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Cover image via WOL.
Another name of the Old Testament is the Old Covenant, and, in fact, the scripture is organized to demonstrate the power that flows into the life of a person or a nation when the covenant is kept. At the same time, when a person or nation willfully turns from the covenant after they have been promised so much, those blessings are not only withdrawn, but without the Lord’s supporting Spirit they fall.
We see this power of the covenant often in the Book of Mormon. Lehi is promised as his family arrives in the Promised Land, that this will be a land of liberty and prosperity as long as Jesus Christ is the God of this land, but that promise is withdrawn, if ever the people shall turn from Him.[i]
The Children of Israel had similar promises about their covenant land. As they left their wilderness journey, they were told the bountiful blessings that would be theirs because they were covenant people. They were told:
Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field.
Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kind, and the flocks of thy sheep.
Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store.
Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shall thou be when thou goest out.
The Lord shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways.[ii]
Protection and Deliverance a Part of the Promise
As covenant people, they knew that protection and deliverance was part of their promise, and not just in a minor way, but assured by the God of Heaven who knew the end from the beginning and had the power to make good on His promises. When the Lord said, “My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee,”[iii] He was introducing Himself as He offered this covenant to Abraham.
The Lord was saying in effect, I am He whom you are making a covenant with. It is I who is in all and through all things, who knows all things, who is perfectly good on my word because I cannot lie. In my hands you are secure and protected and delivered from all of your enemies and everyone who shall conspire to defeat you.
Unfortunately, we see from the Old Testament, that the people did not choose to keep their covenant and willfully rebelled against God. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was decimated by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and the Southern Kingdom destroyed and many of its inhabitants carried off to Babylon near 600 BC.
No matter how powerful the Assyrian or Babylon armies were, no matter how sharp or penetrating their weapons, the Children of Israel as a nation would have been able to stand against them if they had kept their covenants. God would have fought their battles and protected them as part of His covenant promise.
The Lord is Infinitely More Powerful
So, you have to see the stories of Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego as covenant stories. Now, those of the covenant people who were thrust into Babylon and who were still faithful, valued and kept their covenants with an added devotion. Their religious identity in a place as foreign as Babylon was critically important to them. We read of their angst and yearning, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”[iv]
It is no surprise that the stories that are chosen from that time frame, emphasize, that no matter how powerful the forces are that are arrayed against you, as the king of Babylon surely was, the Lord is infinitely more powerful and will deliver you. Protection is a covenant blessing. Deliverance is a covenant blessing. You are not alone in facing the fires of your life, but the Lord Himself walks in the fire with you. This is His promise and He says, “He hath remembered his covenant forever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations.”[v]
Nephi says is this way, “Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.”[vi] “Those whom he hath chosen” are His covenant people, those who have willingly and wholeheartedly chosen Him.
So let’s turn to the story of our three who are cast into the fiery furnace. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, made a 90-foot image of gold, and, inviting all the important people, and with much hoopla and music, commanded that everyone fall down and worship this false god. Of course, this is something that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could not do, and enraged, the king, told them that if they refused, in that very hour they would be cast into a fiery furnace. This was not just any fiery furnace, not your every day fiery furnace, but one that had been stoked to seven times its normal heat. It was so hot that even the guards who carried them to the door, were burned up.
But If Not
But not these three Israelites who were under a covenant promise. They famously said in response to the king’s threat to throw them into the furnace:
If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.[vii]
In this case, they were dramatically spared as the Lord walked with them in the furnace, but they were ready to give up their lives if need be if He didn’t deliver them in this way. When they said, “But if not”, they were quite serious that they would be true to their covenant either way and that their faith in God would be undiminished.
Why? It is because they knew the Lord and their covenants well enough, that if, in this case, the Lord did not offer proximate protection, He was doing something more important. Perhaps even more vital than immediate protection and deliverance is that the covenant promise includes the Lord bringing us into his presence, with the experiences, knowledge and transformation that will require. These are all words that begin with “p” and, therefore, easy to remember. Promised land. Protection and deliverance. Presence.
The covenant path He has us walk is ultimately to reshape us to be like Him, and therefore, worthy to be with Him. He is completely trustworthy—and sometimes His protection and deliverance will mean that He doesn’t answer our request in the way we have made it. His answer may not look like immediate protection and deliverance to our eyes, but it is His covenant promise to us that he will protect and deliver us if we are true. That can provide us complete security. I used to tell my institute students, “You are not insecure, you only think you are.”
The idea that we need to be faithful and true through those times when it doesn’t appear to us that our prayers are being answered is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. Those words “but if not” can feel like a frosty doctrine. It is so easy to love the Lord and swell in faith when it is clear that our prayers are being answered, but it can really hurt, if something that is vital and urgent seems to be ignored by the heavens.
“Can’t you hear my prayers?” we might ask. “Don’t you care about me?” Those questions can feel stinging when the matter at hand is one of enormous import to us.
I remember talking to a young woman who complained that she had served the Lord with all her heart, and all she wanted when she graduated from college was a good job and a husband. Yet, she graduated from college and she had neither a good job, nor a husband. She said in dismay, “God used me.”
Walking the covenant path demands our confidence and trust—especially for those times when the Lord does not deliver what our idea of protection and deliverance might look like. That is when we are sent to our extremities and we ask, “Can I be faithful when I do not see? Can I be courageous when the fire is particularly hot? Can I trust that the Lord sees what I cannot see and that He is protecting and delivering me in ways that I may not understand?”
There may come a day in each of our lives, when the world is falling around us that we still stand up and say, “I believe in the promises of God. I know He knows and sees me.” That is the day when deep faith is born. It is the time we move beyond being spiritual children.
We must get beyond the day when we view God as a vending machine, where we put in a dollar and a candy bar rolls out. Instead, we are in a covenant with one who describes Himself this way: “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.”[viii] What a remarkable partnership He offers us—that we are in a covenant with one who will keep us completely secure, protected and delivered, not according to the limited sight we have as mortals, but the perfect sight He has as God Himself, “I am”, the self-existent One.
The Fire Coming toward our Mountain
How does this translate for us? We had a recent experience that put us to that test. We have a mountain lot with soaring pine trees that we love. It brings us peace just to go walk there. Last summer, Utah faced a searing summer that was the perfect conditions for wildfires. Wildfires ate up our precious forests, leaping hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres at a time with hot winds that stirred up the ferocious flames.
One fire, called Coal Hollow, was directly on a path toward our mountain. We watched anxiously day by day as it burst in thousand acre jumps toward us. Finally, just before they evacuated our mountain, we drove there taking a last walk on our land and then up to the top of that mountain where we had a view of the long line of ravaging fire coming toward us. With that dramatic view, my husband, Scot, and I prayed on top of that mountain with a most sincere intent, that our land be spared. We asked the Lord to “rebuke the devourer”[ix] for our sakes, reminding Him that as part of our covenant, we paid tithing, and that was a promise for the tithe.
We also said this, “We would love this blessing, but if not, if our mountain burns, if our soaring pines become charred posts, our love and faith in thee will not cease. We will still try with all our power, might, mind and strength, to be devoted disciples of Christ.”
We, of course, patterned our prayer after these three from Babylon. They had taught us well and we trusted that whether our mountain was spared or not, either way we knew that in the covenant we have with God “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.”[x] That is language for being in a covenant with Him. We were supported in His love and care no matter what happened.
In this case, our land was spared, and the fire was stopped before it devoured us. Yet just a few weeks later, to do a story for Meridian, I interviewed some Latter-day Saints who lived in Paradise, California, who had lost their homes, in the fire that burned with the speed of a locomotive through their beautiful, pine-clad town. When I asked how many people in their ward had lost their homes, the answer was that it would be much easier to tell the number who had not lost their homes. “Maybe four” was the answer about the homes that had survived.
Their homes had not been spared, yet these covenant people, too, felt loved and protected and supported, and yes, even delivered in this desperate hour. The Son of God was with them in the flames and their spirits were resilient.
Even in death, which looks to our mortal eyes like a tragedy, we can be protected and supported. I know this personally from having lost those who are dear to me, some that seemed to leave long before their time was due in my eyes.
A Temple Cultural Celebration
I watched as prayers appeared not to be answered another time. In Gilbert, Arizona it rarely rains, though there can be a downpour on rare occasions. Unfortunately the night of the youth cultural celebration to mark the dedication of the new Gilbert, Arizona temple was one of those times.
Again, to cover the story for Meridian, we had been interviewing the youth, the creators, and the directors of this cultural celebration for several hours. They told of the thousands of hours that had gone into this presentation and the excitement of the youth to participate. Costumes had been created for thousands. Original music had been written. The director told me that the script idea had been given to her ten years earlier and had lingered in her mind all that time. When she was called to create the ideas, they were already resident in her.
Yet that day, in relentlessly sunny Arizona, a large storm cloud loomed and a slashing downpour was predicted for that night to begin just as the cultural celebration started. We weren’t worried. We’d seen scores of times when the Lord tempered the weather and the rain stopped just before something important happened. It happened so often at the Palmyra outdoor pageant on the Hill Cumorah that we called it the pageant miracle. We’d seen the rain suddenly dissipate, slow and stop when it was time for the pageant to begin again and again.
That day in Gilbert, Arizona, everyone was praying for a hole in the storm and the rain to pass us by, and we thought it would happen. Yet, after holding off all day, at 6:15 it started to rain—and rain hard. To make matters worse, the youth were performing in a giant catch basin, and if the water rose to 1-1/2 inches, they would have to abandon the location.
The rain continued without abating. Scot, who was photographing the event, had a soaked camera and dress suit. I, who was to take notes, gave up, not wanting my electronics to be water-logged. What of those thousand kids in their bright costumes who were dancing and singing on the field, who kicked up their heels and danced? What of the boys who slipped on the wet grass as they hoisted girls to their shoulders? They, too, were drenched, hair streaming with water, while they performed for the prophet. Yet, I will never forget their bright, smiling faces, their countenances undaunted, the strength of the directors uncurbed.
What was interesting to me that night, was that one of their re-enactments was the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. They told the story in the rain of three who were total in their faith that God could save them, but if not this time, they still had knowledge that God protected and delivered them always. The story came through all the more clearly that night because of the downpour. We had all prayed for the weather to clear, but if not, be it known that we will serve the Lord.
In those “but if not” times in our own lives when our most fervent prayers do not seem answered, it is not time to say, “God doesn’t care about me and my feelings. God doesn’t hear me. God is indifferent.” It is time to remember that we are in a covenant with One who is trustworthy and intelligent beyond our understandings. We are in a covenant with one who has promised be with us.
We can remember this covenant idea:
Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.[xi]
[i] 2 Nephi 1: 4-12
[ii] Deuteronomy 28: 3-7
[iii] Abraham 2:8
[iv] Psalm 137:1
[v] Psalm 105:8
[vi] 1 Nephi 1:20
[vii] Daniel 3:17,18
[viii] Abraham 3:19
[ix] Mal. 3:11
[x] Romans 8:28
[xi] Joshua 1:9