Nephi's brothers and their families had a difficult time perceiving the true condition of the Jews from whom they fled. They insisted in their own hearts, even long after they had left, that the Jews were a righteous people.
"And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words..." (1 Ne. 17:22).
What made it difficult for Laman and Lemuel to see clearly was the simple fact that the Jews were a religious people. Many of them kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses. Would not this appear to be a righteous people? Laman and Lemuel were blinded by appearances. Their erroneous perception of reality caused them to twice 'bear testimony' of something that was false - "we know" the Jews are righteous. What they "knew" blinded them, because it was false.
When Joseph Smith learned in 1820 about the prevailing religious culture of his day, the Lord explained that mens' hearts were far from Him.
"I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were and abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: 'they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof'" (JSH 1:19).
Is it possible that the Jews, though keeping up outward appearances, had allowed their hearts to drift from God? Is it possible that men in Joseph Smith's day, who had a form of godliness, possessed hearts not set on finding their Lord? Is it easy for men to recognize when the commandments of men are taught as doctrine? Do men wittingly deny the power of godliness?
I continue to be astonished that latter-day Saints don't ever wonder whether we have fallen to such a condition. We are not allowed to wonder such a thing. We are full of fear, and know it not. We claim God's priesthood, but we undertake to cover our sins. We think we are chosen, but our hearts are set so much upon the things of this world. We claim revelation, but reveal nothing. The heavens have withdrawn themselves, and the Spirit of the Lord is grieved. We should be ashamed, but are proud. We should humble ourselves, but we cannot hear the voice of God because we are busy marching to the beat of Babylon. Yet there are a few who are humble, who have not gone astray (2 Ne. 28:14).
In teaching both the multitude and his disciples, Jesus said:
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:
"All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
"For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
"But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
"And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
"And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
"But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren" (Matt. 23:2-8).
The problem of which Christ spake is a condition of the heart. The scribes' and the Pharisees' works were performed so as to be seen of men. They loved the chief seats, and royal treatment. They could not help but love their greetings in the markets, and to be called Rabbi. They loved too much the glory of being the teacher, and not being taught by the Lord; of being the leader, not a follower of Righteousness. They appeared to do the works of righteousness, but their hearts were not set upon Christ. They were full of priestcraft (2 Ne. 26:29). Because they exalted themselves they shall be abased (Matt. 23:12).
Christ's words struck at the heart of the whole matter (Matt. 23:13-39). The leaders were blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel; who "make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law" (JST Matt. 23:21). These guides made the outside of the cup appear clean, but within were full of excess and extortion.
How is it that a man may keep up all outward appearances and yet be deemed "full of hypocrisy and iniquity" by Christ (Matt. 23:28)?