Ye Ask Not, Neither Do Ye Knock
Talk by David J. Butler, delivered September 22, 2013, in Orem, Utah
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. (1 Nephi 1:1)
Sound familiar? A lot has been written about these lines—we’ve argued about whether they imply that Lehi was a metallurgist or a merchant, we’ve guessed about the literacy rates in late seventh century B.C. Jerusalem, and we’ve even noticed that Nephi’s name is probably a pun in Egyptian. But as interesting as these discussions are, they largely miss what Nephi himself seems to think is the point: he makes his record because he has known the ‘goodness and the mysteries of God.’
‘Mysteries’ are revealed secrets, but the word means more than that—the original Greek mysteria meant the private and sacred ordinances in which one learned revealed secrets, as well as the secrets themselves. Is Nephi telling us that the fact that he is an initiated man, someone who knows the secret and sacred ordinances of God, has something to do with his record? Further, might sacred and secret ordinances have something to do with the ‘learning’ of Nephi’s father? On their face, Nephi’s writings don’t seem to record specific ordinances, other than briefly narrated altar sacrifices (1 Nephi 2:7, 5:9) and a wedding (1 Nephi 16:7). Is it possible that Nephi’s writings have some connection with the mysteries of God beneath their surface? That there is a non-obvious meaning to Nephi’s writings, and that meaning is connected to the mysteries of God?
Many passages in scripture suggest that the writings of the prophets have multiple levels of meaning, and that some of those levels many only be obvious to those who are specially instructed. Consider the appearance of Jesus to disciples on the road to Emmaus, as set out in Luke 24. The disciples fail to recognize him, and he says:
O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself… And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. (Luke 24:25-32)
These disciples are presumably familiar with the scriptures, but Jesus is nevertheless able to show them something they had missed, that Moses and all the prophets wrote about his suffering and entry into glory. This insight appears to be connected with a shared meal of bread with the Lord, at which the Lord himself breaks the bread and after which he disappears from view, as well as with the opening of eyes.
Matthew’s and Mark’s verbal tag to show that they are communicating sacred secrets to those in the know has to do not with eyes, but with ears: their repeated phrase is ‘who hath ears to hear, let him hear’ (Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 15-16, 43; also Mark 4:9, 23, 7:16, 8:18). In Matthew 13, the evangelist puts an explanation of his technique into the Lord’s mouth:
And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. (Matthew 13:10-16)
Again, we have the ‘mysteries.’ Matthew has Jesus say that those who know the ‘mysteries of the kingdom of heaven’ have ears and eyes opened and therefore are able to learn, to get ‘more abundance,’ by listening to Jesus’ parables. The parables, then, are written in a kind of code, and the key to the code is familiarity with the ‘mysteries.’ Knowing the mysteries gives you ears and eyes attuned and prepared to receive hidden treasures of knowledge.
The prophecy of ‘Esaias’ that Matthew quotes is Isaiah 6. Isaiah’s calling vision takes place explicitly in the temple, where he sees Yahweh on his throne, the incense with its smoke and coals, and seraphim. Isaiah hears the Lord’s voice and volunteers to be sent on the Lord’s errand, in response to which he gets the instruction that Matthew quotes:
Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat [this is an instruction to Isaiah], and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)
This is truly strange language, given the way we normally think about prophets. Isaiah’s instruction is to prophesy in a way that will prevent his audience from understanding him… because he is to shut their eyes and ears, and render their hearts uncomprehending. It is Matthew that makes sense of this instruction for us, because Matthew sees Jesus teaching the same way Isaiah taught: structuring his teaching so that those who know the mysteries, who have eyes and ears opened, will understand, but others won’t.
Isaiah is the link between Matthew and Nephi. Let’s look at how Nephi resumes his own record after copying into it thirteen straight chapters of Isaiah:
Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews… Wherefore, hearken, O my people, which are of the house of Israel, and give ear unto my words; for because the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy. But I give unto you a prophecy, according to the spirit which is in me; wherefore I shall prophesy according to the plainness which hath been with me from the time that I came out from Jerusalem with my father; for behold, my soul delighteth in plainness unto my people, that they may learn. Yea, and my soul delighteth in the words of Isaiah, for I came out from Jerusalem, and mine eyes hath beheld the things of the Jews… (2 Nephi 25:1, 4-5)
There’s a lot to unpack here, more than we have time to talk about now. Let me make just a few observations. First of all, Nephi doesn’t say, as we often assume he says, that Isaiah’s writings are hard and Nephi’s by contrast are easy. On the contrary, he uses the same language to describe both his and Isaiah’s writings: their manner of writing is ‘plain,’ and Nephi tells us moreover that he himself acquired this plainness at the time that he ‘came out from Jerusalem’—this gives us an interesting clue, which I’ll pick up again shortly. Second, he tells us that Isaiah writes the way he does because he prophesies ‘among the Jews’—in other words, like Matthew’s Jesus, there is a portion of Isaiah’s audience that is unprepared for his message, uninitiated, unworthy, and Isaiah handles the mixed audience by prophesying in the ‘plain’ manner, according to the ‘spirit of prophecy,’ in a temple code. Third, you will not have missed the fact that Nephi again gives us eyes and ears. This code, of which Isaiah, Nephi, and Jesus all appear to be practitioners, has to do with things that are seen and heard.
And that brings us to another verse of Nephi’s, one that has astounding implications, but that has passed almost unnoticed. At the end of his writings, after a lengthy and interesting discussion of the ‘doctrine of Christ,’ Nephi says this:
Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark. (2 Nephi 32:4)
These words, I believe, are absolutely as literal as can be. Nephi is writing for a specific audience: those who have stood in a certain place to ask and knock, and who have been admitted into the light. If you are one of those people—one of the people whose eyes and ears have witnessed the content of the mysteries of God, who have the spirit of prophecy—you will understand what he has written. If you are not one of those people, then like most of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ audience, you will miss the point.
The word ‘mysteries’ appears twenty times in the Book of Mormon. Each appearance of it is either a reference to sacred temple ordinances and the teachings thereof, or to their photographic negative, the terrible rites and oaths of the secret combinations. We don’t have nearly enough time today to go through all twenty references, so let’s just look at the two additional uses Nephi makes of the word. In the interest of time, I will quickly summarize the context of each use and then read the relevant verse, and I will leave you to fill in the meaning. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
First, immediately following Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem and his making camp on the Red Sea, we read of a powerful spiritual experience of Nephi’s:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers. (1 Nephi 2:16)
Nephi tells us the ‘mysteries’ consist of meeting the Lord, as he did. In verses nineteen through twenty-four we read that in that encounter the Lord made covenants with Nephi, including a promise that he would in the future be a ‘ruler’ and that his ‘seed’ would be blessed. Remember that Nephi says he had the spirit of plainness from the time he came out of Jerusalem; this experience is literally the first thing Nephi describes happening to him, Nephi, after his departure from Jerusalem, so we are led to think that the encounter with the Lord resulted in the opening of Nephi’s eyes and ears and his acquisition of the spirit of plainness, or spirit of prophecy, and the result is that Nephi believed his father’s words… or, as he says in his opening verse, he acquired the ‘learning of his father.’ His encounter with the Lord is how Nephi learned the temple code of Isaiah and Jesus.
Following his account of Lehi’s dream (more about which in a moment), Nephi summarizes explanatory teaching of his father on the subjects of the importance of John the Baptist, Christ’s baptism, an olive tree that is broken and scattered, and God’s promise that with repentance, scattered Israel can be grafted back into his family. Then Nephi expresses his desire to have the same vision as his father in these words:
I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men. For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him. For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round. (1 Nephi 10:17-19)
A ‘gift’ from God is an endowment. Nephi’s words echo chapter seven of the Sermon on the Mount, in which an individual approaches the strait and narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14) by asking, seeking, and knocking (Matthew 7:7-8) in order to get a gift of the Father (Matthew 7:9-11). As we’ve already seen, the same imagery is reflected in 2 Nephi 32, where Nephi identifies his audience as those who ask, knock, and are admitted. Nephi describes this process as ‘the mysteries of God’ and a ‘way’ that has been prepared from the ‘foundation of the world’ and summarizes the experience with the provocative phrase ‘the course of the Lord is one eternal round.’ Again, the emphasis is on seeing and hearing. Nephi is alluding to his temple experiences, and expects his audience to understand his words through the lens of their own understanding of the mysteries.
The other seventeen occurrences of the word ‘mystery’ in the Book of Mormon I leave to you. I’m going to touch quickly on four more passages in the writings of Nephi, but first I need to tell you about two essential temple symbols you may not know, both properly at home in the Holy of Holies: a rock and a tree.
The rock exists today, and if you are Muslim, you can go into the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and see it. It is called the Foundation Stone, the ’eben shetiya, and although it was in the Holy of Holies, the accounts in Kings and Chronicles of Solomon’s temple don’t mention it; we shouldn’t be surprised, since Nephi warns us that the plain and precious things have been edited out of the Bible (1 Nephi 13:25-35). Still, this rock is constantly alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments—it is the stone of stumbling and rock of offence to apostates in Isaiah 8 (Isaiah 8:14), it is the rock after which Peter is named (Matthew 16:18, John 1:42), and it is the rock on which wise men build their foundations at the end of the journey described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-27). It was once the pedestal on which the Ark of the Covenant rested, and in Jesus’ time it was treated as if it was the Ark during Day of Atonement worship (Tractate Yoma 5). Since the Ark was the Lord’s throne (1 Samuel 4:4), the rock, the Ark, and the Lord on his throne are all closely related and sometimes stand in for each other.
The tree, on the other hand, is gone. Isaiah saw the tree of light removed from the Holy of Holies in his day (Isaiah 5:18-20—‘counsel’ is a Hebrew word that can also be read ‘tree’), a traumatic event he compared with the men of Sodom assaulting Lot’s angel visitors (Genesis 19:5). It’s not clear whether the tree was ever again restored to its proper place within the Jerusalem temple, but the prophets remembered where the tree of light truly belonged. Its light is the light shining on those who have walked in darkness in Isaiah 9, and the light into which one walks after asking and knocking in 2 Nephi 32, and the light from the presence of which Christ descends in John 1. The Lord’s course is one eternal round, among other reasons, because having been cast out of the garden and the presence of the tree of life, we struggle to make our way back into the presence of that same tree, in glorified form. Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
With these under our belt, let’s look at four passages. We don’t have enough time to read them, so instead I will just identify the passages and summarize what they say. I urge you to go read the passages for yourself, and ask yourself if my reading is mistaken or exaggerated.
First, in 2 Nephi 1, Lehi pleads with his misbehaving sons to repent. After recounting to them the covenants of the Lord with them and their descendants, he commands them to wake up, arise from the dust, and be men (2 Nephi 1:13-14, 21). Who is made of dust, and awakens and arises as a man? Adam (Genesis 2:7, 21). Laman and Lemuel are Adam, and after they awake and arise, Lehi urges them to put on the ‘armor of righteousness’ (2 Nephi 2:23). ‘Righteousness’ is a component of the name Melchizedek, which in Hebrew means ‘my king is righteousness,’ suggesting that the armor is clothing associated with Melchizedek or his priesthood, an idea we’ll see in other passages—Laman and Lemuel are commanded to dress. Finally, Lehi urges his sons to ‘come forth out of obscurity’ (2 Nephi 2:23), meaning come out of the darkness and into the light of the tree of life.
Second, in 2 Nephi 4, Nephi mourns the death of his father. The imagery of his memorial psalm includes prayer, ministering angels, the ascent onto holy mountains, eyes beholding great things that are forbidden to be written, affliction in the valley of sorrow, the Lord descending, the attempt of the ‘evil one’ to destroy Nephi’s ‘peace,’ the command to awake, rejoicing, the gate of ‘righteousness’—again, Melchizedek—being opened to permit Nephi to walk in the straight path, Nephi being dressed in the ‘robe of righteousness’—Melchizedek, a gift asked and received from God, and three times the identification of God as a rock (2 Nephi 2:23-30). Nephi expects that those who have asked, knocked, and been admitted into the light, will recognize in his poem things they themselves have seen and heard.
Third, in 2 Nephi 9, Jacob teaches a sermon in a temple setting. In this sermon, he discusses the appearance of the Lord (2 Nephi 9:5), the doctrine of the Fall (2 Nephi 9:6), Satan’s beguiling of our first parents and his attempt to dominate us (2 Nephi 9:8-9), resurrection and restoration to perfection (2 Nephi 9:13-14), reminiscent again of the Sermon on the Mount in its instruction to be ‘perfect’ (Matthew 5:48), the righteous being clothed with the ‘robes of righteousness’ or Melchizedek again (2 Nephi 9:14), judgment before God’s throne (2 Nephi 9:15; compare with Matthew 7:21-27), the ‘kingdom,’ (2 Nephi 9:18, 23), the way ‘prepared from the foundation of the world’ (2 Nephi 9:18), the return to the presence of God (2 Nephi 9:26), a series of ‘wos’ like inverted Beatitudes, including warnings to the ‘deaf’ and the ‘blind’ (2 Nephi 9:31-38), a straight and narrow path through a gate watched by the Lord himself (2 Nephi 9:41), knocking at the gate to ask for admission (2 Nephi 9:42), the comparison of God to a rock (2 Nephi 9:45), a feast with the Lord (2 Nephi 9:50-51), and promises made to posterity (2 Nephi 9:53).
Finally, consider 1 Nephi 8. There’s way too much relevant detail here and too little time to cover it, but let me point out that Lehi sees a strait and narrow path leading to a tree of light (1 Nephi 8:20). Those who come along that path and enter into the presence of the tree do so by clinging to a rod of iron. Elsewhere, Nephi tells us that the rod is the ‘word of God’ (1 Nephi 11:25). That seems bland enough, a simple encouragement to read our scriptures, maybe, until we remember that John tells us that the Word of God is a priesthood title of the Lord Yahweh (John 1:1). We look closer at the rod in 1 Nephi 8 and we observe that in Lehi’s vision the spiritual travelers are seen ‘catching hold,’ ‘clinging,’ ‘catching hold,’ and ‘holding fast’ to the rod (1 Nephi 8:24, 30). Laying Lehi’s vision on top of Jacob’s sermon and comparing them, we seem to see that at the strait and narrow gate we knock, we meet the Word of God, who is the Lord, and as part of passing through the gate of Melchizedek and entering into the presence of the tree of life we have to grasp him… apparently, four times. Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
We have barely scratched the surface of a vast and crucial subject, and as I wind up I have to ask the essential question: so what? There a number of reasons so what. Let me try to capture just a few of them.
First of all, the temple is not a Nauvoo-era invention, or pilfered from speculative freemasonry. Temple ordinances are fully set out, in their physical pattern and also in their meaning, in the Book of Mormon. Contrary to what you might hear from some critics and wayward former members, the Book of Mormon is the most correct book, and its purpose is to teach us how to enter again into the presence of God.
Second, like a Pentecostal wind, I believe there is a mighty change coming. We are finally going to understand these scriptures, or our failure will break us (Mormon 8:33-41). We need to re-read the holy books, from alpha to omega, with a new perspective. Our instruction from Nephi, Isaiah, Matthew, and others, is to look with the eye and listen with the ear of someone who knows the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. That is how the prophets wrote, and it is how they must be read.
Third, the church, with all its bricks and mortar and assignments and offices, is just the club. Like Joseph Smith, Nephi was not a church builder. They were men of the temple, prophets, priests and kings. The church is here to help you, principally by providing opportunities for you to help your neighbors. Don’t get distracted by it, and don’t let the follies of any of its members get you down.
Fourth, like the church, the physical temple of wood and stone is also not the real thing, not our final objective. The temple is the place where we are taught how to return into the presence of God and be redeemed from the Fall. The scriptures, read through the lens of temple symbols, become a portable sanctuary, a manual to remembering and reliving the temple experience, a way to practice spiritual discipline in the privacy of your bedroom or on the bustle of the downtown train. The real thing is spiritual change, it is becoming temples ourselves, as John (John 2:21) and Paul (1 Corinthians 6:19) taught. Mormon described this change as entering into the rest of God ‘from this time henceforth’ (Moroni 7:3), and Alma captured it with the image of sitting down to a heavenly feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘to go no more out’ (Alma 7:25).