For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet. Yea, even the very God of Israel do men trample under their feet; I say, trample under their feet but I would speak in other words—they set him at naught, and hearken not to the voice of his counsels.
I’m not entirely sure why this verse stuck out to me today. I think there’s a lot it can be applied to. So much of our receptiveness to the gospel seems to come down to what we really want: what we “esteem to be of great worth”. And people vary so much in this respect, so that what one person values beyond price is regarded and treated as trash by another. Yet there is also an eternal hierarchy of values, so that while worldly and temporary things may be held to be most precious by some, they are still merely temporary and ephemeral. Likewise some may disregard eternal things – even God himself – that means nothing for their true eternal worth and value. It is incumbent upon us, then, to try and align our vision correct and not be distracted by other people’s valuations, so we can perceive what is truly valuable and what is not.
To some degree I find it hard to know what to write about the next few chapters, since I’ve written quite a bit about them already. The third chapter of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible is in fact based on a case study of 1 Nephi 20-22, including the latter parts of 1 Nephi 19. Yet I do believe that the scriptures are an inexhaustible well, that there is always more to learn, especially when our reading is guided by the Holy Ghost. So I can’t really let the >20,000 words I’ve already written be an excuse.
Connected with this, however, it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the places in the Book of Mormon where the divisions of old, pre-1879, chapters do not coincide with those of the current chapters. As originally published (and indeed perhaps written, since the divisions are reflected on the manuscripts), the Book of Mormon had much longer chapters (it also lacked versification completely), and then in 1879 Orson Pratt introduced new chapters and a system of versification which allows easy reference. As an unintended side-effect, however, this can break the text different and certainly breaks it more often. Which we means we sometimes read passages that are connected in a rather disconnected fashion, as if we insisted on only watching portions of conference talks rather than watching a talk as a whole. An example would be Alma 32-34, which is really one sermon taught by Alma and Amulek, but which we often read as disconnected chapters, with the risk that we can pick up a lot of what is being said, but miss the overall point and argument of the sermon.
Here, however, the opposite occurs. Most of 1 Nephi 19 in the pre-1879 chapters is part of chapter V (which covers 1 Nephi 16-19:21), and so Nephi’s account of making his first places, his discussion of what he included and how people treat the sacred, and then his prophecy of how people will do the same to the God of Israel himself, his rejection by the house of Israel, but then the ultimate restoration of Israel is included in the same chapter as the last past of their journey in the wilderness, Nephi’s sermon on the exodus, and the building and travelling upon a ship. But there’s a break between verses 21 and 22, so that verse 22 – in which Nephi explains he taught about Christ & the restoration of Israel to his brothers, and read the scriptures and particularly Isaiah to them for that purpose – is the beginning of chapter VI, which includes the quotation of Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 20-21, and then the commentary Nephi gives in 1 Nephi 22. It’s a possibly significant organisation of the text we’re liable to miss in modern editions. And that can matter, because how a text is organised – how it breaks, what it ends passages on, what begins passages – can serve to emphasise particular messages.
Aside from that matter of top-level organisation, there was one thing that caught my eye again when reading this passage, which is this in some respects rather puzzling statement by Nephi in verse 20:
For behold, I have workings in the spirit, which doth weary me even that all my joints are weak, for those who are at Jerusalem; for had not the Lord been merciful, to show unto me concerning them, even as he had prophets of old, I should have perished also.
Nephi here states that if God had not been merciful enough to show him “concerning Jerusalem”, then he would have “perished also”. And yet the reason the family left Jerusalem, and thus are in a position to dodge the incipient Babylonian conquest, is because Lehi was shown about the destruction of Jerusalem, and was commanded by God to take his family away because the people were also seeking Lehi’s life. So what does Nephi mean when he talks about what God showed him?
I suspect here that there is a connection to what Nephi recounts in 1 Nephi 2:16, following their departure from Jerusalem:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.
Nephi here explains that – because of his desire to know of the mysteries of God (and presumably above all else about this visions of his father that have led them out into the desert) – he prayed and received a response, in which God softened his heart and he believed the words of his father, and so did not rebel like his brothers did. The implication is that had he not had this experience, he may well have rebelled like his brothers. Hence the importance of Nephi too being shown concerning the people of Jerusalem.
However, in what sense does he mean perished, since they’d already left Jerusalem? I see several possibilities. One is that Laman and Lemuel several times expressed the intent to return to Jerusalem, and on occasion (1 Nephi 7 perhaps being the best example), the only person who stood in their way and urged otherwise was Nephi. Had he been likewise minded, they might have actually returned to enjoy the delights of Nebuchadnezzar’s seige.
It’s also possible, considering the peril of their journey and the way they needed God’s help (and the fact that he often worked through Nephi), that Nephi also sees it as possible that said perishing would have happened somewhere along the way. And yet I think there’s also another potential meaning: perish can be a somewhat ambiguous term, perhaps purposefully. Another possibility might be that – like Laman and Lemuel – he would have eventually made the trip, but perished spiritually.
These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and it may well be (in fact I think it’s quite likely) that Nephi doesn’t know how or when or in what sense he would have perished, but simply knows that if he hadn’t been blessed with the personal revelation he received, that in some way he would have. And that’s all he really needed to know to appreciate the blessing he received, and the importance of the revelation he was given. But, like much of this trek, I can see how this applies to us too. It is not enough for prophets and leaders alone to receive revelation for us to be able to follow the revelations given to others. Like Nephi, in order for us to make the trek successfully – in order to not perish – we need some level of personal knowledge, some level of personal inspiration. That may well vary from person to person according to our spiritual gifts, but all of us need some contact with the divine, even if it be as simply as a softening of the heart. As Heber C. Kimball taught:
Remember these sayings, for many of you will live to see them fulfilled. The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?