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THE HEBREW CONCEPTION OF GOD77Preached at Balliol, April 23, 1876..


DEUT. vi. 4.

FOLLOWING the plan which was indicated in a former sermon, I shall proceed now to consider the revelation of the divine nature which is made to us in the Old Testament. This we may hereafter compare briefly—first, with Greek and Roman ideas of religion; secondly, with that wider and more universal conception of God which is given us in history, in science, in our own experience, and in the Gospel of Christ.

I am sensible of the difficulty of doing justice to a great subject in the short compass of a sermon. Such a treatment must necessarily appear superficial, inadequate, fragmentary. I would wish you to consider what I am going to say as hints and suggestions only, which you may carry back with you to the study of the Old Testament and make the beginning of thoughts and studies of your own.


The Israelites themselves seem to have been conscious that the revelation of the divine nature had been gradually imparted to them. There may, perhaps, have been a time in their early history when their conception of God did not differ much from those of the surrounding nations, when they may have even given ‘the fruit of their body for the sin of their soul.’ But such a practice, which seems to be authoritatively repudiated in the narrative of Abraham and Isaac, certainly had not survived in the times when the Jews had become a nation. The truth probably is that, as other nations, for example the Egyptians, had much more of spiritual religion than we used to suppose in the days when their ancient records were unknown to us, so the Jews, if we examine the Old Testament critically, had much more of superstition and idolatry than it was once common to acknowledge. These old superstitions, which they had inherited from former ages and which they had in common with other nations, were always clinging to them and returning upon them; and only when the world began to pass out of them the Israelites passed out of them too. What they had peculiar to themselves was not the higher moral or religious sentiment of the whole race, but a few great men of whom other nations have never had the like, who first taught the true nature of God, who sought first to awaken in the minds of their fellow-men the moral and spiritual nature of religion, who stood apart from 59existing institutions, and seem to have been not much regarded in their own lifetime or by their own nation, yet whose words have lightened every man who cometh into the world. The writings of the prophets of the seventh and eighth centuries before Christ are the true religion of Israel.

Without attempting to recover what may be termed the prehistoric religion of the Israelites we observe traces of great changes, not unacknowledged by themselves in their thoughts about the divine nature. Once God had been only known to them by the name of Elohim, which scarcely distinguished Him from the other gods of the poly theist peoples who surrounded them, afterwards by the solemn and more abstract title of Jahweh or Jehovah, a word which is connected with the verb of existence, and seems to indicate the permanence of the divine nature. There was a time when God had walked with Adam in the garden; when He partook with Abraham of the calf which he had dressed; when He had talked with Moses as a man talketh with his friend; but every Israelite would have felt, as we should do, the incongruity of transferring these ancient representations to the times of David or one of the kings. Men look back upon Paradise or to some golden age as to a time in which, as they believe, there was a nearer approach to God:

Upon the breast of new-created Earth

Man walked, and angels to his sight appeared,

Crowning the glorious hills of Paradise.


But they forget that the nearer vision of God is also the narrower, and that to comprehend the whole of the visible world they must ascend to the invisible. The Israelitish prophets seem also to have been aware that many things said by them of old times respecting the nature or acts of the Divine Being stood in need of correction. Thus, while in the histories the bloody and perfidious destruction of the house of Ahab and of the prophets of Baal by Jehu is attributed to his zeal for .God, who had anointed him by the hand of His prophet, there was not wanting a prophet, Hosea, in the next generation, who foretold that the Lord would ‘avenge the blood of Jezreel on the house of Jehu.’ Thus again, while we are taught in the second commandment that ‘God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children,’ the prophet Ezekiel, apparently alluding to these words, declares with authority that henceforward there shall be no more this proverb in the house of Israel, ‘the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set upon edge,’ but every soul shall bear his own iniquity. Thus the arbitrary is exchanged for the moral, even in spite of the appearances of the surrounding world. And everywhere the beneficent aspect of the divine nature is exhibited to us as well as the terrible which had absorbed the minds of the people in earlier ages: the religion of love is combined with that of fear. The terrible Jehovah, who is ready to pour out the vials of His wrath on the backsliding race, is also the61God who ‘loves them freely,’ and draws them to Him ‘with bonds of love.’

And here I will notice a difficulty in these inquiries which has, perhaps, already occurred to you—it is a difficulty which often applies to similar inquiries. When we speak of the Old Testament we include a number of writings of the most various dates, and the dates of most of them are not exactly known to us. The history of Israel extends over a period of a thousand or fifteen hundred years. During this period the nation is sometimes in the closest connexion with the Assyrian or Egyptian or Persian or late Greek Empire, at other times almost isolated from them. It is natural to ask how we can be sure to what period the Jewish conception of the divine nature can be really attributed, and how far they may have been affected by the ideas of foreign nations. Are the Books of Genesis or Exodus, or the oldest part of them, really of the same date with the Book of Deuteronomy, which has so much in common with the prophets? Is the minute detail of the Ceremonial Law really prior to the denunciations of ceremonialism which we read in the words of Micah and Isaiah? Why do the names of Adam and Eve never occur except in the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis? Is the prediction of Cyrus, or the consolation of Israel in the captivity, a foretelling of events by the prophet Isaiah which were to happen two centuries afterwards, or the expression of religious feeling 62by a great unknown prophet who lived at some later epoch?

The time will no doubt arrive when these and the like questions, which have been often angrily discussed, will be regarded as perfectly unconnected with the interests of religion and theology, as having, in fact, no more to do with them than similar questions raised about the genuineness or authenticity of the Greek or Latin classics. But they will always be of importance in the study of Jewish history and literature. Unless we can form an idea of the chronology we can obtain no adequate conception of the progress of religious ideas among the Jewish people—we shall be in danger of mixing up notions which are really incongruous. In this, as in most inquiries relating to antiquity, we can have no certainty about details or minutiae—we cannot determine accurately whether a particular verse is to be assigned to an earlier or later prophet. But we may still be able to say confidently, that all the prophets of a particular age have a common character and teach a common lesson.

Now the prophets of the sixth and seventh centuries before Christ have such a common character; in them the spiritual nature of religion is fully taught and developed. The same spiritual lesson is repeated to us in the Psalms and in the Book of Deuteronomy. The dates of the Psalms vary, and for the most part to writings so short no chronological criterion can be applied. The Book of Deuteronomy has been 63thought by recent critics, chiefly on grounds of internal evidence, to have been written in the reign of King Josiah. Here, then, we have a large portion of the Old Testament Scriptures, for the most part contemporary or nearly so, to which we may appeal as the source of our knowledge respecting the religion of the Israelites in the golden age of prophecy, when the outward fortunes of the Jewish people were beginning to wane and disappear, and a greater and more abiding glory to shine forth.

There is yet another confusion which besets the study of the Israelitish religion—the erroneous opposition between the Old Testament and the New. They have differences no doubt, great and important, but differences are often made between them which have no real existence. When God is said to be represented in the one as the God of justice, in the other as the God of love; when the Old Testament is opposed to the New as the law to the Gospel, the thunder of Mount Sinai to the meekness and gentleness of Christ; this is really a very inconsiderate and partial way of viewing the subject. For in the Old and New Testaments alike God is equally represented to us as a Father as well as a King, as a God of love and mercy as well as of justice; in both He is the God of individuals as well as of nations, who is not far ‘from every one of us.’ The truer distinction, perhaps the only distinction, which can be consistently maintained between them is that in the Old Testament 64God is revealed to His people Israel, and through them to the world, by the word of Moses, Isaiah, and the prophets; that in the New Testament He has spoken not to one nation only, but to the whole world by His Son Jesus Christ.

And now we may leave these preliminaries and return to the general subject. First among the conceptions of God which we find in the Old Testament is that ‘He is the God of nature.’ The Israelites of course knew nothing of the fixed laws by which the world is governed; their heaven was above them, their place of the departed below; the earth was a large plain which divided them. The stars were the hosts of whom Jehovah was the Lord. Just behind the visible universe He dwelt, sometimes revealing Himself for a moment to the eye of the prophet ‘sitting upon a throne, high, and lifted up,’ or ‘having the body of heaven in His clearness.’ His power is shown both in the ordinary working of nature and in the extraordinary. He makes the field barren or fruitful; He gives or withholds from Israel corn, wine and oil, the silver also and the gold and the wool and the flax with which they adorn themselves are His gifts. For their sakes He makes a covenant with the wild beasts, for whom He also provides. He hath set the round world so fast that it cannot be moved (this is the manner in which the Israelitish prophet expresses that confidence which to us is given by what we term the uniformity of the 65laws of nature). The good and evil which come to men, the storm, the drought, the pestilence, equally with the beneficial rain or the fertilizing sunshine, are regulated by His pleasure. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handy work.’ This is the picture of the world in repose. But not less is His presence seen in the earthquake and the storm, when, as we read in the 18th Psalm, ‘the earth trembled and quaked, and the very foundations of the hills shook and were removed, because He was wroth.’ ‘He bowed the heavens also, and came down, and it was dark under His feet.’ Or, as the two aspects are combined in the 50th Psalm, ‘Out of Sion hath God appeared in perfect beauty’: and yet ‘there shall go before Him a consuming fire, and a mighty tempest shall be stirred up round about Him.’

Yet this physical government of the world is also a moral government, in which God distributes rewards and punishments to His people. He is not only their Creator, but their Judge, who gives to every man according to his works. True, the prophet or psalmist sometimes finds that the mystery of the world is too hard for him, as it has been for many a one in every age, when he sees the wicked in such prosperity and flourishing like a green bay-tree; or when, like Job, he contrasts the consciousness of his own rectitude with the misery of his outward circum stances; or when, like the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, after surveying the world, he acknowledges 66that all is vanity, and that there is one event to the righteous and the wicked, yet still maintains, in spite of all this, that ‘to fear God and keep His commandments is the conclusion of the whole matter.’ Even to the psalmist the ways of God were not cleared up ‘until he went into the sanctuary and considered the end of these men.’ He, too, reflected with gratitude that he had ‘never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread.’ Such were the partial answers, which in those ancient times men were able to give to the common difficulties which beset us and them in relation to the divine government of the universe. But chiefly they looked forward to another kingdom which never was, and never was to be, in which the will of God was to be more perfectly fulfilled, and ‘the sun of righteousness’ was to shine forth, and ‘the mountain of the Lord’s House was to be exalted in the top of the mountains.’ Before this there is to be a day of judgement, ‘a day of the Lord,’ in which He will punish the sins of Israel, and from the remnant make a new people. They shall return from all the nations whither He has scattered them; Ephraim shall not envy Jacob, nor Judah vex Ephraim, Israel shall be a third with Assyria and Egypt, while in Micah and Isaiah the vision extends (for he words occur in both of them): ‘And many people shall go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will 67walk in His paths. For out of Sion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’

When we speak of Jehovah being revealed to men in the Old Testament as the moral governor of the world, we must remember, however, one important limitation which narrows this conception. Though He is the God of the whole earth, ‘who sits upon the circle of the heavens,’ before whom the nations are as nothing compared with His greatness, yet He is also in a special manner the God of the Jewish people. With them He is in direct relation as their King and Judge, as their Father and Friend. But the other nations of the world come within the circle of His Providence chiefly in so far as their fortunes affect the Jewish race; they are on the outskirts of His government, and the furthest vision of the prophet hardly pierces to a time when there shall be one religion spread over the whole earth. No ancient nation ever thought of other nations as equally with themselves the objects of a divine care. It would have been hard, almost impossible, for them to have done so. Nay, my brethren, is it not hard for us as well as them to realize what we most certainly believe, or at least declare that we believe, that every other human being, the poorest, the weakest, those who dwell in distant climes, or who lived in past ages, are as much the object of a divine solicitude as we ourselves are? The national religions of the world came first; and the Jewish religion follows the same order: 68they were schoolmasters, as we may say, a little parodying the words of St. Paul, to bring men to the universal religion. The later religions of the world, whether Christianity or Buddhism or Mahometanism, have all claimed to be universal, limited to no favoured race or tribes, however imperfectly the disciples of all of them have ever been able to carry out this divine inspiration.

It is out of this relation of Jehovah to the Jewish people that the tender human relation of God to man was developed by the prophets. They spoke of the power which nothing could resist, of the justice which no man could escape; they were never weary of describing in material imagery the control which was exercised by Him over the works of nature. Yet this same mighty God is the gentlest and most loving of rulers; the Father and the Friend, the Consoler and Redeemer, even more than the Conqueror and King. His love as far exceeds human love as His strength exceeds human strength. He is the Shepherd who feeds His flock and gathers the lambs in His arms; He is the Spouse of Israel as well as her Lord, whom she is constantly deserting, and who is always ready to receive her again. There is no movement towards repentance or cry for mercy that does not at once enter into His ears. The prisoner and the oppressed, all those who in early and disturbed states of society are least regarded, are the special objects of His care; He is the Father of the fatherless, and in Him they find 69mercy. ‘When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.’ It is a hasty remark which has been sometimes made, that in the Old Testament mankind are only regarded as the servants of God, but in the New Testament are His sons. For both in the Old and in the New Testaments alike He is their Father as well as their God. But instead of summarizing further the representation of this aspect of the divine character which is given in the prophets, I would ask you to consider the deep tenderness and feeling of two passages in their writings.

The first is from the later chapters of Isaiah (lxiii. 15, 16, 19), probably written during the captivity, which combines in a wonderful manner the two characteristics of gentleness and sublimity.

‘Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of Thy holiness and of Thy glory: where is Thy zeal and Thy strength, the sounding of Thy bowels and of Thy mercies toward me? are they restrained?

‘Doubtless Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer; Thy name is from everlasting.’

Where we may notice, by the way, how the prophet identifies himself with the Jewish people so as to be almost indistinguishable from them.

And again renewing the plea:—

‘We are Thine: Thou never barest rule over them; they were not called by Thy name.’


The other passage is of a much earlier date, and is taken from the prophet Hosea, who lived in the days of Uzziah, Jotham and Hezekiah (Hosea xi. i, 3, 4). It presents God to us, not only as the father or spouse, but almost as the mother of His people.

‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called My son out of Egypt.’

‘I taught Ephraim also to go, taking them by their arms; but they knew not that I healed them. I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love.’

And again (xiv. 4):

‘I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for mine anger is turned away from them.’

In some old-fashioned, may I say wrong-headed, treatises of theology, such as Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses, the God of Israel is described to us as a sort of king or magistrate who keeps His people in order by rewards and punishments. And there have not been wanting writers in our own days who think that this, whether true or not, is about as high a notion as we can form of the divine nature. This is the old fallacy of might prevailing over right, the theory of the strong man as it is sometimes called, transferred from the sphere of human things to the divine. How unlike this is either to the love of God on which the prophets delighted to dwell, or to the power of God which is ever on the side of righteousness, I need not stop to consider.

Thus far we have been contemplating the divine 71nature either in relation to the outward world or to the Jewish world. There remains the highest and greatest question of all, so far as it can be separated from these. What is He in His own innermost being, when separated from the accidents of time and place? How shall we describe that God who existed before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were formed?

There is one word hardly translatable into other languages, because the Israelitish prophets have themselves infused into it a depth of meaning, under which all the attributes of God are comprehended. This is ‘holiness;’ and God is called by them ‘the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy.’ It is difficult for us to comprehend the whole signification of this word. It means moral goodness, it means righteousness, it means truth, it means purity—but it means more than these. It means the spirit which is altogether above the world, and yet has an affinity with goodness and truth in the world. It implies separation as well as elevation, dignity as well as innocence. It is the personification of the idea of good. It is the light of which the whole earth is full, which is also the fire which burns up the ungodly. It has a side of awe as well as of goodness. It suggests the thought, not of direct punishment or suffering to be inflicted on the wicked, but rather, ‘How can we sinners venture into the presence of a holy God? What unclean person can behold 72His face and live?’ Like other ideas of perfection it may be called, in the language of philosophy, transcendental, that is to say, not wholly capable of being expressed in human language. After we have combined all the aspects of truth or goodness in one, there remains something more which is above us, which we can feel rather than describe.

But what is necessarily indistinct to us when we endeavour to carry our thoughts beyond this world becomes clearer to us when we return to earth and think, not of God, but of man. The holiness of God is that image of Himself which He seeks to implant in all His creatures. ‘Be ye holy even as I am holy,’ are words in which the whole of religion may be summed up. And though we are not able to look at the sun in his strength, we may yet see him through a glass darkly or in human reflections of him. Thus, for example, if we were to attempt to define or describe the meaning of the term once more with reference to man, we should find that there were very few to whom we could venture to apply it. It means in the first place perfect disinterestedness, indifference to earthly and human interests. Again, it implies a mind one with God, over which no shadow of uncleanness or untruth ever passes, which seeks only to know His will, and knowing it, to carry it out in the world. To purity and truth it adds peace and a certain dignity derived from independence of all things. It is heaven upon earth—to live 73loving all men, disturbed by nothing, fearing nothing. It is a temper of mind which is unshaken by changes of religious opinion, which is not dependent upon outward observances of religion. Such a character we may meet with once or twice in a long life, and derive a sort of inspiration from it. And oh! that it were possible that some of us might, even in the days of our youth, find the blessedness of leading such a life in the light of God’s presence always.

The aim of the prophets is almost wholly a moral one, and the demands which they make in the name of Jehovah over the people of Israel are moral demands. ‘Wash you, make you clean.’ ‘Cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek judgement, do justice to the fatherless, defend the cause of the widow.’ Nothing can be simpler than their religious teaching. This simplicity leads them to denounce, not only the sins, but the religious observances of the Israelites. Read carefully the first chapter of Isaiah: ‘Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto Me; your new moons and sabbaths and your appointed feasts My soul hateth;’ and you see how far they were from blindly conforming to the religion of their time. Do we suppose that any one who spoke in the same spirit to us would be received with favour amongst us? They came not to increase the outward splendour of the temple or the synagogue, but to teach a lesson which should abide for ever. That lesson may be summed up in the words of Micah, 74called by Bishop Butler, himself a great teacher of the morality of religion, the justest description of religious life that has ever been given. ‘He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’

And this lesson they have bequeathed to us, the simplest of all religious lessons and also the most in danger of being lost; of this they have found for us the expression in words which will never pass away. We do not rashly apply their denunciations to the religious observances of our own day; but they teach us that by being above them only can we have the right use of them. Their mission was to stand apart from their fellow-men, ours to act in concert and communion with them. There is another lesson which may be gathered from their writings, to which also ecclesiastical history bears witness. It is this, that, whereas the permanence of societies and churches is derived from system and organization and authority, their true life flows from individuals acting and thinking freely—from prophets, not from priests; from those who have resisted the popular tide, not from those who are borne along with it.

I promised, at the commencement of this sermon, to make some brief comparison of the Israelitish religion with the Greek religion, and also with our modern Christianity. I shall confine the comparison to two striking points.


(1) When we place side by side the writings of Plato or Epictetus and one of the Jewish prophets, we are struck by the fact that while they both equally insist on the morality or perfection of the divine nature, to the Greek it is comparatively indifferent whether he speaks of God in the singular or in the plural, in the masculine or neuter; whereas the Hebrew teacher begins by proclaiming, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God,’ and at every turn attributes to Him the acts and feelings of a person. This difference between the two modes of conception leads us to make the reflection that, while we know of no higher mode of representing the Divine Being to ourselves than under the forms of Unity and Personality, yet that Personality is not like a human personality, nor that Unity like the unity of the world. It seems as if we should not be so careful to define our terms as to vary them, lest we should become the slaves of words in matters which transcend words.

(2) When we compare the prophet’s consciousness of the Divine Being with our own colder and more distant conception of Him, we seem almost to be of a different religion from him. Perhaps we hardly allow sufficiently for the difference which is necessarily made in our ideas of God by the progress of human knowledge. The Israelite, as I was remarking at the beginning of this sermon, had no conception of laws of nature. He thought of God as very near to him,—his Father, his King, the Inhabitant, when He was 76pleased to dwell there, of the land of Israel. But any notion of a Divine Being which did not embrace all knowledge and all power would be to us unreal. We cannot be satisfied with having one God in science and history, another in religion. And the reconcilement of these opposite aspects of the divine nature has hitherto been beyond our strength. Something we may have done for it, but not much. And, while men are seeking after God, if haply they may find Him (though He be not far from any one of us), we cannot entirely cast out fear and doubt; we have sometimes to turn our eyes back again to earth and think of our duties there, which remain as ever plain and clear to us. Some of us may find a parallel to our state in the language of Job and Ecclesiastes.

I have been treating in this sermon of a very solemn subject in the language of criticism.

In these days there are many things which we must criticize, although they are the foundation of our lives, for otherwise they would become mere words, and have no meaning to us. We cannot expect that without any effort of thought we can understand the thoughts of 2,500 years ago. The realities which underlie our criticism, though manifested in different forms, remain the same; though the world grows old they change not; though at times obscured they are again revealed, deriving, as in past so also in future ages, light and meaning from the history and experience of mankind.

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