© Anthony E. Larson, 2007
The Forgotten Commandment: Watch the Heavens!
Part I – The Commandment
Section 84 of the Doctrine & Covenants is a pivotal revelation for Latter-day Saints, or should be.
The preamble to this section says, “The Prophet designates it a revelation on priesthood.” In it, the Lord explains some of the roles of priesthood bearers, including a thorough explanation of missionary work and how it might be carried out.
“And this revelation unto you, and commandment, is in force from this very hour upon all the world, and the gospel is unto all who have not received it.” (verse 75.)
This makes it plain that this “revelation” is not only a disclosure of information, but it also carries a “commandment.”
In the process of explaining this mandate to teach the gospel, the Lord touches on an aspect of priesthood responsibility that is entirely overlooked in the church today when he gives this added command. “Nevertheless, let the bishop go unto the city of New York, also to the city of Albany, and also to the city of Boston, and warn the people of those cities with the sound of the gospel, with a loud voice, of the desolation and utter abolishment which await them if they do reject these things. (verse 114.)
Reading carefully, we see that this directive carries two parts. The first, is to teach the gospel: “warn the people … with the sound of the gospel.” The second is to tell them “of the desolation and utter abolishment” that might befall them.
Clearly, the first directive refers to missionary work, a mandate church members have heeded and apparently fulfilled rather well, given the remarkable growth of the church in the latter half of the 20th century. But, the second reference seems quite vague. What is the “desolation” referred to? What is “utter abolishment?”
Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘desolate’ as “barren or laid waste … without inhabitants, deserted.” It also defines ‘abolish’ as “to do away with, to put an end to.”
Since the Lord applied these terms to three major American cities, a rather grim picture emerges. Without equivocation, God seems to be talking about reeking havoc in a catastrophe great enough to entirely wipe the cities of New York, Albany and Boston off the map, complete with all their inhabitants, if they do not accept the gospel.
But that is not all. To clarify and amplify, God reiterates the commandment. “And verily I say unto you, the rest of my servants, go ye forth as your circumstances shall permit, in your several callings, unto the great and notable cities and villages, reproving the world in righteousness of all their unrighteous and ungodly deeds, setting forth clearly and understandingly the desolation of abomination in the last days.” (verse 117.)
So, we learn that this mission was not exclusive to Bishop Whitney; verse 117 extends this commandment to all priesthood holders, “the rest of my servants.” We also learn that they should visit not just the three cities first named, but many others also, “the great and notable cities and villages.”
Then, the Lord repeats his charge that they teach about possible, impending destructions, “the desolation of abomination.”
This presents a problem for today’s priesthood bearers. Which of us can even begin to explain the “desolation” and “utter abolishment” the Lord referred to? What do those terms mean? What could cause such devastation?
While every general conference of the church has one or more talks about the vital importance of missionary work, where are the talks explaining or elucidating the second part of the commandment: teaching “clearly and understandingly the desolation of abomination?” More importantly, we must ask why this part of the commandment has not been acknowledged? How is it that we have focused so well and appropriately on missionary work without also teaching the other half of the equation, the promised devastation?
If we’ve not been instructed in these things or discovered them for ourselves, how are we to teach them, as we were commanded to do? How are we going to teach something we do not understand? In that case, how are we going to fulfill the Lord’s charge to teach it at all, let alone do so plainly?
As a matter of fact, any discussion of prophetic destructions has been almost completely banned from our discourse in the church. Over the last half-century, the subjects of prophecy and catastrophe in church discussion have become increasingly taboo. Where once they were central to our very character as Latter-day Saints, they have been almost completely marginalized in our day and age.
Our instruction manuals for teaching in the church almost entirely skirt around the subject of the last days and their associated destructions. The subject is almost never addressed from the pulpit, and even then it is treated in such an oblique manner as to avoid any substantive handling of the subject.
Yet, given the wording of this section, it would seem that we are under as great an obligation to teach about the impending destructions as we are to do missionary work.
So, let’s reverse this trend. Let’s more fully perform our duty as priesthood bearers. Let’s look at this once again to see if we might regain some lost ground and thereby properly fulfill this commandment from the Lord.
One might begin by asking, what is the “desolation and utter abolishment” of which the Lord spoke? What is the “desolation of abomination in the last days” that all priesthood bearers, “the rest of my servants,” are herein commanded to “set forth clearly and understandingly?”
A clue to those questions lies a little further on in that section. “For, with you saith the Lord Almighty, I will rend their kingdoms; I will not only shake the earth, but the starry heavens shall tremble.” (verse 118.)
The keywords in these verses are “rend their kingdoms,” “shake the earth” and “the starry heavens shall tremble.” Anyone schooled in the nature of planetary catastrophes that have punctuated Earth’s past and the prophetic metaphors they gave rise to will recognize what the Lord intended. These same metaphors have been used by the prophets to describe numerous episodes in Earth’s past when the entire world came to the brink of destruction-episodes such as Noah’s Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus and numerous other such widespread catastrophes.
The references are subtle but unmistakable. The metaphors “desolation of abomination,” or “desolation and utter abolishment” are coded expressions for planetary catastrophes of the most devastating kind where nature goes on a rampage, where almost all the works of mankind crumble in worldwide earthquakes while oceanic super-tsunamis rush in upon continents, wiping vast areas of the globe clean of any vestige of life, all as the heavens appear to reel about as a result of our planet’s wobbling on its axis of rotation.
As if to put a lock on his meaning, God added this unmistakable declaration. “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, and know that I am, and that I will come and reign with my people.” (verse 119.)
It is the powers of heaven that wreck destruction and havoc on the Earth, a frequent scriptural theme.
And just to clarify, the Lord says that there is nothing unusual to see in the heavens just now, “ye cannot see it now.” But the time will come when we will all see and know what the desolation of abomination is. That is, “yet a little while and ye shall see it.”
Finally, as a warning against dismissing the importance of this knowledge and its conveyance, the Lord said, “And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received-
“Which Vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.” (verses 54 and 55)
Make no mistake. Ignoring or dismissing this aspect of our priesthood callings by failing to obey the Lord’s commandment in this regard has brought condemnation upon us all. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the very verses President Ezra Taft Benson quoted when he counseled church members to repent of their doubt and pride, saying also that the whole church was under condemnation.
Part II – Watch the Heavens
To assure the reader that the above is not a strained interpretation of a few obscure and selected verses, we should take a moment to learn why the Lord might want his priesthood to understand the cause and nature of planetary catastrophes.
In all ancient cultures, the priestly class dominated the religious life of any culture, including the symbolic center of their religious tradition: the temple. All ancient cultures had temples wherein the priestly class administered rites and rituals of salvation, whether or not they had the true priesthood.
We learn from Abraham that this was certainly true of the Egyptians. “Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations …. Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham ….” (Abraham 1:26, 27.)
We know from archeology and research into the Egyptian religion that they not only had temples, but they performed resurrection rituals, much as we do in our temples today. Thus, as Abraham implies, they obviously sought to imitate true priesthood orders and rituals. (See Hugh Nibley’s extensive writings on this subject.)
Some temples were elaborately constructed edifices, such as the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Others were merely groups of standing stones, such as Stonehenge. In the Americas, pyramids were the temples of choice, as were the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. Native Americans in the southwestern United States constructed kivas. All these are easily identified as temples because of the rituals practiced therein.
But the temples weren’t only ritual centers. They were observatories, and their architecture abounds in astral alignments. Research has shown us that they assiduously tracked the movements of the heavenly bodies. As we have seen, they were absolutely obsessive about fixing and tracking the points where these bodies rose over the horizon, most especially the Sun during the summer and winter solstices.
A fundamental part of priestly responsibility was to watch the skies by tracking the movements of the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, the planets and the stars, which they accomplished with a variety of ingenious methods.
Most common among these ancient sky watchers was the practice of aligning stones or architecture such that the first rays of light from the Sun as it rose in the morning would fall on a well-marked spot on another stone or marker within a building. Thus, they could track the Sun’s rising on the horizon throughout the year as it varied, moving slightly more north or south each day until it reached its most extreme positions at the winter and summer solstices. This, then, was a simple but effective way of ascertaining that the Earth, not the Sun, was moving in its normal, prescribed path. Any deviation would easily be discerned.
This proclivity has long puzzled archeologists and anthropologists. Why did the ancients seem preoccupied with astronomy? Why did they track the movement of astral bodies? Why was astronomy so important to them that they practiced it and incorporated it into their most sacred shrines, their temples?
This was as true of God’s authentic prophets and priests as it was of the pretenders. We learn this from Abraham, for example. “But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers.” (Abraham 1:31.)
This notion is further confirmed when Abraham is shown stars and planets through the Urim and Thummim. It seems to be God’s desire that the prophets have an intimate knowledge of things astronomical. But to what end, if not to watch for irregularities in the skies?
This is reflected in our modern temples, where astral symbols abound, as they also did in ancient temples. This was and is information about the Sun, the Moon and the many stars or “great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven”-the very icons we find adorning the walls of our sacred temples.
But, what does astronomy have to do with religion and priesthood? It’s really quite simple.
God always warned the world’s inhabitants of impending planetary disasters. The scriptures are replete with such accounts. Adam and Noah warned of the coming Great Flood; Abraham warned Lot to flee Sodom and Gomorrah; Moses warned the Israelites, Pharaoh and the Egyptians of the plagues that would shortly befall them; and Samuel the Lamanite warned the Nephites of the destructions to accompany the crucifixion of the Savior.
Not only that, there are an even greater multitude of warnings regarding identical destructions and devastations in the last days, before the second coming. John wrote extensively in his Revelation. Isaiah, Malachi, Zechariah, Habakkuk, Nahum, Joel and even the Savior himself told of these planet-wide catastrophes as a “desolation of abomination.” Hence, there are a multitude of past and future warnings from the prophets in our scriptures of the “desolation and utter abolishment” that awaits the world in our day, just as they occurred in the past.
It is only natural, then, that God would charge his priesthood with the sobering task of watching the heavens to discern any change in the motions of the Earth, Sun, Moon or the planets. Alterations in any of those would likely portend trouble.
So, this is the easily discernable reason why all ancient cultures, including those led by prophets, were so invested in watching the heavens. Any deviation in the movement of the stars or planets meant almost certain disaster for Earth’s inhabitants. So, tracking them was the sure way to know at the earliest possible moment if something went awry.
A rather practical, down-to-earth approach for such an esoteric discipline as astronomy, wouldn’t you say?
Since modern astronomy denies the possibility of any deviation in the orbits of the Earth, the Sun and the other planets in our solar system, they are left with no basis for understanding the ancients’ preoccupation with the heavens. They chalk it up to superstition, and that’s where it ends.
But ancient and modern revelation, along with all the texts left behind by other ancient cultures, repeatedly and compellingly insist that the order of the heavens was altered in historic times, in spite of the insistence to the contrary by modern science.
The prophets repeatedly spoke of a change so great, so sweeping that it completely alters both the heavens and the Earth. “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. … Nevertheless, we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth ….” (2 Peter 3:7, 13.) “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.” (Revelation 21:1.)
This principle is most clearly enunciated in latter-day revelation. “And the end shall come, and the heaven and the earth shall be consumed and pass away, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth.
“For old things shall pass away, and all things shall become new, even the heaven and the earth ….” Doctrine and Covenants 29: 23, 24.)
All this being true, then it only makes sense that God would want to reestablish this practice of watching the heavens among his priesthood in the latter days. And knowing this explains why the priesthood was assigned the duty of “watchmen” in the “watchtowers.” While a watchtower in a fortress or walled city might be useful in spotting an army of approaching foes, an astronomical observatory might effectively be thought of as a “watchtower” and the priesthood as “watchmen” where the possibility of planetary disorder exists.
Hence, the Lord implores his people, and especially those ordained to the priesthood to “Watch, therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Matthew 24:42.)
Also, “Gird up your loins and be watchful and be sober, looking forth for the coming of the Son of Man, for he cometh in an hour you think not.” (Doctrine and Covenants 61:38.)
This, then, is a duty traditionally assigned to God’s priesthood bearers. That he would again restore this assignment to the priesthood in these latter days is perfectly natural and in harmony with the ancient pattern. That means that this is information and understanding that every latter-day priesthood holder should master, as we have been commanded, in order to fully discharge our sacred duties.
Not only can we better fulfill our callings through this study and practice, this information will further enhance our gospel understanding to a considerable degree, allowing us to better understand the scriptures, the words of the prophets and the symbolism of our temples. This is true because the symbolism that dominates the gospel actually originated in ancient astral events.
Part III – The Reiteration
Lastly, in order to better understand the 84th Section, we must turn to the 88th Section, where the Lord reiterates in much more detail what he gave in the earlier revelation. Read this revelation with the counsel and commandment of the 84th Section in mind to bring greater clarity and meaning to the Lord’s expressions.
Let’s review Section 88 verse by verse, beginning about half way through.
“77 And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.”
God here referred to the same commandment he already gave in Section 83, as will be plainly seen as we proceed.
“78 Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand ….”
This is the very instruction needed to prepare a teacher to explain what the desolation of abomination is, how to watch for it and how to explain it. While we are presently doing a good job of teaching gospel principles and law, we have fallen down in the other two named categories: theory and doctrine. Otherwise, the knowledge of these planetary destructions would be common among us. Since they are not, this is prima fascia evidence of our ignorance.
And what are those things that we have failed to study and fully understand?
“79 Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass … and the judgments which are on the land ….”
You see, it is in studying the “things both of heaven and in the earth” that we discover the changes wrought by past planetary catastrophes, because those changes are explicit in ancient history or “things which have been.” Of course, by studying “things which are,” we find a basis for comparison with the past. In so doing, we learn that our world and its heavens are vastly different than they were. Additionally, in studying “things which must shortly come to pass,” we learn that coming planetary disorder will be nearly identical to past catastrophes, giving us yet another basis for comparison and a vivid idea of what the future holds for this world when planetary disorder once again nearly destroys our planet, causing “desolation and utter abolishment.”
“80 That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.”
This is the heart of the matter. We cannot be fully prepared to “magnify the calling” we’ve been given if we have not prepared ourselves with this vital knowledge, which we now utterly lack.
“81 Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.”
This is a restatement of the mission: We must “clearly and understandingly” tell them of the “desolation and utter abolishment” that awaits this world.
“84 Therefore, tarry ye, and labor diligently, that you may be perfected in your ministry ….”
Without this knowledge of planetary catastrophe, we cannot be “perfected” in our knowledge. And we cannot properly teach if our knowledge is incomplete or incorrect. Hence the Lord’s counsel to “tarry” while we “labor diligently” to learn these concepts.
“… to go forth among the Gentiles for the last time, as many as the mouth of the Lord shall name, to bind up the law and seal up the testimony, and to prepare the saints for the hour of judgment which is to come; …”
Notice here that this mission to teach of planetary catastrophe is not only necessary to teach the nonmembers or “Gentiles,” it is needful “to prepare the saints for the hour of judgment.” Thus, this mission is as much to the members of the church as it is to potential converts. This is the second part of the commandment, which we have completely overlooked.
“85 That their souls may escape the wrath of God, the desolation of abomination which awaits the wicked, both in this world and in the world to come.”
Just to clarify that both sections 84 and 88 are talking about the same things, notice that the Lord once again cites the “desolation of abomination,” while yet further defining it as the “wrath of God.”
And here’s the payoff. So that we might be certain of what he’s talking about, the Lord describes the desolation’s most prominent elements.
“87 For not many days hence and the earth shall tremble and reel to and fro as a drunken man; and the sun shall hide his face, and shall refuse to give light; and the moon shall be bathed in blood; and the stars shall become exceedingly angry, and shall cast themselves down as a fig that falleth from off a fig-tree.”
It is these variously described, symbolic elements that are seen to comprise the effects that accompany a planetary disaster.
In Section 84, he cited another such symbolic, yet very real, element. ” I will not only shake the earth, but the starry heavens shall tremble.”
It is the comprehension of these metaphors, and the many other symbolically described elements, that are crucial to one’s understanding of the very things we’ve been commanded to teach, that is “set forth clearly and understandingly.” It is these elements of planetary catastrophe that we must master in order to teach them to others.
“88 And after your testimony cometh wrath and indignation upon the people.”
The Lord said the same thing with more obscure language in Section 84 when he said, “For, with you saith the Lord Almighty, I will rend their kingdoms.”
That is to say, first comes the priesthood’s warning, then comes the destruction. It’s the same pattern followed throughout world history: God calls a prophet to warn the people of impending disaster and call them to repentance. That done, the promised destructions are poured out.
For good measure, the Lord then lists many more elements of a planetary encounter.
“89 For after your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes, that shall cause groanings in the midst of her, and men shall fall upon the ground and shall not be able to stand.
“90 And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds.
“91 And all things shall be in commotion; surely, men’s hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people.”
Again, it is these natural phenomenon that constitute the prophesied desolation.
Next is an entirely metaphorical narrative that cannot be understood until one is thoroughly schooled in the prophetic tradition that arose from past planetary calamity. It is coded language, symbolic allusions to very real things that will be seen and heard.
“92 And angels shall fly through the midst of heaven, crying with a loud voice, sounding the trump of God, saying: Prepare ye, prepare ye, O inhabitants of the earth; for the judgment of our God is come. Behold, and lo, the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.”
It is in the decoding of such metaphors or symbolic language that a corrected view of ancient planetary catastrophe becomes vital. With it, we can see what such allegorical declarations truly mean.
Now comes the “piece de resistance” of this revelation.
“93 And immediately there shall appear a great sign in heaven, and all people shall see it together.”
It is this “great sign” that is the cause of these overwhelming natural phenomenon that will sweep the Earth.
Some have supposed that since the word “sign” is used here that there would be some stunning, symbolic manifestation in the heavens that would signal the onset of the destructions. But, the training and education that comes with studying past planetary encounters tell us otherwise.
Joseph Smith explained in more explicit terms what that “great sign” would be.
“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, the entire world will call this sign a planet or a comet because that’s exactly what it will be-a planet-sized orb that also looks and behaves like a tremendous comet.
And just so there are no loose ends to this exposition, make note that Joseph connects this “sign” with all the same devastating natural destructions as the two revelations we’ve been considering. That can lead to only one, inescapable conclusion: The planet or comet is not only a sign, it is the very agent-the single cause-of all the natural destructions that are part of God’s desolation.
After all this exposition, these points are worth making one last time: It is the Lord who decreed that the priesthood’s role is to be the conservators and expositors of this knowledge among church members. Not only that, they were charged with watching the heavens for deviations that might portend renewed catastrophes.
Sadly, present-day priesthood holders not only do not understand these things, they are inclined to discount and suppress them, thinking they are too fantastic or bizarre to be credible. Most elders in the church know nothing of the simplest aspects of astronomy, thinking it something entirely and completely foreign to the gospel of Christ. Yet, a survey of teachings by general authorities from Joseph Smith on forward has revealed that these subjects have been amply treated and clarified in this dispensation, to say nothing of the preponderance of evidence found in our scriptures and the other records we have from the past.
Today’s priesthood holders have no concept of such a mandate from the Lord, even though it is plainly stated in latter day revelation. Neither have they properly searched our scriptures, otherwise these things would have been self evident. Therefore, today’s priesthood holders are unable to comply with the Lord’s mandate to teach these truths “clearly and understandingly.”
Perhaps its time we stopped treating prophecy and prophetic imagery as the redheaded stepchild of the gospel. Maybe it’s time we reversed our course by taking seriously this commandment. By admitting our oversight, we can begin to correct it.
Remember God’s counsel: “And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received-
“Which Vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.” (Section 84:54, 55.)
Will we allow this to continue?