So I didn’t get this finished in time to post early, but here it is anyway …
Lesson 4: “The Things Which I Saw
While I Was Carried Away in the Spirit”
1 Nephi 12-14
Purpose: To help class members understand Nephi’s vision of the future and how the warnings and promises in it apply to us today.
We pick up the narrative of the Book of Mormon today where we left off last week: in the midst of Nephi’s vision, which he received in answer to his prayerful desire “to know the things that my father had seen” (1 Nephi 11:1). As a reminder of the setting for these events, Lehi and his family are still very near Jerusalem. After Lehi had led them out of the city, they had traveled three days into the wilderness, to the place that Lehi had named the Valley of Lemuel, where he builds an altar of stone and sacrifices to the Lord. That is where they have been all this time. It is from that base that Nephi and his brothers were sent back to Jerusalem, first for the brass plates, and again for the family of Ishmael. They are still there in the Valley of Lemuel when Lehi has his vision of the Tree of Life, and still there when Nephi receives his vision. So despite all the events that have taken place in the first dozen chapters of 1 Nephi, the fact recorded in 1 Nephi 2:15 is still relevant to our lesson today:
1 Nephi 2:15
15 And my father dwelt in a tent.
That’s such a brief verse, such prosaic data, that it is easy to speed along in our reading. So let’s speed along to
1 Nephi 9:1
1 And all these things did my father see, and hear, and speak, as he dwelt in a tent, in the valley of Lemuel, and also a great many more things, which cannot be written upon these plates.
There it is again, that reference to dwelling in a tent in the Valley of Lemuel, mentioned at the end of Lehi’s account of his dream of the Tree of Life. Let’s read on, to 1 Nephi 10:16:
16 And all these things, of which I have spoken, were done as my father dwelt in a tent, in the valley of Lemuel.
And there it is a third time, a reference to Lehi’s dwelling in a tent, mentioned after Lehi has concluded prophesying to his family about the future mortal life of the Savior, and just before Nephi mentions pondering his father’s words and desiring his own vision.
We’ve discussed before the fact that Nephi didn’t make his plates and record this sacred history until years later, and that he carefully chose the things that were of the greatest worth, and that testified of Christ, to record on those plates – he recorded nothing trivial, nothing casual. So why does he tell us – not once, but three times – that Lehi dwelt in a tent? What is precious about that?
Well, it turns out, according to LDS scholars and others most familiar with this period of Israelite history, that it does have significance, and meant something to Lehi’s generation that isn’t obvious to us today.
You’ll remember that Zedekiah was king of Judah when Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. Zedekiah was a son of Josiah, who had been king of Judah for about 30 years, who had died about 8 years before the opening of the Book of Mormon. Josiah would have been the king that Lehi grew up with, and the events of Josiah’s reign would have been very familiar to him. The Old Testament books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles record how Josiah’s counselors found an unfamiliar scroll in the temple and brought it to Josiah, who had them read it to him. This scroll was evidently a copy of the book of Deuteronomy, recording the numerous laws that collectively are known as the Law of Moses. The Old Testament tells us that Josiah was a righteous man, who realized that the Kingdom of Judah had neglected to follow the Law, and he decided that the Kingdom of Israel, which had recently been carried into Assyrian captivity, had fallen because of the people’s failure to keep the Law. So when Lehi was a young man, about 20 years before the opening of the Book of Mormon, Josiah instituted a series of reforms in Judah: The groves where idolatrous worship had been conducted were cut down, false priests were put to death, the Temple at Jerusalem was declared to be the sole place for sacrificial worship, and the king’s counselors began a careful study of the Law and teaching it to the people.
The Bible presents all of this reform as a good thing – idols were destroyed, the people began observing Passover again, and so on. But we have some clues, perhaps, that everything done during Josiah’s reforms was not quite what the Lord would have had them do. For one thing, it is during this time of reforming the law that the Jews begin defining the law in a new way – it was not enough to teach, for example, the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy; the temple priests began to define what that meant in terms of the precise instant when the Sabbath day began, and what constituted impermissible work, and all of the other innumerable laws that, by the time of the Savior, had resulted in the Pharisaic minutiae that Jesus condemned. Also, it is just at the time of these reforms that Jeremiah begins his prophetic ministry, warning the king that Judah has gone off-course; according to the Book of Mormon, many prophets appeared during that generation to preach repentance, until Lehi himself was called and left Jerusalem.
When Lehi left Jerusalem, he also left the reforms of Josiah and returned to an earlier way of Israelite worship. For instance, he left behind the rule that said sacrifice could be offered only at the temple in Jerusalem, and adopted, apparently, the exception to that law: Israelites who lived more than three days’ journey from Jerusalem could build an altar of uncut stones and offer sacrifice – and that is exactly what Lehi did, when he traveled three days into the wilderness and built his altar and offered sacrifice. By repeatedly noting that Lehi “dwelt in a tent,” Nephi seems to be telling us that Lehi has returned to the practices of the patriarchs, like Abraham, who dwelt in tents rather than in fixed houses. As we’ll see in coming chapters, Nephi is especially taken with the symbolism of Moses and the flight from Egypt, and its parallels to his own journey. Moses, of course, and the children of Israel, also dwelt in tents. They did not have a temple, like the one Lehi was leaving in Jerusalem – their temple was a portable tabernacle, a tent, a place of worship and revelation that traveled with them.
What experiences are associated with Lehi’s tent in the wilderness? That is, in what ways might it have been like Moses’s tabernacle in the wilderness? [Multiple sacrifices; study of the newly obtained scriptures on the Brass Plates; numerous revelations: instructions to return for the plates, to return for Ishmael, Lehi’s vision, Nephi’s vision, prophetic teachings of both Lehi and Nephi to the rest of the family.]
So it is in this tent where Lehi dwelt, this temple in the wilderness, that we read the chapters for our lesson this afternoon.
1. Nephi sees the future of his descendants and his brothers’ descendants.
2. Nephi sees the formation of the great and abominable church, the colonization of the Americas, the Apostasy, and the Restoration of the gospel.
3. Nephi sees the blessings promised to the faithful; he also sees the destruction of the great and abominable church.
After desiring “to know the things that my father had seen,” Nephi is blessed with his own vision of the Tree of Life, and a vision of the mortal life of the Savior. But Nephi’s vision goes much farther than the vision of Lehi, or at least what Lehi reported to his family. After Lehi had partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Life, his immediate desire is for his family to partake of that fruit; he sorrows because Laman and Lemuel will not partake.
Nephi’s vision continues that them. Instead of seeing Laman and Lemuel refuse the fruit, he is shown a vision of the future of Lehi’s descendants, and he sees what will be the consequences of Laman’s and Lemuel’s refusal to share. Let’s begin with 1 Nephi 12, reading verse 1:
1 Nephi 12:1
1 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Look, and behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren. And I looked and beheld the land of promise; and I beheld multitudes of people, yea, even as it were in number as many as the sand of the sea.
So far, then, the vision points to success for Lehi’s family: They will survive their journey into the wilderness, they will reach a land of promise, and their children and grandchildren will multiply and become very numerous. That must have encouraged Nephi, no?
But of course, Nephi doesn’t see a “happily ever after” ending for Lehi’s descendants. Immediately he sees, in verses 2 and 3:
1 Nephi 12:2-3
2 And it came to pass that I beheld multitudes gathered together to battle, on against the other; and I beheld wars, and rumors of wars, and great slaughters with the sword among my people.
3 And it came to pass that I beheld many generations pass away, after the manner of wars and contentions in the land; and I beheld many cities, yea, even that I did not number them.
Almost immediately, Nephi sees tragedy in the future of his people.
I’m intrigued by this description of destruction, which we read in other prophecies of the latter days. Wars, we all understand, result in death and destruction. “Great slaughters with the sword” obviously speaks of death and destruction. But there’s that familiar phrase, “rumors of wars.” Aren’t rumors only words? Why are rumors of wars grouped with these terrible visions of the future? How does “rumor of war” affect us in our own day and culture?
His vision continuing, Nephi sees that most of his descendants will be destroyed by those wars before the Savior comes in mortality. But the Savior does come, Nephi sees, and after his death in the Old World, Christ comes to Nephi’s people in the New World. Nephi sees the destruction that will occur just before that appearance:
1 Nephi 12:4
4 and it came to pass that I saw a mist of darkness on the face of the land of promise; and I saw lightnings, and I heard thunderings, and earthquakes, and all manner of tumultuous noises; and I saw the earth and the rocks, that they rent; and I saw mountains tumbling into pieces; and I saw the plains of the earth, that they were broken up; and I saw many cities that they were sunk; and I saw many that they were burned with fire; and I saw many that did tumble to the earth, because of the quaking thereof.
That’s about as explicit as a revelation can get, isn’t it? Surely when it happened, Nephi’s descendants would recall his great vision and prophecy and understand what was happening! But did they? Let’s turn to 3 Nephi 8:3:
3 Nephi 8:3
3 And the people began to look with great earnestness for the sign which had been given by the prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, yea, for the time that there should be darkness for the space of three days over the face of the land.
No! It isn’t Nephi’s prophecy that they recall; it’s the prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite that comes to mind! How do you explain that?
As Mormon is compiling the records centuries after the coming of Christ, he searches the plates that have been delivered to him and discovers the plates of Nephi that we are now reading. He seems to have been unaware of their existence before he rummages around in the archives:
Words of Mormon 1:3-5
3 And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.
4 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 –
5 Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people.
And there I think we see that somehow, for reasons that I cannot explain, Nephi’s history and the record of his prophecies had somehow slipped from the memory of the Nephite people. Perhaps they recalled the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite rather than of Nephi, because Nephi’s words were not known to them. The reason itself may not be especially important, but I like to consider 1 Nephi, and 3 Nephi, and the Words of Mormon and how, in even a little matter like this, the Book of Mormon is consistent with itself. That consistency may not be enough to convince anyone that the Book of Mormon is genuine, and that it wasn’t written by Joseph Smith – who, I don’t believe, could have planted these little links to something so small in such widely scattered parts of the text – but for me, little consistencies like this confirm the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record.
Nephi’s vision continues – he sees the Savior’s call of 12 ministers to judge Nephi’s descendants, and then ultimately the destruction of his people.
And then, with Chapter 13, the vision turns to future history that is more directly related to us in this room, because it apparently concerns our own past.
Nephi sees “the nations and kingdoms of the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:3), and he sees the formation of a “great and abominable church” (1 Nephi 13:5-6) – which, we need to be reminded, is not synonymous with any historical or present church, but is representative of all organizations and attitudes and people who fight against the Kingdom of God.
1 Nephi 13:11
11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
I think this is an interesting comment on what Nephi is about to see. We are about to read verses that have been traditionally interpreted as the discovery and colonization of the New World by Europeans. Because these are our own ancestors, we have a tendency to want to see their being brought to this land as a result of their own righteousness, as a blessing on them and on us, their descendants. But what does verse 11 give as the setting for the impending events? Does that have any bearing on how we should see our own history?
1 Nephi 13:12
12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
Traditionally we have interpreted that verse as describing Columbus. It may be representative of all explorers – the Vikings who landed along the Canadian coast, and the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and other explorers who followed Columbus. But certainly it seems to refer to Columbus himself, because it was his voyages that launched the effective invasion of the New World by the Gentile nations. So let’s talk about Columbus for a minute.
When we went to school and learned about Columbus and his voyages to the New World, Columbus was pictured as the ultimate man of reason and science and logic. He realized that the earth was round (although it’s an exaggeration to say that most people of his day believed the earth was flat), he reasoned that you could therefore reach the East by sailing toward the West, he was persuasive enough to convince a queen to finance his explorations, and – even if his math was off so that he thought he had reached India when he landed on a Caribbean Island – it was his superb leadership and marine skills that brought him to the New World and took him home again, four times.
In the last 50 or so years, though, an awareness of another side of Columbus has been growing among historians. It seems that Columbus was not only a man of worldly achievement, but also a man of God. He was illiterate until the age of 25, and when he did learn to read and write he applied himself to studying the scriptures and recording his reflections in a notebook that was finally translated into English a few years ago. His notebook, called now the Book of Prophecies, records many Biblical passages foretelling the world’s future. Some of these prophecies are annotated by Columbus, indicating that he saw himself as led by God to fulfill the words of the prophets.
For example, he copied out Jeremiah 1:5:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
His comment added to that verse was:
This is what you ordained beforehand according to your good pleasure, such [prophecies[ as were written in your book about me in conformity with your secret purpose.
He suggested that God had shown him exactly where to find the New World:
Our Lord made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which he spoke in the Book of Revelation by St. John, after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah; and he showed me the place where to find it.
Usually when we hear people interpret prophecies as referring specifically to them, we suspect a form of mental illness – and almost always we’re right. In light of Nephi’s vision, though, I’m inclined to consider that Columbus truly was led by the Spirit of God, and that his mission was to fulfill prophecies made centuries before he was born – especially when we read elsewhere in his notebook that he recognized his voyages as fulfilling another specific verse of scripture:
16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
Moving on, Nephi is shown in vision certain Gentiles “who had gone forth out of captivity” gathered in the promised land, gaining their freedom from what Nephi calls “their mother Gentiles,” or the nations from which they had fled. Traditionally, we have viewed this part of the vision as speaking of the Pilgrims who left England, and the establishment of the United States of America. I have no doubt that these verses do speak of those people ... but I wonder if the vision speaks only of the Pilgrims and the United States, or whether we have interpreted it that way only because that is our own national history. Let’s read the relevant verses:
1 Nephi 16-19
16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.
17 And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them
18 And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
19 And I Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.
In what ways do those verses correspond to the history of the United States?
Is there any reason to believe that these verses apply solely to the territory within the political boundaries of the United States? Why or why not? [What part of the United States did Columbus ever set foot on?]
Is there any reason to believe that these verses apply solely to the English settlers of the original 13 Colonies? [If necessary, prompt that everything is plural – “mother Gentiles,” “all those,” “all other nations.” Suggest other examples, if the class does not: The German communities encountered in Texas by Elder Jones, the European colonists who were the first LDS converts in South America.]
Is there any reason to believe that these verses apply solely to the past – the 17th and 18th centuries? Is it possible that the power of God is still bringing Gentiles out of captivity and bringing them to the New World?
His vision continuing, Nephi sees that the Gentiles bring a book with them – the record of the Jews, which Nephi’s guiding angel describes in 1 Nephi 13:23:
1 Nephi 13:23
23 And he said: Behold it proceedeth out of the mouth of a Jew. And I, Nephi, beheld it; and he said unto me: The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many; nevertheless, they contain the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; wherefore, they are of great worth unto the Gentiles.
Nephi sees that this book – the Bible – was written in purity, but that through the ages many “plain and precious parts” and covenants have been removed from the book.
1 Nephi 13:29
29 And after these plain and precious things were taken away it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, thou seest – because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God – because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.
These plain and precious parts of the gospel, Nephi learns, will be restored to the world through the record we know as the Book of Mormon:
1 Nephi 13:35-36
35 For, behold, saith the Lamb: I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious; and after thy seed shall be destroyed, and dwindle in unbelief, and also the seed of thy brethren, behold, these things shall be hid up, to come forth unto the Gentiles, by the gift and power of the Lamb.
36 And in them shall be written my gospel, saith the Lamb, and my rock and my salvation.
Much of the purpose of the Book of Mormon, we read in many places, is directed specifically to the descendants of Lehi. This prophecy, though, is one that we can claim a full share of. It is our Bible, the book of our Gentile nations from which our ancestors came, from which plain and precious parts are missing, and in the Book of Mormon we are to find those missing parts restored. Would you agree that that is a fair interpretation of these verses?
So … it seems to me that our study of the Book of Mormon should lead us to identify some of those “plain and precious” things that are to be found only in the Book of Mormon, or at least in a plain and straightforward manner in the Book of Mormon even if they appear in an incomplete or garbled version in the Bible. Is that a fair statement.
So … what teachings can you identify in the Book of Mormon that are absent from or garbled in the Bible?
Suggestions to prompt discussion, if needed:
Confirmation of the nature of the resurrection (Alma 11:45)
Christ’s salvation extends to all men, even those who lived before his mortal ministry (Alma 39:15-18)
What Christ meant by “fulfilling all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15) in being baptized, despite his personal perfection (2 Nephi 31:4-10)
The fall of Adam and Eve was part of God’s plan, not an aberration (2 Nephi 2:22-25)
Why God allows bad things to happen to good people (Mosiah 23:21)
An acceptance of Christ isn’t enough, once and for all, to save us; we must endure to the end (2 Nephi 31:19-20)
Everyone has the Spirit of Christ to know good from evil; everything that tends to goodness is of God, and everything that tends otherwise is of the devil (Moroni 7:16-17)
In his great missionary tract Voice of Warning, Apostle Parley P. Pratt asked “What is prophecy, but history reversed?” It is relatively easy, I think, for us to look back at history and agree that this and this and this point from an ancient revelation has been fulfilled. And that is mostly what we have done today.
But while it’s important to recognize that God’s word has been kept, it seems even more relevant, I think, for us to consider our last point: What do we learn from the Book of Mormon that we can learn nowhere else? If we can recite the narrative of the Book of Mormon – first Lehi said this, and then Nephi did that – we have at least begun to read. But if that’s all we can do, I don’t think we have begun to fulfill the commandment to study the Book of Mormon. We need to know its teachings. We need to appreciate its unique value. And one way to do that is to know what doctrine we find there that we cannot find in the Bible, valuable though the Bible is.
Every lesson or two I’m going to ask you again – what teachings can you identify in the Book of Mormon that are absent from or garbled in the Bible? I’d like you to be able to point to the location of that doctrine in the Book of Mormon, and explain how it goes beyond what is taught in the Bible. I suspect that we will go many weeks before you realize that I’m serious about asking that question, and before you come prepared to answer it. But I hope that before the year is out, we’ll all appreciate the Book of Mormon in ways that we have never considered before, because we will value its unique role as a teacher of the gospel.