A word in its original import signifies the prediction of future events. It is thus defined by Witsins: “A knowledge and manifestation of secret things, which a man knows not from his own sagacity, nor from the relation of others, but by an extraordinary revelation of God from heaven.” In the Old and New Testaments the word is not always confined to the foretelling of future events. In several instances it is of the same import with preaching, and denotes the faculty of illustrating and applying to present practical purposes the doctrines of prior revelation. Thus, in Nehemiah it is said, “Thou hast appointed prophets to preach, ” ch. 6: ver 7; and whoever speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort, is by St. Paul called a prophet, 1 Corinthians 14:3 . Hence it was that there were schools of prophets in Israel, where young men were instructed in the truths of religion, and fitted to exhort and comfort the people. It is prophecy, however, according to the first definition given above, we shall here consider. Prophecy (with the power of working miracles) may be considered as the highest evidence that can be given of a supernatural communion with the Deity. Hence, among the professors of almost every religious system, there have been numberless pretenders to the gift of prophecy.
Pagans had their oracles, augurs, and soothsayers; modern idolaters their necronancers and diviners; and the Jews, Christians, and Mahometans, their prophets. The pretensions of Pagans and impostors, have, however, been justly exposed; while the Jewish and Christian prophecies carry with them evident marks of their validity. Hence St. Peter observes, “We have a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto we do well to take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place; for the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 2 Peter 2:19; 2 Peter 2:21 . Scripture prophecy, therefore, hath God for its origin. It did not arise from the genius of the mind, the temperament of the body, the influence of the stars, &c. but from the sovereign will of God. The ways by which the Deity made known his mind were various; such as by dreams, visions, angels, symbolic representations, impulses on the mind, Numb. 12: 6. Jeremiah 31:26 . Daniel 8:16-17 . As to the language of prophecy: “It is, ” says Mr. Gray, “remarkable for its magnificence. Each prophetic writer is distinguished for peculiar beauties; but their style in general may be characterised as strong, animated, and impressive. Its ornaments are derived not from accumulation of epithet, or laboured harmony; but from the real grandeur of its images, and the majestic force of its expressions.
It is varied with striking propriety, and enlivened with quick but easy transitions. Its sudden bursts of eloquence, its earnest warmth, its affecting exhortations and appeals, affords very interesting proofs of that lively impression, and of that inspired conviction, under which the prophets wrote; and which enable them, among a people not distinguished for genius, to surpass, in every variety of composition, the most admired productions of Pagan antiquity. If the imagery employed by the sacred writers appears sometimes to partake of a coarse and indelicate cast, it must be recollected, that the Eastern manners and languages required the most forcible representations; and that the masculine and indignant spirit of the prophets led them to adopt the most energetic and descriptive expressions. No style is, perhaps, so highly figurative as that of the prophets. Every object of nature and of art which could furnish allusions is explored with industry; every scene of creation, and every page of science, seems to have unfolded its rich varieties to the sacred writers, who, in the spirit of Eastern poetry, delight in every kind of metaphorical embellishment. Thus, by way of illustration, it is obvious to remark, that earthly dignities and powers are symbolized by the celestial bodies; the effects of moral evil are shown under the storms and convulsions of nature; the pollutions of sin are represented by external impurities; and the beneficial influence of righteousness is depicted by the serenity and confidence of peaceful life.
This allegorical language, being founded in ideas universally prevalent, and adhered to with invariable relation and regular analogy, has furnished great ornament and elegance to the sacred writings. Sometimes, however, the inspired penmen drew their allusions from local and temporary sources of metaphor; from the peculiar scenery of their country; from the idolatries of heathen nations; from their own history and circumstances; from the service of their temple, and the ceremonies of their religion; from manners that have faded, and customs that have elapsed. Hence many appropriate beauties have vanished. Many descriptions and many representations, that must have had a solemn importance among the Jews, are now considered, from a change of circumstances, in a degraded point of view. Hence, likewise, here and there a shade of obscurity. In general, however, the language of Scripture, though highly sublime and beautiful, is easy and intelligible to all capacities.” 2. Of the use and intent of prophecy. As prophecy is so striking a proof of Deity, and is of so early a date, we may rest assured it was given for wise and important ends. “It cannot be supposed, ” says bishop Sherlock, “that God delivered prophecies only to satisfy or employ the curiosity of the inquisitive, or that he gave his Spirit to men merely to enable them to give forth predictions for the amusement and entertainment of the world: there must be some end worthy of the author.”
Now, what end could this be, but to keep alive in the minds of those to whom it was given, a sense of religion, and a hope of future deliverance from the curse of the fall through Jesus Christ? “The uses of prophecy, ” says Dr. Jortin, “besides gradually opening and unfolding the things relating to the Messiah, and the blessings which by him should be conferred upon mankind, are many, great, and manifest. ”
1. It served to secure the belief of a God, and of a providence. “As God is invisible and spiritual, there was cause to fear, that, in the first and ruder ages of the world, when men were busier in cultivating the earth than in cultivating arts and sciences, and in seeking the necessaries of life than in the study of morality, they might forget their Creator and Governor; and, therefore, God maintained amongst them the great article of faith in him, by manifestations of himself; by sending angels to declare his will; by miracles, and by prophecies. ”
2. It was intended to give men the profoundest veneration for that amazing knowledge from which nothing was concealed, not even the future actions of creatures, and the things which as yet were not. How could a man hope to hide any counsel, any design or thought, from such a Being? ”
3. It contributed to keep up devotion and true religion, the religion of the heart, which consists partly in entertaining just and honourable notions of God, and of his perfections, and which is a more rational and a more acceptable service than rites and ceremonies. ”
4. It excited men to rely upon God, and to love him who condescended to hold this mutual intercourse with his creatures, and to permit them to consult him, as one friend asks advice of another. ”
5. It was intended to keep the people, to whom God revealed himself, from idolatry; a sin to which the Jews would be inclined, both from the disposition to it which they had acquired in Egypt, and from the contagion of bad example. The people of Israel were strictly forbidden to consult the diviners and the gods of other nations, and to use any enchantments and wicked arts; and that they might have no temptation to it. God permitted them to apply to him and to his prophets, even upon small occasions; and, he raised up amongst them a succession of prophets, to whom they might have recourse for advice and direction. These prophets were reverenced abroad as well as at home, and consulted by foreign princes; and, in times of the captivity, they were honoured by great kings, and advanced to high stations.” As it respects us, prophecy connected with miracles affords a considerable evidence of the truth of revelation, as well as of a superintending Providence.
This evidence too, is a growing evidence. “The divine design, uniformly pursued through a series of successive generations, opens with a greater degree of clearness, in proportion to the lapse of time and the number of events. An increase of age is an addition to its strength; and the nearer we approach the point towards which the dispensations of God unvaryingly tend, the more clearly shall we discern the wonderful regularity, consistency, and beauty of this stupendous plan for universal good. Of the great use of prophecies which have been fulfilled, as a direct and strong argument to convert unbelievers to Christianity, and to establish Christians in the faith, we have the most ample proofs. Our Lord himself made very frequent appeals to prophecy as evidence of his divine mission: he referred the Jews to their own Scriptures, as most fully and clearly bearing witness of himself. Upon them he grounded the necessity of his sufferings; upon them he settled the faith of the disciples at Emmaus, and of the apostles at Jerusalem. The same source supplied the eloquence of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the means with which Apollos ‘mightily convinced the Jews.’
This was a powerful instrument of persuasion in the succeeding ages of the church, when used by the primitive apologists. Upon this topic were employed the zeal and diligence not only of Justin Martyr, but Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustin. It would never have been so frequently employed, if it had not been well adapted to the desired end; and that it did most completely answer this end, by the conversion of unbelievers, is evident from the accounts of Scripture, and the records of the primitive church. “Prophecy keeps the attention of Christians alive to the truth and importance of their holy religion: to its truth, because prophecy and Christianity had one and the same origin, both being derived from the same fountain of perfection; it keeps them alive to its importance, because prophecy shows that the Supreme Being has vouchsafed, through a long succession of ages, to prepare mankind, by gradual revelations of his will, for future blessings; and has proved, by sending chosen messengers to usher in this final dispensation, that ‘the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’ It confirms the general belief of a God, and points out to a careless world the plain traces of his watchful providence. It displays the counsels of inspiration, incessantly directing the course of events, without violating the order of reason and of human action. Such knowledge is too wonderful for us! such power is above our comprehension! But the fact is placed before our eyes.
We see, or may see, a regular train of prophecies tending towards one declared end, accurately fulfilled and fulfilling amidst all the confusion and opposition of this tumultuous world; and we see that these prophecies are clear, both in prediction and accomplishment, in proportion to their importance in fixing our belief in the providence of God, and in the great truths of divine revelation. Thus it appears that the chief design of prophecy is to bear constant witness to religious truth; but though to convince gainsayers of this truth is justly considered as its principal use, it has another very important object, to which it well becomes us to pay attention, from motives of gratitude, as well as from fear of incurring the blame which Scripture invariably imputes to those who neglect to take advantage of the light afforded them. It is designed to protect believers in the word of God from the dangers arising from the prevalent corruptions, errors, and vices of the age in which they live. The due consideration of prophecy will administer consolation amidst present distress, and enliven faith and elevate hope, whilst passing through those dark depressing scenes, which, without this gracious aid, might lead through the intricacies of doubt to the gloom of despair.” Objections, however, have been raised against the prophecies from their obscurity.
But to this it is answered, that they have often a first, or partial, and an ultimate completion, of which the former may be generally considered as an earnest of the latter. It is principally this double sense of prophecy which renders it obscure; for though the predictions of the prophets were sometimes positive and exactly descriptive, and delivered with an accurate and definite designation of names and times, prophecy was not generally designed to be clear before its accomplishment. It is, however, always sufficiently exact in its descriptions to authenticate its pretensions to a divine authority; to produce, when it comes to pass, an acknowledgment of its unerring certainty; and to demonstrate the wisdom and power of God. As Bishop Newton observes, prophecies are the only species of writing which are designed more for the instruction of future ages than of the times wherein they are written. In this respect, as the world groweth older, it groweth wiser. Time, that detracts something from the evidence of other writers, is still adding something to the credit and authority of the prophets. Future ages will comprehend more than the present, as the present understands more than the past; and the perfect accomplishment will produce a perfect knowledge of all the prophecies. 3. Of the fulfilment of prophecy.
Our limits will not permit us to give a copious account of the various prophecies which have been remarkably fulfilled; but whoever has examined profane history with any degree of attention, and compared it with the predictions of Scripture, must, if he be not blinded by prejudice, and hardened by infidelity, be convinced of the truth of prophecy by its exact accomplishment. It is in vain to say that these prophecies were delivered since the events have taken place; for we see the prophecies, the latest whereof were delivered about 1700 years ago, and some of them above 3000 years ago, fulfilling at this very time; and cities, and countries, and kingdoms, in the very same condition, and all brought about in the very same manner, and with the very same circumstances, as the prophets had foretold. “We see, ” says Bishop Newton, “the descendants of Shem and Japheth, ruling and enlarged in Asia and Europe, and perhaps in America, and ‘the curse of servitude, ‘ still attending the wretched descendants of Ham in Africa. We see the posterity of Ishmael, ‘multiplied exceedingly, ‘ and become ‘a great nation, ‘ in the Arabians; yet living like ‘wild men, ‘ and shifting from place to place in the wilderness; ‘their hand against every man, and every man’s hand against them;’ and still dwelling an independent and free people, ‘in the presence of all their brethren, ‘ and in the presence of all their enemies. We see the family of Esau totally extinct, and that of Jacob subsisting at this day; ‘the septre departed from Judah, ‘ and the people living no where in authority, every where in subjection; the Jews still dwelling alone among the nations, while ‘the remembrance of Amalek is utterly put out from under heaven.’
We see the Jews severely punished for their infidelity and disobedience to their great prophet like unto Moses: ‘plucked from off their own land, and removed into all the kingdoms of the earth; oppressed and spoiled evermore;’ and made ‘a proverb and a by-word among all nations.’ We see ‘Ephraim so broken as to be no more a people, ‘ while the whole nation is comprehended under the name of Judah; the Jews wonderfully preserved as a distinct people, while their great conquerors are everywhere destroyed; their land lying desolate, and themselves cut off from being the people of God, while the Gentiles are advanced in their room. We see Nineveh so completely destroyed, that the place thereof is not and cannot be known; Babylon made ‘a desolation for ever, a possession for the bittern, and pools of water;’ Tyre become ‘like the top of a rock, a place for fishers to spread their nets upon;’ and Egypt, ‘a base kingdom, the basest of the kingdoms, ‘ and still tributary and subject to strangers. We see, of the four great empires of the world, the fourth and last, which was greater and more powerful than any of the former, divided in the western part thereof into ten lesser kingdoms; and among them a power ‘with a triple crown differs from the first, ‘ with ‘a mouth speaking very great things, ‘ and with ‘a look more stout than his fellows, speaking great words against the Most High, wearing out the saints of the Most High, wearing out the saints of the Most High, and changing times and laws.’
We see a power ‘cast down the truth to the ground, and prosper, and practise, and destroy the holy people, not regarding the God of his fathers, nor the desire of wives, but honouring Mahuzzim, ‘ gods-protectors, or saints-protectors, ‘and causing’ the priests of Mahuzzim ‘to rule over many, and to divide the land for gain.’ We see the Turks ‘stretching forth their hand over the countries, ‘ and particularly ‘over the land of Egypt, the Lybians at their steps, ‘ and the Arabians still ‘escaping out of their hand.’ We see the Jews ‘led away captive into all nations, and Jerusalem trodden down of the Gentiles, ‘ and likely to continue so ‘until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled, ‘ as the Jews are by a constant miracle preserved a distinct people for the completion of other prophecies relating to them. We see one ‘who opposeth and exalteth himself’ above all laws, divine and human, ‘sitting as God in the church of God, whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness.’ We see a great apostacy in the Christian church, which consists chiefly in the worship of demons, angels, or departed saints, and is promoted ‘through the hypocrisy of liars, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats. We see the seven churches of Asia lying in the same forlorn and desolate condition that the angel had signified to St. John, their ‘candlestick returned into mosques, their worship into superstition.
In short, we see the characters of ‘the beast and the false prophet, ‘ and ‘the whore of Babylon, ‘ now exemplified in every particular, and in a city that is seated ‘upon sever mountains;’ so that, if the bishop of Rome had set for his picture, a greater resemblance and likeness could not have been drawn. “for these things we have the attestation of past, and the experience of present times; and we cannot well be deceived, if we will only believe our own eyes and observation. We actually see the completion of many of the prophecies in the state of men and things around us; and we have the prophecies themselves recorded in books, which books have been read in public assemblies these 1700 or 2000 years, have been dispersed into several countries, have been translated into several languages, and quoted and commented upon by different nations, so that there is no room to suspect so much as a possibility of forgery or illusion.” 4. Rules for understanding the prophecies. In order to understand the prophecies, and to form a right judgment of the argument for the truth of Christianity, we must not consider them singly and apart, but as a grand whole, or a chain reaching through several thousand years, yet manifestly subservient to one and the same end. This end is no other than the establishment of the universal empire of truth and righteousness under the dominion of Jesus Christ. We are not, indeed, to suppose that each of the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament expres
sly points out, and clearly characterized Jesus Christ; yet, taken as a whole this grand system refers to him; for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. ”
All the revolutions of divine providence have him for their scope and end. Is an empire, or kingdom erected? that empire, or kingdom is erected with a view, directly or indirectly, to the kingdom of the Messiah. Is an empire, or kingdom, subverted or overthrown? that empire, or kingdom, is overthrown in subserviency to the glory of his kingdom and empire, which shall know neither bounds nor end, but whose limits shall be no other than the days of eternity. Jesus Christ, then, is the only person that ever existed in whom all the prophecies meet as in a centre.” In order, therefore, to oppose error and confront the infidel, we must study the prophecies not as independent of each other, but as connected; for ” the argument from prophecy, ” says Bishop Hurd, “is not to be formed from the consideration of single prophecies, but from all the prophecies taken together, and considered as making one system; in which, from the mutual dependence and connection of its parts, preceding prophecies prepare and illustrate those which follow; and these, again, reflect light on the foregoing: just as in any philosophical system, that which shows the solidity of it is the harmony and correspondence of the whole, not the application of it in particular instances. ”
Hence, though the evidence be but small from the completion of any one prophecy taken separately, yet that evidence, being always something, the amount of the whole evidence resulting from a great number of prophecies, all relative to the same design, may be considerable; like many scattered rays, which, though each be weak in itself, yet, concentrated into one point, shall form a strong light, and strike the sense very powerfully. Still more; this evidence is not merely a growing evidence, but is indeed multiplied upon us, from the number of reflected lights which the several component parts of such a system reciprocally throw upon each; till, at length, the conviction rises unto a high degree of moral certainty.” Farther, in order to understand the prophecies, we must endeavour to find out the true subject of prophecy; that is, precisely what the prophets speak of, and the characters that are applied to that subject. The literal sense should be always kept in view, and a knowledge of oriental customs attended. The beginning and end of the prophetic sermons must be carefully observed.
The time, as near as possible, of the prediction, should be ascertained. An acquaintance with the method of salvation by Christ will greatly assist us in this work. The mind must be unprejudiced, and we should be well acquainted with the Scriptures at large. These rules, with dependence on the divine teaching, will assist us in understanding the prophecies.
See Bishop Newton’s Dissertations on the Prophecies; Bishop Sherlock’s Use and Intent of Prophecy; Bishop Hurd’s Sermons on the Prophecies; Sir Isaac Newton’s Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse; Gray’s Key to the Old Testament; Simpson’s Key to the Prophecies; Illustrations of Prophecy; Vitringa’s Typhus Doctrine Propheticae; Gill on the Prophets; Etrick’s second Exodus, or Remarks on the Prophecies of the Last Times; Kett’s History the Interpreter of Prophecy.
See also the works of Mede, Smith, Halifax, Apthorp, and Faber, on the subject.