I just read an insightful essay by Matthew Nickerson entitled “Nephi’s Psalm: 2 Nephi 4:16-35 in the Light of Form-Critical Analysis,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1997, pp. 26-42. It’s available free online at FARMS in HTML or PDF formats, but the FARMS site often has trouble with PDF files such that you can’t open them directly, so stick with the HTML version for this article.
Nickerson demonstrates that Nephi’s psalm closely follows a classic Hebrew psalm structure known as the individual lament, a structure characterized by scholar Hermann Gunkel in 1926. Elements such as the complaint, confession of trust, the petition, and the vow of praise are present in ways that suggest an authentic ancient Hebrew source. Nephi claimed to be learned in the ways of the Jews, and this knowledge appears to have included a solid understanding of the literary devices of Hebrew psalms. One could argue that Joseph just tried to copy elements he saw in other Psalms in the Bible, but some of the parallels just seem too subtle to be picked up by osmosis. For example, in the vow of praise segment (verses 34 and 35), Nephi captures the abrupt transition found in other laments, and includes the element of a certainty of being heard by the Lord. Such subtle touches that weren’t appreciated until nearly a century after the Book of Mormon just seem too much to expect from that master scholar, Joseph Smith, no matter how large his vast frontier library was.
Not only did Nephi master a form of classic Hebrew Psalms, he was also a master of other Hebrew poetical forms such as chiasmus. Interestingly, Nephi’s psalm also appears to include a subtle and fascinating ancient Hebrew form of parallelism that also occurs in some other Hebrew psalms in the Bible, the paired tricolon (see the last section of the page, or my previous post at Mormanity) – another form not appreciated until long after publication of the Book of Mormon.