The Prophets of Israel
Children and adults alike are enslaved by the convention that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to talk about scriptural characters as if they were human people, and about scriptural incidents as if they might really have happened.
Until the convention is demolished in his own and his pupils’ minds, no living study r appreciation of the Bible is possible either for him or for them
Apart from isolated chapters or sections in the prophetical books, which by the glory of their language or the directness and universality of their message can go home without comment to the attentive reader or hearer the writings of the prophets are such as to need a large amount of commentary.
The general purport of a passage and its importance as a religious utterance is unintelligible to the reader who has not at least some acquaintance with the process by which the religion of the Hebrew people before Christ grew and developed.
The books of the Old Testament are badly arranged.
The Jews of Alexandria for a long time wanted also to include in their Bible the books which we know as the Apocrypha, and the decision to exclude these books was not finally taken till a synod of Jewish scholars in A.D. 90 so ruled.
We cannot study the prophets properly without more guidance than the mere Bible text will give us.
The prophets, as a group, are also very much the most important men in the Old Testament.
The chief value of the Old Testament is the story which we can read out of it of the way in which the Hebrew religion developed and made preparation for Christ.
Without the prophets, humanly speaking, the Hebrew religion would never have become what it did become.
The canonical prophets … come comparatively late in Hebrew history.
It has even been suggested, by inference from such passages as 1 Kings 20:38, 2 Kings 2;23, that they may have had regular tattoo-marks or tonsures to distinguish their professional status.
It is clear that from Samuel’s time there were many prophets among the Hebrews, that they held an important position, and that prophecy was a recognised profession,
The great prophets gained and held their reputation, not by any demonstrative guarantee from above; what they claimed for themselves their opponents among the prophets also claimed for themselves. It was merely by the spiritual power of their personality that they won their position.
Right through the history of Israel, the voices of prophecy were loud and numerous.
In general a ‘prophet’ in Israel had, as such, a prestige which gave him a licence to speak without suffering serious harm, even if his message was disliked and scouted.
For the most part Jerusalem persecuted and broke the hearts of her prophets, but did not actually kill them.
To appreciate the work of the prophets, and the way in which they influenced the development of Hebrew religion, it is necessary to know the general nature of the popular religion upon which they had to work.
The monotheistic idea, that there was no god but Yahweh, was possibly too abstract to be clearly formulated in Moses’ mind.
The Ten Commandments in their present form may be of later date than Moses; but it is very likely that Moses taught the idea of Yahweh’s concern in human morality, though his moral principles may have been of a simple and primitive kind.
It is probable that the cultus which Moses practised was of a very simple kind, and not dissimilar to the methods used in other primitive tribes.
In Canaan the tribes had to become agricultural, and the only people who could teach them agriculture ere the Canaanites.
The Canaanite religion was apparently of an agricultural type.
No religious teacher before the eighth-century prophets says any word against the high places. Samuel presides at one. David has images. Elijah and Elisha do not attack the methods of worship. No king before Hezekiah made any effort to remove the high places, and Hezekiah’s attempt failed; it was renewed by Josiah with more effect in 621 B.C., but the destruction of Jerusalem came too soon after his death in 608 B.C. to give time for his reformation to show whether it was going to be lasting or not.
In worshipping Him with Canaanite rites, the Hebrews were following the only methods of worship that were as yet known or available to them.
It is not certain that the Hebrews actually forsook Yahweh in order to worship the Canaanite godlets. But the name of one’s god matters less than the ideas which one entertains of his character.
It is probably that Jeroboam meant his bulls to be emblems of the strength of Yahweh, and that at the time nobody thought him wicked for setting them up.
No prophet has a word to say against the bull-images, until Hosea, two hundred years later, begins to condemn them. So far as we know, they lasted undisturbed until the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.
Some scholars … question whether the religion of Moses’ time was anything more than a savage affair, whether it was any better than the religion of any of the other desert tribes; and they hold that, in Canaan, it only became more elaborate by the use of Canaanite methods of worship; it was still, they think, a very barbaric religion, destitute of even the germs of higher spiritual ideas, until Elijah and Elisha, or until Amos, came on the scene.
It is very likely that much of the so-called Mosaic law is of much later date than Moses’ time.
On the mere grounds of historical probability and of the character of our evidence, there can be very little doubt that a great man stands at the birth of the Hebrew nation.
All the great religious teachers of later tines look back to Moses as the founder of the religion of Yahweh.
The Hebrews were in danger of becoming polytheists in the cities, and mere heathen in the villages. Their standing weakness as a whole was that they had no definite law of worship, worthy of a higher religion. Their methods of worship were low, and these debased their religious ideas.
Elijah and Elisha laid the first stone, since Moses’ time, in the great edifice of Hebrew monotheism.
Elijah and Elisha … professed no systematic monotheistic creed; their chief work was to insist that Yahweh should be the only god that Israel worshipped; if other nations worshipped other gods, that was their affair.
Elijah and Elisha … are the first great agents in arresting the peaceful deterioration of Hebrew religion.
Amos is the prophet of moral and social righteousness. His denunciations of social iniquity are dreadful in their ruthlessness.
Because Yahweh is righteous, therefore he is concerned for righteousness and hostile to unrighteousness everywhere, and not only in Israel.
In a sense no Israelite until St. Pau ever attained to a philosophical conception of monotheism.
The basis of Amos’s prophetic message is the absolute conviction that Yahweh is righteous \it is from that truth that he reaches towards the monotheistic idea that Yahweh is the only God.
Amos does not start from the idea that there is only one God; he only reaches that idea, so far as he does reach it, by inference from his certainty that Yahweh is righteous.
… what he did, to enunciate the devastating truth that religion and morality are indissolubly connected, and that no worship of God can be acceptable to Him, which is not an offering in righteousness.
The reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, and the legislation of Deuteronomy, are the practical outcome of the teaching of Amos and Hosea, and of their greater successor Isaiah.
One of the characteristics, which makes Hosea the most tender and human of prophets (Jeremiah alone rivals him in this quality), is that he felt the sins of Israel as if they were his won.
God’s Love which, because it is real love, must punish, though God’s heart breaks to do it.
A Love which is Pain because it is Love of the unloving, and yet a Love which cannot ceasr to bre loving. That is what Hosea saw in God. The revelation of Christ was well prepared for; in Christ, Hosea’s picture of God comes to life.
Amos and Hosea lay the foundations of the truth which Christ lived on earth.
When the oracles of the prophets began to be put together, many prophecies would be found without any name of an author attached to them.
The final formation of the Roll called ‘Isaiah’ was partly influenced by the desire to make it roughly equal in length to the other three Rolls of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve.
Isaiah’s view of God had not shaken off earth-bound limitations, and … he conceived of Zion as being more indispensable to the divine Will for the world than any earthly city can be.
We hold the higher belief that God’s kingdom is not of this world, that God’s Zion is no man-built fortress, but a spiritual tabernacle of any men in any place who are holy to the Lord.
The rise of nations and their fall are alike related to the will of Yahweh. … Yahweh is supreme over all the nations.
The Jew reached monotheism by so expanding his idea of the scope of Yahweh’s rule that at last there was no room for any competing deity. The formula of the Jewish faith is not so much ‘there is but one god’, as ‘Yahweh is the only god’. To him, the heathen are not men who are ‘ignorantly’ worshipping the one God under imperfect representations, but men who are worshipping gods that are nothing and vanity. This is the fundamental secret of the radical intolerance that Judaism has always shown for other faiths.
Isaiah … gives no hint in his writings that he led a crusade against the established methods of worship, bitterly as he denounces the idolatry of Judah, and the combination of religious observance with moral iniquity.
Isaiah’s great contribution to the Hebrew development of religion was a conception of the majesty and purity of Yahweh so transcendent that the old methods of worship became patently and ludicrously inadequate and unworthy.
Isaiah’s favourite conception of Yahweh’s nature is always that of holiness. … Holiness was, of course, an ancient term, in Hebrew as in other religions. It meant that which was set apart as unfit for human use and touch, and, in earlier thought, its connotation had been largely ritual. But Isaiah now enlarges it to express the thought of Yahweh’s moral purity, to with all sin is odious; and so he has yoked for ever the notions of religion and morality.
In his conception of holiness, he thus combines both justice and love, both majesty and mercy, and he is heir to both the older prophets.
Isaiah’s faith was of the sort which does ot doubt that sooner or later God will put all things under His feet.
The prophets gave Judaism its theology, the book of Deuteronomy now gives it its institutional setting.
We judge Jeremiah very shallowly if we think he was not a patriot, because he was not a Jingo, or that he did not weep for his country’s calamities, even though he had to predict them.
Surely Jeremiah has a claim to be considered, before Christ, the complete picture of the man of sorrows, whose life is a uniform treading of the dolorous way.
Jeremiah was a patriot; and yet he saw no hope for his country.
To later thinkers among the Jews, Jeremiah became the supreme type of the suffering servant of Yahweh.
To Christian, Jeremiah, as the sufferer for the evil of others, as the prophet of repentance, as the penitent who mourns for his brothers’ sins, has always seemed the most moving of the proto-types, in whom the suffering Saviour of mankind was prefigured.
Jeremiah’s teaching had the effect of lodging in the Jewish mind the idea that Yahwism without Temple or sacrifice was conceivable. It was this idea, or some form of it, which sponsored the growth of the synagogue system, in the times when the Jews began to be more and more a people living out of reach of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah has been called, and not undeservedly, ‘the father of the synagogue system’; for it was he who first enunciated the vital truth that where any one faithful servant of Yahweh was, or any two or three faithful men gathered together, there Yahweh could be found and worshipped in the way that was acceptable to Him.
One gets some idea of the wealth of prophecy which was available in Israel when one notes not only the number of anonymous oracles that have been included in the works of one or other of the well-known men, but also the fact that even Jeremiah did not swallow up entirely the fame of other prophets of his tine.
The doctrine of judgment after death, and of an after-life of reward and punishment, grew up later among the Jews as an attempt to vindicate thereby their belief in the moral government of God. It was after death that the final reward of goodness was to be apportioned.
Fidelity to God is its own sufficient reward. Plainly, such a conviction cannot be proved to another; it is a spiritual intuition, and its truth can only be confessed by those who share it. But it is the final word of religion on the subject of reward in this life; compared with it, all reckoning of other rewards seems mere self-seeking, however refined the mask which that self-seeking may wear.
The deportation of the Jews to Babylon was accomplished in two stages. The first section was deported in 596 B.C., and settled down in Babylonia, not as a colony of slaves, though they were set to public works, but with apparently some measure of homogenous life under their own ‘elders’, of whom we hear in Ezekiel.
The book of Ezekiel, as we have it, is more systematically arranged than any of te works of his predecessors. The reason for this fact is, that he was himself a writer, to an extent that no preceding prophet had been; and it is reasonable to suppose that he took some care to arrange his oracles.
Ezekiel’s habitual use of the ecstatic method is ne of the qualities which make his prophecies seem so remote and artificial to modern readers.
It is only the penitent who are to be redeemed, it is not the nation as a whole; and the groundwork of the hope is, not so much the favoured place of the nation in the divine concern (for, as a nation, it has forfeited by its sins), but the conviction that man’s penitence is sure of God’s pardon.
Any individual who repents, he says, will be saved; the national doom is not all-inclusive; it will not sweep away any member of the nation who turns from his evil way. It is the hopeful side of divine judgement.
His picture … of the river which, issuing from the Temple, was to water the earth, is best explained as symbolical of the blessing which a restored religion in Jerusalem is to confer on the whole surrounding world.
Ezekiel is a prophet who is also a priest, and who believes in the spiritual value of religious organization. In other words, he is an institutionalist.
The value of religious institutions; and the fancy of a religion which shall be wholly individual is one which modern speculation loves to indulge.
He probably is, of all the prophets, the one who is lest well known or admired by modern reads old the Old Testament.
If modern ideas dislike the sacramentalism of Ezekiel, it may be not because modern ideas are right, but because their view of religion is defective.
There is a sort of dreadful logic in Ezekiel’s view of God’s relation to sinful men, which reminds us of Calvinism. If men repent, Yahweh forgives, if not, He refuses to listen.
Ezekiel’s prophecies are s utterly conditioned by the historical circumstances in which they are delivered that, without some knowledge of those circumstances, it is very hard for us to appreciate them, or to understand their significance.
The religious principles of the pre-exilic prophets are noble and uplifting to all ages. But in their entire repudiation of cultus, they show themselves insufficiently aware of the fact that, wiout expression in rites, ceremonies, organization, mere religious ideas (however noble they may be) tend to be like a spirit without a body.
One of Cyrus’s first acts (in 536 B.C.) was t sanction the restoration of a Jewish State (though on a very modest scale) in Judah, and the return of a section of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, to give the new State some stability. Thus he would assure to himself a settled and friendly community on the last stretch of the road from Persia to Egypt, if it was to gain the mastery of the eastern Mediterranean and of the trade with the West.
No prophet has a more absolute assurance of the universal supremacy of Yahweh, than has Second Isaiah.
Yahweh is not only the God of Israel, but also of the whole world, and the idols are utterly and without qualification mere nothings. It is the fullest expression of Jewish monotheism.
Yahweh’s purpose for the nations was rather to teach them that He is Yahweh, by showing His power over them, than definitely to call them to repentance.
It is certain that Judah was never completely depopulated. Some of the refugees must have come back from Egypt, as soon as it seemed safe to do so; and many Jews never left the land at all.
It is certain that in the early days of Darius’s reign Zerubbabel, who was a prince of the royal line, was the civil governor of the revived State, with Joshua as High-priest.
It is … probable that those who returned from Exile were by no means so numerous as the book of Ezra suggests.
The effect of legalism was largely to dam the prophetic spirit.
We know, from Palestinian excavations, that the wearing of idolatrous amulets continued in Judah long after the end of the Exile.
In form, the book of Jonah is not a prophecy at all, but a narrative about a prophet. … It is a sermon through a story.
Yahweh wants the heathen to be converted. Not only that, but the heathen are capable of conversion.
There were nobler elements in the Pharisaic outlook than the gospels notice. The teaching of the best Pharisees had many points of contact with the teaching of Christ Himself. But there is no evidence that the attitude of Palestinian Pharisaism to the Gentile world was ever anything but an attitude of contempt and hatred; and, even in the dispersion where social relations between Jew and Gentile were sometimes more amicable, the general standpoint of the Hellenistic Jew in matters of religion was one of intolerance and exclusiveness. He might be willing to buy, sell, talk, and walk with a Gentile; but he would not eat, d rink, or pray with him. To the Palestinian Jew, even social relations with a Gentile were hateful..
Broadly speaking, a mean streak seems to have dome into the Jewish character at this time. To be despised is more demoralizing than to be oppressed. In such a national atmosphere prophecy was likely to wilt.
The victory of the Ezran reform, which became more complete as time passed, was likely to have the effect of damming the prophetic impulse. The Law came to be thought of as the expression of perfect wisdom, of the final will of God. No prophet could improve upon it. There was not truth left for a prophet to see and teach: all truth was already there in the Law. So the Roll of the prophets was closed at about 200 B.C. or a little later, and the Jews settled down to the conviction that ‘there is not one prophet more’.
The people … settled down to obedience to the Law as the sum-total of true religion.
Great prophecy does not flourish except in opposition to active and dominant Evil. To be itself great, it needs a great adversary to attack. Post-Ezran prophecy was almost bound to ‘favour the Establishment’; and, as nobody dreamt of attacking this Establishment, prophecy had nothing to kindle its fires.
The Jews as a nation now deliberately narrowed their religious activity into the observance of their religious and moral code. They determined to obey. Their code was a noble one, and its observance made of the Jews the most moral and probably the most religious people before the Christian era.
The essential distinction between prophecy and apocalyptic lies in the respective nature of their messages. The prophets had stood forward to denounce sin, to call to repentance, to promise the judgement of Yahweh on sinners and His mercy to the righteous, to forecast a day of Yahweh’s triumph and the indication of His true servants.
The times in which the Jews were now living, were so evil that the world seemed to them beyond possibility of reformation. Nothing but a clean sweep of everything could effect Yahweh’s result. Therefore the promise of these apocalypses is of a day when Yahweh Himself will overtly intervene and, by His sole power, will overturn the entire order of things, and usher in an altogether new era.
The prophets had said, ‘Repent and you will be saved’; the apocalyptists say, ‘Hold on and you will share in the new era’.
The book of Daniel makes no claim to be written by Daniel. It is certainly of a much later date than the Exile, for, while its history of later times is accurate, its references to Daniel’s own time are often erroneous: e.g. Darius did not conquer Belshazzar was not the son of Nebuchadnezzar, and the Court language at Babylon was not Aramaic, as Dan (2:4) asserts. … Its language is late Hebrew and Aramaic.
The purpose of the book is to encourage the Jews to faithful endurance in their fiery trials.
Isaiah, Ezekiel, the author of Daniel, deserve to be reckoned heroes of faith.
Israel, with all its faults and narrownesses, was the champion of monotheism in a polytheistic world.
Can we imagine what the history of human religion would have been like if Israel had actually vanished, and her witness had perished?
It is certain that the Hebrews always believed that man lived after death; but the after-life of early Hebrew idea was a shadowy affair in Sheol, destitute of any attraction or of any relation to Yahweh.
There must be another life, where these ill-adjustments are ended, and righteousness receives its due reward. This was the teaching of the apocalyptists; and the message may be regarded as the last utterance of the Jewish prophetic spirit before Christ came.
Before Hebrew prophecy thus was done away to make room for Christ, in Whom the pure spirit of prophecy was taken up and made perfect, it had as its last achievement, taught the Jews to trust the larger hope.