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Religious Studies, Sketches and Poems

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There shall come a Star out of Jacob,
A sceptre shall rise out of Israel.
Out of Jacob shall come He that shall have dominion!"

Of late there has been discovered in Nineveh a large work on the system of magic of the Chaldee soothsayers, written on tiles of baked clay, in the "arrow-head" characters. Here we have a minute account, of the Chaldeans – the astrologers and the sorcerers spoken of in Daniel – with specimens of their liturgic forms and invocations. M. Lenormant, who has issued a minute account of this work with translations of many parts of it, gives an interesting account of the religious ideas of the Chaldees in the very earliest period of antiquity, as old or older than that of the soothsayer Balaam.

He says the supreme divinity, whom they called EA, was regarded as too remote and too vast to be approached by human prayer, and that he was to be known only through the medium of another divinity, his first-begotten Son, to whom is given a name signifying the Benefactor of Man. The prayers and ascriptions to this divinity remind us of the Old Testament addresses to the Messiah. The Hebrew poet says: —

"Of old hast thou laid the foundations of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of thy hands."

The ancient invocation upon the tiles of Nineveh addressed to the Mediator runs thus: —

"Great Lord of earth! King of all lands,
First-begotten Son of Ea,
Director of heaven and earth,
Most merciful among the gods,
Thou who restorest the dead to life."

… .

We see here the reflection of a Being such as the contemporaries of Abraham in the land of the Chaldees must have looked forward to – an image of that diffused and general faith which pervaded the world in the days when the patriarch was called to be the Father of a peculiar people.

In the Zendavesta – begun about the age of Daniel – also are traces of the same Being, with prophecies of his future appearance on earth to restore the human race to peace and goodness.

In one of the Zend books we have a passage strikingly like some of the prophetic parts of Daniel. As Nebuchadnezzar saw the future history of the world under the form of an image, made of four precious metals, so Zoroaster was made to see the same under the image of a tree in which four trunks proceed from a common root. The first was a golden, the second a silver, the third a steel, and the fourth an iron one.

In the same manner as in Daniel, these trees are interpreted as successive monarchies of the earth. The last, the iron one, was to be the dominion of demons and dark powers of evil, and after it was to come the Saviour, or Sosiosch (a Zend word), who was to bring in the restitution of all things from the power of evil, and the resurrection of the dead.[4 - These passages are quoted and commented on by Hilgenfeld on the Apocalyptic Literature of the Hebrews, and Lücke on the Apocalypse of St. John.]

The same ideas were expressed in the Sibylline oracles. The story of the Sibyl who offered her books to Tarquin, in the early days of Rome, is known to every child who studies Roman history. From the remains of these writings, still extant, they appear to contain predictions of the world's future, much resembling those of Daniel and Isaiah. They predict the coming of a Great Deliverer of the human race, a millennium of righteousness, a resurrection of the dead, and a Day of Judgment.

About forty years before the birth of Christ, Virgil wrote his beautiful Eclogue of Pollio. The birthplace of Virgil was near the town of Cumæ, where lived the Cumæan Sibyl, and her traditionary history and her writings must have deeply impressed his mind. Possibly he only thought of them as a poet thinks of a fine theme for the display of poetic imagery; and possibly he may have meant to make of this eclogue a complimentary prophecy of some patron among the powerful of his times. But when we remember that it was published only about forty years before the birth of Christ, and that no other historical character corresponding to this prediction ever appeared, it becomes, to say the least, a remarkable coincidence.

Bishop Lowth says that the mystery of this eclogue has never been solved, and intimates that he would scarcely dare to express some of the suppositions which it has inspired.

May not Virgil, like Balaam, have been carried beyond himself in the trance of poetic inspiration, and seen afar the "Star" that should arise out of Israel? He too might have exclaimed: —

"I shall see him, but not now.
I shall behold him, but not nigh."

The words of Virgil have a fire and fervor such as he seems to have had in no other composition, as he sings: —

"The last age of the Cumæan song is come.
The great cycle of ages hastens to a new beginning.
Now, too, returns the reign of Justice.
The golden age of Saturn now returns.
While thou, Pollio, art consul,
This glory of our age shall make his appearance.
The great months begin to roll.
He shall partake of the life of the gods,
And rule the peaceful world with his father's virtues."

Then follow a profusion of images of peace and plenty that should come to the world in the reign of this hero. All poisonous and hurtful things shall die; all rare and beautiful ones shall grow and abound; there shall be no more toil, no more trouble. Then, with a fine burst of imagery, the poet represents the Fates themselves as singing, to the whirring music of their spindles, a song of welcome: —

"Ye ages, hasten!
Dear offspring of the gods, set forward on thy way to highest honors;
The time is at hand.
See, the world with its round weight bows to thee.
To thee bow the earth, the regions of the sea and heaven sublime.
See how all things rejoice at the approach of this age!
O that my life might last to see and sing thy deeds!"

The close of this eclogue has a mysterious tenderness. The poet predicts that this sublime personage, for whom the world is waiting, should be born amidst the afflictions of his parents and under a cloud of poverty and neglect: —

"Come, little boy, and know thy mother with a smile.
Come, little boy, on whom thy parents smile not,
Whom no god honors with a table,
No goddess with a cradle."

It would seem as if the sensitive soul of Virgil, in the ecstasy of poetic inspiration, acquired a vague clairvoyance of that scene at Bethlehem when there was no room for Joseph and Mary at the inn, and the Heir of all things lay in a manger, outcast and neglected.

Not in Virgil alone, but scattered also here and there through all antiquity, do we find vague, half-prophetic aspirations after the divine Teacher who should interpret God to man, console under the sorrows of life, and charm away the fears of death. In the Phædo, when Socrates is comforting his sorrowful disciples in view of his approaching death, and setting before them the probabilities of a continued life beyond the grave, one of them tells him that they believe while they hear him, but when he is gone their doubts will all return, and says, "Where shall we find a charmer then to disperse our fears?" Socrates answers that such a Charmer will yet arise, and bids his disciples seek him in all lands of the earth. Greece, he says, is wide, and there are many foreign lands and even barbarous countries in which they should travel searching for Him, for there is nothing for which they could more reasonably spend time and money.

And in the discourse of Socrates with Alcibiades, as given by Plato, the great philosopher is represented as saying, "We must wait till One shall teach us our duty towards gods and men."

Alcibiades asks, "When, O Socrates, shall that time come, and who will be the Teacher? Most happy should I be to see this man, whoever he is." The Sage replies, "He is One who is concerned for thee. He feels for thee an admirable regard."

When one reads these outreachings for an unknown Saviour in the noblest minds of antiquity, it gives pathos and suggestive power to that emotion which our Lord manifested only a few days before his death, when word was brought him that there were certain Greeks desiring to see him. When the message was brought to him he answered with a burst of exultation, "The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified! Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit, and I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me!"

He was indeed the "Teacher" who had been "concerned" for Alcibiades, who had cared for Socrates. He was the "Charmer" whom Socrates bade his disciples seek above all things. He was the unknown bringer of good for whom Virgil longed. He was the "Star" of Balaam, the "Benefactor" of the Chaldee astrologers, the "Saviour" predicted by the Persian Zoroaster. He was, it is true, the Shepherd of Israel, but he had a heart for the "other sheep not of this fold," who were scattered through all nations of the earth. He belonged not to any nation, but to the world, and hence aptly and sublimely did the last prophecy proclaim, "The desire of all nations shall come!"



One great argument for the divine origin of the mission of Jesus is its utter unlikeness to the wisdom and ways of this world. From beginning to end, it ignored and went contrary to all that human schemes for power would have advised.

It was first announced, not to the great or wise, but to the poor and unlettered. And when the holy child, predicted by such splendid prophecies, came and had been adored by the shepherds and magi, had been presented in the temple and blessed by Simeon and Anna – what then? Suddenly he disappears from view. He is gone, no one knows whither – hid in a distant land.

In time the parents return and settle in an obscure village. Nobody knows them, nobody cares for them, and the child grows up as the prophet predicted, "As a tender plant, a root out of dry ground;" the lonely lily of Nazareth.

And then there were thirty years of silence, when nobody thought of him and nobody expected anything from him. There was time for Zacharias and Elisabeth and Simeon and Anna to die; for the shepherds to cease talking of the visions; for the wise ones of the earth to say, "Oh, as to that child, it was nothing at all! He is gone. Nobody knows where he is. You see it has all passed by – a mere superstitious excitement of a few credulous people."

And during these hidden years what was Jesus doing? We have no record. It was said by the Apostle that "in all respects it behooved him to be made like his brethren." Before the full splendor of his divine gifts and powers descended upon him, it was necessary that he should first live an average life, such as the great body of human beings live. For, of Christ as he was during the three years of his public life, it could not be said that he was in all respects in our situation or experiencing our trials. He had unlimited supernatural power; he could heal the sick, raise the dead, hush the stormy waters, summon at his will legions of angels. A being of such power could not be said to understand exactly the feelings of our limitations and weaknesses. But those years of power were only three in the life of our Lord; for thirty years he chose to live the life of an obscure human being.

Jesus prepared for his work among men by passing through the quiet experience of a workingman in the lower orders. The tradition of the church is that Joseph, being much older than Mary, died while Jesus was yet young, and thus the support of his mother devolved upon him. Overbeck has a very touching picture in which he represents Joseph as breathing his last on the bosom of Jesus; it is a sketch full of tenderness and feeling.

What balance of mind, what reticence and self-control, what peace resulting from deep and settled faith, is there in this history, and what a cooling power it must have to the hot and fevered human heart that burns in view of the much that is to be done to bring the world right!

Nothing was ever so strange, so visionary, to all human view so utterly and ridiculously hopeless of success, as the task that Jesus meditated during the thirty years when he was quietly busy over his carpenter's bench in Nazareth. Hundreds of years before, the prophet Daniel saw, in a dream, a stone cut out of the mountain without hands, growing till it filled the earth. Thus the ideal kingdom of Jesus grew in the silence and solitude of his own soul till it became a power and a force before which all other forces of the world have given way. The Christian religion was the greatest and most unprecedented reform ever introduced.
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