The concept of “the birthpangs of Messiah” arose out of Israel’s need for a divinely empowered deliverer of God’s people when conditions became intolerable. When Israel served in hard bondage in Egypt and the people cried to God for deliverance, he raised up Moses, who led them to the Promised Land. When the Philistines were about to destroy Israel, God raised up David, who ushered in Israel’s Golden Age. When Assyria besieged Jerusalem and demanded its surrender, Hezekiah’s intercession won their miraculous deliverance.
In each instance, God ensured that a deliverer was in place at the very time his people required extricating from a life-threatening condition that was beyond their control. Also in each instance, the people had been humbled by circumstances that were occasioned by their falling into carelessness and corruption. Book of Mormon instances of the Nephites’ bondage to enemies and their inability to deliver themselves follow a similar pattern. Those who were delivered, in other words, God had by that time humbled and sanctified through suffering.
The “birthpangs” in this sequence of events were designed to bring the people’s condition to such a crisis as to impel them to call upon God and then for him to raise up a savior. Deliverance happened when they had sufficiently repented of their iniquities and suffered the curse of bondage that they had brought on themselves. God’s punishments, therefore—his inflicting on them the consequences of their actions—were calculated to bring his people back into a complete covenant relationship with him with its many blessings and privileges.
In the meantime—as in other instances of captivity or bondage—there came a time when it was no longer expedient to oppose the oppressive power or it would destroy you. Hence God’s commandment in Jeremiah’s day to “serve the King of Babylon and live,” for “why will you die” (cf. Jeremiah 27:8–12). Knowing that bondage is a covenant curse which God reverses after it has served its purpose gives hope in the midst of oppression. Knowing that God operates by the terms of his covenants bolsters belief in him when we do what he asks.
Transposed to the end-time, God’s people too are humbled and sanctified by bondage. In the pattern of ancient instances of “birthpangs,” they go into labor and give birth to a savior—a “male child” or “son” who delivers them (Isaiah 49:8–10; 66:7). John predicts this same end-time scenario when the woman Zion gives birth to a “male child” (Revelation 12:1–5, 13–17). This “messiah” (Hebrew mashiach) or “anointed one” delivers them temporally in the similitude of the only true Messiah—Jehovah/Jesus—who delivers them spiritually.
As was the case with Moses and David, however, Isaiah anticipates opposition to God’s servant who delivers his end-time people: “Before she is in labor, she gives birth; before her ordeal overtakes her, she delivers a son! Who has heard the like, or who has seen such things? Can the earth labor but a day and a nation be born at once? For as soon as she was in labor, Zion gave birth to her children. Shall I bring to a crisis and not bring on birth? says Jehovah. When it is I who cause the birth, shall I hinder it? says your God” (Isaiah 66:7–9).
Note that it is Isaiah’s spiritual category of Zion/Jerusalem or higher that enjoys deliverance while other categories of God’s people resist the deliverer. The “nation” that is born in God’s worldwide Day of Judgment—whom the servant restores to God’s covenant—consists of the natural lineages of the house of Israel—the Jews, Ten Tribes, and Lamanites. God’s end-time servant and his associates gather them out of oppression and dispersion to escape God’s judgments that are coming upon all nations (Isaiah 11:10–12; 49:8–13; 22–23).
As for “brethren” among his own people who oppose his servants, God deals with them by setting his house in order (Isaiah 66:5–6). In the end, he separates them: “My servants shall eat indeed, while you shall hunger; my servants shall drink indeed, while you shall thirst; my servants shall rejoice indeed, while you shall be dismayed. My servants shall shout indeed, for gladness of heart, while you shall cry out with heartbreak, howling from brokenness of spirit. Your name shall be left to serve my chosen ones as a curse (Isaiah 65:13–15).