We return now to the grand parallel Nephi makes in the articulation of his vision—Lehite afflictedness and Gentile blindness. While this passage focuses on the binary possibilities for the fate of the Gentiles, in the context of the parallel there’s a critical message for the Lehites as well—if the Gentiles can assuredly repent, then the remnant of Lehi can assuredly be restored. Overall, it’s a passage concerning the universal possibility of reconciliation and union under the covenant.
Once again, it’s difficult to extricate myself from my contemporary Latter-day Saint, retroactive reading. Nephi is writing in antiquity, quoting prophets and angels and the Lamb of God himself, all in forward-looking prophecy concerning a future interplay of God, Gentile, and Jew. I naturally read this future tensed passage in the past tense—the great and marvelous work has already been worked. The Gentiles have already been given and partially embraced their opportunity. The only part of the prophecy not in the perfect tense is the possibility of their (i.e., our) turning from the covenant, falling into the snares or pits of the devil. I read this passage already secure in the embrace of the covenant to which the prophecy refers. How would all of this have appeared to Nephi?
The best heuristic is probably to think about prophecies of Armageddon or the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem or the like. Despite the confidence of the crazies, we of course have no idea what these mean in a precise, literal sense. What’s more, I don’t suspect the prophets who uttered them had a clearer picture than we do—otherwise they would have articulated their prophecies in clearer, more detailed language. What will the events of Armageddon actually look like? Which nations will be involved? How will the politics, economics, and military actions leading up to it unfold? I’ve no idea. No one does. But there’s a meaning that God makes clear and emphasizes in the prophecy that concerns the grim and overwhelming odds against the faithful and the miraculous redemption of God and the ultimate finality of the struggle. I think that Nephi is here seeing things in similar muddy terms. Which means, I don’t think Nephi’s forward-looking view brought him anything like my contemporary retroactive image.
[Aside: pop-culture has done us a terrible disservice here, convincing us that the role of the prophet is to take something like a Star Trek-holodeck view of the future and then couch that crystal clear prophetic perception in language of virtually impenetrable fog, to obfuscate the prophecy so that only those blessed by God or those who are incredibly wise or who study it for years and years and then have fortuitous moments of brilliant insight can piece together the meaning; that is, pop-culture understands prophecy as literal articulation via riddle. I think this is flatly wrong, and passages like this help make the case. Prophecy is as much (maybe more) meaning than it is history, and prophets write with as much clarity and detail as they’re given (which of course is not to say that they actually write and disseminate everything that’s revealed to them).]
Two specific things I wonder about in this passage: who are “all nations”? Who are the Gentiles? (And who are the wicked pit-diggers?) Obviously that means something different to us today than it did to Nephi. But perhaps despite Nephi’s very limited view (Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, a few others, maybe those in the New World he’s come across), the prophecy itself refers to the entire world (my contemporary view). Thinking historically, perhaps the Gentiles are a very specific sub-set of humanity. Our tendency is to see these prophecies referring either to a confined group (e.g., natives of the Guatemalan highlands + Jewish people) or universal (all humans). I don’t know how exactly we’d be justified in claiming one over another—did God mean what Nephi thought (and how can we know what Nephi thought?), what I think, or something else? And which of these meanings is the central goal of scripture study?
This brings me to my second point. Prophecy of this sort strikes me as best put to use by taking it up personally and applying it to the existential circumstances of one’s own life, while at the same time being humble concerning alternative interpretations and their legitimacy and the fact that God can and will continually expand our view, that prophecy in addition to informing and enriching our view is also meant to check our view. Which is no different than other scriptural pronunciations, and in particular doctrine. To illustrate, when Nephi quotes the angel giving a parenthetical interpretation of the Lamb of God’s prophecy in verse three concerning the duration of hell—what does Nephi/the angel/the Lamb of God mean in claiming that hell “hath no end”? I’m confident that Joseph Smith revealed more insight on this than Nephi possessed at the time. I think I ought to read this as concerning possibilities to which I am myself vulnerable, but do so in light of D&C 76 and 93. That said, I’m also confident in our 9th Article of Faith, that there is yet much that could be revealed about this—which might further comfort or discomfort me. I’m also confident that the more I know about how Nephi/the angel/the Lamb of God intended this passage at the time, the better position I am in to hear and understand how best to interpret this passage for myself, to hear the whisperings of the Spirit.
Scripture—and prophecy in particular—is always a dialogue, a negotiation, a further seeking and searching and revealing.