I learned during my mission that it is a dangerous thing to share scriptural insights. Often the things that I discovered and was so excited about were things that others had learned years before. That being said, I hope that you will all be kind to me as I share a couple of things that I learned as I was reading in the Old Testament. Nehemiah 10:29 reads:
They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes.
While I was reading this I was struck by the statement “to observe and do all the commandments.” I wondered, what is the difference between observing and doing the commandments? After a bit of pondering I decided to dust of my old Hebrew bible and take out my Grammar and Lexicon.[i]
At first it was hard going since I hadn’t practiced translating in Hebrew for a while. After struggling for a bit, I finally isolated the words and started to work on them. The first I learned was that these verbs were in a special form that indicates that they are taking place simultaneously. Then I finally located the root words:
Observe/ ולעשות– to watch, be careful about, protect, save, retain, keep watch, stand guard.
Do/ ולשמור – make, produce, prepare, officiate, perform, work, manage.
So, what does this mean? First, when we say “keep the commandments” what do we mean? Literally to keep indicates guarding and watching in the most basic military sense of the word. This has major implications for how we view “keeping” the commandments. It should be an active state of vigilance, not only the passive “not crossing a line” that we often think of when we use this word in our daily conversation.
What are we supposed to be guarding? King Benjamin tells us that we must “watch [ourselves], and [our] thoughts, and [our] words and [our] deeds and observe the commandments of God” or else “[we] must perish”[ii]. It is interesting that we are to guard ourselves against ourselves. While others have the capacity to do great harm to us, we have the capacity to hurt ourselves far more than all the rest of the world combined.
What about “doing” the commandments? I think that this means that we not only need to try and not commit sins of commission, but also be mindful of sins of omission. While I was working out the meaning of these two words had an image in my mind of an ancient city where the walls are just as important as the busy marketplace. One without the other would be useless, because without basic defenses prosperity would be unimaginable, and without means of paying for it the defenses of the city would fade away.
I think that this is what king Benjamin had in mind when he told his people that only by [yielding] to the enticing of the Holy Spirit and [putting] off the natural man and [becoming] a saint[iii] can we hope to be reconciled with our Heavenly Father.
Unfortunately we often have a tendency to focus on either “putting off” the world or “becoming a saint” to the exclusion of each other. However, like I noted above these actions should be occurring simultaneously. Of course this is beyond any of our mortal capacity, and that is why Benjamin adds that it is only “through the atonement of Christ the Lord” that we can hope to achieve anything as we try to shed our natural man.
How are we supposed to apply this atonement into our daily lives? Once again the same verse in Nehemiah has some insights to offer. At the end of this verse the people covenant “to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes.”
It struck me again that I had no idea what the difference between commandments, judgments and statues was. So I went back to my good old Biblia Hebreica and Lexicon:
· מעות /Commandment: Commandments, right, claims
· משפטיר /Judgements: Decisions, legal rulings, legal specifications, claims, justice
· חקיר /sStatute: Portion, limit, boundary, obligation, law, order, rule, prescription, task
The translations are pretty good, but what does it mean? This is my suggestion as to what these words mean: commandments may refer to the unchanging doctrines of the gospel, the things that regardless of dispensation or condition we are expected to follow.
“Judgments” may refer to the application of these doctrines in our time and situation. For a more modern understanding I would use the word “standards”. As the First Presidency says in the introduction to True to the Faith:
“As you learn gospel truths, you will increase in your understanding of Heavenly Father’s eternal plan. With this understanding as a foundation for your life, you will be able to make wise choices, live in harmony with God’s will, and find joy in living. Your testimony will grow stronger. You will remain true to the faith.”[iv]
Standards are the natural outgrowth of our understanding of the gospel. Often they are set out by leaders and teachers, but in reality they should be things that we set up by and for ourselves. Wherever we get our standards, they must become our own- we have to internalize them so that we can make them part of ourselves. The Savior taught us that we can’t separate doctrine from actions if we want to understand either. “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself”.[v]
Finally “Statutes” to me seems to be best understood as “boundaries” in the context of this verse for a modern reader. We often confuse boundaries and standards, but they are actually the opposite of each other. Standards are expectations of things that we should do to better ourselves, while Boundaries are things that we should not do. Boundaries are useful when we know about them and heed them, but they can be a dangerous thing when we try and expand them. Benjamin reminds us that it would be futile to number the various ways that we might sin, indeed such a spiritually perilous quest is root of why so many who “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel”[vi] as they look beyond the mark[vii]
Hopefully we can follow the example of the people in the time of Nehemiah and not only follow the commandments but to also take to heart the “standards” of the church and to keep within the “boundaries” which the Lord has set. I believe that as we follow this course we can start to have access to the atonement of our savior and friend, Jesus Christ so that we can eventually return to live with him some day.
Well, I hope that somebody else gets some befit from these insights. And to all of you who have read this whole thing, thank you for your patience!
[i] Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar by Gary D. Pratico & Miles V. Van Pelt, A Concise Hebrew And Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by William L. Holladay
[ii] Mosiah 4:30
[iii] Mosiah 3:19
[iv] True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference Salt Lake City, 2004.
[v] John 7:17
[vi] Matt. 23:24
[vii] Jacob 4:14