And the Spirit said unto me: Behold, what desirest thou?
And I said: I desire to behold the things which my father saw.
And he said unto me: What desirest thou?
And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.
The beginning of Nephi’s vision again has lots that could be said about it – including possibly a rather singular episode where the Holy Ghost personally turns up (the Book of Mormon usage of Spirit of the Lord – and Nephi’s reaction for that matter – suggest this may be the Holy Ghost as opposed to the pre-incarnate Christ as in Ether 3). Yet one striking question I feel is one asked by the Spirit twice of Nephi: ‘what desirest thou?’
It is Nephi’s answers to these questions that dictate the course of his vision. So much seems to hinge on what we really want, and how badly we want it. It seems to my mind a key component of receiving a testimony or revelation, which in my experience (personal and observed) does not appear to come in response to idle curiosity. We’re told that ultimately God gives us ‘according to [our] desire[s]’ (Alma 29:4), for good and for bad (‘unto salvation or unto destruction’). And so much of our course in life appears to be governed by our desires, and the extent to which we’ve been able to refine and purify them.
I could say this about virtually every chapter, but if one were seeking to pick out everything of significance, one might never actually finish. What we pick out on any given read through seems to depend almost as much on where we are rather than simply what the text says, even setting aside the way the Holy Ghost can use the text to communicate things beyond the text. Confining myself to just a couple of items, however:
Firstly, I think it significant that as part of his vision, Nephi is caught away “into an exceedingly high mountain, which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot” (v. 1). Putting aside the general association of mountains with visionary experiences & temple imagery (think Moses, the Mount of Transfiguration, the Brother of Jared etc), it’s that point about how this was a mountain that Nephi had never seen before and never set foot upon before that catches my eye. This vision, after all, seems to come as a new “peak” (pun half-intended?) to Nephi’s spiritual life, an experience which in it’s spiritual and emotional intensity dwarfs any he has had before, a spiritual “high” (I believe it’s no coincidence we use these sorts of phrases) that he hasn’t had before now.
Secondly, there’s the question posed by “the Spirit of the Lord”. It’s unclear who is meant precisely by this: if it were the Lord himself in his pre-incarnate state, as with the Brother of Jared, presumably he’d be referred to a bit differently than simply as “the Spirit”, as in vv. 2, 4, 6, 8 & 9, and it’d seem strange for “the Spirit” to voice verse 6 as his does. Which might suggest this is an exceptionally rare *visual* appearance by the Holy Ghost, which would be rather singular, although possible. I think most readers (including the likes of Talmage and George Q. Cannon) have gone with the second option, which I also lean towards, but there’s room for interpretation.
In any case, however, I find the question posed in verse 4 interesting: “thou that thy father saw the of which he hath spoken?” It’s interesting on one hand that such questions, whether involving heavenly messengers or deity himself, often seem to involve such questions, even though presumably the answers are already known. There seems to be some power in openly confessing belief in such things. The second is that on many occasions, and especially here, that belief or faith serves as a gateway for greater knowledge. I think it’s customary for us to often think of faith and knowledge to be antithetical to some degree, but when one looks at this experience and ones like it, faith seems to serve more as the gateway to knowledge, one which must be tested or confessed to be unlocked.
Thirdly, during his vision of the ministry of the Saviour, Nephi notes in verse 32:
And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying (bold is my emphasis):
Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
This tallies with a line in 2 Nephi 9:5, where Jacob teaches that (again my emphasis):
Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.
It seems here to suggest that there is an aspect to the atonement of Christ we have yet to fully grasp or appreciate, that one of the axes upon which it works is that Christ voluntarily submitted himself to human authority, “to become subject unto man in the flesh” and be “judged of the world”, and that was in order “that all men might become subject to him”. There seems to be a connection, that because Christ yielded to our authority, we become answerable to his, and because Christ submitted to the world’s judgement, we in turn become rightly subject to his.