Joining the Heavenly Chorus
The beginning of the Book of Mormon is interesting in many regards. It contains the record of two visions received by Lehi: the first consisting of a “pillar of fire” on “a rock before him” (1 Nephi 1:6), and the second consisting of the vision of God himself and his entourage (vv. 8–15). Firsttime readers are almost always impressed by the grandeur of Lehi’s vision of the throne of God. However, a closer examination of this first chapter leads us to question why Nephi included such a detail, especially given his repeated concern about “not mak[ing] a full account of the things which [his] father hath written” (v. 16). Why did Nephi choose to elaborate on the second vision, the throne theophany,1 and not detail the things seen and heard in the first vision, the pillar of fire? While the definitive answer to such questions will always remain inaccessible—only Nephi could tell us his reasons—I will argue that one possible reason2 is that the revelations Nephi received in 1 Nephi 11 can be seen, in part, as divinely given interpretations of Lehi’s throne theophany. Taking this approach, we may better understand in general how revelation should be received in order for us to come to God and, figuratively, join along with Lehi in the chorus of angels.
We must first understand the pattern set in Lehi’s grand vision in order to be able to recognize it in Nephi’s own visions. Lehi’s vision of the throne of God, situated in verses 8 through 15 of 1 Nephi 1, consists of the following elements: Lehi is “carried away in a vision” and sees “the heavens open”; he sees the throne of God and hosts of angels praising God; one angel comes down, followed by twelve others, and gives him a book from which he is commanded to read; Lehi reads a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and finally joins the angels by praising God.
Second, in order to see the relationship of this vision to that in 1 Nephi 11, we must understand the context of this latter chapter. In 1 Nephi 8, Lehi, a “visionary man,” has received his dream of the tree of life after his flight from Jerusalem. His son Nephi then wants to see that vision for himself and to get an interpretation of it. As a result, Nephi is given a lengthy and comprehensive revelation beginning in chapter 11 that extends through chapter 14. My claim is that we can see in 1 Nephi 11–12 five different visions that fit into the pattern of Lehi’s previous throne theophany. This claim rests on the use of similar structures and similar phrases, as table 1 shows.3
What are we to make of these similarities? While certain phrases and expressions could certainly be used to describe many different visions (e.g., “I saw the heavens open” or “he was carried away”) and are therefore not conclusive, we can here observe a deep similarity of specific patterns (the presence of a mediator coming down from heaven, whether it be an angel, the Spirit, or Christ himself; the notion of “going forth”; the idea of beauty, luster; etc.). Of course, some of these visions have stronger parallels with the book’s first chapter than others, and some elements of Lehi’s throne theophany are not present in all these visions: for instance, the shout of praise appears only in Nephi’s first vision.
It thus seems that Nephi’s vision—at least the part contained in chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12—can be seen as divinely given interpretations not only of the dream of the tree of life but also of his father’s throne theophany. The division into five visions may be read as five different interpretations of Lehi’s grand vision. Table 2 sums up the teachings received by Nephi.
Note that the first vision of Nephi is unusual because it is the only one in which the person who sees the vision (in other words, the person who takes up the role played by Lehi in the throne theophany) is not Nephi himself but rather the Spirit, as can be seen both by the fact that the Spirit is the one to praise the Lord and by the fact that he is the one talking about “a man descending out of heaven” (1 Nephi 11:7). Nephi will testify about this man later—but only later.
We should also note, as previously mentioned, that not all the elements of Lehi’s vision are present in each one of Nephi’s. For instance, there is no trace of anyone being “carried away” in the fifth vision. Similarly, in the fourth vision this element may be present only in the description of the Son of God being “lifted up upon the cross” (1 Nephi 11:33). But still, it is not an explicit repetition of Lehi’s being carried away. The main point is that many elements of the throne theophany appear to be identified with very different figures. The “one descend ing” is, for instance, an angel, a group of angels, the Spirit, or Jesus Christ, as identified through one of his titles. This method of interpretation takes up Lehi’s vision as a general pattern to understand and explain a certain vision of world history (the coming of the Messiah— who would be born of Mary, would be rejected, and would appear to his people in America, etc.),4 and this pattern can be used to explain different parts of this history.
Readers of the Book of Mormon are faced with the same kinds of questions as Nephi when confronted with Lehi’s visions and dreams: What are we to make of them? How are we to understand them? How are we to apply them in our lives? Nephi’s own response to these questions models one approach: read Lehi’s visions as a pattern giving meaning both to history at large and to our own individual lives.
But what of the heavenly choir? One of the most striking features of Lehi’s throne theophany was the “numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8). Is there an equivalent to this aspect in Nephi’s visions? The Spirit is praising the Lord in Nephi’s first vision, but here only one person is praising. One person is far removed from “numberless concourses.”
This element—the praising hosts of God’s heavenly council—is a pivotal element in Lehi’s vision. All of 1 Nephi 1 can be read as a conversion story, the story of Lehi’s spiritual growth. At the beginning of the chapter, Lehi finds himself in a wicked and sinful setting.5 Lehi then begins his spiritual journey by receiving a first revelation in the form of a pillar of fire that leaves him “overcome with the Spirit” (v. 7). This time may be seen as a spiritual preparation for the second vision that shortly follows, his vision of the throne of God. At the end of this vision, we see Lehi in verse 14 joining the chorus of angels in songs of praise. To summarize, we follow Lehi on a journey6 from a sinful location to heaven and its hosts. His journey illustrates how the believer, undergoing the process of conversion and sanctification, can finally come to join the heavenly hosts, the chorus of angels, and like them “speak with the tongue of angels and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 31:13). As a result, it will be critical to see if Nephi has anything to tell us in his own revelatory interpretation of Lehi’s vision about how to undergo this process.
My hypothesis is that we can indeed find this element—Lehi’s numberless concourses of praising angels—in Nephi’s vision, but in an inverted form: they show up in the figure of the “great and spacious building” of Lehi’s dream. This building appears for the first time in verse 26 of chapter 8 in Lehi’s account of his dream. There are many elements in favor of a comparison between the hosts of heaven and the hosts of scorning people. The building is described in chapter 8 as standing “in the air, high above the earth” (1 Nephi 8:26), which echoes the heavenly location of the angelic hosts (1 Nephi 1:8). The people are also described as being dressed in an “exceeding fine” manner (1 Nephi 8:27), which could perhaps be compared to the “luster” and “brightness” characterizing divine beings (1 Nephi 1:9–10). And whereas the inhabitants of the building are “in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers” (1 Nephi 8:27), the angels are “in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8).
The result of the mocking is that many people who have come to the tree of life and beheld the scene are feeling “ashamed” (1 Nephi 8:28), whereas Lehi, the spectator of God’s council, is “filled with the Spirit” (1 Nephi 1:12) and “his whole heart [is] filled” (v. 15). And, whereas heavenly beings descend (v. 9) or “[go] forth” (v. 11), which denotes an ordered, intended, controlled movement, the spectators of the building “[fall] away into forbidden paths and [are] lost” (1 Nephi 8:28), which denotes a chaotic, unintentional movement.
We thus see two possible responses to revelation: one, exemplified by Lehi, that leads to joining the praising hosts, and another, exemplified by the “multitudes pressing their way towards that great and spacious building” (1 Nephi 8:31), that leads to joining the scorning hosts. The former are the masters of their fate, as described by the idea of ordered and intended motion, while the latter are driven against their will, as indicated by the notion of chaotic, unintentional movement. For believers to understand the difference between these two responses and, in particular, how to imitate Lehi’s response is crucial. Laying aside for a moment the “great and spacious building,” we want to focus on the means used by Lehi in 1 Nephi 1 to receive his vividly sensorial revelations. Etymologically, the word reveal comes from Latin and means “to draw back the veil.” Revelation involves perceiving what could not be perceived, seeing the invisible, hearing the unutterable, and reading the unreadable, and therefore it is grounded in the senses. What senses are used by Lehi to receive his revelations in 1 Nephi 1? We find a sensory triad of hearing, seeing, and reading. These are the means by which Lehi is able to get knowledge through revelation. More precisely, table 3 illustrates occurrences of these senses as related to Lehi:
Of the three senses, Lehi uses vision most often, whereas hearing is the least represented. The first vision, the vision of the pillar of fire, entails only hearing and seeing, and reading comes into play only in the second vision, the throne theophany.
Can we understand something from the different senses used? There is indeed a difference of involvement on the part of the perceiving subject between these three senses. Hearing is the most passive sense and does not even necessarily imply active listening. When there is a sound or a noise, there is no other choice than to hear it. Seeing, on the other hand, demands much more on the part of the subject. It requires turning the head in the right direction and keeping the eyes open. Reading is the most active of the whole triad and requires a high degree of physical and mental involvement: it is necessary to look at the text, to follow the lines with the eyes, and to mentally transform the script into words and those combinations of words into meaning. Thus the succession of Lehi’s two visions charts an increase in his level of active involvement: he first hears and sees, and then he sees and even reads.
His active involvement demonstrates his commitment to receiving the knowledge the Lord wants to give him and deeply involves him in the revelatory process.
This increasing involvement is shown not only by the sensory triad but is also reflected in other parts of the text. In the vision of the pillar of fire, this pillar just rests on a rock “before him,” whereas the second vision encompasses him so that he stands, in a sense, in the midst of it. And of course his greatest involvement comes when he joins the heavenly council by shouting praises and declaring the judgments of God: “Woe woe unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations” (1 Nephi 1:13).
In this regard, it is interesting to compare Lehi’s high degree of involvement in receiving the Lord’s will with the involvement of the people to whom he preaches at Jerusalem. The only sensory verb used in connection with the people is “hearing” in 1 Nephi 1:20: “And when the Jews heard these things, they were angry with him.” The people do not proactively receive revelation. Rather, they passively hear what is said. Remaining passive, they are not able to see the invisible, hear the unutterable, and read the unreadable. In short, they are not able to receive what the Lord intends to give them. Instead, they pursue their course downward by not receiving the revelation and eventually become angry with the revelator and “[seek] his life” (1 Nephi 1:20). How are we to compare these experiences—both that of Lehi and that of Jerusalem’s people—with those of the crowd in the “great and spacious building”? The angel explains to Nephi in 1 Nephi 12:18 that this building represents the “vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men.” Imagination is the ability to see things in one’s own mind, to represent concepts and ideas in one’s own mind. Imagination is not bad per se. As readers, we need imagination in the process of reading scriptures in order to be able to represent in our own minds the things we are reading, to attribute meaning to them, and finally to be able to see our own lives reflected in them. Imagination is one means used by the Spirit to help us read our own lives into the scriptures. In fact, the best proof of the importance of imagination may be given in 1 Nephi 5. Sariah, fearing for the life of her children, accused her husband Lehi of being a “visionary man” (1 Nephi 5:2). This sounds like a harsh accusation, but Lehi does not counter it. He recognizes that he is a “visionary man,” and he even feels blessed to have this ability: “I know that I am a visionary man, for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision, I should not have known the goodness of God but had tarried at Jerusalem and had perished with my brethren” (1 Nephi 5:4). But the kind of imagination at stake in the great and spacious building is qualified. How does vain qualify imagination in 1 Nephi 12:18? The adjective vain denotes something that is pointless or useless, or it means to have an exceedingly high opinion of one’s own abilities. We could say that an imagination is vain if it is grounded in pride, in our own representations of ourselves and of the world, so that we refuse to let the Lord, through his revelations, give us a more correct image of ourselves that would allow us to repent. A vain imagination is therefore useless because it does not allow us to change, nor is it led by the Spirit. We remain stuck in our own worldview, refusing to see ourselves in the scriptures. In the language of Ether 12:6, where Moroni describes faith as “things which are hoped for and not seen,” we could compare vain imagination to a “faithful imagination.” Whereas a faithful imagination is to see things that are invisible but nevertheless real and can therefore be accessed only by revelation, having vain imagination is to see things that are invisible precisely because they are unreal and are therefore seen only through the distorting mirror of prideful imagination.
The revelations of God are by nature disturbing in that they force us to view ourselves in a way that differs from our own conceptions and sometimes even contradicts them harshly. These revelations give us a mirror in which we can see “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13). Our imagination will be useful only if it helps us to look in this mirror, thus allowing God to change our own opinions in order to introduce a spiritual worldview. If not, our imagination will only be vain.
Notably, the “great and spacious building” has no foundation: it is just standing in the air. It has no connections whatsoever with the earth. Do we learn anything about the relationship between the earth and the location of the praising angels in 1 Nephi 1? The text is not explicit on this matter. Nevertheless, the “pillar of fire” seen by Lehi in his first vision is reminiscent of the pillars that hold the heavens above the earth in the imagery of the ancients. If we allow such an interpretation for a moment, what implications can we draw about the relationship between vain imagination and faithful imagination? A faithful imagination allows us to see things invisible but nevertheless real, things that connect with our daily experience. A faithful imagination is not interested in pure metaphysical speculations without reference to our practical duties as Christians. It also does not involve seeing the future without some connection to the present. God may, for instance, grant us a vision of our eternal potential, but this vision does not deny the reality of our current need to repent because of our mortality. On the other hand, vain imaginations have no connection with reality. They deny our need for repentance. They flatter us with either a false vision of being perfect or a feeling of being hopelessly lost. In any case, vain imaginations convince us that we are totally independent and don’t need God to achieve a state of greater happiness. This vain idea of independence from God is strengthened by the fact that the multitudes in the great and spacious building are mocking the others outside. Indeed, if someone is mocking, he implicitly takes himself as the metric by which other people should be measured. They are not following the same road that he, in his “great and spacious building,” is pursuing; therefore, they are less than he is! But it is different in the heavenly choirs that praise God. Praise takes someone else as the measure for what is good. The “numberless concourses of angels” praising God take him as the right metric by which humanity should be measured. This contrast leads to a second opposition: vain imagination as opposed to “praising imagination.” In that sense, people with a vain imagination believe that they are independent of everybody and everything else because they are the measure. But people with a “praising imagination” recognize that they are dependent on God because he is their measure. This notion of vain independence may also be linked with another “great and spacious building”: the tower of Babel. The tower of Babel was built because people thought they could be like God without needing to rely on God.
This opposition appears to be at work in the different responses to afflictions shown by Nephi on one hand and by Laman and Lemuel on the other. There is no question that Lehi’s family experienced great hardships: leaving Jerusalem and all of their earthly possessions, living several years in the wilderness, and eating “raw meat” (1 Nephi 17:2). But to these hard circumstances, the brothers’ reactions are diametrically opposed. Nephi sees in them the blessings of the Lord. He says right from the beginning that he has “been highly favored of the Lord in all [his] days” (1 Nephi 1:1). He even goes so far as to see eating raw meat as one of the “blessings of the Lord” because it was another way for God to show his power. Even though they ate raw meat, their “women did give plenty of suck for their children” (1 Nephi 17:2). On the other side, Laman and Lemuel always look at the afflictions them selves but not beyond. They complain about their circumstances, their sufferings, and “[their] women hav[ing] toiled, being big with child”; they even go on to say that “it would have been better” to suffer death itself (1 Nephi 17:20). Laman and Lemuel take themselves as the measure for their experience: we have suffered and that is all that counts. Nothing can change that. Nothing can redeem that. On the other hand, Nephi looks at the Lord as the measure: yes, I have suffered, but this suffering has been redeemed by the blessings received because even my sufferings have helped me to better understand God. Thus, while believers act based on faith, taking God as the measure of things, unbelievers act based on pride and take themselves as the measure of things. In conclusion, it seems that the only adequate response to revelations from the Lord is to actively engage with them. We must see them as a pattern through which we can look on life so we can give meaning to it and thereby allow the Lord to replace our own worldview with a hallowed, sanctified worldview. Responding in this way initiates a process of sanctification that allows us to join the heavenly choirs singing praises. Or, as Nephi elsewhere put it, it allows us to “speak with the tongue of angels and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 31:13). On the other hand, an inadequate response to revelation would be to hear only passively what the Lord reveals and to remain stuck in our own vain worldview without questioning it. By doing so, we engage in a carnal, sinful way of living and seeing that finally leads us to be “ashamed” of doing what is right, to mock at that which is holy, and last of all, “to fall away.”
1. For more on the throne theophany, see Blake T. Ostler, “TheThroneTheophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A FormCritical Analysis,” BYU Studies 26/4 (1986): 67–95.
2. Joseph M. Spencer suggests in his book AnOther Testament:On Typology (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2016) that one goal Nephimay have had in mind when he began writing his record could havebeen to give an account of the beginnings of the Nephite people and,thus, legitimate their line of kings. In this regard, Nephi may havedecided to mention in greater detail the throne theophany because itwould obviously demonstrate that Lehi was a prophet and thuslegitimize Lehi’s and Nephi’s authority.
3. Please note that the quotations in the tables follow the wording of RoyalSkousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 2009).
4. The whole of Nephi’s vision, from chapter 11 to chapter 14, is about worldhis tory, particularly about the history of the yettobe Lehite nations.
5. The text tells us little about Lehi’s previous spiritual state. We know that Nephi’s parents were “goodly,” and it thus seems improbable that Lehi was as muchstuck in sin as his contemporaries. At any rate, the overall spiritual state ofJerusalem is one of wickedness and sin, as indicated by the message delivered by the prophets in 1 Nephi 1:4.
6. The initiatory character of Lehi’s experience—and of Nephi’s—is reinforced bythe presence of mediators, whether it be “one descending out of the midst of heaven,” the Spirit, or an angel, whose function it is to accompany them in their spiritual journey.