The Economical Aspect Of The Law—The Defects Adhering To It As Such—The Relation Of The Psalms And Prophets To It—Mistaken Views Of This Relation—The Great Problem With Which The Old Testament Closed, And The Views Of Different Parties Respecting Its Solution.
IN the preceding lecture we have seen what advantages accrued to Israel, and through them to the world, from the revelation of law at Sinai, in so far as that revelation was rightly understood, and was kept in its proper place. But as yet we have only looked at a part of the considerations which require to be taken into account, in order to get a comprehensive view of the work which the law had to do in Israel, and of much that is written concerning it in Scripture. There can be no doubt that the law, taken in its entireness, and as forming the most prominent feature in the economy brought in by Moses, however wisely adapted to the time then present, was still inlaid with certain inherent defects, which discovered themselves in the working of the system, and paved the way for its ultimate removal. As an economy, it belonged to an immature stage of the Divine dispensations, and as such was constituted after a relatively imperfect form. The institutions and ordinances, also, which were associated with it, and became an integral part of its machinery, were in many respects suited to a comparatively limited territory, and even within the bounds of that involved not a little that must often have proved irksome and inconvenient—what an apostle said to his brethren, neither they nor their fathers were able to bear. (Act_15:10.) It is plain, therefore, that matters existed then only in a provisional state, and that a change must somehow be introduced into the Divine economy, to adapt it to the general wants and circumstances of mankind. It becomes, therefore, an interesting and important question, wherein precisely lay the inherent defects of an economy modelled so much after the legal form. Also, how these defects practically discovered themselves; and what other elements or agencies came into play, to compensate for the defects in question, and to prepare the way for the entrance of another and higher state of things. To such points we shall now endeavour to address ourselves.
I. Whatever may be the contents of law—even if comprising what is of universal import and obligation—simply as law, written on perishable materials, and imposed in so many formal enactments, it has a merely outward and objective character. And this is what first falls to be noted here; for the main element of weakness in the Sinaitic law, viewed in its economical bearings, stood in its having so much of the outward and objective. It was engraved on tables of stone, and stood there before men as a preceptor to instruct them, or a master to demand their implicit submission, but without any direct influence or control over the secret springs and motives of obedience. And the same, of course, holds with respect to the ordinances of service, which were appended to it as supplementary means to subserve its design—more so, indeed; for they not only possessed the same formally written character, though not on tables of stone, but bore throughout on men’s relation to a material fabric, and their submission to bodily restraints or exercises. The whole, therefore, taken by itself, formed a kind of legal institute, and in its working naturally tended to the mechanical and formal. It is of the nature of law, whether Divine or human, when imposed as a bond of order and discipline, to work from without inwards—acting as an external pressure or constraint on the vital energies, and seeking to bind them into an orderly and becoming course. ‘Laws politic,’ says Hooker, (‘Eccl. Polity,’ I. sec. x.) ‘ordained for external order and regiment amongst men, are never framed as they should be, unless presuming the will of man to be inwardly obstinate, rebellious, and averse from all obedience unto the sacred laws of his nature; in a word, unless presuming man to be, in regard to his depraved nature, little better than a wild beast, they do accordingly provide, notwithstanding, so to frame his outward actions, that they be no hindrance to the common good, for which societies are instituted.’ It is the same thing substantially which was uttered long before by the apostle, when, with reference more immediately to the Divine law, he said, The law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly, and for sinners: (1Ti_1:9.) it is such alone who need the stringent rules and prohibitions of an outward code of enactments; those who are firmly rooted in the principles of rectitude, and animated by a genuine spirit of love, will be a law to themselves. Essentially the sum, as well as spirit, of the law is love. But then the law does not of itself elicit love; its object rather is to supplement the deficiency of love, and by means of an external discipline form the inner nature to the habit and direction which would have been instinctively taken by the spirit of love. Still, this spirit could not be altogether wanting in those for whom the discipline availed anything, otherwise the result would have been at most but a well-drilled and heartless formalism. It was with them, as in the case of children who, through the yoke of parental discipline, are trained to goodness and virtue: the elements of the good are all there though existing in comparative feebleness, and by means of the discipline are stimulated to a readiness and constancy of exercise, which they would otherwise have failed to put forth. And as a natural consequence, both of the feebleness of love and of the magisterial presence and power of law, the principle of fear must have had relatively greater sway than would belong to it in a more perfect state of things. The dread of incurring the wrath of an offended God, and suffering the penalties which guarded on every side the majesty of His law, would often deter from sin when no other consideration might prevail, and quicken the soul to exertions in duty which it would not have otherwise put forth.
These were, undoubtedly, marks of imperfection impressed on the very nature of the old economy; it wrought, as the apostle tells us, to a large extent by weak and beggarly elements; and it did so because it was the comparative nonage of the church, and the materials of a more spiritual economy did not yet exist. ‘The atonement was yet but prospective; the Holy Spirit did not operate as He does under the Gospel; and God’s gracious designs, as regards the redemption of our race, lay embedded and concealed in the obscure intimation, that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head, and in the promises to Abraham. Nor were these defects perfectly remedied throughout the whole course of the dispensation. To the last the Jew walked in comparative darkness; to the last the powerful motives which affect the Christian, derived from the infinite love of God as exhibited in the completed work of redemption, and from the authoritative announcement of a future resurrection to life or death eternal, could not be brought to bear on the ancient believer; to the last, therefore, he needed stimulants to his piety drawn from inferior sources.’ (Litton’s ‘Bampton Lecture,’ p. 50.)
The practical result in some measure corresponded. It might, indeed, have been greatly better than it actually was, and would have been, if the proper use had been generally made of the grace offered in the covenant of promise; the people would then have had the law of God in their hearts. (Psa_37:31.) But this proved to be the case only with a portion. In many the pulse of life beat too feebly and irregularly for the requirements of the law being felt otherwise than a difficult, if not oppressive yoke. Too often, also, those who should have been the most exemplary in performing what was enjoined, and from their position in the commonwealth should have checked the practice of evil in others, were themselves the most forward in promoting it. Hence, the theory of the constitution as to the strict connection between transgression and punishment gave way: souls that should have been cut off from the number of their people, as deliberate covenant-breakers, and in God’s judgment were cut off, continued to retain their place in the community, and to exercise its rights. (The expression, ‘that soul shall be cut off,’ refers primarily to God’s act, and is sometimes used where, from the nature of things, human authority could not interfere—viz., where the violation of law was quite secret, as in Lev_17:10; Lev_18:29; Lev_22:3. Hence the words sometimes run, ‘I will cut off that soul,’ or ‘I will cut him off from my presence.’ But when the act was open, and the guilt manifest, God’s decision should have been carried out by the community, as at Num_15:30; Jos_7:24-26.) By degrees, also, the faulty administration of the covenant by human authority re-acted on the state of heart out of which it sprung, and strengthened yet more the tendency to fall away. And there being but a partial and defective exhibition of holiness on the part of the people, there necessarily ensued on God’s part a proportionate withdrawal of the promised blessing. So that the aspect of things in Canaan never presented more than a broken and irregular impression of that righteousness and prosperity which, like twin sisters, should have accompanied the people through the whole course of their history. But did not the Mediator of the covenant Himself apprehend this, and at the outset proclaim it, when on the plains of Moab He so distinctly portrayed the future backslidings of the people, and foretold the desolations which should in consequence overtake them? (Deuteronomy 28, 32.) Coincident with the birth of the covenant there were thus given intimations of its imperfect character and temporary purpose; and it was made clear that, not through the provisions and agencies therewith connected could the ultimate good for mankind, or even for Israel itself, be secured. (See Davison ‘On Prophecy,’ p. 165.)
II. The comparative failure in this respect, while in itself an evil, was overruled to bring out very distinctly, among the covenant-people, the spiritual element which was in the law; and this we note as the second point which here calls for consideration. By spiritual element I mean the great moral truths embodied in the law in their relation to the individual heart and conscience. This could not, of course, be said in any proper sense to be dependent on the defective observance and faulty administration of the covenant, but it would, we can easily understand, be aided by them. The law bore so much of an external character, that it was quite possible for persons to maintain a conduct free from all just exceptions of a public kind, while still it wanted much to bring it into accordance with the real spirit and design of the law; for the outward was of value only as expressive of the desires and principles of the heart. Even in any circumstances, the thoughtful meditation of the law must have had the effect of leading the soul apart, instead of losing itself amid the decent formalities of a generally approved behaviour, of bringing it into close personal dealing with God regarding sin and righteousness. It could scarcely fail to force itself on the convictions of those who were thus spiritually exercised, that their relation to the law, and to Him whose glory was identified with its proper observance, must materially differ, according as it might be the outward man merely that was drilled into the keeping of the law’s requirements, or along with this, and under this, the outgoing also of reverent feelings, holy desires, and pure affections. The members of the covenant, it would thus come to be felt, were not alike children of the covenant, even though they might present much the same appearance of outward conformity to its handwriting of ordinances. An Israel would be known as developing itself within Israel—a more special and select class, who individually came nearer to God than others, and who might reasonably expect to find God coming nearer to them, and bestowing on them the more peculiar tokens of His goodness.
But, plainly, a conviction of this sort, which was almost unavoidable anyhow, would gather strength in proportion as differences appeared among the members of the covenant; and some were seen making conscience of keeping the statutes of the Lord, while others resigned themselves to selfish indifference or courses of sin. Reflecting and serious minds would feel assured, that the one class held a relation to the God of truth and rectitude, which could not belong to the other; and though all might still be called the seed of Israel, and might alike enjoy the common privileges of the covenant, yet those who alone properly answered to the description, and had any just right to look for the favour and protection of God, must have appeared to be such as, like Abraham, were observed to keep the commandments of the Lord and obey His voice. (Gen_18:19.) We judge this to have been the case from the very nature of things. The law recognised important relations, general and particular, human and Divine, and, in connection with them, established great moral obligations, which not only called for a certain appropriate demeanour, but demanded also a suitable state of feeling and affection. These, of necessity, formed elements of spiritual thought and comparative judgment with the better class of Israelites, and must have done so the more, the more they found themselves surrounded by persons of another spirit than themselves—mere formal observers of the law, or open transgressors of its precepts. And that such actually was the case, we have conclusive evidence in those writings of the Old Covenant, which give expression to the personal feelings and reflective judgments of godly men on the state of things around them.
Take, for example, the Book of Proverbs, immensely the richest storehouse of thoughtful utterance and practical wisdom that any nation, not to say single individual, has given to the world, does not its leading characteristic, as a writing, stand in the skill and discrimination with which it draws moral distinctions—distinctions between one principle of action and one line of conduct and another? It proceeds throughout on the profound conviction that there are such distinctions—a right and a wrong unalterably fixed by the law of God and the essential nature of things; and, corresponding to this, a good and an evil in experience, a blessing and a curse. The Book is the record of a most careful and extensive observation, gathered, no doubt, in part from the general field of the world’s history, but chiefly and most especially from the land of the covenant—the territory which lay in the light of God’s truth and in the bond of His law. The comparison is never formally made between Israel as a nation and the idolatrous nations around it; no, but rather between class and class, individual and individual in Israel. There are the fearers of Jehovah on the one side—those who sincerely listen to the voice of Divine wisdom, and apply themselves in earnest to all the works of a pious, upright, and beneficent life; and, on the other, the vain and foolish, the corrupt and profligate, the envious, the niggardly, the unjust, the scornful, and the wicked. With both classes, and with manifold shades and diversities in each, the writer’s experience had manifestly made him familiar; and, according to their respective moral condition—in other words, their relation to the law and service of God such also is the portion of good or evil he associates with their history.
In various portions of the Book of Psalms, the spiritual element comes out, if possible, still more strongly, and the moral distinctions are drawn with a yet keener edge; because for the most part drawn from a personal point of view, and with reference to a contrast or an antagonism which was pressing on the faith and interests of the writer. In such a psalm as the 37th, the contrast assumes its milder form, and approaches to the style of the Proverbs; yet still there is perceptible the feeling of one who knew himself to be in a struggling minority, and who needed to encourage his own heart, and the hearts of those he represented, with considerations drawn from the eternal principles of God’s law, and the recompenses of good and evil therewith connected. But more commonly the theme of the Psalms in question turns on the trials of the Lord’s servant in his contendings for truth and righteousness against those who, though formally members of the covenant, ranged themselves in opposition to its real interests. It was the representative of Heaven’s cause, the true wrestler for righteousness, on the one side, and those, on the other, who had not the fear of God before their eyes, and sought to strengthen themselves by their wickedness. It was the former alone, the Psalmist with manifold frequency proclaims, the godly ones, whom the Lord had chosen; the others were objects of His displeasure, aliens, heathen at heart, who should be made to perish from the land, or become entangled in their own arts of destruction. Thus it appears that the principle, ‘not all Israel who are of Israel’—in other words, an election within the election, a spiritual seed from among the visible community of the covenant-people—though not recognised in the Theocratic constitution, yet came practically into distinct and palpable operation. It was present as a fact to the minds of the faithful in almost every age of its history; and so gave promise of a time when the really distinctive and fundamental things in men’s relation to God should rise to their proper place. It follows, therefore, that the law, considered as a national covenant, did not, in its actual working, tend to perpetuate, but rather to antiquate itself; it led to a state of things, which was the prelude and virtual commencement of an era in which primary regard should be had, not to men’s natural descent or hereditary position, but to their personal relation to the redeeming grace of God, and their heartfelt sympathy with the interests of His kingdom. (There was unavoidably connected with the state of things now described certain anomalies of a moral kind, which exercised the patience, sometimes even for a time staggered the faith, of God’s people—cases in which, contrary to the general tenor of the covenant, wrong appeared to triumph, and the righteous cause or person was put to the worse. We have specimens of the painful reflections they gave rise to in such Psalms as 49, 73; also in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and various passages in the prophets. They are to be explained, so far as an explanation was possible, from the broken and disordered state of things brought in by the wide-spread unfaithfulness of the people to the covenant, which necessarily rendered the administration of temporal rewards and punishments also broken and irregular—although still of such a kind, that thoughtful observers had enough to satisfy them that there was a righteous God who judged in the earth. This is surely a better and more Scriptural mode of viewing such cases, than the rough and sceptical sort of treatment they receive in ‘Ecce Homo’—where, in reference to acts of moral delinquency not punished by the judge, it is said, ‘What did Jehovah do? Did He suffer the guilty man to escape, or had He other ministers of justice beside the judge and the king? It was supposed that in such cases He called in the powers of nature against the transgressor, destroyed his vines with hailstones, etc. But this theory was found to be unsatisfactory. Life is a short term, and prosperous villany was seen going to an honoured grave. Another conjecture was hazarded: it was said the bad man prospers sometimes, but he has no children, or at least his house soon dies out,’ etc. (p. 38). All mere human thought and vain speculation about the matter!)
III. The sacred writings just referred to, more especially the Psalms, besides incidentally testifying to the existence of a spiritual along with a carnal seed in Israel, had another and more direct end to serve in respect to the question now under consideration: by their didactic and devotional character they made a fresh advance in the Divine administration toward men, and so far tended to modify the operation of law. They formed the introduction of an agency, perfectly harmonious, indeed, with the outward prescriptions and observances of the law, but in its own nature higher, and as such tending to prepare the way for yet further advances in the same direction.
The service rendered by this kind of agency was various; but, in whichever way considered, the effect must have been in the line now indicated. It undoubtedly bore respect, and may be said, perhaps, to have more immediately owed its origin, to the form of worship associated with the covenant of law. Partaking as this did so much of the outward and ceremonial, it was, as a matter of course, largely identified with particular times and places, which for the great body of the people necessarily circumscribed very much the opportunities of public worship. Long intervals elapsed between the solemnities which drew them around the one altar of burnt-offering, and the place where Jehovah, in a more peculiar sense, put His name. Not only so, but when the people held their holy convocations in their several localities (such as the law itself contemplated, (Lev_23:3; Lev_23:24; Lev_23:27; Num_29:1; Num_29:7.) and which ought to have been of frequent occurrence) no special legislation was made in respect to the mode of conducting them; the worshippers were left to their own discretion and resources, doubtless on the supposition that the lack would be supplied by the more gifted members of the community. And in the circumstances of the time, when written helps were as yet so scanty, one of the readiest, and one also of the most effectual modes of supplying it, was by means of the lofty and stirring notes of sacred song, accompanied by simple but appropriate melodies. How near this lay to the thoughts of the better class of the people, is evident from the frequency which, even in the earlier periods of their national existence, remarkable incidents and memorable occasions gave rise to such spirited effusions, as appears from the songs intermingled with the records of their history. (Exodus 15; Num_21:17-27; Deuteronomy 32; Judges 4; also Balaam’s prophecies, and the Psalm of Moses.) These songs were manifestly composed for use in religious meetings, and were sure to be increasingly employed, and also to grow in number, in proportion as a spirit of earnest piety diffused itself among the people. Accordingly, in the period of revival which was originated by Samuel, this appears as one of the more distinguishing features of the time. The schools of the prophets, as they were called—that is, companies of the more select and godly members of the community, gathered together into a kind of spiritual brotherhood, under the presidency of a prophet, made such abundant use of sacred lyrics that they had for their distinctive badges musical instruments—the psaltery, the tabret, the pipe, and the harp. (1Sa_10:5.) David himself, in his earlier years, was no. stranger to these institutions, and not improbably, by what he witnessed and felt in them, had his heart first moved to stir up the gift that was in him to add to their materials of devotion. But what he received he repaid with increase. The fine poetical genius with which he was endowed, ennobled as it was and hallowed by the special gifts of God’s Spirit, singularly fitted him for giving expression to the spiritual thoughts and feelings of the people, and even for imparting to these an elevation and a fervour beyond what should otherwise have belonged to them. And to him, in his vocation as the sweet Psalmist of Israel, it was not a little owing that such associations became, not only means of spiritual culture, but centres of religious awakening.
Nearly akin to this was another service, which the Psalmodic literature, and the writings that were somewhat allied to it, rendered to the religion of the Old Covenant—one more immediately connected with their didactic character. That religion was predominantly of a symbolical nature. The very writing of the Decalogue on tables of stone possessed this character; and every act of lustration, every ordinance of service at the temple or away from it, had couched under it a spiritual meaning. It had this, however, practically not for all, but only for those who possessed discernment to look through the shell into the kernel. The native tendency of the soul was to rest in the outward; and, instead of searching into the hidden treasures which lay enclosed in the external forms of worship, to turn the mere ritualism of these into a kind of sacred pantomime, which, for all higher purposes, left the worshipper much where it found him. The proneness of ancient Israel to give way to this unthinking, fleshly disposition, comes out with mournful frequency through the whole of their history. And for the purpose of correcting it—for the purpose, we may also say, of providing in this behalf a needed complement to the institutions and services of the Old Covenant, it became the calling of the more gifted members of the community to extract from them their spiritual essence—to detach the great truths and principles they enshrined, and, by linking them to the varied experiences and prospects as well of individual as of national life, to invest them with a significance and a power that might be level to every understanding, and touch a chord of sympathy in every reflecting bosom. This was pre-eminently the calling of David, and of those who succeeded him in the line of reforming agency he initiated. It was to pour new life and vigour into the old religion, not merely by rectifying the partial disorders that had crept into its administration, and promoting the due observance of its solemnities with the lively accompaniment of song and music not merely this, but also, and much more, by popularizing its lessons in compositions adapted to general use, and providing appropriate forms of utterance for the devout feelings and desires which the ordinances of God and the events of life were fitted to call forth. The thought of God as the Creator and moral Governor of the world—the Redeemer, the Shepherd, the King of Israel—of His glorious perfections and wonderful works—the deliverances He had wrought for His people, the careful guardianship He exercises over them, the spirituality of His holy law, as requiring truth in the inward parts not less than integrity and kindness in the outward life, His mercy to the penitent, His special nearness to the humble, to the needy, to the souls struggling with convictions of sin or sharp conflicts in the cause of righteousness, yea, His readiness to keep them as in the secret of His tabernacle, and compass them about with His presence as with a shield:—these and such-like thoughts, which were all interwoven with the facts of sacred history and with the structure and services of the Tabernacle, were in these inspired productions plainly set forth, clothed in the forms of an attractive and striking imagery, and enkindled with the glow of human sympathies and devout emotions. It is impossible not to see what an approach was here made to the directness and simplicity both of instruction and worship, which are the characteristics of a spiritual dispensation. In proportion as the members of the covenant became conversant with and used these helps to faith and devotion, they must have felt at once more capable of profiting by the worship of the sanctuary, and less tied to its formal routine; in spirit they could now realize what was transacted there, and bring it home to the sanctuary of their bosoms. Jehovah Himself, though His dwelling-place was in Zion, was through these utterances of His Spirit brought near to every one of them; and alike in their private communings and in their holy convocations, they possessed the choicest materials for holding sweet and hallowed converse with Heaven. And therefore must these Psalms have been pre-eminently to the Jewish believer what they have been said to be also in a measure to the Christian—even well-nigh ‘what the love of parents and the sweet affections of home, and the clinging memory of infant scenes, and the generous love of country, are to men of every rank and order and employment, of every kindred, and tongue, and nation.’ (Irving. An incidental proof of this is found in the touching notices in Psalms 137, where the Jewish captives are represented as hanging their harps on the willows, and incapable, when requested by their conquerors, of singing one of the songs of Zion. It shews how deep a hold the psalmody had taken of the better minds of the community, and what a powerful influence it exercised over them.)
IV. The tendency in this direction, however, was greatly increased by the operation of another element—the prophetical agency and writings, which attained only to their greatest fulness and power when the affairs of the Old Covenant approached their lowest depression. The raising up of persons from time to time, who should come with special messages from God to the people, suited to the ever varying states and exigences of life, was from the first contemplated in the Theocratic government; (Num_12:6; Deu_18:17-22.) and certain directions were given both for trying the pretensions of those who claimed to have such messages from God, and for treating with becoming reverence and regard such as had them. This was, certainly, a very singular arrangement—as justly noticed by G. Baur:—‘That the holy will of the one true God should have been set up before the Israelites in the definite prescriptions of a law, and that, in order to carry this Divine law into effect, and prepare for its proper fulfilment, prophets must appear on the scene,—this is what distinguishes the religion of Israel, not only from all other pre-Christian religions, but also from Christianity itself. For, the legal and prophetical elements of the Old Testament religion are precisely those through which it stood in marked contrast to the other religions, and made an approach to Christianity, while at the same time it thereby bore the character of a religion which could not of itself present the most perfect religious state of things, but could only prepare for it, and hand over the completion to another.’ (‘Geschichte der Alttestamentlihen Weissagimg,’ by Dr Gustav Baur, p. 9.)
The close relation of prophecy to the law is not too strongly stated here, and must be kept steadily in view. In its earlier stages the aim of the prophetic agency was almost exclusively directed to the one object of diffusing a better knowledge of the law, and promoting a more dutiful observance of its institutions and precepts. It was essentially a spirit of revival, called forth by the grievous disorders and wide-spread degeneracy that prevailed. Such, as has been already stated, was the leading character and aim of the religious associations which have received the name of the ‘schools of the prophets.’ They were composed of earnest and devoted men, who, under the direction of one or more persons of really supernatural gifts (such as Samuel at first, afterwards of Elijah and Elisha), set their faces boldly against the corruptions which prevailed, and endeavoured, by religious meetings in various places, with the powerful excitation of sacred song, to stir up the languid zeal of the people, and engage them to a hearty surrender to the Divine service. It was a kind of action which, though apparently somewhat irregular and spasmodic in its movements, was in nature not unlike to the evangelistic operations often carried on in modern times, and reached its end in proportion as people were brought to consider aright and discharge their duty as placed under the economy set up by the hand of Moses. The labours of David, and those gifted men, chiefly of Levitical families, who succeeded him in the work of sacred song, so far coincided with the class of agencies instituted by Samuel, that they also had in view the proper understanding and due appreciation of what pertained to the old economy, but employed more of literary effort, especially of lyrical compositions, for the purpose, and in these sometimes gave delineations of the kingdom of God as it should exist in the future, and of the King who should preside over its affairs and destinies, which could scarcely be conceived capable of realization, except by some mighty change in the form of the constitution and the powers brought to bear on its administration. But by and by a state of things entered, which proved the comparative failure of those reforming agencies, and called for prophetic work of a different kind. Back sliding and corruption perpetually returned, after seasons of revival, and with ever-deepening inveteracy. The royal house itself, which should have ruled only for Jehovah, became infected with worldly pride, luxury, idolatry with its host of attendant vices. Judgment after judgment had been sent to correct the evil, but all without permanent effect; and not the realization of splendid hopes, but the sinking of all into prostration and ruin, was the fate that seemed more immediately impending. It was when matters were verging toward this deplorable condition, that the prophets, distinctively so called, came upon the field, and fulfilled, one after another, their appointed mission. The circumstances were very materially changed in which they had to act, from those which belonged to the times of Samuel and David; but they still stood in substantially the same relation to the law, differing only in the application which was made of it to the state and prospects of the people.
The prophets without exception took up their position on the basis of law: they appeared as the vindicators of its authority, the expounders of its meaning, and in a sense also the avengers of its injured rights; for they never fail to charge upon the people’s culpable neglect of its obligations, and persistent adherence to the practices it condemns, all the visitations of evil which in the course of God’s providence had befallen them, or the yet greater calamities that were in prospect. Nor in pointing to the possibility of escaping the worst, when there was the utmost reason to apprehend its approach, do they ever indicate another course than that of a return to the bond of the covenant, by ceasing from all the acts and indulgences against which it was directed: this one path presented to the people a door of hope. But in this particular line the prophets abstain from going farther; they never attempt to improve upon the principles of the Theocracy, or inculcate a morality that transcends the ideal of the Decalogue. A claim has sometimes been made in honour of the prophets, as if their teaching did transcend, and, in a manner, remodel what had been previously given though the quarter from which it comes may justly beget doubts of its validity. ‘The remark,’ says Mr Stuart Mill, (‘On Representative Government,’ p. 42.) ‘of a distinguished Hebrew, that the prophets were, in Church and State, the equivalent of the modern liberty of the press, gives a just but not an adequate conception of the part fulfilled in national and universal history by this great element of Jewish life; by means of which, the canon of inspiration never being complete, the persons most eminent in genius and moral feeling could not only denounce and reprobate, with the direct authority of the Almighty, whatever appeared to them deserving of such treatment, but could give forth better and higher interpretations of the national religion, which thenceforth became part of the religion. Accordingly, whoever can divest himself of the habit of reading the Bible as if it was one book, sees with admiration the vast interval between the morality and religion of the Pentateuch, or even of the historical books, and the morality and religion of the prophecies—a distance as wide as between these last and the Gospels. Conditions more favourable to progress could not easily exist; accordingly, the Jews, instead of being stationary, like other Asiatics, were, next to the Greeks, the most progressive people of antiquity, and, jointly with them, have been the starting-point and main propelling agency of modern cultivation.’
There is just enough in the actual history of the case to give a plausible colour to this representation, and a measure of truth which may save it from utter repudiation. The recognised place given to the function of prophecy in the Theocratic constitution, was unquestionably a valuable safeguard against arbitrary power; it secured a right and warrant for freedom of speech on all that most essentially concerned the interests of the kingdom; and as the function was actually exercised, it did unquestionably serve, in a very high degree, the purpose of reproving abuses, and of unfolding principles of truth and duty, which needed only to be believingly apprehended to fill the mind with a generous aspiration after everything pure and good. But the language quoted goes a great deal beyond this. It implies, that we have in the Bible a specimen, not simply of growing light and progressive development, but of diverse exhibitions of truth and duty; that the beginnings of the Hebrew commonwealth were in this respect extremely crude and defective, but that in process of time, as men of higher intellect and finer moral sensibilities (the prophets, to wit) applied themselves to the task of instruction, everything took a nobler elevation, and a religion and morality were brought forth which stood at a wide remove from those of the Pentateuch. This we altogether deny, and regret the countenance it has met with from Dean Stanley (as indeed from many other writers of the day). He quotes the passage from Mill without the slightest qualification, and proceeds to support it by specifying the more leading features in which the prophetic teaching constituted an advance on what preceded. The particular points are, first, the unity of God; then the spirituality of God (meaning thereby His moral character, His justice, love, and goodness); and lastly, as the necessary result of this, the exaltation of the moral above the ceremonial in religion ([not sacrifice, not fasting, not ablutions,’ etc., but ‘judgment, mercy, and truth’). (Lectures on Jewish Church, end of Lec. XIX and beginning of Lec. XX.) Beyond all doubt, these were among the leading characteristics of the prophetical teaching; and in that teaching they are set forth with a clearness, a prominence, and a fervour, which may justly be termed peculiar, and for which the church of all ages has reason to be thankful. The circumstances of the times were such as to call, in a very special manner, for the bold and explicit announcement of the vital truths and principles in question; only, it must be remembered, they were not given for the purpose of initiating a higher form of morality and religion, but rather of staying a perilous degeneracy, and recovering a position that had been lost. For the truths and principles were in no respect new; they were interwoven with the writings and legislation of Moses; and only in the mode and fulness of the revelation, but not in the things revealed, does the teaching of the prophets differ from the hand writing of Moses. So far from aiming at the introduction of anything properly new, either in the religion or the morality of the Old Covenant, it was the object of their most earnest strivings to turn back the hearts of the children to the fathers, the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; (1Ki_18:37; Luk_1:17.) and the very last in the long line of prophetic agency, while pointing to nobler messengers and grander revelations in the coming future, charges his countrymen, as with his parting breath, to ‘remember the law of Moses which God commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments.’ (Mal_4:4.) It was virtually to say, This was meanwhile the best thing for them; the word of prophecy did not seek to carry them above the dispensation under which they lived; and not a higher position, in respect either to God or to one another, was to be gained by disregarding it, but a fall into vanity, corruption, and ruin.
But as regards the particular points mentioned by Stanley, which of them, we should like to know, is wanting in the books of Moses, or is denied its just place in the religious polity he brought in? The grand truth of the Divine unity is assuredly not wanting; it stands in the very front of the Decalogue, and from the first chapter in Genesis to the last in Deuteronomy, it is the truth which above all others is prominent—so prominent, that (as we have seen) to guard and preserve this doctrine some would even take as the almost exclusive end of the Mosaic legislation. Nor is it much otherwise with the spirituality of God—understanding thereby not only His incorporeal nature, but also and more peculiarly His moral character; for this, too, is a pervading element both in the history and the legislation. It is the key which opens out to us, so far as it can be opened, the mystery of paradise and the fall, and the principle which runs through the entire series of providential dealings, of blessings bestowed upon some, and judgments inflicted upon others, which make up so large a portion of patriarchal history. But the grand testimony for it is in the law of the ten commandments, given as the revelation of God’s character, yea, laid as the very foundation of His throne in Israel—the most sublime exaltation of the moral above all merely physical notions of Deity, and of the spiritual over the outward and material in the forms of worship, to be found in the records of ancient times. The prophets could but unfold and vindicate the truth so presented; they could add nothing to its relative significance. And if, in the law itself, there were many enactments of a ceremonial kind—and if the Jewish people, especially in later times, shewed an inclination to give these the foremost place, to make more account of sacrifice, fasting, ablutions, than of judgment, mercy, and truth—it was in palpable violation (as we have already shewn) of the evident tendency and bearing of the law itself. It was only as testifying against an abuse, a culpable misreading of their religious institutions, that the prophets sometimes drew so sharply the distinction between the ceremonial and the moral in religion. At other times, they again shewed how they could appreciate the symbolical institutions of the law, and enforce their observance. (Psa_51:19; Psa_118:27; Isa_43:23-24; Isa_9:6; Isa_9:13; Mal_1:11; Mal_3:9-10.) There was, then, no proper diversity, much less any antagonism, between the teaching of the prophets and the instruction embodied in the commands and ordinances of the law. And we must hold, with Harless, that there is no ground for regarding ‘the law of God in Israel as the product of a development-process among the people of Israel, who gradually arrived at the consciousness of what is good and right in the relation of man to man, and in the relation of man to God. On the contrary, God appears, in opposition to the prevailing spirit of the people, giving testimony to His will in a progressive revelation. The law did not sink down into the people of God as a spiritual principle, the development of which was by God surrendered to the people; but the entire compass of life’s environments was among this people placed, through the variety of the law’s enactments, under the prescription of the Divine commanding will. Instead of being abandoned to the vacillations and gropings of human knowledge, it stands there (what can be said neither of conscience nor of any human law) as beyond doubt the ‘holy law,’ and its command as the ‘holy and righteous and good command!’ (‘Christliche Ethik,’ sec. 16. If due consideration is given to what has been stated, one will know what to think of the loose and offensive statements often made by persons, however able, who give forth their short studies on grave subjects—such as the following in Froude, ‘The religion of the prophets was not the religion which was adapted to the hardness of heart of the Israelites of the Exodus. The Gospel set aside the law,’ etc. A certain glimmering of truth, to give colour to an essentially wrong meaning! It is also somewhat striking, in this connection, that the exercise of feelings of revenge, so often charged against the morality of the law, has more appearance of justification in the Psalms and Prophets than in the prescriptions of the law. But even in these the countenance given to it is more apparent than real. See, Supplementary Dissertation on the subject.)
But with this fixed character as to the substance of the law, there is undoubtedly in the prophetical writings an advance made in the mode, and along therewith in the perspicuity, the fulness, and motive power of the instruction. What in the one lay written in naked prescriptions, or wrapt in the drapery of symbol, is in the other copiously unfolded, explained, and reasoned upon, accompanied also with many touching appeals and forcible illustrations. Specific points, too, as occasion required, are brought out with a breadth and prominence which it was impossible for them to possess in the original revelation. And then in those prophetical writings of later times, as the falling down of the tabernacle of David was clearly announced, and the dissolution of the Theocracy in its original form distinctly contemplated, it was through those writings that the minds of believing men got such insight as they could obtain into the nature of that new and better form of things, through which the blessing (so long deferred) of the covenant of promise was to be realized, and practical results achieved far surpassing what had been found in the past. It is impossible to go here into any detail on this part of the prophetical writings; but one thing ought to be noted concerning them, which may also be said to be common to them all, that while they speak plainly enough of the old being destined somehow to pass away, they not less plainly declare that all its moral elements should remain and come into more effective and general operation. When Isaiah, for example, makes promise of a king who should spring as a tender scion from the root of David, and not only retrieve the fortunes of His kingdom, but carry everything belonging to it to a state of highest perfection and glory, he represents him as bringing the very mind and will of God to bear on it, taking righteousness for the girdle of his loins, and establishing all with judgment and justice. (Isa_9:7; Isa_9:11.) To magnify the law and make it honourable, is, in a later part of his prophecies, presented as the aim with which the Lord was going to manifest His name in the future, otherwise than He had done in the past; and, as the final result of the manifestation, there was to arise a kingdom of perfect order, a people all righteous, and because righteous full of peace, and blessing, and joyfulness. (Isa_42:21; Isaiah 60; Isa_65:17-18.) Jeremiah is even more explicit; he says expressly, that the Lord was going to make a new covenant with His people, different from that which He had made after the deliverance from Egypt; yet different rather in respect to form and efficient administration, than in what might be called the essential matter of the covenant; for this is the explanation given, ‘After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people’ (Jer_31:33.) the same law in substance still, only transferred from the outward to the inward sphere—from the tables of stone to the fleshy tables of the heart; and this so as to secure, what had in a great measure failed under the old form of the covenant, a people with whom God could hold the most intimate and endearing fellowship. Then, following in the same line, there are such prophecies as those of Ezekiel, in which, with a glorious rise in the Divine kingdom from seeming ruin to the possession of universal dominion, there is announced a hitherto unknown work of the Spirit of God, changing hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and imparting the disposition and the power to keep God’s statutes and judgments; (Eze_17:23-24; Eze_36:25-27.) the similar prophecy of Joel, according to which the Spirit was to be poured out in such measure, that spiritual gifts hitherto confined to a few should become, in a manner, the common property of believers; (Joe_2:28-32.) the prophecy of Micah, that the mountain of the Lord’s house, the seat of the Divine kingdom, should be morally exalted by such a manifestation of the Divine presence, and such a going forth of the law of the Lord, as would reach all hearts and carry it with decisive sway over the most distant lands; (Mic_4:1-5.) and, to mention no more, the brief but clear and striking announcements of Malachi, telling of a sudden coming of the Lord to His temple, with such demonstrations of righteousness and means of effective working, as would burn like a refiner’s fire, and bring forth a living community of pure and earnest worshippers. (Mal_3:1-6.) From the general strain of these and many similar revelations in the prophetic Scriptures, it was evidently in the mind and purpose of God to give a manifestation of Himself among men for the higher ends and interests of His covenant, far surpassing anything that had been known in the history of the past; and that, while the demands of law should thus be for ever established, the law itself should be made to take another place than it had been wont to do in economical arrangements, and should be so associated with the peculiar gifts and graces of the Spirit, as to bring out into quite singular prominence the spiritual elements of the covenant, and secure for these far and wide a commanding influence in the world. So that the volume of Old Testament prophecy might be said to close with the presentation of this great problem to the consideration of thoughtful and believing men—how the promised blessing for Israel and the world could be wrought out, so as to maintain in all its integrity the law of the Divine righteousness, and, at the same time, provide for powers and agencies coming into play, which should necessarily change the law’s place from a higher to a lower, from a greater to a less prominent position in the administration of the Divine kingdom!
V. There can be no doubt that, for generations before the Christian era, the minds of the better part of the Jewish people were more or less occupied with thoughts concerning this problem; and though from its very nature it was one of Divine, not of human solution, yet as the period approached for its passing into the sphere of history, expectation took very determinate forms of belief as to the manner in which it behoved to be done. These differed widely from each other, but were all so wide of the true mark, that the very conception of the plan by which the Divine purpose was to receive its accomplishment, proved the Divine insight of Him through whom it was at last carried into effect. With two of those forms of thought and belief we are perfectly familiar, they come out so prominently in the Gospel history—represented, respectively, by the two great divisions of later Judaism in Palestine—those of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Neither party, perhaps, embraced more than a section of the Jewish people resident in Palestine, but together they undoubtedly included its more influential portions—the men who guided the sentiments and ruled the destinies of their country. The Pharisees, as is well known, were by much the more numerous and influential party; and taking their name from a Hebrew word (parash), which means to separate or place apart, it denoted them as the men by way of eminence, the more select and elevated portion of the community, those who stood ‘at the summit of legal Judaism’ (Neander). In them the state of feeling described toward the close of last lecture found its more peculiar development. The law was in a manner everything with them; and to preserve it on all sides from dishonour and infringement, they gradually accumulated an infinite number of rules and precepts, which tended greatly more to mar than to further its design. For it led them to fix their regards almost exclusively on the outward relations of things, to turn both religion and morality into a rigid formalism; and, as a matter of course, the form was substituted for the power of godliness—weightier matters gave way in practice to comparative trifles—and the law was in great part made void by what was done to protect and magnify it. Thus the Pharisees, as a class of religionists, proved them elves to be blind in regard to the great problem which was then waiting its solution; and the more they multiplied their legal enactments, they but wove a thicker veil for their own understandings, and became the more incapable of looking to the end of those things which the law aimed at establishing. A perpetuation and extension of their system would have been a bondage and not a deliverance, a misfortune and not a blessing; since it would have served to case the world up in a hard, inflexible religious coat of mail, fitted to repel rather than attract—the very antithesis of a free, loving, devoted piety.
It had been no better, but in various respects worse, on the principle of Sadduceeism; for here the deeper elements of the Old Covenant were not merely overshadowed, or relatively depreciated, as in Pharisaism, but absolutely ignored. The spiritual world was to it little more than a blank; it had an eye only for the visible and earthly sphere of things; therefore knew nothing of the spiritual significance of the law, and the depth of meaning which lay underneath its symbols of worship. For men of this stamp, the religion of the Old Covenant was the ground merely of their national polity and of their hopes as a people—which consequently had a claim on their respectful observance, but not such as was connected with painful convictions of sin, or earnest longings after a holier and better state of things. All that apparently entered into their dream of prospective glory would have been realized, if, without any material change in the religious aspect of things, they should be able, under the leadership of some second David, to rectify the political disorders of the time, relieve themselves of the shame and oppression of a foreign yoke, and rise to the ascendency of power and influence in the world, which the antecedents of their history gave them reason to expect. The more fundamental elements of the great problem could scarcely be said to come within their range of vision.
There was much more of an earnest and thoughtful spirit in a class of religionists who belonged to Judea, and had their chief settlements about the shores of the Dead Sea, but who, from their reserved and secluded habits, are never mentioned in the Gospel history. I refer to the Essenes, whose religion appears to have been a strange and somewhat arbitrary compound of ritualistic and theosophic elements—of Judaism (in the Pharisaic sense) and asceticism. They are reported to have sent offerings to the temple, but they did not themselves personally frequent its courts, deeming it a kind of pollution to mingle in the throng of such a miscellaneous company of worshippers; so that many of the most distinctly commanded observances in the religion of the Old Covenant must have been unscrupulously set aside by them. But while thus in one direction scorning the restraints of ceremonialism, and in their general abstinence from marriage, and their communism of goods, chalking freely out a path for themselves, in other respects the Essenes were ceremonialists of the straitest sect: they would not kindle a fire or remove a vessel on the Sabbath, refused to use victuals that had been prepared by persons out of their own hallowed circle, resorted ever and anon to corporeal ablutions, in particular after having been touched by an uncircumcised person, or even one of an inferior grade among themselves. (Josephus, ‘Ant.’ xviii. 1, sec. iv.; ‘Wars,’ ii. 8, secs. 3-13.) Their system was evidently a sincere but ill-adjusted and abortive attempt at reform; on the one side, a reaction from the mechanical, selfish, and worldly spirit of Pharisaism; on the other, an adhesion to specific forms and ascetic practices, as the choicest means for reaching the higher degrees of perfection. At how great a remove did the followers of such a system stand from the spiritual elevation of the prophets! And in themselves how obviously incapable of bursting the shell of Judaism, and understanding how a religion might be evolved from it of blessed peace, expansive benevolence, and son-like freedom! It was clear that no more with them than with the others, was found the secret of the problem which now lay before the people of God: they could contribute nothing to its solution.
And the same, yet again, has to be said of another class of reforming Jews, who brought higher powers to the task than the narrow-minded Essenes, and who gave to Judaism whatever light could be derived from the most spiritual philosophy of Greece. I speak now not of the Jews in Palestine, but of the Alexandrian Jews, more especially as represented by the thoughtful and contemplative Philo. He shrunk from the extremes that some of his countrymen, in their passion for philosophy, appear to have run into—‘trampling (as he says of them) upon the laws in which they were born and bred, upturning those customs of their country which are liable to no just censure.’ He, along with the great body even of the philosophizing Jews, still held by the traditions and religious customs of his fathers, but threw over these a kind of foreign costume, read them in a Hellenic light, and thereby sought to obtain from them a more profound and varied instruction than they were otherwise capable of yielding. Philo and his coadjutors were so far right, that they conceived a letter and a spirit to belong to the Old Testament; but they entirely erred in trying to find a key to the spirit in the sublimated physics of a Gentile philosophy—in seeing, for example, in the starry hosts choirs of the highest and purest angels, in the tabernacle a pattern of the universe, in the twelve loaves of shew-bread the twelve months of the year, in the two rows of them the vernal and autumnal equinox, in the seven-branched candlestick the seven planets, and so on. This was truly to seek the living among the dead. It is the moral, as we have had occasion frequently to repeat, which is the essential element in the religion of the Old Testament, underlying all its symbols, interwoven with all its histories; the spirit which pervades them throughout is the spirit of the ten commandments. And in trying to find in them the cover of philosophic ideas, or the reflex of material nature, everything was turned into a wrong direction; it became merely the handmaid of an intellectual refinement or a mystic lore, but in the same proportion ceased to be of real value in the kingdom of God.
On every side we see only misapprehension and failure. Not one of the various sections, into which the covenant-people latterly fell, sufficiently grasped the completed revelation of the Old Testament, so as even to perceive how its destined end was to be reached—how its great problem was to be solved. From the simply ritualistic and patriotic spirit, as represented by the divergent schools of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, it lay hid; it lay hid also from the theosophic and ascetic spirit, as represented by the earnest, but exclusive and somewhat forbidding sect of the Essenes. And when philosophy, with its intellectual culture and lofty aspirations, came to the task, it fared no better; the real spirit of the old economy was not evoked, nor any discovery made of the way by which its apparent contradictories might be reconciled, and an influence of charmed power brought to bear on the hearts and consciences of men. For anything that such schools and parties could effect, or even knew distinctly to propose, the world had slumbered on in its ancient darkness and corruption—its moral degeneracy unchecked, its disquieting terrors unallayed, its debasing superstitions and foul idolatries continuing to hold captive the souls of men. And if the real reform—the salvation-work, and the better spirit growing out of it, which like a vivifying pulse of life was to make itself felt through society, to cause humanity itself to spring aloft into a higher sphere, and commence a new career of fruitfulness in intellectual and moral action—if this should have found its realization in One who, humanly speaking, was the least likely to be furnished for the undertaking—One who not only belonged to the same people, but was reared in one of their obscurest villages, and under the roof of one of its humblest cottages whence, we naturally ask, could it have been found in Him, but from His altogether peculiar connection with the Highest? A failure in every quarter but the one which was most palpably deficient in human equipment and worldly resources, manifestly bespeaks for that One the preternatural insight and all-sufficient help of God. Jesus of Nazareth did what all others were unable not only to accomplish, but even adequately to conceive, because He was Immanuel, God with us; and so, in spite of the lack of human advantages, and the fierce opposition of powerful foes, He fulfilled the task with which expectation had been so long travailing in birth, and left the mysterious problem concerning the future of the Divine kingdom among men written out in the facts of His marvellous history, and the rich dowry of grace and blessing He brought in for His redeemed.