Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blinded by Marriage

Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine class, we read and discussed portions of 3 Nephi 22. This entire chapter is part of Christ's sermon to the Nephites, and is a quotation of Isaiah chapter 54.

After reading the first three verses as a class, Sister J., who was sitting right next to me, raised her hand and drew attention to a rather interesting turn of phrase in the first verse: "For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord."

Sister J. expressed -- in a rather round about way -- the sentiment that this verse suggested the need for us to be open to, and attentive to the needs of, the "desolate," the less fortunate. She immediately had my attention, as I was still wrestling with the whole experience this past week of having my marriage voted away, and my family denied and condemned in another slew of state referenda.

Another member of the class, Brother M., raised his hand and offered his interpretation of this verse. "The married wife" clearly referred to the sacred, everlasting covenant of eternal marriage. This verse was simply highlighting the fact that very few have entered into the everlasting covenant -- that for this reason, there are far more "children of the desolate" than children of the covenant. Other members of the class seized on this, commenting on how the world has little regard for marriage, and then to the need for missionary work to help convert the "children of the desolate."

But here's the text in its entire context:

1 And then shall that which is written come to pass: Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child; for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes;
3 For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left, and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
4 Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed; neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
5 For thy maker, thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel—the God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.
8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
9 For this, the waters of Noah unto me, for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee.
10 For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.
11 O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
12 And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
13 And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
14 In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee.
15 Behold, they shall surely gather together against thee, not by me; whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
16 Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.
17 No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall revile against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.

Here, the Lord is not commenting on the benighted state of the barren and the unmarried, speaking about them to the married. He is speaking lovingly and reassuringly to the barren and unmarried, promising them hope, promising them offspring greater than the powerful and respectable -- who are symbolized in this text by "the married wife": "Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing... for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord"! This text could be cross-referenced with Isaiah chapter 56, where the Lord promises "the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths": "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5).

This text, it dawned on me, was not for all the respectable married, fertile people sitting around me, it was for me, for the one in the room who had been "ashamed" and "confounded," the one in the room under "reproach" because he was unmarried, because he was "barren." "For thy maker, thy Husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name.... For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee."

I understand that this text was originally written to the captive children of Israel, reminding them that despite their desperate, powerless and scattered state, the Lord was watching over them and would protect them, and that this would not always be their state. It was a promise to them to give them hope. And this would undoubtedly have been Christ's reason for quoting the text to the gathered Nephites and Lamanites in the account in 3 Nephi which provided our context for reading it. But I was also reading the text as Christ himself has commanded us to read: likening the scriptures unto me, seeing myself there in those verses. And the Spirit was there to comfort and confirm my reading.

The good Saints gathered in that Sunday School room were so preoccupied with "defending marriage," they had actually read this text in exactly the opposite sense it was clearly intended. What might have been a lesson about humility and love toward those whom the world does not value, turned into something quite different.

I didn't say a word... I let the Saints have their way with the text, though I was grateful for Sister J., who had done her part to point the class in a different, slightly less self-congratulatory direction.


Bored in Vernal said...

These Isaiah passages are some of my favorites in all of the scriptures.

MoHoHawaii said...

I've liked this text for a long time, too.

There is a wonderful song by Sweet Honey in the Rock called Sing Oh Barren One that uses this passage is its lyric. (From the album Sacred Ground). I don't know if you know this song or not. I think you can get it from iTunes. I highly recommend the entire CD. It's in the "must have" category.

J G-W said...

I love Sweet Honey in the Rock. I guess I'll have to get the CD...