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1 O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
2 Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.
Alma’s soliloquy is a moving expression, and its elegance makes the assignment to a separate chapter understandable. However, it also cuts it off from its context. Why does Alma wish that he were an angel? Verse 2 tells us that it is so “that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.” Why was that his concern?
That is the context that is lost in the modern chapter division. These are the verses that provide the background:
“And from the first year to the fifteenth has brought to pass the destruction of many thousand lives; yea, it has brought to pass an awful scene of bloodshed. And the bodies of many thousands are laid low in the earth, while the bodies of many thousands are moldering in heaps upon the face of the earth; yea, and many thousands are mourning for the loss of their kindred, because they have reason to fear, according to the promises of the Lord, that they are consigned to a state of endless wo.” (Alma 28:10–11)
In the previous chapter, which was originally all part of the same 1830 chapter, both Mormon and Alma spoke of the terrible costs of that particular war. Both Mormon and Alma lamented the great loss of lives. The slight difference between what Mormon said and what Alma said was that Alma was concerned not only for those who mourned, but that “they have reason to fear, according to the promises of the Lord, that they are consigned to a state of endless wo.” That is the reason that Alma wishes that he could preach with the power of an angel, to save the souls that might have reason to mourn even above the awful loss of life.
3 But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.
4 I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Alma is not an angel. He is aware of his human frailties, and one of them is wishing that he could do more than what he is able to do. Although he is contemplating the results of the sadness that resulted from the loss of life in the war, and the loss of the opportunity to repent (at least in this life), Alma also understands that God requires no more of him than that he is able to do.
Our modern understanding of the ability to continue to learn and repent after this life does not appear to have been part of Alma’s understanding. Alma appears to have understood God’s laws as applicable to mortality, and having some finality with the end of mortality. That is what he is saying when he says that “I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life.” There are two choices, eternal life in God or eternity without god, or spiritual death.
Alma understands and asserts our essential agency. God’s decrees are unalterable, but our responses to them depend upon our own wills. Our choices will determine whether we are ultimately saved or destroyed. Alma understands, and writes, in terms of opposites: black or white; salvation or destruction; and spiritual life or spiritual death.
5 Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.
6 Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
7 Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
8 For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.
Alma continues his reflection on his life and spiritual mission. He has noted that while God is constant, humankind’s agency allows us our own choices, and sometimes those choices are not wise in their eternal consequences. Nevertheless, it is important to underscore the reality that it is given to humanity to know the difference between good and evil, and to be free to choose between those two options. Alma does note that there may be a condition where one might not know good from evil. That condition may apply to young children, or to other circumstances. However, to most it is given that we may choose “good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.” Agency requires choice, and Alma defines those choices as polar opposites for the purposes of teaching the principle.
Why then should Alma desire that he were an angel? That rhetorical question returns to the beginning of this lament, and answers that Alma should be satisfied with what he is able to do. Perhaps as an angel he could override agency, but that would contravene Jehovah’s plan for humankind. Alma understands that God gives to humankind that for which we are ready, and gives us our agency that we may understand our choices and freely make them.
9 I know that which the Lord hath commanded me, and I glory in it. I do not glory of myself, but I glory in that which the Lord hath commanded me; yea, and this is my glory, that perhaps I may be an instrument in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentance; and this is my joy.
10 And behold, when I see many of my brethren truly penitent, and coming to the Lord their God, then is my soul filled with joy; then do I remember what the Lord has done for me, yea, even that he hath heard my prayer; yea, then do I remember his merciful arm which he extended towards me.
11 Yea, and I also remember the captivity of my fathers; for I surely do know that the Lord did deliver them out of bondage, and by this did establish his church; yea, the Lord God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did deliver them out of bondage.
12 Yea, I have always remembered the captivity of my fathers; and that same God who delivered them out of the hands of the Egyptians did deliver them out of bondage.
13 Yea, and that same God did establish his church among them; yea, and that same God hath called me by a holy calling, to preach the word unto this people, and hath given me much success, in the which my joy is full.
Alma’s comment: “I do not glory of myself, but I glory in that which the Lord hath commanded me,” echoes Ammon’s statement in Alma 26:12: “I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God.” Alma had recorded those words, and perhaps subconsciously echoed them here. His point is that there are many things that have happened that are good in spite of the terrible aftermath of the war. Even though Alma lamented those who died unrepentant, he recognizes that there have been many who have repented and come to God.
What Alma is doing in these verses is contextualizing the very real sadness associated with devastation with those things in which one might rejoice. There were many who died unrepentant, but there were many who came to God, and who would not have without the ministrations of the sons of Mosiah.
Their fathers were in captivity, a thing to be lamented. Jehovah saved them, something to be praised. The God of the Old World fathers delivered them from bondage to Egypt; that same God still has power to deliver them from bondage. While that happens at times as a release from physical bondage, the gospel also comes to release humankind from the bondage of sin that separates us from God.
14 But I do not joy in my own success alone, but my joy is more full because of the success of my brethren, who have been up to the land of Nephi.
15 Behold, they have labored exceedingly, and have brought forth much fruit; and how great shall be their reward!
16 Now, when I think of the success of these my brethren my soul is carried away, even to the separation of it from the body, as it were, so great is my joy.
17 And now may God grant unto these, my brethren, that they may sit down in the kingdom of God; yea, and also all those who are the fruit of their labors that they may go no more out, but that they may praise him forever. And may God grant that it may be done according to my words, even as I have spoken. Amen.
This outpouring of emotion begins with the awful sadness of the destruction of war and the loss of husbands, fathers, and sons. It ends with the hope of the successes of the sons of Mosiah in the land of Nephi. While it might not appear that the two are linked, Alma makes the connection because many of the dead did not have the chance to learn of God, and, therefore, they faced a spiritual death after the temporal death. That is contrasted to the success in leading many of the Lamanites to God and, therefore, giving them the chance at spiritual life, even though some of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies also lost their lives.
The presence of the testificatory Amen brings this chapter to a close.
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