« PreviousContinue »
THE PHYSICAL BASIS OF OUR SPIRITUAL LANGUAGE.
BY REV. W. M. THOMSON, D.D., MISSIONARY IN SYRIA, AUTHOR OF THE LAND AND THE BOOK."
NO. I. INTRODUCTION.
"THE kingdom of heaven is at hand," was the startling cry of the voice in the wilderness of Judea. What it meant we do not now stop to consider. It coincides, however, with our general purpose to remark that the "voice" could only have been uttered in Palestine. Elsewhere the very terms. of the proclamation would have been incomprehensible. There the solemn announcement was not only understood, but it arrested the attention of the whole community. It was not the first time the thing had been heard of. This is implied in the abrupt form in which the proclamation was published. The Baptist knew that the idea was quite familiar to those he addressed; that it, in fact, embodied the hope of Israel. From the very beginning the promise had gone forth, and in manifold forms had been repeated, that God would in his own time set up a peculiar kingdom on earth. Under figure and shadow and symbol and type, this promise had been renewed from age to age; and towards the fulfilment of it prophets and kings and holy men had directed their longing eyes, "but died without the sight." The delay had indeed been long, and trying to the faith of the saints;
VOL. XXIX. No. 113. —JANUARY, 1872.
but no longer than was necessary. A vast and complicated system of preparation was essential for the establishment of such a kingdom among men, and this could not be hastened. The kingdom was to be diverse from all others—moral, spiritual, and not of this world. To reveal and permanently establish such an empire demanded, amongst other things, as an indispensable prerequisite, an adequate means of communication between the creature and his Creator; in a word, a peculiar spiritual language, by which the thoughts of God could be made known to man. Without this no such kingdom was possible, and the attempt to establish it must have proved a failure.
The main object of this and of some ensuing essays is to investigate the methods adopted by divine wisdom to evolve, enrich, and perfect this language of the kingdom. It is satisfactory to find at the outset that, numerous and complicated as were the instrumentalities employed, and extending over so many generations of marvellous history, they may for the purpose of study and illustration all be ranged under two fundamental expedients; the selection, training, and governing of a peculiar people; and the creating and fitting up for them an appropriate home. Abraham and Canaan; the Hebrew nation, and the land of promise; these are the pivots on which the entire scheme, so far as our present inquiry is concerned, is made to revolve. By and through the Hebrew people, their marvellous history, and the long ongoing and outworking of the Mosaic economy, in conjunction with the physical phenomena of their earthly inheritance, did the Spirit of inspiration evolve and perfect man's religious language. Palestine, fashioned and furnished by the Creator's hand, was the theatre, and the people of Israel were the actors brought upon it, and made to perform their part of the work by the Divine Master.
To find or form a nomenclature for the thoughts of God and the spiritual wants of man: this was the problem; and a little reflection will convince any one that it was a work quite beyond the unaided skill of man to achieve. As matter
of history, it took Infinite Wisdom and Almighty Power fifteen centuries of time, with the aid of an endless number and variety of providential arrangements, co-operating with human and superhuman agents, to bring this language of the kingdom to the needed perfection. Palestine was the theatre where all these subordinate agencies and influences were gathered. They included the entire range of natural and historical phenomena of that country, its geological structure and physical features, its natural productions, its social, civil, and religious institutions and customs, in fact, every external element from which moral and spiritual terms and phrases have been introduced into our religious nomenclature. When the end and aim of all had been reached, the King himself appeared, the theatre was closed, the scenery taken down, the actors dispersed, and the gospel of the kingdom sent forth on its high mission among the nations of the earth.
But, as in the resurrection, that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual; so has it been in the process of developing man's religious language. It was preceded by the natural and the mundane. From the material and the human was evolved the spiritual and the divine. To witness this transfiguration of language we must resort to Palestine. Here it was that the dialect of the kingdom was first learned and spoken. Like other books the Bible has a home, a birthplace, but beyond all other examples, this birthplace of revelation has given form and color to its language. It was taught by a marvellous combination of physical phenomena and human history, brought together in this land, and miraculously guided and controlled so as to work out the intended result. The land has had an all-pervading influence upon the costume of the book. Without the former, the latter as we now enjoy it could not have been produced. Palestine is therefore, and was intended to be, an integral element of divine revelation, and not merely an accidental associate with it. To ascertain this fact, and to show how
our spiritual nomenclature has been made to grow up from and out of this fertile soil, is the main purpose of the writer in preparing these essays. For nearly forty years he has resided in this land, in daily communion with its scenes and scenery, and in personal contact with those external and physical influences which suggested so large a part of our religious language. In this way, and to this extent only, can he pretend to any special qualification for the task he has undertaken. The more recondite, but rich field of philological research he leaves to the lexicographer, the grammarian, and the professional critic, and deals mainly with biblical language in its secondary and popular sense. His aim is to show by what process of analogy, of contrast, or otherwise, things physical and mundane come to signify and illustrate things spiritual and heavenly. That the essays are very imperfect the writer is painfully conscious, but he ventures to give them to the public, in the hope that with all their deficiencies they may impart fresh interest to the devotional study of the word of God.
An additional thought or two may not be out of place in these introductory remarks. It is possible that the fundamental idea which underlics this whole discussion may be questioned, or even denied. There may be some who still believe that from the very beginning man was miraculously endowed with a rich and largely developed spiritual language. The author of "Paradise Lost" represents Adam and Eve even in the garden, as holding high converse not only with each other, but also with angelic visitants, and with the Infinite Creator himself, whom no man hath seen, or can see. But, although this may be cheerfully granted to the poet, as a necessary part of the machinery of his magnificent poem, it cannot be accepted as historic truth on this subject. Relegating therefore this theory to the domain of romance, to which alone it belongs, and reverently assigning to superhuman aid whatever of linguistic endowment was required to enable our first parents to meet the exigencies of their unique condition, we may be allowed to prosecute. undis
turbed, our inquiries on the lower level of human history and experience.
Philologists with one consent teach us that human language, even in its primary and mundane sphere, is of very slow growth. Some of them demand many thousand years for its development. But upon this debatable ground we need not enter. Sufficient for our purpose is the admitted fact that, in the infancy of society, human language is quite limited in its range, and material in character of the earth earthly. As in other matters, so here, necessity is the mother of invention. At first men seek only names for things with which their physical senses and wants are conversant. Hence any primitive language is material, rather than spiritual; physical, not metaphysical. This fact presented one of the greatest difficulties to be encountered and overcome before a divine revelation, such as man needed, was possible. The invisible and immaterial had to be made known through a clumsy and material vehicle. Holy men of God, though moved and guided by the Holy Ghost, were nevertheless compelled to employ the common language of mankind, and to describe the world within by the world without, the soul by the body, heaven by earth, and even the invisible God by frail man. Examples of this occur in the very beginning of the Bible: "God said let there be light"; and again, "God saw the light that it was good"; thus endowing the Almighty with our vocal organs and optic apparatus. And, so from the commencement to the close of the sacred volume, we read of his head, his hands, his feet, his arm, his finger, his eye, his ear, his heart, etc.; and emotions, words, and works appropriate to these various members of the human body are fearlessly ascribed to him. This is not only natural, but inevitable. We see with the eye, hear with the ear, work with the hand, and speak with the tongue; and, as action without these instruments is to us impossible, we transfer the same to God, forgetting, or seeming to forget, that he needs no such instrumentalities; that he can and does act wholly independent of them. But with