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THE PROPHETIC SPIRIT1919Preached at Westminster Abbey, July 2, 1876..




ISAIAH lxi. 1.

LOOKING back on the history of the world, we observe long periods in which mankind appear to have been stationary. Great empires like Egypt or China remain the same for two thousand or for three thousand years; the external framework of their institutions exercises a paralyzing influence on their life and spirit; their religions continue merely be cause they are ancient, their works of art are always cast in the same form, their laws and customs are like chains too strong for the puny arm of the individual to break. Still more true is all this, as far as we can 283conjecture, of prehistoric times about which we know so little. Though there were wars and migrations among primitive men, they remained for the most part in the same condition; there was hardly more progress among them than among the animals. Even in our own age of industrial and political activity we become unexpectedly aware of times of reaction: the force which seemed strong enough to revolutionize a world is suddenly arrested and brought to a stop in the midst of its career. Countries, like individuals, are always in danger of falling back into apathy and repose. So that, if some persons speak to us of a law of progress in human affairs, others will seem rather to discern in them a law of rest; not everything going forward, but everything standing still—not ‘the new is ever entwined with the old,’ but ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ And certainly we must admit that the times of progress and improvement have been few and far between: the day-spring from on high has visited mankind at intervals. Every individual who has sought to do good in his generation has probably made the reflection: ‘How little impression he has left upon the forces arrayed against him! hardly more than the husbandman on the solid frame work of the earth.’

Yet there have been also times in which the fountains of the deep may be said to have been broken up; and new lights have dawned upon men, new truths about politics, about morality, about religion, 284which have become the inheritance of after ages. In general the progress of mankind has not been gradual but sudden, like the burst of summer in some ice bound clime. Still less has it been a common effort of the whole human race. If we take away two nations from the history of the world; if we imagine further that the six greatest among the sons of men were blotted out, or had never been; the peoples of the earth would still be ‘sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’ The two nations were among the fewest of all people: scarcely in their most flourishing period together amounting to a hundredth part of the human race. The golden age of either of them can hardly be said to extend over two or three centuries. The nations themselves were not good for much; but single men among them have been the teachers, not only of their own, but of all ages and countries. If the Greek philosophers had never existed, is it too much to say that the very nature of the human mind would have been different? We can hardly tell when or how the sciences would have come into being; many elements of religion as well as of law would have been wanting; the history of nations would have changed. So mighty has been the influence of two or three men in thought and speculation—the world has gone after them.

But even more striking, because more familiar to us, has been the influence of the Jewish prophets on the character of mankind. Living on a narrow spot of earth between the great empires of Assyria and 285Egypt, which seemed so imposing in their antiquity and external greatness, they had the force of mind to see beyond them, and beyond the existence of their own Jewish nation. Great as was the power of Assyria and of Egypt, they knew and were convinced that they were as nothing before the power of God. Already they saw the seeds of ruin in them: ‘their garments were moth-eaten,’ their palaces crumbling in the dust. For they were persuaded that no kingdom could be lasting which was not founded on righteousness and the fear of God. These are what we may call in modern language their principles of politics and religion. They taught men the true nature of God, that He was a God of love as well as of justice, the Father as well as the judge of mankind. They saw Him sweeping the earth with His judgements, and yet ever willing to have mercy on those who bowed to Him. They knew that He could not be pleased with external rites or ceremonies. ‘Lo, O man, He hath shown thee what He requireth of thee; to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.’ They raised their voice against tyranny and hypocrisy, against luxury and vice, against the foreign superstitions which were imported into Israel. And, though confined within the limits of the Jewish people and without experience of the rest of the world, they saw in the distance the vision of a perfect God ‘having the body of heaven in His clearness.’

And now everywhere in Christian countries their 286words have sunk deep into the heart of the human race. If the logical and intellectual framework of the human mind may be said to have been constructed by the Greek philosophers, the moral feelings of men have been deepened and strengthened, and also softened and almost created by the Jewish prophets. In modern times we hardly like to acknowledge the full force of their words, lest they should prove subversive to society. And so we explain them away or spiritualize them, and convert what is figurative into what is literal, and what is literal into what is figurative. And still, after all our interpretation or misinterpretation, whether due to a false theology or to imperfect knowledge of the original language, the force of the words remains; and a light of heavenly truth and love streams from them even now (more than 2500 years after they were first uttered) to the uneducated and ignorant, to the widow or the orphan, when they read the words, ‘Who hath believed our report?’ and ‘Comfort ye my people.’

I propose to speak to you in this sermon of the Jewish prophets, who are so distant from us and yet so near to us: whose words carry us back to an ancient and forgotten world, and also come home to the heart and conscience of each of us. And, first, I shall consider the character of the prophet regarded as a teacher of mankind; secondly, I shall inquire how far in modern times, and even in ordinary life, there may be anything akin to the spirit of prophecy. For 287the same things sometimes exist under different names, and moral or intellectual gifts take different forms in different ages. There have been a few in all ages who have felt themselves irresistibly impelled to utter the truths of which they were persuaded; who have fought hopeless causes; who seem to have lost all feeling of themselves in their devotion to their country or to mankind. The term ‘prophet’ is no longer applied to them; they are not distinguished from their fellow men by any external note in their way of life. We hardly recognize the analogy until after they are dead, and then we sometimes find that they have received a ‘prophet’s reward.’ Such men have been the leaders of movements among ourselves, on behalf of the prisoner or the slave, or the extension of education, or the spread of religious truth. They have been found equally among the clergy and the laity. The characteristic of them has been that in one direction at least they have seen further, and that their moral sense has been higher, than that of the community at large.

And now, returning to the Jewish prophet, we may begin by setting aside a common error in the conception of him, viz. that he was a foreteller of future events in that lower sense in which a Roman soothsayer would have been supposed to foretell them, or as in modern times indications of the future are some times supposed to have been made by ‘second sight.’ Whether in any instance he passed the horizon of 288his real insight into the future; whether there are any prophecies which remain unfulfilled, as, for example, the siege of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar, is a question which we cannot determine certainly. For, though we may interpret prophecy by history, we must not interpret history by prophecy. Doubtless many applications were made of the prophet’s words, both by the writers of the New Testament and the early Fathers, which never came within the range of his thoughts. I notice this chiefly that we may set it aside as unimportant. The prophet was, and he was not, a foreteller of future events. He was, in so far as he saw more deeply into the laws of the world around him: he was not, in the sense which excites the vulgar credulity and admiration of man kind. At least, if there is anything of this kind observable anywhere in particular passages, it is not the essential element of Jewish prophecy. And the connexion of the Old Testament and the New is not one of types and words, but the identity of the truths contained in them—Isaiah and Micah in the Old Testament declaring that there should be ‘no more vain oblations,’ our Lord and St. Paul revealing the spiritual nature of God in the New.

There are some other points belonging to what we may call the externals of prophecy which may now be briefly noted. In the first place, the prophets as they have come down to us form a literature which goes back to a time when there was no written prophecy. 289Their utterances were gradually committed to writing; and in after ages the sayings of different prophets were collected in the same volume and bore the same title. In the Book of Zechariah the traces of at least two authors are universally admitted; in the Book of Isaiah the traces of several appear; for we can no more suppose that the words ‘Thus saith the Lord unto my well-beloved Cyrus’ were composed before the Captivity, than we can imagine, as was the belief of many of the Fathers, that the Psalm beginning ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down’ was the writing of David. In the second place, the later prophecies are to some extent formed upon the earlier. The latest of them all, the Book of Revelation, or the Book of the day of the Lord, as it has also been called, is largely made up of words and symbols taken from the older prophets, as the marginal references abundantly testify. Even the prophet Isaiah contains a repetition of Micah; Amos refers to Joel, and the Book of Joel, probably the oldest of the extant prophecies, has a reference to still earlier writings which are now lost. And perhaps we shall not be far wrong in supposing that the prophets who are only known to us from the historical books, Elijah and Elisha, as they left a deeper impress in Jewish history, were also greater than any of those whose writings have come down to us. On the other hand the later prophets seem to be less bound within the horizon of Jewish thought, and to be uttering truths in form at least more universal and more adapted 290to all ages and countries. Probably they began to write down their words in a book or roll when they were rejected by their own generation.

And now let us endeavour to form an idea of the prophet in his true character, stripped of the literary accidents which surround him. He is the revealer of the will of God to man. And the will of God is in one word ‘righteousness’—holiness of life in the individual, the triumph of right in the world. He is the voice of one crying, sometimes in the wilderness, sometimes in the city, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’; he is possessed, inspired, with the word of God. He does not reason about the truths which he utters, for they are self-evident to him. He is fulfilled with the power and goodness of God, with the greatness and with the gentleness of the divine nature. Take for example the twenty-fifth chapter of Isaiah: after the judgements of God, as elsewhere, immediately follow His mercies. ‘Thou hast made of a city a heap; of a defenced city a ruin, a palace of strangers to be no city’; and yet in the following verses, ‘Thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat’; and then come the words, ‘He shall swallow up death in victory; the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces’: so near do His judgements and loving-kindnesses lie together. This is the lesson which the prophets are always teaching, that there is no end of His justice, and there is 291no end of His mercy. They present the divine nature almost in the form of contradictions, now entreating, now threatening, now consoling, now punishing; and the human heart bears witness to both aspects, and both seem to appear in the order and government of the world. And so too in later ages men have spoken of the love of God as opposed to His justice; or as though, if I may use such an expression, God were just with one part of His mind and at one time, and loving with another part of His mind and at another time. Yet there is also a higher view which may be gathered from the prophets themselves, that His justice is ever regulated by His love, and His love by His justice, and that these two are in reality identical and inseparable. But we, seeing through a glass darkly, and able only to look at one side at a time, imagine the opposition, instead of reflecting that His justice and mercy, one and indivisible, encircle us both in this world and in another.

The justice of God is seen by the prophets in His judgement on Israel and on the world. The history of the world is the judgement of the world. ‘The day of the Lord’ is the burden of prophecy; from Joel the earliest of the prophets, to Malachi the latest, the prophets are still waiting for ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord,’ as in the New Testament the first believers are still waiting for the coming of the Lord. They watch the great empires of the old world passing into ruin; in these are anticipations of the greater 292judgement which is to come; as again in the New Testament the second coming of Christ is blended with the destruction of Jerusalem. But still the great day of all is at a distance; and one by one the prophets, like other men, pass from the scene. The judgement is begun but not completed here, and has an anticipation in the consciences of men. There remains therefore a more perfect justice for all mankind.

So the mercy of God is also shown by the prophet in His dealings with His people Israel. The Jewish religion was national; Israel had not arrived at the point of seeing that all men equally, Gentiles as well as Jews, were in the hands of God and subject to His laws. So individuals in modern times have imagined themselves to be the chosen servants of God, and, indeed, it is hard for any of us to realize that another is equally with himself the care of a divine providence. The vision of the Jewish prophet was limited in like manner. Though in one or two passages Israel makes a third with Assyria and Egypt, yet in general the love of God is concentrated on His chosen people. They alone say to Him, ‘Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not; Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer, whose name is from everlasting.’ Yet it is to be observed also that the relation of God to Israel is not one of favouritism. When they sin He visits them with His judgements, when they return to Him 293He has mercy on them. When His arm is heaviest upon them still a remnant are left, for ‘He will not destroy the righteous with the wicked; that be far from Him.’ And so the prophets, reflecting on the nature of God, arrive at last at the conclusion, not that ‘the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children,’ but that ‘henceforth 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 on edge, but every soul shall bear his own iniquity,’ and that, ‘when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness he shall save his soul alive.’ Even the very judgements which are affirmed to have been executed by the command of God are in some in stances corrected, as for example the massacre of Jehu, in Hosea i. 4, where it is said ‘Yet a little while and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel,’ that is, of Jezebel and the sons of Ahab, ‘on the house of Jehu.’

The prophet lives with God rather than with his fellowmen; and he is confident that the word which he speaks is the word of God. Suddenly he feels an irresistible impulse to declare that which he knows. Naturally we ask the question, how he could be sure that the voice of God speaking or seeming to speak within him was not a mere illusion. For we some times ask ourselves too, how we can be sure that such and such actions or such and such beliefs are the truth and will of God. How do we distinguish them from the fancies of our own minds? And the answer 294in both cases is the same, that we know them to be the truth and will of God in proportion as they express the highest idea of truth, of justice, and of love which we are capable of forming in our own minds. But in most men there is but a feeble sense of the power and goodness of God; they do as other men do, seldom deriving any light or strength from their knowledge of His nature or character. They do not live in His presence, or refer their actions to His laws, or judge of the world, of other men, and of themselves by the standard of His perfections.

Once more: the Jewish prophets were the first teachers of spiritual religion. In all ages and countries the outward has been tending to prevail over the inward, the Law over the Gospel, the local and temporal over the spiritual and eternal. The world takes the place of the Church, or rather the Church becomes a new world, an earthly kingdom, a system of discipline and government, in which the old foes appear under new names, and ambition and avarice are as rife as in kingdoms of the world. Then comes an individual conscious of a mission from on high, and seeks to restore the lost purity of religion, such as St. Bernard, the reformer of the Monastic Orders, or John Huss and Savonarola, the forerunners of the Reformation, or Luther in the century that followed, or at a later time our own John Wesley. Then a voice is heard in Europe saying: ‘Let us have no more penances or indulgences or priestly absolution or 295masses for quick and dead; we are justified by faith only, without rites and ceremonies.’ Or again, ‘We will have no more formalism or lip-service, we feel that we have sinned against God and have need of reconcilement with Him.’

So we might translate into modern language the first chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah.

‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?’ saith the Lord, ‘I am full of the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination to me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.’ ‘Your hands are full of blood.’ ‘Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord; Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’ This is the very spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of true religion, that we should cease to do evil and learn to do well, that we should not only repent but bring forth fruits meet for repentance, that we should make clean not that which is without, but that which is within, that is to say the heart and conscience of men.

And ever and anon the prophet looks forward to 296a future which is not, but always is to be, a vision of the kingdom of God in distant ages, in far-off lands, whether in this world or in another he cannot tell. This is the day when ‘the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be exalted in the top of the mountains’; when ‘the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea.’ But as yet the justice of God and the love of God are but half revealed. The world is distracted between good and evil, the evil seeming often to preponderate over the good. And in this mixed scene of good and evil the prophet beholds the image of a Saviour, a Redeemer, the servant of God, who partakes of the sufferings of man, who ‘has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,’ who ‘is led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb’; who is exalted of God because ‘he is despised and rejected of men.’ There is one in whom the struggle and the final victory is impersonated, in whom all the sins and sorrows of mankind are represented, who shall justify them and himself. In such manner is described the life of Him ‘to whom bear all the prophets witness.’

And now, leaving the Jewish prophets, I will briefly consider the second head concerning which I proposed to speak: ‘whether anything akin to the spirit of prophecy can exist among ourselves. For naturally we think of the prophet as an extraordinary man, gifted with strange powers of language and insight. 297And perhaps some of us would shrink from saying ‘Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.’ Yet something like prophecy seems to enter into all true religion.

For in all true religion or philosophy there must be a willingness to resist the evil customs of men, whether in the church or in the world, an insight which enables individuals to see through them, and a courage which will fight against them even though they may be a part of the established order of society in which we live. He who is independent in thought and mind, who knows no other rule but the divine law, who habitually thinks of the world and of himself and other men, of the ranks of society, of the opinions of parties, of the trifles of fashion, as they appear in the sight of God, he who in politics knows no other principles but truth and right, and is confident that amid all appearances to the contrary they must triumph at the last, has in him the spirit of a prophet.

Again, in all true religion there must be a zeal against hypocrisy and oppression, on behalf of humanity and justice; and if the fire burns within a man he must at last speak with his tongue. He who cannot remain silent when any injustice is being done, who feels irresistibly impelled, perhaps in ordinary conversation, to lift up his voice against some pernicious or immoral sentiment; who, when other men are struggling in some cause of justice or 298humanity, becomes their natural leader; into whose ears the crying of the prisoner or the slave first enters; who will spend a lifetime in the detection of some wrong done to the fatherless and widow; or who is convinced that he must speak out some truth which all the world are either denying or veiling in ambiguities, no matter at what cost to his worldly fame or prospects; he too has in him the elements of a hero and of a prophet.

Once more, in all religion, at least in any deeper kind of religion, there must be isolation from the world, that we may be alone with God. The religious thinker or teacher is no longer liable to be persecuted for his opinions, he is not like the olden prophets wandering about in sheep skins and goat skins; yet any man who thinks or feels deeply is always liable to find himself more or less estranged from his fellow men. They cannot enter into his thoughts, nor can he join always in their trivial and passing interests. Like the prophet he has to go into the wilderness that he may be alone with God. And through God he is brought back to his fellowmen with higher motives and aspirations for their good; he feels them to be his brethren, and is bound to them, not merely by earthly ties of family or friend ship, but by a Divine love for them because they are God’s creatures, to whom he is bound to impart the truth which he knows and every other good gift which he has received. He who is thus reunited in 299God to his fellow-men; who from some eminence of thought or knowledge or position has come down to be the servant of all that he may be the saviour of all, and who not without suffering has carried out this endeavour to his life’s end (if there be such an one), has in him the spirit not of a prophet but of Christ Himself.

Lastly, my brethren, all things in this world are so imperfect that it sometimes seems as if the promises of the future were never realized. Many form ideals in youth—for that is the time of hope and prophecy; and at forty or fifty, when they see that their ideals were not attainable, they lose faith and heart, because they appear to have failed. Even those who have succeeded to the utmost in the worldly sense of success will sometimes tell us how small the whole result is—‘Vanity of vanities’: a few years spent in education, a few years in preparation for a profession, a few years of disappointment or of brilliant success and fortune, and then the end: such is the life of man. But all this is no reason for relinquishing our ideals, or imagining that we have been mocked by them. They have been the best, the eternal part of our lives, and are not to be deemed failures because they have been only partially realized. For without them human life would be lowered, and we ourselves and men in general would be sensibly degraded. They are not failures, but efforts after perfection, necessarily involving some degree of imperfection. If ever the 300hopes and ideals of youth are combined with the wisdom and experience of maturer life, such a union is fraught with blessings to mankind. Enthusiasm is a gift of God, not to be repressed, but to be dissected and purged of its lighter and weaker elements. Even the folly of the enthusiast is generally wiser than the wisdom of the cynic. We know too that the work which begins here is not ended here. He who in later life retains the ideals of his early days; who has not ceased to hope and believe because he has ceased to be young; who deems that the next generation will be better than his own, having more experience and fewer prejudices; who looking back on the imperfections of his own life looks forward to another in which he will see the ways and do the works of God more perfectly; who, when darkness is closing in upon him, has his eye fixed on the light beyond, has in him the mind and spirit of a prophet.

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