“Book of Mormon Poetry,” New Era, Mar. 1983, 46
“Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). This has a memorable cadence; one might even say it’s poetic. Latter-day Saints who have studied the Old Testament realize that about a third of that book was originally written in poetry; what is not widely known is that generally the prophetic utterances in the Book of Mormon are poetry. This should not surprise us, though, given the Hebraic background of Lehi and his family.
In any language, the appeal of poetry is similar to the appeal of music. Through its rhythms, sounds, and images, poetry touches our feelings as well as enlightens our understanding. It is no wonder, then, that the first use of language was poetic and many of the world’s greatest writers, such as Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer, and Milton, should have chosen poetry as their primary medium of imaginative expression.
There are several basic differences, though, between English poetry and Hebrew poetry, including Hebrew poetry translated into English. English verse has a regular rhythm of accented and unaccented syllables and is often rhymed, while Hebrew poetry depends on rhythm of ideas, developed especially by parallelism. That is, the second line of a Hebraic poem repeats, with some intensification or amplification, the thought of the first line; contrasts an opposing idea to the first line; completes the idea; or repeats the idea in a reverse order. The differences are evident in these stanzas, the first from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (lines 13–16, with accented syllables marked) and the second from the 23rd Psalm [Ps. 23]:
The woóds are lóvely, dárk, and deép,
But Í have prómisés to keép,
And míles to gó befóre I sleép,
And míles to gó befóre I sleép.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
Since the King James version of the Bible is written entirely in prose, its poetry is often obscured. The same is true of Book of Mormon poetry. Arranged as prose, its repetitions may seem tedious and its rhythms fight themselves. Arranged as verse, the repeated ideas build beautifully on one another, revealing patterns of thought which please both the eye and the ear and satisfy the emotions. The following are examples of the striking poetry to be found in the Book of Mormon. They are best appreciated if read aloud:
Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments
Ye shall prosper in the land;
And inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments
Ye shall be cut off from my presence.
I glory in plainness;
I glory in truth;
I glory in my Jesus,
For he hath redeemed my soul from hell.
Thou art merciful, O God,
For thou hast heard my prayer,
Even when I was in the wilderness;
Yea, thou wast merciful
When I prayed concerning those who were mine enemies,
And thou didst turn them to me.
Yea, O God, and thou wast merciful unto me
When I did cry unto thee in my field;
When I did cry unto thee in my prayer,
And thou didst hear me.
In these passages we see several of the poetic elements found in Hebrew verse. In the first one—the promise and penalty given to Lehi and repeated throughout the history of the Nephites—there is a cause and effect balanced by its opposite. The second, found in Nephi’s farewell, illustrates intensification. The third contains contrast (wilderness/field) and repetition in reverse order (heard my prayer/in my prayer … thou didst hear me).
These elements are also found in a Book of Mormon poem sometimes called the Psalm of Nephi (2 Ne. 4:15–35). We see completion and contrast in:
He hath filled me with his love,
Even unto the consuming of my flesh.
He hath confounded mine enemies,
Unto the causing of them to quake before me.
A form of contrast is found in:
Behold, he hath heard my cry by day,
And he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime.
Both opposition and reverse order appear in:
Wilt thou make my path straight before me!
Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—
But that thou wouldst clear my way before me,
And hedge not up my way,
But the ways of mine enemy.
While Book of Mormon poetry appears in many places of elevated discourse such as sermons and instructions, a close examination of the text will show that generally when a Book of Mormon prophet says or implies, “Thus saith the Lord,” the passages that follow will be poetic. For example, we can hear a shift from Nephi’s prose to the Lord’s poetry in 1 Nephi 2:18–22 [1 Ne. 2:18–22]:
But, behold, 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.
Again, 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 the last passage, notice how one idea builds on another: Personal repentance is a foundation for preparing the way of the Lord, and in turn planning (“prepare”) leads to action (“walk in his paths”). Following this, the personal is a basis for the universal—which is presented first as general anticipation of the kingdom of heaven and then more gloriously as the actual Second Coming.
Book of Mormon prose may be likened to a highway: it moves sequentially from one place to the next. Book of Mormon poetry, on the other hand, is cumulative: one idea builds upon another. It is like a beautiful structure such as the Salt Lake Temple. While our eye may move from the foundation level to the spires of the temple, we also see it as a whole—with each part related to every other part. Just so, with poetry it is intended that we keep a previous idea in mind as we build on it with subsequent ideas. Printed in lines, a poetic passage can have an effect of being seen as a whole as well as heard as a whole. For example, let’s consider the Lord’s instructions to Nephi in Helaman 10:7–11 to see the ascending order of priesthood power given to Nephi. Then let’s see the contrast in the sentence that follows in verse 12, a prose passage which moves in sequence. [Hel. 10:7–11, 12]
Behold, I give unto you power,
That whatsoever you 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.
Having seen evidence of Book of Mormon poetry, we ought to ask why it is associated with prophecy and what purposes it serves. Since prophesy means “to utter by divine interpretation,” we would expect the prophetic message to be of an exalted nature. Indeed, some prophecies such as the Savior’s prayer in 3 Nephi 17 are beyond the power of words to express, and those that are written down are phrased so as to reach beyond surface comprehension to touch the soul. [3 Ne. 17] It follows, then, that since poetry appeals primarily to the feelings or the soul, it is the appropriate language for divine communication. It reaches emotional and spiritual depths in us that mere words in themselves cannot touch. Like the chorus of a hymn or a repeated musical phrase in a symphony, repetition in sacred poetry lifts our heart. 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.”
Besides being poetic so as to appeal to our deeper feelings, Book of Mormon prophecy is written as poetry undoubtedly because it is more memorable in that form. We note that the 12 Nephite disciples memorized the words of Jesus and ministered unto others with those same words—“nothing varying from the words which Jesus had spoken” (3 Ne. 19:8). The poetic quality of Jesus’ instructions surely helped the disciples remember them. With us, too, poetry helps jog the memory. For example, if we are given one line of a hymn, we can often come up with the next by anticipating the rhyming word. Or think of the poetic scriptural passages we can complete by adding the parallel repetition, opposition, or development of idea: “And shall run and not be weary, and. …” “And lead us not into temptation, but . …” “And blessed are all the pure in heart, for . …”
Now that we are more aware of Book of Mormon poetry, what can or should we do about it? When we encounter an exalted passage in the Book of Mormon, especially some revelation from the Lord, we should read it aloud to better feel the poetry. Read out loud, the poetic words of the Book of Mormon will resonate, will reach us as beautiful music does. The rhythms of the magnificent verse will carry their own logic. By being alert to Book of Mormon poetry, we may well be stirred to respond with Nephi:
Rejoice, O my heart,
And cry unto the Lord, and say:
O Lord, I will praise thee forever;
Yea, my soul will rejoice in thee,
My God, and the rock of my salvation.