Back in February, I wrote an article that I called “Three Different Ensigns to the Nations.” Then I found a fourth ensign, so I rewrote that post. I may still find more. We’ll see.
Four Different “Ensigns to the Nations”
in the Isaiah Chapters of the
Book of Mormon
by F. Allan Roth
The Book of Mormon quotes extensively from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, including several chapters quoted more or less in their entirety. One phrase that is well-known, even though it appears only twice in those “Isaiah chapters” is the phrase “an ensign to the nations.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has named a magazine after that phrase. Early pioneers named a mountain after it, and at least one well-loved hymn was based on it (“High On A Mountain Top”).
However, even though the words “ensign to the nations” appear only twice in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 15:26 and 2 Nephi 21:12), at least four different “ensigns” are mentioned in the Isaiah chapters of the Book of Mormon. When we understand how each of those ensigns is different, and how each one presages a different event in both temporal history and in the spiritual growth of both ancient and modern Israel, we will better understand the Book of Mormon and the people whose record it is.
One problem that makes it difficult to recognize all four of the different ensigns is that the translators of the King James Version of the Holy Bible used different English words to translate the same Hebrew word. The Hebrew word nês which was translated as ensign in two verses was translated as banner in another verse and standard in still another. Since the Book of Mormon follows the language of the King James Version fairly closely, the difficulty in recognizing them
In Isaiah’s day (and in Nephi’s), an ensign was a battle flag. An ensign could be raised to gather soldiers to “rally ’round the flag,” or it could be raised to gather people for some other purpose. In the chapters of Isaiah that Nephi quoted, two of the ensigns are battle flags, calling people of the world to war. The other two are gathering flags, calling people of the world together.
These ensigns are found in the following chapters:
|Ensign||B. of M. Chapter||Isaiah Chapter||Purpose|
|First Battle Ensign||2 Nephi 15||Isaiah 5||Scattering of Israel and Judah|
|First Gathering Ensign||2 Nephi 21||Isaiah 11||Gathering of Israel and Judah|
|Second Gathering Ensign||1 Nephi 21 and 2 Nephi 6||Isaiah 49||Call the Gentiles to help gather Israel|
|Second Battle Ensign||2 Nephi 23||Isaiah 13||Final destruction of the wicked|
The First Battle Ensign
The first battle ensign is described in 2 Nephi 15:24–30. This ensign is clearly a battle flag by the way it is described.
24 Therefore, as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, their root shall be rottenness, and their blossoms shall go up as dust; because they have cast away the law of the Lord of Hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
25 Therefore, is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them; and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.[Note 1]
26 And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth; and behold, they shall come with speed swiftly; none shall be weary nor stumble among them.
27 None shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken;
28 Whose arrows shall be sharp, and all their bows bent, and their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind, their roaring like a lion.
29 They shall roar like young lions; yea, they shall roar, and lay hold of the prey, and shall carry away safe, and none shall deliver.
30 And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea; and if they look unto the land, behold, darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.
In order to understand the meaning of the ensign in this passage, it is first necessary to read the parable of the vineyard at the beginning of chapter 15. In that parable, Isaiah sings of his “wellbeloved” (the Lord) and His vineyard (Israel).
The parable says that the Lord has done much for His vineyard. He has built protective fences and hedges around it to keep out the animals that might eat the vines. He has picked the stones out of the soil (a mighty task, since the Holy Land is well blessed with stones). He has planted the choicest vines in this vineyard, built a tower so a watchman on the tower could keep out intruders, and then he built a winepress in anticipation of the coming harvest.
But instead of bringing forth fruit worthy of all the effort He had put into it, the Lord’s vineyard brought forth wild grapes (verse 2).
Beginning in verse 5, the Lord announces what He will do to His vineyard for being so unproductive. First, He will take away the protective hedge around it, so that animals can come in and eat the vines, and He will break down the wall around it that was built to keep out intruders. Then, He will lay it waste and neither prune nor cultivate it, allowing weeds to thrive where grape vines once grew.
And finally, after the wild animals have eaten the vines, and after briers and thorns have infested the ground, He will command the rain not to fall on His vineyard, so that even the roots will dry up and die.
Then verses 9 through 12 list additional afflictions that the Lord will impose upon Israel, and then verse 13 announces that His people are going to go into captivity.
That is the background for the prophecy of the first ensign to the nations.
Just as the parable of the vineyard described the Lord’s anger against His wayward people, verse 24 says that His apostate people will be burned like stubble. Verse 25 re-states that the Lord’s anger is directed against “his people,” and He has “stretched forth his hand against them.” The ensign lifted up in verse 26 is NOT lifted up to gather God’s people; it is lifted up to gather “the nations” to fight against God’s people. The Hebrew words used in this verse[Note 2] specifically refer to an ensign to the Gentile nations. (The Hebrew word, goyim, which today is still commonly used to refer to Gentiles, literally means “the nations.”)
God will “hiss” (i.e., whistle) to call the Gentile nations “from the end of the earth” the way a hunter might whistle to his dogs. And they shall come! They will come swiftly to God’s call. None of the invaders will be weary or sleepy. None will even stumble. And all will come ready to fight. Not one belt will be unbuckled nor one shoelace broken. Their arrows will be sharp, their bows will be strung and ready, and they will come prepared to capture and destroy the apostate people who were once God’s chosen.
This mighty Gentile army will come like lions, ready to grab their prey, and the prey will be the Jews. There will be nobody to protect the Jews, so the invaders will be able to capture their prey and safely march away with them. There will be no one to deliver the Jews from God’s righteous anger. The invaders will leave the land dark and sorrowful behind them.
When will this prophesied destruction occur? Because of the captivity mentioned in verse 13, it may have already occurred. The most likely interpretation of this prophecy is that it was predicting the destruction and captivity of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (around 720 BC) and the capture of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians (around 590 BC). It might also be interpreted as a prophecy of the later destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (around 70 AD), when the Jewish nation was finally destroyed and scattered.
I think it is possible that the headnotes to 2 Nephi 15 might have confused this battle ensign with the first gathering ensign, described in 2 Nephi 21. The headnotes to chapter 15 say that “The Lord will lift an ensign and gather Israel.” It’s easy to see the phrase “ensign to the nations” and mistakenly think “gathering of Israel.” But to me, this chapter does not seem to prophesy the peaceful gathering of Israel; it seems to predict the violent scattering of Israel. It prophesies the gathering of a vast army of marauding Gentiles who would enslave and scatter a people ripened in iniquity. The war ensign described in this chapter ushered in a punishment of apostate Israel and seems to me to have served a totally different purpose than the gathering ensign, which will be raised to gather Israel to Zion.
However, since the prophecies of Isaiah apply to our time, as well as to Isaiah’s or Nephi’s times, there is an implicit warning in this prophecy. Just as God’s anger was kindled against His people when they went astray twenty-six hundred years ago, His anger could be kindled against His people again today if we become ripened in iniquity. We also could be scattered and destroyed if we were to fall away from our covenants with the Lord. God is the same today, yesterday, and forever.
How much more wicked will we need to become before God cuts down our hedge and allows the beasts of the field to eat us?
Who will be our Babylonians?
The First Gathering Ensign
The next ensign, which I call the first gathering ensign, is described in 2 Nephi 21:10–16 (Isaiah 11).
10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek; and his rest shall be glorious.
11 And it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.
12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
13 The envy of Ephraim also shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.
14 But they shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines towards the west; they shall spoil them of the east together; they shall lay their hand upon Edom and Moab; and the children of Ammon shall obey them.
15 And the Lord shall utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with his mighty wind he shall shake his hand over the river, and shall smite it in the seven streams, and make men go over dry shod.
16 And there shall be a highway for the remnant of his people which shall be left, from Assyria, like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.
There are two ensigns in this passage Verse 10 states that a root of Jesse will stand as one “ensign of the people” (nês lə ‘am·mîm).[Note 3] The Gentiles will seek (and presumably find) this ensign. Nephi says that the Lord will actually set the Gentiles “up for a standard” (1 Nephi 22:6).
Verse 11 makes it clear that “in that day” (i.e., at the same time the Gentiles begin to gather with Israel), the Lord will set his hand “the second time” to recover the remnant of God’s people from wherever they have been scattered across the earth.
The Hebrew phrase nês lag·gō·w·yim that Isaiah used in verse 12 of this chapter is precisely the same phrase that was translated as “an ensign to the nations” in chapter 15. Both the “outcasts of Israel” and the “dispersed of Judah”[Note 4] will gather to this ensign from whatsoever Gentile nations in which they have been outcast, scattered, or dispersed. From all over the earth they will come. The “ten Lost Tribes” will come from the north; I assume the descendants of Lehi will come from the Americas; those who followed Hagoth will come from the isles of the sea (Alma 63:5–10); and all other branches of Israel that the Lord has broken off will come from their respective corners of the Lord’s vineyard, whether near or far. Together, the tribes of Israel will gather with the faithful Gentiles who have joined Israel to be adopted in with God’s chosen people.
However, this ensign is not necessarily signaling to the Gentiles of those nations, but to the dispersed Hebrews who live among the Gentile nations. Verse 11 says that the Lord is going to recover “the remnant of his people which shall be left,” and verse 12 states that both Israel and Judah will be gathered out from all parts of the earth. In the latter days, when the children of Jacob are gathered, the two ancient kingdoms, which had been traditional enemies for hundreds of years, will be reunited once again. This unification will eliminate the ancient enmity that previously existed between the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ephraim (the lead tribe of the kingdom of Israel) will no longer envy Judah, and Judah will no longer vex Ephraim (verse 13).
Then, after the once-scattered kingdoms of Israel and Judah have again been reunited and are joined to the righteous Gentiles, verses 14 and 15 prophesy that God’s gathered army will destroy all of the wicked nations and peoples who have rejected God’s word and have fought against His people.
The ensign described in verse 12 is the scarf that was waved from Ensign Peak in July of 1847. It ushered in a period of gathering, in which all twelve tribes of Israel will eventually be reunited, together with the faithful Gentiles who accept the gospel and are adopted in.
Even though this gathering ensign initially was raised for the peaceful purpose of gathering Israel, Judah, and the faithful Gentiles, this gathering will end up leading to warfare again. This, however, will be a totally different war than the war that scattered Israel, as heralded by the first battle ensign described in 2 Nephi 15, but it might be the same war that will be led by the second battle ensign described in 2 Nephi 23.
The Second Gathering Ensign
The second gathering ensign is found in two verses that are quoted in two different chapters in the Book of Mormon. Those two verses are first quoted in 1 Nephi 21:22-23. The same two verses are found in 2 Nephi 6:6-7, and they are discussed in 2 Nephi 10:9. Those verses come from Isaiah with only a single letter of difference (toward became towards). In both chapters, they read as follows:
22 Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.
23 And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; they shall bow down to thee with their face towards the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord; for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
This passage is slightly different that the two previous chapters, since the word translated “my standard” is nis·sî, rather than nês. The difference between is nis·sî and nês is a personal possessive pronoun. In this verse the Lord calls it “my standard,” rather than simply “a standard.” This passage clearly specifies that the Lord’s standard is being raised to the Gentiles.
These verses, quoted by both Nephi and his brother Jacob, were also interpreted by both prophets.
In 1 Nephi 22, Nephi was asked by his brothers “What meaneth these things which ye have read?” Nephi responded by discussing the scattering and subsequent gathering of Israel. In verse 3 of that chapter, he said, “it appears that the house of Israel, sooner or later, will be scattered upon all the face of the earth, and also among all nations.” In verse 4, he said that “the more part of all the tribes” (i.e., the ten “lost tribes”) had already been led away and scattered.
After Israel was scattered and vilified, he said that they would be “nursed by the Gentiles” (verse 6), and said that this “is likened unto their being nourished by the Gentiles and being carried in their arms and upon their shoulders” (verse 8). So according to these verses, references to carrying and nourishing were references to the Gentiles bringing the restored gospel to the remnants of Lehi’s people (nourishing) and helping the remnants of Lehi’s people be gathered with the rest of Israel (carrying).
Similarly, when Jacob quoted the same two verses, he also interpreted them somewhat. In 2 Nephi 6:8, he said he would “speak somewhat concerning these words.” He pointed out that Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the people had been slain and carried away captive. And in verse 9 of that chapter he said that the Lord had shown him “that they should return again.” He mentioned the conversion of the Gentiles (verse 12) and mentioned that the Lord would “set himself again the second time” to recover his chosen people.
The Second Battle Ensign
The final ensign is another battle flag, described in 2 Nephi 23, but in this chapter it is called a banner, rather than an ensign.
2 Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them, shake the hand, that they may go into the gates of the nobles.
3 I have commanded my sanctified ones, I have also called my mighty ones, for mine anger is not upon them that rejoice in my highness.
4 The noise of the multitude in the mountains like as of a great people, a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together, the Lord of Hosts mustereth the hosts of the battle.
5 They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, yea, the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.
6 Howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
7 Therefore shall all hands be faint, every man’s heart shall melt;
8 And they shall be afraid; pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames.
9 Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
10 For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
11 And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay down the haughtiness of the terrible.
12 I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.
13 Therefore, I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of Hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.
14 And it shall be as the chased roe, and as a sheep that no man taketh up; and they shall every man turn to his own people, and flee every one into his own land.
15 Every one that is proud shall be thrust through; yea, and every one that is joined to the wicked shall fall by the sword.
16 Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished.
17 Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver and gold, nor shall they delight in it.
18 Their bows shall also dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eyes shall not spare children.
19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.
21 But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.
22 And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces; and her time is near to come, and her day shall not be prolonged. For I will destroy her speedily; yea, for I will be merciful unto my people, but the wicked shall perish.
In this chapter, the phrase “ensign to the nations” does not appear in the language of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. The KJV, as well as the Book of Mormon, uses the word banner rather than ensign, even though the original Hebrew in this chapter of Isaiah used the word nês: precisely the same word that was translated as ensign in the other chapters.
This time, the banner is not raised “to the nations.” This banner is raised upon God’s holy mountain. This time, God is not calling the Gentile nations to fight against Israel. This time, He is commanding His “sanctified ones” and “mighty ones” that He has already gathered. His anger this time is not directed against his chosen people or against those who rejoice in His highness. The great people who were gathered from all nations to the gathering ensign will now become a vast multitude “in the mountains,” and they will be the Lord’s “hosts of the battle” (verse 4).
God’s chosen people will be the weapons of His indignation (verse 5) to destroy the wicked. So many sinners will be destroyed that the land will be left empty and desolate (verse 9). The wicked will howl and faint and their hearts shall melt. This battle will be God’s righteous punishment of the world, the wicked, the proud, and the terrible (verse 11).
Babylon (the wickedness of the world) will be finally overthrown and made desolate, and shall never be inhabited again, representing the final triumph of good over evil.
Verse 22 makes it clear that even though the wicked will be destroyed, God will have mercy on His own people, who will survive.
Since Babylon was destroyed by the Medes more than two thousand years ago, many people have assumed that this refers to some battle fought in antiquity. However, that battle was not led by God’s righteous followers. Therefore, this prophecy must also refer to a battle yet to take place in the final days of this earth.
In those final days, God’s people will be gathered to His ensign. They will do battle with the wicked, and God’s people will emerge triumphant.
The four different ensigns to the nations described in the “Isaiah chapters” of the Book of Mormon usher in four totally different events. The first battle ensign ushered in the scattering of Israel. The first gathering ensign ushered in the gathering of Israel that began in the Sacred Grove, on the Hill Cumorah, and on Ensign Peak, and which continues today. The second gathering standard called righteous Gentiles to help with the gathering of scattered Israel. The second battle ensign will usher in the final cleansing battle between the forces of Good and Evil in the final days.
Four very different ensigns for four very different earth-changing events. And all four of them could apply to us today. Will we be ready?
But why did Nephi and Jacob want to focus on these symbolic ensigns?
Jacob gave part of the answer when he told the Nephites that Isaiah’s words “may be likened unto you, for ye are of the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 8:5). Nephi suggested the same thing when he asked his brothers, “Are we not broken off from the house of Israel, and are we not a branch of the house of Israel?” (1 Nephi 15:12).
The Nephites were part of scattered Israel, so Nephi and Jacob quoted some of the prophecies of Isaiah that pertained directly to them. They and all the Israelites and Jews they had once known had been scattered. Someday, they would be gathered in with all of the combined house of Israel once again. And eventually, they would be called upon to fight in the ultimate battle, when good would finally triumph over evil.
And what of us? Do these prophecies apply only to the ancient descendants of Lehi, who died long ago?
No. They apply to us as much as to them, although perhaps in a different way.
We probably won’t be enslaved by Assyrians or Babylonians and taken to the land between the rivers or to the lands of the north. But if we are faithless — as the ancient people of Israel were — we can be “scattered” or separated from the body of the Church. And we can be made slave to sin or to drugs or to pornography or other addictions. If we are thus scattered or enslaved, it will be righteous punishment for our sins.
Like the ancient Israelites, if we are scattered or enslaved, we can come back. Some of us might be strong enough to come back on our own. Others will need to be carried or nurtured by “nursing fathers” or “nursing mothers.” And those who carry or nurture us will be as kings and queens.
The prophecies apply to us today, for we also are Israel.
 Today, when we hear that somebody’s hand is “stretched out,” we often think of a hand stretched out in friendship, generosity, or welcome. That connotation is not what Isaiah had in mind when he said the Lord’s hand was “stretched out still.” Isaiah intended to describe a hand stretched out in anger, perhaps clenched in a fist or grasping a sword. Note that the anger of the Lord is kindled against His people, and He has stretched forth his hand against them. This is not a friendly or welcoming hand. It is an angry hand.
 In this verse, the Hebrew words translated as “ensign to the nations” were nês lag·gō·w·yim, with nês meaning a flag, banner, or ensign, with lag serving as the preposition to, and with gō·w·yim meaning “the goyim” or “the Gentile nations.”
For translations from the Hebrew, I used Bible Hub at this Internet address: https://biblehub.com/interlinear/. Bible Hub provides extremely useful verse-by-verse translations, including the original Hebrew characters and a transliteration into Roman characters, plus the way each verse has been translated into various editions of the Holy Bible, in English, Latin, or Greek.
 According to D&C 113:6, the root of Jesse mentioned in verse 10 is “a descendant of Jesse, as well as of Joseph, unto whom rightly belongs the priesthood, and the keys of the kingdom, for an ensign, and for the gathering of my people in the last days.” If this descendant comes from both Jesse and Joseph, then he is of both the tribe of Judah and (most likely) the tribe of Ephraim. This descendant, who serves as an ensign for the gathering of the people, could be the binding link that helps unify Judah and Ephraim as described in verses 12 and 13. See also note , below.
 In these verses, the words Israel and Judah are used very precisely and are not synonymous. Those terms refer very specifically to the northern and southern kingdoms that were created after the death of King Solomon. Ten of the original twelve tribes, led by the tribe of Ephraim, established the northern kingdom, which was called Israel. Judah and half the tribe of Benjamin (plus the majority of the Levites) formed the southern kingdom, which was called Judah. For centuries, these kingdoms were hated enemies.
Another Isaiah chapter, 2 Nephi 17, describes one instance of the animosity between the two kingdoms, as Pekah (son of the king of Israel) and combined forces with Syria to try to overthrow the kingdom of Judah. The hostility between the two kingdoms was central to Isaiah’s world, and was still extremely important when Lehi and his family (who came from the northern tribes) left Jerusalem.
The animosity between the kingdoms of the Lamanites and the Nephites must have been a poignant reminder to the Nephites of the ancient animosity between Israel and Judah.
If you enjoyed this discussion of the Book of Mormon, perhaps you will also enjoy A Missionary’s Musings on the Book of Mormon, by F. Allan Roth.
It is available in paperback or e-book exclusively from Amazon.