Three Different “Ensigns to the Nations” in the Isaiah Chapters of the Book of Mormon

by F. Allan Roth
© 2020

I love the Book of Mormoneven the so-called “Isaiah chapters.” About nineteen chapters of the Old Testament book of Isaiah are quoted in the Book of Mormon more or less in their entirety, along with parts of a few other chapters.

At least three of these “Isaiah chapters” describe something called an “ensign to the nations.” Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hear that phrase and think “the gathering of Israel.” Or maybe they think of Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff climbing Ensign Peak in 1847. But the scarf Wilford Woodruff waved on that peak represented only one of the three ensigns mentioned in the Isaiah chapters of the Book of Mormon. In this post, I intend to show that there are three ensigns and all three are different. All three ensigns ushered in different events, and when all three ensigns are accurately distinguished from the others, our understanding and testimony of the Book of Mormon will be strengthened.

But what’s an ensign? In Nephi’s day, an ensign was a battle flag. You waved an ensign to gather your soldiers together so they could fight as a unit. The enemy had an ensign, too. If a soldier went to the wrong ensign, he could find himself in trouble very quickly.

The first ensign to the nations, mentioned in 2 Nephi 15 (see Isaiah 5) is most definitely a battle-flag. The second ensign, mentioned in 2 Nephi 21 (Isaiah 11), is the scarf that waved from Ensign Peak, calling people to gather to Zion; and the third, mentioned in 2 Nephi 23 (Isaiah 13) is a second battle-flag, but this ensign will usher in a totally different battle than the first one.

The First Battle Ensign

The first 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 this chapter. In that parable, Isaiah sings of his “wellbeloved” (the Lord) and His vineyard (Israel).

In the parable, 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 the 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. The animals probably represent other nations (such as Babylon or the Gadianton robbers) that will conquer God’s wayward people. 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. The weeds probably represent foreign nonbelievers who will move into the promised land and crowd out God’s people.

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. The drought when the rain stops is probably a drought of hearing the word of the Lord.

Verses 9 through 12 list additional afflictions that the Lord will impose upon Israel, and then verse 13 announces that His people will 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 is still commonly used to refer to the Gentiles, literally means “the nations.”)

God will “hiss” (i.e., whistle) to call the Gentile nations “from the end of the earth,” 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 can capture their prey and safely march away with them. There will be no one to deliver the Jews. 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 has probably already occurred. The most likely interpretation of this prophecy is that it was predicting the destruction and captivity of God’s people by the Assyrians (around 720 BC) and later 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 chapter 15 might have confused this battle banner with the peaceful gathering banner described in 2 Nephi 21. The headnotes to this chapter say that “The Lord will lift an ensign and gather Israel.” It’s easy to see the phrase “ensign to the nations” and think “gathering of Israel.” But to me, this chapter does not seem to predict the peaceful gathering of Israel; it seems to predict the scattering of Israel. It prophesies the gathering of a vast army of marauding Gentiles who will enslave and scatter a fallen people. 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. 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 Gathering Ensign

The second ensign, which I call the gathering ensign, is described in 2 Nephi 21:10–16.

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.

Verse 10 states that a “root of Jesse” will stand as an ensign of the people.[Note 3] The Gentiles will seek (and presumably find) this ensign. Verse 11 makes it clear that “in that day” (in other words, 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. 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 signaling to the Gentiles of those nations, but to the dispersed Hebrews who live among the Gentile nations. 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, when the gathered kingdoms of Israel and Judah are once again reunited and 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.

This ensign to the nations 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 Battle Ensign

The final ensign is 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 two chapters. I do not know why the translators of the KJV chose a different word for this verse, but the meaning is the same.

This 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 the “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 be 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 three different “ensigns to the nations” described in the “Isaiah chapters” of the Book of Mormon usher in three totally different events. The first battle ensign ushered in the scattering of Israel. The gathering ensign ushered in the gathering of Israel that began in the Sacred Grove and upon the Hill Cumorah, and which continues today. The second battle ensign will usher in the final cleansing battle between the forces of Good and Evil in the final days.

Isaiah prophesied of three very different ensigns for three very different earth-changing events. And all three of them could apply to us today.

Will we be ready?

 

END NOTES

[1]  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.

[2]  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, 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.

[3]  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 iii, below.

[4]  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.

 

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If you enjoyed this discussion of the Book of Mormon, perhaps you will also enjoy A Missionary’s Musings on the Book of Mormon, also by F. Allan Roth.

It is available in paperback or e-book exclusively from Amazon.