THE PSALMS AND THE PROPHETS
In our remarks on the patriarchs and Moses, we said that the union with an immortal God, in a covenant, and in carrying out a plan for eternal ages, tended directly to a belief in eternal life and endless retributions. The want of any recorded early belief of this kind we explained by the fact that the experience of the early ages lacked a poet like David to record it in sacred songs. But we proved, by the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews, sustained by coincident historic evidence, that such an experience did exist.
The Book of Psalms.
But, as soon as we come to the book of Psalms, all doubt on this question is removed. The tendency which we alleged is there seen in its full development. We do not commonly realize the magnitude of the change effected by David when he introduced into the worship of God the singing of psalms. For centuries the Mosaic ritual had been observed without this act of worship. Moses made no provision for it. Only one of the psalms is ascribed to him, and there is no evidence that even that one was sung until the time of David. But, as soon as we enter the book of Psalms, the wanting element of recorded religious experience appears in full power.
Now, what we stated of the tendency of a covenant with an immortal god, and with reference to an eternal plan to produce the belief of eternal life with him, is fully verified. There is disclosed a doctrine of immortality, and of eternal rewards, that has its roots in the covenant of God with the fathers. It is our purpose to prove that this doctrine of eternal life and future retributions is, in fact, found in the book of Psalms, and that it has its roots in a system essentially unlike that of the Zend-Avesta, and cannot be traced to Persia.
Grounds of Belief in Immortality.
But before doing this it will be expedient to consider the real foundations of any reliable belief in immortality. Plato sought to find them in the inherent nature of the deathless soul, existing from eternity to eternity. Others have sought them in the aspirations of the soul, and the imperfect development of retribution in this life. But the fundamental positions of the system of the Bible are not of this kind. It does not recognize, nay, it expressly denies, the natural and inherent immortality of the soul. It assures us that God only hath immortality (1 Tim. Vi. 16). By this we understand that he only has immortality in the highest sense – that is, inherent immortality. All existences besides himself he created, and he upholds. Men are not, as Plato taught, self-existent, eternal beings, immortal by their very nature. There is no such being except one, and that is God. There is no inherent immortality of the soul in this sense. What God created he sustains in being, and can annihilate if he will. It is by his will that we live, and move, and have our being.
The true and only sure basis of eternal existence is found in the fact that God is immortal, and chooses to have an eternal system, in which his rational creatures can know and love him and cooperate with him in his eternal plan. So long as God wills this, he will render immortal those intelligent moral beings who are involved in his plan. His will, his power, and not their inherent nature, is the pledge of their immortality. How, then, under such a God can the highest assurance of immortality be given? Not by philosophical reasoning on the nature of the mind. God himself must give it. He must reveal himself as immortal; he must disclose an eternal plan; he must take his intelligent creatures into covenant relation with himself; he must reveal himself to them as their portion and their God; he must disclose to them the eternal plan in which they are to cooperate with him, and give them the assurance that their action with him is to be eternal. Let this be done, and there will be the highest possible assurance of immortality. It rests upon the assurance of the immortality of God and the eternity of his kingdom, and that he is the God and the eternal portion of the soul.
So in the Psalms: Not in the Zend-Avesta.
Now, it is in this way that the assurance of immortality is in fact given in the book of Psalms, and it is given on grounds which the Zend-Avesta does not furnish, but rather contradicts. We shall not attempt a full contrast of the two systems. We shall only consider the God of the Bible and of the Zend-Avesta as centres of systems. The Oromasdes of the Zend-Avesta differs essentially from the Jehovah of the Bible. He is not self-existent, but is derived – as is also Ahriman, his antagonist – from Zervan Akerane. Hence, in the Zend-Avesta they are called twins. Of these twins, the progeny of Zervan Akerane, one turns to good, the other to evil, and hence the conflict between them. Hence, if gods, they are derived and created gods. And, although the work of creation is ascribed to Oromasdes, it is limited to this earth and men and good spirits. The firmament and heavenly bodies he did not create. They are praised in the Zend-Avesta as self-existent and eternal. To Ahriman, also, creative power is ascribed. He created evil spirits, the devas, to oppose the good spirits of Oromasdes. Moreover, the praise, not to say worship, given to the heavenly bodies and the elements and the good spirits, though the supremacy is verbally given to Oromasdes, is opposed to the all-pervading spirit of the Bible, which presents Jehovah as the creator and upholder of all beings and worlds, and as the supreme and only proper object of worship. The comparison could easily be carried further, evincing that, though there are some points of similarity, yet the systems are essentially antagonistic in their fundamental elements. In particular, the great idea of a Messiah, who is God incarnate, which is the essence of Christianity, is wanting. Moreover, Zervan Akerane, from whom Oromasdes, the chief acting god, is derived, is worshiped [sic] but rarely, if at all. So inconsistent is the Zoroastrian system with itself.
Probable Origin of.
It is not improbable, however, that the system began as a system of pure dualism, teaching the existence of two self-existent and eternal gods, one good and the other evil, each having creative power, the one creating good spirits and the other evil. This system may have been, and probably was, modified by contact with other systems, and reduced to a unity in Zervan Akerane, who was represented as the father of Oromasdes and Ahriman. At the same time their creative power was not taken away from them, and, as before, Oromasdes is worshiped [sic] as the main and active God, while the worship of Zervan Akerane, who was merely a philosophic centre of origin and unity, remained undeveloped.
System of the Bible.
The system of the Bible is not distracted by any such contradictory elements, but is essentially monotheistic, and gives rise to its own consistent doctrine of eternal life and retributions.
In the first place, all the elements of the assurance of eternal life are presented in the most perfect devotional and experimental forms that are found in the language of man.
In contradistinction to the Zend-Avesta, which ascribes to Oromasdes, the good divinity, only a limited creation, i.e., of the earth, good spirits, and men, while the higher lights are without a beginning and self-existent, the Psalms thus praise God as creator of all: “Praise ye the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights; praise ye him all his angels; praise ye him all his hosts; praise ye him sun and moon; praise him all ye stars of light; praise him ye heavens of heavens and ye waters that be above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.” In like manner, the creation of man and of this lower world, and the divine supremacy in them, are not only narrated historically, but celebrated poetically in strains of unequaled sublimity and beauty.
God’s Kingdom Universal and Eternal.
The absolute universality of God’s kingdom and the eternity of his plans are also declared in the highest strains of devotion:
“All thy works shall praise thee, O Lord, and thy saints shall bless thee. They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power, to make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom. Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth through all generations” (Ps. cxlv. 10-13). “The Lord shall reign forever, even thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye the Lord” (Ps. cxlvi. 10). God, too, by a beautiful metaphor, is described as the dwelling-place of his children in all generations, and we are told that those who love him shall dwell in the secret place of the most High, and abide beneath the shadow of the Almighty.
Communion with God.
The personality of God and his self-revealing power are presented in full action, disclosing a character not only of holiness, power and wisdom, but of condescension, love, sympathy, tenderness, compassion, and forgiveness, that removes fear, perfects faith, and gives a full and experimental knowledge of God and communion with him in all his glorious perfections which fills the soul with unutterable joy. Neither in the Zend-Avesta nor in Plato do we find any such full, experimental, joyful knowledge of and intimate communion with a present, loving, self-revealing God.
It is such an experience that gives rise to such utterances as these: “With thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Ps. xxxvi. 9). “Because thy loving-kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee. Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches. Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice. My soul followeth hard after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me” (Ps. lxiii. 3-8).
All the Elements Combined.
Now, here are all the elements of a profound and perfect certainty of eternal life. Here is an immortal and eternal God, the creator, upholder, ruler of all things. Here is an eternal plan, an eternal kingdom, here are men who know and love this God, and are in covenant with him, and are cooperating with him in intimate fellowship as his instruments in carrying out his eternal plans. Is it not an intuition of the soul that they too must be immortal? Does not the very idea of a divine eternal plan demand it?
But, it will be said, why leave it to intuition or inference? Why not fully reveal and declare it? Why not combine all these elements in an explicit declaration of the full assurance of eternal life in God?
To this we reply, all these elements are combined not in one, but in many explicit declarations of the full assurance of eternal life in God.
Why, then, it may be said, have they been overlooked? Why has it been represented as doubtful whether the Old Testament saints had a full assurance of eternal life in God?
We reply, because such declarations occur not in abstract metaphysical and philosophical forms, but in the form of religious experience, and of lofty and intense devotion. True, there is neither reason nor philosophy in ignoring them for this reason. For it is undeniably true that the highest forms of devotion in communion with god involve not only the highest and noblest emotions of the soul, but the highest and most philosophical intuitions of truth. There cannot be a higher form of intellectual philosophy than full communion with God. For if God is a personal, a loving God, if he has a self-revealing power, if he can make his presence and love a reality, if he can give the assurance of eternal life in that love, then the most highly devotional passages are the very place where we should expect to find a glowing declaration of the assurance of eternal life in the love of God.
Out of many such declarations, take one, and examine it critically, and see what it can be except an unequivocal declaration of the firm belief of eternal life in the love of God.
In the seventy-third Psalm (v. 23-26), after describing the assaults of unbelief and the victory of faith, the Psalmist thus proceeds: “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth whom I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart fail: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Weigh well the import of those few words, “God is my portion forever,” and can the full belief of eternal life, in the love of God, be more clearly or more joyfully declared? Consider too the antithesis: “My flesh and heart fail: they die: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Consider another antithesis: “thou shalt guide me by thy counsel (in life), and afterward receive me to glory (with thee).” Nor is this a solitary instance. There are numerous declarations of a similar import in the book of Psalms. Listen to some of them:
“Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. xvi. 11).
“He asked life of thee, and thou gavest it him, even length of days forever and ever” (Ps. xxi. 4).
“They shall praise the Lord that seek him: your heart shall love forever” (Ps. xxii. 26).
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. xxiii. 6).
“O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee forever” (Ps. xxx. 12).
“This God is our God, forever and ever” (Ps. xlviii. 14).
“God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me” (Ps. xlix. 15).
“I trust in the mercy of god, forever and ever. I will praise thee forever (Ps. xlix. 15).
“I will abide in thy tabernacle forever: I shall abide before God forever. I will sing praise unto thy name forever” (Ps. lxi. 4, 7, 8).
“I will declare forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob” (Ps. lxxv. 9).
“We will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore” (Ps. cxv. 18).
“Let Israel hope in the Lord, from henceforth and forever” (Ps. cxxxi. 3).
“The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth forever: forsake not the works of thine own hands” (Ps. cxxxviii. 8).
“Lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. cxxxix. 24).
In these passages we have but a specimen of the hope of eternal life caused by a self-revealing power of god, and communion with him as a covenant God and portion in an eternal plan. In one of them is also expressed the hope of a resurrection from the grave (Ps. xlix. 15). The same hope is expressed in Is. xxvi. 19, and in Hos. xviii. 14; Dan. xii. 2, 3.
There is also implied in all these passages a retribution of evil to those who are not in communion with God, but at enmity with him. Indeed, this is expressly stated in Ps. lxxiii. 17-20, and in other places. It is true that the retribution of evil is indefinite as to duration and locality. Nor is the idea of locality prominent in the case of the good. The leading idea is eternal life in God, and with God, wherever he may be. In the words of Moses, God is the dwelling-place of the holy soul forever.
If it is said the word leolam does not by itself denote absolute eternity, I concede it. But the relation to God is which it stands imparts to it that force.
The idea of retribution in a future life for the good and the bad is also found in the proverbs of popular life, as well as in the records of devotion. We are told that “the wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous hath hope in his death;” and, again, “When a wicked man dieth, his expectation shall perish, but the righteous hath hope in his death” (Prov. xi. 7, 14, 32).
We have thus traced the river of belief that we saw from the mountain-tops of the age of the Maccabees. We have found its sources, not in Persia, but in the revelations of god to his covenant people, beginning in the earliest ages, and coming down the tracts of time.
We propose next to trace the stream to the days of Christ, and then through the Christian ages.
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