ONE of the main considerations which induced me, a few years ago, to prepare and issue the following treatise on Prophecy, arose from the effect which was being produced by the general tendency of theological discussion on the evidential value of prophecy, as that was wont to be presented. The same reason exists still, if not in increased, at least in undiminished force; and I therefore substantially repeat what I then stated on this preliminary point. The whole of that department of theology, I remarked, which treats of the evidences of revealed religion, has been peculiarly affected by the spirit of the age; and a mode of treatment is now required for the several topics it embraces, which materially differs from what was usually adopted and deemed sufficient so lately as the earlier part of the present century. Such is more particularly the case in respect to the subject of prophecy: The claim of the Bible to divine authority, on the ground of its predictions, has now to be maintained from a more internal position than formerly; since objections are laid by the opponents or corrupters of the truth against the argument from prophecy, less on the ground of an alleged weakness in the argument itself, abstractedly considered, than by attempting to eliminate the predictive element from Scripture, in so far as it can be said to carry with it any argumentative value. Adopt their mode of contemplating the prophetical writings, and you no longer possess the materials necessary for constructing an argument that will serve the cause of Christianity. Contemporaneously, too, with this relative change on the part of the impugners of a supernatural revelation, modes of interpretation, and theories of providential change founded on them, have been gaining currency among many students of prophetical Scripture, which, if valid, would deprive the argument from prophecy of some of its most important defences. The immediate result of the two tendencies combined has been to involve the subject of prophecy in a medley of confusion, and in great measure to antiquate, even for argumentative purposes, the works which have been framed with an express view to the exhibition of the evidence deducible from it. In a higher respect, however, this state of things is scarcely to be regretted; since it necessarily forces on the advocates of revelation a more fundamental investigation of the whole subject, and cannot fail ultimately to lead to the establishment of more correct views respecting the proper function and essential characteristics of prophecy. It is here, more especially, that our theological literature in this department needs fresh consideration and admits of improvement.
Of the two disturbing elements referred to in this statement, that to my mind is by much the most serious and embarrassing, which arises from the conflicting views, and, one may say, the antagonistic schools of interpretation, which have come to prevail among sincere and earnest students themselves of the prophetic word. Were there but an intelligent understanding and general concurrence among them respecting the great principles applicable to the subject, less concern might be felt for the hostile criticism of open or disguised opponents, and some reasonable prospect might be entertained of their differences on subordinate points giving way. It is on this account, and as expressive of this conviction, that so large a portion of the ensuing volume has been devoted to the investigation of principles; since no otherwise than by a correct knowledge of these, gathered from a full and careful comparison of Scripture, can a satisfactory foundation be laid, or a general agreement be arrived at by believing theologians as to the right use and interpretation of prophecy. It has been my aim, however, in that part of the volume, which treats of what is more fundamental, to relieve the discussion by introducing as many illustrations as possible of particular prophecies, so as, while chiefly occupied in laying the foundation, to make some progress also in raising the superstructure. In the latter half, which has for its specific object fulfilments of prophecy, prospective as well as accomplished, I have endeavoured to conduct the inquiry strictly with a view to the application of the principles established in the earlier part—going as far as I felt these could safely carry me, but no farther. It is possible, that some who concur with me in regard to the t principles of the subject, may not always go along with me in their specific application; and many, doubtless, will be disposed to complain that the applications to specific objects and events in the future are not by any means so numerous and circumstantial as they conceive they should have been. All I can say is, “I have done what I could;” and before much fault is found on the latter score, it might be well to consider seriously the position into which the subject of prophecy has been brought by that more pretentious and historical style of interpretation which is throughout opposed in this volume as inconsistent with the proper function and character of prophecy. It is impossible for any sober-minded and thoughtful Christian to reflect without grief, if he has intelligence enough to know, how largely with the advocates of that other style the spirit of soothsaying has of late entered into the study of prophecy in this country; and how often the credit of Holy Scripture has been “put at pawn in the hands of infidelity”—not to be redeemed, but to be shamefully lost. The sceptical spirit of the age might, if it chose, reap a plentiful harvest in this field to help on its popular crusade against the credibility and worth of Scripture; and if the faith of many within the enchanted circle has not been seriously shaken by the cycles of expectation and disappointment through which they have passed, it can only be accounted for by some peculiar idiosyncrasy in the mental constitution and habits of its possessors. Mr Frere, who has more perhaps than any other acted as the leader in this mistaken and perilous line of things, has lived to see his most confidently-announced prognostications of great events thrice over palpably falsified. Even since the first edition of this volume was published, a whole series of announcements from the sure word of prophecy, issued, not by one merely, but by a number of disciples of the same school, have shared a like fate. Holding, as they do in common, and without any valid ground in Scripture, that the present Louis Napoleon is the last, the culminating embodiment of the Antichrist—holding it, indeed, so firmly that it has ceased to be with them a matter of doubt, “having been demonstrated with mathematical certainty”—there should have been formed a seven-years’ compact between the emperor and the Jews at the latest in 1861 (the period of the Second Advent being assigned to between 1866 and 1868); the Jews should have been already back to Palestine, and their new temple in progress, since this was to be completed in 1865; Popery as a system should have been destroyed in this current year of 1864, or, as it is otherwise and more particularly expressed, “the mystery of iniquity should now have been finishing in bloodshed so great, that the apostle uses a hyperbole to describe it, reaching unto the horses’ bridles.” All these, and other things of a like nature, were a few years ago confidently predicted, while not one of them has had even the shadow of a fulfilment; and in so far as such interpreters of prophecy could do it, the cause of Bible truth has been delivered up into the enemies’ hands. Nor is it the least melancholy part of the matter, that they appear to be themselves no way daunted by the results; and, as if the ground still remained firm beneath their feet, the same things are re-asserted with unabated confidence, only, by a fresh manipulation of figures and symbols, the period is postponed some eight or ten years later: the consummation now is to be, not in 1866-68, but 1871-2. (See, for example, Baxter’s “Louis Napoleon,” ed. 1863).
Surely the knowledge of such things should arouse clergymen, and Biblical students generally, to a more profound and impartial examination of the structure and import of the prophetic word. The more so, as many of the persons, who have been carried-away by this false spirit of interpretation, are not mere ignorant enthusiasts, but belong in considerable numbers to the respectable and educated classes of society. Not a few even fill responsible positions in the church. And what makes the matter more serious, calling for earnest consideration among a much wider circle, is the circumstance—which no one who has much acquaintance with the literature of the subject can well doubt—that it is the partial support which this mode of dealing with prophecy has obtained, and still obtains, from some men of note as interpreters of Scripture, that mainly fosters and sustains it. The principles, on which those castles in the air are built, with at least occasional applications of them, are to be found in some of our most extensively read works, in Scriptural exposition and discourse; and never till the right principles of prophetical interpretation are more thoroughly understood and consistently applied, may we expect to see the soothsaying tendency checked, which compels Scripture to minister to its craving for a degree and kind of information respecting the future, which it was never intended to yield.
The proper place of the prophetic word lies between the two extremes, which rationalism and enthusiasm would thus respectively claim for it; and to vindicate for it, on grounds of Scripture and reason, that intermediate place, is the service that is now most especially required in its behalf. On the one side, it must be held and shown, that this word was given by inspiration of God,—not in the general sense alone, in which good thoughts and safe counsels may be said to be so given, but as supernatural and direct communications from above. For the prophets were not simply men of religious genius; they were divinely gifted seers who could descry the truth of the future; and could delineate it, not in the abstract merely, but in concrete forms and distinctive features, such as would carry an easily perceived correspondence with the events that were destined to realise them. On the other side, however, “the prophets were not soothsayers; they do not predict future events simply as such, without regard to God and his kingdom. To look into the very nature of God, to behold in his light the laws of eternity, according to which he governs the church and the world, is something infinitely higher than a mere knowledge of the future, which is itself a matter of indifference “(Hengstenberg). Hence, prophecy is utterly misapplied, when it is taken as a guide-book to details happening in the civil and political sphere of the world’s history—as if it were intended to afford to those, who study it, an insight into the plots and movements of earthly kingdoms, to discover to them remote changes in constitutional governments, or to indicate steps of advancement in material progress. Prophecy moves in a higher sphere, and but incidentally, as well as sparingly, touches on worldly states.
It is in the hope of contributing to the right interpretation and use of prophecy, that I again commit the following treatise to the public, with only such alterations as seemed needful to adapt it better to its purpose. Writing more especially for those who wish to study the subject in its essential features, and as’ connected with the true knowledge of Scripture, it has formed no part of my plan to give a complete history of opinion on the topics successively handled, or to recount at length the views of particular writers. I have aimed at giving the treatise rather an exegetical and positive, than a negative and controversial aspect; and have been at more pains in unfolding what I conceive to be the truth, than in noticing every shade and variety of error that may have arisen against it. All the leading forms and phases of opinion, of course, are indicated on such points as are of more vital moment to the main theme; and where necessary for purposes of argument or illustration, references are also made to individual authors. But, very frequently, where views are referred to at variance with those which have commended themselves to my own mind, I have abstained from mentioning particular names, that the discussion might not be entangled more than was necessary with personal allusions. In several cases also I have, in this new edition, softened the language in those parts which are unavoidably controversial, seeking as little as possible to irritate the feelings of others, while obliged to oppose their sentiments.
The greater proportion of the changes introduced into this edition are, like the one just specified, of the nature of subordinate improvements. A few incidental corrections also have been made, and occasional additions inserted. The greatest alteration is in Chap. IV. of Part I., where the question is discussed, how far prophecy is to be regarded as absolute or conditional in its announcements,—a subject unquestionably of considerable difficulty, and on which the language used in the previous edition was in some quarters misunderstood, perhaps was somewhat less guarded and explicit than it should have been. In the present edition I have both given a more distinct statement of the question at issue, and have unfolded, what I take to be the right solution of it, in a manner which, whether deemed satisfactory or not as regards the point more immediately in hand, cannot, in a doctrinal respect, be excepted against. Some controversial matter, bearing on the subject, I have thrown into an Appendix.
On the general subject of prophecy there have been few publications of importance, so far as my knowledge goes, since the appearance of the first edition of this treatise. In Hengstenberg’s “Christology,” second edition, there is an Appendix on the “Nature of Prophecy,” which may be referred to as in the main confirming the views unfolded here; and several other dissertations in the closing part of that volume, relating especially to the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, and the history of their interpretation, will well repay perusal. From Germany we have also a treatise by Tholuck (Die Propheten und ihre Weissagungen, 1860), which contains many excellent and just remarks on the nature of prophecy, and vindicates the strictly supernatural as well as truthful character of its communications, against the attacks of recent assailants. It is somewhat brief, however, on leading points, and is decidedly better on specific predictions and objections of opponents, than in respect to fundamental principles. The Warburtonian Lectures of Dean Goode, delivered in 1854-58, but published only in 1863, abstain altogether from the investigation of principles, and are wholly occupied with the consideration of predictions on particular subjects and their fulfilment. They can scarcely be said to meet the demands of such a critical age as the present, and though replete with good sense and just observations, they bring no fresh contribution to the objects we have here more particularly in view. The recent Lectures on Daniel by Dr Pusey are entitled to be mentioned as containing an able and learned vindication of the genuineness and authenticity of a much assailed portion of the prophetic writings; but from their apologetic aim, they have to do chiefly with the inspired character of the book, and, only as subsidiary to this, treat of its contents or of prophecy in general. In certain parts, the author’s theological position appears to some extent to bias his judgment, and to dispose him (especially in respect to the antichrist), to seek for a species of fulfilment which prophecy, I am convinced, when consistently interpreted, does not warrant. But in what may be regarded as his more direct object, the volume forms a seasonable and important contribution.
In many points, which respect the prophetical future, uniformity of opinion can only be expected to be the growth of time; and for what is here written upon them, I ask nothing more than an impartial and patient consideration.