While leading the children of Israel during their wilderness wandering, Moses began to feel extremely overburdened with the responsibilities he bore, to the extent that at one point he desired that God would grant him immediate death as an escape.
The Lord's solution, as recounted in Numbers 11, was to instruct Moses to select 70 of the elders of Israel to help him bear the burden of leadership. To these, the Lord would grant a portion of the same Spirit with which He had endowed Moses.
Accordingly, Moses selected 70 men and assembled most of them around the tabernacle, where, as promised, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon them and they prophesied.
But, we read, two of the men remained in the camp, Eldad and Medad. The Spirit rested upon them as well, and they likewise prophesied. This evidently unnerved at least one observer, who ran to tell Moses that the two were prophesying.
In his anxiety, Moses' servant Joshua urged him to forbid them from so prophesying. Moses responded with a question: "Enviest thou for my sake?" and then gave this memorable exclamation: "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:27.)
In the above incident a number of points present themselves for consideration.
For one, it demonstrates that among the covenant people of God, the spirit of prophecy is not exclusive to one individual. On the contrary, the ideal would be for it to rest upon all the people, especially in the our latter-day dispensation, when the gift of the Holy Ghost is promised to all who have received the ordinances of baptism and confirmation and who live worthy of it. Attending this right to the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost are the spiritual gifts including prophecy some of which have been listed in both ancient and latter-day scripture. (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 12:8-12.)
There is something instructive in the interchange Moses had with Joshua, who apparently saw in the prophetic behavior of Eldad and Medad a potential challenge to Moses' leadership. He probably had good reason for concern. Time and again in the wilderness, the Israelites had been severely chastened for their murmuring and rebellion against the Lord and His anointed prophet, most recently at Taberah, where fire had consumed the more wicked among them.
But in his wisdom and meekness, Moses saw no threat in the actions of Eldad and Medad. He understood, no doubt, that a truly divine spirit of prophecy would not put individuals in a frame of mind to usurp the authority of the Lord's chosen leader. God does not rule over a divided kingdom. As the Savior would teach during His mortal ministry, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation: and a house divided against a house falleth" (Luke 11:17).
Thus, individuals can receive prophecy or revelation for their own lives and for those over whom they have a leadership role, but not for any other group or the Church as a body.
Had Moses' wish been realized and all of the Lord's people had become prophets, that would in no way have nullified Moses' position as the chosen leader of Israel, nor would it have justified any challenge to his authority. Indeed, the Lord's disapprobation for any such rebellion is dramatically illustrated in the succeeding chapter in Numbers. There, we read that Miriam and Aaron, Moses' sister and brother, were straitly reproved for murmuring against Moses, who is described as "very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3). Miriam, in particular, was stricken with leprosy for a week as punishment, in this instance graphically symbolizing the corruption that leads to apostasy.
Today, as in the days of Moses, the Lord's people are blessed to be led by a prophet, one whose qualities include Moses-like meekness. He is assisted in carrying the burdens of leadership by a Quorum of Twelve Apostles and by quorums of "seventy of the elders of Israel."
But perhaps more so than at any time in history, the covenant people of God enjoy the spirit of prophecy, given to us individually to the extent we live worthy of it. Indeed, we are commanded to "covet earnestly the best gifts," including prophecy. This gift we exercise as parents, as participants in God's work and glory (see Moses 1:39) and as testifiers of Jesus Christ. For, as the angel told John the Revelator, "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10).
President Brigham Young reported a vision in which the martyred Prophet Joseph Smith appeared to him and brought this message: "Tell the people to . . . keep the spirit of the Lord, and it will lead them right. Be careful and not turn away the small still voice; it will teach you what to do and where to go; it will yield the fruits of the kingdom. Tell the brethren to keep their hearts open to conviction, so that when the Holy Ghost comes to them, their hearts will be ready to receive it" (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846-1847, comp. Elden J. Watson (1971), p. 529).
In a day when modern Israel is engaged in preparing the way for the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we say, with Moses, "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets."