Nephi’s unshakable faith in the face of hardships and opposition equaled his abilities and talents as a teacher. To him, the obstacles he encountered in the wilderness served as stepping stones in his spiritual climb upward and as the occasion for his growing in the grace of God. The Lord empowered and enlightened him in direct proportion to Nephi’s faithfulness in serving him and in fulfilling his will at all costs. As an able “ruler” and consummate “teacher” (1 Nephi 2:22), Nephi brought to bear a complete understanding of the scriptures and added many of his own. Rather than use his writings as a proof text to support our own preconceived ideas, therefore, we might ask, What is he trying to tell us by presenting these things the way he does?
Nephi’s love of and reliance on the words of Isaiah are evident. As with his own writing, his quoting Isaiah is prompted by an ever-present concern for the future welfare of the house of Israel, particularly his and his brothers’ descendants. The fact that some things Nephi quotes from Isaiah are enigmatic or obscure to us doesn’t make them less significant to him or to the final outcome of his people’s history. The key to all of Nephi’s words, especially when he is forbidden to say things outright, lies in the web of interconnections they form with his own and other prophets’ writings. Only by piecing these together like a jigsaw puzzle can we effectively discover what he is saying.
Of course, if the future were clearly spelled out, there would be no test of faith for those living at that time, which would destroy the purposes of the Lord. And so the Lord withholds things, or speaks in part or in allegory, so that only those who diligently seek the truth will find it. At the same time, the scriptures contain enough ambiguity so as to satisfy others who are content with what they have. When this pattern—of some continuing to learn and others not—is perpetuated for a while, and then the Lord suddenly reveals something new, those in the act of seeking the truth will gladly receive it, having already gained some understanding of it, and being now desirous to receive more. Those not seeking the truth, on the other hand, will reject it, being unprepared and unequipped to deal with many new things all at once.
A type and shadow of this pattern of acceptance and rejection occurred when the Book of Mormon itself first came forth. Of all people, professors of religion most opposed the new revelation and fought against it, thinking they knew all there was to know. An even more far-reaching version of this scenario, however, will occur before the Lord’s coming to reign on the earth. Events will so divide humanity that many who once called themselves the Lord’s people will join forces with the “great and abominable church, the whore of all the earth,” and end up “fighting against Zion” (cf. 1 Nephi 22:13–14; 2 Nephi 10:16). Nephi provides insights into that time by connecting a number of future events to the Lord’s revealing or making bare his “arm.”
At the time the Lord performs a “great and marvelous work among the Gentiles,” he says, the Lord will “make bare his arm in the eyes of all nations, in bringing about his covenants and his gospel unto those who are of the house of Israel” (1 Nephi 22:8–11). This will lead directly to the house of Israel (the Jews, Lamanites, and Ten Tribes) coming “out of obscurity and out of darkness,” recognizing “that the Lord is their Savior and Redeemer,” and gathering “to the lands of their inheritance” (1 Nephi 22:12). It also results, simultaneously, in the destruction of the great and abominable church “by fire” (1 Nephi 22:13–19; cf. D&C 29:21).
John, who saw what Nephi saw (1 Nephi 14:24–27), describes the great whore as sitting upon “many waters,” which are the peoples of the earth (Revelation 17:1, 15; 1 Nephi 14:10–11). She is identical with the harlot Babylon in the Book of Isaiah, who is burned with fire and ends up in the dust (Isaiah 47:1–15; Revelation 17:5, 16; D&C 86:3). The Lord’s “making bare his arm” and performing a “great and marvelous work,” which are conjoined ideas (1 Nephi 22:8–11; 3 Nephi 20:35; 21:9), similarly originate in the Book of Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 29:14; 52:10).
Even as fire destroys the “whore,” or the wicked of the world, it also preserves the righteous (1 Nephi 22:15–17; cf. D&C 35:7–15). Elsewhere, Nephi says that the wicked are destroyed “by fire” and the righteous are spared on the heels of a “great division among the people,” when the prophecies of Isaiah are fulfilled (2 Nephi 30:10). A Book of Mormon type of this latter-day “great division” occurs when believers among Lehi’s descendants separate from disbelievers (4 Nephi 1:35–39). A type of the righteous being preserved by fire occurs when the brothers Nephi and Lehi are protected from the Lamanites by pillars of fire (Helaman 5:23–24, 43–44).
Nephi again places the destruction of the “great and abominable church” at the time the Lord performs a “great and a marvelous work,” a work that will be “everlasting, either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds unto their being brought down into captivity, and also into destruction” (1 Nephi 14:7–17). At that time, the power of God will descend “upon the saints and upon the covenant people of the Lord,” whose lives are preserved (1 Nephi 14:14).
According to Isaiah, the Lord’s “making bare his arm” leads directly to a new exodus of the Lord’s people out of Babylon on the eve of Babylon’s destruction (Isaiah 52:10–12; cf. 48:20–21). A biblical type of that event was the Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt, when the Lord took “a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a stretched out arm, and by great terrors” as they set out for the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 4:34; cf. 7:19; 11:2–5; Isaiah 63:11–14).
Jesus’ words concerning “a great and a marvelous work” and God’s baring his “arm” describe a similar division that occurs between believers, who participate in a new exodus, and disbelievers, who are destroyed (3 Nephi 16:10–20; 20:28–42; 21:9–29). As in Nephi’s version, the believers are the house of Israel and those who are numbered with them, while the disbelievers are many of the Gentiles (3 Nephi 16:10–13; 20:28–31; 21:9–11, 20–22).