“Wo Be Unto Them”

Brant Gardner

Reference: In verses 15–29, Nephi presents a series of prophetic woe-proclamations, literarily paralleling the woe-proclamations in Isaiah 5:8–23, 25. While not following the Isaiah text as he does in other passage, Nephi nevertheless builds on the theme of the woe-statements and, in this particular verse, restates a concept from Isaiah 5:20–21: “Wo unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Wo unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!”

Isaiah was condemning the worldly wise, which Nephi applies to the “learned and the rich.” His description of them as being “puffed up in the pride of their hearts” is the equivalent of Isaiah’s “wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.”

Nephi’s first woe-proclamation targets the learned and the rich. The association of those two categories marks the concept as an ancient one, since modern readers (especially university professors) know that the learned are not necessarily rich. In ancient times, however, only the rich could become the learned, since access to education depended on wealth. The historically recent availability of near-universal education has diluted the power of this connection. For Nephi, however, they were unquestionably equivalent and unquestionably antithetical to his egalitarian ideal.

It is easy to see how the rich, learned, and powerful could control the dissemination of religious knowledge, facilitating the teaching of their own doctrines rather than Yahweh’s. What does not make sense to the modern reader is that the learned and rich should also “commit whoredoms,” almost, as Nephi phrases it, as though the three categories were inevitable companions. While some rich and learned individuals undoubtedly were also sexually immoral, Nephi seems to be speaking not of individuals but of the entire category. Is it possible that he was referring less to a moral transgression than a spiritual one? In that case, the “whoredom” of the rich is their congress with the learning of men (instead of Yahweh)—not their sexual habits. They were unfaithful to Yahweh, not to their spouses. This possibility is strengthened by Nephi’s inclusion of Jacob’s discourse that includes Isaiah 50:1 (2 Ne. 7:1), where Yahweh uses the imagery of Israel as his spouse.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2