As Latter-day Saints we are very familiar with this scripture and the concept behind it. We believe that before the earth was created, God, our Father in heaven, presented a plan to help us gain immortality and eternal life, and from the time of Adam to the present He has had only one goal in mind - to help all of his children follow the plan of salvation and achieve it's ultimate reward.
We also believe that Satan plays a significant role in that plan, because without his opposition we could not be tested and develop as fully as we could (2 Nephi 2:11). Thus we see that despite all the evil that exists on the earth, it serves a useful and necessary purpose in God's plan for us.
In the book of Revelations, the Lord showed the apostle John a view of the history of the world to the end of time. He was shown that, in the last days before the second coming of Christ, Satan would grow in power in an effort to deceive men and to overthrow the faith of the righteous (Revelations 13). Then John saw how Satan would be bound for a thousand years while Christ reigned over the earth. After that Satan would be let loose for a short season to wage one last great war but would be defeated, and then would come the resurrection (Revelation 20). And finally, the earth itself would be destroyed and there would be a new heaven and a new earth to replace the old, where Christ and His saints would reign forever (Revelations 21:1-8).
It's clear that from the very beginning God had a plan that extended from before the time of Adam to well beyond a thousand years from now. And try as he might to destroy that plan, Satan is powerless to disrupt it or even slow it down. He is merely a pawn, used by God to accomplish an important function of the plan. It is therefore obvious that God is in total control and that the plan for our salvation is proceeding exactly as it was designed.
In the very beginning, God spoke with Adam and taught him the principles of salvation - i.e, faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, the priesthood, and the endowments. Then Adam was commanded to teach his children these principles and guide them to choose good over evil. As such, Adam was a prophet - meaning that he had received instructions directly from God to impart unto others.
From Adam to Noah the office of a prophet continued to exist among the inhabitants of the earth. Noah himself was a prophet and after the flood, the same pattern continued to the time of Abraham, then to Isaac and to Jacob.
According to the biblical records, after Jacob and his son Joseph died, the Israelites lived without the guidance of a prophetic leader until the coming of Moses more than four hundred years later. So it might be said that during those many years, the Lord's church - His organization for salvation - was leaderless.
Now the question could be asked, "Why would the Lord allow this to happen? Why did He deliberately and purposefully leave His chosen people without direction or guidance when the whole purpose of earth life is to help all mankind to achieve immortality and eternal life?" Even when the wickedness of man became so great that God decided to cleanse the earth with a flood of water, He never ceased communicating His will to the people through a prophet. So why did He not provide a prophet to the Israelites for four hundred years while they were slaves in Egypt?
However, that situation existed only in the Middle East. On the American continent, the Jaradites were flourishing during this time and they did have prophets to guide the people. So we see that, although some people weren't privileged to have a living prophet, there were others who did.
After Moses there came many other prophets, from Joshua, to Samuel, to Isaiah, to Jeremiah and finally Malachi. During the hundreds of years since the Israelites left the captivity of Egypt, regardless of how wickedly they behaved, God continually spoke His mind and will to them through the voice of a prophet. Although the Israelites rejected the prophets and ignored their words, the Lord never stopped sending His special representatives to instruct and encourage the people on how to become saved. And why not? After all, God's entire work is dedicated to bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. It's only reasonable that God would send prophets to show the way people should go, whether they heed the message or not.
Then, after Malachi, there were no more messengers from God for another four hundred years. Why?
A distinction needs to be made between God answering a person's prayers and a person acting as a prophet. God always answers prayers, but that doesn't make such person a spokesman for God. It's only when God speaks to someone and gives them a message to deliver to others that they become a prophet. In effect they become the human voice of God in making a divine declaration.
Nor is the priesthood a substitute for a prophet. During the four hundred years the Israelites were in bondage to the Egyptians, they had the priesthood, but they had no one to say with authority what they should do with that priesthood. Therefore, the Israelites could only follow the traditions they had learned from their fathers, instead of relying on guidance from God Himself through a living prophet.
Likewise, between the time of Malachi and John the Baptist, the Jews had the priesthood. During that four hundred year silence they continued using the priesthood in their temple ordinances, but they were only following the traditions taught to them by their fathers. There was no one who could directly speak the words of God to them.
Yet, just as before, the famine for the word of God was only in the Middle East. On the American continent, prophets of God continued to instruct the people without a pause. And so again we see that it wasn't the entire world that was left destitute of divine guidance, but only certain people.
However, why would the Lord do that to the Jews? Had He become so discouraged with trying to save them that He just gave up for a few hundred years before trying again? Had Satan succeeded in disrupting God's plan to bring immortality and eternal life to His children? It's unthinkable that the answer to either question could be "yes."
Furthermore, under inspiration from God, the Nephites tried to bring the message of salvation to the Lamanites, but the Israelites never received any such directive to spread their beliefs to the Philistines, or the Canaanites, or the Egyptians. However, it should be noted that these people were not Israelites. Since both the Nephites and the Lamanites were descendants of Israel, it would seem from the early scriptures that God's work of immortality and eternal life was limited to and designed only for the Israelites; not the vast majority of earth's inhabitants. But why? Doesn't God love all His children? Shouldn't His work include every nation, kindred, tongue and people?
Then, after four hundred years of silence in the Middle East, God sent the angel Gabriel to speak to Zacharias in the temple and to a woman named Mary who lived in Nazareth. Although the scriptures do not specifically state that these were the first heavenly pronouncements to the Jews since Malachi, it seems certain that they were (see Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage, p. 76-77). However, these were personal revelations to specific individuals and were not meant to confer the title of prophet on either person. It wasn't until John, the son of Zacharias, began preaching in the wilderness that the Jews once more had a living prophet among them.
After John came Jesus, and after Him came twelve divinely appointed men known as apostles. Each were prophets themselves and were given the charge to go "teach all nations... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20). At last, the work of salvation was being taken to people everywhere! Finally prophets were commissioned to spread out across the known world and declare the gospel message to everyone, not just a select few.
On the American continent, Christ had also established His organization for salvation, including twelve apostles to guide their people. The earth was now filled with the news of Jesus Christ and the work of God to bring immortality and eternal life to His children was being accomplished on a scale never before done .
Then, less than seventy years after Christ's crucifixion, the last apostle in the Middle East ceased his work. Although the newly formed Church of Christ had priesthood leaders, none of them were prophets, and so the early saints were left to follow the traditions and teaching they had learned from their spiritual fathers. By 200 A.D. the work of salvation was already fragmenting from within the organization itself.
On the American continent the Nephites and Lamanites lived peacefully with one another until the year 200 A.D. when they then started reverting to their former ways of strife. By 360 A.D., Mormon was the last Nephite prophet called by God (Mormon 3:2:). After his death, the nation that had enjoyed the blessings of a living prophet for almost a thousand uninterrupted years soon found itself without any.
According to the records we have, for the first time in the history of the world, there is no evidence of a living prophet anywhere on earth beginning somewhere around 380 A.D.
In 1820 Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in answer to his prayers, but he was not called to be a prophet at that time. Like Zacharias and Mary of old, he merely received a personal revelation. It wasn't until he had received the priesthood, been baptized and the church was officially organized in 1830 that Joseph Smith was commanded to take the word of the Lord to others. It's only then that we next hear of a true prophet living on the earth once more.
Think of what that means! For more than fourteen hundred years there were no living prophets anywhere to guide anyone! That means for fourteen hundred years there was no work of salvation being done any where on the earth! Why? What about God's plan to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man? Why did God seemingly stop His work so completely, especially after barely beginning to take it to people all over the earth? And why was God's work of salvation limited primarily to the descendants of Israel prior to the time of Jesus Christ?
The real answer is that we don't know why, because God hasn't told us. Anything more than this would be mere speculation.
However, we do know what God's work is all about, and that He loves all of His children. We also know that God is all-powerful and that neither Satan nor man can frustrate the designs of God (D&C 3:1-3). Furthermore, we know that whatever God does is always wise, just, and prudent. Therefore, we must conclude that before the earth was even formed, God's plan called for the limited use and lapses of true living prophets. These events didn't occur accidentally, or out of frustration, or in response to man's wickedness. If that was the case then it would indicate that God's plan can be thwarted.
Of course, such an understanding doesn't explain the questions of why, but it is instructive of how God operates as we ponder it's implication. God doesn't always give us a full understanding of His ways. Even with all the scriptures available to us, our knowledge of eternal matters are far from complete, and it's plain to see that there is much more involved in the plan of salvation than we currently understand. This realization helps affirm the need for us to study the scriptures, not merely for the sake of reading them but for gaining understanding, knowledge and wisdom.
Without proper understanding, knowledge and wisdom we can easily jump to simple but erroneous conclusions which can lead us away from faith in God. For example, it's easy to conclude that the reason there were no prophets for almost fifteen hundred years is because of man's wickedness. However, such an assumption is not correct. It's equally easy to conclude that God is inconsistent in His dealings with man, that He discriminates, or is unfair, thereby leading some to doubt God's goodness. This reasoning is just as false.
As we ponder such unanswerable questions we come to realize that the opportunity for salvation has not been available to a great number of earth's inhabitants. That means there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done if these ancient souls are to have the opportunity of salvation extended to them. As righteous spirits waiting our turn to experience mortality at this point in the earth's history, it's inconceivable that we didn't comprehend or realize the great amount of work that awaited us to save our deceased relatives who never had the blessing of a living prophet in their lives. And there can be no doubt that, in exchange for the great blessing of living at a time when the full plan of salvation is upon the earth, we agreed in the pre-existence to do all we could to help our Father in carrying out His work of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of all mankind, regardless of where ever and whenever they lived.