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In order to understand the prophetic writings, it is of the highest importance that one enter upon the study of them with just views of the nature of the prophetic office. An incidental part of the work of the Hebrew prophet, that of predicting the future, has occupied so important a place in Christian theology, that his general office and the main business of his mission have been kept out of view. Within a few hundred years the very terms prophet and prophecy have acquired a new meaning. When Jeremy Taylor wrote his treatise called “ The Liberty of Prophesying,” the term prophesying was understood in a much wider sense than it is at the present time. In his day prophets denoted public religious teachers, and by the liberty of prophesying, he understood the liberty of giving public religious instruction by speech or writing without annoyance from the civil power, or from any other source.
Undoubtedly this general sense of the terms prophet and prophesying is the true one. No term by which the Hebrew prophet is denoted in the Old Testament means predicter. He is called inspired speaker, seer, watchman, but never predicter, or foreteller of future events. His office was to proclaim the whole will of Jehovah to the Hebrew people. By public speech, by written history, and by various forms of poetic composition, he aimed to bring the rulers and people of Israel to a right state of feeling and conduct in relation to Jehovah, their supreme national king and moral governor, and to keep them in it. In other words, his office was to make and keep the rulers and people what they ought to be in political, moral, and religious respects. Constituting no legal order in the state, like the priests, having no privilege of birth, making no claim to official respect, feeling no dependence except upon the Divine spirit and their own souls, they were, by virtue of their natural, supernatural, and acquired powers, and by a certain authority naturally conceded to them by the people, at the same time political counsellors, popular orators, and religious teachers, having great influence in the Jewish commonwealth.
The prophetic office had its origin in the theocratic national constitution and theocratic national mind of the Hebrews. As God, their invisible sovereign, did not manifest himself to the multitude in an immediate and sensible manner, it became necessary that there should be a human representative of Jehovah to his people. To this office of representative of Jehovah to his people, those regarded themselves as called, commissioned, and sent, whatever might be their tribe, occupation, or parentage, who felt with irresistible conviction that they possessed in their souls the will of Jehovah; that they were the chosen organs, by which he might make known his will in regard to political, moral, and religious concerns. They felt that their minds were illumined and moved by the holy spirit of God, and that the thoughts which they expressed in speech or writing, under this illumination and influence, were to be regarded as the word of God. D'\???, inspired speakers, is their most common appellation. We have, however, no reason to suppose that the prophets of the Old Testament, any more than St. Paul and the prophets mentioned in the New Testament, connected the idea of absolute infallibility with inspiration. Nor do their writings afford any indications of such infallibility.
The Hebrew prophets conceived of the spirit of God as giving life to all animated beings; intelligence to man, skill to the artist, wisdom to the sovereign, resolution and strength to the warrior, and, above all, a lofty enthusiasm, profound knowledge of the true and the excellent, and a far-reaching insight into the mind of God, to the prophet. Divine communications were not, as in the heathen world, regarded as coming through inanimate objects, through lightning and thunder, the entrails of animals, the flight of birds, or the unconscious mind of man. Everywhere in the Old Testament, those who received the spirit of God, and consequently spoke the word of God, are represented as conscious, voluntary, intelligent agents. Everywhere they speak and act as
such. Their thoughts are expressed according to the common laws of the association of ideas. The operation of the holy spirit was to move the feelings, to illuminate the reason, to strengthen the imagination, to command the conscience, but not to furnish the prophet with objective knowledge of contingent events, or to make his intuitions infallible. Hence one prophet differs from another, just as one poet of any nation differs from another. The effect of the Divine influence on any individual varied according to his capacity of receiving it; according to his bodily organization, his intellectual, imaginative, and moral powers, the strength of his natural feelings, his susceptibility of religious fervor, his education, condition, and all the circumstances in which he was placed. The Hebrew prophet was capable of receiving the Divine spirit in larger measure than the rest of his countrymen. He was in a greater or less degree a man of genius. He was filled with a lofty enthusiasm, and an invincible energy. He was moved, excited, rapt into ecstasy. He was endowed with an uncommon capacity for discerning the true and the excellent. His pure reason, illuminated by God, pierced into the character of the Divine government and its issues. His comprehensive and far-reaching understanding, intently employed on the causes, character, and consequences of everything which concerned the wellbeing of the people of God, foresaw events hidden from common eyes. His exalted imagination presented to him visions of God. His pure and sensitive conscience heard the call of God, and felt a Divine command or commission in relation to all which he felt
He had thus a marked superiority over his contemporaries, and this superiority he attributed to the spirit of God. The influence of the Divine spirit upon his soul is the key for the explanation of all the various language which is used to express the reception of Divine communications; such as hearing the voice of God, seeing visions of God, having the word of God come to him, &c.
If it be asked what was the criterion to the prophet that he was a true messenger of God, or had a Divine commission, the answer is, that no one of them, whose writings have come down
has given us information of any criterion by which he knew that he was a prophet, except the possession of his spiritual gifts,
and the strength of his own conviction that he was under the influence of the spirit of God. These gifts, and this strong, irresistible conviction, were to him the seal of his mission. Just as in modern times a Christian believes that he is born of the Spirit, when he manifests the fruits of the Spirit, so the ancient prophets believed that they possessed the spirit of God in an extraordinary degree, or were inspired prophets, because they possessed prophetic gifts in an extraordinary degree, and had their convictions borne into their minds with extraordinary power.
Maimonides and several other Jewish writers have come to the same conclusion. “All prophecy makes itself known to the prophet that it is prophecy indeed, by the strength and vigor of the perception, so that his mind is freed from all scruple about it.” This he concludes to be the true meaning of Jer. xxiii. 29. “ Is not my word like a fire, saith the Lord, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces ?” on which he makes the following comment. - Such a thing is the prophetical spirit by reason of the strength of its impression and the forcibleness of its operation on the heart of the prophet.” See John Smith on Prophecy, in Watson's Tracts, Vol. IV. p. 320, &c.
Had, then, the Hebrew prophets no criterion by which they and others might know that they were inspired by God, different from that which was possessed by Savonarola, Luther, Milton, or Fox? If they had, they have not told us what it was. It seems to follow, therefore, that infallibility ought not to be connected with the scriptural idea of inspiration. For mere strength of conviction that one is moved to think, speak, or write by the spirit of God, or, which is the same thing, by Divine inspiration, is not at the present day regarded as evidence that one is infallible. *
I have spoken briefly of the general office and work of the Hebrew prophet, and of his internal qualifications for the discharge of his duties, omitting many topics that might be interesting in a full treatise. I now come to the inquiry, What was the nature of the prophetic predictions ? The essential part of the work of the prophet was, as we have seen, to persuade rulers and people to be what they ought to be in political, moral, and religious respects. Their predictions are to be regarded as means
* See Note to the Introduction.
of accomplishing this great end. These constituted the motives by which they hoped to stir up kings and people to a right course, or to deter them from a wrong one; to humble them when elated with a false confidence, or to comfort them when discouraged under overwhelming national calamity.
These predictions consist of representations of the future, having reference partly to the people of God, that is, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and partly to foreign nations, which, in the way of interest, friendship, or enmity, &c., had some connection with the people of God. We never find the Hebrew prophets uttering predictions respecting countries unknown to the Hebrews, such as Japan, or America, or India, but only respecting those nations from which at the time of the prediction they had something to hope or to fear, or which they had cause to love or to hate, such as successively the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Syrians, the Phænicians, the Philistines, the Egyptians, the Edomites, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Arabians. Sometimes the prediction relates to an individual who was concerned in the business of the state.
The predictions of the prophets are always presented as motives of conduct to their contemporaries. They are never made as independent truths, without reference to the circumstances of the times. They are not merely apocalyptic, or for the mere gratification of curiosity. They always have a practical relation to the people in the time of the prophet. They are always presented as promises of happiness, or threatenings of distress, and this gener. ally as the fruit of the conduct of the people, and thus as a revelation of the righteousness of God, or of the retribution of which God is the author.
Here we have one principal source of the Hebrew predictions, namely, the laws of Divine retribution. It was a fundamental doctrine of Judaism that the future condition of a nation, as well as of an individual, would be so ordered by the Almighty as to constitute the reward or punishment of present conduct. For this reason it was, that the prophets were led to cast their eyes into the future, in order to find motives to urge kings and people to the course which they recommended. In order to make these motives- more distinct, vivid, and impressive, they did not deal in