The fact of a Theocracy on the earth, the Supreme God ruling a people as its King, is one of deepest interest and importance. We must carefully examine it, that we may understand its high place and scope in the Divine purpose of revelation and redemption.
That God should enter into special covenant relations with one among the peoples of the earth, and that without any merit on its part entitling it to such position, has often been objected to as unworthy of Him who is Ruler over all, and even as self-contradictory, and historically incredible. These objections it is not necessary for us here to consider. The simple statements of the Scriptures are, that God chose the Jews to be His people, not as intrinsically better than others, but because He had a purpose to effect by them. (Deut. ix. 4.) The election of some to be His in a special sense, that He may first reveal Himself to them, and through them reveal Himself to others, is an established mode of His actings in His dealings with men. From the first He has chosen, and prepared, and sent forth, individuals to be His messengers and servants. The peculiarity here is, that He chooses a nation, and sets it among the other nations as the mediator of His truth and grace.
Amongst the ends to be attained by God in this choice of the Hebrew people, two are especially prominent: first, their education and preparation to be His instruments in a future stage of His work of redemption; second, the present revelation of Himself through them to all nations as the one God, and the Lord of all.
Regarding the Theocracy as primarily an institute for the religious education of the Hebrews, what were the great truths to be taught them, and how were they to be taught? These truths were the nature and character of Jehovah as separate from and above all heathen gods, His unity, His supreme authority, His holiness, His righteousness, His goodness, and His purpose in redemption through His Son; and, learning these truths, they learned to know, also, their own moral character, their sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness, the nature of faith, the duty of obedience, and their place as His helpers in the redemptive work. These truths were to be taught them as a people through His immediate rule over them, and by a common law and ritual; the individual life deriving its form and spirit from the national life. The Hebrew people, in their low moral condition, surrounded by heathen tribes, and continually tempted into idolatry and immorality, must first of all be brought within the sphere of law. A strong barrier must be placed around them to protect them from hostile influences, and they be put under a system of positive prescriptions, embracing the minutest details of civil and religious life; and therefore God was pleased to place Himself to them in the special relation of their King, and to bring them as a people under His immediate authority.
"We have here one chief ground of the election of a nation, as distinguished from individuals or families. The nation is pre-eminently the sphere of law. Here can Jehovah reveal Himself as the Lawgiver, the Ruler. His will meets the citizen at every point, and demands submission. Under the Theocracy, therefore, could the Jews be taught the highest lessons of obedience. They were dealing with a living Person, not with abstract principles, nor with a statute-book; and thus a most vivid sense of Jehovah's personality was ineffaceably stamped upon them. And through His rule over them, His attributes—His righteousness, His goodness, His mercy — were revealed in their daily practical application to human needs.
As a member of the Theocratic State, every Jew had in some degree the consciousness of the high national calling, and knowledge of the moral duties it involved. He knew that Jehovah had chosen and set apart His people to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." He knew, also, that a glorious future was before them if they responded to the Divine purpose: thus a strong feeling of national unity was awakened and fostered in his heart. Not to a few individuals, nor to one tribe, but to the whole people, were the promises made; and here was the true counterpoise to tribal rivalries and discords. But, although the election was national, the individual was not swallowed up in the nation. He was reminded in many ways that he stood in a personal relation to Jehovah, and that the eye of his Holy King was ever upon him. The appointed sacrifices were individual as well as national. (Lev. i.-iv.) An ample provision was made that every man might " have a conscience void of offence both toward God and man."
As the purpose of God from the first looked onward to the incarnation of His Son and His atoning sacrifice, and as the Jews were chosen to be the people from whom He should spring, it needs no proof that the appointments of God by Moses had in many respects a typical reference to Him as "the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world." This prophetic bearing of the Law, its testimonies to Him who should die for men, was not indeed plain to every eye. It could only be spiritually discerned. In proportion as the Jews kept God's commands, and rendered faithful obedience, should they be cleansed in spirit, and be able to discern the deeper imports of the Divine appointments, and their prophetic significance. To do His present will was then, as now and ever, the condition of further knowledge. If obedient, every successive generation would enter into a larger apprehension of the Divine purpose, and be lifted up into higher measures of spiritual knowledge and strength.
It is not necessary to suppose that the elect people had at first any clear knowledge of a suffering Messiah to come, or any distinct consciousness that their sacrifices drew all their virtue from the great Sacrifice He was to offer. But the more spiritually-minded among them could not take part in the appointed rites of worship, without being made to feel that they were sinful, that sin was abhorred of God, and that only through shedding of blood was there atonement and forgiveness. The entrance of the priests only into the Holy Place, and of the high priest alone into the Most Holy, taught them the holiness of God, and that only those whom He chose could minister before Him, and find acceptance. The several laws respecting ceremonial pollution, and the necessary external purifications, no less than the demands for moral purity, kept them ever in mind that Jehovah dwelling among them is holy, and seeks holiness in them.
It was thus through His Presence with them, and His statutes and ordinances embracing every region of life, and not through didactic teaching, that God would prepare His people for their future work. Although a shadow of the better things to come, the legal rites were not merely prophetic: the cleansing and grace to which they pointed through the great Sacrifice to be offered, were in a measure conveyed to all who were obedient and true-hearted. The elect people were not dealing with empty forms and idle symbols, for God was dwelling among them, "the Fountain of living waters;" and every ordinance of His appointment was a channel of spiritual blessing. The Holy Spirit was there to convict of sin, to cleanse, to give knowledge of God's will, and strength to fulfill it. What depths of spiritual self-knowledge, what purity and holiness and devotion, were in fact attained to by the Jewish saints, and what earnest desires for higher communion with God were awakened, is sufficiently attested by their utterances in the Prophets and the Psalms.
But the moral and spiritual development of those under the Theocracy, which was essential to the fulfillment of its purpose, could not be without obedience. Righteousness could be wrought in His people only through the means He had appointed, not in ways of their own choosing. It was in keeping His statutes and ordinances that He could bless them. Nothing was commanded by Him that was idle, and therefore nothing could be neglected. If faith failed among the people, His laws might fall into desuetude; but as fixed elements in the Divine legislation, they abide, and will in due time, when faith revives, answer their appointed end.
As their King, and through His rule over them, Jehovah made known to His people the principles of His moral government. It was well said by Mr. Gladstone that "the State is a moral agency which aims at character through conduct;" and this was in the highest sense true of the Theocratic State. Through the laws regulating personal and social relations, its citizens were to be educated in the practice of morality and justice. Not as speculative principles, nor as theological dogmas, did the great truths of religion meet them, but as embodied in laws and ritual, and enforced by Personal authority. God was not a God afar off, but a God dwelling among them. Through obedience to His statutes and ordinances, through acts of worship, and the practice of righteousness, should they attain true ethical and spiritual knowledge.
Thus under His own immediate instruction and discipline Jehovah began to prepare a people for the coming Messiah, and for their place in His kingdom. He did not reveal to them the future in its fullness; this was impossible: and what knowledge of the Messiah they might at this time have had, is a matter of question; but He gave them in the present every thing necessary to prepare them for the near future. More distinct revelations respecting the Person and work of the Deliverer would be made as they were able to receive them. If they failed to be a people spiritually prepared for the promised One, when the time for His appearing should come, it would be because of their willful rejection of God's grace.
The second great end to be accomplished in the choice of the Jews as the theocratic people, was the present revelation of Jehovah through them to all nations. (1 Kings viii. 60.) As the Head of the nation He could bring Himself in the most conspicuous manner upon the theatre of the world, and under His rule His people might be the noblest actors in its drama. If the elect people should walk in obedience, and be blessed with the rich blessings spiritual and temporal He had promised them, He would as their King be honored in them before all the world.
Let us note more particularly the nature of the witness to Jehovah, which, as the theocratic people, they should bear. It was impossible in the nature of the case that the Jews could be long in the community of nations, and their peculiar form of polity, and their distinctive religious position, not be known. All the neighboring lands had, it is true, their local and special deities, and their State religions. But not as a mere national Deity — one God among many — did Jehovah rule over them. It was a part of their witness to the world that He was the one Supreme God; all other gods were idols; He alone had power to bless and to punish. If His rule was now limited in its visible exercise to the one people only among whom He dwelt, it was not because He did not claim universal dominion, and possess absolute power, but that through this one people He might make Himself known to all, and in due time extend His rule over all. Thus separated, and dwelling apart in the land which He had given them, under laws and institutions proceeding immediately from Himself, having His sanctuary and dwelling-place among them, supernaturally protected and blessed by Him, obeying Him as their King, and worshipping Him as their God, the theocratic people could bear such public and worldwide witness to Him, as was not otherwise possible. In all periods of their history, if they fulfilled in any high measure their calling, it must have been known that their place was unique among the nations.
Let us suppose that the Jews had so lived under the Theocracy that God's promises to them, embracing both spiritual and temporal blessings, could have been fulfilled, what a spectacle would they have presented to all the neighboring peoples! Here was a people professing its faith in one Supreme God, and affirming that He alone should be worshipped, and that all other gods were vanity; and more than this, that He had chosen them as His holy people, that He was dwelling among them as their King, that all their laws and rites of worship came immediately from Him, and that in supernatural ways He directed them in all their national acts. They affirmed, that under His protection neither pestilence nor famine, nor any destructive forces of nature, had power to hurt them, and that in war He would defend them from all enemies. And these blessings were not to be confined to themselves only. Jehovah's purpose looked onward to the blessing of all nations. His temple at Jerusalem was to be "an house of prayer for all peoples;" and the time would come when one of their lineage sent of Him, a just and mighty Prince, would reign in righteousness over all the earth, and all nations would worship Jehovah, and holiness and peace everywhere prevail. Such a testimony, one not of word only, but illustrated and confirmed by God's dealings with them, could not have been unheard or ignored. Whatever its moral effect upon the idolatrous nations in proving the supremacy of Jehovah, and in bringing them to acknowledge and to worship Him, the very existence of such a monotheistic people must have awakened general attention, and been to all receptive hearts a fact of profoundest interest.
Bishop Butler, in the chapter in his "Analogy" on the Moral Government of God, refers to the Jewish people as an illustration of the influence which a kingdom, administered with highest wisdom and perfect righteousness, would have on the face of the earth. "It would be plainly superior to any other, and the world must gradually come under its empire. . . . The head of it would be an universal monarch; . . . and the Eastern style would be literally applicable to him, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him." In the fullest sense would this have been realized in the Jews abiding as a faithful people under the Theocracy. An example of the highest form of national life, just, virtuous, peaceful, and prosperous, undisturbed by internal strifes, invincible, yet not ambitious or aggressive, their influence must have been felt throughout all nations; and the truth of their religion, their conceptions of God, of His unity, wisdom, holiness, goodness, and power, must have found wide recognition in all lands. In due time all peoples would have recognized them as the just and holy nation; their land as "a delightsome land," and their God as worthy the reverence and adoration of all. Thus through the theocratic relation, and as the Head of a nation, could Jehovah present Himself as the King to whom all rulers on the earth owed obedience, and as the God whom all should worship. As the beams from the lighthouse tower penetrate the thick darkness, and are seen afar, so from His throne in Jerusalem should the light of His truth penetrate the darkened spirits of men, even in the most distant lands. However bitterly opposed was the denied spirit of heathenism to the pure religion of Jehovah, many would have been found among all peoples who would have hearkened willingly to spiritual truth coming to them from a people which illustrated it in all its national acts, and in the holy and blameless lives of its citizens. The words of the prophet would early have found the beginning of their fulfillment: "Many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths." (Isa. ii. 3.)
Well might Moses ask, "What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?"
But if on the contrary the people were unfaithful and disobedient, then would Jehovah be manifested to the nations as the Holy and Just One through the judgments He would inflict upon them. In their subjection to their enemies, the burning of their cities, the desolation of their land, His name would be magnified, and His righteousness be declared. All the nations beholding His judgments would say, "Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this land? what meaneth the heat of this great anger?" (Deut. xxix. 24.) His dealings with them, whether in acts of blessing or of punishment, would be so wonderful that they would draw to them the attention of the world, and so serve to make known to all His purpose in them, and in the end to exalt and glorify His name. (Jer. xxii. 8, 9; Ezek. v. 8; Mai. iii. 12.)