Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lie Down Unto the Lord: Night Visions in Psalms and the Book of Mormon

Que la cama no es sólo para el sueño.
Que la noche no es Dios con los párpados cerrados.

Andrea Cote Botero [1]

[Unless otherwise noted, all English citations to the Hebrew Bible are from the King James Version]

Many of the biblical patriarchs experienced theophanies that took place during the hours of darkness [2]. Later, the Lord reaffirmed to Israel that he would speak to his prophets by dreams and visions (Num 12:6-8), many of which did in fact take place during the night. While this theme is referenced occasionally elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 1 Kgs 3:5; Job 4:13, 33:15), it is particularly prominent in the Psalms and the Book of Mormon.

The Psalmist often converses with God about being visited: “Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me” (17:3). (Instead of 'thou has tried me,' the LXX reads ἐπύρωσάς με, or 'you set me on fire.') He also talks of being instructed by God: “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge” (19:1-2); "I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons" (16:7).

There are also frequent conversations with and inquiries of God in a setting that implies a nighttime view of the heavens:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (8:3-4). [3]
In Psalm 18, we are told, “In my distress I called upon the Lord . . . he heard my voice out of his temple” (v. 6). Soon the petitioner is visited: “He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet” (v. 9), and this heavenly visitor “made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies” (v. 11). (Here the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version uses ‘hiding place’ instead of ‘secret place,’ which is probably a better translation of the LXX ἀποκρυφὴν αὐτοῦ) During this vision where he sees the Lord (vv. 6–13), there are several times where the darkness is emphasized. Although the vision seems to be happening within or in some relationship to the temple (v. 6), much of the imagery takes place outside, the darkness contrasting with ‘the brightness that was before him’ (v. 12).

One Psalm even speaks of a visitation of God's music to comfort and foster gratitude: “Yet the Lord will command his lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me” (42:8). This verse would seem to be related to Elihu's comment to Job: “God my maker, who giveth songs in the night” (Job 35:10). The imagery of God visiting his children at night with the joy of music is rather powerful.

The authors of the Book of Mormon use these images and language frequently as well. Nephi tells us, “Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime” (2 Ne 4:23). He tells us numerous times of the dreams and visions his father experienced (1 Ne 2:1-2, 3:2, 8:2), several of which are specifically given as happening at night:

And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness (1 Ne 16:9).
Others in the family experience the same type of phenomenon. Jacob is given knowledge by an angelic visitor at night: “Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ--for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name” (2 Ne 10:3). And a generation later, his son Enos undergoes a day-long supplication that is finally answered at night:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens. And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed (Enos 4-5).
The imagery of a visitation of God's music is also referenced in the Book of Mormon. Alma the Younger rehearses to the people of Zarahemla the trials of his father's people after they escape from King Noah and become subject to the Lamanites. God 'changed their hearts' and 'wakened them out of a deep sleep' as 'they were in the midst of darkness' (Alma 5:7). But in the darkness, arising from sleep, their “souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love” (v. 9). He then adapts the message to his audience, asking them if they have felt the same 'music':

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? (Alma 5:26).
Another variation on the theme is a pattern of supplication-visitation while retiring to one's bed. For example, the Psalmist tells us, “commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still” (4:4). (The JPS translation has 'ponder it on your bed.') This is reiterated several times throughout the psalter:
When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches (63:6).
This idea of pondering spiritual matters in communion with God upon one's bed is contrasted with he who “deviseth mischief upon his bed” (36:4) and he who would dwell on his sorrow: “I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears” (6:6; see also 22:2).

Compare this imagery to Lehi’s experience where he “cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen” (1 Ne 1:7), after which he was immediately “carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne” (1 Ne 1:8). Later, Nephi's sorrow echoes that of the Psalmist: “mine eyes water my pillow by night” (2 Ne 33:3), possibly involving long supplication and tearful pleading. King Lamoni, while unconscious on his bed (Alma 18:43), has a vision of his Redeemer (alma 19:13). And Alma tells us, “Counsel with the Lord in all thy doings . . . yea, when thou liest down at night lie down unto the Lord, that he may watch over you in your sleep (Alma 37:37). The idea of counseling with the Lord and lying down unto the Lord certainly gives the impression of one communing with Him in the bed as they retire, pondering one's spiritual state and well being.


[1] From her poem “La noche en ti queda” as published in La Merienda and found at

[2] For just a few examples, see Gen 20:3 (Abraham); Gen 28:10-19, 46:2 (Jacob); Gen 37:5-7 (Joseph).

[3] Most commentaries lean toward the interpretation that this is a nighttime view of the firmament, as the sun is not mentioned. In a similar scene in the Pearl of Great Price, Abraham talks with God about the visible elements of the heavens (Abraham 3:1-11). Gee, Hamblin, and Peterson argue that while not a vision per se, God is talking to Abraham at night about what is visible with his own eyes. (“And I Saw the Stars -- The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy” from Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant found at the Maxwell Institute:

1 comment:

Jennifer Kohler said...

I appreciate your scholarship and thoughts. I hope you continue to share these gifts. Thank you,
Jennifer Kohler