The “pleasing” thing was not Sherem’s death but the repentance of his people. The effect of Sherem’s object lesson was to restore “peace and the love of God.” His people “searched the scriptures.” Even more importantly, “they hearkened no more to the words of this wicked man.”
What Jacob is describing is a religious revival. With the tight connection between religion and society (see commentary accompanying Jacob 6:9), such a repentance has tremendous implications for the tenor of Nephite society.
Culture: At this point, the people of Nephi had been moving away from gospel principles, adopting the social values and structures of their foreign trading partners. It seems likely that events progressed in this order:
1. The Nephites have raw materials and the ability to turn them into desirable trade goods.
2. They begin trading with others outside their area.
3. Trade brings wealth.
4. Trade also brings contact with other cultural systems and, with them, new definitions of what wealth is and how it should be manifest.
5. The Nephite traders/nouveaux riches begin to adopt regional customs such as the exchange of wives.
6. Jacob condemns their actions as contrary to the will of God, but the wealthy prefer to continue.
7. Jacob’s preaching becomes bothersome, and the new community elites remove him from office.
8. Jacob’s presence and private preaching still cause problems, and Sherem comes in to discredit Jacob.
In this scenario, what would have happened had Sherem succeeded? Clearly the Nephites were on their way to apostasy and would have traveled even faster without Jacob. Yahweh appropriated the encounter between Sherem and Jacob as a means of reviving commitment to gospel principles. The result is not only the redemption of public opinion about Jacob but probably his reinstatement to a position of authority, whether formal or informal, given his advanced age.
The remainder of the small plates are skimpy on historical details; but when the narrative picks up in Zarahemla with the resumption of the large plates, those who followed Mosiah1 to Zarahemla are reasonably faithful. Until Jacob’s encounter with Sherem, they were headed in a very different direction; but that encounter was a major turning point in the Nephites’ religious direction. They left the high road to apostasy and returned to Lord’s way. The encounter with Sherem was key in that turnaround, and the principal mechanism of effecting that turnaround was Sherem’s confession under the Spirit. Thus, in one respect, Yahweh did use Sherem as a missionary. Jacob may have called him a “wicked man” (and he was, before his confession); but he became Yahweh’s instrument in restoring a wayward people to their God.
Jacob understood the direction his people were taking, and therefore had prayed to God for a way to turn them. He may not have initially understood that Sherem would be that means, but he clearly understood in the aftermath that Sherem had actually been an answer to prayer.