Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for naught and in vain; surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God.
And now, saith the Lord—that formed me from the womb that I should be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him—though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.
Thinking about the actual lives of many of the prophets, it would have been easy for many of them to feel a sense of failure. Israel was still worshipping idols when Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha. Mormon and Moroni saw the destruction of their entire people, while the fruit of their labours would not be read for another 14 centuries, while Isaiah himself died during the reign of King Manasseh, who led Judah further into idolatry than any before him and who – according to tradition – had Isaiah sawn in half (which is referred to in Hebrews 11:37).
Failures… from a mortal perspective that cannot see any further than the metaphorical end of our nose. From an eternal perspective, we have the transmission of sealing powers, the writing and preservation of sacred scripture and visions of the eternities that have and will benefit countless in future generations. So it is with us. It’s very easy – I tangle with this feeling quite a lot – to look upon some facet of life or some task and think we have failed. But we do not know all things; we don’t know what might happen in the next year, let alone in generations to come. I guess what we/I need to do is to “work with my God”, leave our judgment with him, exercise some predictive humility and trust in his strength.
Onto the second half of this quotation, in which the focus is the restoration of Israel, and the Lord’s servants (of whom Christ is the ultimate fulfilment, but these verses can apply in part to the likes of Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith and others as well) by whom the Lord will accomplish this task. This is despite, as mentioned above, the fact that many of these figures might be perceived to be, and may have felt themselves to be, failures in this task in the eyes of contemporary witnesses. Once again, Christ is perhaps the preeminent example of how God gains victory through apparent defeat, where Christ’s condemnation and death on the cross (perceived as a shameful death) was actually the most comprehensive victory of all time, over the previously unassailable foes of sin and death.
It’s quite common within the Church, I feel, to see the Book of Mormon as a necessary stepping stone to the restoration of the Gospel, and to believe that it predicts and talks about that restoration. And it is and it does. But it is worth paying attention to the fact that the Book of Mormon’s focus is on a wider concept, that when the text speaks of a restoration it is often not just talking about the restoration of the Gospel, but the restoration of the House of Israel, of which the restoration of the Gospel is in itself but a part and necessary step. The events the Book of Mormon prophesies of go beyond what occurred in the 1820s-1840s, and extend beyond the bounds of the organised Church itself, and many of the biggest events it speaks of are yet to come (and I’m not talking about the Second Coming; the Book of Mormon’s focus is on the period before that). We may have the chance to see and participate in some of the most pivotal events in human history.
And yet, like all scripture and yet more so, Isaiah’s words do not just speak of one thing at one time. The words of reassurance in the his chapter to scattered Israel, that God has indeed not forgotten them, can apply not just to a collective but to each of us, no matter how we have stumbled (1 Nephi 21:14-16):
But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.
For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
It is for each of our sakes that Christ bears the marks that are on the palms of his hands. For each of us he bore unimaginable pain, and for each of us he died. No matter what we have done, or how far we may have wondered, he has not and will not forget us.