1 Nephi 21:1-6 & Isaiah 49 — LeGrand Baker — Those who will help the Prophet Joseph

 

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 21:1a

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

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First Nephi Chapter 21 can best be understood as a continuation of chapter 20 rather than as a subject separate from it. The outline of this two-chapter unit is as follows:

.  Events in the premortal spirit world

1. 1 Nephi 20:1-11 — Isaiah shows the extent of the premortal apostasy.

2. 1 Nephi 20:12-17 — He describes a Council meeting at which Jehovah presides and the Prophet Joseph speaks, by assignment, and describes how, under Joseph’s administration, the Lord’s purposes will ultimately triumph in this physical world.

.   Events in this world

3. 1 Nephi 20:18 – 21:1a — There is an abrupt change in the scene as Isaiah describes the apostate state of this world when the restoration is about to begin. It demonstrates the need for Joseph to fulfill his assignment .

4. 1 Nephi 21:1b – 6 — The missions of those who were assigned to help him are explained. Here no distinction is drawn between those who are to be his contemporaries and those, like Luther and Wycliffe , who come before him to set the stage for the restoration, or of those who follow Joseph in time but continue the work he began. Some read these verses as being about the Prophet Joseph. I read them differently because they describe a reluctance that is completely contrary to Joseph’s commitment and personality .

5. 1 Nephi 21:7-8 – Isaiah then describes, in the necessarily correct sequence, Joseph’s mission, his death, and the fruits of his work. Joseph is positively identified in footnote 8-a which refers us to 1 Nephi 21:7-8.

6. 1 Nephi 21:9-11 — The first fruit of Joseph’s mission is the restoration of the temple ordinances for both the living and the dead. All this is written in a beautiful code language that was preserved as faithfully as possible by the translators of the King James Bible. It is much the same code language that Isaiah uses in his description of the ordinances of salvation for the dead in Isaiah 61.

7. 1 Nephi 21:12-26 – The ultimate fruits of Joseph’ work is the gathering of Israel. This is shown as following the restoration of the temple ordinances because there would be no point in gathering Israel if there were no temples to which they could be gathered. The Book of Mormon follows the King James translation rather closely but, because the brass plates from which Nephi copied is a pristine version of the original text, the Book of Mormon makes changes which speak with more clarity and accuracy.

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1 Nephi 21:1-6 & Isaiah 49 — LeGrand Baker — Those who will help the Prophet Joseph

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 1 Nephi 21:1).{1}

1 And again: Hearken, O ye house of Israel

Inasmuch as this follows immediately after Isaiah’s account of a conference attended by premortal “Israel” (1 Nephi 20:12-17), it is reasonable to suppose that he is now addressing some of those same people who have come to fulfill their assignments on earth. That is, the beginning of this chapter is addressed to that “Israel” who had covenanted to assist the Prophet Joseph in his mission. The rest of this verse and continuing through verse 6 is written as a conversation between God and “Israel.”

It begins by describing the problem. The people are floundering because of the wickedness of their leaders.

Whoever took it upon themselves to change Isaiah’s text so they could get Cyrus into Isaiah’s prophecy, not only took out the references to the meeting and the prophet Joseph, but they also took out the indictment against themselves. Isaiah had issued an invitation to:

all ye that are broken off and are driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people;

Those words were edited out of the Hebrew Bible, and it is little wonder. Isaiah blames the people’s apostasy on “the wickedness of the pastors of the people.” Since the editors knew what they were doing, and what the probable consequences would be, it is understandable that they determined that part of the verse had to be omitted from the text.

Jeremiah prophesied the same thing, but his prophecy did not get removed.

1 Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord.
2 Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord.
3 And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.
4 And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the Lord (Jeremiah 23:1-4).

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;

It is reasonable to suppose that his reference to “isles” might be about the people of the Book of Mormon. Isaiah was fully aware of the significant role the Book of Mormon would play in the restoration of the gospel. Isaiah 29:9-14 is an explicit prophecy about it, and that prophecy was fulfilled to the letter by Martin Harris and Professor Charles Anthon (JS-hist 1:64-65).

the Lord hath called me from the womb;

This is not about the Prophet Joseph, but is addressed to the “house of Israel.” That is, to those who had covenanted to come to the earth in a time and place that would enable them to facilitate the work of the Prophet in the restoration of the gospel and the gathering of Israel. The next few verses identify that person, not as an individual, but as individuals within the group. These assignments, like the others, were based on premortal covenants. The fact of the covenant is reaffirmed in the next phrase. We can identify the group more closely as we review the conversation that ensues between them and the Lord.

from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name.

As already observed, “name” is frequently code for “covenant” because there is always a new name associated with a new covenant. The names of these persons were given before they were born. That is, the covenants were made before we were born and we came to this world bearing the burden of those covenants. Because we do not remember what they were, a major function of the Holy Ghost is to teach us the covenants and how and when we are to fulfill them.{2}

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 (1 Nephi 21:2).

And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword;

The words one speaks by the authority of the priesthood and the power of the Holy Ghost are often compared to a sword. The idea that a tongue can cut more deeply than a knife is part of everyone’s experience, as the boy in Shakespeare’s King Henry V observed about one who had “a killing tongue and a quiet sword.”{3}

Paul described God’s words in a phrase that is quoted several times in the Doctrine and Covenants. He wrote,

12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

But in the context of Isaiah’s statement, there is another interpretation that is more likely. Priesthood power is always exercised by the authoritative spoken word.

In the context of putting on “the whole armor of God,” Paul includes a weapon which is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17). The story of creation is about the power of God’s word. The brother of Jared moved a mountain when he spoke, and all priesthood ordinances are accomplished by the spoken word. Nevertheless, for most Latter-day Saints the power of the word is in its ability to illuminate one’s own soul. Whether through the words of the missionaries or the prophets, words can condemn or exalt, just as a sword can attack or defend.

in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me,

Isaiah combined those ideas again when he wrote:

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 51:16).

Jacob quoted those words (2 Nephi 8:16), then explained that they were “spoken unto the Jews, by the mouth of his holy prophets, even from the beginning down, from generation to generation, until the time comes that they shall be restored to the true church and fold of God” (2 Nephi 9:2). The Savior quotes that same section of Isaiah in 3 Nephi 20. All of the contexts are the same. That is, they all talk about the restoration of Israel in the context of the restoration of the temple.

It is reasonable, then, to read “in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me” as being about a priesthood ordination.

and made me a polished shaft;

The symbolic shaft in question is an arrow; that is apparent from the fact that he is hidden in a quiver. The arrow is the instrument by which the Lord accomplishes his purposes. But a thin, straight stick is subject to twisting and warping if it gets wet. A crooked arrow isn’t worth much. So the ancients protected the arrow by anointing it with either olive oil or animal fat. The polishing is to make it straight without bumps so that it will fly true, but the polishing process is only half finished until it has been properly anointed with oil. So the Israel who is speaking in first person has been given the words to speak, has been ordained and anointed, but now, rather than becoming an obvious mark to the world:

in his quiver hath he hid me;

That obscurity is just one reason to believe this is not about the Prophet Joseph. For the most part, individual Latter-day Saints are unknown in their communities. The bishop is the local shopkeeper and the Relief Society president is a housewife down the street. We do missionary work, but do not boast about who we are or who we think we are going to be. In the apocryphal Gospel of Philip, the Savior is reported to have taught, “The perfect man not only cannot be restrained, but also cannot be seen. For if he is seen he will be put under restraint.”{4} Personal anonymity gives us great, but quiet, power, and shields us within God’s promise that he will help us keep our covenants.

3 And said unto me: Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.

When we considers the priesthood authority given to his servants in the previous verse, and put that authority in context with the assignment they will receive in the next few verses, it becomes apparent that this “servant” included some of the people who were at the premortal meeting described in the previous chapter. As is true with all such universal assignments as the one described here, they are equally applicable to the entire group as they are to each member in the group. Therefore “Israel” might be the entire body of the Church who were assigned to come to the earth in the last days to assist the Prophet Joseph fulfill his promises, or “Israel” might also be each individual in that group whose assignment is similar to, but uniquely different from ,the responsibilities of the entire group. I understand this “servant” is both singular and personal, as well as multiple and universal in the way that the ancient temple drama was delivered to an entire audience. That is, the somewhat generic covenants were made with everyone present, but individual because each participant acted in his own behalf. So that the covenants made by each individual were applicable only to himself. In other words, Israel is us—you and I—individually and collectively it is those of us whose responsibility it is to preach the gospel, enlarge the Kingdom, and serve in our respective callings, and to just be good and productive people, wherever we are.

In the short statement that Isaiah attributes to the Lord, “Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified,” we find the only antidote to the condemning tendency described by the prophets. Holders of the Priesthood have the responsibility to do good as God defines that good, but not “good” as people look to its uses for self aggrandizement. When priesthood holders follow the instructions of the Holy Ghost, then they are indeed one “in whom God will be glorified.”

The servant’s reluctant response and God’s reply is what convinces me that this is more likely to be about you and I than it is to be about the Prophet Joseph Smith.

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.

The wording of the servant’s response, and his reluctance to come into this world suggests that the conversation we are reading took place before we got here. In tone, it is not the same as the feeling of inadequacy expressed by Jeremiah and Enoch (Jeremiah 1:6, Moses 6:31), but is more like the way Isaiah describes his own sode experience when he returned to the Council and renewed his covenants there. After he volunteered to do the assignment, and the Lord gave him more details, Isaiah asked “Lord, how long?” and the Lord replied, “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate” (Isaiah 6:11).

Isaiah’s response, “Lord, how long?” suggests he understands the weight of his assignment, but not a reluctance to fulfill it. During his sode experience, Isaiah was told more than he reports to us here. He knew that the religious reforms that he and King Hezekiah had sponsored would be overturned by Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son and successor. In The Martyrdom of Isaiah he prophesies, “I shall depart mid the torture of my body…. and by his hands I shall be sawn asunder.” In fulfillment of that prophecy, the account concludes, “And when Isaiah was being sawn in sunder, he neither cried aloud nor wept, but his lips spake with the Holy Spirit until he was sawn in twain.”{5}

There were others, great men and women whose names we know, and many others we do not know, who faced just as seemingly impossible task. Isaiah echoes their concern as they approached their assignments:

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 (1 Nephi 21).

When and under what circumstances did this part of the conversation take place, we do not have enough information to know. But it is likely that Isaiah is recalling the premortal time when others like himself, were concerned about the enormity of the task before them. In the next verses Isaiah gives the Lord’s response.

5 And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant,{6}
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.

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.

These verses are about as close as one can hope to get to an actual date in a prophecy to be fulfilled 2,700 years in the future. The time is when those foreordained to assist in the restoration of the gospel would be born in this world. Israel will gather Israel, but Israel is not yet gathered; and they will also be a light to the gentiles, “that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.”

It is about the restoration of the gospel and the power of missionary work. But it is also the Lord’s response to those of us who were concerned about the assignment and our ability to perform it successfully. The verses contain not only the essence of the assignment but also the absolute assurance that the Lord will assist his servants that each one may fulfill his mission.

An ancient Israelite poem looks forward to this time. It reads:

I took courage and became strong and captured the world,
And it became mine for the glory of the Most High
and of God my Father.
And the gentiles who had been scattered
were gathered together,
But I was not defiled by my love for them,
Because they had praised me in high places.
And the traces of light were set upon their hearts,
And they walked according to my life and were saved,
And they became my people for ever and ever.{7}

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FOOTNOTES

{1} The following verses make little sense if they are not read as a conversation. To facilitate that, they are written here without the verse breaks.
The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. 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;
And [the Lord ] said unto me:
Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
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.
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. 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.

{2} See Jeremiah 1:5 as an example of such a premortal covenant.

{3} William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act 3, Scene 2.

{4} Gospel of Philip in New Testament Apocrypha, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, 2:201 # 106.

{5} The Martyrdom of Isaiah, in R.H. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 159-62.

{6} See Jeremiah 1:5 as an example of such a premortal covenant.

{6} Odes of Solomon, Number 10, in James H. Charlesworth, ed, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols., New York, 1985, 2: 744)

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