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ON THE DUTY OF PROPHETICAL INVESTIGATION AND DISCUSSION.
IN taking up the subject of prophetical inquiry, and in proceeding to invite public attention to it, there are two points, which owing to existing circumstances seem to demand a few preliminary observations. The first concerns the propriety of investigating prophecy at all;-the second respects the expediency of promoting a discussion of it at this particular crisis. To these two points we now purpose, in unfeigned dependance on divine aid, briefly to address ourselves.
I. We must here anticipate one of the advantages arising from discussion; viz. that it has already tended to remove in most instances avowed objections to the study of prophecy. It is not long since that ministers of the Gospel were frequently to be met with, who discountenanced investigation altogether: now it is generally admitted to be a duty, "not to despise prophesyings; "a but "to take heed thereto, as unto a light shining in a dark place."b There are indeed some who make this admission only with regard to fulfilled prophecies: and there are others, who, whilst they profess not to deprecate the study of un-fulfilled prophecy, do nevertheless cumber the liberty of investigation with so many exceptions, and declare it in every instance to be attended with so much danger, as effectually to deter numbers of christians from entering upon the inquiry. We shall confine our remarks therefore under the first point for considcration, to the duty of investigating unfulfilled prophecy in particular.
1. The chief objection against this portion of Scripture is the alleged impossibility of understanding or judging of prophecy, until the event
has proved its meaning. But how contrary is this to the experience of the Church! Promise, the greater portion of which is unfulfilled prophecy, is declared in the New Testament to be a principal means whereby we are made partakers of the divine nature;c which could not be, were it entirely vague and indefinable: and under the Old Testament dispensation, the church was chiefly sustained and nourished by prophecy; most of the burning and shining lights raised up in it being prophets. The very first promise, that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent, was an unfulfilled prophecy, to which the church took heed for 4000 years. Noah prepared his ark, moved by the fear of an unfulfilled prophecy, or promise; and Abraham saw afar off, and rejoiced in the day of Christ, by means of another. Joseph would not have directed his bones to be removed, had he not depended on prophecy for the going out of his people: to which prophecy the Lord afterwards referred Moses and Aaron, as the pledge, that he would redeem them. The Israelites were encouraged to labour for their deliverance from captivity by the prophecy concerning it: for as Jeremiah had prayed for and obtained an understanding of the restoration of his people, when they were about to be led into captivity;d so Daniel understood the times from the study of the writings of Jeremiah ;e-just as the faithful were afterwards waiting for the Consolation of Israel from the study (as is presumed) of the book of Daniel. It was through attention to unfulfilled prophecy, that the christians left Jerusalem and escaped to the
a 1 Thess. v, 20. b2 Pet, i, 19. c 2 Pet, i, 4. d Jer. xxxii, 16—44. e Dan. ix, 2.
mountains, when the city was besieged by the Romans; and the Lord hath equally foretold the signs of that greater destruction, of which the overthrow of Jerusalem was but a type.
We are aware that there are difficulties attending the interpretation of the prophecies; and that, although some are to be literally understood, many are figurative or allegorical, whilst others are constructed of the literal and figurative intermixed: but of those which are not declared to be sealed up, the difficulty has chiefly arisen from the extravagant practice of spiritualizing or allegorizing all passages which relate to the future. And great is the advantage which this system has given to the enemies of revelation. They tell us that Scripture is not a proper guide, because every man hath his own interpretation-his own way of explaining or accommodating it. The imaginations of commentators, or the sentiments of friends, have too frequently been made the key to modern expositions; whilst the plain text, which is the safest guide, has been neglected. 2. The apostles are often brought forward, as an instance of men who erred in regard to the proper understanding of those prophecies, which related to the first advent; and from their mistakes, the impossibility of any being able to understand what is foretold of the second advent, is confidently insisted on. But we are of opinion that this circumstance is commonly mis-stated and still more misapplied. We do not think the apostles and first disciples misunderstood the prophecies, which led them to expect a manifestation of the kingdom of Christ on earth; though they might have had much confusion and obscurity in regard to the time, and details, and nature of that kingdom: the fault of the apostles was, that-though repeatedly warn
ed, that there were other prophecies, which shewed that Messiah must first suffer they overlooked these, and suffered their attention to be absorbed with one class of predictions only. What was there to have prevented them from comprehending such prophecies as the following: viz. that Jesus should be born of a virgin;-that he should ride upon an ass;-that he should be betrayed by one of his followers;—that they should pierce his hands and his feet;
that they should part his garments and cast lots for his vesture ;—that he should be numbered with transgressors; and many other things, which being plainly foretold were literally fulfilled? The sharp rebukes of Jesus, because the disciples did not understand that he ought to have suffered these things, and because they were "slow of heart to believe ALL that the prophets had written," appear inconsistent, if they really could not have been understood. Indeed the whole Sanhedrim, ungodly and darkened as they were, did nevertheless answer Herod most correctly from the prophets, that Christ should be born at Bethlehem and it seems difficult to give a satisfactory reason therefore, why we may not previously derive some knowledge of circumstances, which will attend the second advent; seeing that they are spoken of in Scripture, apparently as free from any figurative structure, as the passages already quoted. If the apostles erred, we have at least the benefit of their example; which is undoubtedly recorded—not to lead us to conclude, that we must inevitably mistake likewise; butthat we may profit by their errors and avoid them.
3. There is another series of prophecies, relating to God's dealings with the Jews, which are applicable to the question before us; and which would lead us to the conclusion, that one
eminent use of fulfilled prophecy is, to argue from it as certain and literal an accomplishment of unfulfilled : provided, as we are throughout assuming, that the evident structure of it be not allegorical or emblemati. cal. How remarkably has wrath fallen upon the Jews, without one jot or tittle having failed! They are sifted among the nations; they are become a by-word, a hiss, a proverb, a reproach; they abide without a prince, an altar, a sacrifice; not to mention other peculiar sufferings which they endured of old time. Now Joshua lays it down as a rule, that
as not one thing had failed of all the good things which the Lord had spoken concerning them: but all had come to pass; so therefore would the Lord bring upon them all 'the evil things."f Seeing then that the evil has now been brought to pass, and not one thing has failed of that: by what rule, (it may be asked,) upon what consistent principle, can any man venture to say, that the promises of that good, now again to succeed is only a figure; and that we are not justified in expecting a literal fulfilment ?
4. We conclude this part of our subject by candidly avowing, that there are difficulties attending the exposition of prophecy; and that, if this be true in regard to the events predicted, it is more extensively the case with regard to times and dates. spects the day or even the year of an event, we are quite persuaded, that God has purposely obscured it. But our Lord would not therefore have us indifferent and careless, either to the event or the period of its fulfilment; but, on the very ground that we know not the hour, he commands us to watch.g And though the day cannot be known, something of the signs of its approach may be ascer
tained, with sufficient correctness for us to be assured that the time of our redemption draweth nigh.' St. Paul assumes of the Thessalonians, that they had so much of acquaintance with the times and the seasons, as to supersede the necessity of writing to them on that subject;h insomuch that, though the day of the Lord would come upon the world as a thief in the night, it would not overtake them in like manner. The Scriptures teach us, that there are prophecies, which were not intended to be known by the christians of former ages, which nevertheless will be known by that generation for whom they are written; of which Psalm cii, 18; Daniel xii. 4 and 9; and 1 Peter i, 10-12 are remarkable instances. Let us bear in remembrance therefore, that it is declared to be one of the special offices of the Holy Spirit, " to guide us into all truth and to shew us things to come:"i and that the prophets, who prophesied of the sufferings and glory of Christ, did themselves “inquire and search diligently," concerning it,—“searching," even when the words were scarce uttered by them,
what, or WHAT MANNER OF TIME the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify." On the other hand there were men who neglected the prophets, and were rebuked by our Saviour because they knew not the signs of the times ;k and the burden of his lamentation over Jerusalem was, that they knew not the time of their visitation.1
II. If there are some, who discourage the study of unfulfilled prophecy, there are more, who, from various alleged causes, deprecate the discussion of the subject. In proceeding to refute some of the principal objections urged, we shall at the same time endeavour to shew the
f Compare Josh. xxiii, 14, 15, with Jer. xxxii, 42--44. 8 Matt. xxiv, 36–42. h 1 Thess. v, 1-4. i John xvi, 13. j 1 Peter i, 10, 11. k Matt. xvi, 3. 1 Luke xix, 44.
duty and importance of discussion.
1. In the first place there is something in the very word 'discussion,' from which the minds of many amiable persons revolt; who seem to view it as inconsistent with the genius of christianity, and unfitted to promote the interests of true religion. We will not now press upon our readers the circumstance, that the ministry of the Lord Jesus, especially as set forth in the Gospel of the beloved disciple, is little else than a series of controversies ;-that the chief part of the apostolical Epistles are likewise controversial;-and that in the Scriptures we are urged to ' contend' and 'strive together' for the faith of the Gospel.m We would now rather insist, that discussion has been the principal means, whereby the Lord has promoted a proper knowledge of the Gospel; as the experience of all ages evinces. In the first instance it is useful in order to call attention to a new subject. There are many important doctrines which would have remained in obscurity, or at least have been confined to a few individuals, had they not excited controversy: but the stir which has been made concerning them has challenged observation, and thereby many have been led to make inquiry. And however true a doctrine may be in itself; yet, when it is confined to persons, who are all of one opinion respecting it, there is a tendency in human nature invariably to carry it to excess: but when men, whose minds are variously constructed, or whose prejudices are awakened, begin to cavil and object; then the doctrine is sifted, extravagances are corrected, truth is further elicited and established, and thus controversy is over-ruled for the advancement of divine knowledge.
benefit of the church, and to overrule even their infirmities for the same end. same end. He does not bestow on one individual all the various qualifications which are necessary to keep each other in due proportion, and to produce a character without defect; (though doubtless some are more richly gifted, and approach nearer to the standard of perfection, than others;) but he endows different men with opposite qualities, and by raising them up in the same age, and bringing these opposite qualities into contact with each other, effects a wholesome equilibrium in the church at large. Thus we behold sober judgment given to one man, power of imagination to another, caution to a third, resolution to a fourth. to themselves, the judicious man becomes fastidious; the imaginative man, extravagant; the cautious, timid and inactive; the decided, rash and presumptuous: but bring them into mutual collision, and the one proves a counterpoise to the other. The fastidious and extravagant are so far corrected, that dispassionate members of the church obtain clearer views between them: and in the mean while the impetuous provoke and stir up the diffident and indolent; and the sanguine and unreflecting are compelled, by the doubts and objections interposed by men of an opposite temperament, to ponder their steps and often to retrace them.
Were these circumstances duly considered and kept in mind by christians, it would be productive of many advantages. First it would lead them to bear more patiently with each others infirmities: and, as regards themselves, when disposed to take credit for some admirable quality in their own character, they would remember its proneness to fall into excess, and to become a defect, without great watchfulness and m Phil. i, 27. Jude 3 v.
We have often admired the mode, in which it pleases God to distribute his manifold gifts unto men for the
humility. Secondly it would remind. them, that, though discussion is not without its concomitant evil, the remedy for that evil is not to abstain from inquiry; still less to bid it into oblivion: but rather to meet it in a candid and dispassionate spirit, and by calmly yet firmly opposing our own views, endeavour to correct and sober the opinions of those whom we think in er
And, thirdly, it would teach them, that important propositions can rarely present themselves at once in such a light as to be seen by all with equal clearness; and that discussion and controversy are equally essential to the entertainment of right views, and to the preservation of them when once acquired. As regards the prophetic question, this is particularly the case; and we doubt not but God will over-rule our differences to correct and sober the opinions and expectations of all; and to enable those, who now can only see men as trees," to behold the truth with greater clearness.
2. But it will be objected, that discussion has not only led good men to dissent from each other; but that these dissensions have been accompanied by much unchristian temper, evil syrmisings, and alienation of heart. We freely acknowledge-we deeply deplore it and because we do unfeignedly deprecate the spirit, in which the subject has been urged and opposed by some; together with the conclusions at which they have arrived respecting each other; we would, before we reply to the objection drawn from hence, take the opportunity, in the spirit of affectionate remonstrance, to submit one or two remarks for the consideration of both parties.
On the one hand then, some students of prophecy have rashly pronounced on the safety of those, who
n John i, 46. o Ibid. iii, 26-30.
cannot at present see things with their eyes; as though the immediate reception or rejection of the views, which they themselves entertain, were the touchstone of christian profession. Now, besides what we have advanced under the last objection, it seems to us to betray a singular forgetfulness of gospel history to argue, that, because a man is for a time prejudiced against some particular truth-even though that truth be of fundamental importance therefore he cannot really be a child of God. Note the prejudice and unbelief exhibited by men whose election of God, we must not for a moment question. Nathaniel was at first disposed to doubt if Jesus were the Messiah, because he was reputed to be of Nazareth ;" and ;n many of the disciples of John the Baptist appear to have regarded our Lord with sectarian jealousy. Nicodemus was not able to receive the doctrine of regeneration, though pressed upon him by Christ himself.p The necessity for the death of Jesus was not understood by any of his disciples before the event; whilst Peter in particular is rebuked, as speaking more after the spirit of Satan than of God in this matter.9 Thomas was wonderfully sceptical in regard to the resurrection from the dead. All the disciples, even after the outpouring of the Spirit, were prejudiced in some measure against the calling of the gentiles: whilst numbers of sincere persons had their minds warped in regard to the important doctrine of justification by faith. These things ought to make us slow to judge our brethren. We conclude of these persons, that they were brought before they died to receive the several truths at which they had stumbled: let the saints now be patient in regard to those brethren, who differ from them in matters which they deem important; p Ibid. iii, 9. q Matt. xiv, 23.