Evidence #67 | September 19, 2020

Nephi's Psalm

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Literary analysis of 2 Nephi 4:16–35 (often referred to as “Nephi’s Psalm”) suggests that it was authored by an individual with an awareness of the poetic form, thematic structure, and specific wording of various psalms found in the Old Testament.

Known by many Book of Mormon readers as “Nephi’s Psalm,”1 2 Nephi 4:16–35 expresses Nephi’s personal hopes, joys, sorrows, and trials. These passages, likely written soon after Lehi’s death,2  share a number of features with psalms of the Old Testament.

Poetic Form

In his lyrical analysis of 2 Nephi 4:16–35, Steven P. Sondrup found that these passages contain a number of poetic parallelisms.3 After graphically illustrating various parallel structures and explaining their relationships, Sondrup concluded,

Ultimately, the reason for reading this text as a poem is that the complex system of parallelisms suggests the author intended, at least in part, to call attention to language, his medium of expression, to write a text which was, at least to a degree, self-referential, and to celebrate the essence and power of the word as such: he intended his text should be read as a poem.4

Image compilation by Book of Mormon Central.

Thematic Structure

Matthew Nickerson has established that Nephi’s Psalm structurally fits the biblical psalm type termed “individual lament,”5 which typically includes the following categories:6

After presenting an in-depth analysis of Nephi’s Psalm and its relationship to these categories, Nickerson concluded,

Nephi’s psalm plainly follows the format and substance of the individual lament as described by Gunkel and elaborated upon by numerous subsequent scholars. Study and comparison reveal that 2 Nephi 4:16–35 is indeed a true psalm and not merely a passage of scripture bearing similarities in tone and feeling to the Old-Testament Psalter.7

Shared Words and Phrases

In his textual analysis of 2 Nephi 4, John Hilton III found that of “the 660 words comprising the Psalm of Nephi, 127 (approximately 20 percent) are key words or phrases that are also found in the biblical Psalter.”8 Although some of the shared words and phrases in the study are fairly generic and therefore insignificant, others are meaningful because they are exclusive to these texts.9 Hilton concluded,

When the multiple connections to Psalms are added together, Nephi could have alluded to potentially forty seven different Psalms in just eighteen verses. It stretches one’s imagination to believe that Joseph Smith could have been responsible for making all of these connections, particularly with the understanding that the Psalm of Nephi may have been translated in less than two hours.10

Kenneth Alford and D. Bryce Baker have likewise found similarities in the language of 2 Nephi 4 and the wording found biblical psalms, particularly in the sequence of Psalms 25 to 31.11 This group of psalms is mostly composed of individual laments and also songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.   

Nephi Praying. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

A Theme of Trust

According to Psalms scholar Peter Craigie, Psalms 25 and 28 should be read in the context of a covenant-making ceremony (see, e.g. 25:10, 1428:4, 7). Craigie noted:

The attitude of trust is the key to the psalmist’s preparation, for trust signifies dependence and hope based upon the covenant character of God. He trusts because God is faithful as the God of the covenant promises; he trusts because those who have trusted in the past have experienced the presence and help of God.12 

Nephi’s emphatic trust in the Lord is likewise a key feature of his own psalm: “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 maketh flesh his arm (2 Nephi 4:34; emphasis added).

Conclusion

In Nickerson’s view, the identification of 2 Nephi 4:16–35 as an authentic Psalm “is a direct result of modern biblical scholarship.”13 This research helps establish that 2 Nephi 4:16–35 was most likely authored by an individual who was intimately aware of the wording, structure, and thematic content of many psalms found in the Old Testament.

Kenneth L. Alford and D. Bryce Baker, “Parallels between Psalms 25–31 and the Psalm of Nephi,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament (2013 Sperry Symposium), ed. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Matthew J. Grey, and David Rolph Seely (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2013), 312–328.

John Hilton III, “Old Testament Psalms in the Book of Mormon,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament (2013 Sperry Symposium), ed. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Matthew J. Grey, and David Rolph Seely (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2013), 291–311.

S. Kent Brown, “Nephi’s Psalm,” in The Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2003), 602–603.

David Bokovoy, “From Distance to Proximity: A Poetic Function of Enallage in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 60–63.

John W. Welch, “The Psalm of Nephi as a Post-Lehi Document,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 72–74.

Matthew Nickerson, “Nephi’s Psalm: 2 Nephi 4:16–35 in Light of Form-Critical Analysis,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6, no. 2 (1997): 26–42.

Steven P. Sondrup, “The Psalm of Nephi: A Lyric Reading,” BYU Studies 21, no. 3 (1981): 357–372.

2 Nephi 4:16–35

2 Nephi 4:16–35

Literary Features
Poetry
Nephi's Psalm
Book of Mormon

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