Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: of prophecy. - The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, vol 1 (Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus)
Return to Title Page for The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, vol 1 (Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER I.: of prophecy. - Benedict de Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, vol 1 (Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus) 
The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
PROPHECY, or revelation, is sure knowledge revealed by God to man. A prophet is one who interprets the revelations of God to those who are unable to attain to sure knowledge of the matters revealed, and therefore can only apprehend them by simple faith.
The Hebrew word for prophet is “nabi,”1i.e. speaker or interpreter, but in Scripture its meaning is restricted to interpreter of God, as we may learn from Exodus vii. 1, where God says to Moses, “See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet;” implying that, since in interpreting Moses’ words to Pharaoh, Aaron acted the part of a prophet, Moses would be to Pharaoh as a god, or in the attitude of a god.
Prophets I will treat of in the next chapter, and at present consider prophecy.
Now it is evident, from the definition above given, that prophecy really includes ordinary knowledge; for the knowledge which we acquire by our natural faculties depends on our knowledge of God and His eternal laws; but ordinary knowledge is common to all men as men, and rests on foundations which all share, whereas the multitude always strains after rarities and exceptions, and thinks little of the gifts of nature; so that, when prophecy is talked of, ordinary knowledge is not supposed to be included. Nevertheless it has as much right as any other to be called Divine, for God’s nature, in so far as we share therein, and God’s laws, dictate it to us; nor does it suffer from that to which we give the pre-eminence, except in so far as the latter transcends its limits and cannot be accounted for by natural laws taken in themselves. In respect to the certainty it involves, and the source from which it is derived, i.e. God, ordinary knowledge is no whit inferior to prophetic, unless indeed we believe, or rather dream, that the prophets had human bodies but superhuman minds, and therefore that their sensations and consciousness were entirely different from our own.
But, although ordinary knowledge is Divine, its professors cannot be called prophets,1 for they teach what the rest of mankind could perceive and apprehend, not merely by simple faith, but as surely and honourably as themselves.
Seeing then that our mind subjectively contains in itself and partakes of the nature of God, and solely from this cause is enabled to form notions explaining natural phenomena and inculcating morality, it follows that we may rightly assert the nature of the human mind (in so far as it is thus conceived) to be a primary cause of Divine revelation. All that we clearly and distinctly understand is dictated to us, as I have just pointed out, by the idea and nature of God; not indeed through words, but in a way far more excellent and agreeing perfectly with the nature of the mind, as all who have enjoyed intellectual certainty will doubtless attest. Here, however, my chief purpose is to speak of matters having reference to Scripture, so these few words on the light of reason will suffice.
I will now pass on to, and treat more fully, the other ways and means by which God makes revelations to mankind, both of that which transcends ordinary knowledge, and of that within its scope; for there is no reason why God should not employ other means to communicate what we know already by the power of reason.
Our conclusions on the subject must be drawn solely from Scripture; for what can we affirm about matters transcending our knowledge except what is told us by the words or writings of prophets? And since there are, so far as I know, no prophets now alive, we have no alternative but to read the books of prophets departed, taking care the while not to reason from metaphor or to ascribe anything to our authors which they do not themselves distinctly state. I must further premise that the Jews never make any mention or account of secondary, or particular causes, but in a spirit of religion, piety, and what is commonly called godliness, refer all things directly to the Deity. For instance, if they make money by a transaction, they say God gave it to them; if they desire anything, they say God has disposed their hearts towards it; if they think anything, they say God told them. Hence we must not suppose that everything is prophecy or revelation which is described in Scripture as told by God to anyone, but only such things as are expressly announced as prophecy or revelation, or are plainly pointed to as such by the context.
A perusal of the sacred books will show us that all God’s revelations to the prophets were made through words or appearances, or a combination of the two. These words and appearances were of two kinds; (1) real when external to the mind of the prophet who heard or saw them, (2) imaginary when the imagination of the prophet was in a state which led him distinctly to suppose that he heard or saw them.
With a real voice God revealed to Moses the laws which He wished to be transmitted to the Hebrews, as we may see from Exodus xxv. 22, where God says, “And there I will meet with thee and I will commune with thee from the mercy seat which is between the Cherubim.” Some sort of real voice must necessarily have been employed, for Moses found God ready to commune with him at any time. This, as I shall shortly show, is the only instance of a real voice.
We might, perhaps, suppose that the voice with which God called Samuel was real, for in 1 Sam. iii. 21, we read, “And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh, for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord;” implying that the appearance of the Lord consisted in His making Himself known to Samuel through a voice; in other words, that Samuel heard the Lord speaking. But we are compelled to distinguish between the prophecies of Moses and those of other prophets, and therefore must decide that this voice was imaginary, a conclusion further supported by the voice’s resemblance to the voice of Eli, which Samuel was in the habit of hearing, and therefore might easily imagine; when thrice called by the Lord, Samuel supposed it to have been Eli.
The voice which Abimelech heard was imaginary, for it is written, Gen. xx. 6, “And God said unto him in a dream.” So that the will of God was manifest to him, not in waking, but only in sleep, that is, when the imagination is most active and uncontrolled. Some of the Jews believe that the actual words of the Decalogue were not spoken by God, but that the Israelites heard a noise only, without any distinct words, and during its continuance apprehended the Ten Commandments by pure intuition; to this opinion I myself once inclined, seeing that the words of the Decalogue in Exodus are different from the words of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy, for the discrepancy seemed to imply (since God only spoke once) that the Ten Commandments were not intended to convey the actual words of the Lord, but only His meaning. However, unless we would do violence to Scripture, we must certainly admit that the Israelites heard a real voice, for Scripture expressly says, Deut. v. 4, “God spake with you face to face,” i.e. as two men ordinarily interchange ideas through the instrumentality of their two bodies; and therefore it seems more consonant with Holy Writ to suppose that God really did create a voice of some kind with which the Decalogue was revealed. The discrepancy of the two versions is treated of in Chap. VIII.
Yet not even thus is all difficulty removed, for it seems scarcely reasonable to affirm that a created thing, depending on God in the same manner as other created things, would be able to express or explain the nature of God either verbally or really by means of its individual organism: for instance, by declaring in the first person, “I am the Lord your God.”
Certainly when anyone says with his mouth, “I understand,” we do not attribute the understanding to the mouth, but to the mind of the speaker; yet this is because the mouth is the natural organ of a man speaking, and the hearer, knowing what understanding is, easily comprehends, by a comparison with himself, that the speaker’s mind is meant; but if we knew nothing of God beyond the mere name and wished to commune with Him, and be assured of His existence, I fail to see how our wish would be satisfied by the declaration of a created thing (depending on God neither more nor less than ourselves), “I am the Lord.” If God contorted the lips of Moses, or, I will not say Moses, but some beast, till they pronounced the words, “I am the Lord,” should we apprehend the Lord’s existence therefrom?
Scripture seems clearly to point to the belief that God spoke Himself, having descended from heaven to Mount Sinai for the purpose—and not only that the Israelites heard Him speaking, but that their chief men beheld Him (Ex. xxiv.) Further the law of Moses, which might neither be added to nor curtailed, and which was set up as a national standard of right, nowhere prescribed the belief that God is without body, or even without form or figure, but only ordained that the Jews should believe in His existence and worship Him alone: it forbade them to invent or fashion any likeness of the Deity, but this was to insure purity of service; because, never having seen God, they could not by means of images recall the likeness of God, but only the likeness of some created thing which might thus gradually take the place of God as the object of their adoration. Nevertheless, the Bible clearly implies that God has a form, and that Moses when he heard God speaking was permitted to behold it, or at least its hinder parts.
Doubtless some mystery lurks in this question which we will discuss more fully below. For the present I will call attention to the passages in Scripture indicating the means by which God has revealed His laws to man.
Revelation may be through figures only, as in 1 Chron. xxii., where God displays his anger to David by means of an angel bearing a sword, and also in the story of Balaam.
Maimonides and others do indeed maintain that these and every other instance of angelic apparitions (e.g. to Manoah and to Abraham offering up Isaac) occurred during sleep, for that no one with his eyes open ever could see an angel, but this is mere nonsense. The sole object of such commentators seems to be to extort from Scripture confirmations of Aristotelian quibbles and their own inventions, a proceeding which I regard as the acme of absurdity.
In figures, not real but existing only in the prophet’s imagination, God revealed to Joseph his future lordship, and in words and figures He revealed to Joshua that He would fight for the Hebrews, causing to appear an angel, as it were the Captain of the Lord’s host, bearing a sword, and by this means communicating verbally. The forsaking of Israel by Providence was portrayed to Isaiah by a vision of the Lord, the thrice Holy, sitting on a very lofty throne, and the Hebrews, stained with the mire of their sins, sunk as it were in uncleanness, and thus as far as possible distant from God. The wretchedness of the people at the time was thus revealed, while future calamities were foretold in words. I could cite from Holy Writ many similar examples, but I think they are sufficiently well known already.
However, we get a still more clear confirmation of our position in Num. xii. 6, 7, as follows: “If there be any prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision” (i.e. by appearances and signs, for God says of the prophecy of Moses that it was a vision without signs), “and will speak unto him in a dream” (i.e. not with actual words and an actual voice). “My servant Moses is not so; with him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches, and the similitude of the Lord he shall behold,” i.e. looking on me as a friend and not afraid, he speaks with me (cf. Ex. xxxiii. 17).
This makes it indisputable that the other prophets did not hear a real voice, and we gather as much from Deut. xxiv. 10: “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses whom the Lord knew face to face,” which must mean that the Lord spoke with none other; for not even Moses saw the Lord’s face. These are the only media of communication between God and man which I find mentioned in Scripture, and therefore the only ones which may be supposed or invented. We may be able quite to comprehend that God can communicate immediately with man, for without the intervention of bodily means He communicates to our minds His essence; still, a man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in nor deducible from the foundations of our natural knowledge, must necessarily possess a mind far superior to those of his fellow men, nor do I believe that any have been so endowed save Christ. To Him the ordinances of God leading men to salvation were revealed directly without words or visions, so that God manifested Himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ as He formerly did to Moses through the supernatural voice. In this sense the voice of Christ, like the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God, and it may be said that the wisdom of God (i.e. wisdom more than human) took upon itself in Christ human nature, and that Christ was the way of salvation. I must at this juncture declare that those doctrines which certain churches put forward concerning Christ, I neither affirm nor deny, for I freely confess that I do not understand them. What I have just stated I gather from Scripture, where I never read that God appeared to Christ, or spoke to Christ, but that God was revealed to the Apostles through Christ; that Christ was the Way of Life, and that the old law was given through an angel, and not immediately by God; whence it follows that if Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend (i.e. by means of their two bodies) Christ communed with God mind to mind.
Thus we may conclude that no one except Christ received the revelations of God without the aid of imagination, whether in words or vision. Therefore the power of prophecy implies not a peculiarly perfect mind, but a peculiarly vivid imagination, as I will show more clearly in the next chapter. We will now inquire what is meant in the Bible by the Spirit of God breathed into the prophets, or by the prophets speaking with the Spirit of God; to that end we must determine the exact signification of the Hebrew word ruagh, commonly translated spirit.
The word ruagh literally means a wind, e.g. the south wind, but it is frequently employed in other derivative significations. It is used as equivalent to,
(1.) Breath: “Neither is there any spirit in his mouth,” Ps. cxxxv. 17.
(2.) Life, or breathing: “And his spirit returned to him,” 1 Sam. xxx. 12; i.e. he breathed again.
(3.) Courage and strength: “Neither did there remain any more spirit in any man,” Josh. ii. 11; “And the spirit entered into me, and made me stand on my feet,” Ezek. ii. 2.
(4.) Virtue and fitness: “Days should speak, and multitudes of years should teach wisdom; but there is a spirit in man,” Job xxxii. 7; i.e. wisdom is not always found among old men, for I now discover that it depends on individual virtue and capacity. So, “A man in whom is the Spirit,” Numbers xxvii. 18.
(5.) Habit of mind: “Because he had another spirit with him,” Numbers xiv. 24; i.e. another habit of mind. “Behold I will pour out My Spirit unto you,” Prov. i. 23.
(6.) Will, purpose, desire, impulse: “Whither the spirit was to go, they went,” Ezek. i. 12; “That cover with a covering, but not of My Spirit,” Is. xxx. 1; “For the Lord hath poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep,” Is. xxix. 10; “Then was their spirit softened,” Judges viii. 3; “He that ruleth his spirit, is better than he that taketh a city,” Prov. xvi. 32; “He that hath no rule over his own spirit,” Prov. xxv. 28; “Your spirit as fire shall devour you,” Isaiah xxxiii. 1.
From the meaning of disposition we get—
(7.) Passions and faculties. A lofty spirit means pride, a lowly spirit humility, an evil spirit hatred and melancholy. So, too, the expressions spirits of jealousy, fornication, wisdom, counsel, bravery, stand for a jealous, lascivious, wise, prudent, or brave mind (for we Hebrews use substantives in preference to adjectives), or these various qualities.
(8.) The mind itself, or the life: “Yea, they have all one spirit,” Eccles. iii. 19; “The spirit shall return to God Who gave it.”
(9.) The quarters of the world (from the winds which blow thence), or even the side of anything turned towards a particular quarter—Ezek. xxxvii. 9; xlii. 16, 17, 18, 19, &c.
I have already alluded to the way in which things are referred to God, and said to be of God.
(1.) As belonging to His nature, and being, as it were, part of Him; e.g. the power of God, the eyes of God.
(2.) As under His dominion, and depending on His pleasure; thus the heavens are called the heavens of the Lord, as being His chariot and habitation. So Nebuchadnezzar is called the servant of God, Assyria the scourge of God, &c.
(3.) As dedicated to Him, e.g. the Temple of God, a Nazarene of God, the Bread of God.
(4.) As revealed through the prophets and not through our natural faculties. In this sense the Mosaic law is called the law of God.
(5.) As being in the superlative degree. Very high mountains are styled the mountains of God, a very deep sleep, the sleep of God, &c. In this sense we must explain Amos iv. 11: “I have overthrown you as the overthrow of the Lord came upon Sodom and Gomorrah,” i.e. that memorable overthrow, for since God Himself is the Speaker, the passage cannot well be taken otherwise. The wisdom of Solomon is called the wisdom of God, or extraordinary. The size of the cedars of Lebanon is alluded to in the Psalmist’s expression, “the cedars of the Lord.”
Similarly, if the Jews were at a loss to understand any phenomenon, or were ignorant of its cause, they referred it to God. Thus a storm was termed the chiding of God, thunder and lightning the arrows of God, for it was thought that God kept the winds confined in caves, His treasuries; thus differing merely in name from the Greek wind-god Eolus. In like manner miracles were called works of God, as being especially marvellous; though in reality, of course, all natural events are the works of God, and take place solely by His power. The Psalmist calls the miracles in Egypt the works of God, because the Hebrews found in them a way of safety which they had not looked for, and therefore especially marvelled at.
As, then, unusual natural phenomena are called works of God, and trees of unusual size are called trees of God, we cannot wonder that very strong and tall men, though impious robbers and whoremongers, are in Genesis called sons of God.
This reference of things wonderful to God was not peculiar to the Jews. Pharaoh, on hearing the interpretation of his dream, exclaimed that the mind of the gods was in Joseph. Nebuchadnezzar told Daniel that he possessed the mind of the holy gods; so also in Latin anything well made is often said to be wrought with Divine hands, which is equivalent to the Hebrew phrase, wrought with the hand of God.
We can now very easily understand and explain those passages of Scripture which speak of the Spirit of God. In some places the expression merely means a very strong, dry, and deadly wind, as in Isaiah xl. 7, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it.” Similarly in Gen. i. 2: “The Spirit of the Lord moved over the face of the waters.” At other times it is used as equivalent to a high courage, thus the spirit of Gideon and of Samson is called the Spirit of the Lord, as being very bold, and prepared for any emergency. Any unusual virtue or power is called the Spirit or Virtue of the Lord, Ex. xxxi. 3: “I will fill him (Bezaleel) with the Spirit of the Lord,” i.e., as the Bible itself explains, with talent above man’s usual endowment. So Isa. xi. 2: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,” is explained afterwards in the text to mean the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might.
The melancholy of Saul is called the melancholy of the Lord, or a very deep melancholy, the persons who applied the term showing that they understood by it nothing supernatural, in that they sent for a musician to assuage it by harp-playing. Again, the “Spirit of the Lord” is used as equivalent to the mind of man, for instance, Job xxvii. 3: “And the Spirit of the Lord in my nostrils,” the allusion being to Gen. ii. 7: “And God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life.” Ezekiel also, prophesying to the dead, says (xxvii. 14), “And I will give to you My Spirit, and ye shall live;” i.e. I will restore you to life. In Job xxxiv. 14, we read: “If He gather unto Himself His Spirit and breath;” in Gen. vi. 3: “My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh,” i.e. since man acts on the dictates of his body, and not the spirit which I gave him to discern the good, I will let him alone. So, too, Ps. li. 12: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me; cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.” It was supposed that sin originated only from the body, and that good impulses come from the mind; therefore the Psalmist invokes the aid of God against the bodily appetites, but prays that the spirit which the Lord, the Holy One, had given him might be renewed. Again, inasmuch as the Bible, in concession to popular ignorance, describes God as having a mind, a heart, emotions—nay, even a body and breath—the expression Spirit of the Lord is used for God’s mind, disposition, emotion, strength, or breath. Thus, Isa. xl. 13: “Who hath disposed the Spirit of the Lord?” i.e. who, save Himself, hath caused the mind of the Lord to will anything? and Isa. lxiii. 10: “But they rebelled, and vexed the Holy Spirit.”
The phrase comes to be used of the law of Moses, which in a sense expounds God’s will, Is. lxiii. 11, “Where is He that put His Holy Spirit within him?” meaning, as we clearly gather from the context, the law of Moses. Nehemiah, speaking of the giving of the law, says, i. 20, “Thou gavest also thy good Spirit to instruct them.” This is referred to in Deut. iv. 6, “This is your wisdom and understanding,” and in Ps. cxliii. 10, “Thy good Spirit will lead me into the land of uprightness.” The Spirit of the Lord may mean the breath of the Lord, for breath, no less than a mind, a heart, and a body are attributed to God in Scripture, as in Ps. xxxiii. 6. Hence it gets to mean the power, strength, or faculty of God, as in Job xxxiii. 4, “The Spirit of the Lord made me,” i.e. the power, or, if you prefer, the decree of the Lord. So the Psalmist in poetic language declares, xxxiii. 6, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth,” i.e. by a mandate issued, as it were, in one breath. Also Ps. cxxxix. 7, “Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?” i.e. whither shall I go so as to be beyond Thy power and Thy presence?
Lastly, the Spirit of the Lord is used in Scripture to express the emotions of God, e.g. His kindness and mercy, Micah ii. 7, “Is the Spirit [i.e. the mercy] of the Lord straitened? Are these cruelties His doings?” Zech. iv. 6, “Not by might or by power, but My Spirit [i.e. mercy], saith the Lord of hosts.” The twelfth verse of the seventh chapter of the same prophet must, I think, be interpreted in like manner: “Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts hath sent in His Spirit [i.e. in His mercy] by the former prophets.” So also Haggai ii. 5: “So My Spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not.”
The passage in Isaiah xlviii. 16, “And now the Lord God and His Spirit hath sent me,” may be taken to refer either to God’s mercy or His revealed law; for the prophet says, “From the beginning” (i.e. from the time when I first came to you, to preach God’s anger and His sentence gone forth against you) “I spoke not in secret; from the time that it was, there am I,” and now I am sent by the mercy of God as a joyful messenger to preach your restoration. Or we may understand him to mean by the revealed law that he had before come to warn them by the command of the law (Levit. xix. 17) in the same manner and under the same conditions as Moses had warned them, and that now, like Moses, he ends by preaching their restoration. But the first explanation seems to me the best.
Returning, then, to the main object of our discussion, we find that the Scriptural phrases, “The Spirit of the Lord was upon a prophet,” “The Lord breathed His Spirit into men,” “Men were filled with the Spirit of God, with the Holy Spirit,” &c., are quite clear to us, and mean that the prophets were endowed with a peculiar and extraordinary power, and devoted themselves to piety with especial constancy;1 that thus they perceived the mind or the thought of God, for we have shown that God’s Spirit signifies in Hebrew God’s mind or thought, and that the law which shows His mind and thought is called His Spirit; hence that the imagination of the prophets, inasmuch as through it were revealed the decrees of God, may equally be called the mind of God, and the prophets be said to have possessed the mind of God. On our minds also the mind of God and His eternal thoughts are impressed; but this being the same for all men is less taken into account, especially by the Hebrews, who claimed a pre-eminence, and despised other men and other men’s knowledge.
Lastly, the prophets were said to possess the Spirit of God because men knew not the cause of prophetic knowledge, and in their wonder referred it with other marvels directly to the Deity, styling it Divine knowledge.
We need no longer scruple to affirm that the prophets only perceived God’s revelation by the aid of imagination, that is, by words and figures either real or imaginary. We find no other means mentioned in Scripture, and therefore must not invent any. As to the particular law of Nature by which the communications took place, I confess my ignorance. I might, indeed, say as others do, that they took place by the power of God; but this would be mere trifling, and no better than explaining some unique specimen by a transcendental term. Everything takes place by the power of God. Nature herself is the power of God under another name, and our ignorance of the power of God is co-extensive with our ignorance of Nature. It is absolute folly, therefore, to ascribe an event to the power of God when we know not its natural cause, which is the power of God.
However, we are not now inquiring into the causes of prophetic knowledge. We are only attempting, as I have said, to examine the Scriptural documents, and to draw our conclusions from them as from ultimate natural facts; the causes of the documents do not concern us.
As the prophets perceived the revelations of God by the aid of imagination, they could indisputably perceive much that is beyond the boundary of the intellect, for many more ideas can be constructed from words and figures than from the principles and notions on which the whole fabric of reasoned knowledge is reared.
Thus we have a clue to the fact that the prophets perceived nearly everything in parables and allegories, and clothed spiritual truths in bodily forms, for such is the usual method of imagination. We need no longer wonder that Scripture and the prophets speak so strangely and obscurely of God’s Spirit or Mind (cf. Numbers xi. 17, 1 Kings xxii. 21, &c.), that the Lord was seen by Micah as sitting, by Daniel as an old man clothed in white, by Ezekiel as a fire, that the Holy Spirit appeared to those with Christ as a descending dove, to the apostles as fiery tongues, to Paul on his conversion as a great light. All these expressions are plainly in harmony with the current ideas of God and spirits.
Inasmuch as imagination is fleeting and inconstant, we find that the power of prophecy did not remain with a prophet for long, nor manifest itself frequently, but was very rare; manifesting itself only in a few men, and in them not often.
We must necessarily inquire how the prophets became assured of the truth of what they perceived by imagination, and not by sure mental laws; but our investigation must be confined to Scripture, for the subject is one on which we cannot acquire certain knowledge, and which we cannot explain by the immediate causes. Scripture teaching about the assurance of prophets I will treat of in the next chapter.
[Note 1 (p. 13).] The word nabi is rightly interpreted by Rabbi Salomon Jarchi, but the sense is hardly caught by Aben Ezra, who was not so good a Hebraist. We must also remark that this Hebrew word for prophecy has a universal meaning and embraces all kinds of prophecy. Other terms are more special, and denote this or that sort of prophecy, as I believe is well known to the learned.
[Note 2 (p. 14).] “Although ordinary knowledge is Divine, its professors cannot be called prophets.” That is, interpreters of God. For he alone is an interpreter of God, who interprets the decrees which God has revealed to him, to others who have not received such revelation, and whose belief, therefore, rests merely on the prophet’s authority and the confidence reposed in him. If it were otherwise, and all who listen to prophets became prophets themselves, as all who listen to philosophers become philosophers, a prophet would no longer be the interpreter of Divine decrees, inasmuch as his hearers would know the truth, not on the authority of the prophet, but by means of actual Divine revelation and inward testimony. Thus the sovereign powers are the interpreters of their own rights of sway, because these are defended only by their authority and supported by their testimony.
[Note 3 (p. 24).] “Prophets were endowed with a peculiar and extraordinary power.” Though some men enjoy gifts which nature has not bestowed on their fellows, they are not said to surpass the bounds of human nature, unless their special qualities are such as cannot be said to be deducible from the definition of human nature. For instance, a giant is a rarity, but still human. The gift of composing poetry extempore is given to very few, yet it is human. The same may, therefore, be said of the faculty possessed by some of imagining things as vividly as though they saw them before them, and this not while asleep, but while awake. But if anyone could be found who possessed other means and other foundations for knowledge, he might be said to transcend the limits of human nature.