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Hebrews term prophets, and the heathen nations, poets: uniting in one character what constituted the essentials of both to foretel future events, and to give forth oracles in diction, highly figurative and sublime. Poetry, at her first appearance, did not owe her birth to the human imagination, but rather seems the child of heaven-rising not imperceptibly from small beginnings, but like the first man himself, all at once-in her full grace and perfection of beauty--not the servant of vanity, but the attendant of celestial truth. In her channel flowed human prayers and thanksgivings. She was the herald of the praises, which, from the mouths of grateful mortals, arose to heaven's king. The language of prose meets the common things of life, but the things of the eternal world demand from poetry her sublimest, sweetest strains. Here is no danger of exaggerating: here can exist no hyperbole, because after her every effort the language must fall infinitely below the subject.
The old tradition of the poet's being inspired by the muses, is at once a proof of his language being attuned to harmony, and of the communication which he maintained with heaven. Hence when this channel was shut up, arose the spurious imitation of the heathen poets, of invoking, in the beginning of their works, the aid of the
The genuine poets of old, such as Moses and David, were held sacred, and regarded as interpreters of the divine will. The stile of their language, on account of its superiority to prose, was termed mashal; i. e. majestic, ruling, sententious figurative, and sublime. Such were also termed seers, and consulted sometimes in the common concerns of life. They were applied to in distress. To one of such a character Job alludes in the following words: “ If there be a messenger with him, an interpreter, one among a thousand to shew unto man his uprightness."
The most antient prophet of whom we have any account, is Enoch. A small fragment of his prophecies is preserved to us by St. Jude. This is valuable, from the view it presents, and the information it supplies, and which we will afterwards see abundantly confirmed and illustrated by the poet
Lucretius. To stem more effectually the torrent of wickedness, they displayed in the glass of prophecy approaching judgments. They tried to reach the conscience by the dread of an hereafter, and punishments to be endured after death. These intimations and warnings had their influence, and were a restraint upon numbers through a series of ages, during the infancy of human society. To this restraint the term religion literally agrees, and denotes that fence which Jehovah drew around hu
man actions, so as to denominate those who overleaped it, transgressors.
Religion being taught in this manner, had its partial success, when a considerable time before the deluge, a set of men arose, disdaining all restraint which warnings or discoveries of invisible things could oppose. Seeking to acquire a name in the world, they threw off their allegiance to Jehovah, and lifted up the arm of rebellion against heaven's mighty king. From this they were termed men of name, Gen. vi. 4, and in all probability were giants, not so much for stature of body, as for magnitude and atrocity of crime. They were, as we learn from the same fragment of prophecy, the free thinkers of that period, who scorned to walk with the vulgar in the trammels of truth and soberness. These, as we learn from St. Jude, were murmurers and complainers, walkers after their own lusts, and who had uttered hard speeches against the God of heaven. Religion interposed its unpleasing barrier : “Behold the Lord cometh with ten thousand of his saints, to execute judgment upon all.”—“ Such dreams," says Lucretius, “are sufficient to throw their terror into every condition of life." Thus the way of truth, which they cannot annihilate, they explode and blaspheme. Thus with many the warnings of the man of God were treated as fabulous and destitute of foundation in truth.
The uwe of a supreme Governor of the universe existing, or not existing in the heart of man, is the line which in all ages separates between the righteous and the wicked. So the Deity himself speaks: “ I will put my fear into their hearts, and they shall not depart from me.” This fear is that which keeps them in the path of life, while others, who cast it off, are hurried away to their own destruction.
Ages flowed away, and the significant language of symbol, employed by the early teachers of mankind, came now to be regarded as a thing fitted only to frighten children. These the vulgar were left to believe, while they who stood upon the eminence of wealth and distinction reckoned it no small improvement to despise them. When once men renounce revelation as their guide, their advancement in knowledge is retrograde. • They are swift downward to climb, and backward to advance." Like Sancho and his master Quixote, while they fancy to themselves they are crossing the equinoctial, they are still where they werein a boat, and foating on a mill-dam.
The vestigia vatum, the venerable relics of antiquity, the unenlightened poet of heathen ages, inserted in his works by way of ornament, while it never once entered his head that these had ever been any thing else than amusing fictions. Death, and what succeeded to it, were termed empty names, a future world, an imaginary danger, and the fruit merely of poetic imagination.* The poet Lucretius, who lived about a century before the time of Christ, 'was a great ridiculer of these antient truths: but while he explodes, he has preserved to us a copy of the popular creed of his time. “He advises to banish entirely the fear of (Acheron) or invisible world, which goes to turn upside down the human existence, throwing its death-like gloom on every object around, and infusing its bitter into every human enjoyment." +
However these antient notices of invisible things might be incrusted with error, yet it becomes us to guard against joining the sceptic in his laugh, when perhaps he is amusing himself only with the allegory, instead of attending to the secret meanings it covers with its veil. To misconstructions of this nature, with respect to the Jews, heathen authors were remarkably prone, 56. They sacrifice a ram,” says Tacitus, “ to throw contempt upon Jupiter Ammon. An ox is made to bleed, which the Egyptians worship as a God:
* O genus attonitum gelidæ formidine mortis