2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
3 Thou hast multiplied the nation, and increased the joy—they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. (2 Nephi 19:2-3)
Here Nephi quotes Isaiah, and there are a number of things to point out about these verses. First, there is a significant difference between v3 in the KJV Bible and how Nephi quotes Isaiah. Isaiah 9:3 says, “Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy” (emphasis added). Nephi’s quotation says the joy is increased, and KJV Isaiah says it is not. Ultimately after we examine the meaning of Nephi’s version, we’ll see that Nephi’s fits better.
Second, v2 is quoted in the New Testament in Matthew 4:16 as being fulfilled by Jesus’s ministry in Galilee. Jesus certainly was the great light shining in the darkness. But there are multiple instances of Christ fulfilling this. Those “that dwell in the land of the shadow of death” can refer to those in spirit prison after death, who were brought the gospel when Jesus ministered in the world of spirits after His crucifixion and before His resurrection. It can also refer to all of us in some way. We all dwell in the shadow of spiritual death before we are personally converted to the true gospel of Christ. We all need that light to shine on us.
Now we come to v3 and its meaning.
“Thou hast multiplied the nation” – What nation, and who is multiplying it? The nation referred to has to be the house of Israel, and God is the one who multiplies it. How does He do this? By converting the heathen nations so they join the covenant and are adopted in. By gathering scattered Israel. And by the house of Israel having children who stay faithful to the truth.
“Thou hast multiplied the nation, and increased the joy” – Just like it is God who multiplies the house of Israel, it is God who increases the joy. It is the joy felt by those who join. It is the joy felt by those who gathered them. The joy comes from seeing the miracles involved—the miracles of finding, of testifying, of accepting, of changing, of seeing the change. This is all about conversion.
“they joy before thee [Lord] according to the joy in harvest” – The joy of missionaries is being compared here to the joy of harvesting after a long season of planting, fertilizing, weeding, pruning, etc. We will best understand this feeling if we have done both missionary work and farming/gardening. (I think of the joy I had over the single jalapeno plant and its one pepper growing in my courtyard last year. That jalapeno pepper was very special to me.)
“they joy before thee…as men rejoice when they divide the spoil” – This is a little harder to relate to because it involves images of war that we are removed from, if we haven’t experienced war firsthand. (I personally have not.) In Isaiah’s time, once a battle was won and the enemy fled, the victorious army had the privilege of stealing all the enemy’s stuff left behind in camp, and they got to divide it among themselves for profit. We civilians might get a little closer to this feeling by imagining how we feel finding a heap of free stuff out on the curb while driving around. All this free stuff is high quality and we find it is all just what we need. That’s part of the feeling of excitement Isaiah was probably getting at, but we have to go back to the image of spoliation in war to get an important spiritual principle.
The people doing the spoiling have been victorious over the enemy. Who is the enemy in missionary work? It is Satan. And who has done the heavy lifting to win the battle for a soul? It is Christ (through the atonement) and the Holy Ghost (in teaching and testifying). They won, and now the soldiers get to rejoice in taking souls away from Satan, just like soldiers rejoice in spoiling the enemy. And for converts, they can rejoice because their slavery to Satan is over and oppressing guilt is done away. (“For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor.” [2 Nephi 19:4])
So now we can see these verses are full of the joy of conversion, both for converts and for the missionaries as the Lord multiplies the house of Israel. And knowing that, we can also see that Isaiah’s KJV rendering “and not increased the joy” just doesn’t make sense. It muddies the waters considerably.
It is neat to me that Isaiah foresaw the time when the Lord would multiply the house of Israel through conversion and all the joy that would bring to all involved. I pray that we can all find a portion in this joy as we look for ways to share the gospel.