D&C 121-123 are well-known sections taken from a letter that Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints when he was in Liberty Jail. I want to share some things I've learned from D&C 121.
Insight #1: Joseph Smith became a type of Christ. The first six verses contain His prayer for the Saints. He advocated for them to God, and thereby acted as a type of Christ.
I also think it is significant that that this prayer of his begins the section. It is not often that his prayers are preserved in the Doctrine & Covenants as part of the message from the Lord. The section would not nearly have the power it does without it. I think it underlines the importance of praying even after we have exhausted all of our options and are at our very lowest point.
I think it is significant that he didn’t ask “why” all of this had happened to him and the Saints, but instead asked God “where are you?” and “how long?” This shows that he had moved beyond asking the simple “why” questions that almost all of us would have asked.
A question that came to me when I was studying this part was this: What did Joseph Smith want the Lord to do?
I think that Joseph Smith wanted the Lord to get him out of prison, to help the Saints get their property back, and to subject the forces of evil that had caused such suffering. You can tell that he had confidence the Lord could do it. “O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, 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” (v4)
I’ve already noted the prophecy against the Saints’ persecutors and how it was fulfilled in my post "A dire prophecy fulfilled."
Something else I noticed was that these verses also answer the question “Why do bad people do bad things to good people?”
- Their hearts are corrupted (v13)
- They love to make people suffer (v13)
- They are the servants of sin (v17)
- They are the children of disobedience (v17)
- They want to bring God’s servants into bondage and death (v18)
That second item about how they love to make people suffer really made me ask myself, “Do I like to make people suffer?” No, I don’t. But then I asked myself, “Do I like to torment people?” I really searched my soul and I found that in one way I do, so I decided that I needed to repent of that and stop. It showed me that even if we just take delight in causing small suffering, we show the same qualities as the mobbers who persecuted the Saints.
Another thing I thought very hard about was what the connection was between the first part of the section, which seemed to be about affliction and justice, and the last part that seemed to be about how the priesthood is inseparably connected to the powers of heaven through righteousness. To me, that second part had always seemed unrelated to the questions Joseph Smith had at the beginning.
I finally realized that Joseph Smith must have been wondering how the church was going to fulfill its mission if it was in such desperate straits and how he could lead the church effectively if he was in prison. In answer to this, the Lord told him:
1. God shall give you knowledge by his Holy Spirit (v26)
2. What power can 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 hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints. (v33)
But along with this NOTHING-can-stop-the-Lord-from-doing His-work idea, came the intelligence that Latter-day Saints themselves may get in the way of their own progress if their hearts aren’t right. Then the rest of the chapter is all elaboration on how exactly Latter-day Saint priesthood holders (and other leaders) sabotage themselves, along with the consequences, then is given illumination on how to lead righteously, along with great promises of blessings will come from that.
Priesthood leaders (and anyone else with any kind of authority) sabotage themselves by:
- Setting their hearts on the things of the world
- Aspiring to the honors of men
- Trying to handle the priesthood without righteousness
- Covering their sins
- Gratifying pride and vain ambition
- Exercising control, dominion, or compulsion unrighteously (unrighteous dominion)
- The heavens withdraw
- The Spirit is grieved
- Power of the priesthood departs
- They are left to themselves
- They kick against the pricks of conscience
- They persecute the Saints
- They fight against God
In that last list, I detect that there is a gradual progression through the list. Without quick repentance, a person may slide gradually all the way to the bottom.
I think we can easily turn those negatives inside out and discover how we can increase power in the priesthood.
Increase power in the priesthood by:
- Setting hearts on the things of heaven
- Aspiring to the honors of God
- Trying to handle the priesthood WITH righteousness
- Repenting of sins
- Humbling self, remembering the great power of God
- Excising dominion with righteousness.
Promises for strengthening priesthood power and leading righteously (v45-46)
- -confidence will wax strong in the presence of God (v45)
- -the doctrine of the priesthood will distill upon our souls as the dews from heaven (v45)
- -the Holy Ghost will be our constant companion (v46)
- -our scepter will be an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth (v46)
- -our dominion will be an everlasting dominion (v46)
- -our dominion will flow to us without compulsory means forever and ever (v46)
thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth – “unchanging” This talks about consistency. We all appreciate leaders who are consistently righteous about what they ask of us and consistently righteous about how they enforce the rules. This makes life easy because then we know that if we always do the right thing, then we will always be able to please them. As leaders we want to be consistent like this.
thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion – The best leaders and teachers we’ve ever had, we will always think of them as our leader and teacher even after we have moved on. When we lead righteously, those who follow us will always think of us as their leader, even after they have moved on.
without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever – We won’t have to force people to obey us and follow us and our dominion will get larger and larger.
So, to wrap up, what do we learn from D&C 121?
- Prophets experience very difficult trials and tribulations too.
- Prophets feel great compassion on the Saints who suffer terrible afflictions and pray for them.
- Tribulation will not last forever, and is only a small moment in comparison to eternity.
- Enduring tribulation well enables God to exalt us.
- Dire consequences come from persecuting and afflicting the Saints.
- No power can stop the Lord from pouring revelation upon the Saints except the Saints themselves.
I know at times and at seasons pieces of the verses in this section have come to mind at times when I really needed them. In affliction, I’ve tried to find ways of “enduring it well,” and asked the Lord to help me. At times when I’ve had a little authority, remembering the principles about power and influence has helped me keep from making terrible mistakes of coercion and pride. I haven’t been perfect and I’m still not, but I know I’ve been a whole lot better than I would have been if I had never known these things. (I found that my relationships with my younger siblings were smoothed considerably when I practiced the principles of gentle persuasion, meekness, love unfeigned, etc. as described in D&C 121:41-42)
How has this section helped you in your life?