This chapter is all about prophecies regarding the area of Galilee. Here is a paragraph from the Institute manual:
The northernmost part of Israel, near the sea of Galilee, was the area of Israel first attacked by enemies who came from the north (see the map on p. 48). When those conquering armies came, this area suffered the most destruction. Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in 2 Nephi 19:1–7 promised this area deliverance through a child, a descendant of David, who was also their “Mighty God.” This area of Galilee is where Jesus spent much of His mortal ministry. As recorded in 2 Nephi 19:5, He removed their captivity and burdens not with physical battle, but by the inner burnings of the Holy Ghost (see also D&C 19:31).
In the previous chapter, Isaiah spoke of the consequences of God’s people not repenting and returning to him. Then he introduced the Messiah who will come, and in this chapter describes the hope that Messiah brings.
“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” (verse 2).
There are lots of layers to this simple sentence. There is the “darkness” of rebellion against God, and the “light” of being reunited or at-one with Him again. There is the darkness of mind when in sin or without the Holy Ghost, and the light of understanding that comes from the Holy Ghost and the atonement (See Alma 19:6). There is the ordinances that bring us from darkness outside the veil, to the light within the veil. There is the literal light of the star that announced the birth of the Savior. There is the light of hope that comes when we begin to understand the atonement. There is the sheckinah, the light of the Lord’s presence, that leads us through mortality just as the Israelites had the pillar of light that led them through the wildnerness after they escaped Egypt.
No matter which layer you want to wrestle, this sentence is a conversion sentence.
It is a people experiencing the hope and life and light that comes when they have escaped bondage, and it is in the context of being led (by the Savior) to the promised land (celestial-ness).
“Thou has multiplied the nation” (verse 3) not only refers to the posterity, or descendants of the tribes, but also indicates protection and provision and temporal prosperity, but is also an acknowledgement that the Lord has kept His promise to Abraham (See D&C 132:30).
“And increased the joy” – God’s people experience joy in their posterity (“thou has multiplied the nation”) because they delight in their descendents (their hearts are turned!) but also because with each increase in their posterity, there is greater fulfillment in the promises made to Abraham, and thus to all people of the covenant.
Again, it not only means increased number of descendants, but refers to the context and environment of thriving in which this is accomplished. They are no longer a people surviving captivity. They are no longer so scattered they can’t even be counted, and are called “lost” (the lost tribes). These are a people escaping bondage and being re-established in their own right.
“For thou has broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor” (verse 4).
The immediate, temporal meaning of this has to do with escaping bondage. They are no longer an oppressed people, burdened under the yoke of captivity. They have been set free.
But the “yoke of his burden” refers also the spiritual meaning, in which the “burden” means “the curse”. It takes us back to Isaiah 22:23,25 again, where we see that the Savior takes upon Him our “burden” (our “curse” – not just our sin, but also the consequences of those sins). Through the atonement, that “burden” (curse) is cut off – the curse is actually removed, even “cut off” so that it no longer claims us.
But still, even then the work of the atonement is not finished. It is the burning power (cleansing, sanctifying) of the Holy Spirit that purifies us and fills us with HIS goodness and HIS righteousness. This is what brings us at-one with Him again.
So this is not just a physical battle of releasing a people from bondage. It is also the spiritual battle of how the Savior releases us from bondage.
“For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire” (verse 5).
That “fire” is the Holy Spirit.
All of this is part of the work of the atonement, accomplished by the Savior according to Heavenly Father’s plan:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
This is powerful, especially in the context of Hebrew poetry and naming, to declare these names of God. They are names that describe who He is, and so are names He proves Himself to be. That’s the power.
I cannot read that verse without thinking also of Handel’s Messiah:
But the promises made to Abraham continue, on and on, without end:
“Of the increase of government and peace there is no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth, even forever” (verse 7).
The promises made to Abraham are eternal in nature, and there is no end point. It is an ongoing progression, a forever unfolding, an eternal process.
“The Lord sent his word unto Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel” (verse 8).
These are the covenants, passed down from Abraham, to Jacob and Israel, and to all of us of the covenant since then.
But if we are covenant people, then we must act like covenant people.
There is always a “doing” that is required as part of the “being”.
Covenants are not just a done deal, but always in process of being proven.
When we do not act like a covenant people, when we are not set-apart as a covenant people, when we are not testifying as a covenant people, then we will be “cut off from Israel” (verse 14).
Isaiah preaches that wickedness burns as a fire (verse 18), and that the land will be darkened by the smoke (consequences) of that fire (of wickedness) – with the wicked people being like fuel for the fire (verse 19).
Even then, “his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still” (verse 21).
We need repentance and the work of the atonement to turn away that anger.
We need covenant keeping, in the active and participatory sense, to demonstrate that we truly are His covenant people.