A PECULIAR and somewhat mournful interest hangs around the life and labours of Jonah, not surpassed, in some respects scarcely equalled, by that which attaches to any other of the Old Testament prophets. The elements both of evil and of good wrought with unwonted energy in his experience—at one time depressing him to the lowest depths, and anon raising him to a kind of supernatural elevation.
Cast upon degenerate times, when the foundations of the earth were out of course, and the kingdom of God was, in a manner, forced to strike out into new and unexpected channels, it was his lot to tread strange and mysterious paths—paths equally remarkable for the sore troubles and the glorious achievements through which they conducted him—though himself meanwhile so ill prepared for the times, or the times so hardly set for him, that the bright, not less than the dark and cloudy, periods of his life served only to feed the well-spring of his sorrow and dejection.
Unhappy prophet! unhappy, too, in his posthumous connexion with the world, as well as in his personal sojourn in it; for the troublous spirit that attended him through life seems still to have slumbered in his ashes.
Reproach and dishonour have been heaped upon his name amongst men. The adversaries of the truth, and not these only, but also its zealous friends and defenders, have shot many a bitter arrow at him, and have thought they improved the record of his singular history according as they enforced against him charges of transgression, and expressed their abhorrence of his character. Not so “the greater than he,” whose servant and forerunner he was, and who once and again pointed an evil and adulterous generation to the wonderful experience and history of Jonah as already containing the elements of his own, and as pregnant with lessons of highest wisdom to those among whom he lived.
And, following in his footsteps, we also have sought to honour the son of Amittai, yea, to vindicate his title to a distinguished place among those who have done and suffered much for the cause of God—men of noble hearts and devoted lives—in whose very failings we still discern the lofty and self-denying spirit that animated their bosom.
What we have written, however, in the following pages, is not to be regarded simply, nor even chiefly, in the light of a vindication. The aim rather has been to give a clear and just representation of the times of the prophet—of the nature and design of the singular mission he was appointed to fulfil—and of the varied instruction which is furnished for believers of every age by the mission itself, and the manner in which it was discharged. The work assigned this prophet marked in some respects a new era in the providence of God toward his Church; it unfolded principles of government and ways of dealing, which again reappear in other portions of prophetical scripture more fully developed and variously applied; so that the consideration of the book of Jonah, besides the other advantages it yields, furnishes some sure and well-defined landmarks for guiding our way to a sound interpretation of the word of prophecy. To sincere and earnest students of that word the author presents this volume, as a small contribution toward the right understanding of those portions of prophecy which come within its range, and to all in general who desire to cultivate an intimate acquaintance with the records of God’s revealed will.
May the Lord be pleased to accept the effort here made to discover his truth, and manifest his ways to the children of men!
CHAPTER X. CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS
THE reflections naturally growing out of the life and labours of Jonah, have already, for the most part, been suggested in connexion with the several topics that have successively engaged our attention. But there are, besides, some additional reflections, which a review of the whole is fitted to suggest, and with which, very briefly illustrated, we shall sum up our meditations on the subject.
1. The first we shall mention is the warning furnished by the remarkable history we have surveyed, to beware of allowing expected results to interfere with present and pressing obligations. For the most part these run into each other, and the obligation to enter upon and prosecute a definite course of labour, usually arises from our being charged with the working out of a certain beneficial result. In the duties of everyday life, and the walks of common usefulness and philanthropy, this is almost invariably the case—the good to be aimed at and secured lies before us, perfectly within our reach, if the proper means be employed—and the faithful and diligent application of such means, is just the discharge of the obligation that rests upon us.
There are circumstances, however, not unfrequently occurring in providence, in which there is not this apparent harmony between the present and the future. It sometimes happens, as with Jonah, that the obligation to take a certain course of action seems to point in one direction for its result, while the result to be actually attained is very different, and in the first instance entirely opposite. And when such circumstances do arise, we must be careful to avoid Jonah’s error, which led to so much that was painful in experience, as well as to what was wrong in behaviour; we must endeavour to have our course shaped, and our wills also directed by the felt obligations under which we lie, rather than by desired or anticipated results. The prophet Isaiah readily undertook, on the occasion of his obtaining a vision of the divine glory in the temple, to go as the Lord’s messenger to the people; he exclaimed, “Here am I, send me”—and yet the result he was presently taught to expect, was the reverse of what he was bound to aim at accomplishing.
The path of duty remained the same, though the anxieties and labours to which it called him were doomed from the outset to comparative fruitlessness and general disappointment. And a greater than Isaiah, our forerunner and pattern in all spiritual excellence, the Lord Jesus Christ, was never moved from the rectitude of his course, by the clear foresight he possessed of the unsatisfactory and mournful results in which it was immediately to issue, but continued faithfully to do the will of his Father in heaven, and to execute the work given him to do, not less than if all were yielding to his wishes.
The Lord may render it manifest to the consciences of his people, that they ought to pursue a certain line of active service for the good of a neighbour, or the society in which they dwell, while still possibly the desired result may seem very doubtful, and in the issue may be found absolutely unattainable. But by the former alone should their views of duty be regulated, and their efforts in its discharge guided, for with that more immediately is their responsibility connected; and, in regard even to the results that may ultimately be made to arise from their course, these may possibly depend far less on any good immediately secured, than on the faith and patience, or even the sufferings and disappointments, which may have attended their efforts to realize it. The good that discovers itself in their example of self-sacrificing and devoted labour, may do more for the cause of righteousness than could have been accomplished by the good they were intent on achieving by their exertions, and even present defeat may be the necessary prelude to success of another and more important kind. Let but the path of present duty be made dear to us, and nothing of a collateral or contingent nature should be allowed to turn us aside; that is for us the will of God, and whatever may be the success of our course as regards the immediate objects in view, by the faithful prosecution of the course itself, the name of God is magnified and the interests of righteousness advanced.
2. Another reflection furnished by the life and labours of Jonah, respects the spheres of greatest usefulness for the servants of God, and admonishes them to watch in regard to these the leadings of providence, rather than give way to their own desires and inclinations. The field in which they are destined to reap most fruit, may possibly not be the one which they are themselves disposed to choose—it may not even be that which has received the largest share in their prayers and personal application. As generally “the times of men are before appointed by God, and the bounds of their habitations are set,” so in particular his most faithful and honoured servants are often shut up by him into peculiar, and by themselves entirely unsought channels of usefulness. Jonah by no means stands alone in having accomplished, by what might in some sense be regarded as a few incidental efforts, greatly more than he was honoured to do by the regular labours of his prophetical calling. The field in which his chief success was won, though he himself knew it not, was precisely that for which he was peculiarly qualified; there his spiritual gifts and his singular experiences found the soil in which they were fitted to produce their most powerful influence. And, as many labourers in the Lord’s vineyard know as little beforehand as he did what is the particular province for which they are most peculiarly adapted, they should keep their eye awake to the indications of God’s hand, and should hold themselves ready to cultivate such portions as promise under his grace to yield the largest increase to their labours.
The consideration now mentioned is one also that applies in great measure to the different kinds of spiritual labour. Men are not always themselves the best judges of the department of service by which they can do most to glorify God, any more than of the particular stations they can most successfully occupy. And some special turn of providence, not uncommonly one that in its first aspect carries an unpropitious appearance, has often been employed by God to give that direction to their powers of service, which was to render them, much beyond their own immediate expectations, benefactors to the Church or the world. It was certainly a frowning providence which threw the apostle Paul into chains, and suspended for upwards of two years his public exertions in the cause of the gospel; but to that very suspension we owe not a few of his epistles, which were called forth by the circumstances connected with his imprisonment; so that the Church of Christ only suffered, through the adverse turn of affairs, a partial and temporary deprivation of his services, that the generations to come might be more abundantly supplied with the means of spiritual life and nourishment. Nor can we doubt—the records of the past have supplied too many proofs of it—that the most fruitful exertions in the service of God have often, in like manner, owed their origin to what were in the first instance cross currents in providence—currents, however, purposely raised by God to give a direction and an impulse to gifts which might otherwise have remained comparatively dormant and fruitless, but which have thus found the occasion that was to draw them forth into the most vigorous and profitable exercise.
In such directing and controlling movements on the part of God, there always appears a manifestation of his divine power and sovereignty; and in their fitness to keep alive a practical sense of this in the world, there is doubtless to be found one main reason of their employment. They are among the more evident and conspicuous ways by which he constrains us to feel the presence and the might of his arm, which can turn at will the hearts of men and the events of providence into such channels as may be most conducive to his own glory and the interests of his kingdom. Thus also he shows his thoughts to be immeasurably above man’s thoughts, seeing the end from the beginning, and by his clear foresight and wise direction timeously preventing the evils that would arise from the narrow and short-sighted policy of his creatures. And thus, finally, he maintains in providence a perpetual testimony to the truth, that it belongs to him at once to open up paths for sowing the seed of the everlasting gospel and to bless the seed sown; so that, as there can be no increase if he withholds his hand from working, the increase, on the other hand, shall become even an hundred-fold when he comes near with the more special operations of his grace.
3. A third reflection that naturally grows out of the review of Jonah’s history, is the benefit which may be derived, both for direction in duty and for the profitable study of his word and ways, from a connected and orderly view of his dispensations. Had Jonah been able to take such a comprehensive view of God’s purpose at first in sending him to Nineveh, and afterwards in sparing the city, how readily would his perplexities have vanished, and his heart have acquiesced in the counsel and appointment of God! This book also, which contains the record of his mission to Nineveh, when viewed in the light now suggested, has proved to be not such a mere episode in prophecy as it is apt to appear on a hasty glance, and when considered by itself. There are, we have seen, great principles developing themselves here, common to this with a large portion of the prophetic word; and the transactions which it reports to have taken place, however singular in some respects, were still important links in the great chain of operations, by which God carried forward his schemes of providence, and brought one part into fit connexion with another.
Nothing in God’s dispensations falls out at random, or is intended to stand by itself isolated and alone. All are parts of a great system, which they are wisely contrived to advance, and which is still proceeding, even amid seeming hindrances and irregularities. We may not always be able to discern the central thread which connects the parts with the whole, but we should always endeavour to do so, and should at least bear in mind that such a thread exists in the eye of God, whether we can discern it or not. It is no more than might be expected, considering that we now know but in part, that there should be apparent anomalies both in God’s word and ways—things starting up at intervals which we are compelled from the imperfection of our knowledge to regard as strange and singular, or even as cross and adverse; yet it may go far in many cases to smooth these roughnesses, whether in the way of scriptural interpretation or of practical duty, to view them as far as possible in connexion with the greater principles of God’s revealed truth, and the higher ends of his government. Let us beware of judging God in such things by feeble sense, or of measuring by the narrow limits of our own discernment the purposes and operations of One whose understanding is infinite. Let us especially beware of exalting some particular object, which circumstances may have contributed to render peculiarly prominent in our view, out of its proper place, and acting as if it alone should be made account of, while other objects may be present to the mind of God of still greater moment, to which it stands only in a relation of subservience. Let our prayer be that of Paul for Timothy, that “the Lord may give us understanding in all things,” so as neither, by viewing his procedure in a contracted and partial light, to misinterpret his dealings nor to stumble at his dispensations.
4. Finally, we are taught here the salutary lesson, that whenever and wherever God is pleased to manifest of his grace and goodness, it is our part to acknowledge and rejoice in the manifestation. It may possibly be done through instruments that we should not have expected to be peculiarly honoured, or in regions which are in a manner cut off from our sympathies and regards. That such showers of blessing should descend there, while scarcely a drop falls where our desires and efforts are mainly engaged, may often appear strange, and may even be felt to be mortifying, as if what were given to the one were somehow withheld from the other. But this is to judge after the flesh. The Spirit of the Lord is not straitened, and what he bestows on one corner of the vineyard is not given at the expense of another—it is rather designed to awaken a desire and expectation for like gifts of grace, where they have not yet been received, and to give manifest proof to all of God’s infinite power and goodness. If his eye, therefore, should be good toward any, far be it from us to cherish an evil eye—let us rather view with thankfulness the benevolent working of his hand; and what St Paul said of the preaching of the gospel at Rome, even by unworthy instruments, let us still more say of the goodness of God in the salvation of men wherever it appears, “I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.”
Part I. On the Quotations Made by Prophets From the Writings of Earlier Prophets and Servants of God
THE quotations here referred to are not such as avowedly make mention of the earlier revelations of God, but those silently adopted by a later prophet, and given forth as part of the Spirit’s utterances by himself—what may be called unacknowledged quotations. Jonah’s prayer, we took occasion to notice in Chapter IV, was to a large extent made up of such quotations from the Book of Psalms; and in the circumstances in which he was then placed, it was quite natural that he should have thus adopted the recorded experiences of former saints, rather than given vent to his feelings in expressions altogether his own. We say this, however, on the twofold supposition, that the psalms from which the passages are taken were already in existence and familiarly known to the Church of God, and that a prophet, or inspired man generally, stood on the same level with other believers in matters of personal faith and experience. On the first of these points, very little requires to be said by way of supplement; for, though the interpreters of the Rationalist school have often ascribed some of the psalms employed by the prophet to an age much posterior to Jonah’s, a more sober, and at the same time more profound, criticism now contends for their being productions of David and his contemporaries, so that they must have been in the hands of the Church and people of God centuries before the time of Jonah.
I feel it quite unnecessary to enter into any detailed proof of this, as persons who are curious on the subject can easily have their minds satisfied by consulting the Introductions of Hengstenberg to the several psalms referred to in connexion with the prayer of Jonah. In the work of Hengstenberg there is to be found a much more acute and discriminating examination of the authorship of the different psalms than has yet been made, either in this country or on the Continent; and his conclusions perfectly agree with what is implied in Jonah respecting the age of the psalms leant on by that prophet. A recent author, however (Krahmer), has dragged in two other psalms, besides those indicated in Chap. IV, as having been used in the composition of Jonah’s prayer; viz., Psa_77:3, for Jon_2:7, first clause, and Psa_116:17-18 for Jon_2:10. These two psalms certainly appear to have been composed at a period considerably later than the age of Jonah; and if any portions of his prayer had been derived from them, the conclusion might, with some appearance of truth, have been drawn, that it was not composed by Jonah himself, but by some later hand. This is the inference which Krahmer draws, and which he is particularly anxious to establish. But he builds without any solid foundation; for there is no just reason to suppose that these psalms were in the eye of the prophet, or of the person who composed this prayer; and the person who can prefer Psa_77:3, to Psa_142:3 (a psalm of David), as the original from which the first clause of Jon_2:7, was borrowed, appears so manifestly to be labouring under some perverting bias, that his views on such a point may safely be left to themselves. Those who can compare the Hebrew text will more readily perceive the force of what we say.
In regard to the other point—that a prophet stood on the same level with other men in matters of personal faith and experience—there is also little room for diversity of opinion among those who are acquainted with the Word of God; for however the Spirit may have acted upon the prophets, when supernaturally conveying to their minds direct messages of God, or disclosing visions of coming events, they were plainly left in all ordinary matters to the guidance of those views and principles which belonged to them in common with the people of God. Nor have we any ground for supposing that their prophetical gift should have tended to raise them above the condition of other men of faith, any more than was done by the miraculous powers of Christ and the apostles, who, while continually rescuing others from the most overwhelming evils, were still themselves subject to all the troubles, vicissitudes, and dangers of life. There was, indeed, a moral necessity for the circumstance, in respect alike to the earlier and the later messengers of God. The same law which requires now that the treasure of the gospel should be committed to earthen vessels, and ministered by those who themselves need and receive the blessings of salvation, rather than by angelic beings, who belong to a higher sphere, required also that the prophet who bore God’s message of old to the people should be a man of like passions with themselves—exposed to the same snares and temptations—and with the same light, the same grace, at command, should have been left to find, on grounds equally open to them, his direction in duty and his consolation in trouble. There could not otherwise have been that sympathy between the bearers and the receivers of the message, which in all ordinary circumstances forms an essential element to success, and which is necessary to constitute the teachers the true guides and forerunners of the taught. So much was this the case with the prophets, that, even in regard to the full meaning and proper application of their predictions, they appear, sometimes at least, to have had little or no advantage over their hearers; they, too, had “to search what or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify.”— (1Pe_1:10) We cannot therefore he surprised that Jonah, like an ordinary believer, should have been so much indebted to the experiences of saints in former times; the less so when we reflect that Jesus, who was more than a prophet, who had the Spirit even without measure, and who perfectly knew the will of the Father, is represented to have looked for direction and support in the season of temptation, and for strength and consolation in the hour of suffering, precisely as Jonah had done before him, to the earlier manifestations of God’s truth and the recorded experiences of believers in other times.
Indeed, David himself, in his later psalms, appears to have sometimes made as free a use of his earlier ones, as was done by Jonah of the psalms he found suitable to his condition in trouble. Take as an example Psalms 143, of which Hengstenberg has said: “It is almost wholly composed of the sounds of complaint, supplication, and hope, which had already been uttered in the earlier psalms of David, and had sunk deep into the heart. These clear brooks were drawn from all sides into the channel of this smooth-flowing psalm, which was designed to provide refreshment for the fainting souls of David’s race during future times of oppression. With so much of dependence (on former productions), the psalm still bears throughout the character of originality, not merely where the dependence ceases, but also in the dependent passages themselves—in the thoughtful and artificial manner of their collocation, which could only have proceeded from the person out of whose breast the utterances originally welled forth.” We see the same dependence and the same originality in the prayer of Jonah.
But persons only moderately versed in the study of Old Testament scripture are aware, that passages are often taken by one prophet from another, relating to other matters than those which belong to personal faith and experience—passages which may justly be considered as among the more peculiar utterances of the prophetic spirit. For example, the remarkable prophecy in Isa_2:1-4, about the exaltation of the mountain of the Lord’s house above the hills, and the flowing of all nations to it, is almost literally repeated by Mic_4:1-3; and in so peculiar a delineation of gospel times, it is impossible to doubt that the one prophet must have adopted as his own the prediction of the other. To say nothing of the various references which are made in future prophetical writings to the inspired effusions of Balaam—such as Mic_6:5, or Hab_1:3, Hab_1:13 (where a reference is plain in the original to Num_23:10)—we have, in Jer_48:45, an obvious quotation from Num_24:17, accompanied, however, with a slight alteration, evidently for the purpose of rendering the fundamental passage in Numbers more plain; for though the alteration in the Hebrew is much less than in the translation, yet it has the effect of substituting for “destroying all the children of Sheth” (tumult), “the crown of the head of the tumultuous ones.” There are many similar examples in Jeremiah, who, more than any other prophet, adopts the language of his predecessors; but, in particular, his prophecy upon Edom, in Jer_49:7-22, is in great part a repetition of the first verses of Obadiah’s prophecy; as, again, various ideas and expressions in Obadiah are evidently taken from the last chapter of Joel— (compare, for example, Oba_1:11, “They cast lots upon Jerusalem,” with Joe_3:3, “And they have cast lots for my people;” Oba_1:15, “Thy reward shall return upon thine own head,” the same as Joe_3:4; Joe_3:7; Oba_1:17, “And upon Zion shall be deliverance,” Joe_2:32, &c).
Such appropriations by one prophet of the writings of another, may possibly appear to some hardly consistent with that lofty and ecstatic condition to which they justly apprehend the prophets to have been raised, when “speaking as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” It may seem to impart to such portions of the prophetic word an appearance of art and labour, and to assimilate them in human literature to the productions of those who endeavour to make up for the want of original genius by borrowing the ideas and expressions of more gifted intellects. Nothing less, indeed, than this is the misapplication that has been made of the circumstance in question by a class of authors, who always seem to feel as if they lighted on a valuable discovery when they meet with any thing that tends to depreciate the character of Scripture, and to stamp it with something like human imperfection. The existence of quotations in a portion of prophetic scripture, is, in the eye of such persons, the indication simply of a low and defective spirit, and is not uncommonly appealed to as the clear proof of a degenerate age, when the sacred penmen attempted little more than a few compilations from the original sources.
This, we need hardly say, is an entirely false view of the subject; neither is there any just reason for regarding the existence of such borrowed passages as inferring the least diminution of the Spirit’s influence, or any constraint on his movements in the soul. For the prophetic utterances, it must be remembered, like the Psalms of David, were usually made public as soon as delivered, and added to the existing testimony of God; they became part of the sacred treasury of the Church; and thenceforth formed, not only as to the thoughts expressed in them, a portion of revealed truth, but also, as to the very expressions employed, a kind of hallowed tongue in which to declare the same thoughts anew, as often as occasion might require them to be again uttered. Have we not the confirmation of experience to this, perpetually recurring? When a man is much under the power of the Spirit, do not his thoughts on divine things instinctively, as it were, run in scriptural channels, and clothe themselves, when he speaks, in the very language of inspiration? The more powerfully the Spirit works within, giving spontaneous birth to spiritual thoughts and feelings, the more readily do they take this scriptural direction; as we already see in the apostles, when, on being released from the first attempts of persecuting rulers, and tilled with the Holy Ghost, they poured forth their hearts to God with one accord, in the very words that had been indited centuries before by the hand of David in the second psalm. (Act_4:23-27) St Paul was in the highest sense a chosen vessel, and both spake and wrote “in the words which the Holy Ghost teacheth” yet he ever makes the freest use of the earlier scriptures, and sometimes, as when enjoining the duty of forgiveness of injuries (Rom_12:19-21), contents himself with taking up and reiterating the testimony of former times. And how often does the apostle Peter throughout his first epistle address to the New Testament Church, as from himself, passages that were originally addressed by other servants of God to the Church of the Old Testament? Yet such passages are as much the communications of the Holy Spirit on their second, as they were on their first appearance; for the purpose of God required that a fresh utterance should be given to the sentiments they expressed, and the original form of expression was on many accounts the best that could be chosen.
Besides, there were some ends of a more special kind to be served by the references and quotations from one prophet to another. For these form so many landmarks in the field of ancient prophecy, indicating the relation of one portion to another; they are so many links in the chain of God’s testimony, connecting the earlier with the later, always betokening the prior existence of the earlier, reiterating anew its tidings, and sometimes also throwing light on its import. “The Old Testament prophets,” says a learned and able writer, (Der Prophet Obadia, ausgelegt von Carl Paul Caspari, pp. 21, 22.) “form a continuous body; they are members of an unbroken, connected chain; one perpetually reaches forth the hand to another. The later prophets had always either heard or read the prophecies of the earlier, which had made a deep and lasting impression on their minds. And when the Spirit of God came upon a prophet himself, and irresistibly impelled him to prophesy (Amo_3:8), it naturally came to pass that here and there, sometimes more, sometimes less, he clothed what had been imparted to him by the prophetic spirit in the words of one or more of the prophets he had heard or read; that the words of his prophetical forerunner, cleaving to his memory, formed part of the materials of utterance of which the Spirit of God availed himself. Hence also it happened, that the later prophet entered into the prophetical views of the earlier, and, in the power of the prophetic spirit descending on him from above, and working in his soul, either confirmed them anew by a second promulgation, or expanded them further, and brought them to completion. For the most part, the coincidence in thought and expression go together in the prophets.”
Another able writer on prophecy, and the friend and coadjutor of the author just quoted, has followed up these observations by similar remarks in his introduction to the third chapter of the prophet Habakkuk—a chapter which is not less distinguished by the vein of originality that pervades it, than by the free use which it also makes of some of the earlier portions of Scripture, especially of the 77th Psalm. “With the inspired penman in general,” says Delitzsch, “and with the prophet in particular, simply from his being a living member of the spiritual body, there was formed an internal storehouse out of the substance of former revelations, which had entered into his inmost spiritual life and become part of it—revelations which sunk so deep into the memory and the heart of every well-instructed Israelite, that as he necessarily acted under their influence in the formation and utterance of his thoughts, so, when writing, he would involuntarily make use of the older expressions, which already bore upon them a divine impress. Besides, the prophet could no otherwise be the organ and bearer of a divine revelation, than by sacrificing every thing of a selfish kind, therefore all ambitious strivings after originality, that he might surrender himself to the influence of God; which influence was twofold, partly mediate, in respect to what had already been produced, partly immediate, yet even then working in close connexion with the word that had previously been spoken. The conformity of the new, which germinated from the mind of the prophet, with the old, which had been imported into his mind, was necessitated indeed by the circumstance, that the revelation in its organic development could only present the aspect of something new, in so far as it assumed the old in order to confirm and still further expand it, without the possibility, in the process of development, which proceeds from God, the Unchangeable, of running into opposition to what had gone before. This unison is just the seal of divine revelation, as the work of one and the same spirit operating in the workshops of many individuals.” (Der Prophet Habakuk, ausgelegt von Franz Delitzsch, pp. 118, 119.)
It is not unimportant to add, that while the mutual connexion and inter-dependence now noticed between the writings of the prophets, is fitly regarded as the appropriate seal of the unity of the Spirit, from whom as a whole they proceeded, it also forms a concealed evidence of the genuineness and authenticity of the several parts. Great efforts have been made by modern criticism to bring down the age of some of the more remarkable prophecies to a period when the events foretold had either already come to pass, or were so near that they might have been descried as certain by natural sagacity. And most important aid has been derived, in proving the real age and authorship of the prophecies in question, from the dependence manifested in them upon earlier Scriptures. By this species of criticism, the two authors above mentioned especially have done essential service to the cause of truth in the works cited from, and by Caspari in another work on Isaiah’s prophecies recently published.
Part II. On the Dependence of the Evil and Good in Prophecy on the Spiritual Condition of the Persons Interested in its Tidings
WE have already in Chapter VII, when treating of the sudden change in the divine procedure toward Nineveh, laid it down as a principle necessary to be kept in mind, in the interpretation of those prophecies which possess the nature of threatenings or promises, that they must be understood in connexion with a certain spiritual condition, on the part of those to whom they were addressed, so that they shall continue applicable, in their original import and destination, only so long as that condition lasts. The manner of dealing with Nineveh was a palpable proof of this in providence, just as the passages quoted from Jeremiah and Ezekiel were a clear and emphatic assertion of the principle itself, as one essentially connected with the moral rectitude of God’s procedure. Such prophecies ought consequently to be regarded in the first instance, and chiefly, as revelations of the righteous character of God in his dealings with men, and not simply or directly as pledges thrown out beforehand, by which afterwards to test and verify his omniscience. It seems to me of great importance to keep this principle steadily in view, as well for arriving at a correct interpretation of a large portion of the prophetic word, as for giving the things belonging to it the same relative place in our estimation which they hold in the testimony of God. And for the purpose of bringing out these points more fully, and establishing the principle itself, as I trust, on a sure foundation, I have resolved to give the subject here a somewhat closer and more lengthened consideration.
The desire of meeting the sceptical tendencies of modern times with a sort of demonstrative evidence of the truth of Scripture, has to some extent diverted the course of inquiry in this field into a wrong channel. For it has led nearly all our recent writers on ancient prophecy to make the truth that appears in the prediction, as compared with the fulfilment, the almost exclusive object of their investigations. Prophecies respecting the people and states of former times have thus come to possess chiefly a polemical interest; and are seldom regarded in any other light than as serving, by the proof they afford of divine foresight, to strengthen the foundations of the faith, and put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Nor can there be any room with enlightened believers to doubt, that the comparison of the word of prophecy with the events of providence, so as thereby to evince the unfailing certainty of God’s declarations, is one of the uses that ought to be made of the prophetic word by those who have the advantage of being able to place the prediction side by side with the events to which it pointed. We find the apostles at the beginning of the gospel plying this argument with their countrymen—constantly appealing to the Scriptures which had spoken before of Christ, as conclusive evidence of the divine character and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, in whose eventful history they had received so exact, and yet so unexpected a fulfilment. And the Lord himself by Isaiah challenges men’s undoubting confidence in his word, on the special ground of his having foretold what had already taken place: “Behold the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”
It is plain, therefore, that this is one use to be made of the prophetical Scriptures, and consequently one of the ends God had in view in causing such Scriptures to be indited. But it by no means follows, that such is either the only or the primary view that ought to be taken of them; and if it is not, then serious evils cannot fail to arise from its being alone brought into consideration. What strikes us, indeed, at the first glance into the subject, is the low aspect to which men’s minds are thus familiarized respecting a portion of God’s revelations—as if the grand question turned simply on their truthfulness; whether the infinite and eternal Being, who speaks in them, were really entitled to the belief and confidence of his creatures? or whether it be in truth the same God that rules in providence who also speaks in the Word? That he has so spoken there, as at the same time to furnish many clear and infallible proofs of his power and godhead, is undoubtedly true; but this only incidentally, and as growing out of the very nature of his communications, which, in accomplishing their other and more immediate ends, could not fail also to bear witness to the divine perfections and prerogatives of Him from whom they proceeded. The Bible is still throughout, and nowhere indeed more directly than in its promises of good and threatenings of evil, essentially moral in its tone, and in the leading purport of its communications from above. God does not present himself there to men, as if he sought to convince them that he is; but rather as wishing to show them what he is, what are the elements of his character and the principles of his government; and in connexion with these, what, not so much he can do, as what he will or will not do, in conformity with the righteousness which must regulate every step of his procedure. In short, it is the moral, and not the natural attributes of God, which those revelations of his mind and will are always designed primarily and chiefly to exhibit to the view of his creatures; and to invert this order in regard to any portion of them—to represent them as principally valuable on account of the exhibitions they contain of God’s existence, or power, or omniscience, is substantially to bring them down to the region of nature, and to view them apart from the great ends for which they were more immediately given. Hence, it quite naturally happened, that in the hands of those who were wont to consider the prophecies and miracles of Scripture in the light merely of evidences (the one of God’s prescience, the other of his power), the religion itself of the Bihle degenerated into a kind of refined deism, having to do chiefly with the existence of God, and the natural powers and attributes of his being.
There are no doubt, as was noticed in the chapter already referred to, certain intimations of coming events in prophecy, which may justly be regarded as of an absolute and unconditional nature, and which so peculiarly demand an exact fulfilment, that we can scarcely avoid making the correspondence between the prediction and the reality our primary subject of inquiry. But those prophecies which respect the destinies of certain states and people—which are pregnant with evil or with good to those interested in their tidings—bring us of necessity into direct contact with the principles of God’s righteous government. The good and the evil in such cases are never capriciously announced, but always stand connected with moral grounds; they are just pre-intimations of God’s mind toward man, considered as in the one case deserving of punishment, and in the other as fit subjects of blessing. And it is as if one would dissociate God’s working in providence from his moral perfections, when such things are regarded in the light merely of physical necessities—as things that must develop themselves in a particular region at any rate, whatever the spiritual condition of its inhabitants—as arbitrary exhibitions of his prescience and his power!
But this is only one reason against taking the kind of prophecies referred to in so absolute and independent a sense, and viewing them mainly with an eye to their truthfulness. There is another and still weightier one—one that bears directly on the meaning and interpretation of the prophecies themselves. For in the messages God gave to the prophets concerning the kingdoms and people of ancient times, there is for the most part a good as well as an evil held out in prospect. There are in fact two lines of prophecy respecting them, which point in two precisely opposite directions, and do so plainly because the people or kingdoms referred to are contemplated in two different and contrary relations—in the one viewed as proper subjects of blessing, in the other of cursing. Take as an example Babylon, which first comes upon the stage of sacred history in the time of Hezekiah, and in a friendly relation, among the worldly powers that sent ambassadors and brought presents to Hezekiah after the signal overthrow of the Assyrian army before the gates of Jerusalem. In this acknowledgment of the Lord’s interposition for the good of his covenant people, the prophets descried a sign of the submission of the heathen to God’s authority, and their ultimate incorporation with the inhabitants of Zion. This view is presented in Psalms 87 (as it had previously been in Psalms 68), where Babylon, as well as Egypt, Tyre, Philistia, and Ethiopia, appear in vision to the prophet among those that know God, and have their names written down among the living in Jerusalem. And this prophecy of course in so far as it was destined to receive its fulfilment in Babylon, must have had its accomplishment in the past; for by Babylon, so introduced, it is impossible to understand any thing but the gigantic worldly power which was then beginning to rear its head in the north, and in that respect has long since finally perished.
But when we turn to Isaiah, we find Babylon presented to our view in an entirely different relation—one that takes for its starting-point the undue elation which the message from Babylon raised in the mind of Hezekiah. This was eyed by the prophetic Spirit in Isaiah as but one of the symptoms of that fatal tendency to lean on the powers of the world which had already provoked the displeasure of God, and was destined by and by to draw down the severe visitations of his wrath; and the prophet took occasion from it, not only to foretell the temporary triumph of Babylon over Judah (Isa_39:5-7), but also from that, as a new starting-point, went on to announce (in Isaiah 13, 14 and elsewhere) the certainty of Babylon’s coming downfal, and her complete and final desolation. Rightly understood—that is, with a due regard to the different relations contemplated, and the corresponding difference in the points of view taken—this latter delineation is no way inconsistent with the former; for the one views Babylon as brought to see the insufficiency of her idols and her pleasures, and coming to seek salvation and blessing from the God of Zion—while in the other she is contemplated as the proud rival of Zion, and the sworn enemy of the cause and kingdom that had their centre there. It was to be understood of itself, that the one line of prophecy would meet and qualify the other, whenever a change in the spiritual condition of the people might call for a corresponding change in the dealing of God toward them; and we can scarcely doubt, it was to allow scope for the promised good being sought and experienced, that the threatened evil was made to develop itself so slowly. For though in the future history of Babylon the doom of woe is what chiefly rises into notice, yet we are not to suppose that this alone took effect; in the times of the captivity, through the instrumentality of Daniel and the faithful portion of the Jews, many were doubtless led to acknowledge and serve the living God. Especially would this be the case after God’s hand began to execute vengeance on the pride of Babylon; and that Peter, centuries later still, should have dated his first epistle from Babylon, and sent salutations from the Church there to the brethren scattered abroad, is a clear sign how much mercy mingled with judgment, and how truly it might be said even of Babylon, “This and that man was born in Zion.” There still was a blessing for her people, which partly stayed, and, if she had known aright the time of her visitation, might have wholly stayed the curse from proceeding; and, in so far as any blessing did come to her, it came out of Zion.
But a still more striking example of this double line of prophecy, and of the necessity of taking into account the spiritual condition of the people for understanding aright the things spoken concerning them, is furnished in the case of Edom. In the earlier stages of Israel’s history, a friendly spirit was manifested toward the children of Edom; the Lord sought to overcome their enmity with kindness, and they held the first place among those whom the children of Israel were instructed to receive into the congregation of the Lord.— (Deu_23:7-8) This exhibition of kindness, however, failed in great measure to produce the desired effect; the spirit of enmity still slumbered in Edom, ready to break forth into acts of hostility whenever a suitable occasion presented itself; and in the later periods of Israel’s history, when the kingdom of Judah was verging to ruin, and the mighty empires of the north were rising to the ascendant, the Edomites became the most bitter and malignant of all the adversaries of Judah, and betook to the most cruel methods of gratifying their revenge.— (Joe_3:19; Oba_1:10-14; Amo_1:11-12; Psa_137:7) Hence, as the foremost of all the enemies of the covenant people in malice and bitterness of spirit, the Edomites came to be viewed by the Spirit of prophecy as the kind of quintessence of all malice and enmity—the heads and representatives of the whole army of the aliens, whose doom was to carry along with it the downfal and destruction of every thing that opposed and exalted itself against the knowledge of God. This is the view presented in the short prophecy of Obadiah—all the heathen share in Edom’s fate: “For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen; as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee; thy reward shall return upon thine own head,” &c. But at still greater length, and with images of terrific grandeur, the same view is unfolded in the 34th chapter of Isaiah, where all the nations of the earth are summoned together, because “the Lord’s indignation was upon them all;” while the fury to be poured out upon them was to discharge its violence, and rest in a manner upon the mountains of Idumea. It is clear that, in the precise form which the subject here assumes, it is to a large extent an ideal representation—clear from the very conjunction of all the heathen with Edom, and also from the peculiar strength of the images employed, such as the dissolving of the host of heaven, the sword of the Lord being bathed in heaven, the mountains melting with blood, the turning of the streams into pitch, and the dust into brimstone, which (like the ascription of human organs and human passions to God) seem purposely intended to guard us against understanding the words in the grossly literal sense. The same also appears quite obvious from the relation which Edom is represented as holding toward Israel, and which was such, that the execution of judgment upon the one would be the era of deliverance, joy, and blessing to the other—the era when the controversy of Zion would be settled, and everlasting prosperity be ushered in.
The meaning of the prophecy, when stript of the mere form and drapery in which it is clothed, is manifestly of this nature: the enmity and opposition toward the Lord’s cause and people which had showed itself in the heathen nations, and particularly in Edom, cannot possibly accomplish its end; it must be visited with judgment, the more severe in executions of evil, the higher the spirit of hatred and malice has risen in the judged; insomuch that the coming evil may be regarded as concentrating itself in Edom, the keenest of the enemies, just as the favour and blessing of God toward his people is represented as centering in Zion, and from that diffusing itself to the ends of the earth. The prophecy, indeed (including the 34th and 35th chapters, which form one piece), is a sort of recapitulation, and sums up in one glowing delineation what had already in substance been presented in several successive chapters. The prophet had gone over, one by one, every people and kingdom who acted in a spirit of rivalry or spite toward the children of the covenant, and in respect to each had declared that their pride must be humbled, that their glory must perish, that they must be shaken and destroyed. And now, gathering the whole, as it were, into one mass, bringing the contest to a single point, with the view of more distinctly and impressively exhibiting the awful certainty of the issue, he represents the vials of divine wrath as emptying themselves in a mighty torrent upon Edom, that peace and prosperity might henceforth settle in perpetual sunshine on the seed of blessing. So that, if no other prophecy had existed regarding Edom, we should still have been bound to conclude from the evident purport of this, that it was strictly applicable to Edom only so long as it continued to be characterised by the old spirit of intense malignity and opposition to the cause and people of God. It must, therefore, have found whatever fulfilment it was properly to receive before the coming of Christ; for by that time the relation which the prediction contemplated had ceased; the Edomites had even become amalgamated with the Jews, and no longer existed as a separate people; and however the things which had been spoken, or the things which might still fall out respecting it, might bear a prospective application to other peoples and times, yet the Edomites themselves had passed out of the region in which the prophecy moved, and a different state of things had entered. (I profess myself utterly unable to understand how Dr Keith and other writers on prophecy can so thoroughly exclude the above considerations from their minds. They accumulate proofs from travellers of the present desolation of Idumea, as simpliciter evincing the correctness of Isaiah’s prophecy, as if it had been the mere territory of Edom, the region of Idumea, God had a quarrel with, and not rather Edom as a people (“the people of his curse,” as they are called in the prophecy), and the land only as connected with them. What has that land to do now, or what has it had to do for two thousand years, with the Edomites, the peculiar enemies of God? Three or four centuries before Christ, the Edomites moved up toward the south of Judea, and what was originally the country of Moab, where, after successive encounters, they were subdued by the Maccabees, circumcised and incorporated with the Jewish people, so that “the house of Esau,” according to Obad. ver. 18, was in a manner “devoured” as a separate and hostile nation by the house of Judah. And according to the same prophet, v. 19, “they of the south,” that is, the Nabathaeans, an Ishmaelite race, got possession of the district of Mount Zion, under whom the trade of the country revived, and Petra the capital rose to great strength and prosperity. In process of time Christianity spread through it, and Petra became the seat of a Christian bishop, and continued to be so till the rise of Mahomet. To make the terrible denunciations of Isaiah still applicable, in their strict and proper sense, to a country which has so completely shifted its relations, is to bring these denunciations into the region of absolute caprice—to hold them still in force, though the very ground, we may say, of their existence is gone! And as we might naturally expect with a prophecy so completely torn from its connexion, it is but scraps of fulfilment which the present state of Idumea can furnish, and an unbeliever might justly ask, Where are the rest? There are ruined cities, it is true, and wild creatures of the desert, and thorns and brambles, where palaces once stood; but (if all is to be taken in the grossly literal sense, and in respect to present times) where is the carnage of all nations that was to precede these? where the burning pitch and brimstone? where the mountains melted with blood, or the impossibility of any one passing through it? and where, above all, the people themselves, who formed the very heart and centre of Isaiah’s picture? We cannot speak of God’s word being verified by halves; and this prophecy, in the true sense and meaning of its delineation, has already, so far as ancient Edom was concerned, received its fulfilment. Pointing to that as an obvious and existing fact in Providence, Malachi (about 400 years B.C). says, “I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.” The desolation was still recent, and the Edomites, it seems, thought of repairing it; but the Lord goes on to declare the impossibility of this; Edom could never again become an independent and flourishing nation, and this is what is meant by their being appointed to perpetual desolations.)
But Edom was also the subject of prophecies, which spoke a very different language from those now referred to, and which of necessity must have sometimes qualified, and to a certain extent supplanted the other. Of this description is the concluding portion of Obadiah’s burden, which, with all its tidings of woe for Edom as the enemy, does not terminate without intimating, that “saviours should come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau”—which, in other words, declares, that while salvation could only be found in connexion with the God and people of Zion, yet even the children of Edom would share in its benefits; the people of God’s curse were yet to become to a certain extent a seed of blessing; so that complete destruction, in the sense of universal and exterminating slaughter, could never have been meant. In like manner, and still more strongly, the prophet Amos, Amo_9:12, makes mention of a time, when not only the heathen in general, but Edom in particular, should be among those over whom God’s name was to be called; that is, should stand related to him, like the Jews in their best condition, as his peculiar people; for the things or people over whom God’s name is called, are just those he claims as peculiarly his own. It is manifest that this exhibition of coming good for Edom was given in anticipation of their entering into an entirely different relation to Israel from what they formerly held; and that as soon as this better line of things entered, and in the same proportion that it did so, the threatened doom, as in the case of Nineveh, became supplanted by tokens of Divine goodness. That this did take place to some extent, the facts stated below leave no room to doubt; though it is too manifest, from the scattered notices given by Josephus of the Edomite portion of the Jewish nation, in the concluding drama of their history, that the larger part, even when amalgamated with the children of Jacob, still retained their hatred to the truth of God, and were pursued by the curse suspended over their ungodliness. But whether the evil or the good was to be experienced, it must have run its course long ago with Edom—for the people have for ever lost their separate national existence; and whether the ancient territory they occupied may now be desolate or flourishing, is of no moment as concerns the prophecies that went before concerning them. In that respect, actum est.
The examples now given show clearly enough, that those prophecies respecting the ancient nations which contained threatenings of evil, as they always sprung from a moral ground, the wickedness of the people, so they depended for the amount of fulfilment they were to receive upon the future character of those against whom they were directed. They revealed God’s mind toward such, as embodying a certain kind or degree of unrighteousness, and were to be understood as abiding in force only so long as this remained in operation. And how can we reasonably doubt, that the same principle equally holds in respect to those prophecies which are of an opposite kind—which contain, not threatenings of evil, but promises of good? These, too, must always virtually imply at least, if they do not expressly indicate, a certain spiritual condition on the part of those interested in the tidings; and only in the proportion that the one might be attained, could the other be intended to meet with a proper fulfilment. That this would be the case generally indeed, the Lord very clearly intimated to his people before they entered the land of Canaan, by suspending over them both a blessing and a curse—a blessing if they fulfilled the righteous ends for which they were to be planted there, and a curse if they fell into idolatry and corruption. And in one remarkable case, that of Eli, the lineal descendant of Phinehas the high priest, the Lord very strongly and emphatically set his seal to the principle in question: “Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed, that thy house and the house of thy father should walk before me for ever; but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed”—1Sa_2:30. God never meant that the promise should take effect any how; like all other intimations of his mind and will, it had its root in the moral nature of God; and as the house of Eli were now acting in flagrant disregard of this, the promise formerly pledged to them of necessity fell to the ground.
Precisely similar are many promises made at a later period to the Jews through the prophets. “Thus saith the Lord, after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon, I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. . . . And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search (or rather, for ye shall search) for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the Lord; and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the Lord; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.”—Jer_29:10-14. And the word spoken by Zechariah to the remnant who did return and settle again at Jerusalem: “Thus saith the Lord, I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth, and the mountain of the Lord of Hosts, the holy mountain.”—Zec_8:3. It is impossible, by any fair construction of the words, to understand the statements made in these prophecies of any periods but the one of the return from Babylon, the other of the period immediately following. And if it is asked, When during any period of the past were such prospects of good actually realized? when did God so gather the children of Israel from all lands, and himself again so dwell in Jerusalem, as to render all its habitations secure, peaceful, and holy? we reply by asking, When was the word of Jonah concerning the destruction of Nineveh in forty days verified? No future destruction of Nineveh could possibly verify that word, no more than any future gathering of the dispersed, or any future inhabitation of the Lord at Jerusalem, could verify the words spoken by these prophets respecting determinate periods in the past. The Lord stayed the execution of his threatening against Nineveh when a state of things entered to which it did not apply. In like manner, the fulfilment of the promises referred to were partly stayed by a spirit of ungodliness among the people of the Jews, first indisposing many of them to return when the call and the opportunity came to them, and then rendering it necessary for God to withhold his hand from blessing many of those who had returned. It was God’s kind and gracious propensions toward them—his desire and readiness to do them good in the manner and to the extent specified in the word of promise—it was this, properly, that was indicated there—this alone that was certainly and infallibly indicated; the rest depended on the spiritual condition and behaviour of the people; and the writings of Malachi, the last of the prophets, are simply, as to their direct and immediate object, a vindication of the Lord’s dealings in not bestowing as much in the way of bl