King “Zedekiah was twenty and one years old” when Nebuchadnezzar appointed him puppet king over Judah (2 Kings 25:17–18). Traditionally, the beginning of his reign is recorded as 597 B.C., however, the Book of Mormon indicates an earlier date in that several times the advent of the Savior’s coming to earth is prophesied as being 600 years from the time Lehi and his family left Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 10:4; 19:8; 2 Nephi 25:19; 3 Nephi 1:1). Nephi states that the events he is about to narrate (1 Nephi 1:4–20) began in the commencement of the first year of Zedekiah’s reign (v. 4). What period of time Lehi spent in Jerusalem after the first year of Zedekiah’s reign is not mentioned, but, since Nephi does not mention another year, it is generally assumed that he went into the wilderness that same year. Nonetheless, the Book of Mormon is evidence that Zedekiah’s reign began at least by the year 600 B.C.
Lehi “dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days” (v. 4). “At Jerusalem” suggests the area of Jerusalem but not necessarily the city specifically. A careful reading further on in the text reveals that his permanent residence was outside the city. When the four sons of Lehi failed in their first attempt to obtain the plates of brass held by Laban, they left Jerusalem to “go down to the land of our father’s inheritance” (1 Nephi 3:16). It would thus seem that Lehi had a temporary place of residence he used when he was in the city, but his permanent residence was in the land of his inheritance where he kept his wealth.
What type of an individual was Lehi prior to being warned of the Lord? Was he a prophet of God, a contemporary of Jeremiah, as many have supposed? Perhaps he was, but another possibility is that he was one of many “brethren of the [Jewish] Church” (1 Nephi 4:26) who heard the message of the “many prophets” (v. 4). The city of Jerusalem was destroyed because the people would not hearken unto the message of the prophets. Jeremiah was even told that the city of Jerusalem would be pardoned if he could find a man, “that executeth judgment and seeketh the truth” (Jeremiah 5:1). Was not Lehi such a man?
Lehi might be pictured as a church member who was touched by the message of the prophets and responded to the message by praying unto the Lord as he went about his everyday activities. Others may have been touched, as Lehi was, however, just as in our own day, not all followed through on their promptings. Lehi did and, in response to his inquiry, joined the prophets in warning the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus the Lord could still hold out the conditions of pardon, mentioned above, to the city of Jerusalem.
The Bible verifies that there were many prophets sent by the Lord to Jerusalem in the beginning of Zedekiah’s reign.
14 Moreover all the chief of the priests, and the people, transgressed very much after all the abominations of the heathen; and polluted the house of the LORD which he had hallowed in Jerusalem.
15 And the LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place:
16 But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy. [2 Chronicles 36:14–16]
Jeremiah was one of these, “But neither [Zedekiah], nor his servants, nor the people of the land, did hearken unto the words of the Lord, which he spake by the prophet Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 37:1–2). The prophets Habakkuk and Zephaniah are also traditionally dated at this time period, and there may have been others.
Since Lehi was a prophet during the time of Jeremiah, some have thought that a record of his ministry should be in the Old Testament. Why there is no mention of it is not known. It is probable that 1 Nephi 1 is an account of his being called as a prophet, and that he did not remain in Jerusalem long afterwards. Even though we have no biblical record of Father Lehi, he did keep a record (see v. 16). The name “Lehi” is biblical, appearing in Judges 15:14, where it is the name of a place rather than a man.
One of the demanding characteristics of a true prophet is his concern for his fellowman, even when they are ripening for destruction. The Savior taught that “whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister” (Mark 10:43). Lehi shows his greatness by pouring out his heart to God in behalf of his people, but the text does not clarify what he means by “his [Lehi’s] people.” Is Lehi their ecclesiastical steward (such as a bishop or stake president today), or is the relationship simply one of concern for his fellow-citizens of Jerusalem? Whatever that actual relationship, Lehi’s prayer was offered with deep concern and doubtless was inspired by one or more of the many prophets that were warning of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Christ has manifest himself and his power in various signs. He “came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle and called [to] Aaron and Miriam” (Numbers 12:5). He manifested his presence to Israel “by daytime in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14). The pillar of fire before Lehi was probably the same as his appearance to Moses in “a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2). Both appearances are representative of the glory attending either Christ in his premortal state or one of his angelic messengers. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
Spirits can only be revealed in flaming fire or glory. Angels have advanced further, their light and glory being tabernacled; and hence they appear in bodily shape. The spirits of just men are made ministering servants to those who are sealed unto life eternal, and it is through them that the sealing power comes down. [TPJS, 325]
Although there is no record of what Lehi saw and heard, it should be noted that he was given information as well as shown a vision. The message made him quake and tremble exceedingly. This could have been caused by the recognition of his own unworthiness (as in the case of Isaiah [see Isaiah 6:5]), or what he saw and heard concerning Jerusalem and its destruction.