When Words Fail

In the summer of 1879, a meteor streaked across the sky above Utah, and people throughout the state tried to describe what they had seen and heard.

Some were matter of fact: “A very bright meteor was seen last night about half past eight o’clock. It moved from the zenith towards the southern horizon and was observable for quite a number of seconds.”

Others used poetic terms to add depth to their descriptions: “About 8 o’clock, Thursday evening, a brilliant meteor was seen to fall apparently to the eastward of the town. The light emitted by the wanderer was of the most brilliant description, illuminating the landscape as bright as midday. Immediately after the fall, a loud rumbling sound like unto distant thunder reverberated throughout the surrounding mountains.”

My favorite record captures sight and sound and emotion: “A Singular phenomonen happened this evening at 8 minutes a past eight oclock a met[e]oric flash succeeded by an explosion as of a battle which lasted for a minute or more filling the whole valley with its sound echoing in the Kanyon & among the rocks. Its course was from east to west[.] The people were all alarmed & ran out of their houses expecting as it died away an earthquake would follow. The sound was as of cannon then of can[n]on & smaller artillery in quick succession all together ending in a rumbling sound as of a heavy wagon running over pebbly ground till as if the wagon had gon[e] out of hearing.”

None of these people had ever heard a sonic boom before and lacked the language to describe the meteor’s fall in scientific terms. They did the best they could, drawing from familiar experience to approximate what they had seen and heard.

Prophets ancient and modern have had the same difficulty in describing what they have seen and heard when spiritual events have outstripped language. I’m not speaking of deliberate symbolism, or allegory, or ordinary literary simile or metaphor, but of the failure of words to describe events that prophets strongly wanted to record accurately and objectively:

Elisha watched Elijah ascend to heaven and could think only of earthly might to tell what he saw of heavenly power: “There appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11)

The brother of Jared was so impoverished as to technical language that he could only repeat himself over and over and over: His boats “were built after a manner that they were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish.” (Ether 2:17)

Joseph Smith wanted us to know that Christ had not stood directly on the temple pulpit, but he really didn’t know how to describe whatever it was that the Lord was standing on: “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.” (D&C 110:2)

What similar instances can you recall from scripture? Does this have any significance for how we read and understand holy writ?

9 comments for “When Words Fail

  1. Revelation 9:7-10

    My branch president in the MTC told us that this was trying to describe modern attack helicopters.

  2. Ezekiel saw the wheel;
    Way up in the middle of the air.
    Now Ezekiel saw the wheel in a wheel;
    Way in the middle of the air.

    And the big wheel run by Faith, good Lord;
    And the little wheel run by the Grace of God;
    In the wheel in the wheel in the wheel good Lord;
    Way in the middle of the air.

  3. “In the summer of 1879, a meteor streaked across the sky above Utah, and people throughout the state tried to describe what they had seen and heard.”

    Utah didn’t become a state until 1896.

  4. Picky, picky, picky.

    The state as a geographical entity existed in 1879–that space on the earth’s surface which is within the boundaries of the post 1896 political entity known as the State of Utah.

    Of course, were there really people “throughout” the “state” who were at a loss for words? Any people in Paragonah, or Vernal, or Randolph? How about any folks in Dutch John? We might have to qualify that “throughout” to make this statement accurate. :-)

  5. I have to say I’m impressed that people in Utah in 1879 were willing and able to describe the meteor in naturalistic terms rather than in supernatural or divine terms: really, it was just a meteor. Have we actually regressed since then?

  6. Ardis, that is very interesting. I have nothing to add but I do wonder what Lehi’s vision really looked like compared to the amount he captured in 1 Ne. 8. Nephi even points out a few chapters later some of things Lehi left out. Of course, he discovered those through prayer of his own. So I guess the limits of language can serve divine intent.

  7. All of D&C 76 is a wonder to me.

    Consider what the Lord says below about the “language” Joseph used in the D&C:

    6 Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you;
    7 Or, if there be any among you that shall make one alike unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true;
    8 But if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true. D&C 67:6 – 8

    The manner of expression Joseph used is a testimony in itself of who he was and is.

  8. Somewhere in my dissertation files I’ve got comments from Southern slaves regarding a similar meteorologic event during the antebellum period. I’ll have to find them for you—despite being forbidden to read, those folks knew their book of Revelations!

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