1 Nephi 20:18 to 21:1 & Isaiah 48 — LeGrand Baker — Apostasy preceding the Restoration

In this discussion I have divided First Nephi 20 and 21 into the following subsections:

1. The premortal apostasy, 1 Nephi 20:1-11  

2. Joseph Smith in the Council in Heaven, 1 Nephi 20:12-17

3. Apostasy preceding the Restoration, 1 Nephi 20:18 to 21:1

4. Those who will help the Prophet Joseph, 1 Nephi 21:1-6

5. Joseph Smith restores the Temple services, 1 Nephi 21:7-11

6. The Gathering of Israel, 1 Nephi 21: 12-26


1 Nephi  20:18 to 21:1 & Isaiah 48 — LeGrand Baker — Apostasy preceding the Restoration

18 O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments—then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.

Here we have an abrupt change of scenery. We have passed from a heavenly Council conducted by Jehovah to a lament, decrying an apostasy that denies the covenants made by Jehovah. McKenzie rightly calls this transition “a violent change of tone.” In the Anchor Bible translation and commentary on “Second Isaiah,” he writes,

The poem [Isaiah 48] concludes with a violent change of tone. From rebuke and grief the prophet, speaking in his own name, turns to exultation. The hour of liberation has arrived, and he summons Israel to depart. The summons is couched in terms of a call to a new exodus and a passage through the desert, a theme used in the preceding poems. This is the glory of Yahweh which should be announced to the whole world. A similar call is repeated in 52:11-12; each call marks a division in the series of discourses. With less than complete assurance vs. 22 is judged to have wandered here by scribal work from lvii 21; it is not related to the context here, and seems rather to sound a discordant note at the end of an appeal which shows progressive emotional intensity.{1}

The reason that McKenzie observed such a sudden change of time and voice is because the change is really there. The chapter break in the Book of Mormon is in the same place as in the Bible, but if we were to read it without that break (the way it was in the first edition of the Book of Mormon), we would see that this verse is not only a tone change but also a change in time and place. The verses before this one are about the war in heaven and more especially about the Prophet Joseph’s pivotal role in that struggle, including his address to the Council and the Savior’s testimony of its validity.

One of the greatest advantages of having printed scriptures (as opposed to having them rolled up in a scroll) is that the printed ones are divided into chapters and verses that facilitate easy references. However, one of the greatest disadvantages of printed scriptures is that those divisions are actually editorial insertions that may change how we connect and understand the ideas we read. Sometimes a single sentence is divided into several verses, and sometimes the chapter divisions are in the wrong places. Here is just one example of a chapter break that may change the meaning:

37 Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
38 Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice (John 13:37-38).

1 Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
2 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:1-2).

Now read it this way:

Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

1 Nephi 20:18 is like that. The unaccountability of this sudden shift in mood becomes accountable when we read the explanation that was removed by the ancient Jewish editors. It is on the brass plates in the first verse of the next chapter: “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” (1 Nephi 21:1).

Isaiah has moved his readers from describing the situation that resulted in the Council meeting at which Joseph spoke—from that to the mortal world to describe the apostate conditions in which Joseph must come and keep his promises. It is this movement in time and place that accounts for the “violent change of tone” in verse 18. The last three verses in chapter 20 set the stage for the first verse in chapter 21 and so belong in that chapter rather than chapter 20.

We now jump from the events of that premortal Council to Isaiah’s prophecies about the fulfillment of Joseph’s promises. The remainder of this chapter and all the next one appear to be either a synopsis of the Joseph’s speech and a report of how and when he will fulfill his covenants, or else it is Isaiah’s prophecy of Joseph’s mission. In the end, it really doesn’t matter which because the three options would look the same. The lament begins:

O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments— then had thy peace been as a river,

Scholars have long observed that the last half of Isaiah is heavily dependent on the psalms.{2} While we cannot be certain which of the psalms this refers to, we can be sure of the intended symbolism. It is the same as

3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper (Psalms 1:3).

In the arid agrarian world of the Old Testament a source of water is a virtual promise of stability and peace. Examples are the Jordan River and the constant flow of the Spring of Gihon that provided water for Jerusalem. Isaiah’s imagery is like the “still waters” in the 23rd Psalm. Its echo is found in the last chapter of Isaiah where the Lord establishes a new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 66:22). The Lord’s promise to Jerusalem is, “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream” (Isaiah 66:12). It is echoed again in Lehi’s wish for Laman: “O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!” (1 Nephi 2:9) In Ezekiel it is the waters of life that flow from beneath the throne of God. These waters sustain the trees of life and heal the Dead Sea.

and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.

Righteousness is zedek—correctness in priesthood and temple ordinances and covenants. Unlike the “still waters,” Isaiah chose the roaring “waves of the sea”—with their ceaseless, rhythmic, thundering power to represent the power of the ordinances. In another place, Isaiah also spoke of the waves’ thunderous power:

1 Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: …
15 But I am the Lord thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The Lord of hosts is his name.
16 And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (Isaiah 51:1, 15-16, and 2 Nephi 8).

Similarly, the Lord spoke to Joseph of “the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds” (D&C 88:89-90).

Isaiah’s lament is that both are lost—both the peace and the power—because the people had not hearkened to the Lord’s commandments.

19 Thy seed [descendants] also had been as the sand; the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me.

Thy seed also had been as the sand; the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof.

Even though this statement is abbreviated it is, in fact, a full reference to the Abrahamic covenant and all of the promises of the ancient temple. The underpinning of every other covenant is that our Father’s children can return to him and be like him. Eternal family and friendship are the ultimate fulfillment of that covenant. The Lord tied the promise of family to the promise of invulnerability when he told Abraham:

17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice (Genesis 22:17-18, see Abraham 3:14).

There is a more complete account in Abraham 2 where the Lord equates eternal family with eternal priesthood:

8 My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.
9 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations;
10 And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father;
11 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal (Abraham 2:8-11, emphasis added).

Those blessings had been Abraham’s desire from his earliest time. He begins his autobiography with a chiastic poem in which the prophet tells of his faithfulness that qualified him to be a member of the Council in heaven. (It is written in the pattern of the cosmic myth and thus begins with the statement that it was necessary for him to leave home. It concludes with his receiving blessings at the Council: “It was conferred upon me… before the foundation of the earth.”)

1 In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence;
2 And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.
3 It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me.
4 I sought for mine appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed (Abraham 1:1-4).

The Lord also renewed and extended that promise to the Prophet Joseph, and through him to all the Saints who keep their eternal covenants:

30 Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph—which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them.
31 This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself (D&C 132:30-31).

19. Thy seed also had been as the sand; the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me.

This verse contains two separate ideas that focus on quite different covenants, but each identifies aspects of the same apostasy. The first was the loss of the birthright blessings of Abraham. The second was the loss of the memory of the covenant that a prophet named Joseph would restore the gospel.{3}

When the ancient prophet Joseph took his father’s family into Egypt he had two concerns: (1) that his family would come out of Egypt and (2) that they would again have the birthright blessings of the priesthood. In response to those concerns, the Lord promised Joseph he would send two servants to accomplish those purposes. As a token of those covenants, the Lord gave Joseph the names of those two prophets. He promised a “Moses” who would bring his people out of Egypt and a “Joseph” who would restore their birthright blessings. Israel has, of course, remembered the name and the fulfillment of the covenant of Moses, but because of iniquity they lost the name of the prophet Joseph,{4} as they also lost the memory of the covenant which that name symbolized. Lehi explained:

8 And I will give unto him [Joseph Smith] a commandment that he shall do none other work, save the work which I shall command him. And I will make him great in mine eyes; for he shall do my work.
9 And he shall be great like unto Moses, whom I have said I would raise up unto you, to deliver my people, O house of Israel. …
15 And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation.
16 Yea, thus prophesied Joseph: I am sure of this thing, even as I am sure of the promise of Moses; for the Lord hath said unto me, I will preserve thy seed forever (2 Nephi 3:8-9, 15-16).

Victor Ludlow shows other evidence that Isaiah was aware of Joseph Smith’s divine calling. He wrote:

The eleventh chapter of Isaiah contains some marvelous prophecies of the last days. It enlightens modern Israelites about the roles of at least two great leaders who will prepare the way for the coming of Christ in power and glory. They may possibly be the two “saviors” or “messiahs” known in Jewish tradition as “Messiah ben David” (a redeemer descended from David) and “Messiah ben Joseph” (a redeemer descended from Joseph).{5}

The Lord alluded to Joseph Smith’s covenant name when he reminded the Prophet’s friends:

8 And now, marvel not that I have called him unto mine own purpose, which purpose is known in me; wherefore, if he shall be diligent in keeping my commandments he shall be blessed unto eternal life; and his name is Joseph (D&C 18:8).

The next two verses in 1 Nephi 20 serve to re-enforce the idea that it was Joseph Smith’s name and covenant that were lost. Isaiah does this by drawing a comparison of the missions of the ancient Moses and the modern Joseph. While his prophecy sounds strikingly similar to the story of Moses in the wilderness, almost none of the details are the same. It is apparent that Isaiah is using the Moses story to remind us of something else. The fact that Isaiah actually had the Lord’s covenants with our Joseph in mind is suggested by the second of these verses where Isaiah draws a parallel between Moses’s striking a rock to bring out water to provide drink for his thirsty people and the mission of the prophet whom Isaiah describes as providing waters for a people who do not thirst. Here the Lord invites the people to flee the world—Babylon—as ancient Israel had once fled the land of Egypt.

20 Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter to the end of the earth; say ye: The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.

20. Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans,{6}

The instructions here are not to go from Egypt as Moses did, but to go from Babylon. It is the same command as was given in a revelation to “the people of my church” through the Prophet Joseph about a year and a half after the Church was organized:

14 Go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon (D&C 133:14).

The charge in both cases is to gather to Zion. The symbolism of the wickedness of Babylon rather than of Egypt from which Moses led the Children of Israel is emphasized by the attitude and the consequences of their travel.

with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter to the end of the earth; say ye: The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.

In temple settings, especially in the Book of Mormon, to redeem means to be brought into the presence of the Lord. So it is here. They sing in unison, as in 3 Nephi 20, which is also a paraphrase of Isaiah:

31 And they shall believe in me, that I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and shall pray unto the Father in my name.
32 Then shall their watchmen lift up their voice, and with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye.
33 Then will the Father gather them together again, and give unto them Jerusalem for the land of their inheritance.
34 Then shall they break forth into joy—Sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the Father hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem (3 Nephi 20:31-34).

21 And they thirsted not; he led them through the deserts; he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them; he clave the rock also and the waters gushed out.

The King James Version reads:

21 And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts: he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out. (Isaiah 48:21)

This symbolism is more recognizable when one recalls that the Lord described Joseph Smith as “another like unto thee” when he told Moses about the mission of the future Prophet.

And now, Moses, my son, I will speak unto thee concerning this earth upon which thou standest; and thou shalt write the things which I shall speak. And in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold, I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men–among as many as shall believe (Moses 1:40-41).

These people in the latter days “thirsted not,” but in Exodus 17:3-6 “the people thirsted.”

The reason the people who follow the Prophet Joseph do not thirst is because the waters he provides for them are the waters of life, and the Savior himself is the source of it:

Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life (John 4:13-14).

22 And notwithstanding he hath done all this, and greater also, there is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.

The King James Version simply reads:

22 There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked (Isaiah 48:22)

This is the same lament for peace as is in v. 18.

The wicked are identified in the next verse, which is 1 Nephi 21:1 in the Book of Mormon

 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. (1 Nephi 21:1).

For reasons that take no imagination to fathom, those words were deleted from the section that was edited by the apostate Jews when they took Joseph Smith out of the text and put Cyrus in his place.


{1} John L. McKenzie, The Anchor Bible, Second Isaiah, Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,1981), 99-100.

{2} John Thompson gives a good background of the scholars’ work:
“Isaiah 40-55, from which Jacob quotes his Isaiah passages, have often been analyzed with form-critical methods; but because many units or forms within the text have little or no comparative material (for instance, the Servant Songs), solid conclusions have been difficult to achieve. However, J. H. Eaton feels that there is enough evidence ‘to guide us to the decisive factors of tradition behind Isa. 40-55.’ J. Begrich points out as early as 1938 that many of the forms in this section resemble materials from earlier services in the temple, such as hymns, laments, and prophetic oracles of assurance. Mowinckel took this connection a step further, noting that there seems to be an association between the second division of Isaiah and the preexilic autumn festivals—namely the Feast of Tabernacles. However, Mowinckel, who does not understand how the Servant Songs fit into the picture, stopped short of completely relating chapters 40-55 to Sukkot. It was I. Engnell and Eaton who completed the correspondence between the second division of Isaiah, including the Servant Songs, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Engnell concluded that Isaiah 40-55 ‘is a prophetic collection of traditions’ that may be called ‘liturgy, …not a cult liturgy but a prophetic imitation thereof.’

“The conclusions of these scholars are significant in light of the possible setting of Jacob’s sermon, for if the second division of Isaiah, from which Jacob obtained his quotes, is a prophetic imitation of Sukkot liturgy, then it is possible that Nephi instructed Jacob to use Isaiah not only for the prophetic teachings and elevated language, but because Isaiah’s words reflect the very festival in which they, the Nephites, were participating” (Thompson, “Isaiah 50-51, the Israelite Autumn Festivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6-10,” 137-38).

{3} For a discussion of the prophecies about the Messiah ben Joseph, see Joseph F. McConkie, “Joseph Smith as Found in Ancient Manuscripts,” Isaiah and the Prophets: Inspired Voices from the Old Testament, ed. Monte S. Nyman, (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1984), 11-32. For a non-LDS scholar’s attempt to make some sense out of the ancient traditions that there will be a “messiah” from the family of Joseph, see Israel Knohl, “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” Biblical Archaeological Review, 34, 9 (September/October): 58-64.

{4} The name “Joseph” means “Let him add.” It is the future form of a verb which means to add or augment. It is a rich word which carries, among other connotations, the idea of to “gather together.” (Strong, Hebrew numbers 3130 and 3254.)

{5} Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982), 177.

{6} Skinner believes that 1 Nephi 20 is about Cyrus, but v. 20 has a double meaning that includes a prophecy about the restoration of the gospel. Andrew C. Skinner, “Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 19-22,” Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch, eds., (Provo, Utah, FARMS, 1998), 95-122.


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