This section's header explains that Joseph Smith proclaimed this to be “a commandment of God and not of man, to Martin Harris, given by him who is Eternal.” My inspired translation of that awkward wording is: "It's from God, not from me, totally from God."
Perhaps I'm imposing present-day behavioral norms on historical accounts, here, but that really sounds like the phrasing of a man who's worried that he's going to be believed. Joseph appears desperate to convince Martin that he's not coming up with this stuff himself. That's a peculiar approach for someone who was hand-picked by miraculous visitation to carry out God's work. You'd think having God, Jesus, and angels appear to him would have given Joseph the confidence that his divine endeavors are blessed and that he doesn't have to go around telling his followers that the revelations aren't "of man" all the time.
God of Pain
Verse 4 sheds some sunshine on the soul:
And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.
|...a Joseph Sith, perhaps?|
Okay, but seriously, that's such an intimidating thing for a god to say. It's basically his way or the highway and he makes the rules because he's all-powerful—which really doesn't strike me as an approach that's particularly benevolent. But that lack of benevolence becomes even more pronounced in verse 5:
Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.
Is it just me or does God sound kind of...giddy...here? He seems to relish his opportunity to describe the possibilities of suffering that he can visit upon those who have incurred his disfavor. Why does he seem to revel in the level of misery he can inflict? If his work and his glory is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life, why is he flexing his damning muscles at us?
An ongoing theological shell game is showcased in this section (verses 16-19):
For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
This is clearly Jesus speaking, because he suffered for us all, he bled from every pore, and he refers to the Father as a different person. Except he also refers to himself as God with a capital G twice. What I need to know is the point in history at which it became incorrect to refer Jesus as God—because it clearly seemed acceptable for Jesus himself to blur the line between Jesusness and Godness back in the 19th century, but we wouldn't dream of doing that from the Conference Center pulpit today. If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever and if the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unchanging, then why does Jesus's identity seem so different in the scriptures of the restoration when compared to the common parlance of the prophets and apostles 200 years later?
All About the Benjamins
This section is, I think, just a way to squeeze the malleable, gullible Martin Harris for more money. God spends some serious time here talking about how powerful he is and how much he can torment people and damn people, but the intent of all this lead-in starts to become clearer around, say, verse 33:
And misery thou shalt receive if thou wilt slight these counsels, yea, even the destruction of thyself and property.Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family.Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage.
You (and your wealth) will be destroyed if you don't obey me. By the way, pay my printer and give me everything that you don't absolutely require for your family's basic needs. Nothing coincidental about these two concepts being so close together in the same section.
[Fun fact about my little caption is that Benjamin Franklin was not on the hundred dollar bill in Joseph Smith's lifetime. The first one hundred dollar bills wouldn't be issued by the US until 1862 anyway. Oh well.]
Delicious Word Salad
I'm going to go out of order here and jump back to earlier in the section because I wanted to save the best for last. This is a favorite little weird scriptural moment for me. I think it's an excellent example of when church doctrine—especially during Joseph Smith's theological evolution—is sort of half-formed. It desperately wants to be insightful and meaningful, but there's nothing beneath the surface (at least not yet), so it couches its superficiality in language meant to imply depth. Observe (verses 6-12):
Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
It's not that there's no end to it, it's just that it's endless? Okay. Then it's not that this passage has a lack of sense to it, it's just that it's nonsense.
In verse 8, God says he's going to explain the mystery (which is, apparently, a great mystery), but I don't see where he actually does so. He goes on to talk about the importance of repentance, to reiterate select commandments, and to describe Jesus's sacrifice, but he never explains his baffling delineation between that which has no end and that which is endless. That's probably because God is focusing on an aspect of this section that I don't find nearly as riveting—God is explaining the mystery of how his punishment can be endless. That's not what I needed explained, personally. What I really want to know is why God can't properly use a language invented by mortals. Because if God really can't tell the difference between not having an end and being endless, then maybe he's not actually omniscient and maybe this isn't actually him speaking.
If you don't pay attention to what this passage is trying to say, this sounds kind of cool. This is the sort of thing that feels like you can really sink your teeth into it, cross-reference it with Book of Mormon and New Testament verses, and unravel the inscrutable nature of divine justice. But it's not. It's Joseph Smith trying to tilt the table and impress us with his meretricious celestial ventriloquism.