The Purpose of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon
Why do Book of Mormon prophets quote 475 verses from Isaiah, a full 1/3 of his book? Yes, the Savior did say that "great are the words of Isaiah" (3 Ne. 23:1), but Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi, and Alma had already been using this prophet's words more than any other. Yes, Isaiah was a relatively recent prophet for the early Nephites (about 100-150 years before Lehi), but Nephi reports "many prophets, prophesying unto the people" (1 Ne. 1:4) during his own time - Jeremiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah to name a few. Yes, Isaiah points us to the Savior - no doubt about that - but how and why? While scholars and students give many reasons for the presence of Isaiah, another reason has given me new insight into the inward struggles of the Nephites.
Nations throughout history - apologies for the anachronistic wording - often draw strength from a cultural narrative that defines their identity. Rome battled their way through the Punic wars to greatness and preserved the Greek myths, both of which shaped the way they saw the world and their place in it. The Jews identified themselves with the Exodus - God had promised them the southern Levant, and despite times of captivity to Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, or Persia, He always brought them back to their homeland. The concept of a "territorial" god was rampant throughout this time - gods were intimately tied to the land, not necessarily over the whole earth or over a certain people. If you lived in Babylon, you would worship Marduk, because he was the one who had power there. If you lived in the land of Israel, you worshiped Jehovah (and many Assyrians who moved in during the 8th century BC did just that - we know them as the Samaritans, but that's for another day).
Lehi and Nephi, as Jews following the Law of Moses, grew up listening to the accounts of their great father leading the children of Israel back to their promised land. They saw God as One who would allow scattering, but eventually bring them back home safely. Their story turned out to be much different. The Nephites never got to go back home to their home land and "home" god, and the prophets leading them understood that.
The Nephites have always asked, "Why were we scattered?" Laman and Lemuel start the questioning, but it seems that every group of people in the Americas were worried that they had been cast off from God. You can tell the issues the people are facing by the words the prophets are speaking to them (prophets speak to the needs of the people). So when Moroni writes that the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to "show that they are not cast off forever" (Title Page), it must have been a pressing concern. Nephi recognizes that they are a "branch who have been broken off" (1 Ne. 19:24). And Jacob exhorts his people to "not hang down [their] heads, for we are not cast off" (2 Ne. 10:20).
The Nephites leave Jerusalem, never to return, and settle in the promised land of the Americas. It isn't long before the factions divide and the Lamanites push them out of their lands and up into the Land of Nephi. After a time, the Lamanites invade the Land of Nephi, and the Nephites gather to Zarahemla. From Zarahemla, they are pushed to Bountiful, and eventually out of Bountiful into the land northward. Each time the Nephites are never brought back to their "home" land. They are constantly scattered throughout the entirety of the Book of Mormon.
So why is Isaiah in the Book of Mormon? One reason is that Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet that had a unique ability to talk about Jesus Christ as a Redeemer for all His people. Of the 16 times that the word "Redeemer" is used in the O.T., 13 of them are by Isaiah. "Redeem" means to buy back, or to restore. Isaiah's words have great power in convincing the reader that despite where you are, how old you are, where you've been, how smart you are, what you've done, when you live, or whatever your situation, Jesus Christ - an all-powerful God - cares deeply about you. He has purchased you with His blood and has the power to restore you to your true Home Land - the Celestial Kingdom.
Isaiah 52 is a prime example of this. It is the most quoted chapter in the Book of Mormon, and used by Nephi, Jacob, Abinadi, Alma, Moroni, and even the Savior Himself. I'd love to touch on them all, but I hope the Savior's use of Isaiah will be sufficient for now. In 3 Nephi 20, the Savior adapts Isaiah's language to emphasize the covenant relationship with the Father. Isaiah doesn't use the word "father," but Jesus uses it often to show that God will not forget His people, just as a father would not forget his child. Jesus excludes verses 4 and 5 of Isaiah 52, possibly because they include the idea of the people's experience as a "sojourn," suggesting a temporary absence from home. The Nephite scattering isn't temporary, so Jesus doesn't include it. After teaching about the scattering of Israel, He specifically reminds them that "the Father hath commanded me that I should give unto you this land, for your inheritance" (3 Ne. 20:14, emphasis added). "Sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the Father hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem. The Father hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of the Father" (3. Ne. 20:34-35, emphasis added). While the Nephites won't return to their initial homeland, their scattering helps fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant: "In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed" (3 Ne. 20:27). Jesus exhorts that all should awake, put on their strength, and be clean (3 Ne. 30:36,41). Most of this is quoted directly from Isaiah 52.
This is much longer than I thought I'd write, and the next posts will be shorter, I promise... There is a theme of scattering in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites were frightened of being cut off, and that terror reaches to our present day. We may feel abandoned or distanced from God. We may feel we cannot achieve what we know we should. We may be scared of the future and think "If only I could go back to _______, where I was comfortable and happy." We may feel our lives are scattered and we don't know the direction we should go.
Isaiah is used so much in the Book of Mormon to make sure we understand that there is a Redeemer who will succor us no matter where we are. "They may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands" (1 Ne. 21:15-16 & Is. 49:15-16). "Awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled" (Mor. 10:31 & Is. 52:1-2, 54:2,4). "For the Lord shall comfort Zion.... The redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy and holiness shall be upon their heads; and they shall obtain gladness and joy; sorrow and mourning shall flee away" (2 Ne. 8:3,11 & Is. 51:3,11).
I hope as you come to the glorious Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon, you'll be touched by all that God is doing to comfort us and bring us back to Him. Isaiah is filled with it. He is doing everything He can, and expects us to wake up, stand up, recognize our worth, and be what we are meant to be - children of God.