Verse by Verse, the Book of Mormon Volume 1: First Nephi - Alma 29 (Hardcover)(edit)
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Do you want to expand and deepen your study of the Book of Mormon? If so, you will find what you're looking for in this commentary written by gospel scholars D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner.
This volume is the first of a two-volume, reader-friendly exploration of the book of scripture that is the keystone of our religion.
It incorporates sound doctrinal commentary with quotations from General Authorities and explanations of difficult passages—all sprinkled generously with the authors' own experiences to illustrate great lessons and personal applications.
Interspersed with the commentary are feature articles that offer new glimpses into such topics as angels who have come to earth, names and titles of God, Israel and Zion in Latter-day Saint usage, the Isaiah chapters of First and Second Nephi, the allegory of the olive tree, and prophecies of Christ.
Highly informative and easy to read, this commentary on the Book of Mormon provides stimulating views that complement the scriptures. It will be treasured by anyone who wishes to understand more fully the teachings of those whom the Lord called in the land of promise to testify of him.
- Size: 6x9
- Pages: 512
- Published: 10/2011
About the Authors
D. Kelly Ogden, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, earned a master’s degree in Hebrew language and a Ph.D. in Middle East studies. He has written numerous works on the Holy Land, where he and his family lived for fourteen years, and is the author of the popular books Happy Like Jesus and 8 Mighty Changes. The first associate director of the BYU Jerusalem Center, Brother Ogden was president of the Jerusalem Branch of the Church. He helped prepared the Latter-day Saint editions of the scriptures and served as president of the Chile Santiago East Mission and later as president of the Guatemala Missionary Training Center. He serves as a sealer in the Provo Utah Temple. He and his wife, Marcia Hammond Ogden, have four children and seven grandsons.
Andrew C. Skinner, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, was dean of Religious Education and the first executive director of BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Holding master’s degrees in Hebrew Bible and theology and a Ph.D. in history, he is the author of the acclaimed series Gethsemane, Golgotha, and The Garden Tomb. He has taught at the BYU Jerusalem Center and served as its associate director. Brother Skinner, who was a bishop and a member of the general Sunday School board, serves on the Church Correlation Evaluation Committee. He and his wife, Janet Corbridge Skinner, are the parents of six children and grandparents of four.
The First Book of Nephi
The First Book of Nephi relates the ministry of Nephi from his family’s departure out of the land of Jerusalem to their arrival in the promised land. The first part of his journal-history is a synopsis of his father’s record: “I make an abridgment of the record of my father, upon plates which I have made with mine own hands; wherefore, after I have abridged the record of my father then will I make an account of mine own life” (1 Nephi 1:17). His own account begins in chapter 10. Nephi shows us how important journal-keeping really is.
Twenty years before the Book of Mormon begins, the kingdom of Judah was experiencing its last period of greatness. The Assyrian Empire was rapidly disintegrating, and the righteous King Josiah expanded the political borders of Judah, instigated rigorous religious reforms, and established relative peace. Josiah’s life ended tragically at Megiddo, where he had gone at the head of his armies to attempt to stop the Egyptian advance under Pharaoh Nechoh II toward the Euphrates. Nechoh wanted to support the last Assyrian king in a stand against the new Babylonian Empire, and after Josiah’s death pharaoh flexed his military muscle to control all of Judah’s political life. That situation lasted for about four years, until the Babylonian invasions began. Josiah’s death marked the beginning of the end for the kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 22–23).
Josiah’s son Jehoahaz was made king after his father’s death in 609 b.c., but Pharaoh Nechoh took him away to Egypt and put his brother Eliakim on the throne. Eliakim’s name was changed to Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim reigned for eleven years, until 598 b.c., after which Nebuchadnezzar bound him and carried him away to Babylon along with thousands of others, including Ezekiel. Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin was allowed to rule as a vassal or puppet king of the Babylonians. He reigned only three months, and then Nebuchadnezzar summoned him to Babylon along with “ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths” (2 Kings 24:14). His uncle Mattaniah, whose name was changed to Zedekiah, began to reign. Book of Mormon history begins in the first year of Zedekiah’s reign, which, according to Bible chronology, was 598 or 597 b.c. The Book of Mormon designates the year of its beginning, and the first year of Zedekiah’s reign, as six hundred years before the coming of Christ into the world.
Lehi and his family were living at Jerusalem (1 Nephi 1:4, 7; 2 Nephi 25:6). The preposition at in this case could mean in, within, close by, or near. Lehi could have lived several miles away and still lived at Jerusalem. It is recorded at least thirty-three times throughout the Book of Mormon that Lehi and Nephi went out from “the land of Jerusalem.” Any satellite towns or villages that surrounded larger population or political centers were regarded in ancient times as belonging to those larger centers. That Lehi and his family lived outside of Jerusalem proper is also evidenced in the account of the sons’ attempt to obtain the plates with their abandoned wealth: “We went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things. And after we gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban” (1 Nephi 3:22–23).
Nephi began his record with a note about his goodly parents. The adjective goodly may mean distinguished, esteemed, or respected—an allusion to both moral and spiritual status. These days we might consider using the term awesome. Nephi gave particular credit to his father, from whom he had received a proper education and learned of the goodness and mysteries of God. Generations of writers following Nephi bore similar testimony of the valuable instruction of their fathers. For example, the first sentence inscribed on the plates by Enos was a eulogy of his father, Jacob, for having planted some seeds of eternal consequence deep in his heart: “I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Enos 1:1). The revered King Benjamin caused his three sons to be “taught in all the language of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies” (Mosiah 1:2). It appears to be a characteristic of goodly parents to spend significant time and energy teaching their children the things of God. In promising great blessings to Abraham, the father of hundreds of millions, the Lord said that “Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation. . . . For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:18–19).
All of these Book of Mormon passages refer to the language of the fathers. Language facility, the ability to communicate with others, is the life-breath of any civilization. We see its importance as Lehi’s sons were required to make a lengthy trek to secure some metal plates, which would ensure their emigrant colony some cultural stability and continuity. Lehi’s sons were taught in the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. The sons had likely been educated in Hebrew and Aramaic grammar and vocabulary (Aramaic being the language of diplomacy and commerce at the time), but it appears that they had learned to express their thoughts in written form in Egyptian characters. Lehi had been “taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read [the brass plates’] engravings, and teach them to his children” (Mosiah 1:4). Perhaps Lehi mastered the Egyptian language, as Joseph and Moses before him. There appears to have been considerable commercial and cultural interchange between Judah and Egypt in the late 7th century b.c. Archaeological excavations show great Egyptian influence in this period, rising out of that nation’s rule over the land of Judah for some years prior to the opening of the Book of Mormon record. Egyptian soldiers, merchants, and travelers were present and active during that period.
Nephi said that he had seen many afflictions during his growing-up years, but also he had been “highly favored,” or highly blessed. Blessings and afflictions are part of a normal mortal life. Couldn’t all of the noble and great ones start out their life’s record with those same observations? Couldn’t Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and Joseph Smith have summarized their life with the words—“having seen many afflictions in the course of my days”? Perhaps some of us could summarize our lives the same way. This is not a bad thing, for it means the Lord is working in our lives. He thinks enough of us to send us refining experiences.
Nephi wrote that “there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” Amos taught that the Lord God would do nothing “but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). The Lord always gives sufficient warning; “never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord” (2 Nephi 25:9). For such a dramatic and devastating destruction as was coming, the cast of prophets was indeed, as the Book of Mormon says, “many.” Lehi, Jeremiah, Huldah, Zephaniah, Habukkuk, Ezekiel, and one Urijah of Kirjath-jearim (Jeremiah 26:20) were all contemporaries.
“And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:15–16).
1 Nephi 1:5–20
The Book of Mormon begins with the story of a family and a people in crisis. While Lehi was out teaching in the city, he prayed earnestly in behalf of his family and his people. As he prayed he saw and was taught many things through a spiritual manifestation that caused his whole body to tremble. He was physically exhausted by the spiritual work (see also 1 Nephi 17:47; 19:20; Alma 27:16–18; Daniel 8:27; Moses 1:10; Joseph Smith–History 1:20); he cast himself upon his bed and was overcome by the Spirit. He saw a heavenly court full of brilliant beings. One of them handed Lehi a book with the judgment to be passed upon Jerusalem: death, destruction, and deportation to Babylon. This represents Lehi’s call to be a prophet; his experience parallels that of others, including Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1), Alma (Alma 36:22), and Joseph Smith (D&C 137:1).
Lehi was to the people of his day what Joseph Smith is to our day. As with other prophets, Lehi then went forth to boldly declare what he had seen and heard. He detailed for Jerusalem’s citizens a lengthy catalog of their sins; the result was mockery, anger, and violence. That the city of Jerusalem was doomed to destruction could not have been such shocking news to the Jews, as other prophets had issued the same warning. Jeremiah had been sounding that warning for nearly three decades already. What could be so difficult about believing that people would be taken captive to Babylon when thousands had already been taken? Surely someone would now be ready to listen! But people do not like to hear about their sins, especially when they are enjoying them and have no inclination to change. Lehi’s hearers wanted to remove his antagonizing, grating voice.
Another significant witness Lehi bore to his Jerusalem audience was of the coming of a Messiah, for “none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 7:11; see also 3 Nephi 20:24). John later exclaimed that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10); that is, testifying of Jesus is the essence of prophecy. Even six hundred years before he would come in the flesh, the people needed to know to whom they should look for a remission of their sins. Lehi was a special witness of Jesus Christ.
During Lehi’s first vision there came a “pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock,” and he “saw and heard much” (so did Joseph Smith; see Joseph Smith–History 1:20, 41, 54). The pillar of fire “dwelt upon” a rock—the Hebrew verb shakhan means to be situated or rest upon (compare Deuteronomy 33:16, “dwelt in the bush”). Another form of the word is Shekhinah, which refers to the divine Presence. The pillar of fire was actually the presence and glory of the Lord. Joseph Smith also saw a pillar of fire, or “a pillar of light” (Joseph Smith–History 1:16). 1
1 Nephi 1:8–11
Nephi reported in idiomatic terms that his father, Lehi, saw God sitting upon his throne. (“He thought he saw” means “it seemed to him that . . .”; compare “methought” in 1 Nephi 8:4 and Alma 36:22.) Others have also envisioned the throne room of Deity (Isaiah 6:1–4; Revelation 4:1–4; D&C 76:20–21). Lehi’s vision included a book. The same happened later to John the Beloved (Revelation 10:9) and to Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith–History 1:30–34). The book from which Lehi was instructed to read contained scenes of the future of God’s people, including judgments to be poured out on Jerusalem.
“His whole heart was filled”—in many cultures, ancient and modern, the heart has been considered the center of emotion and affection, and figurative language has centered around the feelings of the heart. Lehi’s heart being full is an idiomatic expression for his whole being swelling with deep sentiment of praising and rejoicing.
This verse provides comforting assurance to all those who earnestly seek true discipleship: “The tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty.” The Lord is merciful to the chosen—that is, to those who choose him—to deliver them from whatever challenges they will encounter; faith brings power to be delivered from any negative influence bearing down on us.
Lehi was faithful in fulfilling his calling to teach of the Messiah and call his people to repentance. They wanted to kill him because of his teachings. Objections to true teachings are usually a cover-up for not wanting to abandon sins.
The Lord warned Lehi in a dream to take his family and depart into the wilderness. Why Lehi? What qualified this citizen of the kingdom of Judah, a descendant of Manasseh, to lead a colony of Israelites through the wilderness to a new promised land? Lehi understood and could guide a diverse society. Members of tribes other than Judah had taken up residence in the land of Jerusalem years before. First Chronicles 9:3 notes, “In Jerusalem dwelt of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin, and of the children of Ephraim, and Manasseh.’’ Lehi, Laban, and Ishmael were all from the tribes of Joseph.
The scriptural record contains hints that Lehi was wealthy (1 Nephi 2:4; 3:16, 22). The Mediterranean world was alive with mercantile activity in this period of time, with Syria and Canaan serving as a hub of sea and land commerce at the place where continents and cultures came together. Caravans traversed Judah from all directions: side roads off the coastal highway and the King’s Highway; the distant Frankincense Trail; pilgrims’ highways and trade routes connecting Moab, Edom, and Arabia with Gaza and Egypt. Lehi could have been a trained and experienced caravaneer and trader. He knew what provisions to prepare and what route to take. Knowing how God has worked in other periods of history, we believe it is not unlikely that he selected a man who, in addition to his spiritual maturity and responsiveness, was already adapted to the particular task at hand, in this case desert travel and survival. He was the right man for the right time. 2
Lehi and his family abandoned all unnecessary possessions and gathered together appropriate provisions for an indefinite period of travel in the desert. Besides the tents especially mentioned, they would need food, emergency water, extra clothing, bedding, cooking equipment and eating utensils, weapons, and pack animals, probably camels.
Lehi and some family members were willing to live the law of sacrifice, as outlined in Lectures on Faith: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation. . . . The faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things.” 3
The word wilderness occurs more than three hundred times in the Book of Mormon and may at some later time in the Western Hemisphere refer to the thick forests or jungle, but it does not mean lush vegetation in reference to Judah and its neighboring deserts. Two Hebrew terms for wilderness are midbar and jeshimon. Midbar is generally land to the east of the central hills, east of the agricultural fields, out into the rain shadow, with a sparce vegetation. These are tracts for pasturing flocks. Jeshimon is the desolate wasteland beyond, where little rain falls. The Judean desert through which Lehi and his family journeyed is at first midbar and then jeshimon. It is known scripturally as a place of flight and refuge. It is a frightening place for the uninitiated.
In recent years, researchers have ventured to describe the route Lehi and his family took from Jerusalem to the Red Sea. Gospel scholar Sidney B. Sperry wrote as follows: “As for a route to the Red Sea, they had two choices: they could go either directly south of Jerusalem by the road through Hebron and Beersheba and thence through the great wilderness to the northern tip of what is now the gulf of Aqaba, or they could go directly east across the Jordan until they struck the ancient ‘King’s Highway’ and then proceed south, or nearly so, until the Gulf of Aqaba was reached. Lehi probably used the western route.” 4 Lynn and Hope Hilton expanded the possibilities to three: (1) eastward from Jerusalem through the Judean wilderness to the plateau on the eastern side of the Rift Valley to the King’s Highway; (2) southward from Jerusalem, past Hebron and Beersheba, and then eastward to join the Rift Valley, called the Arabah; or (3) straight east to the northern end of the Dead Sea, past Qumran, En Gedi, Masada, and on south to the Red Sea.
The Hiltons considered the first option, the King’s Highway, unlikely because of passage through foreign lands with border complications, taxes, and so on. They also saw the second option as improbable because the route remains in the hill country, near population centers, instead of entering the wilderness as the account says. The Hiltons, therefore, concluded that the third option was the likely route. 5
Based on our personal experience of walking from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, it seems unlikely to us that Lehi’s family would have used the King’s Highway or that they would have journeyed straight southward through populated centers, such as Hebron and Beersheba. The account specifically points to immediate entry into the wilderness. The Hiltons’ preferred route (east to the area of Qumran and then south) is also unlikely, however, as the fault escarpment of the Rift Valley drops down dramatically to the waters of the Dead Sea and allows no passage to the south. There was no evidence of a road along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea before the Israelis cut and paved one in 1967.
Possible route of Lehi’s journey
We believe that a more likely course for Lehi’s journey is southeast out of Jerusalem toward Tekoa and then along an ancient road to En Gedi (called the cliff or ascent of Ziz in 2 Chronicles 20:16), and thence southward through the Rift Valley and Arabah. An alternate route could have been from Tekoa southward, passing between the villages of Juttah and Carmel, down into and across the eastern Negev eastward to the Arabah.
Having arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, Lehi and his party decided to continue on for another three days, after which they established camp “in a valley by the side of a river of water.” The phrase “river of water” seems redundant to western ears, since we are accustomed to thinking of rivers as consisting only of water. In the Near East, however, most rivers are not perennial but contain water only in the rainy season, for relatively few days of the year. Usually such a riverbed is dry and sandy and quite passable for travel. If Lehi’s family pitched their tents near a flowing stream, that may tell us something about what time of year it was; perhaps it was spring, the time of winter runoff.
Lehi, along with all other prophets, held the Melchizedek Priesthood. 6 Lehi’s family had no Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood holders among them. Such priesthood functions as offering sacrifices (Hebrew corban), though usually executed under the direction of Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood in biblical times, could also be carried out by those who held the higher priesthood, which comprehends all lower powers (D&C 107:8). Lehi was authorized to perform sacrifices by virtue of the Melchizedek Priesthood he held.
Lehi built an altar of stones to make an offering and give thanks. It was an altar of unhewn stones as stipulated in Exodus 20:25. The wording is intentional, again showing the Book of Mormon to be translated from an ancient Semitic record. It was not a “stone altar,” which might allow for cut, fitted stones, but an “altar of stones.”
Lehi then began naming various geographical features around the camp. All hills, rock outcroppings, valleys, and other topographical details were and are given names in the Near East. The ancient Hebrew people loved imagery and figures of speech. The most powerful way to illustrate a truth was to find something in the human experience or conduct that corresponded to something in nature. If only Laman could be like this temporary river, or even better, like a perennial river, continuously flowing toward the source of righteousness! Many parents have wished that blessing for children experiencing difficulties. Likewise, the prophet Amos pleaded with northern Israelites to “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty [or everflowing] stream” (Amos 5:24). The two prophets wished that their people would be more constant and stable in their devotion and loyalty to God and his purposes.
Three of our favorite words in the Book of Mormon are firm, steadfast, and immovable. On 31 May 1994, hurricane-force winds swept through Utah’s Wasatch Front with destructive results, especially in Provo. Brigham Young University equipment clocked the winds at 121 miles per hour. Though only five minutes in duration, the winds ripped apart or felled upwards of five thousand trees. Provo City announced within a few days that the total loss approached $9 million. One house had four very tall pine trees lying flat in the yard and out into the street, with huge but shallow root systems exposed. There’s the gospel lesson: it is not enough to grow tall and broad and beautiful. Shallowness is perilous. We must sink deep roots and be solidly planted to withstand the storms of life; be firm, steadfast, and immovable—enduring, solid, and stable.
1 Nephi 2:11–24
These verses give us insights into the character of Lehi’s four sons. Laman and Lemuel are portrayed as stubborn, hard-hearted, lovers of money, faithless, and spiritually weak. Nephi and Sam, on the other hand, are humble seekers of knowledge and of God, faithful, and obedient to parents. The latter two sons are exemplary, deserving of being emulated, which, since we all need role models, is one of the main purposes for the painstaking engraving of the metal plates—to preserve for us in modern times some examples or patterns for our lives. President Heber J. Grant wrote: “I read the Book of Mormon as a young man and fell in love with Nephi more than with any other character in [secular] or sacred history that I have ever read of, except the Savior of the world. No other individual has made such a strong impression upon me as did Nephi. He has been one of the guiding stars of my life.” 7
Consider the four brothers. The marvel is not that some complained about the hardships in leaving all and journeying into the wilderness but that others did not! Conditions were such that anyone could have murmured. Murmuring may be defined as half-suppressed or muttered complaint, grumbling behind the scenes rather than being openly critical, or disloyal.
What was the reason for Nephi’s amazing ability to press forward positively and not join in the grumbling and rebellion? Nephi wanted to know the things of God; he prayed, and the Lord visited him and softened his heart—which suggests the possibility that his heart was somewhat hard before.
God raises up the young, those malleable and teachable, not set in their ways, to accomplish tasks that will confound the wise—allowing the “weak things of the world” to “break down the mighty and strong ones” (D&C 1:19).
Faith and faithfulness are always rewarded. Nephi and all the others were called upon to make a great sacrifice, to leave behind practically all they had known; but the Lord promised that they would eventually possess more and greater blessings. We of modern times struggle with that principle also. One of the most dangerous problems we face is wanting immediate gratification. Few people, it seems, believe in postponement—if we want something, we want it now. Adam and Eve sacrificed a pleasant existence in the Garden of Eden for something ultimately and infinitely better, though immediately harder. Moses sacrificed prestige in a kingly court for the noble task of suffering the sands and complaints of Sinai. Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the other prophets sacrificed comfort and security to fulfill a difficult duty with eternal rewards.
In the Lord’s economy, whenever we give up something or go without, we find ourselves in eventual possession of more and greater. During the tests of his faithfulness, Job lost almost everything he had; his story concludes, however, with a simple note that he was blessed in the end with more than he had in the beginning. Lehi’s family sacrificed their possessions, their riches, to follow the old patriarch into the great Arabian desert and over the sea; but after their journey, they possessed a land of amazingly abundant wealth. The promises of the Lord to Lehi and to Nephi, as with our own patriarchal blessings, must have encouraged and sustained them through the sometimes bitter trials they had to endure along the way.
As Lehi and his family traveled through the Rift Valley and near the Red Sea, perhaps they were inspired by the example of the prophet-hero Moses, who led their ancestors through some of the same terrain to their promised land. Lehi’s wilderness journeys were shorter in time but greater in distance.
Because God is a personal God, tailor-made pains, hardships, trials, obstacles, or adversities may come into our lives to stir us up to remember God. See also Helaman 12:1–3.
The Lord commanded Lehi in a dream to send his sons back to Jerusalem for the plates of brass, then in the possession of an elder of the Jews named Laban. Lehi and his family did not have their own copy of the scriptures—roughly equivalent to our Old Testament—and Lehi did not want his children growing up without them, so the brothers had to go back.
Those plates were of such importance that the prophet was willing to risk all of his sons’ lives to obtain them. There’s a lesson on the significance of scripture study: the Lamanites continued without prophets and without scripture, and their society rapidly deteriorated.
We might ask, why did the Lord wait until they were more than two hundred miles away from home to command Lehi to get the plates? Could not arrangements have been made for them before the family left Jerusalem? One more test! The older brothers immediately protested. We may suppose that their foremost reason for not wanting to go was their fear of Laban; but there is no doubt that the distance and topography also had some bearing on their resistance. The Book of Mormon itself and most Book of Mormon commentaries say little, if anything, about the distance and terrain involved.
We have learned by walking it that the distance between Jerusalem and the Red Sea is two hundred miles. An agreeable pace for a group of people on camels would be between twenty and thirty miles a day. So the journey was a minimum of seven or eight days. Add to that the three days they traveled after reaching the Red Sea, and the figures are up to 260 to 290 miles in ten or eleven days. That is one direction only. The round trip that the Lord and father Lehi were asking of the four sons was more than 500 miles and at least three weeks through some of the most rugged terrain in the Near East. And they had no idea how they were going to obtain the plates. Having the advantage of “knowing the end from the beginning,” we are amazed to think ahead and realize that Lehi, soon after his sons returned from their first assignment, would command them to go back again. That is over a thousand miles and many weeks on those desolate tracts of land—and we have often looked down on Laman and Lemuel for being chronic complainers.
In the early chapters of the Book of Mormon we are introduced to fascinating linguistic phenomena arising out of the Hebrew language and culture from which the record came. These expressions are called Hebraisms, sets of words or phrases that appear in English but with Hebrew-like construction. The small plates of Nephi especially, written mostly by Nephi and Jacob, who knew Hebrew, would understandably feature many examples of Hebraisms.
One of the most common Hebraisms is the cognate accusative, in which Hebrew verbs and their related nouns are used in the same phrase, something writers try to avoid in English. Old Testament examples with which these migrating Israelites would be familiar are “bloom blossoms” (Numbers 17:8); “sacrificed sacrifices” (1 Samuel 11:15); “divine divinations” (Ezekiel 13:23); and “preach the preaching” (Jonah 3:2).
Book of Mormon examples include “curse . . . with a curse” (1 Nephi 2:23); “dreamed a dream” (1 Nephi 3:2); “yoketh . . . with a yoke” (1 Nephi 13:5); “work a . . . work” (1 Nephi 14:7); “write the writing” (2 Nephi 3:18); “build buildings” (2 Nephi 5:15); “desire which I desired” (Enos 1:13); “taxed with a tax” (Mosiah 7:15); “peopled with a people” (Mosiah 8:8); “judge . . . judgments” (Mosiah 29:43); “warred a . . . warfare” (Alma 1:1); “number . . . not numbered” (Alma 3:1); “sing the song” (Alma 5:26); and “die a . . . death” (Alma 12:16).
These and many other examples corroborate the fact that the Book of Mormon originated from ancient Semitic cultures and languages.
The Book of Mormon continually refers to the “plates of brass,” whereas in English they would be called the “brass plates.” In 1 Nephi 8:19 we learn about the “rod of iron,” what we would normally call the “iron rod.” This particular manner of expression, called the construct state, utilizes two nouns. There are many interesting examples: “mists of darkness” (1 Nephi 12:17); “works of darkness” (2 Nephi 25:2); “words of plainness” (Jacob 4:14); “words of soberness” (Jacob 6:5); “plates of ore” (Mosiah 21:27); “ornaments of gold” (Alma 31:28); “houses of cement” (Helaman 3:7); and “plans of wickedness” (Ether 13:15).
Having already worked things out with the Lord, Nephi responded positively to the Lord’s command. In one of the most inspiring outpourings of faith in all of scripture, Nephi assured his father that he would go and do the things the Lord had commanded because he knew that the Lord never gives a command without providing some way to fulfill it. A believing attitude is a characteristic of every great soul. “As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us” (1 Nephi 3:15).
1 Nephi 3:9–31
The brothers set out with their tents to go up to the land of Jerusalem. Approaching Jerusalem from any direction requires an ascent in elevation. All the locative adverbs (the “downs” and “ups”) in the next pages of scripture accurately depict the topography of Judah and the deserts to the south.
After Laman’s attempt to talk Laban out of the plates, the brothers agreed to go down to the land of their inheritance (which suggests that their holdings were outside the city proper), gather the gold, silver, and other valuable objects they had left behind, and offer them to Laban in exchange for the plates. They went up again to Laban’s house in Jerusalem, and upon their failure to secure the plates by that means, they fled for their lives and hid in a cave, or “cavity of a rock.” Caves are numerous in the Judean hills and desert.
Having exhausted their resources and their patience, Laman and Lemuel had some hard words for their younger brothers. They resorted to physical violence and even questioned the Lord’s ability to resolve the situation, until stopped by an angel. The angel again commanded them to go up and get the plates, saying that the Lord would deliver Laban into their hands. After all human effort was expended, the Lord himself would help them accomplish the task. This is a life-lesson for each of us.
1 Nephi 3:29–30
The witness of the Spirit is more powerful and indelible than seeing a messenger from heaven, a truth poignantly illustrated by President Wilford Woodruff:
“One of the Apostles said to me years ago, ‘Brother Woodruff, I have prayed for a long time for the Lord to send me the administration of an angel. I have had a great desire for this, but I have never had my prayers answered.’ I said to him that if he were to pray a thousand years to the God of Israel for that gift, it would not be granted, unless the Lord had a motive in sending an angel to him. I told him that the Lord never did nor never will send an angel to anybody merely to gratify the desire of the individual to see an angel. If the Lord sends an angel to anyone, He sends him to perform a work that can be performed only by the administration of an angel.
“Now, I have always said, and I want to say it to you, that the Holy Ghost is what every Saint of God needs. It is far more important that a man should have that gift than he should have the ministration of an angel.” 8
Angels Are Coming to Visit the Earth
The Hebrew word for angels is malachim, meaning “messengers.” The role of angels is to call men to repentance, to help fulfill the covenants of the Father, and to prepare the way for the Savior by declaring his words to his chosen vessels so they can bear sure testimony of him (Moroni 7:31). Angels sometimes have to speak with the “voice of thunder” (when people are spiritually hard of hearing; see 1 Nephi 17:45; Mosiah 27:11; Alma 36:7). Other times they speak not with a “voice of thunder” or a voice of “great tumultuous noise” but with a “pleasant voice,” a “still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper . . . [to] pierce even to the very soul” (Helaman 5:46, 30).
During Jesus’ mortal life there was frequent contact between him and his heavenly home. Angels announced his birth (Luke 1:26–38; 2:8–15) and his forerunner’s birth (Luke 1:11–20); they were present at the Transfiguration (in the form of translated beings; Matthew 17:3; Luke 9:30–31); at least one angel ministered to him in Gethsemane (Luke 22:43); angels attended his sepulcher and bore witness of his glorious resurrection (JST, Matthew 28:2–4; Luke 24:4–7; John 20:11–13); and they appeared at his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:10–11).
Angelic messengers were also involved in the work of God in the Western Hemisphere during Book of Mormon times. Following are examples:
• 1 Nephi 3:29–30. An angel appears to Lehi’s sons.
• 1 Nephi 11–14. An angel guides Nephi through a vision of the future.
• Mosiah 27:11–18. An angel appears to Alma and the four sons of Mosiah.
• Alma 8:14–18. The same angel appears to Alma again.
• Alma 8:20; 10:7. An angel appears to Amulek.
• Alma 13:24–26; 19:34; 39:19. Angels appear and teach many in the land.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland testified of the role of angels: “I believe we need to speak of and believe in and bear testimony of the ministry of angels more than we sometimes do. They constitute one of God’s great methods of witnessing through the veil, and no document in all this world teaches that principle so clearly and so powerfully as does the Book of Mormon.” 9
President Joseph F. Smith taught: “We are told by the Prophet Joseph Smith, that ‘there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it.’ Hence, when messengers are sent to minister to the inhabitants of this earth, they are not strangers, but from the ranks of our kindred, friends, and fellow-beings and fellow-servants. The ancient prophets who died were those who came to visit their fellow creatures upon the earth. . . . In like manner our fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters and friends who have passed away from this earth, having been faithful, and worthy to enjoy these rights and privileges, may have a mission given them to visit their relatives and friends upon the earth again, bringing from the divine Presence messages of love, of warning, or reproof and instruction, to those whom they had learned to love in the flesh.” 10
1 Nephi 4:1–38
One more time they went up to Jerusalem. Nephi drew some parallels with Moses. The great deliverer from Egypt was backed up with his people against a wall of water. He had no further human recourse, so the Lord took over. If the Lord could deliver all those Israelites from the pharaoh, He could also deliver these Israelites from Laban. The four approached the walls of Jerusalem at night. Nephi “crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban.” He had no plan in mind but was led by the Spirit.
Finding Laban lying drunk in the road, Nephi was told by the Spirit to kill him. Hugh Nibley wrote of Laban: “A few deft and telling touches resurrect the pompous Laban with photographic perfection. We learn in passing that he commanded a garrison of fifty, that he met in full ceremonial armor with ‘the elders of the Jews’ (1 Nephi 4:22) for secret consultations by night, that he had control of a treasury, that he was of the old aristocracy, being a distant relative to Lehi himself, that he probably held his job because of his ancestors, since he hardly received it by merit, that his house was the storing place of very old records, that he was a large man, short-tempered, crafty, and dangerous, and to the bargain cruel, greedy, unscrupulous, weak, and given to drink.” 11
Nephi was repulsed by the idea of slaying Laban. Nevertheless, the Spirit again counseled him: The Lord delivered Laban to Nephi; it was in answer to a prayer; Laban was a thief and a murderer; and there were precedents for the Lord’s slaying wicked people to accomplish his righteous purposes (the Flood, the conquest of Canaan, and so on). As Joseph Smith taught, “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” 12 It would be better for this one man to die than for an entire (future) nation to dwindle and perish in unbelief, which would happen without those records. Slaying one man to preserve a people seems to have been an ancient oral legal tradition in Judaism because it surfaces again when Jewish leaders were contemplating a rationale for executing Jesus of Nazareth. Said Caiaphas, the high priest, “Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:49–50).
Nephi continued to reason that future generations would need the commandments on the plates and the Lord had devised this method for Nephi to obtain them. Having reasoned this out, Nephi obeyed the Spirit and carried out the unpleasant job of dispatching Laban into the next world by cutting off his head. He then disguised himself and imitated Laban well enough to convince Laban’s servant to open the treasury, get the plates, and follow Nephi outside the walls of the city.
Along the way there was talk about what the elders of the Jews had been discussing that night, possibly including the delicate political turmoil in which they were enveloped. Nephi reassured his frightened brothers that he was not Laban. He also convinced Zoram that he could stay with them and be a free man, and he bound him with an oath to do so. Then the five set out down through the wilderness on the long journey back to the main camp.
On the matter of oath-taking and the trust Nephi and others placed in Zoram, an example from modern times is instructive. It comes from W. F. Lynch and his team from the United States Navy who conquered the wilds of the same Rift Valley in the mid-nineteenth century:
“Sometime after the agreement was made, Akil [their Arab guide] returned and expressed a wish to be released. I ascertained that some of his timid followers had been dissuading him, and held him to his obligation. . . . At our former meeting I advanced him money for his expenses and the purchase of provisions, for which he refused to give a receipt or append his seal. . . . I had, therefore, nothing but his word to rely upon, which I well knew he would never break. ‘The bar of iron may be broken, but the word of an honest man never,’ and there is as much honour beneath the yellow skin of this untutored Arab, as ever swelled the breast of the chivalrous Coeur de Lion. He never dreamed of falsehood.” 13
Nephi and his brothers could trust Zoram because of the sanctity of oaths in those cultures, ancient and modern. In the gospel sense, an oath is a solemn declaration or absolute promise, calling on someone or something considered sacred by the oath-maker (often God) to witness the truth of the declaration or the binding nature of the promise being made. Throughout the ancient world, oaths carried an added measure of sanctity beyond a mere promise. In ancient Israel oaths were regarded as extraordinary promises, binding the oath-maker’s very soul: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2). We have reason to believe that even among dishonorable persons, oaths were regarded as inviolable. When the daughter of Herodias danced before Herod the tetrarch and his entourage, Herod “promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask” (Matthew 14:7; see also Mark 6:23). She asked for the head of John the Baptist. “And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake . . . he commanded it to be given her” (Matthew 14:9).
A pair of missionaries in Santiago, Chile, wrote to their president about a woman they were teaching: “She started reading the Book of Mormon, and she got to the part where Nephi killed Laban. She didn’t understand how God could command someone to kill another. It bothered her, and she went to bed with that doubt. During the night a bolt of lightning woke her up, and she immediately thought of David and Goliath. She thought that if God could command David to kill Goliath, then why not Nephi? Then, she said, a feeling of peace and tranquility came over her.”
During the long weeks of her sons’ absence, Sariah mourned for them, thinking that the worst had probably happened. She complained against her husband (a touch of marital conflict that occurs with even the most righteous couples), telling him that he was a visionary man; they had lost their home, then lost their sons, and were now going to lose their own lives. The normal response to accusation is defense and counteraccusation. Lehi, however, responded to Sariah’s complaint with comfort. When people complain, they often need comfort. Lehi’s faith was Sariah’s comfort. He had been promised that his sons would return, and he believed the promise. When the sons finally returned, Sariah’s faith in her prophet-husband was confirmed, and the family rejoiced and gave thanks by offering up burnt offerings; then everyone’s attention turned to examining their new treasure, the plates of brass.
Incidentally, the plates could actually be referred to as the plates of bronze. Brass is an alloy of zinc (unknown to the ancients) and copper, but bronze is an alloy of copper and tin (both known and used). The centuries before the Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan are known archaeologically as the Bronze Age.
1 Nephi 5:10–22
The plates that Lehi’s sons had obtained at the peril of their lives would prove of inestimable value to prophets, historians, and numberless righteous people for a thousand years. The plates of brass were preserved for the Nephites just as the Book of Mormon was preserved for us. Thus Lehi prophesied that “these plates of brass should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed.” He further prophesied “that these plates of brass should never perish.”
As Lehi’s family and Zoram scrutinized the plates in their tent-camp on the shores of the Red Sea, they learned that the plates contained the five books of Moses—presumably Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—including an account of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, their family’s genealogy (Lehi was a descendant of Joseph, who was a great-grandson of Abraham), a record of the Jews, and the prophecies of the holy prophets from the beginning down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, even prophecies that had been spoken by Jeremiah. Laban also was a descendant of Joseph. Either he or some scribal assistants had been interested in recording two decades of Jeremiah’s prophecies.
We know from later writings that it was not easy to inscribe on metal plates. Yet Nephi worked at it earnestly because his whole intent was to “persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved.” Nephi followed the example of the great patriarch Abraham, who noted in his own writings, “I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me” (Abraham 1:31).
Then Lehi had another revelation: the sons must go back to the land of Jerusalem once again. Yet another test! But the record does not say that they murmured about having to return for their future brides; that was a fairer proposal—bringing marriageable women into the growing colony was apparently worth the aching bones and muscles of an additional long journey.
We might wonder how another family, without direct revelation from the Lord, would be so willing to abandon their home and all they had known to join these refugees in the wilderness. We can only surmise from the record of Nephi that Ishmael believed the words of the Lord that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the enemy armies who already occupied the city. Besides, Lehi’s sons had quite a story to tell about how an angel had appeared and how the Lord had miraculously made it possible to secure their genealogical and scriptural records. The one reason given in Nephi’s account for the family’s willingness to go was that “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness.”
Our tradition that Ishmael’s ancestry went back to Ephraim, son of Joseph, is based on a discourse given by Elder Erastus Snow in Logan, Utah, on 6 May 1882. He said, “The prophet Joseph informed us that the record of Lehi was contained on the 116 pages that were first translated and subsequently stolen, and of which an abridgement is given us in the first Book of Nephi, which is the record of Nephi individually, he himself being of the lineage of Manasseh; but that Ishmael was of the lineage of Ephraim, and that his sons married into Lehi’s family, and Lehi’s sons married Ishmael’s daughters.” 14
From Elder Snow’s statement and from 1 Nephi 7:6 we may suppose that two of Ishmael’s sons had married daughters of Lehi and Sariah. That would mean the two families were already related by marriage, which might explain Lehi’s seeming nonchalance about instructing his sons to bring Ishmael’s family down into the wilderness. Those married children of Lehi and Ishmael could already have had some daughters of their own who could later marry Lehi’s sons, Jacob and Joseph, born in the wilderness. There might already have been additional marriage plans between the two families—only the setting for the ceremonies would now have to change from the city to the desert. Another reason why Ishmael’s family in particular was elected to join Lehi’s was that Ishmael had five unmarried daughters; the four sons of Lehi along with Zoram would in time marry Ishmael’s daughters—a perfect five-way match set up in advance by the Lord.
Here is an application for modern missionaries finding a whole family prepared by the Lord: (1) “We went up unto the house of Ishmael,” the investigator; (2) “we did gain favor in the sight of Ishmael” by establishing a relationship of trust and confidence; (3) “we did speak unto him the words of the Lord”; (4) “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household”; and (5) “they took their journey with us”; they were willing to join with them.
1 Nephi 7:6–22
The final journey from Jerusalem to the Red Sea was not without the usual friction, and even open conflict, between Nephi and his elder brothers. Laman and Lemuel again vented their anger on Nephi to the point of physical violence.
Why didn’t Laman and Lemuel just get up one morning and make the hike back to Jerusalem? Why their incessant efforts to kill Lehi and Nephi and then go back to Jerusalem? Isaiah 53:9 may give us insight by describing why Jesus was crucified: “because he had done no violence [or evil], neither was any deceit in his mouth.” Few things can stir up anger in the unrighteous as much as confronting the truth. Laman and Lemuel knew that their father and brother were telling the truth, and they were angry because of it. They were jealous and envious and proud. Some of the Jewish leaders had the same problem with Jesus. Nobody welcomed them into the city by throwing down palm fronds in their path. Nobody was being healed by them. There were no great crowds flocking around them to hang on their every word. Something had to be done about this righteous person who always spoke the truth. They had him crucified. The two oldest sons of Lehi had in their hearts to do likewise: slay their father and brother.
The rebels were finally pacified only by the pleading of some of Ishmael’s family. Their hearts were actually softened enough that they bowed down and asked Nephi’s forgiveness. The greatness of Nephi’s soul is again revealed in his terse summation of the episode: “I did frankly forgive them all that they had done.” Even after such rebelliousness, belligerence, rudeness, harshness, and spite, Nephi could frankly forgive. Is not this our own great charge?
The Lord had now warned at least eighteen people to flee from the wrath to come over Jerusalem: Lehi, Sariah, Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi; Zoram; Ishmael, his wife, five daughters, and two sons with their wives. We do not know, but there may also have been children from the latter four.
In some ways it must have been a sacrifice for Lehi and his family to leave Jerusalem, but their lives were spared by doing so. What about the other two trips? The main reasons the four men were commanded to trek a thousand miles through the inhospitable desert were (1) records—for knowledge of ancestry and prophecy and (2) marriages—for posterity. What they were doing was tied to the past as well as to the future. They needed to preserve the knowledge and memory of one nation while producing with their wives another, so that the covenants of the Lord might be fulfilled.
Do we, like Lehi, want our family and close friends to partake of God’s love? What are we doing every day to help them get to the tree of life? In the first issue of the Ensign, President Joseph Fielding Smith asked these provocative questions about our investment in our families: “Do you spend as much time making your family and home successful as you do in pursuing social and professional success? Are you devoting your best creative energy to the most important unit in society—the family? Or is your relationship with your family merely a routine, unrewarding part of life?” 15
Lehi saw a man dressed in a white robe, Christ or his representative, who invited Lehi to follow him. The prophet saw himself in a dark and dreary waste; after many hours in darkness, he prayed. When we are in darkness resulting from our pride or that of others, sin, or contention, we, too, must pray. That is what Joseph Smith did: he was in doctrinal darkness and then in the darkness of Satan’s personal attack, but after he prayed, the greatest Light came.
1 Nephi 8:9–12
Lehi saw a large and spacious field. Usually in the scriptures the field is the world (see also Matthew 13:38). He saw a tree, whose fruit could make one happy. When he partook, it turned out to be the sweetest thing he had ever tasted, and it filled him with the greatest joy. It was more desirable than any other fruit. We note that Lehi partook first. President Harold B. Lee once said we can’t lift another until we ourselves are on higher ground. Lehi then wanted his family also to partake of this fruit that represents the love of God (1 Nephi 11:22). That is the main message of the Book of Mormon: Come unto Christ, be filled with his love, and learn to love others as he does.
1 Nephi 8:13–18
Lehi invited Sariah, Sam, and Nephi to come and partake. Note that the righteous were invited first and their place secured. Lehi then invited Laman and Lemuel, but they refused to come. Imagine the personal pain he felt. Did Lehi fail as a parent? The record is clear that he had taught them and showed them how to live, but they exercised their agency to deny themselves the blessings of righteous living. Nevertheless, as a dedicated father, Lehi refused to give up on them. He continued to minister to them and exhorted them “with all the feeling of a tender parent.”
Elder Robert D. Hales taught: “We too must have the faith to teach our children and bid them to keep the commandments. We should not let their choices weaken our faith. Our worthiness will not be measured according to their righteousness. Lehi did not lose the blessing of feasting at the tree of life because Laman and Lemuel refused to partake of its fruit. Sometimes as parents we feel we have failed when our children make mistakes or stray. Parents are never failures when they do their best to love, teach, pray, and care for their children. Their faith, prayers, and efforts will be consecrated to the good of their children.” 16
President Henry B. Eyring observed: “In some cases . . . parents are desperately trying to bring back some in their family who have wandered. I am confident that there will be, increasingly, a reward given by God for their efforts. Those who never give up will find that God never gave up and that He will help them.” 17
1 Nephi 8:19–32
Influences that keep people away from the most desirable fruit are mists of darkness; shame, scorn, embarrassment, mockery, and scoffing; forbidden paths or strange roads; and the fountain of filthy water (see also 1 Nephi 12:16–18).
Influences that encourage people toward the most desirable fruit are the strait and narrow path and the rod of iron to hold onto (see also 1 Nephi 11:25; 15:23–24). Since one cannot necessarily see the tree—the end is not in plain sight—faith is required.
1 Nephi 8:23, 32
Mist consists of thousands of tiny water particles that obscure our view and confuse us. Examples of the world’s “mists of darkness” and the “strange roads” that many people take include distractions offered by the sports and entertainment worlds; the vile allurements of the pornography producers; the enticements of money and its power to obtain the things of this world; the seductions to satisfy, even in perverse ways, the lusts of the flesh through substance abuse, illicit sexual relations, and so on. The master of evil knows no bounds for deceiving, blinding, covering up, justifying, misguiding, and keeping us—in every way possible—from clearly seeing and pressing forward to the fruit that gives life. The only sure way of holding steady on the path to the tree of life is to hold to the rod. We have been reminded that the iron rod does not pass through the lobby of the great and spacious building. The iron rod is the word of God, especially the Book of Mormon. By continually holding onto the iron rod—the daily habit not just of reading but of searching, pondering, and treasuring up—our path is made secure. Holding onto the word of God cannot be loose or haphazard but must be a tight grip, a constant grasp.
Of this passage one student of the scriptures wrote: “I was reading in 1 Nephi, the part when Nephi received his own vision of the tree of life. . . . Have you ever wondered how the wicked get into the building if it doesn’t touch ground? Well, they’re lifted up in the pride of their hearts,” and they have no foundation.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell commented on worldly people mocking the righteous: “The laughter of the world is merely loneliness pathetically trying to reassure itself.” 18 Inhabitants of the great and spacious building use some of Lucifer’s greatest tools—scorn, mockery, and peer pressure—to defeat the weak (those not thoroughly committed to God’s kingdom) who were partaking of the fruit but became ashamed because the world made fun of them. The adversary will use the ways of the world to draw away disciples after him. President Daniel H. Wells presciently stated, “There will come a time, . . . in the history of the Saints, when they will be tried with peace, prosperity, popularity and riches.” 19
See also commentary at Helaman 12:1–3.
The many people who pressed forward, holding fast to the word of God, finally arrived at the tree and fell down and partook of the fruit. Note that in 11:24, Nephi says he “saw many fall down at [Christ’s] feet and worship him.” They fall to their knees out of pure respect and adoration. Notice the contrast: the wicked are lifted up in pride; the righteous are falling down in humility.
Lehi “exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel . . . lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord.” One mission president provided a modern example of Lehi’s concern:
“A rock group performed a concert in the area last night, in a big stadium right in the middle of our mission. Seventy thousand people attended. When we heard that the group was coming, we wondered if any of our missionaries would defile themselves with a heavy dose of worldliness and attend it (totally against mission rules). To their credit, as far as we know, almost all of them just kept on working, and obeying. Except two. One missionary finished his mission last week but is still in the country, touring with his parents who came to pick him up. This afternoon he went back to his last proselyting area, and invited his last companion (still fairly young in the mission, and a potential leader), and he agreed to go to the concert with him.
“I was so tired last night that I went to bed about 11 p.m., then at 1 a.m. was awakened by a call from the young missionary’s current companion, who felt horrible that he had allowed his companion to go to the concert without calling the president and saying something. Today I called them all in, including the returning missionary and his parents. I lovingly chastised the young missionary and called him to repentance. He was quite remorseful and anxious to be forgiven.
“The missionary who leaves tonight for the States, who has been Spiritless for several months, told me he regretted having taken his former companion to the concert, but he had not an ounce of regret for having gone himself. He doesn’t care at all whether someone thinks he is disobedient or not. I was appalled at his attitude. As kindly as I could, I also called him to repentance and warned him that he was heading for big trouble. I asked him if he honestly desired someday to live with Heavenly Father and his Son, our Savior. He said, with a somewhat defiant grin on his face, ‘Well, I’m not really sure.’ ‘You mean to tell me,’ I replied, ‘that you’ve been teaching and testifying for two years, and you admit you’re not even sure you want to be with God yourself?’ ‘Yes, I guess that’s what I’m saying.’ I told him that I feared for him and once again called on him to examine himself and consider seriously if he really wants to pursue the path to misery. It all reminds me of Lehi’s fearful concern for his sons, Laman and Lemuel. I next had a talk with his parents and commiserated with them, for they, too, fear for their son.”
No question it was hard work making a set of smooth metal plates to engrave. When commanded to make a second set, even without knowing the reason why, Nephi was obedient and went right to work. He was convinced the Lord knows all things, prepares the way to accomplish whatever he commands, and has all power to follow through on every word he utters. We now know the Lord required Nephi to make another record because part of Mormon’s abridgment of Nephi’s other record would be lost by Martin Harris. 20 See also the commentary at 1 Nephi 19:1–6 and Words of Mormon 1:7.
Nephi, giving his own account, continued to quote his father. Lehi prophesied, as had Isaiah, that his people would be exiled to Babylon but that they would return again to their homeland. Though the tribes of Israel were carried off and lost to Israelite history, the tribe of Judah would not be completely destroyed. A remnant must return, for the Messiah was to come though Judah, and he had to be born in the land of Jerusalem.
Names and Titles for God
God the Father
God the Son
Firstborn Son in the spirit; Only Begotten Son in the flesh
Elohim (2,500 times in Hebrew Bible)
Jehovah (6,800 times in Hebrew Bible)
Man of Holiness (Moses 6:57)
Ahman (in Journal of Discourses, 2:342)
Son of Man (of Holiness)
Son Ahman (D&C 78:20)
Many name-titles—all teaching of his divine attributes: Creator, Redeemer, King, Judge, Immanuel, Good Shepherd, Lamb of God, Bread of Life, Living Water, True Vine, Light of the World, Rock, and many more
Jesus Christ: “Anointed Savior”—most frequently used name
Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua): “Salvation” or “Savior”
Christ (Greek, Christos) and Messiah (Hebrew, Mashiakh): “Anointed One”
Lehi and his sons prophesied plainly of the Holy One who would come six hundred years after their departure from Jerusalem. To be sure their message was unequivocally clear, they labeled and described him using several divine titles: prophet, Messiah, Savior, Redeemer, Lamb of God, Lord, and Son of God.
“The Book of Mormon prophets often made reference to ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ without any indication of whether Elohim or Jehovah was intended. [Verse 4] has obvious reference to the fact that Elohim our Father (here designated ‘the Lord God’) would raise up and send his Only Begotten Son (Jesus Christ, also sometimes designated as ‘the Lord God’). Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: ‘Most scriptures that speak of God or the Lord do not even bother to distinguish the Father from the Son, simply because it doesn’t make any difference which God is involved. They are one. The words or deeds of either of them would be the words and deeds of the other in the same circumstance. Further, if a revelation comes from, or by the power of the Holy Ghost, ordinarily the words will be those of the Son, though what the Son says will be what the Father would say, and the words may thus be considered as the Father’s.’ (‘Our Relationship with the Lord,’ [1982 Brigham Young University Fireside and Devotional Speeches, Provo: Utah, BYU Publications, 1982], p. 101).” 21
1 Nephi 10:7–10
Of the prophet who would come to prepare the way for the Messiah, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
“The question arose from the saying of Jesus—‘Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ How is it that John was considered one of the greatest prophets? His miracles could not have constituted his greatness.
“First. He was entrusted with a divine mission of preparing the way before the face of the Lord. Whoever had such a trust committed to him before or since? No man.
“Secondly. He was entrusted with the important mission, and it was required at his hands, to baptize the Son of Man. Whoever had the honor of doing that? Whoever had so great a privilege and glory? Whoever led the Son of God into the waters of baptism, and had the privilege of beholding the Holy Ghost descend. . . .
“Thirdly. John, at that time, was the only legal administrator in the affairs of the kingdom there was then on the earth, and holding the keys of power. The Jews had to obey his instructions or be damned, by their own law; and Christ Himself fulfilled all righteousness in becoming obedient to the law which he had given to Moses on the mount, and thereby magnified it and made it honorable, instead of destroying it. The son of Zacharias wrested the keys, the kingdom, the power, the glory from the Jews, by the holy anointing and decree of heaven, and these three reasons constitute him the greatest prophet born of a woman.” 22
“These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28). “Beyond Jordan” is the name of a region on the east side of the Jordan River (Greek Perea). According to Lehi’s prophecy, Bethabara was the name of the site of John’s baptizing. Bethabara appears on the Medeba Map at the natural fording place east of Jericho entering Perea. (The Medeba Map is a sixth-century mosaic map in Medeba, Jordan; it is the oldest known cartographic representation of the Holy Land in existence.) In Hebrew, Beth-abara or Beth-avara means “place of crossing.” At such an important juncture along a major east-west travel route, John could have taught souls coming from the regions of Judea, Perea, Galilee, Decapolis, and Phoenicia. “They came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan [Perea], to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him” (John 3:26). Just across the Jordan opposite Jericho is where the closing scenes of the ministries of the great prophets Moses and Elijah occurred—an appropriate location for the opening scenes of the ministries of the great Forerunner and the Messiah.
The gospel (glad tidings of great joy) would be preached among the Jews; they would reject it and reject their Messiah. They would have him killed, and after he rose from the dead he would make himself manifest, by the Holy Ghost, to the Gentiles—which manifestations are recorded in the New Testament books of Acts through Revelation.
The term Gentiles is used many times from this point on in the Book of Mormon, so it would be wise to define its meaning: “During the meridian dispensation . . . the gospel went preferentially to the Jews first and to the Gentiles second. In the final dispensation the order would be reversed. Note again that to the Nephites, Jews were nationals, persons from the kingdom of Judah. In this sense, the Nephites and Lamanites—though genealogically of the tribe of Joseph—were Jews (see 2 Nephi 30:4; 33:8). Gentiles were all other peoples, including those who were of the house of Israel but who would be found among other nations on earth. . . . In this sense, the Latter-day Saints are called Gentiles (see D&C 109:60).” 23
The house of Israel is compared to an olive tree, whose branches are broken off and scattered worldwide; the Lehite colony’s migration to the New World is part of the fulfillment of the prophecy that the house of Israel would be scattered upon all the face of the earth. The comparison to an olive tree is an affirmation of the authentic ancient provenance of the text of the Book of Mormon. Israelite tradition equated the house of Israel with an olive tree. Jeremiah 11:16 indicates that Jehovah called Israel “a green olive tree, fair and of goodly fruit.” Later rabbinic commentary expounded on that symbolism, calling Israel a leafy and fair olive tree that shed light on all others. This imagery possibly came from the coloration of the underside of the olive leaf (silvery and light) as well as the fact that olive oil was burned for light. It is not happenstance in the Bible that when Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham, climbed Mount Gerizim and proclaimed a parable to the citizens of Shechem, the olive tree was given priority of place (Judges 9:7–11).
After the prophesied scattering of Israel comes a prophesied gathering. Read verse 14 carefully, noting the little word or. This is a classic example of plainness, continually clarifying to make sure no one misses the message. Notice also that the or signals wanting to add to or rephrase something that has already been written; it is hard to erase something that has been carved into metal plates!
Nephi wanted to see and hear and know the things that had been revealed to his father, and he asserts that others may also know if they are willing to diligently seek to know them. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them.” 24 Nephi testified that God is unchangeable—the same yesterday, today, and forever—and that he is willing to unfold his mysteries to anyone willing to diligently seek him, in modern times as in ancient times.
Every soul will be taken back to God’s presence for judgment (2 Nephi 2:10; 9:22, 38; Alma 11:41, 44; 42:23; Helaman 14:15–17; Mormon 9:12–14). Those who sought to do wickedly and refused to repent will be found unclean and because “no unclean thing can dwell with God,” they will have to be escorted right back out of his presence—permanently. “All men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God, for no unclean thing can dwell there, or dwell in his presence” (Moses 6:57).
1 Nephi 11:1–33
Nephi desired to see what his prophet-father saw, and he had faith that the Lord could and would show him the vision. Nephi sat pondering these heavenly things and then was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, who would be his guide during a grand, panoramic tour down through the centuries: chapter 11 (Christ in Israel—New Testament), chapter 12 (Christ in America—Book of Mormon), chapter 13 (apostasy, restoration), and chapter 14 (last days).
The condescension of two Gods—the Father and the Son—reveals the depth of their love for us, as symbolized in the tree of life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), and “we love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Nephi explained: “After I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit” (emphasis added). Then follows the grand panoramic vision the Lord gave to Nephi, chapter after chapter, of many centuries of what we call “history” but he would have called “prophetic preview.” All this was opened up to him because he desired it, was believing, and took time to ponder upon the things of the Lord.
As a boy, Joseph Smith enjoyed studying the Bible. One day he was reading the letter of James, where the ancient Church leader encouraged anyone who lacked wisdom to ask of God, and God would respond (James 1:5). Young Joseph wrote what happened to him after he read those words: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again” (Joseph Smith–History 1:12). Notice that the Prophet’s history does not say that he read that powerful verse, closed his Bible, and dashed across the road to enter a grove of trees and immediately kneel to pray. It was some time later that he went to pray, because he said that he “reflected on it again and again”; the words just kept working their way into his consciousness, and he could not get them out of his mind. The Spirit of the Lord carried those words deep into young Joseph’s heart and influenced him to act on them. The great Visitation occurred, followed by many other visits and revelations from the heavenly world, along with conferral of power (the priesthood), the translation and publication of more of the Savior’s words, and the beginning of the restoration of all things. All of that happened because of the boy’s initial desire, his believing heart, and his ponderings over a single verse of scripture.
On 16 February 1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were working on the Prophet’s inspired revision of the biblical text, specifically in the Gospel of John. As they came to a particular verse (John 5:29), they stopped to ponder the meaning of the Lord’s teaching. “And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about” (D&C 76:19). Then opened up to them the grand vision of the degrees of glory, one of the greatest of all the revelations that have come in our day. All this happened because they desired it, were believing, and paused to meditate upon the words of scripture.
There have been several men by the name of Joseph Smith in our dispensation. One of them, a nephew of the Prophet Joseph Smith, was Church president Joseph F. Smith. He was sitting in his home in Salt Lake City on 3 October 1918, pondering over the scriptures and reflecting particularly on the words of Peter about Christ’s visit to the spirit world between his death and resurrection (1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6). President Smith recorded: “As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead” (D&C 138:11). He described in greater detail than anyone has in all of scripture the world of spirits, who is there, and what they are doing. He specifically noted what the Savior did in organizing the hosts of the righteous to carry on the teaching of the gospel and the preparing of the dead to receive their saving ordinances. All of that was opened up to him because he desired it, was believing, and had paid the price to stop and ponder the teachings of the scriptures.
The Lord seldom encourages or commands us to merely read the scriptures. He and his prophets use such terms as “search” (John 5:39; 3 Nephi 23:1, 5; D&C 1:37); “meditate” (Joshua 1:8; 1 Timothy 4:15; D&C 76:19); “study” (D&C 11:22; 26:1; 88:118); “ponder” (2 Nephi 4:15; 3 Nephi 17:3; D&C 88:62, 71; 138:1, 11); “reflect upon” (D&C 138:2; Joseph Smith–History 1:12); “feast upon” (2 Nephi 31:20; 32:3; Alma 32:42); and “treasure up” (D&C 84:85; Joseph Smith–Matthew 1:37). The Lord will indeed show unto us great things, as we do our part: praying over and studying and reflecting upon the words of scripture, and taking the time to be “in the Spirit.”
“I believe all the words of my father”—glorious words for a father to hear who was devastated because of the behavior of other sons. Even more important, notice that the Spirit rejoiced because he had found someone (Nephi) who believed not in a tree but rather in Jesus Christ. As the Spirit said, “Blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son of the most high God.” In other words, the tree spoken of represents Jesus Christ. Because Nephi believed in Christ, he would see all that he desired, thus confirming that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Revelation 19:10).
Elder James E. Talmage taught: “That the Spirit of the Lord is capable of manifesting Himself in the form and figure of man, is indicated by the wonderful interview between the Spirit and Nephi, in which He revealed Himself to the prophet, questioned him concerning his desires and belief, instructed him in the things of God, speaking face to face with the man. . . . However, the Holy Ghost does not possess a body of flesh and bones, as do both the Father and the Son, but is a personage of spirit.
“Much of the confusion existing in human conceptions concerning the nature of the Holy Ghost arises from the common failure to segregate His person and powers. Plainly, such expressions as being filled with the Holy Ghost, and His falling upon persons, have reference to the powers and influences that emanate from God, and which are characteristic of Him; for the Holy Ghost may in this way operate simultaneously upon many persons even though they be widely separated, whereas the actual person of the Holy Ghost cannot be in more than one place at a time.” 25
Nephi envisioned six centuries ahead of his time, seeing Jerusalem in Judea and Nazareth in Galilee. In Nazareth he saw a most beautiful young Jewish girl, a virgin, who had never known intimately a mortal man (see also Alma 7:10).
Many Saints skip over the question in verse 16, viewing it as an interruption to the flow of the text, often because they don’t know what condescension means. Condescension derives from Latin words meaning “to descend or come down to be with.”
Nephi teaches here the marvelous doctrine of the condescension of God. Verses 16–21 speak of God the Father, a resurrected, exalted, glorified Being, who condescended to sire a Son in this world with a mortal woman, Mary (to “sire” means to beget or procreate). There is nothing figurative about the paternity of Jesus Christ; he is literally the Son of an immortal Man and a mortal woman. Jesus Christ, the premortal Jehovah, the Firstborn of all the Father’s spirit children, thus became the Only Begotten in the flesh—that is, the only mortal Son whom the Father ever had in this world.
This is a fundamental doctrine of true Christianity. The Jews do not believe God (Elohim) would have a Son; the Muslims do not believe God (Allah) would have a Son in this world; and many Christians these days likewise deny the Savior’s unique birth. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Divine Sonship of Christ is the foundation of our religion. With his unique parentage, he literally had power over life and death. He said: “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17–18). He could, and did, give his life and take it up again, providing the way for all of us to be resurrected.
Verse 16 speaks of God the Father condescending to sire a Son. Footnote 16a refers to the Topical Guide, “Jesus Christ, Condescension of” because that is where all passages referring to any kind of condescension are collected, but the verse is specifically referring to the condescension of the Father, as evidenced by the next verse recording Nephi’s comment, “I know that he loveth his children.”
Verse 26 speaks of God the Son, who created worlds without number, then condescended to the manger in Bethlehem. He not only descended to our condition but also descended below it (D&C 88:6; 122:8).
President Ezra Taft Benson wrote: “The most fundamental doctrine of true Christianity is the divine birth of the child Jesus. This doctrine is not generally comprehended by the world. The paternity of Jesus Christ is one of the ‘mysteries of godliness’ comprehended only by the spiritually minded. . . .
“ . . . The testimonies of appointed witnesses leave no question as to the paternity of Jesus Christ. God was the Father of Jesus’ mortal tabernacle, and Mary, a mortal woman, was His mother. He is therefore the only person born who rightfully deserves the title ‘the Only Begotten Son of God.’ . . .
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the most literal sense. The body in which He performed His mission in the flesh was sired by that same Holy Being we worship as God, our Eternal Father. Jesus was not the son of Joseph, nor was He begotten by the Holy Ghost. He is the Son of the Eternal Father!” 26
“He was the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father in the flesh—the only child whose mortal body was begotten by our Heavenly Father. His mortal mother, Mary, was called a virgin, both before and after she gave birth. (See 1 Ne. 11:20.)” 27
Prophets do not automatically know everything; they also learn line upon line. Compare commentary at Alma 7:8.
Mary, whose Hebrew name was Miriam, was the mother of the Son of God, “after the manner of the flesh,” meaning the way babies are naturally born.
The language of this verse provides a respectful shroud of silence regarding the details of the relationship. On Mary’s being carried away by the Spirit and conceiving, Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “Without overstepping the bounds of propriety by saying more than is appropriate, let us say this: God the Almighty; the Maker and Preserver and Upholder of all things . . . who is infinite and eternal, elects, in his fathomless wisdom, to beget a Son, an Only Son, the Only Begotten in the flesh.
“God, who is infinite and immortal, condescends to step down from his throne, to join with one who is finite and mortal in bringing forth, ‘after the manner of the flesh,’ the Mortal Messiah.” 28
“There was only one Christ,” Elder McConkie also wrote, “and there is only one Mary. Each was noble and great in preexistence, and each was foreordained to the ministry he or she performed. We cannot but think that the Father would choose the greatest female spirit to be the mother of his Son, even as he chose the male spirit like unto him to be the Savior.” 29
After showing Nephi these scenes of holy cities and condescension and conception and birth, the angel asked him if he now understood the meaning of the tree. Yes, Nephi responded, “it is the love of God . . . the most desirable above all things.” And the angel added, “And the most joyous to the soul.” All of what he had thus far seen was to help him understand how great is the love of both Gods—Father and Son—for the children of men, making available mortality, the Atonement, resurrection, and eternal life. The latter is the greatest of all the gifts of God (D&C 6:7, 13).
Nephi saw that the iron rod was the word of God and that it led to the waters of life and the tree of life—both representing the love of God, which is manifested in the coming of Jesus in the flesh. In other words, the scriptures lead us to Christ. And we need to come to him daily through the scriptures.
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained about the Holy Ghost coming down and abiding on Jesus: “The sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove. The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage. It does not confine itself to the form of the dove, but in sign of the dove. The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a dove; but the sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence.” 30
See also commentary at 2 Nephi 31:8.
The mortal mission of the Redeemer, before his actual redeeming atonement, was to “minister unto the people.” He came not to be ministered to but to minister. He came to be the servant of all, “as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27), and his unique service was with “power and great glory.” So the Lamb of God had love and power and glory, yet the people cast him out. Nephi saw Jesus’ ministry, his crucifixion, the fight of the house of Israel and the proud world against the Twelve Apostles and the early Church, and the fall and destruction of the world’s pride. This passage is one of the most frightening in scripture, for we see that no one is immune to the influence of the world. The “house of Israel” gathered to “fight against the twelve apostles.” Church members today must be ever vigilant.
1 Nephi 12:1–23
Nephi saw the following in the land of promise, the ancient Americas: “wars, and rumors of wars,” “mist of darkness,” and “vapor of darkness,” suggesting temptations and evils that are encircling, entangling, and all-pervasive; twelve disciples over the Church of God; “the fountain of filthy water,” or “depths of hell”; and “the large and spacious building,” or “vain imaginations and pride” of mortals. Nephi also saw that his posterity was overpowered by the posterity of his brothers (ca. a.d. 385).
“Garments are made white in his blood”: this seemingly incongruous image powerfully teaches that the atoning blood symbolically cleanses, purifies, whitens, and sanctifies the garments of those who apply that blood (see also Alma 5:27; 34:36). White garments typify the purity of those who are clothed with righteousness.
The words “look” and “behold” are used repeatedly, and each time Nephi looked, he beheld a new scene. An angelic messenger from God escorted him through the vision.
Regarding the formation of the great and abominable church described in these verses, we note Joseph Smith’s axiom: “In relation to the kingdom of God, the devil always sets up his kingdom at the very same time in opposition to God.” 31 Is it any wonder, then, that godless humanistic philosophies would surface in the same century as the restoration of the kingdom of God on earth?
Former dean of religion at Brigham Young University David H. Yarn Jr. wrote: “There has never been a single century like the nineteenth in the history of thought when so many ideas, concepts, and systems of thought have emerged which are destructive to faith and righteousness. In addition to the discipline of Biblical Criticism came the atheistic philosophies of Schopenhauer, Comte, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Aside from any positive value that might be attributed to any or all of them, the collective force of their materialism, naturalism, humanism, and atheism has burst upon the twentieth century and its fruit—the hellish immoralities of our time—seem to be all but omnipresent in our contemporary world. As regards the testimony of Jesus Christ, perhaps Nietzsche might appropriately be chosen as the spokesman for that faith-destroying coterie. He impudently boasted, ‘I am the Antichrist’ (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I Write Such Excellent Books,” paragraph 2).” 32
The great and abominable church is always set up to oppose the great and marvelous work the Lord establishes. The great and abominable church is plainly defined in Nephi’s writings:
The devil is the founder of it; it is otherwise called “the mother of harlots”; it has caused people to stumble because of plain and precious parts of the gospel which it kept back. “There are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth” (1 Nephi 14:10). “All churches which are built up to get gain, and all those who are built up to get power over the flesh, and those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world, and those who seek the lusts of the flesh and the things of the world, and to do all manner of iniquity . . . [are] those who belong to the kingdom of the devil” (1 Nephi 22:23). “He that fighteth against Zion, both Jew and Gentile, both bond and free, both male and female, shall perish; for they are they who are the whore of all the earth” (2 Nephi 10:16).
On the matter of every soul standing either with the great and abominable church or with the true Church of Jesus Christ, Brigham Young University professor of ancient scripture Stephen Robinson noted that it depends more on who has your heart than who has your records. 33
The great and abominable church, or the church of the devil, is organized with priestcraft instead of priesthood. Nephi characterized it by precious metals, gold and silver; precious clothing, silks, scarlets, and fine-twined linen; immoral men and women; efforts to secure the praise of the world by destroying the Saints of God and bringing them down to captivity in religion as well as in politics. Thus, the great and abominable church has been known by many names over the centuries and has been led by various institutions and individuals. The list of institutions leading the charge of the devil’s program on this earth might include apostate Christianity, secularism, Nazism, Communism, radical religions and groups in the Near East, as well as others.
The Atlantic Ocean separated the nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles, the European countries, from the descendants of Book of Mormon-era Lamanites who were living in abject apostasy and, as the angel said, “the wrath of God” was upon them.
Christopher Columbus understood that he was directed in his ventures by the God of heaven. “Who can doubt but that the Holy Ghost inspired me?” 34
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states: “Nephi appears to give an accurate account of Columbus’s motives. . . . Columbus apparently . . . felt himself spiritually driven to discover new lands. Newly acknowledged documents show that medieval eschatology, the scriptures, and divine inspiration were the main forces compelling him to sail. His notes in the works of Pierre d’Ailly and his own unfinished Book of Prophecies substantiate his apocalyptic view of the world and his feelings about his own prophetic role. . . .
“He believed himself chosen by God to find that land and deliver the light of Christianity to the natives there. . . . He believed that he was to help usher in the age of ‘one fold, and one shepherd,’ citing John 10:16 (cf. 3 Ne. 15:21), and spoke of finding ‘the new heaven and new earth.’
“Writing to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to gain financial support, Columbus testified that a voice had told him he had been watched over from infancy to prepare him for discovering the Indies. He felt that he was given divine keys to ocean barriers that only he could unlock. . . . In a second letter, he emphasized his prophetic role: ‘Reason, mathematics, and maps of the world were of no use to me in the execution of the enterprise of the Indies. What Isaiah said [e.g., Isaiah 24:15] was completely fulfilled’ (Watts, p. 96). Unknowingly, Columbus also fulfilled Nephi’s prophecy.” 35
The Pilgrim Fathers, also called Puritans and Separatists, sought to break away from the political and religious oppression in the British Isles and continental Europe. They migrated, driven by the “Spirit of God” or the “Spirit of the Lord,” and settled the “land of promise,” at the same time scattering the descendants of ancient Book of Mormon peoples, whom they called Indians.
The Gentiles, who included the Pilgrims and America’s Founding Fathers, “did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.” Doctrine and Covenants 101:80 says God established the Constitution of the United States of America “by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.” His power, of course, would then be with them.
In the mid-1970s, Brother Ogden learned that the Church was going to close the St. George Utah Temple for two years for major remodeling, so he traveled to St. George to attend the temple in one of the final sessions before closing. After the session, he stopped at the temple recorder’s office, explained who he was and what he did, and asked if he could see the temple’s records of the visit of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ presidents, and other famous men and women. The recorder went immediately to a specific volume on a particular shelf in a relatively small room with wall-to-wall shelves and many big, handwritten ledgers of a hundred years of temple work. He said that Brother Ogden could look and remember all he could, but he was not permitted to make copies of the pages. (These records were later moved to the Church archives in Salt Lake City.)
Glancing through the book, Brother Ogden saw that temple president Wilford Woodruff and assistant president John D. T. McAllister had done the ordinances for all the signers of the Declaration, except John Hancock, whose work had already been done by his descendant Levi Hancock; all the United States presidents up to that date except three—Buchanan, who sent Johnston’s Army to Utah in 1857; Van Buren, who said, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you”; and Grant, who was then living; and other renowned men, such as Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci (Americus Vespucius), John Wesley, William Makepeace Thackeray, Washington Irving, Michael Faraday, David Farragut, Louis Agassiz, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Webster, William Seward, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Wilford Woodruff’s diary records that the ordinance work was also performed for the following: Napoleon Bonaparte, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, William Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott. 36 Sister Lucy B. Young helped do the work for Martha Washington and seventy other eminent women of the world.
The Revolutionary War, between the American colonies and the British Empire and others, was the great prologue to the Restoration. The American colonists “were delivered by the power of God out of the hand of all other nations.” In fact, the God of this land has declared that he “redeemed the land by the shedding of blood” (D&C 101:80)—just as he redeems all worthy souls by the shedding of his own blood. Thus, it seems to be a true principle that redemption relative to God’s plan comes by the shedding of blood. Our lives, our salvation, were redeemed, or purchased, by the shedding of the blood of God. The land of the latter-day restoration was purchased by the shedding of the blood of patriots. The future of our Church, our religious future, was purchased by the shedding of the blood of pioneers. There is no redemption in the eternal scheme of things, it seems, without the shedding of blood.
The establishment of a free land, with guarantees of religious liberty, was a necessary prelude to the glorious latter-day restoration of the Church, the gospel, and the new and everlasting covenant. The hand of God was in it! When the work of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was completed, James Madison wrote, “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stage of the revolution.” 37
Many have had the sobering experience of visiting Valley Forge and remembering how General Washington encouraged the ten thousand soldiers of the Continental Army in desperate conditions during the winter of 1777–78. Many have paid tribute to his leadership genius and his humility in calling upon God. Many have probably also read from Nephi’s visionary description, which ties together all the momentous events of Plymouth, Salem, Boston, and Philadelphia with the restoration of the gospel (1 Nephi 13). The Revolution and the Restoration were integrally connected in God’s great plan for laying foundations for the permanent establishment of his kingdom on this earth.
Nephi saw a book among the Gentiles, a book that “proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew”—the Holy Bible, as we call it, or “the book of the Lamb of God,” as he called it, which contains the covenants and prophetic promises of the holy prophets. Its contents were similar to those of the plates of brass but “not so many,” suggesting that the plates of brass had a fuller record of the people than does our current Bible, although our Bible is still “of great worth” to us “Gentiles.”
Regarding the condition of the prophets’ writings before precious things were lost, Joseph Smith wrote: “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” 38 That is to say, the biblical record was at first pure and “contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord.”
Many truths that were plain and precious are now missing, having been deleted or corrupted, and many covenants of the Lord have been omitted. Why? With malice aforethought, the church of the devil has done it to “pervert the right ways of the Lord” and to “blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.”
The phrase “plain and precious” appears nine times in a span of fifteen verses. Taking away plain and precious things perverts the correct understanding of the nature of God and causes people to stumble doctrinally. Biblical examples include “No man hath seen God at any time” (John 1:18) and “God is a spirit” (John 4:24).
To help remedy these losses and misunderstandings, God has brought forth “other books,” and “these last records [Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible] . . . shall establish the truth of the first [the Bible], . . . and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away.” For example, latter-day scripture has restored the truth that “the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved.”
The prophecy “the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the [Book of Mormon], as well as in the [Bible]; wherefore they both shall be established in one” is certainly accomplished in the publication of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Bible. They have become literally one in our hand in testifying of the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ (see 2 Nephi 3:12).
We see again in this passage how the term Gentile is used. It can refer to anyone, even an Israelite, who is not of the house of Judah, or it can refer to those raised in a non-Israelite, or Gentile, culture.
This verse is a blessing on those who seek to bring forth Zion, who publish peace and tidings of great joy—“how beautiful upon the mountains shall they be.” See further commentary on the latter expression at Mosiah 15:14–18.
1 Nephi 14:1–17
Not only do we see how extensive Lehi’s and Nephi’s visions were, we see that they beheld the latter days—our days—and the end of the world. This sweeping vision was seen by many prophets (see commentary at 1 Nephi 14:26).
The great war between the forces of good and the forces of evil that began in the premortal world has changed battlefields, but the war rages on. The mother of abominations, the whore of all the earth or the church of the devil seems omnipresent (see commentary at 1 Nephi 13:2–9); it has infiltrated organizations and movements and has pervasive power and influence.
In 1845 the Council of the Twelve Apostles proclaimed: “As this work progresses in its onward course, . . . no king, ruler, or subject, no community or individual, will stand neutral. All will . . . take sides either for or against the kingdom of God.” 39 President Ezra Taft Benson declared: “I testify that as the forces of evil increase under Lucifer’s leadership and as the forces of good increase under the leadership of Jesus Christ, there will be growing battles between the two until the final confrontation. As the issues become clearer and more obvious, all mankind will eventually be required to align themselves either for the kingdom of God or for the kingdom of the devil.” 40
The kingdom of the devil is described as a whore. The image is a foil, or a contrasting opposite, to the kingdom of God, which is described in the most sacred relationship of husband and wife. The Lord is married to his people; he is the Bridegroom and she, his Church, is the bride. If there is ever any infidelity, it is always on the part of the wife, because the Lord is faithful eternally. That is why the wife is cast in the role of the whore or the harlot; she has prostituted the holiest of all relationships. In this case, the devil and his companions have violated or prostituted all the covenants of eternity. Nephi saw that the whore “sat upon many waters,” meaning that her influence was far and wide, as the next phrase indicates: “she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.” The waves of her wickedness were washing up on all the shores of humankind.
The power and influence of the true Church, comparatively speaking, seems meager. Nevertheless, the numerically minor power of the Church and the Saints is manifested in strong and impressive ways because righteousness is power, and God’s power is glorious.
God’s anger is poured out as the great and abominable church engages in constant wars and war-mongering efforts. When we see all this happening in our day, we know that the Father’s work of fulfilling his covenants to Israel is in progress.
The devil and the church established by him work to lead the souls of men to hell. Hell is part of the postmortal world of spirits where the wicked suffer but have the opportunity to repent. The other part of the postmortal spirit world is called paradise. Both paradise and hell have an end in the resurrection. When Nephi says that hell “hath no end,” he is undoubtedly referring to the fact that the punishment suffered in hell is endless because God is endless and, therefore, God’s punishment is endless (D&C 19:10–12). An endless hell of never-ending torment is reserved for the sons of perdition, who inherit no kingdom of glory (D&C 76:44–48). All but the sons of perdition are saved in the sense that all receive a kingdom of glory (D&C 76:43). Nephi also teaches that hell is a place (1 Nephi 15:35).
Nephi’s sweeping vision of the future continues with a glimpse of the grand mission of John, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, otherwise known as John the Beloved or John the Revelator. John would write of the things that Nephi saw and many things of the past, “and he shall also write concerning the end of the world.” The angel guiding Nephi bore testimony of the justice and truth of John’s writings, exclaiming that his writings were “plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.”
Wait! you say. Is this referring to John’s Revelation, the final and great apocalyptic book of the New Testament—“plain” and “easy to the understanding of all men”? That is not the way most people view those writings. Joseph Smith actually declared, “The book of Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever caused to be written.” 41 True, Joseph Smith may have seen the whole vision also, but with the Spirit and some serious study, we too can understand much of what John wrote. It is meant to be understood in order to help us comprehend events of the last days and prepare ourselves for the final day.
Nephi was permitted the expansive view of past and future but was instructed not to write about the end time. That assignment was given to the Beloved Apostle, to write it and publish it to the world; John, in a sense, was granted the copyright on those prophetic things.
Others have written what the Lord showed them in a grand panoramic vision of the history of the world: Adam, Enoch, the brother of Jared, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, John the Revelator, and Joseph Smith (see commentary at 2 Nephi 27:6–11). With the exception of John, however, the Lord instructed them to seal up their writings until the time of the end of the world (see, for example, Daniel 12:4 and Ether 3:27; 4:5).
The name of John the Revelator was known and recorded centuries before he was born, as were the names of Moses (2 Nephi 3:9–10), Cyrus (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1), Mary (Mosiah 3:8; Alma 7:10), Joseph Smith (2 Nephi 3:11, 15), and especially Jesus Christ (Moses 6:52, 57; 7:50; 2 Nephi 25:19; Mosiah 3:8).
John’s record of the sweeping vision seen by Lehi, Nephi, and others is called the book of Revelation. Nephi and John saw the same things, and their accounts contain many of the same images: tree of life, great and abominable church, the restoration of the gospel, and so forth. However, Nephi’s account emphasizes the first coming of Jesus Christ and the meridian dispensation, while John’s account emphasizes the second coming of Jesus Christ, the end of the final dispensation, and the Millennium.
Like Nephi, the Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.” 42
When you have had a profound experience with the Spirit, it is hard to come back down from that “mountaintop” you have been on. Coming “down” or re-engaging the fallen world, only to find less spiritually inclined persons arguing, is distasteful.
There are many great things that are hard to understand unless you ask God. If you harden your heart you will not ask, and tragedy is inevitable for those with hard hearts (see commentary at 1 Nephi 17:41–42; Alma 12:31–37).
Because of the prophetic preview Nephi had just witnessed of the disastrous destiny of his descendants, he felt that his afflictions were “great above all.”
Of course Laman and Lemuel did not understand the doctrine; they had not asked God. And they had not asked because they were certain he would not reveal anything to them. With that attitude, they were right.
You can miss out on the great things of the Lord simply because you fail to ask. Could it be that you don’t really believe the Lord would make such remarkable things known to “little old me”? If you desire to experience the mighty things of the Spirit, here is the formula, from verse 11 and the end of verse 14: Inquire with faith + obey the commandments = receive revelation. If you do his will, you can know the doctrine is true (John 7:17). This passage teaches the same grand message as James 1:5–6 and Moroni 10:4–5. If you sincerely ask of God, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth to you by the power of the Holy Ghost. The patriarch Abraham is a superb example of one who actively inquired of the Lord and relentlessly sought to claim blessings that God promises to all who seek him in righteousness (Abraham 1:1–4).
Israel is compared to an olive tree, and the Nephites were a branch of Israel that was broken off from the rest of Israel. Rock, vine, fold, and tree are all meaningful images of the Redeemer and his doctrine; they denote stability, nourishment, security, and fruitfulness.
Here is one of the great promises in all of scripture, a guarantee of safety during the tumultuous last days—safety and salvation. Whoever will hold fast to the word of God, especially the Book of Mormon, will “never perish.” What does it mean to “hold fast” to the rod? If you are in a river, sinking and about to drown, and someone extends you a branch, how do you hold onto it? You grab it tightly and cling to it for dear life. That is how you must hold firmly to the word of God.
In Nephi’s analogy, in a sense we are all dartboards and Satan is a professional dart thrower. What are the “fiery darts” he is hurling at us? Immoral and violent movies, pornographic Internet sites, worldly music, profane and crude language, sexual perversions and deviations, the allure of materialism, and many more.
If you are treasuring up the word, you will not have to debate whether or not to indulge in these things; they will be repulsive to your spirit. You will not be blinded by the world’s example. “Whoso treasureth up my word, shall not be deceived” (Joseph Smith–Matthew 1:37). The adversary will not overpower you; he will have “no power over you” (Helaman 5:12). That is a sure promise, and a comforting one.
As demonstrated in these verses, family members are not to give up on one another. Nephi did not give up on his wayward brothers. He encouraged them “with all the energies of [his] soul,” continually clarifying the teachings of his father.
The river of water represents the filthiness of the world, but Lehi was so “swallowed up” or so preoccupied with better things that he didn’t particularly notice how filthy the water was. Later, we encounter missionaries who were so “swallowed up” in the joy of Christ that they didn’t notice the depth of their own afflictions and deprivations (Alma 31:38). It is good to be “swallowed up,” or caught up, in the things of God.
Temporal or spiritual—it is all the same. Everything temporal is also spiritual to God and to all those who are godly (D&C 29:34). The wicked or filthy cannot enter the kingdom of God because there cannot be anything filthy in a place where a totally clean Being lives. The wicked cannot enjoy the most precious and desirable fruit of the tree of life—the love of God that results in eternal life—which is the greatest of his gifts (D&C 6:13).
The evil-minded brothers concluded that Nephi’s beautiful teachings were hard and unbearable. The young prophet responded that they are hard only for the wicked, who feel guilty in their dark sins and want to avoid the light. Indeed, our experience has shown that the manifestation of gospel truths in the face of wickedness causes great divisions and brings guilt, embarrassment, and anger to the less righteous. Truth cuts the wicked to the very center because the word of the Lord is “sharper than a two-edged sword” (D&C 11:2). The Savior said he would bring not peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34–37). John’s Gospel records that “there was a division among the people because of him” (John 7:43).
What does a righteous person do who has to live with someone who is wicked and rebellious? Persist in encouraging the lost one to keep the commandments, and refuse to give up. Let the rebellious one keep hearing that encouragement with love and kindness.
Nephi “took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife.” How wonderful to have a prophet in the family to perform the sealing.
It is interesting that the Lord would provide a hand-held device to guide Lehi and his family (consider today’s technology for accessing global positioning systems). The more ancient Israelites had a cloud and fire to guide them, but now the Lord provided an apparatus that needed no outside power source because it operated through inner power sources: faith and diligence. A label or title for this ball, director, or compass—“Liahona”—is noted in Alma 37:38.
The word curious has changed meanings over the past nearly two centuries. In Joseph Smith’s day the word meant “made with care, skillfully wrought with art, elegant, and exactness of workmanship.” 43
There was plenty of cause to murmur: broken bows, lack of food, fatigue, suffering—sounds like life! The similarities here to the Israelite exodus are striking: fatigue, lack of food, and great murmuring against the Lord (Exodus 16:8; Numbers 11:1). Instead of sitting around groaning and complaining about their plight, Nephi got up and did something constructive. He devised a solution to their dilemma and then went to his father for direction. He himself could have sought guidance from the Lord, but he sustained and honored the priesthood leadership of his father, even though his father, a prophet, had also been complaining and was chastened and humbled.
Elder Richard G. Scott taught: “Just when all seems to be going right, challenges often come in multiple doses applied simultaneously. When those trials are not consequences of your disobedience, they are evidence that the Lord feels you are prepared to grow more (see Prov. 3:11–12). He therefore gives you experiences that stimulate growth, understanding, and compassion which polish you for your everlasting benefit. To get you from where you are to where He wants you to be requires a lot of stretching, and that generally entails discomfort and pain.” 44
The Liahona is a profound example of how great things come about by small means (see also Alma 37:6). This seems to be a powerful and important lesson for individuals and families to learn. Our daily “pointers” are prayer, scripture study, and obedience—small means that bring about great results. The gift of the Holy Ghost, like the Liahona, functions only upon our faith, diligence, and obedience. We also receive the word of the Lord from time to time according to our faith and attention. The whole program is so simple but can produce great results. The Lehites received greater understanding of gospel doctrine and spiritual things through the Liahona, and we receive such understanding through the gift of the Holy Ghost, the scriptures, and patriarchal blessings.
The phrase “and thus we see” is used at least twenty-one times in the Book of Mormon and signals some important lesson that we should not miss. The lesson in this first instance is that the Lord by small and simple means can bring about great things. It is not a matter of walking back to Jackson County; it is walking or driving over to visit and lift those we home teach or visit teach. It is not whether you are willing to die for the cause of Christ but whether you will daily study his words and daily talk with Heavenly Father in humble prayer.
When we can see immediate and dramatic results of true faith and diligence, we are prone to humbly acknowledge them and give thanks to the great Provider.
Every time something went wrong in the traveling group and every time something hurt, it was time to complain and criticize. Just like Lot’s wife, they wanted to go back. They obviously did not have a testimony and feel gratitude that they had escaped destruction, or they would not have desired to return. We have to trust the prophet.
Those who don’t have a believing heart will probably have a critical heart, which can lead to anger, then to murderous feelings. Liars accuse others of lying. Because of the lies, they stir up people to anger, which comes from Satan (3 Nephi 11:29–30).
The Lord himself had to intervene and chasten the rebellious sons and brothers, which caused them to admit their wrong, eradicate their anger, and repent, all of which resulted in blessings flowing again. It seems that Laman and Lemuel were constantly vacillating back and forth, up and down, between aggressive rebellion and then contrite pleading for forgiveness and acknowledging God.
Travel is fatiguing, and a wilderness has such primitive conditions for giving birth. The women grew physically tougher and endured conditions without complaint.
If we are willing to keep God’s commandments, he assures us of strength, nourishment, and success in continuing in the path of obedience. He will provide the way, and we are guaranteed success—if not immediately, then eventually. “Thus we see” what God will do if we obey.
1 Nephi 17:3, 13, 49–50
God has commanded us to do certain things, and he provides the way to do them. We have to study it out in our mind and make decisions, but he provides the means for accomplishing whatever he commands. The following words in a letter from a missionary caught the president of the Missionary Training Center by surprise: “Take care of yourself and your family, and never give in to temptation. I hope that you will have many trials so you can continue progressing and be able to teach us all the better.” That was a rather unusual desire, but the missionary was right. We do learn a lot from our trials, and we are then able to teach others more effectively.
For the previous three days the MTC president had been living with a little cloud of darkness hanging over him—and confusion, agitation, perplexity, and bewilderment—because of another elder who wanted to go home. Although that missionary fully participated, with outward enjoyment, in all the studies and activities with the other missionaries, he said he was terribly homesick and couldn’t learn. He insisted he had no knowledge of the gospel whatever, because he had skipped out on his church classes over the years, and he felt inferior to all the other missionaries. Through hours of interviews with the MTC president and with his wonderful branch president, he kept saying, “I just can’t do it; I can’t do it; I can’t do it.” President Ogden reminded him that “can’t” is a denial of the Holy Ghost. With God all things are possible, especially learning to serve as a servant of the Lord.
It was a challenging situation for the missionary. His father had left the country and had lived for many years in the States, and his mother, who remained in her country, had recently been excommunicated. The missionary was allowed to call his stake president and his mother; his mother and all three members of his stake presidency tried to dissuade him from abandoning his mission. The area president asked why the elder wanted to leave: “Why did he prepare and send in all the papers, and why did he write an acceptance letter to Church leaders and the Missionary Department?” The young missionary said he hadn’t done any of those things.
The hours and hours of interviews and phone calls were spiritually draining for everyone. Finally the young man confessed to immorality with his girlfriend. That explained the depressing darkness through which he had put himself. He could not learn, he could not love, and he could not feel the Spirit because he was not clean. Soon after his confession and an honest beginning to repentance, he began to feel lighter and happier and more determined to resolve this sin.
Not long afterward another elder lamented to the MTC president how unprepared he felt and how he questioned whether he could learn enough to succeed on the mission. A rush of counsel came for him—the encouragement literally poured into President Ogden’s mind, and he just opened his mouth and passed it on to the young elder.
After all that, President Ogden collapsed, exhausted, into his favorite big chair, wanting to soak up a little Book of Mormon for the first time in almost three days. He opened to where his marker was and started reading 1 Nephi 17. The third verse says: “And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them.”
Within seconds the revelation came that he didn’t have to do this work alone. It was not his work; it was the Savior’s work. He would encourage the missionaries. President Ogden got a notebook and started writing:
Are you struggling, discouraged, wondering if you can make it?
Here is some encouragement from Nephi (liken his words to yourself):
• 1 Nephi 3:5–7, 15
• 1 Nephi 17:3, 13
• 1 Nephi 18:21—“I prayed . . . and there was a great calm”
• 2 Nephi 10:20 (first half)
• 2 Nephi 10:23 (first line)
• 2 Nephi 32:3 (second half)
• 2 Nephi 4:17–35 (!)
We wonder if disobedience contributed to the length of the wilderness experience of Lehi’s family, as it did for ancient Israel (Alma 37:40–42). Even though the colony had suffered tremendously, and they couldn’t even list and describe all the difficulties along the way, in the end the Lord prepared a reward for them—a fruitful, temporary campground.
Again Nephi went into the mountain (for us, the mountain of the Lord, the temple) to commune with God and receive revelation.
“Thou shalt construct a ship.” The Lord preempted Nephi’s surprise by saying, in effect, I already know you have never constructed a ship before and you don’t know how— “after the manner which I shall show thee.” In other words, the Lord was going to tell Nephi step-by-step how to do it.
The archaeology of the ancient Near East confirms that Nephi lived during the Iron Age (1200–539 b.c.), so it is little wonder that he sought ore to make tools.
Noting that he made a bellows, we wonder if Nephi might have been a goldsmith or a blacksmith. He found ore and made tools, swords, and plates on which to engrave the records of his people.
The Lord is literally the light of the universe (D&C 88:6–13). He will also be our light while we are passing through this wilderness of mortality, and he will “prepare the way” before us—if we keep his commandments—and he will lead us toward the ultimate promised land, the celestial kingdom. In the end, we will know it is he who did it. When we arrive in the eternal world, we will know with a perfect knowledge that the Lord delivered us out of destruction, out of the hand of the destroyer.
Earlier, Laman and Lemuel didn’t believe the Lord could deliver Laban and the plates into their hands; now they didn’t believe Nephi could build a ship. The excuses continued: we don’t believe Nephi can cross these great waters, and we don’t believe the Lord told him to do it. Therefore, we are not going to work.
Nephi felt bad, and his brothers were glad that he felt bad. It is typical of the fallen man to rejoice in a righteous person’s sadness. The wicked use name-calling, labels, and false accusations.
“And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world” (D&C 121:34–35). “We might have enjoyed our possessions,” they lamented. Of course. Life could have been more comfortable and more pleasurable—and shorter! They might have been facing imminent death or exile back in Jerusalem. They were short-sighted indeed. The same attitude that afflicted the citizens of Jerusalem also blinded Laman and Lemuel: “What is our sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?” (Jeremiah 16:10). Laman and Lemuel probably acquired their attitude from the Jerusalemites of their day.
Laman and Lemuel denounced Nephi: You have unjustly accused our friends back home. They are strictly observant; they are meticulous observers of the Mosaic rituals, and you and our father are guilty of misjudging them.
All right, brothers, Nephi said in effect, it is time for some history lessons. You are already aware of these facts of our forefathers’ history and their miraculous deliverance in these same wilderness areas centuries ago.
Again, we are struck by the parallel between Lehi’s family and the Exodus of the children of Israel:
• Murmuring over their hardship (1 Nephi 16:20)
• Journeying toward the promised land (17:13)
• Deliverance from destruction by the Lord (17:14)
• The prophet-leader receiving direction on a mountain (17:7)
• Nephi’s use of the Exodus story to teach and inspire (17:23–43)
The last parallel is much like the practice of Jews today in recounting the Exodus story on the eve of Passover. Lehi and Nephi were following the Mosaic injunction to teach the children of the family the Passover miracles and God’s goodness to the house of Israel (Exodus 12:26–27; 13:8, 14). Nephi used the phrase “ye know” eight times in five verses. Laman and Lemuel “knew” the Exodus story and its lessons because they had been taught before. Out of Nephi’s discussion of the Exodus experience come profound doctrines: the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one, but the righteous receive his favor; the Lord speaks in a still small voice, but continual rebellion can put individuals in a condition “past feeling,” where the Spirit of the Lord can no longer be recognized; and thus God raises up righteous peoples, but he “destroyeth the nations of the wicked.”
God is just and fair. Those who want to disobey and be wicked bring destruction upon themselves. Those who are righteous are favored of God; he will love them and bless them.
1 Nephi 17:35, 40
It is fashionable these days to speak of God’s unconditional love. Do the scriptures teach that God has unconditional love for everyone, or does God favor some over others? The Book of Mormon clearly answers those questions. “He that is righteous is favored of God. . . . And he loveth those who will have him to be their God.” See also Psalm 145:18–20; John 14:21; 15:10; Acts 10:34–35; Romans 10:12–13; Helaman 3:27–28; 15:3–4.
Dr. Robert J. Matthews explained why this earth is the Savior’s footstool: “‘Did Jesus have to suffer and die on any other worlds to redeem them, as he did on this earth?’ The answer, based on the provisions of Alma 11 . . . can only be, ‘No.’ The fact that he was born, died, and resurrected on this earth—these being one-time events—demonstrates that he had never done these things elsewhere, or he would not have been able to do them here. And having done them on this earth, he cannot repeat them anywhere else. We see how unique our own world is in the universe. This earth is called God’s footstool (D&C 38:17). On this earth Jesus Christ obtained his only physical body, and on this earth he was resurrected with that same body, and on this earth he will stand again and reign in his body throughout eternity (see D&C 130:9).” 45 See also Moses 6:44.
Verse 41 notes that God straitened the Israelites with his rod. To straiten means to restrict their freedom, to subject them to distress, or in other words, to chasten them. The chastening or disciplining was done by sending “fiery flying serpents” among them. Upon being bitten by the serpents, all they had to do to be healed was look to the serpent Moses raised up on a pole (a type or symbol of Christ, who was also raised up; see John 3:14; Helaman 8:14–15). Because the way to be healed was so simple, many ignored it and would not look and live. Alma, while teaching about Moses’ testimony of the Son of God, gave the best explanation of why many would not look:
“Behold a type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live.
“But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them” (Alma 33:19–20; see also commentary at Alma 33:19–20).
When people are living in sin, they harden their hearts and complain and condemn and criticize true, honest leaders and even God.
Laman and Lemuel’s anger had turned to murderous thoughts. The wicked cannot leave the righteous alone. It is clear that miraculous, other-worldly manifestations cannot change a stubborn, recalcitrant heart. The Spirit’s calm, quiet, peaceful voice was trying to reach them, but the noise of their sinful lifestyle and mind-set was obstructing the voice. The wording here suggests that even if they could hear, they could not feel. The tragic message was that they were past feeling. Sometimes if a person cannot be reached by that quiet, gentle voice of the Spirit, the Lord will employ other methods such as thunder, lightning, tempests, and earthquakes (compare D&C 88:88–90).
President Boyd K. Packer warned of a growing trend in modern society that also leads to hard-heartedness, a loss of Spirit, and becoming past feeling:
“The world grows increasingly noisy. Clothing and grooming and conduct are looser and sloppier and more disheveled. Raucous music, with obscene lyrics blasted through amplifiers while lights flash psychedelic colors, characterizes the drug culture. Variations of these things are gaining wide acceptance and influence over our youth. . . .
“This trend to more noise, more excitement, more contention, less restraint, less dignity, less formality is not coincidental nor innocent nor harmless. . . .
“Irreverence suits the purposes of the adversary by obstructing the delicate channels of revelation in both mind and spirit.” 46
Nephi, spiritually sensitive as he was, felt anguish and pain for his brothers, and he feared for their eternal lives. Being so full of the Spirit—the workings of the Spirit in him—caused him to feel totally debilitated physically (see commentary at 1 Nephi 1:5–20).
1 Nephi 17:48, 52
Nephi was so filled with the power of God—the Spirit of God—that he was untouchable. That is the same power that made the holy ark of the covenant untouchable (2 Samuel 6:6–7) and that protected Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:17–27) and Nephi and Lehi (Helaman 5:23–24) in otherwise lethal circumstances.
Don’t complain, don’t be lazy, just get busy and obey. Whatever God commands is right and possible. God knows all things, and he is the Master Teacher; of course he can instruct Nephi how to build a ship. There is a precedent: Noah already did it, and his ship must have been bigger.
Righteousness and spirituality generate a palpable, physical power. Light and truth are an actual force in the universe (D&C 84:45–46; 88:6–13). Priesthood power is demonstrable. The brothers didn’t dare touch Nephi, and they couldn’t succeed in being argumentative. There must have been a few days of peace.
It is interesting how the Lord provided a testimony at the brothers’ level. Let’s just give them a little shock treatment so they will know that God and his power are real. The testing was successful. They were convinced. Then they launched into a little misguided adoration of their brother; they couldn’t seem to get it right. It is a measure of Nephi’s integrity that he did not claim any special honor or glory. Rather, he directed others to the Lord. He said, in effect, Worship God! And honor your parents if you want to live a long time in the land where you are going. This absence of pride is seen in Jesus, Moses, and all the Lord’s true servants.
Nephi received blueprints and technical revelation from the Master Shipbuilder. The young prophet made frequent hikes to his private spot on the mountain, poured out his soul in prayer, and was blessed with great views. “I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things.” That passage has at least two meanings: in the temple, the mountain of the Lord, God opens up to all of us the views of great things. Also, when we climb our personal mountains—challenges, trials, difficulties, struggles, hardships, afflictions—he can teach us great things.
Matthew 8:1 says, “When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him.” We must also climb to the mountaintop (for example, the temple), where the Lord will also show us great things. Then we must go back down among the people, and because we are full of the Spirit, others will desire to follow us into the kingdom. We must desire with all our heart to go to the mountaintop and then go back down to lead others up.
1 Nephi 18:9–16
Singing and dancing can be either good and uplifting or evil and degrading. The word of the Lord at Winter Quarters, given during the Saints’ modern exodus westward, states, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving” (D&C 136:28). In the case of Nephi’s brothers and Ishmael’s sons, the merriment was carried on with such “rudeness” that it offended the Spirit of the Lord. And, as usual, Nephi’s cautions were met with Laman and Lemuel’s anger. They bound Nephi and treated him so roughly that his wrists and ankles became greatly swollen. The traveling party also suffered the consequences of unrighteousness on the high seas. However, the most powerful lesson comes in Nephi’s magnificent response to all of that: “Nevertheless, I did look unto my God, and I did praise him all the day long; and I did not murmur against the Lord because of mine afflictions” (1 Nephi 18:16). To remain loyal to God, especially through trials clearly not of our own making, and resist the temptation to become bitter over the Lord’s nonintervention is the great test and lesson of life—“to serve Him at all hazards,” thus guaranteeing our exaltation. 47
Lehi and Sariah in their old age had “suffered much grief because of their [rebellious] children” and now once again were sickened by their behavior, which nearly brought them to “a watery grave.” Only the fear of death caused the rebels to soften their rudeness, crudeness, and ill tempers. Released from bands, Nephi fervently prayed and again took up steering toward the promised land.
In their new land of inheritance they planted seeds and discovered that the seeds grew prolifically. Having left some wealth back in Jerusalem, they now found themselves in possession of a wealth of valuable flora and fauna and ores and precious metals (see also 2 Nephi 5:15). These bounteous blessings were a direct fulfillment of part of the blessing their ancient ancestor Joseph had received from his father, Jacob (whose names, not incidentally, were given to the two sons born to Sariah and Lehi in the wilderness): “Blessed of the Lord be his land, for the precious things of heaven, . . . and for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, . . . and for the chief things of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the lasting hills, and for the precious things of the earth and fulness thereof” (Deuteronomy 33:13–16).
The Lord instructed Nephi to make two sets of plates. Nephi said, “Wherefore I did make plates of ore,” that is, the first, or large, plates of Nephi. The first set recorded Lehi’s ministry, his genealogy, the family’s travels, and other historical events, especially political and military history. The second set recorded Nephi’s ministry, prophecies, and other matters of a more sacred nature. He continued, “And I knew not at the time when I made them [the large plates] that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates [the small plates].” He then certified, “I do not write anything upon [the small] plates save it be that I think it be sacred.” As noted already in the commentary at 1 Nephi 9, the prophet didn’t know all of the Lord’s wise reasons for making two different records, but he was willing to be exactly obedient.
Note the wisdom in engraving on metal plates so the record would endure far longer than ancient papyrus and even parchment (animal skin) or our modern paper and plastic materials on which we engrave or “burn” records.
Nephi’s discussion of the sets of plates and their different purposes led him to talk about value systems, which then led to his prophetic testimony of Christ. Some people esteem the sacred things as of great worth, whereas others set them “at naught.” Some even trample the sacred things under their feet, as it were, and go so far as to trample God himself under their feet (a shocking image, to be sure). Twice in verse 7, Nephi mentioned setting God “at naught,” the same God who would condescend to become mortal “six hundred years from the time [Lehi] left Jerusalem.”
Verse 9 describes the sinful world judging God, the Savior, as “a thing of naught.” Other passages of the Book of Mormon define this concept: that which is just and good is considered “of no worth” (2 Nephi 28:16); the words of God are esteemed “as things of naught” (2 Nephi 33:2); the commandments of God are “set at naught” (Helaman 4:21); the counsels of God are “set at naught” (Helaman 12:6); and the atonement of God is set “at naught” (Moroni 8:20). In these contexts God and his eternal principles are ignored, disregarded, avoided, rejected, disobeyed, and reviled against. “Set at naught” means they are considered worthless, regarded as unimportant.
Imagine men, in their nothingness (see Mosiah 4:5, 11; Helaman 12:7; Moses 1:10), deeming God, in his greatness and power, as worthless and unimportant. Nephi described the Savior’s magnanimous response to this insulting ignorance of men: “They scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men” (1 Nephi 19:9). It will be remembered that this earth, upon which Jesus lived, is one of the most wicked of all those created (Moses 7:36), and the Savior’s own people, especially their leaders, were the only group who would crucify their God (2 Nephi 10:3). What a glorious Being we revere, who is willing to suffer the offensive abuse of men and still extend his loving kindness and forgiveness! “O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown,” a powerful Latter-day Saint hymn, declares:
No creature is so lowly,
No sinner so depraved,
But feels thy presence holy,
And through thy love is saved.
Tho craven friends betray thee,
They feel thy love’s embrace;
The very foes who slay thee
Have access to thy grace. 48
That truly is amazing grace.
The great God who miraculously led Israel out of Egypt and preserved the Israelites in the Sinai desert, the same great God worshipped by the patriarchs, yielded himself into the hands of wicked men to be crucified and then to be buried in a borrowed sepulcher. The sign of his death would be three days of darkness. All of these events, Nephi recorded, were prophesied by three otherwise unknown prophets, Zenock, Neum, and Zenos. (Zenos and Zenock are frequently mentioned together as Israelite prophets who detailed the ministry, death, and resurrection of the Savior; see also Alma 33:15; 34:7; Helaman 8:19–20; 3 Nephi 10:16. They lived and taught sometime between Abraham and Lehi.)
Nephi engraved some prophecies of “the prophet,” whom he mentions nine times in these verses (though mentioning his name—Isaiah—only once). It is clear in context that Nephi is referring to the prophet Isaiah (see, for example, 1 Nephi 22:2). These verses constitute Nephi’s introduction to Isaiah, whose words are some of the greatest ever written by a prophet (3 Nephi 23:1).
The phrase “at that day” generally refers to the last days and Jesus’ second coming. To their great joy and salvation, the righteous will be visited with the voice of the Lord God. Others will be visited with a different voice of God (D&C 88:88–90), actually various natural catastrophes, what we call “acts of God”—thunderings, lightnings, tempests, fires, smoke, vapors of darkness, and earthquakes—as a testimony against them.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem will be scourged by people worldwide because, as a people, they reject their Deliverer and his awesome use of priesthood power to perform numerous signs and wonders. His people at Jerusalem, for the most part, will turn their hearts away from the Holy One of Israel and despise him, so in that generation they will “wander in the flesh, and perish, and become a hiss and a byword, and be hated among all nations.” And the persecution and hatred will continue in succeeding generations (including centuries of persecutions, inquisitions, pogroms, and the Holocaust) because, as a people, they continue to reject their God (see commentary at 2 Nephi 25:9).
After all the doom, desolation, and destruction will come the restoration, reinstatement, and redemption. When the Jews turn back (Hebrew lashuv, means “turn or repent”), the Holy One will remember the covenants made with their fathers, the patriarchs. Then the gathering begins, when they will come to a knowledge of their true Messiah. All the earth shall see the salvation of the Lord. Jesus’ name (Hebrew Yeshua) means “Savior” or “salvation.”
Nephi advised future readers that his overall purpose in writing the words of Isaiah into the record is to persuade people, the whole house of Israel (plus all who would be adopted into the house of Israel), to remember the Lord, their Redeemer.
Once again Nephi called attention to the physical weakness he felt when full of the workings of the Spirit (see also 1 Nephi 1:5–20; 17:47). Nephi’s comment about the workings of the Spirit leaving him weary was not a complaint but rather an expression of gratitude that the Lord had watched over him so carefully. Intense experiences with the Spirit and power of God do leave mortals feeling weakened. Even the mortal Jesus experienced this when a woman touched the hem of his garment and was healed. Mark recorded that Jesus felt strength go out of him (Mark 5:27–30).
Ancient prophets foresaw the future Jews at Jerusalem at around 600 b.c., and they foresaw groups broken off from the olive tree of Israel, such as the Lehite colony (“ye who are a remnant of the house of Israel, a branch who have been broken off”; 1 Nephi 19:24). The testimonies of these prophets of old were engraved on the plates of brass.
Nephi taught the teachings of former prophets so his people could visualize the active role the Lord has played in other lands, too. He cited much from the Torah, the books of Moses (at least some of which we have in our present books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), but to “more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer [he] did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah.” Few prophets have ever lived on earth who wrote more pointedly and powerfully about the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, than did Isaiah. As we will see, the Lord himself recommended Isaiah’s words in order for us to become truly acquainted with Him. Jesus commanded us to search the prophet’s words diligently and to do as Nephi did: “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” Like many Book of Mormon prophets, Isaiah wrote to us and for us—to bring us to Christ. Even his name is his message: Isaiah (Hebrew Yesha-Yah) means “Jehovah saves.”
All of us who are of the house of Israel are encouraged to liken Isaiah’s words to our situations in these latter days, that in these tumultuous times we “may have hope,” for our Savior is indeed the Hope of Israel.
Introduction to Isaiah
Isaiah is the most frequently quoted prophet in the New Testament, in the Book of Mormon, and in the Doctrine and Covenants. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ contains the oldest copy of Isaiah extant. It is the best text of Isaiah and the best commentary. The Book of Mormon is host to over thirty pages of Isaiah’s writings, quoting about one-third of the prophet’s book. There are passages from twenty-four of Isaiah’s sixty-six chapters (nineteen complete; two others almost complete). Of 425 separate verses of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon, 196 are identical but 229 are quoted differently. Of 425 verses, 391 teach something about the attributes or mission of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The book of Isaiah is not a sequential narrative; it is more like sections in the Doctrine and Covenants. Isaiah 1:1 is a heading or introduction to the entire book of Isaiah. Other headings that apply to whole books, such as Amos 1:1, Hosea 1:1, Micah 1:1, and Zephaniah 1:1, are similar in form to Isaiah 1:1.
The prophet’s forty-year ministry spanned the reigns of at least four kings, from approximately 740 to 700 b.c. We have no scriptural information about Isaiah’s birth, childhood, maturation, personal appearance, or death, though Jewish rabbinical writings (Yebamoth 49b; Sanhedrin 103b) do record traditions about the manner of his death in the reign of Manasseh, king of Judah, ca. 700 b.c., and the apocryphal book called The Ascension of Isaiah records Manasseh’s killing the prophet by sawing him asunder. Isaiah was the son of Amoz, whose name is not the same as that of Amos the prophet. 49
For understanding the social background of Isaiah we may compare also the writings of his contemporaries Amos, Hosea, and Micah. During the century 830–730 b.c. an incessant parade of internal conflicts and overthrowing of kings, military threats and invasions of foreign powers, and general apostate conditions prevailed. The people among whom God had established his covenant and to whom he had promised his divine protection had, as a people, abandoned him. Politically they were trusting in the arm of flesh, and spiritually they were gone awhoring after other gods. In the midst of Israelite military victories and territorial expansion and resultant pride and sense of security, the prophets began to appear to condemn the moral and spiritual failings of their people.
It had been two hundred years since the Davidic kingdom was divided; northern and southern kingdoms had often been at odds with each other and sometimes had united to withstand a common enemy. In the days of Isaiah and Amos, Israel was enjoying considerable stability and prosperity (due, of course, to the fact that there was no great power—Assyria or Egypt—pressing at their border). Removal of the threat of Ben-hadad III of Damascus allowed Israel at least partial control of territory as far as sixty miles north of Damascus. Jeroboam and Uzziah both carried on vigorous campaigns of expansion and extended their southern and eastern frontiers to equal the former kingdom of David and Solomon. 50 Assyria was becoming an increasing political threat, but Tiglath-pileser III was still on the distant horizon, and Israel, Judah, Syria, and Egypt were all united in their opposition to Assyrian advances westward.
The material prosperity of Israel showed no signs of waning, but it was a hollow prosperity at best. The people could not long conceal their injustices and corruptions. Baalism had worn threadbare the moral fabric of the people. When the prophet Amos had finished with his summary treatment of the sins of Israel’s neighbors, the northern Israelites discovered that his prophecy against them was not to be “for three transgressions and for four,” but an extensive enumeration of the social and religious ills of the people to whom Jehovah had sent him. The dark list of sins began: the sale into slavery of innocent people, mistreatment of the poor, sexual abuse of young women which profaned God’s name (cultic prostitution), exaction of unjust fines, corruption of the court and legal processes, enticing of Nazarites to break their vows, and prohibiting prophets from delivering their messages. The charges continue throughout Amos’s writings: violence and robbery, oppression of the needy, greed, drunkenness, hypocrisy in cultic ordinances, disdain of honest judges, cheating the poor, bribery, idolatry, gluttony and revelry, pride, vainglory, false sense of security, deceitful business practices, and desecration of the spirit of the Sabbath. All in all, not a very flattering catalog of sins for God’s people. They needed to listen to a prophet’s voice. Isaiah’s catalog of criminal and sinful behavior would exceed that of Amos.
Why Study Isaiah
The first and best reason to study Isaiah is that we have been commanded to search his writings, and the commandment has been repeated several times (see also 3 Nephi 20:11–12; Mormon 8:23). A commandment, of course, is something for which we will all be held accountable, for our God demands that we make special study of the words he gave to this particular prophet.
Isaiah gave revelations concerning all things and all stages of the great plan of salvation. His prophecies have been and will be fulfilled; they have dual and, in some cases, multiple fulfillment. Things which have been and will be are often called “types.”
Time, rather than being linear, is circular: “one eternal round” (Ecclesiastes 1:9; 1 Nephi 10:19). The creation and population of worlds are cyclical, doing that which has been done over and over again. The work of dispensations is also cyclical, each having a beginning, an apostasy, a warning period, and “latter days.”
Apocalyptic revelation (such as Lehi’s and Nephi’s dreams and some writings of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John) can often be seen in terms of timelessness. For a brief moment all things are before the prophet—past, present, and future.
Typical actors, in all ages, are a dragon, a beast, a serpent, a great and abominable institution, a “spiritual Babylon,” a mother of harlots, a pit, darkness, angels, stars, servants, saints, sheep, water, light, those arrayed in white, and so forth.
Zion and Babylon, the righteous and the wicked, are foils or contrasts; “Assyria” and “Egypt” are superpowers at the end of time.
The use of symbols is important. They can conceal meaning, but understanding the symbols can reveal meaning.
Jesus Christ is the central message of Isaiah—recall that the prophet’s name means “Jehovah saves.” Isaiah provides a greater testimony of the Redeemer, and the study of him is certainly for our profit and learning (see also 2 Nephi 25:23, 26).
By searching the writings of Isaiah we learn about God and glorify him. Isaiah’s teachings apply to us. They are not just history lessons but lessons from history. As someone has said, history is what happened; literature is what happens. And the book of Isaiah is great literature. Isaiah gives us views of what lies ahead.
We can learn much from eyewitnesses of the Redeemer. Joseph Smith wrote, “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” 51 Isaiah is one of the great prophets who have gazed into heaven, and he can teach us much. We can come to more fully believe in the God of heaven and delight in his coming; we can learn the typologies and attributes of him—all of which will enable us to lift up our hearts and rejoice for all men.
How to Understand Isaiah
Reading Isaiah is a spiritual workout. Proper study of his writings can sharpen us mentally and spiritually. We are encouraged to liken his writings to our own personal situations, for our profit and learning.
2 Nephi 25:1, 5
We can become acquainted with the manner of writing among the Jews, coming to understand their literary mechanisms for better comprehension. Isaiah in particular wrote with sophisticated artistry; over 90 percent of his writings is in poetic form (poetry is saying one thing and meaning another). Types, figures, and symbols usually have a surface meaning but also a deeper, underlying meaning. Coming to understand the form is important—for example, the similes, metaphors, personification, and parallelisms (couplets).
Knowing King James English helps; the more we read and study it, the more familiar it becomes. Knowing Hebrew helps also. We are grateful for the English (ie) and Hebrew (heb) language notes in the Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Version of the Bible.
Understanding Isaiah requires us to be filled with the spirit of prophecy, which, according to John, is “the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 19:10). There is an obligation of personal worthiness for every student of Isaiah. Only when we sincerely inquire of the Lord, in faith, and keep his commandments will the comprehension of his writings be opened to us. Each one must pay the price (1 Nephi 10:19; Alma 12:9–10; 26:22).
Learn something of the history and geography of the Holy Land. Goethe said, “Wer den Dichter will verstehen, muss in Dichter’s Lande gehen” (“Whoever wants to understand a poet, must go to the poet’s homeland”). If you want to understand Wordsworth, go to his homeland, and you will understand his writings better. If you want to understand Isaiah, who is a poet par excellence, you can go to his homeland and relate better than ever to his imagery. Nephi lived in the same land and city as Isaiah, so he understood Isaiah’s figurative language. The land is a natural commentary on the writings that come from it. Just as Jesus did in his mortal ministry, Isaiah constantly drew examples and illustrations from the objects of daily living and from the “regions round about.”
We can benefit from Nephi’s plainness, in which “no man can err.” Nephi intentionally avoided the manner of prophesying among the Jews; the Book of Mormon does not follow all the Hebraic literary styles. Isaiah is difficult only because the Jews desired it (compare Jacob 4:14–18). Knowing the prophecies in our day we can see them fulfilled (for example, Isaiah 29 [2 Nephi 27], including a conversation between two men in New York City, seen, heard, and recorded twenty-five hundred years before it happened!). Isaiah’s prophecies are of great worth particularly to us in the last days. The phrase “in that day” appears forty-three times in Isaiah. His teachings are recorded for our good, to help us be prepared and involved in bringing about the great purposes of God.
Places in the Near East mentioned in Isaiah’s writings in the Book of Mormon
Places in the Holy Lands and environs mentioned in Isaiah’s writings in the Book of Mormon
1 Nephi 20 and 21, the first two chapters of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon, describe Nephi’s reading of Isaiah 48 and 49 to his brothers. Isaiah 48 (1 Nephi 20) is largely a discussion of ancient Israel’s waywardness and disloyalty to the Redeemer of Israel. Isaiah 49 (1 Nephi 21) is the prophet’s announcement of a special servant to come forth, who would possess several significant and special characteristics and would fulfill unique roles. Three things become obvious: first, Isaiah possessed a panoramic perspective of Israel’s history and destiny; second, Nephi knew well and appreciated this section of Isaiah because of the parallel it presented between Israel and his own brothers, Laman and Lemuel; third, only two beings fit Isaiah’s very specific and unusual qualities: the Savior Jesus Christ and the Prophet Joseph Smith (see “A Special Servant,” accompanying the commentary at 1 Nephi 21:14, 21, 24).
Notice that after hearing these two chapters Nephi’s brothers came to him and asked, “What do these things mean?” (1 Nephi 22:1). Fortunately, Nephi gave further explanation.
Isaiah scholar Claus Westermann claimed that Isaiah 48 has serious textual difficulties, “and so far editors have not succeeded in finding any convincing solution.” 52 Now we have a solution: the Book of Mormon.
Notice that the very first word in this first chapter of Isaiah that Nephi quotes is not hear but hearken—supplementing the passive hearing with active obeying.
In the 1840 printing of the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph Smith added after “the waters of Judah” the phrase “or out of the waters of baptism.” This refers to those who have taken on themselves the covenant of baptism, thus indicating that baptism was an essential ordinance performed in Old Testament times (though known more by the term immersion than by the later Greek term baptism).
“They call themselves of the holy city”—as hypocrites said in Jesus’ day, “we have Abraham [for] our father” (Luke 3:8); “we be Abraham’s seed” (John 8:33). They thought themselves worthy of some preferential status, but they did not stay themselves on (that is, depend on, rely on, trust in) the God of Israel.
Of this verse professors McConkie and Millet wrote: “Salvation is not obtained by living in a particular place, but rather by living in a particular way. There are no holy cities without a holy people.” 53
The Lord revealed future things before his wayward people could claim that idols did them.
Verse 7 addition in the Book of Mormon: “Even before the day when thou heardest them not they were declared unto thee.”
Verse 9 addition: “For my praise will I refrain from thee.”
The phrase “but not with silver” in Isaiah disrupts the meaning of the verse, and the Book of Mormon omits it.
This is great doctrine, this idea of being refined and chosen in the furnace of affliction. Just as gold is smelted in the fire to remove impurities, so God has tried his people with fire to remove impurities. The Lord is working hard to draw impurities out of us. Just as a diamond is carefully faceted and polished to reveal its inner beauty, so has Israel been shaped and polished. Trials are not punishment inflicted by a vengeful God but tests by a loving Father who wants us to be refined and polished. Our impurities (weaknesses, faults) get burned away if we can withstand the heat and pressure of our trials. Refineries heat up the metal to its melting point, at which time the impurities separate. In a similar way God “turns up the heat” until we reach the point where we become refined so we can be of use to him. The temperature necessary to refine each of us is different. Refinement is customized for each of us by a perfect and omniscient Father. And it helps to know that troubles and trials are purposeful; we endure them for good reasons.
We are here on earth to be refined, and this earth is one big furnace! All of these metaphorical expressions about the refiner’s fire give new meaning to the statement of the prophet Brigham Young: “Learn everything that the children of men know, and be prepared for the most refined society upon the face of the earth.” 54
Book of Mormon change from the King James Version: “for I will not suffer my name to be polluted.”
Right hand: “Showing favor to the right hand or side is not something invented by man but was revealed from the heavens in the beginning. . . . There are numerous passages in the scriptures referring to the right hand, indicating that it is a symbol of righteousness and was used in the making of covenants.” 55
The pronouns he and him are somewhat confusing; it seems to be Jehovah speaking but talking about himself. He is delivering the message of the Father about himself, so the prophecy is about Jesus, who is using the third-person form.
See commentary about topographical imagery at 1 Nephi 2:7–9.
“Go ye forth of Babylon”—in one of our hymns we sing about the importance of bidding Babylon farewell; on the eve of Babylon’s destruction we have a new exodus, a type of the old. Doctrine and Covenants 133:14 certainly refers to a spiritual exodus, but could it also be referring to a physical exodus? Unlikely. Our God wants us to flee from the spiritual wickedness around us but not isolate ourselves physically from the rest of humankind. We have to stay among them to show them the way, to be a light to all people. Ralph Waldo Emerson made an interesting observation: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” 56
Book of Mormon addition: “And notwithstanding he hath done all this, and greater also.”
There is no peace for the wicked. The Holy Ghost does not comfort the wicked. No one comforts the wicked. See also Alma 41:10: “wickedness never was happiness.”
This chapter is directed to the modern covenant people of Israel: “The revelations that are in the Bible, the predictions of the patriarchs and prophets who saw by vision and revelation the last dispensation and fulness of times plainly tell us what is to come to pass. The 49th chapter of Isaiah is having its fulfillment.” 57
This is one of the great Servant Songs of Isaiah, speaking of an individual or a group who will make salvation accessible for those who diligently seek it. Possibilities for the servant are Isaiah himself; Jehovah (Jesus Christ); Israel, particularly Ephraim; and Joseph Smith. Maybe all of the above are applicable, but especially Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith.
The first half of the verse is missing in the King James Version; Nephi adds, “And again: Hearken, O ye house of Israel, all ye that are broken off and are driven out because of the wickedness of the pastors of my people; yea, all ye that are broken off, that are scattered abroad, who are of my people, O house of Israel.”
Isles means habitable ground or dry land as opposed to water, or in other words, islands and continents (see 2 Nephi 10:20–21).
America is referred to (see 1 Nephi 22:7–8).
“Called me from the womb”—that is, the servant was foreordained.
All servants of the Lord are foreordained (compare Jeremiah 1:5).
Elaborating on the concept of a polished shaft, the Prophet Joseph Smith exclaimed: “I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty, who will give me dominion over all and every one of them, when their refuge of lies shall fail, and their hiding place shall be destroyed, while these smooth-polished stones with which I come in contact become marred.” 58
“In his quiver hath he hid me”—the servant is hidden or protected until the appropriate time for the Lord to pull him out to fight in the cause of righteousness. The arrow of truth will be shot out into the world and will pierce the hearts of the wicked.
Of Joseph Smith the Lord said: “Fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; while the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand” (D&C 122:1–2). And “God shall exalt thee on high” (D&C 121:8).
The mission statement of the covenant people of Israel is identified: to be a light to the Gentiles, to bring them to salvation. “Salvation” is Hebrew Yeshua (Jesus). The Savior, the prophet, and every true servant of the Lord are lights to the Gentiles.
The world despised the Lord Jesus Christ and the Prophet Joseph Smith, but kings and princes will indeed bow and honor these noble and great ones.
“ . . . have I heard thee, O isles of the sea”—isles, again, are the far islands or continents beyond Asia.
“ . . . and give thee my servant for a covenant of the people”—that is, Joseph Smith.
Salvation for the dead is taught also in the Old Testament. How do we know that Isaiah understood this vital doctrine? “And Isaiah, who declared by prophecy that the Redeemer was anointed to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that were bound, [was] also there” (D&C 138:42).
1 Nephi 21:14, 21, 24
Israel remonstrates with a series of complaints:
Verse 14—complaint 1: The Lord forsook and forgot Israel. Some in Israel felt wronged by the Lord. They felt severely punished through their sufferings due to political oppression, exile, famine, plague, and more.
Verses 14–16—answer: “but he will show that he hath not.” A powerful attachment is expressed: graven on palms of hands are the nail wounds in the Savior’s hands. Far from forsaking them, he gave his all for them. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Christ paid the ultimate price for our sins. He cannot forget us because he has the evidence of that price in his hands and feet (D&C 6:36–37).
Verse 18: The covenant people of Israel will eventually be clothed and ornamented (that is, prepared) as a bride for the Bridegroom, as reflected in various scriptures; see, for example, Matthew 25:1–10; D&C 33:17; 133:10, 19.
Verse 21—complaint 2: Israel has lost all her children.
Verses 22–23—answer: The Lord will raise a standard or ensign (for example, the Church, the Book of Mormon, and the everlasting covenant) and bring the children of Israel back to their promised inheritance.
Is the Lord talking about Jews in the Holy Land or the Israelites broken off inhabiting the Americas? See 1 Nephi 22:6. Isaiah speaks to all Israel, which assures multilevel fulfillment.
Kings and queens and other political leaders will be nursing fathers and mothers in helping restore the remnants of Israel. Note one fulfillment of this prophecy in the following excerpt from Orson Hyde’s dedicatory prayer given 24 October 1841 on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem:
“Let the land become abundantly fruitful when possessed by its rightful heirs; let it again flow with plenty to feed the returning prodigals who come home with a spirit of grace and supplication. . . . Incline them to gather in upon this land according to Thy word. Let them come like clouds and like doves to their windows. Let the large ships of the nations bring them from the distant isles; and let kings become their nursing fathers, and queens with motherly fondness wipe the tear of sorrow from their eye.
“Thou, O Lord, did once move upon the heart of Cyrus to show favor unto Jerusalem and her children. Do Thou now also be pleased to inspire the hearts of kings and the powers of the earth to look with a friendly eye towards this place, and with a desire to see Thy righteous purposes executed in relation thereto. Let them know that it is Thy good pleasure to restore the kingdom unto Israel—raise up Jerusalem as its capital, and constitute her people a distinct nation and government.” 59
Verse 24—complaint 3: Israel is prey; she is held captive.
Verses 25–26—answer: Read 2 Nephi 6:16–18. The Mighty God shall deliver his covenant people.
A Special Servant
Isaiah announced a special servant of God who would come forward in the future, possessing several significant and unusual characteristics. Originally recorded in Isaiah 49, Nephi describes again this prophetic figure. He would be someone—
• whom “the Lord hath called . . . from the womb” (1 Nephi 21:1).
• who would say that the Lord “formed me from the womb” to do a special work, or in other words, someone who knew he had been foreordained (21:5).
• whose “mouth [was] like a sharp sword,” or in other words, someone who spoke with authority (21:2).
• who was hidden “in the shadow of [the Lord’s] hand” (21:2).
• who was “made . . . a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he [the Lord] hid [him]” (21:2).
• who would say, “I have labored in vain” (21:4).
• who would authoritatively say, “And now, saith the Lord” (21:5).
• whose life’s work would be “to bring Jacob again to [the Lord]—though Israel be not gathered” (21:5).
• who would be the Lord’s “servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel” (21:6).
• whom the Lord would “give . . . for a light to the Gentiles” (21:6).
• “whom man despiseth,” but at the same time, someone whom “kings shall see and arise, princes also . . . worship” (21:7).
• who will be given to Israel “for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages,” who will free the prisoners and enlighten those who sit in darkness, and who will shepherd the chosen people (21:8–9).
Though various specific aspects of this list could probably fit a number of individuals, taken together they apply to only two beings. One is obviously Jesus, but the other is Joseph Smith! Consider the following:
• Joseph Smith was indeed called “from the womb,” or foreordained.
• He knew through revelation, now recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 127:2, that he had been chosen to be the prophet of the Restoration. On another occasion he also said: “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was. I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in that Grand Council. It is the testimony that I want that I am God’s servant, and this people His people.” 60
• Joseph Smith spoke as a “sharp sword” because he spoke the words of the Lord (D&C 18:35–36; 21:5), which are described in modern revelation as “quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow” (D&C 6:2).
• Joseph Smith was “hid” by the Lord (D&C 86:9).
• Joseph Smith became a “polished shaft” in the quiver of the Almighty, as his own characterization of himself testifies (see commentary at 1 Nephi 21:2).
• Joseph Smith at times became discouraged and felt that he labored in vain (D&C 121:2).
• Not only did Joseph Smith have the authority to speak for God but on numerous occasions he validated his messages by uttering the very words Isaiah predicted he would say: “Thus saith the Lord” (for example, D&C 52:1; 54:1; 60:1; 87:1).
• Joseph Smith was also commissioned to “raise up the tribes of Jacob” and “restore” them by overseeing the latter-day gathering of Israel (D&C 110:11).
• Joseph Smith was both despised and revered, just as the Lord had predicted (Joseph Smith–History 1:33). Joseph was also promised that the gospel he restored would be preached before “kings and rulers” (D&C 1:23).
• Joseph Smith was the servant through whom the eternal gospel covenant was reestablished (D&C 1:17–22). Surely it is not just coincidence that Doctrine and Covenants 1, the revelation by which the Lord introduces Joseph Smith to the world, begins with the same language as Isaiah 49:1. Just as Isaiah had foretold, the Prophet Joseph was also commanded to “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the gospel of salvation” (D&C 93:51).
Nephi proceeded to interpret for his brethren the two quoted chapters of Isaiah. Is all this temporal or spiritual? Is it figurative or literal? The answer is yes. It is both.
A large portion of the tribes of Israel has been led away from their ancient homeland, the land of Israel. The ten tribes were led away northward and then lost to history (though not lost to God). No scriptures suggest they are anywhere but scattered throughout the nations of the earth.
1 Nephi 22:6–12
The Gentiles will help nurse all parts of Israel—Nephites, Lamanites, and others. The United States of America will be raised up in the promised land, and American citizens will play a role in the scattering of the descendants of father Lehi. A marvelous work, the Restoration (including additional scripture, the gospel, the Church, and the covenant), will be “of great worth” to the remnants of Lehi. The Gentiles will be nourishing them, or carrying them, like little lambs, in their arms and on their shoulders.
This great Restoration will be valuable to all Israel and to all the Gentiles. The Lord God will “make bare his arm,” or as we might say, the hand of the Lord will be in it, and all nations will know the great thing he has brought about.
After the prophesied scattering comes the necessary sequel, the prophesied gathering—both physical and spiritual. Covenant people (including those adopted or grafted in) will be gathered physically to their lands of inheritance, and they will be gathered spiritually to the knowledge that “the Lord is their Savior and their Redeemer.”
Inscribed on the Reformers’ Wall in Geneva, Switzerland, is the motto of the Protestant Reformation, Post Tenebras Lux, which means, “After the darkness, light.” So it is with those who are not yet members of the Church; as they come to know the truth and as they become acquainted with their Redeemer—the only Person in the universe who can take away the stain and the pain of their transgressions—“they shall be brought out of obscurity and out of darkness; and they shall know that the Lord is their Savior and their Redeemer.”
The church of the devil, also known as the great and abominable church or the whore of all the earth—that is, all those who fight against Zion, the Church of God—will factionalize itself into ruin; it will destroy itself. Remember Jesus’ words that a kingdom divided against itself shall not stand (Matthew 12:25). The devil is his own worst enemy.
The Millennium will be ushered in by power (Revelation 20:1–3; D&C 19:1–3; 84:118–19) but maintained by righteousness (see also 1 Nephi 22:26). Satan will be bound and become powerless by the power of God as well as by the righteousness of the Saints. Satan’s followers will be consumed by fire, and the righteous will be preserved by fire. The fire, which can destroy or save, is the glory of the Lord (Helaman 5:23–50; 3 Nephi 25:1).
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the devil has no power over individuals in any age, only as they allow him to. 61 But we also realize that while the Lord’s assurance that he will not allow the wicked to destroy the righteous may be true in an ultimate sense or regarding a whole righteous people, there are reasons why he does permit some righteous individuals to be killed (see commentary at Alma 14:6–11).
Catastrophes and cataclysms, both natural and unnatural, will destroy the hard-hearted rebels who fight against God and Zion.
“This may well be the most often-quoted messianic prophecy in scripture. It was first uttered by Moses to the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). Nephi quoted it to his people, Peter quoted it in his great discourse on the grounds of Herod’s temple (Acts 3:22–23), Christ quoted it to the nation of the Nephites (3 Nephi 21:11), Stephen quoted it while transfigured before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:37), Moroni quoted it to Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith–History 1:40), and we find it referred to in the revelation given as a preface to the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 1:14) and in the revelation that was once known as its appendix (D&C 133:63).” 62
The “prophet like unto Moses” who will be raised up is the Savior himself, the Holy One of Israel. Moses was a great lawgiver; Jesus is the great Lawgiver. Moses was a great deliverer; Jesus is the great Deliverer.
In the long run, the righteous need not fear; the forces of evil will be overcome. The wicked—those who belong to the kingdom of the devil—are the ones who need to fear, tremble, and quake. Theirs is a pathetic and ignominious end. Here is another example of Nephi’s plainness: the church of the devil consists of all churches and organizations that are built up to get gain, power over others, or acceptability in the eyes of the world or that seek to satisfy physical lusts (see also commentary at 1 Nephi 13:2–9). They will all be burned as stubble (3 Nephi 25:1).
The time is fast approaching when the Holy One will reign in great glory (the millennial era) and the righteous will be led “as calves of the stall”; in other words, “the earth shall be given unto them for an inheritance; and they shall multiply and wax strong, and their children shall grow up without sin unto salvation” (D&C 45:58). The pastoral image is peaceful and pleasant: all the sheep are gathered into one fold and will come to know their Shepherd; “he shall feed his sheep, and in him they shall find pasture.”
With the Holy One reigning and his people dwelling in righteousness, Satan has no power. He has no power over their hearts “because of the love of God which [will] dwell in the hearts of the people” (4 Nephi 1:15). The righteous don’t allow the devil into their hearts because “light and truth forsake that evil one” (D&C 93:37).
President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “There are many among us who teach that the binding of Satan will be merely the binding which those dwelling on the earth will place upon him by their refusal to hear his enticings. This is not so. He will not have the privilege during that period of time to tempt any man.” 63 Satan will be bound not only by the native righteousness of the millennial Saints but also by priesthood power that will cast him out and will not allow him the exercise of any influence. He will be sealed off from us by the power of God. 64
Notice that to Nephi, and to all other true followers of Christ, obedience is a vital matter. In the last two verses of the book of 1 Nephi and the last verse of the book of 2 Nephi, Nephi testifies that it is urgent to be obedient, and he himself sets the standard with his final words carved into the plates: “I must obey” (2 Nephi 33:15).
by Karen - reviewed on January 02, 2013
Throughly enjoyed reading the Book of Mormon with the insights and thoughts provided by the authors. I have sent copies of both books to relatives as gifts.
I love it!
by kim - reviewed on March 02, 2012
It is perfect for me to use with my daily scripture study. I love the insights in the commentary.
Does not provide verse-be-verse summary
by Customer - reviewed on December 28, 2012
I was very disappointed with this book and its companion volume. Neither provides a verse-by-verse summary as stated in the title.
by Customer - reviewed on December 24, 2011
The authors are among the tops in the Church. This is a great book as far as the content. It does have one problem with function. The copy function doesn't work. It highlights the text and the copy tab shows it copying, but when I try to paste to a document there is nothing to paste. The information in this book is too valuable not to be able to have this function. I hope you can fix it.
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