My family is currently reading through the Book of Mormon for our scripture study. On Saturday, we read Alma 58 while driving down to Madison, and noticed a phrase in verse 40 that seemed oddly formulaic: “they do observe to keep his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments continually,” referring to the group of sons of converted Lamanites, the people of Ammon, who are fighting with the Nephites. Observing statutes, judgments, and commandments – why not just say they were good or kept the commandments? This question led to an interesting little excursion into the scriptures.
First, here is the context from Alma 58, where an epistle from Helaman to Moroni in a time of war describes the challenges that Helaman and his forces are facing as they strive to preserve the Nephite nation from external threats without receiving the needed help from the government:
34 Now we do not know the cause that the government does not grant us more strength; neither do those men who came up unto us know why we have not received greater strength.
35 Behold, we do not know but what ye are unsuccessful, and ye have drawn away the forces into that quarter of the land; if so, we do not desire to murmur.
36 And if it is not so, behold, we fear that there is some faction in the government, that they do not send more men to our assistance; for we know that they are more numerous than that which they have sent.
37 But, behold, it mattereth not–we trust God will deliver us, notwithstanding the weakness of our armies, yea, and deliver us out of the hands of our enemies.
38 Behold, this is the twenty and ninth year, in the latter end, and we are in the possession of our lands; and the Lamanites have fled to the land of Nephi.
39 And those sons of the people of Ammon, of whom I have so highly spoken, are with me in the city of Manti; and the Lord had supported them, yea, and kept them from falling by the sword, insomuch that even one soul has not been slain.
40 But behold, they have received many wounds; nevertheless they stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has made them free; and they are strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day; yea, they do observe to keep his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments continually; and their faith is strong in the prophecies concerning that which is to come.
41 And now, my beloved brother, Moroni, may the Lord our God, who has redeemed us and made us free, keep you continually in his presence; yea, and may he favor this people, even that ye may have success in obtaining the possession of all that which the Lamanites have taken from us, which was for our support. And now, behold, I close mine epistle. I am Helaman, the son of Alma.
If a formula was being used in verse 40, was Helaman making reference to a passage in the Old Testament, perhaps, that used these terms?
As we drove (my son was driving, not me), I used my LDS Scriptures Resource Edition on my computer to search the Bible for verses using “observe” + “command/commandment” + “judgment” + “statute” (or permutations of those words such as plural forms, etc.), and found only 1. Nearly a dozen verses talk about observing the statutes of the Lord, and several mention observing statues and judgments or statutes and commandments, often in the sense of what the nation of Israel must do to survive and be preserved by the Lord, but only 2 bring together all these terms, and one of these seems to resonate especially well with Alma 5:40.
The less relevant of the two verses in the Bible is Nehemiah 10:29: “They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes.” OK, it is an interesting verse, showing the ancient pattern of covenant making included oaths and curses (but that’s another story). But more relevant to Alma 58 is 2 Chronicles 7:17, and I suspect that Helaman may have had this verse in mind, or teachings based on this verse, when invoking those terms in his epistle.
In 2 Chronicles 7, the Lord appears to Solomon after he completed the Temple (yes, that’s right, the Bible says Jehovah appeared to a human, one of many cases in the Bible). It’s best to consider the whole passage, verse 12 to 20:
12 And the LORD appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to myself for an house of sacrifice.
13 If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people;
14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
15 Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place.
16 For now have I chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there for ever: and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.
17 And as for thee, if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, and do according to all that I have commanded thee, and shalt observe my statutes and my judgments;
18 Then will I stablish the throne of thy kingdom, according as I have covenanted with David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man to be ruler in Israel.
19 But if ye turn away, and forsake my statutes and my commandments, which I have set before you, and shall go and serve other gods, and worship them;
20 Then will I pluck them up by the roots out of my land which I have given them; and this house, which I have sanctified for my name, will I cast out of my sight, and will make it to be a proverb and a byword among all nations.
Note: If you’re using the LDS Scriptures CD to do searching, I’m sorry to report that there is a typo in verse 17, which has “statues” instead of “statutes.” Fortunately. I made that same typo when I did my search and initially thought 2 Chron. 7:17 was the only match in the Bible. In fact, I began with a search for “statutes” only (misspelled as “statues”) and was surprised to find that 2 Chron. 7:17 had the only mention of that term, which seemed wrong. That’s when I noticed the fortunate typo, without which I would probably have missed this intriguing passage.
In 2 Chron. 7, the Lord is telling Solomon what the people must do to be blessed in their land and what he must do to preserve the rights and authority of the Davidic kingdom in the land. An important insight into the Book of Mormon is that the Nephite leaders, particularly Nephi, the founder and first king of their nation, saw themselves as preserving the Davidic covenants in their land. Nephi’s slaying of Laban is described in terms deliberately designed to draw upon themes relating to David’s authority as king. Nephi slays Laban with his own sword, as does David to Goliath, and takes symbols of authority: Laban’s clothing (presumably the uniform of a military leader), the sword, and the brass plates. In fact, the parallels between David and Nephi in the account of Nephi’s encounter with Laban in 1 Nephi 3-4 are extensive and artfully woven into Nephi’s account, as Val Larsen has demonstrated. And now, when the Nephites are concerned about the preservation of their nation, and Helaman is worried about the faithfulness of the government, he invokes a formula related to the Lord’s assurances to Solomon for the preservation of the Davidic kingdom of Israel, of which the Nephite’s were a transplanted branch initiated by their own David and Moses, even Nephi.
Ironically, the hope of the Nephite armies at this time, the unique group who truly did observe to keep all the statues, judgments, and commandments of the Lord, were the sons of former Lamanites. They become the heroes of these great battles of national preservation late in the Book of Alma, and the blessings they bring through their faith and righteousness were key to the preservation of the Nephites at that time.
The Book of Mormon uses related language in a variety of other passages, some of which may have influenced Helaman or at least show the significance of the formulaic phrases to the Nephites.
- 2 Nephi 5:10 – “And we did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses.”
- Mosiah 6:6 – “And it came to pass that king Mosiah did walk in the ways of the Lord, and did observe his judgments and his statutes, and did keep his commandments in all things whatsoever he commanded him.”
- 2 Nephi 1:16 – “And I desire that ye should remember to observe the statutes and the judgments of the Lord; behold, this hath been the anxiety of my soul from the beginning.”
- Hel. 3:20 – “Nevertheless Helaman did fill the judgment-seat with justice and equity; yea, he did observe to keep the statutes, and the judgments, and the commandments of God; and he did do that which was right in the sight of God continually; and he did walk after the ways of his father, insomuch that he did prosper in the land.”
- Helaman 15:5 “And I would that ye should behold that the more part of them are in the path of their duty, and they do walk circumspectly before God, and they do observe to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments according to the law of Moses.”
Nothing earth-shattering, and it’s the kind of thing that has probably been studied and expounded upon by others already (let me know of good sources on the topic of statues/judgments/commandments – I’m curious). But I thought it was an example of the “fun” one can have poking around in the scriptures, including one of my favorite ancient authentic Semitic documents, The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.