Covenant making and keeping are the life blood of spiritual living. Covenants teach us of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, covenants inspire us to keep the commandments in the name of Christ, and the cords of covenants loose us from the bands of death and hell, sealing us to the everlasting Father and those that we love. The speech of prophet-king Benjamin is one of the most memorable covenant-making scenes in all of scripture.
In this article we will see the covenant-making structure of the speech (focusing especially on Mosiah 4-6), the roles of king, people, and God in the covenant-making process and the doctrinal details that constitute the living power of these covenants.
Before we proceed let us pause a moment to review what a covenant is: A covenant is a contract or an agreement between two parties to fulfill specific responsibilities to each other for the purpose of accomplishing some goal. When God covenants with his people (whether as a community or as individuals), the goal is salvation, and the atonement, coupled with faith and obedience, is the means of that salvation.
Covenantal Structure of King Benjamin’s Speech
Throughout history God has interacted with his people by means of covenants and covenant making. The Old Testament provides numerous examples of this phenomenon. One of the most salient is the Israelite exodus from Egypt to the covenant-making mount of Sinai. Let us read about this in Exodus 19:
1 In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. 3 And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; 4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. 5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: 6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. 7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him. 8 And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD. (Exodus 19:1-8)
BYU professor Stephen Ricks explained six patterns that are present in ancient Israelite covenant making.((Stephen Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” edited by John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies: Provo, 1998), pp. 255-256.)) This Exodus passage is a prime of example of these patterns, allowing us to see the structure and process of covenant making. Let us now break the passage down into its component parts:
Applying these patterns to King Benjamin’s speech the following covenant structure emerges:
Because of the significance of the Nephite plea for the atonement in Mosiah 4:1-3 in response to Benjamin’s powerful testimony of Christ, I will add to this list one more pattern—plea for the covenant and atonement. This pattern fits before the stage terms of the covenant. We now turn to study Mosiah 4-6 with this covenantal structure in mind.
Plea for the Covenant and Atonement—Mosiah 4:1-3
Chapters 1-3 of Mosiah set the stage for the covenant, reviewing God’s everlasting kindness and mercy towards his people and the state of utter nothingness that we are in before him. In these early chapters King Benjamin testified of Jesus Christ, of the fallen nature of mankind, and of our persistent need for his saving atonement. As soon as Benjamin concluded this portion of his heaven-revealed speech, he observed that his people had fallen to the earth, for “they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth.” The atonement was the answer, and for this they clamored with broken hearts:
O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. (Mosiah 4:2)
Benjamin’s people requested the atoning blood of Christ that they might have forgiveness and pure hearts. Their supplication was immediately granted. Verse 3 informs us that “they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience” (or purified hearts) because of their faith in Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God had descended upon them as in the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2), and they were filled with that unspeakable joy that surpasses all beauty. Indeed, it is the Spirit of God that conveys the power of the atonement to our souls, purifies us and helps us to stay clean, or, in other words, to retain a remission of sins. When we have the Spirit of God with us we are accompanied by a member of the Godhood. Just as members of the Godhood are pure and holy, we likewise become when the Spirit is with us. As we keep our covenants and as we remember our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Spirit is with us, just as the sacramental covenant-prayer explains, and we truly have and retain a remission of our sins.
Terms of the Covenant—Mosiah 4:4-30
Once the people had received the cleansing of the atonement and requested the covenant, they were prepared to hear the blessings and responsibilities associated with the covenant. Benjamin renewed his speech acknowledging that the people’s humility had put them in a position that they might truly learn: “God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state” (Mosiah 4:5). Humility is a key ingredient for truly hearing (obeying) the conditions of any covenant.
Let us break this covenant section down into the categories of blessings and responsibilities. The conditions are the means by which blessings from God are obtained, coupled with the grace of Christ.
|Verses||Conditions (our responsibilities)||Blessings (God’s responsibilities)|
||You will find salvation|
God will forgive you
||You will not perish|
As we can see God expects much from us, but great are the blessings and rewards. In fact, what we often fail to realize in our mortal state is that God is more eager to bless us than we are eager to receive from his arms of mercy.
Now let us press forward with learning from this covenant ceremony. Once the stipulations and responsibilities of each covenant party have been set forth (as Benjamin had thoroughly done), the next step is to receive witness that the covenant has been accepted. So Benjamin paused in his speech, “desiring to know of his people if they believed [accepted] the words which he had spoken unto them” (Mosiah 5:1). The people’s formal covenantal response follows.
Formal Witness—Mosiah 5:2-8
And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. 3 And we, ourselves, also, through the infinite goodness of God, and the manifestations of his Spirit, have great views of that which is to come; and were it expedient, we could prophesy of all things. 4 And it is the faith which we have had on the things which our king has spoken unto us that has brought us to this great knowledge, whereby we do rejoice with such exceedingly great joy. 5 And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us, all the remainder of our days, that we may not bring upon ourselves a never-ending torment, as has been spoken by the angel, that we may not drink out of the cup of the wrath of God. (Mosiah 5:2-5)
Just as Benjamin’s people cried out in perfect unity, which is a symbol of the at-one-ment at work, we too in perfect community unity make covenants at the sacrament and in holy temples. In these instances we are blessed with power from on high, we are given the promise of Christ’s infinite atonement to cover us as a protective garment, and we witnesses to God that we will remember his Christ in all that we do and carry his name with us. Notice the powerful vocabulary of this covenantal response:
Ask yourself if these words and phrases do not describe your own covenant-making experiences.
Blessings and Curses—Mosiah 5:9-15
Once the people formally entered into covenant relationship with God, Benjamin proceeded to explain additional blessings for covenant faithfulness, and the attendant curses that follow infidelity.
Benjamin focused his words on the name of Christ. This is key word or key name of salvation. When we enter into holy places (the chapel or temple) to make holy covenants, the name by which we make covenants is the name of Christ. And it is by the name of Christ that we are renewed, renamed, and reidentified. It is by the name of Christ that the faithful will be called and will respond in the great and marvelous day of resurrection. This name will endure forever upon our souls, if we are faithful. However, if we turn from the faith, we lose the name of Christ and will be called by some other name, a name that is without salvific power and significance, a name of nothingness.
Let us consider for a moment how significant it is that we have all been renamed by the name of Christ through our covenants. What does “christ” mean? In its literal translation from the Greek it means “anointed.” Though there is but one Christ, one anointed of the Father to be the author and finisher of the work of salvation, all of us can be a christ, an anointed. For example, consecrated olive oil is placed upon our heads when we receive blessings. In those moments we are an anointed, we are a christ. Our baptismal and sacramental covenants invite the atonement to cover and purify us. Truly the blood of Christ anoints our spirits. We are then a christ, an anointed one, anointed in his saving blood, which olive oil is but a symbol. At our holy temples we are again anointed in remembrance of Christ’s saving love and again we take his name upon ourselves to signify that like him we too are willing to serve in the glorious work of salvation, to act as “saviors on mount Zion” (Obadiah 1:21).
Benjamin exhorts us to keep this name of Christ forever written in our hearts that we may have the blessings of eternal joy:
Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that 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, through the wisdom, and power, and justice, and mercy of him who created all things, in heaven and in earth, who is God above all. Amen. (Mosiah 5:15)
Recital of the Covenant and Deposit of the Text—Mosiah 6
Whenever the righteous enter into covenants with the Lord, a record is kept that they might be remembered and nourished in the good word of God.
And none were received unto baptism save they took upon them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end. And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith. (Moroni 6:3-4)
Benjamin did likewise. He “thought it was expedient…that he should take the names of all those who had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandments” (Mosiah 6:1). These names were kept together with the terms of the covenant and shared with appointed priests and teachers so that the people “might hear and know the commandments of God” and remember “the oath which they had made” (Mosiah 6:2-3).
This is the key.
As a learning activity, look for this word and its cognates (memory, remembrance, etc.) throughout the scriptures. They are everywhere. Our fallen natures’ are so prone to forgetfulness that a merciful God has generously sprinkled his scriptures with this key word. When we remember Christ, when we remember our covenants, when we remember to keep the commandments of God we will always have God’s Spirit to be with us. Just think of it! We will have constant companionship of a member of the Godhead. When God is with us we cannot but be holy and pure, for it is the Spirit that purifies and cleanses us by means of the atonement. And when the Spirit is constantly with us we have a continual remission of our sins and we are as Christ—clean, pure and holy. Let us then remember!