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God in 1 Nephi 21

my God • He that hath mercy on them • Holy One

my Lord • Lord • Lord God • Mighty One of Jacob

thy Redeemer • Redeemer of Israel • Savior

I will approach this chapter differently than I did the last.  Isaiah 49 is about a servant, sometimes called the Davidic servant or the suffering servant.  Who is the servant?  He is regarded by Jews to be Isaiah and the Jewish people.  He is regarded by Christians to be Christ, and he is regarded by Latter-day Saints to be both the Messiah and Joseph Smith.  Commentaries on these different viewpoints are readily available, and there is doubtless truth in each of these claims.  Particularly when looking at individual verses one may find great “fits,” but when looked at as a whole and cohesive unit, all these applications are lacking.  

People may fit various historical and futuristic scenarios into Isaiah 48 (and 1 Nephi 20). But Nephi will interpret these chapters in a whole new light (yes, I looked ahead!).  Based on the fact that none of the people who propound the Isaiah-Jewish people, Messiah-Joseph Smith scenarios understand the full latter-day exposition of 1 Nephi 20, I propose to look at 1 Nephi 21 from another angle.  I don’t know how well it fits, or if it is precisely what Isaiah, the Lord, and Nephi were thinking of when they presented this material, but it is worth examining.

This study will postulate that the servant spoken of in 1 Nephi 21 and Isaiah 49 is the Promised Land.  

1 Nephi 21:1

All ye that are broken off and driven out and scattered abroad

The Book of Mormon teaches that God has a plan

for people who have been harmed by wicked pastors

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.

This more lengthy transitional verse between the previous topic and the new topic (written not by Nephi but included in the brass plates) implies more of a relationship between the two chapters than the abrupt Bible Isaiah version gives. The previous verse ended with a “saith the Lord” verse. This one begins “And again,” indicating that the Lord continues to speak and expound further on what He was just talking about.  Just as He has told us to “hearken and hear” the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 20:1), and to “assemble yourselves and hear” Joseph Smith (1 Nephi 20:14), He is now introducing another servant, and calling on us to hearken to his message.

Those in particular who are called to hear this message are the Lord’s people all over the world who have been broken off, driven out, and scattered abroad because of the wickedness of their leaders.  

After God’s introduction, the servant begins to speak, right in the middle of the verse.  As did Joseph Smith, this servant testifies that he was called of God. Whatever he does is not an accident of history, but was part of God’s plan from the very beginning.

Latter-day Saints understand that the Promised Land has experienced major periods of habitation followed by depopulation.  The Promised Land was the first home on Mother Earth of humankind.  The first people, the family of Adam, dwelt in the Promised Land until the flood event, after which it was unpopulated perhaps until the arrival of the Jaredites.

Since God fore-knows everything, any of the interpretations will fit with the idea that God called the servant from the womb.  But since the people the servant is addressing are cast-offs, people who are not accepted in their own lands and therefore need a new home, the Promised Land interpretation makes more sense.

1 Nephi 21:2

In his quiver hath he hid me

The Book of Mormon teaches that God hid a servant who will do a great work

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;

Twice the Promised Land is likened unto a weapon, and twice it is noted that the Lord hid the land.  He hid it in order to reveal it as a weapon.

It is historically obvious that the Lord hid the Promised Land from the rest of the world.  Although there is evidence of various people groups visiting America through the centuries before Columbus, the eastern civilizations did not know about this vast double continent.

A strictly military interpretation would be flawed.  (“There is nothing on this Green Earth stronger than the United States Army.”)  

The weapon is to be used against the forces mentioned in the previous verse who have disrupted the Lord’s people because of wickedness.  It is a defensive weapon, used to protect these people as they make new settlements far from effective interference.  It is a versatile weapon:  like a sword, it combats proximate enemies, and like a shaft, or arrow from a quiver, it can be sent against more distant enemies.

The power of this weapon, a mouth like a sword, is in words, and words express ideas.  The idea of individual liberty and government by the governed bursting forth from the Promised Land shocked and flooded the world.  Countries near and far were affected by this idea, which, to one degree or another over time, has turned all governments on their heads.

Great and powerful words have also come from Israel (Old Testament), Isaiah, Jesus, and Joseph Smith.  However, they weren’t really “hid” any more than any other individuals on this planet.

1 Nephi 21:3

Thou art my servant in whom I will be glorified

The Book of Mormon teaches that God is glorified in His servants

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

This verse is the primary justification for believing the servant to be the nation of Israel:  it says so in black and white.  However, recognizing God’s and the prophets’ penchant for parables and allegory, this blunt statement should not be the end of the road, but only a pause.

The Book of Mormon records the 1000-year history of a people who, throughout that time period, identified themselves as children of Abraham, God’s covenant people, Israel.  Certainly during that time and in the place where they lived, the Promised Land was Israel.

America’s first European settlers, those whose descendants eventually led in creating the United States of America, the land of the free, were the Puritans, who called themselves Pilgrims.  Hugh Fogelman has written a fascinating essay, “Puritans Were More Jewish Than Protestants.”  Here are a few excerpts:

“The Puritans . . .  came to identify their political struggle against England with that of the ancient Hebrews against Pharaoh or the King of Babylon. . . . No Christian community in history identified more with the Israelites of the Bible than did the first generations of settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the biblical drama of the chosen people―they were the children of Israel and the ordinances of God’s Holy covenant by which they lived were His divine law. Since they viewed themselves as the persecuted victims of the sinful Christian establishment of the Old World (England), the Puritans also had a natural sympathy for the Jews of their own time. . . .

“The Puritans wholeheartedly believed that it was their special mission to establish in America a society precisely modeled on the precepts of Sacred Jewish Scriptures. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was at the very least a state inspired by and thoroughly devoted to the Jewish Bible. "If we keep this covenant," Governor John Winthrop assured his people, "we shall find that the God of Israel is among us, but if we deal falsely with our God... we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going." The Jewish covenant concept was thus the bedrock of all Puritan religious communities. . . .

In this respect they differed sharply from the majority of traditional Christian theologies. To the Puritans the primary lesson of the Old Testament was that a nation as well as an individual could enter into a covenant with God. . . .

”The Puritans' incorporated the Mosaic code and injunctions from the Old Testament into their own legal framework. It is worthy of note that fully half of the statutes in the Code of 1655 for the New Haven colony contained references to or citations from the Old Testament, while only three percent referred to the New Testament.

“Accordingly, the first settlers in New England called themselves "Christian Israel." Comparison of the Puritan leaders with the great leaders of ancient Israel—especially Moses and Joshua—were common. So the names of Daniel, Jonathan, Esther, Enoch, Ezra, Rachel and a host of others were in constant use among the Puritans. Interestingly enough, there was a conspicuous absence of the names of Christian saints.  Names of cities, towns and settlements likewise derived from Hebraic sources.  This widespread use of biblical names, however, was not confined to the naming of offspring, cities and towns - names of many biblical heights were eventually bestowed upon the great mountains of America. Mount Carmel and Mount Horeb, home of the Prophets, were popular names, as was Mount Nebo, the final resting place of Moses. Names like Mount Ephraim, Mount Gilead, Mount Hermon, Mount Moriah, Mount Pisgah, were all popular as well. Some mountains in the New World were even called Mt. Sinai, Mount Zion and Mount Olive.”

These early Americans were scattered Israel, driven out by the wickedness of their pastors, as described in verse 1.  Whether God initiated this idea or whether He just accepted it, they lived what was recorded by Isaiah.

Certainly residents of the Promised Land do not all nor always identify themselves as Israel.  But this verse says that when they do, God is glorified.

1 Nephi 21:4

My work is with my God

The Book of Mormon teaches that when our life endeavors fail to produce,

we are comforted when we offer our work to God

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 Land mourns because all its treasures have been used without result, without finally blessing the civilizations who possessed the Land.  The first race of Adam defiled themselves on the Land, and the Land was finally left desolate after the Flood.  The people of the Jaredites were great miners; the land spent its mineral wealth – part of its strength - on them and on the Nephites who followed, but both civilizations did not appreciate their blessings and rejected God.  Now we have the American nation.

The Land itself was faithful, even if those on it were not.  People are blessed when they fulfill God’s commands, even if those they reach out to reject the message.  As Paul put it, “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men” (Colossians 3:23) or “With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Ephesians 6:7).  Thus is our judgment with the Lord, and our work with our God.

1 Nephi 21:5

My God shall be my strength

The Book of Mormon teaches

that God’s servants work to bring Jacob back to Him

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.

Although this verse says “saith the Lord,” it is not a direct quote, as evidenced by the continued use of pronouns indicating that the Promised Land is still speaking, and it refers to God.  This verse might be introduced by “the Lord told me,” because it is an indirect quote.

We are reminded that the Promised Land was chosen in the beginning to be of service to God, and that it would be a Promised Land for the gathering of the chosen people of God, of Jacob or Israel.

“Gathering” means more than simply living in the same land.  It means being brought to the Lord, and experiencing the unity of His knowledge and love.  A goal of Latter-day Saint missionaries is to baptize people into the Church, and they speak of themselves as missionaries of the Church.  But their real goal, more difficult to measure by the numbers, is to bring people unto Christ.

This verse would fit in at the end of the Nephite civilization.  The Land is full of Lehi’s descendants (and others, no doubt), but they have all rejected the Lord, and are therefore not gathered.  They are scattered.

The Lord assures the Land that although its assignment of gathering Israel has not been completely fulfilled, the Land itself is still glorious in God’s eyes.  In fact, this was the hope the Land expressed in the previous verse – that its labor and strength were acceptable to the Lord, even though it appeared the objective had not been reached, and the labor and strength had been in vain.  The Lord confirms this longing.

This is a message for each of us.  God has put us on earth to fulfill certain assignments.  If we use our labor and strength, our heart and mind to try to accomplish these things, we will be glorious in the eyes of God, and He will be our strength.   He judges the nations and He knows each individual.  He knows the complex inter-relationships of His children, for our assignments, to be consistent with His work and glory, must of necessity involve serving and ministering to other people, and these other people have their agency.  There are always two sides, and each side acts independently.  We must not slacken our efforts because others are limp.

1 Nephi 21:6

A light to the Gentiles

The Book of Mormon teaches that God offers blessings

to both the house of Israel and the Gentiles

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.

Because Jesus is the Light of the world and the only way to salvation, this verse is a strong indicator that the servant is Christ himself.  However, he has requested his servants to emulate his qualities, so, as he has delegated responsibilities to his followers, there is no contradiction in crediting this verse to another entity.

For the Land, listening to this communication from the Lord, this is a surprising development.  It’s first assignment ended in the desolation of the Flood.  The second assignment, the Jaredite people, killed themselves off in their wickedness.  The children of Lehi remain on the Land, but in a scattered and unfaithful condition. Three strikes you’re out!  

No, not with the Lord.  He tells the Land that the previous assignment still remains – to gather Israel – and in addition He’s going to include the Gentiles in His work of salvation, and in the work of the Land.

The Land will be a light, or an example, to the rest of the world.  With hindsight, we know that the Constitution of the United States of America has been a light to the world.  In fact, every nation on earth has officially changed their form of government since that document became the light for the American nation.  None of their changes were as permanently liberating to the people as the American system of limited government, but they all took steps in the right direction.  No matter how poorly it is implemented (even in our own country), most people groups recognize that rule by the people is preferable to rule by dictators.  The Constitution’s “We The People” has reverberated to the ends of the earth.

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