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Religion New-Given - Part 3

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

To rivet the attention on the indications of personal religion furnished by the Old Testament ; to take the humble, inward, and suffering ' servant of God' of the prophets, and to elevate this as the Messiah, the seed of Abraham and of David, in whom all nations should be blessed, whose throne should be as the days of heaven, who should redeem his people and restore the kingdom to Israel,—was a work of the highest originality. It cannot, as we have seen, be said, that by the suffering servant of God, and by the triumphant Messiah, the prophets themselves meant one and the same person. But language of hope and aspiration, such as theirs, is in its very nature malleable. Criticism may and must deter-mine what the original speakers seem to have directly meant. But the very nature of their language justifies any powerful and fruitful application of it ; and every such application may be said, in the words of popular religion, to have been lodged there from the first by the spirit of God. Certainly it was a. somewhat violent exegetical proceeding, to fuse together into one personage Daniel's Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven, the first Isaiah's `Branch out of the root of Jesse,' who should smite the earth with the rod of his mouth and reign in glory and peace and righteousness, and the second Isaiah's meek and afflicted Servant of God charged with the precious message of a golden future ;— to fuse together in one these three by no means identical personages ; to add to them the sacrificial lamb of the pass-over and of the temple-service, which was constantly before a Jew's eyes ; to add, besides, the Prophet like to himself whom Moses promised to the children of Israel to add, further, the Holy One of Israel and Redeemer, who for the prophets was the Eternal himself; and then to say, that the combination thence resulting was the Messiah or Christ whom all the prophets had meant and predicted, and that Jesus was this Messiah. To us, who have been formed and fashioned by a theology whose set purpose is to efface all the difficulties in such a combination, and to make it received easily and unhesitatingly, it may appear natural. In itself, and with the elements of which it is composed viewed singly and impartially, it cannot but be pronounced violent.

But the elements in question have their chief use and value, we repeat, not as objects of criticism ; they belong of right to whoever can best possess himself of them for practice and edification. Simply of the Son of Man coming in the clouds, of the Branch of Jesse smiting the earth with the rod of his mouth, slaying the wicked with his breath, and re-establishing in unexampled splendour David's king. dom, nothing could be made. With such a Messiah filling men's thoughts and hopes, the real defects of Israel still remained, because these chiefly proceeded from Israel's making his religion too much a national and social affair, too little a personal affair. But a Messiah who did not strive nor cry, who was oppressed and afflicted without opening his mouth, who worked inwardly, obscurely, and patiently, yet failed not nor was discouraged until his doctrine made its way and transformed the world,—this was the Messiah whom Israel needed, and in whom the lost greatness of Israel could be restored and culminate. For the true greatness of Israel was righteousness; and only by an inward personal religion could the sense revive of what righteousness really was,—revive in Israel and bear fruit for the world.

Instead, then, of ' the Root of Jesse who should set up an ensign for the nations and assemble the outcasts of Israel," Jesus Christ took from prophecy and made pre-eminent `the Servant whom man despiseth and the people abhorreth,' but who bringeth good tidings, who publisheth peace, publisheth salvation.' And instead of saying like the prophets : ` This people must mend, this nation must do so and so, Israel must follow such and such ways,' Jesus took the individual Israelite by himself apart, made him listen for the voice of his con-science, and said to him in effect : ` If every one would mend one, we should have a new world.' So vital for the Jews was this change of character in their religion, that the Old Testament abounds, as we have said, in pointings and approximations to it ; and most truly might Jesus Christ say to his followers, that many prophets and righteous men had desired, though unavailingly, to see the things which they, the disciples, saw and heard.

The desire felt by pious Israelites for some new aspect of religion such as Jesus Christ presented, is, undoubtedly, the best proof of its timeliness and salutariness. Perhaps New Testament evidence to prove the workings of this desire may be received with suspicion, as having arisen after the event and when the new ideal of the Christ had become established. Otherwise, John the Baptist's characterisation of the Messiah as ` the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world,' and the bold Messianic turn given in the twelfth. chapter of St. Matthew to the prophecy there quoted from the forty-second chapter of Isaiah, would be evidence of the highest importance. ' A bruised reed breaketh he not,' says Isaiah of the meek servant and messenger of God, `and a glimmering wick quencheth he not ; he declareth judgment with truth ; far lands wait for his doctrine.' I `A bruised reed shall he not break,' runs the passage in St. Matthew, ` and smoking flax shall he not quench, until he send forth judgment unto victory : in his name shall the Gentiles trust.' The words, until he send forth judgment unto victory, words giving a clear Messianic stamp to the personage described, are neither in the original Hebrew nor in the Greek of the Septuagint. Where did the Gospel-writer find them ? If, as is possible, they were in some version then extant, they prove in a striking way the existence and strength of the aspiration which Jesus Christ satisfied by transforming the old popular ideal of the Messiah. But there are in any case signs of the existence of such an aspiration, since a Jewish commentator, contemporary, probably, with the Christian era, but not himself a Christian, assigns to this very prophecy a Messianic intention. And, indeed, the rendering of the final words, in his name shall the Gentiles trust, which is in the Greek of the Septuagint as well as in that of St. Matthew, shows a similar leaning in the Jews of Alexandria some two centuries before Christ.

Signs there are then, without doubt, of others, besides Jesus Christ, trying to identify the Messiah of popular Jewish hope,—the triumphant Root of David, the mystic Son of Man, —with an ideal of meekness, inwardness, patience, and self-denial. And well might reformers try to effect this identification, for the true line of Israel's progress lay through it ! But not he who tries makes an epoch, but he who effects ; a These words are imported from an undoubtedly Messianic passage, the famous prediction of the 'rod out of the stem of Jesse' in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah. Compare, in the Septuagint, Is., xi, to, with Is., xlii,and the identification which was needed Jesus Christ effected. Henceforth the true Israelite was, undoubtedly, he who allied himself with this identification ; who perceived its incomparable fruitfulness, its continuance of the real tradition of Israel, its correspondence with the ruling idea of the Hebrew spirit : Through righteousness to happiness ! or, in Bible-words : To him that ordereth his conversation right shall be shown the salvation of God!' That the Jewish nation at large, and its rulers, refused to accept the identification, shows simply that want of power to penetrate through wraps and appearances to the essence of things, which the majority of mankind always display. The national and social character of their theocracy was everything to the Jews, and they could see no blessings in a revolution which annulled it.

It has often been remarked that the Puritans are like the Jews of the Old Testament ; and Mr. Fronde thinks he defends the Puritans by saying that they, like the Jews of the Old Testament, had their hearts set on a theocracy, on a fashioning of politics and society to suit the government of God. How strange that he does not perceive that he thus passes, and with justice, the gravest condemnation on the Puritans as followers of Jesus Christ ! At the Christian era the time had passed, in religion, for outward adaptations of this kind, and for all care about establishing or abolishing them. The time had come for inwardness and self-reconstruction,—a time to last till the self-reconstruction is fully achieved. It was the error of the Jews that they did not perceive this ; and the old error of the Jews the Puri-tans, without the Jews' excuse, faithfully repeated. And the blunder of both had the same cause,—a want of tact to perceive what is really most wanted for the attainment of their own professed ideal, the reign of righteousness,

When Jesus appeared, his disciples were those who did not make this blunder. They were, in general, simple souls, without pretensions which Jesus Christ's new religious ideal cut short, or self-consequence which it mortified. And any Israelite who was, on the one hand, not warped by personal pretensions and self-consequence, and on the other, not dull of feeling and gross of life like the common multitude, might well be open to the spell which, after all, was the great confirmation of Christ's religion, as it was the great confirmation of the original religion of Israel,—the spell of its happiness. ' Be glad, O ye righteous, and rejoice in the Eternal,'--the old and lost prerogative of Israel,—Christianity offered to make again a living and true word to him.

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