excerpt from Teaching the Old Testament
Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
CES Symposium on the Old Testament • 10 August 1999 • Brigham Young University
The Message of the Old Testament
President Marion G. Romney spoke to this symposium in 1979, twenty years ago. He entitled his talk The Message of the Old Testament. I read it more than once in preparation for this day. As I did, I knew his words were true. He said: “I do not think that there is a more simple or clear and relevant explanation of the Old Testament message than the one written in chapters 25 through 33 of Second Nephi. It would seem to me that a careful, prayerful study of these chapters would be a requirement for anyone who wanted to understand and teach the message of the Old Testament. In these chapters Nephi sifted out the important from the unimportant. He also explained how these teachings are important to us who live in the latter days” (address to religious educators, Brigham Young University, 17 Aug. 1979, 4–5).
President Romney then began to read to the teachers of that day these words from the twenty-fifth chapter of 2 Nephi:
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
“And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.
“For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments” (vv. 23–25).
As you heard those words, most of you felt in your hearts that they were true. You understood what the words meant. The meaning was made plain to you. From that you felt love for the Savior. You may even have felt a love for Nephi, who wrote them. Some of you may have remembered his risking his life to get the plates, held by Laban, to preserve his father’s people. You also felt peace. That made you happy. Those plates contained the words which are the heart of the message your students can receive in the Old Testament course you will teach.
I use the words “can receive” for a reason. If you study those nine short chapters of 2 Nephi commended to you by President Romney—and my purpose and prayer today is that you will—you will find in them a lament for those who choose not to receive. Nephi mourned over those who will not receive the words of God offered through His prophets.
I have two reasons for reading some of those laments to you. First, they will comfort you on those days when your students seem not to receive the words God offers them through you. It helps to know that such great prophets as Nephi and Isaiah had such days, many of them. And second, Nephi gives the reasons for the failure of the words to be received. In his description of failure there is the shadow of the way to success. That is often true in stories of scriptural tragedy when they are written by prophets. And so the recurring cycles of spiritual decline and recovery in the Old Testament can be hopeful and instructive to your students.
Listen to the words of Nephi’s laments from those chapters with this question in your mind: How can I make it more likely that my students will receive the words God offers them through His prophets?
Here are the words Nephi writes, in sorrow, just after he has laboriously inscribed many of the words of the great prophet Isaiah:
“Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, 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.
“For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations” (2 Nephi 25:1–2).
That was Nephi expressing his concern for his own people, that they found it hard to receive the teaching of Isaiah, which you will also offer your students. In the twenty-seventh chapter, the fifth verse, he laments over people whose hardness of heart he foresees in the day of the Gentiles:
“For behold, the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep. For behold, ye have closed your eyes, and ye have rejected the prophets; and your rulers, and the seers hath he covered because of your iniquity.”
Later, in the eighth verse of the twenty-ninth chapter, he even foresees those who will reject his own words, which he knows were given him by the Savior. He gives the rebuke he knows the Lord will give in that day, words only a seer could know:
“Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God, that I remember one nation like unto another? Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also.”
And Nephi ends his discourse, his final message, with these lines from the thirty-third chapter:
“And now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come.
“And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the Jews, and also my words, and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall condemn you at the last day.
“For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen” (vv. 13–15).
Receiving the Word of God
Nephi’s words make clear both the difficulty of our task and its importance. Those who do not receive the words of God, which we are to teach, will be judged by them. We must not, we cannot, fail in meeting our obligation to those we are to teach. President Romney has offered you help in that sacred task if you will ponder the words of Nephi. I confirm his promise. But as you seek to claim it, I warn you to do it carefully.
First, you must go to search the scriptures and not to wrest them. President Romney in his talk on the message of the Old Testament taught that great difference in the way we can approach the scriptures this way: “Searching them . . . as enjoined by Jesus is a far cry from hunting through them for the purpose of finding passages which can be pressed into service to support a predetermined conclusion” (The Message of the Old Testament, 2). Go to the scriptures like a child, willing to be taught, and you will be. Go like a wise man or woman, and you won’t come away any the wiser.
Second, you will be taught more easily as you approach the scriptures if you search with a question and with a determination to act on the answer. We can receive what seems to us new truth when we go back to the same scripture with new questions. I went to those chapters of 2 Nephi with this question: How can I teach from the Old Testament in a way that makes it more likely that my students will find happiness now while we are together, and later when they may face unknown trials alone?
As I studied 2 Nephi, I tried to follow both parts of my own counsel. I read, as nearly as I could, putting aside pride in what I thought I already knew. And I went with a question whose answer I knew would bless the lives of those I will serve, committed to act on whatever I would be taught that was true.
I read the chapters carefully, repeatedly, line by line, and word by word. I looked for patterns, truths that Nephi repeated, ideas he restated more than once. I found a pattern. I will share it with you in the hope that it will encourage you to search for yourself. What I found will be useful to me. It may be to you. Using the same question, you may find another pattern with insights of more value to you and to your students. With other questions I might have been led to find something else, and so might you. My hope is that you will search the scriptures with a desire to be taught what you should do, and that your students will follow your example.
For me, there seemed to be a repeated message in the teaching of Nephi, which gave an answer to my question. It is this: The words of God given by prophets will only be received by those with the spirit of prophecy, a gift of the Spirit, which both follows from and confirms the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Nephi makes clear first that what my students need now and will need later is something he calls the spirit of prophecy. Here is the fourth verse of the twenty-fifth chapter of 2 Nephi:
“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.”
Then he speaks again of prophecy in the twenty-sixth verse, but here he makes clear its relation to the testimony of Jesus. Your students and mine will find the words of prophets plain when they have the spirit of prophecy, and that will depend on their testimony of Jesus Christ. Listen to how Nephi used that fact when he taught from the very texts we will use this year:
“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.”
Then Nephi went on to teach that to receive the words of prophets our students must obey them. It will not be enough for them to know that the words are true or even to understand them plainly. They must obey, or the conviction of truth will fade and the meaning will become obscure. Listen to the thirtieth verse of the twenty-eighth chapter:
“For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”
Then, as if Nephi knows how hard the road ahead may be for our students, he describes what it will take to endure. It will take the courage and the fortitude that comes only to those whose testimony of Jesus Christ has led them to obey to the point that they are filled with hope and charity sufficient for the journey. Listen to the requirement and the promise in the twentieth verse of the thirty-first chapter:
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.”
Nephi makes plain that the spirit of prophecy and the testimony of Jesus is a gift which must be sought in prayer. And it is clear that he does not exempt himself. Listen first to what he says for our students. Starting in the fourth verse of the thirty-second chapter:
“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.
“For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.”
Then in the eighth verse he extends the instruction to pray:
“And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.
“But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (vv. 8–9).
Now, after warning us that our students must pray, he teaches us that we, the teachers, must pray, and he does it by his example. In the fourth verse of the thirty-third chapter:
“And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers; and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.”
For me, there emerged at least the beginning of an answer to my question. My students will receive the words of prophets when they have the spirit of prophecy and the testimony of Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost will tell them what they are to do. When they obey, they will have more light given them. When they disobey, the light will in time be withdrawn. Prayer will be their ally and mine. And even in this difficult life our students can find the peace which living the gospel brings and the hope of eternal life in the world to come, the greatest of all the gifts of God. That is how they will find the happiness they seek, now and later.
Before I tell you what I would do in my classroom with what I have learned from Nephi, let me encourage you once again to go in search of answers to other questions. President Romney said that Nephi could teach us what is important in the Old Testament, how to judge between the thin things and the thick things.
For instance, Nephi teaches that God sends prophets to warn of destruction. He makes plain that it is love for the people and for God that leads him and other prophets to speak so bluntly of sin. He speaks of his own human struggles. Surely those themes are a beginning of the answer to the question you might ask: “What will be of most worth to my students in what I teach from the Old Testament?”
Now let me give you the lessons I have learned from following the counsel of President Romney: If I had the blessing of repeating my year of teaching the Old Testament to young people, the example of Nephi would help me both hold them morning after morning and strengthen them for the years ahead. Here are the four things I would do more carefully and thoughtfully than I did then, those many years ago. None of them are about what I would say. They are about what I would do. All would be an attempt to be an example of what brings happiness. My hope and my prayer would be that my students would see enough happiness in me that they would try to do what they saw me do.
Four Things to Teach Happiness
First, I would be more eager to be taught. I would listen to my students, as if I believed the Spirit could teach me through their words. I would go to every training meeting I could attend, expecting to learn from whomever was called to teach me. I would read and ponder the teaching materials I was given. I would read the scriptures. I would plead in prayer to be taught from on high. Now there are practical limits to the time I could spend, but no limits on how determined to be taught I could be.
My students would see little of that. What my students would see is that I was being taught from on high, perhaps as I listened to them or as I paused in the middle of a lesson, without embarrassment, waiting to be taught which way to go. And when they saw me lifted for a moment beyond my own powers, and when they saw my resulting happiness, they might think it would be possible for them to be taught by the Spirit of God and so to be more happy.
Second, I would think more often and more carefully about the Savior and His mission. So much of the Old Testament can be taught as dramatic stories, fascinating customs, and beautiful literary forms. I would teach those when the teaching outlines suggest it, but my students would sense in me a greater happiness, a deeper appreciation, when I taught of times when the prophets spoke of Jehovah and when the people received the words and turned toward Him. And they would sense my sorrow when the people turned away from the promised Savior of mankind and toward certain misery. I wouldn’t have to write any of that into my teaching plans. That would come naturally because my love for Him would grow as I always remembered Him.
I can make you a promise if you do that. The Spirit will come and you will, as Nephi did with his people, teach your students less of the sordid wickedness of the people, of their abominations, and more of the love of their God, who warned them against iniquity and idolatry, who begged them to come to Him, and who, even in their wickedness and misery, kept reaching after them.
Third, I would put more effort into coming to know prophets as personally as I could. I would read in the book of Abraham and the book of Moses not only for doctrine but to know their hearts. I would read the writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I would try to feel what Job felt and what Jeremiah felt. I would work and pray to know the character and the trials of prophets. I can make you a promise if you do that because I have tried it. I have tried to be with Nephi at the end of his ministry. I read those nine chapters over and over. I did it to learn how to teach the Old Testament. But I got more. I came to love him as I had never done before. When I see him in some future time and place, he will see more affection in my eyes, and more admiration.
To prepare to be with you today, I was led to read what the Prophet Joseph wrote about the spirit of prophecy and the testimony of Jesus. He wrote often about that. But in the process, I could not stop reading his words. I came to know him better, and I found my love for him grow.
The Old Testament is a story of prophets and servants of God. You will have a great opportunity not only to know them but to love them, if you work for it and pray for it. Your students will feel that love. And if just a little of it is transferred to them, it will help them someday when their lives will depend upon receiving the words of a living prophet and loving him enough to take strong counsel and still know that he loves them.
And last, I would more carefully invite the Holy Ghost as my companion. The students wouldn’t see much of what I would do, since so much would be in private. But they would sense the change in me, as the Spirit softened my nature. They would notice it in my being a little more patient, a little more interested in them, a little less likely to argue or belittle, a little more likely to smile. And they would notice not only that I seemed more happy but that they were more happy in our classroom.
Without my preaching it, they would see that one of the reasons wickedness never was happiness, even in so mild a form of sin as being contentious or unkind, is that wickedness drives away the Holy Spirit. If they decided to copy what they saw brought happiness to me, they might choose the right because it brings happiness and the peace of companionship of the Holy Ghost. And then the Holy Ghost will teach them all things they should do to please God and so take happiness along with them, years after they are gone from our classrooms.
I pray for such blessings for you and for your students. God the Father lives. He sent His Son to be our Savior. Jesus Christ lives. He is the great Jehovah. Gordon B. Hinckley is His living prophet. The Savior loves your students—He died for them—and He loves you. You serve Him as you serve them.
As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I express to you His love, and I bless you that you might, in this year of teaching the Old Testament, be drawn closer to Him, and that as you are drawn closer to Him you will draw your students with you. And years from now you will see them and they will call you blessed because you prepared them as only the Lord knows how to prepare them and strengthen them. I bless you that you may have assurance both during this year—that the Savior loves you and is concerned for you—and in the years ahead you may taste the sweet fruit of knowing that He appreciates your service and has honored it by blessing the lives of your students. I promise you that, and I do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.