For the more than 36 years President Russell M. Nelson has served as an Apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the doctrine of the gathering of Israel “has captured my attention,” he said during the October 2020 general conference.
President Nelson has spoken of Israel in at least 378 of the more than 800 messages he has delivered as an Apostle, according to a footnote in his talk “Let God Prevail.”
Explaining his new insight that one of the Hebraic meanings of the word Israel is “let God prevail,” President Nelson emphasized the crucial role of agency. “We can choose to be of Israel, or not. We can choose to let God prevail in our lives, or not. We can choose to let God be the most powerful influence in our lives, or not,” he said.
How does the Lord feel about people who let God prevail? “[The Lord] loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remember[s] the covenants which he [has] made,” said President Nelson, quoting 1 Nephi 17:40.
President Nelson then extended an invitation: “As you study your scriptures during the next six months, I encourage you to make a list of all that the Lord has promised He will do for covenant Israel. I think you will be astounded! Ponder these promises. Talk about them with your family and friends. Then live and watch for these promises to be fulfilled in your own life.”
Many Latter-day Saints, including experts of ancient scripture, shared insights they have gained from President Nelson’s invitation to study the Lord’s promises to covenant Israel.
What is ‘covenant Israel’?
To understand the term “covenant Israel,” Steven L. Olsen, senior curator in the Church History Department, suggested first defining the words “covenant” and “Israel.” He described four possible definitions of covenant found in ancient and modern scripture.
First, a covenant is “the foundation of an eternal relationship with God,” he said, referencing the Savior’s Great Intercessory Prayer. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
The word covenant can refer to the basis of a distinctive identity. “In other words, a ‘covenant people’ or ‘covenant community’ is distinguished from, in some respects, the rest of the world,” Olsen said. For example, the Jews in the Old Testament are members of the House of Israel, while the Gentiles are those that haven’t yet made a covenant with God.
A third definition of covenant is “a standard for behavior,” Olsen said, as the promises made to the Lord to live as His covenant people affect one’s attitudes, values and behavior. This idea is reflected in the phrase “inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 1:20).
Lastly, as President Nelson often encourages Latter-day Saints to stay on “the covenant path,” the word covenant can denote a pathway for receiving the blessings of salvation, Olsen said.
As ordinances such as baptism, the endowment and sealing include specific promises, “the covenants themselves become not just the promise of life eternal, but a kind of a formal mechanism to achieve those blessings of life eternal,” he explained.
Andrew C. Skinner, a Brigham Young University professor of ancient scripture, pointed out three meanings of the term Israel, as described in the Bible Dictionary: the man Jacob, his literal descendants and the true believers in Christ — regardless of their lineage or geographical location.
“When they become true disciples of Jesus Christ, through the covenant of baptism, they also then become members of the House of Israel,” said Skinner, referencing Galatians 3:26-29.
The promises to Abraham (or the Abrahamic Covenant) can be summarized under the headings of land, priesthood, posterity and exaltation, Skinner said. “So that’s why covenant Israel is so important — because covenant Israel are literal heirs of the promises first given to Father Abraham.”
When studying promises in the scriptures made to covenant Israel, Olsen suggested looking for keywords with “strong covenant connotations.” In addition to Israel, these words include Zion, priesthood, keep, record, know, knowledge, dispensation and remember.
What Latter-day Saints have learned
As Inyene Robert of the Ikot Ebo 1st Ward, Etinan Nigeria North Stake, has made a list of the Lord’s promises to covenant Israel, “I’ve learned that God promises the spirit of power unto bringing the children of Israel (we) out of darkness unto light and captivity unto freedom.
“Faithfully and patiently keeping the commandments of God brings us eternal blessings,” he wrote to the Church News, citing Doctrine and Covenants 82:10.
While studying verses in the Topical Guide under “Israel, Blessings of,” Craig Jorgensen of the Mountain Shadows Ward, Scottsdale Arizona Camelback Stake, said he started to see himself as a recipient of those blessings.
“I love the thought of being directed to places of safety (Genesis 28:15) and to be part of a great nation (Genesis 12:2),” he wrote. “In short, I see much to look forward to in the years ahead as I continue to ‘lift where I stand’ and stay in the ‘good ship Zion.’”
Read 15+ invitations from October 2020 general conference by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve
One of the most powerful blessings Donna Dean of the West Grove Ward, Cypress California Stake, discovered is in 1 Nephi 21:15-16: “I will not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.”
“I was awed by the power of that thought, that the Savior has engraven us on His palms,” she wrote. “He sees them always and remembers us. What can I do in return? I want to have Him engraved in my heart and my mind so that I remember Him every moment of the day.”
Elder Ian Sprouse, a full-time missionary from the Auburn California Stake serving in the England Leeds Mission, has also felt hope while studying God’s promises to covenant Israel. “As a full-time missionary during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was sometimes hard to feel hopeful about the future,” he wrote.
By studying God’s promises and writing them down, “a brightness of hope returned back into my life and helped me to understand what the Lord has in store for each of us individually and collectively.
“Despite how bad the world gets or what we have to face in our personal lives, we can be absolutely confident in a joyful and blessed future — not just because the promises sound nice, but because they are assured to us by a covenant relationship with God,” Elder Sprouse wrote. “We are bound to Him, and we are His people.”
Elder Kaydon Dymock, a full-time missionary from the Goshen Utah Stake serving in the Seattle Washington Mission, added, “When we truly understand what God wants to give us and who we really are, it makes hard decisions easy. … Anything the world has to offer me is nothing compared to the happiness and joy that Heavenly Father has in store for me.”
For Nate Jenson of the Jordan Willow 1st Ward, Lehi Utah Jordan Willows Stake, President Nelson’s invitation brought increased understanding of the Book of Mormon. Rather than a history interspersed with gospel teachings, the Book of Mormon is “really a book about God’s covenant to gather Israel in the latter days,” he wrote.
“It became so obvious why this book would be the tool that God prepared for that purpose. It’s full of promises about the gathering, signs of the gathering, and really is an invitation to participate in it.”
Hanne Beate Wennerberg of the Moss Ward, Oslo Norway Stake, said as she prepares for the upcoming April 2021 general conference, she is writing one promise from God to covenant Israel in the margins of her scriptures every day.
Alex Johnson of the Sharon Park 3rd Ward, Orem Utah Sharon Park Stake, said he has felt the power of family covenants, especially since blessing his second son a few weeks ago.
“The Lord’s promise to covenant Israel to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to their children has come to pass in our family,” he wrote.
“Between the baby blessings and the temple names we’ve been blessed to prepare while the temples were closed, our family has become more eternally united. I believe this has happened as we’ve followed the prophet’s invitation and acted on those covenants.”