So familiar are we with the fact of written prophecy as forming a large part of the Old-Testament Scriptures, that we scarcely think to ask ourselves why prophecy should be written. But a little reflection shows us that prophecy written down and preserved for a future generation or age, was not in accordance with the spirit of the Theocracy, and that its first appearance marked an epoch in God's dealings with His people. His Presence among them assured them of the continual communications of His will as there might be need. (Exod. xxv. 22.) One of the appointed channels of such communication was the prophet. (Deut. xviii. 18-22.) How often He made use of the prophets, especially after the time of Samuel, declaring His will day by day as He saw fit, the sacred histories abundantly attest. But none of their words were for many years written down, except as embodied in the historic narratives, as, for example, the words of Elijah and Elisha in the history of Israel. Their utterances were for their own day and generation; nor was there any necessity that a prophet of one generation should write down his words for the guidance of the next. Jehovah, ever personally present among the people, could at no time fail to find organs to make known His will, speaking by them as He saw occasion to speak.
In considering the work and place of the Hebrew prophets, we must remember that these were defined by the relation of the people to Jehovah as the theocratic King. The prophet was the chief organ of His utterance; and, therefore, the range of the prophetic word was large and varied, embracing every thing necessary to be made known in the administration of the Theocratic State. Prediction of future events was but a small part of his office. The great outlines of God's purpose in His people were already known to them through the covenants with Abraham, and with the people at Sinai, and the promises connected with them, and through the law which was written down for perpetual remembrance. (Josh. viii. 32-35.) Through the covenant with David the goal was set before them, the universal Kingdom of Jehovah under the Messiah: the matter of practical interest was how they should reach this goal. As an army on its march surrounded with enemies needs daily guidance under the new circumstances of peril in which it is placed, so with the elect people. Jehovah was their leader: and the prophet was present to give them His commands, to point out their pathway, and to show them the dangers to which they were exposed, both from within and without. In the life of David we have an example how often Jehovah declared His will by His prophets in all matters pertaining to the duties of the king and the welfare of the people.
Thus, under the Theocracy, prophecy was designed primarily for the immediate present. The prophet spake for his own time; his words were fitted to meet the exigencies of the day; they were pre-eminently practical. The word spoken, whether to the king or people, was to enable them to fulfill present duty, not to discern in detail the remote future. There was no need, therefore, that it should be written down, except as it became a part of history. The prophets come and go each with his message; but Jehovah who gives the word, abides ever with His people, able to make daily such new revelations of His will for their guidance in the present, and to open the future, as shall please Him.
Thus prophecy under the Theocracy, according to its true intent, was spoken and not written. Most significant, therefore, is the change that meets us when written prophecy appears, and the transient spoken word takes upon itself a permanent form. Now the prophet is seen speaking not merely to his own generation, but to indefinite generations following. What does this indicate? It indicates two things: first, a future withdrawal of Jehovah's Presence from His people, and a consequent cessation of prophetic utterance; second, a delay, longer or shorter, in the fulfillment of the Divine purpose respecting the Messiah and His Kingdom. Each of these is to be considered.
First, So long as Jehovah continued to dwell among His people, and to commune with them, they could never want such light respecting the future as might be necessary for the discharge of present duties. "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets." (Amos iii. 7.) That a prophet should write down his prophecies by Divine direction, pointed forward to a time when Jehovah would no longer be with them, to speak to them by prophets as He had done. (Amos viii. 11, 12; Lam. ii. 9.) It implied a period of silence: it was the storing up of bread for coming years of famine.
These two things, the cessation of prophecy and the withdrawal of the Divine Presence from the people, stood in the most intimate moral relations. If their King, He must dwell among them, and make known to them His will. When His people through their sin became obstinate in their rejection of His words, and would not listen or obey, He would cease to speak to them by His prophets. Nor could He continue to dwell among them, and yet have no communion with them, — a King, but unable to declare His will; a silent God, dumb because they have no ears to hear. When, therefore, He began by His Spirit to move the prophets to write down their words for the instruction of future generations, it foretold that the time was coming when He would cease to speak to His people by the living voice, He would depart from them, and they would be left to the guidance of the written word.
Second, The fact of written prophecy indicated, also, that there was to be no speedy fulfillment of the Divine purpose in the Messiah. His Kingdom was not near, but after "many days ;" and the word, therefore, must be preserved for the instruction of future generations; and the cause of this delay was the moral unpreparedness of the people, as shown in the refusal to hear the prophets, and obey their words. As of old, when marching from Egypt to the promised land, and near the border, the people yielded to unbelief, and so were compelled to wander up and down in the Wilderness for long years till a new generation had arisen, so must it be again. Through the covenant with David, they had been placed as on the border of the Messianic Kingdom. Jehovah was among them, to speak to them by His prophets, and to lead them steadily onward; but they had not hearkened to them, and pressed forward: and now many weary years must elapse, and generations pass away, before they would behold its glories. They would bear with them in their wanderings the prophetic scroll, but hear no more the living voice of their King and God.
This transition, therefore, from spoken to written prophecy marks an epoch in the history of the elect people. It is generally agreed that the earliest written prophecies may be placed about the middle or in the latter part of the ninth century (B.C.). If we ask what there was in the character of that time when the prophets began to write down their prophecies, to account for this change, we find in history a ready answer. We have already noted the period when both kingdoms, under the leadership of their respective kings, Ahab of Israel, and Jehoram of Judah, gave themselves up to idolatry, and which period may be regarded as a decisive turning-point in their history. From this beginning of national apostasy, although followed by a violent re-action for a time, there was never any real and permanent recovery. Both kingdoms, though with unequal steps, went steadily onward in their downward path. It can cause us no surprise that the same time which was a turning-point in the spiritual relations of the elect people to Jehovah, was such, also, in their political relations to the heathen states around them. As the ninth century saw the beginning of prophecy written down in the Divine foresight of their apostasy, it saw also the origin, or rather the revival, of the Assyrian monarchy appointed by Him to be a chief instrument for their chastisement. At this time (about 850 B.C.) the small and independent kingdoms on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris became subject to an Assyrian monarch, who extended his conquests over Lebanon to the Mediterranean coast. Tyre and Sidon, and later Damascus and Syria, were conquered; and it is probable that Israel under Jehu was forced to pay tribute (825 B.C.). A few years later, Ahaz, king of Judah, alarmed by the confederacy against him of Syria and Israel, became the vassal of Tiglath-pileser. (2 Kings xvi. 7.) The kingdom of Israel was soon overthrown by the Assyrians (722 B.C.) ; and Judah, like the corn between the upper and nether millstones, was kept in continual alarm and perplexity by the conflicting powers of Assyria and Egypt. To the north the prophets continually pointed the eyes of the people as the real source of danger: "I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction." (Jer. iv. 6.) The fear of Assyria, and afterwards of Babylonia, lay as a heavy burden on the hearts of all who feared God, and hearkened to the warning words of His prophets.
It was thus at a time when both the kingdoms, Israel and Judah, had, by flagrant acts of idolatry under the leadership of their several kings, broken their covenant with Jehovah, rejected His authority, and dishonored His name; and when by His providence He had so ordered events that Assyria was becoming the ruling power of the East, ready to be His instrument, "the rod of His anger," in the infliction of His just judgments, that written prophecy began. It was a most momentous time, and full of the gravest issues, not only for the elect people, but for all the nations; not only for that generation, but for many generations. The sin of His people was not, indeed, final; there was still scope for repentance; the anger of God might yet be turned away. But, if they did not hearken to the prophetic warnings, before them was set the fearful threatening of national overthrow and exile.
Thus to the prophets of this time was given a twofold commission, — to speak God's word for the immediate present, and to write it down for the remote future. They spoke first to the living, to rebuke, warn, instruct, and comfort, if so be that by true repentance God's threatened judgments might be turned away. And then, when the words spoken had been proved unavailing, He moved them to make such a summary of them as might be useful for the coming generations, and write them down to be read during the long years of exile and dispersion.
Written prophecy has its peculiar character, because written down in the Divine foresight of the rejection of the people by Jehovah, of His departure from them, and of their overthrow and dispersion in the earth. A chief distinctive feature in it is that it announces, more or less clearly, a great day of judgment as at hand, and as its chief elements the coming overthrow, the expulsion from the land, and their scattering among the nations; and as the ground of this judgment it makes prominent the present sinful condition of the people. The prophets assume that the teachings of Moses as to the judgments of God upon them for continued disobedience, were known. (Lev. xxvi.; Deut. xxviii.) The people were not ignorant that their national existence was dependent upon the faithful keeping of the covenant, and that the penalty of expulsion from their land was foretold as the final chastisement. The prophets, therefore, in announcing that God was about to inflict this final chastisement, do not reveal any thing new as to the Divine purpose in the punishment of His people if persistently disobedient, but announce that the time for the fulfillment of His threatened judgment is approaching. That Jehovah could not continue to rule over a sinful people, but would cut them off from His land, had been declared of old: the peculiarity of the prophetic word now is, that it declares their sinfulness to be already so great that it is in the purpose of God to inflict this last judgment. Yet in their predictions the prophets are not declaring the decrees of a fate, but the purpose of a merciful God who loves and would save His people. Even to the very last, they call to repentance if haply His righteous anger may be turned away; but only national repentance can avail, for it is national apostasy that has provoked His righteous anger.
Thus, true to its practical intent, prophecy which we now possess in its written form, was first spoken. The prophets speak each to his own generation, and their words all revolve about these three points: first, the blessings temporal and spiritual given by God to His covenant people if faithful; second, the judgments that will come upon them if unfaithful; third, His renewed grace to them when repentant. It was common to the prophets that they had special discernment, through the Spirit, of the purpose of God in the election of the people, and saw the goal to be reached; and they had also discernment of their present spiritual condition, and, therefore, could judge aright the present time, and see its bearing on the future. They discerned when the people were walking on in the path appointed them, and when they were turning aside from it, or were going backward. As those thus enlightened, the prophets have a lively sense of the sins and evils of their own times; and a large part of their utterances are outbursts of sorrow over the general apostasy, mingled with severe rebukes, warnings, and threatenings. (Isa. xxii. 4; Jer. ix. 1, etc.) They see in the distance the coming national overthrow, because of persistent national transgressions; and they strive in every possible way to awaken the nation to a sense of its danger, and to persuade it to repent.
We may take the words of the earliest prophet who wrote, Joel (about 850 B.C.), as an illustration. The kingdom of Judah is suffering under Divine judgments, —drought, locusts, and famine; the neighboring tribes have invaded the land, and carried away some of the people, and sold them as slaves. It is their sin r hat has brought on them these calamities, and, therefore, the prophet earnestly calls them to national repentance. Let all — elders, priests, and people — assemble, and sanctify a fast; and, if they repent not, he points forward to heavier judgments to come. He speaks of "the day of the Lord," with its clouds and darkness; not a day of blessing and salvation, but a "day of destruction from the Almighty." He foresees the final chastisement when the people will be taken captive, and the land divided among its invaders. But God's purpose does not fail: out of the national overthrow a remnant will be saved, and through that remnant there will be deliverance. Jehovah will return, and dwell again in Zion. Jerusalem will be holy: He will gather the nations to judgment, and all that have oppressed His people shall be made desolate. He will then reign in righteousness over all the earth.
Thus Joel strikes the keynote for all the prophets that were to follow. His prophetic vision embraces the future in its chief phases down to the establishment of the universal Kingdom. He gives in few words the general outline which the later prophets fill up in detail. In them all is distinctly and repeatedly set forth the present sinfulness of the people, each prophet speaking according to his discernment of the moral condition in his day; and emphatic warnings are given of the approaching judgment in the national overthrow and captivity. They also point forward to the ultimate deliverance of the repentant, and the national restoration and reconstitution under the Son of David, and the fulfillment of all the covenant promises. "After many days" the purpose of God in His elect people will be accomplished, and through them all nations be blessed.
To sum up what has been said, the normal place of the prophet is under Jehovah as the King, to speak to His people day by day such words as He may give, and on all matters temporal and spiritual as He may please. To write down their words pointed to the cessation of prophecy, and to the departure of Jehovah from them: they are to be left to the guidance of the written word. But this guidance is no real substitute for Jehovah's personal word through His prophets, since no people judging itself by a book can know its own spiritual state, and whether it is or is not fulfilling the Divine purpose. Nor is this to deny the place of the priests as public teachers. Jehovah ceasing to guide them by His prophets, the nation is left to follow blind guides, to hearken to prophets who speak out of their own hearts, and to do what seems to itself good. Therefore the last prophet of God, Malachi, who declares the functions of the priest, foretells one who is to come before "the great and dreadful day of the Lord," and who shall "turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers." (ii. 7, iv. 5.) Though the voice of prophecy should be long unheard, yet at last it is through a prophet sent of God, and illumined by His Spirit, that they must be taught what He would have them do to prepare the way of the Lord.
As bearing on the future, and opening the purpose of God to the end, written prophecy had a wide field before it. It looked forward to acts of God necessarily demanding considerable periods of time. The two great points in the near future are the approaching captivity and dispersion, and the subsequent return of a remnant. The nation, if it heed not the prophetic warnings, is to be overthrown, the people carried away captive, a time of severe discipline is to follow, the salvation of a remnant, the national reconstitution of this remnant, and finally the fulfillment of the Divine promises in the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom. The prophetic vision extends far beyond the narrow territorial limits of Judah and Israel. The elect people is to be cast forth into "the sea of the nations." All lands shall thus know of their holy calling, of their transgressions and their punishment; and finally all peoples will be made partakers of the Messianic blessings at their restoration. land, brings them into continued relations to other peoples, and especially to those dwelling immediately around them 5 and although the earlier peoples, as Edom and Moab, Syria and Egypt, may cease to exist, yet other peoples arise, and the same relations in substance continue. As His own chosen nation, through whom He will reveal Himself to the nations, the Jews hold through all historical time an official position, and have a sacred character, and in the day of their restoration and of the judgment of the nations, the great question will be, how far have the other nations regarded them as His people, and so treated them.
Though the prophets knew it not, their words, written down, were to be read by Jehovah's scattered children for many centuries, and in lands remote of which they had never even heard. As records of the past, of the sins of their fathers, and of God's dealings with them, and as embracing His purpose to its consummation, the prophetic writings were in the Divine intention for their light and guidance and warning till the consummation should come. The prophets wrote, as declared by the apostle, for the learning of all that should come after, that, through the patience and comfort of their words, all generations, down to the day of their fulfillment in the Messianic Kingdom, might have hope. (Rom. xv. 4.)
But written prophecy embraces, also, God's words addressed to many heathen peoples: these words could not in the nature of the case have been spoken to them, and they have long since ceased to exist as peoples. W hy, then, written down and preserved? Not simply that we of these latter days may see their fulfillment, and thus have our faith confirmed, for this fulfillment cannot in many cases be proved because of our historical ignorance. They were written rather because the purpose of God in the Jews as a people, both as wanderers and when restored and dwelling in their own
The words, therefore, addressed of old to heathen peoples, and written down by the prophets, though having special significance for the time when written, have significance also for all the peoples that may be brought into relation with the elect nation; and especially at the time when Jehovah shall regather them, and set them again in their land as the head of the nations. Then His purpose in them will be revealed in the eyes of all. (Deut. xxvi. 19.) The judgment of the nations as nations at the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom, will be based on their treatment of those whom God had set apart as His own, and whom He then attests in a special manner to be His by His wonderful dealings with them in their restoration.