purpose of prophecy

The purpose of prophecy is to give those who choose to believe in them an anchor. They help us make choices and exercise our faith in Christ.

I was watching a television show about the end of days, and one of the characters made an interesting comment about feeling helpless to stop the destruction to come. The response from another character stunned me. In essence, the response was, “whether or not the destruction happens is not etched in stone. We can still affect the outcome with our free will.” It wasn’t until that moment that I realized the whole point of this show was to demonstrate that the prophecies of the last days could all be avoided if we would all just make different decisions. If prophecies aren’t “etched in stone” then what is the purpose of prophecy?

Either/Or Prophecies

Prophecies come in a couple of flavors, one of which is the either/or variety. When Lehi, in the Book of Mormon, was about to die from old age, he gathered his children into his tent for some final instruction. One by one he taught his children what would befall them in the future. What is interesting is that he wasn’t focusing on next week or the next ten years, but on what would befall their posterity over the next one to three thousand years.

Here are some sample verses from his prophecies regarding Laman and his children. This comes from 2 Nephi 4:3-7.

Wherefore, after my father had made an end of speaking concerning the prophecies of Joseph, he called the children of Laman, his sons, and his daughters, and said unto them: Behold, my sons, and my daughters, who are the sons and the daughters of my firstborn, I would that ye should give ear unto my words.

For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.

But behold, my sons and my daughters, I cannot go down to my grave save I should leave a blessing upon you; for behold, I know that if ye are brought up in the way ye should go ye will not depart from it.

Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents.

Wherefore, because of my blessing the Lord God will not suffer that ye shall perish; wherefore, he will be merciful unto you and unto your seed forever.

The crux or most important part of this blessing on his oldest son’s posterity revolves around verse five. He states the teaching that ‘if you train up a child in the way he should go that when he is old he will not depart from it,’ (Proverbs 22:6) and states that if they are raised properly the Lord will bless and prosper them in the land (verse 4).

Unfortunately, he knows Laman and how he was raising his children, so he includes his prophecy of what will happen to the family in the event the children follow in their father’s footsteps. He had told everyone earlier on that if they rebelled against God they would be cursed, instead of blessed. So now he tells Laman’s children that their descendants, if they are cursed, will eventually have the curse removed and be blessed. The reason for being cursed then blessed is because they were innocent (without the law) before God. Their father had failed to teach them right from wrong as the Lord commands us all to teach our children.

If Laman had taught his children to be obedient, but his children rebelled then they would be cursed. End of story. But because he taught his children to hate that which was of value and worth, i.e. the scriptures, Nephi and those who chose to do good, they could not be judged like other people would be. Where there is no law, there is no punishment (2 Nephi 9:25). Laman’s children had never been taught obedience to the laws of God, so in verse six Lehi tells Laman’s children that their sins will be required at the hands of Laman because he refused to teach them the right way.

Because of their bad upbringing, the day would come when the Lord would show them mercy and bring the gospel to their descendants. This meant that they would not be destroyed like those who had been taught the gospel, but rebelled against God. The Lord would show them mercy He could not show to those, like the descendants of Nephi, who openly rejected His teachings, who had been taught the gospel, and who had received much revelation and mercy from the Lord.

This is a good example of the either/or variety of prophecy. Lehi knew which way Laman’s descendants would go, having already seen their behavior in vision. But He gave them the opportunity to repent and be blessed anyway. This is something our Father in Heaven does to us all the time. He knows how we are going to behave, but He still gives us the opportunities to repent and accept His guidance so we can be blessed. So Laman’s children saw both paths and could choose either one, but they had already been taught to hate the “rantings” of their grandfather, so Lehi knew they would not ultimately choose the right.

Absolute Prophecies

Though many prophecies are the either/or variety, there are times when the Lord makes clear and absolute declarations of the future. Throughout the scriptures the Lord tells us through the prophets that Israel will be scattered for their disobedience. That is an absolute prophecy, though they were given the opportunity to repent many times (either/or). If they had repented then the scattering would not have been necessary, but the Lord knows His people, so He made sure they knew what would happen when they rejected Him and His prophets.

In 2 Nephi 3:3-5 Lehi tells his son Joseph about their ancestor Joseph, who was sold into Egypt. Joseph prophesied many things concerning his own posterity, because he had received promises from the Lord about what would happen to his descendants.

And now, Joseph, my last-born, whom I have brought out of the wilderness of mine afflictions, may the Lord bless thee forever, for thy seed shall not utterly be destroyed.

For behold, thou art the fruit of my loins; and I am a descendant of Joseph who was carried captive into Egypt. And great were the covenants of the Lord which he made unto Joseph.

Wherefore, Joseph truly saw our day. And he obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of his loins the Lord God would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel; not the Messiah, but a branch which was to be broken off, nevertheless, to be remembered in the covenants of the Lord that the Messiah should be made manifest unto them in the latter days, in the spirit of power, unto the bringing of them out of darkness unto light—yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom.

Verses three and five contain absolute prophecies. In verse three Lehi promises that Joseph’s descendants would not be completely destroyed because of their overall righteousness. In verse five Joseph of Egypt knew of the scattering of his posterity, and made particular mention of the part of his descendants who would be taken from the body of Israel, like a branch broken off. These descendants, who eventually would be wandering in spiritual darkness, would receive the gospel in the last days and become a blessed people once again.

There is no ambiguity here. This is an absolute prophecy. Most prophecies, especially those having to do with the last days, are of this sort. Think about it, can you think of any prophecy having to do with the last days where the Lord says that we have any ability to stem the tide of wickedness? Sure, we are told to pray for the leaders of nations, pray for our neighbors, spread the gospel to all within our reach, etc., but this is the day ordained by God that Satan will be let loose to vex the nations of the world. There is no stopping what is to come, only preparing for it.

One last example

Here is a great example of a prophecy that starts as an either/or, but ends as an absolute prophecy.

When Abinadi goes to the people of Noah he promises them that destruction is coming, but they can still escape it if they repent with sackcloth and ashes. They kick him out of the city. Two years go by and Abinadi returns. Now his prophecy has changed. The day of possible repentance has passed. Now it is a certainty that they will be brought into bondage and made to suffer. In this prophecy Abinadi tells them exactly how they will suffer, and what it will take to win the Lord over again after having spurned His offering to spare them from suffering in the first place. This prophecy is for all of Noah’s people. All of them.

Alma is converted by Abinadi’s preaching. He converts hundred of people and they leave Noah’s kingdom and live in righteousness. Yet, true to Abinadi’s second prophecy, they are brought into captivity anyway and made to suffer just as Abinadi had promised. Meanwhile Noah’s son, Limhi, and his people are also brought into captivity as Abinadi promised. It took a while (at least three wars of their own choosing) before they finally humbled themselves and submitted willingly to the will of the Lord. Both sets of people were made to serve years in bondage before the Lord freed them and brought them back to Zarahemla to be with the rest of the Nephites.

If the people had listened to Abinadi the first time around they would never have needed to serve in such awful bondage for years. But rejecting their opportunity to repent caused the prophet to return with an absolute prophecy that guaranteed their servitude and suffering. The prophet gave them the mind of God, and the people made their choice. They then had to live with the consequences of their choice.

Purpose of Prophecies

The purpose of prophecy is to help us prepare for what is to come. The Lord has always told His children what would befall all the generations of mankind from the time of Adam and Eve right up to when He comes for His millennial reign. He has kept nothing of a critical nature back from us. We have been told since Old Testament times that His people, Israel, would eventually rebel and be scattered for the sake of His covenant with Abraham. By scattering them, He could mix their blood with the nations of the earth. In the last days, those who are the descendants of the covenant maker, Abraham, will recognize the gospel message when they hear it and be drawn to it through the missionary work that would cover the earth.

Because of their conversion, they would receive the covenants of the Lord and become a blessed people once more. These are the people who will be ready and worthy to receive Him at His second coming. This has been the plan from the beginning. The Lord has wanted us to know the whole plan. As He, Himself says, “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:30) It is through prophecy that the Lord prepares His people.

Prophecy IS etched in stone. We don’t have a say in whether or not it comes to pass. This is all part of the great plan of salvation that the Father presented to us in the council in heaven. The Lord had worked out literally every detail before the earth was even made. He knew what would happen, who would live when, and as part of which family. He knew and foresaw all the events of the world before they happened. This is the information He shares with the prophets.

We are supposed to use this information to prepare for what is to come. Prophecies are guideposts, lamps along our road through life. They are meant to help bolster our faith that God truly knows the end from the beginning. Prophecy is meant to strengthen us and teach us how to prepare to meet the challenges of the future. Our future personal righteousness may be known to God, but it is not known to us. We still have to choose our path one decision at a time. But our decisions cannot alter what the Lord has already known about for eons of time.

Prophecy is a powerful tool the Lord has given us with which to plan and prepare. We can feel confident that the Lord will save His people from being destroyed, even though much of the wicked will be destroyed in the disasters to come in the last days. The Lord will protect His people. We have been shown these prophecies, these glimpses into the future, so we can exercise greater faith in the Lord and in His love for us who have made covenants with Him.

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What Is the Purpose of Prophecy?