By Scott S. Mitchell
In Part 1, I argued that the specific messages of 2 Nephi 4 in the Book of Mormon go almost completely ignored in the writings and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter, “the Church”). This chapter, which is accurately called the psalm of Nephi, contains, among other things, Nephi’s lament over his repeated susceptibility to sin and temptation, and the depression and loss of self-esteem he suffers as a result. The reader is surprised to read his words, since Nephi’s stature as a prophet of God is almost unparalleled in both the Bible and Book of Mormon. And, no part of the Book of Mormon, outside of this chapter, informs the reader of any sinfulness on his part, much less the nature of such sinfulness. Since this chapter is unique in all of scripture, and the messages in it are so crucial to our understanding of how major, persistent weaknesses and exceptional spirituality can co-exist in the greatest of individuals, one would think that its substance would be the focus of much discussion among the lay membership, church leaders and scholars of the LDS Church. It should be one of the most famous passages of scripture, and by itself, should be the subject of lessons and talks. Below, I’ll attempt to not only delve into the vital messages of this chapter that I feel have escaped public discussion, but also explain why I think the LDS Church purposely shies away from those messages.
Let’s look at the words Nephi uses both to describe the gravity of his sins and temptations and hint at the category of mistakes he’s to which he alludes. They’re found between 2 Nephi 4 verses 17 and 35: I have excerpted below the verses which I consider revealing, with the most telling words italicized:1
17 Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. . .
. . .
26 O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
27 And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
28 Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
31 O Lord, wilt thou redeem my soul? Wilt thou deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies? Wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin?
32 May the gates of hell be shut continually before me, because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite! O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me, that I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road!
33 O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! 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.
34 O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or taketh flesh his arm.
35 Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen.
The words Nephi uses leave no doubt that his temptations and sins are not only extremely serious, but have troubled him repeatedly (“so easily beset [him]”). He proclaims himself a “wretched man” who is “grieved because of [his] iniquities.” His heart groans and weeps; he isn’t sorrowful temporarily, but instead, lingers in the valley (i.e., the lowest point) of sorrow to the point that the thought of his failures makes him physically sick. He droops in sin as might a dead plant. He has accepted sin into his life, and he seeks to change so that he will in the future tremble with repulsion when temptations present themselves. But this hope is aspirational; he hasn’t achieved it yet. He even worries that if God doesn’t shut the gates of hell before him, he may enter there. In fact, he doesn’t ask that the gates of hell be shut before him because he guarantees he’ll never sin again (he makes no such promise), but simply because his iniquity breaks his own heart and fosters a contrite spirit. He doesn’t trust himself to reform due to his own strength of character, but instead, with the Lord’s help, for he is too weak by himself.
I maintain that there are various textual clues in Nephi’s psalm which suggest the nature of the sins and temptations to which Nephi succumbs and is susceptible are sexual in nature. Nephi has already shown an ability to resist other enormous temptations. Attempts have been made on his own life and he hasn’t retaliated with violence of his own. He hasn’t criticized his father, even when his father momentarily joined the complainers. He has preserved Zoram’s life and adopted him as a brother when the easiest treatment of him would have been to kill him or leave him behind in Jerusalem to fend for himself. Presumably, now in his mid-forties to early fifties 30 years after having left Jerusalem, he’s not tempted by the urge to steal others’ goods or property, or slander or conspire against others to gain political power or acquire financial advantage. He’s not tempted to become idolatrous, or practice racism, or exact vengeance for old slights and cruel treatments. He is an ardent student and author of scripture, and he derives pleasure in teaching God’s word to his children and followers. But his goodness in these respects, and his history of having spectacular visions and revelations and even speaking to the Spirit of the Lord as one man speaketh to another, have not made him immune to temptations which arise from hormonally-driven and psychological attractions to the opposite sex.
Evidence that Nephi’s Temptations and Sins are Sexual in Nature
The reader may or may not be convinced by the evidence marshaled below on behalf of the thesis that Nephi’s temptations and sins are sexual in nature. Obviously, it’s possible my thesis is wrong, and there’s no way I can prove its accuracy with certainty. For evidence, I will use only the words which Nephi wrote when he knew full well those words would eventually be read, and hopefully scrutinized, by many millions of readers. If I err in my interpretation of his words, I feel he would be the first to forgive such an error and acknowledge that my interpretations were neither stretched nor textually baseless. Moreover, this essay seeks to build increased respect for Nephi’s exceptional righteousness in writing the psalm that he wrote. I assume that he successfully repented and was forgiven by God for the sins he alludes to, regardless of what they were.
Meanwhile, it should be remembered that Nephi’s immersion in the scriptures has transformed him into the foremost scriptural author of his time. As such, he is highly unlikely to use words and phrases to erroneously and coincidentally describe one thing which is commonly understood to mean something else. Instead, he will use specific words and phrases on purpose, having learned the connotations they carry from his own voracious reading.
The first facts to be considered come from Nephi’s earlier history found in the previous chapters of 1 Nephi. The reason Ishmael and his family were asked to join Lehi’s group was to provide Zoram, Laman, Lemuel, Sam and Nephi with wives by marrying them to Ishmael’s five daughters. Nephi likely had little or no choice in whom he would wed. The matchmaking was either completely decided by the sons’ and daughters’ parents, or, if Zoram and the sons of Lehi were allowed to choose, Nephi, the youngest son, was likely to have no one but one daughter to select due to his status as the youngest of the four sons. We know Zoram married the eldest daughter, but we also know that Laman and Lemuel were obsessed with the fact that Nephi was younger than they (see 1 Nephi 16:37 and 18:10, and 2 Nephi 5:3), and were very unlikely to have acquiesced to him being allowed to select a wife until they had preceded him. To be married under these circumstances is likely to have been emotionally difficult, but what happened soon thereafter was hard without a doubt. When Ishmael died, all his daughters murmured against Lehi and Nephi,2 after having already married Lehi’s sons, and stated their desire to return to Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 16:34-36). In effect, Nephi’s wife was stating her desire to leave him.
What happened with Nephi’s marriage thereafter is hidden from our view today. We do know the aforementioned crisis resolved and Nephi’s wife went on to bear him children. And when Nephi’s brothers bound him with cords during the voyage across the sea to the Americas, Nephi’s wife cried and prayed for him, as did her children. We can only speculate about whether Nephi’s original lack of options in being married caused him to overcompensate when, at a later time, he interacted with more women as their leader, and later, as their king. And perhaps Nephi’s recognition of his wife as a good woman made him feel guilt more acutely when he was tempted toward others. At any rate, we can analyze the words Nephi used to describe his sins and temptations and infer, I maintain, that he was alluding to sexual temptation. His heart sorrowed because of his flesh, he says, and reitierates this by saying he yielded to sin because of his flesh. Repeatedly, the temptations encompassed him and easily overcame him, and he’d been unable to resist the temptation’s very appearance. He sought to shake at its appearance, but had not yet achieved that goal. These word choices don’t fit descriptions of other sins, but they fit perfectly with the way sexual temptations are somewhat appearance-based and as unrelenting as the hormones and emotions that drive them.
Nephi also uses phraseology associated with sexual propriety or impropriety in its other scriptural contexts. When he asks the Lord to encircle him in the “robe of [God’s] righteousness” in verse 33, he recalls Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 61:10: “…[H]e hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.” Similarly, Nephi’s recognition in verse 35 that God grants our petitions liberally if we ask not amiss echoes nearly identical language in a decidedly sexual context in the New Testament book of James. In the 4th chapter, we read these words:
3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
5 Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?
(Emphasis added.) It’s hard to believe Nephi’s phraseology was coincidental.
The Majesty of Nephi’s Psalm
If I am right regarding the nature and gravity of Nephi’s sins, then Nephi’s psalm is all the more majestic than most have imagined. In fact, this psalm is the second most intimate disclosure of personal weakness or faltering in all of scripture, trailing only the disclosure that Jesus prayed to the Father to let the “cup” (the voluntary surrender to men who would mock him and torture him to death) pass from him if it didn’t violate the Father’s will. Nephi trusts the reader with secret information about himself which the reader would have no way of knowing without Nephi divulging it, and the only discernible reason he does it is because he feels it will help us to know his own true dual nature, and ultimately, gain better insight into ourselves. We should love him for what he reveals, just like we love those who confide in us, and in whom we can confide. Regardless of our righteous desires and experiences, Nephi teaches us, we don’t become incapable of great sins or errors, and we need to face that fact in ourselves and others.
The greatness of this psalm is better understood if we compare it to Psalms 51, the psalm David wrote after his adultery, which he tried to conceal, was exposed by the prophet Nathan. David had no choice but to admit guilt, but Nephi did have a choice. He was the historical and spiritual recordkeeper of the Nephites. Only his integrity prevented him from keeping secret his own sins. Nephi did not deflect blame, nor understate the gravity of his deeds. But David not only didn’t mention in his psalms Bathsheba or Uriah, the man whose death he’d arranged, he also failed to recognize that his behavior had been part of a pattern that had begun with his cruel treatment of his first wife Michal. He had continued to accumulate additional wives and concubines solely to satisfy his sexual appetite, heedless to the effect it was having on his wives, children, and nation. History even shows David’s practice of using concubines continued into the latter stages of his life (see 1 Kings 1:1-4). So even though David asks forgiveness in his psalm, nothing in it evidences any perception of his sins’ incredible magnitude. But Nephi’s introspection breaks his own heart, and his readers feel it.
Nephi’s Purpose in Writing his Psalm
Jesus revealed his weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane so we would appreciate his ultimate grace in submitting to crucifixion while maintaining the ability to prevent it. But why might Nephi have disclosed his own sinfulness when he had the option of withholding it from our view?
I believe it was mainly because, in foreseeing the last days in which the Book of Mormon would come forth, he perceived how dangerous it would be to have men’s teachings accepted merely on the basis of their reputations for righteousness and closeness to God. He wanted men and women to study, ponder and pray on their own, listening for the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, in order to discover gospel truths. Accordingly, it was just as important for a Protestant to not accept Alexander Campbell’s views of the Book of Mormon based on Campbell’s righteous reputation, or for a Catholic to not accept the pope’s rejection of all teachings outside the catechism based on his own purported infallibility, as it was for LDS members to not accept a teaching or practice of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young just because either was thought to be righteous and therefore inerrant. Hero worship of people other than Christ himself not only leads to the acceptance of erroneous teachings by many of those people, it inevitably causes splintering and competition as increasing numbers of individuals vie for heroic primacy. As explained in numerous essays on this website, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seen the introduction of scores of false doctrines into its beliefs since its organization in 1830, and all of these have resulted from the notion that leaders’ ideas must be accepted because God wouldn’t allow Joseph Smith or his successors to misunderstand gospel truths or teach false doctrine. Many new churches have broken off from the 1830 original because of their members’ views of Joseph Smith’s fallibility or infallibility, and the hemorrhaging of members continues today. I believe Nephi saw this problem throughout Christianity and did his best to prevent it.
A second reason Nephi disclosed his own sins was likely the need to model honesty in the self-reporting of religious history. Prophets and record keepers were not to represent themselves as being more righteous than they really were. Reporting truthfully was infinitely more important than protecting reputations with misleading history. Christians can’t avoid mistakes if those mistakes have never been reported in the scriptures they read. If Nephi’s brother Jacob hadn’t accurately described the evils of David’s and Solomon’s polygamy and concubine usage, more people would be persuaded to follow that bad example. Which is exactly what happened in the LDS Church, of course, despite Jacob’s accurate reporting. Joseph Smith was thought incapable of sexual immorality, and much heartbreak ensued.
Why the LDS Church Focuses Insufficient Attention on Nephi’s Psalm
To be sure, certain limited aspects of 2 Nephi 4 have received a fair amount of attention from Book of Mormon scholars, and, to a lesser extent, from the LDS Church’s curricular writers who compose lesson material. But the scholarly attention has centered on the form of the chapter, or the obvious observation that it teaches God’s goodness in forgiving our mistakes. They correctly point out that Nephi clearly meant his words to be a psalm, and in recording his sentiments, he clearly follows the lyrical, poetic form that characterizes the Psalmic genre. They also correctly note that it is specifically similiar to Psalms Chapter 51 in the Bible wherein David confesses his sin and asks the Lord to forgive him; in fact, Nephi even uses language in verse 32 that is borrowed from Psalms 51:17. One scholar, John Welch, has also expounded on Nephi’s lament in the context of it coming on the heels of Lehi’s death and Nephi’s realization that he must continue the resistance to evil that his father has started. Other scholars have even tried to make a connection between Nephi’s psalm and temple rituals in Old Testament times.
But none of the scholars address specifically which sins, transgressions or temptations have caused Nephi to falter, or what the disclosure of his admittedly serious sins and repeated failures means in terms of the way we regard religious leaders. Those subjects remain out of bounds. For evidence of the reluctance or refusal to address these topics, I encourage interested readers to visit bookofmormoncentral.org, which is the best site I know of for scholarly information on Book of Mormon topics (and to which I am happy to contribute money), and do a search for “Nephi’s Psalm” or “Psalm of Nephi.” You will find, I submit, that the articles there dance around, but ultimately avoid, the most important messages Nephi was actually trying to convey in his psalm.
The LDS Church’s official teachings on the substance and meaning of Nephi’s psalm trivialize it much more than the independent scholars. Nothing illustrates this better than the following paragraph. This is the full extent of the Church’s commentary on Nephi’s lament over his sins in its Book of Mormon Student Manual for college students taking the Religion 121-122 class:
Throughout the Book of Mormon we note Nephi’s righteousness, his faithfulness in tribulation, and his dedication to God, but still he exclaimed, “O wretched man that I am! … I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me” (2 Nephi 4:17-18). The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) taught that “the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin” (History of the Church, 2:8). Perhaps Nephi felt burdened by what we might consider trivial weaknesses to the point where they caused him sorrow, and he sought to be free from any vestige of sin.3
Why is the Church motivated to characterize Nephi’s sins and temptations as “trivial weaknesses” when the opposite is so obviously true? The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s familiar with LDS culture. To fully absorb the meaning and reasons behind Nephi’s psalm is to confront an unsettling and threatening prospect–that religious leaders, including even the greatest of prophets, are capable of serious sins, can in some areas of their lives be bad examples, and if they seek to cover up their sins or unduly exalt themselves, can preach false doctrine and lead people astray, and the Lord won’t necessarily intervene and prevent it from happening. If the great Nephi could repeatedly succumb to serious temptations, then Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and their successors could, too. The idea of leaders being that imperfect would also suggest they could teach false doctrines and lead the Church into error. If notions of priesthood authority, polygamy , and the importance of temple ordinances, all of them ascriptural but nevertheless taught by latter-day church leaders, could be false, then how is the LDS Church better than any other Christian church? What if it’s not? Perish the thought!
No major Christian denomination treats its administrative leaders with more worshipful veneration than the LDS Church. Every LDS apostle who ascends to the office of President of the Church is automatically labeled a prophet of God, despite the fact that he obtained that office solely by being the most senior apostle, and regardless of whether he prophecies about future events, calls city-states or nations to repentance, or performs miracles like ancient prophets did. He becomes a “prophet” by definitional decree, since all presidents are accepted and officially sustained in church conferences as such. In fact, every year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asks attendees of its general (i.e., open to everyone) conferences to sustain by vote the top fifteen administrators of the Church as “prophets, seers and revelators.” And later, when a member seeks a temple recommend to be allowed to enter LDS temples, he or she must reaffirm that same sustaining vote. All members are taught to “follow the prophet,” and that same mantra is the title of a song taught to, and frequently sung in church meetings by, the Church’s young children. One of the most popular hymns sung by LDS adults is “Praise to the Man,” a hymn of tribute to Joseph Smith.
Moreover, about half the lessons and talks delivered on LDS Sundays in church meetings are repeats of talks given by the church’s top leaders in said General Conferences. When one of these leaders walks into any conference held anywhere in the world, attendees traditionally stand, and the leaders are always accorded the elevated, downward-looking “chief seats in the synagogue.” When members are urged to attend upcoming regional conferences where Church general authorities will be present, it is common to hear the man doing the urging say, “This is our chance to sit at the feet of the prophets.” Portrait photographs of these men adorn the walls of LDS bishops’ offices and high council rooms in local meetinghouses everywhere.
But the most pervasive influences wielded by the Church’s top leaders is over church doctrine and history. In “Mormondom,” doctrine and history are what the leaders say they are. If lay members are allowed to interpret scriptures and history on their own, and disagree with what they consider general authorities’ erroneous teachings, the Church cannot function in its present form. It must either expel dissidents or allow those dissidents to threaten the belief that the LDS Church is God’s only true church, the only one with priesthood authority, the only one God considers his own.
That is why the interpretation of Nephi’s psalm is foreordained before the orthodox church leader, curriculum writer or member begins to read it. It must support the current nostrums of Mormonism, which require that post-1830 prophets and apostles cannot be guilty of repeated, serious sins. Nor can they teach false doctrine, nor err in any meaningful way that would lead members astray. Notice how the Church portrays Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, eliminating any possibility of sexual temptation as a possible motivator. The following is an excerpt from a Gospel Topics essay entitled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” on the LDS Church’s official website:
After receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives and introduced the practice to close associates. This principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members. Plural marriage tested faith and provoked controversy and opposition. Few Latter-day Saints initially welcomed the restoration of a biblical practice entirely foreign to their sensibilities. But many later testified of powerful spiritual experiences that helped them overcome their hesitation and gave them courage to accept this practice.
Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment. Significant social and cultural changes often include misunderstandings and difficulties. Church leaders and members experienced these challenges as they heeded the command to practice plural marriage and again later as they worked to discontinue it after Church President Wilford Woodruff issued an inspired statement known as the Manifesto in 1890, which led to the end of plural marriage in the Church. Through it all, Church leaders and members sought to follow God’s will.
. . .
When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.
Elsewhere on this website I have refuted the Church’s statement that polygamy was ever a commandment to anyone, especially Joseph Smith and his peers and successors. See, Polygamy, Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 and their Doctrinal and Historical Problems within Mormonism. But the assertions in the three paragraphs above are so heavily slanted toward protecting prior church leaders from appearing fallible that they allege the absurd, hearsay claim that an angel threatened to kill Joseph Smith unless he reluctantly agreed to take on numerous additional sex partners. Sexual temptation was an impossible explanation, you see, because church members, and church leaders especially, could only have acted out of a desire to follow God’s commandments in taking additional wives.
Therefore, in order for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to maintain this facade, Nephi’s descriptions of his own temptations and sins must all refer to trivial peccadilloes, not salvation-threatening errors that leave him feeling near the gates of hell if he doesn’t successfully repent. The Church approaches Nephi’s psalm the way I did when I first encountered the Potato Paradox problem. The answer just had to be in the ballpark of 99. 50 was out of the question, so I couldn’t think along the lines that would lead me to the right answer.
The Proper View of Nephi’s Psalm
If you’re feeling depressed or brokenhearted about your own weaknesses, or are questioning whether a particular church teaching is as inspired as church leaders purport it to be, discovering you’re a fellow traveler with a struggling Nephi, or that even a great prophet can be wrong, might be not only reassuring, but exhilarating. Perhaps you’re not inferior to past or present church leaders as you had supposed. You might find great hope for yourself in that.
But if you’re determined to cling to the idea that otherwise righteous leaders can’t be wrong and lead others astray, the discovery of Nephi’s flaws is painful. Might modern leaders err also? Maybe we should question Nephi. Maybe he got a little bit carried away the night that he wrote that psalm. He probably exaggerated his woes. He must have simply had overly high standards for himself, like all of our uncommonly unerring leaders.
1. I have omitted verses where Nephi decries the anger he feels toward his enemies simply because it’s not as serious a sin as the other ones to which Nephi seems to be confessing, and isn’t as relevant to the point of this essay. But to the extent these omitted verses might refer to human enemies, I don’t believe they necessarily refer to Laman and Lemuel and their followers, though they may. Instead, considered completely in context, my guess is that Nephi’s enemies are those who are aware of his weaknesses and sins and seek to exploit them for their own purposes so as to bring him down in some way. They may have included his brothers, or others we’re not aware of, or a combination of those two groups. These enemies would always possess the ability to not only damage Nephi’s reputation, but also discredit the religion he taught and threaten the faith of his unsuspecting followers. If so, Nephi must have realized that difficult as it might be, by admitting his own failings, repenting and seeking God’s help, he would show his people humility and honesty, and substantially diminish the influence other evil-minded people had over him.
2. I infer Nephi’s wife participated in the rebellion because on two prior occasions when Nephi was persecuted, each time he specifically noted that some of Ishmael’s daughters participated and some didn’t (see 1 Nephi 7:6, 19). However, on this occasion, Nephi didn’t say any daughter abstained from the murmuring and rebellion.
3. Book of Mormon Student Manual, (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2009), Chapter 8, 2 Nephi 4-8. This lesson not only brushes over Nephi’s psalm, it covers five chapters of 2 Nephi.