A Look at 1 Nephi 20–21 and Isaiah 48-49 (Part 1)

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Nephi seeks to understand the words of the prophet Isaiah
Nephi prays to understand Isaiah

The Book of Mormon, a sacred text for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holds a unique connection to the Old Testament. In 1 Nephi 20, we encounter the first instance where an entire chapter from Isaiah (chapter 48) is quoted. This inclusion wasn’t a mere coincidence, but a deliberate act by Nephi, a prophet-historian, to bridge the gap between past and present. However, for many of us reading the Book of Mormon, this is a moment of confusion, as Isaiah can be difficult to understand.

But consider this before skipping the Isaiah Chapters in the Book of Mormon. Nephi made a mighty effort to etch these words onto the Golden Plates, including them to show his people (descendants of Lehi) and the Jews in Jerusalem (descendants of Israel) how God speaks to all His children throughout history, offering warnings and hope. He hoped this would strengthen their faith and future generations.

Setting the Stage

Before delving into Isaiah’s words, Nephi establishes the context. He reveals that the LORD had shown the prophets of old, including Isaiah, “all things concerning those who are at Jerusalem.” These were the descendants of Israel who remained in the land, facing spiritual and physical challenges. Nephi then clarifies that the LORD also showed these prophets “concerning us,” referring to his people, the Nephites, who were descendants of Lehi, a prophet who had been led away from Jerusalem.

Prophecy for Two Houses

Nephi’s inclusion of Isaiah 48 and 49 serves a specific purpose. He explains that the LORD revealed future events to prophets of old, concerning both “those who are at Jerusalem” and “us” (1 Nephi 19:20-21). This distinction highlights the dual purpose of this and the following chapter:

  • Chapter 48, found in 1 Nephi 20, is directed towards “the house of Jacob,” or the Jews living in Jerusalem. Isaiah warns them against worshipping idols and reminds them of the LORD‘s foreknowledge and power. He expresses God’s love and desire to refine His people, highlighting the ultimate goal of salvation.

    However, it is a message steeped in both warning and hope. The LORD, through Isaiah, acknowledges His own omniscience and reminds Israel that He has always revealed their future, preventing them from attributing His works to false gods. He calls them out for their stubbornness and pride, even their tendency to worship idols alongside Him.

    Yet, the message isn’t solely one of condemnation. The LORD expresses his love and patience, portraying himself as a refiner who purifies his people through challenges. He emphasizes his ultimate goal: salvation. He reminds them of their incredible potential, detailing the blessings they could have received if they obeyed his commandments – blessings like flourishing peace, righteousness, and abundance. The chapter concludes with a call to action – to leave Babylon and proclaim the message of redemption.
  • There is of course, an immediate connection to Chapter 49, covered in 1 Nephi 21, where he shifts the focus to “us,” the Nephites, who were considered “broken off” from the main branch of Israel. Isaiah’s message here becomes one of hope and restoration. He speaks of a servant, often interpreted as Jesus Christ, who will bring blessings and gather the scattered remnants of Israel. This chapter offers hope and encouragement, promising blessings for those who remain faithful to God. And it builds on the foundation laid in chapter 20, emphasizing the LORD‘s power and promises. It reassures Nephi’s people, reminding them that they are not forgotten or abandoned.

Outline of 1 Nephi 20

  1. Baptized members of the House of Jacob have apostatized (20:1–2)
    • They swear by the name of the LORD, but not in truth or righteousness (20:1)
    • They claim to be of the holy city but do not rely on the LORD (20:2)
  2. The LORD is omniscient (20:3–8)
    • The House of Jacob has and will be shown things to come (20:3,6)
    • The LORD revealed things to come to convince obstinate people that He is god, and they should rely on Him rather than upon their idols or their own wisdom (20:4–7)
    • Israel has seen prophecy fulfilled and has been told of the future, and yet they would not hear; this the LORD also knew (20:8)
  3. The LORD‘s love for His covenant people (20:9–11)
    • The House of Jacob will be spared and refined in the furnace of affliction (20:9–10)
    • The LORD will not allow His name or his people to be polluted (20:11)
  4. The omnipotence of the LORD (20:12–21)
    • He created the earth and the heavens, and they obey Him (20:12–13)
    • He raised up a servant to declare His word (20:14–17)
      • By the beloved servant the LORD will fulfill His words against Babylon (20:14)
      • The servant will declare God’s word and will be prospered by God (20:15)
      • The servant was sent by the LORD (20:17)
    • The LORD teaches the people the way they should go (20:17)
    • Blessings are enumerated that Israel might have had if they had hearkened to the LORD (20:18–19)
    • A warning to flee wickedness and testify of the LORD‘s redemption of this people (20:20–21)
  5. The warning of the LORD: “There is no peace… unto the wicked” (20:22)
    (The ideas for the above content are sourced from Dennis Largey’s Book of Mormon Reference Companion4 )

A Comparison Between Book of Mormon Variants and King James, Iaaiah Chapter 48

By way of background for 1 Nephi 20–21, as Joseph Smith translated this part of the Book of Mormon, these words of Isaiah were dictated as a single chapter. Only later in 1879, by assignment from President John Taylor, Orson Pratt made much shorter chapters in the Book of Mormon.

This broke up the continuity of Isaiah’s message, (see Royal Skousen, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies). We suggest you read the three verses beginning at 1 Ne 19:22  and continue to the end of 1 Ne 21 as a single continuous unit.

1 Nephi, Chapter 20King James, Isaiah Chapter 48Notes and Commentary
The Lord reveals His purposes to Israel—Israel has been chosen in the furnace of affliction and is to go forth from Babylon—Compare Isaiah 48. About 588–570 B.C.
(Changes made by Joseph Smith are in [brackets] or are stricken through)
The Lord reveals His purposes to Israel—Israel has been chosen in the furnace of affliction and is to depart from Babylon—Compare 1 Nephi 20.A major difficulty in understanding the book of Isaiah is his extensive use of symbolism, as well as his prophetic foresight and literary style; these take many local themes (which begin in his own day) and extend them to a latter-day fulfillment or application. Consequently, some prophecies are probably fulfilled more than one time and/or have more than one application” (Bible Dictionary, “Isaiah”).
Jehovah’s servant calls on Jacob/Israel to forsake its idols and return in a new exodus out of Babylon.4

Judah’s Apostasy (Isaiah 48:1–8)Verses 1–2: Covenant Israel Has Apostatized 

1a 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 b baptism], who cswear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear dnot in truth nor in righteousness.1 Hear ye this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the awaters of Judah, which bswear by the name of the Lord, and make cmention of the God of Israel, but not in truth, nor in righteousness.bDaniel Ludlow says the phrase “or out of the waters of baptism” did not appear in the first edition of the Book of Mormon. (A Companion To Your Study of the Book of Mormon, p120)
McConkie and Millet said that it first appeared in the 1840 and 1842 editions this way [in red]: “(or out of the waters of baptism)” and then again without parentheses in the 1920 editions and all editions thereafter. They state it is prophetic commentary by Joseph Smith to call “our attention to the fact that the ordinance of baptism was as common to the people of the Old Testament as it was” to those of the Book of MormonDoctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon 1:151–52
2 Nevertheless, they call themselves of the aholy city, [but they do bnot ] stay themselves upon the God of Israel, who is the Lord of Hosts; yea, the Lord of Hosts is his name.2 For they call themselves of the aholy city, and bstay themselves upon the God of Israel; The Lord of hosts is his name.aholy city: Jerusalem
bstay themselves upon: IE pretend to rely upon.
This is similar to the condemnation of Jerusalem made by Lehi and other Prophets (see 1 Nephi 1:1318–19). Knowing Why, p. 57, and could be a form of condemnation of Laman and Lemuel.
bnot TG Hypocrisy.
W. Cleon Skousen writes: “Notice that the absence of the word “not” in the King James translation almost makes the verse meaningless. The Book of Mormon corrects this error. (Isaiah Speaks to Modern Times, p. 603 )Ludlow says: “In these two verses [1–2], Isaiah identifies various parties who should be honoring their vows with God.” (Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, p. 38)

Reading just these two verses makes me want to ask why Nephi quoted this to his brothers and to his people? Was he warning them not to apostatize like the people back in Jerusalem? Is he speaking to us as Latter-day Saints to warn us of apostasy too?

Verses 3–8:The Lord Knowing All, Uses That Power to Show Us He is God

3 Behold, I have declared the aformer things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I showed them. I did [show] them suddenly,3 I have adeclared the bformer things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I shewed them; I did them suddenly, and they came to pass.He said, “I have declared … things from the beginning,” that is, He spoke of them before their occurrence, and then “shewed them … suddenly” by bringing them to pass  (Old Testament Student Manual, “The Gathering of Isreal and the Coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 48–54)
4 And I did it because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy aneck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;4 Because I knew that athou art bobstinate, and thy cneck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brassThese opening comments, “though addressed to all Israel, seem to speak directly to the rebellious and stubborn members of Nephi’s family” and “fits Nephi’s older brothers Laman and Lemuel perfectly.”(Andrew Skinner, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon p 100)
5 And I have even from the beginning declared to thee; before it came to pass I ashowed 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.5 I have even from the beginning declared it to thee; before it came to pass I shewed it thee: lest thou shouldest say, Mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, and my molten image, hath commanded them.This He had done, He said, lest
the apostates should say, “Mine idol hath done them” (v. 5) (Old Testament Student Manual, “The Gathering of Isreal and the Coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 48–54)
6 Thou hast seen and heard all this; and will ye anot declare them? And that I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them.6 Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have shewed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them. a1 Cor 9: 16 For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!
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.7 They are created now, and not from the beginning; even before the day when thou heardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them.“Behold, I knew them” (v. 7), that is to say, “I already knew that.” The Lord then promised to defer His anger but utterly refused to give His glory to false gods or to suffer His name to be polluted (compare v. 11 with 1 Nephi 20:11). Thus the Lord’s purpose for revealing the future unto man is partly made clear: it is the solid proof that He is truly God, for no mute idol could possibly duplicate such a feat.   (Old Testament Student Manual, Kings–Malachi, “The Gathering of Isreal and the Coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 48–54)
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 atransgressor from the womb.8 Yea, thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from that time that thine ear was not opened: for I knew that thou wouldest deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the awomb.awomb: Ps 58:3 The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.

We are just 8 verses into 1 Ne 20 and have seen how Israel was warned of God’s foreknowledge of their apostasy and how Nephi warns his people of the same potential, especially his older brothers. At the same time, he is inviting them to start anew as a covenant people.

Verses 9–11: Through Our Afflictions, the Lord Make Us His Chosen PeopleThe Lord Loves Covenant Israel

9 Nevertheless, for my aname’s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain from thee, that I cut thee not off.9 ¶ For my aname’s sake will I defer mine banger, and for my praise will I refrain for thee, that I cut thee not off.Elder James E. Talmage quoted Smith’s Comprehensive Dictionary of the Bible, to explain: “Name in the scriptures not only [means] that by which a person is designated, but frequently [means] all that is known to belong to the person having this designation, and the person himself. Thus ‘the name of God’ or ‘of Jehovah,’ etc., indicates His authority (Deut. 18:20Matt. 21:9, etc.), His dignity and glory (Isa. 48:9, etc.), His protection and favor (Prov. 18:10, etc.), His character (Exo. 34:5, 14, compare 6, 7, etc.), His divine attributes in general (Matt. 6:9, etc.), etc. The Lord is said to set or put His name where the revelation or manifestation of His perfections is made (Deut. 12:514:24, etc.).
10 For, behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of aaffliction.10 Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the afurnace of baffliction.Most of us experience some measure of what the scriptures call “the furnace of affliction”  …Through the justice and mercy of a loving Father in Heaven, the refinement and sanctification possible through such experiences can help us achieve what God desires us to become. Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, Nov.  2000
“…if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery. …I love the verse of ‘How Firm a Foundation’When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’er flow
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miraclep 98
(Also see: “The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design, thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine” Hymns, no. 85)

Note how Isaiah’s metaphor introduced back in verse 4 still applies—those whose necks are iron and whose brows are brass need to be melted down and made pliable in the furnace of affliction—Bytheway, Isaiah for Airheads, Kindle Edition
The Savior’s “mission is to cleanse, purify, and refine the human soul so that it can return to his Father’s kingdom in purity, free from dross. (3 Ne. 27:19–21.) His cleansing power ‘is like a refiner’s fire, … And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver’ in that great day when he comes to judge the world. (Mal. 3:2–33 Ne. 24:2–3D.&C. 128:24)” Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 624

 11 For mine own sake, yea, for mine own sake will I do [this], for [I will not suffer my aname to be polluted], and I will bnot give my glory unto another.11 For mine own asake, even for mine own sake, will I do it: for how should my bname be polluted? and I will not cgive my glory unto another.The Luther Bible translates this: “lest my name be slandered for not keeping my promise.” David J. Ridges, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon Made Easier, p 130The names of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, are sacred. The prophet Isaiah taught that the Lord will not suffer these names to be dishonored—“polluted” as the scriptures say. (See 1 Ne. 20:11Isa. 48:11.) Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign, May 1986, p 49

Verses 12–21: The Lord Is All-Powerful (He Is Omnipotent)

12 Hearken unto me, O Jacob, and Israel my called, for I am he; I am the first, and I am also the last.  12 ¶ Hearken unto me, O Jacob and Israel, my called; I am he; I am the first, I also am the last.  “I am He” The Lord reaffirms His identity. The Lord told Moses that his name was “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), and the phrase “I am” appears three times in verse 12. The Lord is the creator of the earth and the heavens. All the elements in the universe listen to and obey the Lord.—Bytheway, Isaiah for Airheads, Kindle Edition
13 Mine hand hath also laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spanned the heavens. :  when I call unto them and they stand up together. 13 Mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the aearth, and my right hand hath spanned the heavens: when I call unto them, they stand up together. In the previous verse “The Lord declares He is the First and the Last” then in this verse, ” He is the God of the Old Testament—Jehovah—as well as the Savior of the New Testament—Jesus Christ! By His right, or covenant, hand He has created all things. He reminds His chosen (called) people that His creations obey Him.” —Hoyt W. Brewster, Isaiah Plain & Simplep 181
14  All ye, assemble yourselves, and hear; [who] among them hath declared these things [unto them]? The Lord hath loved him; [yea, and he will fulfil his word which he hath declared by them]; and he will do his pleasure on Babylon, and his arm shall come upon the Chaldeans.14 All ye, assemble yourselves, and hear; which among them hath declared these things? The Lord hath loved him: he will do his apleasure on bBabylon, and his arm shall be on the Chaldeans.  The most important point in this verse  is that the Lord will fulfill his word which his servants and prophets have declared, and “will do his pleasure on Babylon.” In D&C 133:14, the Lord’s people are told to “go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon.”—Bytheway, Isaiah for Airheads, Kindle EditionThe LDS Bible footnote aGod will use the Persian King Cyrus will do his desire, or wish.
15  Also, saith the Lord; I the Lord, yea, I have spoken; yea, I have called him to declare, I have brought him, and he shall make his way prosperous. 15 I, even I, have spoken; yea, I have called him: I have brought him, and he shall make his way prosperous.In addition to “him” being Cyrus, Monte Nyman believes “him” could be Israel. Great are the Words of Isaiah p 171. Victor Ludlow believes the description best fits the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Isaiah, Prophet, Seer and Poet, 405
David J. Ridges, suggests it “could also mean that Heavenly Father called Christ to prophesy; also that Christ called Isaiah prophesy.—Isaiah in the Book of Mormon Made Easier, p 131
16 Come ye near unto me; hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret; from the beginning, from the time that it was declared have I spoken; and the Lord God, and his Spirit, hath sent me.16 ¶ Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in asecret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord God, and his Spirit, hath bsent me.The intent in the Book of Mormon is that the Lord has spoken openly and not in secret, and that his spoken openly from the time that the prophecies were first declared. The intent is again that Israel shall have no excuse for not knowing that the Lord was the source of the prophecies. H. Clay Gorton, The Legacy of the Brass Plates of Laban, p 102
17  [And] thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; [I have sent him], the Lord thy God [who] teacheth thee to profit, who leadeth thee by the way thou shouldst go, [hath done it].  17 Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which aleadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go.In these verses, the Lord is speaking of His prophets who have “declared” what the Lord has revealed to them. He loves them and will “fulfil” all his words which they have spoken. Thomas R. Valletta, The Book of Mormon for Latter-day Saint Familiesp 62
The Lord’s counsel and commandments are always for the blessing (profit) of the obedient,  while they who reject his words sow the seeds of sorrow and disappointment. (See Hymns 239, Choose the Right)—Hoyt W. Brewster, Isaiah Plain & Simple,p 183
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.18 O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! then had thy apeace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea:In verses 18 and 19, Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, laments the wonderful blessings that the wicked Israelites are throwing away. He compares the peace of righteousness that the Israelites could obtain to an endlessly flowing river and to infinitely rolling waves of the sea. Ludlow, Unlocking Isaiah in the Book of Mormonp 46
19 Thy seed also had been as the sand; and the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me.19 Thy aseed also had been as the sand, and the offspring of thy bowels like the gravel thereof; his name should not have been cut off nor destroyed from before me.We will be heirs to the Abrahamic promises: we will have descendants as numerous as the sands of the seashore, and an everlasting name before God—Parry, Donald W., Understanding Isaiah, Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
20 Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye: The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.20 ¶ Go ye forth of aBabylon, flee ye from the bChaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.[Verse 19] is unmistakable Abrahamic language, language we’re all quite familiar with. …cast somewhat negatively here, since Israel hasn’t kept the Lord’s commandments to them, and so they haven’t yet seen anything of the fulfillment of these promises. But Israel has another chance. Always another chance. They’re given a new commandment: “Go ye forth of Babylon! Flee ye from the Chaldeans!”—Spencer, Joseph M., The Vision of All, Greg Kofford Books. Kindle Edition.
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.21 And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts: he caused the awaters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out.Perhaps Isaiah is reminding covenant Israel what Jehovah did for them when Moses led them out of bondage—another example of his power (see Exodus 17:1–6Numbers 20:11). Water from a rock could be a symbol of the Living Water that comes from Christ, who is also the “rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1).—Bytheway, Isaiah for Airheads, Kindle Edition

Verse 22: The Lord Warns Covenant Israel

22 [And notwithstanding he hath done all this, and greater also], there is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.22 There is no apeace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked. Despite seeing great miracles of deliverance, some in Israel continue in wickedness. Miracles do not bring peace of soul to those who continue in sin (57:21; 1 Ne. 20:22; Alma 41:10).—Parry, Donald W., Understanding Isaiah, Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
Click here to begin Isaiah 49 →

Nephi’s Motivation for Using Isaiah

Nephi’s decision to quote Isaiah wasn’t simply historical documentation. He aimed to “more fully persuade his brethren to believe in the LORD the Redeemer.” Similar to Isaiah’s audience, some of Nephi’s people struggled with faith. By presenting these ancient prophecies, Nephi hoped to strengthen their belief and offer a glimpse into their future as part of the larger covenant people of God.

In Conclusion

1 Nephi 20 serves as a powerful testament to the interconnectedness of God’s dealings with His children throughout history. Through the words of Isaiah, Nephi provides a message of hope, warning, and ultimately, the promise of redemption for all who turn to God. Ultimately, Nephi hoped these words would ignite a flame of trust and belief, reminding his people of God’s love, power, and promises.

Sources:

Bytheway, John, Isaiah For Airheads, Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
Royal Skousen, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7/1 (1998)
Spencer, Joseph M., The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, Greg Kofford Books
4 Dennis Largey’s Book of Mormon Reference Companion,” Deseret Book, pp. 345–352

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Search Isaiah is a resource for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to dive into the book of Isaiah. By sharing a vast range of resources including study guides, articles, podcasts, and more, we hope to provide readers with ways to search the book of Isaiah. While Search Isaiah strives to support the mission of the Church, it is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Search Isaiah is supported by Mobaliz, an agency that supports organizations that are hastening His Work.

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