Cover image: It’s True, Sir, All Present and Accounted For, by Clark Kelley.
The story of the armies of Helaman is a profound parable of what it means to make and keep a covenant with our Savior. In a way, the story parallels the journey we all must take through life.
We are here in a mortal state to be tested to see if we are able to stand against the power of the Adversary and to strengthen our spiritual understanding. This was the situation of the 2,000 sons of Helaman. They were young, untrained, untested. They faced a formidable adversary in the form of King Ammoron (a name which possibly means “the Master of the People”), who was simply an agent of Satan. His purpose was to destroy the freedom of the people of Nephi, just as Satan’s purpose is to destroy our freedom.
We are essentially in the position of the sons of Helaman. What to do? We have all the weaknesses of mortality on our side. (The fragility of these young men is emphasized when Mormon refers to them as “striplings”—a word for a slight, vulnerable youth.) The great challenge we face is to find out what we are made of in the face of a powerful tyrant who wants to destroy us.
But we are blessed to have the direction of the Lord. He is mightier than all the forces arrayed against us. Still, we must have the courage to follow His directions right into the teeth of the challenger, or we will fail.
“I give unto you directions how you may act before me, that it may turn to you for your salvation. I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (D&C 82:9-10). The Savior will save us—He will provide the guidance we need to come out victorious, but we must follow those directions strictly. This determination is called faith.
The sons of Helaman “entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea, to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives; yea, even they covenanted that they never would give up their liberty, but they would fight in all cases to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage” (Alma 53:17). We all make such covenants—at baptism, in the temple, at our sealings, at ordinations and settings-apart to callings in the kingdom. The question is whether we will keep our covenants with exactness.
To make a covenant with Jesus Christ is to “bind” ourselves to Him, and He in turn binds Himself to us. A “binding covenant” is a mutual commitment to a relationship that is designed to last. If we are faithful to that covenant, “Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life” (Mosiah 5:15). To be sealed to Christ is the greatest blessing that can come to us. Faithfulness to our covenants is a small price to pay for such a blessing.
The sons of Helaman teach us how to be faithful to our covenants through our mortal lives. What lessons can we draw from them?
“They were all young men, and they were exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all—they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted. Yea, they were men of truth and soberness; for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him” (Alma 53:20-21).
In the ancient Mediterranean world, it was unhappily typical for young men to be groomed for war. A common sight in Greek paintings is the young Athenian warrior donning his armor, his mother standing by holding his helmet or shield. The young warriors, known as ephebes, often have “less muscular, less robust bodies which in combination with their beardless state suggest a relatively youthful age” ( Susan B. Matheson, “Beardless, Armed, and Barefoot: Ephebes, Warriors, and Ritual on Athenian Vases,” in D. Yatromanolakis, ed., An Archaeology of Representations: Ancient Greek Vase-Painting and Contemporary Methodology (Athens: Kardamitsa Publications, 376, 386).
The ephebes would take an oath to defend the liberty of their country. This oath was very similar to the covenant made by the sons of Helaman, evidence of an authentic pattern of service in the ancient world:
I will defend our altars and our hearths, alone or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage, but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey the current statutes and authorities and will submit to the established laws and everything new that the Nation will agree and enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defense, alone or supported by many. I will honor the religion of my fathers (John J. Winkler, “The Ephebes’ Song: Tragoidia and Polis,” Representations 11, Summer 1985).
We are not all ephebes—youthful, vigorous men—but we can all be “exceedingly valiant for courage” in keeping our covenants no matter our age. A plague of our times is anxiety, insecurity, feelings of inadequacy, depression, and discouragement. Many of us need medical help with these problems (I know I do). All of us need to do our best to overcome them. Fear is natural, anxiety is hard to avoid; but all the Lord asks is for us to step up and try to do what He asks, and He will do the rest.
There is no failure in the work of the Lord except the failure to try. President Russell M. Nelson says, “The Lord loves effort, because effort brings rewards that can’t come without it” (cited in Joy D. Jones, “An Especially Noble Calling,” General Conference, April 2020).
The sons of Helaman were men of “strength and activity.” Of course, we all suffer from weakness, but if we persist in “weakness and inactivity” we cannot expect to grow stronger. In the Church we speak of “active” and “less active.” If we want the reward of eternal life, we must become fully active in the work of gathering our families and our brothers and sisters into the family of God.
Finally, the sons of Helaman “were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted. . . . yea, and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness” (Alma 56:21). In any process, “exactness” means following the steps in precise order and paying attention to each instruction along the way. An airline pilot who sets an inexact course may end up in Shanghai instead of Paris. An inexact football kick will miss the goal. A baker who fails to follow each step of the recipe with exactness may end up with soup instead of cake.
The same is true of faithfulness to covenants. We cannot be sloppy or haphazard about it if we want the rewards of keeping a covenant. President Nelson calls it “staying on the covenant path.”
Not far from our home is Zion National Park, where many hikers attempt the Angel’s Landing trail, one of the most dangerous trails in the world. From the summit, you can enjoy a breathtaking panoramic view of the canyon. But to get there you step along a narrow path with 1,000-foot drop-offs on either side. Near the top, you must make your way across a skinny land bridge, holding onto a metal chain. Slip here and you will fall to your death. It seems a few people are killed here nearly every year. Angel’s Landing requires extreme caution and exactness in following the path.
Our mortal lives are like this. The covenant path is difficult, but if we stick exactly to the course, we can make it. And we do not travel alone—we have the help of the Savior at every step. He holds on to us if, in making our best efforts, we slip. So long as we are willing and repentant, He will not allow us to fall. Unfortunately, He cannot save us if we deliberately choose to “daredevil” it, as some of those do who have lost their lives on Angel’s Landing.
The sons of Helaman had the Lord’s sure promise of salvation if they would “obey and observe to perform every command with exactness.” That is how they got safely through fierce battles and eventually defeated their enemies. “They stand fast . . . and they are strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day; yea, they do observe to keep his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments continually” (Alma 58:40). Strict observation of the commandments of God leads inevitably to peace and confidence on this mortal journey.
A counterexample of the sons of Helaman is found in the seventh chapter of Joshua, where a group of 3,000 Israelite warriors went to battle against King Ai, an enemy with a much smaller army. The 3,000 were confident of victory after defeating the great army of Jericho. But an Israelite named Achan had stolen some of the gold of Jericho that was supposed to be consecrated to the Lord. Disobedience to the Lord brought a military disaster, completely demoralizing the Israelites: “The hearts of the people melted, and became as water” (Joshua 7:5).
Young, untrained, untested, up against a much more ferocious enemy than the army of Ai, the 2,000 sons of Helaman fought through and—miraculously—prevailed. “According to the goodness of God,” Helaman recorded, “and to our great astonishment . . . there was not one soul of them who did perish; yea, and neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds” (Alma 57:25). Fear born of disobedience to God destroyed the 3,000 of Joshua; courage born of strict obedience to God saved every one of the 2,000 of Helaman. Not one was lost. With the Lord beside us, we will also come through the battles of mortality without “perishing.” We too will be greatly astonished at the miracles the Lord does in our lives.
Note that the sons of Helaman did not come through the battle unscathed. Each one received many wounds. This mortal journey back to our Father is no pleasure cruise; we will get bruised up along the way. But the Savior is always with the obedient, and by His miracles we are preserved. The 2,000 took the risk of faith. “They had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them,” Helaman recalls. “And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 58:47-8).
In ancient Greek paintings, “there are numerous scenes in which only the mother is shown with the ephebe” as he goes off to war (Matheson, 412). These tender scenes must have played out countless times in that world. Apparently, in the Mediterranean culture, mothers played a crucial role in preparing their sons for the battles of life. Clearly, the mother’s influence is key to the success of her children in the mortal journey. The mothers of the 2,000 must have been unshakable in their testimony of Christ. They must have provided experiences for the boys to learn for themselves the rewards of exact obedience. The faith of the 2,000 did not spring up on the eve of battle—it must have been the product of years of teaching by word and example.
Let us be that kind of mother, father, family member, friend, and example.