The Prophets

At this time the subscriptions from the various churches abroad were brought to Jerusalem, and were carried to the Temple treasury in solemn state; and at this time also the citizens of Jerusalem witnessed a procession which they did not like so well. A company of Roman soldiers escorted the lieutenant-governor, who came up from Caesarea for the festival that he might give out the vestments of the High Priest, which, being the insignia of government, the Romans kept under lock and key.

It was the nineteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Pontius Pilate had taken up his quarters in the city, and the time of the Passover was at hand. Not only Jerusalem, but also the neighbouring villages, were filled with pilgrims, and many were obliged to encamp in tents outside the walls.

It happened one day that a sound of shouting was heard; the men ran up to the roofs of their houses, and the maidens peeped through their latticed windows. A young man mounted on a donkey was riding towards the city. A crowd streamed out to meet him, and a crowd followed him behind. The people cast their mantles on the road before him, and also covered it with green boughs. He rode through the city gates straight to the Temple, dismounted, and entered the holy building.

In the outer courts there was a kind of bazaar in connection with the Temple worship. Pure white lambs, pigeons, and other animals of the requisite age and appearance were there sold, and money merchants, sitting at their tables, changed the foreign coin with which the pilgrims were provided. The young man at once proceeded to upset the tables and to drive their astonished owners from the Temple, while the crowd shouted and the little gamins, who were not the least active in the riot, cried out, "Hurrah for the son of David!" Then people suffering from diseases were brought to him, and he laid his hands upon them and told them to have faith and they would be healed.

When strangers inquired the meaning of this disturbance they were told that it was Joshua—or—as the Greek Jews called him, Jesus—the Prophet of Nazareth. It was believed by the common people that he was the Messiah. But the Pharisees did not acknowledge his mission. For Jesus belonged to Galilee, and the natives of that country spoke a vile patois, and their orthodoxy was in bad repute. "Out of Galilee," said the Pharisees with scorn, "out of Galilee there cometh no prophet."

All persons of imaginative minds know what it is to be startled by a thought; they know how ideas flash into the mind as if from without, and what physical excitement they can at times produce. They also know what it is to be possessed by a presentiment, a deep, overpowering conviction of things to come. They know how often such presentiments are true, and also how often they are false.

The prophet or seer is a man of strong imaginative powers which have not been calmed by education. The ideas which occur to his mind often present themselves to his eyes and ears in corresponding sights and sounds. As one in a dream he hears voices and sees forms; his whole mien is that of a man who is possessed; his face sometimes becomes transfigured and appears to glow with light; but usually the symptoms are of a more painful kind, such as foaming of the mouth, writhing of the limbs, and a bubbling ebullition of the voice. He is sometimes seized by these violent ideas against his will. But he can to a certain extent produce them by long fasting and by long prayer, or in other words by the continued concentration of the mind upon a single point; by music, dancing, and fumigations. The disease is contagious, as is shown by the anecdote of Saul among the prophets, and similar scenes have been frequently witnessed by travellers in the East.

Prophets have existed in all countries and at all times, but the gift becomes rare in the same proportion as people learn to read and write. Second sight in the Highlands disappeared before the school, and so it has been in other lands. Prophets were numerous in ancient Greece. In the Homeric period they opposed the royal power and constituted another authority by the grace of God. Herodotus alludes to men who went about prophesying in hexameters. Thucydides says that while the Peloponnesians were ravaging the lands of Athens there were prophets within the city uttering all kinds of oracles, some for going out and some for remaining in. It was a prophet who obtained the passing of that law under which Socrates was afterwards condemned to death. In Greece, Egypt, and in Israel the priests adopted and localised the prophetic power. The oracles of Amon, Delphi, and Shiloh bore the same relation to individual prophets as an Established Church to itinerant preachers. Syria was especially fertile in prophets. Marius kept a Syrian prophetess named Martha, who attended him in all his campaigns. It matters nothing what the Syrian religion might be; the same phenomenon again and again recurs. Balaam was a prophet before Israel was established. Then came the prophets of the Jews, and they again have been succeeded by the Christian cave saint and the Moslem dervish, whom the Arabs have always regarded with equal veneration. But it was among the Jews from the time of Samuel to the captivity that prophets or dervishes were most abundant. They were then as plentiful as politicians—and politicians in fact they were, and prophesied against each other. Some would be for peace and some would be for war: some were partisans of Egypt, others were partisans of Babylon. The prophetic ideas differ in no respect from those of ordinary men except in the sublime or ridiculous effect which they produce on the prophetic mind and body. Sometimes the predictions of the Jewish prophets were fulfilled, and sometimes they were not. To use the Greek phrase, their oracles were often of base metal, and in such a case the unfortunate dervish was jeered at as a false prophet, and would in his turn reproach the Lord for having made him a fool before men.

The Jewish prophet was an extraordinary being. He was something more and something less than a man. He spoke like an angel; he acted like a beast. As soon as he received his mission he ceased to wash. He often retired to the mountains, where he might be seen skipping from rock to rock like a goat; or he wandered in the desert with a leather girdle round his loins, eating roots and wild honey, or sometimes browsing on grass and flowers. He always adapted his actions to the idea which he desired to convey. He not only taught in parables but performed them. For instance, Isaiah walked naked through the streets to show that the Lord would strip Jerusalem, and make her bare. Ezekiel cut off his hair and beard and weighed it in the scales: a third part he burnt with fire, a third part he strewed about with a knife, and a third part he scattered to the wind. This was also intended to illustrate the calamities which would befall the Jews. Moreover he wore a rotten girdle as a sign that their city would decay, and buttered his bread in a manner we would rather not describe, as a sign that they would eat defiled bread among the Gentiles. Jeremiah wore a wooden yoke as a sign that they should be taken into captivity. As a sign that the Jews were guilty of wantonness in worshipping idols, Hosea cohabited three years with a woman of the town; and as a sign that they committed adultery in turning from the Lord their God, he went and lived with another man´s wife.

Such is the ludicrous side of Jewish prophecy; yet it has also its serious and noble side. The prophets were always the tribunes of the people, the protectors of the poor. As the tyrant revelled in his palace on the taxes extorted from industrious peasants, a strange figure would descend from the mountains and, stalking to the throne, would stretch forth a lean and swarthy arm and denounce him in the name of Jehovah, and bid him repent, or the Lord´s wrath should fall upon him and dogs should drink his blood. In the first period of the Jewish life the prophets exercised these functions of censor and of tribune, and preached loyalty to the god who had brought them up out of Egypt with a strong hand. They were also intensely fanatical, and published Jehovah´s wrath not only against the king who was guilty of idolatry and vice, but also against the king who took a census, or imported horses, or made treaties of friendship with his neighbours. In the second period the prophets declared the unity of God and exposed the folly of idol-worship. They did even more than this. They opposed the ceremonial law, and preached the religion of the heart. They declared that God did not care for their Sabbaths and their festivals, and their new moons, and their prayers and church services and ablutions, and their sacrifices of meat and oil and of incense from Arabia and of the sweet cane from a far country. "Cease to do evil," said they; "learn to do well; relieve the oppressed; judge the fatherless; plead for the widow." It is certain that the doctrines of the great prophets were heretical. Jeremiah flatly declared that in the day that God brought them from the land of Egypt he did not command them concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices, and this statement would be of historical value if prophets always spoke the truth.

They were bitter adversaries of the kings and priests, and the consolers of the oppressed. "The Lord hath appointed me," says one whose oracles have been edited with those of Isaiah, but whose period was later and whose true name is not known, "the Lord hath appointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he that sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to give unto them that mourn beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for lamentation, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness."

The aristocracy who lived by the altar did not receive these attacks in a spirit of submission. There was a law ascribed to Moses—like all the other Jewish laws, but undoubtedly enacted by the priest party under the kings—that false prophets should be put to death; and though it was dangerous to touch prophets on account of the people, who were always on their side, they were frequently subjected to persecution. Urijah fled from King Jehoiakim to Egypt; armed men were sent after him; he was arrested, brought back and killed. Zachariah was stoned to death in the courts of the Temple. Jeremiah was formally tried and was acquitted, but he had a narrow escape: he was led, as he remarked, like a sheep to the slaughter. At another time he was imprisoned; at another time he was let down by ropes into a dry well; and there is a tradition that he was stoned to death by the Jews in Egypt after all. The nominal Isaiah chants the requiem of such a martyr in a poem of exquisite beauty and grandeur. The prophet is described as one of hideous appearance, so that people hid their faces from him. "His visage was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men." The people rejected his mission and refused to acknowledge him as a prophet. "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." He was arraigned on a charge of false prophecy; he made no defence, and he was put to death. "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. He was taken from the prison to the judgment; he was cut off from the land of the living." It was believed by the Jews that the death of such a man was accepted by God as a human sacrifice, an atonement for the sins of the people, just as the priest in the olden time heaped the sins of the people on the scapegoat and sent him out into the wilderness. "He bare the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Surely he hath borne our griefs and hath carried our sorrows. His soul was made an offering for sin. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and with his stripes we are healed."

There are many worthy people who think it a very extraordinary thing that this poem can be used almost word for word to describe the rejected mission and martyrdom of Jesus. But as the Hebrew prophets resembled one another, and were tried before the same tribunal under the same law, the coincidence is not surprising. A poetical description, in vague and general terms, of the rebellion of the English people and the execution of Charles the First would apply equally well to the rebellion of the French people and the execution of the Louis the Sixteenth.

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