Few people appreciate the greatness of Jacob among the prophets. This is partly because his story is scattered over 125 pages of the Book of Mormon, and partly because he wrote little about himself. Nevertheless, from what we do know, a picture emerges of a shepherd of his people who also loved us, the Saints of future years, and who by that love calls forth our love for him.
During the first part of his ministry, Jacob was one of three witnesses through whom the testimony of Christ was borne to the early Nephite church. Nephi used Jacob’s teachings, together with the prophecies of Isaiah from the brass plates of Laban, to establish the truth of what he himself taught concerning Christ. They, like him, had seen the Redeemer and had received revelations concerning his future ministry. (2 Ne. 11:2–3.) Jacob’s role thus seems to have been similar to that given to Hyrum Smith in the latter days, to stand as “second elder” beside a prophet-leader and proclaim a special witness. (See Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:216–22, 258.)
In the second part of his ministry, from the age of about fifty onward,1 Jacob himself presided over the Church. (Though Jacob does not say explicitly that this was so, the evidence that we have for it is strong.2) He labored in this calling to consolidate the Church against forces of corruption and apostasy. Only one of the discourses he delivered during his administration survives, together with a sermon that Nephi recorded and one that Jacob wrote for posterity; but the three together form one of the most important doctrinal contributions ever made. Besides this, Jacob was a successful father. His immediate posterity became Church leaders and keepers of the small plates; in this respect too he was like Hyrum Smith.
Jacob and his younger brother, Joseph, were born of Lehi and Sariah during the eight-year journey in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. (1 Ne. 18:7.) Though their family had been prosperous in Jerusalem (1 Ne. 3:16, 22–25), all that Jacob and Joseph had experienced was hardship and privation. The coastal desert was hot and humid. Their food, for a period, was the raw flesh of animals. But it was not the physical difficulty of the trek that made Lehi call these “the days of my tribulation in the wilderness” and caused Jacob to suffer “afflictions and much sorrow.” (2 Ne. 2:1.) Indeed, the Lord blessed the two-family party so that the raw meat was “sweet” (1 Ne. 17:12), and the “women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, … and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.” (1 Ne. 17:2.)
What afflicted them through the journey—in the desert, during the shipbuilding, on the ocean voyage, and in the new land—were rebellions, disputes, and contentions provoked by Laman and Lemuel (Jacob’s oldest brothers) and by the sons of Ishmael. These men complained constantly, threatened their parents, tried to return to Jerusalem, refused to work, physically abused Nephi, and several times even tried to kill him. Their rebellion and faithlessness more than once caused the Lord to withdraw his providences, so that it seemed the company would perish in the desert or on the high seas. (1 Ne. 16:18–29, 34–39; 1 Ne. 18:9–20.)
Jacob and Joseph lived through all this. They saw their father and mother “stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children, they were brought down, yea, even upon their sick-beds.” (1 Ne. 18:17.) The two boys, “being young, having need of much nourishment, were grieved because of the afflictions of their mother.” (1 Ne. 18:19.)
This sort of emotional and spiritual tribulation never ended for Jacob, who at the end of his life wrote: “Our lives passed away like … a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” (Jacob 7:26.)
In the strife that divided this little society, which was the only one Jacob had known, good and evil were sharply polarized. The battle lines were almost always drawn. Jacob could not be indifferent to moral issues: he had to declare himself. He saw conflicts as old as mankind. Laman and Lemuel contended that the Jerusalem Jews whom they had left and who kept the Law of Moses hypocritically, as a cover for sin, were a righteous and happy people. (1 Ne. 17:22.) They said that their father, who condemned the Jews in the name of the Lord for their overripe iniquity, was a fanatical visionary.
Think about a boy in Jacob’s situation trying to sort out what was right. To appreciate what it took to stand beside his nearly broken father and embattled brother Nephi, consider how persuasive Laman’s and Lemuel’s position was. They pointed to the enjoyable life they had left. They sorrowed sincerely for the hardships endured by their wives, who carried, bore, and nursed children on the journey. Look what we have given up and what we have endured, they said, in order to trudge year after year—aimlessly it seemed and at the risk of life—in a wasteland. (1 Ne. 17:20–21.) Why should they be blamed for their resistant attitude in a situation like this? What was more natural?
But more important than what Laman and Lemuel said was what they left out. They had the evidence of divine manifestations that this journey was not simply their father’s escapade; and they were untrue to this evidence. They hated Nephi, not because he differed from them in religious things, but because inwardly they knew he was right. (1 Ne. 17:45–46.) Like their consciences, he was a reproach to them. Jacob was different from Laman and Lemuel; he yielded his heart to the truth that they all knew.
In times of peril Jacob exercised his faith and saw miraculous deliverances. He fasted and prayed for storms to abate, for food to be found, and for the Liahona to point their way. In the pitched moral battle that surrounded his childhood, he committed himself. Because of this, his father promised him, all his afflictions would be consecrated for his gain. (2 Ne. 2:2.) While still in his youth he beheld the glory of the Savior, saw in prospect “that in the fulness of time he [the Lord] cometh to bring salvation unto men” (2 Ne. 2:3), received blessings “even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh,” and was himself redeemed from the fall. (2 Ne. 2:3–4.) At times unidentified in his life he also enjoyed the ministration of angels, heard the voice of the Lord, and received “many revelations, and the spirit of much prophecy.” (Jacob 1:6; see also 2 Ne. 10:3; Jacob 2:11; Jacob 4:6.)
It is little wonder that Lehi, in giving instruction to Jacob (2 Ne. 2), spoke of opposition, freedom, and Christ. These concerns were always to the fore in the experiences Jacob had had.
Lehi treated these topics with a profundity unsurpassed in any literature. One of the principles Lehi taught was that living the law without yielding one’s heart to God cannot justify anyone. The law points to Christ and the redemption he offers, which can be received only by a person whose heart is broken and spirit contrite. This attitude reminds us of the sacrifice of the Messiah—a person must figuratively lay down his life according to the flesh and take it up again by the power of the Spirit. That is what Jacob did, which is why redemption came to him “in and through the Holy Messiah.” (2 Ne. 2:6.) All of this lay behind Jacob’s reply in later life when Sherem, the antichrist, accused him of perverting the law of Moses by preaching Christ. Jacob said, “Then ve do not understand [the scriptures]; for … none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.” (Jacob 7:11.)
Another principle Lehi taught Jacob was that there is purpose in opposition. (2 Ne. 2:11.) There was a reason for the presence of Laman and Lemuel on that arduous journey just as there was for the beguiling voice of Satan in the Garden of Eden. Without that opposition and the opportunity for sin and sorrow it presents, there can be no voluntary resistance to evil and therefore no virtue; and if there is no virtue there can be no happiness.
Finally, Lehi made it clear that there is a kind of freedom enjoyed only by those who, against opposition, yield their hearts to Christ. Whereas everyone who has received the law is morally free either to yield to the will of the Holy Spirit or to pursue his own carnal purposes, only the former course will lead to this special freedom, which Lehi called “liberty and eternal life”; all others, through the exercise of their agency, choose to suffer “captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)
These themes describe Jacob’s ministry as well as his boyhood. The texts available give evidence that he gained the ultimate victory of mortality: he sought no advantage for himself, but labored with all his time, energy, and devotion “for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our people.” (Jacob 1:4.)
The evidence is briefly this. From the time he and Joseph were consecrated “priests and teachers” (2 Ne. 5:26) unto their people (Jacob was then about twenty-five), his desire was for the welfare of their souls. In this Melchizedek Priesthood calling (see Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 598–99), he labored under a constant, preoccupying anxiety for the people. (2 Ne. 6:3.) A quarter century later, when Nephi charged him to keep the sacred small plates, he was still driven by the same anxious charity. He wrote of that time: “We labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ. …
“And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence.” (Jacob 1:7, 19.)
In this he found delight and peace. (2 Ne. 9:49.) Moreover, he “often” spent time teaching his family “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Enos 1:1.) (It was those remembered teachings that moved his youthful son Enos, who revered him, to pray day and night for forgiveness of sins.) Yielding to the will of the Holy Spirit rather than to the will of the flesh, Jacob became one of those rare people who are free of the unseemly and insistent motivations that drive men to do what they despise themselves for doing. This is the special sort of freedom spoken of by Lehi. In the demanding bonds of Christ, Jacob lived the perfectly liberated life.
Jacob’s commitment to these principles can be appreciated only in light of the three discourses that have been preserved. Indeed, one reason he is not an outstanding leader for many Book of Mormon readers is that the message of these sermons is seldom brought into focus. If their interlocking themes were to converge in a single statement, it might be this: Though Israel may reject its Holy One and be scattered in tribulation and captivity, he is mighty to deliver them because of the sacrifice he made, if they turn to him again with their hearts. And what is true of Israel as a people is also true of individuals: each can and must shake himself from his spiritually scattered condition and return, alive again, to Christ.
The first surviving sermon is the longest in scripture, three pages longer than King Benjamin’s, and so long indeed that Jacob took two days in delivering it. This is the sermon that Nephi engraved on the small plates as a witness to the truth of his own teachings. The text for this sermon is drawn front Isaiah. Jacob uses it to speak of the Lord’s covenants with Israel. We learn of Christ’s power and desire to deliver Israel’s people from captivity, to recover them from dispersion, and to redeem them from sin, and of the suffering Christ would undergo in accomplishing this. All Israel, both Zion and Jerusalem, are commanded to awake, flee uncleanness and captivity, and return to him.
The first main section (2 Ne. 9:1–26) of Jacob’s commentary on this text concerns Israel’s Holy One: his Palestinian ministry, his death in behalf of mankind, his power of atonement to deliver men—by resurrection and spiritual rebirth—from death and hell, and his promise to the righteous of a heavenly inheritance and joy forever.
Next (2 Ne. 9:27–54), Jacob calls to repentance those who know the truth and reject it. There is a world of difference between such unbelief and the ignorance of those who have not been given the law of God. The latter are guaranteed the benefits of the atonement. But the former, if they remain and die in their sins, have a terrible destiny. Their deafness and blindness to the truth are deliberate, hypocritical; and yet they puff themselves up in pretension of wisdom and self-sufficiency as they despise the poor and persecute the meek. Remembering their “awful guilt in perfectness” (2 Ne. 9:46), they will one day be smitten by the knowledge of their iniquities. They will exclaim, “I know my guilt; I transgressed thy law, and my transgressions are mine.” (2 Ne. 9:46.) Jacob pleads with them, as an ordinary man would plead for his life, to shake off the devil’s chains, confess the lie they have been living, and humbly receive the overflowing abundance of life that the Lord gives freely.
Finally (2 Ne. 10), on the following day Jacob links his counsel on how the individual may come again to Christ (an angel had told him the night before that this would be the Redeemer’s name) to the theme of God’s covenants with Israel. Like the Jews, the children of the Nephites would, he teaches, reject the Savior and perish in unbelief; but ultimately, according to the promises, they would be restored again to their inheritance.
The second of Jacob’s surviving discourses (Jacob 1:17–3:12) was delivered in the temple while (as we have supposed) he was presiding over the Church. It is an even more exercised call than the earlier one for his people to awaken from the troubled, self-deceiving slumber of sin. Under their second king, many of the Nephite brethren were becoming mired down in two kinds of sin. First, they were obsessed with ostentatious clothing and riches (to the point of spending much time in search of precious metals). This preoccupation with acquisition and social station left them calloused to the destitute; indeed, they persecuted their humbler neighbors. Their pride, aggressive and mean, was destroying them.
Some of Jacob’s most stirring teachings concerned pride, particularly the pride of riches and of learning. He thought wealth and education good, provided they are acquired and used in obedience to God and in service to others. But most men pervert these opportunities, exalting themselves, despising the humble, and afflicting the poor. Jacob’s sayings on these things illustrate his gift for rich and ringing statement. (See 2 Ne. 9:28–30, 42–43; Jacob 2:12–21.)
The second and grosser sin was lust. The brethren tried to rationalize their dark desire to have many wives and concubines by supposing themselves no different from David and Solomon of old. But beneath this veneer was nothing more than a lust for whoredoms. In a revelation that is explicitly so called, the Lord denounces them: “Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children.” (Jacob 2:35.) Though we are not told how many Church members had taken additional wives or concubines, we are given to understand that lust itself is abominable to God. Whether he acts upon his evil imaginings or not, a man with an unfaithful heart reduces his capacity for affection and distresses his family, for they cannot find security in a polluted love.
In their spiritual condition the Nephite men were worse than the Lamanites whom they, in their insufferable pride, despised; for the Lamanites, though indolent and filthy, were faithful to their wives and loved their families. The Lord tells the Nephites that he brought them out of Jerusalem to raise up a righteous people and would therefore not suffer them to defile their posterity in whoredoms. Whether pure-hearted men had ever been commanded to practice polygamy was irrelevant for the Nephites; their case was wholly different, for their hearts were not pure and they had been commanded to have but one wife and no concubines.
Jacob calls upon the victimized pure in heart to look to God for consolation in these afflictions, and he commands the guilty impure to “shake yourselves that ye may awake from the slumber of death.” (Jacob 3:11.)
The third discourse (Jacob 4–6) was never spoken, but written to us—indeed, to all whom Jacob hoped would read his record (Jacob 4:3; Jacob 7:27). It sheds light on Jacob to think of him slowly inscribing the characters of this lengthy document on the recalcitrant metal and addressing his audience as “my beloved brethren.” Again, he is impelled by “over anxiety” for the welfare of souls—in this case, the souls of people far removed from him in time. As before, his theme is how, after rejecting the Lord, a people may return to Him and build upon the sure foundation that he provides. (Jacob 4:17.) And once more, Jacob relates the up-and-down career of Israel to the spiritual lives of individuals.
The sermon consists mainly in quoting Zenos’ allegory of the olive grove. (Jacob 5.) This may be the most profound allegory in literature. It seems to hold the key for understanding the vicissitudes of God’s covenant people on the earth, the principles upon which a righteous people may be established, and the Lord’s intensified latter-day work of gathering and nourishing the choice branches of Israel while pruning away those branches—of Israel or otherwise—that bear bitter fruit. And besides all this, though too rich and complicated to be outlined here, the allegory enables us to feel the pains the Lord has taken for the nurturing and reclamation of Israel. What looks like punishment—the scattering of Israel as branches cut off from their main trunk and the roots whose nourishment they could not assimilate—was not punishment at all, but the Lord’s devoted effort to do the one thing that could save his people. This explains an otherwise puzzling aspect of the Book of Mormon. It shows, to use but two examples, how Lehi could read of Jerusalem’s destruction and its inhabitants’ dispersion and, immediately thereafter, rejoice and praise God because of it. (1 Ne. 1:14.) It shows why Jacob, fully aware of the afflictions that awaited Israel, could nonetheless write, “And how merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long; and they are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people; but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” (Jacob 6:4; cf. 2 Ne. 9:17–22.)
Jacob closes this sermon by once again pleading with his audience—with us this time—not to wither, not to bring forth evil fruit after we have been nourished so lovingly, not to make a mockery of the redemption or reject the revealed words that speak of it or quench the Holy Spirit that testifies of it.
After Jacob thought he had finished his record and bid his readers farewell, something occurred that brought his people a blessing for which he had long labored and prayed. It restored “peace and the love of God … again among the people.” (Jacob 7:23.) The event was an encounter with Sherem, the antichrist who had seduced many into apostasy. Sherem’s was an aggravated case of living a lie. Through Jacob’s faith Sherem was brought to confess the truths that he had denied. The astonished multitude was overcome and began again to live the gospel. Because it brought this blessing, Jacob was moved to add to his record the story of this event.
Jacob ends his record by handing the plates on to his son, Enos, and, with the loving hope that many of us would read it, bids us a second farewell. (Jacob 7:27.)
1. Before his presumed calling to preside over the Church.
2 Ne. 2. Instruction given to Jacob by his father Lehi.
2 Ne. 6–10. Sermon on the Redeemer and his people, given by Jacob in his labor as a priest and teacher and included by Nephi on the small plates.
2. From his presumed call to preside until his death.
Jacob 1:17–3:12. Jacob’s sermons against pride and moral impurity.
Jacob 4:1–6:13. Jacob’s address to people of the future; primarily Zenos’ prophecies and Jacob’s commentary on them.
Jacob 7:26–27. Jacob’s farewell.
Enos 1:1, 3. Jacob’s influence on Enos.