2 Nephi 9 tweet: Atonement delivers us from the monster. Man is vain, frail, foolish. Woe x10. Knock and He will open. Buy wine, milk w/out money. Rejoice!
This is the second post on 2 Nephi 9 (see here for last week’s post on the first half of the chapter). In this post I’ll follow a similar format to the last post by looking quite closely at the text of the second half of 2 Nephi 9. I was going to conclude with some thoughts on the Atonement in the context of Jacob’s teachings about the flesh, but the length of this post ran away from me so I’ll postpone that till next time.
Firstly, based on the overarching structure of the chapter proposed by Joe Spencer as outlined in the last post, “O that cunning plan of the evil one!” (v28) is a transitional ‘O’ that shifts the reader’s attention from the praise of God that marked the first series of six O’s, to a second series of six O’s that exhort the reader to repent. In particular, “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men!” (also v28) is the introduction to a series of ten woes.1 And these woes deserve some attention. John Welch has suggested that Jacob’s ten woes were derived from the original Ten Commandments and were meant to function as the equivalent of a contemporaneous Nephite set of ten commandments.2
Looking at a few of these more closely, in verses 28–30 read:
O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they 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. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because 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.
Spencer notes parallels between the condemnation of the worldly wise and the wo pronounced upon the rich:1
When they are learned (v28) – Because they are rich (v30)
They think they are wise (v28) – They despise the poor (v30)
And they hearken not unto the counsel of God (v28) – And they persecute the meek (v30)
For they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves (v28) – And their hearts are upon their treasures (v30)
Wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not (v28) – Wherefore, their treasure is their god (v30)
Wherefore, they shall perish (v28) – And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also (v30)
However, Spencer notes a major difference in this parallel. That is, while there is a softening of the condemnation against learning, or rather an exception made (i.e. “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”), there is no such exception for the rich. He goes on to say:
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.
What do think of this? Speaking generally, I think perhaps we do have a blind spot with regards to materialism and the acquisition of wealth. While the scriptures suggest the Lord is willing to bless us with material wealth (e.g. D&C 38:39; although even in this verse it seems the primary focus is on obtaining the riches of eternity rather than the riches of the earth), I think it is unarguable that one of the major warnings of the Book of Mormon is against the pride that is so readily associated with material wealth. And yet my sense is that if we have an abundance (and most of us do compared to the vast majority of the world’s population) we imagine that we are always on the upside of the pride cycle, i.e. that our riches are our blessing rather than our condemnation. But the scriptures should challenge us – Jacob should challenges us – and so I think we would do well to consider the ways in which our acquisition and consumption of worldly wealth and the earth’s resources may, in ways we have perhaps not considered, grind the faces of the poor (Isaiah 3:15) or heap persecution upon the meek.
Moving on, verse 33 reads:
Wo unto the uncircumcised of heart, for a knowledge of their iniquities shall smite them at the last day.
What does the image of an uncircumcised heart suggest? Why is it related to iniquities the way that the deaf/blind is related to lack of hearing/seeing?3 If we consider circumcision literally, without being too graphic, it is to take an intimate and private body part and leave it exposed, raw and vulnerable. Circumcision renders an individual unable to fight (see Genesis 34). Therefore, I think to be circumcised of heart is to open up our heart to God, to be truly honest and vulnerable before Him, and to stop fighting or resisting His will in our lives.
Verse 42 reads:
And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who 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.
Why will God not open to the wise, the learned and the rich? Julie Smith suggests that given the fact that “whoso knocketh, to him will he open,” it is because this group do not, perhaps will not, knock.3 To knock on the door takes humility – one must consider oneself a fool (though one has learning) and get rid, it seems, of all one’s riches.
Why does it make sense to group the rich with the learned and the wise, especially when the solution is to become a “fool”?
I want to conclude the post by quoting verses 50–52. In these verses, Jacob draws on Isaiah 55:1–2 and I find the beautiful imagery of Isaiah adds compelling persuasion to Jacob’s final invitation:
Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he 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.
Of this rhetorical return to Isaiah at the conclusion of the chapter, Spencer says the following:
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.
And so with this in mind, I’ll end this post with the challenge to think about how Jacob employs Isaiah in 2 Nephi 10 to more fully elucidate the doctrine of the redemption of the flesh through the Atonement of Christ.
Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 10