Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

Editor’s Note: Keep an eye out for a new book coming soon from Duane and Kim. (See cover below). To see the other articles in this series, CLICK HERE.

In Jacob chapter 7 of the Book of Mormon, the anti-Christ Sherem confronts the prophet Jacob. At one point in their exchange, Sherem demands a sign. Jacob refuses to grant Sherem’s demand, saying that Sherem will deny a sign if it is given to him. Immediately thereafter, however, a sign is given to Sherem, whereupon he acknowledges it and confesses his deceit and other sins because of it (Jacob 7:14–20).

Now, based on this episode, it is sometimes said that Jacob made a false prediction: he said Sherem would deny a sign, but in fact Sherem acknowledged the sign he was given. Thus, although Jacob was a prophetic leader, he was simply wrong. It is then said that because Jacob was wrong about this, it is possible he was wrong in other aspects of this episode as well—from which it is then argued that Jacob actually mistreated Sherem and was un-Christlike toward him.

In a later installment we will consider this claim about Jacob’s treatment of Sherem (this claim is also a mistake); here we will simply take up the prior claim that he was wrong in his prediction.

Different Types of Signs

To begin, it is important to note that prophets can certainly be wrong about one thing or another. No one is flawless, including the Lord’s official representatives. But that doesn’t mean this episode is an example. In fact, there is actually a significant problem with thinking Jacob was wrong in his prediction to Sherem: it overlooks the different ways the word “sign” is actually used in scripture. We are accustomed to reading words like “Israel,” “Jew,” “Gentile,” “eternal,” and “Father” carefully, because we know that each of them means different things in different contexts. “Gentile,” for example, often indicates a person who is not of the lineage of Israel, but at times it also refers to those without the gospel, regardless of lineage. And so on.

Well, the same thing is true of the word “sign.” Speaking generally, the scriptures actually use this word in three different ways.

  1. Sometimes it refers to things like the cosmos itself serving as a testimony, or sign, to everyone of God’s reality.[1]
  2. Other times it refers to miraculous manifestations that are intended specifically for those who accept the Lord and have faith in him; the scriptures tell us that such miraculous gifts “follow” those who believe (D&C 63:9).[2] The Nephites during the time of Jacob had significant experience with such miraculous events. Jacob reports 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” (Jacob 4:6).
  3. At still other times the word “sign” refers to the Lord’s condemnation of the wicked. The Lord said to Joseph Smith that he shows signs to those who merit his anger, but that he does so “in wrath unto their condemnation” (D&C 63:7, 9, 11, 12). He also declared that in the absence of faith he will not show “great things,” except “desolations upon Babylon” (D&C 35:11).

Now in understanding the confrontation between Jacob and Sherem, it is important to see that Sherem is demanding the “following belief” type of sign in #2 above (it would be very strange for him to be wanting the condemning type of sign that would actually harm him). He has heard Jacob (1) bear witness of Christ, (2) declare that he has “heard and seen,” and (3) testify of the power of the Holy Ghost (Jacob 7:11–12)—all against the backdrop of the dramatic miracles that the Nephites had enjoyed during Jacob’s time (see again #2). It is in this context that Sherem challenges Jacob to show him a sign “by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13); he is specifically demanding the type of miracle that Jacob and other faith-filled Nephites have experienced.   

It is also specifically in this context that Jacob refuses to comply. He won’t give Sherem the kind of sign he is asking for, and declares that Sherem would deny it in any event, because, as he told Sherem, “thou art of the devil” (Jacob 7:14)—an association that Sherem himself will later admit (Jacob 7:18–19). Such a prediction by Jacob is not at all surprising, of course. We see many scriptural examples of people who witnessed dramatic miracles and yet were completely able to dismiss them—from Pharaoh at the time of Moses, to multitudes at the time of Christ, to the Nephites prior to the Savior’s birth, to Laman and Lemuel—and more.[3] Nothing is more common than unbelievers explaining away miracles. So Jacob’s prediction was actually . . . well, predictable.  

After making this prediction, however, Jacob then changes the subject. He has said he won’t supply the miracle Sherem is demanding, but then says, “nevertheless, not my will be done.” He is personally unwilling to give Sherem a sign, but if the Lord is willing to give him a sign, so be it. He says that “if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee” (Jacob 7:14).

This is the second time Jacob uses the word “sign,” but here he has shifted to a different category of signs altogether. Now he is talking about “smiting.” He would not comply with Sherem’s demand for a “following belief” type of sign (say, with “the waves of the sea”); not only did Sherem fail to qualify for that type of sign, but Jacob was confident that, like all hardhearted people, Sherem would explain away any miracle of that type and simply deny it. However, if the Lord wanted to deliver a different kind of sign to Sherem—a condemning type of sign (#3 above)—then so be it. And of course that is exactly what happened; Sherem received a sign—a smiting from the Lord—that actually led to his death.[4]

Jacob’s prediction, then, was far from false. He made his prediction about a sign that Sherem never actually received. Instead, Sherem received a different kind of sign altogether—one that was entirely distinct in its nature, its purpose, the character of its recipients, and its effects. It was not a sign external to Sherem that he could simply explain away. It was internal to him, resulting even in his death. As events unfolded, then, Jacob’s prediction—rather than false—simply turned out to be moot. It applied to one type of sign, but not the one Sherem actually received.

An Additional Question

There is a secondary matter to consider about this incident as well, however. It is that, even with this different sign in mind, we cannot simply take for granted that Sherem’s subsequent confession and apparent change of heart were actually deep and lasting. That is what the claim about Jacob’s prediction assumes, but this too could be a mistake. Remember, for example, that Jacob called Sherem a “wicked man” to the very end—even after his confession (Jacob 7:23)—and that the Lord also refused to heal Sherem. Remember, too, that there are multiple scriptural examples of repentance that appeared to be genuine and lasting—and yet were not. Laman, Lemuel, and Pharaoh, for example, all appeared to repent at times, and yet their changes never lasted.[5] The same was true of Korihor. Alma believed Korihor’s repentance was temporary at best and that, if his curse were removed, he would simply return to his old ways—and the Lord appears to have believed exactly the same thing (Alma 30:52–55).

So when it comes to repentance, things are not always as they seem. As a result, there is no reason to simply assume that Sherem’s response—even to the sign he actually did receive—was deep and lasting. It seems equally possible that it wasn’t.

In the end, then, we cannot take Sherem’s confession simply at face value and we can reject the idea that Jacob made a false prediction. Recognizing this about Jacob does not mean prophets can’t make mistakes, of course. Again, it is well understood that they can. But it is a mistake to think that this episode shows it.[6]

Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter. Coming soon from them—

Many topics about prophets are fully explored in this forthcoming book: The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times. Published by Meridian, it is coming soon!

About the Authors

Duane Boyce earned a Ph.D. from BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He is a Founding Partner of the Arbinger Institute, a worldwide management consulting and educational firm. He has authored or co-authored several books, as well as publishing academic articles on gospel topics in BYU Studies Quarterly, Interpreter, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, The FARMS Review, and The Religious Educator. Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president and with his wife in the Russia Moscow mission.

A graduate of BYU in Philosophy, Kimberly White is the author of The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything and a regular contributor to Meridian Magazine. She works as a technical writer and is currently writing a book on recent findings in brain science and how they relate to human morality. She has served the Lord for 27 years as a wife and mother.

Read the other articles in this series:

Have You Heard this Myth about George Albert Smith?

Have You Heard this Myth about Hugh B. Brown?

Have You Heard this Myth about Captain Moroni?

[1] See, for example, the confrontation between Alma and Korihor, where Alma equates the cosmos, and the earth itself, with signs that testify to everyone of God (especially, Alma 30:43–44).

[2] Such miracles include healing the sick, casting out devils, speaking with a new tongue, restoring sight to the blind, and, in general, performing “many wonderful works” (D&C 35:8; 84:64–72; Mark 16:17–18; Mormon 9:24).

[3] Regarding Pharaoh, see Exodus 7–12, and regarding those at the time of Christ, see the Gospels generally. Regarding the Nephites prior to the Savior’s birth, the record tells us (1) that they saw many miraculous signs and believed and were baptized (3 Nephi 1:15–23), and yet (2) within five years they “began to forget” those signs and became “less astonished at a sign or wonder from heaven.” “Hard in their hearts” and “blind in their minds,” they simply rejected all that they had heard and seen (3 Nephi 2:1–2). Regarding Laman and Lemuel, we read that they received dramatic manifestations (1 Nephi 3:28–31; 7:16–18; 16:39; 17:48–55; 18:11–22), and yet they persisted in rebelling against God and in trying to kill Nephi (1 Nephi 7:17–18, 19; 16:37; 17:48; 2 Nephi 5:1–4, 19).

[4] Some have denied that God’s smiting is what caused Sherem’s death, but there is actually no basis for denying this. For a discussion, see Duane Boyce, “Text as Afterthought: Jana Riess’s Treatment of the Jacob-Sherem Episode,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 123–40.

[5] See 1 Nephi 3:28–31; 7:16–21; 17:48–55; 18:6–21; Exodus 8:8–15; 9:27–35; 12:31; 14:5.

[6] Much more on this subject can be found in two articles by Duane Boyce: “Reclaiming Jacob,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 107–29; “Jacob Did Not Make a False Prediction,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 161–73.