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Jacob, Prophet and Poet

MCQ - March 29, 2011

Reading from Jacob in the Book of Mormon tonight, we were struck by this verse, near the end of Jacob’s writings, just before he dies:

And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old; and the record of this people being kept on the other plates of Nephi, wherefore, I conclude this record, declaring that I have written according to the best of my knowledge, by saying that the time passed away with us, and also 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, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.

I don’t know why I never noticed this verse before, but tonight it hit us like a brick, my wife and I in particular. Maybe because we’re finally getting close to the age Jacob might have been when he wrote it, or maybe we just know a little more about what Jacob is talking about now, or maybe we’re just getting sappy, but the epic sadness of it just cried out from the page for the first time. My wife started crying while reading and had to stop.

I don’t imagine there was a lot of time for real reflection in the days of Jacob and his people. I mean, they didn’t study Shakespeare by firelight, they weren’t listening to NPR, and they never pondered the words of Jean Paul Sartre. I imagine they were mostly concerned with basic survival, although they clearly had enough time to mine for gold and silver (which obviously were not used for the basics of survival) and to become puffed up enough in pride and riches that Jacob felt it necessary to admonish them about it. 

So there must have been some time when they thought about their lives, and what it all meant, and why they lived  differently from the Lamanites. Jacob would not have had personal memories of Jerusalem, but he must have heard about it from his parents and brothers and the other older members of the group (which wouldn’t have numbered more than maybe several hundred people during most of his lifetime), and he must have wondered sometimes whether it was all worthwhile. Maybe it was during one of those times that he wrote the verse above.

There must have been a poetic strain in the genetic makeup of the men of Lehi’s family.  Lehi’s dream is a good example of this, as are some of Nephi’s words, including his final testimony of warning from 2 Nephi 33:

13 And now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come.

 14 And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the Jews, and also my words, and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall condemn you at the last day.

 15 For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen.

That poetic image of the “voice crying from the dust” is a recurring one in the Book of Mormon.  Nephi used it repeatedly, and the later prophets must have loved it because it comes back in Mormon, Ether and Moroni.  But contrast those final words of Nephi’s with Jacob’s last words:

And I, Jacob, saw that I must soon go down to my grave; wherefore, I said unto my son Enos: Take these plates. And I told him the things which my brother Nephi had commanded me, and he promised obedience unto the commands. And I make an end of my writing upon these plates, which writing has been small; and to the reader I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren, adieu.

What possible word in Hebrew or Egyptian (reformed or otherwise) could Jacob have used here that Joseph Smith would have thought to translate as “adieu” of all things?  And what does it say about Jacob that he used such a word?  I think it says a lot about Jacob’s poetic nature, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the circumstances he must have been living in.  To find the time and inclination to write this way in the short book that was allotted to him is remarkable.

Some other examples of Jacob’s genius of language:

And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.  Jacob 2:35


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.

 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.

 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?  Jacob 4: 15-17

Jacob then gives us the extended metaphor of the vinyard with the tame and wild olive trees, and after comparing his people to this vinyard, he gives them this last poetic plea:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts.

 Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts; for why will ye die?

 For behold, after ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire?  Jacob 6: 5-7

The book of Jacob is not long, but I think it’s one of the best and certainly one of the most literary books of scripture.  I think that if Jacob had been able to read Shakespeare, he might have found some affinity for these words:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest, Act 4, scene 1, 148–158


  1. Well said MCQ. I love that verse near the end of Jacob.

    Looking at the Book of Mormon objectively, its difficult for me to believe that JS (or any other 19th century American author) could have penned such a keen and consistent insight into the lives of a nomadic family. That alone does not convince me of its validity – but its very compelling.

    Comment by CJ Douglass — March 29, 2011 @ 7:06 am

  2. That is my favorite verse from the Book of Mormon and that declaration gets me some weird looks when I reveal that in church classes.

    The Book of Mormon seems to me a very self conscious book that is determined to present an unambiguous world in its text. The good guys and the bad guys are plainly identified and always rewarded or punished; the paths that led them there are always clearly marked. This verse to me is an Ecclesiastes moment in a sea of unimpeded optimism.

    Comment by KLC — March 29, 2011 @ 10:25 am

  3. The Trial of the Stick of Joseph and: Ancient Ruins of America [Paperback]
    Jack H. West (Author) Jack was a great guy and I loved primary days at his ranch.klc this is off subject but the book of Mormon Archaeology does it for me.Jacob and his descendants left their foot prints in the jungles of south America and they have been tracked down.

    Comment by marv thompson — March 29, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  4. mcq,all joking aside I love your work,What I get from your example of Jacob ,is that all scripture is not about thus saith the lord.A lot of what we read in the book of Mormon is journaling .The internet has become the new public journal and what we write there will effect lives. Thanks for turning us to Jacob.

    Comment by marv thompson — March 29, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  5. You’re welcome, marv, and thanks for the nice comment.

    Comment by MCQ — March 29, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

  6. That is a verse of pathos; prophecy gives glimpses of views both glorious and gloomy. I think Jacob knew that the trajectory his people were pursuing was somewhat fixed and ultimately his progeny would expire. I think that in our era we have much more over which we can be optimistic for our children, in spite of the commotion and chaos.

    Great post!

    Comment by Justin — March 29, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  7. I’ve always felt that this is the shout-out to the depressed members of the church. We don’t get a lot of notice or acknowledgement in our “shiny-happy people holding hands” culture of Mormonism. It’s nice to know that even the prophets felt all gothy and bummed out every now and then.

    Comment by Jacob M — March 29, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

  8. CJ, right on.

    KLC, I love this:

    This verse to me is an Ecclesiastes moment in a sea of unimpeded optimism.

    Such a great way to phrase it.

    Justin, I wonder sometimes about the “gift” of prophecy and whether it isn’t just as often a huge burden. There’s somethings a prophet probably wishes he could un-know. Some things a seer would like to un-see. Maybe we are optimistic because ignorance is bliss.

    Jacob, exactly. I’m pretty optimistic by nature but even I like seeing that our prophets can be melancholy as well as upbeat. But apart from that, it’s just beautiful writing, and it’s a testimony to me. I think I know this guy, Jacob, a little. He was different from his big brother. He wasn’t a king or leader, he was a poet, priest and teacher. I feel close to him and I really like him.

    Comment by MCQ — March 29, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  9. Happiness is a choice,there are times nothing we can do about the external forces that beat upon us.We do have a choice how we allow those external forces to affect us.Was Jacob feeling sorry for himself or for those he would leave behind.

    Comment by marv thompson — March 29, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

  10. What possible word in Hebrew or Egyptian (reformed or otherwise) could Jacob have used here that Joseph Smith would have thought to translate as “adieu” of all things? /maybe not a word but a complete thought/.
    From Middle English adieu also adew, adewe, adue, from Old French adieu (“to God”), a shortening of a Dieu vous comant (“I commend you to God”), from Latin ad (“to”) + deus (“God”) {I commend you to God) I think Joseph knew this definition.

    Comment by marv thompson — March 29, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

  11. Maybe, marv, but the process of translating the Book of Mormon did not often involve Joseph spending time thinking about such things.

    But even if you’re right, the usual choice would be to translate such a phrase into an English word or phrase. Why the choice here to use a French word instead? It makes no sense, unless the French word better captures the feel of the original language. If that is the case, it says something about Jacob that he used a word or phrase that is best represented by the French word “adieu.”

    Comment by MCQ — March 29, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  12. I just checked and this appears to be the only time that the word “adieu” is used anywhere in the scriptures. Note that other languages have words or phrases similar to the French word “adieu,” so why French? It’s just so fascinating to me that adieu was chosen in this particular case. I would love to know why. Anyone with any insight on this please chime in, but in the absence of specific revelation, I’m going to assume that this word captured Jacob’s meaning better than any other. And I think that’s awesome.

    Comment by MCQ — March 29, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

  13. The Book of Mormon Student Manual has this to say:

    Jacob 7:27. Adieu
    • Some have questioned the use of the French word
    adieu in Jacob 7:27. One author explained:
    “The choice of words came through the manner of
    the language of Joseph Smith, so that we might have understanding. This is why words not known in Book
    of Mormon times are found in the translated text.
    “The word adieu is defined in a dictionary of Joseph
    Smith’s day as ‘a farewell; an expression of kind wishes
    at the parting of friends’ [meaning that I commend you
    to God]. (Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the
    English Language, 1828). While the word is of French
    origin, it had found common usage in early nineteenth
    century New England” (Edward J. Brandt, “I Have a
    Question,” Ensign,
    Oct. 1985, 17).

    I think that helps somewhat. I didn’t know that it was of common usage in Joseph’s day and location. That explains why it might have been chosen, even chosen reflexively, for the word or phrase that Jacob used. But it still says to me that Jacob was a poetic sort of guy, because obviously that word was not used in translating any other prophet’s farewell.

    Comment by MCQ — March 29, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

  14. Palmyra New York ,were there not a lot of French fur traders in that area.just a thought.Joseph spoke six languages when he was killed but not French,we was surrounded by school teachers in his family and he never was a dumb farm boy as depicted by some.1776 the French played a great part in our AMERICAN REVOLUTION,maybe some settled in Palmyra.

    Comment by marv thompson — March 29, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

  15. http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thelookout/20110330/ts_yblog_thelookout/could-lead-codices-prove-the-major-discovery-of-christian-history metal plates found

    Comment by marv thompson — March 30, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

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