“What does the phrase ‘blood on one’s head or on one’s garment’ mean?” Ensign, Apr. 1992, 60–61
Keith H. Meservy, professor emeritus of ancient scripture at BYU, a member of a Church writing committee, and a member of the bishopric of the Pleasant View Third Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.
This question is best answered by first looking at the responsibility of an ancient watchman—a responsibility involving life-and-death issues.
Anciently, a watchman was responsible to keep the surrounding country under surveillance from a spot on the watchtower, to identify any hostile force that invaded the land, and to warn citizens of the invasion. Only when he recognized the danger and warned them of their peril could citizens take measures to protect their lives.
“When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman:
“If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people;
“Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.
“He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul.
“But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand.” (Ezek. 33:2–6.)
As conquering enemies destroy physical life, sin destroys spiritual life. But those who are sick enough to die, when warned of their danger, might save their lives through repentance. And thus one might see why the Lord would call Ezekiel to be a watchman—to warn citizens of their soul-destroying dangers. If they heeded his warning and repented, they would live. If not, they would die spiritually—but he would not be responsible for their deaths; he would have fulfilled his calling and delivered his own soul:
“Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: …
“When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.
“Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.” (Ezek. 3:17–19.)
Other prophet-teachers have exemplified and taught this principle of responsibility. King Benjamin explained that he had assembled his people “that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you . …
“That I might rid my garments of your blood. …
“That I might declare unto you that I can no longer be your teacher.” (Mosiah 2:27–29; italics added.)
In great humility, Paul likewise testified to “the elders of the church” at Ephesus how diligent he had been in teaching, in testifying, and in warning them so he would not be stained by their blood. “Ye know,” said he, “after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,
“Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears; …
“I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house,
“Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. …
“Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.
“For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. …
“By the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:17–31; italics added.)
Perhaps the expression of the application of this principle in the lives of Jacob and his fellow worker and brother, Joseph, is the most sober in the scriptures: “We did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might [to teach them correct principles] their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.” (Jacob 1:19.)
Any divine calling involves the same life-and-death matters. Leaders and parents are called to teach of the way leading to life and warn of the way leading to death. Their callings are sacred and carry heavy responsibilities. Of this point, Elder John Taylor has said, “If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty.” (Journal of Discourses, 20:23.)
However, while the Lord’s servants teach that the wages of sin are death, the devil shouts that sinning is really living. Thus, it is imperative that divine servants teach clearly and simply, for only when the teaching is so clear that individuals cannot misunderstand are God’s children free to choose.
Then, if they ignore the call, they will die, but their blood will be on their own heads. On the other hand, if they have not been taught or warned—and could have been if the Lord’s servants had done their duty—their spiritual death, or “blood,” will be upon the head of their “watchmen.”
For this reason, parents who do not teach their children “to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.” (D&C 68:25–26; see also Moses 6:53–62, especially vs. Moses 6:57–58.)
The Lord has made those who have been taught the truth responsible for sharing it with others. “Behold, I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.
“Therefore, they are left without excuse, and their sins are upon their own heads.” (D&C 88:81–82.)
Thus, parents, teachers, and leaders who strive to live and teach gospel principles can be assured that they will not be held accountable for the sins of those over whom they have been given charge, for symbolically, their own “garments” are spotless.