Unfortunately, when he finally realized what he had done, it was too late. By then, the ripple effect of his unwise actions already had a serious negative impact on a lot of people.
So, what was Zeniff’s problem?
Zeniff was of that first generation of Nephites who were forced to flee the Land of Nephi to find safe haven and a permanent home in Zarahemla. He was a refugee who longed for home.
While he was not alone in this feeling, the vast majority of Nephites were focused on establishing a new home and had accepted the painful reality that the Land of Nephi would never be theirs again.
Zeniff’s desire to regain the land of his forefathers consumed him. With the zeal of a newly called missionary, he vigorously sought to convince everyone to join his crusade. I am sure he was surprisingly frustrated that everyone did not share his view.
But he did convince a number of Nephites to follow him. Against the pleadings of friends and family, Zeniff and his followers left the safety of Zarahemla to seek the opportunity to live surrounded by the Lamanites.
What was he thinking?
As typically happens to those of great passion and zeal, against all odds, Zeniff found himself standing before the king of the Lamanites asking for permission to regain their ancestral lands, well, at least a small part of them. My guess is that King Laman was quite surprised at the audacity of this request. When he was convinced that Zeniff was serious, the king saw a wonderful chance to exploit these people because he could tell they were blinded by their zeal.
The king agreed let these idealistic Nephites live among them for he know they would work hard to revitalize the cities granted them. That is what Nephites always did.
So, King Laman gave them two cities but made sure these Nephites were completely surrounded by Lamanites. Now, all King Laman had to do was wait a few years and he would be able to destroy these Nephites and take possession of all the improvements they made.
Zeniff’s zeal blinded him to the king’s intentions. As a result, he foolishly plunged his people into a trap. It took decades, but Zeniff finally realized, as the Lamanites kept attacking his people, that he had made a critical mistake.
Now, why would Mormon include this story in a book written for our time? Perhaps Zeniff’s mistake can teach us to avoid letting our zeal control our actions. Elder Oaks referred to this problems as “letting our strengths become our weaknesses.”