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THE MYSTERY OF THE PROPHET
And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a squalid place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Ghost.
THE prophet, his prophecy, how to understand it! This passage is about as compact and concentrated as a crystal. It is compressed and solidified thinking, every sentence being as essential and as unwasteful as a passage of Browning. Just cast a glance at the crowded contents. I say it enshrines a description of the true prophet, it unveils the nature and significance of true prophecy, and it defines the only methods by which the secrets of prophecy can be disentangled and understood. Here is the vignette of the prophet: “No prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Ghost.” [Verse 21] And here is the out line, the primary feature of prophetic ministry: 264“A lamp shining in a squalid place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts.” [Verse 19] And here is the clue to sound and effective interpretation of prophecy: “No prophecy . . . is of private interpretation, for . . . men spake from God.” [Verses 20, 21] These great guiding lines have not become confused by the march of time; they are as true and significant to-day as on the day when they were first penned, and if we would know a modern prophet when he appears, and be able to understand his message when we hear it, we shall do well to pay close and reverent heed to the teaching of this glorious and inspired companion of our Lord.
“Well, now, I think it is quite as well at once, when we are speaking about prophets and prophecy, that we detach ourselves almost entirely from the modern and popular interpretation of the word. Prophecy is not synonymous with prediction. When we use the sentence which has almost become a proverbial phrase in our ordinary speech and say, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet,” we are employing the words almost entirely in the sense of forecast, in the meaning of prevision, with the significance of unbosoming the secrets of the morrow. The element of prevision and of forecast is not entirely absent from the true equipment of the prophet, but it is not the 265primary element. I do not think any one can declare principles without forecasting issues; but the burden of a true prophet is not the fore casting of an event, but the proclamation of a principle. True prophecy is declaration, not anticipation; it is vision, not prevision. A prophet is a man who foretells, but who primarily forthtells, tells forth a message which God has given to him. The prophet is a forthteller of great truths, of dominant principles; he is a revealer of the great broad highways along which all the affairs of men move to inevitable destiny. I want, then, at once to put that primary meaning which we use in our modern interpretation of the word on one side, and as far as possible to leave aside this secondary element of prevision.
With this introductory assumption, look at the picture of the prophet himself. “No prophecy ever came by the will of man.” [Verse 21] Some things may come by human volition, but never prophecy. No man can will himself into the prophetic office. If he is not born there, his presence is an impertinent usurpation. The prophet is not the product of self-will, not the product of self-initiative. He is not the matured flower of human culture. The prophet’s own will has little or no part in his mission or vocation. He is not a cause, he is an effect. He is not the wind, he is an instrument. He is not the sun, he is 266a reflector. The prophet is born, not made. No prophecy and no prophet ever came by the will of man. The prophet’s role is not the perquisite of resolute purpose, or the prize of any strenuous ambition. He does not come by culture, but by nature. He is not made by struggle, he comes by birth. There is about the prophet an element which can never be manufactured. I think we know this deep, unnatural, unearthly, uncreated element in other spheres whenever a prophet appears. We can make rhymesters; we can easily manufacture them by the score. You can lay down a number of precise little rules for the making of a versifier; you can tell him how to measure out his little lines, how to regulate his metre, how to appoint his jingle. You can make a rhymester, but no poetry ever came by the will of man. When you are reading Wordsworth, you can instinctively feel when the manufacture begins, you can instinctively feel when the will of the poet begins to work, and you can instinctively feel when the manufacture ceases and something mysterious arrives, and the poet begins to sing. You can make politicians, make them by the crowd. Give a man a little programme, a glib tongue, a strong tincture of party loyalty, and there you are! But statesmanship never came by the will of 267man. We know the distinction between the political party-hack in all our political parties, and the man who tells forth the fundamentals, who speaks not in the mere party tone, but in the abiding speech of the ages. We can manufacture a politician; a statesman is beyond us. We can manufacture pianolas, we can make admirable imitations of the human fingers; we can endow the hammers with something of the living touch of the finger-tips, we can create a most elaborate and exquisite mechanism; but when we have finished our work we experience some nameless chill in the absence of mysterious life. No musician ever came by the will of man. We have to await his coming, and when he comes we know him by the unearthliness of his gifts, and the strains that breathe of another and a mysterious clime. And so I say we are conscious of this unmistakable element when ever the prophet appears, in whatsoever guise he comes. “Deep calleth unto deep”; there is about him a suggestion of the infinite, and we cannot explain him. We may not like him. It is quite probable we shall set about and crucify him. But there is in the prophet an element of mysteriousness which, though he be of our flesh and blood, links him with beings of quite another plane. We may not be able to define his distinction, but we feel it; and 268in these high matters of refined sentiment, feeling is perhaps our safest guide. Who does not feel the difference between Cecil Rhodes and Garibaldi? It is the unearthly element to which we pay our homage and our regard. Who does not feel the difference between John Bright and Benjamin Disraeli? What is it? It is the element that never came by the will of man. It is the difference between a spring and a cistern; it is the difference between glitter and glow; it is a difference unspeakable, made by the profound and mystic forthtelling from the Infinite. It is even so in every prophet, no matter what may be the garb he wears. It is so in Rudyard Kipling. I think his poetry is often feverish; to me, at any rate, it is often declamatory, sometimes inflammatory, often thoughtless. But again and again on the heedless page a wind springs up, and everything quickens, and the man is clothed in nameless inspiration, and the mortal puts on immortality. I say we feel it. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof,” and it makes one man a statesman and leaves another a politician; it makes one man a poet, and leaves another a rhymester; it makes one man a prophet, and leaves another a mere speaker. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest 269the sound thereof,” but thou canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth.” “No prophet ever came by the will of man.” We cannot make them. What then? What suggestion does the apostle give us in my text as to how this indefinable and mysterious element can be explained? Here is the apostolic explanation: “Men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Ghost.” [Verse 21] I like that word “moved.” It is one of the picturesque words of the New Testament Scriptures. It is precisely the same word which is translated in the Acts of the Apostles “drive.” You remember in that graphic chapter which describes the shipwreck of the apostle, there comes this very suggestive phrase: “And when the ship was caught . . . we let her drive.” That is precisely the word which is here translated “moved.” “Men spake from God, being moved,” driven by the Holy Ghost as Paul’s ship was driven by the wind. That is the apostolic explanation of the prophet. “Suddenly there came a rushing mighty wind,” and they spake! It was so with Moses, it was so with Elijah and Micah and Amos. They were all wind-swept children of God, driven by mysterious currents which they could never explain. That is why prophets can never understand the genesis of their own mission and their own message—they seem to have 270had nothing to do with it: Why Thackeray, who was sometimes endowed with the prophetic calling, speaking about his highest work, those parts of his work which bore the signs of inspiration, uses these very strange words, “I have no idea where it all comes from; I am often astounded myself to read it after I have got it down on the paper.” I remember a great preacher telling me that he often felt just in that way about some of his sermons. When he had preached them, or when he had prepared them, he read them over again with curious and devouring interest, and could not think they were his own. He had been moved by the Holy Ghost, and he watched with great inquisitiveness the discoveries revealed to him. “Men spake from God.” [Verse 21] And that word “from”! It is in these prepositions that we so lack in trying to carry out the vividness of the original. It means right out of God, right out of the very depths of the Deity! “Men spake out of God!” Their speech was born in God, God-driven, God-controlled. That is so ever and every where, from the prophet of the earliest times to the last prophet who speaks to the listening ears of our own day. “The voice of the great Eternal speaks in their mighty tone.” “No prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Ghost.”271
So much, for the prophet. Now I turn from the prophet to the prophecy; and what, according to my text, is the abiding characteristic of ail true prophecy? Here is the guiding word: It is “as a Lamp shining in a squalid place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts.” [Verse 19] “As a lamp!” Then prophecy is something luminous, and therefore something illuminating. “A lamp shining in a squalid place.” True prophecy always exposes the squalor of its time. When the prophet speaks, something shady stands revealed, something iniquitous stands exposed. The prophet always brings with him a light brighter than the twilight of accepted compromise. He comes with something of the light eternal; he is a lamp, and in the presence of the shining prophet the sins of his time come into visibility, and are named and declared. This is what we should expect. If we turn to the book of the psalmist we find these expressive words: “Our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance.” We come into the light of the Lord’s presence, and our secret sins leap into view, just as motes are seen in the sunbeam, and just as faded patches and rents are exposed in the broad light of the fuller day. And if a man comes from God, bearing with him something of this same eternal light, if he comes as a lamp, we 272must expect that the squalor and the deformity of his day will become visible before him. That is ever true, true of the far-off prophet Elijah. If you want to see the sin and the perversity and the squalor of that far-off day, stand near the man who has got the lamp. It is the same with the prophet Amos. If you want to see the rottenness of the gilded ceremonial religion of his day, and the injustices, and the perverted relationships of man to man, stand near the herdsman who has got the lamp. It is true of John the Baptist. If you want to see the sin of the times in which our Lord was born, stand near the man who has got the lamp. If you stand near Savonarola, you see the iniquities of Florence. If you stand near Thomas Carlyle, you behold the hollow shams and conventions of our own day. If you stand near General Booth, you will see the miseries and the deformities and the crookednesses of the submerged tenth. Until General Booth appeared we had never really seen them. “Darkest England and the way out.” “The people who sat in darkness saw a great light.” That is ever characteristic of prophecy. It reveals the squalor in the squalid place, it unveils it for the purpose of removing it. It reveals the darkness and corruption of the city by bringing into view a vision of the New 273Jerusalem, the city come down out of heaven from God. The first characteristic of true prophecy is that it is luminous and illuminating, exposing where exposure is needed. Mark the progress and sequence of my text. “A lamp shining in a squalid place, until the day dawn!” [Verse 19] Prophecy is not only luminous, it is progressive. Do you mark the increasing expansion of the terms? I think it is very beautiful and suggestive to notice it: “A lamp,” “a day-star!” The dawning! and on to perfect noon! The prophet of to-day speaks a larger word than the prophet of the earliest time. Savonarola was a child of the dawning; Amos was a child of the lamp. It is always necessary to remember this. When I remember this, it clears away a thousand difficulties from the sacred page. When I go back to Elijah, or to Amos, or to Micah, I must not expect the large and comprehensive light of the dawn. I must expect lamplight, partial light, local light; but a lamp always shining above the current standard of the time. When you go back to Elijah you go from dawn to lamps, and the principle must guide you in your apprehension and appreciation of the prophet’s teaching. I do not know that the electric light need speak altogether in such contemptuous terms of the horn lamp, and I do not know why the horn lamp should 274so fiercely and vehemently disparage the rush. The crucial criterion is this: Not whether Elijah equals Paul, and not whether Amos equals Thomas Carlyle. The crucial criterion is this: When Elijah held his lamp, what about the squalor? Was he above the current standard? Did he shine above the accepted compromise? Did he bring in the radiance of the ideal? When I go back to Amos I do not expect to see dawnlight, but lamplight. I find in Hosea, in Amos, many things I do not like; but I am a child of a richer privilege, a child of a larger day. The question is this: Had they a lamp which exposed the dirt? Did they bring out the squalor, and did they make revelations of which even we, in our own day, do well to take heed? The light has been progressive: a lamp for Elijah, a day-star for another man, the broader light of the dawning for another. And still the light of prophecy is progressive. We, too, are only yet in the early dawning; we are far away yet from the perfect noon. The prophet of to-day and to-morrow has still richer and deeper things to tell us from God. He need not be a repetition of yester day, he need not be a repeater of old saws and counsels, carrying precisely the same lamp. Still, to-day as ever, our prophet speaks from God, and in the utterance of these more 275privileged times we ought to behold a brightness far more radiant than the current standard, far more exacting in its demands—an inspiration leading us nearer to that glorious consummation when we shall know even as we are known.
Arid lastly, how shall we receive a prophet and understand his message when he comes? Here is the guiding word: “No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation.” [ Verse 20] We are not at liberty to take our own roads to the interpretation. Private ways of that sort will never lead to the truth. There is a prescribed highway by which the deep secrets of prophets can be gained. A just interpretation of prophecy will always depend upon the spirit in which we approach it. Thomas à Kempis has a very revealing word in, I believe, the very first chapter of that wonderfully helpful book The Imitation of Christ. “By what spirit any scripture was made, by that same spirit must it be interpreted.” If you want to interpret a prophecy aright you must get into the spirit in which it was born. You cannot take a private way. Only in that way, the way in which it had its birth, can you get its secret meaning. I think that is true of literature in general. I was reading only the other day a book by one of the ablest literary critics 276of the last fifty years, and lie said lie never understood the drive, and spring, and leap of Sir “Walter Scott’s Marmion until he declaimed it aloud on a galloping horse. But why did the secret of Marmion come out when it was declaimed on the back of a galloping horse? Because it was composed on the back of a galloping horse. And if you will turn to Marmion with this conception of the leap, and spring, and gallop in your mind and heart, you will get the very go and drive and rhythm of the poem. That will suffice for our purpose. We are to rearrange the conditions under which poetry was born if we are to discern and interpret its meaning. And so it is with all prophecy and all poetry, and all music. What is the use of bringing a commercial instinct to the interpretation of Wordsworth? What could you do with it? If you want to understand Wordsworth, you must become identified with the man, you must become possessed by the Wordsworthian mood. How, then, shall I find the secret of Isaiah, of Paul, of Savonarola, or of Luther? Not by any private interpretation, but by that same spirit in which their message and prophecy were born. Is not this the word of the Master? “He that receiveth a prophet in the spirit of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.” He that receiveth Wordsworth 277in the spirit of Wordsworth, will enter into Wordsworth’s work. He that receiveth Paul in the spirit of Paul will walk in the highways and byways of Paul’s inheritance. It is no use my going to Paul or to Isaiah with mere implements of criticism, however delicate or however refined they may be I shall fail to discover the secrets of his intimacy; I shall be locked out from his innermost fellowship. We must come to these men with reverence, with humility, with sincerity of purpose, with that absolute frankness which offers a sensitive surface to all good things. To sum it all up, the Holy Spirit must interpret what the Holy Spirit first inspired, and it would be far better to have no critical apparatus at all, and to know nothing about scholarship and nothing about learning, and to come to the sacred page with the shoes from off the feet, than to go burdened with all manner of learning and scholarship, and tramp loudly and flippantly in the most sacred place. You cannot get into secrets by private and heedless ways of that kind. It will have to be done in the broad highway of God’s Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit. And what we need we can get. And if ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father give the holy, interpreting Spirit to 278them that ask it? And so you see we can all be interpreters, and, blessed be God, we can all be prophets too! For if we are all filled with the Holy Spirit there will come into our message the prophetic significance, into our very singing the prophetic fervour, into our ordinary intercourse and converse spiritual energy and pith. The Holy Spirit will speak through me.
Oh, teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.
Oh, fill me with Thy fulness, Lord,
Until my very heart o’erflow
With kindling thought and glowing word
Thy love to tell, Thy praise to show.
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