nephi appropriately believes that the words of Isaiah are speaking directly to him and his people. Indeed, the Nephites were a branch of Israel, broken off according to the allegory of the olive tree (Jacob 5:14,25), hidden by the hand of the Lord in a choice land. Nephi understood this verse to refer specifically to the scattering of Israel. His commentary on this verse can be found in 1 Ne 22:3-5.

1 Ne 21:2-11 he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword

Isaiah's prophecies often have multiple meanings. While we often think there should only be one correct interpretation for every scripture, that rule does not apply to Isaiah. One of the reasons Isaiah's prophecies are so great is that they have so many layers and apply to so many situations. The 'sharp sword' called 'from the womb' and hid in the shadow of the Lord's hand is identified as Israel in verse 3. But the passage can correctly apply to any prophet from the house of Israel who speaks the word of the Lord.

Notice the parallelism, “he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword… and made me a polished shaft.”  The imagery suggests the house of Israel wields God’s weapons of war—the weapons which God uses to fight the power of Satan.  The polished shaft is a perfectly straight arrow (surprisingly omitted from the armor of God, D&C 27:15-18) and the sharp sword, which is the word of the Lord, “Behold, I am God; give heed unto my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword” (D&C 6:2).  The quick and powerful word of God comes from the prophets of the house of Israel in all ages of time.  The polished shaft, or perfect arrow, pierces the hearts of the wicked, for “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Ne. 16:2).

Few have enough faith to correctly prophesy what will happen to them within the next week, but Isaiah's prophecies are amazing. They apply to the house of Israel from his time unto the end of the earth. They apply not just to him and his day but to every chapter in the history of the house of Israel. The fact that his prophecies have many applications is not evidence that we don't understand his original intent; it is evidence that his prophecies are so great that they can apply to any branch of the house of Israel at any given time in history. Hence, we 'ought to search these things...for great are the words of Isaiah' (3 Ne 23:1).

1 Ne 21:3 Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified

There is an important pattern in the first half of this chapter. Isaiah alternately refers to the prophets and then to the words of the Lord unto the house of Israel. Verses 1,3,8,12 are addressed to the house of Israel, but verses 2, 4-7, 9-11 deal with the Lord's servants. The term "Israel" as used in this verse obviously has reference to Jacob, but more particularly to all of his descendants-the entire house of Israel.

The second half of this verse includes the phrase, 'in whom I will be glorified.' The Lord will be glorified through the house of Israel in the sense that the kingdom of God on earth is administered through the house of Israel. Therefore, all converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ must be adopted into this great family. John the Revelator explained that those who are sanctified by Jesus Christ are made 'kings and priests unto God' (Rev 1:6). This phrase could be rendered kings and priests in the house of Israel for it is through the house of Israel that the Lord establishes his church and reigns in his kingdom, for now and for all time. If the entire kingdom of God is run through the administration of the house of Israel, then the Lord is truly glorified by his servant, Israel.

1 Ne 21:4-5 I have labored in vain

Here the prophet laments the fact that he has been rejected by the house of Israel. In this sense, this passage applies well to both the Savior and Isaiah. Both labored with the house of Israel, struggling to get them to turn from their evil ways and accept God. Isaiah's frustration with his own failure is evident in this verse. The natural response to rejection is to harbor ill will towards those who have rejected you. However, Isaiah does not condemn the house of Israel for their rebellion. He understands that the Lord will punish them accordingly, my 'judgment is with the Lord.' When we reads the phrase, 'yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord', we understand that even though the prophet failed in his mission to turn the house of Israel from its evil ways, the Lord will still bless him for his faithfulness. This is reminiscent of the word of the Lord to Moroni who was worried about the lack of charity among the Gentiles of the last days, 'And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore, thy garments shall be made clean' (Ether 12:37).

1 Ne 21:5 that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant

Joseph Smith taught, "Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was." (Teachings, p. 365) This is the underlying principle being discussed. Those born into the house of Israel received that lineage by the principle of foreordination (Rom 11:2; Eph. 1:4-5), and so were all the prophets called to preach to them. Certainly, this applies to Israel, Isaiah, Jesus, Joseph Smith, etc. We should also include Jeremiah, for the word of the Lord to Jeriemiah was, 'Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.' (Jer. 1:5)

1 Ne 21:6 I will give thee for a light to the Gentiles

Who was this 'light to the Gentiles'? We have already seen that the term is appropriate for the Savior, 'the light of the world' (John 8:12) and for Paul (Acts 13:47). But let's consider for the moment how this scripture also applies to Joseph Smith. Joseph of Egypt was told, 'But a seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and unto him will I give power to bring forth my word unto the seed of thy loins-and not to the bringing forth my word only, saith the Lord, but to the convincing them of my word' (2 Ne 3:11). Two other scriptures which confirm this include Moroni's statement regarding Joseph Smith, 'blessed be he that shall bring this thing (the Book of Mormon) to light' (Mormon 8:16), and the D&C, which teaches that those who administer the priesthood in the last days (obviously Joseph Smith is the best example) are blessed, 'Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel' (DC 86:11).

"Section 86 of the Doctrine and Covenants was revealed to Joseph Smith in December of 1832, only two and one-half years after the organization of the Church. It is one of many revelations that grew out of the Prophet's study of the Bible...Perhaps Joseph had never considered the fact that he might have been mentioned in scripture by biblical prophets. Nonetheless he certainly knew by this time that the infant latter-day Church was the kingdom of God and that its continued success was sure. Doctrine and Covenants 86:8-11 made known yet other truths that brought greater emphasis to the mission of the Prophet and his work. Among other things, it brought to light the fact that Joseph Smith and his fellow workers of the lineage of ancient Joseph were the fulfillment of the great revelation recorded in Isaiah 49. It seems, in fact, reasonable to conclude that the 'Israel' mentioned in Isaiah's prophecy refers to the specific tribe that was to preside in the last days-the tribe of Ephraim. At the head of that tribe-and presiding under the Lord's direction over latter-day Israel-stands the Prophet Joseph Smith. Isaiah 49 speaks of him and of the church that was restored through his service.

"A few brief comments regarding some key phrases in Isaiah's words will enable us to understand the prophecy and its fulfillment.

"'Called me from the womb' (v. 1): From the days of the Patriarchs, ancient Joseph and his descendants had been singled out to stand at the head of the house of Israel (see Gen. 37:5-11; 48:13-20; 49:26; Deut. 33:16-17). This was their foreordained calling. An important part of that calling included the challenge to be saviors of their brethren of Israel, just as their forefather Joseph had been a temporal savior in ancient times. Jeremiah prophesied concerning Ephraim's role in the latter-day gathering. As presiding tribe, it would be he who would announce to all that the time of the gathering and return had come (Jer. 31:6)...

"'A polished shaft . . . in his quiver' (v. 2): Joseph Smith himself provided an interpretation that may show the fulfillment of this scripture: 'I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else . . . all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.' Thus Joseph Smith viewed himself as a polished shaft in the Lord's quiver, perhaps in direct fulfillment of Isaiah's words.

"'To bring Jacob again to him' (v. 5), 'to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel' (v. 6): As has been discussed already, it was the commission of the birthright children of Joseph to bring about the gathering of Israel in the last days. Ephraim's leader, Joseph Smith, was the one to whom the keys of the gathering were restored (D&C 110:11), and it will be under the authority of those keys that the gathering will continue. Jeremiah explained that it would be 'the watchmen upon the mount Ephraim' that would cry, 'Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord our God' (Jer. 31:6). In modern revelation the Lord has affirmed that 'they who are in the north countries' will return and receive their blessings under the hand of 'the children of Ephraim' (D&C 133:26-34). Today it is, with extremely few exceptions, the children of Ephraim and his brother Manasseh-who constitute the Lord's Church-who are taking the gospel message to the scattered remnants of Israel and who thus are gathering their brethren.

"'A light to the Gentiles' (v. 6): Nephi and others taught how the great blessings of the last days would be made available not only to the house of Israel, but to the Gentiles as well (see 1 Ne. 22:8-11). Indeed, the gospel is to be taken by Ephraim and his brethren in the dispensation of the fulness of times to all people (see JS-M 1:31; D&C 42:58). Once again, the tribe of Ephraim and Joseph Smith stand out as the main participants in this work. In the fullest sense, Jesus Christ is the 'light'-not only to the Gentiles, but to all nations. The Church today has a commission to bear his message; thus it reflects his light.

"Section 86 (vv. 8-11) clarifies Isaiah's prophecy and identifies Joseph Smith and his co-workers of the tribes of Joseph-the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-as the fulfillment of these words from Isaiah. These are they 'with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of [their] fathers-For [they] are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God' (D&C 86:8-9). Having been foreordained long ago to this calling, and having inherited it through lineal descent, Ephraim's children now are no longer 'hid from the world' (D&C 86:9) 'in the shadow of [the Lord's] hand' but are at the forefront of the Lord's work in the last days: to restore scattered Israel to the covenant blessings, and to bring the message of the gospel to the Gentiles. The Lord concluded his revelation to Joseph and the Church: 'Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel' (D&C 86:11)." (Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, eds., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 1: The Doctrine and Covenants [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989], 328-330.)

1 Ne 21:8 I will preserve thee, and give thee my servant

Who is this servant? The context of the verse makes it clear that we are talking about a later time period. This is the 'day of salvation' for the house of Israel. Therefore, this servant must be Christ, Joseph Smith, or both. Christ is the mediator of the new and everlasting covenant referenced in this verse and Joseph Smith is the prophet who establishes this covenant in the latter days for the salvation of the Jews.

1 Ne 21:9 That thou mayest say to the prisoners: Go forth

This refers to those spirits in spirit prison. Before Christ's ministry in spirit paradise, there was a great gulf fixed which separated those in spirit paradise from those in spirit prison, see Lu 16:22-26. After Christ had established missionary forces among the righteous spirits, that gulf was bridged to some degree so that missionary work could begin among the spirits in prison. Those who accept the gospel of Jesus Christ will be released from prison. Whether this happens at their resurrection or at some earlier time is unclear. What is clear is that it was the Savior's ministry in the world of spirits which makes it possible for them to go forth.

This passage is also included in Isaiah 61:1, 1-2, 'THE Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.' This scripture was used by the Savior in a dramatic moment of his ministry. He read this passage in the synagogue and then said, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. He was telling the people of Nazareth that he was the Messiah, the one to whom Isaiah was referring. This prompted the response, Is not this Joseph's son? (Lu 4:16-24)

Jeffrey R. Holland

"Christ brought freedom to mortal beings imprisoned by ignorance, sin, apostasy, and death. He also brought deliverance to those on the other side of the veil who had not heard the gospel but would receive it in their spirit prison. Peter taught this clearly, and the whole of section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants is devoted to this glorious doctrine...On both sides of the veil, the captives rejoice and praise their God as Christ throws wide the prison doors." (Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], 83.)

1 Ne 21:10 he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them

Wilford Woodruff

"If the elders of Israel had the vision of their minds opened to see Zion in her beauty and glory, they would have no time to sin or do evil; but they would rise up in the strength of the Lord God of Israel and accomplish all that he requires at their hands. Zion is yet in her weakness, but the little one shall become thousands, and the small one a great nation. We talk of the future and of the promises of God to us. They are worthy to be talked of, worthy to be lived for, and to rejoice over, because they are true...I have an anxiety-a strong desire, to see the people of the Latter-day Saints-the inhabitants of Zion, rise up and put on their strength. I desire to see them increase in the knowledge of the truth, in faith and good works, and in the knowledge of the things of the kingdom of God." (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 11: 248.)

1 Ne 21:11 my highways shall be exalted

The Lord will do everything needed to gather Israel, even if it means providing the very path they are to travel. DC 133 teaches that a highway will be raised to accommodate the ten tribes from the north, they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence. And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep' (DC 133:26-7).

1 Ne 21:14-15 can a woman forget her sucking child?

Certainly, those of the house of Israel must have felt like the Lord had forsaken them, given all the tribulation and persecution to which they were subjected. Nephi makes reference to one of these persecutions in the next chapter, 'they shall be scattered among all nations and shall be hated of all men... the Lord God will raise up a mighty nation among the Gentiles, yea, even upon the face of this land; and by them shall our seed be scattered' (1 Ne 22:5,7). Their assumption, that the Lord had forgotten them, was incorrect. They, of course, had forgotten the Lord.

Jeffrey R. Holland

"This poetic passage provides yet another reminder of Christ's saving role, that of protective, redeeming parent to Zion's children. He comforts his people and shows mercy when they are afflicted, as any loving father or mother would toward a child, but, as Nephi here reminds us through Isaiah, much more than any mortal father and mother could do. Although a mother may forget her sucking child (as unlikely as any parent might think that could be), Christ will not forget the children he has redeemed or the covenant he has made with them for salvation in Zion. The painful reminders of that watch care and covenant are the marks of the Roman nails graven upon the palms of his hands, a sign to his disciples in the Old World, his Nephite congregation in the New World, and to us in latter-day Zion that he is the Savior of the world and was wounded in the house of his friends." (Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], 84.)

Wilford Woodruff

"The Lord is going to comfort Zion; He is going to have mercy upon her afflicted ones. But Zion said, 'The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.' 'Can a woman forget her sucking child?' saith the Lord. 'Yea, she may forget, but I will not forget thee. Behold, I have graved thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.' This refers to the building up of Zion in the last days; the gathering together of the people, preparatory to the coming of the Son of Man." (Brian H. Stuy, ed., Collected Discourses, 5 vols. [Burbank, Calif., and Woodland Hills, Ut.: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987-1992], vol. 1, Oct. 6, 1889)

1 Ne 21:16 Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands

Isaiah must have seen the crucifixion of the Savior. His reference here is clear enough to those with even a modest dose of the spirit of prophecy, but still is not understood by many. This is another example of Christ's great love for us. He is trying to show the house of Israel how much He loves them, as proof that he has not forgotten them. 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' (Jn 15:13). Even though Christ's resurrected body is perfect, the prints in his nails and feet have been left as a reminder to the house of Israel and the world that He has "graven them upon the palms of his hands."

1 Ne 21:19 the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants

So great will be the literal gathering of Israel to the land of Jerusalem, that there will not be room for everyone. Here Isaiah refers to the children referenced in verses 17, 18, and 20 as coming to the land of Israel in such great numbers that even if they inhabit the waste places and most detested portions of the land, there will still not be room for them. This phenomenal growth continues to take place today. Some 1995 estimates had the population of Israel approaching 6 million. Ludlow shows how much growth has taken place since the organization of the church:

"This gathering of Israel through the aid of foreign nations is taking place today. Since the Church was restored in 1830, the Jewish population in the Holy Land has grown from seven thousand to over three million people. Whereas in 1830 only one out of five hundred Jews resided in Palestine, one out of five now live in the modern state of Israel." (Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, 1982, p. 414)

1 Ne 21:22 the Gentiles...shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders

Nephi gives a beautiful interpretation to this passage in 1 Ne 22:6-12.

Orson Pratt

"This is a great latter-day work also for the gathering of the house of Israel-a work which shall commence among the Gentiles. In ancient days the Lord commenced his work among Israel. The kingdom of heaven was preached among the Jews, but they proved themselves unworthy, and says Paul, 'Lo, we turn to the Gentiles,' and the kingdom was taken from the Jews and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. The natural branches of Israel were broken off, and the branches of the wild olive tree-the Gentiles-were grafted in. But the Gentiles, since they were grafted in, 1800 years ago, have fallen after the same example of unbelief that the ancient Jews did, and they have lost the power and authority which they once possessed; and for many centuries they have had no apostles, no prophets, no angels from heaven, no power of godliness made manifest among them, and nothing but the teachings and precepts of men. But in the great latter-day work, the Lord begins where he left off-'the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.' As the Jews, in ancient days were first, and the Gentiles last, so in the great latter-day work, the Gentiles will be first and Israel will be last. Hence the Prophet says, 'Behold, thus saith the Lord God, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters upon their shoulders, and I will lift up my standard to the Gentiles.'" (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 16: 85.)

1 Ne 21:25 even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered

The "captives" and "prey" referred to are members of the house of Israel. It doesn't matter how mighty or terrible their captors are, the Lord will deliver them.

1 Ne 21:25 I will contend with him that contendeth with thee

In the last days, the Lord will begin to fight their battles even unto the destruction of that 'great and abominable church.' DC 133:28 states, 'their enemies shall become a prey unto them.' Nephi expands on this interpretation in 1 Ne 22:10-19, 24.