網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

reverent conceptions of the relation between God and his intelligent creation, we must take care not to be misled by this phraseology, into false or unworthy views.

A covenant is an agreement between two parties, in which promises are made, or obligations entered into, on the one side, and conditions are required to be fulfilled on the other. In this sense, it would seem, a covenant is described as having been established between God and Abraham, and his descendants through him. The Lord, we are told, made a covenant with the Jewish patriarch, in virtue of which the land of Canaan and other blessings were to be bestowed on him and his posterity, and he and they were required to obey the laws of God, and to observe certain practices as a pledge or seal on their part. In this representation, taken as a literal statement, it is obvious at first sight that there is something which does not harmonize with purely spiritual views of the Almighty, and of his connection with man. To conceive of Him as entering into a compact with an individual for certain purposes, just as men enter into formal agreements to bind one another to good faith, and to the fulfilment of their promises, seems incongruous with the elevated ideas we are taught to entertain of the Universal Father, as a Being who governs the world by the established laws of infinite Wisdom and unfailing Benevolence.

But is this way of speaking, the description of a literal fact? Is it not rather a mode of representing the process of the special providence of Jehovah, growing out of the very imperfect ideas, which prevailed in the earliest ages of the world, and transmitted by the usages of language to subsequent ages? It is difficult for us, without considerable effort, to apprehend the reality of the fact, that mankind have not always thought and spoken on religious subjects, as strong minds, 'illuminated by the broad light of Christianity, would teach us to think and speak at the present day. But it is very important that we should apprehend the reality of this fact, if we would not put such a construction on the language of the Bible, as to authorize false general views of religion. In order to arrive at true results, we must in some cases go back, in imagination, to a period of rudeness and ignorance, if not of barbarity. So in the instance before us, we must revert to a time, when the ideas of God, of his government and proceedings, seem to have been coarsely fashioned, as to their expression at least, from the doings and customs of men.

This mode of conception is indeed quite prevalent in the minds of the great mass of the community even at the present day, under the light of the

[ocr errors]

Gospel :-how much more common and deeply fixed must it have been, as a matter of course, in that rude infancy of the world, when men were disposed to think that God was "altogether such an one as themselves.”

Do we not find an illustration of this tendency in the subject now before us? The particular providence and special guidance of God, were directed towards the Jewish patriarch for a specific purpose. He was to be the founder of a family, the head of a nation, among whom the knowledge of the unity and the true worship of Jehovah, were to be preserved in the world. They were to be the channel, through which the elementary principles of a pure religion were to be conveyed, and diffused at length in a better form. Such, according to the nature of the ancient dispensation, was the fact. Now, how was this fact represented for the fact itself, and the mode of representing it, we must remember, are two quite different things. It was represented, probably by the patriarch himself; certainly it is by the historian, under the form or idea of a covenant, or compact. And this was very natural. It is doubtless a representation taken wholly from human things, and transferred to divine. But what else was to be expected? The Hebrew patriarch conceived things in heaven to resemble things on earth. As he himself was a prince, or emir, among men, such he might conceive Jehovah to be in the spiritual world, only with those larger powers, and that more exalted dignity, which belonged to his celestial nature;—and as he himself entered into agreements, or compacts, with the neighboring princes and emirs, or as one man would do this with another, so he might naturally enough represent God to his own mind, and to the minds of his family, as establishing a covenant with mutual pledges and promises, for a definite purpose. At that time, the ideas of divine justice and goodness were not sufficiently clear and supersensuous to rise to the abiding persuasion, that God, from the very nature of his unalterable attributes, would deal with men in faithfulness and mercy, without the engagements of a contract. suppose that the Hebrew father represented his relation to Jehovah in the spirit of his age, as it might be expected to have been represented in that rude state of religious knowledge and religious thought. His children would hear it spoken of as a covenant between two parties, by which the one was bound to bestow certain blessings, and the other to render certain services, or to observe certain signs of obedience; and this mode of speaking, or this figure, so naturally borrowed from human doings, might easily become the established and

We may

customary language of the chosen family. It was so, unquestionably, when this portion of the patriarch's history was recorded, probably by a more ancient writer than Moses, whose account was incorporated into the Mosaic narrative. When God is described as speaking on this and other subjects, I suppose few will be disposed to understand it literally;-his speaking is simply a conceived expression of the relation between Him and his people, according to the habitual notions of the time. It ought to be observed here, that our remarks do not at all invalidate the reality of the special providence and guidance of God, with regard to Abraham and his seed; they relate only to the mode in which that fact was represented.

The idea of a covenant between God and the venerated head of this family, being thus once established, seems to have become, and to have continued, a favorite idea among their descendants. We find it recurring in the history of Isaac and Jacob at a subsequent period. It appears again under the administration of Moses, especially in the solemn scene at Mount Sinai; and this profound legislator, inspired with the wisdom of heaven, availed himself of it to bind his people, in the bonds of fidelity and trust, to the God of their fathers. In the later periods of the Jewish history, it occurs frequently, when their prophets and public teachers made use of it to impress on the minds of the nation a strong and deep sense of their obligation to be true to Jehovah. Thus the mode of representing the relation between God and their ancestor, which had its origin in ancient times, was extended in its use and significance during the whole history of that peculiar people.

From this brief sketch of the origin and continued application of the idea of a covenant in the religious dispensation of the Jews, it will appear that the notion could probably have sprung up only in a period of rudeness and ignorance, when the prevalent conceptions of God and of his attributes were very inadequate, and borrowed from earthly things. It bears upon it the marks of such an origin, and could scarcely have been found in a community, whose minds had been disciplined to spiritual and elevated views of the Almighty Ruler of the Universe. As a figurative representation of the relations between Jehovah and the Jewish nation, it was doubtless adapted to act with powerful efficacy at a period, when more worthy and just views could hardly, if at all, find access to their minds. But if taken in a literal sense, as descriptive of an actual compact between God and his creatures, it is manifestly defective and unworthy; for, on the one hand, it represents our Heavenly Father as bound to bestow blessings in consequence of an explicit agreement,—and this is a statement which enlightened reason instinctively rejects;—and on the other, it makes duties to God rest, so to speak, on a contract, instead of resulting, as they must, from the very nature of our condition, and from the obligation involved essentially in the connection between the finite and the infinite, between the creature and the Creator.

Among the Jewish people, one unhappy effect at least resulted from the abuse of this notion. It strengthened, if it did not create, that feeling of exclusiveness, which became so deeply interwoven in their national character. Regarding themselves as a people separated from the rest of mankind by a special covenant vouchsafed to them on the part of Jehovah, they believed that they were under the shield of a compact, which shut out other nations from divine favor, and by which blessings were promised and pledged so wholly their

own,

that the covenant of God was as a wall of separation between them and the rest of the world, confining all the mercies of heaven to themselves. The influence of such a feeling, when strong and deep, must of course have been pernicious. It was so in fact, for never were a people more proudly exclusive than the Jews. Mistaking the purposes of Providence towards them, and not apprehending in its true nature the part they were designed to act, under God's government, in the religious advancement of the human race, they came to deem themselves the only favorites of heaven. This feeling was manifested in all its strength, when Christianity appeared; for they set themselves against the Gospel, because it offered its blessings, not to them alone, but to all the sons of men,-because it would not recognize their covenanted distinction, and because it regarded the descendant of Abraham as no better entitled to the gift of God, than any other in the wide compass of the human family.

Thus stood the idea of a covenant down to the time, when Jesus Christ appeared in the world on the errand of his Father's mercy. But in the true character of that spiritual universality, which belonged to his blessed religion, he discarded the narrow and unworthy idea, by the very nature of that revelation of heaven's wisdom, which he opened upon the world. He spoke of no covenanted mercies for a chosen people, no blessing contracted for between God and them, which other communities were not to share. He represented God as the Father of the human race, who was offering instruction and grace to all his children, without distinction, and

without exclusion. The Jew and the Greek, the Barbarian and the Scythian, the bond and the free, the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the children of Abraham, and the heathen outcast,—all these were terms of distinction, which the Gospel of Christ did not know, and would not acknowledge. They were all melted down, and lost in the light of a religion, which recognized no privileges, but the privileges of goodness, no excellence but the excellence of the heart. “Think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham for our father, for I say unto you, God is able of these stones to raise

up

children unto Abraham.” These words from the lips of Jesus, sounded strangely to a Jewish ear; for they put to shame, the very thing, in which this people made their proud, but poor boast. The Apostles in their writings, make some use of the idea of a covenant with reference to the Gospel, and sometimes speak of the new dispensation in this character. This is peculiarly the case with Paul, whose education in the learning of the Jewish law, had accustomed him particularly to all Jewish modes of expressing religious ideas. But when the term in question was used with reference to Christianity, it was either because the phraseology was so customary in religious matters at the time, that a more distinct apprehension could be conveyed to Jewish minds by the use of it, or because it was deemed necessary to shew, that for every thing boasted of in the old dispensation, Christianity had something, to which similar language might be applied, but which was in fact far better, as where the sacred writer describes our Saviour as the "mediator of a better covenant, established upon better promises.” The writers of the epistolary parts of the New Testament, frequently adapted their instructions, or their mode of arguing, to the habits of thought or expression, which already prevailed among their countrymen; that is, they sometimes used Jewish phraseology with a Christian sense. This they have sometimes done, with respect to the word covenant, and have shewn the Jews that whatever might be the principles or the superiority, on which they valued themselves in consequence of the ancient promises and pledges given to their fathers, yet Christianity had far higher gifts, far better blessings to bestow,—that (if their own language must be used) it was a covenant for spiritual mercies to the family of man, not for national distinctions to a single people. It is plain, that the phraseology in question, when used by the Christian writers, does not convey in the least degree, the narrow and exclusive idea of a compact. They took a word, which was in common use as a part of the religious language of their

« 上一頁繼續 »