Alma 18:21-24, LeGrand Baker, “And thus he was caught with guile.”
21 And now, if thou wilt tell me concerning these things, whatsoever thou desirest I will give unto thee; and if it were needed, I would guard thee with my armies; but I know that thou art more powerful than all they; nevertheless, whatsoever thou desirest of me I will grant it unto thee.
22 Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee.
23 And the king answered him, and said: Yea, I will believe all thy words. And thus he was caught with guile.
24 And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
“Guile” is an interesting choice for the word that concludes verse 23. For the most part it has a very negative connotation, such as this admonition from Peter:
8 Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:
9 Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.
10 For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile. (1 Peter 3:8-10)
Shortly before that, in the same letter, Peter had explained what he meant by “speak no guile.” He was writing to people who would suffer—some would be killed–- for the sake of their testimonies. He drew a contrast between how one should respond when punished for a guilt, and when punished for no guilt at all. He wrote,
19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.
21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.
One of the greatest compliments ever paid to anyone is recorded in the gospel of John:
47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!
48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.
49 Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.
50 Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.
51 And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (John 1:47-51)
As is so typical of the Saviour, his words were paraphrased from the psalms. By using the psalms Jesus expanded his words by giving his hearers a context in which to understand his teachings. Here he was referring to Psalm 32. Like so many of the psalms, this one was intended to be performed on the stage, and is spoken by multiple voices.
The first two verses appear to be spoken by a chorus (as in a Greek play), or a narrator.
1 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.
The next verses are in first person, so are spoken by the one in whom there is no guile. He is in prayer, addressing his words to God.
3 When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.
4 For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.
5 I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.
6 For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.
7 Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.
The next words are spoken by God. They are a blessing with a charge to follow instructions, but not mindlessly.
8 I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.
9 Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.
The final words are a commentary on what has occurred, spoken by the chorus who introduced the scene.
10 Many sorrows shall be to the wicked: but he that trusteth in the Lord, mercy shall compass him about.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart. (Psalm 32:1-11)
Jesus’s apostles, knowing the context of Jesus’s words, could understand that Nathanael’s being without guile also meant that he need not be prodded like a mule before he would get something done. That tells us the underlying meaning of the Saviour’s promise, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Notwithstanding the negative aspects of “guile,” the more closely we look at the positive aspects of the concept the more reasonable Mormon’s choice of the word becomes. There is a passage in the New Testament that will help us understand. It may require more than one reading, for Paul often does, but it helps explain the passage in the Book of Mormon. Paul writes to the Corinthians,
14 Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. [He is referring to himself as a parent for it was he who taught them the gospel.]
15 And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.
16 But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile. (2 Corinthians 12:14-16)
The key to understanding Paul’s words is “I seek not yours, but you.” The guile was the way Paul always approached his missionary task. Whenever he, the perfect Jew, entered a city, he went first to the synagogue to teach from their own scriptures the promises of the Messiah, and then he taught the fulfillment of those promises. After he established a base of operation among the Jews he had converted, then he expanded his reach to the Gentiles. His method looks simple and it proved very effective.
Ammon used a similar approach. He established his credibility before he tried to teach.
Mormon also helps us understand his meaning when he introduces the idea with these words, “Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless….”
Mormon’s lesson is about how to introduce people to the gospel, and about keeping one’s balance between enthusiasm and propriety. The Saviour taught that same lesson to his apostles. He said,
16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;
18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.
19 But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.
20 For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. (Matthew 10:16-20)
A serpent (think of a lovely garden snake rather than of a viper) is wise because he is cautious and he doesn’t want some big guy stepping on his head. The Lord used that same simile when he cautioned the Prophet Joseph, “Therefore, be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin; and I will order all things for your good, as fast as ye are able to receive them (D&C 111:11).”
In another revelation, this one addressed to the Twelve, he instructed them to go into all the world to teach the gospel, he taught them that signs will follow those who believe, then forewarned them,
73 But a commandment I give unto them, that they shall not boast themselves of these things, neither speak them before the world; for these things are given unto you for your profit and for salvation.(D&C 84:73, see v.62-74),
The Prophet Joseph amplified those instructions when he spoke to the Saints during April Conference of 1844— the very last conference he attended before his death. He said,
“I want you to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Preach principles that will stand the test of ages; teach them good precepts and save souls, go forth as men of God, and you will find friends wherever you go. Drink deep of the Spirit of Truth and a great and mighty work shall be wrought in the world; hundreds and tens of thousands shall flock to the standard and go up to Zion.” (History of The Church, 6: 321)
We are frequently admonished to do the same as we seek to bring someone to the gospel: to first become an honest friend. After that friendship is established on a foundation of mutual trust, then introduce our friends to the missionaries and the gospel. They will gravitate to the truth we embrace because they have already felt the sincerity of our love.