As we begin reading the first chapter of 2 Nephi, we find that Lehi and his family have been living on the American continent for a number of years. By this time Lehi has grown quite old and knows he is close to death, therefore, he gathers his family around him, including his grandchildren, the sons of Ishmael and Zoram, the former servant of Laban, for the purpose of giving them one last bit of counsel.
During his life Lehi had beheld the Lord in all His glory (vs 15) and the Lord had prophesied unto him what would befall his posterity (vs. 6), and it was because of these things that in his declining years his concern was for the spiritual welfare of his family. From the time they had left Jerusalem nearly thirteen years earlier (See NOTE at the end) . he had witnessed the constant complaining and disregard his two oldest sons, Laman and Lemuel had for the things of God and how they had rebelled against following God's commandments. They had sought to justify their behavior by arguing that the commandments were too hard to follow, that they were impractical, outdated, illogical, and therefore not applicable any more. When their younger brother, Nephi, had to remind them on occasion to keep the commandments, they responded by complaining that he was being unreasonable with his demands and that he sought to rule over them. And it was to address this problem that Lehi decided to talk with his entire family before he died.
As a lawyer would do, Lehi made his case in a logical and systematic manner, carefully laying out his reasons, going from point to point as he built his defense of why it was important for them to keep God's commandments. Lehi begins by rehearsing the many things that the Lord had done for them since they had left Jerusalem (vs 1). This was to impress upon them the goodness and love of God. He told them how God had brought them safely across the great waters, even preventing them from being swallowed up by the sea (vs 3). He told them how this new land was a land of promise and that the Lord had given it to them as their inheritance forever (vs 5), similar to what God had done with Abraham. Then he explained that God had showed him that Jerusalem had been destroyed and had they stayed (as Laman and Lemuel wanted to do) they would have either been dead or in captivity by now (vs 4). This again illustrated how merciful and kind the Lord had been by warning them to flee Jerusalem. The reason why Lehi told them all of this was to show that when God gives us commandments it's not because He's being overbearing or strict but because He loves us.
He then told them that the land upon which they were then living had been promised to them, but only if they keep the commandments of God (vs 9). That is why Lehi felt so concerned for their spiritual safety and was anxious to help them understand the importance of following God's commandments because he knew that it was the only way they would "prosper upon the face of this land," and that "there shall be none to molest them nor to take away the land of their inheritance and they shall dwell safely [there] forever" (vs. 9). But if they failed to keep the commandments of God, "behold, the judgments of him that is just shall rest upon them" (vs 10). And that was precisely what Lehi was trying to avoid happening to his posterity.
Therefore, with all the fervor of his soul he pleaded with his children, especially Laman and Lemuel saying, "I would that ye would hearken unto my words. O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound, Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave. I desire that ye should remember to observe the statutes and the judgments of the Lord; behold, this hath been the anxiety of my soul from the beginning. My heart hath been weighed down with sorrow from time to time, for I have feared, lest for the hardness of your hearts the Lord your God should come out in the fullness of his wrath upon you" (vs. 12-14).
He then explained that the wrath of God would manifest itself unto them in the form of war (i.e., visited by the sword), by famine, and by captivity so much so that they would become a hated people and be destroyed (vs. 18). The thought of this happening to his children, grandchildren and beyond caused Lehi so much grief that he cried out, "Oh my sons, so that these things may not come upon you, [please, please] keep the commandments and prosper otherwise you will be cut off from the presence of a kind, merciful, and loving God" (see vs.19-20).
Since he had already rehearsed how good and merciful God had been to them in the past, the point he was trying to make was that if God cuts them off from His presence they will no longer have access to all of the great blessings God has in store for those who keep His commandments.
He then explained that since Nephi had kept God's commandments from the time they left Jerusalem, he admonished the rest of his children, especially Laman and Lemuel (because that is who he is really talking to in this lecture), to "rebel no more against your brother, who hath been an instrument in the hands of God. He has not sought for power nor authority over you as you suppose, but instead he has only been concerned about your eternal welfare. Therefore, if you will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish" (vs. 24-25). In other words, if Nephi is an instrument in the hands of God and they rebel against Nephi they are, in reality, rebelling against God, and if they do that then they are cutting themselves off from God's goodness, mercy, and protection. Therefore, as much as they might not like doing what Nephi tells them, Lehi explained that doing this is their only course of safety.
Laman and Lemuel had complained that Nephi had been angry at them and had used much sharpness of speech in criticizing them for not keeping the commandments of God, but Lehi explained "that which ye call anger was the truth according to that which is in God, which he (Nephi) could not restrain [himself from speaking] boldly concerning your iniquities." What Lehi told them in essence was that the only reason they thought their younger brother was speaking sharply to them in anger was because they didn't like what he had to say (vs 26-27).
And then Lehi said something rather interesting. He said to Laman, "But if ye will not hearken unto him (Nephi) I take away my first blessing, yea, even my blessing, and it shall rest upon him" (vs. 28-29) What Lehi said was that Laman, being the first-born and as such was entitled to the birthright, would receive it but only under the condition that he listened to the advise of Nephi, otherwise he would lose that blessing. Laman's constant complaint had been that Nephi was trying to rule over him and his older brothers rather than remembering his place in the family. And so Lehi pronounced a blessing upon Laman that would allow him the birthright to rule over the family, including Nephi, after their father passed away. In other words, Laman was given the wish of his heart as long as he allowed Nephi to be his spiritual counselor, otherwise the promised blessing would become inoperative in his life and would automatically transfer to Nephi. So, all Laman had to do to keep the birthright was to heed Nephi's advise.
Then, beginning in chapter 2, while his family was still gathered together, Lehi addressed his son Jacob in front of the others (vs.1). He acknowledged that during his childhood years Jacob had suffered much affliction and sorrow because of the rudeness of his older brothers, yet because Jacob had come to know the greatness of God, Jacob was promised that God would cause the afflictions he has suffered to work to his advantage (vs 1-2). He told him that he would be blessed to live safely with his brother Nephi and that he would spend the rest of his life in the service of God (vs. 3). This is not surprising since Jacob had received a vision of how God would bring salvation to men in the fullness of time and that Jacob also beheld the glory of God while he was still in his youth (vs. 4). This tells us that Jacob had visions and saw many of the same things that both his father and Nephi had seen. Therefore, from his youngest years he had been faithful to the Lord and was imbued with a spirit of revelation concerning the plan of salvation.
Knowing this about his son, Lehi nevertheless proceeds to preach a sermon to Jacob explaining the plan of salvation. This would seem a rather odd thing for Lehi to do until we remember that all of his other sons - including Laman and Lemuel - were also there listening to these words of their father. So, it would seem that although Lehi was talking to Jacob, his message was intended more for Laman and Lemuel because what he told Jacob provides a further explanation of why it is important to keep the commandments of God.
Lehi explained that salvation is free and that the method by which we can receive it has been prepared for us from the time that Adam fell. And the way that we've been prepared to receive God's salvation is by being sufficiently instructed in the knowledge of the difference between good and evil (vs. 5). And the way we were instructed is through the commandments of God, which Lehi refers to as the law. Since it was the commandments of God which Lamen and Lemuel rebelled against, what Lehi is attempting to do is explain the necessity and importance of keeping the law.
He told them that "by the law no flesh is justified" (vs. 5). What he means by this is that no one can point to the law and say, "I am righteous because I've kept every commandment of God as contained in the law." Since everyone has broken the law at some point during their life, all of us have sinned and therefore have become cut off from the presence of God. As such, all of us must perish spiritually because of our sins and become miserable forever (vs. 5).
But, God has prepared a way to redeem us from this horrible condition. "Through the Holy Messiah, behold He [will] offer himself [as] a sacrifice for [our] sins to answer the ends of the law" (vs. 6,7) meaning He will meet, comply, fulfill, and satisfy the requirements of the law and can thereby also answer or pay the penalty which the law requires of those who violate it. But, this sacrifice only applies "unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit" (vs. 7). When Lehi adds "and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered" he is saying that Christ's sacrifice will not answer (pay the penalty) of the law for those who do not have a broken heart and a contrite spirit. That means they must endure the punishment which the law inflicts upon those who violate it despite the sacrifice which the Holy Messiah has offered for our sins.
This caused Lehi to say, "Therefore, how greatly important it is to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth so that they might know that no one can dwell in the presence of God except by the merit and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah's sacrifice" (vs. 8). And the way we come to receive the merit and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah's sacrifice is by having a broken heart and a contrite spirit. But that also means that those who do not show a broken heart and a contrite spirit are not entitled to God's mercy and grace and all the inhabitants of the earth need to know that as well.
Then Lehi said that this sacrifice not only involved the Holy Messiah laying down His flesh for our sins but also "taking it [up] again by the power of the Spirit [so] that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise. Wherefore, he is the first fruits unto God, inasmuch as he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved" (vs. 8-9).
This is an interesting statement because it gives a clearer explanation of what the scriptures mean when it says that Christ is the "firstfruits of them that slept" (1 Cor. 15:20). It is not merely through the atoning death of Christ that we can come back into the presence of God but also because of the resurrection. If our flesh did not rise from the grave then we could not return to God, despite Christ's sacrifice for our sins. So, the resurrection is as important to our salvation as is Christ's death. Therefore, when Lehi says that Christ "is the first fruits unto God" he means that Christ was the first one to keep the whole law and be able to return "unto God."
And there is a reason why Christ should return to God first, or ahead of the rest of us. Since Christ "answered the law" (meaning He did everything the law demanded) He was perfect and as such was righteous enough to go unto God, meaning He can enter into God's presence. Once there, He then petitions God to be merciful and lenient and show grace towards the rest of us who have not fully answered or complied with the demands of the law. Therefore, Christ was the first to return unto God so He could "make intercession for all the children of men [so that all] they that believe in Him (Christ) shall be saved" (vs. 9).
It's because Christ intercedes in our behalf that allows all men to come before God and stand in His presence to be judged according to the truth and holiness that is within Him (vs. 10). But, Lehi emphasized again, that all of this is possible only because the Holy One has taken upon Himself the punishment which the law says must be inflicted upon those who violate it (vs. 10). He then explained that this punishment is the opposite of happiness and that happiness is the condition that comes from keeping the law (vs. 10). In other words, if we keep the law we shall be happy but if we break the law we shall be punished, which punishment causes us to be miserable. This reward and punishment is affixed to (attached, part of, required by) the law.
To someone like Laman and Lemuel, the idea of rewards and punishments probably didn't sound like a good idea. In their mind they no doubt wondered why they should be punished by God for not doing what He asked. To address this concern Lehi explained to them the law of opposites. The reason he does this is because it is central to understanding why God gives us commandments and that, in turn, helps us understand the importance of keeping them.
Lehi said that not only are there opposites in all things, but this is the way things have to be, otherwise without opposites there could be no righteousness or wickedness, holiness or misery, neither good nor bad (vs. 11). In fact, there couldn't be life and death because those are also opposites. And if there is no life or death then we wouldn't exist. And if we didn't exist then we couldn't sense anything, meaning we wouldn't know anything. For that matter we wouldn't even realize that we didn't know anything. Therefore, we would be insensible. That's what Lehi meant when he said, "Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound (that is, combined together) in[to] one; wherefore, if it should be one body (without opposites) it must [of necessity] remain as [though it were] dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility" (vs. 11).
But there would be no purpose to creating something like that. Therefore, if God created something that had no purpose to it that would make God a rather unwise and foolish Being. Therefore, to say that there should be no opposites (such as rewards and punishments) destroys the notion of a wise God. And if you destroy that idea you likewise destroy the notion of a Being who can show mercy to us and exact justice (vs. 12).
Lehi then applied this understanding of opposites to show how they work in the law, which contains the commandments of God. He said that if we say there is no law (which is what Laman's rebellion was all about) then we say there is no sin (Laman wanted to believe there was no sin in doing wrong). But, if there is no sin there can't be any righteousness either, and if there is no righteousness then there can't be any real happiness (vs. 13). The reason why is because if there is no right or wrong then everyone could do whatever they wanted without being punished for anything they did. And without punishment there could be no misery or happiness.
This idea of happiness is crucial to Lehi's argument, as we will see later in his sermon. Therefore, it is important for us to understand what he means by saying that without opposites there can be no happiness.
Since America is the freest country in the world most objective people would think its people should be the happiest people on earth. Yet, there are Americans who are dissatisfied with life in this country. But how can that be? Because they have never experienced living without freedom. In other words, they've only known one way of life, therefore since they don't know the opposite of freedom they have nothing to compare what their life would be without it. As such, instead of taking joy in being free, they take it for granted.
Most people enjoy eating a good steak, but if all we ate was prime grade steak every day and knew no other kind of meat, we would be neither happy nor unhappy eating it because we wouldn't know anything different. It would become commonplace to us. But when we can experience something different, then we can make a comparison between the two and decide which one we like best.
In the same way, there are Americans who complain about the poverty in our country, yet, even the poorest among us have televisions to watch, cars to drive, and electricity in their home as well as running water. In many other countries, the average citizen is not as well off as the poorest American. While some in America bemoan the fact that we have people living in "poverty," millions of other people in the world are desperately trying to come to America and would be overjoyed if they could live the lifestyle of our poor. But because we don't see the opposite picture, we don't realize how well off the "poor" in our country truly are. Furthermore, the very reason why we speak of the "poor" is precisely because we compare them to the so-called "rich" among us. What this illustrates is that "happiness," or the lack of it, comes from comparing opposites to each other. Therefore, if there are no opposites we cannot truly experience happiness.
So, if we say there is no need for us to follow the commandments of God, then what we are saying is there can't be any such thing as sin because it's the commandments that define what sin is. And if there is no sin then there cannot be any such thing as righteousness or wickedness, which also means there couldn't be any punishment. But if there was no punishment we'd have to say there is no God because God is righteous and gives us the law to define what sin is and punishes us when we break the law or, in other words, sin. So if we say there is no sin then we must conclude there is no God, in which case neither the earth nor we ourselves exist because it was God who created all these things (vs. 13).
This is the argument that Lehi gives his children, and it is clear that what he is trying to do is impress upon his wayward sons the importance of keeping the commandments because he says to them at this point in his sermon, "And now, my sons, [the reason why] I speak unto you [about] these things [is so that it might be]for your profit and learning" (vs. 14).
He then continued his explanation of the law of opposites by declaring that there is a God and that He did create man in order to bring about His eternal purposes. But to do that there needs to be opposition (i.e., opposites) in all things. In the very beginning there was opposites in the form of the forbidden fruit and the tree of life. One was bitter and one was sweet. One was forbidden, the other was permitted (vs. 15).
However, without the power to choose, there can be no opposites. If you have one fruit that is bitter and another that is sweet but you are prevented from eating one of them, then you really don't have a choice, in which case, for all practical purposes, there are no opposites. So God gave man the ability to choose for himself what he wanted to do so as to allow opposites to exist. But you can't make a real or serious choice unless you are enticed by one or the other. For example, if you were given a choice between eating a worm or eating a slug, most people would do neither because neither choice is very enticing. On the other hand, if we were given the choice of eating a worm or eating a steak most people would be enticed to eat the steak. Therefore, the choices we make are based on what entices us. That is why Lehi said, "Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act (i.e., decide) for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other" (vs. 16).
What this tells us is that the choices we make are those that we find enticing or appealing to us. In other words, we choose to do those things we like to do and we avoid or procrastinate doing those things we find unappealing. What Lehi is doing is showing that what prompts us to either follow or ignore the commandments of God is whether we find the commandments of God to be appealing or not.
When we make right choices, that produces happiness, but we can't really know what happiness is unless we understand what it's like to be miserable. In the same way, we can't know what misery is unless we know what it's like to be happy. So the purpose of punishment is to act as an opposite so that we know what happiness is by experiencing misery.
Lehi exlained that because Satan has fallen from heaven and become miserable forever, therefore, he seeks to make all of mankind as miserable as he is (vs.18). But, according to the law of opposites, in order for us to be miserable we would have to know what it was like to be happy, otherwise we would be living a miserable existence and not even realize it. Therefore, God's plan is for us to experience misery so that we can come to know and appreciate happiness.
However, Satan's desire is to make sure we remain miserable forever. Therefore, he wants us to live in a continual state of unrighteousness by constantly enticing us to break God's commandments. And when we break the law we are subsequently punished which makes us feel miserable. If we are to become happy again, then we must be given the opportunity to do right again. And it was for this reason that "the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men. For he gave commandment that all men must repent" (vs. 21).
Since repentance is a commandment of God and following the commandments of God is what produces happiness, then we would have to say that repentance should bring us happiness, while failing to repent brings us misery. But why is that?
Repentance is defined as turning from doing that which is wrong (i.e. breaking the commandments of God) and doing that which is right. Since that takes time and we are always subject to doing wrong, God has deliberately given us the time we need to repent. That is why He has lengthened our days while here on earth in the flesh. If He did not do that we would have no time to repent and therefore would be miserable forever.
But there is more to being saved than just repenting. There also has to be a way provided for us to overcome or avoid the punishment of the law. And that is what the atonement of Christ does for those who believe on Him and who show forth a humble heart and a contrite spirit. Thus, God has provided a way to redeem us from the punishment of the law that will then allow us to become happy forever.
But, on the other hand, "if Adam had not transgressed [the law] he would not have fallen, [and if that were the case then] he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained [that way] forever, and had no end. They would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin" (vs. 22-23).
Therefore is was necessary for Adam to fall because had that not happened, he and Eve would not have had any children and therefore mankind would not have come into existence. But "Adam fell [so] that men might be [born]; and [the reason why] men are [created is so] that they might have joy" (vs. 25). But they cannot know joy unless they know its opposite, which is misery. And they could not come to know misery except they knew sin, which knowledge comes from the law. That is why God gave them a commandment not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and then gave them the choice to decide for themselves whether to obey that commandment or not.
But once they came to know sin by disobeying the commandment, they were cut off from the presence of God, their creator. Therefore, "the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, [so] that he may redeem the children of men from the fall" (vs. 26). This was the purpose of Christ's atonement.
"And because that they are redeemed from the fall [this has allowed them to]become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act (i.e., decide) for themselves [what choices they want to make] and not to be acted upon (i.e., have the decisions made for them), [with the exception of ] the punishment of the law [which will be brought upon them ] at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given" (vs. 26).
Therefore, we see that while men live in the flesh, they are free to decide for themselves all those things that God in His wisdom has permitted them to decide. And the things that He has permitted them to decide for themselves are those things that are necessary to promote their eternal happiness.
Lehi then concluded his sermon by saying, "And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words [for He has given you the freedom to choose to obey the law, which is the commandments of God, which if you do will bring you happiness, or to choose to do that which is contrary to the law, which if you do will bring you misery. The choice is yours but I would that ye should] choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit; [rather than] choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.
"I have spoken these few words unto all [of you whom I call] my sons, in the last days of my probation; And I have none other object[ive in telling you these things] save it be [for] the everlasting welfare of your souls" (vs. 28-30).
The message Lehi gave his sons over twenty-five hundred years ago is just as true today as it was then and the knowledge he imparted to them is still of great importance to the inhabitants of the earth today. God has set before us two opposing choices and has given us the opportunity to choose for ourselves whether to obey His commandments or not. As Lehi explained to his sons, the choices we make will be determined by whether we find the commandments of God enticing to us or not. Nephi found delight in reading and pondering the scriptures as well as in the things of the Lord (2 Nephi 4:15,16). Jacob, his brother, abhorred sin but delighted in righteousness (2 Nephi 9:49). Consequently, the choices they made were based on the things in which their soul delighted.
To help us make the right decisions in life all we have to remember is to have as our objective to do no other thing than that which will be for the everlasting welfare of our soul. It is when we lose that perspective that we become enticed to set at naught the things of God. But we are free to make that decision for ourselves because God has given us the law of opposites.
From the directions given in the Book of Mormon, it appears that they would have set sail from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. From this location the only way to reach the American continent would be to sail south and go around the horn of Africa before turning northwest into the Atlantic Ocean. Once they had arrived on the promised land, it is fairly certain that a few years had passed before Lehi gathered his family together and gave this sermon.
If we reasonably assume Lehi lived approximately six months in the wilderness near Jersualem before traveling eight years to Bountiful, and if we assume they set sail a year later, with the sea journey taking approximately six months, and three years after that Lehi died, such assumptions would equal thirteen years. It was sometime after the death of Lehi (perhaps six months or less) that Nephi and his people fled from Laman into the wilderness. It wasn't until some time after they had become settled in the land of Nephi, built permanent dwellings, built a temple, and Nephi consecrated Jacob and Joseph to be priests and teachers over the people that Nephi finally wrote, "And thirty years had passed away from the time we left Jerusalem" (2 Nephi 5:28). Therefore, it seems certain that quite a number of years had passed from the time Lehi died to the time Nephi gave the time he had left Jerusalem, making thirteen years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem to the time he died seem much more reasonable.