This hymn references a doctrine at the heart of Mormon theology: the gathering of scattered Israel. We get an overview of this in the tenth Article of Faith, a list of basic principles of Mormonism. It reads that Latter-day Saints believe in a literal gathering of Israel and its Ten Tribes, that “Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”
This hymn is all about God calling His people to Zion, even commanding them to flee out of Babylon before “God shall all her tow’rs o’erthrow.” The first verse and fourth verses especially focus on an Old Testament-type God, the one who strikes evil from the earth and warns us to repent “ere his floods of anger flow.”
Most importantly, when God asks us to “come to Zion,” He isn’t demanding a mass exodus from wherever it is we live. In a great talk titled “The Gathering of Scattered Israel” by Elder Russell M. Nelson, he illustrates how God, in gathering His saints to Zion, is really asking us for a full conversion to Jesus Christ.
The choice to come unto Christ is not a matter of physical location; it is a matter of individual commitment. People can be “brought to the knowledge of the Lord” without leaving their homelands…The Lord has decreed the establishment of Zion in each realm where He has given His Saints their birth and nationality…The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.” Zion is wherever righteous Saints are.
Part of this conversion is highlighted in a phrase in the fourth verse of this hymn especially: ”Mark how judgment’s pointing finger/justifies no vain delays.”
Vain delays. Man, what a turn of phrase. If we take “vain” here to mean “empty” or “meaningless,” it suddenly takes on even more specific and stinging meaning. In my opinion “vain delays” could mean an entire spectrum of spiritual stagnation. Delaying our conversion to Christ because we refuse to give up our favorite sins. Putting off repentance or even refusing God’s perspective because we are filled with what we think is right and proper indignation at someone else’s wrongdoing. Filling our lives with so many activities or so many time-wasters that we don’t have time for God or fellowmen.
In the end, I believe the point of God’s entire gospel is just trying to prepare us to be able to bear the glory of Jesus Christ when He comes again. In the Book of Mormon, Moroni warns us that by pushing Christ away, we merely ensure that we “would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of [our] filthiness before him, than [we] would to dwell with the damned souls in hell” (Mormon 9:4).
On the flip side, if we accept Christ and do what He asks us to, the blessings and protections and promises of glory are, to me, breathtaking:
Israel, angels are descendingFrom celestial worlds on high,
And to man their pow’r extending,
That the Saints may homeward fly.
Come to Zion, come to Zion,
For your coming Lord is nigh.