Source:Rediscovering the Book of Mormon:Ch:10:4:Poetry:Poetry and Prophecy

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Poetry in the Book of Mormon text: Poetry and Prophecy

Poetry in the Book of Mormon text: Poetry and Prophecy

As with the poetry of the Old Testament, Book of Mormon poetry was used to make the passage more unified and memorable. Because of its effects, poetry was not used in the Book of Mormon to report common events. Instead, it was used for more formal speech, such as sermons, instructions, and especially prophecy. When a Book of Mormon prophet said or implied, "Thus saith the Lord," what followed likely was poetic. Since prophesy means "to utter by divine interpretation," we would expect the prophetic message to be of an elevated nature, rather than simply phrased in everyday language. Poetry helps the prophetic message to reach beneath surface meanings by adding rhythmic repetitions intended to focus our attention and touch our souls.

Scholars who have analyzed Biblical poetry have emphasized the correlation between prophecy and the use of poetry. David Noel Freedman wrote that, for "communication or action between heaven and earth, the appropriate language is that of poetry. Prose may be adequate to describe setting and circumstances and to sketch historical effects and residues; [but] only poetry can convey the mystery of the miraculous and its meaning for those present."1 Robert Alter agreed: "Since poetry is our best human model of intricately rich communication, not only solemn, weighty, and forceful but also densely woven with complex internal connections, meanings, and implications, it makes sense that divine speech should be represented as poetry."2

Through poetry, according to T. R. Henn, prophecies exalt the heart of man: words and imagery acquire depth by repetition, and there is a peculiar exaltation proper to the chant.3 As Edgar Allan Poe put it in another context: "Without a certain continuity of effort—without a certain duration or repetition of purpose—the soul is never deeply moved. There must be the dropping of the water upon the rock."4 This noble effect is the intent of Book of Mormon poetry as much as that of the Bible.

Early in the Book of Mormon, in the second chapter, we can detect a shift from Nephi's prose to the Lord's poetry. Nephi's prose is a straightforward description of events. But when the Lord speaks, we see a number of poetic elements that give force to his words, make them more memorable, and increase the levels of meaning: There is a rhythm resulting from a structure of cause-and-effect relationships (following the pattern "inasmuch as ye or they do x, ye or they shall receive y"). There is repetition with an rising order of significance ("land of promise," "land which I have prepared for you," and "land which is choice above all other lands"). And the concluding two patterns in the last four lines show contrast between punishment and blessing.

Laman and Lemuel would not hearken unto my words; and being grieved because of the hardness of their hearts I cried unto the Lord for them. And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying:

Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith,
for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.
And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments,
ye shall prosper,
and shall be led to a land of promise;
yea, even a land which I have prepared for you;
yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.
And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee,
they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments,
thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.
(1 Nephi 2:18-22)

We find a similar shift in Alma 7:8-9:

Now as to this thing I do not know; but this much I do know, that the Lord God hath power to do all things which are according to his word. But behold, the Spirit hath said this much unto me, saying: Cry unto this people, saying—
Repent ye, and prepare the way of the Lord,
And walk in his paths, which are straight;
For behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand,
And the Son of God cometh upon the face of the earth.

In Alma's excerpt, one idea builds on another. Personal repentance is the foundation for preparing the way of the Lord, then preparing leads to action ("walk in his paths"). Personal actions then become the basis for the universal—the general expectation of first the coming of the kingdom of heaven and second the more specific coming of the Lord.

The next poem is about God's power promised to Nephi the son of Helaman. The idea is first expressed as increasing levels of physical power (famine, to pestilence, to destruction). Then it is given spiritual significance (sealed/loosed in heaven). Destructive power builds in intensity from rending the temple, to leveling a mountain, to the climax of divine power that will smite the people. With the confidence that comes from having seen this vision of God's power, Nephi was ready to declare the simple but meaningful message: "Except ye repent ye shall be smitten, even unto destruction."

As he was thus pondering . . . the wickedness of the people of the Nephites, . . . a voice came unto him saying: . . .
Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God.
Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels,
that ye shall have power over this people,
and shall smite the earth with famine,
and with pestilence,
and destruction,
according to the wickedness of this people.
Behold, I give unto you power,
that whatsoever ye shall seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven;
and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven;
and thus shall ye have power among this people.
And thus, if ye shall say unto this temple
it shall be rent in twain,
it shall be done.
And if ye shall say unto this mountain,
Be thou cast down and become smooth,
it shall be done.
And behold, if ye shall say
that God shall smite this people,
it shall come to pass.
And now behold, I command you,
that ye shall go and declare unto this people,
that thus saith the Lord God, who is the Almighty:
Except ye repent ye shall be smitten,
even unto destruction.
And behold, now it came to pass that when the Lord had spoken these words unto Nephi, he did stop and did not go unto his own house, but did return unto the multitudes who were scattered about upon the face of the land, and began to declare unto them the word of the Lord which had been spoken unto him, concerning their destruction if they did not repent (Helaman 10:3, 6-12).[1]


  1. Richard Dilworth Rust, "Poetry in the Book of Mormon," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, edited by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co.; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), Chapter 10.