Part of the law which Moses received on Mount Sinai was a detailed description of the tabernacle which the children of Israel were to build and in which they were to worship. In addition to the large objects—two altars, the laver, tables for the candlestick and the shewbread, the ark of the covenant—there were numerous small instruments, which were collectively called “vessels” (Exodus 39:33-43).
The Hebrew word keli (כְּלִי) refers to a small object. It is often translated “vessel” in the King James Version of the Bible, but in some passages it is rendered “instruments.” Other translations of the Bible use terms like “utensils” or “articles.” The concept is that every object used for the sacred ceremonies of temple worship, however small, must be cared for and handled with respect.
The Lord gave specific guidance about how these small objects were to be handled whenever the tabernacle had to move. The priests and the Levites were to be careful about who touched what. For example, Aaron and his sons were to cover everything, large and small, with cloths. Only then would some of the Levites (specifically, the descendants of Kohath) enter and carry the objects to their next destination, taking care to keep them covered (Numbers 4:1-15).
Hundreds of years later, King Hezekiah presided over a course correction in Jerusalem. Calling together the priests and the Levites, he explained that filthiness had been allowed to enter the temple of God. He issued them a challenge: “Sanctify now yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord God of your fathers, and carry forth the filthiness out of the holy place” (2 Chronicles 29:5). The response was overwhelming and immediate. The priests and the Levites first sanctified themselves, then cleansed the temple. When they reported back to Hezekiah, they specifically mentioned that “all of the vessels” had been cleansed and sanctified (2 Chronicles 29:18-19).
About a hundred years later, the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, and Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, commanded that the vessels of the temple be carried to Babylon and placed in “the treasure house of his god” (2 Kings 25:8-17, Daniel 1:1-2).
A later king of Babylon acted with extraordinary disrespect toward these objects. Belshazzar was hosting an enormous party with thousands of participants. In a drunken state, he commanded that the vessels from the house of God in Jerusalem be brought to him. He drank wine from some of those vessels. That was the last day of his reign. He died that night, and his kingdom was conquered by the Persians (Daniel 5:1-4, 30-31).
The prophet Isaiah, who lived during the reign of Hezekiah, had prophesied that one day, the children of Israel would carry the sacred vessels back to the temple in Jerusalem. He gave specific instructions to those who would be involved in that process:
Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord (Isaiah 52:11).
Ezra the Scribe had the opportunity to lead part of the fulfillment of this prophecy. The king of the Persians, Cyrus, had decreed:
Let the golden and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took forth out of the temple which is at Jerusalem, and brought unto Babylon, be restored, and brought again unto the temple which is at Jerusalem, every one to his place, and place them in the house of God (Ezra 6:5).
Ezra gathered a group of priests and Levites to transport these vessels appropriately. The king had offered to send soldiers and horsemen to protect them as they moved these valuable items, but Ezra told him that wasn’t necessary: “The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him,” he said (Ezra 8:22).
He and the priests and Levites fasted and prayed that they might be protected and that they might fulfill this task in an appropriate manner. Then, they carefully removed the sacred objects which belonged to the Lord’s house. Ezra reminded these people of the importance of personal worthiness: “Ye are holy unto the Lord,” he said. “The vessels are holy also” (Ezra 8:28). The message was clear: When you carry something holy, you must strive for personal holiness as well.
When Jesus visited the American continent following His death and resurrection, He quoted Isaiah’s prophecy to the people. “Touch not that which is unclean,” He said. “Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord” (3 Nephi 20:41). Clearly this admonition applied more broadly than merely to Ezra and his priests. It was applicable to the ancient inhabitants of America, and it is applicable to us today.
How does it apply to us?
Elder David A. Bednar had an unusual church experience growing up. His mother was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father attended church every week with the family, but he was not a member of the church. Elder Bednar said that many members of the congregation likely had no idea that his father was not a member, but he was personally bothered by it. He asked his father many times why he was unwilling to join the church. One Sunday, after the family returned home from church services, his father asked him the following question: “David, your church teaches that the priesthood was taken from the earth anciently and has been restored by heavenly messengers to the Prophet Joseph Smith, right?” Elder Bednar answered that that was correct. Then, his father said:
Each week in priesthood meeting I listen to the bishop and the other priesthood leaders remind, beg, and plead with the men to…perform their priesthood duties. If your church truly has the restored priesthood of God, why are so many of the men in your church no different about doing their religious duty than the men in my church?
Elder Bednar says that his mind went blank at that moment. He had no good response to his father’s question. But that conversation taught him a valuable lesson:
Men who bear God’s holy priesthood should be different from other men. Men who hold the priesthood are not inherently better than other men, but they should act differently. Men who hold the priesthood should not only receive priesthood authority but also become worthy and faithful conduits of God’s power. “Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord” (Doctrine & Covenants 38:42) (“The Powers of Heaven,” General Conference, April 2012).
And the same principle applies to women who are given priesthood authority to perform callings in the church. (See Russell M. Nelson, “Spiritual Treasures,” General Conference, October 2019.)
Today, I will remember the examples of the ancient priests and Levites, particularly in the times of Moses, Hezekiah, and Ezra. I will remember that, when I am given authority and responsibilities by God, I must strive to be worthy of those responsibilities.