And it came to pass that according to his word he did destroy them; and according to his word he did lead them; and according to his word he did do all things for them; and there was not any thing done save it were by his word.
1 Nephi 17:31
Nephi’s speaking here of the children of Israel in the wilderness, and how as they followed God or rebelled against him they were led or punished accordingly. But, particularly as I was reading it today, the line ‘there was not any thing done save it were by his word’ seemed to have broader import. Lots of stuff happens to us – some stuff happens to me – that we/I would rather not. Sometimes those things get in the way of our righteous efforts. Now on occasion it may indeed be the case that – like the children in Israel – we’re meeting the consequence of our misdeeds. But there are also plenty of scriptural examples of trials and difficulties hindering or afflicting the faithful. And God either permits these to happen, or in some cases ordains them for reasons that – at least at the time – we are unable to perceive.
Just thinking about this now, I’m reminded of the example of Joseph in Egypt. It would have been very understandable for him to be frustrated and even angry at what happened to him; indeed I’m sure there times he probably was. It would have been easy to feel that one was almost being punished for doing the right thing: check his brothers are well for his father, and get sold into slavery by his brothers; serve faithfully as a slave, get falsely accused and thrown into jail for years; correctly interpret the dream of Pharaoh’s chief butler, get forgotten about and left in jail for even more years. Every righteous effort appears rewarded with failure. It certainly be understandable if he held a grudge against his brothers.
Yet – and this is admittedly after the great turn around in his fortunes, although it’d also have been easy to let years of slavery and prison hold their mark – when he reveals himself to his brothers his perspective is quite different:
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.
… And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
Genesis 45:5, 7
While Joseph’s brothers did sell him into slavery, Joseph ultimately attributes this to God. But he does not blame God, rather his acknowledges divine foresight and providence, that all this misfortune he has experienced ultimately has placed him in a position to save his family and indeed and entire nation. God’s ways are indeed higher than ours, and Joseph sees divine providence even in the ills he experienced at the hands of others.
It’s quite possible we may not quite get that perspective in this life, and may only see how the various events and circumstances fit together at that point when all things are revealed. But I think it’s important to hope for that. I myself have been experiencing quite a bit of frustration in areas of my life where it feels like the Lord would have me progress, and yet it often feels like one step forward and two (or many) back; that my righteous efforts are being rewarded with failure. But it’s important to acknowledge in all these things that God has his own purpose in these events, and that nothing happens without his foreknowledge and without his permission, and in many cases because he expressly wills it. And God can turn misfortune and even evil events to good purposes.
All that matters on our part is that we too seek to do all that we do ‘by his word’.
I think 1 Nephi 17 is one of my favourite chapters. Not the favourite chapter, but its up there. There’s just so much to it. The bulk of it is Nephi’s whole recap of the Exodus story, which isn’t just telling that story, but is also the culmination of 1 Nephi’s references and allusions to the Exodus account as a whole. I commented briefly upon that connection when writing about 1 Nephi 2, and its something that’s often been on my mind as I read this book since I wrote an essay on the relationship between the two as an undergraduate while studying in Israel. Both are accounts of a group of people, led through the wilderness and delivered from their enemies by divine power (Pharoah/Laban – 1 Nephi 4:2-3 makes the connection explicitly). These people travel to a new land of promise, but often struggle in their journey due to “murmuring” and rebelliousness on the part of the travellers. Despite this, the Lord provides food for them and points out the direction they should go, and is their “light in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:13). Both journeys likewise involve crossing a body of water (well two in the case of the Exodus, and one really big one in 1 Nephi), again with divine aid.
By recapping the story here, Nephi makes all these connections explicit, particularly placing his brothers – who again reject their father’s revelations as “foolish imaginations of his heart” (v. 20) – in the same position as those who “reviled against Moses and against the true and living God” (v. 30). Against Laman & Lemuel’s claims that the people of Jerusalem were a righteous people (v. 22), Nephi builds on the conquest of Canaan, pointing out that God in truth does not play favourites: “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favoured of God”. The Canaanites had “rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity, and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them” (v. 35). But by becoming wicked in turn, and rejecting the word of God by seeking to kill the prophets (such as Lehi), the people of Jerusalem have become just like them, and will likewise be destroyed, and because Laman and Lemuel have likewise “sought to take his life” Nephi declares: “ye are murderers in your hearts and ye are like unto them” (vv. 43-44).
It’s a brilliant sermon, as it builds to Nephi’s denunciation of Laman and Lemuel’s hardheartedness (v. 45):
Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder.
That very last episode we just saw in 1 Nephi 16:38-39; Nephi is not just recapping the Exodus, but their own journey too, with its displays of divine power and aid and their rebelliousness. And after the brothers turn once more to murderous anger, which is quelled once more by a further display of God’s power, Nephi affirms once more that – contrary to their earlier claims – he can indeed build a ship, with a verse that is on one hand so simple in wording, and yet seems to me to have powerful import for us too (v. 51):
And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?
A ship – or whatever we’ve been asked to do – seem so paltry compared to that which God has already done, and which we may have already witnessed.
A couple of other points that stick out: I find it interesting that Nephi notes he’d been at Bountiful “for the space of many days” before he received further instruction. This suggests to me that likewise in our own journeys that there may be periods of pause, and comparative peace which the Lord allows us, particularly after periods of intense trial. However, such times our not our final destination, and we must press on. Likewise it’s interesting that the first command Nephi received in this chapter was simply the direction to go up the mountain, and it was up there he was commanded to build a ship; similarly divine instruction to us may sometimes simply be a small thing which directs us to a better position for us to receive further revelation.
On a final note, there’s the brothers’ complaint that Lehi had “judged” the people of Jerusalem, which couldn’t help but remind me of our own society, in which “judging” is likewise held in negative regard. It is true, of course, that the Saviour commanded us to “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1), but it strikes me that there’s a difference between that and “don’t judge me!”. The first prompts us to humility, to remember our own sins and accountability before God rather than go round condemning everyone else. The latter sentiment, however, is prideful, an arrogant resentment that one might ever be disapproved of or held to account, including by God. It should be remembered that Christ not only also taught “jas I’ve noted before some judgment is unavoidable, like who you let look after your children), but the former restriction doesn’t apply to God, to whom we will very much be accountable. The resentful mode expressed by Laman and Lemuel also tends to break down under its own weight, as one is left holding that it is wrong to judge people, except for being “judgmental”. At which point things start looking quite silly.
according to , but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24, because