Yahweh's character, purpose and relation to His people. But the false prophets were by no means mere common impostors; they were the accredited exponents of the common orthodoxy of their day, for the prophets who opposed Jeremiah took their stand on the ground of the prophetic traditions of Isaiah, whose doctrine of the inviolability of Yahweh's seat on Zion was the starting-point of their opposition to Jeremiah's predictions of captivity. No doubt there were many conscious hypocrites and impostors among the professional prophets, as there always will be among the professional representatives of a religious standpoint which is intrinsically untenable, and yet has on its side the prestige of tradition and popular acceptance. But on the whole the false prophets deserve that name, not for their conscious impostures, but because they were content to handle religious formulas, which they had learned by rote, as if they were intuitive principles, the fruit of direct spiritual experience, to enforce a conventional morality, shutting their eyes to glaring national sins, after the manner of professional orthodoxy, and, in brief, to treat the religious status quo as if it could be accepted without question as fully embodying the unchanging principles of all religion. The popular faith was full of heathenish superstition strangely blended with the higher ideas which were the inheritance left to Israel by men like Moses and Elijah; but the common prophets accepted all alike, and combined heathen arts of divination and practices of mere physical enthusiasm with a not altogether insincere pretension that through their professional oracles the ideal was being maintained of a continuous divine guidance of the people of Yahweh.
Amos and his successors accepted the old ideal of prophecy if they disowned the class which pretended to embody it. “The Lord Yahweh will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret to His servants the prophets.” “By a prophet Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt, and by a prophet” in each successive age Israel had been watched over and preserved. But in point of fact the function of the new prophecy was not to preserve but to destroy Israel, if Israel still meant the actual Hebrew nation, with its traditional national life. Till Amos (with the solitary exception of Micaiah ben Imlah, in 1 Kings xxii.) prophecy was optimist—even Elijah, if he denounced the destruction of a dynasty and the annihilation of all who had bowed the knee to Baal, never doubted of the future of the nation when only the faithful remained; but the new prophecy is pessimist—it knows that Israel is rotten to the core, and that the whole fabric of society must be dissolved before reconstruction is possible. And this it knows, not by a mere ethical judgment on the visible state of society, but because it has read Yahweh's secret written in the signs of the times and knows that He has condemned His people. To the mass these signs are unintelligible, because they deem it impossible that Yahweh should utterly cast off His chosen nation; but to those who know His absolute righteousness, and confront it with the people's sin, the impending approach of the Assyrian can have only one meaning and can point to only one issue, viz. the total ruin of the nation which has denied its divine head. It is sometimes proposed to view the canonical prophets as simple preachers of righteousness; their predictions of woe, we are told, are conditional, and tell what Israel must suffer if it does not repent. But this is an incomplete view; the peculiarity of their position is that they know that Israel as it exists is beyond repentance. Only, while they are hopeless about their nation they have absolute faith in Yahweh and His purpose. That cannot be frustrated, and, as it includes the choice of Israel as His people, it is certain that, though the present commonwealth must perish, a new and better Israel will rise from its grave. Not the reformation but the resurrection of Israel is the goal of the prophets' hope (Hos. vi. 1 seq.).
This of course is only the broadest possible statement of a position which undergoes many modifications in the hands of individual seers, but on the whole governs all prophecy from Amos to Jeremiah. The position has, we see, two sides: on the one side the prophets are heralds of an inexorable judgment based on the demands of absolute righteousness; on the other they represent an assured conviction of Yahweh's invincible and gracious love. The current theological formula for this two-sided position is that the prophets are at once preachers of the law and forerunners of the gospel; and, as it is generally assumed that they found the law already written, their originality and real importance is made to lie wholly in their evangelical function. But in reality as has been shown in the article on Hebrew Religion, the prophets are older than the law, and the part of their work which was really epoch-making for Israel is just the part which is usually passed over as unimportant. By emphasizing the purely moral character of Yahweh's demands from Israel, by teaching that the mere payment of service and worship at Yahweh's shrines did not entitle Israel's sins to be treated one whit more lightly than the sins of other nations, and by enforcing these doctrines through the conception that the approach of the all-destroying empire, before which Israel must fall equally with all its neighbours, was the proof of Yahweh's impartial righteousness, they gave for the first time a really broad and fruitful conception of the moral government of the whole earth by the one true God.
It is impossible to read the books of the older prophets, and especially of their protagonist Amos, without seeing that the new thing which they are compelled to speak is not Yahweh's grace but His inexorable and righteous wrath. That that wrath must be followed by fresh mercies is not in itself a new thought, but only the necessary expression of the inherited conviction that Yahweh whom they preach as the judge of all the earth, is nevertheless, as past history has proved, the God who has chosen Israel as His people. That this is so appears most clearly in the fact that with Amos the prophecy of restoration appears only in a few verses at the end of his book, and in the still more instructive fact that neither he nor Hosea attempts to explain how the restoration which they accept as a postulate of faith is to be historically realized. Recent critics, however, viz. Wellhausen, Nowack, Marti and Harper, as well as others, have denied the genuineness of the concluding verses in Amos, viz. ix. 8-15. To Hosea, at least in his later prophecies, the fate of Judah does not appear separable from that of the northern realm—when Israel and Ephraim fall by their iniquity Judah must fall with them (Hos. v. 5). Thus even on this side there is no real bridge over the chasm that separates the total ruin impending over the Israel of the present from the glorious restoration of the Israel of the future. There is a unity in the divine purpose, of which judgment and mercy are the two poles, but there is as yet no conception of an historical continuity in the execution of that purpose, and therefore no foundation laid for the maintenance of a continuous community of faith in the impending fall of the nation.
From this we can see the enormous importance of the work of Isaiah as it has been exhibited in the article Hebrew Religion; his doctrine of the remnant, never lost to the nation in the worst times, never destroyed by the most fiery judgments, supplies the lacking element of continuity between the Israel of the present and of the future. Yahweh's kingdom cannot perish even for a time; nay, Isaiah argues that it must remain visible, and visible not merely in the circle of the like-minded whom he had gathered round him and who formed the first germ of the notion of the church, but in the political form of a kingdom also. Zion at least, the sacred hearth of Yahweh, the visible centre of His kingdom,
- It must not be supposed that this conception necessarily came into force as soon as it was recognized that Yahweh was the creator of the universe. That the national or tribal god is the creator is an idea often found in very low religions. To us God's sovereignty over nature often seems the hardest thing to conceive; but to primitive peoples who know nothing of laws of nature, His moral sovereignty is a much more difficult conception. In the older literature of the Hebrews, the nearest approach to the thought of Amos and Hosea is not Gen. ii., iii., but Gen. xviii. 25.
- Hosea ii. 14 seq., xi. 10 seq; are not solutions of this difficulty, as appears from their metaphorical form. They tell us that Yahweh will call His people and that they will answer; but this is only putting in another form the axiom that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.