The Revelation of Law in Scripture by Patrick Fairbairn: 02. Chapter 1. The Proper Calling Of A Prophet, And The Essential Nature Of A Prophect

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The Revelation of Law in Scripture by Patrick Fairbairn: 02. Chapter 1. The Proper Calling Of A Prophet, And The Essential Nature Of A Prophect


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Chapter 1. The Proper Calling Of A Prophet, And The Essential Nature Of A Prophect

THE first thing that demands consideration in this survey has respect to the constituent elements of a prophecy, and, in connection with that, the proper calling or function of a prophet. For here, at the very outset, the current language of the world, which so often governs its ideas, is fitted to create a false impression, and impart a misleading bias to our views. In ordinary language, that only is a prophecy which delivers some prediction of the future; while in the original and proper sense this embraces but a part of the idea, and not always even the more principal part. The prophet, as regarded in the light of Scripture, was simply the recipient and bearer of a message from God; and such a message of course was a prophecy, whatever might be its more specific character—whether the disclosure of some important truth, the inculcation of an imperative duty, or a prospective delineation of coming events. A message, however, that bespoke no supernatural insight into the will and purposes of Heaven, could not, except in peculiar circumstances, require a divinely-commissioned person to deliver it. And so, while any communication received directly from above might be called a prophecy, the term was naturally understood only of such communications as inferred a more than ordinary acquaintance with spiritual and divine things; but these not less when the Word spoken referred to the higher truths of God’s kingdom, than when it foretold the future acts of His providence.

That such actually is the Scriptural idea of a true prophet, and a prophetic Word, is evident alone from the two first occasions on which the subject is formally mentioned. “Restore the man his wife,” said the Lord to Abimelech, after he had taken Sarah from Abraham, “for he is a prophet” (Gen_20:7). This is absolutely the first time the designation prophet is applied to any one in Scripture; and being used without explanation, and with reference to a person, whose peculiar distinction lay in his having been raised to so high a place in the friendship of God, where he enjoyed the privilege of direct intercourse with Heaven, it must have been intended to denote Abraham as possessed of that distinction—to characterise him as one admitted into the secrets, and made acquainted with the counsels, of the Most High. The next occasion is even more precise and definite, as it presents the prophetical agency under the aspect of simply human relations. “Behold,” says God to Moses, in Exo_7:1, “I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron, thy brother, shall be thy prophet.” By comparing this declaration with Exo_4:15-16, where it is said to Moses, “Thou shall speak unto Aaron, and put words in his mouth, and he shall be thy spokesman unto the people,” it is plain that as Moses was to act God’s part in giving the message to Aaron, so in receiving the message, and communicating it to others, Aaron was to do the prophet’s part. The prophet, therefore, was one qualified and called to sustain this twofold relation to God and man—on the one side to receive; on the other, to give forth the Word received—to be, in a manner, God’s mouth, for the purpose of declaring the truths, and unfolding the secrets, which God might see meet by special revelation to impart to him. This was the peculiar calling of the prophet, and whatever was uttered in the fulfilment of such a calling was a prophecy. (See Appendix A.) The prophetic writings themselves sufficiently attest this.

They give no countenance to the notion that the gift of prophecy was conferred merely for the purpose of announcing beforehand the coming events of Providence. The discourses which actually possess this character never comprise the whole, nor usually even the larger portion of the writings which have been left by the prophets to the Church. In these, viewed generally, the grand object seems rather to have been to deal with men, as in God’s stead, for the interests of truth and righteousness, and, only in so far as might be required for the furtherance of this object, to lay open the prospect of things to come. But the strongest proof is to be found in the case of those who, in the highest and most emphatic sense, had to do the part of a prophet, since it appears to have been with the present, rather than with the future, that their mission called them more immediately to deal. The persons who, above all others, occupied this lofty position, were Moses and Christ. Most commonly, indeed, they are named apart from the prophets, as if something else than prophetical gifts,—something essentially superior to these entered into the revelations brought by their instrumentality to the world: hence such expressions as “Moses and the prophets,” “Christ and his holy apostles and prophets.” Expressions of this sort, however, must be understood to indicate only a relative, not an absolute, difference. Moses was, in the strictest sense, a prophet, and is often so described, as in Hosea, Hos_12:13, “And by a prophet the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he preserved.” Not only was he a prophet in the strictest sense, but also in the highest degree; for who, in ancient times, received such free and ample communications from Heaven as were imparted to Moses? Or who, like him, was charged with a commission to order and establish everything in God’s kingdom, in its earlier and provisional form, among men? When the time, however, came for that form giving way to another more perfect and complete, then came also the greater than Moses, whom the people of God in every age have recognised as emphatically the prophet of the Church, and whom Moses himself descried as destined to arise, and entitled also to obtain, when he should appear, universal homage and respect (Deu_18:15).

Now, it is true, alike of Moses and of Christ, that while, as prophets, they possessed and manifested the profoundest insight into Divine things, the communications they actually made to the Church partook comparatively little of the nature of specific predictions respecting particular personages or events in the future. The whole that either of them uttered of such predictions might be comprised within the limits of a few ordinary chapters. The other and much larger portion of their communications has to do with the great realities of faith and hope, or the principles of truth and duty, which form the basis of their respective dispensations; and is no farther predictive of what was afterwards to happen, than as the present necessarily contained the germ of the future, or the manifestations then given of God’s mind and will bespoke the recurrence of like manifestations, and, it may be, still higher ones in the time to come. It could not, indeed, have been otherwise, from the very nature of things. The distinction we now refer to has its foundation, not in accidental circumstances, or individual choice, but in the more essential relations that connect man with God, and the soul of one man with that of another. This we may learn from the world itself. The world also has its prophets,—men in whom it recognises “the vision and faculty divine;” and, among these, some who are regarded as possessing it in a super-eminent degree. But to whom does it assign this elevated place? Not to those who labour, even though it should be with superior ingenuity and skill in Nature’s corners and byepaths—who, within some narrower range of action, light upon discoveries interesting only to the few, or elaborate works, which can be appreciated by none but persons of exact learning or refined taste. Not such, but the nobler spirits who can venture boldly, and with a step altogether their own, upon the lofty steeps and broad highways of nature: the men who in science attain to the possession of truths which have a world-wide significance and value, or in literature give birth to productions which address themselves to the universal instincts of mankind, touch the springs of thought and feeling in every bosom, and become the common heritage of all generations and all lands. These, in the worldly sphere, are the gifted seers, who have an eye to look into nature’s profounder secrets, and a tongue to interpret her meaning, such as is sure to meet with a response from the hearts of her children. And what such men are in respect to human and earthly things, the same in things spiritual and divine was Moses to the Old, and Jesus Christ to the New, Testament Church. Have not they too left behind them—above all, has not Jesus Christ left behind Him—the signature of his peerless elevation, in the incomparable breadth and wide-reaching importance of his revelations? It is not the remoter incidents, or more private details of the Divine economy, which his words disclose, but its grander interests and concerns; not a few streamlets merely that his Divine hand has laid open, but rather the perennial fountain itself of heavenly truth. Of no work could it be said with such manifold reason as of his, that it is not of an age, but for all time; in the heights it reaches, in the depths it explores, in the very form it assumes, it bears the impress of relative perfection and completeness. And it had been a mark, not of a more elevated, but of an inferior prophetical insight, it had stamped his mission as of a subordinate and temporary kind, rather than as one of primary importance and indestructible value, if his communications had turned more upon particular incidents of providence, and the varying evolutions of the world’s history.

This signature of relative greatness and superiority in the nature of the Divine communications, which came by Christ, and in a measure also by Moses, is accompanied, and, as it were, accredited by another signature in the mode of communication. In the case of Moses, a difference in this latter respect was formally established by God himself, and for the express purpose of marking the higher place of power and influence which rightfully belonged to his servant. Rebuking the presumption of Aaron and Miriam, who had become jealous of the pre-eminent rank of their brother, and had been saying to the congregation, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?” the Lord interposed to give an authoritative decision, and said, “Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision, in a dream I will speak to him. Not so my servant Moses: he is faithful in all my house. Mouth to mouth I speak to him, and appearance (i.e., as with open face), and not in dark speeches; and the similitude (form) of the Lord he beholds.” (Num_12:6-8). (See Appendix B.) With an evident reference to this passage, the singular pre-eminence of Moses is again noticed near the close of his life, Deu_34:10, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel, like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” There was a certain amount of truth mixed up with the allegation of Aaron and Miriam: they did possess a kind of prophetical character (Exo_15:20-21; Mic_6:4), though of an inferior description as compared with the prophets generally, and greatly more so when viewed in reference to the position of Moses, betwixt whom and the other prophets a marked distinction is drawn. The distinction bears respect to a difference in the mode of revelation:—in the case of Moses, an open, waking, face to face intercommunion; while with the other prophets communications were to be made by dreams and visions. But this difference in the mode is made to rest upon a distinction in the office. Moses, as the mediator of the old covenant, had devolved on him the care of the whole house or kingdom of God, and consequently required to have the freest intercourse with heaven, and the most explicit instructions, to enable him to order everything aright. But the other and ordinary members of the prophetical order had no such high commission to fulfil. Standing upon the foundation already laid by Moses, and charged to enforce and maintain, but not allowed to remodel or dispense with any of its provisions, they necessarily had but a limited range of operations to mind, and messages of a more special kind to bring. These are the principal points of difference established in this fundamental passage in Numbers, between Moses and the other prophets. But the Jewish doctors are fond of multiplying the marks of superiority in Moses, for the purpose of investing him with a more transcendent glory. Thus Maimonides (Porta Mosis, Pockoke’s Works, vol. i. pp. 63, 64.) finds as many as four notes of distinction possessed by Moses, and wanting in the prophets generally:—First, in God’s speaking to him without the mediation of an angel, in direct discourse, as one man might do with another; secondly, in his having communications made to him openly, not by way of vision or dream; thirdly, in his being able to hold intercourse with God without suffering such corporeal languishings and faintings of nature as were sometimes at least experienced by men of ordinary prophetical gifts; and, lastly, in his having habitual access to God for supernatural revelations; while to others these came only at distant intervals, and at times also required to be preceded by a season of special preparation. These four grounds of distinction are merely an expansion, by the introduction of related circumstances and effects, of the two points noticed above from the passage in Numbers; they admit of being all comprised in the singular dignity of the office of Moses, and the consequent openness and freedom of his intercourse with heaven. It was in these peculiarly that he rose so much superior to all who succeeded him in the dispensation he introduced.

The privilege of holding free and open communication with heaven in respect to the secret things of God, however it may have distinguished Moses from other prophets, only attained its perfection in Christ, as in Him also the ground on which it rests becomes immeasurably higher and broader. Moses had the honour of being counted faithful as a servant over the house of God; yet it was only as a servant, at a time, too, when the house was comparatively small, and when the service to be done in it had for its highest aim the providing of “a testimony beforehand of those things which were to be spoken after.” Christ, however, has the place of a son. It is his to exercise authority and rule in the Divine kingdom, as in his own house; and hence the revelations which came by Him, as in their own nature they were the highest that could be given, so in their form and manner they were the most natural and direct—the freest from whatever partook of outward formality or inward constraint. In Him the Spirit of the Father resided in unrestricted fulness, nay, He himself knew the Father, as could be done only by one who possessed the same nature, and had freest access to his bosom: so that the words He spake, the doctrine He taught, and the works He performed were not more His own than the Father’s. (Joh_1:18; Joh_3:13, Joh_3:34; Mat_11:25-27) Here, therefore, the intercourse with heaven reached the highest degree of closeness and intimacy. It was not so properly God speaking to man, as God speaking in man and through man; and on that account speaking not only with a clearness and comprehension of view, but also with a self-possessed manner and a heaven-like elevation of tone, peculiarly His own. To some extent, indeed, though very imperfectly as compared with Christ, the Apostles shared in this higher standing and freer communion,—to such an extent as to form a marked distinction betwixt them and the prophets of the earlier dispensation. For, excepting on a few special occasions (Acts 10; 2 Corinthians 12; Apoc. passim), they never appear to have received revelations in a trance or vision; and, like men habitually replenished with the Spirit, they spoke and wrote as if the Lord himself spoke and wrote in them (1Co_2:12; 1Co_14:37; 2Co_13:3). They, therefore, deemed it unnecessary to preface their discourses with the wonted formula of the prophets, “Thus saith the Lord.” As possessed by them, the prophetical gift corresponded with the comparative maturity and freedom of their New Testament position; and in the exercise of it, they seemed more like persons in their native element, with full scope on every side for the free development of their susceptibilities and powers, than for the moment raised into a region not properly congenial to them.

Thus there were differences between prophet and prophet, and between one kind of prophetical agency and another; and by carefully noting these, we are enabled to draw the line of demarcation between what is essential, and what is merely circumstantial, in the matter.

1. It was, first of all, essential to the prophet, that he should have direct personal communications from above, constituting him, in a sense quite special and peculiar, the medium of intercommunion between heaven and earth; and, consequently, that he should possess a state and temper of soul, such as might form a proper recipiency for the divine communications. In no case could these be dispensed with. Not the actual communications, for on them depended the very substance of the message he had to deliver; not the suitable inward recipiency, for in that stood the capacity to apprehend, and the fidelity to use, what of supernatural insight might be imparted to him. That “vision and faculty divine,” of which the world speaks, must have belonged to him, and in another manner than its most gifted seers can attain to; since he had to see what even these could not see, and to hear what they heard not; nay, not only to see and hear, but to give it willing audience in the inmost chamber of his soul. For Scripture knows as little of automaton prophets, as the world knows of automaton orators or poets. Spirit to spirit—a spirit in man rightly attempered and formed to the revelations presented to it by the Spirit of God:—such is the essential law of God’s working in his more peculiar, not less than in his more common, operations on the souls of men. The prophet, therefore, was emphatically what he was also often designated, “a man of God.” He was one who entered into God’s mind, who breathed God’s Spirit; whose very heart and soul were imbued with the truth and righteousness of God: so that, when he came forth to speak to his fellow-men, it was to utter feelings of which he was himself profoundly conscious—to proclaim a message which had first given light to his own eyes, and awakened a response in the sanctuary of his own bosom. This much was essential to the proper calling and agency of a prophet, and could not, save in cases altogether exceptional, be dispensed with. (See Appendix C.)

But it was not essential—however commonly it may be so represented—that the prophet, when receiving the divine communication, should be agitated and convulsed in the process—should be moved and driven to and fro, as by some overpowering and arbitrary impulse. Such might occasionally have been the case with him; but never in the Hebrew prophet as in the heathen soothsayer (the μαντίς), who sought by external appliances to excite his spirit into a kind of sacred phrenzy, and appeared and spoke as one borne away by a really divine fervour. The settled rule in the sphere of Scripture prophecy was, that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets,”—the higher impulse stimulating their natural powers, and informing their minds with supernatural revelations, but never destroying either their personal freedom, or their proper individuality. And even the regulated excitation of entranced feeling was so far from being essential to the existence of a prophetic agency in its larger sense, that it had the least play in those who occupied the highest standing, and were most plentifully endowed with the prophetic spirit.

2. Secondly, in regard to the communication received by the prophet, it was essential that this should constitute a message respecting the things of God, which it became God, in a supernatural manner, to impart, and His people, through an extraordinary message, to receive. For, otherwise, the necessary condition of the prophet’s existence, or the appropriate evidence of his mission, must have been wanting. He would have been like those dreamers, who came forth in the name of the Lord, to speak to the people, though they had seen nothing—nothing, at least, that required the immediate interposition of divine authority, and a direct revelation from heaven.

But it was not essential—it was a matter that depended upon the time and the occasion, whether in the word he spake there might be any explicit announcements of coming events in providence, or, if any, how far they might reach. In a more general sense every prophecy might be said to carry in its bosom a revelation of things to come, as it never failed to disclose the fundamental truths and principles of God’s righteous government, and to represent them as the moral hinges on which the dispensations of time and the issues of eternity must eventually turn. In Old Testament times, more especially, it could not fail to have much of a prospective bearing on the future, as every thing then pointed onwards to a more perfect state of things. But in the more specific sense of precise and definite information respecting the future operations of God in the world, prophecy, as we have seen, was far from being uniform. Neither did it always enter into such prospective details, nor, when it did, was the disclosure of these made to assume the appearance of the more direct and primary object it aimed at. It differed essentially from that soothsaying or divination, which prevailed so extensively in the heathen world, and which, by improperly prying into the future, always betokened distrust in God, and naturally allied itself with idolatry. The very criterion laid down by Moses for testing the claims of those who might assume to speak as prophets of the Most High, gave clear indication of this, and marked the relative position which the circumstantial here should bear to the essential in prophecy. If a prophet, it was said, Deu_13:1-5, should arise, and give a sign or wonder which should come to pass; but, at the same time, should seek to draw people away after other gods, and lead them to forsake the worship and service of Jehovah, they were on no account to accredit his testimony, or regard him as a messenger of God, but were rather to suppose that through his plausible pretensions God was making trial of their fidelity. What could have more strikingly shown that the moral and religious element in prophecy, was ever to be viewed as occupying the primary, and the predictive no more than the secondary and subservient place? The ordinary prophet was not to be expected to introduce any thing essentially new. On the contrary, he was to make it patent to all that he stood on the old foundations; and as a true watchman of God, jealous for the honour and glory of Him who laid them, was bound to raise the alarm when he saw them in danger of being destroyed, and freshen up in men’s souls the eternal principles of truth and duty in which they consisted. Only as an handmaid to this more determinate part of his function, was the disclosure of future events to be looked for at the hands of the prophet. And a surer sign, either of a false claim to the divine gift, or of a false apprehension and mistaken estimate of the true, could scarcely be named, than the reversing of this Scriptural order, by raising the subsidiary element into the place of the principal.

3. Again, and in respect to the last stage of the process, it was essential that the prophet should faithfully record or utter the revelations he obtained. He must not only deliver his message, but deliver it as he had himself received it—like an impartial and incorrupt witness declaring what his eyes had seen, and his ears had heard, in the visions of God. No more in this ‘ department of his calling, when dealing with men in behalf of God, was it lawful for him to confer with flesh and blood, than when, in the other, he was dealt with by God in behalf of men. A select ambassador of heaven, he had but one thing, in a manner, to do—to speak what God had put into his heart, without fearing the face of man, or listening to the suggestions of his lower nature. Had this condition failed—as for a moment it did fail in the case of Jonah—the indispensable characteristic of a prophet had been wanting.

But it was not essential, that in this outward communication of the light that shone within him, there should have been any thing like forcible pressure or violence in the tone and manner in which it was done. A certain amount of this there may have been—there occasionally was; yet not “as a form necessarily cleaving to every thing prophetical;” as if the prophetical, “in its works of greater moment and abiding faithfulness, could not possibly exist without it.” (Ewald, Propheten, p. 8.) It could not, indeed, exist without the internal impulse of holy feeling and irrepressible energy of purpose, bearing the prophet’s soul aloft, and rendering it superior to all earthly considerations. But this may be found in a region of perfect calmness and serenity, nay, found there in the highest degree. It was, in reality, so found for the most part by Moses, but always and entirely by Jesus Christ, whose words, even when laying open the sublimest mysteries, are remarkable for nothing more than the perfect composure and unruffled calmness of spirit which they breathe. Whatever, therefore, might, at any time, appear in the prophet of disturbed feeling or undue excitation, so far from being a necessary accompaniment of his prophetical calling, is rather to be ascribed to his own imperfect elevation of soul, or the embarrassments of his outward condition. If he was himself conscious of some difficulty in fully embracing as his own the word committed to him—or if he had to proclaim that word to a people who were maintaining an attitude of stout-hearted resistance to the will of God, then something of violent agitation, or even of impassioned vehemence in his manner, might not unnaturally be looked for. But it was still only an incidental and separable adjunct, not an essential attribute, of a prophet’s calling.

Now, from the whole of the considerations here advanced, and more especially from what has been stated regarding the quite singular nature of the position occupied by Moses and Christ, in respect to the revelation of the Divine will, one can readily understand how they should be so commonly placed apart from the strictly prophetical order. In reality, it was in them that the spirit of prophecy had its noblest exercise, and rose to its highest perfection. But this very perfection threw so wide a gulf between them and the persons who possessed the more ordinary prophetical gifts, that the latter alone came to be regarded as by way of distinction the prophets, and the two others were contemplated as moving in a loftier sphere. Hence, even John the Baptist is called by our Lord, “more than a prophet,” though it was in the character of a prophet, that he had been previously announced (Isa_40:6, Mal_4:5, Luk_1:16-17); and, beyond doubt, it was the distinctive work of a prophet in which his mission had its fulfilment.

But the same considerations, which account for the usual restriction of the term prophet to others than Moses and Christ, also explains how the word spoken by these others should partake largely of predictions, and should even thence derive, in the popular conception, its predominant characteristic. It naturally arose from the dependant and supplementary nature of such prophecy, as compared with the revelations brought in by Moses and Christ. In these the more important and fundamental things of the Divine economy had already been established. The truths, on which the respective dispensations were based, might afterwards be reiterated anew, or applied to the different phases of error and corruption which successively arose; germs of spiritual thought implanted there, might be expanded and matured; existing institutions also, after seasons of decay, might have the breadth of a new and more vigorous life breathed into them: all this might be done, in connection with the one dispensation or the other, and, to provide for its accomplishment, was always one great design of God in the bestowal of prophetical gifts. But the doing of such work, from its very nature of a subsidiary and ministerial kind, could not of itself, even in the most favourable circumstances, yield so convincing a proof of direct communication with God, and of supernatural insight into the counsels of heaven, as the clear delineation of yet future events in Providence. Nor could the prophets, as the more select agents and witnesses of God among men, be properly qualified for their important mission, unless they had been enabled to direct their eye into the future, and make some disclosure of its coming issues. For, it was to these issues they naturally pointed for the confirmation of the principles they affirmed, and the vindication of the part they took in the ever-proceeding controversy between sin and righteousness. So that, whether we look to the nature of their calling, or to what was needed for its proper authentication, it could scarcely fail that prophecy, in its more regular and wonted ministrations, should partake much of a predictive character, and by indications of supernatural foresight, should often give conclusive evidence of its Divine origin.

It is of prophecy in this more special and restricted sense—of prophecy as containing announcements, more or less specific, of the future—that the word must be chiefly employed in discussions like the present. In this sense we must, henceforth, be understood to use the term, where no intimation to the contrary is given. It is, undoubtedly, a great limitation of the Scriptural idea, and embraces what is but a particular and subordinate province of the field. This must be carefully borne in mind, if we would either form a correct estimate of the subject itself, or arrive at safe and well-grounded principles of interpretation. To set out with such a definition of prophecy in general as this, that “it is a prediction of some contingent circumstance or event in the future, received by immediate and direct revelation,” (So Vitringa, Typus Proph. Doc. p. 1.)—a definition which, if not formally given, is, for the most part, tacitly assumed in works on prophecy—betokens, in the first instance, a partial view of what the prophetic field properly embraces, and it must inevitably lead to practical mistakes in the treatment of particular portions belonging to it.