14 I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:
15 Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.
16 I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. (D&C 130)
It’s very hard to read these verses without looking upon Joseph Smith’s question from what we already know happened to him. He was martyred at age 38, so no way did he reach age 85. It is easy to think that the Lord was just dismissing Joseph Smith’s question with a conditional statement that He knew would never happen just to get him to stop bothering the Lord about it. But it occurred to me today that maybe that wasn’t it at all.

If we assume the Lord means what He says and says what He means, then it seems there was actually a chance (in the Lord’s view) that Joseph Smith Jr. might not have been martyred at age 38 and might have lived to age 85, at which time conditions would have been such that the Second Coming of Christ would occur. Age 85 for Joseph Smith would have been right around 1890. Without Joseph Smith, 1890 was the year the Manifesto ending polygamy was issued. With Joseph Smith still around.. 1890 still would have been a banner year, beginning the Millenium (assuming the Millenium is what the Lord meant). I can't help but wonder how history would have been different between 1844 and 1890. Would 170 years of technological advances and 170 years worth of temple building have been crammed into those 56 years?

I find it very interesting that this little bit is in the Doctrine and Covenants. What is it that we can learn from these verses?
  • First, it is nice to know that even prophets wonder when the Second Coming will happen. I think Joseph Smith knew the verses from the New Testament saying that no man knows the day or the hour of the Lord’s coming, but he still asked anyway.
  • Second, it is interesting the Lord says “trouble me no more on this matter” because it shows us that Joseph’s question was troubling to the Lord. Why might it have been troubling? Maybe it was one of those tricky problems of balance between God’s omniscience and the agency of men to choose.
  • Third, I see that Joseph Smith was not sure how to understand the answer he was given. He could see a number of different ways of interpreting it, but he wasn’t sure which one it was and he was left to wait and see. It is nice to know that even prophets have to struggle with ambiguity.
  • Fourth, it shows me that some things I don’t need to know, and when the Second Coming is going to occur is one of them. For now. (Who knows; we may have a situation like 3 Nephi 1:9-14 arise some day. Let’s hope not.)
Update: It occurred to me that it might be helpful discuss how it is to our benefit that we do not know the day and the hour of the Second Coming of Christ. To do this, we can do a thought experiment. Suppose that we were all were born with a digital display implanted into our shoulder that showed exactly how many days and minutes we had left to live.

Do you think you would like having this? Me, I would probably think it was really cool at first, but in time I would come to really hate it because of all kinds of terrible things it would imply.

How often do you think you would look at yours? I think I would look at it often at first, but then I would begin to diligently ignore it and try to live without knowing.

If your friends or family had one, do you think you’d ever want to look at theirs? I imagine it would be difficult to be married to someone whose time was shorter than mine. And think how terrible it would be to have a child whose days and minutes were numbered few!

I can think of other problems this kind of knowledge would cause. It would be very difficult to have a display with a very high number if I found I had some sort of terrible disease like cancer. On one hand, it might give me hope that I would make it through that disease. But on the other hand, it might wreak havoc on my morale and make me fear having to live such a long life of suffering and I’d wonder if I would be cured of it or whether it would be a life-long struggle.

Or imagine if I made it to the point that I had 1 day left. On one hand, I think I would have tried hard to prepare, but on the other, I think I would be very scared about how it would happen. I would probably hide in bed at home. And part of me worries that I still would have procrastinated some things until it was too late. I admit that I tend to procrastinate.

And we’re not even going to consider how this kind of knowledge would be abused by unscrupulous people.

I guess I can see why it is good for us to not know the exact time of the Second Coming. If we knew, an early start to times of major tribulation would make us fear that we’d never make it through the long haul. In times of ease, we’d be tempted to just drift along and do whatever we wanted and that indulgence would make repentance extremely hard. And getting right up close to the time, we’d probably be utterly terrified, no matter how prepared we were.

Because we do not know the exact time of the Second Coming and instead have signs to look for, it helps us stay alert to what is happening in the world and it gives us another reason to search the scriptures and follow the living prophets. It helps us cultivate obedience now and trust in the Lord’s timetable.
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