1 And now it came to pass that Zeniff conferred the kingdom upon Noah, one of his sons; therefore Noah began to reign in his stead; and he did not walk in the ways of his father.

The Book of Mormon earlier explains how Nephite kings conferred kingship by telling us the story of Benjamin passing the kingship and kingdom to Mosiah.   The new king was consecrated, or declared holy and sacred, because the kingship is also a priestly position (Mosiah 6:3).  The king was the spiritual leader of the society, with power to consecrate priests and oversee the religious life of the people (2 Nephi 5:26, 2 Nephi 6:2, Jacob 1:18, Mosiah 6:3, Mosiah 26:8).   For that reason, we can say that the king held “the keys of the priesthood”, in the narrow administrative sense with which the Latter-day Saints use the term today.  As the president of the Church holds the keys to organize and administer, so did the King.  He was entitled to receive revelation to guide, gather, and establish binding covenants with his people, as Benjamin did in Mosiah 1-5.  He could only do so if he, as Melchizedek or King Benjamin, was approved of and chosen (elected) by God.

Zeniff had tried to live up to this sacred office, consecrating humble priests and encouraging his people to trust in God and obtain His protective power. Noah did not make such an effort.

 2 For behold, he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord. Yea, and they did commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness.

Rather than submit his will to God, Noah “did walk after the desires of his own heart”.  These are two opposite courses of action.  The archetypal righteous king, Melchizedek, led with a priesthood which only has power to act according to God’s will (JST Gen. 14:31).  To truly obey God, you have to learn his will and subdue your own.  The Book of Mormon refers to this condition as a “soft heart”.   The will of God is expressed in scripture, through the words of Christ received through the Holy Ghost, and through heavenly messengers (mortal and angelic).

Any time people’s own desires take precedence over God’s, their focus turns toward satisfying their own lusts.  Lusts for power and control (even with good intentions), lust for material security, lust for sex; all are symptoms of a hard, unbroken heart.   D&C 132:7-10 lays out the very restricted circumstances in which plural marriage is approved:  only when a man is specifically commanded by God and given the keys could he take a plural wife without condemnation.  This is not a blanket authorization for an entire population to practice plural marriage at will.  Commandment is given for each union.  Any unauthorized plural marriage is, as it was for Noah’s people, “whoredom”.

 3 And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain.

A flat tax (a constant percentage from every taxpayer) is actually a regressive tax, burdening the poor more than the rich.  Because the first income is used to support life, and  as seed for next year’s life-sustaining income, it is most precious and sacred.  Today this principle is called “decreasing marginal utility of wealth.” In  a system of flat taxation/tithes (religious or governmental) the poorest pay the highest price, though their contribution might be a smaller numerical amount, because they pay from their poverty. The Lord prohibits the exalting of the rich at the expense of the poor.  His law is that the poor should be exalted at as the rich are made low (D&C 104:16).  Any other system, by definition, cannot be of God. Only when all are equal can the abundance of the manifestations of the spirit be poured out (D&C 70:14).  This has happened so rarely and fleetingly in the history of the world.

 4 And all this did he take to support himself, and his wives and his concubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines; thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom.

King Noah, the presiding high priest, and the rest of the religious hierarchy, lived off the labor of others. This was contrary to King Benjamin’s example, as he labored for his own support (Mosiah 2:14).  By skimming from the whole membership/citizenry could live far above the average standard of living of the members of the church.   Today we would see such a priest being driven by a chauffeur in a Lexus “donated” by the local car dealership, living in a home debt-free due to a large interest-free loan given at his ordination, given substantial compensation for honorary positions on various boards of directors, and receiving a hefty stipend.  He would spend his time in the finest buildings, eating the finest food, and be fawned on by those in awe of his position.  Growing accustomed to such support would prevent him from confronting the fact that few of his followers would ever enjoy the comfort and security he enjoyed every day.   After a time, he would grow used to the inequality, and would react with institutional censure to the suggestion that it was anything but appropriate.

These payments were not simply goodwill donations,  but were prescribed.   One could argue that it was voluntary, because the citizen could simply choose not to pay.  However by withholding their payment of tax, they would forfeit all the blessings that law abiding citizens enjoy.  While this was technically a choice a citizen could make, the use of institutional pressure to enforce it made it essentially involuntary.

It is not without precedent, even in our dispensation, that those in high office will appropriate church funds for the sometimes lavish support of their favorite wives, even while less favored wives and ordinary members struggle to survive.

 5 For he put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new ones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts.

Only a certain kind of man can manage a large financial operation.  The kind of priest favored by Zeniff, whose priority was teaching the word of God, would be unsuitable to Noah’s operation.   Their priority was never on the acquisition and management of wealth.  Their desire to steward material resources extended only to supporting their own lives and families.  Not only would Noah not want them at the helm of his wealth-centralizing machine, they, in their humility, wouldn’t want to be there.

 6 Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.

The accusation of idolatry is interesting.  The priests themselves claimed to worship the true God, our Heavenly Father.  They continued upholding the law of the scriptures, at least ostensibly.  Though their knowledge of the scriptures diminished as their focus shifted, their religion remained at least loosely tied to scripture.   In what way were they idolatrous?  They, like Noah, decided to follow their own desires rather than God. This led them to trust in wealth, and to seek pleasure as a primary pursuit.

7 Yea, and they also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them.

The wickedness of the priests is exacerbated by their misleading their followers.  The king and his priests, all men with priesthood keys, maintained the perception that their altered religion was as true as it ever was.  They convinced the people that they, rulers and ruled, were righteous, even while their connection with God had been severed.  They enjoyed none of the blessings promised to the righteous in scripture.   They saw no angels.  They were shut out from the presence of God.  They neither saw heaven, nor learned its mysteries.  The universal human comfort that comes from being religious (in any religious tradition), and the teaching of their priests, convinced them they were righteous, even in the absence of the true blessings of righteousness. Such preaching is flattery.  Such a supposition of righteousness is vanity.

 8 And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;

Rulers like king Noah always use large building projects to lend an air of legitimacy to their organized plunder.  The buildings must be impressive,  elegant, spacious, and well-ornamented to serve this purpose.   Structures symbolize permanence, security, organization, and power.  When God commands the building, or when that building is a home, these symbols are put to proper use.  When the building is done by an unrighteous government, or by a religious hierarchy laden with ill-gotten tithes, the use of those symbols is perverse.

However, even when built by an unworthy religious organization or political kingdom, the symbolism can still function on an individual level to invite souls to seek God.  This was the case with Hannah, who obtained a blessing in the tabernacle while it was staffed with an utterly corrupt priesthood (1 Samuel 1).  This was the case with Anna the prophetess, who found the redeemer she sought in a temple that was being richly refurbished by Herod’s corrupt regime, presided over by morally bankrupt high priests.   Jesus didn’t demand the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.  He cleansed it and would have made it a house of God.  Neither did Abinadi demand the destruction of King Noah’s temple. He invited it’s priests to live up to their calling and invited the people to sanctify themselves to receive God’s redemption.

9 And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things.

Official position almost always becomes an excuse for self-aggrandizement (DC 121:34-40). Isn’t it appropriate for a king to have a throne? Isn’t is right that his official space is nicely decorated?  Wouldn’t it be an insult to the dignity of his position if the presiding Melchizedek high priest’s seat and living space were unadorned, with the extra the money and resources given to the poorest of the Church?

10 And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass.

 If anyone objected to such buildings, the priests could always point to the historical examples of the Tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon.   Nothing is too good for the Lord, after all.  So what was wrong with Noah remodeling his people’s temple?

Solomon’s temple was built under direct command from God, and the materials procured legally and by consecration.  Noah’s temple was embellished without God’s approval, with the heaviest burden born by the poorest of society.  God filled Solomon’s temple with His glory and accepted it by appearing there. Since the rich of Noah’s society had not been humbled and the poor exalted, the abundance of the manifestations of the spirit would be withheld from Noah’s temple.   It was thus built in vain.  Priesthood ordinances would still be carried out there, and a form of godliness would be maintained, but the power of godliness which would have brought men into the Father’s presence could not be manifested there.

God told Isaiah how he feels about ceremonies performed by such a society in Isaiah 1:14-15:

“Your monthly and regular meetings
my soul detests.
They have become a burden on me;
I am weary of putting up with them.

When you spread forth your hands,
I will conceal my eyes from you;
though you pray at length, I will not hear—
your hands are filled with blood.”