The Gentle Power of Jacob

“The Gentle Power of Jacob,” Ensign, Feb. 1992, 7

Book of Mormon

The Gentle Power of Jacob

Jacob’s afflictions gave him tender insight into Christ’s power to save.

Some criticize the Book of Mormon as too black and white, just “good guys and bad guys.” Others praise it for the same reason, applauding Mormon’s careful abridgement of extensive records down to clearer teachings and less-flawed role models. Still others consider both views more casual than careful.1

My own experience has been that when the book is allowed to speak for itself, it sings—sometimes obscurely, anciently; sometimes personally, powerfully; sometimes in mighty choruses to make one shout; sometimes in a private solo to make one weep.

Among the solos are the singular writings of Jacob, some of the most distinctive and beautiful in all scripture. Some think Jacob a lesser character, yet Elder Neal A. Maxwell calls him the “great poet-prophet,”2 and Robert J. Matthews considers Jacob “the outstanding doctrinal teacher of the Book of Mormon.”3 Jacob’s sensitivity to the challenges women face reminds us of Luke; his empathy for suffering reminds us of Job. Yet his voice is unique—right down to his final adieu.

A Poet-Prophet

As powerful as Jacob’s words are when read, they come alive when spoken. Hearing the repetition of ideas and sounds—even in translation—allows us to appreciate Jacob’s distinctive and beautiful style.4 Part of his style is that he uses words few other scriptural writers use. In some cases, he uses words no one else does—or uses them in unique ways. This usage appears consistently throughout his widely separated writings and seems to be consistent with what we know of his life.

Among the words no one but Jacob uses are fatness; adieu; errand; heads (signifying “headlines”); delicate; lonesome; sobbing; and really.5 Of the seventeen times phrases such as “grieveth me” and “burdeneth my soul” are used in the Book of Mormon, eleven are by Jacob.6

Other words to which Jacob gives special emphasis are tender and tenderness (of twelve uses in the Book of Mormon, seven are by Jacob);7chaste and chastity (two of three uses are by Jacob);8pure in heart (four of five uses);9 and anxiety (four of eight uses, including Jacob’s concern about stumbling because of his “over anxiety for you”).10 Only Nephi and Jacob use the word delighteth, often in such phrases as “my heart delighteth.”11

Jacob uses some words in ways no other Book of Mormon writer uses them. For example, of thirty-one times wound or a variant is used, twenty-four refer to physical wounds. Only the seven used by Jacob refer to a “wounded soul.”12 Further, Jacob is the only writer to use “awful monster” in a nonphysical sense. When addressing a congregation, other Book of Mormon speakers use the terms “my people” or “my children” (over 220 times). Jacob never uses these words in speaking (unless quoting the Lord). Instead, he uses “beloved brethren,” “brethren,” and “beloved” (50 times).13

Jacob’s style and vocabulary reveal his sensitive and humble heart. Viewing himself as no higher than his other “beloved brethren,” Jacob desires only to preach the “pleasing word of God” and not hurt with his words tender souls who are already wounded. Yet he obediently preaches with great diligence that which the Lord has directed him to preach because of his great anxiety for his brethren.

Sad Youth, Solemn Old Age

We first meet Jacob as a child, born homeless at a time father Lehi would later call “the days of my greatest sorrow.” (2 Ne. 2:1–2.) His elder brothers had a real home in Jerusalem, and his children were solid residents of the New World. But Jacob was caught somewhere in between. His only childhood home was tented wanderings, watching his family “live upon raw meat,” “wade through much affliction in the wilderness … so much that we cannot write them all” (1 Ne. 17:1–6), and grieve during the ocean journey (1 Ne. 18:19).

We don’t hear of Jacob again until Lehi blesses him, mentioning his birth “in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness” and recognizing that Jacob had “suffered afflictions and much sorrow.” (2 Ne. 2:1.) After the blessing, we next hear his name when Nephi’s people flee their first new-world homes and escape to the wilderness, homeless again. (See 2 Ne. 5:6–7.)

Every reference to Jacob thus far has included sorrow, suffering, afflictions, or wandering. While some who suffer become insensitive, even brutal, Jacob grew in the opposite direction, just as Lehi foretold. (See 2 Ne. 2:2.) These early afflictions left Jacob with a certain gravity that persisted until the end of his long life, when he concluded his record on an unusually sad note:

“Our lives passed away like as it were unto us 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 … ; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” (Jacob 7:26.)

As we read Lehi’s blessing to Jacob, the timeless teachings often memorized from it take on added dimension and reveal themselves as expressions of a tender parent trying to encourage a son who has faced extraordinary challenges.

We should not assume, however, that Jacob’s life was without joy and comfort. Lehi reveals that Jacob had “beheld in [his] youth [God’s] glory” (2 Ne. 2:4), and Nephi notes that “my brother, Jacob, also has seen [the Redeemer] as I have seen him” (2 Ne. 11:3). Despite everything, Jacob had the comfort of an absolute witness of his Messiah.

Sufferer, wanderer, one blessed with perfect spiritual knowledge—these descriptions of Jacob as a youth form the major themes he dealt with all his life: sin that causes suffering; the wanderings, scatterings, and destiny of Israel; and the infinite atonement of Christ.

Sin and Suffering

Perhaps because he grew up with Laman and Lemuel, the sin Jacob condemns most vigorously is pride—especially pride caused by excessive riches and learning. Indeed, Jacob’s condemnations of this sin are among the most powerful in all scripture. Unlike many today who frown on too much learning but never fear growing rich, Jacob teaches the opposite: “To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God. But wo unto the rich.” (2 Ne. 9:29–30.)14 Ironically, we are permitted to seek riches only if we intend to give them away. (See Jacob 2:17–19.)

In 2 Nephi 9:42, Jacob stresses the need for humility and claims that those who are “puffed up” are “they whom [God] despiseth.” [2 Ne. 9:42] In this context, Jacob is the only one in the Book of Mormon to use the word fool in a positive sense, saying that we must become “fools before God.” He emphasizes enduring the shame of the world; he glories in prophecy and plainness; and he regrets stiffneckedness, which causes some to blindly look beyond the mark. (See 2 Ne. 9:18; Jacob 1:8; Jacob 4:10–16.) He condemns lifting oneself above another as “abominable,” for “the one being is as precious in [God’s] sight as the other.” (Jacob 2:21.)

Is it just coincidence that both Nephi and Jacob—the two world travelers among the record keepers—are the two who give us the greatest Book of Mormon teachings on the basic equality of humanity and of a worldwide salvation unlimited by national boundaries?15 Jacob’s compassion and broad-mindedness—traits he passed on to his son, Enos16—extend even to the enemies of his people, the Lamanites. He praises their morality, does not blame them for their fathers’ hatreds, and mentions that many attempts have been made to reclaim them.

Jacob’s sensitivity is never more tenderly expressed than in his denunciation of sexual immorality. While he warns of the dire consequences of fornication and adultery (see Jacob 2:27–33; Jacob 3:12), he is mostly concerned with the sufferings of the victims. He declares that the Lord has “seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning … [and] the cries of the fair daughters.” He chastises those who have caused such sorrow, saying: “Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives … ; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God. … Many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.” (Jacob 2:31–35.)

Expressions such as these reveal Jacob as one attuned to sorrow and suffering. His sometimes somber expressions may seem at odds with the spirit of optimism that so permeates modern society, but they fit in perfectly with the tradition of Old Testament prophets from which he came.

Characteristic of Jacob is his discomfort with confrontational speech. Revealing his sensitivity to suffering, he consistently apologizes for the necessary harshness of his words. Jacob often emphasizes that he would rather comfort and console than chastise and rebuke.17 But, he explains, he has received his “errand from the Lord” (Jacob 1:17) and must speak strongly, as an ordained priest and teacher, because he is “desirous for the welfare of your souls.” (2 Ne. 5:26; 2 Ne. 6:2–3.) He would rather speak of holiness, “but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, … I teach you the consequences of sin.” (2 Ne. 9:48.) Repeatedly, he stresses that he is preaching hard truths in order to rid his garments of his people’s sins. (See 2 Ne. 9:40, 44; Jacob 1:18–19; Jacob 2:2.)

Israel’s Destiny

Jacob displays an intense need to identify with a homeland and associate himself with its destiny. Over and over again he returns to the theme of the gathering of Israel as a returning home, identifying Jerusalem as the place “from whence we came”18 and quoting Isaiah to explain that those, like his family, who have been taken away from Jerusalem were not “divorced” by the Lord and will return again. (2 Ne. 6:8–11; 2 Ne. 7:1; 2 Ne. 8:10–16.) He encourages his readers (and possibly himself): “Let us … not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off. … The Lord God has led away from time to time from the house of Israel. … Wherefore he remembereth us also. Therefore, cheer up your hearts.” (2 Ne. 10:20–23.)

Although the gathering of Israel is a common topic throughout the Book of Mormon, it is dealt with primarily by just three persons: Nephi, Jacob, and the Savior—the only three with personal ties to the Old World.19 Of all the writers in the Book of Mormon, Jacob deals with the scattering and gathering of Israel in the most detail, quoting and commenting extensively on the allegory of Zenos about the tame and wild vineyards. (See Jacob 5 and Jacob 6.)20 Jacob particularly emphasizes God’s mercy in this gathering: “For he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long.” (Jacob 6:4.)

The Atonement of Christ

Jacob’s writings are full of spiritual experiences.21 Woven throughout them are expressions of love for the Savior and gratitude for his atonement. He declares that “we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming” (Jacob 4:4) and explains that the law of Moses and Abraham’s sacrifice were each a “similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5). He teaches that the “stone” which is a stumbling block to some “shall become the great, and the last, and the only sure foundation.” (Jacob 4:14–16.) He also teaches that we must do more than believe, but “would to God that we could … view [the Savior’s] death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world.” (Jacob 1:8; see also 2 Ne. 9:18.) We should “speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him.” (Jacob 4:12.)

Indeed, this is what Jacob himself appears to have done, for his writings reflect a deep, personal witness of the suffering and sacrifice of the Savior. Of the nine times the word crucify is used in the Book of Mormon, Jacob uses four of them. He also refers to the cross two of the three times it is mentioned before the Savior uses the term in 3 Nephi. Two of the three uses of “infinite atonement” in the Book of Mormon are by Jacob.22 Combined with this intense feeling for the Savior’s suffering is Jacob’s ecstasy in the mercy of God: “Rejoice, and lift up your heads forever. … Feast upon that which perisheth not. … Let your soul delight in fatness. … Let your hearts rejoice.” (2 Ne. 9:3, 51–52.)

In many ways, Jacob’s tender heart is much like the Savior’s. Shusaku Endo, the Japanese novelist and biblical scholar, said of Jesus: “The interest of Jesus extended to the ones who wept for the harsh realities of life: the sick and the lame crawling out of the huts. … His heart ached at the sight. Love and sympathy flowed from him like blood from a deep wound. We in our own hearts know how we are attracted to glamorous and beautiful people and how we easily close our eyes to those who are filthy and ugly. It was different with Jesus.”23

Apparently, it was also different with Jacob. Perhaps this is why, when the name of Christ was revealed to the Nephites, Jacob was the first to receive that knowledge. (See 2 Ne. 10:3.)24 Who better than this humble, caring prophet and friend?


  1. See Robert K. Thomas, “A Literary Critic Looks at the Book of Mormon,” in To the Glory of God, ed. Truman G. Madsen and Charles D. Tate, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972), 149–61; and almost every article in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1982).
    Jacob’s unique voice rings clearer than most because: (1) he wrote directly on the small plates, his writing unabridged by others; (2) we see his entire life from birth to death; we see him as son, brother, follower, teacher, father, prophet, and old man; and (3) as his writings also appear in 2 Nephi, intermingled with the writings of Nephi and Isaiah, we can see how his style holds its own.

  2. Neal A. Maxwell, Things As They Really Are (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1980), p. 1.

  3. Robert J. Matthews, Who’s Who in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah, 1976), p. 72.

  4. Consider, for example, his “Oh-Oh-Woe-Oh-Oh” structure in 2 Nephi 9, especially the meter, alliteration, and internal rhyme in verses 8, 10, 13, 17, 19, 20, and 28 [2 Ne. 9:8, 10, 13, 17, 19, 20, 28].

  5. Really (used twice); see Maxwell, p. 1. Heads, as corresponding to the ancient word kephalaia; see Hugh Nibley, Ensign (March 1976), p. 64. Other statistics for this study have been gathered from George Reynolds, A Complete Concordance of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973); R. Gary Shapiro, An Exhaustive Concordance of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publishing, 1977); and Alexander Cruden, Cruden’s Unabridged Concordance (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1975).

  6. Jacob 2:6, 7, 9; Jacob 5:7, 11, 13, 32, 46, 47, 51, 66. Several of these are in Zenos’s allegory. It is not known whether Jacob was paraphrasing or quoting Zenos.

  7. Jacob 2:7, 33, 35; Jacob 5:4, 6, 8.

  8. Jacob 2:7, 28; see also Moro. 9:9.

  9. Jacob 2:10; Jacob 3:1–3; see also 3 Ne. 12:8.

  10. 2 Ne. 6:3; Jacob 1:5; Jacob 2:3; Jacob 4:18.

  11. 2 Ne. 9:37, 49.

  12. See Jacob 2:8, 9, 35.

  13. A Complete Concordance, pp. 537–47, 92, 128, 103–6.

  14. One type of learning he mentions is searching the scriptures. See 2 Ne. 6:4, 5; 2 Ne. 9:1, 4; Jacob 2:23; Jacob 4:6; Jacob 7:10–11, 19, 23. See also Jacob’s comments on learning in 2 Ne. 9:28–29, 42; Jacob 4:10–15; Jacob 7:4–23; and on riches in 2 Ne. 9:30, 42, 50–51; Jacob 1:16; Jacob 2:12–22.

  15. Nephi’s teachings: 1 Ne. 17:35; 1 Ne. 19:17; 2 Ne. 26:28–33; 2 Ne. 29:9–12; 2 Ne. 30:2. Jacob’s teachings: 2 Ne. 9:21–22; Jacob 2:21; Jacob 5:3–77.

  16. Jacob 7:24; Enos 1:11, 13. Enos also tells us many things about Jacob that fit with what we know of him. Enos emphasizes being raised in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” and mentions “words which I had often heard my father speak … sunk deep into my heart.” (Enos 1:1, 3.)

  17. Jacob 2:2–11 records ten amazingly compassionate verses of apology before beginning a strong call for repentance.

  18. 2 Ne. 6:8; 2 Ne. 9:5; compare Jacob 5:52.

  19. Nephi uses Israel approximately 106 times; the Savior uses it 46 times; and Jacob 34 times. Mormon and Moroni, summarizing many of these teachings, also use it about 20 times. It is only mentioned 7 other times in the book: Omni 1:25–26; Mosiah 7:19; Mosiah 8:8; Mosiah 13:29; Alma 26:36; and Hel. 8:11. Similarly, in almost three hundred pages and five hundred years between the writings of Jacob and the coming of the Savior, the word Jew appears only four times, and gentile does not appear at all. Elsewhere, Jew appears almost 90 times and gentile appears 150 times.

  20. It is especially interesting that Jacob recorded the parable of Zenos in such detail, since he mentioned the smallness of the plates or the difficulty of writing on them on four occasions (Jacob 1:1–2; Jacob 3:14; Jacob 4:1–2; Jacob 7:27) and seems to have tried to complete his writings twice (Jacob 3:14; Jacob 6:13) before continuing on. Among Jacob’s “small” writings are the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 5) and the longest sermon in all scripture (2 Ne. 6–10).

  21. Jacob’s spiritual experiences are mentioned in 2 Ne. 2:4; 2 Ne. 6:8–9; 2 Ne. 10:3; 2 Ne. 11:3; Jacob 1:6; Jacob 2:11, 23, 25; Jacob 4:4, 15; Jacob 7:5, 8, 12.

  22. Crucify: 2 Ne. 6:9; 2 Ne. 10:3, 5. Cross: 2 Ne. 9:18; Jacob 1:8. Infinite atonement: 2 Ne. 9:7.

  23. Shusako Endo, A Life of Jesus, trans. Richard A. Schuchert (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), p. 62.

  24. 2 Ne. 25:19 tells us that not just the messianic title of Christ, but the actual name of Jesus Christ (in Hebrew, Jeshua / Jehoshua / Joshua the Messiah?), was revealed to Jacob. After this revelation, the name of Jesus appears regularly throughout the book.

  • Chris Conkling, an advertising and film writer, lives in the Saugus Third Ward, Los Angeles Santa Clarita Stake, where he teaches early-morning seminary. His article won first prize in the 1991 Ensign Book of Mormon article contest.

Illustrated by Cary Austin