When you read the words of the prophet Isaiah that [the Lord's] hand is stretched out still, does it give you comfort, or does it cause you to tremble?
The phrase is a picturesque one, occurring four times in Isaiah chapters 9 and 10 (9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). These chapters are included in the Isaiah passages found in the Book of Mormon. The refrain has been interpreted in two different ways in biblical exegesis.
The Lord’s Arm Stretched Out in Mercy
In the consensus of LDS thought, it is explained that although the House of Israel has sinned and the Lord’s anger is not turned away, yet his hand is stretched out to forgive and redeem his people. A footnote to Isaiah 9:12 clarifies the phrase as follows: “In spite of it all, the LORD is available if they will turn to him,” and refers the reader to the Topical Guide heading “God, Access to.”
In his Oct 2006 Conference address “Prophets in the Land Again,” Jeffrey R. Holland reflected this interpretation of the phrase when he stated,
To all of you who think you are lost or without hope, or who think you have done too much that was too wrong for too long, to every one of you who worry that you are stranded somewhere on the wintry plains of life and have wrecked your handcart in the process, this conference calls out Jehovah’s unrelenting refrain, “[My] hand is stretched out still.” …His is the pure love of Christ, the charity that never faileth, that compassion which endures even when all other strength disappears. I testify of this reaching, rescuing, merciful Jesus, that this is His redeeming Church based on His redeeming love…”
LDS audiences are most familiar with this interpretation of Isaiah’s poetic chorus. After watching BYU Broadcasting “Insight into Isaiah,” Kelly Miller wrote her own verses on the subject. Part of Kelly’s poem reads:
As He extends mercy and assurance
His softly flowing waters fill,
Ever offering hope and guidance.
Where e’er we turn, His hand is stretched out still.
The Lord’s Arm Stretched Out in Judgment
Little do most Mormons realize there is another way of looking at this familiar phrase. Note the context in Nephi’s quotation of Isaiah 5:
Therefore, is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them; and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (2 Nephi 15:25)
In this interpretation the Lord’s hand is stretched out in judgment against a rebellious nation. Moeller’s commentary on Isaiah 9 reads:
Here God declares himself as the one who is bringing these calamities. The reason: because the punishments have not turned the people to him. Since they continue in their abandonment of the source of their help he will allow further calamities to overtake them. …There was more to come from the hand of a wrathful God. This series will only end with the complete destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and their extinction as a political entity.
I think the tension between these two readings was found in the General Conference talks this past weekend. Some of the speakers emphasized the mercy and inclusiveness of the Restored Gospel, while others maintained the justice and firmness of strict commandments. Is this a necessary tension in keeping members repenting of their sins while inspiring them to continue to make progress? Do you personally respond better to punishment, or to encouragement? Do you think one of the above readings of this phrase is better or more accurate than the other? Or do you think there is a place for both interpretations?
For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.