Alma 5:49-56 — LeGrand Baker — Alma and Psalm 82
This is the background from which I believe these verses in Alma were spoken:
First, the evidence is that the Law of Moses that the Book of Mormon people were living was not the same as the Law of Moses that is in our Bible (See the discussion of the Jewish apostasy in Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord). There are two reasons for that assumption. First, Nephi says the Law taught about the Saviour and his atonement. That is not very apparent in the version of the Law we have in our Old Testament. Second, I believe (as Mowinckel and other great biblical scholars have insisted) that the most important ceremonies that were practiced during the time of Solomon’s Temple (those scholars call it the New Year’s festival), were edited out of the books of Moses and the Law, after the Jews returned from Babylon, and no longer had a king, and had apostatized from the old religion. Those scholars say that the Psalms are the words of the hymns sung during the New Year festival, and that after the Babylonian captivity the arrangement of the Psalms was changed so that it was no longer possible to read them in their original order and discover the story they once told. So by my saying that I believe the Book of Mormon people had the Law as it was practice before Lehi left Jerusalem, I am also saying I believe that the New Year’s festival was a part of their temple ceremonies, that they used the psalms in their original order, including the psalms like 22, which truly do testify of the Saviour and his atonement.
If one can assume, as I do, that they were conducting a new year’s festival as it was in the old world, and if the psalms were the text of that endowment ceremony, then Psalm 82 would have been familiar to them. If it was, and if it represented the covenants they had made at the Council in Heaven, and their renewing those covenants here on earth, then what Alma is doing in these verses is accusing the members of his audience of violating their sacred and eternal covenants.
Psalm 82 was a scene in a play that was performed during the Feast of Tabernacles Temple Drama. This scene takes place in the Celestial Temple where Elohim is giving instructions to the members of the Council. The instructions are in the form of a covenant that is confirmed by the Council in the last verse.
The occasion represents the time when Elohim met with the members of the Council – when “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” To “judge” means the same in our language as in Hebrew: i.e. it may mean to condemn, or it may mean to justify, or to choose (like in an apple pie contest). Most scholars select the definition that suggests God is condemning the bad gods because of the conclusion of Elohim’s words that they will die like men. But I don’t believe that interpretation is true. The reason is that if one uses the interpretation of “to choose” then Psalm 82 fits perfectly into the story told in Abraham where, “God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers…” (Abraham 3:23) If that is correct, then the statement that they will die like men, is only a promise that there is a way provided so they can leave this world like other people do. Death, after all, is one of the greatest blessings of the atonement.
Let me show you what happens if one reads Abraham 3 and Psalm 82 together. They are the same story, except in the psalm we find more detail than we do in Abraham. One can drop the 82nd psalm into the Book of Abraham at that point without breaking the cadence of the Abraham account.
Like other psalms, Psalm 82 is introduced by a narrator (or a chorus, as in a Greek play). In the first verse, the narrator describes what is happening, then Elohim speaks to the members of the Council. After that, in the last verse, the Council responds. In my imagination, I am not sure how this was presented to the audience, it seems like there are two likely possibilities. Either there were persons on the stage who represented the Council, or else the audience itself represented the Council. I am strongly inclined to believe the latter. In the latter case it would have been the members of the audience who made the covenant in verse 8.
Let’s examine the psalm, and I’ll show you what happens when we put it in the Abraham account, and we will compare it to what Alma is saying.
The 82nd psalm reads:
Introduction by the narrator or chorus:
1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty;
he judgeth among the gods.
Instructions given by Elohim:
2 How long will ye judge unjustly,
and accept the persons of the wicked?
3 Defend the poor and fatherless:
do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4 Deliver the poor and needy:
rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They know not, neither will they understand;
they walk on in darkness:
all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6 I have said, Ye are gods;
and all of you are children of the most High.
7 But ye shall die like men,
and fall like one of the princes.
The members of the Council respond by making a covenant with Elohim:
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth:
for thou shalt inherit all nations.
Now let’s look at it more carefully. In the first verse of Psalm 82, our narrator is on stage again explaining what is happening.
1. God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
The Hebrew word here translated “God” is Elohim, who is the Father of the gods who are the members of the Council. They are called the noble and great ones in Abraham 3, and “the gods” in Abraham 4 and 5.
After the narrator’s introduction, Elohim gives the gods instructions about how they are to conduct themselves when they go to the earth. He begins by warning them of a major danger they will face when they come go down to this world. As children, they will grow up in societies where they will be taught to pay homage to wealthy and powerful people. Human cultures teach that prestige, money, education, and fancy toys are evidence that one is in good with God. He warns them that they must shake off that teaching before they can fulfill their priesthood assignments.
2. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked?
If this psalm was a part of a stage presentation, and represented instructions given at the Council in Heaven, then, for the audience, it would have been part of a symbolic sode experience. The language implies they have already judged unrighteously, but if, as I believe, this was instructions about how they are to conduct themselves when they get to this world, then it begins by pointing out what always happens in this world. The Hebrew word translated persons means “face,” and in this context “persons” means about the same thing as “persona,” which is a facade behind which people hide their true selves. So “persons of the wicked” refers to the false fronts people project for other people to see—which in most cultures is what other people tend to admire. So, implicitly what the psalm says is this: “When you get to that earth your culture will teach you that you should judge people by the correctness of their speech, their wealth, education, and expensive toys, but you must learn that is not the way to judge.” This is very important in priesthood matters, for to be a righteous judge is the greatest power and most lasting obligation of sacral kingship. These members of the Council were kings already – they are called “rulers” and “gods.” But when they get to the earth they will be as vulnerable as everyone else to letting worldly values get in the way of their righteous judgements. In addition to warning them about how not to judge, the Father instructs his sons that they must judge in mercy, kindness, charity. Those are the things everyone must do, but for the gods, no matter what other specific individual assignment they might have, to judge righteously is the most important thing of all, because it is the foundation of all else they will do.
The Father’s instructions continue:
3-4. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
After the instructions about how to judge, came the reason: the gods will be expected to be spiritual and political anchors to the people, and as such they must first of all be servants. Like everyone else on the earth, the people whom they serve will have forgotten their glorious past in the pre-mortal world. They will stumble in the darkness of their forgetfulness. Some of the people in this world will deeply resent the help the noble and great ones seek to give. But that resentment will not excuse the gods from doing their duty. The people on earth must be helped—but not just helped—they must be helped with great compassion. The Father reminds his sons,
5 They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
Being one whose primary function is to show compassion can be scary—in fact it can be really dangerous. Elohim reminds his sons that in our world they will be subjected to persecution—even death—but their suffering those things may be an integral part of their assignment. They are gods, but they will all die: some will use up their lives in the service to others; while others, like Abinadi and the Prophet Joseph, will die like princes in battle, sealing their testimonies with their own blood.
6-7 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
At this point in the play those representing the members of Council respond. They invite their Father to stand as a token of the covenant they are about to make. (For an example of the practice of standing to make covenant see 2 Kings 23:1-3.) Then, in unison they each swear to fulfill his own assignment in order that the Father’s purposes may be accomplished among all people. They say,
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.
Some scholars believe that these ceremonies were not just watched by the audience, but that the audience actually participated in the ceremonies themselves. In that case, the Father would have been addressing the congregation; it would have been the people in the congregation who spoke the last covenant words of the psalm. If so, that covenant would have been made between God and every individual person in the congregation.
Now consider how that fits into the story told by Abraham 3:22-4:1.
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
[Instructions given by Elohim:]
How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness:
all the foundations of the earth are out of course. I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
[The members of the Council respond by making a covenant with Elohim:]
Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations. and he [God] saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him. And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they (that is the Gods) organized and formed the heavens and the earth. (Abraham 3:22-4:1.)
Now read our verses in Alma 5, and notice how closely Alma follows the ideas represented in the covenant that is the 82nd Psalm.
49 And now I say unto you that this is the order after which I am called, yea, to preach unto my beloved brethren, yea, and every one that dwelleth in the land; yea, to preach unto all, both old and young, both bond and free; yea, I say unto you the aged, and also the middle aged, and the rising generation; yea, to cry unto them that they must repent and be born again.
50 Yea, thus saith the Spirit: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand; yea, the Son of God cometh in his glory, in his might, majesty, power, and dominion. Yea, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, that the Spirit saith: Behold the glory of the King of all the earth; and also the King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men.
51 And also the Spirit saith unto me, yea, crieth unto me with a mighty voice, saying: Go forth and say unto this people—Repent, for except ye repent ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of heaven.
52 And again I say unto you, the Spirit saith: Behold, the ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire, yea, a fire which cannot be consumed, even an unquenchable fire. Behold, and remember, the Holy One hath spoken it.
53 And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?
54 Yea, will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another; yea, will ye persist in the persecution of your brethren, who humble themselves and do walk after the holy order of God, wherewith they have been brought into this church, having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and they do bring forth works which are meet for repentance—
55 Yea, and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?
56 And finally, all ye that will persist in your wickedness, I say unto you that these are they who shall be hewn down and cast into the fire except they speedily repent. (Alma 5:49-56.)
If, as I believe, Alma is not just telling the people they must not turn their backs on the poor, but he is actually accusing them of violating their temple covenants, then that helps explain why, in the verses immediately preceding these, he stressed the priesthood authority by which he is addressing them. He warned people very pointedly that if they didn’t remember and keep their covenants, the Lord will neither trifle with them nor disregard their negligence.