Major changes in the planetary order, some involving earth-threatening catastrophes, have occurred within human memory, and they were recorded by the survivors on the billboards of antiquity — temples and monuments — as well as in sacred texts of all religions.
This is a crucial key to understanding scriptural symbolism — not only in prophecy, but also throughout sacred texts.
For our culture, these are found in Old Testament events such as the Creation, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, Joshua’s Long Day, Elijah’s fire from heaven, and many other such strange and mysterious accounts.
The latter-day revelations, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, reflect that same perspective with numerous accounts of world-changing events connected with heavenly objects or signs, casting Joseph Smith in the same cosmological role as all the biblical prophets.
By every means at their command, cultures around the world attempted to communicate their experience to future generations — to us. Through texts, myth, ritual and art, on parchment and stone, they sought to preserve a record of these tumultuous events. We fail to recognize them for what they are because we see nothing in our heavens even remotely similar to their accounts.
The first institutions of civilization arose from ritual practices honoring, imitating and memorializing these events and the planetary powers involved. Those monuments, institutions and practices are remarkably preserved in our cultures even to this day, yet we fail to recognize them for what they are.
Why, then, should it surprise anyone that the prophets would recall and employ the symbolism generated in their cultures by the physical phenomena associated with past planetary sky pageants to rehearse identical types of events they had foreseen in our future?
Indeed, this is the crux of the story and a truth that Latter-day Saints should readily acknowledge. They knew it would happen again. The prophets knew that the interplanetary phenomena of past planetary catastrophes, complete with the myriad manifestations that fill ancient texts and adorn crumbling temple walls — images, symbols and icons — would once again be reinstated in the heavens at a future time they called the "last days."
This approach alone explains some peculiar revelations given through the prophet Joseph Smith in this dispensation.
"There will be wars and rumors of wars, signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, the sun turned into darkness and the moon to blood, earthquakes in divers places, the seas heaving beyond their bounds; then will appear one grand sign of the coming of the Son of Man in heaven. What will the world do? They will say it is a planet, a comet, &c." (History of the Church, 5:337.)
Of course this sign, as Joseph Smith implied, will be a planet that looks and behaves like a giant comet. That’s what all the heavenly 'signs' in the past were. But what makes this planet most unusual is that it will make a close approach to the Earth — close enough to instigate all the natural disasters outlined in the beginning of the prophet's statement. (For a more thorough explanation of this concept, see "Modern Signs.")
The above quote from the prophet, as with all prophecy and ancient history, has little meaning unless seen from the perspective outlined in this series. Only from this point of view does it become truly meaningful, much more than a colorful metaphor. Now we see it for what it truly is: a completely understandable declaration of fact.
The same is true with many revelations given to Joseph Smith. They are littered with such declarations.
"… there shall appear a great sign in heaven, and all people shall see it together." Doctrine and Covenants 88:93, italics added.)
"… I will rend their kingdoms; I will not only shake the earth, but the starry heavens shall tremble. For I, the Lord, have put forth my hand to exert the powers of heaven; ye cannot see it now, yet a little while and ye shall see it … . (Ibid., 84:118, 119.)
"… the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall be turned into blood, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and there shall be greater signs in heaven above and in the earth beneath; …" (Ibid., 29:14.)
Modern revelation brings us the truth: "… knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come." (Ibid., 93:24.)
This is a fundamental key. We have but to "open the eyes of our understanding" to receive it.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2004