Destruction as a Path to Salvation and the Importance of Context

It’s been so long since I’ve posted regularly, mostly because we have been battling a lot of different illnesses at our house this winter. Nothing major, just a lot of viruses and infections, one right after the other. I did a lot of reading (and a lot of Netflix bingeing) but did not have the mental energy and focus to write. I did find a lot of interesting things in my reading, especially as I tried to stay with the Come Follow Me curriculum put out by my church. I really wanted to write down and work out some of my ideas, even though the curriculum is now far past this point in the reading. I hope you’ll understand as I go back to the beginning and try to catch up to the study schedule. 

I usually study and read by topic and so it’s very easy for me to fall into the excuse that I’ve read the Book of Mormon many times before, I’m familiar with the stories and thus do not need to read them from cover to cover. This year, I want to read it straight through and see it again as a whole. Everything has a context and seeing that context is important in arriving at an understanding of the intended message. While I always try to look for the context of each individual verse as I study (for example, who is speaking and to whom), it is just as important to see that story within the full arc of the Book of Mormon and the book itself within the full scriptural cannon and the story of the Restoration. This is essential for the Book of Mormon and that’s obvious from the very beginning.

The first grand vision and revelation in the Book of Mormon is given to Lehi but is written by his son Nephi, who is reportedly young—the youngest of four brothers. Nephi writes that his father was worried for the people of Jerusalem and prayed for them. He saw a pillar of fire, was carried away by the Spirit and saw the heavens open. He was given a book and read about the destruction of Jerusalem. After reading the book, Lehi exclaimed, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!”

I stopped here for a second and wondered, is he including the destruction of Jerusalem in his praise for great and marvelous works? How could someone glory in the destruction of another? I wondered if Lehi might be a bit vindictive in his praise of the Lord, believing that the people of Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed and he deserved to be saved, thus his description of the Lord’s great mercy. This attitude is not all that hard to imagine. I’m sure we’ve all seen it or even felt it from time to time. We feel safe, maybe even jubilant, when we avoid catastrophe. And when we’ve avoided catastrophe because of our own work and choices, we are proud. Bad people should have bad things happen to them, right? Except, aren’t we all bad people at some point? 

Then I remembered that Lehi is not the only prophet to see or to prophecy about the destruction of an entire people. These prophets also praised God for his mercy because they saw the purpose of the destruction and how it fit into a greater plan. As I thought of even my own experience in learning from God that something bad was going to happen, I realized that God doesn’t show such things in isolation. He comforts and teaches. In my experience, God is not vindictive or petty but He does lead people down paths. We have a great deal of choice when it comes to which path we walk, but He also bends the roads and alters the direction to help us reach a favorable destination. I think Lehi and other prophets praised God’s mercy even after learning of destruction because they saw the part it played in their ultimate salvation.

We don’t know the entirety of Lehi’s vision—if he saw God’s full plan for Jerusalem or not. We only have an account written by his young son in a handful of verses. Later in the book it will become obvious that one small account of a vision is never enough to understand the entirety of it and that Nephi himself had a lot to learn about the meaning of mercy. 

I think this particular verse made me stop because I have seen so many examples over the years of people taking one thing and emphasizing it to the point that they forget to balance it with all of the other perspectives, stories, and lessons with in the Book of Mormon. This one verse (and it’s not entirely alone), when misconstrued and context ignored, can easily lead to a puffed up pride that is dangerous and destructive. The truth is, the Jews at Jerusalem were destroyed but then brought back again. Their history is rich and long and the love God has for them runs deep. We must also never forget that Lehi and his immediate family may have avoided destruction, but the nations that came from them did not. Prophecies about the destruction of Nephi’s people began quite quickly, and they were also welcomed with praise by the prophets that foretold them.

While the Book of Mormon does guide readers in how to follow God, it would be a fatal mistake to interpret the destruction in these stories as horrifically final when the Book of Mormon’s very existence stands as a testimony that destruction is never the end. The fact that we continue, that there is more to the story, is the mercy of God.

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