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Book of Mormon Lesson #10: “He Inviteth All to Come unto Him,” 2 Nephi 26-30 (Gospel Doctrine)

Posted by joespencer on February 21, 2012

As I explained in my last post, I’m going to treat 2 Nephi 25 here, along with 2 Nephi 26-30. I’ll note also that I’ll do a little bit of retroactive treatment of 2 Nephi 11, since it is closely tied to 2 Nephi 25. Principally, the aim here is to deal with Nephi’s prophetic contribution to what I’ve been calling, since the beginning, the “atonement” stretch of Nephi’s record. (See here and here for other details concerning all this.) What we have in 2 Nephi 25-30 is the final culmination of Nephi’s crucial record. After this we’ll have only his concluding appendix, if you will. Everything Nephi’s been working on comes to a real fruition right here.

Indeed, what we have in 2 Nephi 25-30 is the final weaving together of Nephi’s two obsessions: (1) his vision from 1 Nephi 11-14, in which he saw the whole panorama of covenantal history, and (2) the writings of Isaiah, which he’s been inserting according to clear patterns (which I cover in the posts linked to above). He now brings to its highest point his work of “likening,” making sense of Isaiah through his own visionary knowledge, and making sense of his own visionary knowledge through Isaiah. If we want to get our brains around what all this Isaiah stuff is doing in the Book of Mormon, it’s in these chapters first and foremost that we’re given to understand. Let’s look quite closely at it, shall we?

Nephi’s contribution to the “atonement” part of the record came, originally, in two parts: chapters 25-27 made up a single chapter, and chapters 28-30 made up a single chapter. Obviously, we can divide up study here accordingly.

2 Nephi 25-27

The focus of these chapters is, unmistakably, Isaiah. That isn’t, of course, terribly surprising, given that Nephi has just inserted thirteen chapters straight of Isaiah’s writings. Indeed, he opens chapter 25 with the following words: “Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah” (2 Nephi 25:1).

But what Nephi does with Isaiah here deserves some unpacking. Here are the basic divisions of 2 Nephi 25-27:

(1) A few introductory words about reading Isaiah (25:1-8)
(2) Nephi’s own explanatory prophecy concerning the Jews (25:9-19)
(3) A few words about Nephi’s own intentions in writing (25:20-30)
(4) The history of the Lehites to the destruction of the Nephites (26:1-11)
(5) Transition to the last days and introduction of the Gentiles (26:12-22)
(6) An aside concerning the works of darkness (26:23-33)
(7) The wickedness of the last days and the book that will overcome it (27:1-8)
(8) The story of the book’s coming forth (27:9-18)
(9) The first words of the Lord to the book’s interpreter/translator (27:19-23)
(10) The second words of the Lord to the book’s interpreter/translator (27:24-35)

I’ll follow these divisions in my comments here.

2 Nephi 25:1-8

This first part of chapter 25 contains what is usually taken to be the “keys” to reading Isaiah. That interpretation concerns me for several reasons. For one, I think Isaiah’s a great deal easier to read than most think, and the very conviction that keys are needed tends to prepare people for confusion and bafflement when nothing like that is actually needed. For two, I think that what Nephi gives us here is not an explanation of the way of understanding Isaiah, but an explanation of his way of appropriating Isaiah for his own purposes. And for three, Nephi provides here an explanation that he’s going to do all the interpretation necessary, so that those who can’t make sense of Isaiah might not really need to bother with the work of interpretation. Let’s see if I can’t make all of this clear.

I’ve already quoted the first words of verse 1: “Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah.” But has he to say about Isaiah? First, interestingly, that Isaiah can be a bit difficult: “For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand—for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:1). At this point, we tend to say something like, “Boy howdy!” But we need to note carefully what Nephi says here. First, he says that Isaiah was difficult for his people, that is, for the Nephites. And second, he tells us why that was so: the Nephites didn’t know “concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” What’s the point here? Well, at least this: Nephi’s New World style of prophecy is distinct from Isaiah’s Old World style. There is, one might say, a crucial, conscious difference between Nephite prophecy and Jewish prophecy, and one must say that that difference is what gave Nephi’s people not to understand what they were reading or hearing when encountering Isaiah’s words.

But why would they have become ignorant of their Old World origins? Nephi explains in the next verse:

For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews, for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abomination. (2 Nephi 25:2)

This curious statement can be read in two ways. First, it might be that Nephi has not taught his people concerning Old World things in general because of the wickedness of the Jerusalem he left, and the result is that Old World prophecy has been the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater of Old World darkness. In other words, Nephi might regard Old World prophecy to be a singular point of goodness in an otherwise terribly corrupt society, but because he has avoided the topic of that society generally, he has—perhaps somewhat hastily—avoided talking even about the good that was in its midst. Second, though, it might be that Nephi understands the Old World prophetic style to be inherently connected with the darkness and wickedness of the society in which it was uttered, and so can’t really help his people to make much sense of it. In other words, it may be that Nephi understands Isaiah’s style to be oriented to a society filled with dark doings, and so simply can’t explain Isaiah’s style to his people, to a people that are small and open enough that such prophecy makes little sense in their context. I think the latter of these is right: Nephi takes Isaiah’s style to be constructed in response to a particular shape of society, one that is totally foreign to the New World. The difficulty for Nephi’s people is less that Nephi has fallen down on the job in teaching them the cultural details of Jerusalem life than that most of his people are totally ignorant of the sort of complex society within which Isaianic prophecy becomes necessary. Nephi could have tried to give an explanation of all that to his people, but he was happy to let them work out their difficulties with a distinctly Nephite form of prophecy—forged in Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11-14.

With the next verses, Nephi begins to address his people directly, and he states clearly that the words of Isaiah can be plain to anyone with the spirit of prophecy. Here are the words:

For because that the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you—nevertheless, they are plain unto all they 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. (2 Nephi 25:4)

This takes a bit of unraveling. We’re quick to say that Nephi’s point here is just that to understand Isaiah one needs the Spirit—the spirit of prophecy, but, well, yeah, the Spirit—but that’s not what Nephi actually says. What does he say? He says, to his people who can’t understand Isaiah, that because they can’t make sense of Old World prophecy, he’ll provide them with a New World prophecy that will allow them to understand what’s at stake in Isaiah’s writings. Indeed, as we’ll see, he does this at length, weaving the words of Isaiah into his own prophetic anticipations so that Isaiah suddenly seems remarkably clear. Nephi recognizes that not everyone has had the chance to see in vision what he’s seen (it’ll be quite clear that his prophecy here is drawn directly from that vision in 1 Nephi 11-14—hence he speaks of the plainness that has been with him “from the time that [he] came out from Jerusalem”), and so he does the work of likening Isaiah to his own prophetic experience in order to help out his people.

Nephi’s passing claim, then, that Isaiah is “plain unto all they that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” is not a claim that those who have the Spirit can somehow understand what Isaiah means for them. His point is, rather, that Isaiah’s writings are to be likened to what one anticipates in visionary or prophetic experiences that provide one with an understanding of the history of the covenant.

With the next verses, he provides a bit more clarity concerning what helps one to make sense of Isaiah, since there are some practical things to be done—which we as Latter-day Saints generally refuse to do. Nephi speaks of being “taught after the manner of the things of the Jews” (2 Nephi 25:5) and of knowing “concerning the regions round about [Jerusalem]” (2 Nephi 25:6), etc. There’s a bit of geographical and historical work to be done just to make basic sense of Isaiah if one wants to do the work of likening him, and Nephi—having grown up in Jerusalem—already has that knowledge. This detail makes clear that to read Isaiah rightly is not to find occasional passages that have been clarified by others that I can, with a basic understanding, therefore apply to my everyday life. The task is to do the real work necessary to get a clear understanding of Isaiah’s original concerns, and then to liken it to the covenantal history one has learned about the prophecy—one’s own, or someone else’s, say, Nephi’s.

At any rate, Nephi’s intention is not to go into the details concerning Isaiah’s writings, but to “proceed with [his] own prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:7), a prophecy that begins in verse 9.

2 Nephi 25:9-19

These eleven verses give us a basic and by this point quite familiar story concerning the covenant—all details that Nephi learned in his vision in 1 Nephi 11-14. He begins with a pattern of destruction-in-consequence-of-sin that characterizes the covenant people’s history, always announced in advance by prophets (verse 9), and then specifies the moment when the prophets, Lehi among them, came and warned about the Babylonian threat (verse 10). He prophesies, though, that the Jews will return from exile (verse 11), only to experience “wars and rumors of wars” until the arrival of the Messiah “in the flesh” (verse 12), who will then be killed before being resurrected (verse 13). He goes on by telling briefly of the aftermath of those events: Jerusalem’s subsequent destruction (verse 14), the scattering of the Jews again (verse 15), the turning of the Jews to Christ (verse 16), and the “marvelous work and a wonder” (verse 17) that will take place when the Jews receive scriptures that will mark the start of the gathering (verse 19).

All of this, I think, speaks for itself, so I’ll turn to the next part of Nephi’s text.

2 Nephi 25:20-30

Nephi concludes this first part of his prophecy—all of this merely as basic background, specifically focused on the Jews (but not on the Gentiles or on the remnant)—by stating that he has “spoken plain that [his people] cannot err” (2 Nephi 25:20). They’re now prepared, it would seem, to begin to read Isaiah with Nephi, since they have a clear New World prophecy set before them. But before he turns to the task of reading Isaiah (that comes only in chapter 26), he says a few words about why he writes scripture.

After a brief testimony about the truth of the message concerning Christ (verse 20), he begins to explain that “the Lord God promised” him that “these things,” that is, the record he is helping to produce, will be “kept and preserved and handed down … from generation to generation” (verse 21), the consequence being that “the nations which shall possess them shall be judged of them according to the words which are written” (verse 22). All of that just sets up the basic stakes of what Nephi’s about to say: this record is crucial, and it will play a central role in the eventual judgment of the nations. More about all of that will be said in chapters 28-30, so we’ll have more to say about it later. For the moment, just that crucial, central role has to be understood. Because now Nephi begins to say something about what he does in writing:

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 that we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23)

Oh, this notorious passage. First, let me highly recommend those interested in interpreting this passage go read the end of the post where I deal with Jacob’s similar statement at the close of 2 Nephi 10. What became clear there is that we badly misunderstand this passage when we think it tells us that grace has to be earned, or that it comes to us only after we do our best or do everything we can do. That’s not at all the point, as Jacob makes clear. What is “all that we can do”? In a word, “be reconciled to God,” as Nephi puts it here. As we can do is stop fighting against grace or, to say the same thing in other words, repent. Grace isn’t earned by our best efforts; rather, it’s always already granted, and we find ourselves in sin simply because we fight against it. All we can do is stop rejecting grace, and it immediately takes hold, and then we know that it’s by grace that we’re saved.

If that much is clear, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the principal focus here is writing: all this business about grace is mentioned in the context of explaining Nephi’s motivations for writing. He writes in order to persuade a specific set of people—his children (the Nephites) and his brethren (the Lamanites)—to believe in Christ. But then this gets him talking, in 2 Nephi 25:24-27, about the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. The next few verses thus pick up a theme also taken up in 2 Nephi 11:4-7. Let me quote both passages, the earlier of them first:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ, for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given. And all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world unto man are the typifying of him. And also my soul delighteth in the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers. Yea, my soul delighteth in his grace and his justice and power and mercy, in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death. And my soul delighteth in proving unto my people that, save Christ should come, all men must perish. For if there be no Christ, there be no God. And if there be no God, we are not—for there could have been no creation. But there is a God, and he is Christ, and he cometh in the fullness of his own time. (2 Nephi 11:4-7)

And now the later:

And notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled—for, for this end was the law given. Wherefore, the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith. Yet we keep the law because of the commandments. And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins. Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law. And they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ and know for what end the law was given. And after that the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law had ought to be done away. (2 Nephi 25:24-27)

These two passages begin with the same gesture: “for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given”/”for, for this end was the law given.” And why was the Law given in each case? According to the 2 Nephi 11 passage, for proving the truth of the coming of Christ; according to the 2 Nephi 25 passage, for pointing forward to Christ. Now, there’s much that can be said about the theme of the gift in especially the 2 Nephi 11 passage, and about what it implies about typological interpretation (“typifying”), and in turn about what it implies about the whole discussion of the dead law versus life in Christ, but I won’t burden these notes with all that (I discuss all this at great length in my book). For the moment, I think it’s enough to see that the Law has to be made alive in Christ, for Nephi, or it’s nothing, and that this is what motivates his writing project. It also ought at least to be noted that Nephi has distinguished between two different ways of reading scripture—the prophets (Isaiah) are to be read likeningly, as we’ve seen again and again, while the law is to be read typologically, as we’ve seen here. The one set of texts are to be taken as so many words directed to Israel that can be likened to any Israelite group and interwoven with one’s own prophetic anticipations concerning the covenant’s history; the other set of texts are to be taken as a collective gift that points one to the giver-still-to-come, the Messiah.

At any rate, Nephi lets his readers know in the last verses of chapter 25 that they need to keep the law until Christ comes. This is actually a more complex gesture than it appears. From Nephi’s vision (in 1 Nephi 11-14) it’s clear that Nephi didn’t yet understand that his small plates would become part of the Book of Mormon, seen in vision, that would set the fulfillment of the covenant in motion in the last days. He seems to have known that his children would write a book, and that it would contain principally the words of the Christ during His visit to the New World. Nephi therefore seems to have seen his task in the small plates to promote a kind of fidelity that would get his people to survive until Christ’s visit so that they could write the book in question. And we see that at work in these verses as well. Nephi has just explained that his principal aim in writing is to get his children and brethren to believe in Christ, and so to understand their relation to the Law of Moses. The last verses of chapter 25 make this particularly clear: he wants them to get the Law of Moses right so that they are prepared for Christ when He comes to visit.

Chapter 26 then moves beyond that visit to deal with the story of the latter-day emergence of the book in question. Nephi’s soon going to learn that his own writings will be a part of that book.

2 Nephi 26:1-11

The next passage deals with the collapse of the Nephites in the generations after Christ’s New World visit. I think I’d like to let these verses speak for themselves (though let me note on chapters 26-27 generally that there’s much to ponder in the discussions at this Mormon Theology Seminar project). I’ll note only how attuned we might be to Nephi’s utter despair at his visionary knowledge. See, for instance, verse 7:

O! The pain and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, hath seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord! But I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just!

This is more deeply felt than we tend to recognize.

2 Nephi 26:12-22

But moving on: Having set the stage, Nephi now begins to appropriate the words of Isaiah 29, though without ever indicating that that’s what he’s doing. Many have thought that Nephi is giving us something like a more ancient version of the Isaiah text, but that’s clear not the case. Given all he’s said and done in the past few chapters, it’s clear that he’s now doing the work of weaving his own prophecy into the words of Isaiah in order to do a likening reading of Isaiah for his people, who can’t make much sense of the Old World prophet. And he appropriates the first part of Isaiah 29 (beginning, specifically, with Isaiah 29:3) as he describes the eventual destructions of the Lamanites at the hands of the Gentiles. He brings the Gentiles into the story beginning in verse 12:

And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews that Jesus is the very Christ [see 2 Nephi 25:9-19], it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, and that he manifesteth himself unto all they that believe in him by the power of the Holy Ghost—yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders among the children of men, according to their faith. (2 Nephi 26:12-13)

Note that this language eventually influences the wording of the Book of Mormon’s title page. The Jews and the Gentiles, here quite distinct from the remnant of the house of Israel (on which more in a second), have to learn (1) that Jesus is the Christ and (2) that He manifests himself to every nation. Now we’ll finally see how all that happens, and it’s precisely this that will be worked out in a reading of Isaiah 29. And of course at the center of all this is a book written by the Nephites and intended for the Lamanite remnant of Israel. Hence Nephi’s turn in verse 14: “But behold, I prophesy unto you concerning the last days.”

Verse 15 gives us the first bits of Isaiah’s words. Isaiah’s talk of an encampment against Jerusalem becomes talk of the Gentiles camping against the Lamanites, bring them “down low in the dust,” etc. But there’s a book, something that “speak[s] unto them out of the ground” (2 Nephi 26:16). What’s this? Well, we know, but let’s hear how Nephi describes it:

For thus saith the Lord God: They shall write the things which shall be done among them, and they shall be written and sealed up in a book. And they that have dwindled in unbelief shall not have them, for they seek to destroy the things of God. (2 Nephi 26:17)

The book is written and hidden away, the Nephites are destroyed, the Lamanites dwindle in unbelief, and the book remains hidden. The next verses come back, then, to the destruction of the Lamanites by the Gentiles, and that gets Nephi talking at some length about the wickedness of the Gentiles, introduced in the last verses of this section, and then continued in a kind of tangent for the remainder of the chapter. Nephi also leaves the text of Isaiah to the side while he pursues this description of the Gentiles (Isaiah will come back only in chapter 27).

So what are the Gentiles doing so wrong?

And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and have stumbled because of the greatness of their stumbling block, that they have built up many churches. Nevertheless, they put down the power and the miracles of God and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor. … And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil. For he is the founder of all these things—yea, the founder of murder and works of darkness—yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:20, 22)

We’re too wont, it seems, to think of the Gentiles who come to the Americas as good and honorable people. Nephi presents a much bleaker picture. Their destruction of the Lamanites is bound up with their (the Gentiles’) pride and corrupt religion and, much worse, their secret combinations. Secret combinations? That, it seems, above all. Nephi doesn’t provide a lot of detail here, but Moroni will later become obsessed with this problem—with the reality of secret combinations among the Gentiles. We’ll let him take up that theme, which he does only after we’ve read the whole history of secret combinations among the Nephites. In the meanwhile, we get Nephi’s tirade against such things, which comes in the form of a clarification of the clarity and light with which the Lord works.

2 Nephi 26:23-33

Nephi opens his digression with two statements before turning to a series of rhetorical questions:

For behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness. He doeth not any thing save it be for the benefit of the world—for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation. (2 Nephi 26:23-24)

This sort of talk will culminate in a remarkable affirmation of the gospel’s uncompromised universality in verse 33, but we’ll be coming to that. Here it begins with a relatively humble claim that God doesn’t work in darkness, and that nothing He does isn’t for the world’s benefit. It’s from these sorts of claims that Nephi draws his conclusion that God “commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.” This conclusion, it seems to me, is closely connected with Jacob’s (and Nephi’s) doctrine of grace. The gospel is absolutely free, and God commands no one not to partake of it. The implication is that it is we who determine not to partake, while God offers it universally. Grace makes up the very weave of what is, but we’re interested in what isn’t, in our fantasies and projections, so we rebel against grace and fall into sin. And all that has to be done is finally to stop refusing it, to stop fighting against it, to stop insisting on our fantasies’ reality.

Now all this is affirmed through a series of rhetorical questions:

Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: “Depart from me!”? Behold, I say unto you: Nay! But he saith: Come unto me, all ye ends of the earth! Buy milk and honey without money, and without price! Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you: Nay! Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold, I say unto you: Nay! But he hath given it free for all men! And he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men unto repentance. Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold, I say unto you: Nay! But all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden. (2 Nephi 26:25-28)

There are four questions here: (1) Does God command that any depart from Him? (2) Does He command any to depart from the houses of worship? (3) Does He command any not to partake of His salvation? (4) Does He command any not to partake of His goodness? Notice that this is really two pairs of questions. The first two are about departure—first from God more generally, second specifically from the houses of worship. The second two are about not partaking—first of God’s salvation, second of God’s goodness. First, then, the question concerns coming to God (coming to the tree of life?), and second, the question concerns partaking (partaking of the fruit?).

The verses quoted just above end with the statement that “none are forbidden,” but now Nephi opens up a sequence that will end with “the Lord hath forbidden this thing.” So let’s look at that:

He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts—for behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world, but they seek not the welfare of Zion. Behold, the Lord hath forbidden this thing. (2 Nephi 26:29-30)

First, I think it’s important that while no person is forbidden, there is some thing that is forbidden, and that particular thing is, of all things, priestcraft. So what is priestcraft? In Nephi’s own words: to “preach and set [oneself] up for a light unto the world” specifically in order to “get gain and praise of the world” while refusing to “seek … the welfare of Zion.” It’s crucial, I think, that priestcraft is here set as the polar opposite to God’s universal invitation, God’s refuse to command any to depart or to command any not to partake of salvation. Priestcraft, it would seem, is the “best” way to thwart God’s purposes, the most obvious or most important way of blocking the way to God’s presence. The essence of priestcraft, it seems, is less that one earns money or gets attention than that shuts out certain sorts of people from God’s goodness.

This is, I think, clearer still when Nephi draws this further conclusion:

Wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity, which charity is love. And except they should have charity, they were nothing. Wherefore, if they should have charity, they would not suffer the laborer in Zion to perish. (2 Nephi 26:30)

The prohibition of priestcraft is, positively, a commandment to have charity. And the sign that those involved in priestcraft do not have charity, it seems, is that they “suffer the laborer in Zion to perish.” With this it becomes clearer still what Nephi has in mind when he speaks of priestcraft. He seems to mean specifically that kind of ecclesiastical work that blocks the poor from God—that kind of ecclesiastical work that makes salvation something only for the (relatively) wealthy, for those who fit a certain bill. Priestcraft is not self-arrogation, nor is it accepting payment for one’s work in the kingdom. Priestcraft is doing the work of the kingdom but not for “the welfare of Zion.” Priestcraft is less a question of making money than of helping to block those who don’t have money from full participation in the kingdom. And this is something one can do sitting in a chair in Sunday School as much as preaching from a pulpit. We have to be watching out for “the laborer in Zion.”

Of course, Nephi is quick also to note that the laborer in Zion has her or his own temptations to watch out for:

But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion, for if they labor for money, they shall perish. (2 Nephi 26:31)

The poor who come to the kingdom just for a handout have their own troubles, though that’s their affair, while the task of not blocking their way in solely the affair of those who are not poor. Each should be attending her or his own business—those with money making sure they don’t stop the way up for those without money, and those without money ensuring that they’re in Zion for the right reasons.

As with Jacob before him, Nephi’s focus is first on the question of wealth, and then he comes to other sins, providing a list very like the one Jacob provides in 2 Nephi 9:

And again, the Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder, that they should not lie, that they should not steal, that they should not take the name of the Lord their God in vain, that they should not envy, that they should not have malice, that they should not contend one with another, that they should not commit whoredoms, and that they should not do none of these things—for whoso doeth them shall perish, for none of these iniquities come of the Lord. (2 Nephi 26:32-33)

With this, we’ve come back to the “God doesn’t work in darkness” business with which this sidetrack began. And now Nephi affirms the most radical universality:

For he doeth that which is good among the children of men. And he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men. And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness. And he denieth none that come unto him—black and white, bond and free, male and female. And he remembereth the heathen, and all are alike unto God—both Jew and Gentile. (2 Nephi 26:33)

Absolutely universalism. Every worldly distinction means nothing—race, class, gender, etc. But the polarity that Nephi seems to be most concerned about at the end of this beautiful passage is that between Jew and Gentile. And the mention of that polarity brings Nephi back to topic, back to Isaiah, back to his prophecy, back to the coming forth of the book.

2 Nephi 27:1-8

What are things going to look like at the time the book comes forth, according to Nephi? He looks forward to a world polarized according to the Jew/Gentile distinction—a distinction he has already claimed means absolutely nothing before the Lord. Here’s what he says about that day:

But behold, in the last days (or in the days of the Gentiles)—yea, behold, all the nations of the Gentiles and also the Jews (both they which shall come upon this land, and they which shall be upon other lands, yea, even upon all the lands of the earth), behold, they will be drunken with iniquity and all manner of abominations. And when that day shall come, they shall be visited of the Lord of Hosts, with thunder and with earthquate and with a great noise, and with storm and tempest and with the flame of devouring fire. (2 Nephi 27:1-2)

What do things look like? It’s a world polarized between Gentiles and Jews—a deeply European world focused on that most European of questions: the question of the Jews—that is “drunken with iniquity and all manner of abominations,” a world hovering on the brink of absolute destruction. And everyone, it seems, will be fighting against Zion—though all those nations doing that fighting will be like “a hungry man which dreameth, and behold, he eateth, but he awaketh and his soul is empty” (2 Nephi 27:3). The Lord, at any rate, has poured out “the spirit of deep sleep” on these nations, closing their eyes (echoes of Isaiah 6/2 Nephi 16 here) because they have rejected the prophets—so that God has covered the rulers and seers.

It’s into this awful situation that the book sudden emerges. And it will depolarize the principal orienting polarity of the situation:

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. (2 Nephi 27:6)

This book comes as something extra, something in excess, something that doesn’t fit in the situation, a book written by a now-exterminated people, a bit of entirely lost (entirely irretrievable!) history—all this to call quite radically into question the order of things. As something in excess, something that can’t be appropriated or fit into any category (it’s neither a Jewish nor a Gentile production—but something produced by the remnant of Israel and aimed at gathering anew the indiscernible Israelites), it traces a sort of diagonal across the order of things.

Especially curious is the fact that the book is itself complicated by the fact that it contains within it things that can’t be revealed or passed around:

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. Wherefore, because of the things which are sealed up, the things which are sealed shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people. Wherefore the book shall be kept from them. (2 Nephi 27:7-8)

This is curious. The book emerges, but not fully—is given, but not in its entirety. Its very construction keeps it from emerging completely into the light. The situation into which it comes—“the day of the wickedness and abominations of the people”—is one that has to be supplemented by only part of the book. The book opens up the situation by fracturing its over-tight structure, but it doesn’t provide a full explanation of the situation (it doesn’t reveal its revelation “from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof). Rather, it promises such knowledge, but indicates that it can only be had if the situation is reworked and reordered—and that, presumably, in fidelity to the book itself.

And then comes the story of the book’s actual emergence.

2 Nephi 27:9-18

The book is “kept from” the people generally, but then we’re told:

But the book shall be delivered to a man, and he shall deliver the words of the book … unto another. But the words which are sealed he shall not deliver, neither shall he deliver the book—for the book shall be sealed by the power of God. (2 Nephi 27:9-10)

It’s crucial to note that there are suddenly several distinct elements in the story being told here: (1) the book itself, which we can equate directly with the gold plates as an object and which is “sealed by the power of God”; (2) the “words of the book,” which seem to be equivalent to what an archivist might call the “intellectual content” of the gold plates; (3) the “words which are sealed,” which amounts to the “intellectual content” of the revelation not to be translated. All these things have to be kept separate in the story Nephi goes on to tell. If we lose sight of the difference between the book and the words of the book, or between the words of the book generally and the words which are sealed, we’ll lose the thread of this story.

So how does the story begin in the bit just quoted? The book (the set of plates) is delivered to a man (we obviously recognize this as Joseph Smith), and he delivers the words of the book (the intellectual content in dictated or even written form presumably) to another (we obviously recognize this as Martin Harris, but it could describe Oliver Cowdery as well, or any of the scribes who helped Joseph on occasion). He (Joseph) doesn’t deliver to him (Martin) either the book itself (the plates) or the sealed words (the revelation).

That’s the beginning. Then we get an aside about witnesses:

Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it, save it be that three witnesses shall behold it by the power of God (besides him to whom the book shall be delivered). And they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein. And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God. (2 Nephi 27:12-13)

Before we get to the real action of the story, we get this aside. Why is this important? At the least because it begins to sharpen our focus on the gap between the book and the words of the book. There will be witnesses to the existence of the book, but it’s the words of the book that are to circulate more generally. The Book of Mormon here anticipates its own general occultation.

But back to the story:

But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may shew them unto the learned, saying: Read this I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them. (And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God.) And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed. Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it. (2 Nephi 27:15-18)

Now, we all recognize this story as the story of Martin Harris’s visit to Charles Anthon. But I wonder if that’s the only or even the best way to interpret it. It certainly “covers” that story, as it were. But it also describes a much broader pattern: those who want to see the book but not the words, those who can only make sense of the Book of Mormon if they can set it side by side with the documentary original. We might want to do that for several reasons of course: to see how the translation differs from the original; to have proof that Joseph Smith really had something in his possession; to learn something about ancient writing; and so on. But Nephi’s point is clearly that that’s the wrong approach: to say that one needs the book in order to read the words of the book is to miss the point entirely, especially if we follow up the denial of that wish with “I cannot read it.”

The importance of this should not be missed. According to Nephi, the task of latter-day readers of the Book of Mormon is to grapple with the words of the book, specifically subtracted from the book itself. This will get clearer still.

2 Nephi 27:19-23

The story continues:

Wherefore, it shall come to pass that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned. And the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned. (2 Nephi 27:19)

Here again it’s not difficult to see this as the Lord’s giving Joseph Smith anew the task of translating the plates (giving him the book and the words of the book) and Joseph’s concern that he’s just a farm kid. But there’s more than mere historical report going on here. Even if we take this strictly as another moment in the history of Joseph Smith, we have to think carefully about what it means for him to say “I am not learned.” It’s not just that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s that he, unlike the learned man, has both the book and the words in his possession. For him to say “I am not learned” is for him to recognize that he has in his possession precisely what the learned want, now as then: the documentary original and the produced translation. To say “I am not learned” is to say: “I don’t know what to do with both of these!” Joseph can produce a translation, but he has no idea what to do with the plates themselves. He couldn’t begin to construct a Nephite alphabet and grammar (his work on this sort of a project later with the Abraham papyri is witness enough in that regard). So why have both of these?

The upshot of all this is the following: The gold plates are excessive. What do I mean by that? Well, there’s a sense in which it was entirely unnecessary for Joseph to have dug up gold plates at all. Why bother with this historical artifact that nearly got him killed a few times, that led to all kinds of trouble, that tempted him to turn a profit on the Book of Mormon, that gives fodder to South Park for their “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb” story, etc.? Joseph can’t use the gold plates for anything (he translates through the stones), and none of us gets to see them at all, let alone use them to make clearer sense of the Book of Mormon’s ancient bearing. Why didn’t God simply reveal the words of the Book of Mormon directly to Joseph, something like the content of D&C 7? Why the gold plates?

In essence, that’s the question being asked in verse 19’s “I am not learned.” Give me the words through the gift and power of God, sure. But why give me these plates I can’t do anything with?

The answer occupies the next few verses:

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. Touch not the things which are sealed, for I will bring them forth in mine own due time—for I will shew unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work. 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. For behold, I am God, and I am a God of miracles. And I will shew 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. (2 Nephi 27:20-23)

What’s going on here? For one, we’re reminded briefly of the witnesses. Okay, so there’s something about the reality of the plates that’s important. It’s not just that Joseph secretly has the plates but gives the world the words of the book. He has the plates, and eleven others see them, and then we get their testimony. So it’s crucial, it seems, for the world to get not only the words, but with the words a testimony that the book itself exists as well. From all this it seems clear that people are to have (1) the words themselves and (2) a knowledge that the words are the words of a book that they can’t access.

If that’s clear, can we say why God would do all this? Well, that too seems clear: the point is to show that God does not work “among the children of men save it be according to their faith.” All this aims at getting the readers of the Book of Mormon to recognize that the only way to relate to the Book of Mormon is through faith. The Book of Mormon is given in the last days in such a way that it has to be a question of faith—that one has to relate to something entirely unproven and even deeply problematic. God intends us to see the Book of Mormon as hard to believe. And the result is that “the learned shall not read” the words of the book. Knowledge, it seems, has nothing to do with this book.

That’s a tall order. And now the Lord begins to flesh this out by coming back to Isaiah in full force.

2 Nephi 27:24-35

I’ve not been stopping to note the adaptations of Isaiah that have occupied this chapter. But more or less the whole of chapter 27 to this point has been woven of words taken from Isaiah 29. Through the most important part of this chapter, interestingly, the words actually taken from Isaiah 29 have been relatively few, and they have been drastically altered in places, but they nonetheless make up the framework on which the story being told is hung. And all that is quite important. Remember from the post on the Isaiah chapters that the core of the Isaiah quotation turns on the story of Isaiah’s having to write and seal up a book for a later generation. Isaiah 29 returns to that theme (originally set forth in Isaiah 6-12), but also anticipates quite clearly the day in which the book circulates. It’s that text that Nephi uses as a framework to set forth his visionary anticipation of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

At this point, interestingly, Nephi puts in the mouth of the Lord, in words directed to the translator or interpreter of the book, the remainder of Isaiah 29, all that hasn’t yet been quoted. This part of Isaiah 29 (verses 13 and on), however, appears more or less unaltered and certainly uninterrupted. It’s an interesting device. And the focus is, from start to finish, the condemnation of the wicked—of those, specifically, who work in darkness. By putting these words here, specifically, Isaiah’s condemnation of the workers of darkness appears as a criticism of those who reject the words of the book because they can’t get access to the book itself. I’ll leave those words to be read on their own. I think they’re relatively clear. It’s time for me to get on to the second half of Nephi’s contribution to the small plates “atonement” stretch.

2 Nephi 28-30

As I said at the outset of this lesson, Nephi’s prophecies in 2 Nephi 26-30 were broken up into two distinct chapters in the original. We turn now from the first chapter, focused on clarifying the meaning of Isaiah by weaving his words into Nephi’s own prophetic anticipation of last days events, to the second chapter. That the focus of the first of these two chapters is now being left behind is quite clear from the first verses of the second:

And now, behold, my brethren: I have spoken unto you according as the Spirit hath constrained me—wherefore, I know that they must surely come to pass. (2 Nephi 28:1)

The prophecies given in order to make clear what Nephi’s people can’t understand in Isaiah have come to an end. But as it turns out, Nephi isn’t done prophesying. So we’ve got to look at what else he wants to talk about. Having dealt with the focus of Isaiah—which is, naturally, the coming forth of the book—Nephi turns to things he’s understood only from his own visions, it would seem. And what has he understood? What things will be like at the time of the coming forth of the book. He announces that central focus in the next verse:

And the things which shall be written out of the book shall be of great worth unto the children of men, and especially unto our seed, which are a remnant of the house of Israel. (2 Nephi 28:2)

This sets things up nicely. And what follows is a systematic exposition of the response to the book, which Nephi anticipates. It comes in several parts:

(1) The condemnation of the churches (2 Nephi 28:3-32)
(2) An explanation about written records (2 Nephi 29:1-14)
(3) The fulfillment of the covenant (2 Nephi 30:1-18)

It isn’t hard to notice that Orson Pratt did a decent job of breaking this originally single chapter into three distinct chapters. I’ll take them in turn.

2 Nephi 28

Nephi begins with a veritable harangue against the churches of the last days. And we need to be very careful about this. It’s very easy to see Nephi as condemning all those other churches, but implicitly affirming our church. But Nephi doesn’t draw any such boundaries. He condemns certain ways of doing the church thing, and we are as liable as any church to fall into these traps. Indeed, quite unfortunately, some of the things Nephi condemns are far too common among Latter-day Saints. So we won’t be reading Nephi as providing us with a list of what’s wrong with all the other churches. Rather, we’ll be reading him as providing us with a list of things we ought to get out of our own churchly doings—a list of the things that we too often do and that push our own crucial organization in the direction of the great and abominable.

We begin from the beginning:

For it shall come to pass in that day that the churches which are built up and not unto the Lord. (2 Nephi 28:3)

Let’s stop right there for the moment. “Built up and not unto the Lord.” We need to be careful about that language. The question here, interestingly, isn’t about the source or the original impetus, but about the aim or direction things are going. Built up, but not unto the Lord. And in which direction are we headed? What is our aim? That’s something we need to be crucially careful about. Do we aim at the Lord, or at anything else? But to go on:

When the one [church] shall say unto the other: Behold, I! I am the Lord’s! And the other shall say: I! I am the Lord’s! And thus shall every one say that hath built up churches and not unto the Lord. And they shall contend one with another, and their priests shall contend one with another. (2 Nephi 28:3-4)

We get a bit of clarification here. What do churches that are built up but not unto the Lord do? They contend with each other, each claiming to be the Lord’s. And how often do we do that? Far, far too often! If the gospel was restored just to give another body of people the right to claim they were the Lord’s, to give another group to contend with others, then we’re in serious trouble. We’ve got to watch out for this temptation—one that has slowed down the work of the kingdom from the beginning of our history and seldom lets up—this temptation to make the truth of what we’re doing a question of being the right church. What dawned with the translation of the Book of Mormon—and every divine event in our history should make this clear—was not the establishment of yet another church that, this time, happens to be the right one, but something that goes beyond church-ness in the usual sense. We’re at work at a different level from contending churches, and every time we make this a question of “our church versus your church,” we’ve compromised the Restoration.

Nephi goes further:

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

This can be seen as a description of what happens in contention between churches (to establish one’s rightness, one has to argue in a learned way, and leave the Holy Ghost out of things), but it can also be seen as a general description of the churches: the Holy Ghost is abandoned in favor of their own learning. Now, we’re very quick to read those kinds of statements in scripture as a nice condemnation of academia, but I think that’s a terrible mistake. Indeed, academia is one of the few places in the world where one can come to question one’s learning. I don’t deny that academia can also—more often does than doesn’t—turn out folks who can’t see past their own learning, but I do mean to deny that that’s unique to academia. And academic study can—and perhaps can better than most anything else—help one to see that what one has learned is only what one has learned.

I’m not being clear because I’m trying not to offend anyone. Let me put it bluntly: No matter who we are, we’ve learned things, and the danger is that we’ll trust that learning before we trust the Holy Ghost. That learning may be academic, but it may also be—and more often is—the kind of learning we gain from everyday experience, practical wisdom, political commitments, etc., etc., etc. Learning doesn’t mean book-learning here, but any sort of learning that we take to be a solid base from which we can begin, while we leave the Holy Ghost out of the story. There. That should be clearer. At any rate, the important thing is that we toss away all our wisdom—practical, academic, what have you—in a question to see what the Holy Ghost is doing.

But then Nephi’s got more to say about what’s at stake in this denial of the Holy Ghost. It’s a bigger question than at first appears:

And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel. And they say unto the people: Hearken unto us and hear ye our precept—for behold, there is no God today. For the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men. Behold, hearken ye unto my precept: If they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not! For this day he is not a God of miracles. He hath done his work. (2 Nephi 28:5-6)

What is being denied, it seems, is not simply the Holy Ghost as an influence, but the Holy Ghost as the source of what we usually call spiritual gifts. What characterizes the churches Nephi condemns is a lack of interest in miracles, in the gifts of God, in the power of the Holy Ghost. And why? Because God has done His work: “there is no God today.” That’s a fascinating claim for the churches to make, and its meaning must be understood carefully. From everything Nephi has been talking about and will be talking about, it seems to me clear what he has in mind here: to say that “there is no God today” or that “the Redeemer hath done his work” is to say that the whole plan of salvation is contained in the work of the resurrection and the atonement, the ramifications of which remain in certain ways to unfold but the essential work of which has been completed. What does that view exclude? The covenant! Why would God still be working, still be involved, still be effecting miracles, etc.? Because the work of the covenant remains to be done. The churches Nephi sees have left off bothering with the covenant, with all that the Old Testament prophets have to teach us about the covenant. And here again we should be careful to look at our own work before condemning other churches. How often do we turn the whole of the Restoration into the two-fold story of “God gives me trials to help me know He loves me” and “I keep the commandments and so receive temporal blessings, as well as a bit of happiness to boot”? That, unfortunately, is more our everyday living of the gospel than anything Nephi’s interested in, and I wonder if he isn’t watching us as much as any other church.

But then comes this:

Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and it shall be well with us. (2 Nephi 28:7)

This is easy enough to condemn—all those who think that life is just about having fun all the time, that we should live like there’s no tomorrow. But how given are we to the same thing? How many toys do we have? How many too-nice cars, oversized houses, expensive vacations?

But perhaps we’re more like the next verse?

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry—nevertheless, fear God: He will justify in committing a little sin. Yea, lie a little, take advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor—there is no harm in this. And do all these things, for tomorrow we die. And if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God. (2 Nephi 28:8)

We believe, mistakenly, that we’re saved by our works, but that we’ll be judged by grace—and so that we’ve just got to keep doing good or decent things and trust that God will be merciful with us because He’s so loving—when the scriptures teach clearly that we’re saved by grace and judged by our works, and I wonder what our works will say about our relationship to the deliverance God’s given us in Christ.

At any rate, Nephi’s not terribly fond of this attitude:

Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner—false and vain and foolish doctrines—and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord. And their works shall be in the dark, and the blood of the saints shall cry from the ground against them. (2 Nephi 28:9-10)

Yikes. The attitude here condemned is to be compared to secret works of darkness? And the blood of the saints will cry against precisely this sort of attitude? We had better, it seems, be much more careful about such things.

And what’s behind all this?

Yea, they have all gone out of the way. They have become corrupted because of pride. And because of false teachers and false doctrines, their churches have become corrupted and their churches are lifted up—because of pride they are puffed up. (2 Nephi 28:11-12)

Pride. Well, that isn’t terribly surprising. But then these accusations, which ought to set us trembling:

They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries. They rob the poor because of their fine clothing. And they persecute the meek and the poor in heart because in their pride they are puffed up. They wear stiff necks and high heads—yea, and because of pride and wickedness and abominations and whoredoms, they have all gone astray, save it be a few which are the humble followers of Christ. Nevertheless, they are led that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men. (2 Nephi 28:13-14)

Who’s at the butt of all this? As always, the poor. And we’ve got to be at our most self-critical when it comes to this point.

And the list of accusations goes on, but it all leads in the same direction:

But behold, that great and abominable church, the whore of all the earth, must tumble to the earth, and great must be the fall thereof. (2 Nephi 28:18)

And then Nephi turns to the task of addressing the devil’s tactics in all this:

For the kingdom of the devil must shake, and they which belong to it must needs be stirred up unto repentance—or the devil will grasp them with his everlasting chains, and they be stirred up to anger and perish. For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good. And others will he pacify and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion! Yea, Zion prospereth! All is well! And thus the devil cheateth their souls and leadeth them away carefully down to hell. And behold, others he flattereth away and telleth them: There is no hell. And he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none. And thus he whispereth in their ears until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance. (2 Nephi 28:19-22)

There are three different strategies mentioned here: (1) getting people angry, (2) getting people comfortable, (3) getting people to feel both flattered and convinced that there’s no devil. We ought to be nervous about all of these. Importantly, it’s the second one that Nephi seems most worried about, since he goes on as follows:

Therefore: Woe be unto him that is at ease in Zion! Woe be unto him that crieth: All is well! (2 Nephi 28:24-25)

It’s the second of Nephi’s three categories that most often or most basically characterizes the Saints. It’s our natural position, one might say, to feel that all is well in Zion. So, it seems, we should be of the conviction that all is not well in Zion. Yes? But Nephi’s threefold warning about the devil is brilliant, because the other two things he’s concerned about mark two ways we might wrongly claim that all is not well in Zion. One way, it seems, is to slide from mere comfort to exasperated anger. The other way, it seems, is to slide from mere comfort to this position of flattery and unconcern regarding the devil. At the risk of offending everyone, I think I’d say that the contemporary shape of the former among American Saints is a slide to the (political) right, while the contemporary shape of the latter among American Saints is a slide to the (political) left. Let me see if I can’t make some sense of this.

All is not well is Zion! What does that mean? Most commonly, I think, we as Latter-day Saints make that announcement when we feel that things are going quite awry politically, with liberalism and the like taking over our otherwise virtuous nation. And we announce that things aren’t well in Zion in frustrated anger, attributing to ourselves a righteous ire while we rage in our hearts—and we begin to divide the Saints into camps of the apparently faithful and the apparently unfaithful, those who tow a certain political line and those who don’t. All is not well in Zion! What does that mean? Somewhat less commonly, I think, we as Latter-day Saints make that announcement when we feel that things aren’t going as they should at 47 South Temple, and we want the institution to open its eyes to what the intellectually inclined (and politicall progressive) have made so clear. And we announce that things aren’t well in Zion with an unmistakable sense of self-flattery, convinced that any who are bothering about the devil’s influence, etc., are likely uneducated, etc.—and we begin to divide the Saints into camps of the apparently charitable and the apparently uncharitable, those who tow a certain political line and those who don’t.

All is not well in Zion! But Nephi shows us that we’ve got to avoid turning that reality, if we see it at all, into either a national problem that comes from godless secularizers and into an institutional problem that resides entirely within a single office building next to temple square. All is not well in Zion means: I need to get to work, to work on making sense of the covenant outlined in the scriptures, to work on redeeming the poor so that they have a place in Zion, to work on inviting people to sort out the meaning of gospel in every way possible. What’s at issue here is the truth, as Nephi goes on to make clear:

And in fine: Woe be unto all they that tremble and are angry because of the truth of God. For behold, he that is built upon the rock receiveth it with gladness. And he that is built upon a sandy foundation trembleth lest he shall fall. (2 Nephi 28:28)

But at this point, Nephi begins to turn to the topic of chapter 29, so I’ll leave off his harangue against the churches—and us—to take up that discussion.

2 Nephi 29

We’re generally quite familiar with the theme of chapter 29, which concerns those who shout, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible! And there cannot be any more Bible!” (2 Nephi 29:3). But perhaps we move too quickly past the first, introductory verses that set up the stakes of that chant:

But behold, there shall be many at that day, when I shall proceed to do a marvelous work among them—that I may remember my covenants which I have made unto the children of men, that I may set my hand again the second time to recover my people which are of the house of Israel, and also that I may remember the promises which I have made unto thee, Nephi, and also unto thy father, that I would remember your seed, and that the words of your seed should proceed forth out of my mouth unto your seed, and my words shall hiss forth unto the ends of the earth for a standard unto my people which are of the house of Israel—and because my words shall hiss forth, many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! (2 Nephi 29:1-3)

Note well what we tend to skip over: this is all about the covenant. It seems to me crucial to recognize this. What’s at stake in 2 Nephi 29 is less that Nephi gives a really nice rejoinder to those Gentiles who think the Bible is fully sufficient and can’t understand what we’d need a second doctrinal witness, etc., and more that Nephi sees the Gentiles rejecting the Book of Mormon because they can’t make sense of what it says about the covenant. We’ve not even begun to make the stakes of the Book of Mormon clear to the Christian world, as our usual interpretation of this chapter makes clear. We think it’s necessary to have two sources of doctrine so that we can end controversies, or that it’s necessary to have two witnesses of Christ because there’s an obscure Old Testament statement about how many witnesses God uses, and so on. But Nephi’s very clear: we need the Book of Mormon because, as he learned in his vision in 1 Nephi 11-14, it makes clear the role of the covenant that the Bible does not make perfectly clear. The Book of Mormon forces a full recognition of the real stakes of the Christian revelation.

So let’s read this chapter with that question in mind.

We’re quite familiar with the Getniles’ refrain:

A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible! And there cannot be any more Bible! (2 Nephi 29:3)

What we need to look at in detail is the Lord’s response to the Gentiles. It begins as follows:

O fools! They shall have a Bible, and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? Yea, what do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails and the labors and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles? O ye Gentiles! Have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay! But ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them! But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads—for I, the Lord, hath not forgotten my people! (2 Nephi 29:4-5)

Note that the emphasis, from start to finish, is here on the covenant. The point is not simply that the Gentiles have been awful the Jews when their salvation comes from the Jews, though that’s quite true as well. The point is principally that they’ve completely misunderstood what the Jews have given them. The Bible, come from the Jews, is a book about the covenant of the Jews, and their persecution of the Jews (which was still to come to its most horrific culmination when the Book of Mormon was translated) marks their complete incomprehension concerning the Bible. The Gentile hatred of the Jews can, in effect, be diagnosed: Gentiles persecute the Jews less because they supposedly killed the Savior than because they’re the covenant people. The Gentile persecution of the Jews is, for Nephi, evidence that the Gentiles not only misunderstand but deliberately reject the real purpose of the Bible—its narration of and prophecies concerning the covenant. And all this ends with the Lord’s promise that He at least has not forgotten His people.

But Nephi then presents the Lord in remarkable patience as explaining all this to the Gentiles:

Thou fool that shall say: A Bible! We have got a Bible! And we need no more Bible! Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I the Lord your God have created all men? And that I remember they which are upon the isles of the sea? And that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath? And I bring forth my word unto the children of men—yea, even upon all the nations of the earth! Wherefore murmur ye? Because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God? That I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another, and when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also. And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever—and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word, ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another. For my work is not yet finished, neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever! (2 Nephi 29:6-9)

There’s talk here, finally, of two testimonies, but it should be noted that these testimonies are testimonies that the Lord speaks to every nation. What the Gentiles are being given a chance to understand here is that God is, indeed, God, and so that He addresses whole nations, and so that each of those nations will bear witness to their relation to God. The picture here is not one of making sure there are enough witnesses to fulfill a law of witnesses, but of a particular relationship between God and human beings. (One of the interesting implications of the passage just above is that the Bible is very specifically the Jews’ book, the book addressed to a particular nation, the book that works out a particular understanding of the gospel and the associated covenant. Though obviously some of the details will be the same from one nation’s book to another—“I the same yesterday, today, and forever”—just as obviously some of the emphases and such will be different.) And one begins to glimpse the idea that we’re not dealing with two, but with many witnesses.

But how many? The Lord begins to clarify:

Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible, ye need not suppose that it contains all my words—neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. For I command all men—both in the east and in the west, and in the north and in the south, and in the islands of the sea—that they shall write the words which I speak unto them. For out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written. (2 Nephi 29:10-11)

From this first bit of explanation, it begins to sound like every nation that has ever existed should have had some kind of constitutive relationship to God, one that results in the production of a book of some kind. That will have to be clarified with the next few verses. In the meanwhile, what shouldn’t be missed here is the crucial role all these records are meant to play in the judgment. What we get here, one might say, is a kind of early version of what will later become D&C 128—which spells out a judgment in which the books are gathered together, etc. In Nephi’s version (attributed, note, to the Lord), what we get is a picture in which each of these national books serves to provide the standard by which a nation is judged, by which a people is judged in terms of its works. The idea, it seems, is less that the books provide the people with the knowledge of what they’re to do and so allows them to be judged by their works (though that possibility shouldn’t be thrown out), and more that the books are actual records of the collective works of the several nations, a record of the works by which they will be judged. This is most interesting, since we tend to think of being judged by our individual works, but the things each of us has done. Nephi, though, seems to have in mind something like a national judgment—a judgment of where a whole people has gone in the course of their dispensation. That’s something to think about.

But let’s get on to the point of clarification:

For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews, and they shall write it. And I shall also speak unto the Nephites, and they shall write it. And I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it. And I shall also speak unto all the nations of the earth, and they shall write it. (2 Nephi 29:12)

For the first three quarters of this verse, it looks as if it’s only those nations descended from covenant Israel who are actually a part of the story Nephi’s been telling—as if the Gentiles would have to borrow the Jews’ book (or someone else’s book) in order to get moving in the right direction, since the covenant is not theirs. But then the last part of this verse expands this story beyond the Jews, the Nephites, and the rest of Israel, to speak of “all the nations of the earth.” But can that actually be meant? Note that the next verse, when it speaks of everyone eventually having each other’s records, doesn’t speak of anyone outside the bounds of the covenant:

And it shall come to pass that the Jews shall have the words of the Nephites, and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews, and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel, and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews. (2 Nephi 29:13)

The Gentiles, it seems, are left out of account here. Between verse 12 and verse 13, then, there’s an interesting tension: do the Gentiles always borrow a record from a covenant people (and use it as an excuse to persecute that covenant people), or do the Gentiles somewhere have a record of their own? I want to let that tension remain unresolved here, leaving us to wonder whether the sacred books of the Gentiles might not be something of more interest.

The upshot of all this, at any rate, is clearly covenantal:

And it shall come to pass that my people which are of the house of Israel shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions. And my word also shall be gathered in one, and I will show unto them that fight against my word and against my people which are of the house of Israel that I am God, and that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed forever. (2 Nephi 29:14)

This is a most crucial conclusion to the chapter. Everything comes back to the covenant, but then with this complex twist: the peoples shall be gathered back to their lands, but the texts also shall be gathered together. There is to be a kind of production of a massive world history, a weaving together of so many different covenantal trajectories. And all of it—both the restoration of lands and the gathering together of records—will bear witness to the Abrahamic covenant that lies behind the whole thing.

And with that, Nephi turns to his last topic in the “atonement” stretch.

2 Nephi 30

Having addressed the Gentiles by way of condemnation, Nephi’s concern now is to let his own Israelite brothers and sisters know that nothing of what he’s had to say to the Gentiles is meant to imply that the Israelites are somehow automatically good or faithful:

And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you. For I, Nephi, would not suffer that ye should suppose that ye are more righteous than the Gentiles shall be. For behold, except ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall all likewise perish. And because of the words which have been spoken, ye need not suppose that the Gentiles are utterly destroyed. For behold, I say unto you: As many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord, and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off—for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, which is the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 30:1-2)

The covenant, it is finally pointed out, has to be carefully understood. Though we might be inclined to think that the covenant is a question of a specific people, we’re now shown that there’s more to the story than just that. The whole point of the mixing up of the nations (recounted at length in 1 Nephi 11-14) is to make possible the reworking of the boundaries of the covenant, bringing into the covenant those Gentiles who will repent, and getting out of the covenant those Jews who will not.

Note here that the Nephites would seem to have dropped out of the story, but that makes sense because Nephi is now looking to a time when the Nephites are no longer. But they have played a crucial role, since their book will be what launches the creation of a remnant that is neither Gentile nor Jewish, but deeply Israelite. And it’s now to that that Nephi turns his attention:

And now, I would prophesy somewhat more concerning the Jews and the Gentiles. For after the book of which I have spoken shall come forth and be written unto the Gentiles and sealed up again unto the Lord [the translation of the Book of Mormon, in short], there shall be many which shall believe the words which are written, and they shall carry them forth unto the remnant of our seed. And then shall the remnant of our seed know concerning us—how that we came out from Jerusalem, and that they are a descendant of the Jews—and the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them. Wherefore, they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, which was had among their fathers. And then shall they rejoice. (2 Nephi 30:3-6)

The remnant, finally, becomes the central part of the story. The Gentiles, those who bring the Book of Mormon to the remnant, are gathered up in their number—made part of the remnant to be constructed. And as it turns out, so will the Jews:

And it shall come to pass that the Jews which are scattered also shall begin to believe in Christ, and they shall begin to gather in upon the face of the land. (2 Nephi 30:7)

The Gentiles on the one end and the Jews on the other, and all are gathered into the remnant that distracts the polarity of Jews-versus-Gentile. The covenant is set on a new footing, and everything gets underway:

And it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall commence his work among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, to bring about the restoration upon the earth. (2 Nephi 30:8)

And how is that finally, culminating project to be described? Nephi draws on Isaiah one last time, draws on the words of Isaiah 11, already quoted in 2 Nephi 21, which speak of a peace so overwhelming that the very animals are at peace with one another (see 2 Nephi 30:9-15). And then this:

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. (2 Nephi 30:16-18)

It’s a beautiful vision. And it’s reason enough, I should think, for us to get seriously to work on doing what Nephi says we ought to be doing.

And with that, Nephi’s twenty-five chapter atonement stretch comes to an end: “An now, my beloved brethren, I must make an end of my sayings” (2 Nephi 30:18).

We’ll have to see what comes next.

12 Responses to “Book of Mormon Lesson #10: “He Inviteth All to Come unto Him,” 2 Nephi 26-30 (Gospel Doctrine)”

  1. Rameumptom said

    Great comments, Joe.

    You state: First, he says that Isaiah was difficult for his people, that is, for the Nephites. And second, he tells us why that was so: the Nephites didn’t know “concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.”

    I might add a possible reason for this. It is likely by this time that the Nephites had absorbed native cultures already in the Americas. His “Nephites” would be made up largely of non-Israelites or at least of many who have never seen or heard the Jewish form of scripture, history and thought. Therefore, Nephi must explain the writing of Isaiah in a way they can understand. They do not understand what Assyria or Babylon are, or how Israel and Judah have both been united, but then separated. They do not know the prophetic patterns of preaching, or the culture. So, instead of trying to explain to his people how the Jews dwelt, he is giving them a fully reinterpreted form that they can understand.

    • joespencer said

      This is a very nice point, Rameumptom. Thanks.

    • katiann96 said

      I understood in Joe’s explanation that the Nephites are Gentiles for exactly those reasons described by Rameumtom.

      “…Nephi is now looking to a time when the Nephites are no longer. But they have played a crucial role, since their book will be what launches the creation of a remnant that is neither Gentile nor Jewish, but deeply Israelite. ”

      I figured out that the Gentiles are the Nephites, the Jews are the religious order of old Israel, and the Remnant is us, today, trying to sort things out. Am I close?

      I also wonder then what is meant by the term “Israelite,” as possibly a modern term for those with roots in this Judeo-Christian-Islamic hub, and/or those to be grafted in to Israel. Probably an entirely different line of inquiry.

      • katiann96 said

        The Gentile state of the Nephites is the same as the Gentiles of today. See 2 Ne. 30:1-5.

        Rejoice, that the gospel has been preached unto you (v.6).

  2. Roberta said

    Dang! Joe, this is really good! I will be re-reading this many times. I have questioned these two chapters of 2 Nephi (27&28) for years because they’ve nagged me that something was going on there but I couldn’t see it. I questioned what Nephi was really trying to say because it had to be more than the backdrop for Prof. Anton’s/Joseph Smith’s future experience. That just seemed to mechanic for me. This is really good stuff.

  3. mrswatkinsclass said

    This is so fulfilling for me. Thank you! I’m very grateful to have found this and I appreciate your time, Joe, to carefully prepare and share your insights. Your clarity and organizational skills amaze me.

    I have a question for anyone reading to this point. I’m not meaning to be trite at all. I struggle, after being so enriched with this “discussion”, going to a typical very well-prepared Gospel Doctrine class. My emotions run from boredom, to anger, to frustration. I don’t want to feel that way. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Robert C. said

      My efforts here at Feast are largely a result of trying to deal with precisely those emotions in a constructive way. I have also tried to come to Sunday school classes more personally prepared, with a prayer in my heart that I might be able to make a helpful comment, or ask a helpful question that will help the teacher and other class members get something more out of the scriptures, and/or be more motivated to feast on their own outside of class….

      • mrswatkinsclass said

        Thank you for that acknowledgment, advice, and your work with Feast. I’ll take that to heart.

  4. joespencer said

    Mrswatkinsclass,

    First, thanks for your kind words. They mean much.

    Second, I find that much can be done by asking and answering questions as a participant in a Sunday School class. Though the question asked isn’t trying to sort out scripture very closely, an answer that draws on the text can do much to get participants and even the teacher to look back at the text to begin thinking.

    Also, I think it’s important to recognize that we should be learning a great deal more outside of Sunday School than we are in it….

    • I’m re-reading and continuing to work through so many of your ideas. The image that comes to my mind is a puzzle. I’m on one side of the puzzle and I see glimpses of the other part of the puzzle, but the connecting pieces in the middle are missing. Protocol, veils, keys, praying, and feeling around are words to express what I’m doing. Altars, escorts, mentors, guides are words to express my questions I’m having. Does this make any sense to you?

  5. joespencer said

    More words on that last one? Now I’m the one on the other size of the puzzle!

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