Joseph Smith and the Poetic Writings

Joseph Fielding McConkie

Joseph F. McConkie, “Joseph Smith and the Poetic Writings,” in The Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Truths, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1985), 103–20.

Joseph F. McConkie was an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was published.

Most of us are willing to suffer in silence if everyone knows that we are suffering. In the presentations that have been made to this point—and they have all been marvelously insightful and inspiring—my colleagues have lamented that they could tell you but the “hundredth part” of what the Prophet did. My assignment is somewhat different. Whereas they took to themselves those books in which the Prophet did much, they have invited me to speak on those books in which the Prophet did nothing, or at least comparatively little. Yet, I am far too good a sport to even mention that they ate the steak and left me the soup bone. I have no complaints, for the company is good and the soup is good. The handprint of the Prophet is also to be found upon the poetic books, and significant lessons are there to be learned. Where Joseph walked he sowed seeds, and those seeds—nourished with even a modest amount of scholarship and a particle of faith—make what was a desert blossom as a rose.

The books I will review are Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. The latter three of these books merit little more than a passing observation. All scripture is not of equal worth and these books fall far short of the spiritual power contained in some of their companion volumes. We will consider them briefly first and then spend the major portion of our time where it properly belongs—in the Psalms.

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes

Proverbs is an anthology of epigrams, wise sayings, and fatherly advice gathered from both Hebrew and foreign sources over many generations. Ecclesiastes is an attempt to find meaning in a world in which good often goes unrewarded, while evil flourishes. The author of this latter work assumes a position of an aloof observer of human folly while writing in a tone which is at best gloomy. Neither of these books espouses gospel principles or contains so much as a word of prophecy. Other than an occasional proof text for a doctrine that must be established elsewhere or a quotation for a sacrament meeting pep talk, these books go unused. Their relative unimportance is evidenced by the few corrections made in them by the Prophet in the Joseph Smith Translation.

The most significant change made in Proverbs is in the verse which states, “Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). The Prophet corrected the verse to read, “Whoso findeth a good wife hath obtained favor of the Lord.” There was only one change in Ecclesiastes (3:1), and it is of little consequence.

The Song of Solomon

The Song of Solomon appears to be a collection of erotic love poems. Its story line is unclear as is the matter of which of its characters is speaking in many instances. The book makes no mention of God, nor is it quoted in the New Testament. Notwithstanding the inordinate efforts that have been made to make the light of the Spirit shine through it, the Song of Solomon does not give forth light nor is there a single spiritual truth to be found in it. Those seeking a positive message in the book have found it only by means of allegory: that is, by interpreting everything in it as meaning something other than what it says. Let me illustrate. The story apparently deals with a virtuous young maiden, the daughter of a widowed mother, who loves a young shepherd to whom she is betrothed. She is employed by her brothers in their vineyard, and while on her way there happens into company with the king and his traveling party. The king is so impressed with her beauty that he brings her to his pavillion and eventually takes her to Jerusalem. He surrounds her with the pomp, splendor, and the glory of his court, hoping thereby to win her love. Yet her love for the shepherd boy remains unswayed by royal blandishments. When the king realizes he has failed to gain her favor, he sets her free to marry the shepherd. Now, what have commentators had to say of this work?

The rabbis interpreted the book to be an expression of God’s love for the Jews. Christian commentators have claimed it as an expression of God’s love for them in preference to the Jews. Other interpretations have included the idea that it is a history of the Jews from the Exodus to the Messiah; that it is a book of consolation for Israel; that it is an occult history; that it represents the union of the spirit with the body; that it is a conversation of Solomon and Wisdom; that it is an expression of thanksgiving on Solomon’s part for a peaceful reign; that it is an account of the reconciliation of God and man; that it is a prophecy of the Church from the Crucifixion through the Reformation and the coming of Christ in power; that it is an account of the marriage of Solomon with the daughter of Pharaoh; that it is a prophetic description of the sepulchre of the Savior and his death; that it is a description of Hezekiah and the ten tribes; and of course, according to Roman Catholics, it is the glorification of the Virgin Mary. [1] These interpretations include the idea that the watchmen, vineyard-keepers, shepherds, etc., are the ministers of the gospel, and the wine so often spoken of is a representation of the joys of the Holy Spirit.

None, however, have spoken with greater praise of the Song of Solomon than the famed Rabbi Akiba who argued for its place in the Canon saying, “For in all the world there is nothing to equal the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” [2] It was, he said, written by God himself on Mount Sinai, and in it was to be found God’s description of himself. [3]

In contrast to all of this, the Prophet Joseph Smith, while laboring on the Joseph Smith Translation, simply said: “The Songs of Solomon are not Inspired Writings,” and he left them out of his translation of the Bible. [4]

In the Song of Solomon, we have the classic historical illustration that you do not establish doctrine from poetry and that you most assuredly do not establish it from allegory.

One verse from the Song of Solomon, chapter 6:10, finds expression in the Doctrine and Covenants, suggesting the possibility that the author of the Song took it from a scriptural source now lost to us. [5] The verse is in question form: “Who,” it asks, “is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” It might be quite romantic to tell your new bride that she is beautiful as the dawn, the morning stars, or even as glorious as moonlight, but I dare say that it will not be well received if you tell her that she is “terrible as an army with banners.”

The manner in which the passage is used in the Doctrine and Covenants seems much more natural. It is first used in Doctrine and Covenants 5:10, where it refers to the Church coming forth in the last days “out of the wilderness” of the dark ages. It is used again in Doctrine and Covenants 105:31, where it describes the army of Israel, which army, the Lord said, was to become “very great,” “be sanctified,” and thus become “fair as the sun, and clear as the moon, that her banners may be terrible unto all nations.” The Prophet also used this language in the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple to describe the Church which had come out of the “wilderness of darkness” to “be adorned as a bride” for that day when the Lord would come (D&C 109:73–74). The language is very reminiscent of that of Isaiah wherein he spoke of that day when the Lord would “cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations,” for both bride and bridegroom would be clothed in “the garments of salvation,” and the “robes of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10–11; D&C 109:76).

Psalms—A Bible within a Bible

The book of Psalms is a collection of one hundred fifty hymns used by ancient Israel in their temple worship. King David is credited with the authorship of seventy-three of these compositions, twelve are ascribed to a temple musician named Asaph (Psalms 50; 73–83), two of them are reputed to have been written by Solomon (Psalms 72, 127), Moses is said to have written one of them (Psalm 90); the authorship of the others remains unknown. The period of their composition may well stretch from Moses to two hundred years past the time of Malachi. Their content ranges from some of the oldest to perhaps the most recent of Old Testament writings. There is no chronology represented in the order in which they have been placed in the Psalter, though they have obviously been divided into five sections or five books within the book, each division closing with a doxology or utterance of praise to God (Psalms 1–41; 42–72; 73–89; 90–106; 107–150). Tradition has it that this was in imitation of the Pentateuch.

In the time period of its composition, the number of its authors, and the breadth of its content, the book of Psalms is easily the most comprehensive book in the Bible. Martin Luther called it the “little Bible” and indeed it is a library within a library, or a Bible within a Bible. As such it provides us with an excellent case study as to how scripture comes into being, how it was perverted in the hands of uninspired men, and its absolute dependency on the spirit of revelation for meaningful understanding. Since no message is more central to the Psalms than the coming of Christ, let us take its messianic prophecies as our illustration.

Suppose, for instance, that we lived in Old Testament times, that this building was our synagogue, and that we had come today to worship. In that day, the system of worship consisted of the reading of scripture and discussion as to its meaning. Suppose further that the text chosen for the day was Psalm 69. Now let us quote from this Psalm written by David at a time of great personal distress and consider what commentary would have been given on it:

Verse 8. “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.” (Would the commentary on this verse have announced, as did John [John 7:5], that it applied to Christ, whose brothers—that is, Mary’s other sons—would not believe in him?)

Verse 9. “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up . . .” (Would this verse have been understood as a prophecy of Christ cleansing the temple? So it was announced again by John [John 2:17].)

Verse 21. “They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Would this verse have been seen as a prophecy to be fulfilled by Christ at his crucifixion as testified to by Matthew, Mark, and John [Matthew 27:34, 48; Mark 15:23; John 19:29]?)

Verse 22. “Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.”

Verse 23. “Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.” (Would these verses have been explained as a prophecy of the wickedness of their nation at the time of Christ, their rejection of him and the subsequent taking of the gospel to the Gentiles as it was explained by the apostle Paul [Romans 11:9–11]?)

Verse 25. “Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.” (Would any have been expected to see in these words Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and the necessity of another being called to fill his place among the apostles as explained by Peter [Acts 1:20]?)

Would these verses have been seen as anything more than a recital of David’s complaints against his enemies and his hope that they be rewarded according to their works? Could anyone living at that time independent of the spirit of prophecy hear these verses read and know that they were messianic? If we did not have the testimony of the Gospel writers, would any of these verses be clear to us? Thus the book of Psalms, our Bible within the Bible, establishes the principle—it takes prophets to understand prophets and scripture to understand scripture.

Now, the point of the illustration is this: the book of Psalms is as much a book of prophecy for our day as it was for those living before the coming of Christ. That is, it is as much in need of the help of contemporary prophets and contemporary scripture if it is to be understood in our day as it was in days of old. It contains many phrases and verses, and in some instances, entire chapters that prophesy of events of the last days, including the First Vision; the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; the restoration of the gospel; the gathering of Israel; the building of temples; and the establishment of Zion, matters which are as far removed from the understanding of Bible readers today as its messianic prophecies were from the peoples of the Old Testament. The book and its many mysterious passages could only be unlocked by one who rightfully professed “power from on high,” and such a one was the Prophet Joseph Smith, and such is the story that we will now briefly tell.

The Gathering and Redemption of Israel

Joseph Smith was still in his teens when he learned of the prophetic significance of the book of Psalms. We can virtually identify the very moment—it was during the night and early morning hours of the 21 and 22 September 1823, when Moroni first visited him. It was Oliver Cowdery who, after a lengthy conversation with the Prophet, preserved this knowledge for us. [6] In the Pearl of Great Price account, Joseph Smith only tells us of a few of the passages of scripture quoted and explained by Moroni, adding that “he quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here” (JS-H 1:36–41). In his account of what the Prophet told him, Oliver lists more than two dozen such passages, among which are five of the Psalms. We will briefly examine each. They are Psalms 91:6; 100; 107; 144; and 146:10. Though Moroni’s explanation of these passages has not been preserved for us, their interpretation in the context of Moroni’s instruction to Joseph Smith will be obvious.

Psalm 91:6. This is a messianic psalm, the introductory verses of which are refrains of praise and rejoicing in the protection afforded Israel through faith in God. The sixth verse speaks of pestilence and of a “destruction that wasteth at noonday.” Moroni placed the passage in the same context as Joel’s prophecy that the moon would turn to blood and the stars fall from heaven (see Joel 2:31), and Isaiah’s prophecy of the earth reeling to and fro as a drunken man (see Isaiah 24:20). Oliver’s account records, “The Lord will bring to the knowledge of his people his commandments and statutes, that they may be prepared to stand when the . . . nations tremble, and the destroying angel goes forth to waste the inhabitants at noon-day: for so great are to be the calamities which are to come upon the inhabitants of the earth, before the coming of the Son of Man the second time, that whoso is not prepared cannot abide; but such as are found faithful, and remain, shall be gathered with his people and caught up to meet the Lord in the cloud, and so shall they inherit eternal life.” [7] Moroni would obviously have emphasized to Joseph Smith his role in restoring the “commandments and statutes” of the Lord that a people might be prepared to stand when the Lord comes.

Psalm 100. This Psalm begins with the announcement that all the earth must declare the Lord and serve him joyfully. It is an invitation for the worthy of all nations to “come before his presence,” which is an Old Testament phrase meaning “to come to the temple.” The witness of the Psalmist is that the truths taught therein endure from generation to generation, unchanged. This, we learn from Moroni, was the day for which David longed and often prayed. Further, we are told that David knew that such a day could not come “until the knowledge of the glory of God covered all lands, or all the earth.” [8]

Psalm 107. This Psalm speaks of affliction and distress which would come upon Israel because they “rebelled against the words of God.” It promised a day when they would be freed from their bondage of “darkness” and gathered from the lands of the “east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south,” a time when the Lord would “send his word” and heal them, after which they would be expected to “declare” or testify of “his works with rejoicing.” The Psalm also promises that for those so gathered the Lord would turn the “desert into pools of water, and parched earth into springs of water.” [9] Here the hungry, it was prophesied, would settle and establish a city to dwell in and be blessed with abundant harvests. Here they were to multiply “greatly,” for the promise was that the Lord would make “him families like a flock.”

Commenting on this, Oliver wrote: “Most clearly was it shown to the prophet, that the righteous should be gathered from all the earth: He knew that the children of Israel were led from Egypt, by the right hand of the Lord, and permitted to possess the land of Canaan, though they were rebellious in the desert, but he further knew that they were not gathered from the east, the west, the north and the south, at that time; for it was clearly manifested that the Lord himself would prepare a habitation, even as he said, when he would lead them to a city of refuge.” [10]

Psalms 144:11–12 and 146:10. Here we again find David praying for that day when Israel will be freed from the hand of foreigners that her sons might be “as plants grown up in their youth” and their daughters “as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace.” Only then, according to the Cowdery account of Moroni’s discourse, will their sons and daughters prophesy, their old men dream dreams, and young men see visions. This was then given as the context of Psalm 46:10, which announces a day when the Lord would reign forever in Zion.

The Joseph Smith Translation and the Psalms

Joseph Smith made changes in almost two hundred verses in the Psalms. Most of these, however, were mechanical or grammatical changes. Let us briefly examine some of the significant doctrinal changes he made.

Psalm 11. This song is an expression of trust in God. It speaks of the wicked who will “privily shoot at the upright in heart.” It assures that the Lord will protect his own, while raining “snares, fire and brimstone” upon the wicked. Changes made by the Prophet in this Psalm place it in the context of the last days with the protection afforded the Saints being found in the temple of the Lord, represented by the symbol “my mountain.” The private attacks of the wicked, we learn, are directed at the “foundation” of the faith of the righteous, yet we are assured that it is the “foundation” of the wicked that is to be destroyed. “The Lord loveth the righteous,” we are told while “the wicked . . . his soul hateth.”

Psalm 14. The JST rendering of this Psalm reads like another account of the First Vision. The first verse reads: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no man that hath seen God. Because he showeth himself not unto us, therefore there is no God. Behold, they are corrupt; they have done abominable works, and none of them doeth good.” The second verse has the Lord speaking from heaven to “his servant” asking if there are any who “understand God.” The response is that many so profess. In the third verse the Lord says of those so professing that “they are all gone aside, they are together become filthy,” and that there are none of them “doing good, no, not one.” Continuing in the next verse he says, “All they have for their teachers are workers of iniquity, and there is no knowledge in them.” Finally the Psalm concludes with the longing refrain: “Oh that Zion were established out of heaven, the salvation of Israel. O Lord, when wilt thou establish out of heaven, the salvation of Israel? O Lord, when wilt thou establish Zion? When the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, Israel shall be glad.”

Seeing God. Other changes made by the Prophet in the Psalms are consistent in sustaining the idea that he will manifest himself to the righteous. For instance, in Psalm 13:1 to the question “how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” are added the words “that I may not see thee? Wilt thou forget me, and cast me off from thy presence for ever?” Psalm 42:2 which reads, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God,” was changed by the Prophet to read, “My soul thirsteth for to see God, for to see the living God.” Psalm 90:13, which refers to how long it will be until the Lord returns, was changed in the Joseph Smith Translation of this verse to ask: “How long wilt thou hide thy face from thy servants?”

That Joseph Smith had in mind the actual appearance of the Lord to men in the flesh in these texts is evident from the manner in which the same phrase is used in the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 84, a great revelation on the priesthood, announces the necessity of Israel of our day obtaining the “power of godliness” that they might “see the face of God, even the Father, and live.” Further, we are told that such was the design of Moses, and so he “sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God. But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence” (D&C 84:22–24). To modern Israel the Lord has said: “Sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C 88:68). Again in Doctrine and Covenants the Lord assures the obedient that they “shall see my face and know that I am” (D&C 93:1).

Other renderings of the Psalms sustain the emphasis that Joseph Smith placed on the righteous being privileged to see God. For instance, the footnote in our new LDS edition of the Bible for the phrase, “his countenance doth behold the upright” in Psalm 11:7 notes that the verse could have been rendered, “the upright shall behold his face.” This is the rendering given it in the American Standard Version. In Psalm 27:8 we read the injunction of the Lord that we seek his face. The language of this text is picked up in the Doctrine and Covenants: “And seek the face of the Lord always, that in patience ye may possess your souls, and ye shall have eternal life” (D&C 101:38).

Psalm 90:13, which reads “Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants,” was corrected to read: “Return us, O Lord. [Note that it is “us” not the Lord who left.] How long wilt thou hide thy face from thy servants?” Clarifying that promised day, Psalm 102:18, which speaks of a people that would be “created” to praise the Lord, is corrected to speak of a people who shall be “gathered” to his praise.

Redeeming the Oppressed. Central themes of the Psalms are the first and second comings of Christ. This message is enhanced and expanded by the Joseph Smith Translation. To that theme is added these words in Psalm 12:1: “In that day thou shalt help, O Lord, the poor and the meek of the earth.” It is in the Psalms that we first read the promise that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” “For,” we are told that those who are blessed of the Lord “shall inherit the earth: and they that be cursed of him shall be cut off. . . . The righteous shall inherit the land [earth], and dwell therein for ever” (Psalm 37:11, 22, 29). By revelation through Joseph Smith, we obtain insight into this promise, repeated by Christ in the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5:5), and assumed by virtually all in the sectarian world to be a figurative expression. In the Doctrine and Covenants we are told that this earth will be “sanctified from all unrighteousness,” that it will be celestialized, and that the righteous “poor and the meek” of this world will literally inherit it (D&C 88:17–20).

To Psalm 24, which speaks of Christ as the king of glory, the Prophet added these words: “And he will roll away the heavens; and will come down to redeem his people; to make you an everlasting name; to establish you upon his everlasting rock. . . . Even the king of glory shall come unto you; and shall redeem his people, and shall establish them in righteousness” (JST Psalm 24:8, 10).

Righteousness and Truth. Psalm 32:1, which reads, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” was changed in the JST to read, “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who have no sins to be covered.” To Psalm 33:4 is added the statement that “the word of the Lord is given to the upright,” while Psalm 36:5 adds that “the thoughts of a righteous man ascendeth up” to the heavens. Psalm 138:8, in which David is recorded as saying, “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me,” is improved to read, “The Lord will perfect me in knowledge, concerning his kingdom.”

The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon. Along with such textual corrections, the Joseph Smith Translation provides us with a revealed commentary on Psalm 85:11, which we are told is a prophecy of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The text is a future promise which states, “Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” The commentary on this verse comes to us in the context of a prophecy of Enoch, long lost to the Bible, but restored in the Joseph Smith Translation and presently canonized as a part of the book of Moses. In his prophetic description of events of the last days, Enoch, speaking in the first person for the Father, said:

And righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, to bear testimony of mine Only Begotten; his resurrection from the dead; yea, and also the resurrection of all men; and righteousness and truth will I cause to sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out mine elect from the four quarters of the earth, unto a place which I shall prepare, an Holy City, that my people may gird up their loins, and be looking forth for the time of my coming; for there shall be my tabernacle, and it shall be called Zion, a New Jerusalem (JST Genesis 7:70/Moses 7:62).

The Councils of Heaven

The knowledge of other doctrines restored to us through Joseph Smith also serve to unlock what would otherwise remain hidden to the reader of the book of Psalms. A fascinating illustration of this is the marvelous truth that Joseph Smith restored to us about the pre-earth life, our existence there as spirits, and the grand council in heaven where the plan of salvation was reviewed, the need for a Redeemer explained, and the Firstborn of our Father’s sons chosen to fill that role. With Joseph Smith’s help, these doctrines now lost to the world once again come to light in the Psalms, our Bible within a Bible, just as they do throughout the Bible itself. In fact, there are more references to heavenly councils in the book of Psalms than in any other book of scripture. Let me briefly illustrate this, using the Psalms once again as a case study to demonstrate how gospel truths have been lost or obscured by well-meaning but ignorant translators. Consider the following:

Psalm 82:1. It reads. “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” The word “mighty” in this verse is a translation of the Hebrew word ale which very properly could have been translated “gods” or “heavenly beings.” More perfect renderings of this verse are found in modern translations. For instance:

“God takes his stand in the courts of heaven to deliver judgment among the gods themselves.” (New English Bible.)

“God stands in the divine assembly, among the gods he dispenses justice.” (The Jerusalem Bible.)

“God presides in the divine council, in the midst of the gods adjudicates.” (Anchor Bible Series.) [11]

Scholars, having now admitted that the passage is part of the heavenly council motif, conclude that the Lord is passing judgment on pagan gods. Latter-day Saints, however, immediately recognize it as a companion passage to Abraham 3 where the Lord shows Abraham a vision of the assembly of spirits destined to come to this earth. Some of this congregation of spirits were identified as the “noble and great,” implying that a judgment had been made. Referring to the great ones, the Lord said, “These I will make my rulers,” telling Abraham that he was one of those so chosen. (Abraham 3:22–23.) The Abraham account continues by telling how some of these spirits rebelled at the selection of the Son of Man as the chief messenger of God on earth and were cast out of this heavenly estate (Abraham 3:24–28).

The sixth verse of this Psalm reads: “Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” One prominent secular scholar after nearly a hundred pages of analysis on this verse finally concluded that in it the Father is saying to his rebellious children, “I thought that ye were gods, but since you have proven yourself unworthy you will now be divested of your divine natures and forfeit the privilege of living in heaven.” [12]

Psalm 89:5–8. The picture of the Lord in the midst of a heavenly council is common to many of the Psalms. Consider these verses in the King James Version and then their rendering in a modern translation:

“And the heavens shall praise thy wonders, O Lord: thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints.

“For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord?

“God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him.”

Compare with:

“The heavens praise Thy wonderousness, O Yahweh, Likewise Thy Trustworthiness in the assembly of the gods.

“For who in the skies can be compared with Yahweh; who among the gods is like unto Yahweh?

“A god who inspires awe in the council of the gods, Who is great and fearful beyond all those who surround Him.” [13]

Psalm 29:1–2 summons these same gods to do homage before the Lord, to bow down before him and praise his name, while Psalm 97:7 likewise bids all the gods to bow down before God. Psalm 103:20–21 is an invocation directed to the celestial assembly, Psalm 148:2 commands the angels of the Lord, all who constitute his house, to praise him. Psalm 97:9 records that God is supreme over all the gods, Psalm 96:4 says that God is to be feared over all the gods, and Psalm 95:3 states that God is a great king over all the gods.

Summary and Conclusions

From what Joseph Smith learned by revelation about the poetic writings and from the changes he made in them in his inspired translation, we can draw the following conclusions:

1. All scripture is not of equal worth. Indeed not everything claiming sanctuary in the holy writ is deserving of such protection. Joseph Smith paid relatively little attention to those books that do not contain the testimony of Christ, the doctrines of the kingdom, or prophetic utterances. This I suggest ought be taken as an example for us in both individual study and as we study together in our priesthood quorums, our auxiliary classes, and the religion classes taught here at the Brigham Young University and in the Seminary and Institute program. I for one have attended too many classes that lost sight of the beach in their zeal to collect empty shells.

2. If not directly from the Prophet Joseph Smith, then certainly from the abuse of the poetic writings which he sought to correct, we learn that you do not establish doctrine from poetry, from allegory, or might we add parables. They may be used to sustain good doctrine, but only after that doctrine has been plainly established in the form of unambiguous revelation. As Elder Boyd K. Packer so wisely taught us in a recent general conference, doctrines basic to the salvation of men are not relegated to obscure passages of scripture. [14]

3. As we learn from the messianic psalms and from the psalmic prophecies of the last days, there is no meaningful understanding of revelation without revelation. Many passages given contemporary explanations contain prophecy of future events. Much in the book of Psalms, like the rest of the Bible, is sealed to those who read without the light of revelation, be it the personal promptings of the Holy Ghost, commentary in the form of modern revelation, or the statements of living prophets.

4. David, along with many Old Testament prophets, described the apostasy and scattering of Israel and their latter-day gathering. He and others of the Psalmists knew the story of the Restoration in marvelous detail, even as they knew of events in the life of Christ in minute detail.

It was the apostle Paul who taught us that while the things of man can be understood by the spirit of man, the things of God are understood only by the Spirit of God (see 1 Corinthians 2:11). Thus we learn that it takes prophets to understand prophets, scripture to understand scripture, and the Spirit to understand the things of the Spirit. This was the principle that enabled Joseph Smith to read books sealed to the understanding of the supposedly learned (Isaiah 29:11–12). Describing what it meant for him and Oliver Cowdery to receive the Holy Ghost, Joseph Smith said: “Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of” (JS-H 1:74).

When it came to the Bible, Joseph Smith spoke as one having authority, and rightly so, for save Jesus only, no man ever walked the face of the earth that had greater knowledge of the Bible than he had. A library containing every whit the world knows about the book would not rival his understanding. It is one thing to read the book and quite another to be instructed by its authors. Who among the world’s scholars can boast of having stood face to face with Adam, Enoch, Noah, a messenger from Abraham’s dispensation, Moses, John the son of Zacharias, Peter, James, and John? While religious leaders were claiming that the heavens were sealed to them, Joseph Smith was being personally tutored by ancient prophets who laid their hands upon his head and conferred upon him the power, keys, and authority they held.

Joseph Smith claimed the Holy Ghost as his textbook [15] and made his translation of the Bible from the original language—the language in which all the revelations were originally given—the language of revelation. Who but Joseph Smith could tell us that Seth was in the perfect likeness of his Father (see D&C 107:43), or could give a detailed description of Paul? [16] Joseph Smith knew the Bible, he knew its prophets, he knew its message, and he knew its central character, the Lord Jesus Christ, with whom he also stood face to face and by whom he was instructed. Joseph Smith was a living Bible, and he has done more to enhance the world’s understanding of that great book than any other man who ever lived in it.


[1] Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 33.

[2] Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), p. 1051.

[3] Joseph Dan, holder of the Gershom Scholem Chair in Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explained this in a lecture delivered at Brigham Young University, 3 October 1984.

[4] Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975), 87.

[5] The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 5:133.

[6] Messenger and Advocate (Kirtland, OH, 1834–37), 1:108–12.

[7] Ibid., 1:111–12.

[8] Ibid., 1:108.

[9] Mitchell Dahood, The Anchor Bible, Psalms I, II, and III (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983), 3:79.

[10] Messenger and Advocate, 1:109.

[11] Dahood, The Anchor Bible, Psalms I, II, and III, 2:269.

[12] I have paraphrased the argument of Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 14:114–17.

[13] Ibid., 14:66–67.

[14] Boyd K. Packer, “The Pattern of Our Parentage,” Ensign, November 1984, 66.

[15] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 349.

[16] Ibid., 180.