The Swords of Damocles, Laban, and the Lord

According to legend, the ancient Syracusan tyrant Dionysius II had a flatterer named Damocles. One day Damocles praised the king’s luxurious lifestyle. The king asked, “So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?” Damocles eagerly accepted. So Dionysius placed Damocles on a golden couch, surrounded by delicious food and beautiful servants.

But when Damocles looked up, he found a sword suspended above his head, dangling from its pommel by a single horse hair. Poor Damocles found it impossible to enjoy his good fortune and begged to return to the life of a humble flatterer. Dionysius’s point—pun intended—was that kingship is dangerous and stressful business.

A Greek Myth in the Book of Mormon

I’ve long been intrigued by apparent allusions to this myth in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations. The earliest example comes from a revelation dated March 1829, which warns “this generation” that “the sword of justice hangeth over their heads, and if they persist in the hardness of their hearts, the time cometh that it must fall upon them.”[1]

Seven more examples appear in the Book of Mormon.[2] Alma 60:29, for instance, says that “the sword of justice doth hang over you; yea, and it shall fall upon you and visit you even to your utter destruction.” And in 3 Nephi 20:20 we read that “the sword of my justice shall hang over” the Gentile nations in the last days, “and except they repent it shall fall upon them.” This passive construction also appears in three more revelations, dated 1830–1833.[3] It is not, by the way, found in the King James Bible.

These passages may have sparked the vision that Martin Harris saw in September 1829. According to Stephen Harding, Harris “was standing alone one night, and saw a fiery sword let down out of heaven, and pointing to the east, west, north, and south, then to the hill Cumorah, where the plates of Nephi were found.”[4]

The revelations’ imagery of a hanging sword is not necessarily a deliberate allusion to the myth of Damocles. For instance, Joseph Smith may have borrowed this language from somewhere without understanding the allusion. One Protestant theologian had written that “the sword of justice hangs over thy head by the hair of a long-tired patience.”[5] Another had warned that “The sword of God’s justice hangeth over our souls.”[6]

It’s possible, however, that Joseph Smith actually knew of the myth of Damocles and deliberately alluded to it. The “Palmyra Classical School for Young Ladies & Gentlemen” was in session during March 1829 when Smith first used the imagery of a hanging sword.[7] He may have attended the school or had friends who did. A classical school would have been a likely context for the myth to be discussed. Alternatively, Smith could have read about the myth in books or heard about it in sermons. It was certainly known in early nineteenth-century literary circles.

Wielding the Apocalyptic Sword

Whatever the source of the hanging sword imagery, it’s significant for its passivity. Only once in the Book of Mormon is the Lord said to actively wield the apocalyptic sword of justice as opposed to the sword “hanging” and “falling” of its own accord. “The sword of his justice is in his right hand,” warns 3 Nephi 29:4. The early revelations predict that the wicked will destroy each other with swords in the last days, but rarely speak of Christ or his church actively wielding the apocalyptic sword.[8]

One sword that does get actively wielded in the Book of Mormon is the sword of Laban. Nephi uses it to decapitate Laban, and the Nephite kings wield it as a symbol of royal power. Laban’s sword represents justice, but it’s the daily justice meted out by kings and judges rather than the final justice threatened by the Lord’s hanging apocalyptic sword.[9]

A crucial shift in Mormon discourse occurred as the passive imagery of the Damocles myth fell out of the discourse and was increasingly replaced by the active imagery associated with Laban’s sword.

In an early precursor to this shift, Ohio Mormon converts ecstatically acted out the apocalypse during worship services in early 1831. “Some would fancy to themselves that they had the sword of Laban and would wield it as expert as a light dragoon,” Church historian John Whitmer reported.[10] This, so far as I can tell, was the sword of Laban’s debut as an apocalyptic symbol. For the time being Joseph Smith repudiated such performances (D&C 46:27).

Smith’s own rhetoric began to shift after the expulsion of Mormon settlers from their Jackson County “Zion” in July 1833. As he reorganized the Church on military principles and began to envision a role for Mormon soldiers in the coming apocalypse, Smith’s talk of swords acquired a more active aspect. In an August 1833 revelation the Lord swore to redeem and avenge Zion and to make her “very great, and very terrible.” But the promise was conditional. If Zion proved unfaithful, the Lord would “visit her according to all her works,” with fire, plague, and “sword” (D&C 97:26).

Such rhetoric reached new heights during the 1838 Mormon War. In the summer of 1838, former apostle Thomas B. Marsh heard Joseph Smith say “that he should yet tread down his enemies & walk over their dead bodies. That if he was not let alone he would be a second Mahomet to this generation, & that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean. That like Mahomet, whose motto, in treating for peace was the Alcoran, or the sword, so should it eventually be with us, Jo Smith or the sword.”[11]

During a military council at Adam-ondi-Ahman, probably on October 17, 1838, George M. Hinkle heard Lyman Wight say “that the sword had now been drawn, and should not be sheathed until he marched to DeWitt, in Carroll county, into Jackson county, and into many other places in the State, and swore that he was able to accomplish it.”[12] Wight almost certainly got this phrasing from Smith, since Smith had spoken metaphorically of the “sword of justice” being “unsheathed” as early as April.[13] Metaphor became reality as the Mormons looted and burned Gentile towns in Daviess County.

On October 28, a few days before the Mormon surrender at Far West, Joseph Smith preached a militant sermon. According to Burr Riggs, the prophet declared “that the sword was now unsheathed, and should not again be sheathed until he could go through these United States, and live in any county he pleased, peaceably.”[14] Albert Perry Rockwood wrote in his journal, “the Prophet goes out to the battle as in days of old. he has the sword that Nephi took from Laban. is not this marvellous? . . . The Prophet has unsheathed his sword and in the name of Jesus declares that it shall not be sheathed again untill he can go unto any County or state in safety and in peace.”[15]

Here was the apotheosis of the sword of Laban. Increasingly Smith equated the Church’s earthly power with the divine sword of justice. No longer did the sword merely hang in the heavens awaiting its moment to fall. Now it hummed in the hands of a vengeful Lord and his earthly servants. After the Mormon surrender, as Smith awaited trial in Liberty Jail, he penned a prayer: “Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs” (D&C 121).


[1] Book of Commandments 4:6. This verse was deleted from later printings of the revelation, which is now Doctrine and Covenants 5. According to historian Dan Vogel, only the lost Book of Lehi and a few chapters of Mosiah were translated by March 1829, meaning this revelation predates most of the extant text of the Book of Mormon. Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 166.

[2] Alma 26:19, 60:29, 54:6; Helaman 13:5; 3 Nephi 2:19, 20:20; and Ether 8:23.

[3] Doctrine and Covenants 1:13 (November 1831), 35:14 (December 1830), 101:10 (December 1833).

[4] Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 3:159–60.

[5] Thomas Brown, An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, with Respect to Faith and Practice, upon the Plan of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, 3 vols. (Berwick: W. Gracie and J. Rennison, 1804), 2:194.

[6] W. Jos. Walter, ed., The Prose Works of Robert Southwell; Containing Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears, the Triumphs over Death, and an Epistle of Comfort, &c. &c. (London: Keating, Brown, 1828), 140.

[7] Advertisement, The Wayne Sentinel (Palmyra, N.Y.) 6, no. 23: 3.

[8] Doctrine and Covenants 45:33, 87:6.

[9] 1 Nephi 4:18; Jacob 1:10; 2 Nephi 5:14; Words of Mormon 1:13; Mosiah 1:16.

[10] Bruce N. Westergren, ed., From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 57. This entry in Whitmer’s narrative history was probably penned in June 1831.

[11] “Affidavit of Thomas B. March [Marsh],” October 24, 1838, in Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &c. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence Given before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Court of the State of Missouri, at the Court-House in Richmond, in a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes against the State (Fayette, Mo., 1841), 57–59.

[12] Testimony of George M. Hinkle, in Document, 125–29.

[13] Joseph Smith Journal, April 28, 1838, in An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott H. Faulring (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 17.

[14] Testimony of Burr Riggs, in Document, 134–36. See also Solomon Wixom, “Journal and Daybook,” quoted in Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 126.

[15] Albert Perry Rockwood, Letter, October 28, 1838, in “The Last Months of Mormonism in Missouri: The Albert Perry Rockwood Journal,” edited by Dean C. Jessee and David J. Whittaker, BYU Studies 28 (Winter 1988): 25.

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The Swords of Damocles, Laban, and the Lord — 13 Comments

  1. Really interesting, Chris. Do you see JS’s apparent appeal to an angel with a flaming sword to justify his plural marriage practice as possibly coming from a similar classical source? Or is the Bible enough for this particular image?

  2. That’s pretty clearly biblical, I think. It comes from Genesis, where God sets an angel with a flaming sword to guard Eden. I ran across an example the other day where Smith used the flaming sword image in a context where the derivation from Genesis was more obvious, but I don’t recall where. I’ll see if I can find it again.

  3. Here we go. A couple items, actually.

    On January 28, 1836, “Elder Roger Orton saw a mighty angel riding upon a horse of fire, with a flaming sword in his hand, followed by five others, encircle the house, and protect the Saints, even the Lord’s anointed, from the power of Satan and a host of evil spirits, which were striving to disturb the Saints.”

    And in a June 1, 1842 Times and Seasons article attributed to Joseph Smith but probably ghostwritten by Phelps, we read that “the glory of America has departed, and God will set a flaming sword to guard the tree of liberty, while such mint-tithing Herods as Van Buren, Boggs, Benton, Calhoun and Clay, are thrust out of the realms of virtue as fit subjects for the kingdom of fallen greatness; vox reprobi, vox Diaboli!”

    The angel of Genesis also appeared in the Nauvoo temple ceremony. Ebenezer Robinson once “accidentally saw John Taylor standing outside the door of the council room above the store, turbanned and clothed in a white robe, with a sword in his hand, ‘evidently,’ said Robinson, ‘representing the “cherubins and flaming sword which was placed at the east of the Garden of Eden, to guard the tree of life.”‘”

    Clearly Joseph Smith and his associates knew this story from Genesis and took an interest in it. In the story, of course, the flaming sword is a purely defensive measure to prevent humans from returning to paradise. Joseph Smith’s use of the motif in Nauvoo was more militant: the angel actively threatened him to get him to practice polygamy. This is another example of how a passive sword motif morphed into a more active and militant one as Joseph Smith radicalized.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I thought you may enjoy something topically related that I posted on the FAIR board in 2005:


    Hi friends,

    I looked at this issue several years ago. Here are a few of my thoughts.

    BoMor usage of _the sword of justice_ (and variants) has verbatim antecedents in Joseph Smith’s biblical culture.

    In Greek mythology, Themis brandishes the sword of justice. She is often portrayed as expeditiously dispensing justice after weighing a given infraction on the scales of mercy. Lady Justice, whose statues often adorn U.S. judicial buildings, is a more modern incarnation of Themis.

    To teach a wannabe potentate the perils of wealth and power, legend has it that Dionysius played a _Freaky Friday_ switcheroo on Damocles. As Damocles gorged himself with food in his new-found opulent surroundings, he gazed upward and saw a sword hanging over his head by a horsehair, portending the ever-present impending doom of the wealthy who live and die by the sword.

    I suspect that the two mythologies were eventually blended together with a dash of Christianity to form an odd rhetorical concoction—a mixed “mythophor,” if you will. 😉 So now, God wields his almighty justice with this sword; but the sword also, almost passively, “hangs” within a hairsbreadth of “falling” on some unwary sinner. As Matthew Henry put it:

    “They undertook to _secure_ the sword of Pilate’s justice, but could not secure them from *the sword of God’s justice*, which *hangs over the head* of those that love and make a lie.”

    —Matthew Henry, _An Exposition of the Old and New Testament_ (Philadelphia: Towar & Hogan, 1828), sv Matthew 28:11–15, asterisk emphasis added.

    Henry actually had quite the appetite for _the sword of justice_ in its various flavors:

    “They think themselves as well fortified against the judgments of God, as the elephant with his bones of brass and iron; but he that made the soul of man knows all the avenues to it, and can make *the sword of justice*, his wrath, to approach to it, and touch it in the most tender and sensible part.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Job 40:15–24, emphasis added.


    “It is a sin that has a direct tendency to the killing of the soul, the extinguishing of all good affections and dispositions in it, and exposing of it to the wrath and curse of God, and *the sword of his justice*.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Proverbs 2:10–22, emphasis added.


    “_If you refuse and rebel_, if you continue to rebel against the divine government and refuse the offers of the divine grace, _you shall be devoured with the sword_; with the sword of your enemies, which shall be commissioned to destroy you, with *the sword of God’s justice*, his wrath, and vengeance, which shall be drawn against you; for this is that which *the mouth of the Lord has spoken*, and which he will make good, for the maintaining of his own honour.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Isaiah 1:16–20, asterisk emphasis added.


    “Note, God’s sword of war is always *a sword of justice*. … When the day of God’s abused mercy and patience is over, *the sword of his justice* gives no quarter, spares none.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Isaiah 34:1–8, emphasis added.


    “But observe, God says, _They are increased to me_. Though the husbands were cut off by *the sword of his justice*, their poor widows were gathered in the arms of his mercy, who has taken it among the titles of his honour to be _the God of the widows_.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Jeremiah 15:1–9, asterisk emphasis added (also compare Henry’s “arms of his mercy” with “arms of mercy” in Mosiah 16:12 [twice]; Alma 5:53).


    “… but when *the sword of God’s justice* is drawn it _contemns this rod_, makes nothing of it, though it be a _strong rod_, and the _rod of his son_; it is no more than _any other tree_. … The sword of war my Son makes use of as *a sword of justice*, and to him _all judgment is committed_. … And such various methods God has of _meeting with_ sinners, that *the sword of his justice* is still as it was at first, when it flamed in the hand of the cherubim, it _turns every way_, Gen. iii. 24.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Ezekiel 21:8–17, asterisk emphasis added.


    “Note, When *the sword of God’s justice* is _drawn against some_, to cut them off, it is thereby _brandished before others_, to give them warning.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Ezekiel 32:1–16, asterisk emphasis added.


    “He _leaves the flock_ when they most need his care, leaves them destitute, and flees, _because he is a hireling_; his doom is, that *the sword of God’s justice* shall be _upon his arm_ and _his right eye_, so that he shall quite lose the use of both.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Zechariah 11:15–17, asterisk emphasis added.


    “… _the sickle_ is *the sword of God’s justice*, the field is the world, _reaping_ is cutting the inhabitants of the earth down, and carrying them off.”

    —M. Henry, _An Exposition_ (1828), sv Revelation 14:13–20, asterisk emphasis added.

    In any event, I think you get the idea.

    *FYI:* I’ve also argued in favor of Royal Skousen’s “sword of ^the^ Justice of the Eternal God” in the BoMor original manuscript for 1 Nephi 12:18b (see B. Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis,” _New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology_, ed. B. Metcalfe [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993], 430n42).

    For those who are interested, when I get some spare playtime I have more to say about O. Pratt, H. B. Lee, and those darned Lamanites.

    My best,


  5. Chris the representation of the angel in the Nauvoo ceremony is more or less directly lifted from the position of the Tyler in masonry. While the sword of Damocles is an obvious parallel there are quite a few others. Also note that the sword of justice is a typical emblem of monarchs, including Great Britain’s monarch where there are two: one spiritual and one temporal. The obvious Biblical parallel is Dt 32:41, 1 Chr 21:16

    The latter seems a fairly close parallel, albeit missing a bit of the greek imagery. “And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the Lord stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. “

  6. Thanks for the tip about Masonry. That’s one of those issues I know I need to dig into more, but it’s so big that I’m somewhat intimidated. I’ll just wait for Joe and Cheryl’s book to come out.

    Yes, the “sword of justice” is a classic emblem. But generally it’s not depicted as “hanging.” I like the way Brent described the Book of Mormon usage in his lengthy post above: as a “mixed mythaphor.” That’s a marvelous phrase that describes much of what we find in Joseph’s revelations.

  7. In In March of 1843, a strange phenomenon was observed in the night sky over Nauvoo. It was reported in Joseph Smith’s journal thusly:

    This evening from 7 to 9 was seen in the heavens a dark stripe of considerable width passing over our zenith, dark as the darkest clouds.52 [p. 16]

    Diagram • 14 March 1843
    [drawing of atmospheric phenomenon showing intersecting circles with accompanying descriptions]53
    This circle was similar to the one around the moon in appearance. but larger.
    A.A. Parhelion, visible from 8 to 9 o clock— P.M. when it was seen by Joseph and this diagram was drawn from his description
    This space was darker than other parts of the horizon
    Circle such as is frequently seen.
    The outer part of par helion was much more brilliant than the inner.
    The above is a diagram of one of the signs of the times designed to represent. “A union of power and combination of Nations” says Joseph.
    Dr R[obert] D. Foster, says that at 11. oclock the circles interwoven around the moon were innumerable. [p. 17]!/paperSummary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-2-10-march-1843-14-july-1843&p=25

    And the Millennial Star when later recapping Joseph’s History had:

    At Seven and a half a.m., [March 23] the heavens exhibited a splendid appearance of circles, accompanied by mock suns. The sword has been seen for several nights past; also on the opposite side of the horizon, a black streak about the size of the light one. While the one is as black as darkness, the other has considerably the appearance of the blaze of a comet; but it is not a comet, for it appears about seven o’clock, and disappears about nine. (Vol.XX, No. 43, p. 680)

    Charlotte Haven, a visitor to Nauvoo wrote,

    During the last fortnight a bright streak of light has been observed in the heavens extending from east to west, undoubtedly a comet of the first magnitude, for it is very brilliant, and we wonder that we see no notice of this beautiful heavenly wanderer in the Eastern papers. Well, some of the Mormons looked with fear on this, to them, strange phenomenon, and applied to the Patriarch, who allayed their fears by telling them that it was a fiery sword pointing to Missouri, and there would soon be war in that State and the Missourians would be exterminated. “They felt to rejoice,” for those who suffered there have a bitter hatred to the very name of the State. (By the way, none of the Mormons were slaveholders.) We understand that the Prophet has recently had a vision, but will not reveal to his people what he saw in his trance until the 6th of May; then we may expect something startling.

    Don’t know if this is really relevant, but found it interesting.

  8. Yes, very interesting, especially given the parallels to Martin Harris’s vision in New York.

    The Book of Mormon and early revelations refer repeatedly to gathering the elect from the “four quarters of the earth.”

    Then Martin Harris sees his vision of a fiery sword in the sky pointing to the four compass points, and then finally toward the Hill Cumorah. This seems to warn of impending apocalypse and to designate the Hill Cumorah as a gathering place.

    Then we get this 1843 statement by Hyrum Smith referring to a fiery sword in the sky pointing toward Missouri, again seeming to warn of Apocalypse and to designate the place of gathering.

    Clearly this was a recurring (and evolving) motif.