Just as a reminder, Jesus is teaching the inhabitants of the Americas. In other chapters, he quotes portions of Isaiah, but here he quotes at length.
In 3 Nephi 23, Jesus says:
1 And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah.
2 For surely he spake as touching all things concerning my people which are of the house of Israel; atherefore it must needs be that he must speak also to the Gentiles.
We are commanded to search these things diligently, so let’s take a look.
As an introduction, I would like readers to consider that Isaiah is discussing three different groups of people. The first and most important group are the sheep that are lost, meaning the people who were once the House of Israel but have either strayed spiritually or have been separated physically from the rest of the House of Israel. The Nephites and Lamanites are lost in this sense. The second group is the gentiles, meaning people who have not had the Gospel but will play an important role in its restoration. The third group is the House of Israel.
Isaiah uses the metaphor of the House of Israel being “married” to the Lord a lot in this chapter. From the perspective of 8th century BC, marriage is the highest goal of successful adults. Therefore, seeing the Lord as you “husband” is intended to bring to the mind the idea that you have been successful in attaining your life’s greatest achievement. Just as it is important to have a successful marriage in the world, it is important to be successfully “married” to the Lord, meaning you are a follower and servant of Him. In contrast, being widowed or barren is seen as potentially shameful.
So, let’s take a look at the text.
1 And then shall that which is written come to pass: Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child; for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.
The “barren” are the lost people of the House of Israel. The message is: even though they are not “married” to the Lord, they are not lost. Even though they did not bring forth children as part of the House of Israel, they will still have reason to celebrate.
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes;
The lost people are expected to work. They cannot rest. They must work at spreading the Gospel, increasing the “tent” that contains the Church. In addition, this scripture is intended to bring to mind the idea that the House of Israel is expanding and will expand and includes the lost tribes.
3 For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left, and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
The expansion will include the lost people working with the Gentiles, who will bring about a restoration. This restoration will result in barren, abandoned cities growing and adding new residents and being rebuilt. (Think of the population of the barren parts of Central America or the once nearly abandoned Jerusalem).
4 Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed; neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
5 For thy maker, thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel—the God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.
8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
These five verses all emphasize the point that these people may think they are “lost” (both spiritually and physically), but they are not lost to the Lord. Even though they may be ashamed because of their earlier behavior of abandoning the Lord, the Lord will forgive them and they will take part in the gathering. They are “widows” to the Lord because they feel as if their “marriage” with the Lord has ended, but in reality the lord will have kindness and mercy on these people.
9 For this, the waters of Noah unto me, for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee.
10 For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.
The Lord has made a “covenant of peace” with these people that they would not be abandoned. The Lord remembers his people. So just as the Lord covenanted that he would never flood the entire Earth again, he covenanted with these people that they would not be forgotten. Notice the repetition of the idea of the flood covering everything in verse 9 and the “departing” of the mountains and hills in verse 10. Mountains are a symbol of permanence, but nothing in the world, even a mountain, is as permanent as a covenant with the Lord.
11 O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
12 And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
The Book of Mormon reminds us repeatedly that we should not value jewels, silver and gold. Yet here Jesus is quoting Isaiah who says we should value gems and precious stones (this is the meaning of “carbuncles.”) On the simplest level, these verses are a reference to valuing the Lord and your relationship to him. On a deeper level, these verses are a reference to valuing the temple, which is a place of physical beauty on the Earth. The people who are tempest-tossed can look forward to physical beauty and peace in the temple.
13 And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
The descendents of these lost people will be taught of the Lord, either in the temple, in the Church or in the Spirit World.
14 In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee.
15 Behold, they shall surely gather together against thee, not by me; whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
By serving the Lord in righteousness, we will not be oppressed and will not be terrorized. People who try to attack you will fail if you are loyal to the Lord.
16 Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy
The image of the first part of this verse should bring to mind a metalworker working in his shop, blowing the coals to make them hotter. Readers in the 8th century would have seen him making a sword or a weapon of some kind. This “instrument” is an important work for the Lord. In contrast, the Lord also allows the “waster” to exist. The “smith” is preparing a weapon to take on the “waster.” Malachi uses the word “devourer,” which I think is even better. (I would be interested to know if “waster” and “devourer” are the same words in Hebrew). So on the one hand we have servants of the Lord working on something to further the Lord’s work, and on the other we have the adversary of the Lord being allowed to exist. But the Lord is in control.
17 No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall revile against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.
The “waster” will not be successful. The true servants of the Lord will have the power to judge and condemn the people arrayed against them.
Closing thought: is the “smith” Joseph Smith? We know that the Book of Mormon mentions the fact that the restorer of the Book of Mormon will be named Joseph. Is it possible that the translators of the King James Bible deliberately used the name “smith” for prophetic reasons? What do you think?