In the last chapter the opinion was expressed that the first books collected by Nehemiah, when he made up his |library,| a century after the Exile, were the writings of the prophets. We studied the historical books first, because they stand first in the Hebrew Bible, and are there named the |Earlier Prophets;| but the probabilities are that the prophetical writings proper, called by the Jews the |Later Prophets,| were first gathered.
When was this collection made? If it was made by Nehemiah (and there is nothing to discredit the statement of the author of 2 Maccabees that he was the collector), then it was not compiled until one hundred years after the Exile, or only about four hundred and twenty years before Christ. Most of the prophets had written before or during the Exile. Joel, Hosea, and Amos had flourished three or four hundred years before this collection was made; Isaiah, the greatest of them all, had been in his grave almost three centuries; Micah, nearly as long; Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah had been silent from one to two hundred years; Jeremiah, who was alive when the seventy years' captivity began, and Ezekiel, who prophesied and perished among the captives on the banks of the Euphrates, were more remote from Nehemiah than Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Edwards are from us; even Haggai and Zechariah, who came back with the returning exiles and helped to build the second temple, had passed away from fifty to one hundred years before the time of Nehemiah. Malachi alone, -- |The Messenger,| -- and the last of the prophets, may have been alive when the compilation of the prophetic writings was made.
It may be safely conjectured that the Jews, although they had never possessed any collection of the books of the prophets, had known something of their contents. Several of the prophets had foretold the desolation and the captivity, and there had been abundant time during the Exile to recall the words they had spoken and to wish that their fathers had heeded them. These remembered words of the prophets, passing from lip to lip, would thus have acquired peculiar sacredness. It seems clear, also, that copies of these books must have been kept, -- perhaps in the schools of the prophets; for the later prophets quote, verbally, from the earlier ones. It may, therefore, have been in response to a popular wish that this collection of their writings was undertaken. Words so momentous as these ought to be sacredly treasured. Furthermore, there were reasons to apprehend that the holy flame of prophecy was dying out. Malachi may have been speaking still, but there was not much promise that he would have a successor, and the expectation of prophetic voices was growing dim among the people.
The Levitical ritual, now so elaborate and cumbersome, had supplanted the prophetic oracle. The ritualist is never a prophet; and out of such a formal cult no words of inspiration are apt to flow. With all the greater carefulness, therefore, would the people treasure the messages that had come to them from the past. Accordingly these prophetic writings, which had existed in a fragmentary and scattered form, were gathered into a collection by themselves.
It must be admitted that when we try to tell how these writings had been preserved and transmitted through all these centuries, we have but little solid ground of fact to go upon. The Scriptures themselves are entirely silent with respect to the manner of their preservation; the traditions of the Jews are wholly worthless. We must not imagine that these books of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Hosea were written and published as our books are written and published; there was no book trade then through which literature could be marketed, and no subscription agencies hawking books from door to door. You must not imagine that every family in Judea had a copy of Isaiah's Works, -- nor even that a copy could be found in every village; it is possible that there were not, when the people were carried into captivity, more than a few dozen copies of these prophecies in existence, and these were in the hands of some of the prophets or literary dignitaries of the nation, or in the archives of some of the prophetical schools. The notion that these works were distributed among the people for study and devotional reading is not to be entertained. No such general use of the prophetical writings was ever conceived of by the Jews before the Captivity.
Indeed, many of these prophecies, as we call them, were not, primarily, literature at all. They were sermons or addresses, delivered orally to the individuals concerned, or to assemblies of the people. You can see the evidence, in many cases, that they must have been thus delivered.
We speak of the |prophecy| of Isaiah, or the |prophecy| of Jeremiah; but the books bearing their names are made up of a number of |prophecies,| uttered on various occasions. The division between these separate prophecies is generally indicated by the language; in all Paragraph Bibles it is marked by blank lines. In each of these earlier prophetical books we thus have, in all probability, a succession of deliverances, extending through long periods of time and prepared for various occasions.
After the oracle was spoken to those for whom it was designed, it was written down by the prophet or by his friends and disciples, and thus preserved. This supposition seems, at any rate, more plausible than any other that I have found. Manifestly many of these prophecies were originally sermons or public addresses; it is natural to suppose that they were first delivered, and then, for substance, reduced to writing, that a record might be made of the utterance.
It is sometimes alleged that these prophecies, as soon as they were produced, were at once added to a collection of sacred Scriptures which was preserved in the sanctuary. There was a |Book| or |Scripture,| it is said, |which from the time of Moses was kept open, and in which the writings of the prophets may have been recorded as they were produced.| [Footnote: Alexander on Isaiah, i.7.]
The learned divine who ventures this conjecture admits that it would be as hard to prove it as to disprove it. My own opinion is that it would be much harder. If there had been any such official receptacle of sacred writings, the prophets were not generally in a position to secure the admission of their documents into it. They were often in open controversy with the people who kept the sanctuary; the political and the religious authorities of the nation were the objects of their severest denunciations; it is not likely that the priests would make haste to transcribe and preserve in the sanctuary the sermons and lectures of the men who were scourging them with censure. This national bibliotheca sacra in which the writings of the prophets were deposited as soon as they were composed is the product of pure fiction. It was not thus that the prophetical utterances were preserved; rather is it to be supposed that the pupils and friends of the prophet faithfully kept his manuscripts after he was gone; that occasional copies were made of them by those who wished to study them, and that thus they were handed down from generation to generation.
When Nehemiah made his collection he found these manuscripts, in whose hands we know not, and brought them together in one place. We may presume that the writings of each prophet were copied upon a separate roll, and that the rolls were kept together in some receptacle in the temple. Most of these prophets had now been dead some hundreds of years; the truth of their messages was no longer disputed even by the priests and the scribes; their heresy was now the soundest orthodoxy; the custodians of orthodoxy would of course now make a place for their writings in the national archives. The priests have always been ready to build sepulchres for the prophets after they were dead, and to pay them plenty of post mortem reverence.
The books of the prophets stand in the later Hebrew Bibles in the same order as that in which they are placed in our own; they occupy a different place in the whole collection: they are in the middle of the Hebrew Bible, and they are at the end of ours; but their relation to one another is the same in both Bibles. This order is not chronological; in part, at least, it seems to represent what was supposed to be the relative importance of the books. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are placed first, perhaps because they are longest, although several of the minor prophets are of earlier date than they. |Daniel| is not among the prophets in the Hebrew Bible; the book which bears this name is one of the books of the third collection, -- the Hagiographa, -- of which we shall speak at another time.
|When we follow further the same collection,| says Professor Murray, |we find Hosea immediately following Ezekiel [although Hosea lived more than two centuries before Ezekiel] and in turn followed by Joel and Amos, mainly on the principle of comparative bulk. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were placed at the end for reasons purely chronological, after the rest of the collection had been made up. We cannot see any clear or consistent reason for the position of Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, which stand together in the middle of the collection.|
An examination of the chronological notes on the margin of our English Bibles (which are not always correct though they are approximately so) will show that these prophetical books are not arranged in the order of time. It would be a great improvement to have them so arranged. Pupils in the Sunday-schools who attempted a few years ago to follow the |International| lessons through these prophecies, seriatim, found themselves skipping back and forward over the centuries in a history- defying dance which was quite bewildering to all but the clearest heads. We could understand these prophecies much better if they were arranged in the order of their dates. And as no one supposes that the present arrangement, made by Jewish scribes, is in any wise inspired, there seems to be no good reason why the late revisers might not have altered it, and set these books in a historical and intelligible order.
Who were these prophets and what was their function? To give any adequate answer to this inquiry would require a treatise; it is only in the most cursory manner that we can deal with it in this place.
The prophet is the man who speaks for God. He is the interpreter of the divine will. By some means he has come to understand God's purpose, and his function is to declare it. Thus in Exodus iv.16, Jehovah says to Moses, |Aaron thy brother ... shall be thy spokesman unto the people, and it shall come to pass that he shall be to thee a mouth and thou shalt be to him as God.| And again (vii. i), |See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.| These passages indicate the Biblical meaning of the word. The prophet is the spokesman or interpreter of some superior authority. In Classic Greek, also, Apollo is called the prophet of Jupiter, and the Pythia is the prophetess of Apollo. Almost universally, in the Old Testament, the word is used to signify an expounder or interpreter of the divine will.
|The English words 'prophet, prophecy, prophesying,'| says Dean Stanley, |originally kept tolerably close to the Biblical use of the word. The celebrated dispute about 'prophesyings' in the sense of 'preachings' in the reign of Elizabeth, and the treatise of Jeremy Taylor on 'The Liberty of Prophesying,' i.e., the liberty of preaching, show that even down to the seventeenth century the word was still used as in the Bible, for preaching or speaking according to the will of God. In the seventeenth century, however, the limitation of the word to the sense of prediction had gradually begun to appear. This secondary meaning of the word had by the time of Dr. Johnson so entirely superseded the original Scriptural signification that he gives no other special definition of it than 'to predict, to foretell, to prognosticate,' 'a predicter, a foreteller,' 'foreseeing or foretelling future events;' and in this sense it has been used almost down to our own day, when the revival of Biblical criticism has resuscitated, in some measure, the Biblical use of the word.| [Footnote: History of the Jewish Church, i.459, 460.] The predictive function of the prophet is not, then, the only, nor the prominent feature of his work. By far the larger portion of the prophetic utterances were concerned with the present, and made no reference to the future.
The prophet exercised his office in many ways. Moses was a prophet, the first and greatest of the prophets; but we have from him few predictions; he interpreted the will of God in the enactment of laws. Samuel was a great prophet; but Samuel was not employed in foretelling future events; he sought to know the will of God, that he might administer the affairs of the Jewish commonwealth in accordance with it. Elijah and Elisha were great prophets, but they were not prognosticators; they were preachers of righteousness to kings and people, and they delivered their message in a way to make the ears of those who heard them to tingle. And this, for all the prophets who succeeded them, was the one great business. The ethical function of these men of God came more and more distinctly into view.
When Paul admonished Timothy (2 Tim. iv.2) to |preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long- suffering and teaching,| he was calling on him to be a follower of the prophets. When kings became profligate and faithless, when priests grew formal and greedy, when the rich waxed extortionate and tyrannical, these men of God arose to denounce the transgressors and threaten them with the divine vengeance. They might arise in any quarter, from any class. They were confined to no tribe, to no locality, to no calling. Neither sex monopolized this gift. Miriam, Deborah, Huldah were shining names upon their roll of honor. To no ecclesiasticism or officialism did they owe their authority; no man's hands had been laid upon them in ordination; they were Jehovah's messengers; from him alone they received their messages, to him alone they held themselves responsible.
No such preachers of politics ever existed as these Hebrew prophets; with all the affairs of state they constantly intermeddled; bad laws and unholy policies found in them sharp and unsparing critics; the entangling alliances of Israel with the surrounding nations were denounced by them in season and out of season. The people of their own time often stigmatized them as unpatriotic; because they would not approve popular iniquities, or refrain their lips from rebuking even |favorite sons,| or the idols of the populace, they often found themselves under the ban of public opinion; they lived lonely lives; not a few of them died violent deaths. |Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?| demanded Stephen, |and they killed them which showed before of the coming of the Righteous One; of whom ye have now become betrayers and murderers.| [Footnote: Acts vii.52.]
The relation of the prophets to the political life of the Jewish people is brought out in a striking way by John Stuart Mill in his book on |Representative Government.| In that chapter in which he discusses the criterion of a good government, he shows how the Egyptian hierarchy and the Chinese paternal despotism destroyed those countries by stereotyping their institutions. Then he goes on: --
|In contrast with these nations let us consider the example of an opposite character, afforded by another and a comparatively insignificant Oriental people, the Jews. They, too, had an absolute monarchy and a hierarchy, and their organized institutions were as obviously of sacerdotal origin as those of the Hindoos. These did for them what was done for other Oriental races by their institutions, subdued them to industry and order, and gave them a national life. But neither their kings nor their priests ever obtained, as in those other countries, the exclusive moulding of their character. Their religion, which enabled persons of genius and a high religious tone to be regarded and to regard themselves as inspired from heaven, gave existence to an inestimably precious unorganized institution, -- the Order (if it may be so termed) of Prophets. Under the protection, generally though not always effectual, of their sacred character, the Prophets were a power in the nation, often more than a match for kings and priests, and kept up in that little corner of the earth the antagonism of influences which is the only real security for continued progress. Religion, consequently, was not then what it has been in so many other places, a consecration of all that was once established, and a barrier against further improvement. The remark of a distinguished Hebrew, M. Salvador, that the Prophets were in church and state the equivalent of the modern liberty of the press, gives a just but not an adequate conception of the part fulfilled in national and universal history by this great element of Jewish life; by means of which, the canon of inspiration never being complete, the persons most eminent in genius and moral feeling could not only denounce and reprobate, with the direct authority of the Almighty, whatever appeared to them deserving of such treatment, but could give forth better and higher interpretations of the national religion, which thenceforth became part of the religion. Accordingly, whoever can divest himself of the habit of reading the Bible as if it was one book, which until lately was equally inveterate in Christians and unbelievers, sees with admiration the vast interval between the morality and religion of the Pentateuch, or even of the historical books (the unmistakable work of Hebrew Conservatives of the Sacerdotal order), and the morality and religion of the Prophecies. Conditions more favorable to progress could not easily exist; accordingly, the Jews, instead of being stationary like other Asiatics, were, next to the Greeks, the most progressive people of antiquity, and, joint with them, have been the starting-point and main propelling agency of modern civilization.| [Footnote: Considerations on Representative Government, pp.51-53, American Edition.]
Not only in the sphere of politics, but in that of religion also, were they constantly appearing as critics and censors. The tendency of religion to become merely ritual, to divorce itself from righteousness, is inveterate. Against this tendency the prophets were the constant witnesses. The religious |machine| is always in the same danger of becoming corrupt and mischievous as is the political |machine;| the man with the sledge-hammer who will smash it and fling it into the junk-pile has a work to do in every generation. This was the work of the Hebrew prophets. |I desired mercy, and not sacrifice,| cries Hosea, speaking for Jehovah. |I hate, I despise your feast days,| says Amos, |and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies,...but let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.| |Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth,| proclaims Isaiah; |they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. Wash ye, make you clean; cease to do evil; learn to do well. Is not this the fast that I have chosen, to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burden, and to let the oppressed go free?|
This is, then, the chief function of the Hebrew prophet; he is the expounder of the righteous will of God, not mainly with respect to future events, but with respect to present transgressions and present obligations of kings and priests and people. And yet it would be an error to overlook or disparage his dealings with the future. As a teacher of righteousness he saw that present disobedience would bring future retribution, and he pointed it out with the utmost fidelity. Any man who carefully studies the laws of God can make some predictions with great confidence. He knows that certain courses of conduct will be followed by certain consequences. Some of the predictions of the Hebrew prophets were of this nature. Yet predictions of this nature were always conditional. The condition was not always expressed, but it was always understood. The threatening of destruction to the disobedient was withdrawn when the disobedient turned from their evil ways. The predictions of the prophets were not always fulfilled for this good reason. The rule is explicitly laid down by the Prophet Jeremiah: |At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation...to destroy it; if that nation...turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation...to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.| [Footnote: Jeremiah xviii.7-9.]
And there is something more than this. Instances are here recorded of specific predictions of future events, which came to pass as they were predicted, -- predictions which cannot be explained on naturalistic principles. |Of this sort,| says Bleek, |are the prophecies of Isaiah as to the closely impending destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Syria, which he predicted with great confidence at a time when the two kingdoms appeared particularly strong by their treaty with each other,...besides the repeated predictions as to the destruction of the mighty hosts of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, which besieged Jerusalem, and the deliverance of the state from the greatest distress. Among these predictions, those in Isaiah xxix.1-8, appear to me particularly noteworthy, where he foretells that a long time hence Jerusalem should be besieged by a foreign host and pressed very hard, but that the latter, just as they believed they were getting possession of the city, should be scattered and annihilated; for this prediction, from its whole character, appears to have been uttered before any danger showed itself from this quarter.| [Footnote: Introduction to the Old Testament, ii.27.]
Beyond and above all this is the gradual rise in Israel of that great Messianic hope, of which the prophets were the inspired and inspiring witnesses. We find, at a very early day, an expectation of a future revelation of the glory of God, dawning upon the consciousness of the nation, and expressing itself by the words of its most devout spirits. Even in prosperous days there was a dim outreaching after something better; in times of disaster and overthrow this hope was kindled to a passionate longing. Of this Messianic hope, its nature and its fulfillment, no words of mine can tell so eloquently as these words of Dean Stanley: --
|It was the distinguishing mark of the Jewish people that their golden age was not in the past, but in the future; that their greatest hero (as they deemed him to be) was not their Founder, but their Founder's latest Descendant. Their traditions, their fancies, their glories, gathered round the head, not of a chief or warrior or sage that had been, but of a King, a Deliverer, a Prophet who was to come. Of this singular expectation the Prophets were, if not the chief authors, at least the chief exponents. Sometimes he is named, sometimes he is unnamed; sometimes he is almost identified with some actual Prince of the present or the coming generation, sometimes he recedes into the distant ages. But again and again, at least in the late prophetic writings, the vista is closed by this person, his character, his reign. And almost everywhere the Prophetic spirit in the delineation of his coming remains true to itself. He is to be a King, a Conqueror, yet not by the common weapons of earthly warfare, but by those only weapons which the Prophetic order recognized; by justice, mercy, truth, and goodness; by suffering, by endurance, by identification of himself with the joys, the sufferings of his nation; by opening a wider sympathy to the whole human race than had ever been offered before. That this expectation, however explained, existed in a greater or less degree amongst the Prophets is not doubted by any theologians of any school whatever. It is no matter of controversy. It is a simply and universally recognized fact that, filled with these Prophetic images, the whole Jewish nation -- nay, at last, the whole Eastern world -- did look forward with longing expectation to the coming of this future Conqueror. Was this unparalleled expectation realized? And here again I speak only of facts which are acknowledged by Germans and Frenchmen no less than by Englishmen, by critics and by skeptics even more than by theologians and ecclesiastics. There did arise out of this nation a Character as unparalleled as the expectation which had preceded him. Jesus of Nazareth was, on the most superficial no less than on the deepest view of his coming, the greatest name, the most extraordinary power that has ever crossed the stage of History. And this greatness consisted not in outward power, but precisely in those qualities in which from first to last the Prophetic order had laid the utmost stress, -- justice and love, goodness and truth.| [Footnote: History of the Jewish Church, i.519, 520.]
This is the great fact from which the student of the Old Testament must never remove his attention. That this wonderful hope and expectation did suffuse all the utterances of the prophets is not to be gainsaid by any candid man. That the expectation assumed, as the ages passed, a more and more definite and personal form is equally certain. Isaiah was perhaps the first to give distinct shape to this prophetic hope. Ewald thus summarizes the Messianic idea in the writings of Isaiah: --
|There must come some one who should perfectly satisfy all the demands of the true religion, so as to become the centre from which all its truth and force should operate. His soul must possess a marvelous and surpassing nobleness and divine power, because it is his function perfectly to realize in life the ancient religion, the requirements of which no one has yet satisfied, and that, too, with that spiritual glorification which the great prophets had announced. Unless there first comes some one who shall transfigure this religion into its purest form, it will never be perfected, and its kingdom will never come. But he will and must come, for otherwise the religion which demands him would be false; he is the first true King of the community of the true God, and as nothing can be conceived of as supplanting him, he will reign forever in irresistible power; he is the divine-human King, whose coming had been due ever since the true community had set up a human monarchy in its midst, but who had never come. He is to be looked for, to be longed for, to be prayed for; and how blessed it is simply to expect him devoutly, and to trace out every feature of his likeness. To sketch the nobleness of his soul is to pursue in detail the possibility of perfecting all religion; and to believe in the necessity of his coming is to believe in the perfecting of all divine agency on earth.| [Footnote: The History of Israel, iv.203, 204.]
It is precisely here that we get at the heart of the Old Testament; this wonderful fore-looking toward the Messianic manifestations of God upon the earth, which kindled the hearts of the people and found clearest utterance by the lips of its most inspired men, which binds this literature all together, histories, songs, precepts, allegories. This it is which reveals the true inspiration of these old writings, and which makes them, to every Christian heart, precious beyond all price.
Such being the character of these prophetic books, let us glance for a moment at a few of them, merely for the purpose of locating the prophecy in the history, and of discerning, when it is possible, the providential causes which called it forth.
It is difficult to tell which of these fifteen prophets, whose utterances are treasured in this collection, first appeared upon the scene. The probability seems to be that the earliest of them was Joel. Opinions differ widely; I cannot discuss them nor even cite them; but the old theory that Joel lived and preached about eight hundred and seventy-five years before Christ does not seem to me to be invalidated by modern criticism. He was a native of the Southern Kingdom; and at the time we have named, the King of Judea was Joash, whose dramatic elevation to the throne in his seventh year, by Jehoiada the priest, is narrated in the Book of Kings. It was a time of disturbance and disaster in Judah and Jerusalem; the boy-king was but a nominal ruler; the regent was Jehoiada; and incursions of the surrounding tribes, who carried away the people and sold them as slaves, kept the land in a constant state of alarm. Worse than this was the visitation of locusts, continuing, as it would seem, for several years, by which the country was stripped and devastated. This visitation furnishes the theme of the short discourse which is here reported. The description of the march of the locusts over the land is full of poetic beauty; and the people are admonished to accept this as a divine chastisement for their sins, and to do the works meet for repentance. Then comes the promise of the divine forgiveness, and of that great gift of the Spirit, whose fulfillment Peter claimed on the day of Pentecost: |In the midst of the deepest woes which then afflicted the kingdom,| says Ewald, |his great soul grasped all the more powerfully the eternal hope of the true community, and impressed it all the more indelibly upon his people, alike by the fiery glow of his clear insight and the entrancing beauty of his passionate utterance.| [Footnote: The History of Israel, iv.139.]
The next prophet in the order of time is undoubtedly Amos. He tells us that he lived in the days of Uzziah, King of Judah, about seventy years after Joel. He was a herdsman of Tekoa, a small city of Judah, twelve miles south of Jerusalem. In these days the Northern Kingdom was far more prosperous and powerful than the Southern; under Jeroboam II. Israel had become rich and luxurious; and the prophet was summoned, as he declares, by the call of Jehovah himself to leave his herds upon the Judean hills, and betake himself to the Northern Kingdom, there to bear witness against the pride and oppression of its people. This messenger and interpreter of Jehovah to his people is a poor man, a laboring man; but he knows whose commission he bears, and he is not afraid. Stern and terrible are the woes that fall from his lips: the words vibrate yet with the energy of his righteous wrath.
|Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near; that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that sing idle songs to the sound of the viol; that devise for themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.|
Such luxury always goes hand in hand with contempt of the lowly and oppression of the poor; it is so to-day; it was so in that far-off time; and this prophet pours upon it the vials of the wrath of God: --
|Forasmuch therefore as ye trample upon the poor, and take exactions from him of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink the wine thereof. For I know how manifold are your transgressions and how mighty are your sins; ye that afflict the just, that take a bribe, and that turn aside the needy in the gate from their right.|
It is no wonder that Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, writhed under the scourge of the herdsman prophet, and wanted to be rid of him: |O thou seer,| he cried, |go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there: but prophesy not again any more in Bethel.| But the prophet stood his ground and delivered his message, and it still resounds as the very voice of God through every land where the greed of gold makes men unjust, and the love of pleasure banishes compassion from human hearts.
The nearest successor of Amos, in this collection, seems to have been Hosea, who tells us in the opening of his prophecy that the word of the Lord came unto him in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel. There is some doubt about the genuineness of this superscription; but it was about this time, undoubtedly, that Hosea flourished. To which kingdom he belonged it is not known; probably, however, to Israel, with whose affairs his teaching is chiefly concerned. He must have followed close upon the herdsman of Tekoa; possibly they were contemporaries. His prophecy, too, is a blast from the trumpet of the Lord our Righteousness. Such an indictment of a people has not often been heard.
|Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. There is nought but swearing and breaking faith, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery; they break out, and blood toucheth blood.|
Especially severe is the prophet in his denunciation of the priesthood.
|They feed on the sin of my people, and set their heart on their iniquity. And it shall be, like people, like priest: and I will punish them for their ways, and will reward them their doings.|
These prophecies of Hosea are instinct with a severe morality; the ethical thoroughness with which he chastises the national sins is unflinching; but it is not all threatening; now and again we hear the word of tenderness, the promise of the divine forgiveness: --
|I will heal their backsliding. I will love them freely; for mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel; he shall blossom as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon.|
Micah follows Hosea, at an interval of perhaps fifty years. He lived in a little village of Judah, west of Jerusalem, and exercised his ministry in both kingdoms, testifying impartially against the wickedness of Jerusalem and Samaria, though the weight of his censure seems to rest upon the Judean capital. His strain is an echo of the outcry of Amos and Hosea; it is the same intense indignation against the violence and rapacity of the rich, against corrupt judges, false prophets, rascally traders, treacherous friends. For all these sins condign punishment is threatened; and yet, after these retributive woes are past, there is promise of a better day. The great Messianic hope here begins to find clear utterance; the former prophets have seen in their visions only the restoration of the people of Israel; to Micah there comes the anticipation of an individual Leader and Deliverer.
|But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from old, from everlasting.... And he shall stand and shall feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; and they shall abide; for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.|
Thus slowly broadens the dawn of the Messianic hope.
The first part of the fourth chapter of Micah, which is a prediction of the glory that shall come to Zion in the latter day, is verbally identical with the first part of the second chapter of Isaiah. One of the prophets must have quoted from the other or else, as Dr. Geikie suggests, both copied from some older prophet.
After Micah comes the greatest of the prophets, Isaiah. He appeared upon the scene in his native city of Jerusalem about the middle of the eighth century before Christ. His work was mainly done during the reigns of Ahaz, |the Grasper,| one of the vilest and most ungodly of the Judean monarchs, and of Hezekiah, the good king, about a century and a half before the destruction of Jerusalem.
About this time Judea was constantly exposed to the rapacity of the great Assyrian power before whose armies she finally fell; sometimes her rulers entered into coalitions with the surrounding nations to resist the Assyrian; sometimes they submitted and paid heavy tribute. Egypt, on the south, was also a mighty empire at this time, constantly at war with Assyria; and the kings of Judah sometimes sought alliances with one of these great powers, as a means of protection against the other. They proved to be the upper and nether millstones between which the Jewish nationality was ground to powder. It was in the midst of these alarming signs of national destruction that Isaiah arose. Of the prophetic discourses which he delivered in Jerusalem we have about thirty; his words are the words of a patriot, a statesman, a servant and messenger of Jehovah. He warned the kings against these entangling alliances with foreign powers; he admonished them to stand fast in their allegiance to Jehovah, and obey his laws; yet he saw that they would not heed his word, and that swift and sure destruction was coming upon the nation. And his expectation was not like that of the other prophets, that the nation as a whole would be saved out of these judgments; to him it was made plain that only a remnant would survive; but that from that remnant should spring a noble race, with a purer faith, in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed. Of the Messianic hope as it finds expression in these words of Isaiah I have already spoken.
This Book of Isaiah contains thirty-one prophetic discourses, some of them mere fragments. There is reason for doubt as to whether they were all spoken by Isaiah; when they were gathered up, two hundred years later, some utterances of other prophets may have been mingled with them. Indeed it is now regarded as well-nigh certain that the last twenty-seven chapters are the work of a later prophet, -- of one who wrote during the Captivity. Professor Delitzsch, in the last edition of his commentary on Isaiah, finally concedes that this is probable. The Book of Isaiah, he is reported as saying, |may have been an anthology of prophetic discourses by different authors; that is, it may have been composed partly and directly by Isaiah, and partly by other later prophets whose utterances constitute a really homogeneous and simultaneous continuation of Isaian prophecy. These later prophets so closely resemble Isaiah in prophetic vision that posterity might, on that account, well identify them with him, -- his name being the correct common denominator for this collection of prophecies.|
These words of the most distinguished and devout of the Old Testament critics throw a flood of light on the structure not only of Isaiah, but of other Old Testament writings; they show how unlike our own were the primitive ideas of authorship; and how the Pentateuch, for example, drawn from many sources and revised by many editors, could be called the law of Moses; how his name may have been the |common denominator| of all that collection of laws.
I have shown, perhaps, in these hasty notices, something of the nature and purpose of five of these prophetic books. Of the rest I must speak but a single word, for the time fails me to tell of Zephaniah, who in the time of good King Josiah, denounced the idolatry of the people, the injustice of its princes and judges, and the corruption of its prophets and priests, threatened the rebellious with extermination, and promised to the remnant an enduring peace; of Jeremiah, who about the same time first lifted up his voice, and continued speaking until after the destruction of Jerusalem, -- from whose writings we may derive a more complete and intelligible account of the period preceding the Exile than from any other source; of Nahum, who, just before the fall of Jerusalem, uttered his oracle against Nineveh; of Obadiah, who, after the fall of the holy city, launched his thunderbolts against the perfidious Edomites because of their rejoicing over the fate of Jerusalem; of Ezekiel, the prophet of the Exile, who wrote among the captives by the rivers of Babylon; of Haggai and Zechariah, who came back with the returning exiles, and whose courageous voices cheered the laborers who wrought to restore the city and the temple; of Malachi, whose pungent reproofs of the people for their lack of consecration followed the erection of the second temple, and closed the collection of the Hebrew prophets.
The limits of this small volume forbid us to enter upon several interesting critical inquiries respecting the component parts of Isaiah and Zechariah, and especially the matter of the variations of the Septuagint from the Hebrew text in the Book of Jeremiah. In this last named book we find the same phenomena that we encountered in our study of Samuel and The Kings: the Greek version differs considerably from the Hebrew; a comparison of the two illustrates, as nothing else can do, the processes through which the text of these old documents has passed, and the freedom with which they have been handled by scribes and copyists. The Hebrew text, from which our English version was made, is generally better than the Greek; but there are several cases in which the Greek is manifestly more accurate.
There is one book, reckoned among these minor prophets, of which I have not spoken, and to which I ought to make some reference. That is the book of Jonah.
It is found among the minor prophets, but it is not in any sense prophetical; it is neither a sermon nor a prediction; it is a narrative. Probably it was placed by the Jews among these prophetical books because Jonah was a prophet. But this book was not written by Jonah; there is not a word in the book which warrants the belief that he was its author. It is a story about Jonah, told by somebody else long after Jonah's day. Jonah, the son of Amittai, was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom in the days of Jeroboam II., far back in the ninth century. The only reference to him contained in the Old Testament is found in 2 Kings xiv.25. But this book was almost certainly written long after the destruction of Nineveh, which took place two hundred years later. One reason for this belief is in the fact that the writer of the book feels it necessary to explain what kind of a city Nineveh was. He stops in the midst of his story to say: |Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey.| That explanation would have been superfluous anywhere in Israel in the days of Jeroboam II., and the past tense indicates that it was written by one who was looking back to a city no longer in existence. |Nineveh was.| The character of the Hebrew also favors the theory of a later date for the book. We have, therefore, a tale that was told about Jonah probably three or four hundred years after his day.
Is it a true tale, or is it a work of didactic fiction? I believe that it is the latter. It is a very suggestive apologue, full of moral beauty and spiritual power, designed to convey several important lessons to the minds of the Jewish people. I cannot regard it as the actual experience of a veritable prophet of God, because I can hardly imagine that such a prophet could have supposed, as the Jonah of this tale is said to have supposed, that by getting out of the bounds of the Kingdom of Israel, he would get out of the sight of Jehovah. This is precisely what this Jonah of the story undertook to do. When he was bidden to go to Nineveh and cry against it, |he rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord; and he went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord| (ch. i.3). Is this actual history? Is this the belief of a genuine prophet of the Lord? What sort of a prophet is he who holds ideas as crude as this concerning the Being with whom he is in constant communication and from whom he receives his messages? If Jonah did entertain this belief, then it is not likely that he can teach us anything about God which it is important that we should know.
Thus, without touching the miraculous features of the story, we have sound reasons for believing that this cannot be the actual experience of any veritable prophet of God; that it is not history, but fiction. Why not? Can any one who has read the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan doubt that fiction may be used in Sacred Scripture for the highest purpose?
But it is argued that the references to this story which are found in the words of Christ authenticate the story. Our Lord, in Matt. xii, 39-42, refers to this book. He speaks of the repentance of the Ninevites under the preaching of Jonah as a rebuke to the Jews who had heard the word of life from him and had not repented; and he uses these words: |An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.|
This confirms, say the orthodox commentators, the historical accuracy of the story of Jonah. |If,| says Canon Liddon, |he would put his finger on a fact in past Jewish history which, by its admitted reality, would warrant belief in his own resurrection, he points to Jonah's being three days and three nights in the belly of the whale.| This use of the incident by our Lord clearly authenticates the incident as an actual historical fact. So say the conservative theologians. And so say also the men who labor to destroy the authority of Christ. Mr. Huxley perfectly agrees with Canon Liddon. He praises the Canon's penetration and consistency; he agrees that there can be no other possible interpretation of Christ's words. The ultra-conservative and the anti- Christian critics are at one in insisting that Christ stands committed to the literal truth of the narrative in Jonah. The inference of the ultra-conservative is that the narrative is historically true; the inference of the anti-Christian critic is that Jesus is unworthy our confidence as a religious teacher; that one who fully indorsed such a preposterous tale cannot be divine. It is instructive to observe the ultra-conservative critics thus playing steadily into the hands of the anti-Christian critics, furnishing them with ammunition with which to assail the very citadel of the Christian faith. It is a kind of business in which, I am sorry to say, they have been diligently engaged for a good while.
Now I, for my part, utterly deny the proposition which these allied forces of skepticism and traditionalism are enlisted in supporting. I deny that Jesus Christ can be fairly quoted as authenticating this narrative. I maintain that he used it allegorically for purposes of illustration, without intending to express any opinion as to the historical verity of the narrative. It was used in a literary way, and not in a dogmatic way. Our Lord speaks always after the manner of men, -- speaks the common speech of the people, takes up the phrases and even the fables that he finds upon their lips, and uses them for his own purposes. He does not stop to criticise all their stories, or to set them right in all their scientific errors; that would have been utterly aside from his main purpose, and would certainly have confused them and led them astray. He speaks always of the rising and the setting of the sun, using the phrases that were current at that time, and never hinting at the error underneath them. He knew what these people meant by these phrases. If he knew that these phrases conveyed an erroneous meaning, why did he not correct them? So, too, he quotes from the story of the Creation in Genesis, and never intimates that the six days there mentioned are not literal days of twenty-four hours each. He knew that those to whom he was speaking entertained this belief, and put this interpretation upon these words. Why does he not set it aside?
These questions may admit of more than one answer; but, taking the very highest view of Christ's person, it is certainly enough to say that any such discussion of scientific questions would have been, as even we can see, palpably unwise. There was no preparation in the human mind at that day for the reception and verification of such a scientific revelation. It could not have been received. It would not have been preserved. It would only have confused and puzzled the minds of his hearers, and would have shut their minds at once against that moral and spiritual truth which he came to impart. And what we have said about scientific questions applies with equal force to questions of Old Testament criticism. To have entered upon the discussion of these questions with the Jews would have thwarted his highest purpose. In the largest sense of the word these Scriptures were true. Their substantial historical accuracy he wished to confirm. Their great converging lines of light united in him. He constantly claimed their fulfillment in his person and his kingdom. Why, then, should he enter upon a kind of discussion which would have tended to confuse and obscure the main truths which he came to teach? If, then, he refers to these Scriptures, he uses them for his own ethical and spiritual purposes, -- not to indorse their scientific errors; not to confirm the methods of interpretation in use among the Jews.
But Mr. Huxley insists, and all the ultra-conservative commentators join him in insisting, that Christ could not, if he had been an honest man, have spoken thus of Jonah if the story of Jonah had not been historically accurate. This is the way he puts it: |If Jonah's three days' residence in the whale is not an 'admitted fact,' how could it 'warrant belief' in the 'coming resurrection'?| [Footnote: The Nineteenth Century, July, 1890.] Mr. Huxley is using Canon Liddon's phrases here; but he is using them to confute those for whom, as he knows very well, Canon Liddon does not speak. Those who say that the story of Jonah is an |admitted reality| may, perhaps, be able to see that it |warrants belief| in the |coming resurrection.| To my own mind, even this is by no means clear. I do not see how the one event, even if it were an |admitted reality,| could |warrant belief| in the other. No past event can warrant belief in any future event, unless the two events are substantially identical. The growth of an acorn into an oak in the last century |warrants the belief| that an acorn will grow into an oak in the present century; but it does not |warrant the belief| that a city planted on an eligible site will grow to be a great metropolis. The one event might illustrate the other, but no conclusions of logic can be carried from the one to the other. It is precisely so with these two events. There is a certain analogy between the experience of Jonah, as told in the book, and that of our Lord; but it is ridiculous to say that the one event, if an |admitted reality,| |warrants belief| in the other, -- whether it is said by Mr. Huxley or Canon Liddon. Our Lord's words convey no such meaning. In truth, if we are here dealing with scientific comparisons, the one event, if taken as an |admitted reality,| warrants disbelief in the other. What are our Lord's precise words? |As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.| We are told by Mr. Huxley and his orthodox allies that we must take this as a literal historical parallel, or not at all; that if we treat it in any other way, we accuse our Lord of dishonesty. What, then, was the condition of Jonah during these three days and nights? Was he dead or alive? He was certainly alive, if the tale is history -- very thoroughly alive in all his faculties. He was praying part of the time, and part of the time he was writing poetry. We have a long and beautiful poem which he is said to have composed during that enforced retirement from active life. It would appear that his release took place immediately after the poem was finished. If, now, these events are bound together with the links of logic, if the one event is the historic counterpart of the other, the Son of man, during the three days of his sojourn in the heart of the earth, was not dead at all! He was only hidden for a little space from the sight of men. He was alive all the while, and there was no resurrection! It is to this that you come when you begin to apply to these parables and allegories of the Bible the methods of scientific exposition. This may be satisfactory enough to Mr. Huxley. I should like to know how it suits his orthodox allies.
The fact is, that you are not dealing here with equivalents, but with analogies; not with laws of evidence, but with figures of rhetoric: and it is absurd to say that one member of an analogy |warrants belief| in the existence of the other. There is no such logical nexus. The leaven in the meal does not |warrant belief| in the spread of Christianity, but it serves to illustrate it. The story of the Prodigal Son does not |warrant belief| in the fatherly love of God, but it helps us to understand something of that love, and it helps us precisely as much as if it had been a veritable history, instead of being, as it is, a pure work of fiction.
|What sort of value,| asks Mr. Huxley, |as an illustration of God's methods of dealing with sin, has an account of an event that never happened?| Such an admonition, he says, is |morally about on a level with telling a naughty child that a bogy is coming to fetch it away.| Let us apply this maxim to some of Mr. Huxley's homilies: --
|Surely,| he says in one of his |Lay Sermons,| |our innocent pleasures are not so abundant in this life that we can afford to despise this or any other source of them. We should fear being banished for our neglect to that limbo where the great Florentine tells us are those who during this life wept when they might be joyful.| [Footnote: Lay Sermons and Addresses, p.92.] This limbo of Dante's is not, I dare say, an |admitted reality| in Mr. Huxley's physical geography. |What sort of value,| therefore, has his reference to it? Is he merely raising the cry of bogy? He certainly does intend what he says as a dissuasive from a certain course of erroneous conduct. I venture to insist that he has a real meaning, and that, although the limbo is a myth, the condition which he intends to illustrate by his allusion to it is a reality.
Once more: |I do not suppose that the dead soul of Peter Bell, of whom the great poet of nature says, --
'A primrose by the river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more,'
would have been a whit roused from its apathy by the information that the primrose is a Dicotyledonous Exogen, with a monopetalous corolla and a central placentation.| [Footnote: Ibid. p.91.]
Does Mr. Huxley believe that Peter Bell was a historical person? If he was not, how, in the name of biological theology, could his dead soul have been roused by any information whatever? Yet these sentences of his have a real and valuable meaning. It is evident that Mr. Huxley does understand the uses of allegory and fable for purposes of illustration; that he can employ characters and situations which are not historical, but purely imaginary, to illustrate the realities which he is trying to present, -- speaking of them all the while just as if they were historical persons or places, and trusting his readers to interpret him aright. Such a use of language is common in all literature. To affirm that our Lord could not resort to it without dishonesty is to deny to him the ordinary instruments of speech.
|We may conclude, then,| with Professor Ladd, |that the reference to Jonah does not cover the question whether the prophet's alleged sojourn in the sea monster is an historical verity; and that it is no less uncritical than invidious to make the holding of any particular theory of the Book of Jonah a test of allegiance to the teachings of the Master.| [Footnote: The Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, i.67. ]
It is evident enough, as Professor Cheyne has said, that the symbolic meaning of the book was the most important part of it in the New Testament times. But other and more obvious meanings are conveyed by the narrative. Indeed, there is scarcely another book in the Old Testament whose meaning is so clear, whose message is so divine. Apologue though it is, it is full of the very truth of God. There is not one of the minor prophecies that has more of the real gospel in it. To the people who first received it, how full of admonition and reproof it must have been! That great city Nineveh -- a city which was, in its day, as Dr. Geikie says, |as intensely abhorred by the Jews as Carthage was by Rome, or France under the elder Napoleon was by Germany| -- was a city dear to God! He had sent his own prophet to warn it of its danger; and his prophet, instead of being stoned or torn asunder, as the prophets of God had often been by their own people, had been heard and his message heeded. The Ninevites had turned to God, and God had forgiven them! God was no less ready to forgive and save Nineveh than Jerusalem. What a wonderful disclosure of the love of the universal Father! What a telling blow, even in those old days, at the |middle wall of partition| by which the Jew fenced out the Gentile from his sympathy!
And then the gentle rebuke of Jonah's petulant narrowness! How true is the touch that describes Jonah as angry because God had forgiven the Ninevites! His credit as a prophet was gone. I suppose that he was afraid also, like many theologians of more modern times, that if threatened penalty were remitted solely on the ground of the repentance of the sinners, the foundations of the divine government would be undermined. How marvelously does the infinite pity and clemency of God shine out through all this story, as contrasted with the petty consistency and the grudging compassion of man; and how clearly do we hear in this beautiful narrative the very message of the gospel: |Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.|
May I say, in closing, that the treatment which the Book of Jonah has received, alike from skeptics and from defenders of the faith, illustrates, in a striking way, the kind of controversy which is raised by the attempt to maintain the infallibility of the Bible. The crux of all the critics, orthodox and heterodox, is the story about the fish. The orthodox have assumed that the narrative without the miracle was meaningless, and the heterodox have taken them at their word. In their dispute over the question whether Jonah did really compose that psalm in the belly of the fish, with his head festooned with seaweed, they have almost wholly overlooked the great lessons of fidelity to duty, of the universal divine fatherhood, and the universal human brotherhood, which the story so beautifully enforces. How easy it is for saints as well as scoffers, in their dealing with the messages of God to men, to tithe the mint, anise, and cummin of the literal sense, and neglect the weightier matters of judgment, mercy, and truth which they are intended to convey!