Reading King Benjamin's speech, we come upon a passage in which the verb list is used four times: "Beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit. . . . For behold, there is a wo pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that spirit; for if he listeth to obey him, and remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul. . . . The man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God; therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness" (Mosiah 2:32, 33, 37).
Alma 3 contains a forceful indictment of the Amlicites, who had willfully chosen to mark themselves "with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites" (v. 4). Benjamin's words from Mosiah 2 are echoed in Alma 3:18: "Now the Amlicites . . . had come out in open rebellion against God; therefore it was expedient that the curse [of God] should fall upon them." Later, in a reflective commentary on the tens of thousands who had died in recent battles between the Nephites and their Lamanite and Amlicite enemies, we read that the dead will "reap eternal happiness or eternal misery, according to the spirit which they listed to obey, whether it be a good spirit or a bad one. For every man receiveth wages of him whom he listeth to obey" (Alma 3:26—27). Benjamin had also spoken of wages in Mosiah 2:33: "for he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge." These two passages teach that one can list to do right or wrong only with sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice.
List is an English word with several archaic meanings1 that have generally not survived into our time. In one meaning, list is simply a shortened form of listen, as in these lines from a hymn: "List! the merry children singing! What a pleasing, joyful sound!"2 However, the reading "listen to obey the evil spirit" poses a grammatical difficulty and is clearly not the intended meaning, especially given Benjamin's concern with serious, active involvement with sin. The same can be said of another meaning of list, one still in use: "leaning to one side," as is said of a ship. Benjamin's warnings to his people suggest a concern with more than just a leaning toward the side of evil—a boat that is only listing has not yet capsized (the marine equivalent of the damnation referred to in verses 38 and 39).
The verb list was often spelled before 1600 as lust and is derived from and related to words denoting appetite, desire, or longing. Its Indo-European root word means "to be eager" and is also the source of lascivious ("lewd, lustful") and listless ("without desire"), both of which remain in modern usage. List also once carried the active meaning of "to choose." Rather than indicating a mere inclination, list was used as a verb of action that fits exactly with Benjamin's description of "open rebellion."3
These meanings of wishing, desiring, and choosing are preserved in the Bible in only a few passages: John 3:8 ("The wind bloweth where it listeth"), Matthew 20:15 ("Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" though William Tyndale's 1526 translation seems closer to the mark: "ys yt not lawfull ffor me to do as me listeth with myne awne?"),4 James 3:4 ("whithersoever the governor listeth"), and Matthew 17:12 and Mark 9:13 ("they have done unto him whatsoever they listed"). These same meanings of list appear in Webster's 1828 dictionary, namely, "to lean or incline, to be propense; hence to desire or choose."
Properly understood, the verb list is a powerful word that should encourage us to fervently desire and choose righteousness. Surely that was the hope expressed by King Benjamin in this earnest appeal: "I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. . . . If they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness" (Mosiah 2:41). !
Former seminary and institute instructor, Washington DC area; BYU graduate in English
- Oxford English Dictionary (1961), s.v. "list."