Two great and unlike phases of religious life mainly make up the Old Testament Scriptures. One relates to priesthood, with its functions, their exercise and ritual, and the other includes the messages of those preachers of righteousness who are called prophets. In the evolution of the religious life and its expressions, each has its place and time, and both were important factors in Judaism. The distinctive force of both continued in the early Christian Church, though they were in some degree merged so that the demarcation was not so sharp. While none of the writers of the New Testament are called prophets, yet all except the authors of the synoptic Gospels — who were more specifically narrators — were essentially prophetic teachers.
In the religious advancement of a nation — and the same is true of mankind in general — the priest comes first in order. His office is lower in rank and is concerned with earlier and more primitive development. His work is especially with those who are dependent and require teaching and leading, and for such as would worship by proxy, and through outward forms and rites. There is a period in religious growth when the soul shrinks from direct contact with God, and, in great degree, delegates its worship and craves a "go-between."
Priesthood, as exercised in fixed rules, ordinances, and sacraments, may become formal, and even mechanical. In the observance of prescribed ritual there is a tendency toward an undue emphasis upon the form, and often an unconscious absence of the vital and inner spirit and meaning. A ceremonial law may easily lead to bigotry, so that there comes a blind dependence upon an outward shibboleth, which is not deeper than mere intellectual conformity. To the degree that prescribed methods are authoritative and obligatory, faith in and love to God become secondary. Paul contrasts reliance upon the law, in its external sense, with grace, which includes in a comprehensive term, love and inner faith. The, "Thou shalt not" of the moral law is but the shell which encloses the real gospel, and until the same is penetrated and sweetened there is little of that liberty which makes men free. While it is manifestly better to keep the moral law in a perfunctory way than to violate it, love and faith may lift the soul above the law so that it is no longer its master.
The officialism of priesthood is its unattractive side, but in the degree that it becomes natural, sympathetic, and devoted to ministration, its office is vital and essential. Undeveloped man, in passing through the bewildering mazes of earthly life, craves guidance and sympathy, and until he develops prophetic quality so as to go directly to the divine fountain he must get some supply through a human channel. A somewhat common prejudice against priesthood arises from a too exclusive view of its more formal and ceremonial phases. But until the great majority of men get more religious self-poise, some real piloting through shallows and quicksands is indispensable. The Church should be a school, and her teaching offices ought not to be eclipsed by ritual and ordinance.
To the soul of feeble spirituality, God is to be known through man — Godlike man. To the degree that the official priest is the natural priest and helper, his soul conveys divine blessing and even forgiveness. He is the electric wire which completes a circuit for the conveyance of spiritual energy. No man should come between God and the soul unless he makes himself transparent and forms a connecting link. With all the Protestant prejudice against the Roman confessional, when purely administered, it touches a deep spring in the heart of the halting and uncertain penitent. But the office of the confessor is a most sacred one, for, to its subject, it approximates that of the Almighty. The priest cannot forgive sin, but upon true penitence, he can, as a divine proxy, pronounce the outward word of pardon as expressive of an accomplished inner act. But loving human nature, without the insignia of officialism, as it has opportunity, can perform the natural priestly function to his brother man. He can pour in the balm of forgiveness and even pronounce conditional absolution.
The true exercise of the priestly office is not dependent upon ecclesiasticism and is not confined to any line of descent. Inspiration and rich blessing may flow from any ministering soul to another receptive one. Selfishness produces isolation, whereas all good is social in its fundamental nature. Repentance and the higher choice remits, or puts away sin, and the fact and the law may be pronounced, as was so often done by Jesus: "Thy sins are forgiven thee," so man to his fellow-man may make the same announcement. But it is the inner condition and not the pronouncement which forgives. This principle cannot be stated too often.
There is a sense in which neither God nor man can forgive, because the true putting away must be an individual act and become an accomplished condition. God's forgiveness is always existent and waiting for application. On his part it is a standing principle. So of the man who forgives his neighbor.
But forgiveness must not be construed to signify an immediate blotting out of punishment. Transgression leaves scars, even if forgiveness be complete. The full measure of the cure for the violation of divine law is a matter of inner renouncement and growth. Though immediately potential it is of gradual consummation. So far as you are concerned, you may at once forgive the thief who has stolen your property, and even shield him from outward punishment, but it remains for him to forgive himself.
Under the old Dispensation, the priest ministered at the altar and officially presided over the sacrifices, rites, and full ritual of the temple. It was a sensuous form of worship, fitted only to the needs of a childlike and primitive people, and the element of true spirituality was only partial and incidental. The devotion of men must proceed from their own plane of life, and in a certain sense truth must be diluted to their own quality and capacity. While truth in itself cannot be cheapened, it must have local adjustment to be of avail. Babes must be nourished with milk rather than with "strong meat."
The prophetic office comes not from ecclesiastical preferment or official position. To be born a Levite, with due formalities added, might make a priest, but it could not constitute a prophet. The true prophet is the product only of a divine process within himself. Every preacher of righteousness of every age, who is a law-giver, and in advance of his generation, is truly a prophet. The name is not in modern usage, but the office never will become obsolete. Every religion has had its prophets, so that ancient prophecy was not limited to the Hebrew nation. But in Israel it was more pure and righteous than elsewhere. But even among the Chosen People there were prophets of many grades. Those of the lower order, often called seers or soothsayers, possessed peculiar psychological powers and were subject to trances and visions, but in some measure they doubtless spoke the "word of the Lord." However, such occult powers and experiences were not uncommon among all prophets, and they were especially in evidence with Paul, the greatest prophetic character of the New Testament. As the prophet in all ages is preeminently the man of inner states, we are not warranted in our modern disparagement of visions, trances, and ecstasies, and are mistaken if we regard them as essentially and necessarily abnormal. The Bible is full of the accounts of such experiences in connection with its most eminent characters. Human nature today is the same in essence and inner laws that it has been in the past, but in its prevailing activities it actually seems to have grown more superficial. With all our boasted education the present age is sorely in need of the typical prophet. Subjective divine illumination is rarely linked with a profusion of technical objective knowledge. How many make much earnest effort to make themselves channels for the "word of the Lord "? How many value inner guidance more highly than outward worldly wisdom?
The history of the Hebrew nation and of the world makes it appear that prophets have been "raised up," or have come upon the stage just when their peculiar messages have been imperatively needed. When emergencies have come upon nations or races, the great leader or discerner of truth has suddenly appeared and been found at the front through a divine force of natural selection. Through evolutionary law, no less divine because evolutionary, supply and demand meet and satisfy each other. The crisis or dilemma always calls out the fitting instrument whose office is that of a way-shower. Prophecy may be simply defined as spiritual insight. As this is turned in an outward direction, it also interprets external conditions and clearly predicts their logical outcome.
The prophet, whether ancient or modern, is only the man of eminent interior development. He does not come by way of special or unique appointment, either human or on the part of the unchangeable Lawgiver, but as the result of higher development and conformity to law. To regard him as a special selection by God through an arbitrary choice, as was often believed, is entirely unwarranted. God has no favorites. But those who in eminent degree open themselves to his leading, and feel his presence in their souls receive corresponding endowment.
The great prophets of the Hebrew nation, such as Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah, with others of less prominence, were like a series of beacon lights in a considerable period of darkness and spiritual declension. With the more distinctive prophetic power, they were patriots, philosophers, and ethical leaders. The teaching of Ezekiel was peculiarly through symbolism, visions, psychological figures, and flowers of speech. All the prophetic characters were bold leaders in righteousness in the midst of an unresponsive or opposing environment. Mingled with their admonition and expostulation, were rich promise and optimism. Each bore aloft his high ideal for the people to whom he brought the divine message. Their prevision of the future was not that of any special and miraculous kind, which with exactitude foretells specific events, but rather, in general terms, they set forth the logical and inevitable outcome of qualitative life and conduct.
The prophet was an unconventional character. Misunderstood and unappreciated by his immediate associates, he was a stranger among his own people. He saw and described that which was beyond their range of vision, and to them was a dreamer and perhaps fanatic. Rarely was he permitted to witness his own final vindication. Persecution was often meted out to him by those who thought they were doing God a service. He lived for coming generations. The Prophet of Nazareth was the great Ideal and culmination of the Hebrew prophetic era.
The prophets of all ages are the world's heroes. Their utter unselfish devotion to truth, however unpopular, and their walk by faith rather than sight, set them apart as the choicest spirits of human history. They are sensitive souls, so attuned to spiritual laws that they can read clearly the "signs of the times." Verily they have their reward. Says an eminent writer on the prophets of Israel: "The whole history of humanity has produced nothing which can be compared in the remotest degree to the prophecy of Israel. Through prophecy, Israel became the prophet of mankind."
There is often an unwarranted inclination to read backward and to match events which have occurred or are expected, with the recorded words of some prophet. The cause of the event is not the fact that some prophet uttered something of which it may seem a fulfillment. This tendency was prevalent among the writers of the New Testament narratives. "That the prophecy might be fulfilled," was a frequent expression. Such is not the true interpretation of the prophetic spirit. It is not fatalistic. Even when seemingly specific it is based upon conditions. The many attempts which have been made to concretely resolve and apply the prolific symbolism of Daniel and Ezekiel to material events, past or to come, have proved uncertain and visionary. There is a prevalent insistence upon historic and outward interpretation rather than the purely spiritual illustration which is intended. While the Bible is full of subtle and mystical significance, and while many characters or events stand for some truth or principle, there is a strong tendency among a certain class of minds to make simple prophecy unduly cabalistic and occult. Religion has thus been burdened by many fanciful and material conclusions, which, without any good reason, have been drawn from prophetic symbolism of purely spiritual import. In the first chapter of the Acts there is recorded a prediction made by two men "in white apparel" that this Jesus "shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven." There are those who with the best of intent materialize this truth and insist that Jesus in flesh and blood is again literally to descend from the clouds and set up a kingly and physical reign, and they are anxiously looking for the time. Is heaven in the nearby clouds and sky? Jesus said (Luke xvii, 20-21), "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, There! for lo, the kingdom of God is within you." Also in the last verse of the last chapter of Matthew, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." The spiritual Jesus (Christ) is continually coming in the consciousness of his followers.
It was the object of the prophets, from the least unto the greatest, to teach the truth simply, rather than to mystify it. But Oriental metaphor and simile were the necessary modes of teaching for a people whose habit of thought and expression was essentially symbolic and poetic. Graceful and elastic flowers of speech when frozen into rigid western prose often become misleading.
No two of the prophets of the Old Testament were very like, and there was no sameness in their messages. The "Word of the Lord," of each, was colored or humanized by temperament, environment and idiosyncrasy. The utterance of the prophet was free, so that he was not a mechanical mouthpiece. While he was spiritually independent, there was no radical impairment of the real message. Each preacher of righteousness received the divine "white stone" of truth, in which his own name was written in secret, and he found in due time some who gladly received his tidings.
After the days of the greatest Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and Hosea, who appeared during or about the eighth century B.C., vital religion declined and formalism and ceremony prevailed. The letter of religion killed its spirit. When Jesus the supreme Prophet came, ceremonialism was universal, and the prophet was practically extinct. For four hundred years no prophet worthy of the name had arisen in Israel, and only the lower phase of priesthood prevailed. Mere ritual had become fully idolized.
But the hard crust was to be broken up, and religion, from being "a valley of dry bones," clothed with spirit and life. The gospel of the Christ was to burst the bonds of the Hebrew race, to emerge from national limitation and be potentially opened up to all humanity. Jesus sowed the seed of the new gospel, and Paul scattered it through all the then known civilized world.
The prophet, modern as well as ancient, is the hope of the world. Through him divine truth is to be shaped to human need and to "leaven the whole lump” of mankind.