It would take a large volume to review all that the Lord has said about his people and then discuss how his promises have played out in the past, and will play out in the future. I am only going to discuss a couple of points that recently came to my attention. First let’s look at some of the promises the Lord made about the scattering of Israel, and why they had to be scattered. Then we’ll look at the promises he made to gather them back in from their long dispersion, and some of the differences between ancient and modern Israel.
What makes Israel Israel?
First off, Israel is a family name. When I refer to ancient Israel or modern Israel I am not talking about our relatives, the Jews living in Jerusalem, though they are certainly part of the family. What makes the family of Jacob (Israel) God’s people is that it is with his family that God made his covenant. The original covenant was made with Abraham.
God’s covenant with Abraham was that Abraham would become the father of nations, with untold numbers of posterity. Such a promise cannot be fulfilled overnight. It takes time to fulfill such a promise. Fortunately, the Lord already had a plan in place to keep his word to Abraham long before he ever made the promise to Abraham.
The plan required that Abraham and Sarah have many sons, one of which would carry on the covenant/priesthood line. Abraham’s first son was Ishmael, who became the father of the Arab nations. His second son, and the only son of his first wife, was Isaac, and was the bearer of the priesthood, hence covenant line. After Sarah’s death Abraham married Keturah who bore him six sons. We don’t know if Abraham had any daughters, as none are mentioned in the scriptures. All of these children are part of the innumerable posterity promised to Abraham. But it is important to remember that the salvation offered through Abraham’s covenant status with God can only be had through Abraham’s priesthood line through Isaac.
Isaac had had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Long story made short – Jacob received the birthright blessing from his father and became the patriarch (a priesthood office) for his family. In an encounter with an angel Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. When we refer to Israel or the house of Israel we are referring to all his descendants, no matter which of the 12 sons of Israel the person belongs to. Of the twelve sons of Israel, his eleventh son, Joseph received the birthright and became the patriarch of the family.
Because the birthright son receives a double portion of the inheritance, Joseph divided his double portion between his two sons Manasseh, and Ephraim. These two grandsons were accepted by Israel as being as legitimately his own heirs as any of his sons. Ephraim retains the priesthood blessings and is considered to be the covenant line. All the promises of the Lord regarding the house or family of Israel involve the children of Ephraim. When a person with no blood relation to the covenant family accepts the gospel they are adopted into the family of Abraham, becoming one of his sons or daughters through the family of Ephraim.
Israel is the generic term we use to refer to the covenant-making descendants of the prophet Israel (Jacob). It is through his twelve sons we get what we call the tribes of Israel. Each son fathering their own tribe named after them. The family of Judah became the tribe of Judah, which later came to be known as the Jews. The tribe of Levi came to be the holders of the Levitical, or Aaronic priesthood from Moses onward. Because of general disobedience and unfaithfulness to the covenants God made with the children of Israel (the whole family), 10 of the tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians and lost to our historical records. We refer to them as the lost tribes. The remaining tribes living in and around Jerusalem when the 10 tribes were taken into captivity were spared until the Babylonians carried them off shortly after Lehi left Jerusalem for the Americas.
Why were the descendants of Israel scattered throughout the world?
The covenant made with Abraham is recorded in Genesis 17:4, 7-9. This is just part of the covenant.
4 As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.
7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
9 ¶ And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.
This covenant is one of the examples available to us of times when the Lord makes a covenant with one person because of their faithfulness to him, and honors it generations down the line not because the descendants deserve the blessings, but because of the faithfulness of the person with whom the Lord made the covenant.
Abraham was faithful in all things, though his posterity proved time and time again to be faithless to the covenants the Lord had set up and made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). In every faithful generation he renewed his promise originally given to Abraham. But what was the Lord supposed to do about creating posterity as numerous as the sands of the sea for Abraham when his posterity were violating all the covenants Abraham had accepted at the hands of God?
The Lord promised Abraham’s posterity that if the day came that they utterly rejected him and his covenants with them that, like a faithless wife he would put her away. She (the posterity of Israel) would have to suffer for many generations among strange nations. The people of Israel would be scourged, persecuted, and driven from place to place until the day came that the Lord would see fit to bring them back home to their promised land, and back to his covenants once again.
What was accomplished by the scattering of Israel?
When we think of the lost tribes of Israel and of the scattering of the Jews by the Babylonians, and later by the Romans, we think mainly of the punishments being meeted out by the Lord for their disobedience to God’s covenants, all the prophets they killed and turned out of doors, and the false doctrines and gods they embraced. Everyone knows that at some point in the future the Lord promised to gather Israel back in from their long dispersion. But everyone thinks only of the Jews, which is only one of twelve tribes.
The covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a covenant of blood. Only their descendants could receive the blessings of the covenants God made with Abraham. God promised Abraham innumerable descendants. How did he deliver on his promise? The answer is in the scattering and the gathering. By scattering Israel, which was the result of their disobedience, God mixed their bloodline with all the nations of the earth. Over the millennia that they have remained lost to our records, they have been intermarrying and spreading the family of Abraham throughout the earth. There are literally many millions, if not more, who have someone in their family line who was a direct line descendant of Abraham.
But how do these descendants of Abraham receive the blessings of the covenant?
The blessings of the covenant have to come by way of making the covenants with God. When the covenants were first given the children of Israel didn’t really have much personal choice in being part of the covenant people. They were born into the family and it became just part of their identity. But that isn’t how it is in the last days. Since the Lord restored his gospel and the covenants of Abraham to the earth once again, each person who comes into God’s kingdom has to personally accept these covenants. Each of us becomes responsible for living the covenants we make at baptism and in the Temple. Our children are born under the covenant, but still have to go to the Temple and choose to take upon themselves the Abrahamic covenants.
What does the gathering of Israel do for Israel?
The gathering of all these descendants of Israel is what is happening through missionary work. The Lord has promised that those who are of the blood of Israel (members of the extended family) will recognize something familiar about what the missionaries are teaching them. This familiar sound will draw them to the gospel. Some will accept the message, while others will still find reason to reject it. This is only the first half of the gathering.
The second half of the gathering is taking place on the other side of the veil. It is happening through the missionary work by the righteous priesthood holders to those who have already passed out of mortality without every having heard of the true gospel of Christ. We cooperate with these priesthood holders by performing the proxy work established by the Lord in his Temples. This allows those who wish to live their lives as covenant members of Israel’s family to have their ordinances done for them so they can progress.
The covenant made to Abraham is all about godhood. It is centered around eternal families and eternal marriage. These only exist among Gods. We look at the current membership of the Lord’s Church and think, wow, we have a long way to go. And that is correct. We do. But don’t discount the work that is taking place on the other side of the veil. Israel is being gathered “home” on both sides of the veil, among those living in mortality, as well as among those living in the spirit world.
Promises to Israel in the last days
When it comes to talking about the Lord’s relationship with his covenant family Israel, there is no prophet so often quoted as Isaiah. Even the Savior quoted him more than any other prophet. Isaiah not only outlined all of Israel’s failings and prophesied of their destruction and scattering, but he also spoke with more detail than anyone else about how the Lord would one day redeem his people and bring them back into the covenant relationship they once enjoyed.
Following is a small selection of promises of the Lord to his covenant people Israel. Though he always promised to bless Israel as a country and as individual covenant keepers, and he always kept his promises, what we usually hear most are his threats of Israel being destroyed as a nation and scattered among the peoples of the earth for their disobedience. Those who lived in Israel anciently eventually entered into such a state of apostasy that the Lord had no choice but to destroy their nation and fulfill his promises to scourge and punish them for generations.
The promises to modern Israel are vastly different. Look at what Isaiah foretells of the Lord’s treatment of latter-day Israelites.
To Israel the Lord says, I am your God; I will gather your descendants; beside me there is no Savior; you are my witnesses.
The Lord’s Spirit will be poured out on the descendants of Israel—Idols of wood are as fuel for a fire—The Lord will gather, bless, and redeem Israel and rebuild Jerusalem.
In the last days, the Lord will comfort Zion and gather Israel—The redeemed will come to Zion amid great joy—Compare 2 Nephi 8.
In the last days, Zion will return, and Israel will be redeemed—The Messiah will deal prudently and be exalted.
In the last days, Zion and her stakes will be established, and Israel will be gathered in mercy and tenderness—Israel will triumph—Compare 3 Nephi 22.
Come and drink; salvation is free—The Lord will make an everlasting covenant with Israel—Seek the Lord while He is near.
All who keep the commandments will be exalted—Other people will join Israel—The Lord will gather others to the house of Israel.
The blessings of belonging to Israel in the last days
To ancient Israel Isaiah talked to them and compared them to a whoring wife who forsook her vows to her faithful husband and went from bed to bed in her wickedness. The promises of punishment for Israel’s behavior were equal to the punishments for a wife who treated her husband so cruelly. But once the Lord’s anger passes and he is willing to accept her as his wife once again, the blessings just don’t stop.
Here are some verses from Isaiah 54. I’ll break it up every so often to make some comments.
1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.
Israel had been left barren and desolate as a people. They literally had no covenant seed because they had rejected all their covenants. The Lord tells them that they who were without posterity in the Lord would be greater in number than those who did have posterity in the Lord. How is this possible? His wife in the latter days is his kingdom on earth, his Church. As missionary work progresses the people who join the Church are brought back into the family of Abraham. As they swell our ranks, we look around and say, where did all these members come from? A few years ago we were just a branch, and now we are splitting yet another stake.
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes;
3 For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
The Israelites comprehended well life lived in a tent. When you had too many people to fit in your tent you had to “stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations,” your house. That meant lifting the sides of the tent and creating new rooms to house all the new people. New stakes would have to be driven into the ground to anchor the enlarged tent (the Church) so it could safely hold all the new people. This is where the term Stake comes from in the Church.
In the next 10 verses remember the relationship of the Savior to his Church. He is the bridegroom, and we, the Church his bride. Anciently he accused his people for their faithless behavior, the covenants they broke, and the false gods they worshiped. But these are his promises to modern Israel, his covenant people. For thousands of years now they have lived in shame and punishment for their behavior, but those days are now behind us. The Lord has promised to accept Israel’s return. He has given us his covenant once again, with the promise that his relationship with us will never again change. The Lord will never again forsake Israel. Instead he will bless, protect, promote, and treat us with tender mercies. He expresses his feelings for latter-day Israel in terms of mercy, everlasting kindness, and swearing that he will neither be wroth with us nor rebuke us ever again.
4 Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
5 For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
9 For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee.
10 For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.
11 ¶ O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
12 And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
13 And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
This change of attitude on the part of the Lord is not an inconsistency on his part. If he is able to treat us this well it can only be because we are different from ancient Israel. For we are taught that all blessings are based on laws. We could not receive these wonderful blessings if we weren’t willing to live the laws that bring those blessings.
14 In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee.
15 Behold, they shall surely gather together, but not by me: whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
Don’t get the wrong impression. Verses 14 and 15 tell us that we will never be put into the same position that ancient Israel faced. We will never have to suffer as they did for their wickedness. But that does not mean we won’t face trials and adversity in the last days. Trials will come both personally and as a Church. But what we are promised is that the teachings of the Church will be a place of spiritual safety for all of us. The Lord has promised that all those who combine against us as the Lord’s people, will be thwarted for our sakes. He will protect his people.
Whether we are literal descendants of Abraham or adopted into his family, the blessings are the same. Anciently, Israel knew that the day would come when wickedness would cause the Lord to scatter them, as a people, among the nations of the earth. Today the opposite is true. Today the Lord is promising to pull our cousins in the family of Israel from among the nations of the earth back into the covenant fold of God. This is our responsibility as covenant makers and covenant keepers in the Lord’s Church.
God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This promise of eternal increase and eternal marriage is the same covenant we make in the Temples, whether for ourselves or in behalf of someone who is dead. The tie for all of Abraham’s descendants is the priesthood covenants of eternal marriage. It is our responsibility to go and receive those covenants for ourselves then spend the rest of our lives sharing those same covenants with the living and the dead. This duty is what makes us saviors on Mt. Zion. Just as Jesus acted as proxy for us in the garden of Gethsemane, doing for us what we were unable to do for ourselves, so too are we doing for our kindred dead what they cannot do for themselves.