A Great and Terrible Day

Avraham Gileadi

When Mormon describes the day Giddianhi, governor of the Gadianton robbers, led his armies against the besieged Nephites as “great and terrible,” he isn’t just using superlatives. Nor is he employing the popular false assumption that that event will be “great” for the righteous but “terrible” for the wicked. (The two words used together in this manner rather denote something “greatly terrible.”)

Mormon is familiar with other historical events that the scriptures depicts in those terms, such Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, which was accompanied by ten plagues and signs and wonders (Deuteronomy 26:8; 2 Samuel 7:23), and the future day of the Lord’s judgment upon all nations that will precede the Lord’s coming to reign on the earth (see Joel 2:11, 31).

Mormon says, “great and terrible was the day that they [the robbers] did come up to battle… and great and terrible was the appearance of the armies of Giddianhi, because of their armor, and because of their being dyed in blood… And great and terrible was the battle thereof, yea, great and terrible was the slaughter thereof, insomuch that there never was known so great a slaughter among all the people of Lehi since he left Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 4:7, 11).

As this is the first time Mormon describes an event occurring in Nephite history in these terms, his description alerts us to something important: it links that event to others in the history of God’s people that are described in the same or similar terms. Unlike ourselves, who employ superlatives randomly, no prophet of God ever uses a descriptive term unless what he is describing parallels or approximates similar scriptural events whether past or future.

In fact, from observing how the prophets apply certain terms to certain things and not to others, we may go so far as to say that the scriptures’ own internal checks and balances show that whatever is called “great and terrible” in the scriptures describes a single class of events. If we want to know what the “great and terrible day of the Lord” will be like that precedes the second coming of Christ, for example, then we may gain a good idea of it by examining other “great and terrible” events of the past. The prophets know that those past occurrences, or a composite of them, provide the type of the future “great and terrible day of the Lord.” If the past events didn’t resemble the latter-day one, they would certainly use different terms to describe them.

Only a few years after the Nephites’ battle with the Gadianton robbers, we again encounter “great and terrible” events in Nephite history. Nephi had seen these in vision: “And it came to pass that I saw a mist of darkness on the face of the land of promise; and I saw lightnings, and I heard thunderings, and earthquakes, and all manner of tumultuous noises; and I saw the earth and the rocks, that they rent; and I saw mountains tumbling into pieces; and I saw the plains of the earth, that they were broken up; and I saw many cities that they were sunk; and I saw many that they were burned with fire; and I saw many that they did tumble to the earth, because of the quaking thereof. And it came to pass after I saw these things, I saw the vapor of darkness, that it passed from off the face of the earth; and behold, I saw multitudes who had not fallen because of the great and terrible judgments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 12:4–5).

In recounting the fulfillment of Nephi’s vision, Mormon describes a “great and terrible tempest,” lightnings, thunders, a storm, and earthquakes that caused a “great and terrible destruction in the land southward” and an even “more great and terrible destruction in the land northward,” so that the people mourned and cried out, “O that we had repented before this great and terrible day” (3 Nephi 8:5–25).

As Nephi had seen, that immense destruction immediately preceded the Lord’s coming to the Nephites (see 1 Nephi 12:6; 3 Nephi 8:5–11:8). Elsewhere, Nephi describes that day as “great and terrible… unto the wicked, for they shall perish” (2 Nephi 26:3). Additional instances of a “great and terrible tempest” in the Book of Mormon characterize other life-threatening experiences (see 1 Nephi 18:13–15; Ether 6:6–7).

Though the King James Version translates Malachi’s description of the Lord’s future worldwide judgment as the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5), the Hebrew nonetheless uses the same terms as the prophet Joel’s description of the “great and terrible day of the Lord” (yom yhwh haggadol wehannora, Joel 2:11, 31; Malachi 4:5)

Alma’s depiction of the Nephites’ future extinction at the hands of the Lamanites as “that great and dreadful day” (Alma 45:14) is thus of a piece with the “great and terrible” war that brought about the Jaredites’ extinction (Ether 15:17). In a composite of these Book of Mormon types, both genocidal war and natural disasters will thus characterize the future “great and terrible [‘dreadful’] day of the Lord,” particularly as it relates to the American continent:

“Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand; A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains: a great people and a strong; there hath not ever been the like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many generations. A fire devoureth before them; and behind them a flame burneth: the land is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, nothing shall escape them…

“And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call” (Joel 2:1–3, 30–32).

The Gadianton robbers’ war upon the Nephites, the natural disasters that preceded the Lord’s coming to the Nephites, and the wars of extinction of the Nephites and Jaredites thus all tell us what to expect when “the day of the Lord cometh, that shall burn as an oven [Hebrew ‘furnace’]; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch” (Malachi 4:1).

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