This article is part of an essay by Robert J. Matthews. To read the essay in its entirety as well as other commentary on the Book of Mormon, get Studies in Scripture, Vol. 7: 1 Nephi to Alma
Nephi had seen in a vision the future of the Nephites and knew that extensive wickedness would exist among them and that they would experience wars and destructions. He saw that the Nephites would be informed of the birth and the death of Jesus by various signs, yet they would persist in their wickedness. Great earthquakes and other calamities would eventually slay the more wicked among them, after which Jesus in his glory would appear personally to the righteous who remained. (2 Ne. 26:3-9.)
Nephi did not state categorically that God himself would cause the natural calamities such as earthquakes, floods, and whirlwinds for the express purpose of slaying the wicked, but he definitely implied it, and it is also inherent in the message of his prophecy. For example, in 2 Nephi 26:6, he identified the thunderings, lightnings, and earthquakes as "the fire of the anger of the Lord" against the wicked. And in verse 7, Nephi lamented in "pain and anguish" that his people were so thoroughly destroyed, but he acknowledged that God's "ways are just." Such expressions show that Nephi viewed these "natural" occurrences as God-sent. In 2 Nephi 26:8, Nephi observed that the righteous who hearkened unto the words of the prophets would not be destroyed. These observations by Nephi deal with an interesting spiritual law regulating this mortal earth, showing that the behavior of human beings can affect and influence the so- called "natural" phenomena. The language of the scriptures also suggests that God uses these "natural" occurences to punish or at times to reward his children. These expressions cannot simply be a manner of speaking or a literary device, for they are basic not only to Nephi's warning, but also to the prophecy of Zenos cited in 1 Nephi 19:10-12 and the words of the Lord in 3 Nephi 9-10, wherein the literal fulfillment of these prophecies is reported and the voice of the Lord proclaims that it is he himself who has sent the destructions in consequence of the wickedness of the people.
Stumbling Block and Priestcraft
Nephi wrote that in the last days not only would the descendants of his people need to be taught the gospel and be reclaimed from their apostasy, but that the Jews and the Gentiles would likewise need to be taught and reclaimed. (2 Ne. 26:12-15.) He mentioned also that the record of the Nephites would have been written and sealed up, literally hidden in the ground, for safekeeping. Subsequent verses show that the Nephite record (the Book of Mormon) was to be preserved "untouched" so as to be available for later use as a witness of what the Lord actually said. The Book of Mormon is thus spoken of in contrast to the Bible, which has suffered change at the hands of men.
Nephi explained that the Gentiles in the last days would be lifted up in pride and would "have stumbled, because of the greatness of their stumbling block." As a result they would have "built up many churches," which would lack the power of God. (2 Ne. 26:20.) What the "stumbling block" is, Nephi did not say at that point, but he had used the identical language earlier to explain that the Gentiles would stumble because the Bible had been significantly altered and was thus lacking "many plain and precious parts" that had been "taken out" of it. (See 1 Ne.13:28-35.)
In view of Nephi's earlier prophecy and explanation about plain and precious parts being taken from the Bible, we can ascertain that the Gentiles' great "stumbling block" in the last days would be the lack of knowledge and spiritual understanding because of their imperfect Bible, which is the only scriptural record they have ever had. fn Part of the doctrinal deficiency of the Bible would be made up through the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, as explained in 1 Nephi 13:35-42. Nephi wrote further about the spiritual contribution of the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 26 and 27.
Nephi continued his prophecy in 2 Nephi 26, where he described conditions among the Gentiles of the last days. It is a description of spiritual poverty, because the Gentiles (1) would be "lifted up in the pride of their eyes"; (2) would stumble spiritually, as noted earlier, because of their stumbling block; (3) would preach for religious doctrine their own ideas gained through their own wisdom and learning; (4) would preach for financial gain; (5) would deny the miracles and power of God; (6) would be filled with envy, malice, and strife; and (7) would support secret combinations from the devil. All this can be classified as priestcraft. (2 Ne. 26:20-31.)
Priestcraft is specifically and categorically condemned by the Lord. Nephi said that priestcraft occurred when "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." (2 Ne. 26:29.)
In contrast to the ways of man and the devil, Nephi said that the Lord "doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world . . . even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him." (2 Ne. 26:24.) Furthermore, "he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men." (2 Ne. 26:33.) The devil works through priestcraft, whereas the Lord works with charity, which is the love of Christ. (2 Ne. 26:30-31; Moro. 7:45.)
The Lord Is Able to Do His Own Work
Nephi stated that in the last days, there would be universal apostasy from the things of God, both among the Gentiles and also among the Jews, not only in this land but in other lands, "yea, even upon all the lands of the earth." ( 2 Ne. 27:1.)
Paraphrasing Isaiah 29:7-9, Nephi wrote that conditions in the last days would be as though a hungry and thirsty man dreams that he eats and drinks, but when he awakens from his dream he is still hungry and thirsty; or, in other words, his appetite is unsatisfied. This is indicative of the spiritual hunger people have, and of the inability of manmade religions to save souls. The people stagger, he wrote, in spiritual drunkenness and blindness.
Nephi explained that in the midst of this worldwide confusion and apostasy, the Lord would bring forth a book that was sealed. The book would contain the word of God and a "revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending thereof." (2 Ne. 27:7.) Latter-day Saints are familiar with the details of this prophecy and know of the circumstances wherein Martin Harris took a transcript from the Book of Mormon to Professor Charles Anthon in New York City. (See JS-H 1:63-65.) For the purposes of this particular commentary I have chosen not to retell the account so well chronicled in the other sources, but instead to briefly indicate that the prophecy of the sealed book, the learned man, the unlearned man, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the withholding of the sealed portion until people have more faith, are part of the larger message of the "two ways" and the ongoing conflict between the work of God and the works of wickedness on the earth.
In 2 Nephi 27, we find these words of the Lord condemning the unbelieving attitude so often characteristic of the learning of the world: "The book shall be hid from the eyes of the world" (v. 12); the learned seek to read the book for the wrong reasons, "because of the glory of the world, and to get gain . . . and not for the glory of God" (vv. 15, 16). Then shall the Lord God say to the unlearned man, "The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them," meaning they have rejected the idea of such a book and also rejected the words of the book (v. 20).
The Lord then repeatedly said that he would show to the world that he "can do his own work" (vv. 20-21) by causing the unlearned man to translate the book by miraculous means. In other words, the Lord will bring forth his word by faith, and not by the learning of men. The point is unmistakably clear that the Lord did not want the Book of Mormon to come forth by the wisdom of the world. Such would have been contrary to the way God has always worked with the human family. It is by faith and miracles, not by pride, learning, and worldly means, that God brings forth his word. To assure us that God will work only by faith, Nephi quoted the Lord as saying: "I am able to do my own work . . . for behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith" (vv. 21, 23). "Therefore," said the Lord, "I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid" (v. 26). This is a strong rejection by the Lord of the pride and the learning of the world and a bold insistence that the Lord can do his own work his own way. As a result of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, many who were "blind" shall see, many who were "deaf" shall hear, and many "that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine" (vv. 29-35).
We can quickly see that 2 Nephi 27 is saying that the Book of Mormon is one of the Lord's effective weapons to enable us to fight against the work and influence of the devil. If we believe the words of the Book of Mormon, we can more readily detect the false doctrines of the world in every category, be they religious, political, or anything else.
The book is spoken of as being "sealed." Because a portion of the gold plates obtained by Joseph Smith was sealed, we have generally identified that portion as the sealed book spoken of in Isaiah 29 and 2 Nephi 27. However, neither Isaiah nor Nephi clearly differentiate between the sealed and unsealed portions of the book. It may be that the "seal" Nephi was speaking of is that the message of the Book of Mormon (even the unsealed and published part) is "sealed" to anyone without faith, to anyone who trusts in the learning of the world and rejects the revelations of God.
Although the book itself (meaning the gold plates) would be "hid from the world," the message of the book (except the sealed portion) is to go forth to all the world. In order to make the record legally binding, or, in scriptural terminology, in order to "establish his word," the Lord promised to provide three witnesses "besides him to whom the book [would] be delivered." These witnesses would behold the book "by the power of God," and would "testify to the truth of the book and the things therein." (2 Ne. 27:12, 14.) Those familiar with the history of the Church and with the Book of Mormon will recognize the fulfillment of this in the Testimony of Three Witnesses, printed in every copy of the Book of Mormon. (See also D&C 17.)
The law of witnesses is discussed in Deuteronomy 19:15, which states that one witness is not sufficient to completely establish a matter, and that "at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established." This principle is renewed in the New Testament by the Savior and the apostles. (John 5:31-39; 8:13-18; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19.) The stipulation that there be witnesses does not mean that the testimony of one witness cannot also be true, but rather that two or three witnesses make the matter legally binding. It is the Lord's way of leaving the unbeliever without excuse.
The Devil's Manner of Operation
In the meantime, the devil continues his warfare against the things of God. Being subtle and crafty, he sees no threat to his kingdom if there are many churches, as long as those churches do not teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2 Nephi 28 delineates how well Satan has succeeded in the earth in the last days. Nephi prophesied that there would be many churches, but that their priests would "teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost," and would say that the Lord no longer works by miracles, for "he hath done his work." (2 Ne. 28:3- 6.)
Another false teaching will be from those who say, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and if we have sinned, God will smite us a little, and in the end we will be saved." (See 2 Ne. 28:7-8.) Nephi branded this as a false, vain, and foolish doctrine. (2 Ne. 28:9.)
One of the assertions of these chapters is that the conditions described are not isolated or local, but that they are worldwide, universal, and deeply entrenched among all peoples. This is not to say that there are no good people, nor people who desire to do good. But as Nephi observed, the whole of mankind "have all gone astray save it be a few, who 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 Ne. 28:14.)
The tenor of Nephi's prophecy is that the whole world is engulfed in pride, sophistry, worldly learning, false teaching, and wickedness. The apostasy has infiltrated the churches, but also false thinking and false philosophy have penetrated every avenue in human activity: educational institutions, government, families, business, industry, and all else. In the midst of this, the Book of Mormon comes to light, by miraculous means, to guide those who have faith. It is especially effective because, having been hidden in the earth for centuries and translated miraculously, it still contains its original purity and plainness.
Nephi summarized the worldly conditions and the success of the devil with an extensive statement about how the devil works. The devil causes some to fight against the things that are goodeven to the extent that he "rages in their hearts" to stir them up to anger. Others he pacifies and lulls away into false security, and they say, "All is well," "Zion prospers," everything is fine. Some he flatters and tells that "there is no hell and no devil," and because they believe it, they fail to see the war, or fail to sense that they have any obligation in the matter. Or they might think they are serving the Lord, when in reality they are too passive, or perhaps too vigorous. This is seduction of the worst and most devilish sort, because it leads otherwise honest souls to think they are serving God when in reality they are not. Joseph Smith wrote that "nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God." fn
"And thus," said Nephi, "the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell . . . and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance." (2 Ne. 28:20-22.) Or, as Nephi explained in another place, the devil leads people "by the neck" first "with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever." (2 Ne. 26:22.)
According to Nephi, the danger comes when we put our trust in man or "hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost." (2 Ne. 28:31.) Putting trust in man means trusting in worldly systems, institutions, and philosophies.
It would be difficult to miss the underlying message of 2 Nephi 26-28, that the devil has been highly successful in beguiling humanity; corrupting the scriptures; invading the churches; and causing widespread wickedness, murders, deceptions, and apostasy. At the same time, the Lord, through faith and miracles, has brought forth his scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, as a beacon to all who love righteousness. The deception of pride, riches, worldly learning, and public acclaim are clearly outlined in this prophecy. Again we see that the mission of the Book of Mormon is not only to tell us what the gospel of Jesus Christ is, but also to detail what the gospel is not.
Three Great Scriptural Witnesses for the Lord
The law of witnesses was referred to earlier in connection with 2 Nephi 27:12-14. This subject is again taken up in 2 Nephi 29 and is applied this time not to individual people who are witnesses, but to the books of scripture that are witnesses for the Lord.
Nephi quoted the Lord as having said to him, "The words of your seed [the Book of Mormon] should proceed forth out of my mouth unto your seed; and . . . unto the ends of the earth, for a standard unto my people, which are of the house of Israel." (2 Ne. 29:2.) In other words, the Book of Mormon is to set the standard, showing the word of God and his particular dealings with the Nephite people and all the house of Israel.
Nephi was told by the Lord that many who think they believe the Bible will not accept the Book of Mormon because they think they already have the complete word of the Lord. To counteract this narrow view, the Lord explained that since there are more nations than one, there are more testimonies than one, and that the testimony of two nations is a witness that the Lord is God. The two witnesses in this case are the Bible as a record of the Jews, and the Book of Mormon as a record of the Nephites. The Lord expressed astonishment and near- disgust that the Gentiles would seemingly cling so dearly to the Bible and yet fail to appreciate the Jews (especially the Jewish prophets) who made the Bible possible. (2 Ne. 29:3-6.)
Since there are more nations than one, and since the Lord remembers all his people, he affirms that all his words are not in just one book (the Bible), for he has spoken and will continue to speak to his people everywhere and command them to write his words. He warns us that he speaks the same words (meaning the same principles) to one nation as to another, and that the world will be judged by the words that are written. (2 Ne. 29:7-11.)
The Lord then showed that there are to be three major written testimonies of Christ to come forth: (1) the Bible (of the Jews), (2) the Book of Mormon (of the Nephites), and (3) the records of the lost tribes of Israel, which we do not yet have. These three records are to be shared by each group so that each will eventually have the records of the others. And when Israel is gathered, the records will also be gathered. (2 Ne. 29:13-14.) By these three records, the law of witnesses will be honored and the word of God established.
These records do not consist only of single books from each major branch of Israel. Just as the Bible is a collection of many books, and the Book of Mormon is a collection also, likewise the record of the ten lost tribes will probably be a collection of various books. It will tell us, when it is received, about the Savior's visit to the ten tribes after his appearance to the Nephites. However, since Ephraim was the leading tribe among the lost tribes anciently, perhaps our present Doctrine and Covenants should be viewed in perspective as a witness for Jesus Christ among latter-day Ephraim, to be combined someday with the other records of the lost tribes when they come forth.
Among the things to be accomplished by the multiple books of scripture are: (1) to give a multiple witness of Christ; (2) to show that the Lord does speak the same gospel to one people as to another, and (3) to prove that God does honor his covenant that he made with Abraham, promising to remember his seed forever. (2 Ne. 29:14.)
The Eventual Restoration of All the House of Israel
Nephi continued his prophecy by declaring that eventually the Lord's people would not only be gathered but also restored. These are two different conditions. Not only will Israel be gathered geographically from their long dispersion throughout the world, but the gospel will be "declared among them," and they will "be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, which was had among their fathers." This restoration will take place among all the branches of Israelthe Jews, the seed of Nephi, and the lost tribes, even among "all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people." (2 Ne. 30:3-8.)
Nephi explained an important concept that is sometimes overlooked by persons who take undue pride in being part of the covenant race, but who fail to recognize that blessings are based on righteousness. He pointed out that the Israelites should not think they are more righteous than the Gentiles solely on the basis of Israelite lineage. Nor should they suppose that all of the Gentiles will be utterly destroyed. Nephi explained the doctrine this way: "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, who is the Holy One of Israel." ( 2 Ne. 30:1-2.)
This principle is known as "gospel adoption," and by it one who is a Gentile by lineage may be adopted into the house of Israel. John the Baptist understood this principle and taught it to the Jews of his day, saying to them, "God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." The "stones" obviously has reference to the Gentiles. (JST Matt. 3:36; Luke 3:13.) Paul taught the same thing in Galatians 3:25-29, showing that by accepting the gospel of Christ, the Gentiles become the seed of Abraham. This is a fundamental provision of the covenant made to Abraham, as recorded in Abraham 2:10, that "as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father."
The other part of the statement cited by Nephi, which says that as "many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off," needs some explanation. This principle applies to all who are Israelites by blood lineage. It does not mean only the Jews in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. This is made clear by the fact that Nephi was writing to his people, who were of Joseph's lineage. Paul dealt with this subject also, saying: "They are not all Israel, which are of Israel." (Rom. 9:6.) By this Paul meant that some who are of Israel by lineage are not living up to their spiritual privileges and therefore will not receive the blessings that could have been theirs as sons and daughters of Abraham and of the family of Jacob, even though they are of that blood lineage.
Second Nephi 30 closes with the promise of a complete restoration of the work of God on this earth. An entire separation between the wicked and the righteous will occur. The wicked will be destroyed by fire, and peace will be established throughout the earth. Nephi closed with excerpts from Isaiah 11, showing that in the coming era of peace, the animal kingdom shall lose its enmity, so that even a lion and a lamb shall lie down together in harmony. The portion of the human race that survives the burning will be righteous and will make war no more. Then the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, and he will make all things known unto his children. Satan and his followers will be bound, and people will no longer follow the devil. At this point, Christ will have prevailed, the "war" will cease, and peace will reign on earth "for a long time." (2 Ne. 30:10-18.)
We know from other scriptures, chiefly D&C 88:110-116, that this period is the Millennium, and that after the thousand years of peace, there will be another season of wickedness. Then the devil, his influence, and his followers will be banished from this earth forever. However, Nephi in his prophecy chose to close with the millennial period.
(Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 7: 1 Nephi to Alma 29 [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 150.)