Mosiah 26

This chapter records another stage in the dramatic changes that are happening in Nephite society at this time, as a sizeable proportion of the younger generation, who were not in a position to understand King Benjamin’s sermon from first hand experience, reject his teachings and (presumably) the associated covenant, and also reject the Church. Thus you have the definite emergence of a degree of religious pluralism at this time, some (indeed it seems virtually all who accepted King Benjamin’s teachings) joining the Church, but a significant part of the population (though still a minority, v. 5) remaining separate.

The part of this chapter that particularly stood out to me today, however, was the statement in verse 3:

And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.

There’s plenty of scriptures that emphasise the importance of belief, and that understanding the word of God is not simply a matter of intellectual comprehension (I think, for instance of 1 Corinthians 2:11-14, but there are many more). But I think this verse is the one that most starkly connects belief with understanding, in a way that really stood out to me today.

I think on some level that continues to surprise me. For instance, I find it relatively easy to understand why people might not believe the Gospel, but find it much harder to comprehend why people might find it, or particular scriptures,  hard to understand. So much of it seems clear and simple. And when it comes to other topics, I think we generally work on the assumption that we don’t need to believe a concept to understand a concept; I’d have hardly got a masters in Islamic studies if I’d thought otherwise, for instance. Likewise, in many scientific fields there’s a variety of competing hypotheses, and again it is presumed that those participating in those fields can understand the hypotheses without believing in them all first (especially since competing theories generally can’t all be true at the same time).

And yet here it is outright stated, and heavily supported elsewhere, that the gospel and the word of God is not like this. When it comes to the gospel, belief and understanding are intimately connected; some part of the gospel that might seem easy to comprehend to us, according to this verse, may appear bewildering to someone who does not believe. And I have seen this; indeed I know several people who’s understanding of the gospel appears to have gone backwards, so that they now know less than they once did, and are baffled by what they once easily understood. And yet it still seems a strange phenomenon to me, even though on some level I know it’s true and seen it happen. How can people find such clear things confusing? Especially when they once understood them?

I guess the key thing to recognise is that our understanding of the gospel is not simply a matter of study and the workings of our own mind, but also of faith and illumination by the spirit. Things that may appear clear to someone who believes and has the Holy Ghost to assist them may not be so to someone working solely with their own unaided and unbelieving mind. As 1st Corinthians 2:14 states: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of faith and belief as not opposed to knowledge, as some occasionally make out, but as a faculty that can peer through, that can perceive otherwise unseen things and which can lead to knowledge.

Mosiah 25

And so in this chapter we’re all finally caught back up into the same time frame, with Limhi and his people and Alma and the Church all now at Zarahemla with King Mosiah.

Firstly, something of a demographic note:

Now there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla, who was a descendant of Mulek, and those who came with him into the wilderness.

And there were not so many of the people of Nephi and of the people of Zarahemla as there were of the Lamanites; yea, they were not half so numerous.

While leadership amongst the Nephites has remained amongst the Nephites proper (v. 13), we find here that they are actually outnumbered by those who are ethnically descendants of Mulek. Furthermore (and this will be of particular relevance in the book of Alma), both groups together are significantly outnumbered by those grouped under the term Lamanites.

I was struck by verses 5 & 6:

And it came to pass that Mosiah did read, and caused to be read, the records of Zeniff to his people; yea, he read the records of the people of Zeniff, from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until they returned again.

And he also read the account of Alma and his brethren, and all their afflictions, from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time they returned again.

I guess what dawned on me is what would have happened if Zeniff and his people, and Alma and so on, hadn’t kept any records? Obviously Mosiah wouldn’t be able to read anything. This who communal experience they’re about to have wouldn’t happen. The knowledge, the teachings, the experiences and the wisdom gained from them contained in those records would be lost. I guess it underlined to me – as a number of passages in the book of Mosiah have, the importance of record keeping..

And now, when Mosiah had made an end of reading the records, his people who tarried in the land were struck with wonder and amazement.

For they knew not what to think; for when they beheld those that had been delivered out of bondage they were filled with exceedingly great joy.

And again, when they thought of their brethren who had been slain by the Lamanites they were filled with sorrow, and even shed many tears of sorrow.

And again, when they thought of the immediate goodness of God, and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and give thanks to God.

And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.

(Mosiah 25:7-11)

This passage reminds me a bit about some discussions I’ve had with people about the synchronised response to King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah 5. There’s no reported speech here, so there’s no issue with that, and we have a range of feelings described. While the passage is speaking of all the people, the way these feelings are juxtaposed together leads me to think they can be mixed in multiple ways. One is as a sequential series of feelings; King Mosiah is, after all, sharing the records, and different parts of that story are likely to provoke a different response (and some of these responses are to specific events in the narrative being told). But I also think that – just as is true for us – it is likely that different people in the audience responded differently, that different parts of the account leapt out at them and made an impact. Some people may have been moved more to sorrow, while for others such feelings may have been dwarfed at their joy at seeing those delivered. I think the way this passage is narrated really communicates that mix of feelings amongst the audience. I don’t know of any particularly profound point that can be drawn from that, other than that as individuals, we’re likely to have different emotional responses, or find different things personally resonating, to anything we come across (including the scriptures themselves, which is presumably why a key aim with the “Come Follow Me” programme is that we not only study, but then share what we’ve learned with others.

The final passage that I’d like to comment on is in verses 19-21:

And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.

Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly;

Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma.

This is an important transition step, amongst a bunch that will be happening over the next few chapters. For much of the immediate preceding history, the political and religious leadership has been the same: King Benjamin and Mosiah were both the political and religious leaders of their people, in much the same way that Moses, Joshua or even Nephi were. Zeniff too consecrated priests, as for that matter so did Noah, though obviously that didn’t go so well (Mosiah 11:5). Abinadi seems a bit of an exception, since he seems to come from outside the hierarchy and opposing the king, in a manner akin to Elijah or Elisha, and like them he did so alone. Alma then established the Church, but it was for a while a separate society and entirely self-governing. Here, however, we have a clear step to the Church being a distinct institution, with a distinct earthly leadership (namely Alma) from the state in the form of the monarchy, but co-existing alongside it at the same time. It’s interesting that this actually happens at a point when both the high priest of the Church and the king are inspired individuals; perhaps that’s what made this step possible (it’s undoubtedly part of the reason that the co-existence, at this point, is so smooth). As we’ll see over the next few chapters, this is part of a range of changes that are occurring in Nephite society at this time.

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)

 

The Testimony of Three & Eight Witnesses

Reading through both the testimony of the three and the testimony of the eight witnesses today, I was struck by the contrast between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought this, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the two sets of witnesses really experienced very different events: the three had a supernatural experience, stating that God “hath declared it unto us” and that “an angel of God” showed them the plates. The eight had a more sensory experience, with no supernatural events: they saw and handled the plates (the three only saw), and examined them physically.

Today when reading, however, it seemed to me that that contrast can be seen not just in the type of experiences the two sets of witnesses are trying to relate, but also in what they are seeking to convey from that, and even how they talk about it. So the three witnesses begin early by speaking about the experience they have had “through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ”. Their witness is not just that the plates exist, but that “they have been translated by the gift and power of God” and that “the work is true”. They assert that they too are acting under divine authority, having been commanded by God to bear witness of their experience, and conclude their witness by speaking of faith in Christ and the final judgment, before finishing with a doxology.

In contrast, the testimony of the eight witnesses only invokes God once, at the end: “And we lie not, God bearing witness of it”, which has more the character of a legal declaration rather than the revelatory one of the eight witnesses. Otherwise their remarks are limited to what they handed and what they infer, in which they are quite restrained: the plates “have the appearance of gold”, and the plates and engravings have “the appearance of an ancient work” (my emphasis). They restrict themselves purely to what they were able to determine with their senses, to the extent that they don’t simply declare that the plates are ancient, but that they appeared to be so. It has the character of a legal testimony, in which they simply (“with words of soberness”) recount what they can observe with their eyes and hands, while the testimony of the three is a religious testimony, in which they bear record of a revelatory experience which they were commanded by God to share with the world, with consequences for their immortal soul.

Upon thinking about this, it really strikes me that both experiences are not just complimentary, but may even be necessary. It’s tempting to see the witness of the three as the more expansive, and in many respects it is, but notice that they don’t recount having actually handled the plates, nor do they give any physical description of it and its contents; only the eight do that. I think this touches on the same duality seen in the commandment that we are to learn “by study and also by faith“: we are expected both to use the capacity of our own minds, reason and other resources to find truth, and supernatural means also, and we really need both when it comes to learning about eternal things. Likewise, in our own efforts to gain a knowledge or witness of the truth of things like the Book of Mormon, I think upon my own experiences and think we may need to exert both: to use what we can learn through reason, experience and our senses, but also be able to seek the spirit and look with an eye of faith. And it is when the two work together, reason and revelation, that we are on the surest ground for seeking truth.

Mosiah 2

Several passages stood out to me today.

Firstly, in verse 9:

And these are the words which he spake and caused to be written, saying: My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day; for I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.

I was struck by the force of this earnest appeal. The Gospel and the Scriptures are not something that we can simply sit back and engage with cognitively, and hope to understand. Nor is it something we can simply live without giving too much thought to it. To understand and to follow the gospel requires us to use all our faculties: spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. We can perhaps paddle in the scriptures, seeking only that which we already know or live, without rising to the challenge and deploying everything we are and possess to comprehending them and making them a part of ourselves. King Benjamin’s appeal neatly addresses that.

Secondly, in verse 21:

I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

This is a very clear statement that we can’t earn anything from God; we cannot put ourselves in credit with him. Which is a basic but most powerful truth that we may sometimes lose sight of. But what stood to me today was twofold. On one hand, the statements that he is “preserving you from day to day” and “supporting you from one moment to another” gain in significance when we think of these things in the light of what Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants has to teach us about how the power and influence of God is continually extending life and light and law to all things. Were that influence to stop or be paused for any reason, our very elements would devolve into chaos.

On the other hand, I have a renewed personal appreciation of this verse. As alluded to on some other posts, I’ve been experiencing some health challenges lately, which came as a surprise after not needing see a doctor in 14 years. Earlier this year I had a case of flu which became quite serious, and for the first time in my life, really found it difficult to breathe, something I had hitherto taken for granted. But I remembered this verse, about the Lord “lending you breath”, and felt a renewed appreciation for the times in my life I could breathe. Of course, who knows what else I take for granted, but which others struggle with, and which is ultimately a gift or loan from God. For as this chapter also states in verse 25:

Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him that created you.

Everything we have is his.

2020 edit:

Once again, I find my eyes alighting on a verse that it turns out – when I go to edit this post – I’ve already written about. Verse 25 is what really struck my attention today. To quote it for a second time:

And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.

Notions of ownership, of mine, are deeply ingrained in our society and I believe in the (natural?) human psyche. I myself find that I get very territorial. And yet this verse goes so far the other way: it’s not just that the things we own, our property or clothes or possessions or whatever come from God. We cannot lay claim to owning even the very particles our body is composed of. We didn’t create them, we didn’t organise them, we did nothing by which their rightful title (which surely belongs to the one who did) passes to us. On anything lower than the most obvious scale we don’t even control them: we don’t control the very cells of our body, which work without our conscious will, let alone the chemicals, and then the elements, and then the atomic and sub-atomic particles those are composed of in turn. We cannot dictate that they work, and we cannot dictate when they stop working. All we have, including our very bodies, organs and matter, are on loan.

Which also makes me think of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). Along with our earthly wealth and position, and along with our gifts and “talents”, our bodies and our lives too must surely count amongst that sum that is given to each of the servants. Which is interesting when we consider the one who buried his singular talent for fear of losing it, and so who ultimately lost all because he did nothing with it. We are, I am sure, intended to be wise stewards of our lives and bodies. But we are not here to simply seek to preserve or perpetuate our mortal existence at any price for as long as possible, to hoard it so as to preserve it from all possible harm. Rather, like those who were trustworthy, and used their talents, we are meant to spend our life for the most good possible, to take this gift that God has loaned us and to invest it in things of eternal value. As the Saviour taught (Matthew 16:25):

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

2 Nephi 4

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

(2 Nephi 4:15)

I don’t think any commentary is necessary on this verse.

I can’t say I like the title “the Psalm of Nephi” that some people have given the latter part of this chapter (though I can’t think of any rational objections). But the chapter itself contains many passages in which my soul “delighteth” or that my heart “pondereth”:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

(2 Nephi 4:17-19)

O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

(2 Nephi 4:26-30)

2020 Edit:

This chapter covers the last of Lehi’s address to his household (principally a blessing upon the children of Laman and Lemuel that – if they and their descendants are led astray by Laman and Lemuel’s rebellions – they will in the end be blessed. There’s also this interesting blessing to Sam in verse 11:

And after he had made an end of speaking unto them, he spake unto Sam, saying: Blessed art thou, and thy seed; for thou shalt inherit the land like unto thy brother Nephi. And thy seed shall be numbered with his seed; and thou shalt be even like unto thy brother, and thy seed like unto his seed; and thou shalt be blessed in all thy days.

Now the statement that Sam’s “seed shall be numbered with [Nephi’s] seed” could simply be referring to their being counted part of the wider “Nephites”, according to the later ideological definition that Jacob appears to introduce for the first time in Jacob 1:14. But I’ve seen some people suggest this might be more specific than that, and I think they may have a point. One peculiarity is that when the different groups based on the brothers are enumerated, there’s a whole bunch: Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites and Ishmaelites. That’s the list as in Jacob 1:13, and in 4 Nephi 1:36-37 and in Mormon 1:8 too, so it’s consistent over the whole history. Notice what’s missing: there’s no “Samites”, a rather startling but consistent omission.

Now there has been some speculation that Nephi himself did not have any sons. I’ll get into that a bit when discussing 2 Nephi 5, but he never refers to or addresses any sons, and he passes the small plates onto his brother Jacob, while for a political successor “he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings”, who subsequently are “called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth”, the wording of which doesn’t seem to suggest kinship (Jacob 1:9, 11). He does appear, however, to have descendants (Mormon 1:4-5).

This has led some to suggest that perhaps Nephi’s children were all daughters, so that Nephi had no son to act as a political or religious successor. A suggestion I’ve seen that pulls on all the above then suggests that perhaps these daughters then intermarried with Sam’s sons. In which case Nephi’s and Sam’s descendants literally became one group and were counted as such, but said group appear to have adopted Nephi’s name, thus explaining the absence of any “Samites”.

There’s a brief passage that recounts Lehi’s death, and the beginnings of what will prove to be the final rift between the brothers, before we turn to the oft-labelled “Psalm of Nephi”. As I mention above, I don’t particularly like that title, although I’m not certain why and can certainly see some commonalities between it and many of the passages in the book of Psalms. It’s an interesting passage because Nephi appears to let the overall impression of his stoic optimism and unflagging obedience waver somewhat: he expresses guilt and sorrow over his sins (vv. 17-19), and refers to feelings of anger because of his enemies [enemy singular in verse 27, plural in verse 29). Nevertheless he recounts how God has supported, led, and protected him, and blessed him with angelic ministration and visions (vv. 20-25), and thus expresses resolution to “no longer droop in sin”, to not give way to temptations nor give place for anger nor to “slacken my strength because of my afflictions” (vv. 26-30). The passage then ends with his appeal to God to redeem him, to deliver him from his enemies and from sin and so on, and expresses his trust in God (vv. 31-35). He appears to be concerned with the individual struggle against weakness and sin we all face, but also with some rather specific enemies (I think undoubtedly his brothers, in view of 2 Nephi 5:1: “I, Nephi, did cry much unto the Lord my God, because of the anger of my brethren”).

One verse leading up to this “Psalm” which I quote above gets my attention again:

And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptures which are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.

Some of these elements will be familiar in any discussion about how we can better appreciate and understand the message of the scriptures: delighting in them, and pondering them and so forth. But there’s also the emphasis he puts not just on reading them but also on writing them, which I guess isn’t something that always comes up in these discussions. Perhaps recording the scriptures in which we delight or take particular interest or ponder over should be a key part of our own practice. To some degree, it’s this sort of example that’s prompted this very exercise on my blog.

The Scriptures – Harold B. Lee

I say that we need to teach our people to find their answers in the scriptures. If only each of us would be wise enough to say that we aren’t able to answer any question unless we can find a doctrinal answer in the scriptures! And if we hear someone teaching something that is contrary to what is in the scriptures, each of us may know whether the things spoken are false—it is as simple as that. But the unfortunate thing is that so many of us are not reading the scriptures. We do not know what is in them, and therefore we speculate about the things that we ought to have found in the scriptures themselves. I think that therein is one of our biggest dangers of today.

The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 153.

If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth

Harold B. Lee, The First Area General Conference for Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Spain of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held in Munich Germany, August 24-26, 1973, with Reports and Discourses, 69.

New ‘Study Resources’ page

I’ve added an extra page of ‘study resources‘, where I’ve begun to write a list of various resources I’ve found helpful or indispensable. There’s not much in the way of secondary literature on it yet (I think I’d want to write up reviews first), but so far it lists a few sources for primary texts and so on. Plus the single most useful scripture-related computer program I’ve found so far!

The learning of men and the knowledge from God

2 Nephi 25-30 is a fascinating passage of scripture (there’s a reason it’s going to be my final case study for my thesis), and one of the most fascinating things in it is the tension it develops though the whole passage between two different sorts of knowledge. On one hand is the learning of men, and on the other knowledge from God. Thus the meaning of Isaiah is “plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), and the restoration of Israel will happen in part because of God revealing his words to them (2 Nephi 25:18). When it comes to the sealed book the learned man cannot read them, while by the power of God the unlearned man will, for:

…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)

The Book of Mormon then warns against those who will contend against each other, which

…shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.
(2 Nephi 28:4)

and warns those who are

…the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines…
(2 Nephi 28:15)

and that

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.
(2 Nephi 28:31)

Yet for those who humble themselves, and seek knowledge from God, knowledge becomes of saving importance, and it is such knowledge that leads to the paradisiacal conditions of the Millennium:

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Wherefore, the things of all nations shall be made known; yea, all things shall be made known unto the children of men.
There is nothing which is secret save it shall be revealed; there is no work of darkness save it shall be made manifest in the light; and there is nothing which is sealed upon earth save it shall be loosed.
Wherefore, all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall at that day be revealed; and Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more, for a long time. And now, my beloved brethren, I make an end of my sayings.
(2 Nephi 30:15–18)

Knowledge, then, saves us… if we have sought it from the right source. Now I do not believe the Book of Mormon condemns other learning (see 2 Nephi 9:28-29), but it warns against pride and against uninspired approaches, and particularly attempts to discern sacred things without using sacred means.

I believe this has many implications for how we approach a lot of things, and at this time am particularly thinking about how this should affect how we approach the scriptures. I’ve certainly expressed my concern before at approaches to the scriptures that I feel are overly academic, which apply study but do not apply faith as we are commanded to do. But with all such things we should of course worry most about what we are doing, and so in this case how we personally are seeking to understand God’s words. There’s a lot of well-meant advice out there on how to read the scriptures, but as I’ve suggested before, I believe studying the scriptures is not just an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual discipline to which we must apply our whole souls. And this may mean the most important question when it comes to reading the scriptures is not how much we engage the mind (though I’m never opposed to that!), but how much we seek the spirit. Rather than just seeing the words, how often do we seek and find revelation to help us understand the words? For the promise is there, as Nephi said:

Do ye not remember the things which the Lord hath said?—If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.
(1 Nephi 15:11)

The whole counsel of God

While I’ve posted little here due to being snowed under with completing a thesis, I felt the need to post something in response to the news that the BYU Religious department is changing their curriculum (and consequently that of CES institutes worldwide). Previously, whereas core courses would focus on each on the standard works of Scripture, now these are to be de-emphasised in favour of four new courses arranged on a thematic basis: ‘Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel’, ‘Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon’, ‘Foundations of the Restoration’ and ‘The Eternal Family’. Bill Hamblin has more details, including a link to a letter outlining the plans, as well as some trenchant criticisms.

Some comments have defended the plans, pointing out that a) the original courses will remain available as optional courses and b) the content of the new courses has yet to be fully decided. These arguments are true to a degree. They are also irrelevant. Setting aside the fact that many institutes abroad don’t have the resources to indulge in optional courses, the real problem I see is with the thematic approach itself. I believe this approach is fundamentally flawed. BYU, of course, have the right to arrange their courses as they wish, but I cannot see this as anything other than a mistake. And – since they’re not the only ones to adopt this approach – I feel the need to spend some time showing why I think such an approach is utterly inadequate.

This is not to say that thematic approaches to the scriptures are always wrong at all times. There is a time and a season to all things. But I believe that when we adopt this as our primary way of reading and studying the scriptures then there are certain inevitable drawbacks that compromise our ability to understand and draw strength from the word of God. These drawbacks I see are as follows:

1) We pull passages out of context, and miss their full meaning

This is perhaps the most obvious problem with an approach that is likely to alight upon a verse here and a verse there. Bill Hamblin rightly comments on how the historical context can be lost. This is not the only context of importance either – there’s also the literary context, which in this case can often simply be a fancy way of talking about the verses immediately before and after a phrase. What might seem to say one thing may, when one looks at the passage around it, might mean something very different. And this isn’t a minor issue, as anyone trying to take 1 Nephi 4:12 as a guide for life might realise.

The Scriptures, aside maybe from the likes of Proverbs, were not written as a set of disconnected verses. Rather, as inspired by the Holy Ghost, the ancient prophets and apostles wrote letters, spoke sermons and described visions. Our verses and chapters, as useful as they can be, are mere modern conveniences that – if we let them – can actually hamper our understanding of scripture if we cut up the same sermon into tiny discrete and unrelated passages. If we wish to follow the arguments of Paul, the testimony of John or the sermons of Alma then we need to have an eye on the whole. It’s only when we take a passage like Alma 32-34 in full that we can really understand the point of what Alma and Amulek were saying. This is particularly true of the Book of Mormon, I might add, which alone of our standard works wasn’t even written as a set of books, but rather one glorious whole. And when we divide and subdivide it, and take a bite here ignoring all that is around that, we miss the big overarching themes that it is trying to teach us.

And yet, as serious as this loss of context can be, I feel the next two problems have the potential to be far more grave.

2) We place a ‘lens’ over our reading of the scriptures, and limit what they can teach us.

We all have ‘lenses’, by which I mean our upbringing, background, disposition and ideas affect what we read and understand. It’s a problem that as mortal, fallible humans we can never be entirely free of, although we can recognise and thus hopefully try to correct for this disposition. Scriptures have often been misunderstood because of these very lenses: that many of the early converts to the Church were of Protestant backgrounds, for example, led at least some to misunderstand what Nephi was talking about in 1 Nephi 13-14 in regards to the ‘great and abominable church’.

But when we direct our attention at particular scriptures with a certain theme in mind, we have chosen to place lenses upon ourselves. We look at certain passages with a preconceived idea as to what they are already about, and so we end up reading a portion of scripture solely with the idea of confirming what we already know or think we know. At worst, it can involve us in projecting our understanding of what a passage is meant to teach upon the Scriptures themselves, and so miss what it is really saying and effectively ignore the word of God in favour of own understanding (and I’ve seen this, regularly, in Sunday School). Even at best, by approaching them with a fixed idea as to what we are trying to learn about, we limit our interaction with the Scriptures by depriving them of the opportunity to surprise us, to teach us something new or to correct us, to speak to us of something unexpected. I believe the Scriptures – the same passage even – can be an inexhaustible reservoir of divine wisdom, yet by approaching them with only a particular theme in mind we can lose the opportunity to hear God teach us about something different that he needs us to learn. We limit what we can learn by deciding in advance what we are going to learn about. We cut ourselves off from all that those scriptures can teach us.

3) We restrict our reading to those passages that appear to ‘fit’ the theme, neglecting the rest of Scripture

A thematic approach can cause us to deprive ourselves from learning all a particular passage can teach us. It also – since it invariably involves reading only those passages that are considered to ‘fit’ a particular theme – can and usually does involve neglecting the rest of the Scriptures. Certain favourite verses are read again and again. Other passages, no less lacking in divine inspiration and in all that they have to teach us, are not read at all. We thus miss many parts of scripture, many of which are not only valuable and precious, but are essential.

Consider the Sunday School reading schedule, which in many respects is caught between thematic and other approaches depending on the year (with the D&C year at one end of the extreme, and the Book of Mormon at the other). During the Old Testament year, the reading schedule for Isaiah involves reading Isaiah 1-6, a selection of verses from 22-30 and 32, 40-56 and 63-65. Chapters 7-21, 31-39, 57-62 and chapter 66 are missed completely. Even if we were to count 22-30 as being read (which they aren’t, when one considers the reading covers only one verse, say, in chapters 22-23), that leaves 31 chapters of Isaiah that are never covered. Were one to leave one’s scripture reading up to that schedule (and sadly some do, and some don’t even do that), they would never read those chapters. And yet Isaiah is not only the one book especially recommended by the Saviour, but he gives us a commandment to read it (3 Nephi 31:1). When a set of themes are adopted as our primary approach to scripture, such precious portions are left out. We content ourselves with reading a few preselected passages and miss the rest. And that rest can well be life-changing and life-giving. They might even help us understand – quelle surprise – those bits we do read.

Limiting ourselves to only a portion of available truth can mislead us. One can see in this in how we see God. In the 17th century, men were so caught up in his wrath and his justice that they forgot his love and mercy, and so often failed to show the same to others. In the present age we often talk about his love and compassion, and are prone to neglect his justice and righteousness, and hatred of sin, and so fail to teach and live those standards that are necessary to prepare us to enter his presence. When we only read certain scriptures, and not others, we leave ourselves open to being misguided or deceived.

Even if we escape this, however, what certainly does happen is that by confining ourselves to only a portion of scripture we deprive ourselves of experiencing the full blessings it has to offer us. We cut ourselves off from all that it has to teach us. We pick the lessons we learn from those passages we do read, and of course we cannot learn anything from that which we don’t read. And God has given us such a range of scripture for a reason. God did not give us an inspired Gospel principles manual, though He very well could have done. He chose instead to give us the scriptures he did, with the promise that more was to come as we accept, use, believe and obey that which we already have. We cannot become ready to receive more if we reject – even from simple neglect – that which we already have.

Reading and studying the scriptures is not a simple matter of trying to learn particular ‘facts’ about God and the Gospel. It is a spiritual discipline, to which we must apply our whole souls, and which in return our whole souls can be strengthened. We cannot simply condense and communicate those ‘facts’ to people, or give them the ‘cliff notes’, and expect it to benefit anyone because that is not where the blessings come from. The blessings come as we apply our minds, and our faith to the word of God, and in return a channel of spiritual communication is opened which can guide us and empower us. An approach to scripture that leads us to limit what we can learn, and leads us to avoid whole portions of the word that God has given us, deprives us of the full stream of revelation that is contained within it. Let us not narrow our reading of His word, but seek instead to learn from the whole counsel of God, to learn from all that He has given us and so be open to all the blessings He has to give us.