Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why I Believe: Evidence Forty-seven: “Zingers” in the Book of Mormon, Part 4: Keeping the Commandments and Prospering in the Land

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith Was a Prophet

Evidence Forty-seven:
“Zingers” in the Book of Mormon, Part 4:
“Keeping the Commandments and Prospering in the Land”© 
(Revised 23 February 2016)

The Book of Mormon rewards close and careful attention every time we read it, even when reading passages, ideas, concepts, and doctrines which we may feel quite comfortable with. One such expression which provides significant insight when examined carefully is the common phrase to “prosper in the land.” It appears about thirty-five times in the Book of Mormon.(1) The refrain is frequent enough, and often in nearly the same language, so that it becomes easy to assume that we understand its meaning. Recently in my personal reading I came across a brief assessment of this expression that suggested the importance of taking a closer look.(2)

To begin with, it is useful to ask ourselves how we and perhaps the church generally understand this idea. It first appeared in the Book of Mormon in a revelation to Nephi found in 1 Nephi 2:
19) And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart. 20) And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands. 21) And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.  And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.
The refrain which is more or less constant in the entire book is the following in 2 Nephi 4:4.
For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.
The common understanding of this expression is that “prosper in the land” implies material success. That is consistent with the most prominent and used definitions of the word prosper. Checking several dictionaries one encounters most frequently that the term means to “succeed in material terms, to be financially successful” and I believe many Church members understand this statement in those terms. LeGrand Baker in the analysis referred to above has looked more carefully at several of the passages in the Book of Mormon which contain this phrase and suggests that it may have a much deeper meaning. For example, in the 1 Nephi 2 passage above he noticed the fact that the promise of prosperity comes prior to arrival in the promised land(3), and in fact seems to be involved in being led to that land. Here is the language of verse 20 once again: “And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.” Another thing which interests Baker is found in Helaman 3:20:
Nevertheless Helaman did fill the judgment-seat with justice and equity; yea, he did observe to keep the statutes, and the judgments, and the commandments of God; and he did do that which was right in the sight of God continually; and he did walk after the ways of his father, insomuch that he did prosper in the land.
Here we have the phrase “prosper in the land” in the context of a description of the spiritual strengths of Helaman. This leads Baker to write:
Even a casual reader must admit that after such a list of spiritual superlatives, it would be rather anticlimactic to suggest, as their conclusion, that the king also made a lot of money that year. It says that, of course, if one wishes to read it that way.  But it also says something much more important and much more consistent with the spiritual crescendo to which the early part of the verse is building.(4)
Both of the above passages appear to be suggesting that prospering is associated with enjoying an abundance of spiritual blessings.

Another matter Baker alerted me to is how this idea--obedience to the commandments and the promise of prospering in the land–is contrasted with those who are disobedient and told they will be cut off from the presence of the Lord. The opposite of prosper in many passages is to be cut off from the presence of the Lord.(5) To me it seems incongruous to say the obedient will become materially successful but the disobedient will be cut off from the presence of the Lord. A more nearly correct parallel would be that the obedient will enjoy access to the presence of the Lord and the disobedient will not. In this respect then Baker concludes that in the Book of Mormon sometimes the statement “prosper in the land:” 
....means to come unto Christ–either the process of doing so, or to actually have already done so.  Mormon’s narrative and the prophets he quotes use that phrase both ways.  He tells one story about what happened when the ideas of the law of consecration began to take hold in the church under king Mosiah. The people became rich in worldly things. After that, as their adherence to the law of consecration matured, “the Lord did visit them and did prosper them” (Mosiah 27:3-7; see also Alma 9:13, 38:1, 50:20).(6)
Additional uses of the phrase are connected to yet other important spiritual blessings. For example, twice  the promise of prospering in the land is linked with the blessings of having Laban’s “plates of brass” with them. The first is in 1 Ne. 4:14-16:
14) And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise. 15) Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law. 16) And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.
Here the sequence of ideas is that Nephi remembers he was told that if his family kept the commandments they would prosper in the land of promise, but in order to do that they needed to have a written record of the Lord’s commandments. Thus their need to take with them Laban’s plates. The linkage is more direct in Mosiah 1:7:
And now, my sons, I would that ye should remember to search them [the plates of brass] diligently, that ye may profit thereby; and I would that ye should keep the commandments of God, that ye may prosper in the land according to the promises which the Lord made unto our fathers.
Here two words normally understood as economic terms–profit and prosper–are applied in a spiritual context to the spiritual benefit of searching the scriptures diligently. So it appears that having the scriptures and studying them is not only a necessary prerequisite to prospering in the land, but one of the forms that prosperity takes as well.

Yet other passages connect prospering in the land with enjoying the protection of the Lord in the land of promise. This important aspect of prospering is found in at least three passages.  The first is in Mosiah 2:31. I will highlight the relevant ideas with various forms of emphasis to facilitate grasping the connections under consideration.
And now, my brethren, I would that ye should do as ye have hitherto done. As ye have kept my commandments, and also the commandments of my father, and have prospered, and have been kept from falling into the hands of your enemies, even so if ye shall keep the commandments of my son, or the commandments of God which shall be delivered unto you by him, ye shall prosper in the land, and your enemies shall have no power over you
The second is in Alma 48:15:
And this was their faith, that by so doing God would prosper them in the land, or in other words, if they were faithful in keeping the commandments of God that he would prosper them in the land; yea, warn them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger
Our last example is found in Alma 50:20-22:
20) Blessed art thou and thy children; and they shall be blessed, inasmuch as they shall keep my commandments they shall prosper in the land. But remember, inasmuch as they will not keep my commandments they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord. 21) And we see that these promises have been verified to the people of Nephi; for it has been their quarrelings and their contentions, yea, their murderings, and their plunderings, their idolatry, their whoredoms, and their abominations, which were among themselves, which brought upon them their wars and their destructions. 22) And those who were faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord were delivered at all times, whilst thousands of their wicked brethren have been consigned to bondage, or to perish by the sword, or to dwindle in unbelief, and mingle with the Lamanites.
In these instances prospering involves receiving guidance from the Lord which resulted in their protection and/or deliverance from their enemies.  Peace is a corollary to these ideas as is found in Mosiah 10:5:
And I did cause that the women should spin, and toil, and work, and work all manner of fine linen, yea, and cloth of every kind, that we might clothe our nakedness; and thus we did prosper in the landthus we did have continual peace in the land for the space of twenty and two years.
Prospering in the land always depends upon keeping the commandments of God and it appears from our analysis so far that the prospering meant enjoying the Spirit of the Lord and the spiritual blessings it brings to individuals and societies. I wondered if any of the brethren had commented on the meaning of this important phrase and I was pleased to discover when I did a Google search to find that in May of 2014 Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife addressed the annual BYU Women’s Conference. The title of their address was “The Rewards of Righteousness,” and one of the main rewards they discussed was “prospering in the land.” The address was later reprinted in the July 2015 Ensign, under Elder Cook’s name alone.  In this talk Elder Cook addressed the meaning of the phrase “prosper in the land” twice. The fact that he repeated himself on the matter may suggest the importance he placed on this issue.  He said, 
Fourth is the reward of prospering in the land. The question here is: Our family is not achieving significant material success. Is that because we are not righteous enough? Let me assure you that prospering in the land is not defined by the size of your bank account. It has a much fuller meaning than that.The scriptures are clear that living the commandments allows us to prosper in the land. The prophet Alma, speaking to his son Helaman, teaches, “Inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; and ye ought to know also, that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence.”Accordingly, having the Spirit in our lives is the primary ingredient in prospering in the land.(7)
And again:
In a conversation I had with President Gordon B. Hinckley on a flight to a temple dedication, he joyfully reported that the Church had the funds to increase the number of temples because the Latter-day Saints had prospered in the land. As faithful tithe payers, they had provided the resources to build temples where sacred ordinances could be performed. Prospering and being wealthy are not necessarily synonymous. A much better gospel definition of prospering in the land is having sufficient for our needs while having the abundant blessing of the Spirit in our lives. When we provide for our families and love and serve the Savior, we will enjoy the reward of having the Spirit and prospering in the land.(8)
A point about material prosperity should be made however. It is inevitable when the Saints of God keep his commandments that material prosperity accompany spiritual prosperity. But there is a danger that lurks in temporal prosperity and especially in our day. Six months before the Stock Market crashed in October 1929, in the April General Conference of that year, Elder Melvin J. Ballard uttered a prediction which must have appeared just six months later very wide of the mark. He said:
I recognize, however, with my brethren, that the sorest trials that have ever come to the Church in any age of the world are the trials of peace and prosperity.  But we are to do a new thing, a thing that never has before been done–We are to take the Church of Christ not only through the age of persecution and mob violence, but through the age of peace and prosperity.  For we must learn to endure faithfully even in peace and prosperity. 
I am not praying for the return of persecution and poverty; I am praying for peace and prosperity; but above all things for strength and power to endure this test.  For it was not the design and the intention of the Lord to have this people always in suffering in bondage and distress.  They shall come to peace and prosperity, but it is the sorest trial that will come to them.”(9)
The Great Depression was devastating and followed on hard by World War II then Korea, Viet Nam, and other conflicts. Amid it all the United States has continued to grow and prosper and along with it the Saints have also enjoyed unprecedented wealth and prosperity. But the Book of Mormon warns us that such prosperity can lead to pride which can lead to a monumental fall. So when the Washington, D.C. Temple was dedicated in November 1974, just 45 years after Elder Ballard spoke, President Spencer W. Kimball made a remarkable statement in his prayer at the dedication ceremony. Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Twelve, related what he said and draws his own lesson from it:
I am reminded of what President Spencer W. Kimball said at the dedication of the Washington Temple:
“Bless all people, our Father, that they may prosper, but not more than their faith can stand.... Our Father, in blessing Thy people with prosperity, we pray that they may not be surfeited with flocks and herds and acres and barns and wealth which could bring them to worship these false gods.” 
Taking freedom with President Kimball’s admonition, may I, for our purpose today, say, “Oh God, do not bless us with more stocks, bonds, properties, automobiles, or credit cards than our faith can stand or more than our parents can bear.” A worthy prayer, fellow students: “Dear God, in all the days ahead, please bless me with what I need and can stand, not with what I want.” 
“Bless us, O God, that we may not have more success than we can stand.” I know some say, “I would sure like to have that challenge”; but, believe me, it is real and difficult. Knowing how to cope with what happens to us, good or bad, is a continuing challenge.”(10)
I will conclude as I began. Careful study of the Book of Mormon, especially some of those things which are most familiar to us and which we may be tempted to take for granted, is always rewarded with new and important insights, light, and truth. As we have seen in this case, the phrase “prosper in the land” might be considered one of those little zingers which when studied carefully shows the Book of Mormon to be more rich and complex and profound than may at first appear. In this case we see at least four important ideas consistently connected to the phrase, each appearing more than once and sometimes from the hands of different authors. This phenomenon is difficult to explain by saying that Joseph Smith was the book’s author. Because in addition to all the matters of historical chronology, story line, and plot development not to mention thousands of details relative to culture, politics, war, religion, and theology that he would have had to track carefully; yet in the midst of all this he subtly weaves this important concept into more than thirty various contexts many of which almost imperceptibly elaborate its meaning beyond what appears to be the obvious. More importantly, that meaning is largely spiritual. And I remind the reader that this is all in a text that was produced in a single draft, without significant editing, rewriting, or polishing. I find myself frequently asking, “How did he do that?”  Of course the answer is that he didn’t do that, except as the Lord’s instrument in translating this sacred ancient record.

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  The distribution of the phrase “prosper in the land” or variants in the Book of Mormon is interesting.  It is found five times in the writings of Nephi and two more in the remainder of the small plates.  The large plates have twenty-eight or nine instances; seven in Mosiah, eleven in Alma, two in Helaman, one in 4 Nephi, and at least two and perhaps as many as four in Ether.

2.  LeGrand L. Baker, The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Israelite Temple: Nineteen Classic Temple Characteristics of the Book of Mormon.  Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2012, pp. 112-119.  Although I do not fully endorse the thesis of this book I would say that one of Baker’s  main strengths is that he  generally shows himself to be an attentive and close reader of the Book of Mormon text and this yields some thought provoking ideas and insights.

3.  Ibid, p. 113.  Note that all extra emphasis in scriptural passages is added by me.

4.  Ibid., p. 119.

5. Ibid., p. 114.  Several passages make this same contrast: 2 Ne. 1:20; 4:4; Al. 9:13-14; 36:30; 38:1; 50:20.

6.  Baker, The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Israelite Temple..., p. 115, emphasis added.

7.  Quentin L. and Mary G. Cook, “The Rewards of Righteousness,” address 2 May 2014, BYU Women’s Conference, internet edition, p. 9, emphasis added.  It may be accessed at:   See also Quentin L. Cook, "Reaping the Rewards of Righteousness," Ensign (July 2015):33-39, especially 38-39.

8.  Quentin L. and Mary G. Cook, “The Rewards of Righteousness,” p. 10, emphasis added.   See also Quentin L. Cook, "Reaping the Rewards of Righteousness," Ensign (July 2015):33-39, especially 38-39.

9.  Melvin J. Ballard, Conference Report, April 1929, p. 66, emphasis added.

10.  Marvin J. Ashton, “What Shall We Do Then?” BYU Speeches of the Year: BYU Centennial Devotional and Fireside Addresses 1975, (Provo: BYU Press, 1976), p. 23.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Prospering in the land has taken on new meaning for me now. Interestingly, King Benjamin was a man who taught his sons much more that is "not written in this book" (Mosiah 1:8). Undoubtedly, he taught them the principles of spiritual and temporal prosperity in the Lord's way and view. I love the connection of Benjamin teaching his sons to be "men of understanding" (1:2), and the witness in Alma 17 that Mosiah's sons were "men of a sound understanding." Benjamin had taught Mosiah to seek the mysteries of God and keep the commandments as found in the scriptures; in turn, Mosiah taught his sons the same, holy pattern that effects generations.

    Interestingly, as I've studied 1 Nephi-Mosiah 23 in the past few months, I have multiple notes and journal entries and thoughts about the value and importance of scripture. They truly are our modern day Liahona. If we give them heed, we will prosper, be protected, and be preserved in our covenants--because we will understand our covenants.

    Perhaps the other key is recognizing when we wander off the path of this prosperity. How do we safeguard this? Again, the scriptures are always going to be there as a powerful medicine.