« Prev 2. From Samuel to Elisha. Next »

2. From Samuel to Elisha.

Of the oldest order of Hebrew prophecy, Samuel was the last representative. Till his time, we are told, the prophet in Israel was known as the Seer,3232   1 Sam. ix. 9. but now, with other tempers and other habits, a new order appears, whose name—and that means to a certain extent their spirit—is to displace the older name and the older spirit.

When Samuel anointed Saul he bade him, for a sign that he was chosen of the Lord, go forth to meet a company of prophets—Nebi'îm, the singular is Nabi'—coming down from the high place or sanctuary with viols, drums and pipes, and prophesying. There, he added, the spirit of Jehovah shall come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. So it happened; and the people said one to another, What is this that is come to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?3333   1 Sam. x. 1-16, xi. 1-11, 15. Chap. x. 17-27, xi. 12-14, belong to other and later documents. Cf. Robertson Smith, Old Testament in the Jewish Church, 135 ff. Another story, probably from another source, tells us that later, when Saul sent troops of messengers to the sanctuary at Ramah to take David, they saw the company of prophets prophesying and Samuel standing appointed over them,21 and the spirit of God fell upon one after another of the troops; as upon Saul himself when he followed them up. And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?3434   1 Sam. xix. 20-24.

All this is very different from the habits of the Seer, who had hitherto represented prophecy. He was solitary, but these went about in bands. They were filled with an infectious enthusiasm, by which they excited each other and all sensitive persons whom they touched. They stirred up this enthusiasm by singing, playing upon instruments, and dancing: its results were frenzy, the tearing of their clothes, and prostration. The same phenomena have appeared in every religion—in Paganism often, and several times within Christianity. They may be watched to-day among the dervishes of Islam, who by singing (as one has seen them in Cairo), by swaying of their bodies, by repeating the Divine Name, and dwelling on the love and ineffable power of God, work themselves into an excitement which ends in prostration and often in insensibility.3535   What seemed most to induce the frenzy of the dervishes whom I watched was the fixing of their attention upon, the yearning of their minds after, the love of God. "Ya habeebi!"—"O my beloved!"—they cried. The whole process is due to an overpowering sense of the Deity—crude and unintelligent if you will, but sincere and authentic—which seems to haunt the early stages of all religions, and to linger to the end with the stagnant and unprogressive. The appearance of this prophecy in Israel has given rise to a controversy as to whether it was purely a22 native product, or was induced by infection from the Canaanite tribes around. Such questions are of little interest in face of these facts: that the ecstasy sprang up in Israel at a time when the spirit of the people was stirred against the Philistines, and patriotism and religion were equally excited; that it is represented as due to the Spirit of Jehovah; and that the last of the old order of Jehovah's prophets recognised its harmony with his own dispensation, presided over it, and gave Israel's first king as one of his signs, that he should come under its power. These things being so, it is surprising that a recent critic3636   Cornill, in the first of his lectures on Der Israelitische Prophetismus, one of the very best popular studies of prophecy, by a master on the subject. See p. 73 n. should have seen in the dancing prophets nothing but eccentrics into whose company it was shame for so good a man as Saul to fall. He reaches this conclusion only by supposing that the reflexive verb used for their prophesyinghithnabbē'—had at this time that equivalence to mere madness to which it was reduced by the excesses of later generations of prophets. With Samuel we feel that the word had no reproach: the Nebi'îm were recognised by him as standing in the prophetical succession. They sprang up in sympathy with a national movement. The king who joined himself to them was the same who sternly banished from Israel all the baser forms of soothsaying and traffic with the dead. But, indeed, we need no other proof than this: the name Nebi'îm so establishes itself in the popular regard that it displaces the older names of Seer and Gazer, and becomes the classical term for the whole body of prophets from Moses to Malachi.


There was one very remarkable change effected by this new order of prophets, probably the very greatest relief which prophecy experienced in the course of its evolution. This was separation from the ritual and from the implements of soothsaying. Samuel had been both priest and prophet. But after him the names and the duties were specialised, though the specialising was incomplete. While the new Nebi'îm remained in connection with the ancient centres of religion, they do not appear to have exercised any part of the ritual. The priests, on the other hand, did not confine themselves to sacrifice and other forms of public worship, but exercised many of the so-called prophetic functions. They also, as Hosea tells us, were expected to give Tôrôth—revelations of the Divine will on points of conduct and order. There remained with them the ancient forms of oracle—the Ephod, or plated image, the Teraphim, the lot, and the Urim and Thummim,3737   It is now past doubt that these were two sacred stones used for decision in the case of an alternative issue. This is plain from the amended reading of Saul's prayer in 1 Sam. xiv. 41, 42 (after the LXX.): O Jehovah God of Israel, wherefore hast Thou not answered Thy servant this day? If the iniquity be in me or in Jonathan my son, O Jehovah God of Israel, give Urim: and if it be in Thy people Israel, give, I pray Thee, Thummim. all of these apparently still regarded as indispensable elements of religion.3838   Hosea iii. 4. See next chapter, p. 38. From such rude forms of ascertaining the Divine Will, prophecy in its new order was absolutely free. And it was free of the ritual of the sanctuaries. As has been justly remarked, the ritual of Israel always remained a peril to the people, the peril of relapsing into Paganism. Not only did it materialise faith and engross affections in the worshipper which were meant for moral objects, but very many of its24 forms were actually the same as those of the other Semitic religions, and it tempted its devotees to the confusion of their God with the gods of the heathen. Prophecy was now wholly independent of it, and we may see in such independence the possibility of all the subsequent career of prophecy along moral and spiritual lines. Amos absolutely condemns the ritual, and Hosea brings the message from God, I will have mercy and not sacrifice. This is the distinctive glory of prophecy in that era in which we are to study it. But do not let us forget that it became possible through the ecstatic Nebi'îm of Samuel's time, and through their separation from the national ritual and the material forms of soothsaying. It is the way of Providence to prepare for the revelation of great moral truths, by the enfranchisement, sometimes centuries before, of an order or a nation of men from political or professional interests which would have rendered it impossible for their descendants to appreciate those truths without prejudice or compromise.

We may conceive then of these Nebi'îm, these prophets, as enthusiasts for Jehovah and for Israel. For Jehovah—if to-day we see men cast by the adoration of the despot-deity of Islam into transports so excessive that they lose all consciousness of earthly things and fall into a trance, can we not imagine a like effect produced on the same sensitive natures of the East by the contemplation of such a God as Jehovah, so mighty in earth and heaven, so faithful to His people, so full of grace? Was not such an ecstasy of worship most likely to be born of the individual's ardent devotion in the hour of the nation's despair?3939   Cf. Deut. xxviii. 34. Of course there would be swept up by such a movement all the more25 volatile and unbalanced minds of the day—as these always have been swept up by any powerful religious excitement—but that is not to discredit the sincerity of the main volume of the feeling nor its authenticity as a work of the Spirit of God, as the impression of the character and power of Jehovah.

But these ecstatics were also enthusiasts for Israel; and this saved the movement from morbidness. They worshipped God neither out of sheer physical sympathy with nature, like the Phœnician devotees of Adonis or the Greek Bacchantes; nor out of terror at the approaching end of all things, like some of the ecstatic sects of the Middle Ages; nor out of a selfish passion for their own salvation, like so many a modern Christian fanatic; but in sympathy with their nation's aspirations for freedom and her whole political life. They were enthusiasts for their people. The ecstatic prophet was not confined to his body nor to nature for the impulses of Deity. Israel was his body, his atmosphere, his universe. Through it all he felt the thrill of Deity. Confine religion to the personal, it grows rancid, morbid. Wed it to patriotism, it lives in the open air and its blood is pure. So in days of national danger the Nebi'îm would be inspired like Saul to battle for their country's freedom; in more settled times they would be lifted to the responsibilities of educating the people, counselling the governors, and preserving the national traditions. This is what actually took place. After the critical period of Saul's time has passed, the prophets still remain enthusiasts; but they are enthusiasts for affairs. They counsel and they rebuke David.4040   2 Sam. xii. 1 ff. They warn Rehoboam, and they excite Northern Israel to revolt.4141   1 Kings xi. 29; xii. 22. They overthrow and they26 set up dynasties.4242   1 Kings xiv. 2, 7-11; xix. 15 f.; 2 Kings ix. 3 ff. They offer the king advice on campaigns.4343   1 Kings xxii. 5 ff.; 2 Kings iii. 11 ff. Like Elijah, they take up against the throne the cause of the oppressed;4444   1 Kings xxi. 1 ff. like Elisha, they stand by the throne its most trusted counsellors in peace and war.4545   2 Kings vi.-viii., etc. That all this is no new order of prophecy in Israel, but the developed form of the ecstasy of Samuel's day, is plain from the continuance of the name Nebi'îm and from these two facts besides: that the ecstasy survives and that the prophets still live in communities. The greatest figures of the period, Elijah and Elisha, have upon them the hand of the Lord, as the influence is now called: Elijah when he runs before Ahab's chariot across Esdraelon, Elisha when by music he induces upon himself the prophetic mood.4646   1 Kings xviii. 46; 2 Kings iii. 15. Another ecstatic figure is the prophet who was sent to anoint Jehu; he swept in and he swept out again, and the soldiers called him that mad fellow.4747   3 Kings ix. 11. Mad fellow, not necessarily a term of reproach. But the roving bands had settled down into more or less stationary communities, who partly lived by agriculture and partly by the alms of the people or the endowments of the crown.4848   1 Kings xviii. 4, cf. 19; 2 Kings ii. 3, 5; iv. 38-44; v. 20 ff.; vi. 1 ff.; viii. 8 f., etc. Their centres were either the centres of national worship, like Bethel and Gilgal, or the centres of government, like Samaria, where the dynasty of Omri supported prophets both of Baal and of Jehovah.4949   1 Kings xviii. 19; xxii. 6. They were called prophets, but also sons of the prophets, the latter name not because their office was hereditary, but27 by the Oriental fashion of designating every member of a guild as the son of the guild. In many cases the son may have succeeded his father; but the ranks could be recruited from outside, as we see in the case of the young farmer Elisha, whom Elijah anointed at the plough. They probably all wore the mantle which is distinctive of some of them, the mantle of hair, or skin of a beast.5050   So Elijah, 2 Kings i. 8: cf. John the Baptist, Matt. iii. 4.

The risks of degeneration, to which this order of prophecy was liable, arose both from its ecstatic temper and from its connection with public affairs.

Religious ecstasy is always dangerous to the moral and intellectual interests of religion. The largest prophetic figures of the period, though they feel the ecstasy, attain their greatness by rising superior to it. Elijah's raptures are impressive; but nobler are his defence of Naboth and his denunciation of Ahab. And so Elisha's inducement of the prophetic mood by music is the least attractive element in his career: his greatness lies in his combination of the care of souls with political insight and vigilance for the national interests. Doubtless there were many of the sons of the prophets who with smaller abilities cultivated a religion as rational and moral. But for the herd ecstasy would be everything. It was so easily induced or imitated that much of it cannot have been genuine. Even where the feeling was at first sincere we can understand how readily it became morbid; how fatally it might fall into sympathy with that drunkenness from wine and that sexual passion which Israel saw already cultivated as worship by the surrounding Canaanites. We must feel these dangers of ecstasy if we would28 understand why Amos cut himself off from the Nebi'îm, and why Hosea laid such emphasis on the moral and intellectual sides of religion: My people perish for lack of knowledge. Hosea indeed considered the degeneracy of ecstasy as a judgment: the prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad—for the multitude of thine iniquity.5151   Hosea ix. 7. A later age derided the ecstatics, and took one of the forms of the verb to prophesy as equivalent to the verb to be mad.5252   Jer. xxix. 26: Every man that is mad, and worketh himself into prophecy (מתנבא, the same form as is used without moral reproach in 1 Sam. x. 10 ff.).

But temptations as gross beset the prophet from that which should have been the discipline of his ecstasy—his connection with public affairs. Only some prophets were brave rebukers of the king and the people. The herd which fed at the royal table—four hundred under Ahab—were flatterers, who could not tell the truth, who said Peace, peace, when there was no peace. These were false prophets. Yet it is curious that the very early narrative which describes them5353   1 Kings xxii. does not impute their falsehood to any base motives of their own, but to the direct inspiration of God, who sent forth a lying spirit upon them. So great was the reverence still for the man of the spirit! Rather than doubt his inspiration, they held his very lies to be inspired. One does not of course mean that these consenting prophets were conscious liars; but that their dependence on the king, their servile habits of speech, disabled them from seeing the truth. Subserviency to the powerful was their great temptation. In the story of Balaam we see confessed the base instinct that he who paid the prophet29 should have the word of the prophet in his favour. In Israel prophecy went through exactly the same struggle between the claims of its God and the claims of its patrons. Nor were those patrons always the rich. The bulk of the prophets were dependent on the charitable gifts of the common people, and in this we may find reason for that subjection of so many of them to the vulgar ideals of the national destiny, to signs of which we are pointed by Amos. The priest at Bethel only reflects public opinion when he takes for granted that the prophet is a thoroughly mercenary character: Seer, get thee gone to the land of Judah; eat there thy bread, and play the prophet there!5454   Amos vii. 12. No wonder Amos separates himself from such hireling craftsmen!

Such was the course of prophecy up to Elisha, and the borders of the eighth century. We have seen how even for the ancient prophet, mere soothsayer though we might regard him in respect of the rude instruments of his office, there were present moral opportunities of the highest kind, from which, if he only proved true to them, we cannot conceive the Spirit of God to have been absent. In early Israel we are sure that the Spirit did meet such strong and pure characters, from Moses to Samuel, creating by their means the nation of Israel, welding it to a unity, which was not only political but moral—and moral to a degree not elsewhere realised in the Semitic world. We saw how a new race of prophets arose under Samuel, separate from the older forms of prophecy by lot and oracle, separate, too, from the ritual as a whole; and therefore free for a moral30 and spiritual advance of which the priesthood, still bound to images and the ancient rites, proved themselves incapable. But this new order of prophecy, besides its moral opportunities, had also its moral perils: its ecstasy was dangerous, its connection with public affairs was dangerous too. Again, the test was the personal character of the prophet himself. And so once more we see raised above the herd great personalities, who carry forward the work of their predecessors. The results are, besides the discipline of the monarchy and the defence of justice and the poor, the firm establishment of Jehovah as the one and only God of Israel, and the impression on Israel both of His omnipotent guidance of them in the past, and of a worldwide destiny, still vague but brilliant, which He had prepared for them in the future.

This brings us to Elisha, and from Elisha there are but forty years to Amos. During those forty years, however, there arose within Israel a new civilisation; beyond her there opened up a new world; and with Assyria there entered the resources of Providence, a new power. It was these three facts—the New Civilisation, the New World and the New Power—which made the difference between Elisha and Amos, and raised prophecy from a national to a universal religion.

« Prev 2. From Samuel to Elisha. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection