A Peculiar Treasure: The Blessings and Responsibilities of a Covenant People


Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

February 21, 2002 
Brent Top
Associate Dean of Religious Education, BYU 

My dear brothers and sisters--Aloha!

My wife and I love this place. We have been on this campus several times and always feel a special spirit here. In fact, Wendy would love to live here. It is her favorite place on earth. She wants me to come and teach and work here. When I told Brother Marcus Martins that, he wasn't very encouraging. He said, "You know we have very high standards here!" So I guess, at least for now, we can only be visitors. Wendy and I cannot think of any better place to be during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah than in Laie, Hawaii! Thank you so much for the privilege of being with you. Mahalo!

When I was younger (and thinner) I was a pretty good athlete. I know you may find it hard to believe, but I was a "star" basketball player. As my children can attest, the older I get the better I was! Even my son (who is pretty fair athlete himself) has never beaten me in one-on-one games. I retired from playing him--Undefeated! He sometimes got close but he could never beat me. So what if he was only seven!

Basketball was just about everything to me when I was in high school. I ate, drank, slept basketball and relished being a starter and "star" on the varsity team. Knowing how much all this meant to me, my Mom and Dad gave me a most unique Christmas gift my senior year in high school--a gift that I will never forget and will always cherish. It probably didn't cost much money. I had received much more expensive gifts and all kinds of electronic gadgets that have long since been forgotten and are now moldering and rusting in some garbage dump. This gift was truly priceless, because it could never be replaced and it represented my parents' deep love for me.

My mother found a ceramic figurine of a basketball player in the dime store (for you youngsters not familiar with the term "dime store" just think of it as pre-Wal-Mart). She had it sandblasted and the paint stripped from it and then repainted it with my school colors, my jersey number on it, and my name on the back. The player even looked like me--same hair color and style--and extremely handsome and very buff--a real "hottie!" She even had our high school logo painted on the basketball the player was holding. Mom then placed the little figurine in a box and wrapped it in my school colors. It was really a cool gift! I kept it in my bedroom, took it to my dorm room when I went away to college, displayed in our apartment after we were married, moved it from house to house, and it finally landed permanently in my office when I started my teaching career. It meant so much to me. It was truly unique--because no one had one like it, but more than that, it was symbolic of the love my parents had for me.

I think of that treasured gift every time I read in the scriptures about God's love for His children. One scriptural event in the Old Testament is especially important to me. And since we are studying the Old Testament in our Gospel Doctrine classes this year, I thought you might find it interesting and personally relevant as well.

As you remember, Jehovah miraculously liberated the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt--even swallowing up their enemies in the depths of the Red Sea. As they wandered in the desert, he led them in a marvelous way so that they would know that he was indeed with them every step of the way. In the heat of the day he was a cooling cloud unto them, and in the bitter cold of desert nights, he was a warming pillar of fire. And that was not all. He preserved and protected them in many other ways. They were fed by manna from heaven six days a week for 40 years. When they got tired of manna for every meal and were craving some meat, he miraculously provided quail. When they were suffering from thirst, by the power of God, Moses struck a rock with his staff, and out gushed cold, pure water. Even the clothes they wore on that arduous trek miraculously never wore out. And even bigger and better than all of these miracles--God had something else in store for them. At the base of Mt. Sinai, the prophet Moses commanded the Israelites, as the Lord had instructed him, to have the Israelites sanctify themselves and to prepare in every way for a great blessing. Because of God's perfect love for them he prepared a covenant for them that if they would obey they would be brought into the presence of God. They were being prepared to come into the literal presence of God--not merely in the next life--right then and there---there were going to be able to partake of the unspeakable glory, love, peace, and joy associated with God's presence.

"And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;

"Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.

"Now, therefore, IF you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, THEN ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for the earth is mine.

"And ye shall be a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." (Ex 19:3-6.)

Notice the "If/Then" phrase in that passage. The Lord is clearly is giving us a "cause and effect" declaration. If we obey and keep our covenants then he is going to do something remarkable for us and to us. He is going to transform us into his "peculiar treasure." I love that phrase -- "a peculiar treasure."

We tend to think of "peculiar" in somewhat negative light with such synonyms as "strange," "different," or even "weird." But that is not what the scriptures really mean. The Hebrew word from which the word "peculiar" is translated is segullah. It is one of my favorite words. The word "treasure" cannot be separated from the "peculiar," for segullah means something that is exceedingly precious and is painstakingly cared for and reserved. In some ways it connotes a special treasure that the King has purchased for himself. That connotation takes on additional significance when you look at the word "peculiar" as used by the Apostle Peter in the New Testament. To the Saints of the early Church, he declared:

"But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)

The Greek word in the New Testament from which the "peculiar people" is translated is peripoiesis. It means a treasure that has been "purchased." The Apostle Paul taught that the "chosen generation," "the royal priesthood," "the peculiar people" were the "treasure" that Christ purchased with His blood. It is through the Atonement of Jesus Christ and obedience to the covenants and commandments of His Gospel -- the new and everlasting covenant--that we become His "peculiar treasure." All of the commandments and stipulations associated with that covenant were given, not to burden the house of Israel---both ancient and modern---or to make their lives miserable, but rather because the Lord loves us so much he gives us commandments and covenants to protect and preserve us and to keep us Segullah.

In the ancient world a covenant-treaty was between two unequal parties. The weaker of the two made certain commitments to enjoy the mercy and protection of the stronger. Such is the case with our relationship to God. We must rely totally upon his mercy and goodness. We gain far more from the covenant than we give. The Lord's part of the covenant includes blessings unimaginable as His "peculiar treasure." These blessings, however, are dependent upon our part of the covenant--faithfulness to the obligations and expectations placed upon us. The Old Testament gives us a glimpse into what the Lord expects of us today to remain as His "peculiar treasure" that has been purchased through the sacred blood of Christ. The ancient Israelites were expected to do two things to fully enjoy the promised blessings of the covenant:

First, they were expected to be "different from the world" -- peculiar -- not in the weird or strange sense, but in the "good different" way. The Israelites were commanded to cut their hair a certain way so that they didn't look like their wicked pagan neighbors. They were commanded to eat and drink, as well as not eat or drink, certain things. This dietary law was different from all the surrounding nations. It wasn't given to punish them, "cramp their styles," or inhibit their fun, but rather to bless, protect and preserve them. This expectation to be noticeably different from the world is directly linked to the second covenantal obligation.

Secondly, the Lord expected them anciently (and us today) as children of Abraham to proclaim the gospel and to be an influence for good and righteousness to all around them. It is of this obligation that the Lord speaks when he says that through Abraham's seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (see Genesis 12:3; also Abraham 2:9-11).

God wanted ancient Israel and us of His modern Church to be segullah -- a peculiar treasure not just for differentness sake, but rather so that they, and you and I could bless the lives of others. To remind ancient Israel of this covenantal responsibility, Jehovah commanded that salt be sprinkled upon all the sacrifices that were offered in similitude of the Savior's atonement. Salt, as a preservative, represented the Abrahamic Covenant -- the Everlasting Covenant of the Gospel--that must go forth to bless and save all the nations of the earth.

It was this symbol which Jesus was referring to when he counseled his disciples in the Sermon the Mount to be "the salt of the earth." He warned against salt "losing its savor." How can salt lose its flavor and its preservative power? We have in our food storage room in the basement of our home several containers of salt. (We may not have a year's supply of all kinds of food that we need and use, but we do have a millennial supply of salt!) Even after many years, when I open one of those containers of salt, it still tastes like salt. We better understand what Jesus was teaching when we recognize that salt can lose its distinctive flavor and its preservative power only one way--through contamination by impurities or outside elements. As segullah we are indeed the salt of the earth and we only lose our treasured status with the Lord, as well as our righteous influence upon others and the right to be a blessing to the world, if we become contaminated--by trying to be like everyone else in the world and allowing the wicked influences of the world to weaken our spiritual strength.

The children of Israel did not get to go into the literal presence of God at Mt. Sinai as the Lord had promised them. Why not?--because they got distracted from what they were supposed to be doing to prepare. Most of all, they forgot that they were segullah! Instead of doing what God's covenant people do, they decided to have a dance-a big dance, a big bad dance around a golden calf. Whatever the reason for their distraction and diversion--impatience that it was taking Moses so long to come down from the mountain or just plain boredom--they forgot who they really were and what was promised them as God's "peculiar treasure." They no longer wanted to be segullah -- instead, they acted like they had never left behind the fleshpots of Egypt.

Many centuries later the descendants of the children of Israel did something equally as dumb. The rejected the counsel of the prophet Samuel and demanded a king to rule over them so they could be "like all the other nations of the world." Prior to that the Lord had been their King and the Prophet their earthly leader. When they demanded a king, they were no longer peculiar--unique--they had become like everyone else--at least like all the unbelieving nations that surrounded them. When they became like everyone else--they were no longer segullah, and as a result, they no longer had claim upon the protection and preservation the Lord had promised for his "treasure." They were no longer able to influence their neighbors and be an influence for good, because they were no longer different--in a good way. Instead of being blessed and prospered, they were persecuted and afflicted with all manner of plagues and problems. Ultimately, they were taken into bondage by their neighbors--the very nations that they sought to be like!

There is also a sad account of an individual who, likewise, didn't want to be segullah anymore. The consequences of his choices not only affected him, but his family, and entire nation. Even before he was born he had been consecrated unto the Lord and was to be the foreordained deliverer of his people. The Lord blessed him with many gifts and great strength. He had made a covenant to remain "sacredly aloof from all unrighteousness" -- I love that phrase -- "sacredly aloof from all unrighteousness." Yet, he never fulfilled his mission, because instead of being "different from the world," he wanted to act just like the Philistines--you know the story--wine, women, and worldliness. In the end, he lost all his great gifts and the scriptures tell us that he became "weak like unto other men." And the worst part of all of this is that the very people he was supposed to help and bless and save, continued to suffer for many centuries--all because he forgot that he was segullah. His name was Samson.

So what does all this talk about a peculiar people, covenants, and salt have to do with us today? In contrast to that ceramic basketball figurine my parents gave me many years ago, the Savior didn't purchase you with His blood and make you his "peculiar treasure" to keep you in a trophy case. As members of the Church we cannot be -- "for display purposesonly" -- we have covenantal obligations to meet and foreordained missions to perform. Prophets of God have declared that you are a "chosen generation" (and I certainly hope that it applies to me and my generation as well)--the "spirit nobility of heaven" -- that has been reserved to come forth in this day when Satan is unleashing all of his last gasp efforts to destroy the souls of men.

You were called and prepared from before the foundation of the world to come to the earth in these troubling times, because you have the strength to resist and fight against these evil influences and the power to help others do so as well. As a son or daughter of God, being, as President Harold B. Lee said, "loyal to the royal within you" will not only bless your life more than you can imagine, but also bless the lives of people around you--your family, your friends, and even people you may never know in mortality. But you can only do this if you are segullah -- peculiar, unique, treasured, untainted, pure. You can only do this if you resist the urge to be like everyone else. We can't even follow the same wicked practices and trends of the world--if only to a lesser degree or at a slower pace. Elder Neal A. Maxwell, perhaps, said it best: "To make a difference in the world, you must be different than the world."

Sometimes there is a temptation for us to forget who we really are and what we really are all about. Satan would have us think that we can dance and dine in the great and spacious building without letting go of the iron rod. Unfortunately, there are far, far too many of us who what to be a "chosen generation" without being a "peculiar treasure" -- we want to be good, but not too good and we want to be bad, but not too bad. This attitude manifests itself in questions and statements like these--all of which I have heard a zillion times before:

"Why do we have to have dress and grooming standards? Students at other colleges don't," or, "Why shouldn't I watch R-rated movies or videos? It doesn't affect me. I'm an adult and I can handle it," or, "Why can't guys have beards or earrings? What's wrong with piercing my belly button or tongue? Why shouldn't I have tattoos? I think they are cool!"

Their justification is often, "Well, everybody else is doing it" or "It doesn't necessarily make me a bad person." Well, let me tell you--the issue is not about earrings, tattoos, or R-rated movies. It is not about honor codes or dress and grooming standards or what we "can or can't do" or "how far we can go and still be moral," but it is all about covenants and commitments. It is about being and remaining segullah. Being like everyone else turns something that is truly unique and priceless into something that is common and cheap. Why would you trade a sleek, fancy sports car, like a Ferrari or Mazzerati -- with all the best options -- for a beat up old station wagon or minivan like everyone else on the block has. Yet that is exactly what we do when we turn our backs on the birthright blessings of the covenant that God has promised us and give in to peer pressure in our desire to "fit in" and "be like everyone else." President Gordon B. Hinckley has admonished you young people today (as well as us "old fogies") to remember that we are indeed a "peculiar people." He declared:

"Of course you are peculiar. If the world continues its present trend, and if you walk in obedience to the doctrine and principles of the Church, you may become even more peculiar in the eyes of others.

"To each of you I say this: As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have been taught many values of divine origin. These values are based on the commandments which the finger of the Lord wrote upon the tablets of stone when Moses spoke with Jehovah upon the mountain. You know them. You are familiar with them. . .

"To these have been added the precepts and commandments of modern revelation. Combined together these basic, divinely given principles, laws, and commandments must constitute your value system. You cannot escape the consequences of their observance. If you will shape your lives according to this pattern, I do not hesitate to promise you that you will know much of peace and happiness, of growth and achievement. To the degree you fail to observe them, I regretfully say that the fruits will be disappointment, sadness, misery, and even tragedy.

"You of this generation, this chosen generation, this royal priesthood, this holy nation, you of this peculiar people--you cannot with impunity follow practices out of harmony with the values you have been taught. I challenge you to rise above the sordid elements of the world about you." (CR, Apr 92, p. 99.)

President Hinckley's charge to us today is the same as what the Lord commanded ancient Israel--to be "sacredly aloof from all unrighteousness." That will require us to be "peculiar" -- segullah. But being peculiar doesn't mean being weird, nor does it require that we lock ourselves in our room with nothing but our scriptures by our side. It doesn't mean living in a plastic bubble totally isolated from the outside world, nor does it mean that we must go off and live in a monastery in the mountains somewhere. It does mean, however, living with the world and worldliness around us, but not in us. Can't you see now why we must not "kick against the pricks" and complain that gospel is burdensome or that the commandments are restrictive or that living by standards and honor codes interferes with our agency, "cramps our style," or prevents us from "expressing our individuality." Remember its not about styles or standards or rules and regulations. It's all about being a "peculiar treasure"--a covenant person who has been bought and sanctified by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. It's about blessings--blessings we receive from God when we remain segullah, and also about blessings we can give to the world by being "different from the world. But most of all--its about love--God's love for us.

That little ceramic basketball figurine that I received many Christmases ago was placed in prominent spot in my office. I wanted to show it off--because it was so cool--and because it was my "peculiar treasure." I wanted to protect and preserve it, so I didn't keep it in my toolbox or the trunk of my car with all my other junk. It was too special to do anything like that. It was priceless to me, not just because it was a unique gift from my parents, but also because it was a tangible representation of their deep love for me.

Similarly, when we begin to feel and comprehend, even in the slightest degree, God's infinite love for us, we see how being segullah -- "different from the world" -- through keeping the loving and protective commandments of God is an extraordinary blessing and gift of mercy and love from God. He is trying to keep us peculiar--to bless us and protect us. Because of his perfect love, the covenants and commitments we make in the Church can keep us from those things in the world that will destroy our happiness and bring misery and heartache instead.

The prophet Moses reminded the children of Israel of this important concept when they were wandering in the wilderness--murmuring and moaning about the toughness of the law and the demanding expectations the Lord had placed upon them as his "chosen people." Moses reminded them what it means to be segullah.

"For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God; the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a [peculiar treasure] unto himself, above all the people that are upon the face of the earth.

"The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people;But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out by his mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

"Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations . . . .

"Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which I command thee this day, to do them.

"Wherefore, it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers;

"And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee. . . .Thou shalt be blessed above all people." (Deut. 7:6-9, 11-14)

Keeping the commandments, being true to our covenants -- remaining segullah -- is more than act of obedience or even an act of faith. Being willing to deny ourselves of all ungodliness and to be "sacredly aloof from all unrighteousness" is really an act of love--feeling God's infinite and intimate love for us and desiring with all our heart to show our love for Him. That is what being segullah -- God's peculiar treasure" -- is really all about.

Several weeks after I taught this concept to my Old Testament class at BYU while we were studying the book of Deuteronomy, a young lady shared with me a letter she had written to her parents. The concept of being God's "peculiar treasure" through a covenant of love had had such an impact on her that she felt compelled to write to her parents and express her love to them. Her feelings, I believe, have a relevant message for all of us here today.

"Dear Mom and Dad:

"What a day! I just had a wonderful experience in my Old Testament class. I knew that if I tried to call and tell you about it that I would just be one big blubber puss.

"We just studied Deuteronomy as a covenant of love. Moses is sort of giving his farewell address to the Israelites. As I thought to myself what I would say to these stupid, murmuring, slow-to-remember, quick-to-sin people, Deuteronomy became more like a message of fear rather than a covenant of love. I thought, if I were Moses I wouldn't waste my time reminding them of all that the Lord had done for them. No, I'd remind them of my rage at Sinai . . . I'd scare them into obedience. Well, I thought that would be a good idea. So, why didn't Moses do it? Maybe it had something to do with Moses' connections; maybe he knew something I didn't. Seriously, why did Moses use his last words to remind Israel of the incredible love God had for them. Brother Top, in our class discussion, helped me answer my own question.

"First of all, fear is not a lasting motivation. We read in the scriptures that we are supposed to "fear" God. Well, I was right on top of that one. "Fear means to respect," I thought to myself. Right? Well, sort of. It actually means to revere. It means adoration. It means love and love inevitably leads to obedience, service and righteousness. In fact, it is only through love that these actions are not burdensome. Brother Top gave an example in class of this concept. He told of a husband who cleaned the house and made dinner for his wife who had spent the whole day teaching their daughters how to ski. His point was that the husband didn't do this work begrudgingly. In fact, he was glad to do it, because he loved her so much. You see, it's imperative that the covenant between God and Israel be based on God's perfect love for his children. If we knew how much Heavenly Father really loves us, we would give up our sins and be totally righteous. Now this is the part where I started to bawl.

"I don't think I've voiced this concern at any time in my life, but I've always had this nagging little question as to why I've always been such a goody-goody. I don't mean to say that I've lived a sin-free life, but the fact is that I have passed up a lot of tempting opportunities to mess up. Why have I been such a "good girl?" I remember, even as a little kid, passing up some mischievous little crime with my friends and hearing them honestly say, "No way, I can't do that; my parents would kill me." But I was never afraid of you. Then today in my religion class, the answer came to me. It just overwhelmed me. If I have ever made a truly righteous decision, it has only been because I have wanted to. And I've only wanted to because I love you so much because you loved me first. It's not that I feel obligated to be righteous--I WANT TO BE RIGHTEOUS--to honor you. Even away from you I never want to do anything that would dishonor you. Every aspect of my testimony stems from your love for me.

"Mom and Dad how can I ever thank you enough? I love you so much. Today as we talked about the love Heavenly Father had for the Israelites, I feel like I caught a glimpse for the first time of how much He loves me, because it's like the love you have for me. That love helps me want to do good and be righteous. What an important lesson from Deuteronomy. Look what the Old Testament has done to me--I'm a wailing wreck now. Man, who would have though those Israelites could play such a big part in teaching me one of the most important lessons of my life?"

Wow--what a letter!

As for me, I know how much my parents loved me and continue to love me--and it's not just because of that treasured basketball figurine I received as a gift so many years ago. Theirs has been a lifetime of love for me expressed in words, in deeds, in sacrifice, in service. Now, as a father and grandfather myself I know even better about their love, because I feel it so profoundly for my own children and grandchildren. With all my soul I want them to be happy and safe from the evils of the world. Your parents love you with that same kind of love. Maybe they haven't been as good at expressing that love as they should have done or as you would have liked, but I assure you that they love you and want the best for you. You are cared about and loved with an even greater love than that of your parents, your family, or best friends. You are loved with the infinite and unconditional love of God--your Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ--your Savior and Redeemer.

I bear solemn testimony of that love -- for I have felt it myself. I bear witness that you are loved so much that you have been purchased as a "peculiar treasure" through the atoning blood of Christ. I know he lives and loves and protects and keeps his promises. When you face temptations or when you don't want to be "peculiar" anymore and you want to "fit in" with the world--remember you are bought with his blood. You cannot--you must not--stoop down to be like all the rest for you are segullah -- His "peculiar treasure." May you strive with all your might to hold on to that peculiarity so that he can hang on to you and bless you and protect you with His mighty arm of mercy. I know he lives! I leave you with my testimony expressed in the words of the psalmist who declared:

"Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the name of the Lord; praise Him O ye servants of the Lord. Ye that stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of god, praise the Lord; for the Lord is good; sing praises unto his name; for it is pleasant. For the Lord hath chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure" (Psalm 135:1-4).

May you praise the Lord for making you his peculiar treasure. May you praise him in word and deed every day of you life. May you always be segullah, I pray in the name of the Holy One of Israel, even Jesus Christ, Amen.