I used to think Doctrine and Covenants 121 was just about the priesthood. Now I see that it covers several topics besides the priesthood, all of which are important for us to consider in our daily lives. This section focuses on expressions of God’s love for His people.
Part 1 – verses 1-6
In every Sunday School lesson I have ever read about these verses, Joseph Smith was “complaining” to the Lord, because he had suffered so much. And the Lord’s response in the next section was treated as a slap on the wrist of the prophet for complaining at all. Let’s look at these verses and see just how much complaining is actually taking place.
As you read these verses, think about what the prophet is saying, and about how he is saying it. Yes, he was suffering, a lot! But as he addresses the Lord he is very polite and reverential in his speech. I mean who actually complains to God while asking Him for the location of “the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” This is poetic speech, not the raw speech of someone who is only thinking about his own problems.
1 O God, art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy ?
2 long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
Did you notice in verse two that Joseph complimented the Lord by specifying that God’s eye is not just an eye, but a pure eye? And he doesn’t give any indication that he or the Saints have done anything wrong for which they need feel guilty. He is approaching God with a clear conscience.
3 Yea, O Lord, long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful , before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with toward them?
4 O Lord God , maker of , earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol—stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy be taken up; let thy no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us.
5 Let thine be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy us of our wrongs.
6 Remember thy saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.
These verses smack of someone who is confused and frustrated, but not angry or resentful. Joseph just wants to know how long this trial needs to continue. He isn’t challenging the Lord on the idea that they need to have the trial, but he would like to know how much longer they will have to go on with it.
Part 2 – verses 7-10
The Lord’s immediate or first response is to Joseph in particular. The Lord assures him of His love for Joseph when He refers to Joseph as “My Son.”
7 My son, be unto thy soul; thine and thine afflictions shall be but a moment;
8 And then, if thou it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy .
9 Thy do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.
10 Thou art not yet as Job; thy do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job.
The Lord assures Joseph that his soul can rest in peace, because this trial will only be “but a small moment.” He does use this opportunity for a teaching moment and tells Joseph that despite all he had been through, he still had it better than Job had it. God goes on to promise Joseph that his friends were still faithful, “and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.”
Some may think God was giving Joseph a slap on the wrist here, but it feels all full of love and tenderness to me. Yes, there is a reminder of where Joseph stands, but it seems more like the Lord is mostly concerned with helping Joseph keep his perspective in this situation. Joseph never accused the Lord of anything unjustly. He never stated anything that wasn’t true. In the first six verses when Joseph was asking for an explanation, all of his speech is filled with reverence and respect for the majesty of God. His poetic use of words, like “pavilion” just go to demonstrate his care and desire not to offend God with his questions, no matter how much he felt he and the Saints were suffering at the time.
Part 3 – verses 11-25
These 15 verses give us a look at how the Lord feels about those who persecute His friends and His people. The first five verses is all part of the same sentence.
11 And they who do charge thee with transgression, their hope shall be blasted, and their prospects shall away as the hoar frost melteth before the burning rays of the rising sun;
12 And also that God hath set his hand and seal to change the and seasons, and to blind their , that they may not understand his ; that he may them also and take them in their own craftiness;
13 Also because their hearts are corrupted, and the things which they are willing to bring upon others, and love to have others suffer, may come upon to the very uttermost;
14 That they may be also, and their hopes may be cut off;
15 And not many years hence, that they and their shall be from under heaven, saith God, that not one of them is left to stand by the wall.
There is a principle of restitution or restoration in the plan of salvation that affects our final judgment. The Lord expresses that principle in verses 11-15 as it applies to those who try to hurt His people. He tells Joseph that these wicked people will be blind as to the things of God. They won’t be able to understand His dealings with His children. Not only will they be taken in their own craftiness, but that they will suffer in the extreme from the very plots they love to plan against others. His comments in this long sentence are just the first to spell out how He plans to get retribution on those who would hurt His people.
16 are all those that shall lift up the against mine , saith the Lord, and cry they have when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.
Verse 16 must have been comforting to hear for Joseph since the Lord vindicates all that Joseph and the Church had been doing. Suffering unjustly is one thing, but for the Lord to acknowledge that they were suffering unjustly, because they were doing “that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them,” must have been a source of comfort and solace to the prophet and the members of the Church.
17 But who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the of disobedience themselves.
18 And those who against my servants, that they might bring them into bondage and death—
19 Wo unto them; because they have my little ones they shall be severed from the of mine house.
Verses 17-19 have two important points. The first is that eternal principle that we see in action all around us today, that those who cry the loudest about someone else’s sins are usually “children of disobedience themselves.” The second point is God’s tender statement about His “little ones” being offended. There are several places in the scriptures where the Lord refers to His people as “little ones” and He uses this as a term of endearment. He is protective of them. And did you note what the punishment is for those who offend those God loves? He says they will be cut off or “severed from the ordinance of mine house.” Really? No hell fire, damnation, floods, or famine? What could be worse than to be cut off from the ordinances of salvation and exaltation? Floods, famine, and pestilence would be a step up. In the following verses the Lord continues to list the ways in which He will punish those who accuse and hurt His little ones.
20 Their shall not be full, their houses and their barns shall perish, and they themselves shall be by those that flattered them.
21 They shall not have right to the , nor their posterity after them from generation to generation.
22 It had been for them that a millstone had been hanged about their necks, and they drowned in the depth of the sea.
23 Wo unto all those that my people, and drive, and , and testify against them, saith the Lord of Hosts; a of vipers shall not escape the damnation of hell.
24 Behold, mine eyes and know all their works, and I have in reserve a swift in the season thereof, for them all;
25 For there is a for every man, according as his shall be.
Again, the Lord declares the ultimate punishment for those who persecute His people – “They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation.” Ouch. Isn’t this like saying something akin to ‘I will withhold my atoning sacrifice from them and not allow them to have access to it from generation to generation’? Could there be anything more severe than this?
Part 4 – verses 26-33
In these verses the Lord promises that in this dispensation many blessings will be given to His people. This doesn’t help the Saints so much in Joseph’s day, for these are mostly promises having to do with the millennial day. But we are all part of this generation and dispensation. This is what we and our posterity have to look forward to experiencing, because of our faithfulness and obedience.
26 God shall give unto you by his , yea, by the unspeakable of the Holy Ghost, that has not been since the world was until now;
27 Which our forefathers have awaited with expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;
28 A time to come in the which shall be withheld, whether there be or many , they shall be manifest.
Though almost all of the next few verses refer to a future time, much was revealed to Joseph Smith and the Church in Joseph’s day that hadn’t been given to God’s children since the beginning of the world.
29 All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be and set forth upon all who have endured for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
30 And also, if there be set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—
31 All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their , laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the of the fulness of times—
32 According to that which was in the midst of the of the Eternal of all other gods before this was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal and into his immortal .
33 How long can rolling waters remain impure? What shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to the from pouring down from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.
I love the sentiment expressed in verse 33. “How long can rolling waters remain impure?” Think about the Saints and the persecutions they were going through. These were their “rolling waters.” Water that slides along slowly and silently tends to be muddy, and doesn’t get purified. It is the water that tumbles over rocks and falls down cliffs, that is churned and tumbled over and over again that is purified. The same can be said for our progress spiritually. It is our trials that strengthen and purify us, not our times of ease and prosperity. I wonder in this verse if the Lord is saying that the sufferings of the Saints cannot prevent them from being purified, and cannot prevent God from “pouring down knowledge from heaven” any more than a man who thinks he can stretch forth his “puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course.” How do you read this verse?
Part 5 – verses 34-40
By now, the purpose of Joseph’s original question has been answered. The Lord has assured him, and the Church, that God is watching out for them, because they did nothing wrong. The rest of this section seems to be an incredible teaching moment the Lord is blessing us all with as long as He has our collective ear.
34 Behold, there are many , but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
Called to what? Called to the opportunity to receive blessings in callings that can help to sanctify us. This can be a leadership role or even a calling that has nothing to do with leadership, but is difficult for us, personally. Our calling may be to be in charge of cleaning the church house or serving in Primary, or any number of other callings that may challenge us spiritually or socially. So what is it that makes us chosen or not chosen? The Lord answers the “not chosen” question first.
35 Because their are set so much upon the things of this , and to the of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be nor handled only upon the of righteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to our , or to gratify our , our vain ambition, or to exercise control or or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to against the pricks, to the saints, and to against God.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little , as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but are chosen.
My personal opinion is that this block of verses is one of the most doctrinally dense in all of the scriptures. Let’s look first at the rights of the priesthood.
Note that the verse says “rights,” not “rites.” The rights of the priesthood, as far as I can tell, refer to the permission from God to administer the saving ordinances of the gospel. But there are more rights than just administering ordinances. In a talk by H. Burke Peterson (which I highly recommend you read), he says the following.
May I suggest that many of us have lost sight of one of the most important reasons for our holding the priesthood. To be an effective teachers quorum president, elders quorum president, bishop, or counselor is important—we spend many hours in training these officers. To perform the vital priesthood ordinances is essential. But even more important than all these is the need to learn how to use the priesthood to bless our families and homes.
If we live for it, ours can be a power given us from our Heavenly Father that will bring peace to a troubled household. Ours can be a power that will bless and comfort little children, that will bring sleep to tear-stained eyes in the wee hours of the morning. Ours can be the power that will bring happiness to a family home evening, the power to calm the unsettled nerves of a tired wife. Ours can be the power that will give direction to a confused and vulnerable teenager. Ours, the power to bless a daughter before she goes on her first date or before her temple marriage, or to bless a son before his departure for a mission or college. Ours, my young brethren, can be the power to stop evil thoughts of a group of boys gathered together in vulgar conversation. Ours can be the power to heal the sick and comfort the lonely. These are some of the important purposes of the priesthood.
As I read and understand what Brother Peterson is saying, the rights of the priesthood include the ability and responsibility to bless our family and home, that is, to bless the lives of those with whom we live – those we love. He makes it clear that authority in the priesthood isn’t all there is to the priesthood, for women use the priesthood too through the covenants they make, yet they are not ordained to an office in the priesthood.
As I see it, the rights of the priesthood are available to all who make covenants with God, starting with our baptism. Honoring our covenants in every way possible generates spiritual power in our lives – priesthood power. This is the power Brother Peterson talks about in the quote above – the power to influence others for good and holy purposes, and in good and holy ways. He is talking specifically to the priesthood brethren, but gaining power in the priesthood is the same for women as it is for men when it comes to acting in righteous ways to fulfill our covenants and spread the healing influence of God in the lives of others.
What does being “chosen” have to do with priesthood power? If I am called to the Primary, and do all in my power to fulfill the calling I have been given, no matter what it is, by blessing the lives of all those with whom I come in contact then I become chosen. If, on the other hand, I have my own agenda, I don’t listen and follow the directions given me by those who have been called to lead me in my calling then I am not chosen, for I am too involved with self promotion or my own agenda. The Lord is very clear that becoming “chosen” is something we do to ourselves. We become chosen because of our obedience, humility, and our display of the godly virtues that make one “chosen.”
The verses above refer specifically to those in priesthood leadership positions, but the principle of becoming chosen is the same, whether you hold an office in the priesthood and have a leadership calling or don’t hold a priesthood office, but have made priesthood covenants and are doing everything in your power to live a godly life. Women who exercise unrighteous dominion in their relationships with others are no different than a man who does the same. The punishments are the same, and the blessings are the same for all of us.
Part 6 – verses 41-46
I believe verse 41 is specifically speaking to men who are ordained to an office in the priesthood, but the principle behind this verse applies equally to men and women.
41 No or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the , only by , by , by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
42 By , and pure , which shall greatly enlarge the without , and without —
43 betimes with , when upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of .
45 Let thy also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy wax strong in the of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the from heaven.
46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant , and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of and truth; and thy shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
Verses 41-46 aren’t just talking about how to honor your priesthood, if you have a calling in the priesthood. These verses are what give all of us power in the priesthood covenants we have made. These are the leadership qualities that allow us to become godly, to have revelation from the Holy Ghost, and to gain the hope of a “scepter of righteousness and truth.” Look again at these verses. These are perfect descriptors of how Jesus lived his life in mortality.
Note that only when we learn to live like these verses outline that we will gain confidence before the Lord. Those who live lives of kindness, without guile or hypocrisy, who are long-suffering, gentle, meek, etc., are those who can approach the Lord knowing they have not offended Him by their sins. They can have confidence that when they ask the Lord questions, they can expect answers. This is the reason Joseph Smith was able to be bold in asking what the Lord was thinking, and why He was letting His Saints continue to suffer. He knew where he stood with the Lord, so he had confidence that when he asked, his prayer would be answered.
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