The Position And Calling Of Israel As Placed Under The Covenant Of Law, What Precisely Involved In It—False Views On The Subject Exposed—The Moral Results Of The Economy, According As The Law Was Legitimately Used Or The Reverse.
HAVING now considered the nature of the Law as revealed from Sinai, and the relation in which both the judicial statutes and the Levitical ordinances stood to it, our next line of investigation naturally turns on Israel’s position under it; in which respect such questions as these press themselves on our regard: How did the being placed under the covenant of law of itself tend to affect the real well-being of Israel as a people? or their representative character as the seed of blessing, the types of a redeemed church? How far did the proper effects of the covenant realize themselves in their history, or others not proper—the result of their own neglect and waywardness—come in their stead? And did the covenant, in consequence of the things, whether of the one sort or the other, which transpired during its continuance, undergo any material alterations, or remain essentially the same till the bringing in of the new covenant by the mission and work of Christ?
1. In entering upon the line of thought to which such questions point, we are struck at the outset with a somewhat remarkable diversity in the representations of Scripture itself respecting the natural tendency and bearing of the law on those who were subject to it. Coming expressly from Jehovah in the character of Israel’s Redeemer, it cannot be contemplated otherwise than as carrying a benign aspect, and aiming at happy results. Moses extolled the condition of Israel as on this very account surpassing that of all other people: ‘What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day.’ (Deu_4:7-8.) The very last recorded utterance of the legislator was a rapturous exclamation over Israel’s now enviable condition and joyful prospects: ‘Happy art thou, Israel; who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord!’ (Deu_33:29.) And the sentiment is re-echoed under various forms in other parts of ancient Scripture, especially in the Psalms. Among the great acts of mercy and loving-kindness for which the Lord is praised in Psalms 103, is the fact that ‘He made known His ways unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel;’ or, as it is put in another Psalm, ‘He shewed His statutes and His judgments to Israel; He hath not dealt so with any nation.’ (Psa_147:19-20.) And then the law itself, and the blessedness arising from a just acquaintance with its precepts, are celebrated in the very strongest terms: ‘The law of the Lord is perfect, converting (quickening) the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple: the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.’ (Psa_19:7-8.) ‘O how I love thy law! it is my meditation all the day.’ ‘I will never forget thy precepts, for with them thou hast quickened me;’ and, generally, ‘Great peace have they who love thy law, and nothing shall offend them.’ (Psa_119:93; Psa_119:97; Psa_119:165.) But another set of passages appear to point in the very opposite direction; they represent the law as a source of terror or trouble—a bondage from which it is true liberty to escape: ‘The law worketh wrath;’ ‘by the law is the knowledge of sin;’ ‘the strength of sin is the law;’ and referring distinctly to the law in the stricter sense—as indeed these other passages also do the law engraven in stones the apostle designates it the ‘ministration of condemnation and of death.’ (Rom_3:20; Rom_4:15; 1Co_15:56; 2Co_3:7; 2Co_3:9; Gal_4:1-3; Gal_5:1-3.)
It is clear, on a moment’s reflection, that such diverse, antagonistic representations could not have been given of the law in the same respects, or with the same regard to its direct and primary aim. If both alike were true—as we cannot doubt they were, being alike found in the volume of inspiration—it must be from the law having been contemplated in one of them from a different point of view, or with regard to different uses and applications of it from what it was in the other. At present, as we have to do with the place of the law in the Old Testament economy, it is more especially the happier class of representations which come into consideration; they may fitly, at least, be viewed as occupying the foreground, while the others may come into particular notice after wards.
2. Now, the view which we have seen reason to take of the nature of the law as revealed through Moses, will render it unnecessary to do more than make a passing reference to such modes of explanation as would resolve every thing in the covenant with Israel into merely outward and carnal elements—would make the law, as delivered to them at Sinai, a comparatively easy and lightsome thing—satisfied if it could but secure outward worshippers of Jehovah, and respectable citizens of the commonwealth. The law, we are told by writers of this class, was one that dealt only ‘in negative measures:’ ‘the precepts were negative that the obedience might be the more possible;’ and he was ‘the good man who could not be excused to have done what the law forbade, he who had done the fewest evils.’ So Jeremy Taylor, (‘On Conscience,’ B. II. c. 2, sec. 4; c. 3, sec. 2.) and at more length Spencer, in his learned work on the Laws of the Hebrews, who endeavoured to shew that the one great end of the Decalogue, as well as of the ceremonial law, was to extirpate idolatry, and the fruits that more immediately spring from it. (L. 1:c. 2.) Warburton improved on it a little, by turning the negative respecting idolatry into a positive respecting God; but that was all. The primary end of the law (moral and ceremonial alike) according to him was, ‘not to keep the Israelites from idolatry,’ but ‘to preserve the memory of the one God in an idolatrous world till the coming of Christ,’ (‘Leg. of Moses,’ B. V. sec. 2.) a distinction, one might almost say, without a difference, and of use only as a polemical weapon in the hands of its author. Michaelis followed in the same track, and could find nothing in the first part of the Decalogue but a provision for the acknowledgment and worship of one God, in opposition to the idolatries of heathenism, nor in the second not even as condensed into the positive form of love to one’s neighbour as one’s-self—but a dry injunction to have respect to one another’s civil rights. (‘Laws of Moses,’ sees. 34, 72.) And to mention no more (though many more might be noticed), we meet, in a comparatively late work, with such assertions as the following respecting the Old Covenant, which had the law of the two tables for its basis, that ‘it had nothing whatever to do with any, except with the nation of Israel, and nothing whatever with any mere individual in that nation; that it was made with the nation collectively, and was entirely temporal;’ that its whole substance lay in this, God promised to give the land of Canaan to the nation of Israel, so long, but ‘only so long, as the nation collectively acknowledged Jehovah as the one God.’ Hence the holiness required was ‘quite irrespective of individual righteousness;’ Israel was still the holy nation, whatever sins might be harboured in its bosom, so long as it did not cease from the formal recognition and worship of Jehovah. (Johnstone’s ‘Israel after the Flesh,’ pp. 7, 87.)
We appeal from all such representations to the plain reading of the law itself (as we have endeavoured to give it), looked at, as it should be, in its historical connection and its general bearings. The blinding influence of theory will obscure even the clearest light; but it is scarcely possible that any unbiassed mind should apply itself earnestly to the subject, and take up with so partial and meagre a view of what, not in one place merely, but in all Scripture, is made known to us as distinctively God’s revelation of law to men. The immediate circumstances that led to it—the special acts and announcements which might be said to form its historical introduction, are alone sufficient to compel a higher estimate of the revelation. The people had just been rescued, it was declared, from Egypt, had been borne by God on eagles’ wings, and brought to Himself—for what? Not simply that they might acknowledge His existence, or preserve His memory, in the face of surrounding idolatry, but that they might ‘obey His voice and keep His covenant,’ and so be to Him ‘a kingdom of priests and an holy nation.’ (Exo_19:4-6.)
Peculiar nearness to God in position, and, as the proper consequence and result of that, knowing and reflecting His character, entering into His mind and will, striving to be holy as He is holy—this was the end to which all was directed—the purpose, also, for which they stood before God as a separate people, and were gathered around Sinai to hear the law from His mouth:—And if that law had been aught else than a real disclosure of the mind of God as to what he demands of His people toward Himself and toward each other in the vital interests of truth and righteousness, it had been (we need not hesitate to say it) beneath the occasion; failing, as it should have done, to present the proper ideal, which it was Israel’s calling to endeavour constantly to have realized. The formal acknowledgment, forsooth, of Jehovah as the one true God, and paying due respect to one another’s civil rights! And that, too, chiefly in the general, without any distinct bond of obligation on the individual conscience, quite irrespective of personal righteousness! Was this a thing so important in itself, so well-pleasing in the eyes of the pure and heart-searching Jehovah, that the law requiring it should have been laid as the very foundation of His throne in Israel, and that the period of its promulgation should have formed a marked era in the history of His dispensations among men? The thought is not for a moment to be entertained. The eternal God could not so abnegate or demean Himself no more for any temporal purpose than for one directly bearing on the interests of eternity; for in such a matter nothing is determined by the mere element of duration. He could not, in consistence with His own unchangeable character, either ask or accept what should be other than a fit expression of the homage that is supremely due to Him, and the love that willingly yields itself to His requirements. (‘To know and to serve God, that is religion, whether it be with a view to the present life or to the next, and whatever inducements or encouragements He may choose to supply. The greatest rewards of endless felicity sought, or expected, in any other service than His, cannot consecrate that service, nor make it a part of essential religion. In every original right of moral authority, the essence of the obligation, and the virtue of compliance with it, are independent of the kind, or the degree, of the retribution annexed .’—Davison ‘On Prophecy,’ Dis. IV.) This, also, is what a fair examination of the law itself has impressed upon our minds.
Were it necessary to say more, we might add, that there is a conclusive historical reason against the view of the law, and the polity founded on it, to which we have been adverting. According to it, the religion of the Old Covenant had been nothing more than a kind of bald theism, adapted to the circumstances of the time—a sort of natural religion, enshrined amid a cumbrous framework of ordinances and political regulations, which partly humoured the semi-heathenish state of the people, and partly kept them off from the more flagrant pagan corruptions. Had that, however, been all, the Jews of our Lord’s time should have been presented to our view as the best exemplars and most satisfactory results of the Sinaitic covenant. For in what age of its continuance was the doctrine of the unity more strictly adhered to? or when were the institutions connected with it more generally and punctually observed? It will not do to say, by way of explanation, that in rejecting Jesus they set themselves against the very Head of the Theocracy, and so ran counter to its primary design; for it was not in that character that He formally appeared and claimed the homage of men, but rather as Himself the living embodiment of its great principles, the culmination of its spiritual aims. It was the practical oversight of these which constituted the fatal error of those later Jews; and the theoretical oversight of the same, in any view that may be taken of the covenant of law under which they were placed, must be equally fatal to its acceptance.
2. Belonging almost to the opposite pole of theological sentiment, writers of the Cocceian school have sometimes gone to a different extreme, and have given, if not a false, yet an artificial and perplexing, rather than a plain and Scriptural view of Israel’s position under the law. They were themselves embarrassed by the habit of ranging everything pertaining to covenant engagements under one of two heads—the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. They differ, however, to some extent in their mode of representation—all, indeed, holding that the ten commandments, in which the covenant of law more peculiarly stood, was for substance the same with the covenant of works; in other words, embodied that perfect rule of rectitude, on conformity to which hung man’s original possession of life and blessing; but differing as to the precise form or aspect under which they supposed this rule of rectitude to have been presented to Israel in the Sinaitic covenant. Cocceius himself, in his mode of representation, did not differ materially from the view of Calvin, and that generally of the Reformed theologians. He held that the Decalogue was not formally proposed to the Israelites as the covenant of works; that it proceeded from Jehovah as the God and Redeemer of Israel, implying that He had entered with them into a covenant of grace; that the covenant of law was given to subserve that covenant of grace, pointing out and enjoining what was necessary to be done, in order that the children of the covenant might see how they should live, if they were to enjoy its blessings—precisely as the evangelical precepts and exhortations in the New Testament do in subservience to the Gospel. Its language, he thinks, was not, I demand that you do these precepts, and so live (this had been to mock men with impossibilities); but, I have called you to life, and now, laying aside fear, come and hear my voice. (Animad. de Vet. Test. Quæst. 33; also De Foed., chap. 11:49-58.) Indeed, one might say Cocceius leant rather too much to the assimilation of the law to the form of things in the New Testament Scriptures. Witsius, the more systematic expounder of the Cocceian theology, discriminates more exactly; he finds in the precepts of the Decalogue the moral elements of the covenant of works, and in the terror and majesty with which they were delivered, a sort of reduplication (ingeminationem) of the covenant of works; but still they were not proposed in the character of that covenant, as if through obedience to its precepts the people were to attain to life; they only assumed somewhat of the appearance of the covenant of works to convince the people of their sinfulness, and drive them out of themselves to look for the hope of salvation in Christ. But with all this it in reality assumed and was founded upon the covenant of grace already made with Israel—Israel, as partakers in such a covenant of grace, promising to God a sincere observance of the precepts imposed, and God in turn promising to accept and bless such observance, though in itself imperfect. (De Œcon. Foederum, Lib. IV. chap. iv. secs. 47-54. It is astonishing how Mr Johnstone, if he really had the entire work of Witsius in his hands, could have so grossly misrepresented his views on this subject. He says, p. 3, ‘It is the usual, but an utterly unfounded conception of the old covenant, that “it points out the way in which, by means of works, salvation is obtained;” that “the form of this covenant is, The man which doeth these things shall live by them, and that in it there is a promise of eternal life, consisting in the immediate fruition of God.” I do not hesitate to say, that there is not the shadow of an authority for this all but universal view of the old covenant.’ The authority referred to, and briefly quoted, for this sweeping declaration, is Witsius, De Œcon. Foederum, Lib. I. chap. i. sec. 15. But there Witsius is treating, not of the old covenant properly so called, but of the covenants abstractly—namely, of works and grace. It is at a much later part of his treatise that he comes to discuss the old covenant, or covenant of law, and which, as we have said, he holds to have been neither formally a covenant of works nor a covenant of grace. As for the assertion that the view ascribed to Witsius is nearly universal, we can only designate it as for present times a great exaggeration.) A different view, however, came to prevail pretty generally among the English Puritans, who generally belonged to the Cocceian school, and found its expression in a book which attained to great popularity, and became the occasion of a prolonged controversy—Fisher’s ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity.’ Here it is broadly asserted, and at some length maintained, that the ten commandments were formally delivered on Mount Sinai as the covenant of works, or as a renewal of the Adamic covenant—not, however, as if the Israelites were expected to fulfil it, and justify themselves by deeds of law—but for this, and no other end, ‘that man being thereby convinced of his weakness, might flee to Christ. So that it was renewed only to help forward and introduce another and a better covenant.’ (Part I. chap. ii.) And various authors are referred to as having previously adopted the same style of representation (in particular Preston, Pemble, Walker). Boston, who was a more correct theologian, and a more discriminating writer, than the author of the ‘Marrow,’ in his notes to that work admits that the view in question was held by ‘some late learned writers,’ but gave it only a qualified approval. He conceives that both covenants were delivered on Mount Sinai to the Israelites: ‘First, the covenant of grace made with Abraham, contained in the preface, repeated and promulgated there to Israel, to be believed and embraced by faith, that they might be saved; to which were annexed the ten commandments, given by the Mediator Christ, the head of the covenant, as a rule of life to His covenant people. Secondly, the covenant of works made with Adam, contained in the same ten commands, delivered with thunderings and lightnings, the meaning of which was afterwards cleared by Moses describing the righteousness of the law and the sanction thereof, as the original perfect rule of righteousness to be obeyed; and yet they were no more bound thereby to seek righteousness by the law than the young man was by our Saviour’s saying to him, If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.’ Thus, he adds, ‘there is no confounding of the two covenants of grace and works.’ (Substantially the same representation is given by Colquhoun, ‘Law and Grace,’ chap. I. sec. ii; Beart’s ‘Eternal Law and Everlasting Gospel;’ and, to name no more, in the work of the late Dr R. Gordon, ‘Christ in the Old Testament,’ Vol. I. p. 385, seq. It is there said, ‘The giving of the law was thus a new exhibition of the covenant of works—a declaration of what was necessarily incumbent on men, if they expected to secure for themselves the favour and fellowship of God;’ while, shortly after, it is denied that ‘the law was prescribed to Israel as the covenant of works, so as that their acceptance with God absolutely depended on their fulfilling the condition of that covenant.’ This ground of acceptance is referred to the previous exhibition of grace and mercy. What we except to in such a statement is, that it is fitted to create confusion, to embarrass and perplex people’s minds. It was adopted by the writers in question very much from the view they took of the passages, Rom_10:5, Gal_3:12, where the righteousness of works is described in language derived from the writings of Moses. But see the exposition on Rom_10:5, in Supplement.)
I fear, in saying this, the good man forgot at what period it was in the Divine dispensations that the law was given from Sinai. It was still the comparatively dim twilight of revelation, when the plan of God could be seen only in a few broken lines and provisional arrangements, which tended to veil, even while they disclosed the truth. The men of that age could not so easily distinguish between the two aspects of law here presented, even if they had got some hint of the diversity; but, as matters actually stood, it could scarcely be said, that the two were ever distinctly before them. No one can read the history of the transaction without being convinced, that in whatever character the law was declared to the Israelites and established with them as a covenant, it carried with it the bond of a sacred obligation which they were to strive to make good; and of any other meaning or design, either on God’s part in imposing, or on their part in accepting the obligation, the narrative is entirely silent.
3. But a class—one can scarcely say of theologians (for the name would be misapplied to persons who in most things make so complete a travesty of Scripture)—a class, however, of very dogmatic writers (the Plymouthists) have recently pushed to its full extreme the view of the law just stated as the covenant of works—not, like the later Cocceians, as a kind of side view or secondary aspect which might also be taken of it, but as its direct, formal, and only proper character. ‘Law,’ we are told by one of them, ‘was a distinct and definite dispensation of God, according to which life was promised consequent on obedience, and had its whole nature from this, a righteousness characterized by this principle: obedience first, then life therein, righteousness.’ (Darby ‘On the Law,’ p. 22.) This is given as the import of ‘the reasoning of the apostles’ on the subject; and another of the party, in his ‘Notes on Exodus,’ interprets the narrative respecting the giving of the law so as to make it tell in support of the same view. When God, in the nineteenth chapter of Exodus, delivered to Moses on the mount the tender and touching address, in which He related what He had done for the people, what He now called them to be in honour and blessing, and how, in order to maintain and enjoy this, they must be ready to obey His voice and keep His covenant; and when Moses, after hearing the words, went at God’s bidding and reported them to the people, and received for answer, ‘All that the Lord hath spoken we will do’—this, we are told, was a virtual renunciation, on the part of Israel, of their blessed position: ‘instead of rejoicing in God’s holy promise, they undertook the most presumptuous vow that mortal lips could utter. Nor was this the language of a few vain, self-confident spirits, who presumed to single themselves out from the whole congregation. No, “All the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.”’ (‘Notes on Exodus,’ by A. M., p. 232.) And then we are informed, that because of this proud and presumptuous spirit, the Lord immediately gave ‘a total alteration to the aspect of things:’ He wrapt Himself up in the cloud of thick darkness, assumed an appearance of terrible majesty, and issued that fiery law, the object of which was to shew them how incompetent they were to fulfil what they had undertaken, to reveal what on their own assumption they ought to be, and place them under the curse for not being it.
If this were the correct reading of the matter, why, we naturally ask, should God Himself have taken the initiative in this so-called abandonment of the covenant of promise? for it was He who sent Moses to the people with the words, which manifestly sought to evoke an affirmative reply. Why, after such a reply was returned, did it call forth no formal rebuke, if so be it displayed an in tolerable arrogancy and presumption? and the reason, the only reason, assigned for the Lord’s declared intention to appear presently in a thick cloud, why should this have been simply that the people might hear His voice, and believe Moses for ever? (Exo_19:9.) Why, also, at the rehearsal of the transactions in the book of Deuteronomy, did God say, ‘The people had well said all they had spoken,’ and only further breathed the wish, ‘O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them and with their children for ever?’ (Deu_5:28-29.) Why, above all, if the case were as now represented, should the formalities of a covenant transaction have been gone through in the name of God over the words uttered by Him and responded to by the people—based, as it must in that case have been, on what were known on the one side to be impossible conditions, and on the other palpable delusions and lies? And why, after all, should Israel not the less, but the more rather, have been pronounced most exalted in privilege, peculiarly destined to honour and blessing? (Exo_23:27-29; Deut. 6:33.) Nothing, surely, can be more fitted to shake our confidence in the transparent simplicity and faithfulness of God’s recorded dealings with men, than to be taught, as by a look from behind the scenes, that what wears the aspect of a solemn transaction, was in reality but a formal display or an empty mockery. And such, beyond all reasonable doubt, would be the effect with the great majority of minds, if the mode of representation before us should come to be accepted as valid.
4. But it rests upon no solid ground, and has more the character of an interpolation thrust into the sacred record than a fair and natural interpretation of its contents. The revelation of law from Sinai did not come forth in independence, as if it were to lay the foundation of something altogether new in men’s experience; nor did it proceed from God in His character as the God of nature, exercising His right to impose commands of service on the consciences of His creatures, which with no other helps and endowments than those of nature, they were required with unfailing rectitude to fulfil;—not, therefore, when when made to take the form of a covenant, was it with the view of exacting what must be given as the prior and indispensable conditions of life and joy? No, the history of Israel knows nothing of law except in connection with promise and blessing. (Harless, ‘Ethik.,’ sec. 13.) It was as the Redeemer of Israel that God spake the words as in a special sense Israel’s God (‘I am Jehovah thy God’) a relation which, we have our Lord’s explicit testimony for asserting, carries in its bosom the dowry of life eternal; (Luk_20:37-38.) so that grace here also took precedence of law, life of righteousness; and the covenant of law, assuming and rooting itself in the prior covenant of grace, only came to shut, the heirs of promise up to that course of dutiful obedience toward God, and brotherly kindness toward each other, by which alone they could accomplish the higher ends of their calling. In form merely was there anything new in this, not in I. For what else was involved in the command given to Abraham, at the establishment of the covenant of promise, to have it sealed with the ordinance of circumcision—the symbol of a sanctified nature and a holy life? Nay, even before that, the same thing in effect was done, when the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, ‘I am the Almighty God, walk before me and be thou perfect,’ (Gen_17:1.)—a word which (as Cocceius justly observes) (De Foed., c. xi. sec. 338.) was comprehensive of all true service and righteous behaviour. But an advance was made by the entrance of the law over such preceding calls and appointments, and it was this—the obligation to rectitude of life resting upon the heirs of promise was now thrown into a categorical and imperative form, embracing the entire round of moral and religious duty; yet, not that they might by the observance of this work themselves into a blissful relation to God, but that, as already standing in such a relation, they might walk worthy of it, and become filled with the fruits of righteousness, which alone could either prove the reality of their interest in God, or fulfil the calling they had received from Him.
5. It is true, the people who entered into the bond of the covenant, as thus proposed, could not of themselves keep the precepts of the law; and the shameful back sliding which took place so shortly after they had formally undertaken to do all that was commanded, but too plainly shewed how little they yet understood either the height of their obligations, or the degree of moral strength that would be required to meet them. It was but gradually, and through a succession of painful and trying experiences, that the truth in this respect could work itself into their minds. The law undoubtedly was exceeding broad. In its matter, that is, in the reach and compass of its requirements, it did (as the writers formerly referred to maintained) comprise the sum of moral excellence—the full measure of goodness that man as man is bound to yield to God and his fellow-men. It was impossible that God, in His formal revelation of law to His people, could propound less as the aim of their spiritual endeavours; for conformity to His mind and will, to be made holy or good after the type of that which He Himself is, was the ultimate design contemplated in His covenant arrangements. But in these arrangements He stood also pledged to His people as the author of life and blessing; and that mercy and loving-kindness which prompted Him so to interpose in their behalf, and which (as if to prevent misapprehension) He embodied even in His revelation of law, could not possibly be wanting, if earnestly sought for the ministration of such help as might be needed to enable them to give, though not a faultless, yet a hearty and steadfast obedience. Was not the whole tabernacle service, springing from the covenant of Sinai as its centre, and ever circling around it, a standing and palpable proof of this? Through the rites and ordinances of that service, access continually lay open for them to God, as their ever-present guardian and strength; there the incense of prayer was perpetually ascending to draw down supplies of help on the needy: and when consciousness of sin clouded their interest in God, and troubled them with apprehensions of deserved wrath, there was the blood of atonement ready to blot out their guilt, and quicken them, under a fresh sense of forgiveness, to run the way of God’s commandments. Thus viewed, every thing is in its proper place; and the covenant of law, instead of coming to supersede the earlier covenant of promise, was introduced merely as an handmaid to minister to its design, and help forward the moral aims it sought to promote.
6. If now we turn to the writings of the Old Covenant, we shall find the evidence they furnish in perfect accordance with the view just given; only, we must take it under two divisions the one as connected with the sincere members of the covenant, who made an honest, a legitimate use of the things belonging to it; the other with such as made an illegitimate use of them, whose hearts were not right with God, and who only incidentally, and as it were by contraries, became witnesses to the truth. We shall look successively at both, considering each under a threefold aspect—with reference to God, to sin and holiness, and to salvation.
7. We look, then, in the first instance, to those who may be regarded as the more proper representatives of the Old Covenant; and to these, primarily, in respect to what concerns their relation to God—His being and character. It was certainly not, as we have had occasion already to state, the sole design of the moral law, or even of the first table of the law, to preserve the belief in one personal God, as opposed to the polytheism of the ancient world; but this was, unquestionably, a very prominent and fundamental part of the design. The tendency in those remote times was all in the opposite direction. Polytheism, the offspring of guilt and terror, leading to the deification and worship of the powers of nature under the different aspects in which they present themselves to the natural mind, set in like a mighty flood, and swept over the earth with an all-subduing force. The very name of religion came to be identified, in the different countries of the world, with the adoration of these false gods; and as civilization and refinement advanced, it became associated with all that was imposing in architecture, beautiful in art, joyous and attractive in public life. There was just one region of the earth, one little territory, within which for many an age this wide-wasting moral pestilence was withstood—not even there without sharp contendings and struggles, maintained sometimes against fearful odds; yet the truth held its place, the moral barrier raised in defence of it by the Decalogue preserved the better portion of the covenant-people from the dangers which in this respect beset them—preserved them in the knowledge and belief of one God, as the sovereign Lord and moral Governor of the world. So deeply did this great truth, from the prominence given to it in the Old Covenant, and the awful sanctions there thrown around it, strike its roots into the hearts and consciences of the people, that it was not only handed down through successive ages in the face of every adverse influence, but made itself practically known as a principle of commanding power and ennobling influence. Of this the writings of the Old Testament are a varied and pro longed witness. These writings were indited by men of very different grades of intellect and feeling, composed in circumstances, too, and at periods, widely remote from each other; yet they are all pervaded by one spirit; they exhibit a profound belief in the existence of one God, as the moral Governor of the world, and in His right—His sole and indefeasible right—to the homage and obedience of men. It is the religious view of the world, of the events of life and the interests of mankind,—the relation in which these severally stand to the one living God—which is continually presented in them, and stamps them with a quite peculiar character and a permanent value. What has antiquity transmitted to us that in this respect may be compared to them? We have, doubtless, much to learn from the literature of Greece and Home, as regards the history of kingdoms, the development and portraiture of character, the arts and refinements of the natural life; but it is to the writings which enshrined the principles and breathed the spirit of the Divine law, that the nations of the world are indebted for that knowledge of God, which is the foundation at once of true religion and of sound morality. (See Luthardt’s ‘Fundamental Truths of Christianity,’ Lecture VIII.)
Look at the matter for a moment in its concrete form. See the mighty difference which appears between Hebrew monotheism and the polytheism of heathendom, even in its better phases, on that memorable occasion, in the closing period of the old economy, when the extremes of both might be said to meet—the one as represented by the polished senators of Athens, the other by Paul of Tarsus. There cannot well be conceived a bolder, and, morally, a more sublime attitude, than was presented by this man of God when, addressing the supreme council of the city on Mars’ hill, he assailed the idolatry of Greece in the very metropolis of its dominion, and in the presence of its most wonderful creations. On that elevated plat form of religion and art, he had immediately in front of him the Acropolis, adorned with an entire series of statues and temples:—among others, the Propylaea, one of the most expensive and beautiful works of Athenian architecture, with its temple and bronze statue of Minerva, under the name of Niké Apteros (wingless victory); the Erectheium, the most revered of all the sanctuaries of Athens, containing, as it did, the most ancient statue of their patron goddess, which was supposed to have fallen down from heaven, and the sacred olive tree which she was believed to have called forth from the earth in her contest with Neptune for the guardianship of the city; and, towering above all, the Parthenon, the most perfect structure of ancient heathendom, with its gold and ivory statue of Minerva, the masterpiece of Phidias; and sculptures besides of such exquisite workmanship, that the mutilated remains of them have been the admiration of the world, and, when made accessible in recent times to the studious of other lands, served to give a fresh impulse and higher style to the cultivation of modern art:—Think of all this, and then think of Paul of Tarsus, an unknown and solitary stranger, a barbarian, a Jew, standing there, and telling his Athenian audience, in the midst of these consecrated glories, that the Godhead could not be likened to objects graven by art or man’s device, nor dwell in temples made with hands; and that out of the whole amphitheatre of their shrines and temples he had been able to discover only one thing which pro claimed a truth, and that remarkable for the ignorance it confessed, rather than the knowledge it revealed—an altar to the Unknown God; adding, as from his own higher vantage-ground, ‘Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.’
8. Here, then, was a great result accomplished in the case of those who in a becoming spirit submitted themselves to the bond of the Sinaitic covenant; in the most fundamental point of religion they became the lights of the world, the chosen witnesses of Heaven. And such also they were in a closely related point: their convictions in regard to holiness and sin. The polytheism of the heathen world wrought with disastrous effect here; for losing sight of the one great source and pattern of moral excellence, and making to themselves gods after their own likeness, men’s notions of holiness became sadly deranged, and their convictions of sin were consequently irregular and superficial. Even the more thoughtful class of minds—those who sought to work themselves free from popular delusions, and to be guided only by the dictates of wisdom—never attained, even in conception, to the proper measure: the want of right views of sin cleaves as a fundamental defect to all ancient philosophy. But Israel’s knowledge of the character and law of God, as it placed them in a different position spiritually, so it produced different results in experience. How was God Himself commonly present to their apprehensions? Pre-eminently as the Holy One of Israel, loving righteousness, and hating iniquity. (Deu_33:8; Psa_5:4; Psa_45:7; Isa_1:4; Heb_1:12-13, etc.) Or, how did their writers of devotion portray the true worshipper of Jehovah, the man who had a right to draw near and abide with Him, as a dweller in His house? It was the man who had entered into the spirit of the Decalogue—the man of clean hands and a pure heart, who had not lifted up his soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully—the man who had been wont to walk uprightly, work righteousness, speak the truth in his heart, exercise himself, in short, to all suitable manifestations of love to God and man—he alone was the person to ascend the hill of God, and worship and serve before Him. (Ps. 4:3, 15; Psa_24:3-6; Ps. 24:26, etc. It cannot be said of these, and many similar passages in the Psalms, that they indicate an advanced state of things, higher views of goodness and acceptable worship, than those sanctioned at the institution of the tabernacle service. For it belonged to Moses, as the mediator of the Old Covenant, to settle all that pertained to its worship; no one, during its continuance, had any warrant to prescribe new conditions to the worshipper; nor indeed was this done in the passages quoted, for they evidently lean on the terms of the Decalogue.) But, then, who had actually done so? In whom was the ideal properly realized? Such questions could not but arise in thoughtful bosoms, and lead to both profound convictions of sin and a trembling awe on the spirit when venturing into the presence of God. Hence the language of penitence, the cry of guilt with which we are so familiar in Old Testament Scripture: iniquity is felt cleaving to men as a girdle, yea, entering as a virulent poison into their natures, breaking out continually into unhallowed tempers, marring the perfection of things that were outwardly correct, and taking away all hope of justification or acceptance with God, on the ground of personal conformity to His requirements. (Psa_19:12-13; Psa_32:5; Psa_51:5; Psa_143:2; Isa_64:6; Job_15:16, etc.) Alive to the fact of an infinitely perfect God, Israel was also, and on that very account, alive to painful misgivings and fears of guilt; the humiliating truth comes forcibly out in its history, that by the law is the know ledge of sin; and, unlike all other nations of antiquity, its one most solemn service throughout the year was that of the day of atonement—the day for bringing to remembrance all its transgressions and all its sins, that they might be blotted out.
9. Had there been nothing more than law in the Old Covenant, there had also been nothing further in Israel’s experience, except the penalties that were the just desert of sin. But with the true members of the covenant another thing invariably appears—a fleeing to God as the Redeemer from sin, the Healer of Israel—or a falling back from the covenant of law on the covenant of grace and promise out of which it sprung. Take as an example the rich and varied record of a believer’s experience contained in the 119th Psalm. The theme of discourse there, from beginning to end, is the law of God—its excellence, its breadth and fulness, its suitableness to men’s condition, the blessedness of being conformed to its requirements, and the earnest longings of the pious heart after all that properly belongs to it:—but things of this sort perpetually alternate with confessions of backslidings and sins, fervent cries for pardoning mercy and restoring grace, and fresh resolutions formed in dependence on Divine aid to resist the evil, and strive after higher attainments in the righteousness it enjoins. And so elsewhere; the consciousness of sin and moral weakness ever drove the soul to God for deliverance and help; and especially to the use of that gracious provision made through the rite of sacrifice for expiating the guilt of sin and restoring peace to the troubled conscience. But then this present deliverance bore on it such marks of imperfection as might well seem to call for another and more perfect arrangement; since both the means of reconciliation were inferior (the blood of bulls and goats), and the measure of it also, even as things then stood, was incomplete; for the reconciled were still not permitted to have direct and personal access into the presence-chamber of Jehovah—they were permitted only to frequent the courts of His house. The law, therefore, awakening a sense of guilt and alienation which could not then be perfectly removed, creating wants and desires it but partially satisfied, while it could not fail to be productive of fear, was also well fitted to raise expectations in the bosom of the worshipper of some better things to come, and dispose him to listen to the intimations concerning them which it was the part of prophecy to utter. And in proportion as men of humble and earnest faith acted on the hints thus given, they would, in answer to believing prayer and pious meditation, understand that, however the existing provisions of mercy were to be appreciated, there was a sense also in which they might be disparaged; (As in the following passages: Psa_40:6; Psa_50:7-14; Psa_51:16; Hos_6:6.) that they were indeed ‘God’s treasure-house of mysteries,’ wonderful in themselves, but wonderful and precious most of all for the hidden reference they bore to realities which were not yet disclosed, and into which the eye of faith naturally desired to look. (See Davison ‘On Prophecy,’ p. 143, who, after referring to the obvious imperfections in the religion of the Old Covenant, says, ‘The action of the moral and ceremonial law combined, I conclude to have been such as would produce, in reasonable and serious minds, that temper which is itself eminently Christian in its principle, viz., a sense of demerit in transgression; a willingness to accept a better atonement adequate to the needs of the conscience, if God should provide it, and a desire after inward purity which bodily lustration might represent but could not supply; in short, that temper which David has confessed and described when he rejects his reliance upon the legal rites: For thou desirest not sacrifice, else would I give it thee, etc. (Psalms 51.).’ At the same time, considering the provision actually made under the law for sin, and the expectations raised concerning something better to come, it is clear that the fear spoken of in connection with it could not be, with the true members of the covenant, properly slavish fear; for in their case the native effect of the law was always checked by the prayer and hope which grew out of the covenant of promise. It was only that in a more intense degree, which in a certain degree is still experienced in serious and thoughtful minds under the Gospel. And in so far as the law then, or at any time, might be found to work wrath and despair, this, as justly remarked by Harless (‘Ethik,’ p. 161), ‘is the guilt of men who do not rightly understand, or who misuse the law. For, if the law were understood, or rather the God who gave the law, then it would be known that the same God, who in the law threatens death, does not wish the death of the sinner.’)
Such, briefly, is the evidence furnished by one portion of the covenant-people, those who constituted the true Israel, and who used the covenant of law, as it was intended, in due subservience to the prior covenant of grace. Even with the imperfections cleaving to the Divine plan, as one of a merely provisional nature, and corresponding imperfections in the spiritual results produced by it, we may yet ask if there was not, as regards that portion of the people, fruit that might well be deemed worthy of God? Where, in those ancient times, did life exhibit so many of the purer graces and more solid virtues? Or where, on the side of truth and righteousness, were such perils braved, and such heroic deeds performed? There alone were the claims of truth and righteousness even known in such a manner as to reach the depths of conscience, and bring into proper play the nobler feelings, desires, and aspirations of the heart. It is to Israel alone, of all the nations of antiquity, that we must turn alike for the more meek and lovely, and for the more stirring examples of moral excellence. Sanctified homes, which possessed the light, and were shone upon by the favour of Heaven; lives of patient endurance and suffering, or of strong wrestling for the rights of conscience, and the privilege of yielding to the behests of duty; manifestations of zeal and love in behalf of the higher interests of mankind, such as could scorn all inferior considerations of flesh and blood, and even rise at times in ‘the elected saints’ to such a noble elevation, that ‘they have wished themselves razed out of the book of life, in an ecstasy of charity, and feeling of infinite communion’ (Bacon): for refreshing sights and inspiring exhibitions like these, we must repair to the annals of that chosen seed, who were trained to the knowledge of God, and moulded by the laws and institutions of His kingdom. Must we not, in consideration of them, re-echo the saying of Moses, ‘O Israel, what people was like unto thee! a people saved by the Lord!’ (See ‘Typology,’ Vol. II. p. 491.)
10. But, unfortunately, there is a darker side to the picture. There was another, and, for the most part, a larger and more influential portion of the covenant-people, who acted very differently, who either openly resiled from the yoke of the law, or perverted it to a wrong purpose, and in whom also, though after another fashion, the truth found a remarkable verification. In this class, the most prominent thing—that which was always the first to discover itself, was a restive and reluctant spirit, fretting against the demands of the law, often even against that fundamental part of them, which might be said to involve all the rest—the devout acknowledgment and pure worship of Jehovah. With this class, the prevailing tendency to idolatry in the ancient world had attractions which they were unable to resist. Like so many around them, in part also among them, they wished a less exacting, a more sensuous and more easily accessible mode of worship, than that which was enjoined in the law and connected with the tabernacle; and so idolatrous sanctuaries in various localities, with their accompanying rites of will-worship, were formed: these generally first, and then, as a natural consequence, altogether false deities, local or foreign, came to take the place of Jehovah. There was a strong tide from without bearing in this direction; it was the spirit of the age, which human nature is ever ready to fall in with; but the real ground of the defection, and that which rendered the apostatizing disposition a kind of chronic disease in Israel, lay in the affinity between those corrupt idolatries and the natural inclinations of the heart. Living in Gospel times, we are wont to speak of the carnal and ritualistic nature of the Old Testament worship; but underneath it all there was a spiritual element, which was distasteful to the merely natural mind, and the reverse of which was found in the showy and corrupt rites of heathenism. These fostered and gratified the sinful desires of the heart, while the worship of Jehovah repressed and condemned them: this was the real secret of that inveterate drawing in the one direction, and strong antipathy in the other, which were perpetually breaking forth in the history of Israel, and turned it, we may say, into a great battle-ground for the very existence of true religion. In its essence, it was the conflict of human corruption with the will, the authority, and the actual being of God; and, therefore, it never failed to draw down those rebukes in providence, by which God vindicated the honour of His name, and made the backslidings of His people to reprove them. Viewed in this light, the history of Israel, however melancholy in one respect, is instructive and even consolatory in another: it shewed how every thing for Israel, in evil or in good, turned on the relation in which they stood to the living God, as the object of faith and worship—how inexcusable, as well as foolish, they were in hardening their hearts against His ways, and preferring the transitory pleasures of sin to the abiding recompenses of His service—and how, in spite of all manifestations of folly, and combinations of human power and wisdom against the truth of God, that truth still prevailed, and they who stood by it, the godly seed, though comparatively few, proved the real strength or substance of the nation. (Isa_6:13.)
11. There was, however, another form of evil which manifested itself in this portion of the covenant-people, which latterly became a very prevalent form, and which so far differed from the other, that it could consist with an outward adherence to the worship of Jehovah, nay, with apparent zeal for that worship, while the great ends of the covenant were trampled under foot. The failure here lay in false views respecting holiness and sin, necessarily leading also to an utterly false position in regard to salvation. Instead of viewing the institutions and services connected with the tabernacle—the ceremonial part of the law—as the complement merely of the Sinaitic tables, intended to help out their design and provide the means of escape from their just condemnation of sin, the persons in question exalted it to the first place, and, however they might stand related to ‘the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith,’ thought all in a manner accomplished, if they kept the ordinances and presented the appointed offerings. Many sharp reproofs and severe denunciations are pronounced against this mode of procedure, and those who pursued it, in the writings of the Old Testament, especially the prophets. Asaph asks such persons in his day, asks them indignantly in the name of God, what they had to do with declaring God’s statutes, or going about the things of His covenant, since they were full of backbiting and deceit, taking part with thieves and adulterers? (Psalms 1.) Isaiah is still more severe in his language; he finds such characters, after a period of much backsliding and rebuke, professing great concern for the interests of religion, diligently frequenting the courts of God’s house, heaping sacrifices upon the altar, and stretching out their hands in prayer, while oppression and iniquity were in their dwellings, and their hands were even stained with blood. In such a case—so flagrantly at variance with the fundamental precepts and obligations of the covenant—what right, the prophet demands, had they to tread the courts of God’s house or take part in its services? Who required it? There was no sincerity, he tells them, in what they did; their altar-gifts were but lying offerings; (So the expression should be rendered in Isa_1:13, not merely ‘vain oblations.’) and their whole service an abomination in the sight of the Holy One. (See also ch. 29:13, 58, 59.) Jeremiah, in like manner, points out the inexpressible hardihood and folly of men trusting to the temple and its services for a blessing, who by their ungodly and wicked lives had turned it into a resort of evil-doers, a den even of robbers (7); so also Ezekiel (18, 23.), and some of the other prophets. By and by, however, a phase of things entered, although not till after the return from Babylon, and of which we have no very exact portraiture in Old Testament times; we see the beginnings of it merely in the writings of Malachi. The fires of Divine judgment had now at last purged out from among the people the more heinous and abominable forms of transgression; monotheism had come to be rigidly maintained; and from being neglecters of the law, they passed, many of them, in a formal respect into the opposite extreme—the extreme, namely, of making the law, in a manner, every thing for life and blessing—more than it was ever intended to be, or in reality could be, consistently with the moral character of God and the actual condition of men. So the feeling continued and grew, and meets us in full efflorescence among the more prominent religionists of the Gospel era. And there is not, perhaps, a more remarkable example to be found in history than their case affords of that form of deceitfulness of the human heart, by which it can pass from the extreme of dislike to the law and service of God, to the extreme of outward regard and honour; and yet retain, in the one extreme as well as the other, the ungodly frame of mind, which is opposed to their essential character and aim.
It is this latter form of the evil that has most of interest for us, as it comes prominently into view in New Testament Scripture. Its fundamental error, as I have said, lay in isolating the covenant of law, taking it apart from the prior covenant of promise, as if it was alone sufficient for men—and not only so, but failing to distinguish between what was of prime, and what of only secondary moment in the law, throwing the ceremonial into precisely the same category with the moral. From this grievous mistake (which some would still most unaccountably confound with proper Judaism) three fatal results of a practical kind inevitably followed. First, they shut their eyes upon the depth and spirituality of the law’s requirements. They were obliged to do so; for had they perceived these, the idea must of necessity have vanished from their minds, that they could attain to righteousness on a merely legal footing; they could never have imagined that ‘touching the righteousness which is in the law they were blameless.’ (Php_3:6. That Paul speaks thus of his earlier life from a Pharisaic point of view, is evident from the connection; as he is avowedly recounting the things which had reference to the flesh (v. 4), and which gave him a merely external ground of glorying. It is further evident, from what he says of his relation to the law elsewhere, when he came to a proper understanding of its real import (Romans 7.); and also from the utter want of satisfaction, which even here he expresses, of his former life after the light of truth dawned upon his mind (v. 7, 8).) Thoughts of this description could only enter when the law was stript of its proper import as the revelation and sum of moral duty, and reduced to an outward discipline of specific rules of conduct. When so reduced, it was quite possible for any one to feel that the law’s requirements lay within the compass of the practicable; the task-work of services might with laudable regularity be gone through; and the feeling of self-righteousness, so far from being repressed, would only be the more fostered and sustained by the number and variety of the materials it had to work upon. A second result was the servile spirit in which all in such a case came to be done. The covenant of Sinai—taken by itself, simply as the revelation of law—‘genders unto bondage;’ (Gal_4:24.) if it begets children, they will inevitably be children of a carnal and slavish, not of a free, loving, and devoted spirit. It cannot be otherwise. When any one submits to a yoke of service for which he has no natural inclination, for the sake merely of certain benefits he expects to reap from it, the heart cannot but be conscious of a burden; it does what is exacted, not from any high motives or generous impulses, but simply because necessary to the end in view—it must earn its wages. I need hardly say, that it was much in this spirit the Scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s time acted—they were hirelings, and not sons. And the explanation of their case was what we have just indicated—they put the law out of its proper place, and applied themselves to get through a formal obedience to its requirements, what it was altogether incapable of giving—what, if got at all by sinful men, must come through the channel of Divine grace and loving-kindness. It is the covenant of promise alone, not the covenant of law, that is the true mother of children in the kingdom of God. Finally, as a still further result, the persons who thus erred concerning the law’s place and spirit, could neither rightly look for the Messiah, nor, when He came, be at all prepared to receive Him. They fancied they had already of themselves attained to righteousness, and were little disposed to think they must be indebted for it to Christ.
They naturally regarded it as foul scorn to be put virtually on a level with those who had been without Jaw, and clung to the law as the ground of all their distinctions, the very charter of their privileges and hopes. So completely, by misapprehending the proper nature and relations of things, did the major part of the later Jews frustrate the object of the law, and turn it from being a schoolmaster to lead them to Christ, into the jealous and lordly rival that would keep them at the remotest distance from Him. And the mournful result for themselves was, that the rock in which they trusted, itself rose against them; the law which could condemn but not expiate their sin, cried for vengeance with a voice that must be heard, and wrath from heaven fell upon them to the uttermost.
A marvellous history, on whichever side contemplated!—whether in the evil or the good connected with it—and fraught with important lessons, not for those alone who were its immediate subjects, but for all nations and for all time. God constituted the seed of Israel the direct bearers of a Divine revelation, made them subjects alike of law and promise, and shaped their history so that in it men might see reflected as in a mirror the essential character of His kingdom, the blessings that flow from a hearty submission to His will, and the judgments that not less certainly come, sooner or later, in the train of wilful perversion and incorrigible disobedience. In a sense altogether peculiar, they were called to be God’s witnesses to the world; (Isa_43:10.) and by the word of God, which has embodied itself in their experience and history, they still remain such—a light in its better aspect to guide and comfort, in its worse a beacon to admonish and warn. Like every revelation of God, this word also liveth and abideth for ever; and among other lessons to be learned from it, this, which is common to all dispensations, embodied in a pregnant utterance of Augustine, should never be forgotten, Lex data est ut gratia quaereretur; gratia data est ut lex impleretur (De Sp. and Lit., sec. xix.)—the law was given that grace might be sought; grace was given that the law might be fulfilled.