RS/MP Lesson 43: “Signs of the Second Coming” (Gospel Principles Manual)
Posted by joespencer on October 6, 2011
All talk of “signs of the Second Coming” makes me, frankly, nervous. This isn’t because I disbelieve in the Second Coming (I certainly believe in it), and it isn’t because I doubt that the signs spoken of will or do take place (it isn’t difficult to see them happening all around us). It’s because I’m nervous about signs as such. Signs are slippery. There will be earthquakes. There are earthquakes. But there have always been earthquakes. And every age has wondered if its earthquakes are the earthquakes spoken of. There will be wars. There are wars. But there have always been wars. And every age has wondered if its wars are the wars spoken of. And so on. With so much in scripture telling us not to look for signs, it is difficult to make sense of looking for the signs of the Second Coming.
So let me see if I can’t make some sense of that very idea. I’ll try to do so principally by looking at the scriptures—or at least, one scripture in particular—used in this lesson.
The first page of the lesson refers us to both D&C 29 and D&C 45, the two revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants that have something unmistakable and direction about the Second Coming. I’ll leave D&C 29 for another time and focus here on D&C 45. The verse referred to from that revelation is D&C 45:39.
D&C 45 is largely a revelation about Matthew 24 (which would subsequently be taken up in the Joseph Smith Translation project, the result of which was Joseph Smith–Matthew). here is the passage in question: “And it shall come to pass that he that feareth me shall be looking forth for the great day of the Lord to come, even for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.” There are, I think, three important aspects of this verse: (1) a qualification of who is being talked about (“he that feareth me”); (2) an explanation of what such a person will be doing (“shall be looking forth for the great day of the Lord to come”); (3) a clarification of what one looks for in looking for the day of the Lord (“even for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.” Each of these, it seems to me, is crucial—especially because we sloppily read through number 1 here, entirely skip over number 2 here, and seldom think carefully about number 3.
First, then, what should be said about the fact that this verse speaks specifically about “he that feareth me”? We usually gloss this as simply meaning “the righteous” or “good people” or some such thing. But why does the Lord speak here specifically of fear?
Recognizing that “the fear of the Lord” is presented as a good thing in scripture (we usually explain it as a word/phrase that means “respect” or “honor”), I want at least for a moment to play around with the possibility that in this instant the word means what it usually means. Might it be possible that the Lord is saying that only those who are afraid of Him—only those who can’t recognize that He is love—will be frantically looking for signs of the Second Coming? Might it be, in other words, that this verse isn’t telling us about righteous believers so much as about believers racked with guilt? In the end, I don’t think this is likely the best (or even a good) interpretation, but I don’t want to outlaw the possibility that the passage points in such a direction. For now, though, let me turn to a more traditional interpretation, in which “fear of the Lord” is a good thing.
To fear the Lord. What does that mean? Fear is a question of recognizing possible inability. I fear what I might not be able to handle, what I might be inadequate to tackle—when, that is, failure would have consequences I deplore. To fear the Lord is, at the very least, to recognize that I might not be able to fulfill what He requires of me, to see that I might not be strong enough or good enough to do what the Lord asks me to do. It is probably in this sense that the wisdom writings in the Old Testament constantly assert that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom begins with our recognition that we are weak, that we can’t do it all on our own, that there is something that outstrips us, even when we know what is to be done. To fear the Lord is to see that God is stronger than me.
“He that feareth [the Lord],” then, cannot simply be equated with “good people” or “righteous people.” There is a very particular sort of relationship with God that is on display here, and it is the person with that kind of relationship who is being talked about. With that at least outlined, what can we say about the second part of the passage in question? Problematically, in interpreting this verse from D&C 45 we generally move right past the second part to the third: those who fear the Lord will look for the signs. But the text doesn’t say that. It says that those who fear the Lord will be looking for that great day. The signs, as we’ll see in a moment, are a kind of side issue. The first and apparently more important thrust of the passage is that those who fear the Lord will be looking forth for that “great day,” the Second Coming. What does this mean?
At the very least, we have to say that the kind of person being described here is not apparently someone who frets about the difficulties, dangers, and disasters of the “last days,” but someone who is excited about the return of Christ. Someone who fears God—who recognizes her own weakness and God’s goodness—can only see in the coming of Christ a glorious event, can only see in the coming of Christ the dawn of a brighter and more hopeful age. Anyone who fears the Lord will want Christ to come. Anyone who has begun down the path of wisdom, it seems, will be focused on the fulfillment of the promises, ready for things to get moving beyond the present state of affairs. To fear the Lord is to recognize the importance and the promise of the Second Coming, not to fret about its prophesied necessity.
So it seems to me, anyway. It could be, of course, that “looking forth” is here a question of “anticipating the horror of,” but I’m inclined against such a reading (at least, I’m so inclined as long as “fear of the Lord” is a good thing). There seems to me to be a real element of hope and anticipation, excitement and welcoming, in “looking forth.” And what one is focused on is “the great day of the Lord.”
If this is clear, why does the verse then turn to the question of signs? It seems to me relatively straightforward. It is not simply that one of the things the righteous do is track the signs of the times; it is rather than one who is looking forward with great anticipation for the coming of the Savior will be attuned to every indication that the day is near. We should be careful, I think, not to take this passage to say that it is our duty to track the signs of the Second Coming, but instead to take it as saying that anyone who sees the Second Coming for what it is will be marking every sign that points to its nearness.
That said, we have to come back to this question I raised earlier. If the scriptures are so disapproving, generally speaking, of sign-seeking, why are signs something the God-fearing look for? But note that with the clarifications of this passage that have already been offered here, those who look for the signs are not looking for signs that will give them faith. The signs of the Second Coming are NOT, in any way, shape, or form, meant to lead anyone to believe. The signs are only to be understood (or even looked for!) by those who fear the Lord. Every indication of the end times is meaningless if one does not already have faith. Signs are, as I have already said, slippery. They actually tell us very little. But they can be interpreted from the standpoint of faith, interpreted to mean something about the right-placed-ness of one’s faith and hope and charity.
Signs of the Second Coming. Universal indications of the last days? Hardly. Clearly recognizable marks of an age of disaster? Surely not. Characteristics of every age that the God-fearing can take as meaningful in their own hopeful anticipation of Christ’s gracing the earth with His presence? Absolutely.
The signs of the Second Coming, it seems, are—like the poor—always with us. There has been no age in history without wars, famines, earthquakes, destructions, plagues, and the like. These things may not always be knocking on my door, but they are the makeup of this miserable, fallen world. The glory of faith (of “the fear of the Lord”) is that, in it, I can finally begin to see the misery of the world as an indication that things will get better. In faith I find reason to hope, and in hope I find motivation to do the work of charity. We should be skeptical about any objective list of signs that, collectively, are meant to make clear to everyone that the Second Coming will happen within a certain timeframe. But we should be ready to turn in faith, hope, and charity to the work of ameliorating the miserable conditions of mortality so soon as we come before the Lord in fear and trembling.
Perhaps that is what the signs of the Second Coming are all about….