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God in 1 Nephi 20

An astounding message from God, written by Isaiah (Isaiah 48),

for everyone on earth at this time.

1 Nephi 20 is our first introduction to Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and therefore our first opportunity to shrink and be intimidated.  But in fact, of all the Isaiah chapters, I find this one to be the most clear and with the most direct and urgent message for readers of the Book of Mormon.

Generally when we read Isaiah it seems that he jumps from topic to topic, time period to time period abruptly, with no smooth flow of conceptual development.  

“Isaiah’s mind was quick, sensitive, and scintillating.  Apparently his mental muscles flexed themselves by perpetually leaping about with lightning speed.  While this was merely an intellectual exercise in psychological gymnastics for Isaiah, his humble readers are confronted with a continuous series of fantastic strides forward, backward, skyward, and sideways.  This is because Isaiah takes the poet’s approach, sweeping excitedly and impressionistically through the heights and depths of his visions, rather than methodically recording each phase of the revelation the way most prophets have done.” – Cleon Skousen

Perceiving a disjointed style in his writing, we use it merely as a “good quote book” (Andrew Hedges).  

Not being a scholar, I can say neither yay nor nay to this approach.  It’s usually the best we can do.  But I do assert that this particular chapter, 1 Nephi 20, is coherent and cohesive.  It is not a random chapter that Nephi chose to close his first book with.  It has directions straight from the Lord for every reader of the Book of Mormon, both those who are initially reading it to ascertain its truthfulness, and those who have read it multiple times and have a bright testimony of its divine origin.  

The language is not wandering and wordy, but dense with meaning, intended to pierce our understandings.  The structure is firm, and in understanding the structure we can see more clearly how the parts relate to one another, thus further enhancing the message.

As we might expect, we will encounter obvious metaphorical language as well as well-established symbols.  Without understanding the symbolism we miss part of the message as well as the coherence of the whole.  

Unlike the rest of this commentary, we will parse every verse, whether it obviously refers to Deity or not.  We will then discover structure, and use that to uncover even more aspects of this astounding message that has been in our Bibles and Books of Mormon all these years.

1 Nephi 20:1

Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel,

yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.

The prophet is speaking to a certain group.  Characteristics:  

1. They are of the house of Jacob.  Jacob is Israel.  

2. They are called by the name of Israel, as opposed to being of the seed of Israel.

Jacob received the new name of Israel, so these people have also received the new

name of Christ (see Mosiah 1:11,12; 5:7-9)

3. They come from the “waters” of Judah.  “Waters” in the Bible often represents revelation (e.g. “Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.  My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” (Deuteronomy 32:1,2).

4. Specifically, they come through the revelation given to Judah.  Judah – the Jews – wrote the Bible, a vast reservoir of spiritual waters which has brought many to God.

5. They come out of the waters of baptism.  Joseph Smith later added this phrase as a prophetic interpretation.  They join the family of Israel through baptism – they have officially been inducted as Christians.  

6. They recognize God

7. BUT they lack truth and righteousness, at least in their speech.

This Book of Mormon chapter (Isaiah 48) is a message

to the Christians of the world from God.

1 Nephi 20:2

Nevertheless, they call themselves of the holy city,

but they do not stay themselves upon the God of Israel, who is the Lord of Hosts; yea, the Lord of Hosts is his name.

Isaiah continues to specify the group to whom this message is directed.  He reasserts that they claim to be the people of God, His holy congregation.  In fact, it is from the holy city that the law of God goes forth.  They claim to have authority to propound His doctrine.  They claim to accept Him, but they do not “stay themselves” on Him.  They do not stay loyal to Him, they do not rely on Him.  He is not their support.  That is elsewhere.

This God whom they worship with their words but not with their lives is the God of Israel, the God of the Bible.  The verse emphasizes that He is the Lord of Hosts.  He is the God of conquering armies, the only One who has the ultimate victory, and the One with whom all these people should side, rather than whatever it is they are “staying upon.”  He is the God of not only Israel but numerous peoples, the hosts of all the earth, and He knows all these hosts and the individuals in them.  

1 Nephi 20:3

Behold, I have declared the former things from the beginning;

and they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them.  

I did show them suddenly.

This is God’s message to that group:  

1. He told them “former things.”

2. He takes credit for them learning these things – they went forth out of His mouth.

3. He showed these things.  We call something that God shows a “revelation.”

4. This revelatory event happened suddenly, quickly, not over time.

God says (in Isaiah 48) that He will give the Christians a new revelation of former things.

1 Nephi 20:4

And I did it because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;

Isaiah takes “stiff-necked” and “hard-headed” to a new level by imputing metallic body parts to this group of people.  They are iron-clad.  Their iron-sinewed neck will not turn, so they will continue on in whatever direction they’re going, and they will not turn for anything.  Their brass brow will not admit anything to enter their heads that wasn’t already there.  But God gave this revelation in spite of the resistance it would receive, and because the people needed it.  He knew that in their obstinacy this was the only way to get their attention.

1 Nephi 20:5

And I have even from the beginning declared to thee;

before it came to pass I showed them thee;

and I showed them for fear lest thou shouldst say--mine idol hath done them,

and my graven image, and my molten image hath commanded them.

Because the group to whom the prophet/Lord is speaking are of Israel, and are initiated by baptism, we should not expect to find literal graven and molten images used as idols.  This is a figurative expression meant to encompass whatever it is that these people have chosen to replace their true worship of God.  He showed them, revealed to them something before they were able to learn it from any other source.

1 Nephi 20:6

Thou hast seen and heard all this; and will ye not declare them?  

And that I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things,

and thou didst not know them.

Since the Lord has shown this special thing to this group of people, He wants them to declare it.  He wants them to tell others, to testify of the things and of His power in showing these things.  

The Lord says that, though He said previously that they were “former things,” yet now He calls them new things.  They were hidden things, and He caused that they should no longer be hidden.  No one knew of them until He revealed them.

In Isaiah 48, God promises to reveal hidden things,

which are both new and of former things.

1 Nephi 20:7

They are created now, and not from the beginning,

even before the day when thou heardest them not they were declared unto thee, lest thou shouldst say--Behold I knew them.

Again the Lord repeats that this thing is totally new in the experience of the people to whom He is speaking.  They had no idea of these things until they were told, when it was declared unto them.  They have no way to say, “Well, I already knew that.  I was already familiar with that idea.”  Although He has already called them “former things from the beginning,” He also calls them something newly created, and not known from the beginning.  

He has said that He wants them to “declare” them.  Someone is doing what He asks, and declaring them to this group.  This is how people learn of these new-old things: first the Lord declared them, and then the Lord asks those who know to continue taking the message and declare it to the rest of the people.

1 Nephi 20:8

Yea, and thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not;

yea, from that time thine ear was not opened;

for I knew that thou wouldst deal very treacherously,

and wast called a transgressor from the womb.

At first glance the Lord is repeating Himself in this verse.  Yes, He already told us that these people had not heard or known the things that He was revealing to them.  But when He says “from that time thine ear was not opened,” we realize that He’s progressing in telling the story.  They did not know, they had not heard; but when the time came that He declared it to them, they still did not know, because they refuse to open their ears to His message.  They had not heard or known, and, when given the opportunity, they still do not hear or know.

The Lord knew they would behave this way.

1 Nephi 20:9

Nevertheless, for my name's sake will I defer mine anger,

and for my praise will I refrain from thee, that I cut thee not off.

The Lord introduced this group of people as some who are called by the name of Israel.  Israel’s God is the Lord, so to be of Israel is to be God’s people, to be called by His name.  These people do call themselves the people of the Lord, and because of that, He will not impart to them the punishment that He might otherwise do to those who reject what He gives them.

Sometimes when God gives a great new revelation, those who reject it are destroyed, or cut off.  Those who did not follow the prophet Noah drowned in the flood.  The Egyptians who rejected the prophet Moses saw the destruction of their land through the plagues, and the drowning of their armies in the Red Sea.  His own people who rejected him were swallowed up in the earth.  The people who rejected the prophet Samuel the Lamanite were destroyed in a flash of catastrophes.  The Jews of Jerusalem who rejected the Son of God when He came among them were, a few decades later, destroyed and scattered for centuries.

God says that although these Christian people to whom He speaks will, by and large, reject His new revelation, we need not expect the destruction that He could pour out.  In this case He will withhold that sort of immediate judgment and consequence.  

1 Nephi 20:10

For, behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.

This group of people have already suffered, and through that suffering have emerged a better people, stronger and more pure.  Their suffering is not due to the random acts of the universe, but God has allowed it, or perhaps even directed it.

1 Nephi 20:11

For mine own sake, yea, for mine own sake will I do this,

for I will not suffer my name to be polluted,

and I will not give my glory unto another.

A cursory reading of this verse presents the God of the Old Testament who our popular culture loves to hate: selfish and jealous.  And that may have been a satisfying and effective portrayal in a previous culture.  Since we know Him as our very loving Father, it is well to look more deeply into what He may truly be saying about Himself in this verse.

What a person does for their own sake is to further their own agenda, to accomplish their own goals.  God has told us that it is His work and glory “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”  So this thing that He is doing, this old-new truth that He is revealing, is designed to guide us, His children, toward eternal life.

He has previously expressed (verses 1 & 2) concern over how this group of people take His name.  People who claim to honor and live by His name are doing so without truth and righteousness, and without relying upon Him, thus polluting His name.  This new project will bring them back, so that those who bear His name will also walk His righteous way and believe His truth.

We know that long ago “another” wanted the glory of the Father, and he proposed to earn that glory by bringing all back into the presence of God, without the need for a suffering Savior, and without the need for individual choice.  (Moses 4:1)  Satan is still seeking and fighting for what he desired before we even came to this earth, God’s honor, and he is still luring God’s children away from His path with fair promises.  Therefore God, too, is still in that battle.  This new revelation will be a new weapon for the Lord, both a defensive weapon and an offensive weapon.  It will further people’s ability to resist the devil’s snares.  It will also give people more opportunity to choose sides, for agency is foundational in the Father’s plan.

1 Nephi 20:12

Hearken unto me, O Jacob, and Israel my called, for I am he;

I am the first, and I am also the last.

This verse harks back to verse one, causing one to suspect that these two verses encompass a chiasm.  In fact, even the phrase “I am the first and . . . the last may be a clue to encourage us to notice this literary form.  

Before we explore the message as a chiasm, let’s recap what we’ve discovered thus far: We have discovered that God has a message specifically directed at the Christians of the world, those who know Him through the Bible.  This is the nature of the message:

1. God wants believing Christians to pay attention to the message or revelation.

  (v. 1)

2. The revelation consists of former things. (v. 3)

3. God takes credit for the revelation. (v. 3)

4. This revelation came quickly. (v. 3)

5. This revelation will generally be rejected. (v. 4,8)

6. This revelation did not come through any traditional channels. (v. 5)

7. God wants those who receive this revelation to declare it to others. (v. 6)

8. The revelation consists of new things. (v. 6)

9. The revelation was previously hidden. (v. 6)

10. No one had any idea of the content of this revelation before it came from God.

  (v. 7)

11. Some people are following God’s request to declare this revelation to others.

  (v. 7)

12. Although this revelation is a major project of God, He will not follow it up with destruction of those who reject it. (v. 9)

13. However, He will cause or allow unpleasant events which will help people accept the revelation. (v. 10)

14. This revelation will help those who accept it in their journey toward eternal life. (v. 11)

15. This revelation will enable those who believe the Bible to believe more fully in Him, and follow and obey Him. (v. 11)

16. This revelation will be a weapon in His hands against the destructive influence and power of Satan. (v. 11)

Even without delving further into the chiasm, it is clear by now that the message, the revelation, is the Book of Mormon.

In Isaiah 48, God foretold the Book of Mormon.

1. God wants believing Christians to pay attention to this message or revelation.

   The Book of Mormon came forth in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, to a people who were supposedly turning devotedly to Christ through the Bible.

Few men on earth, either in or out of the Church,

have caught the vision of

what the Book of Mormon is all about.  

Few are they who know the part it has played

and will yet play in preparing the way

for the coming of him of whom it is a new witness . . . .

The Book of Mormon shall so affect men

that the whole earth and all its peoples

will have been influenced and governed by it. . .

There is no greater issue ever to confront mankind

in modern times than this:  

Is the Book of Mormon

the mind and will and voice of God to all?”

- Bruce R. McConkie

2. The revelation consists of former things.

   The Book of Mormon is a record of the former inhabitants of this continent.

The Book of Mormon is the sacred history

of the ancient inhabitants of the American continent,

and contains the predictions of their prophets,

the commandments of the Lord to them,

and the history and destiny of those ancient peoples.

- Joseph Fielding Smith

3. God takes credit for the revelation.

   Through angels, God led Joseph Smith to the gold plates.  Joseph never claimed any authorship or ability to read or translate the plates, but always credited it to the “gift and power of God.”

God ministered unto  him by an holy angel . . .

and gave him power from on high,

by the means which were before prepared,

to translate the Book of Mormon.”

- Doctrine & Covenants 20:6,8

4. This revelation came quickly.

   This translation process took about 65 working days, really a very short time to produce a literary work of such magnitude and complexity.  (That should be a hint that God is the source of it.)

A span of no more than 65 to 75 total days was likely

involved in translating the Book of Mormon as we now have it,

for an overall average of about seven to eight pages per day. . . .

Moreover,  Joseph  and  Oliver  could  not  spend  all  of  that time  concentrating  on  the translation.  

They  also  took  time:  

- John W.  Welch and Tim Rathbone

5. This revelation will generally be rejected.

   The Book of Mormon has been more maligned than any other book in the history of the world.  It is particularly rejected by those who claim to believe in the Bible – only the Bible.  They do not allow God to speak again.

Thou has made our words powerful and great,

even that we cannot write them;

wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness,

and stumble because of the placing of our words;

and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.

“And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying:  

Fools mock, but they shall mourn;

and my grace is sufficient for the meek,

that they shall take no advantage of your weakness.”

- Moroni in the Book of Mormon (Ether 12:25,26)

6. This revelation did not come through any traditional channels.

   The Book of Mormon did not come through the accepted channels of archaeology or theology.  No scholar or academic can use it as a feather in his cap.

The evidence for its truth, for its validity

in a world that is prone to demand evidence,

lies not in archaeology or anthropology,

though these may be helpful to some.  

It lies not in word research or historical analysis,

though these may be confirmatory.  

The evidence for its truth and validity

lies within the covers of the book itself.  

The test of its truth lies in reading it.”

- Gordon B. Hinckley

7. God wants those who receive this revelation to declare it to others.

   The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has continually urged the members to share the Book of Mormon with others.  

The Book of Mormon is the instrument that God designed

to ‘sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out [His] elect.’

(Moses 7:62). . .

“The time is long overdue

for a massive flooding of the earth with the Book of Mormon. . .

“We should be sending out millions of copies of the Book of Mormon to the missionaries every month. . . .

“I challenge all of us to prayerfully consider

steps that we can personally take

to bring this new witness for Christ more fully into our own lives

and into a world that so desperately needs it.”

- Ezra Taft Benson

8. The revelation consists of new things.

   While the Book of Mormon dovetails with the Bible in its worship of God, the stories and people described are totally new and separate.

Book of Mormon stories that my teacher tells to me

Are about the Lamanites in ancient history.

Long ago their fathers came from far across the sea

Given the land if they’d live righteously.

Children’s song by Elizabeth Fetzer Bates

9. The revelation was previously hidden.

   The Book of Mormon, in the form of gold plates, was hidden in the Hill Cumorah, “until God found one faithful” to bring it forth.

The Golden Plates lay hidden - deep in the mountainside,

Until God found one faithful, in whom He could confide.

A record made by Nephi, written in days of old,

Now, in the Book of Mormon, the story is retold.

Children’s song by Rose Thomas Graham, 1875-1967

10. No one had any idea of the content of this revelation before it came from God.

   No one had any idea that any native American people were descended from the house of Israel, or that they had had a Christian society, before the Book of Mormon asserted these things.

11. Some people are following God’s request to declare this revelation to others.

   Tens of thousands of missionaries leave their homes every year to take the Book of Mormon and its message of Christ and restoration to people all over the world.  Additional tens of thousands of individual Latter-day Saints share the gospel with their neighbors.  All of them testify of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

12. Although this revelation is a major project of God, He will not follow it up with destruction of those who reject it.

   Rather than destroying the unbelievers, God allowed the unbelievers to drive His people out of the “land of the free” to the wilderness, where they were able to incubate and grow to a mighty people.

13. However, He will cause or allow unpleasant events which will help people accept the revelation.

   It appears that sooner or later the Christians of the world will experience the sort of tribulation that will cause them to truly seek God, and recognize His voice in the Book of Mormon.

Do eternal consequences rest upon our response to this book?  

Yes, either to our blessing or our condemnation.”

- Ezra Taft Benson

14. This revelation will help those who accept it in their journey toward eternal life.

   Every word of the Book of Mormon leads the reader to reverence and obey God.

   “The Book of Mormon will bring a man nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other book.” – Joseph Smith.

It is not just that the Book of Mormon teaches us truth,

though it indeed does that.  

It is not just that the Book of Mormon bears testimony of Christ,

though it indeed does that, too.  

But there is something more.  

There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives

the moment you begin a serious study of the book.  

You will find greater power to resist temptation.  

You will find the power to avoid deception.  

You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. . .

When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words,

you will find life in greater and greater abundance.”

- Ezra Taft  Benson

15. This revelation will enable those who believe the Bible to believe more fully in Him, and follow and obey Him.

   The Book of Mormon walks hand in hand with the Bible, convincing the world of its truth, growing together to resolve false doctrines and contentions, and establishing peace among those who accept it. (see 2 Nephi 3:11,12).

16. This revelation will be a weapon in His hands against the destructive influence and power of Satan.

   The Book of Mormon exposes the wiles of the devil by illustrating his tactics in former times, so that we can recognize them today.


The Book of Mormon exposes the enemies of Christ.

It confounds false doctrine and lays down contention.  

It fortifies the humble followers of Christ against the evil designs, strategies, and doctrines of the devil in our day.

The type of apostates in the Book of Mormon

are similar to the type we have today.

 God, with his infinite foreknowledge,

so molded the Book of Mormon that we might see the error

and know how to combat

false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts

of our time.

-Ezra Taft Benson

We will now look at these verses as a chiasm, to discover more of the message embedded in the structure.  Click here to see the chiasm laid out.

1:1,12.  In the first verse, the people speak in God’s name, but without authority or truth.  They are called by the name of Israel, but they are not listening to Him.  In verse 12, God Himself, and not a surrogate, speaks.  While God has chastened them for their unwillingness to hear His new message, nevertheless He still refers to them as “my called.”  His arm of mercy is still extended, though He speaks harshly of them.

II:2,11.  When people do not “stay themselves” on God, they do not seek and accept what He is offering, eternal life by His terms, which is His glory.  It doesn’t really matter where they are staying themselves, they are giving glory to “another.”  


III: 3-4, 8-10.  The Lord sent these old-new words forth from His mouth, but they were rejected because His people had iron necks and brass brows.  The fulfillment verse says their ear did not hear (what came from God’s mouth), and consequently He will refine them through a furnace of affliction, which of course will melt that hard metal and make it pliable (to hear His word).

Although God’s people will largely reject His voice in the Book of Mormon and in the latter-day prophets, God still lays claim to His people.  He says they will be tried in the furnace of affliction.  Without context, we might place this anywhere in history, where Christians have been persecuted.  But placed in this historical scenario, the message is that further persecution awaits the Christian community, and this persecution will lead to the humility required to accept all of God’s words and works, including His latter-day revelations, activities, and organization.

IV: 5,7.  The people being addressed are not going to ignore this old-new message from the Lord.  But neither are they going to accept it from Him.  Instead, they will look at it from another angle – from their own wisdom, or the wisdom of those who they worship as idols.

God revealed the Book of Mormon at the very beginning of the restoration of the gospel, ushering in the dispensation of the fullness of times.  There have been so many theories of the origin of the Book of Mormon promulgated by people who choose not to believe Joseph Smith’s simple explanation that it was a translation from gold plates, by the gift and power of God.  It was not translated by the learned; it did not come from the seminaries, or from archaeologists.  If it had, it would merely have been one of many tidbits of an ancient civilization.


V: 6.  In the climax of this chiasm, the Lord addresses those who have seen and heard this old-new hidden thing that He has given them, willing them to “declare them.”  Those who know this message are bidden by God to declare this message:  To declare it with faith that it comes from the mouth of God, as well as with understanding that it will mostly be rejected.

God has explained that He showed the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the gospel to His Christian people, and it was mainly rejected.  But He now speaks to those who do believe it – to the Latter-day Saints.  They are called, not only to believe, but to declare.  He has done His part in revealing these ancient scriptures:  now He calls upon believers to share their testimonies.  If Latter-day Saints do not share the Book of Mormon with others, as commanded by God, how are they any different from those described in verses 1 and 2, who claim to know God, but do not follow His way?

1 Nephi 19 1 Nephi 20 continued