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plea of usefulness may present, seduce him from his tried way. On the contrary, let him adhere with jealous care to the plain and unforced dictates of the word of God; lest by departing from the simplicity of the Gospel, he should inadvertently contribute to the adulteration of Christianity, and to the consequent injury which must thence arise to the spiritual interests of his fellow-creatures."
• 1 Christian Observer for 1805, vol. iv. p. 133. The two preceding pages of this journal contain some admirable remarks on the evils of spiritualising the sacred writings too much. The same topic is also further noticed in volume xvi. for 1817,
319. et seq. The whole of Bishop Horne's Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms is equally worthy of perusal for its excellent observations on the same question. The misapplication and abuse of spiritual interpretation are also pointed out by Bishop Van Mildert, Bampton Lectures, p. 241. et seq.
ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURE PROPHECIES.
GENERAL RULES FOR ASCERTAINING THE SENSE OF THE PROPHETIC WRITINGS.
PROPHECY, or the prediction of future events, is justly considered as the highest evidence that can be given of supernatural communion with the Deity. The force of the argument from prophecy, for proving that the divine inspiration of the sacred records has already been exhibited; and the cavils of objectors, from its alleged obscurity, has been obviated. Difficulties, it is readily admitted, do exist in understanding the prophetic writings: but these are either owing to our ignorance of history and of the Scriptures, or because the prophecies themselves are yet unfulfilled. The latter can only be understood when the events foretold have actually been accomplished: but the former class of difficulties may be removed in many, if not in all, cases; and the knowledge, sense, and meaning of the prophets may, in a considerable degree, be attained by prayer, reading, and meditation, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture, especially with the writings of the New Testament, and particularly with the book of the Revelation. With this view, the following general rules will be found useful in investigating the sense and meaning of the prophecies, as well as their accomplishment.
I. "The sense of the prophecy is to be sought in the events of the world, and in the harmony of the prophetic writings, rather than in the bare terms of any single prediction."
In the consideration of this canon, the following circumstances should be carefully attended to:
(1.) Consider well the times when the several prophets flourished, in
1 See Vol. I. pp. 313-380. For an account of the Prophets, see Vol. IV. Part I. Chap. IV., and for an analysis of their writings, with critical remarks thereon, see also Vol. IV. Part 1. Chap. V. VI. VII.
2 There is scarcely an expression in this book which is not taken out of Daniel or some other prophet; Sir Isaac Newton has observed, that it is written in the same style and language with the prophecies of Daniel, and has the same relation to them which they have to one another, so that all of them together make but one complete prophecy; and in like manner it consists of two parts, an introductory prophecy, and an interpretation thereof. (Observations on the Apocalypse, chap. ii. p. 254.) The style of the Revelations, says the profoundly learned Dr. Lightfoot," is very prophetical as to the things spoken, and very hebraizing as to the speaking of them. Exceeding much of the old prophets' language and manner [is] adduced to intimate New Stories: and exceeding much of the Jews' language and allusion to their customs and opinions, thereby to speak the things more familiarly to be understood." Harmony of the New Testament, p. 154. (Lond. 1655.) See also Langii Hermeneutica Sacra, pp. 148-150.
3 Bishop Horsley. This learned prelate has shown in his sermon on 2 Pet. i. 20. that the clause-No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation— may be more precisely thus expressed : —“ Not any prophecy of Scripture is of self-interpretation, or is its own interpreter: because the Scripture prophecies are not detached predictions of separate independent events, but are united in a regular and entire system, all terminating in one great object, the promulgation of the Gospel, and the complete establishment of the Messiah's kingdom." Sermons, vol. ii. pp. 13-16.
what place and under what kings they uttered their predictions, the duration of their prophetic ministry, and their personal rank and condition, and, lastly, whatever can be known respecting their life and
These particulars, indeed, cannot in every instance be ascertained, the circumstances relating to many of the prophets being very obscure: but, where they can be known, it is necessary to attend to them, as this will materially contribute to the right understanding of the prophetic writings. Thus, in order to understand correctly the prophecy of Isaiah, we should make ourselves acquainted with the state and condition of the people of Israel under the kings Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. With this view, the books of Kings (2. xiv.-xxi.) and 2 Chron. (xvi.-xxii.) ought to be repeatedly perused and studied; because they contain an accurate view of the state of those times.
(2.) The situation of the particular places, of which the prophets speak, must also be kept in mind, as well as that of the neighbouring places; there being in the prophetic writings frequent allusions to the situation and antient names of places.
When places are mentioned as lying north, south, east, or west, it is generally to be understood of their situation with respect to Judæa or Jerusalem; when the context does not plainly restrict the scene to some other place. For instance, Egypt and Arabia are every where called the land of the south, because they are situate to the south of Jerusalem: thus in Daniel (ch. xi.) the king of the south, signifies the king of Egypt, and the king of the north, the monarch of Syria. The sea is often put for the west, the Mediterranean Sea being to the west of Judæa: by the earth, the prophets often mean the land of Judæa, and sometimes the great continent of all Asia and Africa, to which they had access by land: and by the isles of the sea, they understood the places to which they sailed, particularly all Europe, and probably the islands and sea-coasts of the Mediterranean. The appellation of sea is also given to the great rivers Nile and Euphrates, which, overflowing their banks, appear like small seas or great lakes. The Egyptian Sea, with its seven streams, mentioned in Isa. xi. 15. is the Nile with its seven mouths: the sea, mentioned in Isa. xvii. 1. and Jer. li. 36. is the Euphrates; and the desert of the sea, in Isa. xxi. 1. is the country of Babylon, watered by that river. In like manner, the Jewish people are described by several particular appellations, after the division of the kingdom in the reign of Jeroboam: thus, the ten tribes, being distinct from the other two, and subject to a different king, until the time of the Assyrian captivity, are respectively called Samaria, Ephraim, and Joseph; because the city of Samaria, which was situated in the allotment of the tribe of Ephraim, who was the son of Joseph, was the metropolis of the kings of Israel. Compare Isa. vii. 2. 5. 8, 9. Psal. Îxxxi. 5. Hos. vii. 11. Amos v. 15. and vi. 6. They were also called Israel and Jacob, because they formed the greater part of Israel's or Jacob's posterity. The other two tribes of Judah and Benjamin are called the kingdom of Judah, the house of David, Jerusalem or Sion, (Isa. vii. 13. and xl. 2. Psal. cxxvi. 1. and Isa. lii. 8.), because those two tribes adhered to the family of David, from whose posterity their kings sprung, and the capital of their dominions was Jerusalem, within whose precincts was mount Sion. After their return, however, from the Babylonish captivity, the names of Israel and Judah are promiscuously applied to all the descendants of the twelve tribes who were thus restored to their native country. This is the case in the writings of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who all flourished after that event. In addition to the situations and names of places, whatever relates to the history of those times must be ascertained, as far as is practicable, by consulting not only the historical books of Scripture, and the writings of Josephus (whose statements must sometimes be taken with great caution, as he has not always related the sacred history with fidelity), but also by comparing the narratives of Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and other profane historians, who have written on the affairs of the Chaldæans, Babylonians, Egyptians, Tyrians, Medes and Persians, and other Oriental nations, with whom the posterity of Jacob had any intercourse. Quotations from these writers may be seen in all the larger commentaries on the Bible: Dr. Prideaux's Conraction of Sacred and Profane History, and Bishop Newton's Dissertations on the Prophecies, are both particularly valuable for the
1 On the chronological order, &c. of the prophets, see Vol. IV. Part I. Chap. IV. pp. 145, 146.
illustrations of the sacred predictions which they have respectively drawn from profane authors. In the Geographical Index, at the end of the third volume of this work, under the articles Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Media, and Persia, we have given an Abstract of the Profane History of the East, from the time of Solomon until the Babylonish Captivity, to facilitate the better understanding of the history of the Hebrews, described in the writings of the prophets.
(3.) As the prophets treat not only of past transactions and present occurrences, but also foretel future events, in order to understand them, we must diligently consult the histories of the following ages, both sacred and profane, and carefully see whether we can trace in them the fulfilment of any prophecy.
The event is the best interpreter of a prediction: this inquiry into history, however, demands not only great labour, but also great industry and equal judgment, in order that the events may be referred to those prophecies with which they harmonise. These events must not be far-fetched; nor can they always be ascertained, because the circumstances alluded to by the prophets are often unknown to us, being yet future. Hence a considerable portion of the prophets, especially of the book of Revelation, is not only not understood, but cannot at present be comprehended. Some conjectures perhaps may be offered: but these should be advanced with caution, as far as they throw light upon prophecy; and, where this is wanting, we must withhold our assent from such conjectures.
(4.) The words and phrases of a prophecy must be explained, where they are obscure; if they be very intricate, every single word should be expounded; and, if the sense be involved in metaphorical and emblematical expressions, (as very frequently is the case), these must be explained according to the principles already laid down.
No strained or far-fetched interpretation, therefore, should be admitted; and that sense of any word or phrase is always to be preferred, which is the clearest and most precise.
(5.) Similar prophecies of the same event must be carefully compared, in order to elucidate more clearly the sense of the sacred preditions.
For instance, after having ascertained the subject of the prophet's discourse and the sense of the words, Ica. liii. 5. (He was wounded, literally pierced through, for our transgressions) may be compared with Psal. xxii. 16. (They pierced my hands and my feet), and with Zech. xii. 10. (They shall look on me whom they have pierced.) In thus paralleling the prophecies, regard must be had to the predictions of former prophets, which are sometimes repeated with abridgment, or more distinctly explained by others; and also to the predictions of subsequent prophets, who sometimes repeat, with greater clearness and precision, former prophecies, which had been more obscurely announced.
II. In order to understand the prophets, great attention should be paid to the prophetic style, which is highly figurative, and particularly abounds in metaphorical and hyperbolical expressions.
By images borrowed from the natural world, the prophets often understand something in the world politic. Thus, as the sun, moon, stars, and heavenly bodies, denote kings, queens, rulers, and persons in great power; and the increase of splendour in those luminaries denotes increase of prosperity, as in Isa. xxx. 26. and Ix. 19. On the other hand, their darkening, setting, or falling signifies a reverse of fortune, or the entire destruction of the potentate or kingdom to which they refer. In this manner the prophet Isaiah denounced the divine judgments on Babylon, (Isa. xiii. 10. 13.) and on Idumæa (xxxiv. 4-6.); and Jeremiah, on the Jews and Jerusalem. (Jer. iv. 23, 24.) The destruction of Egypt is predicted in similar terms by Ezekiel (xxxii. 7, 8.); and also the terrible judgments that would befal the unbelieving Jews, by Joel. (ii. 28-31.) And Jesus Christ himself employed the same phraseology in foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. (Matt. xxiv. 29.)
In further illustration of this rule it may be observed, that the prophetical writings contain numerous figures and similitudes that appear strange to our habits and modes of thinking; but which in their times were perfectly familiar. These figures and similitudes, therefore, must not be interpreted according to our notions of things, but agreeably to the genius of Oriental writing for instance, very numerous metaphors are taken from agriculture and the pastoral life, which were
common pursuits among the Jews, some of the prophets themselves having been herdsmen or shepherds. However humble such employment may appear to us, they were not accounted servile at the time the prophets flourished. Other representations of events, that were to come to pass under the New Testament dispensation, are drawn from the sacred rites of the Jews. Thus, the conversion of Egypt to the Gospel is foretold (Isa. xix. 19. 21.) by setting up an altar, and offering sacrifice to the Lord; and the conversion of the Gentiles in general (Mal. i. 11) by the offering up of incense. The service of God under the Gospel is set forth (Zech. xiv. 16.) by going up to Jerusalem, and keeping the feast of tabernacles there; and the abundant effusion of the Holy Spirit, in the miraculous gifts which attended the preaching of the Gospel, is represented (Joel ii. 28.) by prophesying, and dreaming dreams, and seeing visions. In this passage the prophet did not intend to say, that these things should literally and actually take place under the Christian dispensation: but, in order that his meaning might be the better understood by those whom he addressed, he expressed the abundant measure of gifts and Gospel light by images drawn from those privileges which were at that time most highly valued by the Jews.
Although the prophets thus frequently employ words in a figurative or metaphorical meaning, yet we ought not, without necessity, to depart from the primitive sense of their expressions: and that necessity exists, only when the plain and original sense is less proper, as well as less suitable to the subject and context, or contrary to other passages of Scripture. But, even in this case, we must carefully assign to each prophetical symbol its proper and definite meaning, and never vary from that meaning.
III. As the greater part of the prophetic writings was first composed in verse, and still retains much of the air and cast of the original, an attention to the division of the lines, and to that peculiarity of Hebrew poetry by which the sense of one line or couplet so frequently corresponds with another, will frequently lead to the meaning of many passages; one line of a couplet, or member of a sentence, being generally a commentary on the other.
Of this rule we have an example in Isa. xxxiv. 6.
The Lord hath a sacrifice in Bozrah,
And a great slaughter in the land of Idumæa.
Here the metaphor in the first verse is expressed in the same terms in the next: the sacrifice in Bozrah means the great slaughter in the land of Idumæa, of which Bozrah was the capital. Similar instances occur in Isa. xliv. 3. and lxi. 10. and in Micah vi. 6. in which the parallelism is more extended. Concerning the nature of Prophetic Poesy, sec pp. 468-470 of the present volume.
IV. Particular names are often put by the prophets for more general ones, in order that they may place the thing represented, as it were, before the eyes of their hearers: but in such passages they are not to be understood literally.
Thus, in Joel iii. 4., Tyre and Sidon, and all the coast of Palestine, are put, by way of poetical description, for all the enemies of the Jews; and the Greeks and Sabeans for distant nations. In like manner the prophet Amos (ch. ix. 12.), when speaking of the enemies of the Jews, mentions the remnant of Edom, or the Idu
V. It is usual with the prophets to express the same thing in a great variety of expressions; whence they abound in amplifications, each rising above the other in strength and beauty.
For instance, when describing drought or famine, they accumulate together numerous epithets, to represent the sorrow that would accompany those calamities; on the other hand, when delineating plenty, they portray, in a great variety of expressions, the joy of the people possessed of abundance of grain; and in like manner, the horrors of war and the blessings of peace, the misery of the wicked and the blessedness of the righteous, are contrasted with numerous illustrations. It were unnecessary to cite examples, as we can scarcely open a single page of the prophetic writings without seeing instances; but in reading such passages it is not to be supposed that each individual phrase possesses a distinct and peculiar sense. VI. The order of time is not always to be looked for in the prophetic