Nephi explains that the source of the contention is not anything new. He is repeating his own admonitions and repeating Lehi’s admonitions. He must have known that it was a futile effort but still made the attempt.
Text: Nephi also provides more information about his records. He has already stated that the large plates were the beginning of his record and that he began the small plates at a later point (1 Ne. 9:4–6). It seems unlikely that he would consider a historical account “finished,” so he probably wrote in both records concurrently, keeping parallel accounts.
The Psalm of Nephi: Verses 15–35 have been labeled the “Psalm of Nephi” because they are a marvelous poetic outpouring of feeling resembling the emotional intensity of some of the Old Testament’s best psalms. (I present a literary analysis of the psalm in the commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 4:34–35.) Catherine Thomas, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, notes:
A psalm is a poem, a song of praise; not a sermon or doctrinal treatise, but an expression of personal religious experience. Nephi’s psalm (2 Ne. 4:16–35) employs some of the features characteristic of his Hebrew literary heritage, such as the themes of sorrow in sin, communion with and delight in God, the search for perfection, humility under chastening, and triumph over evil. He framed his feelings in typical Hebrew parallelism, where ideas are repeated with variation or contrasted: “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.” (2 Ne. 4:28.) But of far more than literary importance is the spiritual insight available in this passage. Though only Nephi’s words appear here, the reader may see in them a progression of thought that indicates the presence of the Lord’s Spirit; it is, therefore, more of a prayerful dialogue than a soliloquy.
Matthew Nickerson, special collections librarian at Southern Utah University, studied Nephi’s psalm to discover whether it fits the structure of the biblical psalmic form. For brevity, I have removed the examples he gives for each element:
Invocation: 2 Nephi 4:16–17
The individual lament begins with a call to God and is often followed by a short introductory petition.…
The initial call to God is not as explicit in Nephi’s psalm as it is in some of the psalms of the Old Testament. This is not unusual. When the subsequent sections support the initial cry for help it is sometimes difficult to isolate an invocation as such. This is the case with Nephi’s psalm where subsequent sections contain numerous calls to God using the same phrase as above: “O Lord.… ”
Complaint: 2 Nephi 4:17–19
The complaint portion of an individual lament generally follows the invocation and is where the supplicant describes his woes to the Lord. Typically the poet laments some tragedy or malady and describes its ill effects. Suffering described in laments can include many types of physical and emotional distress.…
Confession of Trust: 2 Nephi 4:20–30
The lament is usually followed by a brief declaration of trust in the Lord and his abilities to relieve and reward the sufferer. Though sometimes found at the end or repeated near the end of the psalm, the confession of trust is a classic element and is rarely absent from the lament.…
Petition: 2 Nephi 4:31–33
In the petition the suppliant seeks the Lord’s help in alleviating the sorrows or sufferings described in the complaint. The first verse of Nephi’s petition contains referents and language common to the Near Eastern lament tradition. Westermann identifies defense against and freedom from enemies as the “dominant subject” and most elaborately developed part of the psalms of lament.…
Vow of Praise: 2 Nephi 4:34–35
In the oldest laments the concluding portion is a vow to sing a song of praise or thanksgiving. In many psalms of lamentation the change from petition to praise is very abrupt, and this sudden change of tone and content has been noted by many psalm scholars. Gunkel believes that this abrupt change in the psalm’s closing verses is evidence of the suppliant’s great faith in the Lord’s imminent help and referred to this specific element as the certainty of a hearing. In many psalms this certainty on the part of the suppliant is demonstrated not by simply promising to sing thanksgiving and praise but by actually including their gratitude and praise for the Lord in the closing verses of the lament.…
Nephi’s psalm plainly follows the format and substance of the individual lament as described by Gunkel and elaborated upon by numerous subsequent scholars. Study and comparison reveal that 2 Nephi 4:16–35 is indeed a true psalm and not merely a passage of scripture bearing similarities in tone and feeling to the Old Testament Psalter. It is a classic example of an ancient poetic form: the psalm of individual lament. Not only does Nephi exhibit a talent for literary parallelism, but he has also written a beautiful “psalm in the biblical sense of the term.” Clearly Nephi was participating in an ancient literary tradition when he wrote his psalm recorded in chapter four of 2 Nephi. It is not unreasonable to expect that Nephi’s education described as “the learning of the Jews” and the “learning of my father” included an appreciation and use of Hebrew poetry.
Nephi’s psalm is a unique text in the Book of Mormon. Nephi appears to owe both the structure and some content of his psalm to the prayer of Zenos on the brass plates, so it is fitting that Nephi utters this psalm so soon after declaring his love for the scriptures, particularly for those on the brass plates. According to Noel B. Reynolds, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University:
While Alma quotes Zenos’s prayer as proof that Zenos knew about the Son of God and to convince the people of Antionum they could worship outside their synagogues, Nephi appears to have applied the sentiments and language of the prayer to his own trying circumstances, finding in Zenos’s words a source of encouragement and faith in the face of hostility and affliction. Nephi ends his psalm with a prayer of approximately the same length and in a style similar to Zenos’s prayer text. In their respective texts, Zenos uses the invocation “O God” or “O Lord” five times; Nephi six. Nephi begins his psalm by recognizing the Lord’s great goodness in showing him “his great and marvelous works” (2 Ne. 4:17) in answer to Nephi’s prayer (see 1 Ne. 11); Zenos also begins by acknowledging God’s mercy in hearing his prayers (Alma 33:4). Zenos lists the many places in which the Lord heard his prayers, quoting first an occasion when he was in the wilderness; Nephi lists many occasions when he received blessings from God in response to his cry and “mighty prayer,” quoting first how God supported him and led him through his “afflictions in the wilderness” (2 Ne. 4:20). Zenos ends by emphasizing that because the Lord did hear him in his afflictions, he will continue to cry to him “in all mine afflictions” (Alma 33:11); furthermore, Zenos asserts generally that God is “merciful unto [his] children when they cry unto [him]” (Alma 33:8); Nephi knows that “God will give liberally to him that asketh” (2 Ne. 4:35). Zenos believes the Lord listened to his prayer “because of mine afflictions and my sincerity” (Alma 33:11); Nephi expects to be blessed “because that my heart is broken and my spirit is contrite” (2 Ne. 4:32).
The most obvious similarity between the two texts is the emphasis on the help each writer sought in dealing with “[his] enemies.” Nephi carries the problem to a higher level by also praying for help against the “enemy of [his] soul,” who tempts him and destroys his peace, the “evil one” who seeks a place in his heart (2 Ne. 4:27–28), referring to this “enemy” three times. While neither writer names these enemies directly, we get a clear picture that Nephi’s enemies included his own brothers who “did seek to take away [his] life” (2 Ne. 5:1–2), and Nephi reports that the Lord “confounded [his] enemies” (2 Ne. 4:22). While we have no background information about Zenos, it is possible that he had a somewhat different experience than Nephi. The Lord answered Zenos’s prayer by turning his enemies to him (Alma 33:4). Zenos states that he had been “cast out” and “despised” by his enemies, and that upon hearing his cries the Lord was angry with them and did “visit them in [his] anger with speedy destruction” (Alma 33:10). Given the extreme difficulties Nephi had suffered with his own brothers, it is easy to see how this verse from Zenos might have attracted his close attention.
Finally, both Nephi and Zenos make direct reference to the Atonement of Christ and the joy they can find through it. Zenos explains God’s mercy in terms of the Son and recognizes that it is “because of [God’s] Son” that “[God has] turned [his] judgments away from [him]” (Alma 33:11). Nephi asks himself why he should be depressed or feel such sorrow when “the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy” (2 Ne. 4:26; cf. 1 Ne. 11:16–25). Both end their prayers by announcing the joy they receive from the Lord’s mercy to them in their afflictions. Zenos says, “In thee is my joy” (Alma 33:11), while Nephi enjoins his heart to rejoice and cry to the Lord, saying, “My soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation” (2 Ne. 4:30).
Welch suggests that Nephi’s psalm may have been influenced by Lehi’s death. Nevertheless, the emotion is not centered on the loss of his father, but rather on Nephi’s emotional interaction with his task of writing the things of God.