The story of Nephi’s journey to the Promised Land is well known and widely told amongst Mormons. It’s a beautiful and compelling story, rife with principles and drenched in doctrine. But I sometimes wonder if we overlook many of the most meaningful and marvelous symbolic lessons within it. Here I’d hope to explore at least a few of these, and invite you to share with us those that I’ve missed by adding your own comments.
If you’re familiar with the story, feel free to skip ahead to the first symbol, otherwise, perhaps you’d enjoy a brief refresher of what happened more than 2600 years ago (view the illustration).
Early in The Book of Mormon we find the story of the prophet Lehi, who was commanded to take his family and leave Jerusalem around 600 B.C.
After departing into the wilderness with little more than their tents and a few supplies, and after experiencing untold trials, the family of Lehi eventually made it to the seashore. There, Nephi, a righteous son of Lehi, was commanded by the Lord to build a ship. This ship was to carry them across the ocean to a promised land that had been prepared for them, a land where they would enjoy freedom and prosperity.
Nephi, who of course had never built a ship, least of all one that could sail across the ocean, didn’t doubt or complain. Rather, he simply inquired “Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship…”
The Lord told Nephi where to go, and showed him how to construct the ship, using “curious workmanship”.
Once complete, and likely with much anticipation, Nephi and his family went into the ship, and launched into the sea. They were carried before the wind for many days, after which many of them began to “rejoice”. But they got carried away, and Nephi, fearing that the Lord would be angry, tried to persuade them back to humility and righteousness.
His two older brothers, Laman and Lemuel, weren’t keen on their younger brother acting as their ruler, so they took and bound him, and treated him “with much harshness”. Upon so doing, the Lord, angry at their wickedness, caused the Liahona (a compass he’d provided them in the wilderness, and that worked upon their righteousness) to stop working. A great storm arose, and they were driven back for four full days.
During all this time, Nephi remained bound, and in much pain. On that fourth, and final day, when the tempest became “exceedingly sore”, Laman and Lemuel thought they would die, and so released Nephi and begged his forgiveness. Nephi, in spite of his swollen and sore limbs, forgave them and did not complain about his afflictions, but rather worshiped the Lord and prayed for assistance.
The tempest died, Nephi took the compass, which resumed working, and after “many days” of travel, they landed upon the promised land (the American Continent), where they were blessed in abundance.
To Nephi the Lord said “And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land, and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led.”
Always has the Lord blessed the lives of the righteous, and prepared for them a place or circumstance of similar abundance. As we work to keep the commandments of God, and endeavor to be as obedient, faithful, and enduring as Nephi, so too will the Lord prepare for us a “land of promise”.
Nephi’s ship, can appropriately symbolize our own lives. Just as the Lord commanded Nephi to build a ship, strong, and secure enough to carry his family to the Promised Land, so too has he commanded us to build our own lives, and make them strong enough to carry ourselves, and even our families to our own “promised land”.
What’s more, of the ship Nephi observed: “Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me…” (1 Nephi 18:2). So too, have we been commanded to live, not as the world liveth, but as God lives, to build our lives not after the manner of men, but after the manner of god.
Only then, will we find our lives a vessel sufficiently capable to weather the storms of life, to provide shelter for those we love, and that will allow us to endure to end.
Not after the manner of men
When the Lord told Nephi to build the ship, not only was it after a fashion completely foreign to him, but it was a work that he’d never before done. But never did he complain, never did he doubt, rather always he simply went forward with faith.
Many times in our lives we may be asked by the Lord to do things that we have not before done, or that may seem impossible. But our faith should be in God, for with God, all things are possible.
Of this, Nephi said “If god had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done. Now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?”
We must always remember, when seemingly overburdened, or overwhelmed by the requirements set before us, that while relying solely on our own native capacity our task may be impossible, but when we involve the Lord in our lives, we augment our capacity with his, and can do anything.
Seek the Lord often
It is also enlightening that Nephi includes “I did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things”.
How often then do we seek out the Lord, how often do we find ourselves on the “mount”, or in the temple, or seeking the Lord in other holy places? Doing so is a critical component of receiving the necessary inspiration to guide us as we build our own ships. It is true, that as we seek the Lord he will show, even unto us, great things.
Line upon line
It should also be noted, that while Nephi knew what he was building, he was not given it all at once. He said “And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship”.
How often we want to know it all, to see the end from the beginning, but generally it is simply not so. Instead we are given line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little. We are expected to build our lives step by step, strengthened by the exercise of faith and our ongoing reliance upon continued revelation and intervention from the Lord.
As Nephi, we too must seek the Lord often, and not shun aspects of our lives that push us out of our comfort zone. For again, we’re building the ship, our lives, after the manner of God, according to his vision, and not our own – a principle so beautifully portrayed in the famous poem “Life Sculptor” by George Washington Doane.
The compass provided by the Lord to Lehi and his family clearly represents the spirit of God, the companionship of the Holy Ghost. It’s profound and vital guidance hinging upon our own righteousness, humility, and willingness to obey. Often we may find ourselves directionless, wondering which way to turn, with feelings of isolation and helplessness. But it doesn’t have to be so.
We too have been provided a spiritual compass, but its value is only as good as the heed we give it. When we attempt to steer our own lives, on our own course, and look not for the directions from the Lord, we too may find ourselves lost, alone, and facing the fierce winds of the world.
But by repenting of our sins, turning back to God, and asking for his help, we’ll find our course correcting itself as the spirit takes hold of the reigns of our life. The seas of the world seem calmer when we sail with God, in truth, the very wind that so previously tortured our existence, becomes the pushing power that drives us forward. But only when we remember God, and include him in our lives.
At times, we may find ourselves in the position of Nephi, endeavoring to teach, but finding ourselves regularly rejected, or even persecuted. But as with Nephi, we must never let fear of failure or fear of man, prevent us from proclaiming the gospel, and standing up for that which is right.
And in those times when, alas, even confronted by our fiercest adversaries, may we too be as forgiving as Nephi, too focused on an eternal perspective to let the fleeting actions of others long win our attention.
Perhaps even more often we find ourselves in the position of Laman and Lemuel. There are inspired leaders, such as Nephi, all around us. These leaders seek to guide us, they care for our souls and seek our welfare. But often their counsel comes sharply, is unwelcome, or at least unexpected. Often, just as Laman and Lemuel, we shun that counsel, whether in anger or not, and by so doing, bind those leaders, at least symbolically, from their ability to help us. Not with physical cords, but with mental, emotional, and spiritual deafness. By turning a blind eye, and a deaf ear to their inspired guidance, we bind them just as Nephi.
When we do this, we are left unto ourselves, to face the world alone, and we find the wind against us gaining strength, with the seas and troubles of life working against us.
We must not be like Laman and Lemuel of whom Nephi proclaimed “And there was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts”.
We must elect to be humble, before we’re compelled to be humble. Life is too good, too sweet, too rich for us to waste our time with the self-inflicted burdens that only come from “going it alone”. Instead, may we embrace the Lord, and let his strength be our own, that our lives might be lived in righteousness, and that we too, may find ourselves with our families, safe in a Land of Promise.
P.S. To read or listen to the full story of Nephi’s marvelous journey online, click here.