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1 Nephi 21
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1 Nephi 21
The Servant of the Lord will Lift Up Israel
1 Nephi 21:1
1 And again: Hearken, O ye house of Israel, all ye that are broken off and are driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people; yea, all ye that are broken off, that are scattered abroad, who are of my people, O house of Israel. Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken ye people from far; the Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.
Chapter 21 of 1 Nephi is only slightly different from Isaiah 49. Perhaps even more than Isaiah 48, it is clear in this first verse why Nephi would liken this chapter to his people.
First, it is a statement to all the house of Israel. This inclusive statement would easily have been seen as including the house of Israel in the New World. While Isaiah would have originally been speaking to the scattered ten tribes, the Nephites certainly saw themselves as “broken off and . . . driven out because of the wickedness. . . of my people.”
Nephi recorded that his father, Lehi, had spoken of the allegory of the olive tree in 1 Nephi 10:12. In that verse, he specifically mentioned that the gentiles would be like branches broken off and scattered. Thus, Isaiah’s message to an Israel that had been broken off and driven out would have been seen as an echo of the allegory of the olive tree.
Even more specifically, Isaiah speaks to those who are on the isles (or more accurately, isles of the sea—as in verse 8 in this same chapter), which Nephi repeatedly associates with his family in the New World. Particularly, since those who are to listen to the Lord are those in the isles who are, Isaiah says, “people from far.”
For Nephi, it would have seemed that this entire verse pointed directly at his people.
1 Nephi 21:2–5
2 And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me;
3 And said unto me: Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
4 Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.
5 And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.
At the end of the previous verse, Isaiah introduces himself as Yahweh’s messenger. These verses begin to define the reason why Yahweh has selected him. In Nephi’s likening, he would have seen himself in these verses.
Through Isaiah, Yahweh would be glorified as Isaiah communicated God’s will. Nephi similarly glorified Yahweh as he taught his people. Nephi may have thought this even more important in his case, as it is probable that his Nephite people included many of the indigenous peoples of the land who had joined with the Nephites and needed to be taught about Yahweh.
Isaiah labored in vain because Israel would not listen. In Nephi’s case, it was Laman and Lemuel who would not listen.
Isaiah speaks specifically of Jacob and Israel, making a direct reference to the southern and northern kingdoms of Israel. In Isaiah, the prophet could bring Jacob again to Yahweh, but Israel would remain scattered. The message is that the prophet is to bring to repentance and reconciliation those whom he can.
Nephi saw his people as among those who were scattered and not yet gathered. He probably saw his mission as parallel to Isaiah’s, but where Isaiah preached to Jacob, or the southern kingdom, Nephi preached to those who were scattered and not yet gathered. Isaiah was for the Old World and Nephi for the New, but both were to bring the house of Israel to know their God.
1 Nephi 21:6–7
6 And he said: It is a light thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.
7 Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nations abhorreth, to servant of rulers: Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the Lord that is faithful.
As Nephi likened Isaiah 49 to himself and his people, it would have become an irresistible confirmation that Yahweh watched over the Nephites. These verses, in particular, would have been seen as directly relevant.
While Isaiah was the prophet to whom Yahweh spoke in the Old World, Nephi saw himself as a parallel prophet in the New World. Isaiah might be a servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, but Nephi was the servant to restore at least some of the scattered tribes of Israel.
In particular, the prophet is given as a “light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.” Isaiah would have seen this prophecy in a different light than did Nephi. When Nephi is writing these words, he is the leader of the Nephite people in the New World. The only way that the population of the Nephites could have risen quickly enough to build a city at this early stage is to have merged with some of the indigenous peoples who are known to have been in the New World when they arrived. Even without defining precisely where they arrived, they could not have arrived on a habitable coastline that was not already inhabited, according to known archaeology.
Thus, for Nephi, the gentiles were already among them, and Nephi teaching them the gospel became a light for them unto their salvation. In the New World, Nephi would have seen the prophesy of kings and princes worshipping Yahweh as a prophecy of their success in spreading the gospel in the New World.
Israel Will Be Restored
1 Nephi 21:8–12
8 Thus saith the Lord: In an acceptable time have I heard thee, O isles of the sea, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee; and I will preserve thee, and give thee my servant for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages;
9 That thou mayest say to the prisoners: Go forth; to them that sit in darkness: Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places.
10 They shall not hunger nor thirst, neither shall the heat nor the sun smite them; for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them.
11 And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted.
12 And then, O house of Israel, behold, these shall come from far; and lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim.
Again, Yahweh speaks of the isles of the sea. This time, the isles of the sea are anthropomorphically addressed. Yahweh has heard them, or has heard the righteousness of the people on them. For Nephi, Yahweh promised to hear his people who were, Nephi believed, literally upon the isles of the sea. The Hebrew use of “isles of the sea” was for any land with a coast. Nephi was dramatically aware that he had arrived on a coast, therefore on an isle of the sea. He saw that connection based on the coast, and not any attempt to sail around the land mass to know that it would have been our modern definition of an island.
For Nephi, the desolate heritages would have been those gentiles he encountered upon the land. The gospel brought them light who had previously sat in darkness. The blessings of the gospel would be upon them.
The specific blessings that they should not hunger nor thirst would have been seen as part of the promise of the land. Those who followed Yahweh would prosper in the land, upon conditions of their righteousness.
In a final gathering, they would “come from far. . . from the north and from the west.” Nephi saw a final gathering of his people in the vision he had of the future that came during the vision of the Tree of Life.
1 Nephi 21:13–17
13 Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; for the feet of those who are in the east shall be established; and break forth into singing, O mountains; for they shall be smitten no more; for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.
14 But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.
15 For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.
16 Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
17 Thy children shall make haste against thy destroyers; and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee.
Isaiah turns from prophesy to exultation. While there might be difficulties along the way, the final state is to be joyful. Isaiah poetically anthropomorphizes the land of Judah and has the mountains sing. The singing is that they “shall be smitten no more, for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.”
The Assyrian invasion scattered the ten tribes, and Lehi had prophesied that Babylon would also drive out those of Jerusalem. The children of Israel certainly knew afflictions in the Old World. Nephi began writing on the small plates some thirty years after the family left Jerusalem. By the time forty years had passed, Nephi could say that “we had already had wars and contentions with our brethren” (2 Nephi 5:34). If some of those contentions happened before Nephi recorded this chapter from Isaiah, it would have resonated with the promise that the children of Israel would be “smitten no more.” Even if it had not yet happened, he knew that it would, based on his vision of the future of his people that he had during the vision of the Tree of Life.
The difficulties would make Zion lament that Yahweh had forsaken them. Isaiah has Yahweh rebuke that sentiment. Yahweh asks if a mother can forget her young child. It would be obvious that such a thought would have been unthinkable. So too must Yahweh remember his own children. For Nephi, that included his people who were scattered to an isle of the sea.
1 Nephi 21:18–22
18 Lift up thine eyes round about and behold; all these gather themselves together, and they shall come to thee. And as I live, saith the Lord, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all, as with an ornament, and bind them on even as a bride.
19 For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants; and they that swallowed thee up shall be far away.
20 The children whom thou shalt have, after thou hast lost the first, shall again in thine ears say: The place is too strait for me; give place to me that I may dwell.
21 Then shalt thou say in thine heart: Who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children, and am desolate, a captive, and removing to and fro? And who hath brought up these? Behold, I was left alone; these, where have they been?
22 Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.
These verses were to explain to Israel how they would survive after the Assyrian destruction, and Nephi would have added the Babylonian destruction. Even though they were destroyed, they would yet become numerous. They would be so numerous that they would look for more land upon which to dwell. The prophecy is that the gentiles would help to restore them.
This part of Isaiah was so important that Nephi not only included it here, but told Jacob to preach a sermon on this text (found in 2 Nephi 6:6–7). Nephi was part of the families that were led to the New World, but Nephi later explains in 2 Nephi 5 that they separated from Laman and Lemuel’s families. Thus the Old World peoples among the Nephites were probably few. The best understanding of how these Old World peoples survived in a new world and in a new environment was to merge with the existing peoples. For Nephi, these were the gentiles. It will become clear in the discussion of 2 Nephi 6 that Nephi saw these gentiles as the salvation for his Old World contingent.
1 Nephi 21:23–26
23 And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; they shall bow down to thee with their face towards the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord; for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
24 For shall the prey be taken from the mighty, or the lawful captives delivered?
25 But thus saith the Lord, even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered; for I will contend with him that contendeth with thee, and I will save thy children.
26 And I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh; they shall be drunken with their own blood as with sweet wine; and all flesh shall know that I, the Lord, am thy Savior and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Isaiah spoke of the future redemption of the house of Israel from those who would oppress them. The imagery is one where there is a reversal of fortunes, and Israel would eventually ascend over those who had oppressed them.
When Nephi asks Jacob to preach on theses, the phrase that the “kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers” would be applied to the present Nephite audience (see 2 Nephi 6).
In this exegesis, Nephi will be linking this event to what he saw in his prophetic vision associated with the Tree of Life. Interestingly, it will be right after Nephi explains that the scriptures can have both temporal and spiritual meaning. That will allow Nephi to use these verses in different contexts with different interpretations depending upon the point he is making at the time.
In the previous verse, Isaiah said that the gentiles “shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.” These descendants that the gentiles will bring will become the nursing fathers and mothers of the people. In Nephi’s likening, this was literal. The presence of gentiles in the New World who united with the Nephites would literally bring them sons and daughters. They would literally, as well as symbolically, be the nursemaids to the young Nephite nation.
As a result of the efforts of these saving gentiles, the nation would prosper and Yahweh would contend for them against their enemies. In Nephi’s likening, these gentiles would help to fulfill the promise of the land, that they would both prosper and be preserved upon faithfulness to Yahweh.
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