Steeped in post-Enlightenment philosophy with its primary focus on the individual, modern readers may unwittingly assume that the Lord likewise is focused solely on individuals when he promises blessings or assigns responsibilities. Although the scriptures contain many instances where the Lord speaks to individuals separately, he also speaks to the Church or his people collectively. It is not always easy to distinguish between these two modes of address, especially because the English pronoun you can be either singular or plural. However, awareness of this linguistic issue can improve our reading of the scriptures, at times revising our understanding substantially.
It is evident that the Lord uses both collective and individual discourse. To be sure, he sometimes states explicitly that he is speaking one way or the other. For example, in assuring the elders of the Church in 1831, the Lord made it clear that he was speaking “unto the church collectively and not individually” (D&C 1:30). Three years later, in reprimanding the Saints for their transgressions, the Lord likewise stated that he spoke “concerning the church and not individuals” (D&C 105:2), and twice in section 61 he clarified, “What I say unto one I say unto all” (D&C 61:18, 36).
Although these passages are exceptional in that they overtly distinguish between singular and collective discourse, in truth the Lord has often distinguished between the Church and its individual members. Indeed, the Lord’s concern about the Church’s collective worthiness has deep but often overlooked roots. The idea of “collective responsibility” was fundamental in ancient Israelite thought. Old Testament scholarship frequently comments on the collective nature of Israelite justice and mercy,and examples of collective responsibility for individual sin are common in the Old Testament. Israelites were bound to God not only individually but also collectively through God’s covenant with the entire nation. Each Israelite had a personal duty to keep the commandments so that the entire nation would progress. Thus it is common in the Old Testament, but also in other scriptures, for the Lord to address his people both individually and collectively.
Sometimes the grammatical form of a text will be in the singular even though the sense of the passage applies to the group, as in “thou [singular] shalt love the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which is a commandment directed toward all Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4). Other times the form may be plural, but the force of the discourse is individual, as in “choose you [plural] this day whom ye will serve” (Joshua 24:15), for the covenantal choice will be made by each individual. Thus careful reading and attention are required to discern whether a text is speaking individually, collectively, or perhaps even in both of these modes.
Recognizing that the Lord speaks both collectively and individually may cast his promises and doctrines in different lights. One asks, for example, whether in Malachi 3:8–12 the Lord is speaking to one or to all when he states:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye [plural] have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you [plural] the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts. And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the Lord of hosts.
Focusing exclusively on individual discourse and perhaps misdirected by the opening question “will a man [singular] rob God?”, readers often infer that the Lord will pour out financial blessings upon each individual who pays tithing. In fact, however, it appears that the Lord is speaking not to individual Israelites but to the house of Israel collectively. An initial indicator of the collective address is the passage’s use of the plural. In the Hebrew, verses 8–12 use the second person plural masculine pronoun ’attem and the plural verb ending tem instead of the singular ’attah and tah. The King James translation also preserves a part of this singular/plural distinction in its use of the plural pronoun “ye” instead of the singular “thou.”
Admittedly, as addressed above, the employment of plurals, and particularly of plural pronouns, is not a definitive indicator of collective address. Speakers, including the Lord, often intend their remarks to apply to each individual within an audience even though they address the audience collectively with a plural “you.”This passage in Malachi, however, has other indications of collective address beyond the plural pronouns we and ye. The Lord states that he has been robbed by “this whole nation,” suggests that “all nations shall call you blessed,” and promises that “ye shall be a delightsome land.” This additional language strongly suggests that the Lord’s promise in Malachi 3 is a collective promise and not, in the first instance, an individual promise. If Israel collectively will pay her tithes and offerings, Israel collectively will be blessed.
Understood in this collective sense, the Lord’s promise takes on a different cast. The message is not that individuals will necessarily receive financial rewards for tithe paying but that every individual has an obligation to the Lord and to his kingdom to pay tithing so that his people as a whole will prosper.Thus the fact that some individuals are faithful tithe payers yet remain impoverished is not an indication that the Lord’s promise in Malachi has not been fulfilled. In fact, their faithfulness should be recognized as a contribution to the communal responsibility to tithe. It is in part because of their faithfulness that the Church as a whole is blessed. It follows that a tithe payer who is financially blessed should be cautious in attributing his own wealth strictly to personal adherence to the principle of tithing. It could be that the financial blessings are in part attributable to the righteousness of the Church collectively, and that the Lord rightly expects the member to use his wealth to help build up the kingdom, to ensure that Israel’s storehouses are full.
This collective understanding of Malachi also applies to the frequently advanced suggestion that the Book of Mormon promises prosperity to those who are righteous. Carefully read, however, the typical Book of Mormon promise of prosperity in Alma 50:19–20 is a promise to the entire posterity of Lehi and not an individual promise to every person who keeps the commandments. Indeed, usually when the Book of Mormon discusses the prosperity that flows from righteousness, it refers to “prosperity in the church.”
The idea that the Lord uses both collective and individual discourse can help us interpret numerous scriptures. For example, understanding that the Lord speaks collectively can be usefully applied to Ether 12:27, where the Lord states that he gives “unto men [plural] weakness that they may be humble.” If one’s focus is on individual rather than collective address, this scripture seems to suggest that the Lord gives each person specific trials or weaknesses to teach humility or induce private growth. But if the Lord is speaking collectively about giving men weakness, rather than giving each man weaknesses, then Ether 12:27 becomes more readily compatible with the doctrine that trials, sicknesses, and suffering are not necessarily individually designed by God, but are often a function of the sin and inequality that result from our and others’ exercise of free agency.
Another illustration comes from Genesis 17:9–13. In setting forth the Abrahamic Covenant, the Lord shifts between individual and collective address for conscious purposes. This shifting in Genesis 17 has been discussed by Kevin Barney in his work on enallage (Greek for “interchange,” or shifts between singular and plural for rhetorical effect).In that passage, the Lord initially addresses Abraham in the second person singular “thou” when describing the covenant he will make with Abraham and his seed, and then the text shifts to the second person plural “ye” in discussing the implications of the covenant for both Abraham and his seed. The Lord’s shift to collective address emphasizes that the covenant obligates and blesses not only Abraham but also his posterity.
In sum, paying close attention to the audience addressed rewards readers with more to ponder. Our understanding of doctrine in the scriptures is enhanced by realizing that the Lord may be speaking individually, collectively, or both.