The Textual Holy of Holies

On May 31, I was invited to speak to my ward for the fifth-Sunday meeting about the Doctrine and Covenants. The bishopric hoped I could inspire my neighbors to want to read and study the Doctrine and Covenants with greater purpose. The recording proved scratchy, and so I let a fancy AI transcription tool do its best on a readable version. If you’re interested, here’s an attempt at cheerleading what shouldn’t need cheerleading :)

If you would, imagine with me for a second that we’re hitching a ride on our time machine and we’re going back 3,500 years. We’re going back to the time of the Israelites and we’re hanging out with Moses in the wilderness. And this lifestyle is very nomadic. We live in tents, we go where there’s water, and the water isn’t always in a stable place. We have livestock, so we look for places where they might forage, but that’s also always changing. So the environment is very arid and very dynamic. We never stay in one place very long, but we do stay long enough that we can pitch our tents and live there for quite a little while.

In our world, our nation, we can see everyone, they’re all visible before us. We know all the other Israelites and we have our home, we have our tent, and we can see at the very center of wherever we stop, wherever we’re able to put down roots for a few months at a time, you can see at the center the largest tent complex. That tent is the most special one. It has this large outer courtyard. There are priests who live there who participate in various ritual practices, ordinances we might call them in today’s language. And then there’s within that tent courtard another tent. This tent is the holy tent, it has very holy elements to it. It would be like for us entering the temple. And then within that tent there is the Lord’s dwelling place. Here’s his tent where he dwells among us, and we see signs of this. We see miraculous events. Sometimes we see fire, a pillar of fire, above that tent. Sometimes we see a cloud overshadowing it, but we can all feel the power of this when Moses the Prophet goes in there. He’s the only one who ever, ever goes into that holiest of tents. When he comes out, there’s a radiance upon him. There’s light so bright coming off his face that we have to shield our eyes, and so he starts to cover his face with a veil. He draws a veil over his face because of how it signifies that he has been in the direct presence of God, and he speaks the word of the Lord to us.

Now, that center tent, that holiest tent, we have a name for it, we call it the Holy of Holies. You can imagine what it might be like to live every day with some proximity, physically, to have your space oriented every day around the Holy of Holies, the holiest place, the dwelling place of God where the divine presence resides.

Now, let’s pause that for just a second and let’s imagine something about words and texts. When you’re reading or when you’re writing and how words get arranged, you can think of that as rhetoric. Right now, I’m engaging in a kind of rhetoric in the way that I’m talking about the Holy of Holies and Moses and Israel. So if we’re looking at rhetoric, the way words are arranged, rhetoric is interesting—it sets up spaces. So, for example, if you’re looking at a tax form. We’re not thinking about who’s writing it or what, we’re just looking at the words on the page and we’re asking what kind of rhetorical space these words create by how they’re arranged, what kinds of words they are and how they are presented to the reader. When you look at a tax form, it says stuff like “Put your name here.” Very clinical. “Put some financial disclosures here, here, here, here. Calculate something here. Sign your name under penalty of perjury that everything has been true here.” And so the rhetorical space really sets up this kind of faceless, this kind of person-less clinical institutional force, like demanding things of the reader like Do This. Contrast that with, say, a letter from a loved one. Much more intimate, much more vulnerable, much more candid. Talking about the reader directly: “Hello, reader. You’re my spouse” or “You’re my child. I love you.” And so the space there sets up something more like a home, more like a bedroom. So much more an intimate space.

So we come to the Doctrine and Covenants and when you look at the Doctrine and Covenants, you’ll find it’s a scrapbook of all sorts of different sections. They’re not chapters, there’s no narrative connecting all the tissue of this book, but there are more than 100 revelations rendered in the first-person voice of the Lord. And what’s curious about this book, unlike any other book on the planet, in this book, the Lord speaks directly to the reader. He doesn’t talk to Joseph Smith over here and say, “Can you relay this to the Saints?” He just talks straight to the reader. He’s talking to you and he’s talking to me and he’s talking to us in the present tense. That’s how the words on the page are arranged. The rhetorical space is one in which God meets us, meets humanity. The closest physical analogue to the rhetorical space of this Doctrine and Covenants is the Holy of Holies. By turning the pages of this book, we are lifting the veil. We are crossing into the space where the Lord meets us.

And my questions for us, in our study of the Doctrine and Covenants, are: What are we going to find there in that space? Who will we meet? That’s what I want to talk about, the Lord of the revelations who appears in the text of the Doctrine and Covenants, who appears in the rhetorical space when he’s talking to you and when he’s talking to me.

Self-References to the Lord

Now, if you were to go through the Doctrine and Covenants revelations checking for every section where it’s the Lord speaking (there are a number of sections that involved procedural things or letters from Joseph Smith; there’s a eulogy and so on, a lot of different genres of writing), there are by far, the most material in the Doctrine and Covenants, as you very well have noticed is that first-person voice of the Lord speaking through revelation directly to the reader. If you go to those revelations and then you pull together every time he refers to himself directly saying “I am [this],” then let me read to you a comprehensive list of that. This is ordered in frequency; many of these he says multiple times throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. I’m moving from the top, the most frequent references to himself down to the least frequent references to himself. He says:

  • I am Jesus Christ

  • I am the Lord your God

  • I am God

  • I am Alpha and Omega

  • I am a light that shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not

  • I am the beginning and the end

  • I am the Son of God

  • I am the light and life of the world

  • I am in the Father and the Father in me

  • I am the same that came unto mine own and mine own received me not

  • I am with him (Joseph Smith Jr.)

  • I am with you

  • I am in your midst

  • I am the Great I Am

  • I am no respecter of persons

  • I am the Son of the living God

  • I am with you even until the end

  • I am the Savior of the world

  • I am the Lord

  • I am Christ the Lord

  • I am Christ

  • I am he who was lifted up

  • I am Jesus that was crucified

  • I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world

  • I am one in the Father as the Father is one in me

  • I am the good shepherd

  • I am Jesus Christ who cometh quickly in an hour you think not

  • I am able to make you holy

  • I am with the faithful always

  • I am angry with the wicked

  • I am holding my spirit from the inhabitants of the earth

  • I am from above

  • I am over all and in all and through all and search all things

  • I am the Lord of Hosts

  • I am with them also, even unto the end

  • I am with thee even unto the end of thy days

  • I am the true light that is in you

  • I am near

  • I am not well pleased with many things

  • I am the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world

  • I am the Spirit of Truth

  • I am with you to bless you and deliver you forever

  • I am the first and the last

  • I am he who liveth

  • I am he who was slain

  • I am your advocate with the Father

  • I am their advocate with the Father

  • I am he who spake in righteousness, mighty to save

  • I am God and have spoken it

  • I am about to call upon them to give heed

  • I am well pleased

  • I am about to restore many things to the earth

  • I am the same that spake unto you from the beginning

  • I am he who said—other sheep I have which are not of this fold

  • I am the redeemer of the world

  • I am endless

  • I am to judge the whole house of Israel

  • I am with you until I come

  • I am your Lord and your Redeemer

  • I am pure

  • I am the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity before the world was made

  • I am the same which spake and the world was made

  • I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom

  • I am in your midst and ye cannot see me

  • I am your lawgiver

  • I am just

  • I am as the voice of one crying in the wilderness

The Doctrine and Covenants: A Voice in the Wilderness

That last one—I am as the voice of one crying in the wilderness—that one haunts me for how he seems to feel, like he’s crying in the wilderness looking for those who would listen. And how his voice is—in the pages of our Doctrine and Covenants, right there, delivered to the reader directly. How often are we drawing from the Doctrine and Covenants? How often are we substituting the voice of the Lord with other voices, even good voices? How often do we sideline or marginalize what we already have directed from the Lord to us?

Just to give this some perspective: If you go and you research the placement of the Bible across history. This is a real study that has been done. There are Christian researchers out there who have done the hard work of estimating, figuring out just how far the Bible has gone in the world and how much of the world today has direct immediate access to the Bible. Those numbers are very large, as you would expect. The Holy Bible remains the number-one most-read book in world history. By those technical estimates, it looks like something around 75 percent of today’s world population has immediate access to the Bible. There are places in the world where the Bible is outlawed, but if you look those numbers and think of all that’s been done over the centuries, all the missionary work that’s been done by Christians to spread the word of the Bible to every corner of the earth, how much activity that has represented the blood, sweat, and tears to do something like this.

By comparison, the Book of Mormon has had a concerted energy behind it since 1830 and it has been extremely impressive compared to other books, especially for the size of the church. We’ve placed something on the order of 300 million Books of Mormon in the world. By comparison, we’re not even up to 30 percent of the world having immediate, ready access to a copy of the Book of Mormon. We might think digitally, the whole world should have access to the Book of Mormon, but the truth is, when you look at the reader statistics of how often the Book of Mormon is read digitally, by far the vast majority of readers are themselves Latter-day Saints. This is just for comparison. But the Doctrine and Covenants—have we begun to spread the word of the Lord?

There was in 1831 a conferece by Joseph Smith and leaders of the church. The church was growing pretty quickly. They were trying to figure out how to help the elders who were out starting new branches of the church. How are they supposed to set up a new branch regularly, consistently, without all sorts of problems? The idea was presented: we should publish the revelations in book form, we should have a book and then put that in the hands of the elders and that will govern the church. Well, they struggled to decide. How are we going to introduce the book? There was disagreement among those church leaders at that time. Some of them in the room felt that those were more akin to what our patriarchal blessings are like today, they’re sacred; you received that revelation personally, we shouldn’t publish that. There were others in the room who felt like it doesn’t compare well with the Bible; people are going to laugh us out of town. And then there were those that were like, This is the voice of the Lord! So they made some attempts at a preface for the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith finally asked the Lord, what should we do about a preface? And the Lord replied with just directly giving his own preface to his own book.

These are the opening words of the Doctrine and Covenants as designed by the Lord, what he intends all of us to read first: “Hearken, O ye people of my church saith the voice of him who dwells on high and whose eyes are upon all men. Yea, verily, I say, hearken ye people from afar, and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together. For verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape. And there is no eye that shall see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.” It was this book, he says in the first verses, that is designed by him to go to all the world, to go to every heart, to go to every eye, to go to every ear.

Keystone and Foundation

Interestingly, in the pages of the Doctrine and Covenants when the Lord instructed Joseph Smith on how to translate the Book of Mormon, he said to Joseph Smith how the Book of Mormon has a different design. The Book of Mormon was designed to be taken to the remnant of the House of Israel, to the descendants of Lehi who don't know how they’re covenant people “because of the transgressions of their fathers.” This Book of Mormon, having a very special design, Joseph Smith called it the “keystone of our religion.” A keystone is placed at the top of the arch specifically designed so that the structure doesn’t cave in on itself, but it’s not load-bearing in the same way that the foundation is. The foundation, according the Lord, is the book of his commandments. The Doctrine and Covenants revelations bear the weight and are what give us our identity today in this dispensation.

If you think about it, think of all the distinctives, what makes Latter-day Saints so distinctive compared to other Christian groups who also read the Bible. You can take this a step further and even ask what makes our church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, distinctive among other Mormon groups that have descended from the earliest times, other churches that do exist and go by different names who also read the Book of Mormon. You notice it’s the Doctrine and Covenants that defines us the most in our scripture tradition. That’s where we’re distinctive, what gives us our direction today. In fact, even other groups that ascribe to the Book of Mormon won’t include all of the revelations that we have in our Doctrine and Covenants. This here, this is direction from the Lord for us today, and it’s rendered in his own voice.

Imagine the invitation to go up the mountain with Moses and to hear the voice of the Lord. In Section 18 of the Doctrine and Covenants, this was early, just before the church was about to get organized, and Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer had questions for the Lord on exactly what they were supposed to do once the church was formally organized, and Section 18 was the reply. The Lord basically said: Cry repentance. That’s the next step, bring people to church. But then he said “these words,” meaning Section 18 (this was long before the Doctrine and Covenants was ever published as a book), these words on this occasion “were given to you by my power and save it were by my power, you could not have them. Therefore, you can testify that you have heard my voice.” Those who read the words in the first-person of the Lord can testify they heard the voice of the Lord. That’s where he is speaking.

What will we find going into that Doctrine and Covenants, that textual Holy of Holies? There’s so much we could say. We don’t have the time, do we? You remember Ammon in the Book of Mormon when he met back up with Alma, they hadn’t seen each other for years and they started talking about what had been happening and start talking about all the great missionary success that they’ve had and Alma the Younger says to Ammon, “I think you might be carried away unto boasting,” and Ammon says, “Oh, but who can say too much of the Lord? and I’m not boasting of myself, this was all the Lord’s miracle.” I feel that same way when assigned to talk about the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s like, oh my goodness, there’s just too much goodness in this book. Who can say enough of this book? So I’m going to just try to highlight a couple of things that I’ve discovered in my reading of this wonderful compilation of revelations from the Lord.

A New Relationship with Jesus Christ

First off, I think right away, there’s an invitation into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. You’ll recall early on how Joseph Smith had been able to translate 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, and we all know the story: poor Martin Harris borrowed it, lost it, and Joseph Smith, when he learned that manuscript was gone, his mother wrote the reminiscence (she was in the room), she said sometime later—Joseph heard from Martin, “It is lost,” and Joseph Smith in agony said, “My soul is lost.” He was fully expecting damnation. He said about what was coming to Martin: “Do you understand what we have done? Do you understand the consequence of this?”

I think one of the most reassuring things ever, in all scripture, comes next. It is Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which turns out to be the earliest, no just revelation, but the earliest text that has survived history from Joseph Smith himself. If you look at the historical record and you go, OK, what is the earliest one? There’s a receipt from a store in Harmony, Pennsylvania; that’s about Joseph Smith that predates this. But the first text from Joseph Smith that has survived. It’s Section 3. And it opens this way: “The works and the designs and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated.” I don’t get frustrated is the first thing the Lord says to Joseph Smith on record. I can’t be frustrated

When you read the rest of Section 3 in its original context and you remember where Joseph Smith was at that time in 1828 as a young man, how he had been raised with a Presbyterian mother and a Universalist father and Methodist neighbors, the way he had understood God, even after his first vision, the way he had had certain ideas about what God was like. And you’ll find how often in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord is making these adjustments to Joseph Smith’s expectations. In the future, Joseph Smith would hear the Lord say to him, “You don’t know who or what you worship.” Joseph Smith, multiple visions, and the Lord saying, You don’t yet know who you worship. So here we are, Section 3, the first revelation on record from Joseph Smith, read in the first-person voice of the Lord, predates the Book of Mormon by more than a year, and the Lord says right away—I cannot be frustrated. Joseph Smith ends up learning that God did not condemn him, that God wasn’t about to consign him to damnation because of this lapse in judgment.

In Section 3, the Lord invites Joseph Smith into a new relationship with him. “Joseph, will you set aside those other people who are pressuring you? Can you come unto me and we do this together, you and me?” A personality of the Lord that I think we’ll find as we enter the textual Holy of Holies, we’ll find someone who is adaptive, who’s ready for the situation, whatever it is, and we can approach him knowing he cannot, cannot be frustrated. We can be frustrated. “It’s not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men. But remember, God is merciful, and thou art still chosen.”

A Readiness to Give Revelation

The Lord also shows a readiness to give revelation. Not long after this episode of Section 3, Joseph Smith was introduced to Oliver Cowdery for the first time, the man who would be his scribe for the Book of Mormon. The translation had stalled here and there, and once Oliver Cowdery gets on the scene, within a matter of about three months, it’s done. This is going to accelerate considerably. On this first occasion of getting to know Oliver Cowdery, Oliver asks for a revelation, and Joseph Smith received a revelation that is now Section 6. The Lord says to Oliver something really interesting: “Blessed art thou for what thou hast done, for thou hast inquired of me. And behold, as often as thou hast inquired, thou hast received instruction of my Spirit.” As often as you ask, the Spirit is there. “Behold thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me, and I did enlighten thy mind. And now I tell these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth.” Oliver Cowdery had had some occasion to be enlightened by the Spirit, and probably was just taking it for enlightenment, as though he had some good ideas, but the Lord is saying here, on this occasion, “I want you to know something, Oliver: I was the one talking by my spirit as often as you inquired of me. I was enlightening your mind by the power of the spirit.” “Strokes of ideas,” as Joseph Smith would later call the spirit of revelation. You get strokes of ideas. Here in Section 6, the Lord shows a readiness, “just come and talk to me—there’s revelation for you.”

Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith’s oder brother, learned that Joseph was going to start a new church, and it shocked him. He had thought that Joseph Smith was going to translate the Book of Mormon and the Book of Mormon was going to reform all the existing Christian churches. They were all going to rally behind this book. Then he learns now the Lord is commanding that they start a church. Hyrum wasn’t initially excited at this prospect and asked Joseph Smith for a revelation, “Can you go to the Lord so that I know what the will of the Lord is?” And the Lord comes back in Section 11, he says to Hyrum Smith among many other things, he says: “Behold, it is I that speak. Behold, I am the light which shines in darkness and by my power I give these words unto thee. And now, verily, verily I say unto thee, put your trust in that spirit which leadeth to do good, yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously, and this is my spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my spirit which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy, and then shall you know, or by this shall you know all things whatsoever you desire of me.” So, trust in that spirit which leads to do good, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously, that fills your soul with joy and gives you enlightenment. That’s when you can trust that must be the Lord.

Later on, the Lord had promised that he would give the church his law. When you go to the Ohio, he said, once you assemble there, I will give to you my law. So, these New York Saints assemble in Ohio. Joseph Smith arrives. He hadn’t been there very long when he just asks one question of the Lord. The way it’s written is amusing, I think. “The law?” Just two words, as if to say, “I made it—now, the law?” And then this revelation, Section 42, one of the longer ones, just flows forth and the Lord gives his law to the church. When you read this, you may discover that he starts a whole section of this revelation with the Ten Commandments—thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie—starts restating things in that form, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament under Moses. But if you notice some of the other commandments that the church was given on this occasion—thou wilt remember the poor, thou shalt live together in love. And then this—thou shalt ask. “Thou shalt ask. If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things, that which bringeth joy, that which brings life eternal.” My friends, it’s a commandment to the church to ask for revelation upon revelation.

Atonement Explained by the Atoning One

One of the things we’re going to find in the Doctrine and Covenants, probably the most important thing to discover in the Doctrine and Covenants, is the Atoning One, how the Doctrine and Covenants affords us the only place on record where the Atoning One in the first person tells us what it’s like for him to atone and what the atonement means. There’s no end to the number of people who want to explain the atonement, no end to this, what it means. Just look at the proliferation of Christianity throughout all the world and how many, many different voices there are. But how often do we get to hear the Lord himself tell us today what it means, what it was like for him?

There are at least two vital places in the Doctrine and Covenants where he does this, Section 19 and Section 122. In Section 19, the Lord explains how there was suffering in those atoning moments, and he says, “which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit, and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink. Nevertheless, glory be to the father. And I partook.” He echoes the word he gave in Gethsemane. He said there, “let this cup pass from me.” Section 19 is facing Gethsemane. But the account of Gethsemane is coming from people who talked about it and talked about it and talked about it, and it didn’t get committed in writing until a couple of generations after Jesus had already died and resurrected. This is where he describes Gethsemane in his own words. And in both places, there’s a word that stands out to me, the word nevertheless. The greatest utterance of the word nevertheless in the universe’s history. He admits that he did not want this, he wanted to shrink, he says. Nevertheless. Just like he said in Gethsemane, what he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” Imagine the choice in that moment of time, how he chose and said, “Nevertheless.”

Joseph Smith found himself in Liberty Jail. We know something of the circumstances, a famous episode. The Missouri persecutions happening, and they’re in Liberty Jail. He had suffered for months under the penalty of execution. The judge overseeing the actual trial had already sworn in the newspaper that he would see to it that Joseph Smith was hanged. And so the sentence of death had already been passed on him in one sense. He writes this letter from Liberty Jail to the church, and in that letter he puts a couple of questions that he asked the Lord. One of them was, “O God, where art thou? Where’s the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” Where are you hiding? What more has to happen before you’ll help us. And the Lord replied to that question with revelation that Joseph Smith included in that letter from Liberty Jail, what became Section 122.

In this, the Lord tells Joseph Smith something that is true. He tells Joseph Smith about things that had happened to Joseph. “If thou art called to pass through tribulation, if thou art in perils among false brethren, if thou art in perils among robbers.” These things were true of that moment in 1839. “If you art accused with all manner of false accusations, if thine enemies fall upon thee, if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brothers and sisters and with a drawn sword, thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife and offspring and thine elder son although but six years of age…” I mean, these are clear statements about what had already happened to Joseph Smith. But the Lord goes into the hypothetical of what might happen to Joseph Smith right now: “if thou shouldst be cast into the pit or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee. If thou be cast into the deep.” That could happen to Joseph Smith, possibly. And then the Lord says something, he gives a hypothetical that cannot happen to Joseph Smith. “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee.” The very jaws of hell opened the mouth wide after only one person, and that was the Atoning One on the cross. And yet, he puts this hypothetical out there and says, even if that should happen, “know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore…” And this is where we get the greatest utterance of the word therefore in all the scriptures: “Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee, for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known and thy years shall not be numbered less. Therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” God shall be with you forever and ever—that is the message of the Atoning One about atonement and what it means. He descended below them all so that God would be with us.

An Invitation to Part the Veil with the Doctrine and Covenants

Remember, my friends, in the Doctrine and Covenants, how very often he tries to say, “I am with you. You cannot see me. The light shineth in darkness. The darkness comprehendeth it not. But the day will come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him. And then you will know that I am in you, you were in me, and that you have seen me.” It is my absolute conviction that the word of the Lord, the voice of the Lord, is heard in this textual Holy of Holies. My invitation to you is to join me and part that veil, reading those pages and finding the Lord there and sharing that light with the world around us.