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Dissertation Fifteenth.


Ezekiel 18:1

THE proverb of the fathers eating sour grapes and the children’s teeth being set on edge, requires a few remarks, in consequence of the conjectures of some modern writers on sacred subjects. Andrew Norton, in his elaborate notes on “The Genuineness of the Gospels,” 375375     Vol 2, page 140. has attempted to show a discrepancy between Ezekiel and the Pentateuch. He compares this proverb with the language of Exodus, Exodus 20, where God is said to visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children; he then quotes the Talmud as objecting to Ezekiel’s prophecies, as contradictory to the Pentateuch and thus he insinuates that the two passages cannot be reconciled. If this be so, it is further implied that the Divine authority of either Exodus or Ezekiel is doubtful. But there seems no reason to conclude these two passages to be contradictory. The circumstances under which they were spoken give the tone and meaning to each. Moses enunciates a general law of God’s moral government, which we see carried out every day before our eyes. Let the parent of a family, by honest industry and religious conduct acquire for himself the esteem and respect of his fellow-men, then it follows by an established law of God’s providence, that his family gain honorable advantages by their parent’s reputation. But let a parent by intemperance and dishonesty bring disgrace and poverty on himself, and it is equally a law of providential government that his children will suffer by his misconduct. The wickedness of the father will often fall dreadfully on his unconscious offspring. This is an undeviating, an irreversible law applicable at all times, and daily operating before us in ten thousand instances. But the Jews attempted to excuse their own sins by throwing them on their fathers. The generation which Ezekiel addressed were personally blameworthy; the language of this passage was theirs it is the language of a false excuse — an attempt to charge the Almighty with unfairness, that they might throw the blame from themselves. No argument, then, can be drawn from its occurrence contrary to the Divine authority of the Pentateuch. Ezekiel records the language and chastises it, thereby upholding the authority of the law, and vindicating rather than destroying the unity of the Divine records. The destruction to be received from the chapter has been well pointed out by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, in his “Apostolic Preaching.” — Sixth edit., page 69.

A translation of a work: of the Professor of Biblical Criticism at Heidelberg having been published in London, it becomes desirable to notice the result of his critical labors on this chapter of our Prophet. G. L. Bauer, in his “Theologie des alten Testaments,” has the following comment “The whole book of Ezekiel is an illustration of the Judaic belief, that Jehovah is the King and Governor of his people Israel. He rewards and punishes them: blesses them with prosperity, and afflicts them with adversity. Ezekiel teaches (in direct opposition to the Mosaic doctrine that God will visit the sins of the fathers. upon the children unto the third and fourth generation), that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father that moral conduct will ensure to the individual length of days that the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him, and that the soul that shineth he shall die. The eighteenth chapter is the most beautiful and the most useful in the book, but it has reference exclusively to God’s conduct towards his own people.” Here we have the usual mixture of Neologian wisdom and folly. There is no real contrast between Moses and this Prophet. Moses states a general law of God’s moral government of mankind, and Ezekiel protests against an abuse of that doctrine. The Jews of his day wished to throw all the blame on their fathers, and to charge the Almighty with unfairness in punishing’ them for the faults of their ancestors. They forgot their own personal share in rebellion against the Most high. Nor is it the slightest objection that “it has reference exclusively to God’s conduct towards his own people.” Here the Jews are specially addressed, and the principle is readily applicable to all mankind as soon as it is shown that they are under similar relations to the Almighty as the Jews. The writer who cannot see how easily Moses and Ezekiel are reconciled has but very slight pretensions to occupy a divinity chair; he may make hasty assertions, and give shrewd guesses; but his opinion thought to be well weighed before it is reckoned either valuable or trustworthy. Bauer’s criticisms on various passages of this Prophet are by no means so objectionable as those on the other Old Testament writers; though he is open to the charge of exercising that “fertile imagination” 376376     See Edit. London. Eng. trans., page 125. which he brings so irreverently against Ezekiel.

A question of still larger import arises naturally out of their own defense of this eighteenth chapter; namely, what degree of authority have the laws of the Old Covenant over us, the children of the New? If, on the one hand, the reasonings of Professor Norton, as contained in the notes to his second volume of his “Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels” are unsound, the following assertion of a writer, in reply to the Queen’s Professor of Modern History at Cambridge is unwise — “One inspired declaration is all that is needed, and whether it be found in the Old Testament or in the New, is all one to us Christians; it is God’s word, and God’s word cannot deceive.” 377377     See a Pamphlet by the Revelation W. B. Hopkins, in reply to Sir James Stephen, LL.D., Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge, section 2, page 37. It is clear enough that the Old Testament is God’s word — but is it so to us? Is its authority the same “to us Christians” as that of the New? He who would avoid Judaizing must answer in the negative: he who best understands the nature of our New Covenant in Christ Jesus will destined carefully between the authority of the inspired records of the two covenants over the conscience of the disciples of the new kingdom of the heavens. When we speak of Holy Writ collectively, as contrasted with all uninspired compositions, it is emphatically the Word of God; but when we are attempting to define the relation in which each Testament separately stands to ourselves, we must not hastily adopt the mere popular language of the day. By doing so, we are unable to repel the assaults of the worldly wise, and are in danger of lowering the value of the Sacred Oracles in the eyes of the scientific inquirers of our times.

To the scholar who is acquainted with the difficulties which are reviewed by Professor Norton, the following observations will appear elementary; but as there are some simple-minded believers who may be perplexed by the specious arguments of the skeptic, a few remarks may be instructive. First of all, we should not treat the Old Testament as one book all written at the same time. It should be divided into various portions corresponding to the periods in which each book was written. The Pentateuch, for instance, should be studied separately from the Prophets; while the interval of nearly 1000 years, between the death of Moses and the visions of Ezekiel, should be constantly borne in mind. The Pentateuch, but not exactly as we have it, was the Word of God for Jews — its authority as a law to Christians was never admissible. St. Paul’s whole life was a protest against this going back again to Moses, instead of going forward to Christ. The ministration of death was exchanged for a dispensation of life while God’s moral law remains unchangeable, its authority rests on other grounds to us than the thunders of Sinai and the tables of stone. Thus, again, the prophetic announcements were direct and special for Israel and Judea; but they contain guidance and warning for us only when we are placed in a similar position morally before God. Ezekiel, for instance, is a watchman to us only so far as it can be shown that our sins, needs, and responsibilities are similar to those of the Hebrews. It must be uttered again and again that we are discipled into the New Covenant of which St. Paul was a chief herald unto us Gentiles; and our highest attainment is to stand fast in the liberty wherewith our Redeemer has made us free. Wherever there is a spiritual analogy between our state and that of the captives at Chebar, Ezekiel is for us; his stirring voice is for our reproof and destruction in righteousness; but wherever the difference of condition is so great that this analogy fails, then Ezekiel is only indirectly our monitor from heaven. The light from heaven is reflected directly upon us through Jesus and his Apostles, and only obliquely through Moses and the Prophets. 378378     See Augustine De Civit. Dei, lib. 18 chapter 38 page 836. Ed. Paris. 1838.

By the expression of this view of the value of the Old Testament to us, we do but give form and voice to the feelings which exist in the minds of many earnest and thoughtful Christians. They cannot receive all that is in the Old Testament as equally binding on them with what is revealed in the New. Their cannot sympathize with the antagonist of the Queen’s Professor of History: they feel that many proposed solutions of acknowledged difficulties are superficial and evasive rather than self-evident and satisfactory. Such obstacles are not necessarily connected with the Christian verities, they are not essential portions of our religion: we may safely confess ourselves ignorant of the true solution, without endangering a single particle of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” By upholding the Pentateuch as the Word of God to the Jews of former ages, we defend and enforce its inspiration and suitability for its original time and purpose; by treating the prophecies of the era of the Captivity as spoken originally to the people alive at the time, we vindicate the Divine inspiration of the Prophet, and we prepare our own minds to receive intelligently any indirect destruction which may be applicable to ourselves. The integrity of the Jewish canon is thus acknowledged and preserved, while we are free to inquire how far its sacred books are instructive for all times and all nations. The whole life and ministry of St. Paul taught one invariable truth on this important question, and its significant witness was clear and emphatic to our higher privileges and nobler aims under the New Covenant in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Ezekiel 18:8

The manner in which this subject is treated illustrates our remarks on the non-application of the Jewish law to Christian duties. Calvin is evidently at a loss how to distinguish between lawful and unlawful interest. He does not clearly say that one law was applicable to the Jew and another to us. Usury may be sinful, but not because it was forbidden to Israel of old. The comment on this verse is not based upon principles in accordance with the New Covenant. It may fairly be stated that this eighteenth chapter is not law to us; our duties depend upon another foundation. The law which is to decide what is “interest” and what “usury,” must rest upon the golden rule of doing unto others as we would that they should do unto us. If we be formed after the image of Christ, we shall educate conscience, and cultivate justice and mercy, and decide these points by a different standard from that of the Jewish law; and when Calvin states “in lege ea est perfectio ad quam nihil possit accedere,” he does not state the sense in which he uses ‘qege,” and seems to confine it to the Mosaic precepts. This instance is sufficient to show the true use which we are to make of the Old Testament, and to guard us against a misapplication of its statements.

A singular instance of the fallacy of applying the Old Testament directly to the events of the world in the present day occurs in the State Trials in the reign of James the Second. In the case of the East India Company 5 Sandys, a question arose respecting the right of the King’s subjects to trade with nations eastward of the Cape of Good Hope without the King’s license. Holt, afterwards the celebrated Chief-Justice, argued his point with more, zeal than discretion. He gravely cites the doctrine of Lord Coke, that “infidels are perpetual enemies;” and then, in the same breath, quotes the book of Judges, to show by analogy, that as the Jews were restrained from merchandise with the Canaanites, so Christians thought to be restricted in their dealings with Pagans. 379379     See State Trials, 10, 519, and Lord Campbell’s Lives of the Chief-Justices, volume 2 page 126. One instance out of many may suffice to remind us, that the assumption that Christians are in all cases to act according to God’s commands to the Jews, is the bashes of modern Judaism; and the frequency of such reasonings, though supported at times by the writings of some of our venerable Reformers, calls loudly for the voice of another Paul to proclaim, “Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made you free.”

The imprudent manner in which some commentators have connected the incidents of the Old Testament with the doctrine of the New is readily illustrated by a passage in the first epistle to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome. In quoting the narrative of Rahab receiving the spies before the destruction of Jericho, he adverts to their suggesting the hanging out a scarlet thread from her house, and then adds directly, “making: it manifest that by the blood of the Lord redemption shall be to all those who believe and trust upon God. You see then, beloved, that there was not only faith, but prophecy in the woman.” 380380     See Wotton’s Edit., 1718, Cantab., chapter 12 page 54. if this method of illustration be considered allegorical, and as only suggestive of a remote comparison, it is tolerable; but if it be intended to imply any typical connection between the accident of the scarlet color and the redemption through Messiah, it is irreverent and inappropriate in the extreme. The learned Wotton defends Clement by the example of his master, Paul, and quotes Justin Martyr, who treats the same event “as a symbol of the blood of Christ.” 381381     Dial. cum Tryphone. Guided by such illustrious names, the Reformers often adopted the same “spiritualizing” system. The sounder and soberer criticism of later days has instructed us not to adopt the imaginations of men as if they were inseparably bound up with the supreme word of God. The following extract is worthy of notice, as illustrating the principles for which we contend: —

“The same freedom of thought [as that of Luther] on topics not strictly theological formed a prominent feature in the character of Calvin. A curious instance of it occurs in one of his letters, 382382     See also his views expressed in his Tracts. where he discussed an ethical question of no small moment in the science of political economy, ‘How far it is consistent with morality to accept of interest for a pecuniary loan?’ On this question, which, even in Protestant countries, continued till a very recent period to divide the opinions both of divines and Lawyers, Calvin treats the authority of Aristotle and that of the Church with equal disregard. To the former he opposes a close and logical argument not unworthy of Mr. Bentham: to the latter he replies, by showing that the Mosaic law on this point, was not a moral, but a municipal prohibition — a prohibition not to be judged of from any particular text of Scripture, but upon the principles of natural equity.” 383383     Prof. Dugald Stewart’s Preliminary Dissertation to the Encyc. Britt.


Ezekiel 18:20

In this and the following verses Calvin pronounces rather too dogmatically upon matters which are beyond human comprehension. He strives to reconcile statements apparently contradictory, and in doing so enunciates principles which cannot be positively determined. For instance, the will of an infant, before its birth, is said to be “perverse and rebellious against God,” Ezekiel 18:20. Although we are reminded (Ezekiel 18:23) that God’s secret counsels are inscrutable to us, yet the assertion is hazarded that he “has devoted the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish.” Some effort is made to reconcile the freeness of this will with the certainty of the destruction the knot is said to be “easily untied;” but the experience of nearly three centuries has proved that these exciting disputes have not been satisfactorily settled: they are still what they are called in Ezekiel 18:25, “perplexing and thorny questions,” and must remain so till the promise is accomplished, that faith shall be exchanged for sight. It does not seem desirable to enter upon these abstruse points when commenting upon a Hebrew Prophet: the revelation to Ezekiel was far different in its subject-matter from that to St. Paul: there is no necessity for supposing either that the evangelical doctrines were fully made known to the Prophets, or that their language is verbally binding upon us — the offspring of the far-off Gentiles.

In these “Dissertations” we only venture to suggest some general principles of correct interpretation, and to point out some errors into which our Reformer has fallen, partly through the infirmity natural to man, and partly through the philosophical systems and the false divinity current in his times. While he so evidently surpassed his own age in stern and devoted piety, and avoided the fanciful conjectures in which many of the Reformers indulged; Calvin is at times open to the charge of teaching dogmatically questions which have never been decided by Revelation. Let us bear with him on this point, while we profit by his judicious and instructive lectures; remembering that within the fringes of his shadow his modern revilers are not worthy to tread.

Another instance of perplexity occurs in Ezekiel 20:39. The “Indecision” refers to the decree of the Emperor Charles V. called “The Interim.” Calvin’s hatred of it was sincere but injudicious. It was a first step to better things. See Mosheim, cent. 16 sect. 1, and the authorities quoted in Maclaine’s note.

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