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Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 1

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OF PROPHECY.


Prophecy or revelation is certain knowledge communicated by God to man. A Prophet is one who interprets things revealed by God to those who of themselves cannot have certain knowledge of them, and who consequently can only receive the revelations imparted as articles of faith. The Hebrew word Nabi, commonly translated Prophet, signifies orator or interpreter, but is always used to signify an interpreter of the Divine will, as appears from Exodus (vii. 1), where God says to Moses, — "See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet;" which is as much as if he had said, — "Since Aaron in interpreting what thou sayest to Pharaoh plays the part of a prophet, thou shalt therefore be as a god, or stand in the stead of a god to Pharaoh."

It will be our business to treat of the Prophet in the next chapter; here we shall speak of Prophecy only. From the definition given above, it follows that all natural knowledge may be entitled Prophecy; for what we know by the light of nature depends entirely on a knowledge of God and his eternal decrees. But as this natural knowledge is accessible to all men, resting as it does on foundations that are common to mankind at large, therefore is it not so highly esteemed of the vulgar, whose disposition it is still to be attracted by rare and strange incidents, to the contempt of natural events. This is the reason why the vulgar, when there is question of Prophecy, always presume natural knowledge to be set aside, although it has a like title with any other kind of knowledge to be called divine, seeing that it is imparted to us by the nature of God and his decrees, and is not different from the knowledge which by all is called divine, save that divine knowledge surpasses the limits of natural knowledge, and that the laws of human nature considered in themselves cannot be its cause. As regards certainty, however, which natural knowledge always involves, and the source whence it proceeds, namely, God, it yields in nowise to prophetic knowledge, — unless, forsooth, it were thought or rather dreamed that the prophets possessed human bodies, indeed, but had minds other than human, whereby their sensations, consciousness, &c., would be entirely different from ours. Although natural knowledge be truly divine, then, still its teachers cannot be called prophets;[1] for the things taught may be perceived and understood by mankind at large with the same certainty as by those who teach, in virtue of common natural powers, and without the aid of faith.

Since our mind, therefore, in containing the nature of God objectively within itself, and thereby participating in his nature, has the power of forming clear and certain ideas which explain the nature of things and teach the purposes of life, it may be assumed on the ground of its excellence to be the prime cause of Divine revelation. For all that we clearly and adequately understand is dictated to us by the idea of God and nature, as has been already said, not in words, indeed, but in a much more excellent way, a way which agrees entirely with the nature of mind, and which has been experienced by every one undoubtedly who has tasted the delights of intellectual certainty. But as my object is to speak of those things especially which bear upon the Scriptures, I must be content in this place to say nothing more of the light of nature, and therefore proceed to discuss at length the other causes and means by which God has revealed to man those things that are beyond the sphere of natural knowledge, as well as those that do not surpass its compass; for there is no assignable reason wherefore God should not also in other ways impart to man those things of which he is cognizant by the light of nature.

Now whatever is said on this subject must be deduced from Scripture alone. For what can we possibly say of things that surpass our understanding but that which we have from the mouths of the prophets and the pages of Holy Writ? And since, in so far as I am aware, we have now no prophets among us, there is nothing for it but to draw from the sacred writings what has been left to us by the prophets of old, taking care always to ascribe nothing to them, to set down nothing as theirs, which they have not plainly and distinctly declared. But here it is to be especially observed that the Jews never make mention of mediate or particular causes; neither do they seem ever to regard or consider these; but from religion, from piety, or, as is commonly said, from devotion, they always refer everything immediately to God. If, for example, they have made a profit of their traffic, they say the advantage has been given to them by God; if they desire anything whatsoever, they say that God inclines their hearts thereto; and if any thought comes into their minds, they say that God has put it there. Wherefore we see that we are not to assume everything as prophecy and supernatural communication which Scripture says God imparted to any one, but so much only as Scripture declares expressly to have been revealed, or as from the context plainly appears to be revelation.

If we turn to the sacred volume, therefore, we shall find all that God reveals to the prophets to be imparted to them either by words or by visions, or in both ways at once — both by words and visions. The words, and the visions likewise, were, however, either real, actual, and independent of the imagination of the prophet who heard or saw them, or they were imaginary, the imagination of the prophet, even though watching, being so disposed as to lead him to believe that he clearly heard certain words, or distinctly saw certain visions.

Now, that God by a real voice revealed to Moses the laws which he desired should be given to the Jews appears from Exodus (xxv. 22), where we find these words, "And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy-seat, from between the two cherubims," words which show that God made use of an actual voice in giving them utterance; for there, in the place pointed out, Moses, when he so desired, found God ready to hold communication with him; and I shall by and by show that it was by a true voice that the law was made known. The voice with which God called Samuel I also suspect to have been a real voice, for we find the incident stated thus (1 Sam. iii. 21), "And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord;" as though it had been said that God manifested himself to Samuel by vocal sounds, or that Samuel heard God speaking. Nevertheless, as we have to distinguish between Moses and the rest of the prophets, we are compelled to hold that the voice heard by Samuel was imaginary; a conclusion which is also forced upon us from what has gone before in the narrative, where we find Samuel referring the voice to Eli, with whose voice he was of course familiar; for, called on three several occasions by God, he still imagined that he was summoned by Eli. The voice which Abimelech heard was imaginary, for we find it stated in Genesis (xx. 6.), "And God said unto him in a dream," the communication of God's will to him being therefore made not when he was wide awake, but when asleep and dreaming, a state in which the imagination is most apt to bring up things before the mind that have no existence in fact.

That the words of the Decalogue were not actually pronounced by God is the opinion of some among the Jews. They conceive that the Israelites only heard a noise, and no distinct words, during the continuance of which they became mentally aware of the Laws of the Decalogue. And to this view I have myself sometimes inclined; for I see that the words of the Decalogue as delivered in Exodus differ considerably from those of the Decalogue as it occurs in Deuteronomy, a circumstance from which it seems to follow (inasmuch as God spoke but once) that the Decalogue does not give the very words of God, but is intended to convey his precepts only. Nevertheless, unless violence be done to the plain sense of Scripture, we must admit that the Israelites heard a real voice on the occasion when the Decalogue was communicated, for in Deuteronomy (v. 4) it is said expressly, "The Lord talked with you face to face," &c., i.e. spoke as two persons hold verbal communication with one another by means of their corporeal organs. Wherefore it seems more in accordance with Scripture to conclude that God created a certain real voice by which he revealed the Decalogue; and in our eighth chapter we shall take occasion to explain how it happens that the words and precepts of one of these Decalogues differ from those of the other. Even then, however, every difficulty will not have been removed; for it does not seem slightly in contradiction with reason to imagine that any created thing, depending like all else on God, should have power given it to express the essence or existence of God in word or deed, and to assume his personality, as is done when we find such language as this in the first person, "I, Jehovah, am thy God," &c. And although when any one says with his mouth "I understand," no one imagines that it is the mouth but the mind of the speaker which understands, because the mouth speaking is referred to the nature of the man who speaks, and he to whom the words are addressed appreciates by the nature of his own mind the mind of the speaker; still I do not see how they who previously knew nothing of God but his name, and who desired speech with him that they might be assured of his existence, — I do not see, I say, how their desire would be satisfied by a creature having no more intimate dependence on God than any other created thing saying to them, "I am God." I ask, Had God disposed the lips of Moses — but why of Moses? — of any created thing to articulate such words as these, "I am God," would the existence of God have therefore been understood? And then Scripture seems invariably to imply that God himself spoke when the Decalogue was delivered. He came down from heaven upon Mount Sinai for the special purpose of divulging the law, and the Jews not only heard his voice, but their chiefs and elders saw him (Exodus xx. 10, 11). Nor does the law revealed to Moses, from which it was not permitted to take, and to which it was not lawful to add, anything, and which was the binding code of the country, ever teach that God is incorporeal, that he is without form and features, but only that he is God; that he alone is to be believed in and worshipped, and that no image of him is to be made lest his true worship should be compromised. Image or likeness of God never having been seen, none could be fashioned in semblance of him, but must needs be formed after some created thing which had been seen; and thus, having homage paid it, the thing represented, and not Jehovah, would be thought of, and have the honour and worship due to him alone bestowed upon it. Nevertheless Scripture in several places clearly declares that God has a form; and to Moses' petition, whilst conversing with God, to be shown his glory, he is informed that no man shall see God and live. Putting him in a cleft of the rock, however, God covers him with his hand as he passes, but withdrawing it for a moment, shows Moses "his back parts." And here, in. this account, I make no doubt but that some mystery or allegory lurks, of which I shall speak more at length by and by. At present I proceed to point out those passages in Scripture that indicate the means by which God has revealed his decrees to man.[2]

That revelation has been made by visions only appears from the First Book of Chronicles (xxii.), where God declares his anger to David by an angel having a sword in his hand. The same means are also employed in the case of Balaam. And although Maimonides and others have maintained that these and other histories in which apparitions of angels are mentioned (that of Manoah, that of Abraham, when he thought of immolating his son, &c.), are based upon dreams, inasmuch as no one with his waking sense can see an angel; this seems to me but idle talk, in which Scripture is tortured into Aristotelian vanities and poetic figments, than which I find nothing more reprehensible. God certainly revealed to Joseph his future greatness, not by an apparition or vision, but by his imagination. To Joshua, on the contrary, God revealed himself by a vision, and words addressed to the ear, showing him an angel armed with a sword like the leader of a host, and in speech by the angel's mouth bidding him do battle for the people. To Isaiah also it was shown in a vision how Jehovah had withdrawn his favour from the Israelites, the thrice holy God being imagined as seated on a lofty throne surrounded by the heavenly host, and the Israelites beneath plunged in their wickedness and sin, and so removed to the uttermost from his presence and protection. The abject state of the Hebrew nation in his day was understood and keenly felt by Isaiah, and the calamities in store for it were revealed to him in words as it were from the lips of God. It were easy for me to cite many similar instances from the Scriptures, did I not believe that they were generally well known.

All that has been said above, however, is particularly confirmed by the text of the Book of Numbers (xii. 6, 7), where we find these words: "If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak to him in a dream," i.e. by figures and hieroglyphics, not by actual words and a real voice. The text proceeds: "To my servant Moses not so; with him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches, and the similitude of God shall he behold," that is, Moses in the presence of God should speak to him as a friend without fear, as may be seen more at large in Exodus (xxxiii. 17). The passage just quoted makes it evident that the prophets generally did not hear real voices or words, a conclusion still further confirmed by Deuteronomy (xxxiv. 10), where it is written: "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses whom the Lord knew face to face," words which must still be understood as referring to knowledge by voice only, for not even did Moses ever behold the very face of Jehovah (Exod. xxxiii.).

Other than these means I find none in Scripture whereby God ever held communication with man; so that, as has been shown above, none others are to be imagined or admitted. And although we clearly understand that God can communicate his will to man in various ways, — for without having recourse to corporeal media, he does communicate his essence to our souls, — yet that a man should by his mind alone be able to perceive aught which is not included within the fundamentals of his understanding, and which cannot be deduced therefrom, would imply that he possessed a mind much more excellent, much nobler, than that which belongs to humanity at large. Wherefore, I do not believe that any one save Christ alone ever attained to such superiority over others as to have had the precepts of God which lead to everlasting life, revealed to him immediately, and without the intervention of words or a vision. God, I opine, manifested himself by the mind of Christ Jesus immediately to the apostles, as He formerly revealed himself to Moses by the medium of the voice. The voice of Christ, consequently, even as the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God, and in this sense also may we say that the wisdom of God, that is, the wisdom which is more than human, put on humanity in Christ, and that Christ, consequently, is the way of salvation.

But it is necessary for me here to admonish my reader that I do not speak either in affirmation or negation of those things which some churches declare concerning Christ, for I freely confess that I do not understand them. What I affirm I derive from the Scriptures alone; and there I nowhere read of God having ever appeared to, or spoken with Christ, but of God revealed through Christ to the apostles as the way of life, and finally of the old law having been delivered through an angel or a voice, but not immediately revealed by God to man. Wherefore, if Moses spoke face to face with God, as one man speaks with another, i.e. by means of their corporeal organs severally, Christ, it must be maintained, communicated with God in the way of mind with mind.[3]

Our position therefore is, that with the exception of Christ no one has received the revelations of God save by the aid or medium of imagination, viz. by means of words, signs, or visions; so that in order to excel in prophesying there was no need of a more perfect mind, but only of a more vivid imagination, as I shall clearly show in the next chapter. Here, meantime, it seems proper to ask what is to be understood by the expression, "The spirit of God infused into the prophets," or, "The prophets spoke from or inspired by the spirit of God," an inquiry in which it is important, in the first place, to learn the true significance of the Hebrew word רוח ruagh,[4] commonly translated spirit.

Now in its most simple sense the word ruagh signifies wind or vapour, but it is also used in a great variety of other senses: 1st, in Psalm cxxv. (17), for example, we find the word employed to signify the breath of the mouth: "Neither is there any breath in their mouths." 2nd, In 1 Samuel (xxx. 12) ruagh imports strength in the sense of bodily power: "And when he had eaten, his spirit came again to him." 3rd, The word means courage or moral strength, as in Joshua (ii. 11), "Neither did there remain any more courage (ruagh) in any man." In Ezekiel the word occurs with the same meaning (ii. 2), "And the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet." 4th, The word is further used to signify virtue or aptitude, as in Job, where we find these words (xxxii. 8), "There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding," words in reply to Elihu who has just expressed himself diffidently, "on account of his youth," in the presence of Job and his friends, "because they were very old:" "great men," continues Job, "are not [necessarily] wise, neither do the aged understand judgment," which is as much as if he had said that knowledge and understanding depend on the capacity of each individual man. In the same sense, nearly, do we find the word employed in Numbers (xxvii. 18), "Take thee Joshua, a man in whom is the spirit." 5th, The word ruagh is still further used to signify conduct or disposition, as in Numbers (xiv. 24), "But Caleb, my servant, because he had another spirit with him, him will I bring into the land," &c. In Proverbs (i. 23) we find these words, "I will pour out my spirit (i.e. make known my purpose) unto you." In this sense the word signifies will, desire, mental impulse, as in Ezekiel (i. 12), where it is written, "Whither the spirit was to go they went," and in Isaiah (xxx. 1), "Woe to the rebellious children that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit;" and again (xxix. 10), "The Lord hath poured out on you the spirit (i.e. the desire) of deep sleep." In Judges (viii. 3[5]) we have this phrase, "Then was their spirit softened," and here the word implies temper; and in Proverbs (xvi. 32) we are told that "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit (i.e. his passions) than he that taketh a city," and yet again in the same book (xxv. 28), "He that hath no rule over his own spirit (i.e. temper) is like a city without walls." In Isaiah again (xxxiii. 11) the word breath (ruagh) evidently signifies evil disposition, in these words, "Your breath as fire shall devour you."

The word ruagh, moreover, as it signifies disposition of mind, is used to express all the passions and even modes of the soul. We have therefore the phrase lofty spirit for proud spirit or pride, lowly spirit for humility, good spirit for benevolence, spirit of jealousy for jealousy, spirit of lust for fornication, spirit of wisdom, of counsel, of fortitude, &c., for these qualities severally, though, in the Hebrew, words are more frequently used substantively than adjectively. 6th, Ruagh signifies the mind or soul itself, as in Ecclesiastes (iii. 19), "All have one breath, and all go into one place." 7th, Finally, the word ruagh is applied to the quarters of the world, because of the winds which blow from these, and also to the sides of anything that look towards these quarters. (Ezekiel xxxvii. 9 and xlii. 16 et seq.)

And here it is proper to observe that in the Hebrew Scriptures everything referred to God is very commonly said to be of God. 1st, Because nature belongs to God, and is as it were a part of himself, as when the "Power of God," the "Eye of God," is mentioned. 2nd, Because everything is in the power of God, and is obedient to his will. Thus the heavens are the heavens of God, because they are his chariot and his dwelling-place. Assyria is entitled the "Scourge of God," and Nebuchodonosor the "Servant of God," &c. 3rd, Because the thing spoken of is dedicate to God, as the temple of God, the bread of God, a Nazarene of God, &c. 4th, Because things are made known by the prophets, not revealed by the natural understanding, whence the law imparted by Moses is entitled the Law of God. 5th, When things have to be spoken of in the superlative degree, they are said to be of God; thus, very high mountains are called mountains of God, very deep sleep is a sleep of God, and it is in this scene that Amos (iv. 11) is to be understood, when he makes Jehovah himself speak thus: "I have destroyed you as the destruction of God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah," that is to say, completely, like the memorable instance of destruction quoted; for, as God himself speaks, it is impossible to explain the passage appropriately in any other way. The natural wisdom of Solomon is entitled wisdom of God, in other words, Solomon was very wise, he possessed wisdom much above the common. In the Psalms great cedar trees are cedars of God, to indicate their unusual size. In Samuel (xiv. 7) we find the expression, "And the fear of God fell upon the people," used to signify that it was great fear which seized them. In the same way indeed was habitually spoken of that surpassed the comprehension of the Jews, and of which the natural causes were unknown: "The thunder is the muttering or angry voice of God, the lightnings are his arrows, &c." The Jews indeed believed that God kept the winds confined in certain caverns, which they called treasuries of God, differing in their views from the Pagan in this only, that they thought Jehovah, not Æolus, was the reuler of the storm. On the same grounds miraculous works are called works of God, or mighty works. And, indeed, all natural events are the work of God, and happen by the Divine will and authority alone. It is in this view that the Psalmist calls the miracles of Egypt powers of God, because they opened up a way of safety to the Jews, expecting nothing of the kind, whereby their wonder and admiration were the more excited.

When in the Scriptures, then, we observe that unusual events in nature are called works of God, and trees of mighty dimensions are spoken of as trees of God, it is not to be wondered at that we find men of great stature and strength, though spoilers and ravishers, designated sons of God, as we do in the Book of Genesis. The ancients generally indeed, heathen as well as Jew, were accustomed to refer everything of peculiar excellence to God. Pharaoh, when he had heard Joseph's interpretation of his dream, declared that the understanding of the gods dwelt in him, and Nebuchodonosor told Daniel that he possessed the understanding of the sacred gods. Among the Latins, again, nothing is more common than to find works of art of great excellence ascribed to the Divine hand, or, as the Jews would have said, to the hand of God.

Those passages in Scripture, consequently, in which there is mention made of the spirit of God are easily interpreted and understood. The words ruagh Elohim, and ruagh Jehovah — spirit of God and spirit of Jehovah — signify nothing more in many places than a violent and excessively dry or blighting wind. Thus, in Isaiah (xl. 7) we have, "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it," that is to say, because blown upon by a very parching and strong wind. In Genesis (i. 2) it is said that the spirit of God, i.e. a strong wind, moved on the face of the waters. In other places the word ruagh is used to designate a mighty soul. Gideon and Samson, for instance, are spoken of as spirits of God; otherwise they were daring men prepared for every emergency. So also all virtue, all power, beyond the common, is virtue or power of God, as appears in Exodus (xxxi. 3), where we find these words, "And I will fill him with the spirit of God," which means, as the text itself immediately proceeds to explain, with genius and art, beyond the common run of men. In Isaiah (xi. 2) it is written, "And there rested upon him the spirit of God," which signifies, as the prophet by and by informs us, in a way that is very common in Scripture, such virtues as wisdom, counsel, fortitude, &c. The melancholy of Saul, moreover, is designated an evil spirit of God, which means no more in fact than a very great or deep melancholy; for the servants of Saul who called the melancholy with which he was possessed a melancholy of God, were those who suggested to him that he should summon a musician to his presence, who by playing on the harp might calm his mind and soothe his distemper, a course which plainly shows that by the phrase melancholy of God the persons about Saul understood a common but very great melancholy. The expression spirit of God, again, is used to signify the soul, life, and mind of man, as in Job (xxvii. 3), "And the spirit of God is in my nostrils," allusion being evidently made to what is said in Genesis of God's breathing the breath of life into the nostrils of man. In the same way Ezekiel, prophesying to the dead (xxxvii. 14), says, "And I shall give my spirit to you and ye shall live," i.e. breathing on them he would restore them to life. It is in the same sense that we are to understand these words in Job (xxxiv. 13), "If he (God) set his heart upon man, if he gather unto himself his spirit (i.e. the mind he has given) and his breath, &c." So also must we read the passage in Genesis (vi. 3), where it is said, "My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh," the interpretation being, that henceforward man would act according to the dictates of the flesh, and not of the understanding, which he had at first for his guidance. In Psalm li. (10, 11) we find this imprecation, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me; cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy spirit from me;" the meaning of which becomes obvious when we know that all sins were believed to proceed from the flesh, and that the spirit, mind, or understanding, prompted only to good, wherefore the Psalmist invokes the help of God against the lusts of the flesh, whilst he prays that the spirit of understanding, which the blessed Lord himself bestows, may be preserved to him. Scripture frequently representing God in the likeness of man, and ascribing to him mind, understanding, passions, a body, breath, &c., in order to accommodate itself to the weakness of the vulgar, we therefore frequently find in Holy Writ the words spirit of God used in the sense of mind, understanding, the passions, strength, and breath of the mouth of God. Thus Isaiah (xl. 13) asks, "Who hath directed the spirit (or mind) of the Lord, or being his counsellor hath taught him?" i.e. Who but God himself has ever determined the Almighty mind to will or decree aught? In Ixiii. 10 of the same prophet we read, "But they rebelled, and vexed his holy spirit."[6] Here the phrase, holy spirit, or spirit of God, is used synonymously with the law as delivered by Moses, because this law explains and makes known the mind of God, as Isaiah himself proceeds to show in the verse immediately following the one just quoted: "Where is he who put his holy spirit within him?" in other words, who dictated the law to Moses; an interpretation which plainly appears from the whole of the context. Nehemiah, when he says (ix. 20), "Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them," is speaking of the time when the law was delivered; and the same thing is alluded to in Deuteronomy (iv. 6), where Moses says, "For this (the law) is your wisdom and your understanding, &c." The Psalmist also says (cxliii. 11), "Thy good spirit leads me into level lands," i.e. Thy revealed will guides me on the way of life. The word ruagh also signifies, as has been said, spirit in the sense of breath, as in the phrase "breath of God," which, like mind or soul and body, is often inappropriately ascribed to God in the Scriptures. The word occurs with this signification in Psalm xxxiii. 6, "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth." The word again, in connection with God, sometimes implies power, force, virtue, as in Job (xxxiii. 4), "The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life;" that is to say, the power, or, if you will, the decree of God hath given me life. The Psalmist speaking poetically says: "By God's command were the heavens fashioned, and by his spirit or the breath of his mouth (i.e. his decree uttered as it were in a breath) the whole of the heavenly host." So also in Psalm cxxxix. 7 we have these words, "Whither shall I go from thy spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence?" expressions which the Psalmist proceeds to amplify, and to show that by them he means he cannot go where he should be beyond the reach of the Almighty's power and protecting care. Finally, the word ruagh, translated spirit of God, is used in Scripture to express modes of affection of the Supreme mind, such as mercy, loving-kindness, &c. This is seen in Micah (ii. 7), where the prophet asks, "Is the spirit (i.e. the mercy) of God straitened?" and in Zechariah (iv. 6), where we have this, "Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit (in other words, by my mercy), saith the Lord." In the same sense, I believe, are we to understand ver. 12 of ch. vii. of the same prophet: "And they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts hath sent in his spirit (i.e. his mercy), by former prophets." Haggai also has the following (ii. 5), "So my spirit (i.e. my grace) remaineth among you, fear not;" and further, Isaiah (xlviii. 16), "And now the Lord God and his spirit hath sent me;" a verse in which the word spirit may be variously interpreted indeed, and taken to signify either the mind or the mercy of God, or his will revealed in the law; for the prophet continues: "From the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time that it was, there am I, and now the Lord God in his spirit hath sent me." This is as much as to say the prophet made no secret at first of God's anger and of the sentence that had gone out against the nation, but now was he a messenger of good tidings, come to preach the mercy of God, and to announce their restoration to his favour. That the verse may also be understood as referring to the will of God revealed in the law of Moses, or as saying that the prophet had come in obedience to that law to admonish the Jews, might be assumed from what is said in Leviticus (xix. 17). Isaiah certainly admonishes the children of Israel in the same way as Moses was wont to do, and also winds up as the great first prophet did, by foretelling their restoration. The first interpretation, however, is that which I myself prefer.

Returning to our subject, from this long array, illustrative of particular and diverse applications of the same word, I think we may safely conclude that Scripture phrases such as these, "To the prophets was given the spirit of God," "God shed his spirit upon man," "Men filled with the spirit of God, or with the Holy Ghost," &c., have no other meaning than that the prophets possessed certain special and extraordinary powers,[7] that they were men more than commonly devout, and that they apprehended or knew the mind and purposes of God; for we have shown that the word spirit, ruagh in Hebrew, signifies as well the mind or soul itself as the modes or affections of the mind or soul; whence it comes that the law as it makes known the mind of God, so is it often spoken of as the spirit or understanding of God, and by an extension of the same principle, the imagination of the prophets (inasmuch as by this are the decrees of God revealed) may be styled the mind of God, and the prophets themselves be said to be possessed of the mind of God. And although the mind of the Almighty and his eternal decrees are written upon our minds also, and we therefore and thereby perceive and know the mind of God[8] — and here I speak by the letter of Scripture — still, inasmuch as the knowledge of natural things is common to all, it is not held in such high esteem by the vulgar, as has been already said, and was even wont to be despised by the Jews, who boasted themselves superior to all other peoples, and cared nothing for knowledge and understanding of a kind that was shared with the world at large. Finally, the prophets were said to have the spirit of God within them, because men, being generally ignorant of the cause of prophetic knowledge, marvelled at its exhibition, and referring it as they do other wonderful or portentous things immediately to God, they called it divine knowledge.

We may therefore affirm, without hesitation or reserve, that the prophets perceived not the revelations of God save by the aid of imagination; that is to say, by the medium of words, visions, or signs, and these either actual or imaginary. For, as we find no other means of communication besides these referred to in Scripture, we are not to hold ourselves at liberty to conceive any other, as I have already shown. Wherefore, or by what law of nature, this is so, I am free to confess my ignorance. I might say indeed, as others have done, that it is by the power or will of God; but then I should seem to myself to talk idly; for it would be as if I pretended to explain the form of any particular thing by the use of some transcendental term. All things are made by the power of God: yea, because there is no power in nature but the power of God alone; and it is certain that in our ignorance of the causes of natural things, we can have no knowledge of the power of God. The power of God is therefore very foolishly invoked when the natural cause of anything, in other words, the very power of God, is unknown. But neither is it necessary to our purpose that we should understand the cause of prophetic knowledge; for, as I have already declared, I here pretend to do no more than to discuss the documents of Scripture, that from these, as in natural science from the data supplied by nature, I may draw my conclusions: — we have nothing to do with the causes of the documents themselves.

Admitting, then, that the prophets by imagination were made cognizant of the things God willed to reveal, there is no doubt but that they perceived many things beyond the limits of the understanding; for from words and visions a much longer array of ideas may be composed than from those principles and ideas on which the whole of our natural knowledge reposes.

And this consideration explains to us why the prophets almost always make their communications allegorically or enigmatically, and give bodily shape and form to spiritual things in general. The procedure is in entire conformity with the nature of the imaginative faculty. On the same ground also we no longer feel surprise when in Scripture we find the Supreme so inappropriately spoken of as we do in the Books of Numbers, xi. 17, and 1 Kings, xxii. 2; when we meet Micah describing God as seated on a throne; Daniel portraying the Almighty as an old man clothed in white raiment; Ezekiel figuring him as fire; those about Christ fancying that they saw the Holy Ghost in the likeness of a dove descending, whilst the apostles conceived that they saw it in the shape of fiery tongues, and Paul, on his conversion, believed that he beheld a great light. All such notions and images are obviously in consonance with vulgar ideas of God and spirits. Again, and to conclude, since the imagination has something of a flighty and inconstant nature, we should expect, as we find the case to be in fact, that the power of prophecy is not common, that it does not remain long at a time with those who possess it, and that neither does it come upon them frequently. On the contrary, prophetic power is rare — very few men possess it, and in these it is only manifested at distant and uncertain intervals. Now this being the case, we are led to inquire whence might accrue to the prophets the certainty of the things which they perceived by force of their imagination, and not from the assured principles of the understanding? But all that can be said in answer to this query must be derived from Scripture: inasmuch as we have no true or actual science of such matters, we cannot explain them upon first principles or causes. The teaching of Scripture, however, in regard to the certainty of prophetic teaching can be elicited, and this we shall proceed to ascertain in the following chapter.

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Imaginary, Imagination. These words are evidently used by Spinoza to signify internal, sensual conceptions, occurring independently of external agency. Tue cerebral parts, to which impressions made on the organs of sense are conveyed, and where these become mental conceptions, being spontaneously active, cause impressions or conceptions that are referred to the outer world. It is in this way that men see spectres, hear ghostly sounds when awake, or ravishing music in their sleep, sit at wonderful banquets, are visited by well-remembered forms and faces in their dreams, &c. In the same manner we account for the idea of spirit, and of the spiritual world in general, which is wholly a creation of our own — without ourselves it has no existence, it is within us, not without; and though metaphysicians tell us that it is the mental act which evokes the material world, still this dictum is to be differently understood. Till we were, to us very certainly the world was not; but we have the intuitive assurance that before we were, the world was, and that when we are gone, it will continue to be. — Ed.

Notes[edit]

  1. Prophets, i.e. God's interpreters. He alone is God's interpreter, in fact, who makes known Divine commandments revealed to him by God to those who have not been so favoured, and whose belief consequently rests on no ground but the authority of the prophet and the confidence he inspires. Were it otherwise, did they who hearkened to the prophet become prophets in their turn, as they become philosophers who listen to philosophical discourses, the prophet would no longer be the sole interpreter of the Divine will to man, for then would they who heard him know the truth, not on the faith of the prophet, but by a kind of Divine communication like his own, and by internal testimony. It is thus that the sovereign despotic monarchy is the sole interpreter of the law, because his authority alone enacts and enforces it. [N.B. — The notes without the signature Ed. are the author's. — Ed.]
  2. The following note, from a paper by a distinguished writer, will probably satisfy the unprejudiced reader on the subject of direct verbal communication from the Almighty. — Ed.
    "Shall we, dare we, conceive God as speaking? Did God speak, we must then presume him to be possessed of human parts, with the several corporeal organs in especial upon which articulate speech depends. To me, however, it appears as absurd to imagine a human body without each and all of its members — without teeth, for example — as to think of Deity with a set of teeth, and, as a sort of necessary sequence to this, engaged in mastication, for the teeth, with the wise economy of means so conspicuous in our wonderfully compacted frames, whilst subservient to articulate speech, are nevertheless especially provided for the comminution of the food." — Jacob Grimm, Ueber den Ursprung der Sprache, S. 27. 4te Aufl., 8vo. Berlin, 1858.
  3. Is not all communication with the Supreme effected in the way of mind with mind? God incarnate in Christ, in the Man Christ, in man furnished with mental aptitudes to receive and understand the decrees of his Maker, whether issued in words or visions, mentally apprehended, or read on the everlasting page of nature — in no case is it ear or eye or any sense, but mind, that is in communion with the Supreme Intelligence. — Ed.
  4. Ruagh, Heb., Rauch, Germ., Reek, Scotch: smoke, vapour. — Ed.
  5. The citation here appears to be wrong. — Ed.
  6. The Scripture texts in the original are presumed to be Spinoza's own version from the Hebrew, which is always given along with the Latin. The translation of the above test is as follows: "Et ipsi amaritudine et tristitia affecerunt spiritual suœ sanctitatis," — "and they afflicted with sorrow and bitterness the spirit of his holiness;" words that are certainly much more striking and forcible than those in the common English Bible. Spinoza is known to have made a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which he himself, it is much to be regretted, destroyed shortly before his death. The English texts in this translation are usually from the accredited version. — Ed.
  7. Although there are men endowed with certain advantages which nature has denied to others, it is not said that these men are raised above human nature; because for this it were necessary that they possessed qualities in peculiar, which are not comprised in the essence or definition of humanity. The stature of a giant, for example, is something rare, but entirely human. In the same way, the talent of making verses impromptu is far from common, but there is nothing in it which surpasses the power of ordinary humanity. I say the same of that faculty which some men have of representing certain things to themselves very vividly by means of their imagination, and this not in sleep, but wide awake, precisely as though the objects were present to them. Were we to encounter one who possessed other means of perception than those that belong to mankind at large, we should then have to admit that he was more than mortal.
  8. Is not all communication with the Supreme effected in the way of mind with mind? God incarnate in Christ, in the Man Christ, in man furnished with mental aptitudes to receive and understand the decrees of his Maker, whether issued in words or visions, mentally apprehended, or read on the everlasting page of nature — in no case is it ear or eye or any sense, but mind, that is in communion with the Supreme Intelligence. — Ed.