John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 2

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 2


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Isaiah and the Prophets: Evening Series

Prophecy

We now enter upon the large and interesting field which, in the books of prophecy, is spread out before us. But we may pause for a moment at the gate, to ask what is the nature of prophecy, and what is the character and functions of the prophet.

Of these, too limited an idea is usually entertained. It is commonly understood that prophecy is merely the foretelling of things to come, and that the prophet is merely one by whom, through the power given him from on high, such things are foretold. But prophecy contains more than this; and the prophet is this and something more. In the larger Scriptural sense, prophecy may be defined as the revelation of God’s will and purpose with regard to mankind, made known through the instrumentality of certain persons chosen and inspired for this end, by means of doctrine, precepts, symbols, records, and predictions. A prophet, therefore, in this comprehensive sense of the word, is a person raised up by God, to teach what He requires from them, and what they may expect from Him. Hence the prophets were the Lord’s messengers to his people and to the world. They were appointed to make known his will—to declare his judgments—to denounce the sins of rulers and subjects—to warn, to threaten, and to exhort: they were to instruct the people in the doctrines of religion, and to enforce the obligations which those doctrines involved—and generally to do whatsoever was needful to be done in order to promulgate the will and promote the service of God. Thus the prophets were no less teachers and rebukers, than foretellers of things to come.

From this idea of the prophetic function, it necessarily follows, that the prophets spoke not as from a man to men; but as those entrusted with direct authority from God, to speak in his name to sinful men—delivering, as his ambassadors, that which He had imparted to them in some of the modes by which his will was made known. Hence they came not before the people as the teachers of the Gentiles, with moral discourses, metaphysical treatises, or philosophical reasonings—but stood forth to make known the will of One above them, and to express higher thoughts and purposes than their own, with the trumpet-words of: “Thus saith the Lord.”

The Hebrew word for a prophet is nabi, which comes from a word that signifies to boil up, to boil forth as a fountain—and hence to pour forth words as those do who speak with fervor of mind, or under a Divine inspiration. The word, therefore, properly describes one who speaks under a peculiar fervor, animation, or inspiration of mind, produced by a Divine influence; or else one who speaks, whether in foretelling future events, or in denouncing the judgments of God, when the mind is full, and when the excited and agitated spirit of the prophet pours forth the commissioned words, as water is driven from the fountain. The very name, therefore, strongly manifests the constraining power from above by which the prophets were moved, and through which they spake.

Although, as we have seen, the office of the prophet was not confined to the prediction of future events, but embraced much besides; and although it is thus necessary to enlarge the common idea of the prophetic office, we must be careful not to enlarge it too greatly. Thus, in regard to teaching, as in other respects, the office of the prophet was extraordinary rather than ordinary. As his ordinary servants and teachers, God appointed the priests and Levites. They taught what the law, as it stood, or appeared to stand, enjoined; and they performed the sacred rites which it demanded. But when, under this more formal teaching, the nation slumbered; when they came to rest on the mere letter of the law; when they misapprehended its real character; or when they turned away from it—then appeared the prophet to rouse, to excite, to warn the people, and to call them back to the real purport of their own institutions. This explains the circumstance, that in times of great moral and religious corruption, when the ordinary means no longer sufficed to restrain the people, the number of the prophets greatly increased.

Though extraordinary ministers of religion, the prophets stood not apart from the law, nor were in any way independent of it. That the Lord would, from time to time, send such prophets, as they were needed, had been expressly promised by Moses himself, who, by a special law, secured their authority and safety. Note: Deu_18:15-22. But in their labors, as respected their own times, they were strictly bound by the Mosaic law, and not allowed to add to it or diminish aught from it. What was said in this respect to the whole people, applied also to them. Note: Deu_4:2; Deu_13:1-4. We find, therefore, that prophecy always takes its ground in the law, to which it refers, from which it derives its sanction and with which it is fully impressed and saturated. There is no chapter in the prophets in which there are not several references to the law. The care of the prophets was to explain it, to lay it home to the hearts of the people, and to preserve it vital in its spirit. It was indeed also their duty to point to future advancement, and to announce the dawn of better light—when the ever-living spirit of the law should break through its hitherto imperfect forms, and make for itself another; but, for their own times, they thought not of altering any of the laws in question, even as to their form, and much less as to their spirit. For all change, for all essential development, they directed the view of their countrymen forward to the time of the Messiah, who himself came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, superseding its ritual symbols only by accomplishing all they were designed to shadow forth.

The great distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary teachers, the priests and the prophets, was, that the latter were inspired. This naturally suggests the inquiry, What was the nature of this inspiration under which the prophets spake and acted? To examine this matter fully, belongs not to this place; and is, after all, of little real consequence to those who are enabled to believe what the Scripture itself teaches—that it was complete, and was in all respects fully adequate to the end to be attained. Note: See 2Ti_3:16; 2Pe_1:21. Where the end was external action; where it was the instruction of God’s people in retard to the present or the future; whether it were to be given by word, by writing, or by both; whether for temporary ends, or with a view to perpetual preservation—the prophets are clearly represented as infallible—which, as regards them, means that they were incapable of erring or deceiving with respect to the matter of their revelation. How far this object was secured by direct suggestion, by negative control, or by an elevating influence upon their natural powers, is a question of little practical importance to those holding the only essential doctrine—that the inspiration was in all respects such as rendered those who received it incapable of error. Any inspiration beyond this could not be needed; any less than this would be worthless.

The prophet usually received, in the first instance, a supernatural call or appointment to his office. Yet was be not thereafter always in a state of inspiration, or infallible in all his words and conduct. We may trace error in the merely human conduct and speech of most of the prophets. It was only when they received special intimations of the Divine will, and felt that they were authorized to speak in the name of the Lord, that they claimed to be, or were deemed to be, inspired. There is a remarkable instance of this in the case of Gad the seer, who, although in his merely human judgment he warmly approved and encouraged David’s intention to build a temple to the Lord, was presently after constrained to go back, and, as a prophet, forbid, in the name of the Lord, the execution of this design.

In regard to the mode in which the will of the Lord was imparted to the prophet, all inquiry is more curious than profitable. It may, however, be inferred, from the expressions used in Scripture, as well as from some distinctly recorded instances, that the most usual mode of communication was by means of immediate vision—that is, by the presentation to the prophet of the matter to be revealed, as if it were to the prophet an object of sight. If this were the common mode, it was not, however, the only one. Some things in the prophecies require us to suppose that they were made known to the prophet just as he made them known to others—by the simple suggestion of what he was to say, or by the dictation of the words he should utter.

A question has been raised as to the mental and bodily state of the prophet when under the influence of these Divine operations. Was he as fully in possession of his natural faculties, as completely master of himself, then, as at other times; or was he, on the contrary, in a condition of ecstasy—in a state of passive subjection to a higher power, which held his own faculties in temporary but complete abeyance? Interpreters and readers, who come to the Bible with minds full of classic lore, remember that the prophets and diviners of the heathen world, during their seasons of pretended inspiration, exhibited the signs of outward excitement even amounting to insanity, and they are prone to seek signs of the same kind of rapture and entrancement in the Hebrew prophets. On the other hand, the early Christian writers, who lived in the times of paganism, speak of this intense and frenzied excitement as specially characteristic of the delusive pagan inspiration; and point with gratification to the contrast offered by the calmness, self-possession, and active intelligence of the Hebrew prophets and we think these were right. Look at the only instance in which Scripture places the demeanor of a prophet of the Lord in direct comparison with that of the heathen prophets: and contrast the frantic excitement, the leapings, and the cries of the prophets of Baal, with the calm, dignified, and solemn attitude of Elijah. That there are instances of showing, excitement under inspiration, is not to be denied. But too much stress has been laid upon these special instances; and an eminent divine, who sees more of ecstatic movement in the Hebrew prophets than we are prepared to do, has yet supplied what appears to us the right rule of judgment in this case. He says: “The state of ecstacy, though ranking high above the ordinary sensual existence, is yet not the highest, as appears from Numbers 12, and the example of Christ, whom we never find in an ecstatical state. To the prophets, however, it was indispensable on account of the frailty of themselves and the people. This forcible working upon them of the Spirit of God would not have been required if their general life had been altogether holy; for which reason we also find ecstacy to manifest itself the stronger the more the general life was ungodly; as, for instance, in Balaam, when the Spirit of God came upon him, Note: Num_24:4; Num_24:16. and in Saul, who throws himself upon the ground, tearing the clothes from his body. With a prophet whose spiritual attainments were those of an Isaiah, such results would not be expected.” Note: Hengstenberg, art. Prophecy, in Cyclop. of Bib. Literature. On the general subject, see the Introductions of Jenour, Barnes, and Alexander, to their respective commentaries on Isaiah: also Davison’s Discourses on Prophecy; Bp. Watson, Of Prophecy, etc.