The Book of Psalms and the Book of Mormon

The brass plates which Lehi and his family carried from Jerusalem contained a lot of content which overlaps with the Old Testament. Nephi describes three categories of writings, which correspond with three of the four groupings of books in the Old Testament:

  1. “The five books of Moses” – The Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy)
  2. “A record of the Jews” – The History (Joshua through 2 Chronicles—the subsequent books, Ezra through Esther were written later)
  3. “The prophecies of the holy prophets” – The Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi, although some of those prophets lived after Lehi’s departure)

(See 1 Nephi 5:11-13, “Welcome to the Old Testament,” Old Testament Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students.)

Missing from Nephi’s description is the fourth category of books: The Poetry, including the book of Psalms. However there are so many phrases from Psalms in the Book of Mormon that it seems likely at least some of the psalms were on the plates. John Hilton III identified 43 Book of Mormon passages which appear to quote from psalms. (“Old Testament Psalms in the Book of Mormon,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament, 2013, 291–311). The Book of Mormon Central organization subsequently identified about sixty (“Why Are Certain Biblical Psalms Used by Book of Mormon Authors?,” 7 June 2018).

Here are a few phrases from the book of Psalms which had a particularly strong influence on Book of Mormon authors:

1. “The multitude of thy tender mercies”

Nephi opens his record with a promise:

I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.

1 Nephi 1:20

The term “tender mercies” may have been important to him because his father used it when he described his dream. Near the beginning of the dream, he found himself in “a dark and dreary waste.” After wandering for many hours, he said, “I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy upon me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies” (1 Nephi 8:7-8). Immediately after, he was led to the tree of life.

Moroni borrows this phrase when he describes the arrival of the Jaredites in the promised land: “They…did shed tears of joy before the Lord,” he wrote, “because of the multitude of his tender mercies over them” (Ether 6:12).

The phrase “tender mercies” appears eleven times in the King James Version of the Bible, ten times in the book of Psalms, and once in Proverbs. It is a translation of the Hebrew word racham (רַחַם), meaning “compassion.”

In two of David’s most personal psalms, he pleads with God to bless him “according to the multitude of thy tender mercies” (Psalm 51:1, Psalm 69:16), the exact phrase Lehi used in his dream. “Multitude” in these passages is a translation of the Hebrew word rob (רֹב), which also means “abundance.” David knew that God has an abundance of compassion toward us, which we can appeal to as we pray. Nephi saw that compassion in his life and wrote his history in order to help us see it as well.

2. “Clean hands and a pure heart”

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?” asked David, “or who shall stand in his holy place?” His answer: “He that hath clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4).

That’s a tall order. Can any of us claim to have pure motives and to be free from sin? Of course not, but Book of Mormon prophets emphasized that Jesus Christ can cleanse and purify us, to prepare us to return to God’s presence. Nephi prophesied that the house of Israel would one day be gathered and “persuaded to believe in Christ, the Son of God, and the atonement, which is infinite for all mankind,” so that they can “worship the Father in his name, with pure hearts and clean hands” (2 Nephi 25:16). And Alma urged the people of Zarahemla to visualize the Final Judgment, asking, “Can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands?” He then testified, “There can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoke by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins” (Alma 5:19, 21).

Both Nephi and Alma acknowledged David’s declaration that we must be clean and pure when we approach God, and both of them emphasized that such a state is possible through Jesus Christ.

3. “A broken heart and a contrite spirit”

In Psalm 34, King David describes the attitude we must have to be close to God:

The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.

Psalm 34:18

This principle became very personal to him later, as he sought forgiveness for his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. In Psalm 51, where he pleads with God to forgive those sins, he acknowledges the futility of assuming that religious observances alone will suffice:

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Psalm 51:16-17

Lehi and Nephi both acknowledged the importance of a broken heart and a contrite spirit as we seek forgiveness. (See 2 Nephi 2:7, 2 Nephi 4:32.) But this principle really becomes prominent after the destruction which coincided with the death of Jesus Christ. As the Nephites and Lamanites sit in darkness, reeling from the set of natural disasters they have just experienced, they hear the voice of the Savior calling them to repentance. His instructions are reminiscent of David’s recognition that it’s all about our attitude in the end:

Ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.

And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.

3 Nephi 9:19-20

Thereafter, both Mormon and Moroni emphasize the importance of broken hearts and contrite spirits. (See Mormon 2:14, Ether 4:15.) Moroni specifically included it in a list of requirements for baptism. (See Moroni 6:2.)

4. “Harden not your heart”

What is the opposite of a broken heart? A hardened heart. This concept appears throughout the Old Testament, most prominently to describe Pharaoh’s stubbornness in the face of the plagues. (See Exodus 4, 7-11, 14.) But one psalm in particular attributes a hard heart to the beneficiaries of those plagues: the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. “To day if ye will hear his voice,” says the psalm, “harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest” (Psalm 95:7-11).

I’ve written before about how Jacob paraphrased this psalm to explain why he called his people to repentance. Alma also used this psalm as his text in responding to a hostile question in the city of Ammonihah. (See the following blog posts: What Are the Two “Provocations” Discussed by Alma?, He Shall Have Claim on Mercy – Alma 12:33-35, and Rest.) And Alma’s missionary companion, Amulek, also referenced this psalm in his message to the Zoramites: “I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you” (Alma 34:31).

More broadly, it would be difficult to overstate the significance of overcoming hardened hearts as a theme throughout the Book of Mormon. In the Old Testament, the concept of a hardened heart appears 30 times, 21 of those times in reference to Pharoah. In contrast, it appears 95 times in the Book of Mormon, usually as an admonition to open our hearts and receive God’s blessings. Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, Amulek, and Samuel the Lamanite all urged their listeners to overcome their hardened hearts. Mormon repeatedly points out the negative consequences when the people hardened their hearts, and he laments in a letter to his son that his people won’t listen to the word of God, because “they harden their hearts against it” (Moroni 9:4). Moroni tells us that the marvelous things seen by the brother of Jared will be manifest to us as soon as we “rend that veil of unbelief” which causes us to remain in our “awful state” of “hardness of heart” (Ether 4:15).

The admonition in Psalm 95, “Harden not your heart,” becomes a major theme in the Book of Mormon. God’s blessings are available to us, according to Book of Mormon prophets, but we can only receive them if we are willing to open our hearts.

Conclusion

Not only did Book of Mormon authors make numerous allusions to passages from the book of Psalms, but some concepts from psalms had a significant influence on the Book of Mormon message. In particular, God’s abundant compassion toward us, the Savior’s ability to cleanse and purify us, and the need for us to offer God a broken heart instead of our hardened hearts are themes which permeate the book. The influence of psalms on Book of Mormon prophets is significant indeed.

Today, I will remember God’s abundant goodness and His ability to purify me. I will approach Him with a “broken heart and a contrite spirit,” believing that He will accept my offering and have mercy on me.

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