“The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Use of the Old Testament,” Ensign, Aug. 2002, 30
Church members in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith were a Bible-oriented people. Their heroes were as likely to be Abraham, Moses, and Joshua as Alma and Captain Moroni. And phrases such as “to your tents, O Israel” (1 Kgs. 12:16) tended to fall more freely from their lips than “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). This was due in part to the fact that the United States of the Prophet’s day was a society immersed in the study and teaching of the Bible. The imagery and vocabulary of the King James Version were often echoed in the speeches and writing of the period.
It is not surprising therefore that the Lord—who speaks to His servants through heavenly messengers and tutors them “after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24)—inspired His latter-day prophet to communicate in the religious expressions of the Bible.
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s use of the Old Testament is a prime example of how early Latter-day Saints relied on this book of scripture. An examination of the major published collections of his teachings yields more than 400 references to the Old Testament. The top chart on page 32 identifies the Old Testament books most frequently quoted or alluded to in his speeches and writings.
More than 200 references, or nearly half the total number, are drawn from just three books: Isaiah, Psalms, and Genesis. Despite this clustering, it is noteworthy that only 6 of the 39 books in the Old Testament are not found in his words, suggesting that the Prophet was well acquainted with the entire Old Testament.
The bottom chart on page 32 lists passages repeated more than once in his teachings.
These two charts provide a general sense of what parts of the Old Testament the Prophet was inspired to use and offer a context for us to examine how he understood the book. The Prophet primarily used the Old Testament to:
“Liken” or draw comparisons between events in his day and events in the Bible.
Affirm the literal meaning of its stories.
Enrich his ordinary language by freely incorporating its phrases.
Shed new light on the meaning of its many difficult passages.
Old Testament Book
Number of References
Percent of References
Old Testament Passage
Number of Times Used
The Prophet saw biblical action as being similar to what was happening in his lifetime but with different characters and settings. For example, immediately after learning of the Saints’ expulsion from Jackson County in 1833, the Prophet wrote: “All Pharaoh’s host, or in other words, all hell and the combined powers of earth are marshalling their forces to overthrow us. And we [are] like the children of Israel with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptians ready to fall upon them to destroy them, and no arm could deliver but the arm of God. And this is the case with us.”1
Several years later and shortly after his incarceration in Liberty Jail, Joseph comforted the scattered Saints with these words: “Those who bear false witness against us do seem to have a great triumph over us for the present. But we want you to remember Haman and Mordecai. You know that Haman could not be satisfied so long as he saw Mordecai at the king’s gate, and he sought the life of Mordecai and the people of the Jews. But the Lord so ordered that Haman was hanged upon his own gallows. So shall it come to pass with poor Haman in the last days. … I say unto you that those who have thus vilely treated us like Haman shall be hanged upon their own gallows, or in other words, shall fall.”2
The Prophet also used examples of ancient Israel’s backsliding to teach that dissension within the modern Church was not a sign of its imminent collapse; rather, it was an indication of its divinity. When he received a particularly cutting reproof from certain brethren in Missouri, Joseph recited the story of how the Israelites worshiped the golden calf while Moses was on the mount. He then asked his supporters, “Therefore, I say, if we should suffer perils among false brethren, should it be accounted a strange thing?”3
He linked episodes of apostasy during Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness to disaffections among his associates. In the aftermath of the extermination order issued by Governor Boggs to expel the Saints from Missouri, Joseph wrote that the dissenters who aided and abetted the mobbers, “like Balaam being greedy for a reward, sold us into the hands of those who loved them, for the world loves his own.”4 Singling out W. W. Phelps, the Prophet continued: “This poor man who professes to be much of a prophet has no other dumb ass to ride but David Whitmer to forbid his madness when he goes up to curse Israel. And this ass not being of the same kind of Balaam’s, therefore the angel notwithstanding appeared unto him. Yet he could not penetrate his understanding sufficiently, so but what he brays out cursings instead of blessings.”5 Referring to all apostates, he also remarked, “We classify them in the error of Balaam and in the gainsaying of Core [Korah].”6
Later, when Phelps repented and wished to return to the fold, the Prophet freely forgave him in the words of the couplet, “Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first are friends again at last.”7 However, the Prophet also wanted to convey to him the seriousness of what he had done by likening it to Obadiah 1:11–12: “In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day when strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates and cast lots upon Far West [Obad. 1:11 reads “Jerusalem”], even thou wast as one of them. But thou shouldst not have looked on the day of thy brother, in the day that he became a stranger; neither shouldst thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress.”8
The Prophet also used Old Testament stories as compelling models of behavior to instruct his brethren. When John E. Page abandoned Orson Hyde on a mission to the Middle East and the case was brought before the Church, Joseph Smith explained that the problem was that they did not follow biblical precedent. He said, “No two men when they [have] agreed to go together ought to separate,” and he quoted the circumstance when Elisha “clung to [Elijah’s] garment until Elijah was taken to heaven” (see 2 Kgs. 2) and said that “Elder Page should have stuck by Elder Hyde.”9
The Prophet Joseph Smith believed in a rigorous adherence to the literal meaning of the biblical text. “What is the rule of interpretation?” he asked. “Just no interpretation at all.” It should be “understood precisely as it reads.”10
An example of this was his use of Amos 3:7 to refute speculation about the date of the Second Coming. In the early 1840s, Baptist William Miller stirred considerable national interest with his prediction that the Second Coming would occur in 1843. When one of Miller’s followers claimed to have seen the “sign of the Son of Man” as predicted in Matthew 24, Joseph replied: “He has not seen the sign of the Son of Man, as foretold by Jesus; neither has any man … for the Lord hath not shown me any such sign; and as the prophet saith, so it must be—‘Surely the Lord God will do nothing but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets.’ (See Amos 3:7.) Therefore hear this, O earth: The Lord will not come to reign over the righteous, in this world, in 1843, nor until everything for the Bridegroom is ready.”11 Of the Savior’s words that no man knows the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man (see Matt. 24:36), the Prophet asked: “Did Christ speak this as a general principle throughout all generations? Oh, no, He spoke in the present tense. No man that was then living upon the footstool of God knew the day or the hour. But He did not say that there was no man throughout all generations that should not know the day or the hour. No, for this would be in flat contradiction with other scripture. For the prophet says that God will do nothing but what He will reveal unto His servants the prophets. Consequently, if it is not made known to the prophets, it will not come to pass.”12
Such literalism prepared the Prophet’s mind for inspiration from heaven. William P. McIntire recalled the Prophet’s words at a Nauvoo Lyceum lecture in the winter of 1841: “Joseph said in answer to Mr. Stout that Adam did not commit sin in eating the fruits, for God had decreed that he should eat and fall. But in compliance with the decree [see Gen. 2:17] he should die. Only he should die was the saying of the Lord; therefore, the Lord appointed us to fall and also redeemed us.”13 On this occasion the Prophet Joseph offered the inspired meaning of the scriptural phrase “in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” as a decree rather than as a warning. Since Mr. Stout apparently took it the more traditional way, Joseph felt the need to correct him.
The Prophet was inspired to find support for the doctrine of a premortal existence in the Lord’s question to Job, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). The Prophet Joseph reasoned that this verse was “evidence that Job was in existence somewhere at that time.”14 Another inspired literal interpretation that has had a far-reaching effect on our doctrine is the Prophet’s reading of Isaiah 2:3: “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” He taught that the words Zion and Jerusalem, rather than being an example of Hebrew poetic parallelism, which would make the terms synonymous, referred to two different places, suggesting that nearly every mention of Zion in Old Testament prophecy points toward the New Jerusalem to be built in America.
The cadences of the King James Version were a profound part of the Prophet’s “manner of language” (see D&C 1:24). Nearly 75 percent of his more than 400 references to the Old Testament fall into this category. He rarely quoted, with exactness, a complete passage; almost always it was a single striking phrase or a brief figure of speech. Those not intimately familiar with the Old Testament might not recognize that many of his expressions are biblical. A sampling of phrases he used in his prose includes “perverse and crooked generation” (Deut. 32:5), “bind up the testimony, seal the law” (Isa. 8:16), “weighed in the balance” (see Dan. 5:27), “furnace of affliction” (Isa. 48:10), and “broken heart” and “contrite spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
On several occasions, Joseph remarked from Proverbs 25:11 that the words from a friend were “like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”15 He once described a man as having a heart as hard as the nether millstone,16 a simile borrowed from Job 41:24. Another time he prayed that his efforts to expose the sins of certain of his enemies would be “like a nail in a sure place, driven by the master of assemblies,”17 a metaphor drawn from Isaiah 22:23 and Ecclesiastes 12:11. Using a phrase from both Psalm 72:8 and Zechariah 9:10, he talked of spreading the light and truth of the everlasting gospel “from the rivers to the ends of the earth.”18
Much of the imagery and phraseology he used when giving blessings also came from the Old Testament. The Prophet told Oliver Cowdery in an allusion to Genesis 9:12–17 that Oliver would “be made like unto the bow which the Lord hath set in the heavens; he shall be a sign.”19 Then borrowing a phrase from Isaiah, the Prophet told Oliver that he would also be “an ensign unto the nations.”20 In language reminiscent of Isaiah 49:2, he told Hyrum Smith that he would be “a shaft in the hand of his God … and he shall be hid by the hand of the Lord” and then promised him that “none of his secret parts shall be discovered unto his hurt” (see Isa. 3:17).21
One of the Old Testament passages he most frequently invoked in his day-to-day language was Isaiah 29:21, especially the phrase “make a man an offender for a word.” After a debating-school scuffle with his brother William, Joseph wrote, “Duty binds us not to make each other offenders for a word.”22 The Prophet wrote in 1840 to Oliver Granger that he hoped “even in Kirtland, there are some who do not make a man an offender for a word.”23 In the final months before his death, he said that there were men “in our midst that are watching for iniquity and will make a man an offender for a word.”24 And in a detailed allusion, he wrote to the members of the Church scattered in Caldwell County, Missouri, that the problem mentioned in this passage was at the root of their Missouri problems: “The old prophet verily told the truth. We have no retraction to make. We have reproved in the gate, and men have laid snares for us. We have spoken words, and men have made us offenders; and notwithstanding all this, our minds are not darkened but feel strong in the Lord.”25
Another dimension of the Prophet’s reliance on the Old Testament is manifest in the way the Lord worked through him to shed new light on various passages of the Old Testament. The Joseph Smith Translation is the best example of this, but there is much more that can be found in his speeches and writings.
Several brief examples from the King Follett discourse serve to introduce this aspect of the Prophet’s teaching. For example, we gain insight into the meaning of the phrase “image of God” in Genesis 1:27 by this inspired comment: “If you were to see [Heavenly Father] today, you would see Him in all the person, image, very form of man, for Adam was created in the very fashion of God.”26 In a second example, Joseph’s revealed knowledge of the eternities led him to replace the word create in Genesis 1:1 with the more appropriate word organize, thus dismissing the idea of ex nihilo, or out-of-nothing, creation. The Prophet further clarified that the phrase “in the beginning God created” is better rendered, “the head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods.”27
The Prophet Joseph Smith had a masterful command of the Bible, particularly of the prophetic writings. As we contemplate this year’s focus on the Old Testament in our gospel study, we can take Brother Joseph as our example of what it means to have a grasp of this book of scripture. He used it to liken its events to his time; he accepted it as historical fact; he freely incorporated its passages into his daily conversations; and his commentary on its many difficult passages continues to enlighten the Latter-day Saints today.
He once remarked, “God’s own handwriting” is in this “sacred volume” and “he who reads it oftenest will like it best, and he who is acquainted with it, will know the hand wherever he can see it.”28 The Prophet Joseph intimately knew, and therefore deeply loved, the Old Testament. From it he learned, as we might, to discern the hand of God in his own life and in the events of God’s latter-day kingdom.