Alma 14

They chose… poorly.

Some don’t: some of the people of Ammonihah repent at Alma the Younger and Amulek’s teaching. Then there’s Zeezrom who – fuelled by guilt for his role in shaping the public mind – now testifies on behalf of Alma and Amulek, and is cast out and driven out along with other believers by stoning for his troubles.

But the rest of the people choose to reject their preaching, and do so in a way that proves their culpability. They arrest Alma and Amulek, the people stand as false witnesses against them, and then:

And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.

(Alma 9:8)

Even if they had a legitimate grievance against Alma and Amulek, what right had they to take out their “hurt feelings” by murdering those who simply happened to believe their words? Or not even that: some of those burnt here are simply the wives and children of those they drove out for believing; those they burnt may not even believe themselves. It is simply guilt by association, and an act that entirely vindicates the judgment God is about to bring upon them.

It’s interesting that they burn the holy scriptures too, as if by destroying them they can remove the threat posed by those words. By while they may destroy the physical copies, you cannot burn the word of God, only be burned by it.

Understandably, Alma and Amulek – who are forced to witness this – are moved by this:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9-11)

It’s worth contemplating that it’s possible Amulek is seeing members of his own family burn before him. We know he has a large family: he speaks of “my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk” (Alma 10:11).* But while later it is mentioned that he was rejected “by his father and his kindred” (Alma 15:16), there is no mention of his “women” and childen. 

There’s also a bit of wordplay going in this chapter. The Greek word from which we derive the term martyr (and hence martyrdom) is μάρτυρ (martur), which literally means witness. It’s present association with dying for the faith came from the fact that, for many early Christians, bearing witness of the faith and dying became synonymous. In this passage we likewise see the very term used (“place of martyrdom”), and then notice how the word “witness” is repeated in the verses following. I write more about that here.

Of course here the focus is on what Alma and Amulek are witnesses, which is not so much of the faith (though they – and the martyrs – have surely done that), but of the crimes of the unrepentant people of Ammonihah, who by this act demonstrate that they deserve every piece of judgment coming their way. Verse 11 is particularly interesting here: God could intervene. He has done so on other occasions when people were threatened with burning (such as Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego in Daniel 3). As I’ve mentioned before, it might be confusing, even troubling, as to why God intervenes in some cases but not others. Divine providence in the immediate sense can be unpredictable: God is working according to a plan that we cannot see in its entirety, and the challenge is that we must trust him that – whether he intervenes, or not – that his choice will in the end be right. As indeed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego did, for while they knew God could save him, they didn’t know if he would, but they trusted that whatever he willed would be right and pledged to serve him anyway (“But if not“, Daniel 3:18).

What we do know, however, is that mortal life is one of deferred judgment. In order to give us freedom to act, the freedom to either repent or to hang ourselves, God does not immediately judge us for what we do. Alma in fact has just been teaching the people of Ammonihah this, of how this life is “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). As Peter states:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

(2 Peter 3:9)

What this means is that in the present, the “right now”, that this life is often unjust. To give us this freedom, one way or the other, means that we live in a world in which the wicked can act against the righteous, as they do so murderously here, without immediate intervention. That can be hard for many people. Of course, Christ himself has personally experienced this injustice at the hands of men; he knows what if feels like.

But this present state of injustice is not fated to continue: while God’s judgments are deferred, they are not to be denied. God himself will impose justice sooner or later, which involves both making things right for those who are hurt, and bringing judgment down upon those who have incriminated themselves. Thus this life fulfils its purpose as an arena in which by our own choice we rise or sink, not in worldly stature, but to either rise towards goodness and godliness and virtue, or to sink into evil and depravity. The people of Ammonihah have been allowed to make their choice: those they hurt will in the end be blessed, and lose nothing, while the guilty have been left with no excuse and will lose everything.

Not that they recognise the full depth of their error just yet:

Now it came to pass that when the bodies of those who had been cast into the fire were consumed, and also the records which were cast in with them, the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?

(Alma 14:14)

I suppose they think that was terribly clever.

Now this judge was after the order and faith of Nehor, who slew Gideon.

(Alma 14:16)

I find this interesting and significant. The Nehorite belief, after all, is that:

… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

(Alma 1:4)

That can sound good and positive to many people; indeed I know it does because I’ve heard several members of the Church say so (and even think there’s not much wrong with that statement) in recent discussions. And yet there’s a glaring omission, that of repentance. The Nehorite salvation is one that excludes the need for any repentance, and any need to meet a higher standard.

Now I’m sure there were those who adhered to the Nehorite creed who did not approach the level of the people of Ammonihah. And yet I think there is a connection, between that belief and the acts we see here. A world in which everyone is already “saved”, in which none of us need to reform or change, is a world in which no bad tendency need to be fought, no habit need to be curbed, and no effort made to prepare for heaven (defeating the very purpose of mortality that Alma has spoken about). A world in which people do not repent, do not seek to be better, is not a world of people destined for heaven. It is hell. And we see here the hellish conclusion of Nehorite belief, where the notion of moral disapproval and calls to repentance inspire murderous rage.

Judgment, of course, is coming for the people of Ammonihah, and in their case that judgment is not deferred for too long. Indeed for their leaders it comes far sooner than they can expect:

And it came to pass after they had thus suffered for many days, (and it was on the twelfth day, in the tenth month, in the tenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi) that the chief judge over the land of Ammonihah and many of their teachers and their lawyers went in unto the prison where Alma and Amulek were bound with cords.

And the chief judge stood before them, and smote them again, and said unto them: If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words.

And it came to pass that they all went forth and smote them, saying the same words, even until the last; and when the last had spoken unto them the power of God was upon Alma and Amulek, and they rose and stood upon their feet.

(Alma 14:23-25)

I think that fact that God intercedes at this point, after the leaders collectively make the challenge that if Alma and Amulek will deliver themselves, they’ll believe the people will be destroyed, is a significant reflection of how Alma and Amulek’s mission has become one of providing grounds for incrimination.

And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.

While from our perspective, as readers, this comes soon, I’m sure that’s not how it felt to Alma and (maybe especially) Amulek. It’s not clear how long they spent imprisoned (verse 22 simply says “many days”). Alma made his way to Ammonihah early in the 10th year, but then spent some time with Amulek and his household. But since it is now almost halfway through the 10th month, I think months is a reasonable guess.

It is interesting that these leaders begin to flee the moment the cords are broken, before any other displays of divine power, “for the fear of destruction had come upon them”. This suggests their final, unanimous, challenge was true; and now Alma and Amulek have been delivered from their bands, and now the people recognise they will be destroyed. I wonder if they recognise in these moments – perhaps they begin to sense it in full – precisely how far they’ve gone wrong, if they realise the pit that is opening beneath them, and how much they truly deserve it.

And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.

And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith which was in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands; and the prison had fallen to the earth, and every soul within the walls thereof, save it were Alma and Amulek, was slain; and they straightway came forth into the city.

Now the people having heard a great noise came running together by multitudes to know the cause of it; and when they saw Alma and Amulek coming forth out of the prison, and the walls thereof had fallen to the earth, they were struck with great fear, and fled from the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions; and thus they did flee from the presence of Alma and Amulek.

(Alma 14:27-29)

Thus ends the first stage of the judgment of Ammonihah.

 

* Incidentally, Amulek may be one of the few polygamous individuals in the Book of Mormon. While it’s possible “my women” may refer to other female members of the household, it seems a very strong term to describe servants or even other female kinsfolk, while Hebrew uses the same word for “wife” and “woman” (אִשָּׁ֣ה), and the Book of Mormon likewise uses “women” as a synonym for “wives” in 1 Nephi 17:1-2 & 20.

Alma 10

At this point Amulek begins sharing his experiences, including the visitation of an angel to him, to the shock of the people (particularly those, one presumes, who must have known him per verse 4).

I always find verse 2 interesting, simply because it alludes to an episode that we know little about, and about which I wish we knew more:

I am Amulek; I am the son of Giddonah, who was the son of Ishmael, who was a descendant of Aminadi; and it was that same Aminadi who interpreted the writing which was upon the wall of the temple, which was written by the finger of God.

Aminadi is a descendent of Nephi (v. 3, another indication that Nephi actually had descendants, perhaps through his daughters?), so this event has clearly happened at some point since then, but when is an open matter (my suspicion would be prior to Mosiah leaving the land of Nephi, and so the temple being spoken about is the one built there by Nephi). In any case, this is an episode we have yet to learn about.

In reading today, I found the argument between Amulek and the people interesting:

And now it came to pass that the people were more angry with Amulek, and they cried out, saying: This man doth revile against our laws which are just, and our wise lawyers whom we have selected.

But Amulek stretched forth his hand, and cried the mightier unto them, saying: O ye wicked and perverse generation, why hath Satan got such great hold upon your hearts? Why will ye yield yourselves unto him that he may have power over you, to blind your eyes, that ye will not understand the words which are spoken, according to their truth?

For behold, have I testified against your law? Ye do not understand; ye say that I have spoken against your law; but I have not, but I have spoken in favor of your law, to your condemnation.

And now behold, I say unto you, that the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges.

And now it came to pass that when Amulek had spoken these words the people cried out against him, saying: Now we know that this man is a child of the devil, for he hath lied unto us; for he hath spoken against our law. And now he says that he has not spoken against it.

And again, he has reviled against our lawyers, and our judges.

And it came to pass that the lawyers put it into their hearts that they should remember these things against him.

(Alma 10:24-30)

Read the verses prior to 24 and you’ll find Amulek is right: he hasn’t spoken against the law (although he’s said plenty about their lawyers, but he doesn’t deny that). And yet I’m not sure this is a simple case of disingenuousness on the part of the people (except for the lawyers – I think it is fairly obvious why they object and “put it into [the peoples’] hearts that they should remember these things against him”), compared to say the accusations against Abinadi. I get the impression that the people are genuinely incensed, and think his guilt is obvious: “now we know that this man is a child of the devil”. And yet their anger blinds them to the fact that their accusation is false, that he hasn’t said what they think he’s said, and their anger leaves them open to manipulation by the lawyers whom Amulek has accused. As indeed Amulek points out, lamenting in verse 25 that they have “yielded” themselves to Satan, “that he may have power over you, to blind your eyes, that ye will not understand the words which are spoken, according to their truth”.

I’m sure one could draw all sorts of modern political parallels (particularly at the moment!), and I’m fond of applying verse 27 (“the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges”) as widely as possible, particularly in the presence of friends who work in law. But I think it’s also a warning to all of us against rushing to judgment, especially when angry. Anger can be a powerful motivator, but can blind us, distort our judgment, and – like the people of Ammonihah – render us easily manipulable by those with malicious motives. One can see why it is prophesied that in the last days Satan shall likewise: “rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good” (2 Nephi 28:20); anger deceives, and allows the angry to be easily led.

Also sticking out to me today, as another specific example illustrating a general principle, are verses 22-23:

Yea, and I say unto you that if it were not for the prayers of the righteous, who are now in the land, that ye would even now be visited with utter destruction; yet it would not be by flood, as were the people in the days of Noah, but it would be by famine, and by pestilence, and the sword.

But it is by the prayers of the righteous that ye are spared; now therefore, if ye will cast out the righteous from among you then will not the Lord stay his hand; but in his fierce anger he will come out against you; then ye shall be smitten by famine, and by pestilence, and by the sword; and the time is soon at hand except ye repent.

Amulek is obviously speaking of the specific example of the righteous amongst the people of Ammonihah, but we’ll see the same thing in the Book of Mormon again (particularly just before the appearance of Christ). Even when a minority, the presence of the righteous (and their prayers, note) often acts to hold back God’s judgment. It is perhaps one of those ironies that when a people become wicked enough to drive out the righteous amongst them that they are thereby removing that hindrance, and God’s judgment can swiftly follow.

Alma 8

Alma 8 includes a few minor episodes, before giving the account of the beginning of Alma’s preaching to the city of Ammonihah. The latter includes the people rejecting his teaching, Alma leaving in a rather despondent state before being directed to return by an angel, and his fated meeting with Amulek (who had himself been prepared by an angel).

There’s several things that stood out to me upon reading today, many of which may seem comparatively unimportant, but that’s what stuck out so that’s what I’m writing about. For instance, I found it interesting to reflect on verse 1:

And now it came to pass that Alma returned from the land of Gideon, after having taught the people of Gideon many things which cannot be written, having established the order of the church, according as he had before done in the land of Zarahemla, yea, he returned to his own house at Zarahemla to rest himself from the labors which he had performed.

We learn at verse 2 that in fact remained there until after the turn of the year. While not explicit, it seemed interesting to me that here is a positive example of rest. I think we sometimes think of people like Alma as almost workaholics, always labouring, and sometimes even get the impression that we should approach Church service in the same way. But he did in fact take the opportunity to rest. This example might be something some people need to emulate more (of course, some of us might rest all too much, so there’s that too!).

I was also struck by the account of Alma leaving Ammonihah, and the angel appearing to him:

And it came to pass that while he was journeying thither, being weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul, because of the wickedness of the people who were in the city of Ammonihah, it came to pass while Alma was thus weighed down with sorrow, behold an angel of the Lord appeared unto him, saying:

Blessed art thou, Alma; therefore, lift up thy head and rejoice, for thou hast great cause to rejoice; for thou hast been faithful in keeping the commandments of God from the time which thou receivedst thy first message from him. Behold, I am he that delivered it unto you.

(Alma 8:14-15)

What I find interesting is how the angel’s words compare to Alma’s preceding feelings. Alma is understandable feeling down (to put it mildly), but the angel tells him to rejoice. And then the angel tells him why he should rejoice: because of Alma’s own faithfulness ever since his first experience with the very same angel. It caused me to reflect that in Alma’s sorrow over the people’s failure to repent and their rejection of him and his message, he may well have thought of himself as a failure at that point, or less successful than perhaps he should be. The angel’s words would directly address this, giving Alma another view of himself, a perception of himself and his own faithfulness from God’s perspective that he may not have had.

The angel’s instructions about the people of Ammonihah, and the later revelation to Alma for Alma and Amulek to preach, also caught my attention:

And behold, I am sent to command thee that thou return to the city of Ammonihah, and preach again unto the people of the city; yea, preach unto them. Yea, say unto them, except they repent the Lord God will destroy them.

For behold, they do study at this time that they may destroy the liberty of thy people, (for thus saith the Lord) which is contrary to the statutes, and judgments, and commandments which he has given unto his people.

(Alma 8:16-17)

And the word came to Alma, saying: Go; and also say unto my servant Amulek, go forth and prophesy unto this people, saying—Repent ye, for thus saith the Lord, except ye repent I will visit this people in mine anger; yea, and I will not turn my fierce anger away.

(Alma 8:29)

One thing that I think is notable is in verse 17. The people of Ammonihah do not belong to the Church, and loudly disavow any affiliation with it (vv. 11-12). And yet while they may not have any part in the covenants associated with that, they are still subject to God’s commandments. We cannot, and no part of the human race can, remove ourselves from being properly subject to God’s authority and judgment.

The other thing that comes to mind, however, is in the purpose of their teaching. There’s still an “out” for the people of Ammonihah; they can repent. But they are being directly threatened with repentance or death, and Alma and Amulek have been told to bluntly tell the people this.

This style of teaching may sit at odds with those who prefer more gentle approaches, and I’m reminded once again of the fact that the tone and way in which the gospel is taught can vary quite widely depending on where people are. But in this particular case most of the people of Ammonihah chose to double down, and God – knowing all things that are to come – would have known this. So I’m also struck by the fact that while this approach did shock some into repentance (as we shall see), it also wasn’t just about trying to save people. Rather Alma and Amulek’s words would (spoilers!) serve to give a clear warning, a fair basis for the judgment to come. It strikes me that when God intervenes in human events in this way, he usually provides some plain and blunt message, that providing such a warning is requisite with the justice of God, and that – while it may provide some with the opportunity to repent – it is also about establishing clearly that the condemnation to come is justly deserved.

Alma 5

Due to the length & substantial nature of Alma 5, and the fact that the “Come Follow Me” schedule only has three chapters this week, I’ve decided to read Alma 5 this time round over the course of several days rather than all at once, and so this post will the culmination of several days reading (though again, it’s not a comprehensive or exhaustive post; it might actually be possible to write an entire book about Alma 5).

I love how Alma begins his sermon. I think it’s one of the greatest sermon introductions out there. It starts almost gently, recapping the story of the Church being organized (v. 3), and then being delivered from King Noah (v. 4), and then from the Lamanites and it being established in the land of Zarahemla (v. 5).

Then Alma begins with the first set of questions that he poses to his audience. A significant part of this sermon is built around the questions Alma aims at the listener/reader, but I find this first set often get missed when people discuss them:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?

(Alma 5:6)

It’s interesting this first set are all based around the importance of remembering, something of a recurrent theme in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament. Alma’s three questions here also appear to increase in intensity: a) do you remember the captivity of your ancestors? b) do you remember God’s mercy towards them (in delivering them?)? c) do you remember that he has delivered their souls from hell?

There then comes one of those passages that is both powerful, and has such wonderful turns of phrase (especially in verse 7), as Alma builds upon this reminder on how God delivered their fathers not just from earthly oppression, but from eternal damnation:

Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.

And now I ask of you, my brethren, were they destroyed? Behold, I say unto you, Nay, they were not.

And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.

(Alma 5:7-9)

“On what conditions are they saved?”

Having reminded his audience that their forebears were saved, Alma moves to his next set of questions, asking how their forebears were saved:

And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? Yea, what grounds had they to hope for salvation? What is the cause of their being loosed from the bands of death, yea, and also the chains of hell?

(v. 10)

He begins his answer with a set of rhetorical questions about Alma, his father:

Behold, I can tell you—did not my father Alma believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi? And was he not a holy prophet? Did he not speak the words of God, and my father Alma believe them?

(v. 11)

Here we have the pivotal role of belief: Alma believed Abinadi, and Abinadi was speaking the words of God. It sometimes seems we can underestimate the role of belief (compared to testimony, and action) in the modern Church, but Alma (the younger) puts it front and centre of Alma (the elder)’s salvation. Yet I think it’s important to realise it’s not the act of believing in and of itself that’s pivotal. One after all could believe something that isn’t true, and that has no saving value at all. Rather, it is who and what we choose to believe that is significant. I think it no coincidence that this verse emphasises those very elements: Alma chose to believe a prophet of God, and chose to believe what were the words of God.

And why is what we choose to believe important?

And according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true.

(v. 12)

Alma’s faith, and his belief in the word of God, was a key that allowed the power of God to change his heart (I’m reminded of John 17:17: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth”). It is choosing to believe God’s word that allows the transforming power of the Gospel to convert us; to change us into a new creature (meaning a new creation). This is vital: we cannot fight our own faults through our sheer unaided willpower alone, since every one of us has a part of us that is on the other side. We have predilections and tendencies (the exact nature of which will vary from person to person, but we all have them), that seek to lead us away from God and right. But this isn’t inevitable. Our natures can become purified and cleansed, as God’s sanctifying power strengthens our desires and will to do good and helps us defeat the desire to do evil.

That this does not just apply to Alma senior alone is made plain in the very next verse:

And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold, they were faithful until the end; therefore they were saved.

(v. 13)

Alma heard the words of God as preached by Abinadi, believed them, and his heart was changed. He in turn preached the same word to others, who likewise believed and their hearts were changed. And in response, they humbled themselves, put their trust in God and were faithful to him, and so they were saved. I particularly like how this verse helps show the connection between our having faith in God, and showing faithfulness to God, linked but not identical concepts that are often different sides of the same coin. We can have faith (trust) in God because he is always faithfultrustworthy – in fulfilling his promises, and then we in turn show and act upon our faith in him by being faithful – that is, loyal – to him.

“Have ye spiritually be born of God?”

At this point Alma now turns his questions upon his audience, and implicitly us. I’ll be quoting a lot here since I don’t think any measure of paraphrasing will do justice to this questions.

Firstly Alma asks us whether we have experienced this change of hearts that he has been talking about:

And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?

(v. 14)

He then moves forward without pausing to the moment of judgment:

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?

(vv. 15-16)

These are powerful questions. Have we experienced a change of heart? Do we have faith in Christ so we can look forward to that moment of judgment with hope? Or… well then Alma’s questions take a more accusing tone:

Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you?

Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?

(vv. 17-18)

Alma is very good at evoking the potential horror we might experience if unprepared for the final judgment; he does the same in Alma 12:12-18. I think in part this is because he himself felt some of this fear during his own conversion experience, in which he describes feeling that “the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14, see also v. 15). These are perhaps thoughts people don’t want to dwell on, and yet the judgment is a situation we will all inevitable experience.

Alma continues with his questions, all of which are aimed at this point: the degree to which we have become truly converted, so that we have “the image of God engraven on our countenances” (Alma 5:19, and that’s an interesting thought: we speak of mankind being made in the image of God, and yet Alma is speaking of an important sense in which that image is conditional, and has to be engraven upon us) and have clean hands; and the degree to which we have fallen short, in which we have “yielded [our]selves to become subjects to the devil” (v. 20) and have “stained” our “garments” with our wickedness (v. 22-23). These are questions designed to probe our readiness to meet God, for as Alma points out:

I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins.

(v. 21)

“Can ye feel so now?”

At verse 26, Alma changes the focus a little, addressing directly those who have already experienced this change of heart:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

We may have experienced and felt and tasted of the goodness of God. We may have felt the gift of his forgiveness, experienced his grace, seen his hand extended in power. But can we do so now? Just as Alma the elder’s people were saved because they had faith, had the change of heart and then were faithful “until the end”, we too need to be faithful until the end. Thus Alma asks those who have been converted:

Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? Could ye say, if ye were called to die at this time, within yourselves, that ye have been sufficiently humble? That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?

Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.

Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.

And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?

Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!

(vv. 27-31)

Even if we have been “born of God” in the past, if we don’t remain faithful and keep to that path we will not be found spotless. But I also find interesting the sins that are singled out here: not murder or adultery or so on (though Alma frequently mentions those too – indeed murder got mentioned in verse 23). But being insufficiently humble, being proud, being envious, and mocking others. Like all these questions, it prompts serious reflection of one’s own conduct and state.

“Soon at hand”

Much of this sermon is about the need for all to repent, to seriously prepare for the judgment of God, and about how the time or hour is “close at hand”. And indeed, I suppose that that time can arrive quicker than any of us expect, being one “accidentally stepping in front of the bus” away. But there’s also another sense in which these people are being told things are “soon at hand”, as Alma teaches in verse 50:

Yea, thus saith the Spirit: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand; yea, the Son of God cometh in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion. Yea, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, that the Spirit saith: Behold the glory of the King of all the earth; and also the King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men.

Alma is speaking here of Christ’s incarnation amongst man, which is just over 80 years away. His appearance amongst the Nephites following his resurrection – in which he will indeed come in glory and majesty, and which will be accompanied by a degree of judgment upon the wicked – is just over a century away. And indeed, that is not very far in the great scheme of things.

I was struck – not for the first time – when reading this verse today that this verse also applies to us, but speaking of Christ’s second coming, in which Christ will most certainly appear “in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion”, and which will likewise bring a defining point of judgment upon the world. We don’t know precisely when that will happen – there’s some things that have to happen first, some of which have, and others which have yet to occur – but it will at some point, and is likewise “soon at hand”, and which may be sooner than some imagine. Which underlines the relevance of the next few verses, not just for Alma and his audience, anticipating the first appearance of Christ, but also for us, anticipating the second:

And also the Spirit saith unto me, yea, crieth unto me with a mighty voice, saying: Go forth and say unto this people—Repent, for except ye repent ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of heaven.

And again I say unto you, the Spirit saith: Behold, the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire, yea, a fire which cannot be consumed, even an unquenchable fire. Behold, and remember, the Holy One hath spoken it.

(vv. 51-52)

The time to repent is now, whether it be in preparation for this appearance, or for an unexpected appointment that is much sooner.

Wolves

After more urging to repent, including of specific sins, and an exhortation to separate from the wicked, Alma warns of wolves:

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.

(vv. 59-60)

I’ve written about this concept at greater length here, but I mention it here because it always catches my eye. Indeed Alma appears to be warning some of his audience against being wolves (it comes right after he states “if ye speak against it, it matters not, for the word of God must be fulfilled” in verse 58), something he’d know about, for he was a wolf that became a sheep (or a shepherd). There are others who make the opposite journey. We are required, of course, to be merciful, loving, and to refrain from judgment (or from unjust judgments in those areas that we have a duty to judge). At no time, however, does that require us to leave the sheep defenceless against the wolves, to allow people to victimise or hurt others in the name of “compassion”, nor to mercilessly sacrifice the innocent upon an altar of mercy for their predators. The Good Shepherd defends his sheep, including against those who’d prey upon them.

 

Mosiah 19

We have a change of pace in this chapter, as a rebellion breaks out against King Noah. It’s somewhat interesting to me that Noah accused Alma and the Church of “stirring up the people to rebellion against him” (in the previous chapter, Mosiah 18:33), and so sent the army after them, but that they weren’t and the rebellion only broke out after they fled. Noah’s paranoia about Alma seems to have misled him about the actual rebellion brewing amongst the “lesser part” (Mosiah 19:2-3) of who was left (although he was right to fear a revolt).

And so we meet Gideon. And I think Gideon is awesome:

And now there was a man among them whose name was Gideon, and he being a strong man and an enemy to the king, therefore he drew his sword, and swore in his wrath that he would slay the king.

(v. 4)

First verse and he’s already drawing swords and swearing wrathful oaths to kill kings. Now that’s a man of action!

I find the next sequence interesting, however, because it sits at odds with what seem to be our expectations. King Noah tends to be depicted rather like this:

abinadi-before-king-noah-39651-wallpaper

i.e. the fat man with the beard. Not the ripped old man in chains (that’s Abinadi), and certainly not the Jaguars…

I don’t know quite why Noah is always pictured like this. We know he likes his women and his wine (Mosiah 11:14-15). But there’s nothing that really suggests the “fat man with beard” that occupies our image of him. I don’t know if that stems from the well-known bias towards beauty (in which we associated goodness with physical attractiveness, and badness with ugliness), or from an apparently indelible mark that Henry VIII has left on the Anglo-American psyche. But this chapter suggests this depiction isn’t accurate:

And it came to pass that he fought with the king; and when the king saw that he was about to overpower him, he fled and ran and got upon the tower which was near the temple.

In verse 5, after apparently physically fighting with Gideon and realising he was going to lose (Gideon is awesome), he flees and runs up a tower. Upon the tower he sees the Lamanites have taken the opportunity to invade, and after pleading with Gideon to spare his life in view of the emergency (incidentally, the note that “now the king was not so much concerned about his people as he was about his own life” in verse 8 suggests the theme of pretence is still present), he then leads his people in “flee[ing] into the wilderness”, “go[ing] before them” and manages to outrun their Lamanite pursuers even when they began to “overtake” and kill some of his people (vv. 9-10). Although the Lamanite pursuit actually ends when many of his men refuse to obey his instruction to leave their women and children behind, and surrender instead, Noah just keeps on running. The text actually seems to indicate he was quite an athletic man! For that matter, so was Henry VIII as a younger man.

This is a fairly unimportant matter, but I think it’s interesting for how such bias and perceptions – about goodness and wickedness no less – affect us. As I’ve linked to before (see here and here), human bias towards attractiveness even affects court cases: attractive defendants are more likely to be found not guilty and given more lenient sentences, while defendants are likely to attract harsher sentences when the victim is attractive. We are inclined, it seems, to view good people as being fair, and worse the fair as being inevitably good (and the ugly as bad). If Noah was an attractive and athletic man, perhaps that is one factor in why his people were prepared to follow him for so long. And perhaps it is no accident that Abinadi quoted Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah “hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Mosiah 14:2//Isaiah 53:2).

Of course, neither Noah’s possible athleticism, nor charisma, nor royal status, can spare him from the karmic fate and judgment of God he has brought upon himself, in fulfilment of Abinadi’s words:

And the king commanded them that they should not return; and they were angry with the king, and caused that he should suffer, even unto death by fire.

(Mosiah 19:20)

Mosiah 11

King Noah now takes the helm, and embarks on general debauchery (which he encourages his people to join him in) and a construction programme. Then Abinadi appears (it’s not clear where from) and preaches that God will deliver the people into servitude and affliction if they do not repent.

What particularly caught my attention today was Noah’s response to Abinadi rather stark message:

Now when king Noah had heard of the words which Abinadi had spoken unto the people, he was also wroth; and he said: Who is Abinadi, that I and my people should be judged of him, or who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?

I command you to bring Abinadi hither, that I may slay him, for he has said these things that he might stir up my people to anger one with another, and to raise contentions among my people; therefore I will slay him.

Now the eyes of the people were blinded; therefore they hardened their hearts against the words of Abinadi, and they sought from that time forward to take him. And king Noah hardened his heart against the word of the Lord, and he did not repent of his evil doings.

(Mosiah 11:27-29, my emphasis)

I found this reaction interesting, although it’s clear there’s an element of disingenuity in Noah’s response (although perhap’s he’s not aware of it). He rejects the notion that Abinadi should judge him and his people, but the very next clause makes clear (much as I discuss in connection in 1 Nephi 17) that this dislike of being “judged” is ultimately a rejection that even God should be allowed to judge.

However, my eye also caught upon verse 28, with Noah’s accusation that Abinadi is stirring up contention. And between the two of them it gave me some thought. It is true, after all, as individuals we’re instructed to not judge each other (at least with the eternal judgements that belong to God; some judgement – “who should I let look after my children?”, for instance – is our responsibility). Likewise, we’re taught that contention is of the devil (3 Nephi 11:29). Those are true. But a misapplication of those teachings caused the people and king Noah to harden their hearts against the word of God that Abinadi brought and to become impenitent.

I guess it’s an interesting demonstration that virtually any good principle, if misused or taken out of context, can become the occasion for wrong. Much as wars and other acts have taken place in the name of otherwise good principles (and not just the name of God; would-be anti-theists who argue that such wars discredit God and religion have to contend with the fact that wars have also been fought in the name of peace, liberation and freedom. Should we discard those?), we can likewise misuse such things on a smaller scale. We have to be careful to keep the whole gospel in view, lest we wrench any part out of place.

2 Nephi 27

2016 notes:

There’s so much in here, but I have time to pick out only a couple of verses:

Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me, that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read, until I shall see fit in mine own wisdom to reveal all things unto the children of men.

(2 Nephi 27:22)

This one’s interesting because I suddenly realised it addresses a question I hadn’t thought about all that much (one of those “was this always in there?” moments). The question being why Joseph Smith had to give the plates back. The reason is given here :”that I may preserve the words which thou hast not read” (my emphasis). Never mind people attempting to retranslate the Book of Mormon itself: the concern given here is over the sealed portion, which the Lord has kept back at this time.

2020 edit:

This chapter (as did last chapter) includes a fair amount of Isaiah 29, although quoted without explicit markers (unlike, say 2 Nephi 12-24//Isaiah 2-14), but also significantly interspersed with Nephi’s own commentary and prophecy. Thus so in this case, where the chapter opens with an account of the wickedness of the nations in the last days and the forthcoming judgment to coincide with Christ’s second coming.

The chapter then moves on to talk about a forthcoming book:

And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall bring forth unto you the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered.

And behold the book shall be sealed; and in the book shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof.

(2 Nephi 27:6-7)

This book is the records contained on the golden plates, of which an unsealed portion is translated and published as the Book of Mormon, with the rest to appear at some future date (vv. 9-11). Apparently there’s much more in it, for “they reveal all things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (v. 10).

The chapter then gives an account of some words of the unsealed portion being taken to “the learned”, who is asked to read the words. The learned then requests the book, but when informed that they are sealed will state that they cannot read them (vv. 15-18). In contrast, they will be then delivered to one who is not learned, who shall simply say “I am not learned” (v. 19) and will be told:

Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee.

(2 Nephi 27:20)

Now on one hand this is seen as a reference to the well-known account of Martin Harris taking some characters to Charles Anthon. As recounted in the Pearl of Great Price:

Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

(Joseph Smith- History 1:63-65)

Charles Anthon here is the learned man, while the unlearned man who does end up reading the words is Joseph Smith.

And yet there is more going on here. This passage is not just about these two men (and the Book of Mormon, and the witnesses). There is a wider theme here distinguishing between the learning of the world, that men have set up in stead of that of God, and the inspiration that comes from God. Thus this chapter has a broader application than this one episode, which is a type of the dilemma we all face in gain a greater understanding, especially of the things of God. Do we rely on our own learning, upon the mortal intellect alone? If so than no matter how learned or knowledgeable we are, we shall find the scriptures and other revelations and sacred matters of God a “sealed book”. Or do we humble acknowledge our deficiencies, in which case we are in a position to be blessed with God’s understanding and inspiration.

This is not to say that knowledge and learning are necessarily bad, far from it: “to be learned is good”, says Jacob, “if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). We are supposed to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I am convinced that relying on faith alone risks just as much distortion as relying on study alone would. But, as discussed here and in The Book of Mormon & its relationship with the Bible, Book of Mormon prophets relied upon inspiration and their own revelatory experiences to understand the scriptures they read (the so-called “Hermeneutic of Revelation”), and read them with an eye of faith. They did not seek to understand them purely by their own or any other man’s intellect. One of the great sins of those preaching in the latter days is that they will, relying solely on their learning and their human wisdom, and excluding revelation and faith. Likewise, if we approach the scriptures purely from what might be termed an “academic” viewpoint, they will be sealed to us; we might learn many things about them, but we’ll miss the point (and I’ve see some very learned people do this with my own eyes and ears). “[T]he things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11), and cannot be forced open by human intellect alone.

Such earthly learning in insufficient to understand the things of God. Thus he will perform his “marvelous work” with his own power, in a way that will baffle those accounted wise and learned among men (note the recurrence of the same themes discussed in 2 Nephi 26):

For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.

And again it shall come to pass that the Lord shall say unto him that shall read the words that shall be delivered him:

Forasmuch as this people draw near unto me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their hearts far from me, and their fear towards me is taught by the precepts of men—

Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.

(2 Nephi 27:23-26)

 

2 Nephi 25

2016 Comments:

There’s so much in these chapters and the next few, sadly too much to really fit into my thesis, so a case study around 2 Nephi 25-30 had to get chopped out (though some of my thoughts on this section can be found here).

A few verses that stuck out this time though:

And as one generation hath been destroyed among the Jews because of iniquity, even so have they been destroyed from generation to generation according to their iniquities; and never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord.

(2 Nephi 25:9)

A general pattern is being described here: ancient Israel was punished many times for their iniquities, but they were always warned first. On one hand this can be quite reassuring, especially on an individual scale (it reminds me of Elder Packer’s comment that the Lord will always warn us if we’re about to make a major mistake). On a bigger scale, it’s perhaps less reassuring, because the nations of our time have been warned: the Book of Mormon is all about the destruction of whole civilisations.

Wherefore, these things shall go from generation to generation as long as the earth shall stand; and they shall go according to the will and pleasure of God; and the nations who shall possess them shall be judged of them according to the words which are written.

(2 Nephi 25:22)

The next couple of verses tend to get a lot of attention, but there’s a lot here too. I keep coming back to this this notion of us being judged by the scriptures. When we first come into contact with them (especially the Book of Mormon), it is we who are in the position of judge, trying to determine if they are true. When we gain a spiritual witness that they are, however, that relationship changes: now we are accountable for how we measure up to them.

I find myself wanting, on many things.

2020 edit:

While included in the reading of 2 Nephi 11 onwards for 2020’s Come Follow Me schedule, 25 really begins a separate section from 2 Nephi 25-30 (indeed, there’s a chapter break at the beginning of 25 in the pre-1879 chapters too). However, it does begin by talking about interpreting Isaiah, which is why I guess it got folded into an already packed week.

Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy. But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn.

(2 Nephi 25:4)

If anyone struggles to understand Isaiah, apparently you are not alone in this as Nephi explains here that Isaiah is not plain, in comparison to his own writings. In verse 1 he likewise states that “Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand”. Apparently knowing “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (v. 1), knowing “concerning the regions round about” (v. 6), and knowing about the “judgments of God, which hath come to pass among the Jews” (v. 6 again) can help in interpreting Isaiah,  but above all else it is “the spirit of prophecy” that can make Isaiah “plain”.

One important reason that prophecy is needed to understand Isaiah comes down to the fact that Isaiah wasn’t writing purely for his own time. Some of what he spoke did apply to his own time, as indicated by Nephi pointing out the utility of knowing things “which hath come to pass among the Jews”, past tense. But he spoke of other time periods as well, often at the same time, with events of different time periods mingled together, or speaking in such a way that the thing he was speaking about has multiple fulfilments in many different times and places. Thus, per 2 Nephi 16//Isaiah 6, we’ve seen that Isaiah’s own contemporary audience were not given to understand him, while Nephi goes even further:

But behold, I proceed with mine own prophecy, according to my plainness; in the which I know that no man can err; nevertheless, in the days that the prophecies of Isaiah shall be fulfilled men shall know of a surety, at the times when they shall come to pass.

Wherefore, they are of worth unto the children of men, and he that supposeth that they are not, unto them will I speak particularly, and confine the words unto mine own people; for I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them; wherefore, for their good have I written them.

(2 Nephi 25:7-8)

Isaiah will be understood when it is fulfilled, and so will only be completely understood in the last days (which we haven’t quite reached yet).

I’ve also written before about the themes on the title page (more on this in The Book of Mormon & the Bible). Here in 2 Nephi 25, however, we can see how those three themes (revelation & prophecy, the restoration of Israel, and Jesus being the Christ & eternal God) are part of a cohesive whole:

And the Lord will set his hand again the second time to restore his people from their lost and fallen state. Wherefore, he will proceed to do a marvelous work and a wonder among the children of men.

Wherefore, he shall bring forth his words unto them, which words shall judge them at the last day, for they shall be given them for the purpose of convincing them of the true Messiah, who was rejected by them; and unto the convincing of them that they need not look forward any more for a Messiah to come, for there should not any come, save it should be a false Messiah which should deceive the people; for there is save one Messiah spoken of by the prophets, and that Messiah is he who should be rejected of the Jews.

(2 Nephi 25:17-18)

In order to restore Israel, God will bring his words to them, and those words will convince them that Jesus is the Christ. Thus all three themes relate to the “marvelous work and a wonder” that God will carry out in the last days. And the Book of Mormon will be a tool in carrying that out, something which Nephi has become very much aware of:

Wherefore, for this cause hath the Lord God promised unto me that these things which I write shall be kept and preserved, and handed down unto my seed, from generation to generation, that the promise may be fulfilled unto Joseph, that his seed should never perish as long as the earth should stand.

Wherefore, these things shall go from generation to generation as long as the earth shall stand; and they shall go according to the will and pleasure of God; and the nations who shall possess them shall be judged of them according to the words which are written.

(2 Nephi 25:21-22)

Perhaps one reason that Nephi dwells mentally so much in the future, and not so much with his own people is because he has become painfully aware that the real significance and influence of his own writings will occur several thousand years in the future. On one hand it’s an awe-inspiring and rather scary responsibility (and thus perfectly understandable that Nephi then writes of “labor[ing] diligently to write”). On the other, one can see how it’d focus one’s perspective rather differently than is the norm.

Nephi is speaking of his writing also makes a statement about grace:

For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.

(2 Nephi 25:23, my emphasis)

That last clause – “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” – has often been understood as implying that God’s grace only comes after we have done everything we possibly can in terms of living righteously, as if we must become perfect first. But I believe that has been misunderstood. Such a notion is incompatible with how the Book of Mormon speaks about grace in other passages (see, for instance, Mosiah 2 and Mosiah 4, and for that matter 2 Nephi 2). Our very capacity to act comes as a gift from God. Sure, we need to choose to accept and follow Christ, and seek to repent, but we then need grace to accomplish that very act of repentance. Moreover it is not just the scriptures that teach this; I know from my own experience that I have needed grace long before “perfection” and what’s more, God has given it. He’s never held back his grace, his blessings, or his miracles from me until I’ve done everything I possibly could.

I think our mistake here is to read “after” in the sense of “until after” as if the verse said we are not saved by grace, until after all we can do. But it doesn’t say that. What seems more in keeping with the teaching of the rest of scripture is to understand the “after” in the same way we’d understand it in the phrase “after all is said and done”: We are saved by grace, after all is said and done; we are saved by grace, after all we can do. That is, our acts alone cannot save us (as 2 Nephi 2:5 very clearly teaches), nor perfect us. After all we have done, no matter all we have done, we need grace to save us. “After” does not mean “because” (as Elder Uchtdorf points out, in a Conference address that turns out to cover much the same topic). Nor does it mean “following”. It can mean “despite”, if we seek, as Nephi urges in that very verse, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God.

2 Nephi 14

And now the quotation of Isaiah 4…

Firstly, it may be of interest to note that at least some commentators over the centuries suggest that verse 1 should really be a continuation of chapter 3, which may make it read a little differently. The chapter divisions are not original, of course, so this is possible. In the Book of Mormon, the current chapter divisions, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, date from Orson Pratt’s publication of the 1879 edition; in the pre-1879 chapters, all of 2 Nephi 11-15 are one chapter (chapter VIII).

Verses 3-4 attract some interest:

And it shall come to pass, they that are left in Zion and remain in Jerusalem shall be called holy, every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem—

When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.

I’ve commented a lot on God’s judgments in past posts (I don’t know if that reflects me or simply Isaiah!), but what I think this passage underlines is that this process of judgment is not simply to punish, though there will be those who will be. God also intends to refine us, if we will let ourselves be refined. For those who endure, God’s actions will cleanse and sanctify us. Holiness is possible, if we submit to God’s will and endure what he sees fit to inflict upon us.

However, on my current read through I was also struck by verses 5-6:

And the Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for upon all the glory of Zion shall be a defence.

And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and a covert from storm and from rain.

It’s quite something to picture: future Zion will be so imbued with the presence and power of God that each “dwelling-place” is described as enjoying the same visible presence as that the Israelites experienced when crossing Sinai.

Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.