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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.

§ 1. The Predictions of the Prophets

1. Their Supernatural Character. Up to recent times, it was universally held that the predictions of the prophets of the Old Testament were proofs of their Divine mission, and a real preparation to the Gospel. Contemporary Rationalists, however, and even many outside this radical school, either reject entirely the supernatural character of the predictive element in the Old Testament prophecies, or regard it as something secondary in comparison with the doctrinal teachings and the historical data which are contained in the prophetical writings. They do not indeed deny altogether that the Hebrew prophets foretold the future and that many of their predictions had a striking fulfilment; but according to them, the agreement between the prediction and the event may be referred to merely natural causes. We are told, for instance, that the power of foreseeing events in the near future may be quite natural to the human soul in some peculiar physical and mental states, when dormant and otherwise unknown powers are suddenly aroused to activity. Again, it is said that the prophets were wonderfully acute discerners of the signs of the times, and that reasoning from the analogy of history, from the well-known unchanging character acter of God’s moral government, they might make a prediction regarding the distant future which would be fulfilled, the more so because the prediction itself would exercise a considerable influence on the dispositions and actions of those who became acquainted with it (cfr. KUENEN, Prophets and Prophecy in Israel, p. 277, English Translation; STACKPOLE, Prophecy, chap. v).

These, and other such appeals to mere natural causes to account for all the predictions of the prophets, will ever appear at best inadequate to the unprejudiced reader of Jewish history and prophecy. A large number of the predictions of the prophets related to remote events and were given out in an age when the causes to which they owed their origin either did not exist, or were so obscure and latent as to be concealed from the observation of the most perspicacious men, especially as these predictions were not merely general in their character, but strongly marked by the addition of many circumstances of the events which they foretold. Nor could the analogy of history enable men to make conjectures like the predictions which foretold not only the exile of the Hebrews, but also their return to their country and their subsequent prosperity, the burning and devastation of Jerusalem, the empire of the Chaldeans and the seventy years’ captivity in Babylonia, etc. (cfr. Amos 2:5; 9:4, 14; Osee 2:15–23; 8:14; 14:5–9; Mich. 3:12, 4:1, sq.; 7:8–17; Jerem. 25:11, sq.). Since such clear predictions could not be made by men of the greatest sagacity, and must necessarily have proceeded from God Himself, we may conclude that others agreeing with these in nature and design, and attributed to the same God, have Him also for their especial author (JAHN, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 299, English Translation).

Again, all rationalistic attempts at explaining away the supernatural character of the prophetical predictions must fail before the well-known attitude of the prophets themselves regarding their own predictions. They claimed openly the gift of Divine illumination respecting the future (cfr. for instance, 4 Kings 1:3, sq.), clearly distinguished between those predictions they could have made through their own unassisted powers and those which they owed to special communications from Jehovah (3 Kings 22:14, sq.; Jerem. 28:9; Isai. 20:1, sq., etc.), and in a variety of ways succeeded in making their contemporaries believe that this was the great difference between the predictions they uttered and those which were made by the false prophets. Whence it plainly follows that the veracity of the prophets requires that we should admit that they received from God a distinct foreknowledge of the future near or distant; and indeed, had they not actually possessed this supernatural foresight, they would have soon lost their great influence upon the various classes of Jewish society.

It should also be noticed in this connection that to deny the supernatural character of the predictions of the prophets of the Old Testament is to run directly counter to the statements of Our Lord (cfr. for instance, Luke 24:25, 26, 44, 46), and of the inspired writers of the New Testament (cfr. in particular, 2 Peter 1:19–21).

2. Manifold Objects of the Predictions of the Prophets. Amidst the great variety of topics about which the Jewish prophets uttered predictions, some deserve special attention because of their greater prominence in the prophetical writings.

Naturally enough, the chosen people themselves are the object of numerous predictions on the part of the prophets. It was of the special benefit of the Jews that Jehovah called men to the prophetical office, and that He made known the future to His select messengers. Because the Jews were His “peculiar people,” that is, the theocratic nation of antiquity, prosperity was to be foretold to them as a reward for faithfulness, public calamities as chastisements for unfaithfulness, restoration to favor as a return for sincere repentance, and final rejection as the awful punishment of perseverance in apostasy. Such were the general purposes for which the prophets of Israel were allowed distinct insight into the future of the Jewish nation, and were directed to utter predictions which, under a variety of forms, corresponded to the special needs of the people of God in the various periods of its national existence.

It was also because of the chosen people that we find in many of the Jewish prophets predictions which regard the heathen nations. There we find foretold the manner in which Jehovah intended to use them as instruments of His retributive justice to Israel, and next to punish them for their own pride and cruelty whilst inflicting upon the Jews chastisements which the chosen people had but too well deserved. There, also, we find predicted the future call of the nations of the world to become in their turn the chosen people of God, in place of the ungrateful nation, which, despite promises and favors, threats and punishments, was ultimately to lose that glorious privilege.

Whilst contemplating the future restoration of the Jews to the Land of Promise, and the future call of the nations to the worship of the true God, the prophets of Israel are induced to foretell another kingdom which will begin with the theocratic people, perpetuate the glorious rule of David, the faithful theocratic king of the Jews, and extend its sway over all the nations of the world. This is the Messianic kingdom which the prophets of Israel describe in its ideal perfection, under the glorious images of an ideal earthly prosperity. At the head of that kingdom—the true continuation of the Jewish theocracy—there will be a descendant of David, born in Bethlehem, and who will prove the ideal King long expected to start a universal and eternal rule of happiness in the faithful service of Jehovah. It is for this glorious rule of the Messias that the Jews are bidden to prepare by the practice not only of outward but also of inward righteousness. Unfortunately, under the misleading guidance of the Scribes, who to a large extent succeeded the prophets in the office of keeping alive the true religion in Israel, the ancient people of God, as a nation, will lose sight of the inward righteousness which alone could fit the Jews for entering the Messianic kingdom at its coming. No less unfortunately for them, both the leaders and the people of Israel will take to the letter the glorious descriptions of worldly peace, plenty, victory, etc., which they will notice in the prophetical writings, and miss altogether the meaning of other traits of the Messianic picture drawn before their eyes, so that when the Messias comes and sets up His kingdom they will not be able to recognize in Him and in His work the many traits of the prophetical predictions which pointed to a kingdom “not of this world” and to a suffering Messias, and in consequence they will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.

3. Chief Characteristics of the Predictions of the Prophets. From the foregoing remarks, it is clear that, unlike the oracles of the heathens, the predictions of the Jewish prophets were not uttered “to support the tottering interests of States or kings, to satisfy mere curiosity about the future, or to incline the people to the wishes of their rulers. They all tended to one object, worthy of a Divine intervention, the proof of the Divine mission of the prophets, and, by consequence, of the true doctrine concerning God, namely, that the one only God who sent the prophets is the omniscient Ruler of the universe (Isai. 41:21, sq.); and particularly that He was governing the Hebrews in such a manner that they should preserve the knowledge of Him until the period when it should be propagated to all nations by a great Messenger who was to arise from the posterity of David” (JAHN, Introduction, p. 297, English Translation). It may also be noticed that the predictions of the prophets are usually bound up with further instructions, warnings, etc., which had a religious or moral bearing for their direct purpose.

A second manner in which the predictions of the prophets offer a striking contrast with the heathen oracles is their lack of ambiguity. This is particularly true in connection with very near events, when oracles and soothsayers carefully selected ambiguous expressions in order that in any result their credit might be preserved. Not so with the Hebrew prophets who, whether they used external symbols, elevated or even poetical style, parabolic or allegorical descriptions, invariably made it clear what they foretold the event would be, and spoke with great definiteness, although they knew full well that, should their predictions remain unfulfilled, a prompt death awaited them from the hands of powerful enemies in the Jewish State.

This does not mean, of course, that all the predictions of the Jewish prophets are perfectly clear, for, in point of fact, whilst some of them present this perfect clearness, most are surrounded with considerable obscurity. But they are not ambiguous in the strict sense of the expression, and when they have been transmitted to us complete they are clear enough to enable us to discern the historical event to which they refer.

The obscurity of the prophetical predictions is not simply due to the poetical style in which they are written, or to the fact that they refer to very ancient events, with which we are but imperfectly acquainted, it is due also to the purpose of the predictions themselves. It stands to reason that if the prophecies had had from the beginning the same degree of clearness as that which history requires, they would have sometimes been a positive obstacle to their own fulfilment, by suggesting to those on whose free agency this fulfilment depended so to act as to prevent the occurrence of the event foretold. In consequence, many of them when uttered or written down were so obscure as to leave the event, or rather its main circumstances, unintelligible before its fulfilment, and so clear as to be intelligible after it. Another natural cause of obscurity in the prophetical predictions is to be found in the unquestionable fact that the prophets usually beheld things not as we are accustomed to see objects near at hand, but as we see things at a distance, that is, all at once, with different degrees of distinctness for the various objects according to their nearness, and without giving an accurate idea of the distance which may intervene between them. The prophets had therefore at times but an imperfect knowledge particularly of the intervals of time which separated the events which they foretold, and in consequence these same events are often predicted without that chronological order which would be necessary for perfect clearness.

The last characteristic of the predictions of the prophets to be noticed here is their conditional fulfilment. Many predictions were of the nature of a promise or a threat with regard to persons or cities and countries, as we find it stated in Jeremias 18:7–10 and Ezechiel 33:13–16. This is, of course, in perfect harmony with the moral government of a just and holy God, and should be distinctly borne in mind because it explains why many predictions have been unfulfilled, and from the nature of the case will never be fulfilled: the actual retribution of the predicted evil or good things was dependent on the continuance of the same moral attitude of the people concerned, and as this moral attitude was actually changed, the promised reward or denounced punishment were necessarily withheld.

§ 2. Influence of the Prophets

1. Obstacles to be Overcome. As might naturally be expected, the influence of the prophets of the Old Testament varied considerably in the different periods of Jewish history, according to the greater or lesser obstacles which these various periods opposed to the successful discharge of the prophetical mission. To prove faithful messengers of the God of Israel, the prophets had, first of all, to resist with all their energy the religious degeneracy of the nation at large. Instead of feeling naturally attracted towards the pure and ennobling worship of the one true God, the bulk of the chosen people ever felt a wellnigh irresistible tendency towards an impure and degrading polytheism. It was therefore a hard task for the defenders of the exclusive worship of Jehovah and preachers of inward righteousness, such as the prophets were, to produce in the minds and feelings of the people a reaction against sensual idolatry, a harder task still to prevent its inherited and inveterate craving for impure rites from getting the upperhand and betraying the nation into lower and worse forms of idolatry than those they had but recently renounced. Further, even when the Jewish race kept aloof for some time from the shameful excesses of Baal or Moloch worship, there usually crept in another form of religious decay, that of mere formalism in the practice of the religion of Jehovah. Time and again, we hear, therefore, the prophets, those men favored with special intercourse with the living God, lifting up their voices and protesting energetically against the soulless form of worship which was ever compatible with moral corruption. It must be said, however, that if the action of the prophets of Jehovah had been seconded by the political leaders of the Jews, by the kings and princes, the faithful messengers of God would have found it far less difficult to purify and elevate the religious tone of the nation; but, unfortunately, most of the kings of Juda and Israel, together with the larger number of their courtiers, opposed the influence of the prophets by every means in their power. Through personal inclination towards idolatry, those kings and princes practised, encouraged idolatry, and when rebuked for it by the prophets, they resented this interference, persecuted and put to death those troublesome opponents of whom they spoke as the enemies of the State. Thus was the whole weight of political and social influence usually brought to play right against the noble but limited efforts of the prophets and their disciples.

As a last obstacle against which the true prophets of Jehovah had to struggle in order to preserve their influence upon their contemporaries, we may mention the conditional character of their prophetical predictions. The non-fulfilment of these conditional predictions, which, as stated above, was ever possible, and which at times occurred actually, was calculated to cause them to be considered as false prophets, unworthy of credence, and, therefore, to turn against them both friends and foes of Jehovah worship.

2. Means of Success. To face these general obstacles, together probably with many others arising from the particular circumstances of their time, the prophets of Israel had at their disposal powerful means of success. First of all, certain features of the prophetic institution, such as the special training which many of them had undergone in the prophetical schools, the direct Divine call and sometimes personal intercourse with Jehovah, the miracles oftentimes performed for their preservation, the public and private services which they rendered to their contemporaries, and even the elevation of their moral and religious teachings, etc., were so many things which procured for them the deep reverence and grateful affection of many of their fellow countrymen, sometimes of the kings and leaders of the nation.

Another means of success for the prophets in the discharge of their difficult mission was found in their personal moral qualities. We have, it is true, details concerning the life and work of only a few prophets of Israel, but it can hardly be doubted that the other prophets trod in the footsteps of those who are best known to us, that they were men of genuine singleness of purpose, ardent zeal, persevering energy, men ever ready to make the most of every opportunity either to win back king and people to the pure worship of Jehovah, or to render closer the union of the Jews with their invisible king. Their disinterestedness was beyond question, and stood in striking contrast with the greedy selfishness of the soothsayers and false prophets in the land. They were indeed “men of God,” as they were called, and their examples of holy living no less than their ardent exhortations contributed powerfully to increase the influence they exercised upon their contemporaries.

It remains true, however, that the wonders it was given to the prophets to perform and the true predictions they uttered were their greatest means of success. These preternatural powers were justly considered by the nation at large as unquestionable proofs of a Divine mission; they contributed much to secure to the prophets enthusiastic and grateful followers, and caused them to be publicly consulted, even by several of the worst kings, in cases of pressing national danger.

3. General Results. When after this rapid survey of the work and history of the prophetical office in the Old Testament, we try to sum up the general results produced by this great institution among the Jewish people, we find first of all that even when the severe rebukes of the prophets did not succeed in effecting the moral reformation they were urging upon king and people, they yet secured to Israel over the other nations the advantage that the moral precepts should not be violated without protest. By thus inveighing fearlessly against public corruption, the prophets kept alive among the chosen people a distinct knowledge of what was right, and prevented the Jews from sinking down quietly or permanently to the low moral level of the surrounding pagan nations. Of course, their holy examples and fervent exhortations had also the precious result of communicating to the minds and hearts of many of their contemporaries something of the generous piety which they themselves possessed.

In the second place, it is easy to realize that from a political standpoint the Hebrew prophets were of great advantage to their nation. In exercising fearlessly their mission of rebuking the Jewish monarchs, they ever reminded the kings that they were not, that they could not be, absolute rulers over the Holy Land in the same manner as the kings of the neighboring tribes. By their opposition to the unjust or irreligious enactments of the royal power, they also taught the people not to bow down too easily before the will of a mortal monarch.

Finally, from a religious point of view, the mission of the prophets of Israel had the best and most faithful results. They prevented idolatry, even when imposed by despotic kings, from taking such root in the people as to preclude all return to Jehovah; they kept alive the precious remembrance among the Jews of their covenant with the one true God, and repeatedly promoted religious reforms. More particularly did they bring out the spiritual element of Judaism, and direct the eyes of the nation towards the coming of the Messias and the setting up of His kingdom.

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