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ON THE EVIDENCE OF PROPHECY.
THE evidence of the divine origin of Christianity, afforded by the miracles of Jesus Christ and his apostles, although substantial and satisfactory, is not to be considered as standing alone; for it forms only one division of a cumulative proof. Such has been the providential care exercised by our heavenly Father over the spiritual interests of men, that he has been pleased to furnish them with a variety of correspondent and harmonious signs, that the religion, by means of which their salvation is to be effected, proceeds from himself.
In the present essay, I propose to take a concise, yet comprehensive, view of the sign of Prophecy.
Of those future events which are connected with the established order of nature—such as the rising and setting of the sun on the morrow; the growth of a plant from the seed sown in the earth ; the death of mortal creatures now living--analogical reasoning enables us to form a correct apprehension. Sometimes also the intelligent observers of moral and political causes are enabled, by a somewhat more difficult application of the same species of reasoning, to form successful conjectures respecting future circumstances, appertaining not so much to the order of nature as to the scheme of Providence. But, ready as we may be to allow these positions, we cannot conceal from ourselves that an actual knowledge of the future is one of the characteristic and peculiar attributes of the Supreme Being. Every one who believes in the existence, unity, and omniscience of God, will probably be willing to confess that He has no counsellor_that it is He alone who conducts the operations of nature, and regulates the course of events that a knowledge of the future is the knowledge of bis secret designs,—and, therefore, that such a knowledge can be communicated to mankind only by divine revelation.
From these premises it follows, that all prophecies which, by the exactness of their fulfilment, as well as by the complex or singular nature of the circumstances to which they relate, are proved to have proceeded, not from mere human conjecture, but from a real foreknowledge, must have been dictated
by the Almighty himself; and further, that a religion which is attested by such prophecies is a divinely authorized religion.
That any system of religion, except that of the scriptures, has ever been thus attested, no enlightened inquirer will presume to assert. The folly and vanity, mixed up as they were with art and delusion, which distinguished the omens, the auspices, and the oracles, of the ancient Greeks and Romans, are now universally acknowledged. And, with respect to Mahometanism, it does not even pretend to establish its authority either by miracles or by prophecy. Mahomet could direct his hearers to no existing prophecies of which he was the subject, and he was far too prudent, and far too sensible of his own fallibility and imposture, to vendure upon any tan. gible prediction himself: see Porteus's Ev., ch. viii. Rees's Cyclop., Art. Mahometanism.
How then does this matter stand with Christianity ? Every reader of the Bible must be aware that our religion professes to be attested by prophecies. Do the prophecies, by which it is attested, relate to circumstances of such a nature, and is the accomplishment of such of them as have been fulfilled so complete and accurate, as to lead us to a sound conclusion that they were inspired by the Almighty, and therefore that the religion which they attest is his religion ? A little investigation will enable us to give a satisfactory answer to this interesting inquiry.
Jesus Christ himself was a prophet. He did not hesitate to foretel future occurences of a very extraordinary and complicated nature; and many of his predictions have been already verified by events.
In our Lord's being betrayed into the hands of the chiefpriests and scribes, by Judas Iscariot ; in his being by them delivered to the Gentiles; in his being mocked, scourged, spitted on, and crucified; and in his rising from the dead after three days; there was much that was singular, complicated, and not to be easily calculated on beforehand. Yet we find, from the harmonious testimony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that Jesus, during the course of his ministry, predicted all these circumstances in the most explicit terms: see Matt. xvi, 21. xx, 18; Mark x, 33; Luke xviii, 31 ; John xvi, 32, &c.
It was a circumstance placed far out of the reach of any probable conjecture, that the zealous Peter should not only deny his Lord, but deny him three times, before the cock crew. Yet this circumstance was predicted by our Saviour with a perfect exactness, while he and his disciples were still in a condition of apparent safety, and immediately after a hearty
profession of fidelity on the part of Peter : Matt. xxvi, 33, 34.
The effusion of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of our Lord, after his ascension, was one of the most striking, and, according to mere natural observation, one of the most improbable events which ever happened. This event also was plainly foretold by Jesus : see John xiv, 16. xvi, 7; Acts i, 5. 8.
But, among the prophecies uttered by our Saviour, there is no one so much detailed, or clothed in such impressive language, as that which relates to the fall and desolation of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, the dispersion of the Jews, and finally the end of the world. This remarkable prediction is related by Matthew (ch. xxiv,) Mark (ch. xiii,) and Luke (ch. xxi,) and is in accordance with the affecting expressions addressed by our Lord to Jerusalem or its inhabitants, on two other occasions : see Matt. xxiii, 37, 38; Luke xxiii, 27-31.
We read that, when the disciples of Jesus pointed out to him the magnificence and extensive structure of the temple, Jesus declared the days to be coming, when that splendid edifice should be utterly destroyed, and not even one stone be left upon another. This declaration gave birth to an inquiry when these things should be, and what should be the signs of his coming, and of the end of the world? In his answer to the question thus addressed to him, our Lord has plainly mentioned some of the principal circumstances which were to precede or accompany the two periods alluded to by his disciples-periods which they might probably confuse in their own minds, but which were in fact to be separated by a very long interval. At the first of these periods, the temple and city of Jerusalem were to be destroyed, and the power and coming of the Son of Man to be made manifest, in the punishment of the rebellious Jews; and all these things were to take place before the passing away of that very generation. On the arrival of the second period, the Son of Man was to appear in glory, as the judge of all flesh; and “of that day and hour knoweth no. man, no, not the angels of heaven,” but God only: Matt. xxiv, 34-36.
Now, although the consideration of these awful and still future events, which are to take place at the latter of these periods, is obviously placed beyond the scope of our argument, it is enough for our present purpose that the former branch of the prophecy has long since received its exact fulfilment.
The various signs which were to precede the destruction of Jerusalem; viz., the rising up of false Messiahs-the sore per
secution and dismay of the Christians—the wars and rumours of wars among the various factions and petty nations into which Judea and the neighbouring countries were then divided--the famines, and the earthquakes, and other portents of nature--the preaching of the Gospel in every part of the Roman empire--all these things are declared in the prophecy ; and we learn, from Josephus and other authors, that they all took place during that period of forty years which elapsed between the death of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem : vide Gill, on Matt. xxiv. Then came the end; when the holy city was encompassed with armies, and “the abomination of desolation” was found “standing in the holy place"--when that intense suffering was experienced by the wicked and obstinate Jews, to which the annals of history afford no parallel-when the city was utterly demolished, and not one stone of the temple left upon another--and when, lastly, such of the Jews as fell not by the sword were reduced to a condition of bondage and degradation, and were gradually dispersed among all nations--the whole of these circumstances being in precise and punctual accordance with the same prophetic record. Here, then, was such a prediction of a remarkable, complex, and wholly unexpected, series of events, as could arise out of no other source than the foreknowledge of God.
It is expressly declared by Jesus, that the days when all these calamities should overtake the Jews were to be the “ days of vengeance.” The calamities in question were appointed in the counsels of divine justice, as a punishment for that long course of rebellion against their Lord which had marked the history of the Jewish people, and especially for that most aggravated of their national sins, the rejection, persecution, and crucifixion, of their Messiah. Another purpose, to which this remarkable dispensation appears to have been directed (in conformity with a correspondent prophecy uttered by our Lord, respecting the approaching cessation of the Jewish and Samaritan worship, John iv, 21,) was, to establish the superiority of the Gospel over the law, by forcing to its termination that ritual system, on which the Jews were placing so dangerous and untimely a dependence. Under these circumstances, it is plain that the rebuilding of the temple, which had been thus levelled with the ground, and the restoration of the Jews to their ancient customs and privileges, would have been in direct opposition to the whole bearing and spirit of the remarkable prophecy now under consideration.
It was, in all probability, for the very purpose of contradicting this prophecy (as well as others of the like import)
and of thus throwing discredit on the religion of Christ, that the apostate Julian assembled the Jews in their own land, and committed to them, under the command and protection of his favourite Alypius, the task of rebuilding their magnificent temple. That task was eagerly undertaken; vast sums were set apart for the purpose, and multitudes of persons were zealously engaged in the prosecution of the work. But the work was constantly impeded, and was finally relinquished in despair, in consequence of vehement and repeated eruptions of fire from the once consecrated mountain of Moriah. This fact is recorded by Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen, three cotemporary Christian writers, whom Gibbon himself allows to be “ respectable witnesses ;'' and it is fully confirmed by the explicit and perfectly unexceptionable testimony of Ammianus Marcellinus, an historian of acknowledged learning and veracity, a cool philosopher, a personal friend of Julian, and a pagan: lib. XXIII, cap. 1.* See Warburton's Julian-Gibbon's Rom. Emp. ch. xxiii. Thus was the site of the ancient temple of God, notwithstanding the most powerful human efforts, left to its appointed desolation. Now, whether the phenomenon which then occurred can be justly traced to any second or physical cause, or whether (under circumstances which rendered a miracle highly probable) it is to be regarded as entirely supernatural, it is in either case impossible not to perceive, in this well authenticated fact, a wonderful display of the wisdom and power of the Deity--in support of the revealed designs of his own providence, and in confirmation of the predictions of the greatest of prophets.
Having thus considered some of the most remarkable predictions uttered by Jesus Christ, it will be desirable for us, in the second place, to take a view of those still more ancient prophecies, which are recorded in the Old Testament–in the sacred books of the Hebrews. Before, however, we can properly enter on this branch of our subject, I must premise a
* « Et licèt accidentium varietatem sollicita mente præcipiens; multiplicatos expeditionis apparatus flagranti studio perurgeret: diligentiam tamen ubique dividens, [Julianus) imperiique sui memoriam magnitudine operum gestiens propagare, ambitiosum quondam apud Hierosolymam templum, quod post multa et interneciva certamina obsidente Vespasiano posteaque Tito ægrè est expugnatum, instaurare sumptibus cogitabat immodicis : negotiúmque maturandum Alypio dederat Antiochensi, qui olim Britannias curaverat pro Præfectis. Cùm itaque rei idem fortiter instaret Alypius, juvaretque provinciæe rector, metuendi globi flammarum prope fundamenta crebris assultibus erumpentes, fecere locum exustis aliquoties operantibus inaccessum: hócque modo elemento destinatiùs repellente, cessavit inceptum.”