Today, as I read the story of Sherem in Jacob 7, I was struck by Sherem’s reliance on his own persuasive abilities. In contrast Jacob was focused on “things as they really are and…as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).
Jacob introduces Sherem as a person who “had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.” He tells us that Sherem “did lead away many hearts” and that he hoped to shake Jacob’s faith. This would be the ultimate prize, since Jacob was the spiritual leader of the people (Jacob 7:2-5).
Sherem was not only eloquent; he was arrogant to the point of recklessness. He had seen the influence he could wield because of his ability to persuade, and like Icarus, he wanted to see how far those abilities would take him.
Sherem opens the dialogue with Jacob with a well-formed argument. He makes assertions which he backs up with facts. The fundamental premise underlying the argument—that no one can know the future—he saves till the end:
Brother Jacob, I have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you;
for I have heard and also know that thou goest about much,
preaching that which ye call the gospel,
or the doctrine of Christ.
And ye have led away much of this people that they pervert the right way of God,
and keep not the law of Moses which is the right way;
and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence.
And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy;
for no man knoweth of such things;
for he cannot tell of things to come.
Jacob answers with a pair of questions:
Sherem answers the first question with a bit of rhetorical hand-waving. He responds to the second question clearly: “Yes.” Jacob then points out Sherem’s fundamental fallacy: He is totally focused on words but oblivious to the substance behind them:
Then ye do not understand them; for they truly testify of Christ. Behold, I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.
And this is not all—it has been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen; and it also has been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost.
To Jacob, the scriptures were a means to an end, a source of insight into eternal truths which he also knew by personal revelation.
After Sherem is struck down by the power of God, he finally recognizes the limitations of his rhetoric. During his final confession, he says, “I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God” (Jacob 7:19). For the first time in the narrative, he is able to admit the limits of his own persuasive ability. He recognizes that truth will ultimately prevail, and that he will not be able to talk his way out of the consequences for his actions. But he has also recognized that words can serve a different, humbler function. He can use words to acknowledge reality. He can confess to God and hope for God’s mercy.
Today, I will be careful to distinguish between rhetoric and reality. Like Jacob, I will focus first and foremost on the way things really are, and I will strive to align my words with truth.