There’s a point in Alma 19 where things can seem a little farcical; actually several points thinking about it. First there’s the point at which King Lamoni, waking from his slumber is overwhelmed by the joy the gospel, and sinks back down, swiftly followed by the queen, then Ammon, and then all but one of the servants. Then there’s the peoples’ conflicting reactions when they come across this scene, especially after a vengeful member of the crowd is miraculously struck down (more on this later).
To a degree I think this is deliberate; human beings can be pretty farcical, and God meets us where we are. Of course, if we are willing, he doesn’t leave us there but will change us; by the end of the chapter the farce has disappeared in the light of the gospel.
When reading this chapter today, I was struck first by the very first verse, which – since it is mostly description – might be passed over quite lightly:
And it came to pass that after two days and two nights they were about to take hisand lay it in a sepulchre, which they had made for the purpose of burying their dead.
We come to understand, like Ammon understands, that of course the king is not dead, but is undergoing a process of spiritual rebirth. And yet reading this it struck me how appropriate it was that people believed he had died. For death – death of the old person – is as much a part of the process of conversion as birth of the new. Thus baptism not only symbolises a rebirth, it also symbolises death and burial:
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
Part of the aim of baptism is that “our old man is crucified with him [Christ], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Romans 6:6). Likewise in speaking more generally of the process of conversion, Paul speaks of putting off the “old man” and putting on the “new” (Colossians 3:9–10). Conversion is both a process of death and life, destruction and creation; killing traits, habits and qualities that separate us from God and creating new ones that draw us closer to him and to the version of ourselves he desires us to be. It thus seems fitting that in King Lamoni’s own “rebirth”, that he appears to many to be literally dead, and his rising again akin to a resurrection of a new, better man.
Once again, as always with these chapters, there’s many details that could be elaborated on and discussed further: the queen’s own display of faith, King Lamoni’s prophetic statement when first waking, Ammon’s own reaction of joy. The story of Abish again drew my attention this time around:
And it came to pass that they did call on the name of the Lord, in their might, even until they had all fallen to the earth, save it were one of the Lamanitish women, whose name was Abish, she having been converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father
On one hand this is another incident which reminds us that we’re only ever getting a small portion of the story, and there’s many incidents involving the people in the Book of Mormon that we do not have the account of or know of. But upon reading this today, I was also struck by what it shows about God’s willingness to speak and reveal himself to us personally, in all sorts of circumstances and situations. When addressing the world or the Church generally, God speaks through certain channels, who he endows with his authority (such as prophets and apostles). However, such general revelations are only a portion of God’s willingness to reveal himself and communicate with us, particularly to those, such as Abish and her father, who are otherwise through no fault of their own cut off through any authoritative guidance. I think of those times of apostasy, which we sometimes describe as periods when the heavens were sealed, and can’t help but think that while that may be true generally (in the sense that there was no prophet called and given authority to address people collectively), that probably wasn’t the case individually: that where there were those who were earnestly seeking God, that he revealed himself to them, and who – like Abish and her father – “never… made it known”.
Onto the second aforementioned farce. Said Abish, upon witnessing what is happening, seeks to gather the people to the house of the king in the hopes that they will believe:
Thus, having been converted to the Lord, and never having made it known, therefore, when she saw that all the servants of Lamoni had fallen to the earth, and also her mistress, the queen, and the king, and Ammon lay prostrate upon the earth, she knew that it was the power of God; and supposing that this opportunity, by making known unto the people what had happened among them, that by beholding this scene it would cause them to believe in the power of God, therefore she ran forth from house to house, making it known unto the people.
She believe this demonstration of God’s power will cause people to believe in the power of God. Unfortunately she is mistaken: upon witnessing the scene the people being arguing, some believing it is divine vengeance upon the king for killing his servants, others for having sheltered a Nephite, and others still (the would-be flock-stealers) who disagree again (vv. 19-21). One – the brother of the leader of the thieves, who was killed by Ammon – attempts to get revenge by killing Ammon on the spot, and is struck down in a further demonstration of divine power (vv. 22-23). But this does not settle the matter, and causes even more arguments, as to whether Ammon was the “Great Spirit”, or “monster”, or a means by which the “Great Spirit” could afflict them. (vv. 25-27)
Seeing her well-meant hopes dashed by the “exceedingly sharp” contentions, Abish is distressed, and seeks to raise the queen, who indeed is roused, praises Christ, and rouses King Lamoni, who promptly rebukes his people, and begins teaching them (vv. 28-31). Clarity is brought: “as many as heard his words believed” (v. 31), and the exception are those “who would not hear his words”.
Why recount this episode in more detail? Because I think it is illustrative. Like Abish, I think sometimes we are inclined to think that a demonstration of God’s power may help people believe. There’s certainly some who claim that they would believe, if they received such a sign. Even if we reject this idea, I think we do so mostly on the grounds that such signs lack convincing power compared to the testimony of the Holy Ghost. But while that is true, I think this passage points to a further truth: without explanation, demonstrations of God’s power are liable to be misinterpreted and misunderstood, and certainly not recognised for what they are. The crowd argued over many theories, none of which were right, and their witnessing of God’s power (particularly the divine protection of Ammon, lest we think the sight of a bunch of comatose people may not have struck some as quite so miraculous) only induced confusion and contention. It took explanation and teaching from another party (the king and queen) to uncover the meaning of miracles the people had witnessed, at least for those willing to listen, and to offer a clear choice. Miracles alone therefore may not only lack convincing power, but also explanatory power.
It’s also a particularly interesting corrective to the earlier part of the story, if we have misread it. After all, Ammon’s earlier demonstration of power is what lead to his conversation with the king. And yet there is a difference: while the earlier miraculous events opened the door to that conversation, the king then earnestly sought guidance to understand what he and his people had witnessed, and had someone on scene willing to offer it. Without Ammon there to teach him (and his willingness to listen and act upon those teachings), those earlier miracles would likewise have been spiritually fruitless.