Lehi’s call as a prophet was not a single-event epiphany. It was prompted by his own prayerful concern for his people (v. 5). In response to his prayer, Lehi received a revelation, recorded with tantalizing brevity. The fact, however, that he saw a pillar of fire, with its unmistakable allusion to Yahweh’s guiding the Israelites of the exodus by means of a pillar of fire, could not have been lost on him (Ex. 13:21). Lehi knew the source of this revelation, and it touched him to the soul. However, the record is completely silent about the specific content of this revelation.
The effects of close interaction with the Spirit are frequently described as enervating (JS—H 2:20, Moses 27:29, Acts 9:3–6). Joseph was drained after his experience in the Sacred Grove, and Lehi was drained after his experience with the pillar of fire. He returns to his home and, while resting, ponders his experience (v. 7).
Symbolism: John W. Welch proposes that encounters with celestial glory or beings are frequently described in terms similar to Lehi’s pillar of fire:
As Lehi prayed, he beheld a pillar of fire dwelling upon a rock in front of him. From this pillar Lehi saw and heard many powerful things, but Nephi does not elaborate on who or what Lehi saw in this pillar of fire. Joseph Smith described how God, angels, and spirits appear in fiery manifestations; he taught, for instance, “spirits can only be revealed in flaming fire and glory.” From ancient sources, too, one learns that the appearance of fire, especially a pillar of fire, was a frequent mode of heavenly manifestation, sometimes of God and other times of his messengers or of the holy beings who surrounded him. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Ex. 3:2) and on a flaming Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18); he also appeared over the tabernacle at night in a fire (Num. 9:15) and over the door of the tabernacle by day in a similar “pillar of cloud” (Deut. 31:15). On some occasions in the Old Testament, fire was associated with God’s messengers, especially those emanating from God’s council (see, for example, Ps. 104:4), whose fiery description can be compared with the appearance of Moroni in JS—H 1:30–32; and in other ancient accounts fire was used to combat God’s enemies. Thus, we cannot be certain who or what Lehi saw in the pillar of fire that appeared to him. Lehi could have seen God in this pillar, but since his vision of God himself is reported as the next stage of the vision, it seems more likely to me that what he beheld at this time was a messenger of God whose threatening words and presence, perhaps summoning Lehi, caused Lehi to “quake and tremble exceedingly” (1 Ne. 1:6).