This is so sobering and relevant a verse that it is the first thing quoted in the dedication of the first book I wrote, The Second Comforter: Conversing With the Lord Through the Veil. This is our moment. Inside this foolish age there are nevertheless a "few, who are the humble followers of Christ." These are the salt which preserve the world. These are the leaven who keep us still from destruction.
"Stiff necks" do not bow in prayer and praise before a Lord to whom they regard themselves as unworthy. They are undaunted by their unworthiness. They think themselves justified, and therefore without any need to bow in reverence.
"High heads" do not tilt down to behold the less fortunate to whom they might have provided relief. They ignore the destitute and needy, preferring only to see those who are on their standing or above. Who can help elevate them? Who can give them an advantage? Who is a good contact to keep? The "high heads" will be careful about what social advantages come from associations, and will always pick carefully those whom they deign to notice.
But these stiff necks and high heads belong to those carrying a burden of sin. They are prideful, wicked, given to abominations and whoredoms. These are the ones who sit upon the labors of others, and fare sumptuously here. So long as your neck remains stiff and your head held high, you will never notice Lazarus lying at your gate.
But what of the "few, who are the humble followers of Christ?" What of them?
It is clear in this verse that they do NOT lead, but are instead being led. They are "led that in many instances they do err." That is, those who qualify to be called the "few, who are the humble followers of Christ" are not themselves leaders. They are being led by others.
The others who lead them "cause them to err." And why do they cause this? "Because they are taught by the precepts of men." Therefore, the humble true followers are misled into accepting false, foolish and vain (or powerless) beliefs because the ones who preside over them are only able to offer the "precepts of men." These "precepts of men" are unable to bring the "humble followers of Christ" to the knowledge of Him.
Keep in mind that the "precepts of men" are repeated by Nephi in this written sermon more than any other phrase. The learning used to lead is distracting, even damning, whenever it fails to lead to the Lord. Men's precepts cannot rescue us.
Why are not the "humble followers of Christ" doing the leading? Because they do not have the "stiff necks and high heads" to become noticed, to be added to the group of insiders. Their clothes are not costly, their home "sanctuaries" are insufficiently ornate. They are not the stuff of renown and recognition. They are, in a word, the least.
It is a troubling image which begins to emerge from Nephi's words. They are shocking for us to consider. If the alternatives are what Nephi seems to leave us, then how much better is it to be among the "few, who are the humble followers of Christ" than among those with the authority to lead them?
I do not believe any of us are in a position to fully understand our times. We live inside a cultural fog that makes our judgments inside the bubble distorted in ways Nephi did not experience from his vantage point. The Lord can give us a clearer perspective through revelation, as He did for Nephi. But we are not equipped to fully recognize our peril standing inside this age and culture.
The one thing that is abundantly clear is that Joseph Smith was right about the need to reconnect with God. His first and primary message remains the testimony of James 1: 5: If we lack wisdom, we should ask of God. God will give liberally to those who ask with a sincere heart, having real intent. Whether you believe Joseph's account or not, Joseph was pointing us to James and testifying James made a promise which God will fulfill. So test James. Ask with real intent. Perhaps you will begin to see how Nephi's words of warning are exactly what is needed to save us from our peril. At a minimum, the petition will make you closer to being one of the "few, who are the humble followers of Christ" because of your desire to know from Him the truth of your plight.
He always intends to save those who wait upon Him. Those who serve Him and do as He asks will never be forsaken. All that is required to qualify is to repent and come to Christ with sincere intent. No matter what else is going on, the Lord can take your life's circumstances and make them work to fulfill His work. And His work is your salvation and exaltation.
The first step is to recognize the peril you face. The second is to then do something about it. To take the first step without the second is worse than meaningless. It inspires fear and pessimism. That is wrong. Happiness is the goal of our existence. That comes from Christ. So do not just notice your plight, but make the necessary flight back to Him.