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ESSAY ON CONTRASTS OF PROPHECY ROMANS XI. - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ESSAY ON CONTRASTS OF PROPHECY
Every reader of the Epistles must have remarked the opposite and apparently inconsistent uses, which the Apostle St. Paul makes of the Old Testament. This appearance of inconsistency arises out of the different and almost conflicting statements, which may be read in the Old Testament itself. The law and the prophets are their own witnesses, but they are witnesses also to a truth which is beyond them. Two spirits are found in them, and the Apostle sets aside the one, that he may establish the other. When he says that ‘the man that doeth these things shall live in them,’ x. 5, and again two verses afterwards, ‘the word is very nigh unto thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart,’ he is using the authority of the law, first, that out of its own mouth he may condemn the law; secondly, that he may confirm the Gospel by the authority of that which he condemns. Still more striking are the contrasts of prophecy in which he reads, not only the rejection of Israel, but its restoration; the over-ruling providence of God, as well as the free agency of man; not only as it is written, ‘God gave unto them a spirit of heaviness,’ but, ‘who hath believed our report;’ nor only, ‘all day long I have stretched forth my hand to a disobedient and gainsaying people,’ but ‘there shall come out of Sion a deliverer and he shall turn away iniquities from Jacob.’ Experience and faith seem to contend together in the Apostle’s own mind, and alike to find an echo in the two voices of prophecy.
It were much to be wished that we could agree upon a chronological arrangement of the Old Testament, which would approach more nearly to the true order in which the books were written, than that in which they have been handed down to us. Such an arrangement would throw great light on the interpretation of prophecy. At present, we scarcely resist the illusion exercised upon our minds by ‘four prophets the greater, followed by twelve prophets the less;’ some of the latter being of a prior date to any of the former. Even the distinction of the law and the prophets as well as of the Psalms and the prophets leads indirectly to a similar error. For many elements of the prophetical spirit enter into the law, and legal precepts are repeated by the prophets. The continuity of Jewish history is further broken by the Apocrypha. The four centuries before Christ were as fruitful of hopes and struggles and changes of thought and feeling in the Jewish people as any preceding period of their existence as a nation, perhaps more so. And yet we piece together the Old and New Testament as if the interval were blank leaves only. Few, if any, English writers have ever attempted to form a conception of the growth of the spirit of prophecy, from its first beginnings in the law itself, as it may be traced in the lives and characters of Samuel and David, and above all, of Elijah and his immediate successor; as it reappears a few years later, in the written prophecies respecting the house of Israel, and the surrounding nations (not even in the oldest of the prophets, without reference to Messiah’s kingdom); or again after the carrying away of the ten tribes, as it concentrates itself in Judah, uttering a sadder and more mournful cry in the hour of captivity, yet in the multitude of sorrows increasing the comfort; the very dispersion of the people widening the prospect of Christ’s kingdom, as the nation ‘is cut short in righteousness,’ God being so much the nearer to those who draw near to Him.
The fulfilment of prophecy has been sought for in a series of events which have been sometimes bent to make them fit, and one series of events has frequently taken the place of another. Even the passing circumstances of to-day or yesterday, at the distance of about two thousand years, and as many miles, which are but shadows flitting on the mountains compared with the deeper foundations of human history, are thought to be within the range of the prophet’s eye. And it may be feared that, in attempting to establish a claim which, if it could be proved, might be made also for heathen oracles and prophecies, commentators have sometimes lost sight of those great characteristics which distinguish Hebrew prophecy from all other professing revelations of other religions: (1) the sense of the truthfulness, and holiness, and loving-kindness of the Divine Being, with which the prophet is as one possessed, which he can no more forget or doubt than he can cease to be himself; (2) their growth, that is, their growing perception of the moral nature of the revelation of God to man, apart from the commandments of the law or the privileges of the house of Israel.
There are some prophecies more national, of which the fortunes of the Jewish people are the only subject; others more individual, seeming to enter more into the recesses of the human soul, and which are, at the same time, more universal, rising above earthly things, and passing into the distant heaven. At one time the prophet embodies ‘these thoughts of many hearts’ as present, at another as future; in some cases as following out of the irrevocable decree of God, in others as dependent on the sin or repentance of man. At one moment he is looking for the destruction of Israel, at another for its consolation; going from one of these aspects of the heavenly vision to another, like St. Paul himself in successive verses. And sometimes he sees the Lord’s house exalted in the top of the mountains, and the image of the ‘Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty Prince, the Everlasting God.’ At other times, his vision is of the Servant whom it ‘pleased the Lord to bruise,’ whose form was ‘marred more than that of the sons of men,’ who was ‘led as a lamb to the slaughter.’
National, individual, — spiritual, temporal, — present, future,—rejection, restoration,—faith, the law,—Providence, freewill,—mercy, sacrifice,—Messiah suffering and triumphant,—are so many pairs of opposites with reference to which the structure of prophecy admits of being examined. It is true that such an examination is nothing more than a translation or decomposition of prophecy into the modes of thought of our own time, and is far from reproducing the living image which presented itself to the eyes of the prophet. But, like all criticism, it makes us think; it enables us to observe fresh points of connexion between the Old Testament and the New; it keeps us from losing our way in the region of allegory or of modern history. Many things are unlearnt as well as learnt by the aid of criticism; it clears the mind of conventional interpretations, teaching us to look amid the symbols of time and place for the higher and universal meaning.
Prophecy has a human as well as a Divine element: that is to say, it partakes of the ordinary workings of the mind. There is also something beyond which the analogy of human knowledge fails to explain. Could the prophet himself have been asked what was the nature of that impulse by which he was carried away, he would have replied that ‘the God of Israel was a living God’ who had ‘ordained him a prophet before he came forth from the womb.’ Of the Divine element no other account can be given—‘it pleased God to raise up individuals in a particular age and country, who had a purer and loftier sense of truth than their fellow men.’ Prophecy would be no longer prophecy if we could untwist its soul. But the human part admits of being analyzed like poetry or history, of which it is a kind of union; it is written with a man’s pen in a known language; it is cast in the imaginative form of early language itself. The truth of God comes into contact with the world, clothing itself in human feelings, revealing the lesson of historical events. But human feelings and the lesson of events vary, and in this sense the prophetic lesson varies too. Even in the workings of our own minds we may perceive this; those who think much about themselves and God cannot but be conscious of great changes and transitions of feeling at different periods of life. We are the creatures of impressions and associations; and although Providence has not made our knowledge of himself dependent on these impressions, He has allowed it to be coloured by them. We cannot say that in the hours of prosperity and adversity, in health and sickness, in poverty and wealth, our sense of God’s dealings with us is absolutely the same; still less, that all our prayers and aspirations have received the answer that we wished or expected. And sometimes the thoughts of our own hearts go before to God; at other times, the power of God seems to anticipate the thoughts of our hearts. And sometimes, in looking back at our past lives, it seems as if God had done everything; at other times, we are conscious of the movement of our own will. The wide world itself also, and the political fortunes of our country, have been enveloped in the light or darkness which rested on our individual soul.
Especially are we liable to look at religious truth under many aspects, if we live amid changes of religious opinions, or are witnesses of some revival or reaction in religion, or supposing our lot to be cast in critical periods of history, such as extend the range and powers of human nature, or certainly enlarge our experience of it. Then the germs of new truths will subsist side by side with the remains of old ones; and thoughts, that are really inconsistent, will have a place together in our minds, without our being able to perceive their inconsistency. The inconsistency will be traced by posterity; they will remark that up to a particular point we saw clearly; but that no man is beyond his age—there was a circle which we could not pass. And some one living in our own day may look into the future with ‘eagle eye;’ he may weigh and balance with a sort of omniscience the moral forces of the world, perhaps with something too much of confidence that the right will ultimately prevail even on earth; and after ages may observe that his predictions were not always fulfilled or not fulfilled at the time he said.
Such general reflections may serve as an introduction to what at first appears an anomaly in prophecy—that it has not one, but many lessons; and that the manner in which it teaches those lessons is through the alternations of the human soul itself. There are failings of prophecy, just as there are failings in our own anticipations of the future. And sometimes when we had hoped to be delivered it has seemed good to God to afflict us still. But it does not follow that religion is therefore a cunningly devised fable, either now or then. Neither the faith of the people, nor of the prophet, in the God of their fathers is shaken because the prophecies are not realized before their eyes; because ‘the vision,’ as they said, ‘is delayed;’ because in many cases events seem to occur which make it impossible that it should be accomplished. A true instinct still enables them to separate the prophets of Jehovah from the numberless false prophets with whom the land swarmed; they are gifted with the ‘same discernment of spirits’ which distinguished Micaiah from the four hundred whom Ahab called. The internal evidence of the true prophet we are able to recognize in the written prophecies also. In the earliest as well as the latest of them there is the same spirit one and continuous, the same witness of the invisible God, the same character of the Jewish people, the same law of justice and mercy in the dealings of Providence with respect to them, the same ‘walking with God’ in the daily life of the prophet himself.
‘Novum Testamentum in vetere latest,’ has come to be a favourite word among theologians, who have thought they saw in the truths of the Gospel the original design as well as the evangelical application of the Mosaical law. With a deeper meaning, it may be said that prophecy grows out of itself into the Gospel. Not, as some extreme critics have conceived, that the facts of the Gospel history are but the crystallization of the imagery of prophecy. Say, rather, that the river of the water of life is beginning again to flow. The Son of God himself is ‘that prophet’—the prophet, not of one nation only, but of all mankind, in whom the particularity of the old prophets is finally done away, and the ever-changing form of the ‘servant in whom my soul delighteth’ at last finds rest. St. Paul, too, is a prophet who has laid aside the poetical and authoritative garb of old times, and is wrapped in the rhetorical or dialectical one of his own age. The language of the old prophets comes unbidden into his mind; it seems to be the natural expression of his own thoughts. Separated from Joel, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah by an interval of about eight hundred years, he finds their words very near to him ‘even in his mouth and his heart;’ that is the word which he preached. When they spoke of forgiveness of sins, of nonimputation of sins, of a sudden turning to God, what did this mean but righteousness by faith? when they said ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,’ here also was imaged the great truth, that salvation was not of the law. If St. Paul would have ‘no man judged for a new moon or sabbath,’ the prophets of old time had again and again said in the name of Jehovah ‘Your new moons and sabbaths I cannot away with.’ Like the elder prophets, he came not ‘to build up a temple made with hands,’ but to teach a moral truth; like them he went forth alone, and not in connexion with the Church at Jerusalem. His calling is to be Apostle of the Gentiles; they also sometimes pass beyond the borders of Israel, to receive Egypt and Assyria into covenant with God.
It is not, however, this deeper unity between St. Paul and the prophets of the old dispensation that we are about to consider further, but a more superficial parallelism, which is afforded by the alternation or successive representation of the purposes of God towards Israel, which we meet with in the Old Testament, and which recurs in the Epistle to the Romans. Like the elder prophets, St. Paul also ‘prophesies in part,’ feeling after events rather than seeing them, and divided between opposite aspects of the dealings of Providence with mankind. This changing feeling often finds an expression in the words of Isaiah or the Psalmist, or the author of the book of Deuteronomy. Hence a kind of contrast springs up in the writings of the Apostle, which admits of being traced to its source in the words of the prophets. Portions of his Epistles are the disjecta membra of prophecy. Oppositions are brought into view by him, and may be said to give occasion to a struggle in his own mind, which were unobserved by the prophets themselves. For so far from prophecy setting forth one unchanging purpose of God, it seems rather to represent a succession of purposes conditional on men’s actions; speaking as distinctly of the rejection as of the restoration of Israel; and of the restoration almost as the correlative of the rejection; often, too, making a transition from the temporal to the spiritual. Some of these contrasts it is proposed to consider in detail as having an important bearing on St. Paul’s Epistles, especially on the Epistles to the Thessalonians, and on chapters x.-xii. of the Epistle to the Romans.
(1) All the prophets are looking for and hastening to ‘the day of the Lord,’ the ‘great day,’ ‘which there is none like,’ ‘the day of the Lord’s sacrifice,’ the ‘day of visitation,’ of ‘the great slaughter,’ in which the Lord shall judge ‘in the valley of Jehoshaphat,’ in which ‘they shall go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth.’ That day is the fulfilment and realization of prophecy, without which it would cease to have any meaning, just as religion itself would cease to have any meaning to ourselves, were there no future life, or retribution of good and evil. All the prophets are in spirit present at it; living alone with God, and hardly mingling with men on earth, they are fulfilled with its terrors and its glories. For the earth is not to go on for ever as it is, the wickednesses of the house of Israel are not to last for ever. First, the prophet sees the pouring out of the vials of wrath upon them; then, more at a distance, follows the vision of mercy, in which they are to be comforted, and their enemies, the ministers of God’s vengeance on them, in turn punished. And evil and oppression everywhere, so far as it comes within the range of the prophet’s eye, is to be punished in that day, and good is to prevail.
In these ‘terrors of the day of the Lord,’ of which the prophets speak, the fortunes of the Jewish people mingle with another vision of a more universal judgement, and it has been usual to have recourse to the double senses of prophecy to separate the one from the other, an instrument of interpretation which has also been applied to the New Testament for the same purpose. Not in this way could the prophet or apostle themselves have conceived them. To them they were not two, but one; not ‘double one against the other,’ or separable into the figure and the thing signified. For the figure is in early ages the mode of conception also. More true would it be to say that the judgements of God on the Jewish people were an anticipation or illustration of His dealings with the world generally. If a separation is made at all, let us rather separate the accidents of time and place from that burning sense of the righteousness of God, which somewhere we cannot tell where, at some time we cannot tell when, must and will have retribution on evil; which has this other note of its Divine character, that in judgement it remembers mercy, pronouncing no endless penalty or irreversible doom, even upon the house of Israel. This twofold lesson of goodness and severity speaks to us as well as to the Jews. Better still to receive the words of prophecy as we have them, and to allow the feeling which it utters to find its way to our hearts, without stopping to mark out what was not separated in the prophet’s own mind and cannot therefore be divided by us.
Other contrasts are traceable in the teaching of the prophets respecting the day of the Lord. In that day the Lord is to judge Israel, and He is to punish Egypt and Assyria; and yet it is said also, the Lord shall heal Egypt, and Israel shall be the third with Egypt and Assyria whom the Lord shall bless (Is. xix. 25). In many of the prophecies also the judgement is of two kinds; it is a judgement on Israel, which is executed by the heathen; it is a judgement against the heathen, and in favour of Israel, in which God himself is sometimes said to be their advocate as well as their judge ‘in that day.’ A singular parallel with the New Testament is presented by another contrast which occurs in a single passage. That the day of the Lord is near, ‘it cometh, it cometh,’ is the language of all the prophets; and yet there were those who said also in Ezekiel’s time, ‘The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth. Tell them therefore, Thus saith the Lord God; I will make this proverb to cease, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel; but say unto them, The days are at hand, and the effect of every vision’ (xii. 22). (Compare 2 Pet. iii. 4, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’) On the other hand, in the later chapters of Isaiah (xl. seq.) we seem to trace the same feeling as in the New Testament itself: the anticipation of prophecy has ceased; the hour of its fulfilment has arrived; men seem to be conscious that they are living during the restoration of Israel as the disciples at the day of Pentecost felt that they were living amid the things spoken of by the prophet Joel.
(2) A closer connexion with the Epistle to the Romans is furnished by the double and, on the surface, inconsistent language of prophecy respecting the rejection and restoration of Israel. These seem to follow one another often in successive verses. It is true that the appearance of inconsistency is greater than the reality, owing to the lyrical and concentrated style of prophecy (some of its greatest works being not much longer than this ‘cobweb1 ’ of an essay); and this leads to opposite feelings and trains of thought being presented to us together, without the preparations and joinings which would be required in the construction of a modern poem. Yet, after making allowance for this peculiarity of the ancient Hebrew style, it seems as if there were two thoughts ever together in the prophet’s mind: captivity, restoration,—judgement, mercy,—sin, repentance,—‘the people sitting in darkness, and the great light.’
There are portions of prophecy in which the darkness is deep and enduring, ‘darkness that may be felt,’ in which the prophet is living amid the sins and sufferings of the people; and hope is a long way off from them—when they need to be awakened rather than comforted; and things must be worse, as men say, before they can become better. Such is the spirit of the greater part of the book of Jeremiah. But the tone of prophecy is on the whole that of alternation; God deals with the Israelites as with children; he cannot bear to punish them for long; his heart comes back to them when they are in captivity; their very helplessness gives them a claim on him. Vengeance may endure for a time, but soon the full tide of His mercy returns upon them. Another voice is heard, saying, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.’ ‘Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and say unto her that she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’ So from the vision of God on Mount Sinai, at the giving of the Law amid storms and earthquakes, arises that tender human relation in which the Gospel teaches that He stands, not merely to His Church as a body, but to each one of us.
Naturally this human feeling is called forth most in the hour of adversity. As the affliction deepens, the hope also enlarges, seeming often to pass beyond the boundaries of this life into a spiritual world. Though their sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; when Jerusalem is desolate, there shall be a tabernacle on Mount Sion. The formula in which this enlargement of the purposes of God is introduced, is itself worthy of notice. ‘It shall be no more said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the North, and from all the lands whither he had driven them.’ Their old servitude in Egypt came back to their minds now that they were captives in a strange land, and the remembrance that they had already been delivered from it was an earnest that they were yet to return. Deeply rooted in the national mind, it had almost become an attribute of God himself that He was their deliverer from the house of bondage.
With this narrower view of the return of the children of Israel from captivity, not without a remembrance of that great empire which had once extended from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates, there blended also the hope of another kingdom in which dwelt righteousness—the kingdom of Solomon ‘become the kingdom of Christ and God.’ The children of Israel had been in their origin ‘the fewest of all people,’ and the most alien to the nations round about. The Lord their God was a jealous God, who would not suffer them to mingle with the idolatries of the heathen. And in that early age of the world, when national life was so strong and individuals so feeble, we cannot conceive how the worship of the true God could have been otherwise preserved. But the day had passed away when the nation could be trusted with the preservation of the faith of Jehovah; ‘it had never been good for much at any time.’ The prophets, too, seem to withdraw from the scenes of political events; they are no longer the judges and leaders of Israel; it is a part of their mission to commit to writing for the use of after ages the predictions which they utter. We pass into another country, to another kingdom in which the prospect is no more that which Moses saw from Mount Pisgah, but in which the ‘Lord’s horn is exalted in the top of the mountains and all nations flock to it.’
In this kingdom the Gentiles have a place, still on the outskirts, but not wholly excluded from the circle of God’s providence. Sometimes they are placed on a level with Israel, the ‘circumcised with the uncircumcised,’ as if only to teach the Apostle’s lesson, ‘that there is no respect of persons with God’ (Jer. ix. 25, 26; compare Rom. ii. 12–28). At other times they are themselves the subjects of promises and threatenings (Jer. xii. 14–17). It is to them that God will turn when His patience is exhausted with the rebellions of Israel; for whom it shall be ‘more tolerable’ than for Israel and Judah in the day of the Lord. They are those upon whom, though at a distance, the brightness of Jehovah must overflow; who, in the extremities of the earth, are bathed with the light of His presence. Helpers of the joy of Israel, they pour with gifts and offerings through the open gates of the city of God. They have a part in Messiah’s kingdom, not of right, but because without them it would be imperfect and incomplete. In one passage only, which is an exception to the general spirit of prophecy, Israel ‘makes the third’ with Egypt and Assyria, ‘whom the Lord of Hosts shall bless’ (Is. xix. 18–25).
It was not possible that such should be the relation of the Gentiles to the people of God in the Epistles of St. Paul. Experience seemed to invert the natural order of Providence—the Jew first and afterwards the Gentile. Accordingly, what is subordinate in the prophets, becomes of principal importance in the application of the Apostle. The dark sayings about the Gentiles had more meaning than the utterers of them were aware of. Events connected them with the rejection of the Jews, of which the same prophets spoke. Not only had the Gentiles a place on the outskirts of the people of God, gathering up the fragments of promises ‘under the table;’ they themselves were the spiritual Israel. When the prophets spoke of the Mount Sion, and all nations flowing to it, they were not expecting literally the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. They spoke of they knew not what—of something that had as yet no existence upon the earth. What that was, the vision on the way to Damascus, no less than the history of the Church and the world, revealed to the Apostle of the Gentiles.
(3) Another characteristic of Hebrew prophecy is the transition from the nation to the individual. That is to say, first the nation becomes an individual; it is spoken of, thought of, dealt with, as a person, it ‘makes the third’ with God and the prophet. Almost a sort of drama is enacted between them, the argument of which is the mercy and justice of God; and the Jewish nation itself has many parts assigned to it. Sometimes she is the ‘adulterous sister,’ the ‘wife of whoredoms,’ who has gone astray with Chaldean and Egyptian lovers. In other passages, still retaining the same personal relation to God, the ‘daughter of my people’ is soothed and comforted; then a new vision rises before the prophet’s mind—not the same with that of the Jewish people, but not wholly distinct from it, in which the suffering prophet himself, or Cyrus the prophet king, have a part—the vision of ‘the servant of God,’ ‘the Saviour with dyed garments’ from Bosra—‘he shall grow up before him as a tender plant;’ ‘he is led as a lamb to the slaughter’ (Is. liii. 2, 7; compare Jer. xi. 19). Yet there is a kind of glory even on earth in this image of gentleness and suffering: ‘A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, until he hath brought forth judgement unto victory.’ We feel it to be strange, and yet it is true. So we have sometimes seen the image of the kingdom of God among ourselves, not in noble churches or scenes of ecclesiastical power or splendour, but in the face of some child or feeble person, who, after overcoming agony, is about to depart and be with Christ.
Analogies from Greek philosophy may seem far-fetched in reference to Hebrew prophecy, yet there are particular points in which subjects the most dissimilar receive a new light from one another. In the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and the philosophers who were their successors, moral truths gradually separate from politics, and the man is acknowledged to be different from the mere citizen: and there arises a sort of ideal of the individual, who has a responsibility to himself only. The growth of Hebrew prophecy is so different; its figures and modes of conception are so utterly unlike; there seems such a wide gulf between morality which almost excludes God, and religion which exists only in God, that at first sight we are unwilling to allow any similarity to exist between them. Yet an important point in both of them is really the same. For the transition from the nation to the individual is also the more perfect revelation of God himself, the change from the temporal to the spiritual, from the outward glories of Messiah’s reign to the kingdom of God which is within. Prophets as well as apostles teach the near intimate personal relation of man to God. The prophet and psalmist, who is at one moment inspired with the feelings of a whole people, returns again to God to express the lowliest sorrows of the individual Christian. The thought of the Israel of God is latent in prophecy itself, not requiring a great nation or company of believers; ‘but where one is’ there is God present with him.
There is another way also in which the individual takes the place of the nation in the purposes of God; ‘a remnant shall be saved.’ In the earlier books of the Old Testament, the whole people is bound up together for good or for evil. In the law especially, there is no trace that particular tribes or individuals are to be singled out for the favour of God. Even their great men are not so much individuals as representatives of the whole people. They serve God as a nation; as a nation they go astray. If, in the earlier times of Jewish history, we suppose an individual good man living ‘amid an adulterous and crooked generation,’ we can scarcely imagine the relation in which he would stand to the blessings and cursings of the law. Would the righteous perish with the wicked? That be ‘far from thee, O Lord.’ Yet ‘prosperity, the blessing of the Old Testament,’ was bound up with the existence of the nation. Gradually the germ of the new dispensation begins to unfold itself; the bands which held the nation together are broken in pieces; a fragment only is preserved, a branch, in the Apostle’s language, cut off from the patriarchal stem, to be the beginning of another Israel.
The passage quoted by St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of the Romans is the first indication of this change in God’s mode of dealing with His people. The prophet Elijah wanders forth into the wilderness to lay before the Lord the iniquities of the people: ‘The children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword.’ ‘But what,’ we may ask with the Apostle, ‘saith the answer of God to him?’ Not ‘They are corrupt, they are altogether become abominable,’ but ‘Yet I have seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ The whole people were not to be regarded as one; there were a few who still preserved, amid the general corruption, the worship of the true God.
The marked manner in which the answer of God is introduced, the contrast of the ‘still small voice’ with the thunder, the storm, and the earthquake, the natural symbols of the presence of God in the law—the contradiction of the words spoken to the natural bent of the prophet’s mind, and the greatness of Elijah’s own character—all tend to stamp this passage as marking one of the epochs of prophecy. The solitude of the prophet and his separation in ‘the mount of God,’ from the places in which ‘men ought to worship,’ are not without meaning. There had not always ‘been this proverb in the house of Israel;’ but from this time onwards it is repeated again and again. We trace the thought of a remnant to be saved in captivity, or to return from captivity, through a long succession of prophecies—Hosea, Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel;—it is the text of almost all the prophets, passing, as a familiar word, from the Old Testament to the New. The voice uttered to Elijah was the beginning of this new Revelation.
(4) Coincident with the promise of a remnant is the precept, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice,’ which, in modern language, opposes the moral to the ceremonial law. It is another and the greatest step onward towards the spiritual dispensation. Moral and religious truths hang together; no one can admit one of them in the highest sense, without admitting a principle which involves the rest. He who acknowledged that God was a God of mercy and not of sacrifice, could not long have supposed that He dealt with nations only, or that He raised men up for no other end but to be vessels of His wrath or monuments of His vengeance. For a time there might be ‘things too hard for him,’ clouds resting on his earthly tabernacle, when he ‘saw the ungodly in such prosperity;’ yet had he knowledge enough, as he ‘went into the sanctuary of God,’ and confessed himself to be ‘a stranger and pilgrim upon the earth.’
It is in the later prophets that the darkness begins to be dispelled and the ways of God justified to man. Ezekiel is above all others the teacher of this ‘new commandment.’ The familiar words, ‘when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive,’ are the theme of a great part of this wonderful book. Other prophets have more of poetical beauty, a deeper sense of Divine things, a tenderer feeling of the mercies of God to His people; none teach so simply this great moral lesson, to us the first of all lessons. On the eve of the captivity, and in the midst of it, when the hour of mercy is past, and no image is too loathsome to describe the iniquities of Israel, still the prophet does not forget that the Lord will not destroy the righteous with the wicked: ‘Though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in the land, as I live, saith the Lord, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall deliver but their own souls by their righteousness’ (xiv. 20). ‘Yet, behold, therein shall be left a remnant; and they shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done, saith the Lord’ (ver. 22, 23).
It is observable that, in the Book of Ezekiel as well as of Jeremiah, this new principle on which God deals with mankind, is recognized as a contradiction to the rule by which he had formerly dealt with them. At the commencement of chap. xviii, as if with the intention of revoking the words of the second commandment, ‘visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children,’ it is said:—
‘The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying,
‘What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?
‘As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.
‘Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.’
Similar language occurs also in Jer. xxxi. 29, in a connexion which makes it still more remarkable, as the new truth is described as a part of that fuller revelation which God will give of himself, when He makes a new covenant with the house of Israel. And yet the same prophet, as if not at all times conscious of his own lesson, says also in his prayer to God (Lam. v. 7), ‘Our fathers have sinned and are not, and we have borne their iniquities.’ The truth which he felt was not one and the same always, but rather two opposite truths, like the Law and the Gospel, which, for a while, seemed to struggle with one another in the teaching of the prophet and the heart of man.
And yet this opposition was not necessarily conscious to the prophet himself. Isaiah, who saw the whole nation going before to judgement, did not refrain from preaching the lessons, ‘If ye be willing and obedient,’ and ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.’ Ezekiel, the first thought and spirit of whose prophecies might be described in modern language as the responsibility of man, like Micaiah in the Book of Kings, seemed to see the false prophets inspired by Jehovah himself to their own destruction. As in the prophet, so in the Apostle, there was no sense that the two lessons were in any degree inconsistent with each other. It is an age of criticism and philosophy, which, in making the attempt to conceive the relation of God to the world in a more abstract way, has invented for itself the perplexity, or, may we venture to say, by the very fact of acknowledging it, has also found its solution. The intensity with which the prophet felt the truths that he revealed, the force with which he uttered them, the desire with which he yearned after their fulfilment, have passed from the earth; but the truths themselves remain an everlasting possession. We seem to look upon them more calmly, and adjust them more truly. They no longer break through the world of sight with unequal power; they can never again be confused with the accidents of time and place. The history of the Jewish people has ceased to be the only tabernacle in which they are enshrined; they have an independent existence, and a light and order of their own.