Lesson 12: “Seek Ye for the Kingdom of God”
Purpose: To help class members feel a greater desire to magnify their callings, be chaste, and invite others to come unto Christ.
1. Jacob magnifies his calling from the Lord.
2. Jacob warns against the love of riches, pride, and unchastity.
3. Jacob testifies of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
4. Jacob condemns the unauthorized practice of plural marriage.
5. Recognizing and avoiding abuse.
6. Jacob warns against racial prejudice.
We’ve now spent three months reading and discussing the writings of Nephi. What words would you use to describe Nephi, his character and temperament and style? Has he been an effective leader, in terms of doing what the Lord asked him to do, and in providing his people what they needed?
Now the time has come for the transition to a new leader – two new leaders, actually, because Nephi commits the government of his people to one man, perhaps a son, and the direction of spiritual matters to a second man, his younger brother Jacob.
Jacob’s life experiences have been very different from Nephi’s. He is about 20 years younger; he was born in the wilderness and has no memory of Jerusalem and the culture there; his education has come from the brass plates and whatever his family chose to teach him, without exposure to the wider culture and civilization of the Jews.
But he may also have been different from Nephi in another way. One writer notes that:
Half the book’s [i.e., the Book of Mormon’s] references to anxiety occur in Jacob, and over two-thirds of the references to grieve and tender … as well as shame, are Jacob’s. He is the only person to have used delicate, contempt, and lonesome. Likewise, he is the only Book of Mormon author to have employed wound in reference to emotions; and he never used it, as everyone else did, to describe a physical injury. Similarly, Jacob used pierce … frequently … and he used it exclusively in a spiritual sense. (John S. Tanner, “Jacob and His Descendants as Authors”)
What do those details of Jacob’s language suggest to you about his possible temperament and character?
Despite their differences, there is at lease one characteristic that the brother share to an overwhelming degree, which Jacob describes in Jacob 1:7-8:
7 Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest, lest by any means he should swear in his wrath they should not enter in, as in the provocation in the days of temptation while the children of Israel were in the wilderness.
8 Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world; wherefore, I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi. [That commandment concerns keeping the small plates and what is to be engraved on them.]
Think for a moment about differences in personality between President Monson and President Hinckley, or between Bishop Cramer and Bishop Kendrick, or between any other sets of church leaders you have known or worked closely with. How have they been alike, and how have they filled their responsibilities differently?
The Lord, then, would not seem to have a single perfect model in mind as the “ideal apostle” or “ideal bishop” or “ideal choir director,” does he? Or if he does, how often does he find one of us who fits that model exactly? What advantages might there be to the Lord’s work in calling people with different talents and skills and personalities?
Recognizing these differences, and the way different leaders succeed in different ways, what can you say about your own qualifications and responsibilities in filling your own calling, whatever that might be?
Jacob tells us that he entered on his stewardship as spiritual leader of his people, in 1 Jacob 1:17-19:
17 Wherefore I, Jacob, gave unto them these words as I taught them in the temple, having first obtained mine errand from the Lord.
18 for I, Jacob, and my brother Joseph had been consecrated priests and teachers of this people, by the hand of Nephi.
19 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; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day.
Jacob says that before teaching the people, he “[had] first obtained [his] errand from the Lord.” What do you think he meant by that? Are all our “errands from the Lord” obtained through formal callings? What other errands might we have, and how do we obtain those errands?
If there is any difference, how can you know the difference between choosing to do something because it is an errand from the Lord, and choosing to do something merely because you enjoy it, or find it profitable or entertaining?
Would it make any difference in how you went about your daily activities if you recognized those activities as contributing to your errand from the Lord?
The first thing we see Jacob do upon assuming his new role is to go up to the temple and deliver a sermon to the Nephites. His opening words, in Jacob 2:2, echo the words we read a minute ago:
2 Now, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob, according to the responsibility which I am under to God, to magnify mine office with soberness, and that I might rid my garments of your sins, I come up into the temple this day that I might declare unto you the word of God.
What do you make of that verse? He addresses his audience as his “beloved brethren” – but is this going to be a sermon filled with gentle words and tender memories? How serious is this occasion to Jacob?
3 And ye yourselves know that I have hitherto been diligent in the office of my calling; but I this day am weighed down with much more desire and anxiety for the welfare of your souls than I have hitherto been.
4 For behold, as yet, ye have been obedient unto the word of the Lord, which I have given you.
5 But behold, hearken ye unto me, and know that by the help of the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth I can tell you concerning your thoughts, how that ye are beginning to labor in sin, which sin appeareth very abominable unto me, yea, and abominable unto God.
6 Yea, it grieveth my soul and causeth me to shrink with shame before the presence of my Maker, that I must testify unto you concerning the wickedness of your hearts.
This is interesting, I think. Jacob is very disturbed – he is “weighed down,” he is “anxious” – more worried for the souls of his brethren than he has ever been before. Yet does he say that, as of this moment, his brethren are guilty of actually doing anything improper? If not doing, then of what are they guilty?
In the context of our own lives, today, how is it possible to be guilty of abominations for the invisible thoughts of our minds or the feelings of our hearts that we have not yet put into action?
Jacob is grieved not only by the thoughts and feelings of those he is speaking directly to, but also by the fact that he is going to have to reveal something to other members of his audience who are not guilty, but who will be greatly distressed at learning what their loved ones are thinking about.
Do you think that you might be startled, even ashamed or fearful, if you could completely read the hearts and minds of the people around you? Why?
Now think of the one sitting next to you in this room. Is there anything in your thoughts and feelings that you would be ashamed to have that person discover? Assuming they still had responsive consciences, what do you think went through the minds of Jacob’s listeners as he made this announcement?
Now let’s read what it is that Jacob so hated to reveal:
12 And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully.
13 And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
I know these verses do not come as a surprise to anybody here, because we’ve all read the Book of Mormon before, I suspect. But for someone reading this for the first time, do you suppose there would be any surprise? I mean, Jacob is not talking about murder, or directly about idolatry, or adultery, or violent theft, or any of the actions that we think of as sins within the gospel, or crimes within the larger culture. Note, too, that Jacob acknowledges that they can hardly avoid wealth, because the Lord has brought them to a wealthy land, and blessed them “by the hand of providence.” What is so very bad about the way they are using that wealth?
In the world of the Book of Mormon, Jacob’s people did not have bank accounts or investments or cash or paper assets: their wealth lay in visible, tangible things: gold and silver, the products of agriculture, and personal belongings such as clothing and whatever else they used in their daily lives. Recognizing that cultural fact, is the cost of our clothing or our other possessions necessarily the best indicator of whether we might be falling into the same errors as Jacob’s people?
What might be more reliable measures in our world of how tempts us to “persecute [our] brethren because [we] suppose that [we] are better than they”? How is wealth used today in ways that set us apart from those who should be our brothers?
Brothers and sisters, this is a tricky subject to teach. I don’t have the standing of a Jacob, or the calling to condemn anyone in this room the way he condemned his own people. If I did condemn, would it be anything more than jealousy on my part that some of you have more than I do? Would it be anything more than self-righteous rationalization on my part that I have more than some of you do?
But I can ask you to examine your thoughts and your hearts, to see whether the advantages that have come to you because you live in a wealthy land, and because your parents educated you and gave you other advantages, have led you to separate yourself in any way from others who are trying just as hard as you do to live the gospel or even, if they don’t have the gospel, to be good and decent and productive?
Those questions are worth thinking about, in greater depth than you can do in this classroom at this moment: Can you – can any of us? – honestly say that we are free of the sin of pride, especially the kind of pride that sets us apart from our brothers and sisters, not because we are more righteous or more worthy or trying harder to be near God, but only because we have been more successful in accumulating wealth?
Jacob didn’t entirely condemn the accumulating of wealth, though – he taught the proper use of it, in Jacob 2:18-19:
18 But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
19 And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if he seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good – to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.
Remember: It is not wealth, but the divisiveness so often associated with wealth, that is the sin Jacob condemns.
Now we’ll go on to talk about something that we very seldom address in Sunday School, in my experience, but both the text of Jacob and the explicit instructions of the Sunday School lesson manual authorize me to teach something about this – about polygamy, or plural marriage. I first want to speak briefly about plural marriage as practiced by the Latter-day Saints more than a century ago, and then return to Jacob. And while I have little of the silver or gold that Jacob spoke of, I do have a wealth of historical knowledge and understanding that I bring to this part of the lesson, and hope that that counts for something here.
Many Latter-day Saints, especially those of us who have grown up in the Church, have absorbed some ideas about plural marriage that are not entirely historical, so I’ll run quickly through the history:
Plural marriage was not something that was instituted in Utah by Brigham Young. Joseph Smith taught the doctrine, quietly and privately, and he had a number of plural wives. Because it was such a secret practice, with few records made and kept, it is not easy to trace its origins. Joseph may have been thinking and praying about it as early as 1833 while he was working on his inspired revision of the Bible, as he came to the Old Testament passages reporting the polygamy of the patriarchs. But the earliest history of plural marriage in this dispensation, and even the identities of those who first practiced it, are not entirely clear – the different claims you may read in histories depend very much on the personality of the historian and his or her attitude toward Joseph Smith and the Restoration.
Plural marriage, as taught by Latter-day Saint leaders, was never as simple as a man marrying a second wife as freely and as casually as he might marry his first wife. Although there were abuses of the system, plural marriage was always supposed to be a priesthood rite, one that occurred in a temple or in another place designated to substitute for a temple, and it was always to be sealed by priesthood authority.
Some of the reasons you have probably heard for our practice of polygamy are simply not true: That is, polygamy was not a system instituted to take care of widows or an over-abundance of single women in Utah. There were no more women in Utah than there were men – there may even have been a slight majority of men – and there were never any great slaughters of Mormon men in Missouri or Illinois or crossing the Plains that generated large numbers of widows. True, some widows did find homes and protectors through plural marriage – but far more of the women who entered plural marriages were young women, especially those newly arrived in Utah.
And you have no doubt heard estimates than only 10%, or maybe 5%, or was it 2%, of Mormons ever practiced polygamy anyway – as if we should be ashamed of the practice and try to minimize the numbers as far as possible. But those numbers disguise as much as they reveal: They generally attempt to count the men who entered polygamy. By definition, of course, at least twice as many women practiced polygamy as men did. And whether they themselves grew up to enter plural marriage, the children of all those couples were raised in plural families. Even if any given person were a monogamist, that person had a sister, or a brother-in-law, or a daughter, in plural marriage, and probably aunts and grandchildren who lived in plural homes. Bishoprics and stake presidencies and most other leadership roles were filled by polygamists. In other words, counting the number of men with plural wives is misleading, because virtually 100% of Latter-day Saints in the West in the second half of the 19th century were intimately affected by plural marriage. It defined who we were and shaped our society in every way.
But there is no need, in my view, to pretend that plural marriage was not one of the defining factors of Mormon life. The Saints were instructed to adopt the practice, through revelation (D&C 132). It served its purpose – a purpose we’ll talk about in a moment – and then the practice was withdrawn. Regardless of whether that principle was withdrawn as a result of a formal revelation, regardless of whether the practice might have lasted longer had it not been for outside legal and social pressure, is irrelevant. Plural marriage was a priesthood ordinance, and the one man on earth who held and exercised the keys to that sealing ordinance – Wilford Woodruff, at that time – withdrew his authorization for the practice. The man who holds those keys today – the president of the Church – does not authorize the practice of plural marriage today, and anyone who enters into it today does so in violation of the law of God.
Sometimes non-Latter-day Saints claim that we never should have practiced plural marriage in the first place, that the Book of Mormon forbids it. People who make that claim do not read Jacob carefully enough.
After condemning his audience for the corruption of their hearts concerning wealth, Jacob went on to speak about their secret, hidden, not-yet-announced desires to practice polygamy. They justified themselves by pointing to David and Solomon, who both had many wives. Jacob’s people were not justified, he taught, in following the model of David and Solomon. Let’s read Jacob 2:25-30:
25 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph.
26 Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.
27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;
28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.
29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.
30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.
In other words, plural marriage is not the normal state of the Lord’s people, and he forbids polygamy in most times and most places. What, however, is the exception to the rule that Jacob states here? And how will the people know that the exception is in force at a given time and place? How does this principle reflect what happened among the Latter-day Saints of the 19th century?
It is interesting to me to think about this sermon of Jacob’s in context of 1829, when Joseph Smith was translating the plates of the Book of Mormon. I wonder if he thought of himself like Jacob, having received his errand from the Lord and endeavoring to magnify that calling.
Even if he did feel that kinship with Jacob, what would he have thought of Jacob’s sermon? The idea of having such wealth that it would divide brother from brother could hardly have occurred to Joseph, I think, both because the Smiths were so poor and because all members of that family contributed as much as they could to the common welfare of the whole family. The idea of polygamy must have seemed just as alien to Joseph when he reached those verses.
But because those thoughts could hardly have been Joseph’s appeal to me as further evidence that Jacob, not Joseph, writing under the inspiration of the Lord, was the source of this sermon. It was aimed at the church in Jacob’s day, but it was also aimed at the Saints in our day, a time when we again face issues of wealth, and what constitutes marriage recognized by God.