We enter, now, dear reader, on the field of prophecy; a vast and important one, whether in view of the moral instruction that it contains, or on account of the great events that are announced in it, or through its development of God’s government, and, by this means, its revelation of that which He Himself is in His ways with men. Jehovah and His dealings, and the Messiah, shine through the whole. Israel always forms the inner circle, or chief platform, on which these dealings are developed, and with which the Messiah is immediately in relation. Outside of, and behind this, the nations are gathered, instruments and objects of the judgments of God, and finally, the subjects of His universal government made subject to the Messiah, who however will assert His especial claim to Israel as His own people.
It is evident that the assembly and the Christian’s individual place is outside this whole scene. In it there is neither Jew nor Gentile; in it the Father knows the objects of His eternal election, as His beloved children; and Christ, glorified on high, knows it as His body and His bride. Prophecy treats of the earth, and of the government of God. For after personal salvation is settled, there are two great subjects in scripture, the government of this world, and the sovereign grace which has taken poor sinners and put them into the same place as God’s own Son as the exalted man, and as adopted into sonship— the divine glory, and that in Christ, being of course the centre of all. If we measure things not by our importance, but by the importance of the manifestation of God, whatever develops His ways as unfolded in His government will have much importance in our eyes. There can be no doubt that the assembly, and the individual Christian, are a still more elevated subject, because God has there displayed the whole secret of His eternal love, and deepest present divine affections. But if we remember that it is not only the sphere of action that is in question, but He who acts therein, the dealings of God with Israel and the earth will then assume their true importance in our eyes. And these are the subjects of prophecy. For the others we must specially look to Paul and John.
This portion of the word is divided into two parts. The prophecies that refer to Israel during the time that Israel is owned of God, and consequently that concern the future glory also, form one part. The other consists of those prophecies which make known that which happens during God’s rejection of His people, but which make it known in view of the final blessing of this very people. This distinction flows from the fact that the throne of God, sitting between the cherubim, has been taken away from Jerusalem, and the dominion of the earth committed to the Gentiles. The period of this dominion is called “the times of the Gentiles.” The former class of prophecies applies to that which precedes and that which is subsequent to this period. The latter refers to this period itself. There is a moment of transition, during which the restoration of the people is in question, when the end of the times of the Gentiles draws near—a moment especially in view in those prophecies which relate to this period, and to which the psalms, as we have seen, largely apply, connecting it with the first coming of the Lord and His rejection by the Jews. As He says, “Ye shall not see me henceforth till ye say, Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” But the general history of the period itself is given in diverse forms. The interval between the return from the Babylonish captivity and the coming of Jesus has a special character. For the Gentiles had the dominion; and nevertheless Judah was at Jerusalem expecting the Messiah. God favoured His people with the testimony of prophets, who addressed themselves especially to this state of things, namely, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Their prophecies have consequently an especial character, suited to the position in which the people are then found and to God’s ways towards them.
There is another prophet who holds a peculiar place, that is, Jonah. His was the last testimony addressed immediately to the Gentiles, to shew that God still bore them in mind, and governed all things supremely, although He had already called Israel to be a separate people unto Himself.78
Christ is the centre of all these prophecies, whatever their character may be. It is the Spirit of Christ that speaks in them. One of the two divisions I have mentioned is of much greater extent than the other. Daniel alone in the Old Testament gives us the detail of “the times of the Gentiles,” with the exception of some particular revelations in Zechariah. There is a very striking difference between the two classes of prophecies. That which belongs to the time when Israel is acknowledged is addressed to the people, to their conscience and to their heart. That which gives the history of “the times of the Gentiles,” while it is a revelation for the people, is not addressed to them. In the books of the three prophets who prophesied after the captivity, neither Israel nor Judah is ever called the people of God, except in promises for the future, when the Messiah will re-establish blessing.
There is yet another principle, simple but important to our understanding of the prophets. Whatever figures the Spirit of God may use in depicting the ways of God or those of the enemy, the subject of the prophecy is never a figure. I am not speaking of those prophecies in which all is symbol; this remark could not be applied to them. Moreover a symbol is not the same thing as a figure. It is a collection of the moral or historical qualities, or of both, which belong to the prophetic object, in order to present God’s idea of that object. Certain elements which compose this symbol may be figures; but the symbol itself, correctly speaking, is not a figure, but a striking whole, made up of the qualities that morally compose the thing described. Accordingly nothing is more instructive than a well-understood symbol. It is the perfect idea which God gives us of the way in which He looks upon the object represented by the symbol—His view of its moral character.
Let us now consider the writings of the prophets.
78 The character of this prophet in other respects will be considered hereafter.