Book of Mormon Lesson #8: “O How Great the Goodness of Our God,” 2 Nephi 6-10 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on February 8, 2012
We come, now, to what I called in my preliminaries post the “Atonement” stretch of Nephi’s record—twenty-five chapters focused on prophecies concerning the eventual reconciliation of the Lamanites with the Lord (see some details setting this up in my last post). The first part of these “more sacred things,” the crucial and only commanded part of Nephi’s record, is Jacob’s sermon in these five chapters: 2 Nephi 6-10. I’ll be taking these chapters in three parts, since they originally appeared as three chapters in the Book of Mormon: Chapter V (now 2 Nephi 6-8), Chapter VI (now 2 Nephi 9), and Chapter VII (now 2 Nephi 10).
Obviously, we’re most generally wont to spend all our time in 2 Nephi 9 when we look at Jacob’s speech. There’s something right about that: 2 Nephi 9 is perhaps the most remarkable sermon on atonement to be found in the Book of Mormon, and its profound connections with 2 Nephi 2 deserve close attention. But there’s also something wrong about our insistence on spending all our time in 2 Nephi 9: we focus there because it helps us escape the task of making sense of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 6-8, 10. We need to be spending our time dealing with Isaiah, as I hope I’ve already begun to make clear in an earlier post (and elsewhere). To avoid Isaiah is to miss entirely the point of Nephi’s record.
So here’s my plan: I’ll begin with a few reflections on Jacob’s sermon as a whole—attempting (1) to make sense of its role in 2 Nephi 6-30 more generally and (2) to clarify the role of Isaiah in 2 Nephi 6-10. Then I’ll take each of the original chapters (V, VI, and VII) one at a time. I’ll apologize for the length of this post in advance. It’s going to be a bit longer than my usual posts—as will my next two, I suspect.
So, the first question to be addressed concerns, as I’ve just said, the role of Jacob’s sermon in the larger “Atonement” stretch of Nephi’s writings. How are we to think about the larger structure of 2 Nephi 6-30? Actually, it isn’t terribly difficult to nail a very basic structure of these “more sacred things.” Jacob comes first, Isaiah second, and Nephi last, but one quickly notes that both Jacob and Nephi quote and comment on Isaiah in their contributions to this part of Nephi’s record. What we have, then, is Isaiah’s own privileged writings, surrounded on either side by further quotations from and commentaries on Isaiah. It’s pretty clear, I think, that Isaiah is the focus of Nephi’s most “plain and precious” things, and that one of the major aims is to help readers get clear on exactly what’s at stake in Isaiah’s writings. Jacob’s sermon does that quite directly.
At the same time, there’s a difference between Jacob’s focus on Isaiah and Nephi’s focus on Isaiah a few chapters later, as well as between Jacob’s focus on Isaiah and Isaiah’s own “focus” on himself. While Jacob draws from what scholars call Second Isaiah, the Isaiah chapters are drawn from First Isaiah, and Nephi in turn draws from First Isaiah. (I’ve explained these distinctions and their basic importance to Nephi in an earlier post. Those details will be necessary for making sense of what I’m about to say.) Jacob draws in his selection on Isaiah 50-51 (as well as a few verses from the end of Isaiah 49 and a couple of verses from the beginning of Isaiah 52). He thus seems to be, as it were, continuing Nephi’s earlier sermon in 1 Nephi 19-22, which drew on Isaiah 48-49 (see the link just above for my comments on that sermon). But attention will turn, immediately after Jacob’s sermon, from Second Isaiah’s prophetic anticipations of the redemption of the covenant people to First Isaiah’s condemnation of the covenant people—to the condemnation that led to the need for the redemption Second Isaiah talks about. From all this a kind of pattern internal to 2 Nephi 6-30 emerges:
(1) Jacob gives us a kind of anticipation of the eventual redemption of Israel in 2 Nephi 6-8, 10 (coupled, interestingly, with a discussion of atonement in 2 Nephi 9).
(2) Isaiah first fills in the background of that anticipation, providing readers with an account of how Israel found itself in need of redemption in 2 Nephi 12-15.
(3) Isaiah then provides an account in 2 Nephi 16-18 of how the situation of Israel’s destruction is coupled with the production of an important, sealed record that would be left for a later generation.
(4) Isaiah then goes on to report the destruction of all of Israel’s enemies along with her in 2 Nephi 19-24.
(5) Finally, in 2 Nephi 25-30, Nephi works up an excerpt from Isaiah’s writings (from Isaiah 29) into a full-blown anticipation of the emergence of the sealed record described by Isaiah, and the way it allows for the redemption discussed by Jacob.
That, it seems, is what we’ve got coming, and that should help us see quite clearly exactly what role Jacob’s sermon plays in its larger setting. Jacob’s task is to set up the basic horizon of covenantal redemption—as well as to provide along with that more communal redemption a clear sense of individual human redemption through the resurrection/atonement—as the aim that orients everything First Isaiah will have to teach us in the rest of the “Atonement” stretch.
All that, I hope, is relatively clear. And I’ve not only addressed the first question above (concerning the role of Jacob’s sermon in the larger “Atonement” stretch) but also, at least preliminarily, the second question above—that concerning the role of Isaiah in Jacob’s sermon itself. Preliminarily: it’s already clear that it’s specifically Second Isaiah that catches Jacob’s eye, and that he’s attempting to address the eschatological events of the covenant’s fulfillment. But what more remains to be said about this point?
It seems to me that the biggest question to ask at this point is exactly how 2 Nephi 9 is supposed to fit into this more generally Isaianic story. Is the Isaianic anticipation of covenantal redemption in 2 Nephi 6-8, 10, a distraction from the rich theological soteriology of 2 Nephi 9, or is the rich soteriology of 2 Nephi 9 a distraction from the Isaianic anticipation of covenantal redemption in 2 Nephi 6-8, 10? I suspect we’re generally inclined to feel that Isaiah distracts from the atonement, but I wonder if everything we’ve already said shouldn’t incline us in the other direction. But perhaps there’s no distraction at work here. Is there a way to reconcile Jacob’s interest in Isaiah with his interest in the resurrection, his interest in his father’s concerns in 2 Nephi 2?
So, four years ago I wrote the lesson notes on this same chapter, and that last question was the principal one I asked. (Take a look.) The answer I gave then to this question was a bit tortured: I saw in 2 Nephi 6-8 a kind of deabsolutization of Israelite exclusiveness in the covenant, which was then confirmed in a way in 2 Nephi 9 through a kind of attention to the universal effects of the resurrection, etc. That was fun, and I enjoyed it. I’d like, though, to play around with a few new ideas this time around. What’s the relationship between covenantal or communal redemption and individual redemption?
I should note that I think this question is very relevant at this point in Mormon history. Mormonism largely began as a covenantal or communal affair, but—along with the West generally—it has become more and more individualistic over the course of its history, so that we’re less and less inclined to focus on the communal in Mormonism. We’re more interested in individual (or at least familial) pursuits than in much else, and we tend to see our ecclesiastical community as one of so many things we have to juggle in our independent lives. We aren’t satisfied with reading scripture or the words of the prophets together simply to enjoy the Word together; we have to get as quickly as possible to what it all implies for our everyday—read individual—lives. We aren’t simply happy to be together at activities and meetings; we want to make sure that every activity and meeting does something for every individual who attends. We don’t see the sacrament as a community experience, with the scattering of the bread healed by the unity of the wine in the single cup of communion; we close our eyes, ignore everyone else present, and focus on our individual weaknesses and sins in a private relationship with Christ. (I suspect it’s precisely all this sort of thing that focuses us on 2 Nephi 9, rather than on 2 Nephi 6-8, 10.)
(I’ve not yet in these posts said anything about the fact that Nephi’s profound, consistent focus on the Abrahamic covenant—and almost total lack of interest in individual soteriology—will entirely disappear after the small plates are filled up. Beginning in the Book of Mosiah, and particularly in the wake of Abinadi’s game-changing sermon, the Book of Mormon will record the history of a people much like us, with every theological sermon an echo of 2 Nephi 9. The covenant will be, more or less, entirely ignored from Mosiah through the beginnings of Third Nephi before it comes back with a bang in the words of the visiting Christ. Whatever Jacob’s doing in talking about individual soteriology, he will eventually capture the hearts of a handful of Nephite generations organized into a Christian church not entirely unlike our own, a few generations that will, like us, tend to ignore the Abrahamic covenant while focusing on individual salvation. Obviously, I’ll have a lot more to say about all this as I continue working on these lesson notes, but that change is closely rooted in 2 Nephi 9—abstracted from its connections with Isaiah.)
So what has communal redemption to do with individual redemption, or vice versa? Is individual salvation a kind of necessary ground for communal salvation? Is it that I’ve got to sort out my own salvation before I can much bother with the salvation of others or with the salvation of a whole community? I think that sort of approach is deeply problematic. When will we be done with our own salvation? And what can I do to effect my own salvation anyway? Indeed, Jacob’s comments in 2 Nephi 9 will present a beautiful doctrine of grace that would problematize any idea that individual salvation is a kind of preliminary step before communal salvation. So what’s the relation?
As a close reading of 2 Nephi 9 I think makes clear, the very question is wrongly posed. 2 Nephi 9 isn’t about individual salvation, though we’re profoundly inclined to read it that way. It’s rather about the redemption of the flesh. It isn’t about covenant, that’s true, but it’s not therefore about individuals. It’s about what might be called the ontological soteriology that makes covenantal soteriology a possibility. If the flesh itself isn’t redeemed—all of our flesh, not my individual flesh—then there’s no reason to bother talking about covenant. That, I think, is what 2 Nephi 9 is about. Jacob is interested, as his father was before him (in 2 Nephi 2, so many words to Jacob), in the transcendental conditions of possibility of every covenantal gesture, and those conditions of possibility are a question of the redemption of the flesh.
Is there any real evidence that the focus is on the redemption of the flesh specifically? Absolutely. Take a look at the first verses of 2 Nephi 9 when Jacob makes his transition from Isaiah to the question of atonement: “I speak unto you these things that ye may rejoice and lift up your heads forever because of the blessings which the Lord God shall bestow upon your children. For I know that thou hast searched much, many of you, to know of things to come. Wherefore, I know that ye know that our flesh must waste away and die. Nevertheless, in our bodies we shall see God” (2 Nephi 9:3-4). Note that it’s precisely the flesh that occupies Jacob’s attention, and note that there’s no shift toward my salvation here—the emphasis remains on our salvation, but now in terms of the ontological ground of its possibility. More proof? Take a look at the last verses of 2 Nephi 9, when Jacob begins his transition back to Isaiah: “And behold how great the covenants of the Lord! And how great his condescensions unto the children of men! And because of his greatness and his grace and mercy, he hath promised unto us that our seed shall not utterly be destroyed according to the flesh—but that he would preserve them, and in future generations they shall become a righteous branch unto the house of Israel” (2 Nephi 9:53). I don’t think that could be much clearer. But just in case, take a look at the first verses of 2 Nephi 10, when Jacob continues his transition during the second day of his sermon: “The promises which we have obtained are promises unto us according to the flesh” (2 Nephi 10:2).
From all this I think we might take a kind of warning: 2 Nephi 9 must not be read as laying out the nature of individual salvation, but as providing an account of the redemption of the flesh more universally, a redemption that is necessary to any and every other work of God. This is something like the necessary background, the building of a stage, but the heaviest focus will always in Nephi’s writings be on what is actually happening on the stage thus built: the drama of the covenant.
And with all that prelude, I’ll turn finally to the text.
2 Nephi 6-8
The biggest task in making sense of 2 Nephi 6-8 is, naturally, to sort out the Isaiah quotations that make up its bulk. First, however, comes a handful of introductory comments from Jacob.
2 Nephi 6:1-5
Jacob’s two-day sermon is introduced almost too straightforwardly in the first verse of chapter 6: “The words of Jacob, the brother of Nephi, which he spake unto the people of Nephi.” This is unlike anything thus far found in Nephi’s writings. It has a bit more of a superscriptory feel than anything else, and it might not be inappropriate to make it a superscription, or perhaps a kind of heading. (Note that the superscription to Second Nephi describes only what is now 2 Nephi 1-5. Might 2 Nephi 6:1 have been a superscription in a stronger sense that we’re wont to think?) But be this difficulties as they may, the sermon gets started right away in the second verse.
Jacob begins his words by establishing his own authority, coupled with the authority of Nephi: “I, Jacob, having been called of God and ordained after the manner of his holy order, and having been consecrated by my brother, Nephi, unto whom ye look as a king or a protector, and on whom ye depend for safety, behold, ye know that I have spoken unto you exceeding many things” (2 Nephi 6:2). There’s much to be said, I think, about the nature of the “holy order” Jacob mentions. Interestingly, the term is associated, in the Book of Mormon, almost exclusively with Alma’s preaching. Apart from two references (namely: this one here in 2 Nephi 6:2, and a passing reference by Moroni to those “of old” who were “called after the holy order of God” in Ether 12:10), every reference to the “holy order” is associated more or less directly with Alma. From Alma’s references to it, most of which are associated with his circuit preaching in Alma 4-16 (see briefer references to it in Alma 4:20; the superscription to Alma 5; Alma 5:44, 54; 6:8; 7:22; 8:4; 43:2; 49:30; and a whole sermon on it in Alma 13), it seems to have become a kind of organization within the organization of the Nephite church. Whatever the details of that organization later, it would seem to have had its root in Jacob’s holy order, which remains relatively unclear at this point. This is a theme that deserves more attention than I can give it here.
After his self-introduction (more rhetorical than anything else, since he’s apparently been a regular instructor), he mentions briefly the sorts of things he’s talked about on previous occasions (see 2 Nephi 6:3) and then announces his topic on this occasion:
And now behold, I would speak unto you concerning things which are and which are to come. Wherefore, I will read you the words of Isaiah, and they are the words which my brother hath desired me that I should speak unto you. And I speak them unto you for your sakes, that ye may learn and glorify the name of your god. And now, the words which I shall read are they which Isaiah spake concerning all the house of Israel. Wherefore, they may be likened unto you, for ye are of the house of Israel. And there are many things which have been spoken by Isaiah which may be likened unto you, because that ye are of the house of Israel. (2 Nephi 6:4-5)
It seems to me that here we have the most straightforward explanation of what it means, for the Nephites, to liken a text. First, there’s this business of “things which are and [things] which are to come,” a double concern that apparently justifies the appeal to Isaiah: “Wherefore, I will read you the words of Isaiah.” To liken is, in a sense, to double a prophetic text by taking its address to “things which are” as a kind of template for making sense of things “which are to come.” Isaiah’s words addressed a specific historical context and outlined a specific historical set of events, but those words can be read in a way so that they help one to understand other historical events. Why? Jacob gives a very clear reason: the words were spoken “concerning all the house of Israel,” and the listeners on this occasion “are of the house of Israel”; “wherefore” they could be likened to those listeners. The idea seems to be that whatever has been prophetically spoken to Israel will embody God’s basic ways of dealing with the covenant people, and any part of the covenant people can therefore learn from such a text. The task in reading Isaiah is, for the Nephites, to see how God deals with Israel and so to make sense of their own experience, past, present, and future. And that’s exactly what Jacob will be doing in this sermon—preliminarily in this chapter, and then more fully in 2 Nephi 10.
2 Nephi 6:6-7
First, a word about the Isaiah passage drawn on here. It comes, of course, from Isaiah 49:22-23, and has already been quoted in 1 Nephi 21:22-23. Jacob’s commentary on it will come in two forms. First, he will offer his own direct reflections on it in his own words (2 Nephi 6:8-15), and then he will quote what immediately follows it in Isaiah’s text in order to contextualize it further (2 Nephi 6:16 — 2 Nephi 8:25). At any rate, here’s the passage itself:
Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles and set up my standard to the people, and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers. They shall bow down to thee with their faces towards the earth and lick up the dust of thy feet. And thou shalt know that I am the Lord, for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me.
What might be said about this passage before taking a look at what Jacob goes on to say about it?
First, its position in Isaiah 49 is rather helpful. That chapter opens with a bit about the prophetic messenger who delivers these words—about (1) his frustration with the response to his (earlier) message (despite his preaching, Israel is in exile) and (2) the Lord’s response to that frustration (all this preaching was not for Israel’s sake alone, but also for the Gentiles, who can only be brought into relation to the covenant through the negative circumstances surrounding exile). There then comes an announcement of the return of Israel to its original land of promise, using words clearly reminiscent of the exodus narrative. But while that exodus of sorts is underway, the scene switches back to the actual land of Israel, which has been left desolate. We hear the land bemoaning its fate, only to be told by the Lord to look around and see the people arriving from exile. But as they arrive, the land expresses concern that she doesn’t know many of those arriving. The Israelites, presumably, she can recognize, but who are the rest of these people? It’s in response to that question that the above verses are spoken, through which the Lord explains that the unrecognized faces are the Gentiles from all over the world who have aided in bringing Israel back to its lands of promise. That’s the context, and it’ll be obvious pretty quickly that Jacob’s got an eye on this clear meaning.
2 Nephi 6:8-18
So let me take the whole of Jacob’s own commentary on the passage from Isaiah, along with just the beginning of his further quotation of Isaiah’s words. Note that, from the very beginning, he has exactly the same approach to Isaiah that we’ve already seen with Nephi (and that we’ll be seeing again later): he likens Isaiah not to his or his people’s own experience but to his people’s future as seen in vision. Note how Jacob says this: “And now I, Jacob, would speak somewhat concerning these words, for behold, the Lord hath shewn me that they which were at Jerusalem, from whence we came, have been slain and carried away captive” (2 Nephi 6:8). To what to liken Isaiah? To what one has seen in vision! That’s crucial, and it’ll be most clearly put on display in Nephi’s contribution to the “Atonement” stretch of the record, in 2 Nephi 25-30.
Verses 8-9 report “things which are,” the things to which Isaiah’s words are actually or in themselves addressed to: the Babylonian exile:
They which were at Jerusalem, from whence we came, have been slain and carried away captive. Nevertheless, the Lord hath shewn unto me that they should return again.
There’s the straightforward historical message of Isaiah’s words. But Jacob quickly moves onto things “which are to come,” things he and Nephi have learned from their visions, etc. And it’s to this that Jacob wants to liken Isaiah’s writings. He provides a series of three events: (1) the coming and rejection of the Messiah (verse 9); (2) the subsequent affliction of the Jews (verse 10); (3) the demonstration of covenantal fidelity through the Jews’ eventual return to the lands of their inheritance (verse 11). That’s the basic story Jacob’s interested in. Now, what does Isaiah, likened, teach about the nature of those events?
And blessed are the Gentiles, they of whom the prophet hath written. For behold, if it so be that they shall repent and fight not against Zion and do not unite themselves to that great and abominable church, they shall be saved. For the Lord God will fulfill his covenants which he hath made unto his children. … Wherefore, they that fight against Zion and the covenant people of the Lord shall lick up the dust of their feet. And the people of the Lord shall not be ashamed. For the people of the Lord are they which wait for him (for they still wait for the coming of the Messiah). (2 Nephi 6:12-13)
Now, note how creative that last point of interpretation is. Isaiah occasionally speaks of those who wait for the Lord, but that locution is generally understood to refer to those who are patient with the Lord, trusting Him long enough to see His deliverance. Jacob, however, takes it to refer to those who “still wait for the coming of the Messiah,” that is, the Jews. But his interpretation is a bit more complex than might at first appear. The point is not to criticize the Jews for this belief, because it turns out that they’re right to be waiting:
And behold, according to the words of the prophet, the Messiah will set himself again the second time to recover them! (2 Nephi 6:14)
Though the idea is clearly in part that the Jews have missed the Messiah’s first coming, their continuing to wait is looked upon favorably by the Lord, who will, as the Messiah, again “set himself … to recover them.” This is most interesting, I think. And this second coming of the Messiah is attended indeed with “power and great glory” (2 Nephi 6:14), in the midst of “fire,” “tempest,” “earthquake,” “bloodsheds,” “pestilence,” “famine”—all those things constantly referred to by the Old Testament prophets. “And they shall know that the Lord is God, the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 6:15).
It’s precisely at this point that Jacob begins to quote more of Isaiah by way of explanation, using the words he’s inserted to set up their meaning and a kind of auto-likening of them. They deserve some attention, obviously.
Jacob begins by quoting the last verses of Isaiah 49, those that immediately follow the passage he’s quoted and been commenting on. Whereas one might be inclined to wonder at exactly what they mean in Isaiah’s own text, Jacob’s commentary to this point gives them a very specific meaning. When Isaiah is quoted as asking “For shall the prey be taken from the mighty or the lawful captive delivered?” (2 Nephi 6:16) and as answering “But thus saith the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken away, and the prey of the terrible shall be delivered, for the mighty God shall deliver his covenant people” (2 Nephi 6:17), the sense is clear. When at the end people come to “know that the Lord is God, the Holy One of Israel,” they’ll see the power of the Lord, His ability to delivery the captive from the mighty, the prey from the terrible—and that He doe so because of the covenant by which He has sworn. The last words of Isaiah 49 are thus given a strictly eschatological cast:
For thus saith the Lord: I will content with them that contendeth with thee, and I will feed them that oppress thee with their own flesh. And they shall be drunken with their own blood as with sweet wine. And all flesh shall know that I, the Lord, am thy Savior and thy Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob. (2 Nephi 6:17-18)
But then Jacob goes on to quote two full chapters more from Isaiah (chapters 50-51). What needs to be said of these?
2 Nephi 7:1 — 8:8
I think the two chapters (and a bit more) of Isaiah Jacob quotes in 2 Nephi 7-8 can be divided neatly into two parts: a first stretch revolving around the prophetic figure of the servant (2 Nephi 7:1 — 8:8 = Isaiah 50:1 — 51:8) and a second stretch built on a repeating refrain of “Awake! Awake!” (2 Nephi 8:9-25 = Isaiah 51:9 — 52:2). I’ll tackle these in order.
Jacob adds two words to the first verse of Isaiah 50 as we have it in the Bible. Rather than “Thus saith the Lord,” Jacob gives us “Yea, for thus saith the Lord.” I highly doubt Jacob’s giving us an alternative reading, evidence of the original. Rather, it seems obvious that Jacob adds the two words to tie Isaiah 50-51 very closely to the last verses of Isaiah 49, which he’s just quoted. The point, it seems, is to take what one finds in these two chapters to be a kind of massive confirmation of all that’s just been claimed. And since what was just claimed was that God will defend the covenant people against its enemies, it’s that that’s to be confirmed.
It isn’t difficult to feel this in the first verse of 2 Nephi 7:
Have I put thee away? Or have I cast thee off forever? … Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement? To whom have I put thee away? Or to which of my creditors have I sold you? Yea, to whom have I sold you?”
All these questions are so many confirmations that the Lord has been infinitely faithful. But they raise an important question at the same time: If the Lord has been faithful, why are things so bad for Israel? Hence the remainder of that first verse:
Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.
The next verse confirms this:
Wherefore, when I came there was no man! When I called, yea, there was none to answer!
And then, still in the second verse, there’s a return to the same sort of confirming rhetorical questions:
O house of Israel, is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?
The rest of that verse and the one following it mark the Lord’s fidelity overtly:
Behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea. I make the rivers a wilderness and their fish to stink because the waters are dried up and they dieth because of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.
All this is clear. But then a new voice enters the story, and I suspect that it’s at this point that one can get derailed.
The new character is the so-called “servant” (of “servant songs” fame). We’ve already met him, actually, since he appears in Isaiah 49 (and so in 1 Nephi 21), where he is introduced through his complaint that his prophecies have served no end, since Israel has ended up in exile anyway—in response to which complaint the Lord explained that history is being ordered in a way that will bring the Gentiles into a constitutive relationship to the covenant as well. If before he intervened with a complaint, however, he now intervenes with a provocation to his enemies—to those among Israel who have rejected his now-complex message of redemption. But even before he comes to his provocation, he introduces himself in the following, very important words:
The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season unto thee, O house of Israel, when ye are weary. He wakeneth morning by morning. He wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. (2 Nephi 7:4-5)
Why is those so very important? The reference—twice—to “the learned” is a key to the structure of the (canonical) Book of Isaiah. The word translates a word that appears at a crucial turning point in First Isaiah, specifically in Isaiah 8:16, at the moment when the rejection of (First) Isaiah’s message turns him from oral announcement to written-and-sealed prophecy, from speaking to his fellow Israelites to producing an esoteric book to be kept among his “disciples” (in Hebrew: lmdym). When (Second) Isaiah has this servant announce that he has been given both the tongue and the ear of “the learned” (in Hebrew: lmdym), it seems clear he’s telling us that this servant has been given to be among those disciples who had charge over the sealed record. What we have in this servant is someone gracefully granted to read a sealed book. (There’s much more to be said about all this, but I’ll just recommend Edgar Conrad’s Reading Isaiah, which provides the best reading of this theme.)
What happens to such a servant? He finds himself having to give his “back to the smiters,” his “cheeks to them that plucked off the hair,” his “face” to “shame and spitting” (2 Nephi 7:6). But he also finds that “the Lord is near, and he justifieth [him],” something that makes the servant confident to say: “Who will contend with me? Let us stand together! Who is mine adversary? Let him come near me, and I will smite him with the strength of my mouth! For the Lord God will help me!” (2 Nephi 7:8-9). All his enemies will be overcome.
Finally, though, the servant’s self-presentation fades as the message is again addressed to all Israel. They’re called back to their origins, and specifically to the couple that received the covenant: “Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah, she that bare you. For I called him alone and blessed him” (2 Nephi 8:1-2). The language here is important, since it clearly echoes 2 Nephi 7:2. If God finds no one now, He nonetheless found one (“him alone”) before, and that’s how this whole mess was started. There is an implicit plea here to be found when God calls—to follow Abraham in saying “Here am I!” when the voice of the Lord is heard.
So, at any rate, do the promised blessings begin to be listed (see 2 Nephi 8:3-5), and they come accompanied by a warning against all things earthly, which will never stand against the eternal righteousness of the Lord (see 2 Nephi 8:6-8). And with that, the first stretch of this Isaiah quotation comes to an end. The second opens as a kind of interruption, set in motion by the affirmation of the Lord’s faithfulness. That affirmation, it seems, gets the people stirred up just enough to cry for help.
2 Nephi 8:9-25
As I’ve already mentioned, this second stretch of the Isaiah quotation is structured by a triple “Awake! Awake!” The first of these appears in 2 Nephi 8:9 (= Isaiah 51:9), the second in 2 Nephi 8:17 (= Isaiah 51:17), and the third in 2 Nephi 8:24 (= Isaiah 52:1). (It’s worth noting that Jacob ignores what we regard as the natural breaks in Isaiah’s text, quoting Isaiah 50:1 — 52:2. We’ll see that the Book of Mormon adopts more or less every verse of Isaiah 52, but they come in bits and pieces: some here, some in Abinadi’s speech, and some in Christ’s sermons in Third Nephi.) The best way to tackle this conversation between the Lord and Israel, set in motion by the servant’s affirmation’s of the Lord’s faithfulness and goodness, is to look at how it is structured by this constant repetition of “Awake! Awake!”
The first “Awake! Awake!” is spoken by the worshiping community of Israel, now responding to the servant’s message:
Awake! Awake! Put on strength, O arm of the Lord! Awake as in the ancient days! Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep? That hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? (2 Nephi 8:9-10)
This might seem rather strange to most readers, but it made perfect sense in an ancient context. The community of Israel calls on the Lord to awake as in ancient days. (We can feel the pull of that plea, can’t we? Don’t we sometimes pray that God will do the kind of things we read about Him doing in ancient times? “God, won’t you come down and do the sort of thing you did for Elijah? For Isaiah? For Nephi?”) And what did God do in ancient days? He “cut Rahab and wounded the dragon,” of course! In the Ancient Near East, most cultures had mythological stories of the earth’s origins, and they had to do with the hero god killing the primordial sea monster, out of whose body’s subsequent two parts the earth and the heavens were made. Isaiah, it’s clear, is drawing on this commonly recognized mythological language. But for Isaiah, it’s further clear, this creation mythology has been displaced from its original setting to the experience at the Red Sea: when the Lord cut the dragon, it was by cutting the sea itself in two and letting His people pass through into safety. The exodus was the beginning for this people. What we have here, then, is Israel pleading for God to assume the same sort of role He did in the stories surrounding Moses.
The Lord’s response is affirmative—I’m that God, and I’ll reproduce my ancient fidelity to you:
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion. And everlasting joy and holiness shall be upon their heads, and they shall obtain gladness and joy. Sorrow and mourning shall flee away. I am here. Yea, I am he that comforteth you. (2 Nephi 8:11-12)
The next few verses find the Lord addressing the servant, it seems, and asking him to make an announcement to Israel that they are, indeed, God’s people (see 2 Nephi 8:12-16). And then the Lord reverses the people’s “Awake! Awake!” with one of His own, making clear that though He has never been asleep, they have:
Awake! Awake! Stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury! Thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling wrung out—and none to guide her among all the sons she hath brought forth, neither that taketh her by the hand of all the sons she hath brought up. (2 Nephi 8:17-18)
There are some obviously references, here, back to the content of Isaiah 49—Israel’s many sons, all gone now, etc. But all this is, as the first verses of this chapter make clear, because Israel has sold itself. Israel has rejected the Lord, not vice versa. But the cup has now been drunk, and things are going to change. But things look even worse than just that: “Thy sons have fainted save these two” (2 Nephi 8:20). Which two? “These two sons are come unto thee (who shall be sorry for thee?): Thy Desolation and Destruction, and The Famine and the Sword” (2 Nephi 8:19). Two sons are left, one named “Thy Desolation and Destruction,” the other “The Famine and the Sword.” Things are not happy.
But there’s a word of comfort as well:
Therefore, hear now this, thou afflicted and drunken, and not with wine: Thus saith thy Lord the Lord (and thy God pleadeth the cause of his people): Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, the dregs of the cup of my fury. Thou shalt no more drink it again, but I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee. (2 Nephi 8:21-23)
With that happy message, the last “Awake! Awake!” finally comes. It’s again the Lord who’s speaking, but now it’s not a call to turn from inactivity (first instance) or a call to turn from sin (second instance). Finally, it’s a call to assume a throne:
Awake! Awake! Put on thy strength, O Zion. Put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city. For henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake thyself from the dust. Arise, sit down, O Jerusalem. Loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion. (2 Nephi 8:24-25)
From groveling in the dust (“Arise!”) to sitting on the throne (“Sit down!”). From chains (“the bands of thy neck”) to royal robes (“beautiful garments”). All is made well for Israel at the end.
Now what does all this mean for Jacob besides a massive confirmation of the Lord’s faithfulness? That will have to wait until 2 Nephi 10. At this point, Jacob begins to veer off into his lengthy discourse on the redemption of the flesh. Let’s veer off with him.
2 Nephi 9
Lest anyone miss the fact that all this Isaiah quotation is about the covenant first, foremost, and likely exclusively, Jacob opens chapter 9 with the following words:
And now, my beloved brethren, I have read these things that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord, that he hath covenanted with all the house of Israel. (2 Nephi 9:1)
But joy, importantly, is meant to accompany the acquisition of such knowledge:
Behold, my beloved brethren, I speak unto you these things that ye may rejoice and life up your heads forever, because of the blessings which the Lord God shall bestow upon your children. For I know that thou hast searched, many of you, to know of things to come. (2 Nephi 9:3-4)
But, as it turns out, looking to the future focuses one on what seems to be a rather unfortunate truth concerning the flesh. And it’s that theme that occupies Jacob’s attention through the remainder of the chapter.
The bulk of Jacob’s sermon-within-a-sermon, this discourse on the redemption of the flesh, begins with the second half of verse 4 and ends with verse 52 (I’ll relegate verses 53-54 to the function of transitioning from the theme of the flesh back to the promises of the covenant). I’ll be taking the sermon-within-a-sermon in bits and pieces, but I want to begin with a word about larger structure—since this, like most things in the Book of Mormon, appears to have an intentional structure to it. The sermon turns on the constant repetition of the exclamative “O!” There are thirteen of these, and they are easily divisible into two groups of six, balanced on another that doesn’t fit into either group. The first six O’s organize the first half of the sermon-within-a-sermon, all of them introducing words of praise concerning God: “O the wisdom of God!” “O how great the goodness of our God!” etc. The last six O’s organize the second half of the sermon-within-a-sermon, all of them introducing words of exhortation to the listening human beings: “O my beloved brethren!” “O, then, my beloved brethren!” etc. Standing between each series of six O’s is a single “O!” that laments the role Satan plays in the plan: “O that cunning plan of the evil one!” Structurally, then, we have:
Verses 4b-7: Introductory – Basic outline of the doctrine of the flesh
Verses 8-27: First series of (six) O’s, all marking praise of God
Verses 8-9: First “O!” – On the corruption of the flesh
Verses 10-12: Second “O!” – The triumph over hell
Verses 13-16: Third “O!” – The resurrection of the righteous and judgment of the wicked
Verses 17-18: Fourth “O!” – The judgment of the righteous
Verse 19: Fifth “O!” – Double deliverance
Verses 20-27: Sixth “O!” – Law and atonement
Verse 28a: Transitional “O!” – Satan’s cunning
Verses 28b-46: Second series of (six) O’s, all exhorting humans to repent
Verses 28b-38: First “O!” – A series of woes
Verse 39: Second “O!” – Against seduction by Satan
Verse 40: Third “O!” – On hearkening to the truth
Verses 41-43: Fourth “O!” – Passing into God’s presence
Verse 44: Fifth “O!” – Shaking off the blood of a generation
Verses 45-46: Sixth “O!” – Preparation for the judgment
Verses 47-52: Concluding – Justification of the sermon and final invitation
As you might guess, I’ll take these sections in order.
2 Nephi 9:4b-7
As already pointed out above, these first verses of the sermon-within-a-sermon provide a basic outline of Jacob’s doctrine of the flesh. Looking toward the future, Jacob’s hearers, he begins, “know that our flesh must waste away and die,” and it’s precisely that knowledge, it seems, that justifies this long sidetrack into the conditions of the possibility of the covenantal story. Or at least, it’s that knowledge that the flesh will waste away and die, coupled with the knowledge that “in our bodies we shall see God,” that justifies the sidetrack (2 Nephi 9:4). At any rate, it’s precisely that double conviction that drives Jacob’s words: the flesh wastes away and dies, and yet in our bodies we’ll see God.
(I’m intrigued by the complex relationship between Jacob’s statement that “in our bodies we shall see God” and Job’s impossible-to-translate testimony in Job 19:26: “And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” I don’t want to dwell on it at any length here—though I think I’ll take this up again elsewhere—but it’s at least worth noting that there is some kind of relationship, but that at the least it seems to be inverted in a way: Job speaks of the destruction of the body but of seeing God from the flesh; Jacob speaks of the destruction of the flesh but of seeing God from the body. There’s much, it seems to me, to begin thinking about there.)
Jacob quickly turns from “our bodies” to Christ’s body: “Yea, and I know that ye know that in the body he shall shew himself unto they at Jerusalem, from whence we came—for it is expedient that it should be among them” (2 Nephi 9:5). At first this seems like a course change, but then the expedience mentioned in the last bit just quoted is clarified: “For it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him” (2 Nephi 9:5). It’s necessary to talk about Jesus’ body because it’s precisely the death of that body that will eventually make it possible for other bodies to see God after the wasting away of the flesh. That, at any rate, is the basic picture. But there’s much more that needs to be said here.
It’s necessary to ask about the double gesture concerning subjection at work here: Jesus has to “become subject unto man in the flesh” so that all will “become subject unto him.” There’s a beautiful paradox here. It’s only in that God becomes subject that it is possible for God to subject something. God has to become entirely enfleshed if He would gain ascendency over the flesh of others. If the flesh, generally speaking, is to be redeemed, it can only be through Christ’s entering into it to redeem it. The emphasis here, as in 2 Nephi 2, is on death: Jesus “become[s] subject unto man in the flesh, and die[s] for all men.” It’s in that death that there is a complete subjection of Christ to the flesh—to “man in the flesh.” Allowing human beings to put Him to death, Christ becomes fully subject to them, entirely immersed in flesh, as it were. Once fully immersed, it’s possible to redeem that flesh, to change its very nature.
Hence verses 6 and 7:
For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfill the merciful plan of the great Creator there must needs be a power of resurrection. And the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall, and the fall came by reason of transgression—and because man became fallen, they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement. Save it should be an infinite atonement, this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.
Death itself is universal, thanks to the Fall. Consequently, the Atonement must be infinite. Okay, but much needs to be clarified here. Why speak of “a power of resurrection” rather than of just “a resurrection”? What does “infinite atonement” mean? What has the atonement to do with the possibility of “corruption” giving way to “incorruption”? What’s the “first judgment” spoken of?
The last question is the easiest to answer. The “first judgment” is clearly meant to be the consequence of the original Edenic transgression: the first judgment was death, which would never have been overcome without a resurrection. That’s clearly why Jacob can say: “if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.” But that’s just to get started. How can the rest of verses 6-7 be cleared up? First, it’s crucial not to let Alma 34 “taint” one’s reading here. There Amulek speaks of an “infinite atonement” as well, but he is not talking about the resurrection at all, and it’s clear that “infinite” means for him something about the way the atonement suffices for all human sins. There’s no talk in Jacob (yet) of sin at all. Jacob’s whole focus—likely because this is a sermon on the flesh—is on the resurrection. The most important question to ask, then, is what “infinite” means in this context, and how the “infinite atonement” is related to “a power of resurrection.”
What was needed to overcome the universality of the death sentence associated with the Fall, according to Jacob, is less a resurrection than a power of resurrection. Someone or something, it seems, had to gain the ability to resurrect people, had to acquire the means to effect a reversal of the death sentence. Okay, but how to make sense of that? I wonder if this isn’t the key: “And because man became fallen, they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement.” Are we being told here that atonement is what overcomes precisely that state of being “cut off”? It’s often pointed out that the word “atonement” was literally constructed out of the words “at” and “one,” such that “atonement” literally means “at-one-ment,” the process of being reconciled or brought back together. As such, it’s worth playing with the possibility that the “infinite atonement” in question is what has to overcome the gap between God and (fallen) human beings, bringing human beings back into God’s presence. (We’ll see Jacob dwell at some length on this theme in this sermon: the resurrection reunites bodies and spirits and brings them directly into God’s presence.)
If this is so, though, there’s little difference between the resurrection (or at least “a power of resurrection”) and the (infinite) atonement. The atonement isn’t, here, the paying off of a debt, but the divinely orchestrated overcoming of a distance between human beings and God—effected, precisely, through the resurrection. It’s precisely through the redemption of the flesh that human beings are brought back into God’s presence. Of course, once their flesh has been redeemed and they’re in God’s presence, people find themselves being judged. That’s a story we’ll be dealing with later, though.
From all this it begins to look like Jacob’s point in this initial outline is to make clear that the core of the atonement is the resurrection, the power by which it’s effected, the ability to intervene between God and human beings so as to overcome the distance imposed on them after the Fall, and to reverse the death sentence executed after the Fall. The flesh is at the very heart of the atonement. The aim was to turn the flesh in the right direction. And since all sin issues from the (fallen) flesh, a redemption of the flesh is also an overcoming of all sin—unless one rebels against the gift/grace of the resurrection in order to remain in sin. But that’s also a story we’ll come to later.
2 Nephi 9:8-9
The first “O!” is dedicated to the corruption of the flesh, which is a bit ironic, given that it opens with “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace!” But the doctrine of the corruption of the flesh here is really quite remarkable. It’s one of those moments in the Book of Mormon where the careful reader is forced to recognize that this is a theologically radical book and not just a mirror of biblical ideas. Here’s what the text says:
For behold, if the flesh should rise no more, our spirits must become subject to that angel which fell from before the presence of the Eternal God and became the devil, to rise no more. And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies in misery, like unto himself—yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself night unto an angel of light and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness. (2 Nephi 9:8-9)
What’s so theologically radical about this? Straightforwardly, this idea that without a redemption of the flesh all spirits become entirely subject to the devil and thus become devils themselves. In light of Joseph Smith’s teachings in Nauvoo, it’s easy to want to think about this in terms of those who have a body having power over those who don’t have a body, etc. I don’t know that Jacob had anything quite like that in mind, though of course it’s possible. But whatever the reasoning behind the claim, it’s unlike anything in the Bible. What’s so crucial to note here is Jacob’s insistence on the fact that the effect of the Fall, uncoupled from any atonement, would be utter damnation, and not only temporal death. For Jacob, as for his theological successors in the Book of Mormon, there is no way out of eternal misery without the atonement. (Some Latter-day Saints will say that there is the theoretical possibility that one could be saved without the atonement were one never to sin, but that, practically speaking, everyone sins, and so the atonement is necessary for all. That’s not the Book of Mormon’s doctrine. For Jacob, it’s clear that sinfulness the result of the Fall, and that leaves one in need of atonement, regardless of whether one actually sins or not. We’ll see this again and again in the Book of Mormon.)
The point, in short, is that one cannot do good without the atonement, without grace. (Note Jacob’s opening exclamation in verse 8: “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace!”) And the point is, further, that the reason one can’t do good without the atonement is because the flesh itself is corrupt: what has to be accomplished so that doing good is a possibility is a redemption, precisely, of the flesh.
2 Nephi 9:10-12
If verses 8-9 set up the problem (the corruption of the flesh), verses 10-12 explain Christ’s solution. Here’s the text:
O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster! Yea, that monster Death-and-Hell, which I call the death of the body and also the death of the spirit. And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead, which death is the grave. And this death of which I have spoken, which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead, which spiritual death is hell. Wherefore, death and hell must deliver up its dead: and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies. And the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other. And it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 9:10-12)
As with what’s been presented in the immediately preceding verses, there’s no full disentangling here of death and hell. The two kinds of “death” make up a single “monster,” “Death-and-Hell.” Of course, because human beings are both body and spirit, death and hell can be pried apart in a sense, but they can’t be radically separated. Each has power, as it were, over a different domain—the body, the spirit—but they’re rooted together in the single problem of the corruption of the flesh. Hence, at the end of this passage, there’s a single force that overcomes that corruption: “the power of the resurrection,” a theme already introduced above. The power of the resurrection is a single force, but it has a double effect: it reclaims both the body and the spirit, the one from death and the other from hell, by restoring them to each other. All this, I think, is straightforward enough.
2 Nephi 9:13-16
The next sequence begins by marking the (distinct) resurrection of the righteous and then goes on to describe the judgment of the wicked. This is a bit complex because the preceding passage has almost made it sound as if all spirits end up in hell. The difficulty, it seems to me, is that Jacob introduced grace in verses 8-9 by describing the corruption of the flesh in terms of what it would look like without the atonement, but he immediately thereafter, in verses 10-12, returned from that hypothetical world-without-the-atonement picture to a more concrete world-with-the-atonement picture. From the brief thought experiment, we were forced again to recognize that death and sin are inseparably connected, the latter being rooted in the former, which was confirmed in verses 10-12. But it becomes a bit easy to lose one’s way in the quick back-and-forth that results from Jacob’s approach there. In short, it has to be realized that verses 10-18 more generally are about the world-with-the-atonement, and so that there are righteous people in addition to the wicked. Consequently, there is a sharp distinction between hell and paradise here. But none of this implies in turn that it isn’t the power of the resurrection (equivalent, then, to the atonement) that’s behind the redemption of the flesh.
In a word, the redemption of the flesh, mentioned at the end of verse 12 but really forming something like the invisible halo of verses 8-9 (because already laid out in verses 4b-7), is more presupposed than put on display in verses 10-18. What we have in verse 13, as in verses 10-12, is not that through which the redemption of the flesh is produced, but the actual resurrection that eventually results from that redemption. Verses 10-12 report the resurrection of the wicked, but that doesn’t become perfectly clear until one reads verse 13, which reports the resurrection of the righteous.
Okay, if that wasn’t confusing enough, let’s go on.
With the wicked (verses 10-12) and the righteous (verse 13) resurrected, Jacob comes to the theme of the judgment. He sees it first necessary to mention the perfection of one’s “knowledge of … guilt and … uncleanness and … nakedness” on the one hand, and of one’s “knowledge of … enjoyment and … righteousness” on the other (2 Nephi 9:14)—this preparatory, for obvious reasons, to the actual judgment. The passage describing the judgment can, I think, speak for itself.
2 Nephi 9:17-18
If the judgment itself is clear, and if verses 15-16 focus on the wicked more than on the righteous, what follows is a brief word about who exactly the righteous are—”they which have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they which have endured the crosses of the world and despised the shame of it,” etc. (2 Nephi 9:18). I think these two verses also speak for themselves.
2 Nephi 9:19
Suddenly, with the fifth “O!” Jacob seems intent only to summarize all that’s been said thus far:
O the greatness of the mercy of our god, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster, the devil and death and hell and that lake of fire and brimstone which is endless torment! (2 Nephi 9:19)
That word of praise is beautiful, but I want to move on to the last of Jacob’s six O’s directed to God.
2 Nephi 9:20-27
This last “O!” introduces the tension between the law and the atonement—a tension that was central to 2 Nephi 2 as well. The point, as we’ll see, is to begin to turn from the relatively abstract details of the redemption of the flesh and its eventual effects in the actual resurrection of human beings to the more concrete implications of all this for mortal living. Here at last the rubber meets the road.
Verses 20-22 set the introduction of the law up, making a brief return from effect (resurrection) to cause (the act through which Christ effects the redemption itself). With all flesh subject to Him, with all bodies set to be resurrected and so to return to the presence of God to be judged, Christ issues His law:
And he commandeth all men that they must repent and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. And if they will not repent and believe in his name and be baptized in his name and endure to the end, they must be damned—for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, hath spoken it. (2 Nephi 9:23-24)
This is, interestingly, the first indication in the Book of Mormon that baptism is something people need to do. Christ’s own baptism has been mentioned, both by Lehi (in 1 Nephi 10) and by Nephi (in 1 Nephi 11), but this is the first time anyone talks about others being baptized in the same way. We’ll see how this comes back into focus at the end of Nephi’s record—in 2 Nephi 31. For the moment, let’s focus just on how this forms a law:
Wherefore, he hath given a law. (2 Nephi 9:25)
Well, that couldn’t be much clearer. We’re now face to face with the law—with, it seems, the spiritual law, since we’ve already seen the temporal law broken and its effects reversed. Coming with the announcement that the death sentence of Eden can be reversed through the redemption of the flesh, the spiritual law orients us to the Resurrector in “perfect faith,” the consequence of which is repentance of one’s sinful orientation to death and a token of one’s willingness to go with Christ into and beyond death: baptism.
A law, then. But this sets in motion a bit of logic that Jacob seems to have borrowed directly from 2 Nephi 2, though it leads to a very different conclusion:
And where there is no law given there is no punishment. And where there is no punishment there is no condemnation. And where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel hath claim upon them because of the atonement, for they are delivered by the power of him. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who hath not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster—death and hell and the devil and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment—and they are restored tot hat God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 9:25-26)
Lehi seemed to intimate that all had the law given them (see 2 Nephi 2:5), but Jacob moves in a somewhat different direction: the reason to get clear on the law is to get clear on the fact that those without the law are redeemed as well as those who have not the law. The atonement/resurrection/redemption of the flesh is universal, and those without the law are redeemed as well.
Jacob, in other words, divides the world up not into two groups, as Lehi did, but into three. While for Lehi there were the wicked and the righteous, those who responded negatively and those who responded favorably to the news of the redemption, for Jacob there are these two groups and then those who similarly receive the grace of the redemption but know nothing of the law that comes along with the announcement of that reality. (It isn’t hard to guess at the reason for this: everyone around Lehi had the law given to them; Jacob’s sermonizing in an era where there is concern about the next generation of the Lamanites, those who likely never heard the law.)
But then comes the crucial turning point:
But woe unto him that hath the law given—yea, that hath all the commandments of God, like unto us—and that transgresseth them and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state. (2 Nephi 9:27)
Those without the law have been given a place in the plan, but then the point is to come back to the present, to this people and audience who do have the law. What marks the difference between the righteous and the wicked? That, it seems is the question. And it’s precisely here that the transition from O’s directed to God in praise to O’s directed to human beings in warning takes place. And it takes place by introducing the character who spends all his time attempting to distract people from the confidence they should have in the resurrection.
2 Nephi 9:28a
“O that cunning plan of the evil one!” Enough said, for the moment.
2 Nephi 9:28b-38
After so many O’s focused on praising God, we now get a series of O’s focused on exhorting human beings, and it’s clear from the transitional “O!” of verse 28 that what marks the difference between God’s deserving praise and humans’ needing exhortation—well, one thing that marks the difference—is the fact that human beings fall prey to the cunning plan of the evil one. This first “O!” lays out not only how human beings are seduced by Satan, but goes on to list a series of specific sins to which human beings are prone, beginning from a desperate “O the vainness and the frailties and the foolishness of men!” (2 Nephi 9:28).
The first concern is smarts:
When [men] are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God—for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves. Wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness, and it profiteth them not. Wherefore, they shall perish. (2 Nephi 9:28)
The first concern, importantly, is learning, which leads to the conviction that one is wise, and that in turn leads to the belief that one need not bother with the counsel of God. The danger of this verse today is the very real temptation to take “learned” here to refer just to academics and intellectuals, but Jacob’s words have, I think, a much broader application. Relatively few people in what we call the “first world” can be classified as unlearned. People in the United States, for instance, almost universally receive at least nine or ten years of education, the vast majority at least twelve or thirteen, a significant majority still more, and a very goodly number much more. Even if one doesn’t receive a Ph.D. in one of the liberal arts, one is still learned if one has had so much opportunity for education, etc. The danger being warned against here is not so much “becoming an intellectual” or “studying too much about the Church” or any such thing. The danger being warned against here is the acquisition of wisdom, and that’s something most Latter-day Saints have more than ample opportunity to acquire.
Most helpful, then, is verse 29:
But to be learned is good if it so be that they hearken unto the counsels of God.
The point is clearly not to dismiss learning, but to uncouple it from arrogance before God. Whether one’s expertise is in an academic field, the history of the Church, salesmanship, farming, construction, law, raising children, etc., etc., etc., all who gain any wisdom face the very real danger of thinking that their own practical acquisitions are worth more than the direct counsel of God.
Interestingly, when Jacob goes on to provide the next thing through which Satan seduces human beings, there’s no mentioned qualification:
But woe unto the rich which are rich as to the things of the world. For because that they are rich, they despise the poor and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures. Wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also. (2 Nephi 9:30)
Note how closely parallel the structure of this passage is to verse 28: “when they are learned”/”because that they are rich”; “they think they are wise”/”they despise the poor”; “and they hearken not unto the counsel of God”/”and they persecute the meek”; “for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves”/”and their hearts are upon their treasures”; “wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not”/”wherefore, their treasure is their god”; “wherefore, they shall perish”/”and behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.” The parallel couldn’t be much clearer. But the strictness of the parallel marks a major difference. Verse 28 is followed by “to be learned is good if it so be that they hearken unto the counsels of God”; verse 30 is followed by no such thing.
Does that mean that Jacob closes the door entirely on riches? To be a bit frank, I think the answer is yes, though I think that needs a bit of explanation. I think Jacob’s later words in Jacob 2:17-19 are helpful here. There he makes clear that God is happy to award “riches” to His people, and indeed that He even wants His people to be rich. But—and this can’t be missed or explained away—the riches He’s happy to award are always riches sought “for the intent to do good.” What kind of good? “To clothe the naked and to feed the hungry and to liberate the captive and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” There’s no suggestion, then, that God wants one to be rich. Rather, God provides riches so that—and apparently only so that—they can be used to benefit those in need. But what of this “He even wants His people to be rich” business? That’s also clear from Jacob’s later words, but he’s pretty clear that God doesn’t want anyone rich among His people unless they’re all rich: “Think of your brethren like to yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.” That’s the only sense in which God seems, for Jacob, to be happy with His people being rich: if all are rich, wealth works. Until then, whoever has riches had better, it seems, be exalting the poor.
Now, I’m quite aware that having said what I’ve just said is going to bother some—some politically, others personally. As for politics, let me be clear that nothing I’ve said here issues from any political convictions on my part. I’ve said nothing about taxes, centralized government, health care plans, and what have you. None of that is relevant to what Jacob’s saying—or at least not immediately. Whether wealth is given to the poor through personal charity or through a mass governmental system matters little to me here. I’m just trying to sort out what Jacob is saying about wealth, and that, I think, is clear. As for personal concern, I expect some will worry that I’ve missed the crucial fact, also pointed out in scripture, that the poor can be quite as proud and problematic as the rich. Let me be clear that I know that, and that I fully trust the scriptures on that point as well. It’s just that Jacob’s not talking about the temptations the poor face in the passage under consideration. When we come to that sort of passage, that sort of thing has to be considered. For the moment, every one of us with more than we need ought to be thinking carefully about whether we “despise the poor” or “persecute the meek.” It happens with startling frequency among us, and it works against everything scripture has to say about the matter. The rich shouldn’t bother themselves with the question of whether the poor are poor in a proud way, as Benjamin teaches beautifully in Mosiah 4:16-19.
At any rate, it should be noted that verse 30, in speaking of wealth, issues a woe, while verses 28-29 only warn against letting learning misguide one. Jacob is as clear as can be: “woe unto the rich.” For whatever reason, we agree with all the other woes that come in verses 31-38. Indeed, we wouldn’t dare question them: woe to “the deaf that will not hear” (verse 31), to “the blind that will not see” (verse 32), to “the uncircumcised of heart” (verse 33), to “the liar” (verse 34), to “the murderer” (verse 35), to “them who commit whoredoms” (verse 36), to “they that worship idols” (verse 37), to “all they that die in their sins” (verse 38). We have no serious justification to add to any of these—but the one Jacob dwells on at the greatest length we race to soften, to water down, to be rid of, to get around, etc. At best, we console ourselves by pitying the poor, but pity is a form of despising, as anyone pitied can tell you. Rather than self-justify, we might do well to hear Jacob’s woe for what it is: a call to repentance.
But though I’m quite ready to stop walking on eggshells, Jacob’s next point offers a most poignant further word on all this.
2 Nephi 9:39
Here’s what Jacob says after issuing this series of woes, beginning with the woe to the rich:
O, my beloved brethren, remember the awfulness in transgressing against that holy God, and also the awfulness of yielding to the enticings of that cunning one. Remember: to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal. (2 Nephi 9:39)
These are strong words to use in following up a series of woes. For one, Jacob’s words here make clear that every inclination to pursue the things he’s warned against is so much “yielding to the enticings of that cunning one.” For two, he further makes clear that every action that falls within one of the categories just condemned amounts to “transgressing against that holy God,” despite what we might think. And so, for three, he gives us a general principle that ought to bring us up short: every inclination to pursue these evils—and wealth in the sense described above, don’t forget, is among them—is carnal-mindedness, the thought of the (corrupted) flesh, and so is an orientation to death. The task is to turn from all these evils to “life eternal.”
But lest this not be taken to be poignant enough, Jacob’s next word is stronger still.
2 Nephi 9:40
He goes on:
O, my beloved brethren, give ear to my words! Remember the greatness of the Holy One of Israel. Do not say that I have spoken hard things against you, for if ye do, ye will revile against the truth—for I have spoken the words of your Maker! I know that the words of truth are hard against all uncleanness, but the righteous fear it not, for they love the truth and are not shaken! (2 Nephi 9:40)
The point, I should hope, is clear. Jacob here echoes Nephi’s discussion with Laman and Lemuel in the first verses of 1 Nephi 16. They didn’t like the bluntness of his message, and we’re quick to criticize them for taking the truth to be hard. But are we so ready to listen to the truth from Jacob without taking it to be hard (or trying, more often, just to explain it away)? At any rate, “the righteous fear it not, for they love the truth and are not shaken.” Though I feel like I’m walking on eggshells just explaining Jacob, Jacob seems happy to dance on those eggshells!
All that said, note how verses 39-40 balance each other: each is a question of remembering, but the first calls for a remembrance of the awfulness of transgression, etc., while the second calls for a remembrance of God’s goodness. These woes, beginning—I’ll say it once more—from the woe against wealth, issue from a double recognition: the awfulness of transgression and the goodness of God. All this is less a straightforward condemnation of the wicked (if you don’t repent, here’s what you’ll get) than an invitation: remembering the awfulness but also the goodness of God, turn from evil and embrace the good. Giving up whatever sin you’re clinging to—wealth, stubbornness, pride, deception, murder, whoredoms, idolatry, what have you—can only lead to peace.
And all of this sets up Jacob’s most explicit invitation, beginning with the next verse.
2 Nephi 9:41-43
Invitation? Take a look:
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One! (2 Nephi 9:41)
But how to do so? Jacob explains:
Remember that his paths are righteousness. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him. And the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel, and he employeth no servant there. And there is none other way save it be by the gate, for he cannot be deceived (for the Lord God is his name). (2 Nephi 9:41)
Well, that begins to explain things: the invitation is an invitation to begin a journey, to begin down a pathway that is unmistakably demanding. Grace is remarkably demanding, because every veering from the narrow path it marks out is a way of rejecting the gift, of turning it to one’s own advantage, of making the gift into something earned. Grace opens up the possibility of obedience, but the path of obedience is narrow—not only because on can disobey, but because one can even turn obedience into disobedience, into a way of compromising grace. The utmost vigilance has to characterize one’s way down that path. And when one comes to its end, the gatekeeper can’t be deceived, since it turns out to be the Lord Himself! “Has your obedience been out of love, or has it been for your own exaltation? I can’t be deceived, so answer honestly.”
But Jacob continues to explain, now detailing the moment of arrival at the gate:
And whoso knocketh, to him will he open. (2 Nephi 9:42)
Well, that, at least, is a comfort. But how does one knock? The answer is a bit shocking:
And the wise and the learned and they that are rich—which are puffed up because of their learning and their wisdom and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth, and save they shall cast these things away and consider themselves fools before God and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them. But the things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever—yea, that happiness which is prepared for the saints. (2 Nephi 9:42-43)
Christ doesn’t open to these. What does that mean? Well, apparently, given the fact that “whoso knocketh, to him will he open,” it means that they don’t knock. To knock on the door takes every ounce of humility one can muster—considering oneself a fool (though one has learning) and getting rid, it seems, of all one’s riches (and it isn’t hard to guess to whom they have been given). Here there’s a return (see, it isn’t just me!) to verses 28-30: learning and wisdom have to be dispensed with, but specifically by considering oneself a fool before God (not, it seems, by actually getting rid of one’s learning—which would be, it seems to me, impossible); and riches—here’s the kicker—have to be dispensed with by actually getting rid of them. One doesn’t even knock on that door, despite all one’s work at traveling the pathway to it, until one has taken one’s wisdom or learning to be nothing before God, and before one has rid oneself of wealth entirely. Only then is “that happiness which is prepared for the saints” a real possibility.
2 Nephi 9:44
Lest anyone think that Jacob missed how hard the words he’s just offered are to swallow, he now goes so far as to “take off [his] garments and … shake them before” his hearers, all this as a witness that he “shook [their] iniquities from [his] soul” (2 Nephi 9:44). Having said what had to be said—and it wasn’t easy—he wants to make clear that he’s thus unburdened himself of a major responsibility. (It’s worth noting that Jacob seems always to have this kind of approach to things, as evidenced throughout the Book of Jacob.) But I move, now, to the last of Jacob’s O’s.
2 Nephi 9:45-46
After all that’s been said, and in the wake of the gesture that marks the responsibility that now rests on the shoulders of his hearers, Jacob warns those listening to prepare for the judgment:
O, my beloved brethren, turn away from your sins! Shake off the chains of him that would bind you fast! Come unto that God who is the rock of your salvation! Prepare your souls for that glorious day when justice shall be administered unto the righteous—even the day of judgment—that ye may not shrink with awful fear, that ye may not remember your awful guilt in perfectness and be constrained to exclaim: Holy! Holy are thy judgments, O Lord God Almighty! But I know my guilt! I transgressed thy law, and my transgressions are mine! And the devil hath obtained me, that I am a prey to his awful misery! (2 Nephi 9:45-46)
These words are sobering, and spoken by a most sober individual. It brings us to the end of the O’s and turns us over the conclusion of the sermon-within-a-sermon, which takes up the last verses of 2 Nephi 9.
2 Nephi 9:47-52
The conclusion to the sermon-within-a-sermon comes in two sequences. The first (verses 47-49) is a kind of justification for the sermon-within-a-sermon itself; the second (verses 50-52) is a final word of invitation.
The justification, it seems, issues from Jacob’s concern that he’s been too harsh:
But behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up your souls if your minds were pure? Would I be plain unto you, according to the plainness of the truth, if ye were freed from sin? Behold, if ye were holy, I would speak unto you of holiness. But as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that I teach you the consequences of sin. (2 Nephi 9:47-48)
This is, it seems to me, very much in the vein of the immediately preceding verses, though now by way of direct justification. Interestingly, it’s followed by a kind of one-verse summary of Nephi’s psalm (from 2 Nephi 4):
Behold, my soul abhorreth sin, and my heart delighteth in righteousness. And I will praise the holy name of my God. (2 Nephi 9:49)
Jacob reproduces the soul/heart pairing, the abhorrence/delight dichotomy, the sin/righteousness dichotomy, etc., and then reproduces the concluding determination to praise, all this from 2 Nephi 4. I think there’s more to be investigated there. For now, though, I’m getting eager to finish this overlong post.
The final invitation is beautiful, drawing on the words of Isaiah 55:1-2:
Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth—come ye to the waters. And ye that hath no money: come, buy and eat. Yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy. Hearken diligently unto me, and remember the words which I have spoken, and come unto the Holy One of Israel, and feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted. And let your soul delight in fatness. Behold, my beloved brethren, remember the words of your God. Pray unto him continually by day, and give thanks unto his holy name by night. Let your hearts rejoice! (2 Nephi 9:50-52)
The imagery can speak for itself, as can Jacob’s sudden exuberance. I want to say a word, though, about this sudden turn to Isaiah, after so much time spent away from him. Remember—it must always be remembered—that 2 Nephi 9 falls within a larger sermon that is focused on the task of interpreting Isaiah. At this literally last word of the sermon-within-a-sermon, there’s a turn to Isaiah that paves the way to 2 Nephi 10, where Isaiah will become central again. The turn to Isaiah here is quite rich, as it suggests that there are deeper Isaianic resonances in the discussion of the redemption of the flesh that he’s not really articulated. That, I think, deserves closer attention, though I only note it here. For the moment, I want just to get on to 2 Nephi 10.
2 Nephi 10
From the last verse of 2 Nephi 9, we know that Jacob’s sermon spread over two days. That turns out to be very important. We’ve already seen (in 2 Nephi 6:4) that one of Jacob’s aims in this sermonic experience is to teach the Nephites the name of God. That comes only in 2 Nephi 10, on the second day of the sermon. Why is that important? Because when Jacob announces it, he explains that it was told him only “in the last night” by an angel (2 Nephi 10:3), that is, between the two days of the sermon. On day one, Jacob announces that the name of God will be revealed to them; on the second day, he announces that he has learned it the night before. There’s something rather peculiar going on in all this that needs to be sorted out. It’s interesting, moreover, that this name is given to the people only once the focus has shifted from Christ’s work of redeeming the flesh to the larger covenantal setting of that story. The late announcement is peculiar, and it calls for a careful analysis of the following question: What is the relationship between the redemption of the flesh and the fulfillment of the covenant, and what has Jesus Christ to do with that relationship?
I’ll take chapter 10, as everything else here, in bits and pieces.
2 Nephi 9:53 — 10:3a
I begin with the last couple of verses of chapter 9. Rather suddenly, and just after quoting from Isaiah 55, Jacob turns from the redemption of the flesh back to the covenant:
And behold, how great the covenants of the Lord! And how great his condescensions unto the children of men! And because of his greatness and his grace and mercy, he hath promised unto us that our seed shall not utterly be destroyed according to the flesh, but that he would preserve them. And in future generations they shall become a righteous branch unto the house of Israel. (2 Nephi 9:53)
Here already there’s a kind of preliminary answer to the question raised above. Jacob extols two things: “the covenants of the Lord,” and “his condescensions unto the children of men.” Further, he weaves together into a single story the “greatness … grace and mercy” constantly praised in chapter 9 and the promise concerning the Lehite seed “according to the flesh.” From all this it’s at least clear that the flesh and the covenant cannot be entirely disentangled. But what can be said positively about the relationship between them? Is the redemption of the flesh something like the ontological condition for the possibility of the covenant’s fulfillment? Or is there more at work here.
There’s this, then:
For behold, the promises which we have obtained are promises unto us according to the flesh. (2 Nephi 10:2)
Again the two terms are woven together, but it isn’t clear here why the redemption of the flesh would be necessary to the fulfillment of the covenant. What’s going on? Well, this comes next, from verse 3:
Wherefore as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—that he should come among the Jews, among they which are the more wicked part of the world.
What light does this shed? Quite a bit, it seems to me. Christ is sent among the covenant people precisely, and it’s because the redemption of the flesh that is accomplished through the death imposed on Him by the covenant people that the history of the covenant unfolds as it does. Christ is a kind of middle term between the covenant and the condescension: He is at once, on the other hand, the heir of the covenant and what drives the scattering that is to be overcome in the covenant’s fulfillment and, on the other hand, the God-become-man who redeems the flesh that makes up the whole of humanity, covenantal or not. The universality of the redemption, worked out in the specifically covenantal context, reorients and reworks the covenant in the kinds of ways that Isaiah in particular anticipated in his writings: the covenant would, through the Messiah, open itself beyond the covenant people in remarkable ways. The great irony is that that is only made possible because the covenant people turn against the covenant in killing the Messiah.
It’s obviously significant that it’s precisely at this moment that we get the angelically reported name: “Christ.” Much fun has been made of the fact that the Nephites are given to know the Greek term “Christ” long before the Greek language has anything to do with the biblical tradition, but Jacob seems relatively unperturbed by this. Indeed, could there be anything more appropriate than a revelation of a Greek—non-Hebrew—term for the Messiah in this context, in this exposition of the moment when the covenant is translated into the context and even language of the Gentiles? I think there’s something quite significant in the revelation of a specifically Greek name in connection with the story Jacob is trying to tell. “Christ” is the symbol of the covenant opened onto the Gentiles, the symbol of the weaving together of the redemption of the flesh (open to all, Greeks included) and the covenant (effected through the Hebrew Messiah).
Of course, all this is just the beginning of the covenantal story, and Jacob will now be getting back to Isaiah.
2 Nephi 10:7-9
I’m skipping over a few verses here, mostly because they tell the story of the destruction and scattering of those at Jerusalem after the time of Christ. I want to look at the moment when all this is turned around:
But behold, thus saith the Lord God: When the day cometh that they shall believe in me, that I am Christ, then have I covenanted with their fathers that they shall be restored in the flesh upon the earth unto the lands of their inheritance. (2 Nephi 10:7)
This passage is deeply interesting. It brings together the Greek “Christ” with the covenant to the patriarchs yet again, and weaves together—again—the flesh and the covenant. What will characterize the events of the last days, in Jacob’s view, is this perfect weaving together of resurrection and restoration (the two interpretations of Ezekiel 37, one might say).
But how is it to be accomplished? Here Jacob comes back to Isaiah:
And the nations of the Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of me, saith God, in carrying them forth to the lands of their inheritance. yea, the kings of the Gentiles shall be nursing fathers unto them, and their queens shall become nursing mothers. Wherefore, the promises of the Lord is great unto the Gentiles, for he hath spoken it, and who can dispute? (2 Nephi 10:8-9)
Note that this is the passage from back in 2 Nephi 6, the passage Nephi had asked Jacob to take up. Now enough has been said to bring all this into full clarity.
Or so it seems. But Jacob is about to complicate the story by introducing into it the role played by the promised land.
2 Nephi 10:10-14
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jacob brings the promised land into this story, since he’s been saying from the beginning that the task is to liken Isaiah’s words concerning Israel and the Gentiles to what they know of the future history of their own branch of Israel. Here’s what he says:
But behold, this land, saith God, shall be a land of thine inheritance, and the Gentiles shall be blessed upon the land. And this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land which shall raise up unto the Gentiles. And I will fortify this land against all other nations, and he that fighteth against Zion shall perish, saith God. For he that raiseth up a king against me will perish—for I, the Lord, the king of heaven, will be their king, and I will be a light unto them forever that hear my words. (2 Nephi 10:10-14)
This is complex stuff, and there are those who are too quick to interpret it to their own (political) benefit. I want to give a minimalist reading of it, and a rather short one at that. It seems clear enough that this passage makes clear that the Gentiles will have a particular place among the Lehites, in the New World. But it’s clear also that that is only promised to be the case if they do not fight against Zion. Every effort must be to the building up of Zion.
But, as it turns out, there’s something specific that gets in the way of that building up.
2 Nephi 10:15-17
What gets in the way? Well, straightforwardly, this:
Wherefore, for this cause—that my covenants may be fulfilled which I have made unto the children of men that I will do unto them while they are in the flesh—I must needs destroy the secret works of darkness, and of murders, and of abominations. (2 Nephi 10:15)
Now, this has to be interpreted very carefully. What gets in the way? In a word: secret works of darkness. But how do we identify those? The next verse is clear (and it says nothing about communists, organized crime, or corporations):
Wherefore, he that fighteth against Zion—both Jew and Gentiles, both bond and free, both male and female—shall perish. (2 Nephi 10:16)
There’s something absolutely remarkable about this verse. It uses the classic gesture of universalism to be found in Galatians (likely a baptismal formula from the early Christians), and which Nephi will later use also (Jew and Gentile, bond and free, male and female), but not to affirm the universality of the gospel. It uses the formula in order to mark the fact that all are equally condemned for fighting against Zion: in or out of the covenant, whatever one’s social status, whatever one’s gender. No one is privileged in a way that allows them to subvert the work of Zion.
But the more crucial point is simply that this is what’s meant by “secret works of darkness”: anyone or anything that fights against Zion. There are no identified (or perhaps even identifiable) organizations in mind here, as the next part of the verse makes clear:
For they are they which are the whore of all the earth, for they which are not for me are against me, saith our God. (2 Nephi 10:16)
The whore of all the earth, the great and abominable church, can’t be identified—certainly by the end of things—with any socio-political organization. In question are all things that fight against Zion. It’s Zion by which all is measured here, and nothing else.
What all this implies about secret combinations, etc., will have to be worked out later. There’s plenty to be learned about the subject from the Book of Mormon, but we’ve only just begun to encounter it. We’ll be coming back to this theme again and again this year.
2 Nephi 10:18-23
The next verses tell us what is now a familiar story: that the Gentiles will be numbered among the house of Israel if they aid in the building of Zion, and the land of inheritance will be shared, etc. But the crux of this passage is what Jacob draws from all this for his people: “let us … not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off” (2 Nephi 10:20); “great is the promises of the Lord unto they which are upon the isles of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:21); “cheer up your hearts and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves, to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life” (2 Nephi 10:23).
Note how that last bit clearly echoes 2 Nephi 2. Here again the connection between the covenant and the redemption of the flesh is clear. Knowing that the covenant will be fulfilled, Jacob wants his people to take up the immediate task of faithfulness, of obeying the spiritual law, of pursuing the truth of the resurrection in a way that leads to eternal life.
And with this return, Jacob finally makes his clearest and most important statement about grace. We’ll be revisiting it a couple of lessons from now, but it deserves careful exposition here. I’ll take it up at length by way of concluding this long, long post.
2 Nephi 10:24-25
Grace? Let’s see if we can get clear on what Jacob has to teach here.
Here, to get started, is the passage:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God—and not to the will of the devil and the flesh—and remember that, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. Wherefore, may God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine. Amen. (2 Nephi 10:24-25)
Now, the first thing to be said is that this passage obviously bears a close relationship to a much more famous and frequently cited one: 2 Nephi 25:23. You’ll remember it well:
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 we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23)
Note the series of clear connections: reconciliation is a theme, each talks about some kind of “after” relation, both say straightforwardly that “it is by grace that we are saved”/”it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved,” etc. But notice also that Nephi’s written word on this subject comes only after Jacob’s spoken-and-then-recorded word. Given that Jacob is the one focused on the redemption of the flesh, etc., in Nephi’s record, I think it’s safe to say that whatever Nephi means by his “version,” he’s borrowing from or adapting Jacob’s statement. In order to make sense of the later passage, we’ve got to make clear sense of the earlier passage.
It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a structural function performed by the two passages in relation to one another. Jacob’s statement about grace comes right at the end of his contribution to the “Atonement” portion of Nephi’s record, while Nephi’s comes right near the beginning of his contribution to the “Atonement” portion. The two passages essentially frame the Isaiah chapters that occur between them. Further, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, each of the passages is closely associated with a discussion of typological interpretation (on in the first verses of 2 Nephi 11, the other right in 2 Nephi 25). All this is clearly significant: surrounding the Isaiah chapters on either end and so setting off those most privileged chapters of Nephi’s record is a pair of paired passages, one on grace and the other on typological interpretation of scripture. All this deserves serious treatment that I can’t take up here (but I have taken up in my now-imminent book).
But let’s get on to actual content. What is Jacob saying in his word on grace?
First, his message is one about two rivaling “wills”: “the will of God” on the one hand, “the will of the devil and the flesh” on the other. In a sense, this echoes the verse that precedes the passage (which in turn clearly echoes the end of 2 Nephi 2), with its dichotomy between “the way of everlasting death” and “the way of eternal life.” But with “the will” replacing “the way,” there is obviously a new direction being pursued here: in verse 23, it’s a question of choosing, of being “free to act for [oneself]“; in verse 24, it’s a question of reconciliation. So what is reconciliation?
Reconciliation is, best put, the overcoming of alienation, the overcoming of estrangement. In that sense, it doesn’t seem terribly difficult to sort out what’s at stake here: the Fall, etc., has alienated or estranged human beings from God, and they’re now being called to reconciliation with God. That Jacob uses a reflexive form of the verb (“reconcile yourselves” rather than simply “be reconciled”) suggests that the source of alienation, as well as the source of reconciliation, lies within human beings: it is they who have created troubles, and they have to do something to get rid of those troubles. Of course, “reconcile yourselves” has a bit more of a colloquial ring to it, as well. The phrase bears a hint of resignation about it as well: Get used to the idea! Stop fighting against the way things are!
From all this, I want to say that “reconcile yourselves” here means something like “Stop holding out against the will of God!” Stop insisting on what you think is your own will, but what turns out actually to be the combined wills of the devil and the flesh. The flesh has been redeemed, and you’re quite free to follow the will of God. So why are you holding out against it? Why are you so nervous about your freedom to do good? Stop alienating yourself from the God who has given you, in nothing but grace, the possibility of doing something worthwhile. Stop insisting on your own dereliction, your own inabilities, your own failings. Get over yourself!
That, it seems, is all that has to be done before grace has full sway: “after ye are reconciled unto God,” Jacob says, “it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved.” The only thing to be “done” before grace takes over is reconciliation. And what is reconciliation? It’s less something to be done than something to be stopped. What’s to be done so that grace takes over is just to stop fighting against God’s grace. All that stands between an individual and grace is one’s insistence on not being a part of grace. Sin, in a word, is rejection of already-given grace, and repentance is nothing more than a giving up of one’s insistence on rejecting that grace. Grace overwhelms us, but we want nothing to do with it; we alienate ourselves from it, whether by convincing ourselves that God’s will is nothing we want, or whether by convincing ourselves that it’s only our job to be good. And Jacob invites us to be done with all that selfishness, all that desire to do it our way, on our own terms, through our own efforts. It’s only in and through God’s grace that salvation is effected.
And so, in verse 25, it’s God who raises us from death and from everlasting death. It’s God who has offered the atonement with its “power of the resurrection,” such that death is trumped and our orientation to death (sin) is trumped, both the first and the second death stripped of their dominating power. We remain under the sway of the second death only inasmuch as we insist on doing things without God, without grace. Hence, if we cease to fight against God, we’ll have the chance, forever, to “praise him through grace divine.” Even our words of praise will be offered only by His grace.
It’s been said, again and again, that the Book of Mormon dispenses with that awful Protestant notion of “salvation by grace alone,” but Jacob says otherwise. And when Nephi goes on later to talk about salvation by grace “after all we can do,” Jacob should be haunting us, reminding us that “all we can do” is be reconciled—that is, that “all we can do” is stop working for our own salvation (or damnation). All we can do is get over ourselves and let grace do its thing. There is no doctrine of salvation by works in the Book of Mormon, no doctrine of earning grace, no doctrine of doing enough or being good enough to merit God’s love. The doctrine is clear: God’s grace comes before us, and it’s we who reject it; the invitation is just to stop fighting against it, so that it can again do its thing.
And with that, Jacob’s sermon comes to a beautiful end.