The Revelation of Law in Scripture by Patrick Fairbairn: 06. Chapter 5.  The Prophetic Style And Diction

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The Revelation of Law in Scripture by Patrick Fairbairn: 06. Chapter 5.  The Prophetic Style And Diction


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Chapter 5. The Prophetic Style And Diction

WE proceed now to the consideration of a topic which bears even more closely and directly upon the interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures, than those hitherto discussed. We mean the appropriate style and diction of prophecy. The subject calls for the more particular and careful treatment, as it has been associated with many fanciful notions, and is now, more than ever, mixed up with modes of interpretation altogether groundless and indefensible. We shall, therefore, need to go at much greater length into this department of our inquiry, than has been necessary in regard to any of the points which have already passed under our notice. And for the sake of greater distinctness, we shall view the subject in a negative light, before we look at it positively; in other words, we shall first endeavour to show, and that in opposition to prevailing errors, what is not the proper style and diction of prophecy, and then establish some of its more fundamental and essential characteristics, with the deductions that naturally grow out of them.

Section I. Negatively: What Is Not the Character of the Prophetic Style and Diction

BY looking at the matter in this negative aspect, we have respect more particularly to one of the results growing out of the too exclusive contemplation of prophecy on its merely natural side, and in its apologetic use, as an argument for the defence of the Bible. Writing, as the exponent of an age and a class by whom this was very commonly done, Bishop Butler gave expression to the sentiment, which has since been many a time repeated, “Prophecy is nothing but the history of events before they come to pass.” (“Analogy,” Part II., chap. 7.) Of course, if it be nothing but that, it should be written like that: as the character of both is the same, there can be no reason why the style of both should not also be substantially the same. Proceeding, therefore, on this ground, and carrying out the principle to its legitimate conclusions, two schools of prophetic interpretation have sprung up, having one starting-point in common, but wide as the poles asunder as to the goal, to which they deem the light of prophecy fitted to conduct us. The more Christian section reason thus: since prophecy is but history anticipated, all it reveals of the future must be taken as literally as history itself; every word must have its simple meaning attached to it—that and no more; so that the degree of fulfilment which has been given to any prophecy of Scripture, is to be ascertained and measured by the adaptation of what is written to events subsequently occurring, viewed simply in the light of a pre-historical intimation of them; whatever has not been so fulfilled must be regarded as still waiting for its accomplishment in the future. And as this view seemed to betoken a high regard for the exact and perfect truthfulness of the prophetic record, so by pressing the literality of some of its announcements, it appeared for a time to gain in value, and to furnish new weapons for the vindication of the faith. Hence the popularity of such works on prophecy as have been written to show what numerous and exact correspondences can be pointed out in the past or present state of the world, with the prophetic delineations of Scripture, and how often the language of prophecy has proved like that of history, by receiving the most close and palpable verifications.

We are far from wishing to undervalue works of this description, or denying that they have rendered any service to the cause of divine truth. They have unquestionably contributed to awaken a more lively interest in this portion of the word of God, and have also helped to diffuse a more general and intelligent belief in its verity, by fixing attention on certain undeniable fulfilments of its predictions. But it is perfectly possible that the efforts in this direction may have somewhat overshot their proper mark; that the advantage obtained on one side may have been pushed so far as to create a disadvantage on another; that the evidence of a close and literal fulfilment of particular prophecies, by being carried beyond its due limits, may have given rise to views and expectations respecting the structure and design of prophecy in general, which are neither warrantable in themselves, nor capable of being vindicated by a reference to historical results. Such, indeed, has proved to be the case. This principle of regarding prophecy as merely anticipative history, will not stand, by any fair construction, with some of the recorded examples of fulfilled prophecy mentioned in New Testament Scripture. It would oblige us to consider these as little better than fanciful or arbitrary accommodations. And even in the midst of those which to a certain extent admit of being read in the exact and literal style of history, there often occur passages which have obviously received no fulfilment of a similar description. The consequence has been, that the number of fulfilled prophecies has been constantly lessening in the hands of this school of interpreters. Not a few that at one period were held to have received their accomplishment, have latterly, by the more stringent and uniform application of the principle of historic literality, been thrown into the class which are to stand over for their fulfilment till the time of the end. And of those, which seem to have found their verification in the facts of gospel history, a considerable portion are allowed to have had only a kind of preliminary fulfilment—such a fulfilment as is at most but a prelude and earnest of the proper one.

It is no new thing for extremes to meet; and so far there is a coincidence between this school of interpreters, and another of a very different spirit, that they both agree in reducing very much the number of fulfilled prophecies. This latter class, however, hold, that there are few, if any, to be fulfilled, scarcely, indeed, any that can be fitly characterised as history written beforehand, while the others do not question their existence, but only, in the case of the greater part, transfer the period of their fulfilment to the yet undeveloped future. On the hypothetical ground that, in so far as prophecy may be descriptive of coming events in Providence, it must be written like history, the school we now refer to, think, some that they can find very little, others almost nothing so written among the prophecies of Scripture; and so, practically, they come in great measure to change the idea of prophecy—to deny, that its object was to give any precise or definite outline of the future, and to regard it rather as the varied expression of men’s fears or longings as to the coming destinies of the world. Thus, Schleiermacher, who may be said, if not to have originated, at least to have rendered current, this mode of thinking regarding prophecy, was of opinion, that in Old Testament Scripture there are no actual predictions of the Messiah; nothing more than indistinct longings, expressions on the part of pious men of their felt need of redemption—such also, only more intense and earnest, as some, even among the heathen, were conscious of. It might possibly be too much to say, that Dr Arnold, in this country, went quite so far as this, in disavowing the predictive character of Scriptural prophecy; yet, there are some passages in his writings, which seem to come very near to it. “If you put,” he writes in a letter to Dr Hawkins, written about two years before his death, “If you put, as you may do, Christ for abstract good, and Satan for abstract evil, I do not think, that the notion is so startling, that they are the main and only proper subjects of prophecy, and that, in all other cases, the language is, in some part or other, hyperbolical—hyperbolical, I mean, and not merely figurative. Nor can I conceive how, on any other supposition, the repeated applications of the Old Testament language to our Lord, not only by others, but by Himself, can be understood to be other than arbitrary.” This evacuating, on Arnold’s part, of nearly all that was properly predictive in prophecy, and in respect to what one might look for distinct and circumstantial fulfilments in Providence, was, in one sense, a revulsion from the common practice of assimilating prophecy to history. He held them to be essentially different in their characteristic features and objects; but did so in a way which, at the same time, left little for it to do in foretelling things to come—in short, lessened the predictive element in it in proportion as he magnified its dissimilarity to the historical. In reality, therefore, there are here also, the same fundamental ideas, only differently assorted and made to contribute to a different result. It is supposed, that prophecy to be, in the ordinary sense, predictive in character, must be historical in style; and that it possesses little of the one, because it partakes little of the other.

There are not wanting persons, however, bearing the Christian name, but possessing little of the Christian spirit, who would rob prophecy altogether of its predictive character, on the ground of its containing no historical delineations of the future, which lie beyond the reach of human foresight. A representative of this school tells us, “The writings of the prophets contain nothing above the reach of the human faculties. Here are noble and spirit-stirring appeals to men’s conscience, patriotism, honour, and religion; beautiful poetic descriptions, odes, hymns expressions of faith almost beyond praise. But the mark of human infirmity is on them all, and proofs or signs of miraculous inspiration are not found in them.” That they commonly prefaced their declarations by, “Thus saith the Lord,” merely arose, we are informed, from the prevalent Jewish feeling, which regarded every manifestation of religious and moral power as the direct gift of God. But it is denied, that any of them ever uttered “a distinct, definite, and unambiguous prediction of any future event that has since taken place, which a man, without a miracle, could not equally well predict.” And in regard, particularly to Messianic prophecy, we have the bold assertion, “it has never been shewn that there is, in the whole of the Old Testament, one single instance, that, in the plain and natural sense of the words, foretells the birth, life, or death of Jesus of Nazareth.” (“Absolute Religion,” by Theodore Parker, pp. 205-9.) This might seem to be going far enough in the depreciation of the prophetic Scriptures, in their predictive character, but there is a phase beyond it still. For, Mr Foxton, in what he calls his “Popular Christianity,” not only maintains that there are no proper predictions of things to come in Scripture, but that there cannot be. He holds the doctrine of prophecy to be “directly at variance with the theory of Providence,”—the theory, namely, of a providence proceeding entirely according to general laws, as opposed to any particular interpositions of Divine power. The farthest he can go is to admit, that men of superior intellect and sagacity, who have acquired more than ordinary insight into the laws of nature and God’s dealings in providence, may sometimes have uttered what, in common language, might be called prediction^. Thus, “the prophecy of Christ, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, recorded by St. Matthew, may be interpreted as a simple instance of political foresight into an event extremely probable in the existing condition of his country. And the same may be said generally of the predictions of the earlier Jewish prophets respecting the probable fortunes of their nation. The prophecies of the advent of Christ, when stript of the ingenious explanations, forced constructions, and subtle spirit of adaptation displayed by critics and commentators, are nothing more than instances of a speculative expectation of those reformations of society, which the periodical appearance of men of genius, after long periods of corruption, always renders probable in the history of nations.” (“Popular Christianity,” p. 120. We take no notice of some of the more offensive things in this volume; as when the prophets of the Old Testament are spoken of as having visions precisely akin to those of Swedenborg of Sweden, Jacob Behmen of Germany, and James Nayler of England.)

Such are the extremes to which, in different hands, the tendency has run, to place prophecy, in so far as it may be predictive, on a level with history, as to style and diction. On the one hand, some finding little or nothing, as they conceive, of such prophecy in the Bible, reduce to the merest fraction or altogether disallow predictions in the proper sense; while others maintain, that they abound, indeed, in sufficient number, but that comparatively few have, as yet, been properly fulfilled. It becomes us, therefore, to look well to the foundation, out of which such tendencies and results have grown; and we shall do so with more especial reference to those who appear to take up in good faith the historical view of prophecy, and regard it as necessary to the strict veracity of God’s word.

The great argument of the persons who advocate this view, is the exact fulfilment of many prophecies already accomplished, and especially of those which pointed to the appearance and history of Christ on earth. Never, it is alleged, were facts more literally described than those which were foretold to take place, and actually have taken place, in connection with the events of gospel history. But if the principle of literal exactness, or historical precision holds there, why should it not be understood as holding also in other parts of prophetical Scripture? What can a departure from it be but a corruption of the simplicity of the divine word? And so, since throughout we have to do with plain historical description on the one side, and corresponding matters of fact upon the other, “the vision which Isaiah (for example) saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem,” the heading of his whole book, must be viewed as bearing immediate respect only to the Jewish people, and their land and city. So also in regard to what is written generally in the prophetic word, Edom is to be taken literally of Edom, Moab of Moab, Egypt of Egypt, Zion of Zion, and Jerusalem of Jerusalem.

Now, if the ground on which this stringent literality is contended for were real; if the sense, which past fulfilments of prophecy appear to have put on the predictions of Scripture, were uniformly that alone of the historical and literal; then, we should not hesitate to regard it as a settled point, that the past should in this respect rule the future, and that for prophecy in general, what remains to be fulfilled, as well as what has already been accomplished, all must be understood and interpreted like history. But is it so in reality? Let us put the principle to the test; let us try it even with the first prophecy uttered in the ears of fallen man. Addressing the serpent, the Lord said, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel.” Here, the seed of the woman beyond all doubt is the woman’s offspring—a child of promise, or, collectively (as the word seed is commonly taken), a line of children to be born of her; and, consequently, the serpent—if all must be taken in the prosaic style, and read as history—can only be that creature of the field then present, and its seed the offspring which might afterwards by natural generation proceed from it. The prophecy, therefore, speaks merely of the injuries to be received from serpents on the one side, and of the killing of serpents on the other: and any member of Eve’s future family who might have the fortune to kill a serpent, should, by so doing, verify the prophecy. For, taking all in a simply historical aspect, as the woman’s seed must be one or more of human-kind, so the serpent and his seed can only comprehend what is of the serpent-kind. Such is a fair application of the principle of a bald and naked literalism; and the fruitful result it enables us to extract from the primeval promise to a fallen world, is an assurance of man’s relative superiority to the most subtle of beasts, and the ultimate destruction of the serpent-brood! Could the lowest rationalism find any thing more suited to its purpose? Or, could the pitiable condition of the parents of the human family, and the great necessities of their fallen state, have been more bitterly mocked? It would truly have been giving them a serpent for bread. (This is all that even Hofmann finds in the original promise, the spirit of literalism in him leading to the same result a the spirit of rationalism in others. He asks, if there was no matter of joy in these words of God for man? And answers, “Nothing, but that it was not quite over with them. They were to live for a time, and perpetuate their nature in offspring like themselves” (Weissagung and Erfullung, i. p. 76). The simple prolongation of existence as opposed to utter destruction, was all they had given them to hope for! Such literalism finds a fitting parallel in the rationalist Credner’s view of Joe_2:28, who thinks that the all flesh, on which the Spirit is to be poured out, must mean absolutely all, beasts as well as men, yea even locusts.)

Those who can rest in such a conclusion, and see nothing in it at variance with the character of God and the general tenor of his revelations to men, are not likely to be won by any reasoning of ours to a better style of interpretation. But on the palpable inadequacy of the result so obtained we affirm) that the simply literal for prophecy will not do at the very outset; and that to apply it to the first prophetic announcement connected with the hopes of mankind, were only to burlesque the occasion of its deliverance. Let it be, that some respect was therein had to the natural enmity, which was henceforth to subsist between the serpent-brood and the human family; still when the whole circumstances of the case are taken into account, this cannot now, nor could it ever, be regarded as more than a sign or emblem of the spiritual truth, which lay underneath, and which alone constitutes its prophetic import for Adam and his offspring. The “warfare,” as has been justly remarked, (“The Structure of Prophecy,” by James Douglas, Esq. of Cavers, p. 28.) “which the human race have carried on and successfully with the serpent-brood, has been merely a repetition by emblems of the predicted warfare, which the spiritual seed have been carrying on against the spiritual old serpent, who is the devil—which prediction received its highest accomplishment, when Christ at his crucifixion and resurrection triumphed over Satan; when the conqueror bruised Satan’s head after the tempter had bruised the victor’s heel.” How, indeed, could a thoughtful mind rest satisfied with any other than a spiritual interpretation of the prophecy? It was not a physical, but a spiritual conquest, which the tempter had achieved, and which, according to the principles of the divine government, drew after it the heritage of natural evil that settled down upon the world. Could it be seriously imagined, that the successful warfare which was now with divine help to be waged, and the final victory that was to be won by the woman’s seed, should be of an inferior kind to that accomplished by the serpent? The good promised should in that case have been no proper reversion of the evil. Even the language, by its poetical colouring, naturally carries the mind to this higher aspect of things, and lodges a silent protest against the notion of a flat and prosaic literalism. To bruise a serpent’s head is a natural expression for putting it to death, making a final end of its power to injure or destroy; but who ever heard of a serpent, in the natural sense, bruising a person’s heel? To speak thus is not to speak in the style of history, as if the object were to give a naked unvarnished account of a specific result hereafter to be expected; not this, but rather a picturing out, by means of existing relations, and with a measure of poetic freedom, of the general nature of what was in prospect, as to the relative positions of the contending parties, and the final issue of the struggle.

Rightly viewed, therefore, this first prophecy is an instructive example, not in favour of, but against, the idea of prophecy being merely history written beforehand. It is a sign and witness set up at the very threshold of the prophetic territory, showing how much prophecy, in the general form of its announcements, might be expected to take its hue and aspect from the occasion and circumstances that gave rise to it—how it would serve itself of things seen and present, as a symbolical cover, under which to exhibit a perspective of things which were to be hereafter—and how, even when there might be a certain fulfilment of what was written according to the letter, the terms of the prediction might yet be such as to make it evident that something of a higher kind was required properly to verify its meaning. Such plainly was the case with respect to the prediction at the fall; and in proof that it must be so read and understood, some of the later intimations of prophecy, which are founded upon the address to the serpent, vary the precise form of the representation which they give of the ultimate termination of the conflict. Thus Isaiah, when descanting on the peace and blessedness of Messiah’s kingdom, tells us not of the serpent’s head being bruised, but of his power to hurt being destroyed; of dust being his meat, and of the child playing upon his hole (Isa_11:8-9; Isa_65:25). It is the same truth, again, that appears at the close of the Apocalypse, under the still different form of chaining the old serpent, and casting him into the bottomless pit, that he might not deceive the nations any more (Rev_20:2-3),—his power to deceive in the one case corresponding to his liberty to bruise the heel in the other, and his being chained and imprisoned in the bottomless pit to the threatened bruising of his head.

The introduction of type into the scheme of God’s revelations brought another peculiarity into the region of prophecy, and still farther increased its tendency to diverge from the simple and direct style of historical narration. Every type was, so far, a prophecy, that under the form of sensible things, and by means of present outward relations, it gave promise of other things yet to come, corresponding in design, but higher and better in kind. And hence, when a prophetic word accompanied the type, or pointed to the things which it prefigured, it naturally foretold the antitypical under the aspect, or even by the name, of the typical. At the time the first promise was given, nothing of a properly typical nature yet existed to weave into the prophetic delineation. There was only the loss of Nature’s heritage of good, and in that loss the triumph of the principle of evil; so that in the prospect held out of an ultimate recovery, there was room only for a symbolical use of what was, or had been, to image what should hereafter be. But as the scheme of Providence proceeded on its course, bringing, from time to time, its temporary and partial provisions of blessing, these commonly became to men of prophetic insight the form under which the better and more enduring reality presented itself to their view, as well as the pledge of its certain realization. We have elsewhere treated of this at large, and need not enter into detail concerning it here. (“Typology of Scripture,” Book I. ch. 5, Fourth Ed.) But as an evidence how materially the diction thus formed differed from that proper to history, we may refer to the single example of Eze_34:24, “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant, David, a prince among them”—where, assuredly, another personage must be understood than the historical David; one who, in that greater and more glorious future, would hold relatively to the kingdom of God the same place which had been held by the Son of Jesse in the best period of the past. In any other way it is impossible to extract a suitable meaning from the prediction, and to avoid putting on it a sense that is utterly incongruous or puerile.

Nor is this all. There are many passages in the prophets in which the application to them of a strict and historical literalism would not only evacuate their proper meaning, but render them absolutely ridiculous and inconsistent one with another. Nothing, surely, can be more evident to a simple reader of the prophetic writings than that one of their great objects, the burden not of one or two only, but of many of their predictions respecting the Messiah, was to have the hearts of men prepared for His coming by a genuine repentance and moral reformation. But take the prophecy on this subject in Isaiah 40, and we shall find that, according to the principle now under consideration, it is something quite different which was announced as going to precede the Lord’s advent. Referring to the words of the prophet, and describing his own mission, the Baptist said: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God; every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be laid low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” The language, it will be observed, understood as a naked and historical delineation of what should take place before the Lord’s personal appearance, speaks only of external changes and reforms on the earth’s surface, such as might more suitably adapt it to purposes of travel. But as no beneficial improvements of that description, in the Baptist’s time, nor even to the present day, have been accomplished in Palestine, the opinion has been avowed by the advocates of historical simplicity and directness in prophecy that the prediction still remains unfulfilled—that, in its leading import, it must refer not to the first, but to the second advent. And the thought has even been suggested whether it may not refer to that great improvement of modern times, the levelling of hills, the elevating of valleys, and straightening of paths, by means of railroads! A happy thought, no doubt, if the object for which the Spirit of prophecy had kindled the bosom of Isaiah had been to light the way to inventions in art and science, or, if the essential condition of the Lord’s coming to dwell among His people was their providing for Him the means of an easy and rapid conveyance in an earthly chariot! But before this can be admitted, we must entirely change our ideas of the Bible, and the purport of Messiah’s appearance in a fallen world.

We shall refer to another prediction of Isaiah, found at the commencement of the second chapter, where, in speaking of the glory of the latter days, he says, “It shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” It is spoken absolutely, and, therefore, if taken as an historical delineation, must be regarded as importing that the little elevation of the temple-mount shall be projected upwards, and made to overtop in height the loftiest of the Himmalayas—and that, too, for the purpose of increasing its attraction as a centre of religions intercourse to the world, and drawing men in crowds toward it from the most distant regions. What a mighty revolution—what an inversion even of the natural state of things, this would imply, it is needless to point out. Yet the interpretation now given has often been adopted, as conveying the real meaning of the prophecy, if not to the extent of making Zion absolutely the loftiest summit on the earth’s surface, at least to the extent of its elevation above all the hills in that region of the earth. So common, indeed, had this view of the upward projection of Mount Zion in the latter days, become in the time of Edward Irving, that we find him excusing himself from not implicitly adopting it. He expresses, indeed, his belief that there would be “some remarkable geographical changes on the face of the earth, and especially in the Holy Land”—so that he was “far from slighting the more literal interpretation of the passage;” yet, withal, “he inclines to think that the glory of Zion, in the eye of the prophet, standeth rather in this,—that it shall acquire such a celebrity in those days as shall bring low the most noted of the mountains of the earth, and the eyes of all men upon it, being the centre of the worship of the whole world.” Even the better sort of Jewish rabbies read with a less fleshly eye the meaning of the prophet. “It does not mean,” says Kimchi, “that the mountain shall be raised in bulk, but that the nations shall exalt and honour it, and shall go there to worship the Lord.” But we have a surer interpreter here than either Jewish rabbies or Christian divines. For the prophet Ezekiel, evidently referring to this prediction of Isaiah, connects it with circumstances which oblige us to understand the relative elevation of the sacred mount, as of a spiritual, not of a natural, kind, and as verified in what already has been, not in what is yet to be. Representing the seed of David as the subject of promise, under the image of a twig of a lofty cedar, and contrasting what the Lord would do to this, with what was to become of the twig cropped from the same cedar by the king of Babylon, the prophet says in the name of the Lord, “I also will take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent: in the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it; and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar; and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell” (Eze_17:22-23). There cannot be the smallest possible doubt that the young and tender twig here mentioned represents Jesus of Nazareth, the Branch, as he is elsewhere called, out of the roots of Jesse, and represents Him in His first appearance among men, when he came in the low condition of a servant, to lay through suffering and blood the foundation of His everlasting kingdom. For, it is of the planting of the twig that the prophet speaks, and of its original littleness when so planted, as compared with its future growth, and ultimate peerless elevation. Yet even of those very beginnings of the Messiah’s work and kingdom, it is said, that they were to take place on “an high mountain and eminent,” on “the mountain of the height (the mountain-height) of Israel.” So that, as seen in prophetic vision, the elevation had already taken place when Christ appeared in the flesh, the little hill of Zion had even then become a towering height; in other words, it was not the natural, but the spiritual aspect of things which was present to the eye of the prophets, when they made use of such designations. All Israel was in their view a height, because distinguished and set up above the nations by its sacred privileges; (See Eze_34:14, and the note there in my Commentary.) Mount Zion was the loftiest peak, as it were, in that height, because there was the seat and centre of what rendered Israel pre-eminent among the nations; and when seen as the place where God, manifest in the flesh, was to accomplish the great redemption, and unspeakably enhance the good, by turning what before was shadow into substance, then its moral grandeur became altogether transcendent, and all that might be called great and lofty in the world shrank into littleness as compared with it. Here now was the world’s centre—the glory that eclipsed every other.

If it were necessary to our argument, and would not lead us too far from our present purpose, we might strengthen the ground of this interpretation, by showing how commonly in prophetic language powers or kingdoms, as such, are spoken of under the image of mountains—mountains varying in height or stability according to the character and position of the kingdoms themselves. We merely refer to the fact (giving a few instances in the note (See Appendix E.)), and shall find occasion when we come to treat of the positive aspect of the subject, to shew the essential connection of such a style of representation with the usual form in which prophetic insight was given. But from the examples already adduced, it is manifest, that if we would not render prophecy in some parts utterly fantastical, and in others plainly inconsistent and contradictory, we need other rules to guide our interpretations than that of a strict adherence to historical simplicity. Prophecy cannot be always read merely as history antedated. And the absolute impossibility of making out, on such a principle, a prophetic harmony, or, to state it positively, the inevitable confusion and discord it would introduce into the prophetic record, may be further seen by a comparison of the diverse and, historically considered, antithetical representations, that are given of the religious changes that were to come in with the gospel dispensation. Sometimes this appears as a revival and perfecting of the old, and sometimes, again, as the entire supplanting of it by something higher and better. Thus Isaiah, in certain places, speaks of the future glory as consisting in the full re-establishment of the old things, the erection of the temple in surpassing magnificence, the rigorous enforcement of its ritual, and the vieing of all nations with each other to frequent its courts and celebrate its services (Isaiah 60; Isa_61:7-8; Isa_66:21-23); while, in other places, he pours contempt upon the old, as not worthy to be mentioned, treats the erection of a material temple, like that which formerly existed, as a thing no longer to be thought of, and holds out promises of blessing, which imply the abolition of the ordinances introduced by Moses (Isa_65:17; Isa_66:1-3; Isa_66:3-5). In like manner, Jeremiah, setting forth, at Jer_3:16, the superiority of the latter days, affirms that the time was coming when they should no more remember or speak of the ark of the covenant, nor make such a thing—meaning, that the peculiar sacredness and glory belonging to it should then be more widely diffused, not confined to so limited a spot. In another place (Jer_31:31), he tells us of the supplanting of the old covenant entirely by a new one, founded on better promises; and yet, passages again occur in which he depicts the full and perfect re-establishment of the ancient order of things, as the glory of those latter days (Jer_30:18-22; Jer_33:15-22). To mention no more, Ezekiel’s last vision of the brighter future presents all under the aspect of a re-edified temple, perfect in its structure and arrangements; while, in St John’s last vision, it takes the form of a holy city, complete in its proportions, and composed of the most precious materials, but having in it no temple. There is a principle, we may be well assured, which is quite sufficient to harmonise these different representations, and render them perfectly consistent with one another; but no skill or sophistry can ever persuade simple and unprejudiced men, that such a harmonising principle is to be found in reading the whole as one would read history—taking all as matter-of-fact descriptions of gospel times, or the millennial age. On that principle, the contradiction is necessarily real, and we have no alternative, according to it, but that of holding by one portion of the prophetic future, and letting go another.

Nor would such be the result merely with what may be still regarded as the prophetic future, and in respect to which endless and fanciful conjectures, for reconciling things which differ, may be thrown out; it would hold equally with what once was a prophetic future, but is now the historical past or present; for many of the representations we have noticed point to the New Testament dispensation generally, and necessarily bear respect to what has already come to pass. Indeed, it is difficult to say what a fair and uniform application of the principle of historical interpretation to the style of prophecy would leave us of prophetical fulfilments. Micah, for example, predicted that out of Bethlehem was to come forth He that was to be Ruler in Israel, the Messiah, as King of Zion. But it is held as a settled point by those who read prophecy like history, that Messiah has not yet appeared in the character of the King of Zion, or Ruler in Israel; so that, we should suppose, the predicted coming out of Bethlehem, in the proper sense, has yet to take place. In like manner, it must be maintained that he shall yet have to make good the prophecy of Zechariah, by riding into Jerusalem on an ass, since it was distinctively as the King of Jerusalem that the act in question was to be performed by Him. We are afraid, indeed, that on this principle a large portion of Christ’s earthly career, which the Evangelists have described as finished, and finished in accordance with the intimations of prophecy, must be regarded as still future. For when, according to one prophecy of Isaiah, was He actually anointed, or oiled, to preach the gospel to the poor? or, according to another, was precisely His back given to the smiters? Where do we read, in literal conformity with the Psalmist’s words respecting Him, of His ears having been bored; or of His sinking in deep waters, where there was no standing; or of His being heard from the horns of the unicorns? Such things, and others of a like nature, were written concerning Messiah in the Psalms and prophets; and if all were to be ruled by a principle of historical literalism, the conclusion seems inevitable that the predicted humiliation of the Messiah has been accomplished but in part by Jesus of Nazareth—a conclusion which could be hailed with satisfaction only by unbelieving Jews, as it is also one that is the legitimate result of their own carnal principles of interpretation. (See Appendix F.)

To conclude on this point, we object to the treatment of prophecy as merely anticipated history, or to the strictly literal principle of prophetical interpretation:—First, because, in point of fact, this principle is not justified by all the applications made of prophecy in New Testament Scripture, nor by the course of Providence in certain cases, at least, which may confidently be reckoned those of fulfilled prophecy; secondly because it would necessitate, if uniformly applied and carried out, the belief of many things utterly extravagant or absurd, as necessary to verify the prophetic word; and finally, because it would render one part of this word manifestly inconsistent with another.

These objections, it is to be understood, are not urged against the existence of an historical element in prophecy, but only against the mode of ascertaining it—against the principle, that prophecy in its predictive character is written substantially in the style and manner of history. While we contend against its being so written, or interpreted as if such had been the case, we still strenuously maintain, that if understood in its proper nature, and interpreted in a manner agreeable to that, it will be found in many of its announcements capable of yielding clear and specific historical results. The prophecy, for example, of Ezekiel, recently referred to, not less certainly foretells the appearance of the King of Zion in a state of deep humiliation, the founding of His kingdom amid circumstances outwardly mean, yet of vast spiritual moment, and its subsequent growth to universal sovereignty, that it represents all under the image of a slender twig planted on the summit of Israel, and rising and expanding till it overtopt all the trees of the field. In such a representation there are unquestionably involved conditions of an historical kind, which required to be met by definite corresponding facts in providence—such facts precisely as are recorded in the gospel history. At the same time, the prophecy differs materially in the form it assumes, from that of historical narration, and, as regards the events actually in prospect, plainly exhibits these in an aspect that must have appeared somewhat obscure, till it was shone upon and informed by the events themselves. But then, something of this kind was necessary to the very evidence which was to be furnished to the truth of Scripture by fulfilments of prophecy. A certain veil required to hang over the prophetic field, up to the time that its predictions passed into realities; otherwise, there would have been room for the allegation, that the palpable clearness of the prophecy had prompted the efforts that led to its fulfilment. The allegation, in fact, has been made, in respect to some of the most important parts of the prophetic Scriptures. Lord Bolingbroke did not scruple to assert, that Jesus Christ brought about his own death by a series of preconcerted measures, merely to give his disciples the advantage of an appeal to the old prophecies. “This was ridiculous enough (to use the words of Dr Chalmers (Works, vol. iii.)); but it serves to show, with what facility an infidel might have evaded the whole argument, had these prophecies been free from all that obscurity which is now complained of. The best form (he adds) for the purposes of argument, in which a prophecy can be delivered, is to be so obscure, as to leave the event, or rather its main circumstances, unintelligible before the fulfilment, and so clear as to be intelligible after it.” It may be said, indeed, that the problem to be solved by prophecy was to speak of the future in such a way as to admit of the word being fulfilled, before its import was distinctly perceived by the persons taking part in the fulfilling of it, and yet to leave no proper room to doubt, that the things they did constituted the actual future pointed to in the prophecy. It were not easy to conceive a train of circumstances, in which these conditions were more remarkably met, than in those connected with the personal appearance and history of Christ in the world. Throughout the whole of it, prophecies were continually passing into fulfilment, and for the most part had become events in providence before they either were or could be brought into remembrance by those who were taking part in the transactions. So far from its being the prediction which led to the doing of the things which accomplished it, it was the doing of the things which first suggested the prediction, and brought to light what had previously lain in a neglected obscurity. In this peculiarity, therefore, of the structure of prophecy, this felicitous combination of light and shade, we have a signal proof of the unsearchable wisdom of God, in directing those who uttered its predictions.

It is proper, however, to add, that while the style of prophecy always to some extent differs from that proper to history, it is not itself uniform in this respect, but is subject to change. It purposely spake of the future in “divers manners,” accommodating itself to the diversified circumstances in which it was given, and the more specific objects it contemplated. In the comparative fulness and frequency of its communications, as we had occasion formerly to remark (ch. 2), it varied exceedingly from time to time, and, as a general rule, increased in proportion to the dangers and difficulties of the period, or the magnitude of the subjects involved. The same considerations naturally had some influence also on the form of the prophetic announcements, as to their approaching nearer to the directness and circumstantiality of history, or receding farther from it. Sometimes general intimations regarding the course and issues of things might be enough for the support of faith, and the ordinary discharge of duty; while more full and explicit announcements of coming events might be called for in circumstances of an unusually perplexing or perilous nature. It was in such circumstances that Elijah had to do the work of a prophet in Israel. Spiritual wickedness in high places had assumed so bold a front, that there was the most imminent danger of overwhelming ruin; and the prophet coming forth as a mighty wrestler with the evil, there is an awful force and directness in his words—he speaks as already standing amid the scenes which he perceived to be at hand. In like manner, Jeremiah, though cast in a different mould from Elijah, yet because placed in circumstances of similar backsliding and rebuke, speaks often in the plainest terms of approaching events; and in those portions of his writings that relate to the nearer future,—such, for example, as Jeremiah 24, Jeremiah 25, Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah 50, Jeremiah 51,—has greatly more of the historical element than in such as point to times subsequent to the return from Babylon. Matters of fact abound in the one, while they are scarcely to be found in the other. So also in the Messianic prophecies, as a class, the same diversity is observable; there is more that is general in the earlier part, more that is specific in the later. By far the most explicit and circumstantial predictions were reserved for the time, when the old covenant and its earthly kingdom were tottering to their foundations, or existing only in an impaired and enfeebled condition. The heart of faith required then more special supports to sustain it; and suiting itself to the necessities of the case, the Spirit of prophecy began to disclose with greater freedom and distinctness the things which concerned Messiah’s appearance and kingdom, and gave the picture of the coming future, if we may so speak, more of an historical setting.

Nor was this gradual approach to historical distinctness required, merely for those who lived in the latter days of the Hebrew commonwealth; it was also necessary for the generation that should witness the coming of the Messiah, and those of after times. As He was to present Himself to their acceptance in the character of a promised Redeemer, certain marks, of an external kind, to be verified amid the transactions of history, were necessary to assure them, that he who should come, had actually appeared. The vision, in this respect, must be written so plain, that no sincere inquirer could fail to perceive the correspondence between the promise and the fulfilment. But this it could only be by touching at many points on the common relations and circumstances of life, such as are patent to the observation and level to the capacities of the simpler order of minds. In such a matter, men could not be left to grope their way to the truth, by the help merely of internal considerations or general characteristics. So that, however the prophecies which went before, may have differed in their style of delineation from the histories which followed after, the coming of Messiah, they must still, to accomplish the purpose they had in view, have borne distinct reference, and furnished a kind of pre-historical testimony, to certain things that should hereafter appear in the outward domain of history.

If due weight be given to the considerations now stated, there will be no need for holding some of the prophecies in Daniel (especially Daniel 8 and Daniel 9), on account of their historical details, to be at variance with the essential character of prophecy, and, therefore, liable to the suspicion of having been written after the events they refer to. This objection was raised so early as the third century by Porphyry, has frequently been revived in modern times, and has even, quite recently, been advanced by Dr Arnold and his followers in this country. He holds, that delineations like these, cast so much in the mould of history, and finding their verification in the affairs of the Alexandrian and Maccabean periods, are alien to the nature of prophecy, and must have been written after the events had taken place. We need not say, that such an opinion is fraught with most serious consequences in regard to the character and integrity of the Old Testament canon; as it admits of no doubt, that the book of Daniel, with those portions included, had its place in the Jewish Scriptures, when these were acknowledged as of Divine authority by our Lord and his Apostles, and were declared to have been all given by inspiration of God. The argument for the inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old Testament, as they now exist, would be shaken to its foundation, if the portions of Daniel referred to were displaced from the rank of genuine prophecies.

But as there is no valid reason of an external kind for such a rejection, neither can one be found in the internal objection derived from the historical aspect of the predictions. It is not denied, that there is somewhat peculiar in the form of those predictions, a form that assimilates them more to the detailed and prosaic style of history, than is usual in prophecies which relate to a future at some distance from the speaker. Yet it is to be remembered, we have the advantage of reading them after the fulfilment of the larger portion, at least, of what they foretold; whereas Daniel himself, and those to whom the word originally came, lived even before the national revolutions had taken place, which rendered the fulfilment possible. Hence, he speaks of the vision, in its most historical parts, as being perfectly dark to himself and others (Dan_8:27; Dan_12:4, Dan_12:8-9). And so different, after all, is this prophetico-historical delineation of things to come, from history in the proper sense, that, as Hengstenberg has remarked, (“Authentic des Daniel,” p. 190.) no one ignorant of the history, and with only this prophetical outline in his hand, could make his way to any precise and circumstantial account of the events; nor even yet are we free from all difficulties in the interpretation; there is still room at several points, from the mode of representation employed, for difference of opinion. And then, when we look at the circumstances of the period, for whose instruction and comfort this portion of Daniel’s prophecies was more especially intended—that, namely, stretching from the rebuilding of Jerusalem to the coming of Messiah—we can easily discern an adequate reason for that nearer approximation to the historical style, which unquestionably characterizes the predictions. Two leading peculiarities distinguished the period. It was, in the first instance, one of great feebleness and depression, and subject throughout to many trying and perplexing difficulties, which could not fail to put faith many times to the stretch. In such circumstances the people who had returned from Babylon with high hopes of the revival of their ancient glory, were the more likely, from the painful contrast which the realities of their position presented, to become disaffected and downcast in their minds. For long the infant colony in Judea had to struggle for its very existence against the insidious attacks of powerful and envious neighbours. And though its affairs became more settled and prosperous during the ascendancy of the Persian kings, and of Alexander, yet, soon again, the tide of fortune turned, and a period came, of which Calvin has said, that “if ever there were times of distress, such as might tempt men to imagine that God was asleep in heaven, and had become forgetful of the human race, it was certainly then, when the revolutions that took place were so frequent and so various.”

Another peculiarity, however, added very materially to the trials connected with these circumstances of outward trouble, and rendered some special support and consolation necessary. For, during the whole of the post-Babylonian period, the theocratic constitution existed in a kind of anomalous and shattered condition. The original ark of the covenant, the centre of the whole polity, was gone, and the Shekinah, and the answering by Urim and Thummim, and even the kingly rule and government, though it had been secured by covenant in perpetuity to the house of David. It was to contend, at fearful odds, with the difficulties of their position, as compared with former times, when the members of the ancient covenant had to pass through deep waters shorn of these distinctive badges of a proper covenant relationship. Yet this was not all; for during that period all sensible tokens of God’s immediate presence were wanting. There was no longer any vision; the spirit of prophecy was silent; and with a closed record, and destitute of any miraculous agency, the people were left to hold on their course, as they best could, with no more than the settled and ordinary means of grace placed at their command.

Taking, then, into account the entire circumstances of the period between the return from Babylon and the coming of Christ, is it to be wondered at? might it not rather be expected, from the whole character of God’s dealings with His people, that His foreseeing and watchful guardianship should make some suitable provision for such a time of need? It would have been precisely such a provision, if, along with the prophecies pointing the eye of hope to Messiah’s appearance and kingdom, there were also furnished to the hand of faith a more than usually explicit pre-intimation of the changes and vicissitudes that should arise during the intervening period; in particular, during that portion of it when the conflict with sin and error was to be the hottest. For this would, in great measure, compensate for the failure of the prophetic office, through which, in earlier times, direction was given in emergencies, and a sensible connection maintained between the providence of God and the events which befel His people. With such a comparatively detailed exhibition of the coming future in the prophetic record, the children of faith could feel that they were not left alone in their struggles, but that the eye of God still directed every movement, and had descried, as formerly, the end from the beginning. And, finally, if such a provision, by means of prophetic delineations, was to be made, Daniel, of all the prophets during the captivity, or immediately subsequent to it (as Hengstenberg has already noted), was precisely the one fitted for the purpose. “In the impartation of prophetical gifts, God always acts in adaptation to human powers and susceptibilities. A man, therefore, like Daniel, who had spent his life in the highest employments of the state, must have been peculiarly fitted for apprehending aright communications which had reference chiefly to political revolutions. The other prophets held not only the prophetical gift, but also the prophetical office; their utterances bore a distinct reference to their contemporaries. But, with such a relation, the communication of so long a series of special revelations was scarcely compatible. These were necessarily destined, as, indeed, is expressly said in this book, more for the future than for the present; while a prevailing destination for the present naturally carries along with it a direct monitory tendency, and, at the same time, an elevated, predominantly poetical style of discourse, which might easily have proved prejudicial to the requisite precision and clearness in a case like this Now, Daniel was no prophet, so far as office was concerned. Hence, in the prophecies communicated through him, comparatively little respect required to be had to the necessities of the existing generation, and their capacity of spiritual apprehension. Nor would an elevated poetical diction have here been in its place, as for himself only, in the first instance, did he desire and receive explanations. And in so wonderful a manner had he been accredited by God, that men could not venture, on account of what might appear of darkness in his revelations, to withhold an acknowledgment of their Divine character, and were only the more careful in comparing the prophecy with the fulfilment. Of this, the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus contain indisputable proofs.” (“Die Authentie des Daniel,” p. 193.)

On the whole, therefore, we conclude that there are material differences in form and style between history and prophecy, as the distinctive aims and provinces of each are also different; but, at the same time, that prophecy approximates more nearly to the manner of history at one time than another, varying considerably in this respect, according to the circumstances in which it was given, and the more specific purposes it was intended to serve.

Section II. The Prophetic Style and Diction Viewed Positively—Its More Distinctive Peculiarities

The Ground of Those Peculiarities, in the Mode of Revelation by Vision

AT an early stage of our investigations, we had occasion to notice the regular and settled method by which Divine communications were made to those who were prophets in the ordinary sense, as contra-distinguished from the revelations given by Moses, and afterwards by Christ. In the latter cases, the intercourse with Heaven was maintained, while the mind continued in its habitual state, and the Divine message was received by a face-to-face communication. But, in the case of the prophets generally, it was to be otherwise; the Lord was to “make Himself known to them in a vision, to speak, to them in a dream” (Num_12:6). The Jewish doctors were wont to make some distinction between these two—the prophetic vision and the prophetic dream. They generally regarded the vision as superior to the dream, as representing things more to the life, and seizing upon the prophet while he was awake, though it often declined into a true dream, as in the case of Abraham (Gen_15:12). The difference, however, as Mr Smith, of Cambridge, long since remarked, (“Discourse on Prophecy,” chap. ii.) seems rather to lie in the circumstantials than in anything essential; only, as the term vision pointed to what was seen, the dream must be understood as referring more particularly to what was spoken and heard; as, indeed, the passage itself indicates, “make known in a vision,” “speak in a dream.” But, in regard to the state marked by these expressions, the older Jewish interpreters described it as one in which the imaginative faculty was set forth as a stage on which certain visa and simulacra (appearances and images) were represented to the understandings of the prophets, as they are in our common dreams; only, that in their case the understanding was always kept awake, and strongly acted on by God in the midst of those apparitions, that it might see the intelligible mysteries in them. And the Jewish writers regarded this as constituting the specific difference between the more ordinary prophetic illumination and the Mosaic degree, that in the latter the impressions of things were made nakedly to the understanding, without any schemes or pictures exhibited upon the phantasy. (See Smith, as above.) This ancient view of the prophetical state is, beyond doubt, substantially correct. It supposes the prophet, when borne away by the impulse of God’s Spirit, to have been transported out of his natural condition, into a higher, a spiritually ecstatic state, in which, losing the sense and consciousness of external objects, he was rendered capable of holding direct intercourse with Heaven; and surrendering himself wholly to the divine impressions conveyed to his soul, he for the moment ceased from his ordinary agency, and, as one released from the common conditions of flesh and blood, entered into the purely spiritual sphere, to see the vision and hear the words of the Almighty. It was his, therefore, in a degree altogether supernatural, to possess and exercise the faculty, which the soul ever in some degree exerts in its intenser frames of thought and feeling, which it is the part especially of the poet’s soul, in its loftier moods, to exert,—the faculty of withdrawing within itself, closing its eyes and ears against external impressions, and living as in a world of its own. Like this in kind, but far higher in degree, was the ecstasy of the divine seer, which transferred the conscious exercise of his powers to the region of spiritual things, and placed him in direct and free communion with God.

The Fathers seem to have been afraid of conceding quite so much concerning the ancient prophets, from its appearing to place them in a dangerous resemblance to the heathen diviners, and the rhapsodical Montanists. A sharp distinction was drawn between the ecstacies of such persons speaking in a kind of sacred fury, and the conscious spiritual elevation of the true prophet. Miltiades is even reported by Eusebius to have written a book on the theme, that a prophet must not speak in ecstacy. (Hist. Eccl., v. 17, and the same sentiments are expressed by Epiphanius, Adv. Haeres. Mont., chap. 2, Jerome, Pract in Isaiam, Nahum, etc.) In this, however, they did not mean to deny, that the prophets were in a supernaturally raised and elevated frame when they received their revelations; but only, that the excitation under which they thought and felt, was not that sort of irresistible agency claimed by Montanism, and assumed in heathen divination, which left no room for human individuality, and impelled those who experienced it to utter what had no place in their own understandings. This appears to have been all they meant, as may be learned from Jerome’s more explicit statement, in his preface to Habakkuk, where he vindicates the prophets from assimilation with Montanists, by asserting that they were not madmen, as if they had spoken without intelligence, and had no power over themselves, either to speak or to remain silent. The jealousy of the Fathers in this direction naturally led them to contract somewhat unduly the difference between the ordinary frame of the prophets, and that to which they were raised when presented with the visions of God. And, certainly, in their interpretations of the prophetical writings, they often exhibit grievous failures in the correct appreciation of the prophetical state, in its bearing on the prophetical style. But, on the other hand, some modern writers on prophecy—among others, Hengstenberg, in the first edition of his “Christology”—seem to go to the opposite extreme, in making the ecstacy of the prophets approach too closely to the μανία, the sacred fury of the diviners. Such, undoubtedly, is the impression produced, when it is said of them in that state, that “they lost their consciousness,” that “their rational powers were suspended,” that they were “completely passive under an overpowering influence of the Spirit of God.” They were, indeed, borne aloft by an impulse which lifted them above themselves, but, at the same time, an impulse which destroyed nothing they possessed, which left unimpaired their native susceptibilities, and wrought in accordance with their personal characteristics.

So far from their own intelligence and agency being suspended, everything in their perceptive and emotional nature moved then with living energy and freedom; they saw, they heard, they felt, they spake, not less than if all had come from the spontaneous workings of their own minds, but with a clearness of insight, and a glow of sentiment, which of themselves they had been incapable of reaching. (In the last edition of the “Christology,” Hengstenberg, I am glad to see, has corrected his former view on this subject: he now expressly says “that we are not to regard the prophets as entirely deprived of intelligent consciousness,” “they did not lose their self-possession, but knew what they said, and spoke with a full apprehension of the existing circumstances.” At the same time he holds, and justly, that “there are not less decisive proofs, that the intelligent consciousness of the prophets was something secondary and superadded, and that when in the spirit they were in a state altogether distinct from their ordinary condition” (App. vi).)

We must here hold fast by the principle, which lies at the foundation of all right views of the Divine agency in the soul, and the overlooking of which, more than anything else, has bred perplexity and error on the whole subject of God’s inspired communications to men—that the supernatural ever bases itself on the natural. Grace, in all its acts and provisions, comes not to mar or destroy, but only to quicken, and exalt, and perfect nature. And the Spirit of grace, alike in his more peculiar, and in his more common, operations upon the soul, ever has respect to its essential powers and properties, and adapts himself, even in his most special communications, not only to the general laws of thought, which reg