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Christianity and Pre-Christian
“God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time
past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days
spoken unto us by His Son."—HEBREWS i. 1, 2. “The Word became flesh.”—John i. 14.
MAKING up the subject where we left it in the
last sermon, let us, before considering the Incarnation, look for a moment at the Jewish faith. Lying at. its root is the idea that the human race is one, in origin and end,—one because of its dependence upon a God who loveth righteousness. Both accounts of the creation which we find in the Book of Genesis agree in asserting emphatically that man is not merely the creature, but the child of the Creator. In
the first account, we read that man was made in the divine image. In the account given in the second chapter, it is said that man's soul was the breath of God. And as the race was one in origin, so the Jews thought it was one in end. They believed in the gradual and universal restoration of the divine image, which had been effaced by sin. From the time of Abraham to Malachi, a period of not less than fifteen hundred years, we find among this ancient people an almost unbroken succession of spiritual seers, such as has no parallel in the world's history, who were constantly exhorting their fellow-countrymen to the practice of righteousness, and reminding them of a time when it would be completely victorious and absolutely universal.
You remember the history of the Jewish Church. It was founded by Abraham, who was not undeservedly called the Father of the Faithful. In obedience to what he felt to be a divine command, he set at nought the authority of tradition, gave up the worship of Moloch, and separated himself from his idolatrous countrymen, convinced that in so doing he was initiating a faith which would transform the world, and that in him should all the families of the earth be blessed. Three centuries later, when the de
scendants of Abrahain had grown into a nation, Moses instituted for them an elaborate ceremonial law; and soon afterwards we find legal observances taking the place of real goodness, and the fear of judicial punishment supplanting the horror of sin. This tendency it was the constant effort of the prophets to counteract. They were continually pointing out the hollowness and worthlessness of mere ceremonialism. “I hate and despise your feast-days. Though ye offer me burnt-offerings and meat-offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let justice run down as water, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil ? What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God ?” “ The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart.”
There are two striking characteristics of Judaism at its best. The first is a passionate enthusiasm for righteousness. “Other nations,” it has been well said, “had the idea ; but to feel it enough to make the world feel it, it was necessary to be possessed with it. It is not enough
to have been visited by such an idea at times— to have had it occasionally forced upon one's mind by the teaching of experience. No! ‘he that hath the bride is the bridegroom. The idea belongs to him who has most loved it. Common prudence can say, Honesty is the best policy. But Israel and the Bible are filled with religious joy.” “O Lord, what love have I unto thy law; all the day long is my study in it. Thy testimonies are the joy of my heart. Thou shalt teach them to thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou' risest up. Thou shalt write them on the table of thine heart.” Righteousness they regarded as the very essence of religion. To fear the Lord was to depart from evil. This was understanding, this was wisdom. This was the best possession, “She is more precious than rubies; and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. Take fast hold of her; let her not go; keep her; for she is thy life.” To this very day, whoever would be a lover of righteousness must still derive much of his inspiration from the writings of those Hebrew psalmists and seers.'
Another very striking characteristic of the
Jewish faith was a vivid realisation of the presence of a personal God. Matthew Arnold is doubtless right in saying that they had no metaphysical notions of the Deity—that they could not, for example, have composed the Athanasian Creed. But assuredly he is greatly mistaken when he asserts that by God they merely meant the stream of tendency by which things fulfil the law of their being, or the enduring power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness. Such conceptions of God -- which, by the way, are far more abstrusely. metaphysical than personality,
—such conceptions would never have called forth those outbursts of religious emotion which we find in the Old Testament. “ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures : he leadeth me beside the still waters. . . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.” “ As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." No man could ever speak in this way of what he regarded as a mere stream of tendency.
In the next sermon we shall notice what were the radical deficiencies of Judaism, and how they were corrected by Christianity. Meanwhile the