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by Arthur Peake
BY PROFESSOR A. R. GORDON
IN Nahum we meet with a new type of prophecy. The earlier prophets announced the coming of judgment on Israel; he sounds the knell of Nineveh the oppressor.
Since attention was called by Bickell to the acrostic form of ch. 1, it has become increasingly recognised that Nahum 1:2-10 is part of a late eschatological Psalm, charged with the thought of Yahweh’ s vengeance over His foes. The succeeding verses are a mass of almost inextricable confusion. It seems evident, however, that Nahum 1:12 f., Nahum 1:15, Nahum 2:2 contain a prophecy of hope and comfort, belonging to the Judaistic age, while the genuine prophecies of Nahum begin with Nahum 1:11; Nahum 1:14, Nahum 2:1; Nahum 2:3 ff. Two such prophecies may be distinguished, the first a pæ an over the approaching fall of Nineveh, the second emphasizing the certainty and nearness of the end.
The name Nahum signifies “ consoler.” He is described as an Elkoshite, most probably from the Elkosh near Eleutheropolis, on the SW. border of Judah. The date of his prophecies can be brought within sufficiently narrow limits. The allusion to No-Amon ( Nahum 3:8 ff.*) presupposes the downfall of that city in 663 B.C., while the lower limit is fixed by the destruction of Nineveh itself about 607 (p. 60). It seems most natural to date the book just before the latter event. As Wellhausen aptly says, “ Apart from Herodotus, it would never have occurred to anyone to doubt that the prophecy of Nahum coincides with the downfall of Nineveh.”
The brilliance of Nahum’ s style is universally acknowledged. The rush and sweep of the language, the vividness of description, the swift dramatic effects, and the elegiac verse with its fine tonal harmonies stamp him as one of the masters of poetic speech. From the religious point of view he may stand below the greatest, his flashing utterances being inspired rather by a fiery hatred of the enemy than by concern for Judah’ s moral and spiritual good. We are not to regard him, however, as a thoughtless patriot of the class denounced by Jeremiah. There is a genuine passion for humanity in the book. With Nahum, indeed, religion is virtually the equivalent of humanity. Yahweh is the champion of the outraged and helpless; and the impending fate of Nineveh is hailed as the fit reward for the cruelties perpetrated by that ravenous monster on all the nations.
Literature.— Commentaries: For those on all the Minor Prophets see General Bibliographies, ( a) Davidson; ( b) J. M. P. Smith (ICC), Haupt; ( c) Plessner, Happel. Other Literature: articles by Kennedy in HDB and Budde in EBi, Gunkel in ZATW, 1893, pp. 223ff. and G. B. Gray in Exp., 1898, pp. 207ff.
THE PROPHETIC LITERATURE
BY THE EDITOR
THIS article is restricted to the literary criticism of the prophetic books. On the nature of prophecy see pp. 426– 430, on its literary character see pp. 24f., on its history and the teaching of the prophets see pp. 69– 78, 85– 93, and the commentaries on the individual prophets.
The earliest of our canonical prophets is Amos. We do not know whether any of the earlier prophets wrote down their oracles. If so, with the doubtful exception of Isaiah 15 f. probably none of these survive, Joel, which used to be regarded as the oldest, being now regarded as one of the latest. From the finished style of his book and its mastery of form and vocabulary we may assume that a long development lay behind Amos, but this may have been oral. Certainly we have no hint that his great predecessors, Elijah and Elisha, committed any of their prophecies to writing. We do not know why the canonical prophets supplemented oral by written utterances. Amos was silenced by the priest at Bethel, who accused him of treason and bade him begone back to Judah. He may have resorted to writing because speech was forbidden him. His example might then be followed without his reasons. Isaiah seems to have committed some of his prophecies to writing owing to the failure of his preaching and the incredulity of the people. The written word entrusted to his disciples will be vindicated by history, and the genuineness of his inspiration can then be attested by appeal to the documents.
Hebrew prophecy is poetical in form. The parallelism (p. 23) which is the most characteristic feature of Heb. poetry is a frequent though not invariable feature in it, and rhythm can often be traced in it even if we hesitate to speak of metre. In the later period prophecy became less the written precipitate of the spoken word and more of a literary composition. It was designed for the reader rather than for the hearer. Behind not a little of it there was probably no spoken word at all.
Daniel being apocalypse rather than prophecy, the canonical prophets would seem to be fifteen— three major and twelve minor. Really the writers were much more numerous. Several of the books are composite. They contain the work of two or more writers. Prophecies originally anonymous were attached to the oracles of well-known writers, all the more easily if they immediately followed the work of another writer without any indication that a new work was beginning. Community of subject may be responsible for enlarging the works of a prophet by kindred oracles from unknown authors. The Book of Isaiah is the most conspicuous example. The popular expression, “ two Isaiahs,” is a caricature of the critical view. It implies that Isaiah 1-39 was the work of one prophet, Isaiah 40-66 of another. Even when the last twenty-seven chapters were regarded as a unity there was little justification for the phrase. True, we have the work of two great prophets— Isaiah, and the great unknown prophet of the Exile, called for convenience the Second Isaiah— but it was clear that in Isaiah 1-39 there were certain sections which were non-Isaianic, and that these could not all be assigned to the Second Isaiah. These obviously non-Isaianic sections were Isaiah 13:1 to Isaiah 14:23, Isaiah 21:1-10, Isaiah 24-27. Isaiah 34 f. To these would now be added, by fairly common consent, Isaiah 11:10-16, Isaiah 12, 33 the historical chapters 36– 39 being generally regarded as also a good deal later than Isaiah’ s time. But considerable additions would now be made by several scholars to this list. Similarly with the Book of Jeremiah. This contains extensive biographical sections, probably from Baruch the secretary, in addition to the prophet’ s authentic oracles; but the latter have been extensively glossed by later supplementers, and some entirely non-Jeremianic sections have been inserted in it. In this case the text for long remained in a fluid state, as is clear from the notable variations between the MT and the LXX. It is probable that the Book of Habakkuk includes an older oracle from the close of the seventh century, together with a prophecy from the middle of the Exile and a post-exilic Psalm. Zechariah 9-14 is from another author or authors and another period than Zechariah 1-8. It is held by some scholars that Joel is the work of two writers, and probably not all of the Book of Micah belongs to Isaiah’ s contemporary.
We touch a related point when we ask how far pre-exilic prophecies have been systematically revised to meet the needs and satisfy the aspirations of the post-exilic community. The crucial difference between prophecy before and prophecy after the destruction of Jerusalem is that the former was in the main, though by no means exclusively, prophecy of judgment, the latter in the main prophecy of comfort and restoration. We must not press this to an extreme, but it has an important bearing upon criticism. The sceptical inference has been drawn that well-nigh all prophecies of the happy future belong to the post-exilic period. It must, of course, be recognised that prophecies of the return from exile were never out of date, because such return as took place was very partial, and the conditions of the community in Judah were very wretched. It was only natural that earlier writings of judgment should have their severity ameliorated to cheer a people sorely tried and desperately in need of encouragement. Glowing descriptions of the latter-day glory might naturally be appended at the close of individual prophecies or of whole books. It is a grave fault in method to reject on principle the pre-exilic origin of such passages. That is not criticism but prejudice. Material grounds must be present, such as stylistic differences, discontinuity with the context, inconsistency with the standpoint of the writer, or some similar cause. If, for example, the closing verses of Amos are regarded as a post-exilic insertion, this is justified by their incompatibility with the tenor of the prophet’ s teaching. The case is entirely different with the last chapter of Hosea, whose fundamental doctrine of Yahweh’ s love makes such a message of comfort entirely fitting as a close of his book. And similarly other cases must be settled on their merits, not by preconceptions as to what a pre-exilic prophet can or cannot have said. Another feature of more recent criticism has been the tendency to relegate large sections of the prophetic literature not simply to the post-exilic period in general, but to a very late date in that period. Duhm’ s Commentary on Isaiah, published in 1892, led the way. The generally-accepted opinion had been that the Canon of the Prophets was closed about 200 B.C. Duhm, however, assigned not a little to the Maccabean period. Marti developed this position in a still more thorough-going fashion, and more recently Kennett, who also holds most of Isaiah 40-66 to be Maccabean. The history of the Canon is not so clear that a Maccabean date should be regarded as impossible, however cogent the internal evidence. The present writer is not convinced, however, that a case has been made out for the origin of any part of Isaiah in the Maccabean period. Nor yet does he believe that there is any need to descend so late for any section of Jeremiah. If any part of the Prophetic Canon is of Maccabean origin, Zechariah 9-14 might most plausibly be assigned to that period. At present, however, there is a reaction represented especially by Gunkel, Gressmann, and Sellin not only against excessively late dating, but against the denial to their reputed authors of so large a proportion of the writings which pass under their names.
Literature (for this and the following article).— In addition to commentaries, articles in Dictionaries (esp. Prophecy and Prophets in HDB), works on OTI and OTT and the History of Israel, the following: W. R. Smith, The Prophets of Israel; A. B. Davidson, OT Prophecy; Kuenen, The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel; Duhm, Die Theologie der Propheten; Kirkpatrick, Doctrine of the Prophets; Batten. The Hebrew Prophet; Cornill, The Prophets of Israel; Giesebrecht, Die Berufsbegabung der alttest, Propheten; Hö lscher, Die Profeten; Sellin, Der alttest. Prophetismus; Findlay, The Books of the Prophets; Buttenwieser, The Prophets of Israel; Knudson, The Beacon Lights of Prophecy; Joyce, The Inspiration of Prophecy; Edghill, An Enquiry into the Evidential Value of Prophecy; Jordan, Prophetic Ideas and Ideals; Gordon, The Prophets of the OT.
OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECY
BY DR. G. C. JOYCE
IN Biblical study, as in all living sciences, there must be continuous progress. New problems arise, the investigation of which requires the use of new instruments of research. Amongst recent modes of study the “ comparative method” has of late acquired a considerable measure of popularity. It claims to mark an advance upon the preceding “ historical method.” To the latter belongs the merit of basing its conclusions upon definite data, for which historical evidence could be produced. But on behalf of the former it is urged that the general laws determining the development of religion come into view only when a broad survey is taken over a wide field embracing many nations at many different levels of civilisation. To make this survey is the task allotted to “ Comparative Religion.”
The problem of OT prophecy invites study along both these lines of approach. It is intimately connected with questions of great historical interest. There are documents to be investigated, arranged in chronological order, and interpreted in accordance with the spirit of the time when they were written. At the same time, the most diligent and ingenious historical study will of necessity leave many questions unsolved and even untouched. A comparison must needs be instituted between prophecy as we know it in Israel and parallel phenomena (if any such exist) presented by other religions. In this way it may prove possible to unravel more of that mysterious secret of prophecy which has rendered it so great a force in furthering the religious progress of the world. The two methods, the historical and the comparative, will need to be kept in close alliance. A mutual dependence binds them together, the one advancing securely only when supported by the other.
The material for the study of prophecy, lying ready to hand in the OT, is of high value. It is contemporary; it is various; it is, in a sense, abundant. Whatever doubts may be raised about particular passages, there can be no reasonable question that the bulk of the prophetic writings preserved in the Jewish Canon are genuine products of the prophetic age, and were composed between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C. The words bear the stamp of originality. They throb with the live emotions of hope and fear, of elation and despondency, excited by the sudden changes and chances to which, during that eventful period, the national life was exposed. In them we find no carefully consistent political or historical theory, elaborated from reflection upon the records of the past, but a vivid and continually changing response of the heart of the prophet to events transacted before his eyes or reported in his hearing. The reader of these writings is brought into immediate touch with definite personalities exhibiting marked and distinctive traits of character. In being all alike vehicles of a Divine revelation to God’ s people, the prophets form a class by themselves. But there was no common mould or pattern obliterating their idiosyncrasies. Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, speak out each his own message in terms peculiar to himself. Individual character manifests itself unmistakably, not-withstanding the similar tenor of the warnings uttered and the hopes encouraged. Undoubtedly the prophetic books of the OT, as they exist to-day, represent no more than a small surviving remnant of a far larger literature. Much has gone beyond recall. And yet how remarkable a providence it is that has preserved for the use of the world the writings of a distant past, composed in a corner of Western Asia by the subjects of a petty kingdom overshadowed by far more powerful and far more highly civilised neighbours! That in the course of centuries these writings should suffer a certain measure of dislocation and corruption was inevitable. There are not a few passages where the critic must needs exercise his ingenuity in attempting to solve the riddle of a text obviously damaged in transcription. But when all necessary deductions have been made, it remains true that the features of OT prophecy stand out with surprising clearness and definiteness. They arrest attention and challenge explanation.
The beginning of the age of the literary prophets falls in the eighth century B.C. Yet the institution of the prophetic order (if it may be so called) dates from an earlier period. It was a twin birth with the monarchy. And even further back, in the dim period of the wanderings through the desert, and in the troubled times of the judges, the national history was controlled by great personalities to whom the name prophet is not inappropriate. This, at least, was the view favoured by the later prophets themselves ( Jeremiah 7:25). But it is in the striking figure of Samuel that we find the immediate ancestor of the true prophetic line. Of his influence in launching the new monarchy tradition speaks with unmistakable clearness. Though the matter is differently presented in the older and later documents combined in 1 S., both narratives bear testimony to his responsibility for a political development big with possibilities for the future. His successor, Nathan, was a worthy follower in his footsteps, not flinching from the duty of administering rebuke, and ready to brave the consequences of the royal displeasure. Henceforward and repeatedly prophecy intervened to determine the channel in which the national history should run. A prophet instigated the disruption of the two kingdoms. Elijah, the most impressive figure in all the OT, thundered against the policy of assimilating the religion of Israel to that of Phœ nicia. The revolution which placed the dynasty of Jehu on the throne owed its original impulse to Elisha’ s suggestion. The prophet gained his end. The house of Ahab was deposed. The popular inclination towards the worship of Baal was checked. But the close alliance thus initiated between Elisha’ s disciples and the royal house seems to have exerted an injurious influence on the prophetic order. It is significant that not long afterwards Amos, the first of the prophets whose writings are extant, is careful to dissociate himself from the professional caste ( Amos 7:14). While they prophesied smooth things, he predicted the appalling national disaster, which, in fact, was not long delayed.
In the southern kingdom prophecy achieved its moment of triumphant popularity when Isaiah’ s policy of resistance to the Assyrian was brilliantly vindicated by the city’ s escape at the last moment from apparently inevitable destruction. But it was a short-lived triumph. The violent reaction under Manasseh showed how little real hold the principles of the prophetic religion had gained on the mind of the people at large. A little later the earnest effort of the Deuteronomic Reformation, supported enthusiastically by king and prophet, had not sufficient vitality to survive the disaster at Megiddo. Jeremiah knew the anguish of speaking to deaf ears, and of vainly endeavouring to restrain a headstrong people from treading the way to ruin. Thus the successive crises of history serve to exhibit the figure of the prophet in a conspicuous light. But instructively as these dramatic moments reveal the principles of prophetic action, yet it is equally important to remember how, during long, uneventful years, the prophets were quietly and inconspicuously at work contributing their share to the shaping of the national religion. It was a religion with several aspects. Some students of the OT go so far as to say that there were practically three religions existing side by side. In the first place, there was the religion of the peasantry, a faith simple and naï ve, but grievously unstable, and all too easily inclined towards nature-worship, with the attendant evils of a debased idolatry and moral degradation. In the second place, the organised religion of the priests gave strength and solidity to tradition, and in a measure not otherwise attainable secured the transmission of truth from generation to generation. Religious knowledge, once gained, was enshrined in appropriate formulae, and gradually became common property. Thirdly, the religion of the prophets possessed a quality of its own. It protested not only against the impure corruptions of the peasant religion, but also against the stiffness and formalism of the priests. The prophet was, in the true sense of the word, an innovator. He was the man of spiritual vision to whom came revelations of new truth, and of the obligation to apply old principles in novel ways. In the writings of the prophets, chronologically arranged, it is possible to trace a progress of thought, a deepening conviction of the Divine holiness and majesty, a more comprehensive outlook over the world and its problems. To imagine, as some writers have done, a radical and essential opposition between the priest as an obscurantist and the prophet as light-bringer is to misread history. Priest and prophet were alike necessary factors, discharging complementary functions, the one preserving, the other initiating. That the initiator should have repeatedly incurred opposition and even persecution at the hands of the preserver is sufficiently intelligible. New truth is usually frowned upon. The prophet must needs pay for the privilege of being before his time. In all the history of religion there are few more interesting chapters than that which traces the growth of man’ s knowledge of God, together with the gradual elevation of the moral ideal, as the heavenly flame was passed from hand to hand in the order of the prophets.
Careful historical study of the OT was in itself sufficient to show that the old definition of prophecy as history written before the event was misleading and inaccurate. The prophet was, in the first instance, a messenger to his own generation, a preacher of righteousness, a missionary of repentance, an advocate of reform. All this is admittedly true; and yet there is need of caution lest a reaction against the crude conception of prophecy as prediction should obscure the truth that the prophet did, as a matter of fact, add force to his exhortations by pointing to the future. He was neither a mere foreteller of isolated events nor a mere moral preacher; he was inspired with a vision of the coming Kingdom of God. The form assumed by that vision in the heart of the prophet was necessarily determined by the idiosyncrasy of his own genius, by the circumstances of the time at which he wrote, and by the spiritual intelligence of his hearers. When the Davidic monarchy was newly established and the twelve tribes were for a time united and prosperous, the hope of a Divinely ordered kingdom seemed close at hand. It was conceived as an earthly kingdom, and closely associated with the house of the founder of the dynasty ( 2 Samuel 7:8 ff.). But these bright expectations were disappointed. The disruption of the two kingdoms, the increasing social disorder within, and the obvious imminence of invasion from without, were circumstances that could not be ignored by the prophets. Under the enlightenment of the Spirit of God they were aware of the sinfulness of their nation, and recognised the inevitable necessity of a discipline of punishment. Nothing could be more significant than the contrast between the unqualified brightness of the outlook of Nathan and the heavy gloom of the predictions of Amos. This pioneer of prophecy in its new and severer form strove his hardest to open the eyes of his people to the nature of the coming catastrophe. “ Wherefore would ye have the day of the Lord? It is darkness and not light” ( Amos 5:18). How could a deliverance be expected by those who had been unfaithful to their God? Hosea, the prophetic successor of Amos, though speaking of judgment and condemnation, yet dwelt on the invincible strength of the love of God for His people. Isaiah saw in the miraculous preservation of the city a confirmation of his faith that God would not bring the sinful nation utterly to an end. A remnant should be left, and be the recipients of the Divine bounty in the future. National distresses interpreted by the Divinely inspired insight of the prophets led on continuously to new conceptions of the Kingdom of God. To Jeremiah came the revelation, at once desolating and reassuring, that even the destruction of the beloved city and its Temple could not permanently thwart the accomplishment of the Divine plan. A new covenant should replace the old, and a new kingdom arise, of which the inspiring principle should be the knowledge of God. Still wider and more glorious became the outlook of the unknown prophet of the Exile (Isaiah 40 ff.). The God of Israel shall be recognised as God of all the earth, and everywhere shall His name be honoured. This is the prophet’ s hope; this is his vision of the future.
The interpretation of prophecy has thus passed through various stages. It was for long regarded by Christian apologists as a convenient collection of proofs. It was next explained by students of Biblical history as essentially a protest of moral indignation against national vices. It has now come to be recognised as intelligible only when referred to a vision of coming disaster and coming deliverance. But as to the source of that vision there is much difference of opinion. It is at the present moment one of the most keenly debated questions connected with the OT Until recently it was assumed that the outlook of the prophets, their prevision of gloom and glory, and of a predestined ruler, was peculiar to Israel. Their unquestioning belief in the personal power of God, their conviction of His choice of Israel for His people, their profound sense of the national unrighteousness, were supposed to provide an adequate explanation of their reading of the future. What else (so it seemed) could a prophet expect but that God would judge His people, punishing the wicked, and after purification granting to the remnant peace and prosperity under a ruler appointed by Himself? That there is truth in this psychological account of the matter is evident. But is it the whole truth? The suggestion has been made that there were other factors at work, and that these ideas about the future may have been less exclusively the monopoly of the prophets of Israel than has been hitherto supposed. It is a suggestion to be considered in the light of the contribution which Comparative Religion can make to the study of prophecy.
Biblical archaeology is a comparatively recent science, yet it has already amassed a surprising amount of information as to the character of the civilisation of the ancient East. No scholar in the early nineteenth century would have deemed it credible that detailed knowledge of life in Babylonia and Egypt contemporary with and even anterior to the days of the OT should ever be placed at the disposal of the student. Yet this has actually come about. The spade of the archaeologist, together with the ingenious decipherment of ancient scripts, has succeeded in unlocking many of the secrets of the past. The OT is no longer an isolated document, a sole authority, a unique record. Not only are there contemporary inscriptions from Nineveh, Babylon, and Egypt by which its historical statements can be checked, but— what is of even greater importance— its pictures of life and manners and modes of thought in Israel can be set side by side with our knowledge of similar matters throughout the ancient East.
No sooner was the comparison instituted than the close resemblance between the religion of ancient Israel and the general type of contemporary religion in the East became vividly apparent. In all external matters the points of likeness are numerous and important. Sacred places, sacred wells, sacred trees, sacred stones are a common feature of Eastern religions, the religion of Israel included. It was certainly so in patriarchal times. Nor did the Mosaic revelation obliterate these resemblances. Externally and to a superficial observer it may well have seemed that, even in the times of the monarchy, the religion of Israel was distinguishable only in certain minor points from the religions of the neighbouring tribes. The OT books themselves bear witness to the readiness with which foreign rites were introduced and welcomed. No doubt the outward similarities rendered the process easy of accomplishment.
Granted that the same kinds of holy objects were venerated by Israel and by the neighbouring nations, an important question remains to be asked. Were there in the adjoining countries “ holy men” similar to the “ holy men” of Israel, the “ men of God” ? Till lately it was generally assumed that the prophets of Israel stood apart, and that none like them were to be found elsewhere. Recently, however, an opposite opinion has been put forward, and a certain amount of evidence produced in its support. It is certain that other Semitic tribes had seers whom they believed to be God’ s messengers. Thus the following sentence appears in an inscription of a king of Hamath, dating from c. 800 B.C., the very age when the prophets of Israel were beginning to write: The Lord of Heaven sent to me an oracle through the seers. And the Lord of Heaven said to me, Fear not, for I have made thee king.” In Israel the seer had been the spiritual progenitor of the prophet. The truth is brought out with great clearness in one section of the composite narrative of 1 S. To Samuel the seer men go for help in practical matters, such as the discovery of lost property, and are prepared to pay a fee for his services ( 1 Samuel 9:6 ff.). It is exactly the kind of figure which presents itself over and over again in ethnic religions. It is the man whose abnormal or supernormal psychic powers, notably the power of clairvoyance, give him an immense ascendancy over his fellows. In Israel the seer was transformed into the prophet. Samuel the clairvoyant becomes Samuel the upholder of the religion of Yahweh, the champion of national righteousness, the vehicle for the revelation of the Divine will. Can it be shown that any similar transformation took place outside Israel?
More than fifty years ago a monograph was written comparing the Greek seer with the Hebrew prophet. And certainly the Greek seer is in nearly every respect identical with the seer of the ancient East. But that nothing in the least resembling Hebrew prophecy arose from Greek divination and Greek oracles is historically certain. Among the Greeks the development of the seer was in the downward direction. Instead of rising in response to his opportunities, he yielded unreservedly to the temptations incident to his profession. He prostituted his powers in order to acquire wealth and influence. Degradation was the inevitable result. The seer who in the Homeric poems holds at least a dignified position becomes in process of time a sorry figure, little better than a detected cheat and charlatan, able to impose only on the least educated and most credulous ranks of society. Far more creditable on the whole was the record of the oracle of Delphi. It is only fair to recognise that the famous centre of Greek religion helped in many respects to maintain a standard of public righteousness. It did something more than issue riddling forecasts of a doubtful future. It used its religious influence to point out a line of right conduct, which it declared to be the will of heaven. But though this much can be said in favour of Delphi, it never succeeded in giving birth to anything like prophecy, and finally sank into decay and dishonour.
But whereas fifty years ago the only field of comparison open to scholars was provided by Greek and Latin literature, the case is now entirely altered. To-day it is possible not only to wonder aimlessly but to expect an answer to the question whether any figure like that of the Hebrew prophet ever appeared in Mesopotamia or Egypt. In spite of the declaration of some scholars, who seem to regard all Israelitish religion and culture as a plagiarism from the greater states, it still remains true that no satisfactory evidence is forthcoming to prove the point. An obscure reference in an Assyrian text to a man who offers intercession for an Assyrian king, and claims reward accordingly, affords little reason for supposing him to have been like one of the Hebrew prophets. In some measure both Egypt and Babylon recognise the moral law to be the will of their gods. Assyrian kings claimed to be the protector of the widow and the orphan. But though facts such as these reveal the essential bond between religion and ethics, they in no wise prove the existence of an order of men whose vocation it was to be spokesmen for the God of the weak and the oppressed, and in His name to denounce oppression even in defiance of the king’ s majesty.
But while the prophets, so far as the evidence goes, are seen to belong to Israel and to Israel only, it is nevertheless true that in their pictures of the future they appear to be making use of materials widely diffused throughout the East. Great interest, for example, attaches to the interpretation of an Egyptian papyrus, supposed to date from the period of the Hyksos (pp. 52, 54) or even earlier. In this writing some scholars have thought that they discovered an expectation of the future resembling the Messianic hope of Israel. It is said that the seer predicts a time of misery to be followed by an era of salvation under the government of a Divinely appointed ruler. The intricacy of the problem may be illustrated from the fact that the very papyrus on which such important inferences were based has recently been subjected to a further investigation, and in consequence has been retranslated in such a way as to remove most of the supposed parallelisms with Hebrew prophecy [ cf. A. H. Gardiner, The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage (Leipzig, 1909)]. However, though this particular piece of evidence may have proved untrustworthy, yet there remains sufficient reason for recognising the existence of a general expectation of some great world catastrophe to be followed by some great restoration. Thus, though it is impossible as yet to speak with certainty, it is probable that the Hebrew prophets were not the originators of an eschatology of doom, but availed themselves of a conception already current and gave it a deep ethical significance. If this be the true account of the matter, the inspiration under which they uttered their warnings and their encouragements will be accounted no less worthy of honour. Precisely as the revelation to the patriarchs and to Moses lay in the transformation and purification of ideas already prevalent in the ancient Semitic religion rather than in the origination of a completely new faith, so it may have been with the prophets and their visions of the future. Moreover, the hopes to which Hebrew prophecy gave currency were fulfilled. The promised Ruler and Saviour came, as they foretold, out of the house of David. And it was no matter of chance that the expectation of the Messiah had thus been fostered; its existence in Palestine when Christ came provided material upon which He worked. In the activity of the prophets the operation of the Spirit of God makes itself manifest, preparing long beforehand the conditions requisite for the revelation that should come in the fullness of time.
Nor is it only the silence of the ancient records which leads to the conclusion that in Israel alone were prophets to be found speaking in the name of a God of righteousness. In the matter of divination there is a significant difference between the religious atmosphere of Israel and of Babylon. In every early religion divination plays a large part. To members of the tribe it is of essential importance that at critical moments the will of their God should be declared. So it was in early Israel. There, as in other nations, specific means were used for discovering the will of Yahweh. For example, the Urim and Thummim (pp. 100f.) were evidently some form of sacred lot, by which fateful decisions could be reached. In Israel, however, there was a gradual, if often interrupted, advance to higher levels of religious belief. The employment of such crude and mechanical means of discovering the Divine purpose fell more and more into the background. The prophet rendered them unnecessary. He came forward claiming to possess the power of entering into the meaning of the Divine intention. As prophecy rose from height to height of religious insight, even the dream and the ecstatic vision played a less essential part. Man in the fullness of his self-conscious powers was admitted to intercourse with his Maker. In Babylon, on the contrary, religion followed a different line of development. There divination gained a complete ascendency. The interpretation of omens came to be regarded as a fine art. Every possible form of magic was practised. Chaldæ an soothsayers were famous throughout the Eastern world. The contrast with Israel is patent. Prophecy can develop only where personality counts for much. In Babylon, so far as the evidence enables a judgment to be formed, it counted for nothing. That which found favour there was not the rugged, outstanding character of the man of God, but the smooth and supple skill of the professional reader of omens. The exaggerated prevalence of divination implies the presence of conditions that must have stifled prophecy. The truth is that prophecy is the flower of a faith in the living God. Where such faith is absent, it is idle to look for a prophet. If, therefore, it be asked why, notwithstanding her highly-developed civilisation, her complex life, and her elaborate learning, Babylon failed where Israel succeeded, the answer is not difficult to find. It was because the idea of God at Babylon was fundamentally different from that which obtained in Israel. There is no doubt that monotheistic conceptions gained some hold at Babylon. Marduk was placed in a position of isolated superiority above his divine competitors. But the most high God of Babylon was essentially other than the Most Highest of Israel. Babylon’ s God was a personification of natural phenomena. He was identified with the light in which he manifested himself. The conception of his nature in the mind of his worshippers was loose and fluid, easily amalgamating itself with that of other gods in their pantheon. It was far otherwise with Yahweh, as conceived by the prophets. He manifested Himself in the thunderstorm (Psalms 18), but He was not the storm. He sat in royalty above it. Neither could He be identified with other gods. Although in the early days of the monarchy the title Baal (Lord) was without scruple accorded to the God of Israel, yet Elijah had learnt that between the God of Israel and the god of Phœ nicia there was an irreconcilable opposition. Yahweh was before all things the personal God, who made Himself known in great historical acts, as when with a mighty hand and stretched-out arm He had delivered His people from their bondage in Egypt. And of this personal Divine Being the characteristic quality was holiness. Not that the use of the words “ Holy God” was peculiar to Israel. It was almost a technical expression of Semitic religion. The Phœ nicians used it constantly. But in Israel we can trace the transformation of the meaning of the term under the influence of prophetic teaching. What at first signified little more than a supernatural aloofness, involving danger to the worshipper who, like Uzzah. ( 2 Samuel 6:7), pressed too close, came to connote the highest ethical qualities— purity, truth, and mercy. The God in whose nature these virtues found their perfect expression demanded them also from His worshippers. “ Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” ( Leviticus 19:2). Metaphysical terms are conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of Israel. The prophets did not discuss the Divine transcendence and the Divine holiness in the language of abstract philosophy. Nevertheless they were thrilled with the consciousness of them. Their whole religion was governed by the conception of the Holy One who was raised to an infinite height above the world, and would yet condescend to make known His designs to His servants the prophets.
This conception of the Divine nature was the root from which all prophecy derived its life. How, then, had it come into the heart of the prophet? In that question lies the ultimate problem not of the OT only, but of all revealed religion. What the prophets themselves thought about the matter is made clear in their writings. To them their belief in God was neither a product of their own reflections nor an inference drawn from a study of the phenomena of the world. Again and again they asserted their conviction that the voice of God had spoken to them. He had shown them His glory. They knew Him because He had revealed Himself to them. Of the overpowering strength of this confidence in the reality of their own inspiration there can be no question. It nerved them for the struggle of their lives. It held them to their task. It made them ready to face obloquy, persecution, and death in discharge of their duty. To doubt their sincerity would be absurd. But the inquiry must be pushed further back. What is the justification for thinking that they were right? What reason is there for believing that they had indeed been in touch with the living God, and were the ministers of His revelation?
The claim to speak as God’ s messengers was originally made by the prophets on the strength of experiences similar to those of seer and soothsayer. In all early societies the abnormal mental states of vision and ecstasy are as profoundly impressive to the onlookers as they are to the man who experiences them. Both he and they are convinced that these mysteries are conclusive evidence of intercourse with the spiritual world. In the opinion of his hearers no less than in his own the ecstatic is no longer himself; he has become the agent of a spiritual power, and even the mouthpiece of his God. Comparative religion has produced plentiful evidence showing how universally prevalent has been this interpretation of the mental phenomena in question. Nor is there any reason for demurring to the statement that psychologically Hebrew prophecy sprang from this origin. Even to the last prophecy was organically connected with the psychic capacity to see and hear things for which no material cause could be assigned. It was a peculiarity to which the prophet in the first instance owed his influence. But now the general attitude towards these attendant circumstances of early inspiration has been completely reversed. The unstable psychic temperament, with its tendency to fall into trances, instead of arousing respect as of old, is the object of suspicion. The fact that any claimant to inspiration was subject to trances and other mental disturbances would in many quarters to-day raise doubts as to his sanity, and would certainly weaken the force of his testimony. Possibly, however, the present strong aversion to anything but the normal process of everyday thought may be less justifiable than it assumes itself to be. The study of the abnormal psychology of genius is still in its initial stages. But even so it seems to indicate that something similar to ecstasy or trance has played no small part in the achievements of the supreme writers and artists of the world. It is the fashion to refer anything of the kind to the supposed action of the subliminal consciousness. Great truths and great conceptions, having been elaborated in the lower and hidden strata of the mental life, suddenly emerge into consciousness. The process is certainly abnormal. Considering its results, it would be ridiculous to call it morbid. And the distinction between the abnormal and the morbid needs to be kept steadily in view when the psychology of prophetic inspiration is being investigated. Undoubtedly the prophets were abnormal. They were men of genius. They were visionaries. Each of the greater prophets is careful to recount a vivid psychical experience through which he felt himself called to play the part of God’ s messenger. That these were the only occasions on which such experiences befell them is in itself unlikely; and the testimony of their writings, though not free from ambiguity, suggests at least some recurrences of the prophetic trance.
The evidence for the truth of prophetic revelation is to be looked for not in any particular circumstance, such as trance or vision, which attended its original reception by the prophet, but in its subsequent verification through the spiritual experience of mankind. The theology of Isaiah is guaranteed not by the fact that he fell into a trance in the Temple, but by the mighty influence which his teaching about God has exercised over the hearts of succeeding generations, and by the response which it continues to elicit. Moreover, it is evident that in the gradual development of the religion of Israel the prophets themselves came to attach less importance to vision. From their own spiritual experience they learned how Divine truth is recognised in daily intercourse with the Spirit of God. It may well be that on certain occasions new truths were flashed into minds rapt in trance or ecstasy, but it was neither the only nor necessarily the highest method whereby God revealed Himself to His prophets.
Whether the inspiration came suddenly or came gradually, it certainly did not extinguish the individual personality of the prophet. It did not reduce him to a mere passive instrument like the lyre in the hands of the player. A later age of Judaism, when the current of spiritual life was running low, set up this crude mechanical theory of inspiration. It was an a priori fabrication, representing what its authors imagined ought to have been God’ s way of speaking to mankind. It cannot be supported by evidence from the prophetic writings themselves. Nothing can be truer than that the prophets felt themselves to be the transmitters of messages which they had received. At the same time, nothing can be clearer than that these same prophets were endowed with an intensely individual life beyond the ordinary measure. Their inspiration accentuated their individuality. It produced a fullness of personal life. The same prophetic inspiration served also to promote a fullness of corporate life. It invigorated and defined the life of the people of God. Frequently the prophet was forced by the inspiration within him to place himself in direct opposition to the majority of his fellow-countrymen. By his own generation he was accounted an alien and even a traitor. Yet it was he who realised the true unity and continuity of the national life, and the magnificence of the task with which Israel was entrusted. He felt that he was helping to work out a great Divine plan. And he was not mistaken. The significance of OT prophecy will be altogether missed, unless it be recognised that the various prophets were all contributors to one work. Prophecy is a unity. A great connecting purpose runs through it, binding it all together. It is also part of a still greater and more august unity. It is an essential element in the Divine scheme of the redemption of the world through Christ. His work rested upon theirs. His revelation of the Father was the consummation and the vindication of their revelation of the God of Israel. “ God who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” ( Hebrews 1:1).
( See also Supplement)
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany