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clarations from God, were not able to interpret their own predictions: for prophecy at no time proceeded from the will, invention, sagacity, or foresight of men; but holy men of God, whom he had set apart for that very purpose, delivered, by speaking and writing, faithfully and exclusively, that which they were impelled by the Holy Spirit thus to utter.”
In the early part of the last series of these Lectures, an able and interesting Discourse was delivered by my esteemed friend the Rev. H. F. Burder, on the subject of Prophecy, as furnishing an argument in favour of the position, that God has given a Revelation to men.* It was then shewn that there are parts of the Holy Scriptures which profess to be predictions of events in a far distant futurity,that those parts were unquestionably written in a period of very remote antiquity,—and that the events so predicted did occur, in a way which no human wisdom or power could have brought to pass, exactly in conformity to the prediction.
The object of our present attempt is different. The divine origin of the scripture prophecies has been proved ; their utility and importance are manifest; and the obligation to study them naturally follows. The words of the prophet Daniel intimate that, when the time should be arrived for the fulfilment of his latter prophecies, the seal should be broken, and the book which had till then remained closed should be opened; and that, in consequence of the diligent researches of wise and pious men, there should be a great increase of knowledge on this interesting subject : “Thou, O Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, to the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased. —None of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.”+ The apostolic prophet of the New Testament was also inspired to pronounce the blessing of divine approbation upon such faithful researches when combined with practical godliness : “Blessed is he who readeth, and they who hear the words of the prophecy, and who reflect upon the things written therein."*
* The third of the Discourses since published, on the Principal Evidences of Revelation, by the Associated Congregational Ministers of London ; 1826.
+ Dan. xii. 4, 10. See note A.
To set out in this requisite manner upon a course so difficult, and to proceed in it with a probability of success, every thinking person must perceive that some solid principles are necessary. For the just interpretation of any particular prophecy, it is obvious that two things are indispensable ; the one, a correct knowledge of the terms in which the prediction is conveyed; and the other, a correspondently accurate acquaintance with the facts, in their general character and special circumstances, which are brought under examination as the supposed accomplishments of that prediction. I do not, therefore, appear before my respected brethren and friends, this day, to propose or support any system or hypothesis, upon any of the questions respecting the fulfilment of prophecy, which have recently excited much attention in our country: but, my object is to bring forwards those considerations which must lie at the basis of any system, of any hypothesis, that will prove sound and strong to endure the ordeal of time. Respectfully, but with a full conviction of the truth and importance of what will be advanced, I have to submit those which appear to me the most necessary Rules, or Practical Principles, which we must impartially employ in order to the attainment of a just knowledge and faithful interpretation of the prophetic word.
It is requisite, as a previous step, that we should form a clear conception of the Nature of a Prophecy. Obscure ideas upon the meaning of this principal term in our inquiry, there is reason to fear, lodge in many minds; and they must, of necessity, be productive of vague reasonings and erroneous conclusions.
A Prophecy is not a sagacious conjecture of events lying near at hand, and of which the indications already are pre
* Rev. i. 3.
senting themselves. Such conjectures, with regard to the consequences of a particular course of conduct in a single person, a family, or a nation, have often occurred to men of powerful minds and large experience ; and have been by them openly declared. In such cases the event has speedily verified the prediction. It is not from a superfluous anxiety that I make this distinction between human anticipation and divine prophecy; for some distinguished persons in the present day are straining every nerve to merge the latter in the former. Persons who are invested with the sacred offices of Christian Pastors, and University Theological Professors, have not blushed to employ their great talents for undermining and destroying the belief that any positive or immediate revelation has been at any time given by the Deity to mankind. The system of Prophecy stands quite across the way of such
persons : they must therefore get rid of it, or their whole scheme is destroyed. They have, consequently, not hesitated to represent the Hebrew Prophets as wise and pious men, raised up and qualified by. Providence with remarkable endowments of sagacity, courage, fidelity, and zeal for the pure worship of God and the institutions of the Mosaic religion; men who had great influence in the affairs of their own country, and who obtained, by their friends and agents, private information from other countries ; men who thus penetrated into the secrets of courts, cabinets, and camps, whose importance was acknowledged, and whose favourable influence was courted by the highest authorities; whose persons were held sacred, by all ranks, and their ascendancy over the general population of Israel and Judah almost unbounded; and who made use of these great talents, this extensive knowledge, this command over inferior minds, this influential power which was almost equal to the bringing about of the very events which they ventured to foretell, with the most patriotic regard to the welfare of their country, and the most faithful concern for the honour of Jehovah. Yet, these theorists suppose, none of the declarations, by word or writing, of those holy men were real communications from the Supreme Being ; but all were the productions of their own superior minds,
assertions uttered with a noble daring concerning events near at hand, and which to them, though not to the great or little vulgar, were pretty clearly indicated by “the signs of the times;” or, if they sometimes ventured to dart into a really remote futurity, it was in terms of description so comprehensive and so assuredly coiucident with the general course of God's providential government, that a failure of accomplishment upon a broad scale was little to be apprehended.
In making this passing allusion, it is not to be expected that I should go to the length of adducing formal arguments in proof of the inconsistency and demonstrable erroneousness of this theory; one of the most consummate inventions of disguised infidelity. I would only remark that we are at issue with its defenders upon every essential point in the scheme : and by the evidence, fairly adduced and judged of, let the cause be determined. We deny that the writings of the prophets looked only to a closely approaching futurity, or to a remote one by loose and general descriptions. We maintain that those genuine writings, interpreted with the most rigid scrupulosity, do include many statements of the far distant future; so complete, circumstantial, and minute, so utterly out of the range of probable expectation, and so dependent upon the infinite ramifications of instruments, direct and indirect, that only Omniscience could foresee them, and only Omnipotence bring them into existence. We charge these theorists with the grossest inconsistency and absurdity; in that they admit Jesus and his apostles to have been the most upright, sincere, disinterested, and noble-minded of men, who carried moral obligation to the highest point, and who were neither deceived nor deceivers ; while yet these falsely called Rationalists dare to contradict Jesus and his apostles in the most capital part of their testimony, when they cited the words of the Prophets as spoken and commanded by God, by the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, and under a variety of phrase conveying the doctrine of our text, that “ prophecy never was brought by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by
the Holy Spirit.”. These hints must suffice upon the distinction between real prophecy and sagacious anticipation.
Neither is Prophecy an expectation founded upon any grounds of philosophical analogy. A Roman poet, in the first century of the Christian era, has a passage which some have represented as a prediction of the discovery of America fourteen centuries after.* But an inspection of the passage shews that it is either a mere poetical invention, arising naturally from the subject, which is the changes effected in the intercourse of mankind by the progressive improvement of navigation; or rather that the author had deduced, by reasoning from probability and analogy, the conclusion that, in the vast extent beyond the narrow sea which separates Africa and Spain, there must be something more than water, there must be either a new continent or numerous islands. The same thought had probably occurred to Plato, and had suggested the name of his imagined Atlantis. But, in neither of the cases, can it be reasonably deemed any other than the conjecture of men accustomed to deep thinking and to the construction of analogical arguments. It is also worthy of observation, that a similar process of reasoning in the mind of the illustrious Columbus, actually impelled him to the attempt which succeeded in bringing to light a new world. But such philosophical conjectures, however ingenious and just, are essentially different from prophecies.
It may appear alınost superfluous to say that a prediction founded upon astronomical calculation, is not, in the theological and proper sense of the term, a prophecy. From an acquaintance with the succession of natural antecedents and consequents, which the Almighty Creator has established, rules have been framed by the use of which the eclipses of the heavenly bodies may be foretold, with unerring exactness, for any period of time to come: and cases have occurred, in which ignorant persons have been led to regard those who could exercise this astronomical skill, as endowed with
* See Note B.