Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/462

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447
PROPHET

which occupies the more profound of the later Old-Testament books, but first received its true solution in the gospel, when the last shreds of the old nationalism disappeared and the spiritual kingdom found its centre in the person of Christ.

Old-Testament prophecy therefore forms only one stage in a larger development, and its true significance and value can only be realized when it is looked at in this light. In this as in all other matters of transcendental truth “wisdom is justified of her children”; the conclusive vindication of the prophets as true messengers of God is that their work forms an integral part in the progress of spiritual religion, and there are many things in their teaching the profundity and importance of which are much clearer to us than they could possibly have been to their contemporaries, because they are mere flashes of spiritual insight lighting up for a moment some corner of a region on which the steady sun of the gospel had not yet risen.

A less complete but yet most powerful vindication of the spiritual prophets was furnished by the course and event of Israel's history. After the captivity it was no longer a question that the prophetic conception of Yahweh was the only possible one. Thenceforth the religion of Yahweh and the religion of the prophets are synonymous; no other reading of Israel's past was possible, and in fact the whole history of the Hebrews in Canaan, as it was finally shaped in the exile, is written from this point of view, and has come down to us, along with the remains of actual prophetic books, under the collective title of “The Prophets.”

To some extent this historical vindication of the prophetic insight went on during the activity of the prophets themselves. From the time of Amos downwards the prophets spoke mainly at great historical crises, when events were moving fast and a few years were often sufficient to show that they were right and their opponents wrong in their reading of the signs of the times. And here the controversy did not turn on the exact fulfilment of detailed predictions; detailed prediction occupies a very secondary place in the writings of the prophets.

The prophets themselves required no historical verification of their word to assure them that it was indeed the word of God, nor do they for a moment admit that their contemporaries are entitled to treat its authority as unproved till such verification is offered. The word of God carries its own evidence with it in its searching force and fire: “Is not my word like as a fire, saith Yahweh, and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. xxiii. 29). To the prophet himself it comes with imperious force: it constrains him to speak (Amos iii. 8), seizes him with a strong hand (Isa. viii. 11), burns like a fire within his bones till it finds utterance (Jer. xx. 9); and it is this force of moral conviction which ought also to commend it to the conscience of his hearers. The word is true because it is worthy of the true God. When Deut. xviii. 21, 22 seeks the legal criterion of true prophecy in the fulfilment of prediction, the writer is no doubt guided by the remembrance of the remarkable confirmation which the doctrines of spiritual prophecy had received in history then recent, but his criterion would have appeared inadequate to the prophets themselves, and indeed this passage is one of the most striking proofs that to formulate the principles of prophetic religion in a legal code was an impossible task.

The mass of the nation, of course, was always much more struck by the “signs” and predictions of the prophets than by their spiritual ideas; we see how the idea of supernatural insight and power in everyday matters dominates the popular conception of Elijah and Elisha in the books of Kings. At a very early date the great prophets became a kind of saints or welis, and the respect paid to the tombs of the prophets, which ultimately took in almost every particular the place of the old local shrines (Matt. xxiii. 29; Jerome, Epit. Paulae, § 13; see Obadiah), can be traced back to the time before the exile.[1]

The Hebrew prophet stands alone among divinely appointed and inspired men of any religion, though analogies in other religions present themselves. Ethical and religious teachers arose among other nations of antiquity whose precepts may well be compared with those of Hebrew prophecy. We might cite the maxims of Ani in the Egyptian papyrus Prisse (XIIth dynasty). But these teachers did not succeed in accomplishing a task parallel to what the Hebrew prophets achieved, namely, the complete renewal and elevation of the Hebrew religion from a local and national into a universal and ethical religion. Yet instructive parallels may be found in ancient literatures. Thus the Vedic hymns are reputed to have no human authors. The names attached to them are those of the seers who “saw” them, to whom they were revealed. They are therefore merely the channels through which the divine word is communicated to man (Professor Rapson). The Rev. C. H. W. Johns (Interpreter, April 1906, “The Prophets of Babylonia”) thinks that longer discourses moral, and predictive, fully equal to those of the Hebrew prophets, existed in Babylonia as early as the 3rd millennium B.C. but were curtailed into the brief sentences of the omen tablets. “The so-called ‘tablet of warning to kings against injustice’ gives a fair specimen of connected discourse, e.g. ‘If a king hearken not to law, his people shall grow feeble and his land be ravaged. If he attend not to the justice of his land, Ea, the king of fates, shall distort his lot, &c.’ ” Further illustrations of ethical teaching may be found in the litany or confession of a penitent cited by Mr Johns in the same paper (p. 303).

It may be here stated that Winckler's conception of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah as the mouthpiece of the Assyrian court (K.A.T.3 p. 172 sqq.) can be easily refuted by a reference to the Isaianic oracles. A theory that Jeremiah was similarly influenced from Babylonia might seem more plausible, though equally baseless.

After the extinction of the prophetic voice, an ever-increasing weight was not unnaturally laid on the predictive element in their writings. Their creative religious ideas had become the common property of religious-minded Jews, at least in the somewhat imperfect shape in which they were embodied in the law, and their work on this side was carried on by the great religious poets. But the restored community which was still making a sort of faint attempt to be a religious nation as well as a Church felt very painfully the want of a direct message from God in critical times such as the prophets of old had been wont to bring. And in this need men began to look at the prophetic books, mainly in the hope that there might be found in them predictions which still awaited fulfilment, and might be taken as referring to the latter days of Persian or Greek oppression. By ignoring the free poetical form of prophecy, and still more by ignoring the fact that the prophetic pictures of the ideal future of Israel could not be literally fulfilled after the fall of the ancient state had entirely changed the sphere in which the problems of true religion had to be worked out, it was possible to find a great mass of unfulfilled prophecy which might form the basis of eschatological constructions. All this was quite in the vein of later Judaism, and so at length the unfulfilled predictions of the prophets served as the raw material for the elaborate eschatology of the apocalypses (see Apocalyptic Literature). In spite of superficial resemblances, mainly due to the unavoidable influence of current exegetical methods, the conception of prophecy as fulfilled in Christ is fundamentally different from the Jewish apocalyptic view of unfulfilled prophecy. Not external details but the spiritual ideas of the prophets find their fulfilment in the new dispensation, and they do so under forms entirely diverse from those of the old national kingdom of Yahweh.

Literature.—In the ancient and medieval Church and in the dogmatic period of Protestantism there was little or no attempt at historical study of prophecy, and the prophetical books were found instructive only through the application of allegorical or typical exegesis. For details the reader may refer to Diestel, Geschichte des Alten Testaments (Jena 1869), and for the final form of orthodox Protestant views to Witsius, De prophetis et prophetia. The growing sense of the insufficiency of this treatment towards the close of the period of dogmatism showed itself in various ways. On the one hand we have the revival of apocalyptic exegesis by Cocceius and his school,


  1. See 2 Kings xxiii. 21, and also Deut. xxxiv. 6. So too all the old national heroes and heroines ultimately became prophets; in the case of Deborah there is even a fusion in local tradition between an old heroine and an historical seer.