Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 2
From what has been said in the preceding chapter it appears that prophets were not gifted with any peculiar superiority of understanding, but only with a certain more lively faculty of imagination, than the rest of mankind. This indeed appears plainly from the Scripture narratives themselves. Solomon, for instance, excelled all his contemporaries in wisdom, but he was not therefore possessed of the gift of prophecy. Those most sagacious persons, Heman, Darda, and Kalchol, were not prophets; whilst others, mere rustics without culture, and even ignorant women, such as Hagar, the servant of Abraham, were possessed of prophetic powers. And this is consonant with reason and experience; for those who greatly excel in strength of imagination are often less able to see things truly by the pure light of intellect; and those, on the contrary, who are distinguished for the vigour of their understanding, are apt to have the power of imagination more tempered, more under command, as it were, and distinct from pure intelligence. They therefore who go in search of wisdom and a knowledge of natural and spiritual things from the writings of the prophets completely mistake their way, as I shall now proceed to show at length; little caring what the superstitious may say, since the time, philosophy, and the subject itself, demand plain speaking; and superstition has no greater hatred of aught than of those who advocate simple truth and strive to find out and follow the true way of life. And with grief I am compelled to say that many who openly admit that they have no idea of God, and know nothing of him save by created things, of the causes of which they are utterly ignorant, yet do not hesitate to accuse religious philosophers of Atheism.
That I may proceed regularly, however, I shall now go on to show that prophecies have varied in their purport, not only by reason of the imagination and bodily temperament of each prophet, but also by reason of the opinions with which they were severally imbued; from whence it is to be inferred that the gift of prophecy never made prophet wiser or more learned than it found him, as I shall show more in detail immediately. Here, at the outset, we have to inquire as to the certainty of the prophets; first, because this bears upon the entire argument of the present chapter, and next, because it serves us somewhat in the demonstration at which we aim.
Imagination of itself not involving certainty from its own nature, as does every clear and distinct idea, in order that we may be sure of the things we conceive by imagination, it is necessary to supplement it by reasoning; whence it follows that of itself prophecy, as the effect of imagination, can never involve certainty; and this is the reason why the prophets were never certain of the revelation of God by the revelation itself, but always by some supplementary sign or condition. This is obvious from Genesis xv. 8, where Abraham, after having heard the promise made him by God, asks for a sign, not because he did not believe God, or had not faith in him, but that he might know it was God indeed who had made him the promise. The same view appears still more clearly from Gideon, where he says to God, "Show me a sign that [I may know] thou talkest with me" (Judges vi. 17). God also says to Moses, "And this [shall be] a sign to thee, that I sent thee." Ilezekiah, who had long been aware that Isaiah was a prophet, nevertheless asks for a sign by way of assurance of the prophecy of restored health which was made him. These instances suffice to show that the prophets always looked for a sign as an assurance of the things they prophesied from imagination; and this is the reason why Moses admonishes the people always to demand of the prophet a sign, such as the predication of some event about to happen, as a security that he did not speak falsely. Prophecy, therefore, in this case yields the palm to natural knowledge, which requires no sign, but by its own nature involves certainty. Prophetic certainty, however, was not mathematical, but only moral, certainty, as appears by Scripture; for Moses (Deut. xiv.) instructs the Jews to put the prophet to death who should propose new gods, even though he supported his doctrine by signs and miracles; "for," Moses proceeds to say, "God sometimes sends signs and miracles to tempt and try the people." Christ, even, spoke in very similar terms to his disciples, as appears from Matthew (xxiv. 24), "For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." Then Ezekiel clearly teaches (xiv. 9) that God sometimes deceives men through prophets by false revelations,— "And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet," &c.; and Micah (1 Kings xxii. 22) speaks in the same way of the prophets of Ahab (who by their false predictions led him to do battle at Ramoth-Gilead, where he was slain).
Now though all this seems to imply that prophecy and revelation were very doubtful matters, still there was much of certainty in them, as has been said; for God never deceives the truly pious and elect; but, according to that old proverb quoted by Samuel (1 xxiv. 13), and as we gather from the history of Abigail and the words employed, we are to conclude that God makes use of the pious as instruments of his mercy, and of the impious as means and functionaries of his wrath. This clearly appears from the instance of Micah cited above; in which, though God had resolved to deceive Ahab by means of prophets, he only made use of false prophets for this end, revealing matters as they were to be in fact to the true prophet, who was not prohibited from uttering the truth. Still, as I have said, the certainty of prophecy was moral only; for no man can justify himself before God, nor boast that he is the instrument of God's clemency, as Scripture and the thing itself declare, for the displeasure of God seduced David into taking a census of the people, although Scripture bears abundant testimony to his piety.
The whole of prophetic certainty was founded upon these three considerations: 1. That revealed things were imagined by the prophets in a most vivid manner, and as men are wont to be affected or impressed by objects whilst awake. 2. That they were conceived by signs. 3. Lastly and especially, that they were conceptions of prophets having minds disposed to justice and goodness alone. And although Scripture does not regularly make mention of a sign, it is still to be believed that the prophets always received one; for Scripture does not constantly enumerate all the conditions and circumstances of an event, but often proceeds on the supposition that these are known. Besides, we may concede that the prophets who foretold or spoke of nothing new, and that was not contained in the law of Moses, did not require a sign; inasmuch as what they said was confirmed by the law. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, speaking of the desolation of Jerusalem, was confirmed by all the other prophets and by the denunciations of the law, and therefore he did not require a sign; but Hananiah, who, in opposition to Jeremiah and the rest of the prophet«, foretold the speedy restoration of the city, necessarily required a sign: his prediction must be doubted, until the event had declared its truth or falsehood (vide Jer. xxviii. 9), and the prediction not being borne out by the event in this case, Hananiah was put to death as the reward of his false prophesying.
Since the assurance which the prophets had from their signs, then, was not mathematical, or such as arises from the necessity of the thing perceived or seen, but was only moral, and signs were merely accorded to the prophets as additional testimonies, it follows that the signs exhibited must be in accordance with the opinions and capacity of the prophets; so that the sign which would have sufficed to render one prophet certain of his prediction, would have been altogether inadequate to convince another, professing different views and opinions. The consequence of this was that the signs exhibited varied with each individual prophet; even as we have shown that the revelation varied with every prophet, in harmony with his natural temperament, his imagination, and the kind of opinions he had already espoused. In regard to temperament, for example, if the prophet were of a hopeful and lively spirit, his prophecies spoke of victory, peace, abundance, and all that moves mankind to gladness; if, on the contrary, he were of a sad and gloomy disposition, then disaster, defeat, and every evil became the burthen of his revelation. Hence as the prophet was mild and merciful, or irascible and cruel, &c., was he apt or disposed to make revelations of an agreeable or harrowing nature. Again, as the prophet was a man of taste and culture, so did he receive and make known God's communications in an elegant and ornate style; but as he was rude and uncultivated, so were his revelations confused and inelegant. The same thing holds good as regards the revelations made by the imagination: were the prophet a rustic, then oxen, cows, &c., were the figures that presented themselves to him; were he a soldier, then armies with their leaders; were he a courtier, then the royal throne and attendant ministers were the images that served the purposes of communication. Finally, the prophecy varied according to the variety of opinion entertained by the prophet. The magi, for instance (vide Matthew ii.), who believed in the vanities of astrology, had the nativity of Christ revealed to them by the imagination of a star appearing in the east. To the augurs of Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. xxi. 26) the destruction of Jerusalem was revealed in the entrails of the sacrificial victims, and the king himself had information of the same event from the oracles he consulted, and from the direction of the arrows which he shot into the air over his head. And to conclude, God was revealed as indifferent to and unwitting the actions of men to those prophets who believed that men acted of their own free will and proper power. These several positions I proceed to demonstrate seriatim from the text of Scripture.
The first position is proved by the case of Elisha (2 Kings iii. 15), who, that he might prophesy to Jehoram, desired a minstrel, or a musical instrument, to be brought to him; and it was only after he had been composed by sweet sounds that he was enabled to speak joyful tidings to Jehoram and his associates, which he had not been in a condition to do before, on account of the wrath of the king; for they that are angry with any one, though they be apt enough to imagine evil, are little inclined to imagine good of him. Some indeed have said in connection with this matter, that God does not reveal himself to the angry and the sorrowful; but these persons plainly dream; for Moses in anger against Pharaoh, and without having recourse to music, foretold that wretched slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus xi. 5, 8). God was also revealed to Cain in a paroxysm of rage. To Ezekiel, impatient from anger, were revealed the misery and the contumacy of the Jews (Ezek. iii. 14); and Jeremiah, plunged in sorrow and weary of his life, prophesied the calamities that were to befall his countrymen in such dark colours that Josias would not consent to consult him, but preferred a female contemporary prophetess, the task of declaring God's mercy and loving-kindness, of which he wished to hear, seeming more especially adapted to the female genius (vide Paralipomena or Chronicles, Book ii. ch. xxxv.). Micah, also, never prophesied any good to Ahab, which other true prophets did nevertheless, as appears from 1 Kings xx., but all his life long prophesied evil (1 Kings xxii. 7 and still more clearly 2 Chron. xviii. 7). Prophets therefore, according to their various temperaments, were more apt for revelations of one kind than of another.
The style, again, of the several prophets varies greatly as regards elegance of diction. The prophecies of Ezekiel and Amos are not like those of Isaiah and Nahum, but are written in a much ruder style. Any one somewhat familiar with the Hebrew tongue who would look into this matter more curiously, by comparing the different prophets chapter by chapter where the argument happens to be the same, would discover a vast difference in their several styles. To cite one or two examples: Let the courtier Isaiah (i. 11—20) be contrasted with the rustic Amos (v. 21—24) in the passages now referred to. Let the arrangement and reasoning of Jeremiah (xlix.) writing to Edom be compared with the order and ratiocination of Obadiah, and the 40th (19, 20) and 44th (8) chapters of Isaiah be compared with the 8th (8) and 13th (2) chapters of Hosea. And so of other instances, all of which along with those particularly quoted, when rightly considered, seem clearly to show that God used no particular style in making his communications; but, in the same measure as the prophet possessed learning and ability, his communications were either concise and clear, or, on the contrary, they were rude, prolix, and obscure.
Prophetic representations and hieroglyphics, although meaning to express the same thing, varied nevertheless. The glory of God leaving the temple was represented differently to Isaiah and to Ezekiel. The Rabbins indeed will have it that the two representations are nearly identical, only that Ezekiel, a rustic person, having been beyond measure surprised, gave a more particular and circumstantial account of what he saw. But unless the Rabbins have a traditional and certain account of the matter, which I by no means believe, they plainly invent what they say; for Isaiah saw seraphim with six wings, whilst Ezekiel saw beasts with four wings; Isaiah saw God in white raiment and sitting on a royal throne, Ezekiel saw him as fire: — each undoubtedly presumed he saw God in the way or likeness in which he was wont to conceive him.
Nor do prophetic accounts vary only in particulars; they differ much in perspicuity. The representations of Zechariah, as we learn from the accounts themselves, were so obscure, that without an explanation they could not be understood by himself; and those of Daniel were so dark, that even when explained they were still unintelligible, not to others only, but also to the prophet himself. And the obscurity here was not because of any difficulty in the matter to be revealed, (for the subjects were purely human, and in no wise surpassed human capacity, save in so far as they were prospective,) but only because the imagination of Daniel was not so active or did not possess equal prophetic power when he was awake as when he slept; a fact which appeared in this, that in the beginning of his prophesyings he was so much alarmed as almost to despair of his strength to bear their burthen. It was probably by reason of this weakness of his imagination and bodily powers that his visions came before him so obscurely, that even with the help of an explanation he could not rightly comprehend them. And here it is to be observed that the words heard by Daniel were imaginary only (as has been shown before); wherefore it is not wonderful that he, in the perturbation of the moment, should have heard things so indistinctly and imperfectly that he found it impossible afterwards to understand them. They who maintain that God did not design to reveal himself clearly to Daniel appear not to have read the words of the angel, who says expressly (x. 14) that he had come to make Daniel understand what should befall his people in the latter days. What was intended has therefore remained an enigma, for there was no one then living with such strength of imagination as would have made a clearer revelation possible. Finally, when we observe the prophets to whom it was revealed that God was about to take away Elias endeavouring to persuade Elisha that Elias was only removed to another place where he might still be found by them, it was plain that they did not rightly understand the revelation made to them. It seems unnecessary to carry this discussion further: nothing appears more manifestly from Scripture than that God endowed one prophet much more largely with the gift of prophecy than another. I shall therefore proceed to show that prophecies, or things foretold or imparted, varied in conformity with the opinions of the several prophets, and that different prophets entertained various and even contrary opinions and prejudices (I speak of merely speculative matters thus; for of those which bear on morals and conduct a totally different view is to be taken). And here I shall proceed inquiringly and at some length; for I esteem this subject one of great moment, and I think I shall be able to show from it that prophecy never rendered prophet more learned than he was before, but still left him in possession of his preconceived opinions; whereby we shall escape the bondage of feeling ourselves tied down in matters purely speculative by anything that the prophets have said.
It is indeed wonderful with what eagerness men have still tried to persuade themselves that the prophets knew all that the human understanding could embrace. Although several parts of Scripture clearly inform us that the prophets were ignorant of certain things, the world have preferred to maintain that they did not understand these passages of Scripture rather than admit that the prophets were ignorant of anything; or they have striven so to twist the words of Scripture, as to make it say what there plainly was no intention of saying. But, if either of these courses be permitted, it is all over with Scripture as an authority; for we should then seek in vain to prove aught from Scripture, if those things that are most clearly set forth are put among the obscure or impenetrable matters, or the plainest text is to be arbitrarily interpreted. Nothing in Scripture, for example, is clearer than that Joshua and the writer of his history also were of opinion that the sun moved round the earth — that the earth was at rest, the sun in motion — and that the sun stood still in the heavens for a certain time upon a certain occasion. Many, however, who will not allow that any change takes place in the heavenly bodies, explain the passage detailing this extraordinary event in such a way as to make it declare nothing of the kind; others, again, farther advanced in philosophy, and aware that the sun is at rest whilst the earth revolves around him, have striven with all their might to extort this doctrine from words which say the very contrary, — at which I confess my amazement! But I would ask, whether we were bound to accept Joshua the warrior as a competent astronomer, or to believe that by a miracle it was revealed to him that the light of the sun might remain longer above the horizon than wont, from causes of which he was ignorant? To me either conclusion appears equally absurd. I prefer saying openly that Joshua was ignorant of the true cause of that longer continuance of the light which he witnessed, and that he and those about him believed that the sun, revolving round the earth in its daily course, had stood still on the day in question, and so been the cause of the phenomenon they witnessed. They never thought of referring it to any less obvious cause, such as to the ice and hail which then filled the air (vide Joshua x. 11), and which might have given rise to a higher refractive power in the atmosphere than usual, or, in fine, to any other condition, into the nature of which it is not our business to inquire. In the same way and according to his light was the vision of the backward shadow revealed to Isaiah, viz. by a retrograde movement of the sun; for he too thought that the sun was in motion whilst the earth was at rest; and probably not even in his dreams had he ever thought of parahelia. Let us, then, without hesitation admit so much, and say that a sign might appear, and Isaiah prophesy before the king, although the prophet knew nothing of the true cause of the wonders he witnessed. Of the temple of Solomon, although its construction was revealed by God, the same thing is to be said, viz. that all its proportions and parts were in conformity with the capacity and opinions of Solomon; for as we are not held to the belief that Solomon was a great mathematician, we may be permitted to affirm that he was ignorant of the true relation between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, but that with common workmen he believed it to be as three to one. If, on the contrary, it is said that we do not understand the meaning of the text in 1 Kings (vii. 23) I know not, I vow, what can ever be made out of any other part of Scripture; for the construction of the molten sea is detailed simply and as matter of history; and if we are told that Scripture meant otherwise, but for some reason unknown to us, chose to write in such a way, this were equivalent to a subversion of all its authority; for then might the same thing be said with equal right of every individual passage, and thus whatever human folly and perversity could imagine might come to be paraded and defended on the teaching of Scripture. But what we have ourselves advanced has nothing of impiety about it, for Solomon, Isaiah, Joshua, &c., although prophets, were still men, and men who thought that nothing interesting to mankind at large was indifferent to them.
To Noah, too, according to his knowledge, was revealed God's purpose of destroying the human kind, because he thought that beyond the confines of Palestine the world was uninhabited. Nor indeed does true piety run any risk when the prophets are maintained to have been ill informed on such matters; they show their ignorance of things of much greater moment, teaching nothing grand or comprehensive of the Divine nature, but uttering merely vulgar opinions, with which the revelations they imparted were in conformity, as I shall immediately show by numerous references to their writings in the sacred volume. The prophets therefore, as it appears, are less to be commended for sublimity of genius and extent of knowledge than for piety and constancy. Adam, to whom God was first revealed, did not know that God was omnipresent and omniscient; for he tried to hide himself, and strove to excuse his sin before God, precisely as he would have done in the presence of another man. Hereby we see that the revelation of God made to Adam was according to his capacity, as of a person who was not ubiquitous, who was not cognizant of all things, and of Adam's guilt in particular; for Adam heard or seemed to hear the voice of God when walking in the garden, calling him by name, and demanding where he was; and finally, when, in the conversation which ensues, Adam speaks of his nakedness, God asks him whether he had not eaten of the fruit of the forbidden tree? Adam plainly knew nothing more of the attributes of God than that he was the creator of all things. To Cain, in like manner, God was revealed according to his condition, viz. as ignorant of human affairs; nor was any higher idea of God necessary to Cain to lead him to repent of his crime. To Laban, again, God revealed himself as the God of Abraham, because Laban believed that every people had its own peculiar god (vide Genesis xxxi. 29). Abraham himself did not know that God was ubiquitous, and had foreknowledge of all things; for when he heard the sentence against the Sodomites, he entreated God not to carry it into execution, until he should discover whether all in the city were alike deserving of punishment (Genesis xviii. 24): — peradventure, he says, there be fifty righteous within the city. Nor on other occasions was God revealed otherwise to Abraham, for thus in his imagination does God speak to him (ver. 21), "I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it which is come unto me; and if not, I will know." The divine testimony concerning Abraham indeed contains nothing but in reference to his obedience, and the strictness with which he commanded his children and household that they should do justice and judgment; there is not a word of the sublime ideas which it were fit should be entertained of God. Moses himself does not sufficiently perceive that God is omniscient, and governs all human actions by his decrees alone. Although God himself has said to him (Exodus iv. 1) that the Israelites would confide in him, Moses nevertheless calls the matter in question, "But behold they will not believe me, nor hearken to my voice." God was consequently revealed to him as indifferent to, and ignorant of, the future actions of mankind; for he gave him two signs, and said (Exodus iv. 8), "And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign, * * and if they will not believe these two signs, * * then thou shalt take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land, and it shall become blood," &c. And indeed whoever weighs the words and views of Moses without prejudice will readily perceive that his opinion of God amounted to this: that he was a Being who had always existed, who existed now, and who would exist for ever; and for this reason it was that he called God by the name of Jehovah, the letters composing the Hebrew word expressing the three times of existence, past, present, and future. Of his nature, however, God taught Moses nothing, but that he was merciful, long-suffering, &c., and especially that he was jealous [of his position as God above all other gods], as appears from very many passages of Scripture. Moses, moreover, believed and taught that this Being differed so much from all other beings that he could not be expressed by the image of any visible thing, nor could be even looked upon, and this not because of anything terrible or repugnant in God, but because of human weakness. Further, Moses taught that God by reason of his power was one and alone; though he acknowledged that there were other entities or beings which (doubtless by the order and command of Jehovah) ruled in his stead; in other words, that there were beings to whom God gave power and authority to govern nations, and to provide for and protect them; but the Being whom the children of Israel were to worship was the High and Supreme God, or, to use the Hebrew phrase, the God of all gods. Thus in the Song of Moses (Exodus xv. 11), he says, "Who among the gods is like unto thee, O Jehovah?" and further (xviii. 11) Jethro exclaims, "Now I know that the Lord [Heb. Jehovah] is greater than all gods;" as if he had said, "Now am I compelled by Moses to allow that Jehovah is greatest among the gods and of singular power." Whether Moses believed that those beings who administered in the place of God were created by Jehovah may be doubted; inasmuch as he has said nothing, in so far as I know, of their creation or beginning; though he taught that God [Heb. Elohim] reduced this visible world from chaos into order, scattered over it the seeds of natural things, and so had highest power and highest authority over all; further (vide Deut. x. 14, 15), in virtue of this supreme right and authority, that he had chosen the Hebrew people for himself, and given them a certain territory or land to dwell in, leaving other nations and regions of the earth to the care of other gods his substitutes (Deut. iv. 19, xxxii. 8, 9), whence he was called the God of the Israelites, or the God of Jerusalem in the singular, whilst the rest of the gods — those appropriate to other nations — were called Gods, in the plural. For this reason the Jews believed that the country which Jehovah had chosen for himself required a peculiar form of worship, different from that adapted to other lands, and that the worship of the gods of other lands was on no account to be tolerated within their own boundaries. The Jews even thought that some of the people whom the King of Assyria had brought into the land of Judea were torn in pieces by lions "because they knew not the manner of the gods of that land" (vide 2 Kings xvi. 25, et seq.). According to the opinion of Eben Ezra, it was for this reason that Jacob, about to journey to his native country, admonished his sons and servants that they should prepare themselves for the new worship, and give up the worship of strange gods, i.e. of the gods of the land wherein they were then dwelling (vide Genesis xxxv. 2, 4): "Put away the strange gods that are among you," jays he; "and they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand," &c. David also complained to Saul, when forced by his father's wrath to flee his country, that he "had been driven from the heritage of Jehovah, and thrown upon the service of other gods" (1 Sam. xxvii. 19). Finally, the Jews believed that this Supreme Being — God — had his dwelling-place in heaven, an opinion very prevalent among heathen nations (vide Deut. xxxiii. 27).
When we carefully consider the revelations of Moses, therefore, we find that they are all accommodated to such opinions as he himself entertained: inasmuch as he believed God to be endowed with such attributes as mercy, graciousness, jealousy, &c.; therefore was Jehovah revealed to him alternately as a merciful, as a gracious, as a jealous God, &c. This plainly appears in the account which we have (Exodus xxxiii. xxxiv.) of the way and manner in which God appeared to Moses, when he besought God to show him his glory, and was informed that the goodness of the Lord should be made to pass before him, but that he could not see the face of the Lord. Now Moses not having formed any idea of the similitude of God in his brain, and as God was only revealed to the prophets in conformity with the character of their opinions and imaginations, God could not present himself to Moses in any definite similitude. And this occurred, I say, because it was repugnant to the imagination of Moses to conceive God in the likeness of any created thing; for other prophets — Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, &c. — testify to having seen God. It was for this reason too that we find these words added, "For there shall no man see me and live," an opinion in harmony with the views of Moses; for God does not say that to show himself were in contradiction with the Divine nature, as the thing is in truth, but that it cannot be, because of human infirmity. Further, when God informed Moses that the Israelites in worshipping a calf had made themselves like other nations, he says (xxxiii. 2, 3) that he would send an angel, that is, a being who should have charge of the Israelites, in place of himself, the Supreme Being, for that he would not remain among them; whereby nothing was left to Moses by which it might appear that the Israelites were more cherished of the Lord God himself than foreign nations, which had been put under the charge of other gods (ver. 16). Finally, because God was presumed to dwell in heaven, therefore was he revealed as descending from heaven upon the mountain, and Moses also ascended the mountain that he might hold intercourse with God; nothing of which would have been necessary had he conceived God as alike present in all places.
The Israelites, in fact, knew almost nothing of God, although he was peculiarly revealed to them, a truth which appears but too plainly when a very few days afterwards they abandoned the honour and worship of Jehovah, bowed themselves before a golden calf, and declared that the gods they had brought with them out of Egypt should be their deities. Nor indeed was it to be expected that men accustomed to the superstitions of Egypt, rude in manners, degraded by most miserable slavery, should have had any right understanding of God, or that Moses should even have taught them anything beyond the way of living justly, which he did, not indeed as a philosopher, that they might enjoy freedom of spirit, but as a legislator, compelling them to a good life, by commandments issued under pain of the penalties of law. Whence it came to pass that the rule of living aright, or the true life — the love and adoration of God — was to them a slavery rather than a real liberty and gift by the grace of God, for Moses ordered them to love God and to keep his commandments that they might show themselves grateful for past favours, viz. their escape from Egyptian bondage, &c., and whilst he threatened them with the heaviest penalties if they transgressed, he promised them ample recompense if they were found obedient to his precepts. Moses therefore treated the Jews as parents are wont to treat children before they have arrived at years of discretion. It is certain therefore that as a people the Hebrews were ignorant of the excellence of virtue, and of all that constitutes true happiness. When Jonah thought to flee from the presence of God by shipping for Tarshish, we can only conclude that he believed God gave charge over the countries beyond Judea to other powers as his substitutes. There is no one named in the Old Testament who has spoken of God more reasonably than Solomon, who surpassed all his contemporaries in natural capacity; but for this very reason he held himself above the law (this being only delivered for the guidance of those who are without reason and great natural abilities), and paid little attention to, nay he openly violated, those clauses which refer especially to the king (Deut. xvii. 16, 17). And herein it may be observed, in passing, that he showed little wisdom; neither did he act in a way becoming a philosopher, for he sought his chief delight in merely sensual pleasures. Still he taught that all the good things of fortune were vanities to man; that there was nothing more excellent than understanding, and that the greatest punishment a man could suffer was to be afflicted with foolishness (Eccles., and Prov. x. 23).
But let us return to the prophets, of the discrepancy of whose opinions we had already begun to take notice. Now the views of Ezekiel have been found by the Rabbins so discordant with those of Moses that they had almost come to the determination of not admitting his books into the Old Testament as canonical (vide Tractatus de Sabbato, ch. i. fol. 13); nay, these writings would certainly have been excluded, had not a certain Chananias undertaken to explain them, a task which, we are informed, he only accomplished with great labour, and after all it is not certain what the nature of this explanation was, for his work is lost; whether it was in the nature of a commentary, or whether he ventured daringly to alter the words and statements of Ezekiel. However this may have been, it is certain, referring to Ezekiel as we have him, that his 18th chapter does not appear to agree with Exodus (xxxiv. 7), nor with Jeremiah (xxxii. 18), &c. Samuel believed that God having once passed a decree never repented him of having done so; for Saul, contrite for the sin he had committed, and desiring to worship God and obtain his forgiveness, still says that God's decree against him will not be changed. Jeremiah, on the other hand, had it revealed to him that God was subject to repentance, when having made a decree, whether for good or evil, to a people, they were found subsequently to alter their ways for better or worse (vide 1 Samuel xviii. 8—10). Joel again taught that God only repented him of the evil he had inflicted (Joel ii. 13). Finally, it appears most clearly from Genesis (iv. 7) that man may overcome temptations to sin, and do well: "If thou doest well shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door; "words which are addressed to Cain, who, however, did not get the better of his evil passions, as appears from Scripture itself and the history of Josephus. The same thing is gathered very plainly from the passage in Jeremiah just referred to, where God is made to say, "If a nation do evil in my sight, and obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them; but if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them." Paul, however (Epist. to Romans ix. 10 et seq.), declares quite positively that men have no power over the temptations of the flesh save in the special election and grace of God; though, speaking of the justice of God (iii. 5, and vi. 19), he corrects himself, and says that he has been speaking as a man, after the manner of men, and because of the infirmities of the flesh.
From all that precedes it seems sufficiently, and more than sufficiently, proved, that the revelations of God were accommodated to the natural capacities and adopted opinions of the prophets, and that the prophets may have been ignorant of things having reference to speculation merely, and not bearing upon the charities and usages of life; nay, it plainly appears that they were ignorant in this wise, and entertained most opposite and mutually contradictory speculative opinions. Wherefore we infer that we are never to look to the prophets for information either on natural or spiritual subjects, and come to the conclusion that they are to be believed only in so far as the matter and purpose of their revelations are concerned, every one in all other particulars being at liberty to believe what he pleases. Take the instance of the revelation of Cain by way of illustration; Cain informs us that God only admonished him to lead a good life, "If thou doest well," &c., but taught him nothing about the freedom of the will or other subjects of philosophy; wherefore, although in the words made use of freedom of will is clearly implied, we still feel ourselves at liberty to take an opposite view, when we find the words and reasoning entirely accommodated to the capacity of Cain. So also we see that the revelation of Micah was merely meant to inform Ahab of the real issue of the battle against Aram; and so much only are we bound to believe; all the other particulars set forth in that revelation, as of the true and false spirit of God, of the armies of heaven standing on either hand of God, &c., do not really concern us, so that every one may believe what to him seems good or accords with his mental constitution. In the same way are we to view the reasons given for the revelation, made by God to Job of his power over all things, if indeed it be true that any such revelation was ever made to Job, and that the purpose of the writer was to compose a proper narrative, and not, as some have thought, to give an embroidered version of his own conceits. However this may be, the allegations are still entirely in consonance with the views of Job, and made to satisfy him alone, not as of universal application and calculated to convince mankind at large. Nor are the reasonings of Christ to be otherwise regarded, by which he convicted the Pharisees of ignorance and contempt, and exhorted his disciples to newness of life; his reasonings were accommodated to the opinions and principles of those about him. When he says to the Pharisees, for example (Matt. xii. 26), "And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself, how then shall his kingdom stand?" he desired nothing more than, to convince the Pharisees on their own principles, not to teach that there were devils or any kingdom of Satan. So, again, when to his disciples he says (Matt, xviii. 10), "Take heed that ye despise not one. of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven," he intended only to admonish them against pride in themselves, and contempt of others, not teaching anything positive about angels or heaven, but using the language he does the better to persuade his disciples. The same view, in fine, is to be taken of the reasonings and signs of the apostles; but of these I need not speak more at length; for were I to quote all the passages of Scripture which were certainly written with a special view to the persons to whom they were addressed, and which cannot be referred to as embracing divine doctrine without great detriment to true philosophy, I should have to wander far from the path of brevity which I have marked out for myself. Let it suffice, therefore, that I have touched upon a few topics of universal application; particulars and further information I leave to the industry and research of the curious reader himself. The subjects now discussed, namely, Prophets and Prophecy, falling in an especial manner within the scope of my purpose, which is to sever Philosophy from Theology, as I have only dealt with them in a general way, it will be necessary further to inquire whether the gift of Prophecy was peculiar to the Hebrews alone, or was common to them and other nations, and then to come to a conclusion in regard to the election of the Hebrew people. These matters will form the subject of the following chapter.
- Referring to the molten sea 10 cubits across and 30 cubits round about. — Ed
- No one in much later days, when the news arrived in Paris, took the French drummer's account of the state of matters in Switzerland, au pied de la lettre, when he informed his friends at home that the army had now reached the end of the world: "Nous sommes ici au bout du monde! Ici on touche le soleil de la main!" — Ed.
- And then the thing of clay proceeds to reason with, and fix, as it were, on the horns of a dilemma, the Almighty maker of the Universe! Far be it from thee to slay the righteous with the wicked; shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Peradventure there be 40, 30, 20, 10, &c. — And what shall be said of the next succeeding chapter, containing the terrible story of Lot and his daughters? — Ed.
- A Jewish writer of liberal views much esteemed by Spinoza. — Ed.
- A firmament; a solid crystalline sphere surrounding the earth; not infinite space as conceived by us. — Ed.