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Jacob’s Purpose in Writing
1 Now behold, it came to pass that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people in word, (and I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates) and we know that the things which we write upon plates must remain;
2 But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away; but we can write a few words upon plates, which will give our children, and also our beloved brethren, a small degree of knowledge concerning us, or concerning their fathers—
This was originally the second chapter of Jacob. When Jacob concluded writing the previous chapter, he mentioned that he could write only a hundredth part of the history of his people on the plates of Jacob, and that there were other, larger plates. At the beginning of a new chapter, he appears to repeat himself and mentions that he writes little. In this case, he clarifies that it is because it is difficult to engrave on the plates. Nevertheless, he writes because “whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away.”
From the perspective of a Mesoamerican location, this statement is not only true, but observedly true in the history of the region. When the murals at San Bartolo were discovered, it was the first time that there was a significant text from Book of Mormon times that remained. It was painted, not carved. All the rest of the texts which have been preserved were not upon plates, but rather upon stone. During Jacob’s time, it does not appear that they had begun carving texts in stone. It has been sadly true that whatsoever they didn’t write upon plates, really did perish.
When Jacob began this chapter, he essentially repeated himself from the end of the last chapter. Had he been writing this chapter right after the previous one, there would be no reason to repeat himself. It appears that some length of time had passed between the first chapter and this new one, and Jacob read at least the ending for the previous. Thinking about that ending, he wrote this beginning, which initially repeats the information as the end of the previous chapter, but which will expand upon it. The expansion comes when Jacob notes that he is writing for future generations.
3 Now in this thing we do rejoice; and we labor diligently to engraven these words upon plates, hoping that our beloved brethren and our children will receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy and not with sorrow, neither with contempt, concerning their first parents.
4 For, for this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us.
Jacob expands on the idea that he writes for future generations. It is not only for his own line, but also for “our beloved brethren.” That phrase often signifies future Lamanites, but it cannot be determined exactly how Jacob intended it. This record is being passed down through his lineage, as opposed to the regnal line of transmission of the large plates. The large plates would be assumed to be of value to all Nephites. A family record might not. Thus, it is possible that “our brethren” in this case refers to other Nephites. Whatever was in Jacob’s mind, we cannot know. We do know that in the modern day it became available to the Lamanites, and, therefore, that might be the prophetically intended meaning.
What Jacob hopes is that the writings will assist future generations in understanding that the Nephites knew of the atoning Messiah and the messages of all the prophets from the plates of brass. This statement looks forward to what he is about to write but does not look back to the previously recorded sermon. That was not the theme of the first chapter that Jacob wrote, which we have as chapters 1 through 3. That sermon admonished, but did not specifically teach the hope of the Messiah’s glory. That is the message that Jacob is now about to write.
Prophets Testify of Christ
5 Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which is a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son.
6 Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.
The pronoun “they” in verse 5 refers to the prophets of old who Jacob had mentioned in the previous verse. Jacob is grounding the Nephite believe in the atoning Messiah to the old, and venerated, prophets. Those prophets had prophesied the coming Messiah, and they had also kept the law of Moses. Thus, the Nephites, who also prophesied the coming Messiah, also keep the law of Moses. The plates of brass contain Yahweh’s word to past prophets, and Jacob declares that while they were distant in both time and space, they continue to be relevant for the Nephites.
The idea that one might command in the name of Jesus and have the trees, or mountains, or the sea obey, is related to concepts they learned from the plates of brass. Although the verse uses the name Jesus, that is probably a translator’s choice. For Jacob, the Messiah was Yahweh, and Jesus was the name for Yahweh come to earth. Understanding that Jacob intended Yahweh here is important because it gives us the context to understand why he says that nature obeys Yahweh. Yahweh is the god of nature in the Old Testament. Isaiah had spoken of Yahweh’s defeat of Rahab, who was a primordial monster of the sea. Later, in the New Testament, Jesus will also tie himself to this Yahweh who is dominant over nature when he calms the storm in the Sea of Galilee.
7 Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.
8 Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God.
9 For behold, by the power of his word man came upon the face of the earth, which earth was created by the power of his word. Wherefore, if God being able to speak and the world was, and to speak and man was created, O then, why not able to command the earth, or the workmanship of his hands upon the face of it, according to his will and pleasure?
Verse 7 is the conclusion to the previous statement that New World prophets might command nature. However, it is also the transition to the next theme, which is the power of Yahweh. It is Yahweh who has dominion over the earth; the prophets, in their weakness, may call upon Yahweh to exercise his power according to their word and faith. This is a great gift to humankind. God is far above our understanding, and yet will condescend to work with us, and for us.
Jacob notes the extent of this power upon which prophets might call by noting that all of creation came by the power of his word. Therefore, Yahweh can command, and even the trees, and mountains, and sea will obey. Lest anyone think that the prophets who Jacob said could do these things in verse 6 could do them of themselves, Jacob makes it clear that it is Yahweh’s power that accomplishes these great and marvelous works.
10 Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know that he counseleth in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all his works.
11 Wherefore, beloved brethren, be reconciled unto him through the atonement of Christ, his Only Begotten Son, and ye may obtain a resurrection, according to the power of the resurrection which is in Christ, and be presented as the first-fruits of Christ unto God, having faith, and obtained a good hope of glory in him before he manifesteth himself in the flesh.
One of the literary structures we see throughout the Book of Mormon is an argument that is set up as a thesis, followed by the concluding instruction. In the early part of the Book of Mormon, the conclusion is typically introduced with “wherefore.” Thus, these two verses beginning with “wherefore” serve as the conclusion to the thesis that Jacob established in the preceding verses. That thesis was the power of Yahweh. The conclusion is that the powerful Yahweh who rules over nature has, in wisdom, justice, and great mercy, also taken care of humankind.
The first “wherefore” conclusion is that we “seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand.” This is a nice turn of the phrase, but the concept of counseling the Lord is a commentary on the way humankind would prefer to deal with God. We would much prefer it if God would only act, and counsel, according to our mortal preferences. He does not, and we need to understand that his vision and understanding are greater than ours.
The second “wherefore” speaks of how we put ourselves in a position to receive that divine counsel. That occurs through the atoning mission of the Messiah. While that is the understanding that Nephi taught, and Jacob now teaches, it doesn’t have a specific process included for how that might be done. One of those methods was baptism, as Nephi taught in 2 Nephi 31:4. The other is continuing to live the law of Moses.
Old World Jews Looked Beyond the Mark
12 And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things; for why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come?
13 Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls. But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things; for God also spake them unto prophets of old.
14 But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.
Jacob had just declared, in verse 11, that the way to reconcile ourselves to our God is through the Messiah’s atonement. That atonement is over five hundred years away from being effected. The Nephites know of the six hundred-year prophecy, that the atoning Messiah would come to earth in six hundred years from the time Lehi’s family left Jerusalem. That means they understood that the act of the atonement was in the far, and perhaps unimaginable, future. For this reason, Jacob declares “marvel not that I tell you these things.” Jacob understands that while the act of atonement is in the future, the benefit of that future act applied to them based on the divine promise that it would occur.
Therefore, Jacob speaks of prophesy as “things as they really are, and of things as they really will be; wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly, for the salvation of our souls.” When a true prophecy is made, it may speak of things that will be, but in the case of the atonement, it also describes things as they really are. Humankind was capable of salvation before the atonement occurred. Repentance and forgiveness of sins were possible in the lives of those to whom Jacob spoke, even though the atoning act that allowed for repentance and forgiveness of sins had not yet occurred.
In verse 14, Jacob returns to a theme that must have still been present in the minds of those who had left Jerusalem. The Jews, meaning the house of Israel in the Old World, had rejected the prophets. They had lost this important understanding of the atoning mission of the Messiah. Jacob would have been sensitive to the state of the Old Word because he was born there. He was born in the wilderness, but certainly understood that where he was born was a result of Jews who had rejected a specific prophet.
15 And now I, Jacob, am led on by the Spirit unto prophesying; for I perceive by the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that by the stumbling of the Jews they will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation.
16 But behold, according to the scriptures, this stone shall become the great, and the last, and the only sure foundation, upon which the Jews can build.
17 And now, my beloved, how is it possible that these, after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it, that it may become the head of their corner?
18 Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you; if I do not, by any means, get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit, and stumble because of my over anxiety for you.
After speaking of the definition of prophesy, Jacob is “led on by the Spirit unto prophesying.” He had also let his thoughts return to the house of Israel in the Old World. The combination of understanding the importance of the atoning mission of the Messiah, the loss of that understanding among the Old World house of Israel, and the future rejection of the Messiah by those who should have received him with gladness, led Jacob to a discussion of how the reconciliation would occur. Specifically, he asks “how is it possible that these, after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it, that it may become the head of their corner?” To explain, he will return to the scriptures. This time not to Isaiah, but to Zenos.
Jacob’s introductory question signals the use of the scriptures by alluding to scripture. He referenced Psalm 118:22: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”
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