Page images
PDF
EPUB

to breathe.” “He maketh grass to grow for cattle, and herb for the service of man.”

The Jews have a didactic poetry in the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. And this, again, is employed altogether upon moral and religious topics. Job is a disquisition upon Providence, intensely picturing the earnest thoughts of an unknown, and perhaps early, Hebrew writer on that great argument. Ecclesiastes is a disquisition on morals, a search after the chief good of man. And the Proverbs are a collection of wise sayings and moral precepts, rising from the lowest prudential to the highest religious tone. “ The fear of the Lord” is the chief thing in Jewish wisdom; and “to depart from evil, that is,” according to the Jewish sage, “understanding." And he is right, unquestionably, in the pre-eminence which he gives to this department of knowledge; and probably no subject is so well fitted for didactic poetry as that of morals. Other nations, however, less peculiarly circumstanced, have not made for themselves the same restriction; and in this instance, therefore, the poetry of the Hebrews has still the peculiarity which I am pointing out.

A great part of their lyric poetry was designed to be sung in the offices of worship. The Book of Psalms consists largely of pieces of this class, embracing all kinds of devotional topics, public and private, rejoicing and grateful, and also penitential and sorrowing,—celebrating in turn the wonders of creation and providence, the records of history and the hopes of prophecy. From all these sources the lyric poet derived materials for songs of worship. And the services of their national temple supplied a stimulus to the poet's genius similar to that which, in other departments, the Greek poets felt in their public literary contests for the applause of their assembled fellow-citizens, and as effective in calling forth the choicest productions of the sacred muse, as those contests were in giving occasion to the sweet dramas of Sophocles and the immortal histories of Thucydides. The Tabernacle, and still more its successor the Temple,—the beautiful, venerable and holy Temple of Mount Zion, with its solemn, splendid rites, so attractive to halfenlightened minds,—was the one object which drew towards itself the strongest national, kindred and personal regard; and

it held therefore a proportionately stronger ascendancy over the souls of such as felt the inspiration of poetry. Thither the tribes went up to their rejoicing festivals; and there the patriotic and social feelings were taught to mingle with those of religion. That holy place was the nation's pride, and its services were the nursery of the national genius for poetry, as they were for music too, giving to the one the immortality which could not be secured to the passing sounds of the other.

Poetry, of the lyric and elegiac kind especially, had, among the Jews, another and most remarkable application, which, like all the rest, was of a sacred character, namely, to prophesying. A succession of men were continually making their appearance among the Hebrews, sometimes regularly educated in the schools of the prophets (of which more hereafter) and sometimes not, whose office it was to excite, by means of poetical recitation, often with musical accompaniment, the renewed interest of the people in their religious duties and hopes, and to administer such specific reproof, admonition or encouragement, as the circumstances of the time seemed to require. These men often recounted the wonderful history of their nation, and pointed to its past events as the proof that Israel was the peculiar people of the Almighty, and especially bound to gratitude and obedience. And thus they sought to keep alive a perpetual regard to their distinctive religious system. Boldly they remonstrated against each defection from the 'Law of Moses, denounced the national idolatries as often as they occurred, and stood before kings with dignified fearlessness, as Nathan before David, and Elijah before Ahab, to reprove their official or their personal delinquencies. All this belonged to the office of the Hebrew prophet; and masterly efforts of human genius do many of those compositions exhibit, such as can scarcely be surpassed for vigour of conception, boldness of fancy, and earnest impressiveness of appeal; while a higher inspiration than that of poetical genius characterizes some parts of the works of the prophets, when they foretel, in the name of the Almighty, the future fate of individuals and of nations. For the office of prophet among the Hebrews was not always to foretel, but, more comprehensively, to teach, whether to teach the forgotten duties of the present, or to teach the hopes and fears of the

future; to teach, whether by human or by superhuman knowledge and skill. Accordingly, the extant writings even of the Hebrew “Later Prophets" are not nearly all predictive, but very many of them admonitory, and others consolatory and encouraging; while those called the “Earlier Prophets” were variously teachers, leaders, magistrates and warriors. Of this mixed character, then, largely admonitory and partly predictive, are the prophetical books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the admonitory part being often founded upon or connected with the prediction. The times of increasing tendency to idolatrous practices preceding the Babylonish captivity, and the melancholy period of that captivity itself, were most prolific in poetry of this kind. Its tone was admonitory at first, denouncing national punishment as at hand, by the mouths of Hosea, Joel and others, but chiefly of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Then, during the period of the captivity, it became plaintive and penitential (as seen in the Lamentations of Jeremiah); till at length, as in Ezekiel, the later Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, it becomes again consolatory, and is employed in directing the hopes of the afflicted people, now no more fascinated by the idolatries that have brought them low, to the thought of restoration to the land, and better obedience to the religious rites, of their fathers.

Thus, then, with one trifling exception, the whole of the ancient Hebrew poetry partakes of a religious character. It is applied exclusively to devotional and moral purposes. Every source from which poetical thoughts and feelings are customarily drawn, is made to yield them here under a religious aspect. Without cramping any poet's individual genius (for each has his own style, in many cases very marked), a national character is imparted to it, and that national character is religious. The scenes of nature, the records of history and the love of country, here make their wonted offering to poetry an offering also to piety.

Now this is certainly an extraordinary and striking fact in the history of literature. No other national poetry bears the same characteristic. To account for it in the instance of the Hebrew poetry, we must admit that religion (and religion in comparatively a very pure form) was, from some cause or other, more intimately associated with all that could engage the imagination and affect the heart among this one people, than any where else in the world.

And we derive hence a presumptive argument of no mean value in favour of the pretensions of the Jewish religion to a divine origin. Admitting that the Jewish nation had received by divine revelation a knowledge of the Divine Unity and a peculiar system of religious observances, we can understand how topics of this sort should naturally thus engross their poetry. And if we attentively consider what kind of religious allusions those are which pervade it in every direction,-how pure and dignified in comparison with the religious opinions and sentiments of mankind at large during the same periods,the presumption rises almost into moral certainty, that there must be (amid all the historical difficulties and obscurities which beset the subject) at least a broad basis of fact, of historical truth, in the records which are implied in their poetical allusions. For the conceptions of the Deity which these writings evince are remarkable for their sublimity and grandeur, which even the modern philosopher and the disciple of Christ admire, and can find little, comparatively, to except against; and which, when judged by a comparison with the religious poems of other countries most nearly contemporaneous, as those of Homer and Hesiod and this is the true criterion), appear so vastly superior to their age, as to carry the conviction irresistibly home to us, that the prophets and poets of Judea had drunk from a higher inspiration than that of human genius or learning. At least, this supposition will most fully account for the literary facts of the case. If it be admitted to be true that Almighty God miraculously interposed to give to the fathers of the Jewish nation the knowledge of His Unity and Supremacy, and instituted by the hand of Moses a peculiar religious and political system, which recognized His Unity as its grand characteristic, and forbade Idolatry as the highest offence against the constitution of the Israelitish state,—then we can account for this peculiar religious tone which pervades the whole poetry of the Hebrews,—then we can understand how their historical recollections had reference principally to His deeds on their behalf, how all their social institutions reminded them of Him as their King, how the holy place where His worship was celebrated gave birth to their choicest productions of poetry and music, how the beauties and the bounties of nature reminded them more than others of Him as the Giver, and why prophets should be for ever recalling, to the thoughts of princes and people, obligations so peculiar as theirs, recounting their past history, scrutinizing their actual condition and existing practices, and urging perpetually their impassioned exhortations to religious obedience, as well as unfolding from time to time the special messages with which they were charged from on high. Admit, in short, the divine commission of Moses, and we account for this most striking peculiarity of the Jewish literature. Deny it, and I know not, at least, what solution can be given of this remarkable fact, which characterizes the Hebrew literature in general and its poetry in particular.

It is not, however, the design of this book systematically to set forth the evidences of the divine origin of Judaism or of Christianity, but to lead to the reasonable understanding of their respective Scriptures. The first thing is to know what the Jewish religion is, as taught in the Old Testament, and what the Christian religion is, as taught in the New. The contents of those volumes being known and appreciated, a further question will be, whether Judaism, thus rationally understood, was of divine institution in its time and place; and whether Christianity, thus rationally understood, is to be regarded as divine for all times and places. And this question will, to most minds probably, be decided rather by the internal argument from the characteristics of the religions themselves, than by laborious search into the external testimony of history and criticism. I have therefore, in passing, while speaking of the religious characteristics of the Jewish literature, hinted the bearing of this fact upon the truth of the Mosaic dispensation. The argument may suggest itself again when we speak particularly of the Book of Psalms.

Having traced this striking attribute of the Jewish Scriptures to inspiration as its ultimate and general source, this seems a suitable place for saying what is necessary on the much-debated question of the Inspiration of the Scriptures.

« PreviousContinue »