1 Nephi 20:10. "I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction" No one in his right mind would choose to be in a furnace. Most of us have never been that cold. But the Lord has a purpose in turning up the heat. When I read about the refiner's fire, I'm always reminded of the words of the hymn "How Firm a Foundation": "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. Ouch!
1 Nephi 20:11. "I will not suffer my name to be polluted" How could we pollute the Lord's name? Perhaps by using it in vain, or by calling ourselves by His name without really relying on Him (as in verses 1–2). Also, note that the Lord told Abraham, "I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee"(Abraham 1:18; emphasis added), which indicates that the Lord's "name" could refer to the Lord's power or to the priesthood.
Verses 12–21: The Lord Is All-Powerful (He Is Omnipotent)
1 Nephi 20:12–13. "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. Also, the right hand is the covenant hand, and in this verse the Creator is reminding Israel of his covenant obligation to them and their obligation to Him.
1 Nephi 20:14. Who belongs to all these pronouns? There are a lot of unspecified "them's" and "him's" in this verse. The fact is, even the scholars aren't certain who is being referred to in all these cases. Here's a possible explanation:
All ye (the Lord's people) assemble yourselves and hear. Who among them (your graven images) hath declared these things unto Israel (covenant Israel)? The Lord hath loved him; yea, and will fulfill his word which he hath declared by them.
"The Lord hath loved him . . ." Who's "him"? Perhaps an unspecified servant of the Lord; perhaps "him" is the house of Israel, or it could be referring to Cyrus, a future king who will conquer Babylon and who will in time allow the Jews to return from captivity. Perhaps it's referring to all three!
The most important point in this verse, however, is that the Lord will fulfill his word which his servants and prophets have declared, and "will do his pleasure on Babylon." As you know, the name Babylon is often used as a synonym for wickedness or for the world. 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." So Isaiah is prophesying a coming event in his future and teaching us to flee wickedness in our present circumstances.
1 Nephi 20:15. "I have called him" Probably refers again to the servants/prophets mentioned in verse 14.
1 Nephi 20:18. "O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments" These words would have been helpful to Laman and Lemuel. If they would have kept the commandments, then their "peace [would have] been as a river, and [their] righteousness as the waves of the sea."
If you had to choose a metaphor for "peace," what would you choose? Isaiah made a wonderful choice. What's more peaceful than a gently flowing river? And what's more constant than the waves of the sea washing onto the shore? Just reading this verse makes me want to go on vacation. I have a CD of river sounds and another of ocean sounds that I play to help me get to sleep at night. Why are they effective? Because they're peaceful. The music store has other, more raucous CDs out there that would make falling asleep nearly impossible ("raucous and rollous" CDs).
1 Nephi 20:19. "Thy seed . . . as the sand" Posterity is a blessing promised to the righteous, as outlined the Abrahamic Covenant (see Genesis 12:1–3; Abraham 2:9–10). A righteous posterity will enjoy the blessings of the gospel now, while an unrighteous posterity will have to wait to be gathered.
1 Nephi 20:20. "Go ye forth of Babylon" This phrase sounds like both an admonition and a specific event. While Isaiah prophesies of the release of the Jewish captives from Babylon (537 B.C.), he is also telling future generations to leave spiritual Babylon behind. As noted, in our day, the Lord has said, "Go ye out from among the nations, even from Babylon, from the midst of wickedness, which is spiritual Babylon" (D&C 133:14).
1 Nephi 20:21. "Waters to flow out of the rock" 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 17:1–6; Numbers 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).
Verse 22: The Lord Warns Covenant Israel
1 Nephi 20:22. "There is no peace . . . unto the wicked" This statement reminds us of Alma's statement to his son Corianton, "wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10). History has shown that the children of God need to be constantly reminded of a seemingly obvious truth—you can't find happiness outside the plan of happiness. One cannot have a life of joy while living the plan of misery.
How Does This Tree Help Me Today?
While there may appear to be a scolding tone in this chapter (as in many chapters of Isaiah), the message is clearly one of hope. The Lord is powerful, he knows all things, and he is full of love for us. It would be difficult to have faith in a God who was only "pretty good" at keeping his promises or who was only semitrustworthy. Instead, we worship a God who is not just fairly competent at saving His children, but is "mighty to save" (2 Nephi 31:19). While the most we can do is to be willing, He is able. He has the power to deliver his people from bondage. He has done so, and will do so, if we will leave the false gods of the world behind and hearken to his commandments. Through his power, we can enjoy the promise of peace (like a river) and constant righteousness (like the waves of the sea).