|Vol. VIII, No. 6
Elul 5610 September 1850
Interpretation of Prophecy.
A Sermon For Sabbath Hanukkah.*
O Thou, Almighty Father, who art the sole God in heaven and on earth; we call on Thee to bless our assembling before thy sanctuary, to offer our prayers and thanksgiving at this season of rejoicing, because of the mercies thou didst show towards thy people, when the mighty rose up against them. New opinions had taken deep root among Israel; the stranger was strong in the many adherents his philosophy had among those belonging to our household; and it only needed the arm of power, as man might have fancied, to entirely uproot the worship of Thee from our land. But Thou, Father, didst not look on heedless of the strife of mortals; and, Thou strengthenest the arm of Matthityah and his sons; and they rose in the might of heroes, and overthrew the oppressors, expelled the stranger armies from our soil, and restored the service into thy profaned sanctuary. And thus it was thy will to sustain the knowledge of thy religion; and from the bottom of distress sprang up those who were true and faithful, and who transmitted the truth, which they had preserved, to us their latest descendants. O grant then Almighty God! that the recurrence of the memorial of the reconsecration of thy house may have an abiding effect on us; and that when we light the outward lamp of commemoration, we may be enabled to resolve to kindle within us the fire of devotion and obedience, and that we may thus be animated with the will and the spirit of the Asmoneans of old, to defend thy law at all hazards, and to sustain thy religion though all the world were leagued against us. And be it also thy will that success may attend our exertions, and that we may see the fruits of our labours in thy cause, in the conversions of sinners and the confirmation of the righteous. So shall our spirit praise Thee, and the glory of thy greatness shall fill our mouth, and the nations shall hear of thy name, and worship Thee in truth as do thy people Israel. Amen.
The prophet Zachariah says in ii. 14,
רני ושמחי בת ציון כי הנני בא ושכנתי בתכך נאם ה׳׃ זכרי׳ ב׳ י״ד
“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold I will come and dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord.”
To one who has even but some superficial knowledge of Scripture, there must be something curious in the attitude which the world at large occupies towards the Jews. The Bible apparently says one thing, and the world another; the Scripture speaks of Israel, the world insists that some other persons are meant and still we stand in the same position we always stood, and it would be curious indeed, if the error should be on our part, and that we must, therefore, have been all along groping our way in doubt and darkness. One of two things must be admitted, either we are right now, or were always wrong or, it must be exhibited by undoubted proof, that we have at some time, since the Bible was delivered into our safe-keeping, changed our position, that is to say, that we commenced a different course of life from what we were accustomed to before. The question then resolves itself into these simple propositions: Of whom does the Bible speak, when using the terms Zion, daughter of Zion, Jacob, Israel, and the like? and if it be the literal descendants of Jacob, have these then so far changed their life as not to be any longer in the same attitude towards God, which they occupied in the time of the prophets?
Now as regards the first question, it is to be presumed that the prophets must have had an intelligible meaning in the hearing of those to whom they were sent, to as great an extent at least, if not a greater, than they have to us at the present day. Look, therefore, into their works, as we may freely call the writings or records of prophecy which have come down to us, and you will see that they are uniformly addressed to their own fellow-countrymen, when they call them by name, or by some metaphorical expression which as clearly defined them. Whenever they wanted to speak to and of other nations, whenever they referred to other countries than Palestine, they did not <<278>>lack words to give a clear expression of theirs ideas, and we may be assured that, if any obscurity does occasionally exist in the prophetic writings, it is owing to our own want of knowledge of the attendant circumstances under which they were composed, and not to any defect in information on the part of the sacred writers themselves.
There is so much sublimity, such force, such elegance, such precision in their denunciations and promises, that no one, with any degree of common sense, can for a moment have any doubt of their general tendency; and only the expressions of an unknown signification can at all be relied upon as an excuse for an occasional misapprehension. But, to say that Israel is not Israel, that Zion means Rome, or Athens, or anything else than the veritable city of David; that the daughter of Zion or Jerusalem means the church, whatever that may be; that Jerusalem means an association of some sort, founded upon another scheme than the upholding of the unity of God, is to argue as though words had no definite meaning, and were intended to conceal, not to express thoughts. And even, granted for a moment, that the sacred messengers when addressing Israel meant ritually some other nation, the question would naturally arise as to the new identity. We will state the proposition: Israel is not the natural Israel, Zion is not the city of David, the one well known in history, the other in the geography of the world.
Where are we now to look for them? are we to go to Arabia to hunt for the former, amidst the half-savage tribes that roam over the desert? are we to go to Mekka to find our new Zion? Unquestionably, the followers of Mahomed might put in a claim for these distinctions, for all we can know of the matter; and hence, the Arabs may be the new Israel and their holy city the new Jerusalem. But this will not satisfy our Nazarene neighbours; they claim to be an Israel more spiritual than the Jews, more elect than the followers of Mahomed, and hence, they assert that all the blessings are centred in them; that all the good the prophets speak of is, or will be, fulfilled in them and through them; and though some will not exclude the literal descendants of Jacob altogether, they do it with so many qualifications as utterly to render any good to be expected for <<279>>the Jews, as such totally valueless for them in a national point of view.
Perhaps, no words have ever been so much tortured as Zion and Jerusalem. The Jews find them in Palestine, a little east from the Mediterranean Sea, not far from where the Jordan rolls its sacred waves into the bosom of the Sea of Salt, which marks the ancient site of the sinful cities of Sodom and its consorts; but to the Nazarene, however he may cherish the soil on which the alleged founder of his religion is said to have walked; however he may erect churches, chapels, convents, and monuments on each particular spot which he conceives hallowed by events, which he supposes to have taken place in ages gone by, and which he fancies shed a glory and a brilliancy on his faith—I say, to the Nazarene, they convey a signification very different; he has a mode of interpreting entirely his own, he has a literal and a spiritual sense of words, and if the first suit him, you must not expect that he will forego any advantage resulting therefrom; but if this be against his opinion as taught by his priests, or as he has elaborated it himself, he will adopt a spiritual rendering of evident words, and so transform them that no one could possibly recognise them under their new guise, though he have written them himself.
What this spiritual rendering may be, depends altogether upon the circumstances of the case; it may be one thing, or it may be the other. For instance, the dry bones of Ezekiel are, as the prophet actually says, the house of Israel; so far the spiritualizers will go with us; but how many singular applications have not been made of this vision or actual occurrence in which Ezekiel, by the command of God, revived so many slain ones of the house of Israel. If you read to the end of the section you will find glorious promises to the descendants of Jacob, the assurance of a resurrection, a restoration to the land of Israel, and the prediction of life. But before the spiritualist reaches thus far, he has already exhausted his ingenuity on the vision of the dry bones; he fancies, therefore, that he has done enough in imagining the fleshless remains of humanity prefigurate the spiritual wants of our people at the present day; and the breath which was to return into the bodies of the slain, he imagines to be his pretended new revelation which <<290>>was already then foreshadowed should supplant the old system in our possession.
But I pray you read the first fourteen verses of the 37th of Ezekiel, with a simple intention of being taught what the words of the Bible teach, and you will not find a word of a new law, a modern revelation, or a new spirituality. The Lord is spoken of as putting a spirit into the dead, so that they shall live. He says that He will open the graves of his people,—mind the prophet speaks of the bones being emblematic of, or actually the whole house of Israel, and that they shall live and be brought back to live in peace in their own land. Where do you discover here any allusion to a new law? to a revelation not then known? to a spirit which was to be foreign to our religion? Or you may say the new law is to be identical with the old, a perfection of its original principles; but Ezekiel speaks of no such change or addition as impending over the religion which he then professed, and surely no one will say that the modern system of the Nazarenes is identical in any shape with the conduct of Israelites under the ancient law.
This spiritualizing has not even the advantage of the word new being introduced into the prophecy, so as to read “and I will put my new spirit in you, and you shall live,” for it simply says “my spirit;” wherefore, unless you are aided by some instruction derived from a source other than the Bible, you cannot discover in the whole passage an allusion to the alleged repeal of the Jewish Law. We know of but one spirit of life, that is the will of God, here sent to revive the dead, as elsewhere it is given as the law which He put in our mouth, not to depart thence to all eternity (Isa. lix. 21). Where, then, we ask, is the warrant for the curious and constant misapplication of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones? of the shaking which the gentiles aver is perceived among them whenever an effort is made or to be made to convert them from their religion?
It is surprising, that men of sense can endeavour so far, indeed to impose on others equally sensible, with such silly misapplication of the holy word of God; but so it is; and much as we may regret this want of candour in those who pretend to read the Bible for instruction solely, we cannot say that this system of error does not exist.
But under such a system, Jews and gentiles could have lived happily together; the former, observing the whole of their duties, undismayed by fear or oppression, in the hope that a time would come when the power of the Lord would be made manifest to all creatures, when all men would receive an especial direction how to obey the will of God in the new state of things which is then to prevail. But the gentiles, in their new zeal, could not be so tolerant; they wanted to establish their adherence to God on a new basis, on one essentially differing from the standard of Israel; and hence, in taking the Scriptures as their guide, they had from necessity to abolish the literal sense of the words, because this indicted their views and contradicted their opinions at every turn. I could easily enlarge on the subject, <<282>>and detain you for hours with references and proofs of what I say; but enough has been shown already to exhibit to you the manner of conducting the argument in the gentile way, and its entire unsoundness.
Whatever fancied reasons the opponents of Judaism may have to carry a spiritual, or rather an allegorical sense into the plain views of the Bible, it will not be satisfactory to any one who, either for the first time is made acquainted with the words of Scripture as a child who has just learned to read, or a convert from a strange country who has not been biased by either Jew or Nazarene, or to him who has learned to base Judaism upon what the word teaches in its plain signification. So far do the Jewish authorities respect the simple expression of our sacred books, that notwithstanding the well-known propensities to allegorize, not rare among the Rabbis, all have laid it down as a maxim אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו “No verse goes out of its evident meaning;” which establishes clearly the principle, that however you may be emboldened to seek for hidden allusions in the word of God, however you may believe, and believe correctly, “One thing God hath spoken, two of these have I heard;” however you may be convinced that a deeper sense lie hidden under the outside of ordinary expressions, that the simple narratives point to higher and more mysterious thoughts: notwithstanding all this, the words employed mean in themselves only what they ostensibly mean, neither more nor less than what common sense would understand by them.
I know that I may be met by the question as to what becomes then of the traditional expositions which we have received? But, indeed they are all based upon the words of the Bible as they were understood at the time they were written. Reflect well that the original text of Scripture is not any longer the vernacular of any country; ages have passed since it has been merely a sacred dialect of our people. Consequently the very meaning of words depends upon traditional evidence; wherefore we must submit to be instructed from father to son as to what Israelites always believed they were commanded to do. I speak not now of the few rabbinical ordinances which are not founded on the Bible at all, as they are mere regulations <<283>>made in the spirit of the Scriptures, and are not to be looked for in the words themselves; for instance, the lighting of the Hanuccah lamps, the reading of the prayers three times a day, and the like; for, although binding on all Israelites, they are not held up as absolute commands given us by Moses.—But, as regards the process of wresting Scripture from its original sense, to make the words, after their plain sense has been developed, the vehicle for spiritual, hidden, mysterious, and, therefore, false deductions (for false they are, so soon as they clash with and contradict the evident dogmas of the Bible), it is evident that it can never claim to be authoritative with any one whose earliest infancy has not been imbued, and, therefore, corrupted by a process so unreasonable.
For instance, say that Israel is not Israel, and that Zion is not Zion, it will be next to impossible to assign them any tangible and satisfactory meaning. I may contend, in the potency of my intellect, that Israel is put for Russia; another may claim it with equal right to be Japan or the distant isles of the sea. I may say Zion meant Rome; another will have the same right to find in Stamboul or London the mystical prototype of the ancient city of David. One may transform Jerusalem into the church, that is his own peculiar form or mode of worship and belief; but, another may, with equal right, place his church on that pedestal, and so claim it and himself to be the sole heirs of all the good that is predicted for restored Jerusalem.
It would be a curious chapter in theological controversy to hunt up all the mad exhibitions which such an unfounded system of interpretation has caused; one and the same place is called the modern Zion and Babylon by different sects; and for all Israelites can know or care, both assumptions are equally correct, for Rome is neither Zion nor Babylon, no matter how great her alleged virtues and how great her actual crimes. I only give you this specimen to put you on your guard against being confounded by the bold assurances occasionally put forth that so and so the Bible teaches; allegory is the weapon of our opponents, spiritualizing is the sword with which they mean to slay Judaism; but admit nothing in argument which is not clearly deducible from the word of God, and hesitate not to reject as <<284>>unsound any and every opinion which is based upon no better authority than a mystical interpretation of words which you cannot yourselves discover in them.
We come now back to the proposition with which we started and I think I have given reasons enough to make it clear, that the terms which were adduced signify literal Israel, and the literal habitations of our forefathers, when the terms meaning these ideas are employed. Now, as regards the other question, whether we occupy the same attitude towards God as at the time of the prophets, but few words remain to be said. We cannot deny that much and often have we been guilty of transactions which the law and the prophets condemn; or else Jerusalem would not have been destroyed a second time, nor would we have been again rendered fugitives from our land, and strangers in nearly all the countries of the earth. But let us ask, how could we have improved our condition by changing wholly our faith? could we have become true to God, if, instead of being guilty riot alone of the sins which destroyed our temple, we had also, assumed a trinity for our god, abolished circumcision, changed the seventh day Sabbath for the first day of the week, and neglected totally the festivals of the Lord; ate forbidden food as things permitted by authority of religion, and mingled freely in marriage with the nations of the earth? Say would these things have shown our adherence to God our reconversion to the worship of the Most High?
It is almost insulting to common sense to make such inquiries, their absurdity is too glaring to deserve even a serious refutation. But it is precisely on such grounds that the Nazarenes claim to occupy our ancient position; they claim to be the spiritual Israel, and have offended as such against the revealed word in the manner just indicated. What are to us their spirituality, their assumed holiness, their high claims to grace? have they not in their practices contradicted the Scriptures in every particular? And then, let us ask, which is true, the letter of the word or the assumed spirit? both cannot be true, this is certain, and it is for the word of God, as it reads, to decide between us and them.
But, brethren, it has decided; there is no difficulty about ascertaining its meaning, <<285>>which is the true spirit that breathes through it, and this says, “In all the way which the Lord your God hath commanded you shall you walk, you shall not turn therefore to the right or to the left.”
I say, let this decide; and till the abolition of the Sabbath, circumcision, prohibitions, the festivals and other ordinances can be proved not to be a departure to the right or to the left, we cannot give our assent to a system which claims such sacrifices at our hands, not to mention that it demands before anything else the surrender of our faith in the blessed unity, and to adopt in its place an association which the Bible emphatically prohibits and declares that it does not exist; for it teaches “that the Lord is the only God in heaven, and on earth there is none else.”
Hear ye! there is no one else, the words are אין עוד Ane ‘Od “there is none else,” simple, brief, comprehensive, excluding, therefore, any and every imaginable idea of pother deity, independent of or associated with the sole and Almighty Creator, to whom be praise to everlasting. Though, therefore, we have sinned, though so many of us are entirely neglectful of God’s teaching, we have not as a nation apostatized; we stand, therefore, on the same platform on which we were placed at our going out of Egypt; consequently, all the promises of the prophets, all the mercies predicted by command of God as reserved for Israel and Zion, must be expected to be fulfilled in us and our holy city; the former of which shall be restored whenever the time comes, and the latter of which shall be built up as an everlasting structure never more to be destroyed.
Yea, God will come and dwell in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion, whilst many nations will come to join themselves unto the Lord and be his people also; but not in detriment, but in addition to the sons of Israel who have remained faithful and trusted in God that He would be true to his promise, and give them glory instead of ashes, and a joyful spirit instead of a grieved heart. May this be speedily fulfilled to our joy and the happiness of all the earth. Amen.
Kislev 29, Dec. 14, 5610.