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Thoughts on Deuteronomy 30: 6

(Continued from issue #6.)

No.  III.

In chap. 28:46, the term eternity (עולם) is employed to express what in other places is expressed by all days (כל הימים). Here it is said of the curses והיו בך לאות ולמופת ובזרעך עד עולם “And they shall be to thee for a sign and for a wonder, and to thy seed to eternity.” The meaning of עולם is eternity, time without any limit. Applied to God, as in Deut. 32:40; Ps. 90:2, it means absolute eternity. Its more common use, however, is in the sense of a relative eternity, a duration which, though really limited, appears to us without limit. The term may mean the relative eternity of our imagination, or of our desire, or of some other emotion; yet, in all these uses of עולם its original and boundless import is always understood. Where it is said, “Remember the days of eternity” (עולם), the past here contemplated, though really having a beginning, is nevertheless here viewed as extending far back beyond the farthest possible view. Where it is said that the “revealed things belong to us and to our children to eternity,” (עד עולם) the obligation of attending to divine revelation is viewed as extending on in the future without limit. The wish was often expressed to kings, that they might live to eternity; in these expressions the term was never used in the sense of a limited time. The mother of Samuel gave him as her offering at the tabernacle to eternity: her meaning was that her holy and ardent wishes set no limits to the duration of the consecration. There is the relative eternity of a law or of a constitution: the term is often used in this sense. God is said to have established with all flesh an eternal covenant in the bow: this does not necessarily mean that throughout absolute eternity, these heavens shall never pass away, and the drops of rain never cease to reflect and refract according to their present laws;  neither does it mark a limited time. The idea is that this covenant is without any  limit of duration in its relation to the present heavens, the falling showers, and living, breathing, mortal flesh.

<<346>> The Hebrew servant, in certain circumstances, became a servant to eternity (עולם); that is, not that he should never die, or that no other law should ever make him free, but that this law knows no limit to his servitude. It was to the priests an eternal statute (חקת עולם), that with certain clearly marked preparations, they should in the evening, furnish light before the veil in the tabernacle. The eternity of this statute floes not prove that the tabernacle should never be destroyed: the meaning is that there was nothing in these sacred laws, or in the duties of the priests, or in their relation to the tabernacle, that placed any limit to the duration of this obligation. This same relative eternity is predicated of the obligation to observe the Passover. I have made this lengthy digression because I think the sad mistake is very often made of representing עולם as often meaning a limited time. My opinion is that it seldom if ever is used in this sense. In the light of these distinctions and explanations, let us now revert to the expression that the curses should be upon Israel for a sign and a wonder to eternity. This does not present a direct contradiction to the promise of eventual restoration. The fact that all the darkness of an eternal curse covers the whole domain of the haw, does not prove that no light of salvation can ever visit them on some other and independent field. The law may reveal no possibility of deliverance from the curse, and may know for the Israelites nothing but an eternal ruin; yet the view of the law may not comprehend all the resources of salvation in the mercy and government of God, and the relative eternity of the law may not be the absolute future eternity of our immortality. The law as given to the people of Israel at Sinai, and as received by them, promised to their obedience the highest conceivable and everlasting happiness; but in the event of its breach, and the worship of other gods, it sees no hope, no possibility of salvation. In the midst of the bitter confessions and self-accusings of the transgressors, in the midst of the importunate and incessant prayers of Israel for restoration of the holy hand, and for a second trial of their law, in the midst of all their sincere and confident promises of obedience in future, the law itself sends forth no consoling sound but that of “ye shall pine away in your iniquity,” “there shall be no saviour,” “the curse shall pursue you all days,” “ye shall utterly perish;” to the bitter regret of Israel it <<347>> administers no consolation but that of an eternal curse. The Israelites who find no light but the light of the covenant made at Sinai, must walk in the darkness of eternal despair. The Israelites who come to no fountain of consolation but that opened up in this law, drink the waters of eternal sorrow and death. The עולם that is stamped on the law of the Passover is equally stamped on the curse. How can we receive any other explanation of the clearly asserted eternity of this curse? To make it the eternity of the soul’s immortality would be to shut out every ray of hope from the deathless souls of Israel. To make it the eternity of Israel as a people, would be equally to shut out every ray of hope from Israel as a people. This the promises forbid. We make it the relative eternity of the law, and so present for the consolation of afflicted Israel, every promise that is independent of the law. The same view appears to be presented in Is. 64:4, הן אתה קצפת ונחטא בהם עולם ונושע “Behold thou hast been angry, and we have sinned; in these an eternity, and we shall be saved.” This appears to be the language of the penitent Jews, whose hearts have been sanctified according to the promise. It is clear that the pronoun of בהם refers to both the anger of God and the sin of the people. The anger and the provocation, the sin and the punishment, both together, the penitents pronounce unending. What hope can there be in a condition of unending sin and unending punishment? We will afterward see how they can add, “and we shall be saved.”

History is here the echo of prophecy. The great theocratic system which God established in Palestine, did prove a failure, and in its fall ruin millions. The Hebrew commonwealth reached its highest glory in the reigns of David and Solomon: and the pure light from the upper sanctuary of God that literature, the, poetry and the moral philosophy of the age, and that illuminated the whole Jewish heavens. Soon after this only two tribes acknowledged the throne of David, and ten tribes were taken into captivity that lasts to this day. The history of Judah from this time is a sad account of captivities and oppressions, until at last the Romans destroyed nation, city, and temple. From that day to this, Providence has rebuked every attempted restoration. One of the Roman emperors gave the oppressed people the assurances of his sympathy, expressed <<348>>his desire to worship their God and their, holy temple, and gathered a great number of Jews to Jerusalem. The powerful favour of Julian, and the enthusiastic devotion with which the Jewish people, men and women, commenced this enterprise, appeared to promise that a temple on Moriah should soon eclipse the splendour of the church of the Resurrection, and that the Jewish worship should soon be restored. But the God of Israel did not favour this restoration as He had long before favoured that of Cyrus, and this enterprise of the people as He had long before favoured that of Nehemiah. Horrible sounds and balls of fire bursting forth from the earth, stopped the enterprise.

Behold standing to this day that church of the Resurrection, and, on the ground of the temple, the Mahomedan mosque, both justly sad spectacles to every pious and intelligent observer. Say, my friend, what has become of the blessings which Moses pronounced on the tribes of Israel? Where are the sons of Levi, with their Thummim and Urim, and their zeal for God? Where are Zebulun and Issachar, calling to the people to bring the sacrifices of righteousness to the holy mountain? Where is Joseph, blessed with all the precious things of heaven and earth? Where are the myriads of Ephraim, and the thousands of Menasseh? Where is the privileged keeper of the portion of the Lawgiver on the east of Jordan? O Benjamin, Benjamin, thou beloved of Jacob, speak out from the mighty dead, from thy peaceful slumber of ages, and tell thy anxious descendants, where is the Eternal One whose abode was with thee, who, according to the blessing of Moses, was to cover thee all the day, and dwell between thy shoulders?

Examine now the song of the fifth chapter of Isaiah, the song to the Beloved concerning his vineyard, and you will find the  true philosophy of all this dispensation. This Beloved is God: the vineyard is the house of Israel. The fruitful hill expresses the peculiar sacred privileges of Israel. The preparation of the ground of a tower and wine-press, expresses the preparation of all external things necessary to make Israel a holy, a happy and an everlasting people. “And he looked that it should bring forth grapes.” This shows what is naturally and reasonably expected from such cultivation. “And It brought forth wild grapes.” There was an evil principle in Israel that disappointed every ex<<349>>pectation of good fruit. “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?” says the Beloved. These words require two remarks. l. This does not mean that Almighty power could not have added another effect. God could have cast an additional hue of terror on the plagues of Egypt, could have performed more wonders in the wilderness, could have made the reign of Solomon more happy, could have raised up more prophets. The meaning is that if miracles and favours and warnings and invitations could have made Israel a holy and a happy people, there was a sufficiency of all these in the divine dispensation to accomplish the end. Having done all that was sufficient, the Beloved pauses and inquires, what could have been done more? 2. This does not imply that God circumcised their hearts. With all this cultivation, the Beloved did not change the nature of his vine; hence it produced poison. God did not circumcise the heart of Israel; hence, with all this external perfect cultivation, they brought forth the bitter fruits of sin and death. The Israelites were rational, moral, and accountable agents, and should have appreciated their duty, their privileges, and their immortal interests. God met them as such, and gave them every possible offer of life and inducement to make the right choice. With all this cultivation, they brought forth poison. It would be blasphemy to say that the fault of this failure was in the law itself. How clear this proof, that it is not in the natural heart of man to produce good fruit? The song teaches us that finally this vineyard must be given up to beasts and briers and thorns, and that the  clouds must withhold their showers. The same fearful result is presented in the next chapter. As Isaiah enters upon his prophetic work, he is told that the result of the labours of the prophets will be, the hardening of the heart, the stopping of the ears, the closing of the eyes, and the confirmed rebellion of the people, and, finally, the utter desolation of the land. We present these passages as additional proofs of the infinite eternal darkness without one ray of hope, in which the dispensation of the law terminates.

In my next I will endeavour to present the true hope of Israel the—fountain of everlasting consolation in the promise of the circumcision of the heart.

Yours, very truly,