But there is one exception to that rule: prophecy.
It seems that the imagery of prophecy is still, to a great extent, an enigma to us. Visions such as those of John in Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah — just to name a few — are loaded with symbolism that mystifies us. Even some of Joseph Smith’s prophecies have these same, symbolic features. Sections 88 and 133 of Doctrine and Covenants are a case in point.
The fact that Joseph Smith used imagery consistent with that of the ancient prophets is a powerful verification of his calling as a prophet, but it still seems to do little to help us interpret the mystifying symbolism of prophecy—either ancient or modern.
Many voices, much confusion
Over the years, there has been no shortage of those who claim to have the answers to prophecy. A whole host of books attest to the sad fact that anyone’s guess is as good as another’s.
A survey of the multitude of present offerings suggests that very nearly all of it is guesswork and hunches since none of it actually gives the reader the tools to interpret prophecy. Each interpretation depends on its founder’s preferred or particular approach.
The truth is, anyone can open the scriptures, turn to a prophetic passage and hazard a guess at the meaning of the inspired imagery found there. Warning of this very practice, Peter wrote, “No prophecy of the scripture is of private interpretation.”
Hazarding many guesses
In fact, such guessing is at the heart of the confusion that reigns in Christendom where prophecy is concerned. The would-be interpreters either avoid the most mysterious imagery, or they try to interpret it by turning to speculation.
The basic, underlying supposition of most analysts is as follows: The Old Testament prophets, upon seeing our technologically advanced world in vision, were at a loss for words. Hence, they turned to familiar imagery to describe what they saw in revelations. For example, an atomic bomb became “a pillar of fire and smoke,” or an attack helicopter firing missiles became “locusts” with “stings in their tails.” This perspective is entirely misleading and misguided.
Most damaging is that these expositors’ interpretations take to be literal what was meant to be imagery and metaphor. Contrarily, they also resort to the opposite device, making symbolic what was meant to be literal. Thus, they almost entirely sabotage the original meaning of the prophets’ words.
Keys everywhere, hiding in plain sight
What analysts universally fail to see is that there are numerous hints — ‘keys’ if you will — found in the scriptures, modern revelation and ancient history that all move us closer to understanding prophecy. By letting the prophets speak for themselves, rather than ‘interpreting’ their words, we discover those keys — both ancient and modern.
There are hints everywhere in ancient cultures that the images of prophecy were customary, traditional images, common to all early civilizations. The prophets employed these images to better communicate with the people. Thus, the study of ancient iconography or symbolism, known to cultures the world over, becomes an invaluable interpretive tool in our quest to discern the meaning of prophetic imagery, as this study reveals.
Disparagement of prophecy
At present, little attention is given to prophecy in the church. Any comment on prophecy is made only in passing. Avoidance of the topic seems to be the order of the day. Even though interest in knowing what will befall the world before the Second Coming is nearly universal, Mormons, at the same time, seem loathe to take the subject too seriously.
Prophecy, therefore, can be said to be the gospel’s redheaded stepchild. It’s there, but no one wants to acknowledge it.
Like fabled Cinderella, prophecy is ignored, banished and locked away in an upstairs apartment, out of sight and out of mind, while proper company is entertained in the drawing room. Rarely discussed, its presence in the scriptures seems to be an embarrassment or a forbidden, illegitimate subject to most Saints, territory to be explored only by marginal eccentrics or thoroughgoing apostates. Prophecy is treated as an unholy mutation, a scriptural ogre. A discussion of prophecy is held in the same regard as a root canal or an IRS audit.
However, like Cinderella, who went from being a slave in her own home to become the prince’s bride and royalty, prophecy will one day emerge from the doctrinal dungeon to take its place as a legitimate component of the gospel and the key to understanding all gospel imagery.
This state of affairs begs a number of questions. If modern revelation was so useful to us in fully explaining the gospel, then why did it fail to explain prophecy for us as well? Given that Mormonism was revealed in its fullness through a prophet of God, why don’t the Saints understand the meaning of prophecy as well as other gospel topics?
Does prophecy serve a useful function in the gospel scheme? Or is it the gospel equivalent of an appendix, a useless appendage given merely to provide a mystery, a topic to be avoided or excised when given the slightest provocation? Is it proper to simply ignore the subject altogether in one’s scriptural study in order to concentrate solely on other aspects of the gospel?
Making sense of it all
Like all Christians, most Latter-day Saints have difficulty making sense of the imagery of prophecy. As a result, they evade considering, studying or discussing it. Indeed, most have the impression that prophecy is a forbidden subject, a mystery to be avoided. Rather than allow prophecy its rightful place in the gospel, many demonstrate a strong bias against it that amounts to spiritual correctness.
Like politically correct speech, which avoids unpleasant terminology, spiritual correctness seeks to redefine the gospel without prophecy and its perplexing symbolism. Of course, such a view is contrary to Christ’s teachings. His counsel concerning equality and charity in his church can be said to also apply to subjects within his gospel. He said:
But now are they many members, yet but one body.
And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have not need of you.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
And those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor …
… there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. (1 Corinthians 12:20-23, 25.)
In like manner, we cannot say to ourselves that prophecy has no place in a gospel study program. It should be considered on an equal footing with the rest of the gospel, not neglected and shunned. Even the Savior addressed the issue of the last days and the events surrounding his second coming, setting the standard for us.
The Cowdery Syndrome
There is one more disturbing aspect to the Saints’ attitudes toward prophecy and gospel study in general. The best way to put it may be to say that today’s Saints suffer from the Cowdery Syndrome.
Recall that while Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon from the gold plates, Oliver Cowdery acted as his primary scribe. In the course of doing so, he became preoccupied with the idea of doing some of the translating as well, and the Lord granted his wish, saying, “And, behold, I grant unto you a gift, if you desire of me, to translate, even as my servant Joseph.” (Doctrine & Covenants 6:25.)
A short time later, another revelation gave Oliver further encouraging instructions and promises. Pay careful attention to the promises made to him on the occasion of this revelation because they seem to be the same as the expectations most Saints have regarding their study of the scriptures and the gospel.
Oliver Cowdery, verily, verily, I say unto you, that assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit.
Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart ….
… Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred; and according to your faith shall it be done unto you. (Doctrine and Covenants 8:1,2, 12.)
Clearly, every Saint anticipates that he or she will be blessed with an improved understanding of the scriptures after reading them and praying to have them made plain. This, of course, would include the prophetic passages. Because of the counsel to “search the scriptures,” we all hope our efforts will be rewarded with greater knowledge, “a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith,” that God will do for us what he promised to do for Oliver: “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.”
Tragically for Oliver, the outcome was not so pleasant. It appears that the attempt did no go well for him because the Lord soon withdrew his offer, directing that Oliver abandon translation and return to his scribal duties.
We are like him
It is in the Lord’s explanation of Oliver’s failure to translate that we find the error of modern Saints. And this is the key. He explained, “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right ….” (Ibid., 9:7,8, italics added.)
This, then, is the Cowdery Syndrome: Rather than “study it out” to reach conclusions on their own first, the Saints, like Cowdery, expect that the Spirit or the Brethren will simply “give it” to them when they take no thought except to ask. They expect, as did Oliver, that it should come to them with little or no effort on their part — “you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.”
This attitude and perspective is dominant among Mormons today. Assuming that the Lord has ‘given’ them all the truths they need to know, they believe there is little left to learn about the gospel or the scriptures. They deceive themselves into believing that ideas and concepts not covered in General Conference or the Gospel Doctrine lesson manual are of little or no consequence. In fact, information provided in those venues is actually mere introductory material.
The syndrome’s acute stage
In its most advanced stages, the Saints who suffer from the Cowdery Syndrome react to new ideas with a negative, knee-jerk reaction, whether those concepts conform to gospel ideas or not. Rather than subject such ideas to scrutiny, they reject them out of hand due to their attitude, which is summarized thusly: “It’s all been revealed. Thus we needn’t study to find more or consider anything new. If something unfamiliar comes our way, it must be untrue and therefore should be rejected.” This is the end stage of the Cowdery Syndrome.
But Oliver’s experience should give every Saint pause. If the Lord expected Oliver to first exert some effort on his own to study in order to come up with a solution before he asked if his conclusions were right, then can the Lord expect any less of us in our study? The Saints are expected to get their information in the same way as Cowdery: study first, then ask.
Indeed, we learn from the experience of the Brother of Jared that this is exactly what the Lord expects: We study the problem out to the best of our ability, and then take our best solution to the Lord. If we have done our homework correctly, he will confirm our conclusion by way of the Spirit.
The situations of Oliver Cowdery and the brother of Jared clearly indicate that information gained through study, even from unlikely sources, is a vital first step to enlightenment — confirmation by the Spirit being the second step.
The best evidence that the Saints have failed as miserably as Oliver is found in our inability to understand prophecy. Had we done our homework as we have been directed to do, we would have had our answers long ago. But because we were as unfaithful as Oliver, that knowledge has atrophied and has been withdrawn.
Keys to prophecy
There are many keys to prophecy. They are not all found in the scriptures or the words of modern prophets. Some are found in science and some in comparative mythology.
Singly or separately, they are curiously insightful. Jointly, they make a powerful case for a truly novel method of interpreting prophecy. These keys have been partially explored in this author’s writings. This is the sort of study required to ferret out the least understood parts of the gospel.
Like fitting the pieces into a puzzle, each key adds a little to our understanding of prophecy, making the picture more complete. When all the pieces are in place, they produce a dynamic panorama and a comprehensive explanation of prophetic symbolism. They make prophecy plain and understandable for anyone. Mystery, confusion, contradiction and misunderstanding are forever banished from discussions and studies of the topic. They are indications of our failure, not a reticence to reveal on God’s part nor of a failure in the prophets or our leaders.
Hence, Joseph Smith’s statement, “Revelation is one of the plainest books God ever cause to be written.”
It is the goal of this author to carefully search out and examine each of these clues as we unravel the mysteries of prophecy. It is only by study of “the best books” that we can then expect to have our questions answered.
But what is even more exciting and enlightening is that this quest has allowed us to better understand all the ancient imagery found in the Bible and even in modern revelation.
It explains otherwise enigmatic statements and projects by Joseph Smith and other modern prophets since his time that have been neglected or dismissed by many LDS scholars because of their seeming irrelevance or lack of substantiation.
Still more remarkable is the discovery that this analysis reveals uncommon knowledge about temples ancient and modern — from the icons that adorn their exteriors and interiors to their very purpose and meaning.
It also explains Joseph Smith’s interest in things Egyptian and the revelations, such as the book of Abraham, which came from that study.
So, as it turns out, this effort is fundamentally about understanding the gospel itself rather than just the narrow confines of prophecy. Indeed, this study has led us to understand more clearly even the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, the very foundations of our faith. Only a study of correct principles could have such sweeping and profound implications and ramifications.
This really is a Cinderella story.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2005