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THE HEBREW PROPHETS
"Men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Ghost.”
HE ritual ordained for the church of Israel has never been surpassed for beauty, dignity or depth of meaning.
For some fifteen centuries it held its place as the best revelation of spiritual truth that the world had yet received. From the day when Moses consecrated the sons of Levi and set them apart for the sacred office, to that day when the virgin mother brought the seemly offerings of two young doves in celebration of the birth of her son Jesus—through all the marvelous vicissitudes of that peculiar people, this ritual was kept with scrupulous care, and exercised an influence on the nation, and on the world, that cannot be estimated.
Nevertheless this ritual had the “defects of its qualities." It had the limitations of all ritualistic systems. It presented truth in material forms, in bodily exercises which in themselves had no power to affect the character. There was danger that the worshipers should fail to look beyond the symbols to the truth they represented, and so come to regard these services as constituting their religion, and thus satisfy their conscience by the observance of these forms.
This danger was not unforeseen; it was anticipated and provided against. From the first this dramatic gospel was supplemented by oral instruction, by precepts and exposition and exhortation.
This great body of religious teaching is called by the general name of prophecy, and the familiar phrase, "the law and the
prophets” means the ritual and the admonitions and instruction which was given for the nurture and edification of the church.
The first, and in many respects the greatest of the prophets, was Moses; and the book of Deuteronomy the greatest of the prophetic books; for that book is practically a volume of sermons, in which Moses expounds the principles of spiritual truth, and exhorts the people to obedience. Whether we have in Deuteronomy the verbatim words of Moses or the revision of some later hand is not important, if we have substantially the teaching of the great prophet.
As time rolls on "new occasions teach new duties," and "at sundry times and in divers manners God spake to the fathers by the prophets;" and as each new revelation stood upon the shoulders of the past, there grew up gradually a system of theology, that in majesty and truth stands as high above all mere philosophy as the stars above the mountain tops.
The office of the Hebrew prophet was the most notable feature of the ancient church. The priesthood of Israel, all the way from Aaron down to Caiaphas, was much like the priesthood of any other nation. Their office was routine, almost mechanical; all that was required of them was the faithful celebration of a formal service.
But the prophets had a very different office, one that required talents of the highest order and character of finest quality. They were rightly called seers. It was given them to apprehend the truth not seen by common men, to look behind the actual and to perceive the principles of truth; to look beyond the present and forecast the future and to anticipate the destiny of the church and state.
That they might perform this office they were given a place of greatest freedom. They formed no part of the organized church, no laying on of hands, nor the annointing with sacred oil conferred on them the authority of church or state. They
were not bound by ritual nor hampered by tradition nor subject to the dictates of the church or state in the exercise of their high office.
They were God's special messengers. His envoys extraordinary, appointed by the Holy Ghost and responsible to God alone. They had the utmost freedom, but the most solemn responsibility. Their duty was to speak for God, to deliver his message as he gave it to them to deliver.
It is remarkable that an office so inconvenient to priestcraft, so intolerable to tyranny, should not have been suppressed, but while the individual prophets were very often persecuted, the right to prophesy was never called in question.
They were just what the word prophet denotes, they were spokesmen "men who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
We are not however, to suppose that they were mere heralds uttering words put in their mouths,—not mere amanuenses writing words miraculously whispered in their ears. God never deals thus with men, never uses them as mere machines, but as rational and moral beings. What he would reveal through men he leads men to apprehend. When he would have a spokesman he makes him first a seer. No true prophet uttered any message from Jehovah but what was to him an intellectual conviction, something believed and held as sacred truth. How the spirit of God so wrought upon his mind, how supernatural influence blended with the natural exercise of reason and emotion we leave for psychology to explain; we are concerned now only with the facts of history—the fact that these men did see and know, they believed and rejoiced in truth above the reach of common men and beyond the horizon of the clearest reason, and these things came to pass.
It is also to be borne in mind that, while the prophets often uttered prediction of future events, and the word prophecy has come to mean chiefly this foretelling of the future, this was by
no means their only function. They were the messengers of God to make known his will, and the great bulk of their deliverances were concerned with present duty, with eternal principles of truth; and the prediction of events forms but a small part of their deliverances.
It would be hard to overestimate the value of the Hebrew prophets' work; not only to Israel but to the world; not merely to the past but to all the ages.
They exerted an influence on their own times and generations that was far greater than that of their kings; and in their books they have moulded the religious thoughts of three thousand years.
In these books we have I suppose but the merest fragments of their teaching; yet we have here such a treasury of spiritual truth, such a gallery of beautiful ideals as could not be duplicated from all the literature of the world today.
The purpose of all prophecy is the same, that is to reveal the will of God for our salvation from sin to holiness, but the methods of delivering this revelation were of great variety. Each author chooses the weapon suited to his hand, the style he finds effective to his purpose. This variety proves what we have said, that his function was never the mere utterance of words, but the delivery of a message that was in fullest sense his very own. It is of interest also to notice that the prophets were called from every rank and from various callings. The foster son of an Egyptian princess, learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, gives us the great orations of the book of Deuteronomy, and Amos, the cowboy of Tekoa, in crude and homely phrases, delivers his immortal invectives against the greed and cruelty and sensuality of his time, and indeed of all time.
These give us the range of the prophetic calling. It was not the prerogative of any class, but the gift bestowed on any one who could employ it.
THE PROPHETIC BOOKS
We have already noticed the place and purpose of the prophetic office. Let us consider now the special occasions and historic setting of their messages.
The Patriarchs and Moses were indeed great prophets, none did more to reveal God's will, and that is the very essence of prophecy. But they were so conspicuous in other functions that we rarely think of them as prophets. We apply the title rather to those whose work was more exclusively to teach.
There were many such teachers, and the scope and character of their ministry was varied by their circumstances and the demands and fashions of their times. In the rude times of the judges, they seem to have been little more than shrewd and practical advisers of the people, credited with some degree of supernatural insight.
Later, they seem to have risen to the more dignified position of regular instructors, especially in morals; and still higher they attained, as the recognized authority not only in morals but in religion and statesmanship.
They were consulted on difficult questions not only for their powers of devination, but for their trained and intelligent judgment.
It was in these two capacities that they first came into prominence, and for these two services they were distinguished throughout the five centuries from Elijah to Malachi—II Kings VIII:7-15; II Chron. XVIII:9-27. Even in the days of David it was not considered unusual or out of place for the prophet, Nathan, to rebuke the king, to judge him and pronounce a terrible sentence upon him in the Name of God.
Elijah and Elisha. The earliest of the prophets however whose words and deeds are largely noticed in sacred history was Elijah.
Of all the heroes of Israel none is so remarkable as the prophet