Chapter 4. The Relation Of Prophecy To Men’s Responsibilities, With A Consideration Of The Question, How Far It Is Absolute Or Conditional In Its Announcements
FROM the proper sphere of prophecy, we pass to the consideration of its proper bearing on those whom it respects, as to their personal liberty of thought and action, their obligations and prospects. It indicates the future; is the future in every case absolutely determined by it? Or, is room still left after it has uttered its declarations for human freedom to work, and, according to the nature of the working, to give a corresponding turn to its prospective announcements? In a word, is it the characteristic of prophecy to make known certainly and conclusively what is to come to pass? Or, are its revelations to some extent conditional, depending on the line of conduct that may meanwhile be pursued by those to whom they are addressed?
This is a point of some moment for the right understanding of considerable portions of the prophetical Scriptures; and one that has called forth the most contradictory opinions. The diversity, however, has arisen more from the intermingling of philosophical and doctrinal elements with the discussion of the question, than from any darkness or uncertainty necessarily attaching to the grounds and principles on which the solution should be based. For the question here is not, as it has too often been considered, whether the definite prediction, and consequently clear foreknowledge, or certain determination of the future actions of men, be compatible with their moral freedom—which may be admitted without ever touching the more noticeable peculiarities belonging to the present subject; and must, indeed, be admitted by all who receive in simplicity the statements of Scripture, however impossible they may find it to harmonise the respective spheres of the human and the divine in the matter, and adjust their concurrent agencies. Nor, again, is the proper question here, whether any fixed purpose and determination of God is liable to be changed by the contingent procedure of men; for, in that respect, the truth, founded in God’s eternal nature, stands fast for ever: “He is not man, that he should lie; nor the Son of man, that he should repent.” The question rather is, whether prophecy, viewed simply as a word spoken in behalf of God by one class of men to another, ought to be regarded as announcing what is fixed and conclusively determined by God—his irreversible decrees? Or, whether it should not to some extent—and if in some, then to what extent—be viewed as the proclamation of God’s mind respecting his future dealings, on the supposition of the parties interested standing in a certain relationship to his character and government. In this last case the word might assuredly be expected to take effect, in so far as the relations contemplated in the prophecy continued, but in the event of a change entering in the one respect, then a corresponding change in the other might reasonably be looked for. Such is the real question at issue among those who concur in holding the word of prophecy to be a supernatural disclosure of God’s mind and will; and to diverge to other, however closely related points, is only to embarrass the discussion with what does not strictly belong to it.
Now, to say nothing for the present of the theologians of former times, there are two classes of writers on prophecy in the present day who assume nearly opposite positions on the point before us. On the one side may be named Küster and Olshausen, holding, that all prophecies are more or less conditional. Thus, on Matthew 24, we find Olshausen saying, “As every thing future, even that which proceeds from the freedom of the creature, when viewed in relation to the divine knowledge, can only be regarded as necessary; so every thing future, as far as it concerns man, can only be regarded as conditional upon the use of this freedom. As obstinate perseverance in sin hastens destruction, so genuine repentance may avert it. This is illustrated in the Old Testament in the prophet Jonah, by the history of Nineveh; and intimated in the New Testament by Paul, when, like Abraham praying for Sodom, he described the elements of good existing in the world as exercising a restraint upon the judgments of God (2Th_2:7); and in the second epistle of Peter, the delay of the Lord’s coming is viewed as an act of long-suffering, designed to afford men space for repentance. “Accordingly,” he adds, “when the Redeemer promises the near approach of his coming, this announcement is to be taken with the restriction (to be understood in connection with all predictions of judgments), ‘All this will come to pass, unless men avert the wrath of God by sincere repentance.’ None of the divine predictions are bare historical proclamations of what is to take place; they are alarums calling men to repentance—of which it may be said, that they announce something for the very purpose, that what is announced may not come to pass.”
The same principle must, of course, be held equally to apply to predictions containing intimations of coming good—only with this difference, that these are understood to be made for the express purpose of aiding in the accomplishment of what is announced, by their tendency to influence human wills in the right direction, yet without securing either this, or their own realization by any rule of imperious necessity. The principle, however, is rejected by Hengstenberg, who may be taken as the highest representative of the counter-mode of interpretation. He says, “Beyond all doubt, when the prophet denounces the divine judgments, he proceeds on the assumption, that the people will not repent—an assumption which he knows from God to be true. Were the people to repent, the prediction would fail; but because they will not, it is uttered absolutely. It does not follow, however, that the prophet’s warnings and exhortations are useless. These serve ‘for a witness against them;’ and, besides, amid the ruin of the mass, individuals might be saved. Viewing prophecies as conditional predictions nullifies them. The Mosaic criterion (Deu_18:22), that he was a false prophet, who should predict things ‘which followed not nor came to pass,’ would then be of no value, since recourse might always be had to the excuse, that the case had been altered by the not fulfilling of the condition. The fear of introducing fatalism, if the prophecies are not taken in a conditional sense, is unfounded; for God’s omniscience, His foreknowledge, does not establish fatalism; and from omniscience simply is the prescience of the prophets to be derived. The prophets feel themselves so closely united to God, that the words of Jehovah are given as their own, and that to them is often ascribed what God does, which proves their own consciousness to have been entirely absorbed into that of God.” (Art. ‘Prophecy’ in Kitto’s Cyclopedia.) These two forms of representation may both be characterized as somewhat extreme, and neither of them can be applied to the actual interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures, without coming at many points into conflict with the undoubted facts of the case. In particular, one does not see, how the ethical element could have been allowed that scope in prophecy, which we have already seen to belong to it, unless the historical result had been left in some degree dependent on the conduct of those to whom the prophecy should come: since such persons might be, and often actually were, as much the subjects of moral treatment in respect to the announcements of prophecy, as in respect to the commands of law, or the provisions of grace. The case alone of Nineveh under the preaching of Jonah puts it beyond a doubt, that such a conditional element as we suppose, might find a place in the domain of prophecy. Never did its intimations of coming evil assume a more definite and pointed form, than when Jonah proclaimed in the streets of that great city, that in forty days it should be overthrown. And yet, by operating in the way of moral suasion on the hearts of the people, the predicted event did not take place; in other words, the prophecy, notwithstanding its apparent absoluteness, was found to have in it a latent conditionally. Precisely similar was the case of Hezekiah in his sickness. The prophet Isaiah came to him with a formal message, “Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live.” Yet, on account of the deep humiliation and earnest prayer of Hezekiah, the word was recalled, and a prolongation of life granted to him. The Mosaic criterion, interpreted after the method of Hengstenberg, and applied to such cases, would inevitably lead to the conclusion, that there had been no true prophecy. And if the supposition of a conditional principle inhering in the nature and design of prophecy might occasionally afford some excuse to a mere pretender, for evading the condemnation due to him on the failure of his prediction—might even sometimes render it a matter of doubt, how far a prediction really divine should be expected to meet with a fulfilment according to its terms—on the other hand, the absolute rejection of such a principle can have no other result than that of excluding from the rank of genuine predictions a considerable portion of the prophetic word, and also of most unduly contracting the ethical import and bearing of prophecy. Its specific character as a prediction—the merely natural element in it—would thereby become its only appreciable quality.
The chief error, we conceive, in these conflicting views respecting prophecy is the disposition they exhibit to generalize too far, to extend to the whole prophetical field principles that are applicable only to a portion of it. There is need here for a measure of discrimination, as prophecy in regard to the greater or less absoluteness of its terms must materially depend upon the kind of subjects it embraces, and the relations amid which it moves. An exact classification, however, is impossible, on account of the concrete character of its prospective delineations, and the readiness with which these in their diverse aspects run into each other. But one can without difficulty trace out a few broad and easily recognised distinctions, which, for all practical purposes, may be held to be sufficient.
1. There is, first, a class of prophecies, the direct and proper object of which is to disclose God’s purposes of grace to men, and indicate in its grander outlines their appointed course of development. As the ultimate ground of these purposes is plainly in God himself, and the bringing of them into accomplishment is emphatically His work, it is evident that, in respect to this line of things, there can be no room for the operation of any conditional element, except in regard to the subordinate relations of place and time. Whether to be sooner or later in effecting the results aimed at, whether to be effected in this particular mode or in some other that might be conceived—in such things, as the plan of God necessarily comes into contact with earthly relations and human agencies, it must presuppose a certain adaptation in the state of the world, and the conduct of individual men. Hence, in these respects announcements might be made at one time, which, as seen from a human point of view, appeared to have undergone a relative change at another; but the things themselves, and all that essentially concerns their history and progressive operation in the world, being entirely and absolutely of God, must proceed in strict accordance with the intimations He gives of His mind respecting them.
As examples of this great class of prophecies, we point to the original announcement of salvation, by the triumph of the woman’s seed over that of the tempter; to the promise given to Abraham, that through his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed; to the successive limitations made as to the fulfilment of this promise in its main provisions, by its special connection with the tribe of Judah, the house of David, and a virgin-born son of that house; to the representations made of this glorious Being himself, of the constitution of His person, the place of His birth, the nature and circumstances of His career on earth, the character of His government, the final results and glories of His kingdom, with the opposite destinies of those who might set themselves in array against it. In regard to all that in this respect was purposed in the Divine mind, and announced from time to time in the prophetic word, there could be no room for any such conditional element as might in the least affect the question, whether they should actually come to pass or not; for they were matters entering into the very core of the Divine administration, and indissolubly linked to the great principles, on which from the first all was destined to proceed. As concerns them, we have simply to do with the omniscience of God in foreseeing, His veracity in declaring, and His overruling providence in directing what should come to pass.
Still, even in this class of prophecies, as they do not proceed to their accomplishment in a lofty isolation from human interests and responsibilities, so the things belonging to them must be presented to men’s view as capable of being expedited or retarded by the line of behaviour they pursue; and while with God himself the end was seen from the beginning, and absolutely determined, yet particular issues might fitly enough appear to be suspended on the particular condition of the church or the world—precisely as in men’s individual relation to the grace of God, some are spoken of as subserving, and others of frustrating it—though, as contemplated from the divine point of view, grace must always be regarded as reaching its end. Thus, to refer to the predictions mentioned in the extract from Olshausen—those respecting the second advent of the Lord—there can be no doubt, that (however definitely fixed in the counsels of Heaven) certain things among men are represented as tending, on the one side to hinder, on the other to forward its approach. Our Lord, in one of his parables (Luk_18:1-8), speaks as if it hung on the stedfast faith and persevering prayer of his elect people. St Peter uses still stronger language; he exhorts believers to a hopeful, godly, and consistent life, that they might hasten on the day of the Lord’s coming, (for such is the plain import of his words, σπεύδοντας τὴν παρουσίαν τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμέρας, 2Pe_3:12). And St Paul not only speaks of a grand development of apostacy necessarily preceding the arrival of that day, but of certain things, which he does not further characterize, hindering this development, and by implication retarding the personal appearance of the Lord, which in the chain of providences was to be subsequent to the other. Hence, the day in question might, in perfect accordance with the general design and proper character of prophecy, be represented in apostolic times as “near,” as “drawing nigh,” as even “at hand;” for the church being then in the full spring-tide of its life and blessing, burning with holy zeal for the proper fulfilment of its mission, it might well seem, as if that mission were hastening to its accomplishment, and all things were becoming ready for the final harvest of the world. Yet, it must have been impossible for any one to read with care some of the parables of our Lord, or even what was written by St Paul of the great apostacy—to say nothing of the more lengthened and intricate plan of events prospectively delineated in the Apocalypse—without coming to the conviction, that there was still an implied alternative; namely, that if the church of Christ should degenerate in her course, if she should begin to slumber in the work given her to do, still more, if she should become adulterated by the carnal spirit, and the corrupt practices of the world, then the shadows of the evening should need to be lengthened out, and in the tenderness of his forbearance, as well as for purposes of trial and judgment, the Lord should have to protract the day of his appearing. The day itself, therefore, was purposely left in concealment; it remained among the undiscovered secrets of the Godhead, and nothing more than probable, and proximate signs were given of its approach, as of an event to be ever expected, and looked for, yet never, as to the period of its actual occurrence, to be certainly foreknown. Another, and in some respects more palpable example of the relative, yet quite partial and subordinate, dependence of this class of prophecies on the actual course of events in the world, may be found in the predictions bearing on the divine purpose to connect the peculiar blessing for mankind with the royal house of David. The appointment in favour of that house to bear rule among men, and bestow upon them life and blessing, was irrevocably fixed, from the time that Nathan delivered to David the prophecy contained in 2Sa_7:5-17. On that prophecy as a sure foundation, a whole series of predictions began to be announced, in which the eye of faith was pointed to the bright visions in prospect, and, in particular, to that child of promise, in whom the succession from David’s loins was to terminate, and who was to reign for ever over the heritage of God. But while the appointment itself was absolute, and the original prophecy was so far of the same character, that it indicated no suspension in the sovereignty of David’s house, or actual break in the succession to his throne, David himself knew perfectly, that there was an implied condition, which might render such a thing possible, and that the prophecy behoved to be read in the light of those great principles, which pervade the whole of the Divine economy. Hence, in addition to all he had penned in his psalms, he gave forth in his dying testimony, for the special benefit of his seed, a description of the ruler, such as the word of promise contemplated, and such as ought to have been, at least, generally realized in those who occupied the throne of his kingdom, “He that ruleth over men must be just ruling in the fear of God” (2Sa_23:3). Not only so, but in his last, and still more specific charge, delivered to his immediate successor on the throne, he expressly rested his expectation of the fulfilment of the covenant made with him, on the faithful adherence of those who should follow him to the law and testimony of God. For, after enjoining Solomon to walk in the ways, and keep the statutes of God, he adds, as a reason for persuading to such a course, “that the Lord may continue his word, which he spake concerning me, saying, If thy children take heed to their way, to walk before me in truth, with all their heart, and with all their soul, there shall not fail thee a man on the throne of Israel” (1Ki_2:4). But when this fundamental condition was violated, as it began to be in the time of Solomon himself, the prophetic word became, in a manner, responsive to the change; so that now it spoke almost in the same language respecting the house of David, which had formerly been addressed to that of Saul (“I will rend the kingdom from thee, and give it to thy servant,” 1Ki_11:11, compared with 1Sa_15:28); coupled only with the reservation, that so much was still to be left to the house of David as was needed for maintaining the essential provisions of the covenant. Even this, however, appeared for a time to give way; the inveterate folly and wickedness of the royal line called forth such visitations of judgment, that the stately and glorious house of David, as it appears in the original prophecy, came afterwards to look like a frail tabernacle, and even this, at a still future stage, as fallen prostrate to the ground (according to the figure in Amo_9:11). In consequence of these changes, darkness settled down on the hearts of God’s people, and fearful misgivings arose in their minds concerning the faithfulness of God to his covenant engagements. The painful question was stirred in their bosoms, “Has his promise failed for evermore?” The thought even escaped from their lips, “He has made void the covenant of his servant.” The whole Psalm, from which these words are taken (the 89th) is a striking record of the manner in which faith had to struggle with such doubts and perplexities, when the house of David was (for a time) cast down from its excellency, and God’s plighted word, like the ark of his covenant, seemed to be given up into the hands of his enemies. God, however, vindicated in due time the truthfulness of his word, and the certainty of the result, which it contemplated. The prophecy stood fast as regarded the grand article of its provisions—only in travelling on to its accomplishment it had to pass through apparent defections and protracted delays, which could scarcely have been anticipated from the terms of its original announcement, and which were, in a sense, forced on it by human unbelief and waywardness. And so, within certain definite limits—those, namely, which connected the divine promise with the sphere of man’s responsibility, and bore on the time and mode of its fulfilment—it might justly be said to carry a conditional element in its bosom, in respect to those whom it more immediately concerned; while still, from first to last, the great purpose which it enshrined, varied not and continued to be, as a determinate counsel of heaven, “without shadow of turning.”
2. Another class of prophecies, in their ostensible character and design widely different from the preceding, yet much akin as regards the point now under consideration, consists of those which, from time to time, were uttered concerning the powers and kingdoms that stood in a rival or antagonistic position to the kingdom of God. It is not such prophecies generally, as respected those powers and kingdoms, that are now referred to, but those which were given forth concerning them—addressed not so properly to them as to the people of God, and for the purpose of allaying what naturally awoke fear and anxiety in the minds of believers. Predictions like that of Jonah to the Ninevites belong to an entirely different class; for in this there was a direct dealing with the people of a heathen city in respect to their sin and liability to punishment—a preaching even more than a prediction—and both preaching and prediction entering into the sphere of human responsibility, and intended to operate as means of moral suasion. Nineveh was not at the time viewed as occupying a hostile position to the interests of God’s kingdom in Israel, but as itself a hopeful field for spiritual agency,—more hopeful, indeed, than Israel itself, and fitted to tell with a wholesome influence even on the people of the covenant. The mass of prophecies, however, uttered respecting worldly powers and states, had an entirely different object. Contemplating these as rival, and for the most part directly antagonistic forces, they were mainly intended to assure the hearts of God’s people, that whatever earthly resources and glory might for the time belong to those kingdoms, all was destined to pass away; that their dominion, however arrogant and powerful, should come to an end; while that kingdom, which was more peculiarly the Lord’s, and was identified with his covenant of grace and blessing, should survive all changes, and attain to an everlasting, as well as universal, supremacy. Prophecies of this description, therefore, stood in a very close relation to those already considered; they but exhibited the reverse side of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. If the purposes of grace and holiness connected with his covenant were to stand, all counter authority and rival dominion must be put down; the safety and well-being of the one of necessity involved the destruction of the other. And to certify believers that such would be the result, was the more immediate design of the prophecies in question—of the later prophecy, for example, uttered respecting Nineveh by Nahum, when the city had become the centre of a God-opposing monarchy; and of the many similar predictions scattered through the prophetic writings concerning Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Edom, and the surrounding heathen states.
It holds of this class of prophecies as a whole, that in their grand aim they disclose the settled purposes of God—purposes that grow out of the essential principles of his character and government—and that the results they announce are consequently to be regarded as of an absolute character. As concerned the kingdoms themselves, whose destinies they unfolded, they could scarcely be said to become, through the prophecies in question, except in a very limited degree, the subjects of moral treatment; for the prophecies were communicated to the covenant people, rather than to them, and comparatively few of the heathen concerned might ever come to any distinct knowledge of what had been spoken. Not, however, that they were thereby justified; for the circumstances were such as plainly to demand inquiry, and, if this had been made, the truth would have been ascertained and known. The cases of Rahab and Ruth are examples of individuals, who did come to the knowledge of what was written, and through the exercise of a believing spirit escaped the doom of their race and country. There were, doubtless, others of the same kind occurring from time to time; but of too rare and partial a kind to affect materially the general result. Indeed, with regard to the special aspect of the subject before us, they do not properly affect it at all; for in so far as any from those godless and rival kingdoms listened to the voice of the prophets, they ceased to belong to an adverse interest; they joined themselves to the cause of God’s covenant, and as adversaries suffered (though in a happy form) the doom of extinction announced in the prophecies. It was simply in this character, that such kingdoms were made the subjects of prophetic threatening; and from the essential relations of things it was indispensable that the doom threatened should be carried into execution—if not (as it very rarely and partially was) by the conversion of the people to the knowledge and service of God, then by the defeating of their plans, and the overthrow of their dominion, as irreconcileably opposed to the interests of truth and righteousness.
3. Leaving, now, the two classes of prophecies, which from their very nature can possess little or nothing of a conditional element, we proceed to notice those which purposely and directly bore upon men’s responsibilities—those which, by means of promise or threatening, placed the subjects of divine revelation under the peculiar training of Heaven. Here we find from the sacred records, that the conditional element has often, as a matter of fact, been strikingly exhibited; and it must always, we conceive, be virtually, if not formally and expressly found intermingling itself with prophetic intimations of the kind in question. This conditionally rests upon two great and fundamental principles. The first of these is, that in God’s prophetical revelation of his method of dealing with men, as in the revelations of his mind generally, all is based on an ethical foundation, and directed to an ethical aim; so that the prediction should never be viewed apart from the moral considerations on account of, or in connection with, which it was uttered. And the other principle is, that in giving intimations to men or communities of approaching good or evil, God speaks, is in other parts of Scripture, in an anthropomorphic manner; He addresses the subjects of His threatening or promise, more from a human than from a divine point of view; in other words, He adopts that mode of representation which is most natural to men, and which is best adapted for impressing and influencing their minds.
Let us take as an illustration of the proper working of these principles, the striking case of Nineveh, already referred to. After having sent His prophet to announce the destruction of Nineveh in a specified time, the Lord suffered the prophecy to fall into abeyance, refrained from executing the threatened doom, or, in the language of Scripture, He repented of the evil He said He would do to the city, because of the moral change that had meanwhile taken place among its inhabitants, as manifested in their turning from their evil ways. Why, we naturally ask, such a change in the mind of God? Why such a difference in His actual, from his previously meditated and announced, procedure? Simply, we answer, on the ground of the first principle mentioned above, from the predominantly ethical character of God’s revelations and dealings; on account of which these must be all framed so as to convey just impressions of sin and righteousness, and preserve a proper correspondence between men’s behaviour toward God, and His dealings toward them. The character of His administration, in itself, is such, that where sin is perseveringly and obstinately indulged in, it inevitably brings upon itself a doom of evil: while, on the other hand, if it is repented of and forsaken, the doom is averted, and a heritage of blessing substituted in its place.
But alternations of this sort, so far from bespeaking God to be capricious in His ways, and changeable in the principles of His government, rather serve to manifest Him, in what alone is essential, as unalterably the same. Directing His procedure in accordance with the principles of righteousness, He must change His dealings toward men, when their relation to Him has become changed; since, otherwise, there would be only an apparent uniformity, but a real diversity. So, long ago, Abraham perceived when, in his pleading for Sodom, he said, “That be far from Thee, to slay the righteous with the wicked, and that the righteous should be as the wicked; shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And so, also, the prophet Ezekiel met the captious spirits of his day, who, from looking more to the appearances than to the realities of things, complained of inequalities in the Divine administration, “Hear, now, O Israel, is not my way equal? Are not your ways unequal? When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquities, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive” (Eze_18:25-27). Hence, when Nineveh ceased from being a theatre where wickedness of every form was running riot, and became a place where the name of God was feared, and His authority respected, the measures of the Divine government fitly partook of a corresponding change; the people having passed into another condition, it was meet that they should be subjected to other treatment. And to have dealt with repenting, as it had been threatened to do with corrupt and profligate, Nineveh, would have been to disregard the essential distinctions between right and wrong in behaviour, and to make it fare with the righteous even as with the wicked.
It is with reference to these eternal principles of righteousness, that the declarations in Scripture are made, which deny the possibility of change in the administration of God: Such, for example, as has been already noted in the word of Balaam, “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the Son of man, that He should repent; hath He said, and shall He not do it? hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good? (Num_23:19). Or, in the word of Samuel, which is but a resumption, and fresh application of that of Balaam, “The strength of Israel will not He nor repent; for He is not a man, that He should repent” (1Sa_15:29). Testimonies of this sort uniformly bear respect to such revealed purposes of God, as are inseparably connected with His inherent and immutable righteousness, and consequently admit of no change in the direction of His dealings. To purposes of that description belonged, as we have already stated, His fixed determination to connect, with the seed of Israel, His peculiar blessing. The covenant of God was with them, and in the time of Balaam, they stood, as a people, within the bonds of the covenant. And standing there, the faithfulness of God was pledged, to secure them against the assaults of any adversary, or the enchantments of any diviner. But when they fell from the obligations of the covenant—as thousands of them did, shortly after the word of Balaam was uttered, and in later times, the great mass of the people—then God made them to know, what He Himself called, His breach of promise (Num_14:34; Zec_11:10); He changed the blessing into a curse. In such a case, as in the reverse one of Nineveh, the change of dealing on the part of God was necessitated by a change of relation, on men’s part, to Him; and He could only maintain uniformity of action in the essential principles of His moral government, by giving a new turn to the course of His external administration.
But, such being the case, why, it may be asked, should not the prophetic word be always framed, so as to meet a possible change of this description? If it is to be understood conditionally, why should it not also speak conditionally? Why, to refer again to the case of Nineveh, instead of declaring absolutely, that the city should be overthrown in forty days, should it not rather have taken the form of announcing such a. doom, in case the people did not repent? We reply, on the ground of the second principle, previously mentioned, that in this, as in His revelations generally, God spake as from the human point of view; He took up the case of the city as it stood at the time, and pronounced, without qualification or reserve, its appropriate doom; knowing, perhaps, that the very absoluteness and precision of the form was the best adapted, it may be the only one actually fitted, to arouse slumbering consciences, and lead to serious repentance. No doubt, if the thing done had involved any breach of righteous principle—if the throwing of Jonah’s message into such a form, had been a mere stroke of policy, inconsistent with the truth of things, in that case, however adapted to the higher end in view, it could not have been employed with the sanction and approval of God. But who would venture on such an affirmation? who has any right to say, that the predicted overthrow of wicked Nineveh would not have actually taken place, if Nineveh had persevered in its wickedness? There may have been, and doubtless were, instruments of destruction at hand, ready to do the work of judgment, of the Divine purpose had required it to be done. What we have here to do with, is simply the prophet’s message, which must be held to have been a genuine and truthful utterance of God’s mind and purpose toward Nineveh, in the circumstances of its existing position—as the place where shad reached its last stages of enormity, and cried in Heaven’s ear for immediate vengeance. But when that position was shifted, when sin was repented of and abandoned, then another state of things, and one not contemplated in the message, came into being; the cause of the threatened evil had gone, and there was room now for the principle entering, “The curse causeless shall not come.”
Indeed, the form, as to its main features, has a substantial parallel in the first great act in the drama of God’s administration toward fallen man. The constitution of grace introduced at the fall, proceeded on the assumption, that not only was the human race to perpetuate its existence, but that, in its history, the good, upon the whole, was to prevail. What was then said and done, contained a matter-of-fact promise or prediction, that God should still have His delights with the children of men. Yet, when the era of the deluge approaches, we meet with the very strong declaration—the strongest in the whole Bible, as to a change of feeling or purpose in the mind of God, “It repented the Lord that He had made man upon the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart” (Gen_6:6). In this declaration, to use the words of Calvin, God is represented as “clothing Himself with our affections, that He might the more effectually penetrate our hearts, and impress us with His abhorrence of sin. It is as if He had said, ‘This is not my workmanship; this is not the being I formed after my own image, and replenished with such noble endowments; I disdain to acknowledge such a corrupt and degenerate creature as my offspring.’” Or, as Hengstenberg puts it, with a more especial respect to God’s end in creating man, “The words have respect, merely to the destination of man, to glorify God with a free and willing mind. Were this man’s only, as it certainly is his original destination, God must have repented that He had made the degenerate race of mankind. What God would have done had this point alone come into consideration, He is here represented as having actually done, in order to impress upon the hearts of men, how great their corruption was, and how deep was God’s abhorrence of their sin.” (Authentic ii., p. 453.) Whatever precise turn we may give to our explanation of the passage, there can be no doubt, that as a representation of the mind of God toward mankind at the close of the antediluvian period, it exhibits a very marked change as compared with what appeared at the beginning; and a change, which finds its justification in the two principles we have enunciated: first, that in God’s revelations of Himself, whether prospective or retrospective, the ethical design and tendency ever has the foremost place; and secondly, that for the purpose more especially of effecting His aim in this, He discloses His character and purposes in a human manner, as the only way by which He can be properly understood, or can effectually reach our hearts.
So much is this the case, and so certainly does the truth involved in it underlie the whole prophetic testimony, in so far, at least, as this touches on the dangers or the expectations of men, that the prophet Jeremiah has formally announced it as a definite principle of prophetical interpretation: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them” (Jer_18:7-10). It may be the case that, for the most part, in the prospective delineations of good and evil which are given in prophecy, there was to be no such moral change in the subjects of them, as would call for the application of this principle in the interpretation of their import. More especially might this be expected to be generally the case in respect to the denunciations of coming judgment, which, being usually pronounced against inveterate adversaries of the truth, were but too unlikely, in most cases, to tell with any wholesome and reformatory influence on those whom they respected. Yet still even these the prophet Jeremiah teaches us to regard, as, in their more direct and primary aim, intimations of God’s displeasure on account of sin, and only in a certain event predictions of what should actually occur in providence. They did not, in any case, become, of necessity, events in history. Their doing so was a contingency depending on the spiritual state and behaviour of those over whom the threatenings of judgment were suspended. And to take such prophetic burdens in the fixed and absolute sense of announcements of evil, that must be executed as described, is plainly to overlook an essential element in the structure of prophecy, and possibly also to involve ourselves in inextricable difficulties as to its proper fulfilment.
How it would have happened, with such a mode of interpretation, in the case of Jonah’s prophetic judgment against Nineveh, is obvious at first sight. But let us take another example, and one which has respect not to open and inveterate adversaries, but to parties standing within the bonds of the covenant, in whose case there was less to interfere with the moral action of the prophecy as a revelation of the mind and character of God. We shall take the prophetic utterance in the last words of Jacob on Levi and Simeon: “Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen_49:7). As the language itself bears, this was of the nature of a curse. Only, indeed, comparatively so, for being themselves children of the covenant, and viewed as heads of a covenant-offspring, they still had a share in the blessing connected with the covenant, and are hence said to have been blessed by the patriarch, along with their brethren (Gen_49:28). But the sentence of judgment pronounced upon them, which took a form so strikingly retributive—destining them, in consequence of their former union in iniquity, to future separation and scattering in the land of their inheritance—this prophetic sentence of judgment evidently proceeded on the footing of a moral connection, which runs through the whole of Jacob’s prophecy respecting the heads of the future Israel,—a connection, first of all, between righteousness and blessing, sin and punishment, and, still further, between the condition of the parents and the offspring as subjects respectively of the one or of the other. In the different sections of the covenant people there was to be a descending impulse in evil or good, to be transmitted from those patriarchal heads to their future descendants; and this was dwelt upon with such peculiar emphasis at that formative period of their history, for the purpose of stamping indelibly upon the minds of the people, how deeply moral considerations entered into the constitution under which all their prospects were held. So far as Simeon was concerned, the prophetic threatening of the dying parent appears to have produced no beneficial effect of a moral kind, and the germ of coming evil it contained took its natural course of development. Of all the tribes, that of Simeon suffered most severely from the divine judgments on the way to Canaan, implying, of course, that among its members there had been a sad pre-eminence in transgression; and in so enfeebled a condition did it enter the sacred territory, that, instead of having a separate province of its own, a portion was allotted it within the inheritance of the tribe of Judah (Jos_19:1). It was so shattered and dispersed, that it never properly attained to a distinct tribal standing, but became merged, as it would seem, in Judah; and its people are, doubt-leas, those more particularly referred to in 1Ki_12:17, as “the children of Israel that dwelt in the cities of Judah,” who adhered to Rehoboam. Matters, however, turned out differently with Levi. From whatever cause it might be, probably from nothing more than a consideration of the solemn words of the dying patriarch, this tribe became distinguished for its piety and zeal in the cause of God; and on this account it had the singular distinction conferred on it, first of furnishing the great Deliverer and Lawgiver of the nation, and then of having its sons consecrated in all coming time for ministering in the more peculiar offices of religion. In their case, therefore, while the dispersion in Israel, threatened in the prophetic judgment, might be said to be carried into effect, since the priests and Levites were in reality dispersed among the other tribes for the better discharge of their spiritual functions, yet, in accordance with their altered condition, the act came to assume a new character. What was originally announced as a brand of dishonour on the tribe of Levi was at length turned into a mark of distinction; and if it served to render the members of the tribe politically weak, it provided for them, at the same time, the opportunity of becoming morally strong, assigned them, in fact, the place of highest influence so long as they were faithful to their high charge as the spiritual teachers and guides of Israel. The dispersion, indeed, was such that it could only become a source of weakness, if the great ends for which it was more immediately appointed were allowed to fall into abeyance. But the change thus put on the original prophecy, the new form and aspect given to the divine procedure toward the tribe of Levi, in consequence of the marked change in a moral respect which its members afterwards underwent, is a striking exemplification of the principle of Jeremiah, as to the dependence in prophecies of this nature for the actual result on the spiritual state and conduct of the parties concerned.
If, however, in such cases of threatened judgment, we find the principle coming into force, not less certainly may we expect to see it acted on in the opposite class of cases,—in those, namely, in which the theme of prophecy was of a blissful tendency. If a change in man’s spiritual relation to God, from bad to good, necessitates a corresponding change in the manifestations he gives of himself to them, an alteration in the reverse order, from good to bad, must, in like manner, draw after it a partial or total suspension of God’s intention to do them good. So that if the threatened judgments of the prophetic word, then also its promised blessings, are to be regarded, not as absolute and indispensable announcements of coming events, but rather as exhibitions of the Lord’s goodness, prospective indications of his desire and purpose to bless the persons or communities addressed, yet capable of being checked or even altogether cancelled, in the event of a perverse and rebellious disposition being manifested by them. The word of Jeremiah makes express mention of this class of cases, as well as the other. And the Apostle Paul re-announces the principle with special emphasis on this particular branch of its application, when he says, at the close of his reasoning on the case of the Jewish people, “Behold, therefore, the goodness and the severity of God: on them which fell severity, but toward thee goodness, if thou continue in his goodness; otherwise, thou shalt also be cut off” (Rom_11:22),—that is, the prophetic intimations of future blessing are to be understood as valid only so long as the spiritual relation contemplated in them abides. When that ceases, a new and different state of things has entered which the promise did not contemplate, and to which it cannot in justice be applied.
There is no want of cases of this description. They are even more numerous than those of the former class, and are to be found both in the larger and in the more limited sphere of things. Thus, in respect to a single family, a very emphatic seal was set on the principle by the dealings adopted with the house of Eli, when, for its profligacy, the right to minister in the priest’s office was taken from it: “Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said, indeed, that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever. But now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (1Sa_2:30). (The reference in the first part of this announcement to some previous word of God giving assurance of a perpetual right to the blessing and honour of the priesthood, must be to such passages as Exo_28:43; Exo_29:9, where the priesthood was given in perpetuity to the sons of Aaron. Had the house of Eli belonged to the posterity of Phinehas, we would naturally have thought of Num_25:11-13. But it was of the line of Ithamar (1Ch_6:4-9; 1Ch_24:1-6; 1Sa_14:3). The threatening here, it must be remembered, has respect not simply to the loss of the more peculiar honours of the high priesthood, but to such afflictive dispensations as should bring marked dishonour upon the family, and render their share even in the common privileges of the priestly office precarious and insecure.—Comp. 1 Samuel 4, 22 1 Chronicles 24.) God never meant that the promise of blessing should hold good in all circumstances. Like the revelations, generally, of His mind and will, it was linked inseparably to His own moral nature; and as the degenerate offspring had abandoned the spiritual position of their forefather, the ground no longer existed on which the promised heritage of blessing proceeded. We have even, if possible, a still more specific case in New Testament Scripture, in the prophecy of future honour and blessing uttered by our Lord to the apostles. When speaking to the twelve, he said, “Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration—when the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of His glory—ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel “(Mat_19:28). Yet one of these twelve was Judas, of whom the Lord certainly knew that he should have no part; in the matter, and that another should take his place. On a larger scale, the history of Israel is replete with changes and vicissitudes of a similar kind. Thus, when Moses was sent to them in Egypt, he came with a message from the Lord, that their groanings had been heard, and that now the promise given to their fathers, respecting the possession of the land of Canaan, was to be carried into effect. The message proceeded on the supposition, as was afterwards expressly declared (Exo_19:5, etc.), that they would hearken to the voice and obey the call of God. But failing, as the great majority of them did, to verify this supposition, the promised good was in their case never realized. So, again, the prophecies, which were uttered before they entered Canaan, respecting the portion of good things awaiting them there—that it should be to them “a land flowing with milk and honey”—that they should dwell in it alone among the nations, replenished with the favour of Heaven, and enjoying it as an everlasting possession:—Such prophecies as these, which were, in other words, promises of rich grace and beneficence, could not be more than partially verified, because the children of the covenant were ever falling from the state of filial reverence and love, which was pre-supposed as the ground of all inheritance of blessing.
Nor is this dependence of such portions of prophecy on the condition of those who are the subjects of them, a mere expedient devised to meet a difficulty in interpretation. On the contrary, it rests on a principle which is essentially connected with the nature of God, and therefore cannot but pervade the revelations he gives of his mind and will in Scripture. There, from first to last, all is predominantly of a moral or spiritual, as contradistinguished from a simply natural character; and in nothing more does the religion of the Bible, in its entire compass, differ from the religions of the world, than in the place it assigns to the principles of righteousness. These it constantly sets in the foremost rank, and subordinates to them all divine arrangements and responsible agencies. It knows nothing of results in good or evil, coming as merely natural processes of development, but ever brings into account the eternal distinctions between sin and holiness, which have their root in the character of God. It was the capital error of the covenant people that they so often forgot this. Holding their position and their prospects formally in connection with their descent from Abraham, this simply natural element was ever apt to assume too high a place in their minds, and to invest in their eyes the promises of God with an absolute and unconditional character. For them it was a most pernicious and fatal mistake in experience, as it must also be for us in interpretation, if we should tread in their footsteps. We want the key to a right understanding of all prophetic utterances of good and evil, unless we keep in view their relation to the principles of God’s moral government. And we shall certainly misunderstand both Him and them, if we suppose that, when He most loudly threatens visitations of evil, He shall execute the threatening where repentance, meanwhile, has taken place, or that He can continue to bless those who may have hardened their hearts in sin, however expressly and copiously He may have promised to do them good. (See Appendix D.)