Going It Alone in Interpreting the Book of Revelation, Part 1

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By Scott S. Mitchell

In the latter part of this essay, I will propose that certain words written by John in the ninth chapter of the Book of Revelation refer to Hitler’s rise, Hitler’s conquest of Europe and the Normandy Invasion in which the forces of good combined to liberate the Jewish and Christian world from tyranny and destruction.  I’ve never heard anyone express most of the views contained below, but I have heard and read a great number of views reaching  different conclusions.  For proof of this, one might visit biblehub.com and read the various interpretations of Revelation Chapter 9 from a host of biblical scholars.  The uniqueness of my interpretations, and especially the fact that I interpret scriptures the LDS Church has declined to interpret, motivate me to explain why I presume to venture into this doctrinal territory.

Rationales for Focusing on the Book of Revelation With or Without LDS Church Help

1. The first is that God, and John his servant, want us all to study Revelation and figure out what events John foresaw.   In 2 Nephi 14 of the Book of Mormon, we read that Nephi was told by an angel that the mission to declare the predictions governing the time after the publication of the Book of Mormon had been reserved for John, even though Nephi himself had been about to declare those things himself:

17 And when the day cometh that the wrath of God is poured out upon the mother of harlots, which is the great and abominable church of all the earth, whose founder is the devil, then, at that day, the work of the Father shall commence, in preparing the way for the fulfilling of his covenants, which he hath made to his people who are of the house of Israel.

18 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!

19 And I looked and beheld a man, and he was dressed in a white robe.

20 And the angel said unto me: Behold one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

21 Behold, he shall see and write the remainder of these things; yea, and also many things which have been.

22 And he shall also write concerning the end of the world.

23 Wherefore, the things which he shall write are just and true; and behold they are written in the book which thou beheld proceeding out of the mouth of the Jew; and at the time they proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, or, at the time the book proceeded out of the mouth of the Jew, the things which were written were plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men.

24 And behold, the things which this apostle of the Lamb shall write are many things which thou hast seen; and behold, the remainder shalt thou see.

25 But the things which thou shalt see hereafter thou shalt not write; for the Lord God hath ordained the apostle of the Lamb of God that he should write them.

26 And also others who have been, to them hath he shown all things, and they have written them; and they are sealed  up to come forth in their purity, according to the truth which is in the Lamb, in the own due time of the Lord, unto the house of Israel.

27 And I, Nephi, heard and bear record, that the name of the apostle of the Lamb was John, according to the word of the angel.

These verses make Revelation our sole scriptural source of information on those last days events Nephi was forbidden to write about, since any other writer’s record of what is to transpire is sealed up to come forth during a time of societal righteousness.1  As such, John’s book is all the more important compared with other biblical books.

2. The LDS Church hasn’t expounded on the most important chapters and verses of Revelation, nor have its leaders ever claimed to understand them.  Nephi’s explanation about the importance of the information in John’s book hasn’t spurred any meaningful interpretation of it by the Church’s leaders and scholars in the 189 years since the Book of Mormon was published.  I say this completely aware of Joseph Smith’s interpretations of several verses of Revelation, which are contained within Section 77 of the LDS canon Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”).  But Section 77 was written in 1832, but not published, following a joint effort between Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith to provide an alternate version of the Bible.  Smith made no effort to publish it during his lifetime, and the section did not appear as canonized scripture until 32 years after his death, in 1876, when Brigham Young had it added to the LDS canon.  If this isn’t odd (and suspicious, frankly) enough, from the time Smith and Rigdon collaborated on it in 1832 until now, the LDS Church has shown no discernible interest in interpreting this all-important book.  It’s time, in my view, that we do what the church has mysteriously shown little interest in doing–trying to decipher it.

3. Moreover, even if the church had touted Joseph’s and Sidney’s toe-dipping into Revelation when it learned it had occurred, a careful analysis of what the two men produced before they aborted their effort would reveal its unworthiness for canonization.  At first glance, I frankly consider the interpretations in Section 77 to not only be unreliable (more on that below), but also unrelated to the main points a careful scriptorian seeks to interpret when reading the  the Book of Revelation.  Most of what Joseph purports to explain is relatively trivial or already obvious.  Before the reader heaps opprobrium on me for making this statement, I urge you to ask yourself these questions, and answer them truthfully:

  • If you haven’t re-read D&C 77 within the last few seconds, how much of it do you remember?
  • As you’ve read Section 77 in the past, has it illuminated the Book of Revelation’s key chapters and verses in any meaningful way, such that you feel confident in matching verses with the last-days events about which John wrote?
  • Do the questions and answers provided by Joseph Smith in Section 77 address the questions you’d most like answered from the Book of Revelation?
  • I’ve attended the LDS Church my whole life.  I took five years of seminary, not four, taught the gospel as a missionary for two years, and obtained my undergraduate and graduate degrees at Brigham Young University while receiving  the concomitant religious education that entails.  Throughout my life I’ve attended many religious conferences and seminars and studied the LDS scriptures carefully.  I’ve taught gospel doctrine and priesthood classes for too many years to count.  During this entire time, I don’t remember the LDS Church ever expounding upon Joseph Smith’s interpretations in D&C 77, much less highlighting them.  Doctrine and Covenants lesson manuals have reviewed the content of that section, but not sold its importance.  Has your experience been similar?  If so, why do you suppose so little attention is paid to Joseph Smith’s interpretations of verses he selected from Revelation?

I believe I know why so little attention is paid to church founder Joseph Smith’s exegesis.  Church leaders in Joseph’s own time, including Joseph and Sidney themselves, and most of those ever since, likely didn’t have confidence that the answers Joseph gave to his own questions really came from the Lord.  Nor should they have. For one thing, Joseph did not actually say the Lord revealed his answers to him.  He never came close.  The original manuscript merely reads, “Explanation of part of Revelation, chapters 4-11, given at Hiram, Ohio, in March 1832.”  This description was revised many years later in the official version of LDS history to read that it was a revelation given to Joseph Smith, but as stated, Joseph Smith had never claimed that, and never sought to have Rigdon’s and his effort included in the Book of of Commandments of 1833, or in the Doctrine and Covenants thereafter.

Other reasons also explain why the Church (other than perhaps Brigham Young) wouldn’t trust Section 77 to be reliable.  One of these would include the obvious fact that Joseph Smith never came close to finishing his study or exposition of Revelation’s content.  In fact, he never even got to the most important parts of it.  When he got to the ninth chapter, he seemed to be running out of interpretive vigor, and could only state the already-obvious conclusion that the events of that chapter were to precede Christ’s second coming.  Two verses later, he was done, abandoning the whole enterprise for good before he even got to Armageddon and the great battle that would usher in the descent of Christ from heaven.  The only reasonable inferences from the project’s demise  are that the Lord wasn’t inspiring it and that He didn’t want it to become scripture.  If the Lord had inspired the effort,  not only would it have interpreted Revelation’s most important chapters and verses, but it would have been completed, published, and expounded, just as occurred with the Book of Mormon.

But if I misperceive the reasons behind Section 77’s troubled history, I nevertheless agree that it deserves to be ignored and definitely not taught as truth to students of the gospel.  Several of Joseph’s answers to his own questions are patently in error when read by a serious student of the Bible and Book of Mormon.  I’ll touch very briefly on several of these errors in Part 2, but for now, let’s look at one extremely important and telling example:

In D&C 77:5, Joseph declared that the twenty-four elders, who are seven times mentioned in Revelation, and are described as seated around the throne of God and praising the Lamb, refer to “elders who had been faithful in the work of the ministry and were dead; who belonged to the seven churches, and were then in the paradise of God.”  (The “seven churches” referred to seven congregations in Asia Minor which had come into existence in the first century A.D.; they are listed by name in Rev. 1:11.)  But Joseph was completely wrong in this interpretation.  If he’d devoted himself more to studying the Book of Mormon after it was published instead of immediately turning his attention to trying to translate the Bible (which was already in English, and for which he’d received no gift or ability whatsoever to understand better than anyone else), he would have known that the twenty-four elders John repeatedly referred to in Revelation were the twelve apostles of the Old World and the twelve Nephite disciples Jesus chose in the New World.  The Book of Mormon makes this  inference too plain to miss.  You cannot read 1 Nephi 12:7-10, 3 Nephi 15:11, 12, 3 Nephi 18:36-39, 3 Nephi 19:4-36, 3 Nephi 26:17, 3 Nephi 27:1-30 (but with special emphasis on verse 27), all of 3 Nephi 28, Moroni 2:2 and the entire New Testament without noticing the extent to which Jesus spoke of this group of twenty-four men as all having the same sacred and unique mission, powers and spectacular results accompanying their ministries.  They were the 24 men who would eventually judge the house of Israel and the Nephite nation.  Their witness of the resurrected Christ, whom they had all seen and whose wounds they had felt in person, was the same, they performed the same miracles, and they received and exercised the same power to bestow the Holy Ghost.  Jesus’ teachings to the twelve disciples of the New World left no doubt that he wanted them to think of themselves as the western counterpart of the twelve apostles of the east, and he repeatedly informed the second twelve of what he’d taught the first twelve to do so they would perceive their own unity as a group.  Together, the eastern twelve and western twelve formed the only group of 24 men known to scripture.  What else could twenty-four men sitting around the Lamb of God have meant in John’s vision?

But if the above scriptures weren’t enough, there is additional striking scriptural evidence that the twelve Nephite disciples were the half part of what John saw as twenty-four elders surrounding God and the Lamb, and the twelve apostles from Palestine were the other half.  Straightforwardly, Moroni 3:1 refers to the twelve Nephite disciples as “elders.”  Coincidence?  And if John saw 24 special elders, might twelve of them have been the twelve most famous named men in history to be collectively called elders?  And might the other twelve of them have been the named men on whom Jesus bestowed the exact same calling and powers as the twelve elders in the Americas?  This, too, is an easy question to answer.  Peter, the most famous apostle whom his peers looked to most for leadership following Jesus’ ascension, in his first epistle to church members referred to himself as an elder, saying, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed.” (See 1 Peter 5:1.)  Might we not easily conclude that the other eleven apostles were also elders as Peter was, and were thereby extremely likely candidates to be the counted among the 24 elders John saw in vision?

Nephi (the first one) was told by the angel of the Lord that the garments of the twelve Nephite disciples/elders, “are made white in his [Christ’s] blood.”  That’s exactly what John saw in his vision–the 24 elders were clothed in white raiment.  (See Rev. 4:4.) 

Similarly, 3 Nephi 19:16-17, 24-25 recounts that when the twelve disciples knelt down and prayed to Jesus, “his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof.”  All this happened while the rest of the multitude surrounded them, also kneeling and praying to Jesus.  And what did John see in his vision?  Elders clothed in white raiment, who fell down before the Lamb and worshipped him, while at the same time possessed of the prayers of saints.  (See Rev. 4:4, 10-11 and 5:6-10, 14.)

Even if the Smith-Rigdon interpretation of the 24 elders weren’t swimming upstream against a host of scriptural indicators, its own internal lack of logic would still discredit it.  Revelation makes crystal-clear that the 24 elders are an extremely important group; they appear as the Lord’s ultimate inner circle of mortals.  It doesn’t make sense that they  would merely be 24 righteous men who had lived in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea but whose existence was never mentioned anywhere in the New Testament or anywhere else.  These seven cities were only a fraction of the churches around the Mediterranean world where Christianity had spread; presumably, in addition to the apostles and prophets of that time, equally righteous elders were scattered in many cities of Palestine, southern Europe, northern Africa, and in other parts of Asia Minor.  In fact, the New Testament and Book of Mormon actually inform us of the names and deeds of many righteous men in addition to 24 specific elders, so it wouldn’t make sense that the ones in John’s vision would be unknown and unmentioned by all New Testament writers.  Even less plausible, perhaps, is the probability that Book of Mormon writers like the first and third Nephis, and Moroni, would specifically mention the Old World apostles but never have heard of 24 pre-eminent, ultra-righteous elders who’d been contemporaries of the apostles and received such prominent mention in John’s vision.

Conclusion

In Part 2, other easily-identifiable misinterpretations of Revelation in D&C Section 77 will be briefly identified, and I will then provide my hypotheses regarding specific historic events alluded to Revelation Chapter 9.  But it already appears clear that the student of scripture who wishes to study Revelation cannot look to the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to provide that education.  LDS scholars such as Richard D. Draper and Donald W. Parry, for example, both of whom have written books attempting to illuminate Revelation, have been hamstrung by the fact that Joseph Smith’s and Sidney Rigdon’s aborted joint effort got published and canonized in 1876, obviously against the writers’ will.  Since then, LDS scholars have faced the choice of of either adopting Section 77 as valid or jeopardizing their church standing by proclaiming the all-too-obvious fact that Joseph’s interpretations were uninspired and wrong.  LDS readers who wish to study Revelation free of overhanging false interpretations must now go it alone, in more ways than one.

FOOTNOTES

1. See 2 Nephi 27:6-23 in the Book of Mormon.

2. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999) p. 204.

4 thoughts on “Going It Alone in Interpreting the Book of Revelation, Part 1

    • Thanks. I corrected that this morning, but I now see that you read the essay before I got there. I’m also going to re-edit the whole essay within the hour and rid it of other mistakes in wording, syntax and punctuation which always seems to jump out at me as soon as I’ve published the darn thing. I’m flattered that readers are paying attention to such matters, however.

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  1. Interesting take. It may not be necessary to dismiss or condemn Joseph Smith in order to present your thesis. I think it is possible for the same passage of scripture to refer to multiple events. God’s dealings with mankind often fit a pattern, and the pattern will repeat. Hence the declaration by Peter in Acts that the Pentecostal event was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, and then Nephi (or Moroni) stating to Joseph Smith in his bedroom that the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy was soon at hand. Both were true, because the pattern repeated. Isaiah also prophesies in patterns. As did John. Therefore, while you may well have a grasp of a valid way to interpret the text, that does not preclude Joseph Smith from having another and different interpretation of some of the words holding equal validity.
    When a man has been in God’s presence, I hesitate to be too dismissive of his thoughts, even if they are off-hand and incomplete. Joseph once observed that the closer a man draws to God the more correct his views become on all matters.
    My suggestion would be to develop your thesis without the need to denigrate or dismiss Joseph. Gentleness and persuasion using pure knowledge does not require us to belittle the man who produced the Book of Mormon, upon which your thesis in part depends.

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    • This is what I replied on the LAMP website:

      Interesting, but perplexing, response on your part. I express no opinion on whether it’s necessary to “condemn” Joseph Smith in order to present one’s thesis, since I didn’t come remotely close to doing that. Unless, of course, we “condemn” Joseph when we declare that all men and women who have received the Holy Ghost’s influence have equal ability to interpret biblical passages as that possessed by him. Nor do I deem it condemning to treat his pronouncements as wrong when they’re wrong. God never granted Joseph the prerogative of being correct in his doctrinal views without putting in the time necessary to diligently study the subjects he presumed to expound upon. If Joseph didn’t do his homework, he got it wrong. The fact he’d been chosen to read the Book of Mormon text emitting from the interpreters and dictate the text to a scribe didn’t mean he could just wing it when it came to biblical exegesis. Does saying he had to study the Bible the same way we all have to in order to understand the truth constitute condemnation? Is the Holy Ghost a respecter of persons? Is there scriptural support for such an idea?

      Moreover, if you believe Joseph stood in the presence of God, as you obviously do, does that in your mind equate with some everlasting presumption of doctrinal infallibility? History shows in this case Joseph so lacked confidence in D&C 77 that he abandoned it less than halfway through and never sought to canonize it. Can’t we infer that whatever spiritual experiences he might have had prior to his aborted effort to interpret Revelation, he still couldn’t declare a revelation God hadn’t actually given him? Without deciding which spiritual experiences Joseph actually had, the fact remains that all of us, including Jesus, have to learn the scriptures and history the hard way, and we’re not protected from error regardless of our reputation or stature among those of our preferred peer group.

      My suggestion to you would be to judge all theses on the merits of the points asserted, not on the irrelevant consideration of whether it makes Joseph Smith appear more fallible or infallible. In this case, you’re trying to defend that which even Joseph didn’t try to defend, on the mere grounds that it’s Joseph Smith whose writings I’m disagreeing with. That is the thrust of your argument–a personalized assertion that Joseph should not be disagreed with, regardless of the weakness or strength of his interpretations. You’re so dedicated to protecting Joseph’s reputation that you even argue that which Joseph DIDN’T argue–that the “24 elders” verses could have multiple referents. If those verses refer to multiple groups of 24, Joseph didn’t interpret them that way, and if he had, the repeated references to a discrete group of 24 elders would have lost their meaning. And if those verses refer to men about whom we know nothing besides where they lived, as Joseph originally opined, they would detract from understanding the roles of the apostles and disciples in Jesus’ ministry. Before you reflexively jump to Joseph’s defense, remember that he himself withdrew from the Revelation project and didn’t allow his writing to be published. He himself didn’t promote or defend his own initial hypotheses. God wasn’t assisting him, and he hadn’t done his homework. He knew it. He had complete control over whether or not his writings were canonized. As we study the history behind D&C 77, it speaks for itself unambiguously. Joseph didn’t want his and Sidney’s project to become scripture. But if he had, it wouldn’t have meant, ipso facto, that his interpretations were correct.

      I would also suggest that you not use demagoguery too promiscuously. You portray this essay as an assault on Joseph Smith, with you his loyal defender, and me his disrespectful critic. You therefore use words like “condemn,” “denigrate” and “dismiss” to convert my substantive arguments on scriptural interpretations into improper disrespect toward someone you deem superior. My intent, which you ignore, is to preserve canonical integrity and ensure that scriptural interpretations be uninfluenced by a desire to protect anyone’s celebrity.

      And though my thesis does indeed depend in part upon Book of Mormon teachings, Joseph Smith did not “produce” those teachings. He dictated them from the interpreters, reading a text already written in English. He had no authorial or editorial input into the Book of Mormon text whatsoever. I will never be afraid to say that I wish Joseph would have read the book he dictated more carefully after he relinquished the interpreters.

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