Chapter 2. The Place Of Prophecy In History, And The Organic Connection Of The One With The Other
FROM the relation of prophecy in the more restricted, to prophecy in the more general and comprehensive sense, we come, by a very natural transition, to consider the relation of prophecy to history. The consideration of this point also will be found to turn, in some degree, on the distinction between the two aspects of prophecy already noticed—the fundamental and the subsidiary; and will suggest reflections as to the proper treatment of the prophetic volume very closely allied to some of the considerations urged in the preceding chapter.
The most cursory glance over the pages of Scripture can leave no doubt that prophecy, in so far as it consists in predictions of coming events in providence, exists there in very various and irregular proportions. In the Old Testament—to which alone we shall for the present refer—it appears somewhat like a river, small in its beginnings, and though still proceeding, yet often losing itself for ages under ground, then bursting forth anew with increased volume, and at last rising into a swollen stream—greatest by far when it has come within prospect of its termination. During the whole antediluvian period of the world, it could scarcely be said to exist, excepting at the beginning and the close; and even then only in small amount and apart from any regular official ministration.
The first prophecy, called forth by the circumstances of the fall, delineates in graphic, but general and comprehensive outlines, the leading characteristics of the world’s history; projects, as it were, the channels alike of evil and of good, in which the stream of events was destined to run, yet so as to give sure prognostication of the final ascendancy of the good over the evil. Indefinite as this prophecy was, it was of unspeakable moment, on account of the promise it embodied to the heart of faith, whereby, in the midst of brooding darkness and wide-wasting destruction, it lighted up the hope of better things to come. As a prediction, however, of contingent events, destined to appear in the future, this primeval word of life is scarcely to be mentioned, since it rather announced great principles of working, and pointed to ultimate results, than defined, beforehand, particular acts of Providence. And this holds yet more of the prophecy of Enoch (Jude Jud_1:14-15), which may be regarded merely as an application of the prophecy uttered at the fall, to the times of growing apostacy and wickedness in which he lived. It declared the certainty of God’s appearing to check the temporary triumph of the adversary, and establish the just. The revelation to Noah of the general deluge, is again but the more specific application of Enoch’s announcement, and is, in truth, the first definite prediction we meet with—being required for the support of Noah’s faith, amid an almost universal backsliding, and for the direction of his course in respect to the approaching catastrophe.
Subsequently to the deluge, a series of prophecies follow each other at considerable intervals, not unlike in their general character. There is, first, Noah’s own prediction respecting the state and prospects of his posterity—a prediction, indeed, considerably more definite in its intimations than that pronounced at the fall; but still, like this, pointing chiefly to the essential principles of the Divine government, and to the relation in which his offspring, by the three lines of descent, should stand to these, and through these to each other. Then, at the distance of some centuries come the revelations to Abraham respecting his seed, and the closely dependant prophecies of Isaac and Jacob to their children—each of them successively growing in precision and definiteness, but dwelling still upon the relative positions and prospects of stems, and races, and tribes, rather than upon individual personages or particular events. The promise of Shiloh, as a centre of unity and peace, to arise out of the tribe of Judah, is the most specific in the series, and for the first time gives prominence to a single individual in the perspective of the more distant future. But, as a whole, those patriarchal prophecies turned mainly on the general points, through what line of descent the more peculiar blessing of the covenant with Abraham was to flow—how, even within this favoured line distinctions of higher and lower, better and worse, should exist, according as the persons concerned might stand related to the moral ends of the covenant; and how, along with the heritage of good promised and secured, there should be also the constant intermingling of struggles, conflicts and sorrows, necessarily calling for the exercise of faith and patience on the part of the true children of the covenant. It holds of these patriarchal predictions, as well as of those which preceded them, that not one of them was given “like an insulated phenomenon, or merely to demonstrate the prescience of their all- wise Creator; but were all by Him engrafted upon the exigency of times and persons, and made to serve as a light of direction to the attentive observers of them, before the event had set the seal to their truth.” (“Davison on Prophecy,” p. 99, who makes this just remark on prophecy in general, without, however, having sufficiently investigated, or freely applied, the principle involved in it.) Their primary and immediate object unquestionably was to give, as the ever-changing circumstances of the world required, counsel or encouragement to the children of promise, in respect to their more peculiar trials and dangers, hopes and obligations. And in so far as they may have tended to produce any other results, the effect could only be regarded as subsidiary and incidental.
Centuries of silence and darkness pass away after the last words of Jacob were uttered, without any addition being made to the prophetic oracles. But the time at length came for carrying into fulfilment the promise of an inheritance made to the seed of Abraham; and then, with the appearance and mission of Moses, the well-nigh expiring light of prophecy bursts forth at once into a sudden blaze—but prophecy (as formerly stated) chiefly of the more fundamental and primary kind, dealing less in predictions of coming events than in the great principles of truth and duty, as connected with the introduction of a new phase of the Divine administration. There were certain distinct assurances given through Moses to the Israelites regarding their possession of Canaan, and a series of hypothetical predictions uttered regarding the evil and the good that might afterwards befal them there (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28, 33)—hypothetical, inasmuch as the blessings and the cursings prospectively announced, were uttered merely as deductions that grew out of the government under which they were placed, taken in connection with the course that might be pursued by future generations. But, if we except such parts of the writings of Moses, the revelations which came by him cannot be termed prophecies in the sense now understood. The predictions spoken by Balaam—though appearing only as a sort of interlude in the Mosaic record—possess more of the simply predictive element. The circumstances of the time, especially the perilous situation of Israel, required something of this description. And as it could be most effectually done from the camp of the adversary, so the extraordinary course was taken of making use of the heathen diviner to send forth rays of light respecting the future purposes of God, which were to be afterwards expanded into yet more full and explicit delineations.
The age of Moses is succeeded by another long break in the prophetic chain. Persons with prophetic insight occasionally appear during the period of the Judges, but only as rare and glimmering lights, for it was a time for heroic action rather than for lofty utterances. Prophecy, in its formal character, comes into view only in the age of Samuel, with whom properly originates the prophetical order of the Old Testament. And, in the history of this order, it is to be remarked how small a part prediction plays in its earlier operations. The series opens with it in the loud and terrible denunciation of judgment which came forth against the degenerate house of Eli (1 Samuel 2, 3), and it recurs from time to time afterwards, as in the difficult and perplexing circumstances connected with the elevation of Saul to the throne, the election of David in his stead, and the rending of David’s kingdom in the time of Rehoboam. At this period, however, the predictions uttered were manifestly of a quite occasional and circumscribed nature. They gave forth, indeed, gleams of supernatural light, such as were required by the members of the covenant in seasons of emergency and danger, but not of a kind to occupy more than a merely fragmentary portion of the prophetical activity of the period. This activity, originating in Samuel, and by him organized and perpetuated through regular institutions, called Schools of the Prophets, exerted itself mainly as a spirit of revival, and spent its energies greatly more in conducting practical operations, than in searching into or disclosing hidden mysteries. This was what the circumstances of the time especially required. It was not so much new revelations that were needed, as an inworking into the feelings and habits of the people of the revelations which had already been received. The members of the prophetical order, therefore, usually appear as the more select portion of the Levitical and priestly classes, to which, with probably few exceptions, they belonged. Hence they sometimes took part in the performance of services that were strictly of a priestly character (1Sa_9:13, etc.), but more commonly were employed in holding meetings for devotional exercises and spiritual instruction, in the hope of thereby rekindling the flame of piety, and diffusing the fear of God throughout the land. Such seems to have been the distinctive nature of the prophetic agency for centuries after the age of Samuel. The prophets were, in a peculiar sense, the spiritual watchmen of Judah and Israel—the representatives of divine truth and holiness, whose part it was to keep a wakeful and jealous eye upon the manners of the times, to detect and reprove the symptoms of defection which appeared, and by every means in their power foster and encourage the spirit of real godliness. And such pre-eminently was Elijah, who is therefore taken in Scripture itself as the type of the whole prophetical order in this earlier stage of its development,—a man of heroic energy of action rather than of prolific thought and elevating discourse. The words he spake were few, but they were words spoken as from the secret place of thunder, and seemed more like decrees issuing from the presence of the Eternal, than the utterances of one of like passions with those he addressed. Appearing at a time when the very foundations were out of course, and the most flagrant enormities were openly practised in the high places of the land, he boldly stood forth in the name of God, as a wrestler in the cause of righteousness—not so much to plead for it as to avenge and vindicate it, as if the time had come for deciding the controversy by deeds rather than by words. For this gigantic work power was given him to smite the earth with plagues, and to torment those who dwelt on it, and who were corrupting it by their wicked deeds (1 Kings 17, 18; Rev_11:6). But when the results aimed at by this severe and stern agency were in a good measure accomplished, when by terrible things in righteousness the daring of the adversary had been quelled, and an open field had been won for active operations, his mission called him to work of another kind—such work as was fitly symbolised by the still small voice at Horeb, in which now, and not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire, the Lord made Himself known to His servant. Enough, it was virtually said to the prophet, of such overawing displays of power as have hitherto been put forth. They have already served their more immediate purpose, but work of a more peaceful and regenerative nature still remains to be done. The decayed schools of the prophets must be revived, and spiritual labours prosecuted, if haply through such instrumentality the hearts of the children may be quickened into newness of life, and turned back to the Lord their God. And so, after he had by patient and faithful exertion approved himself in this part also of his prophetical mission, he was received up to heaven in a chariot of glory.
The only remarkable divergence from the general course which appears in this great series of prophetical agency, after the pattern of Samuel, is that of David’s circle—including, beside himself, Nathan, Solomon, and the more distinguished men of certain Levite families, who took part in the composition of the Psalms. So far this collateral branch of prophecy corresponds with the main stem, that here also the grand aim was of a practical kind. It had for its direct object the infusing of new life and vigour into the Mosaic institutions, and promoting, among all classes of the people, the cultivation of that righteousness which they were designed to plant and nourish. But, with this general resemblance, the agency of David and his coadjutors differed from that of the contemporary prophetical order, in the more judicial character of the measures employed on the side of righteousness, and also in the frequent composition of inspired writings. Here there was not only action, but action pursuing its ends through the channels of constituted government, with the view of purging out evil from the kingdom, and rendering it in reality, what it was in name, a commonwealth of saints. And, along with this, sometimes also without it, there was ever and anon flowing the pure stream of didactic and devotional poetry. Popular and sacred song, chaunted first upon the lyre of the son of Jesse, and afterwards continued by a noble band of like-minded companions and followers, breathed forth in lofty strains the spiritual essence of the Mosaic ritual, which it also touchingly inwrought with the feelings of a profound and varied personal experience. By consecrating such productions to the interest of religion, and even associating them, as was usually done, with the service of the sanctuary, the believing Israelite was supplied with forms of thought and feeling suited to all the moods of his soul, and the diversified circumstances of his condition. And to these spiritual songs, so fragrant with the odour of Divine truth and sanctified experience, were added others (indited after the promise brought by Nathan to David, respecting the perpetuity of the kingdom in David’s line), usually designated, by way of eminence, the Messianic Psalms, which interweave the predictive with the devotional and experimental elements, by pointing to the greater personage and nobler results in which the kingdom was to find its ultimate completion. Of both parts of the Psalmodic poetry, it may be said, that the primary tendency and design was to inspirit the entire framework of the ancient economy with the measure of life, of which it was susceptible, and to carry its members to the highest degree of light and purity it might be possible for them to reach under that provisional state of things.
In process of time, however, it became evident that all these extraordinary efforts, both by the prophetical order generally, and in the collateral line of operations originated by David, could not avail to stem the tide of corruption, and raise the affairs of the old economy to the desired elevation, or even to save them from fatal disorder and ruin. Too manifestly the external fabric of its institutions must be taken down, and the kingdom of God among men cast in another mould. As soon as this melancholy result came distinctly into view, then began the later, and, as regards specific predictions, the more fully developed stage of ancient prophecy. It commenced with Hosea and Amos (if not with Jonah), in the kingdom of Israel, and with Joel and Isaiah, in that of Judah—and had its distinctive characteristic in this, that while the prophets did not cease to lift their voice against prevailing evils, and strive for a return to the old paths, yet seeing every thing as it then stood tottering to its foundation, they chiefly directed their eye to the more distant future, and disclosed the purposes of God respecting the higher development of the divine kingdom now in prospect, along with the destinies awaiting the earthly states and dominions which had disputed, or might yet dispute, with it the claim for empire. In this period, as the prophetical writings were greatly more numerous than in any previous one, so, from the very nature of the case, they go more into details about the future, and supply our amplest materials for comparing the anticipations of prophecy with the subsequent events of history.
In this brief survey, we have purposely confined our view to the more general features of the subject, such as may be perceived on the most cursory inspection, and about which there can scarcely be any difference of opinion. The more minute investigations connected with its several parts will be matter for future inquiry and consideration. Meanwhile, from the outline itself, various thoughts naturally suggest themselves as to the relations of prophecy to history, and these of some importance for a correct appreciation of the nature and function of prophecy.
1. First of all, it is obvious, that the prophecy of Scripture is closely interwoven with its history. So far from standing by itself in a sort of isolation and independence, it is in connection with the facts of history that prophetical revelations took at once their rise and their form. It is so in whichever light the revelations of prophecy be contemplated—whether in the higher and more enlarged sense of Divine communications respecting the mind and purposes of God, or in the more limited sense of predictions of things to come. As prophecy, however, in this latter sense, appears in Scripture as only a particular and comparatively subordinate department of a wider field, it naturally enters less in this sense than in the other, into the bulk and texture of sacred history. Prophetic communications and prophetic agency occur often in the greatest frequency, and tell with the most powerful effect upon the course of events, when little is to be met with of predictions—at least of clear and definite predictions—of coming events in providence.
But even in this narrower sense—the one also with which we have now more especially to do—the connection between prophecy and history is alike close and pervading. A prophetic thread runs through the whole of the inspired records, and binds together both ends of revelation. To a certain extent this is not peculiar to the Bible, but belongs to it in common with the products of human thought and observation, which record the facts of providence, or unfold the principles on which they proceed. For, as has been justly said, (“Douglas on the Structure of Prophecy,” p. 4.) “prophecy is not an anomaly; it springs from the nature of Jehovah, the self-existent and eternal, who gives continuity to existence, and perpetuity to knowledge. Philosophy is prophetic as well as religion—the fact discovered to-day becomes the ‘prediction of that which will take place under exactly similar circumstances when ages have rolled away, as long as the present system of creation remains.” (On this ground Coleridge said admirably of Burke—“He possessed, and had sedulously sharpened, the eye which sees all things, actions, and events, in relation to the laws that determine their existence, and circumscribe their possibility. He referred habitually to principles. He was a scientific statesman; and therefore a seer. For every principle contains in itself the germs of a prophecy; and as the prophetic power is the essential principle of science, so the fulfilment of its oracles supplies the outward, and (to men in general) the only test of its claim to the title.”—Biog. Lit,, I., p. 195.) Hence also the saying of our great poet:
“There is a history in all men’s lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceased;
The which observed, a man may prophesy
With a near aim of the main chance of things,
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.”
There is a profound truth in such utterances, but not by any means the whole truth as connected with prophecy in Scripture; since they have respect to the prophetic element merely as involved in the general principles of the Divine administration, and make no account of the more peculiar points of contact which Scripture presents between heaven and earth, and the more vital links with which the present is there bound with the future. Sacred history furnishes other materials of a prophetic nature than are to be found in “men’s lives,” or in the common operations of providence. For God is in the Church as He is not in the world; and the history which records the manifestations He gives of Himself in the former, has aspects to unfold of His perfections and character, which will be sought for in vain amidst the lights of natural science, or the annals of earthly transactions. The fundamental difference lies in this—that in the Church there is the revelation of God’s grace; and grace from its very nature is instinct with the spirit of prophecy. Seeking to achieve, by a happy combination of righteousness with mercy, the redemption of the fallen, it necessarily anticipates not only a future, but a future greater and better than the present: therefore awakening desire and hope in respect to things not seen as yet, and pointing expectation onward to their coming realisation. Hence the first promulgation of grace is also the first prophecy (Gen_3:15); a prophecy, no doubt, vague and indeterminate as regards actual personages and events, but perfectly explicit as to the certainty of a deliverance to be accomplished by God, and to be patiently waited for by men. And continually as the work of grace proceeded on its course, multiplying its proofs of the loving-kindness of God, and of his determination to vindicate the cause of his chosen, especially from the time its professed recipients were bound together as the members of a visible kingdom, and had their expectations of coming good associated with the affairs of a local territory and the interests of a distinct community, it was impossible but that with the growth of the historical element, the prophetical also should increase, and should, in many respects, become more varied and definite in its prospective intimations of the future.
Prophecy, therefore, being from the very first inseparably linked with the plan of grace unfolded in Scripture, is, at the same time, the necessary concomitant of sacred history. The two mutually act and re-act on each other. Prophecy gives birth to the history; the history, in turn, as it moves onward to its destined completion, at once fulfils prophecies already given, and calls forth farther revelations. And so far from possessing the character of an excrescence, or existing merely as an anomaly in the procedure of God toward men, prophecy cannot even be rightly understood, unless viewed in relation to the order of the Divine dispensations, and its actual place in history.
Let it not, however, be inferred from this mutual interconnection, that prophecy and history are altogether alike in nature; or in such a sense assimilated, that by the rule and measure of the one, we must determine the import and bearing of the other. Such, too often, has been the manner of dealing with the subject by those who have perceived and exhibited the connection; as if, on the one side, prophecy could not rise above history—nor, on the other, history be more precise and determinate than prophecy. However closely related the two are to each other, they still have their own distinctive characteristics, and through these, their respective ends to serve. History is the occasion of prophecy, but not its measure; for prophecy rises above history, borne aloft by wings, which carry it far beyond the present, and which it derives, not from the past occurrences of which history takes cognizance, but from Him to whom the future and the past are alike known. It is the communication of so much of His own supernatural light, as He sees fit to let down upon the dark movements of history, to show whither they are conducting. For the most part, the persons who live in the midst of events, are the least capable of understanding aright the character of their age. But God is elevated above it, and, by the word of prophecy, He so informs the minds of his people in respect to the end, that they come also to know better than they could otherwise have done, the beginning and the middle. And as prophecy, from its intimate connection with history, has its regular progress and development, there are two considerations that ought not to be forgotten in any attempts to ascertain its proper nature and import. The one is, that the meaning of a prophecy is not to be restrained and limited by conclusions deduced simply from the historical circumstances out of which it may have sprung, but from the words of the prophecy itself; since the circumstances only prompt and fashion the words, but by no means hold them restricted within the same compass. And along with this, there is the further consideration, that since prophecy has God, and not history, for its author—has only been conceived in the lap of history, but not properly produced by it—it must ever have in it something divinely rich and great, reaching, not only beyond the things presently existing, but also, it may be, beyond what even, with the help of these, it might be possible beforehand adequately to conceive. (In these closing remarks I have adopted thoughts, though not the precise words of Delitzsch, in his Biblisch-Proph. Theologie, p. 184, where he opposes the view of Hofmann, that history must be made the measure and rule of prophecy. See also Hengstenberg’s Christology, vol. iv. p. 388, Eng. Trans., who justly says, that the weak point in the early orthodox view was to be found in its comparative disregard of the connection between history and prophecy, which, on the other side, rationalism has pushed to excess. He also states, and justly, that care must be taken to maintain the connection so as not to lose sight of the essential characteristics of prophecy (after the fashion, for example, of Hofmann), and that features are still occasionally met with in some of the prophetic delineations (as in the mention by Micah of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Messiah) which it is scarcely possible to account for by any known historical circumstances of the time.)
2. These remarks, however, only touch the more obvious and formal part of the connection of prophecy with history. The connection goes much farther and deeper. For, we observe, secondly, that the sacred history itself has throughout intermingled with it a prophetic element. Not only is it to be viewed as the germinant soil out of which predictions were ever springing forth, but in the very facts and statements it records, predictions, though of a somewhat concealed and general kind, lie imbedded. The historical transactions of Scripture are part of a great plan, which stretches from the fall of man to the final consummation of all things in glory; and in so far as they reveal the mind of God toward man, they carry a respect to the future not less than to the present. Their having such a prospective significance rests on the fundamental principle, that in His character and purposes, God is unchangeably the same; so that, seeing the end from the beginning, and planning all with infinite wisdom, as parts of a progressive and consistent whole, the truths embodied in the transactions of one period necessarily retained their efficacy, and reappeared in the corresponding transactions of another. Hence the freedom, and the frequency also, with which prophecy, in its delineations of the future, serves itself of the antecedent facts and characters of history. As—to point only to a few examples out of many—when the Psalmist announces in Psalms 110, a royal priest after the order of Melchizedek, which implied, that the relations of Melchizek’s time and person should somehow revive again in the future; or, when, by a mode of representation common to all the prophets, the successive stages of Israel’s history are described as experiences once more to be undergone (Hosea 2, Ezekiel 4, Ezekiel 20, etc.). Hence, too, the use perpetually made by the apostles of the notices of patriarchal and Israelitish history, as a kind of preparatory exhibition of the truths and relations of the gospel (Rom_4:4, Rom_4:17; 1Co_10:1-11; Rev_4:1-6, etc.); and by our Lord himself, who so often appears retracing the footsteps of His forefathers after the flesh—re-echoing from His own bosom the recorded utterances of their faith and hope—and appropriating to Himself the words that had been addressed to them, of counsel and encouragement (Mat_4:1-10; Luk_23:46, etc.)
Nor is even this the whole; for, the more important and characteristic features of the ancient dispensation—the erection of the tabernacle in the wilderness, with its complicated ritual of worship—the conquest and possession of Canaan—the institution of the earthly kingdom, and the building of the temple on Mount Zion—what are they all but so many prophetic forms and symbols of things to come? In themselves they were but imperfect and provisional means, incapable, from their very nature, of reaching their proper end, and ever, in a manner, proclaiming the necessity of a higher order of things to substantiate and perfect their design. And so, when the higher things actually came—when Christ’s work and kingdom entered among men, they did not assume the aspect of something absolutely new, but appeared rather as the natural result and completion of the old—the working out of the plan of God in accordance with its Divine and spiritual nature, and establishing it on its immoveable foundations.
Indeed, it is as true of the history, as of the prophecy of Old Testament Scripture, that it points to the incarnation and work of Christ for man’s redemption as its great terminating object. There alone it finds its proper explanation and its adequate result. It unfolds modes of procedure on the part of God, and experiences on the part of His people, which, in respect to that ulterior event, are all anticipative and preparatory; since in them God was ever manifesting Himself under the limits and conditions, sometimes also in the form, of humanity, for the purpose of saving men from the evils and dangers of sin; while yet the salvation, which might effectually and for ever accomplish this, is never reached, and remains still an object of desire and hope. Those divine theophanies, therefore, with the human experiences of grace and redemption connected with them—from the walking of God in Eden, when He came to reveal the purpose of salvation, to the last appearances of the angel of the covenant to counsel and comfort the released exiles of Babylon—the whole of these, when rightly understood, are so many converging lines that meet in the God-man and His redemptive work, as their common centre. They are a prophecy in action of that personal union of the divine and human in Christ, by which alone the gulph between God and man could be closed, and the breath of a new and higher life infused into the fallen. Viewed apart from this consummating process, they seem like the disjointed materials and fragmentary projections of some vast building, which cannot attain to proper harmony and completeness, till the Great Architect comes to finish the work But let them be viewed, as they should be, in their relation and subservience to what was to come, and then they will be seen to give evidence throughout of the presiding agency of God, planning and directing all with infinite skill, so as to render the past a suitable and growing preparation for the future, and present in the antecedent history of redemption the prelude of redemption itself. But for this redemption, foreseen and contemplated by the mind of God, there could as little have been such an antecedent history, as there could have been a volume of prophecy springing out of it, having for its pervading and animating spirit the testimony of Jesus.
Thus it appears that the Old Testament is in a manner impregnated with the prophetical element, and not as by caprice or accident, but from the very aim and character of its revelations. The more specific and formal predictions it contains, do not stand out in solitary grandeur by themselves, like eminences rising abruptly from a surrounding level; they are only the higher elevations, the occasional mountain-peaks, from which the eye of faith was allowed at times to descry more clearly the shadows of the coming age. But all around also, there were prospective contrivances and points of contact between the present and the future. “As, in a writer of genius, his individual, great thoughts appear like lilies on the surface of the water, groundless and rootless, and yet are sustained by one common soil, so also the individual prophets of God’s people are not to be regarded as scattered manifestations of the Divine Spirit, but rooted in one common soil,—namely, in the prophetic subsistence of the nation itself, and its institutions.” (Tholuck, Comm. on Hebrews, Diss. i.) Besides, there were occasional arrangements and transactions, in which the prophetical element assumed a somewhat more distinct shape, and which, consequently, held a closer affinity with the announcements of prophecy. Such, for example, were the things accomplished in Abraham, as the head of that covenant, which was to diffuse life and blessing through all the families of mankind. Occupying this high position, a position that so manifestly linked together the present and the future, he was constituted by God, in the truest sense, a representative man, in whose calling and course of life there was to be a real significance for others down to the latest generations. There, as in a glass, the children of the covenant, of every age, were to find a prospective exhibition of the things which concerned their relation to God—what they were as children of nature, what they become as partakers of grace, what they are called to strive after and may justly expect to reach as the heirs of blessing. And so again, at a later period, in the case of David, who was also the head of a covenant, and, indeed, of the same covenant, only made to assume a form more immediately adapted to the working out and administration of the blessing. All the lines of his eventful history pointed, like prophetic signs, to the future, and were by himself employed, through the direction of the Spirit, as the materials of many vivid delineations that had for their object the person and kingdom of Messiah. Daniel’s history, too, was in the closest manner connected with his prophecy. The one may fitly be regarded as a type of the other, and on that account, probably, occupies so large a place in his book. The grand aim of the revelations imparted to him, was to unfold the progress of the kingdom of God from deep depression, and through manifold struggles, to the supreme place of honour and glory, and the process is already imaged in the marvellous rise of Daniel himself from the condition of a Hebrew exile to the place of highest power and influence at the court of Babylon. In the case also of some of the other prophets similar providences were not wanting.
Nor, among those prophetical elements and affinities interwoven with the history and institutions of the Old Testament, should we omit to notice a class of persons who made a near approach to the prophetical order, and might not unfitly be designated prophets in action. We refer to the Nazarites, who, in one passage, are named along with the prophets, as if there were no very marked distinction between them: “And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazarites” (Amo_2:11). The Nazarites were simply, as the name imports, the separated ones, persons who stood apart from the mass of the community, as under a special vow or act of consecration to the Lord. Individually, and for a set time or purpose, they were to give a living exhibition of that holy surrender and devotedness to God which should ever have been exemplified by the covenant-people as a whole. They were, therefore, a kind of election within the election. And the peculiar restraints and services imposed on them had this alone for their object: To present the Nazarites as pattern-men, withdrawn from everything fitted, whether by undue exhilaration or by mournful sadness, to mar their communion with the pure and blessed life of God. According as they abounded in Israel, there were to be found among the people so many embodied lessons, or palpable manifestations of that covenant faithfulness, which it was always the first part of a prophet’s calling, as well as the sum of Israel’s duty, to illustrate and maintain. But it was possible for the Nazarite to be brought into still closer resemblance to the prophet. There might be circumstances connected with his vow of separation to the Lord, which served to mark him out as a special gift of heaven, or, in some more peculiar sense, a witness of the truth of God. That such was occasionally, at least, the case, may naturally be inferred from the language of Amos, in which the Nazarites are mentioned as among the singular proofs furnished by God of His goodness to His people. They are also referred to by Jeremiah in a way that seems to betoken the high place they held among the peculiar lights and instruments of blessing in Israel. “Her Nazarites,” he says (Lam_4:7), “were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire.” And in two very remarkable cases, those of Samuel and John the Baptist, cases in which instruction by action was to go hand in hand with that of direct teaching, the obligation of the Nazarite vow was by Divine ordination made coeval with birth, and associated also with the higher gifts and calling of a prophet.
The most singular example, however, of the whole class, and the one that, in its simply Nazaritish character, bore most distinctly the aspect of a prophecy, is that of Samson—in itself a kind of sacred enigma. Not, however, an inexplicable enigma, if viewed in relation to the circumstances of the time, and with due regard to its prophetical character. The time was one of backsliding and rebuke. The marvellous story begins immediately after it has been said, that “the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.” Judges had been raised up for their deliverance before, with only a partial and temporary success; for the root of the evil was never properly reached. But the Lord now bethought Him of trying, as His chosen instrument of working, a Nazarite, wonderful in his very birth, and wonderful still more for the singular gift with which he was endowed,—yet trying him not solely, nor even chiefly, for the purpose of breaking the Philistine yoke, but for what was more urgently needed, the imparting of a proper insight into God’s mind, and awakening a right spirit of devotedness to His fear. It was this which alone could re-establish the people in honour and blessing, as the oppression and miseries that lay upon them were the result merely of broken vows, and unfaithful dealing in the covenant of God. And how could the requisite instruction be more touchingly and impressively conveyed to them, than by such a marvellous and mournful story as presents itself in the life of Samson? A child is supernaturally promised and given, expressly on account of the exigency of the times—the child of a mother laid, for the occasion, under the restrictions of the Nazarite vow, and himself appointed to be a Nazarite from his birth—one so emphatically called to separate himself to the Lord, that to every thoughtful mind he must have readily seemed a personified Israel, the peculiar representative of a people standing under covenant to Jehovah. “The child grew, and the Lord blessed him; and the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times” (Jdg_13:24-25); but only, it would seem, in the lower sphere of operations, in the display of supernatural bodily might, and the performance of astonishing feats of strength and prowess. We can descry, through those fitful and terrific movements of his early life, a zeal glowing in the breast of this young Nazarite, capable of daring and accomplishing the greatest things. But we watch in vain to see it rising to the proper height; it looks more like the earth-sprung zeal of patriotism, than that of a holy and self-denying regard to the glory of God. Ready to seize on every opportunity to afflict the Philistines as enemies, it burns not against them as the servants of idolatry and corruption; and so, while at one moment he rushes on them in his fury, at another he takes them to his familiar embrace, and is even bent on having one of their daughters for his wife. It was precisely the defect and failing of his people. To them, too, collectively belonged a noble superiority in outward standing and privilege above their idolatrous neighbours. They were a people of relatively high endowments, and were bound together by a strong international and patriotic spirit. But they lacked the true zeal of God, and hence were ever ready to lose sight of what was in itself their grand distinction, and the foundation of all that they possessed of good—their divine call to the knowledge and service of Jehovah. For such a people to lose this was, in a manner, to lose all, since, by losing it, they necessarily became false witnesses of God, and, in consequence, were surrendered by Him to the powers of evil, which they should have held in subjection.
The moral weakness, therefore, which appeared in Samson, was but a reflexion of the hereditary and prevailing evil in Israel. And God did with it in the present case as He ever in effect does with evil of that description, when unrighteously clung to: He shut it up to a particular channel, allowed it to take only that course which might render the example of this externally strong, but internally feeble, Nazarite, a more exact and instructive image of the people whom he represented. Hence, as one carried away by a resistless impulse, he must go to woo and wed among the uncircumcised Philistines, ally himself to the daughter of a strange god, nay, suffer himself to become the weak tool of this woman’s treachery and caprice, so as to betray, at her solicitation, the secret of his strength, and part with the symbol of his consecration to God. How light did it show him to have made of his heaven-imposed vow of separation to the Lord! And how bitterly was his own measure meted back to him, when, after being caught in the toils of the deceiver, he was delivered over as a laughing-stock to his enemies and was trodden under foot of men! There, in black night and abject humiliation, the riddle might have ended; it would have ended there, if the fall of Israel were like the fall of the world—a fall without the hope of recovery. But it is not so; through the loving-kindness and mercy of God, other things were still in reserve for them. Therefore, when the cold winter of desolation had passed over the son of Manoah, and amid the shame and wretchedness of his captivity, the Nazarite’s heart returns to him, the freshness of another spring returns along with it; he again raises himself up in the might of a giant, and with one terrible blow brings confusion on the pride and glory of his adversaries. An acted prophecy throughout!—only, in the earlier part, bearing more immediate respect to the chequered experiences which Israel had been made to undergo, and, in the later, to the expectation that might still be cherished of a happier future. With the certainty of a sign from heaven it proclaimed, that for the seed of Israel every thing in evil or in good depended upon the part they acted in respect to the covenant of God; and it should have been heard by the men of that generation proclaiming this the more loudly, as their failure to recognise aright the divine mission of Samson, and to stand by him at the outset of his career, had manifestly contributed not a little to his failure in the work of deliverance he ought to have achieved for them. There was hope, however, still hope in his death; and if their repentings did but kindle together, and their faith revive after the manner of his, they might yet ride upon the high places of the earth, and do the more valiantly by reason of their temporary defeat. (When the history of Samson is understood in the light presented above, no difficulty need be felt about the statement in Jdg_14:4, that it was of the Lord he sought a wife from the Philistines. It was of the Lord, in the same sense, that the act of David in numbering Israel was so (2Sa_24:1). In both cases alike, as in many others of a similar kind, there was a wrong bias or disposition already working in the soul, sure to take tome outward direction in the way of evil; and God so ordered matters, as to make it take that direction which He saw to be the best fitted for discovering its own nature, or subserving the purposes He meant to accomplish in connection with it. For another quite parallel case, see 1Ki_2:15.)
This branch of our subject, however, has been pursued far enough. We have seen that not a few points of contact exist between the prophecy of Scripture and its history; and how naturally, how necessarily even, the one grows out of the other, and how closely, in several respects, it is interwoven with it. So that while there are specific differences, it is impossible but that there must also be general agreements, and particularly in regard to the place they respectively hold in the great plan of God’s moral government. Prophecy and history alike occupy but different provinces in the evolution of this Divine plan—provinces that continually overlap and interpenetrate one another; and the relation they bear to it, is the aspect in which both should always be primarily and chiefly contemplated. Their common and more direct object is to make known God’s purposes of grace and principles of dealing towards men; the one by narration of the past, the other by connecting the past with the future.