In Alma 45 we read of a beautiful exchange between Alma (the Younger) and his son Helaman.
“Alma came unto his son Helaman and said unto him: Believest thou the words which I spake unto thee concerning those records which have been kept? And Helaman said unto him: Yea, I believe. And Alma said again: Believest thou in Jesus Christ, who shall come? And he said: Yea, I believe all the words which thou hast spoken. And Alma said unto him again: Will ye keep my commandments? And he said: Yea, I will keep thy commandments with all my heart. Then Alma said unto him: Blessed art thou; and the Lord shall prosper thee in this land.” (Alma 45:2-8).
Before passing on the responsibility of keeping the scriptures and before adding other responsibilities to his son, Alma interviews Helaman to assess his testimony in the Savior and the teachings of the prophets. In many ways, this was similar to our modern temple recommend interviews or personal priesthood interviews in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After Helaman bore his testimony, Alma continues on to prophesy of things to come, acting in his role as seer. Prophecies of the future (or past) are not unique in the scriptures – there are many such prophecies; what is unique, or at least explicitly stated is that Alma prophesied things to Helaman that Helaman was not to reveal to anyone else; he was to record it upon the records but not tell anyone else. Why the secrecy? What was this important prophecy and why, if it was important, keep it from general knowledge?
Keeping revelations and prophecies and doctrine secret or, rather, sacred, has been the practice of prophets from the beginning. Christ taught this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” (Matt. 7:6). We also know there is a sealed portion of the Book of Mormon that has not yet been revealed to the world. There are prophecies of the brother of Jared and John the Beloved that are not widely revealed. Sometimes these are kept from the world because the prophecies are so great that most people are not ready for them. Isaiah taught of the importance of solidifying foundations before grasping at straws of doctrines beyond current comprehension: “For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10) and “But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (Isaiah 28:13). What Isaiah meant is made clear in the Book of Mormon: “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.” (2 Nephi 28:30).
This reminds me of working with my oldest daughter on mathematical concepts and problems. She is young enough that she is still learning arithmetic; while I am constantly trying to push the boundaries of what she knows, we cannot jump ahead to trigonometry or calculus or even much algebra because she does not have all the basics of mathematics learned yet. This does not mean I cannot or do not teach her pre-algebra (I do) or introduce more complex concepts of mathematics but most of what I could teach her is not possible for her to understand – she doesn’t know enough of the basics to understand more and her brain is physically/physiologically/neurologically not capable of comprehending these higher order concepts of mathematics yet; these concepts require complex abstractions that a very young brain cannot process. Thus, my daughter’s understanding is not just limited by a lack of knowledge (ignorance) but also a lack of physical development.
Gospel and spiritual knowledge are the same way. We cannot comprehend greater light and knowledge without understanding the foundations of the gospel – the doctrines of Christ – faith, repentance, resurrection, the Atonement, charity, and so forth. In a like manner, we might not be able to understand “higher” doctrines simply because we are spiritually undeveloped – our spirit brains, if you will, are not yet matured. This spiritual maturation comes from learning, accepting, and living the gospel over time. Without such development, we cannot understand what some call deeper doctrines.
This is why Alma asked about Helaman’s testimony; this is why many prophecies remain hidden to us (and this specific prophecy of Alma remained hidden until the coming forth of the Book of Mormon) – many people who might hear them or read them are not ready for them. So what did Alma tell Helaman?
“Behold, I perceive that this very people, the Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them, shall dwindle in unbelief.” (Alma 45:10)
Not only will Christ appear to the Nephites following His resurrection but also there will come a time of general apostasy among the Nephites and Lamanites. This apostasy mirrors that of the Old World among the Jews and early Christians. When Moroni wrote his last words on the plates of gold and sealed up the record it was around 421 AD. Christ appeared to the Nephites around 30 AD (plus or minus 6 years or so), which means that by the time 400 years had passed, the Nephites were all extinct. Alma continued:
Yea, and then shall they see wars and pestilences, yea, famines and bloodshed, even until the people of Nephi shall become extinct—Yea, and this because they shall dwindle in unbelief and fall into the works of darkness, and lasciviousness, and all manner of iniquities; yea, I say unto you, that because they shall sin against so great light and knowledge, yea, I say unto you, that from that day, even the fourth generation shall not all pass away before this great iniquity shall come. And when that great day cometh, behold, the time very soon cometh that those who are now, or the seed of those who are now numbered among the people of Nephi, shall no more be numbered among the people of Nephi. But whosoever remaineth, and is not destroyed in that great and dreadful day, shall be numbered among the Lamanites, and shall become like unto them, all, save it be a few who shall be called the disciples of the Lord; and them shall the Lamanites pursue even until they shall become extinct. And now, because of iniquity, this prophecy shall be fulfilled.” (Alma 45:11-14).
So the day will come when the Nephites will all be destroyed or will no longer be called Nephites, having joined the Lamanites (this makes it clear that Nephite and Lamanite are mainly political terms rather than strict references to genealogy). Further, the few righteous disciples will be hunted down and killed. Why would knowing the timeline of the destruction of the Nephites be hidden knowledge? Knowledge brings accountability. This prophecy was also not essential for the Nephites and Lamanites to know. How would it benefit their salvation? How would it increase faith in Christ? It wouldn’t. It was the type of knowledge reserved for a few righteous individuals, those with solid spiritual development. What this means is that people were not ready for the revelation. This was like the revelation of the brother of Jared – specific revelation about future events; we still do not know what is contained in that revelation. Why do we not have access to that revelation? We are not ready and at this point it is not important for us. What is important for us to do is to have faith and do what is right. Light and knowledge will come as we demonstrate our faith over time.