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Mark Twain famously quipped that if Joseph Smith would have left out the phrase “it came to pass,” the Book of Mormon would have only been a short pamphlet (Roughing It, Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1901, p. 133).
We may justifiably join Mark Twain in wondering why this phrase is used in the Book of Mormon ad nauseum (a fancy phrase that means “until we are literally sick!”). It’s like listening to high school teenagers, who use the word “like” about every third word and like, no one even knows why they do it.
Joking aside, why does this phrase show up so often? Let me suggest several reasons that I hope expand our love, gratitude, and understanding of scripture and God’s character.
The Comforting Message of “It Came to Pass”
This first insight is more of a personal opinion, but I feel a deep sense of perspective when I consider the literal meaning of the phrase “it came to pass.” Read that again and think about what it specifically means. Nothing in this mortal life comes to stay; I find that truth deeply heartening. Life is so full of pain, anguish, worry, and heartache.
Sure, I know we all signed up for this, and somewhere in the Old Testament, we are told that we shouted for joy about all the pain and suffering we’d experience in this life. I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course, because without pain and suffering we could never know the joy of salvation—that sweet fruit of redemption that comes through Jesus Christ and that is so beautifully declared by mother Eve:
“Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11).
But consider again the liberating truth of this phrase, “it came to pass.” Remember: We are here to be tried and tested. And if we endure it well, we shall be exalted on high (D&C 121:8). No pain, no loss, no heartache, no grief, no shattered dream will be your permanent reality. It comes. Then it passes on by. Like Mother Eve or faithful Joseph Smith, we can learn to endure well as we remember, “know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever” (D&C 122:7-9).
Literary Insights: “It Came To Pass” Is the Engine of Narrative Storytelling
We all know that an engine is what propels and drives a car forward. The thrill of speed is initiated every time the engine is kicked into gear. Conversely, if there’s no engine, there’s no movement.
Similar to the engine of a car, the phrase “it came to pass” is an ancient Hebrew literary convention that helped a narrative have energy, flow, and dynamism.
In modern English, we might tell a story without verbally marking the onward, driving force of the narrative: I woke up this morning. I ate breakfast. I drove to work. I came home. And I went to bed.
That is not a very compelling story (perhaps a bit too close to home for lovers of the movie Groundhog’s Day). Furthermore, we don’t feel the energy of flowing narrative. We aren’t carried along effortlessly point by point. Rather, each statement is a staccato experience that speaks a single truth but not in a connected, engaging fashion.
To avoid such stifling narrative expressions, ancient Hebrew writers liberally spread the phrase “it came to pass” throughout their narratives. The reader would feel the movement and acceleration of the narrative, no time to pause on any one action in favor of time to pick up and move on to the next action or idea. There is purpose and excitement in the text. There is a story to be told and no time to lose by dwelling on a particular scene.
Perhaps I can try one more analogy. Modern action movies are thick with quick actions scenes with hurried editorial cuts. Just watch the latest action blockbuster and count in a single minute, during a particularly energetic action scene, how many times are there visual transitions. A particularly fast-paced movie may have 30+ visual transitions in a single minute. Or one transition every two seconds. Why do movie makers do this? Because it creates a heightened sense of movement, of story flow, of energy, of engagingly interconnected narrative building blocks that have been brought together seamlessly so the story flows breathlessly and satisfyingly from one moment to the next.
The phrase “it came to pass” functioned as a narrative transitional marker and engine in ancient Hebrew writing.
Nephi, and other Book of Mormon writers, as highly capable and trained scribes, did not want to keep their readers stuck in the doldrums of non-connected narrative building blocks. They wanted to press on the gas of the narrative and use the engine of “it came to pass” to drive the flow and development and energy of the story forward.
The Connection Between “It Came to Pass” and “Yahweh” (Jehovah)
This final insight may be the most striking reason why “it came to pass” is one of the most significant phrases in all of the scriptures.
In Hebrew, the phrase “it came to pass” is built on the same Hebrew root word for the personal name of God: Yahweh (Jehovah).
As indicated in another article, “The word Yahweh is the present tense of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Other English translations of Yahweh’s name could include “The Self Existing One,” “The Being,” or simply “Is.”
Significantly, and distinct from many languages that I have studied, the present tense of the verb “to be” in Hebrew is reserved wholly and singularly for Yahweh.
Think of the stunning symbolism and awesome reality that an entire language reserves the utterance of any present tense form of “to be” to God himself whose name is “the Self Existing One”—Yahweh.
How does this relate to the phrase “it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon?
Since the phrase “it came to pass” is built on the same root word for the name of God, Yahweh, and He is the Self-Existing One who makes all that is, then the insight is that Yahweh is the source and the cause that brings everything into existence, who drives the narrative of the plan of salvation, the narrative of our very lives, forward to completion.
As the one who “IS”, who brings to pass all things, He is the Author and Finisher of our faith.
When we read “it came to pass” we see God’s presence, His love, His concern, His energy, His knowledge, His direction, His guidance.
Truly, God, as Yahweh, is the One who makes all that is and brings to pass all that is necessary for our eternal salvation.
Rather than the repetitive, pedestrian phrase that seems to clutter the Book of Mormon, “it came to pass” may be one of the most significant, meaningful, and overlooked phrases of the entire Book of Mormon.
With this understanding, perhaps we can be at peace to let God bring to pass His great and marvelous work in our own lives and throughout His created order.
[This article was original published as “How One of the Most Common Phrases in the Book of Mormon Is Also the Most Meaningful” on LDS Living October 17, 2017.]