It seems to us that there are two major components to trying to make sense of 2 Ne. 27:20-26 (or perhaps any other passage from the Book of Mormon): understanding the basic contours of the argument, and then observing how it connects with contextual material. So we’ll take these one at a time.
I. The structure of the reading for this week presents two distinct teachings that the Lord will say in the future to the unlearned man (Joseph Smith) to whom he will deliver the sealed book. The first saying, in verses 20-23 (starting with “then shall the Lord God say unto him . . . ”) is a response to the man’s confession, “I am not learned” in verse 19. The second, beginning with verse 24 (“and again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him . . .”), resumes the direct quotation from Isa. 29. It is clear here that at least verses 25-26//Isa. 29:14-15 are to be understood as the Lord’s direct instructions to the unlearned man—something that is not immediately evident from the original passage in Isaiah. Subsequent verses (2 Ne. 27: 27-35, the subject matter for next week’s discussion), seem to include both instruction by the Lord to the unlearned man interwoven with commentary by both Isaiah and Nephi. [Any paragraph that includes four parenthetical comments seems like it’s in trouble; there has to be a better way to write about complicated textual matters.]
We’ll consider each of these two sayings by the Lord in turn. The Lord begins in v. 20 by suggesting the reasons he has chosen an unlearned man to be the one to “read the words” of the sealed book: 1) because the learned have rejected them [see vv. 14, 18]; and 2) as a demonstration that the Lord is “able to do his own work,” that is, that those who accept the book will realize that the unlearned man has not produced it on his own but rather through the power of God. The second part of this first instruction to the unlearned man is to “touch not the things which are sealed” when he is reading the book (v. 21), which refers to the revelation of “all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” described previously in verses 7 and 11. Once the unlearned man has read the words he has been commanded, and obtained witnesses (cf. vv. 1-14), the unlearned man is to seal up the book again so the Lord may preserve it until “all things” are to be revealed “unto the children of men” at a future time, in “the own due time of the Lord” (v. 22; cf. vv. 10-11). This subsequent revelation will also be brought forth in some miraculous fashion—that is, the first bringing forth of the book (by Joseph Smith) will in some manner become the type for which the final revelation of when the sealed words shall be read upon the house tops will be the antitype (v. 11)—since the Lord will then again demonstrate that he is “able to do his own work” (v. 21). He reiterates this typological orientation in verse 23: “I am a God of miracles, and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Nephi then returns to the underlying Isaiah text for the second set of instructions to the unlearned man, with a subtle indication that this is a follow-up response. Where Isa. 29:12-13 moves directly from: “I am not learned. Wherefore the Lord said . . .”, 2 Ne. 27: 19, 24 reads: “I am not learned . . . And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him . . .” In both the original and in Nephi’s quotation, Isa. 29:13-14 expresses the Lord’s chastisement of those among whom he will proceed to do his marvelous work—“with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart(s) far from me and their fear toward(s) me is taught by the precept(s) of men”—a description which echoes Nephi’s earlier prophecy of the Gentiles in the last days (26:20). The “wisdom of their wise” in v. 26 contrasts with the Lord’s previous assertion of his own wisdom (v. 22); and Nephi adds a chastisement of the learned (“their wise and learned”; v. 26), echoing their rejection of his words in vv. 15-18.
II. The second thing to note in these two directives which Nephi prophesies the Lord will one day deliver to Joseph Smith is the verbal correspondence between them and Nephi’s prior interpretive gloss. If the pattern we suggested a couple of weeks ago in considering how Nephi uses scriptural texts is valid regarding his composition of “off-text” material (and it may not be; but see the discussion for 2 Ne. 26:26-31), Nephi here seems to be treating the first saying (vv. 20-23) as an independent source. Whether this was a now-lost portion of Isaiah prophecy or a fresh revelation to Nephi, he seems to have had this quotation from the Lord in mind when he composed vv. 6-14.
Nephi appears to work phrases from vv. 20-23 into his introductory material in order to prepare readers for the text they are about to encounter. That is to say, much of the “off-text” discussion in 2 Ne. 27:6-18 seems motivated by the intention to forestall potential misapprehensions that might arise from reading the two directives cold. For example, the sealed things which are not to be touched, the words which are to be read, the witnesses which have been promised, the subsequent re-sealing of the book, and the specific meaning of the “all things” which are to be revealed at some future time are clearly identified. Additional overlapping words and phrases include: the learned, the own due time of the Lord, sealing up the book, and the equation of the Lord “proceed[ing] to bring forth the words of the book” in v. 14 with his “proceed[ing] to do a marvelous work and a wonder” in v. 26 (also linking the significance of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to the future salvation of the Jews prophesied at 25:17). As we read it, the Lord’s directive in vv. 20-23 seems to be a source that is interpretively expanded in anticipation of its quotation rather than a summarization—put into the Lord’s words—of Nephi’s independent expansion of Isaiah 29. Perhaps the distinction makes little difference; either way, it serves primarily as a reiteration of particular prophetic content.
But here we seem to have ended up in the opposite situation from Kim, who began one of her posts by confessing that she didn’t really know what to make of the passage, and then went on to say some good things. When we started writing this entry we thought we had something to say, but now we’re not so sure. There seem, objectively, to be numerous phrasal connections between Nephi’s midrashic comments at 2 Ne. 27:6-14 and the injunction he attributes to the Lord in vv. 20-23. But why? Is Nephi preemptively commenting on a text he already has? Does God reveal a verbatim future quotation to Nephi at the very moment Nephi sets stylus to metal (a quotation that responds to what Nephi has just written)? Or does Nephi prophetically (i.e., with inspiration and authority) put words in God’s mouth that bring together concepts and phrases that he (Nephi) has already employed? Is it all just so much random repetition, or is there some kind of intentionality behind the echoes and allusions that are exhibited in the text (we much prefer the second of these last two options, but perhaps it is a matter of faith—at least until we can come up with more examples and patterns to use as evidence).