George Richards.

The divine origin of prophecy illustrated and defended : in a course of sermons preached before the University of Oxford in the year MDCCC .. online

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of the divine origin of facred Prophecy,
appears at the opening of the wonderful
fcheme. In tracing back the hiftory of Re-
velation, it is reafonable to exped:, that when
we have arrived at the moment of its com-
mencement, it will appear in its native
purity, unfullied by mortal corruptions. As
the river flows with increafmg clearnefs,
when we afcend towards the fountain : fo
religion, it may juftly be fuppofed, will
bear the moft manifeft marks of divinity,
when we have reached the aufpicious pe-
riod, in which llie firft defcended froM

If we explore the early ftate of Pagan
Oracles, we lliall find, that they flirink
from the application of this juft and rea-
fonable tefl. Though the Chriftian be-
lieves, that they originated in a corrup-
tion of the traditions refpeding the real
revelations of the Almighty, yet fo humi-
liating and bafe were the circumflances at-
tending their firfl inflitution, according to
the accounts of the idolatrous nations, in
which they were either invented or pre-
ferved, that the fimple recital of them will



fcarcely become the ferloufnefs and fo-s
lemnity of the place, in which we are af-^
fembled. Thcj were fuppofed to be in-
fpired by deceafed mortals. No caufe,
w'orthy of a divine interpofition, and pe-
culiarly operating at that particular mo-»
ment, is affigned for their commencement.
Even the moft celebrated Oracles of anti-
quity arofe upon occafions the moft unim-
portant and puerile, which the imagina-
tion can conceive. They were the dif-
grace of rational man. And they exhibit
a ftriking inftance of the low ftate of de-
^adation, into which the Almighty per-
mits his creatures to Inik, when they have
departed from the knowledge of his re-
vealed will, and proftituted their reafon in
the iervice of fuperftition.

How awful and fublime was the fcene,
with which theChriftian Revelation opened!
It proceeded from the one God, pure, fpi-
ritual, and invifible, the maker and the pre-
ferver of worlds, the high and mighty One,
who is from everlafting. It began in the
infancy of nature, v^'ith the firft inhabi-
tants of the earth, from whom have been
derived all the nations of the globe. It



\vas occafloned by circumftances the moft
interefting and awful, which a reafonable
being can contemplate ; the fall of a new
race of creatures by fin, and the benevolent
intention of the Creator to reftore them to
life and immortality.

From the origin of Prophecy, let us di-
re<5l our attention to its final clofe. When
the divine infpiration of the real Prophets
had ceafed, the Pagan Oracles no longer
uttered their prediiflions. Yet no caufe, in-
dependent of Chriftianity, and arifmg from
their own nature folely, can be affigned
cither for their ceflation or their continued
filence. No important end had been at-
tained, by the accomplifhment of which
their future operation was rendered unne-
cefTary. The fame circumftances, which
had fo long occafioned their delufive reign,
feemed to require their uninterrupted con-
tinuance through all fucceeding ages. The
impoffibility of affigning a ready and ade-
quate reafon for the entire departure of the
prophetic fpirit, may be juftly inferred from
the futile and fanciful conjedurcs, by which
the wondering Heathen attempted to ex-
plain its ceflation. The Poet and the
u Prieft


Prleft excited a popular belief that the in-
fpiring Deity had yielded to mortality, and
was no longer numbered among the Gods.
While the grave and inquifitive philofo-
pher% with a credulity fcarcely lefs culpa-
ble, declared, that the exhalations and va-
pours, which had been the inftruments of
infpiring the prophetic phrenzy ^, had at
length, from continued ufe, exhaufled their
virtues ; and that, hence, the difappointed
votary ilept in vain upon the bank, which
was confecrated to the Deity, or drank of
the ftream, by which he hoped to be in-

The real caufe of this extraordinary
event, the Pagan was either unable to dif-
cern, or unwilling to acknowledge. As
the Heathen Oracles originated in the per-
verfion of true religion, fo their final de-
parture was occafioned by its wide and
glorious difFufion. When Chriflianity be-
gan to prevail, the evil fpirits, w^ho had

» Plut. lib. de defeft. Orac. Julian, apud Cyrillum. 1. vi.

^ Even Ariftotle and Pliny the Elder fuppofed, that cer-
tain exhalations from the earth occafioned the phrenzy^ in
which the Oracles, called Natural, were delivered, Ariftot.
lib. de Mundo c. iv. p. ii. Plinius. 1. ii, Nat. Hid. c. xcii,



probably on fome occafions afiifted, though
in a limited manner, the artifices of hu-
man impofture, were no longer permitted
to exercife their malignant power. Their
authority gradually declined; and the frauds
to which they had given countenance at
length were fully terminated.

When the pretended fpirit of Prophecy had
departed, no veftige of the Oracles remained,
which regarded fucceeding times. The pre-
didlions had no reference to futurity, and dis-
tant generations were totally uninterefted
in their effufions. When the temples were
clofed, and the priefts had deferted their
caves, their influence among mankind fi-
nally ceafed j and they have been of no
more confequence to pofterity, than the
memory of the multitudes, whom they had
deceived, and the ravages, which they had
impioufly fandlioned. Such has uniformly
been the fate of deception. The volumes
of the Sibyl, which, during the ages of the
Roman republic, were fo often apparently
confulted for the purpofe of deluding the
ignorant populace ; when the temporary
purpofes, which they favoured, had been
obtained, were difregarded and Toon con-
u 3 ' figned

agi S E R M O N VIII.

fjgned to oblivion. In the fame manner,
the SibylUne verfes, invented during the
early progrefs of Chriftianity, were unable
to endure the fcrutiny 6f liberal and un-
prejudiced enquirers, and have generally
been condemned as a contrivance of im-
poilure, by all fucceeding ages.

The fate of the Heathen Oracles in later
times has been not unvs^orthy of their caufe.
Among the great mafs of mankind they
have funk into entire oblivion. By philo-
fophers they have been regarded as decep-
tions, and have been treated fometimes
■with contempt, and fometimes with de-
ferved negled;. Their myfterious rites, ex-
plored by the claffical fcholar, and inquifi-
tive antiquary, have been exhibited as ob-
jects of pleafmg though barren curiofity ;
and fometimes they have been brought
forward by the theologian as a fecondary
argument in favour of real infpiration, the
authority of which is ftrengthened by a ju-
dicious and candid comparifon with the
moft celebrated and fuccefsful fyftems of
prophetic impofture.

The gift of Prophecy, which, through a



long revolution of ages, had gradually pre*
pared the way for Chriftlanlty, was with-
drawn foon after its promulgation, becaufe
the grand objed: was accomplilhed, for
which it had been originally imparted.
The roll of facred Prophecy had been dif-
clofed for the purpofe of becoming an in-
ftrument of the divine government among
a chofen people, and of affording a mira-
culous teflimony to the character and doc-
trines of the divine Founder of our holy
Religion. When the Jevvifli polity was
dillblved, and when the Saviour of man-
kind had concluded his benevolent work,
and the Gofpel was triumphant over the
Avorld, the fpirit of infpiration for ever dif-
appeared. Far from being oppofed in its
farther progrefs, like the Pagan Oracles, by
the over-ruling influence of a fuperior
Deity, or an hoftile religion, it clofed its
career at a moment peculiarly favourable
to its farther exertions. That particular
Revelation, to the truth of which it had
borne the moft decifive and .unquefiiion-
able evidence, was beginning to polfefs an
unbounded influence among mankind, and
w^as confequently enabled to afford an ad-
ditional fandion to its divine pretenuons.
u •-> VVliilc


While the condition of the Jewifh people^
to whom the communications of the divine
fpirit had been almoft exclufively imparted^
feemed at that important aera more efpe-
cially to require the comfort and afTurances
of divine Prophecy. They were about to
be expofed to the moft tremendous cala-
mities, to civil difTentions, and a foreign
invafion, to the miferies of a fiege, the de-
frrucflion of their city, the diflblution of
their civil polity, and a long difperilon of
their tribes. It is amidft thefe awful fcenes
of national diftrefs, that pretenders to di-
vine infpiration mofi: commonly arife. And
let it not be forgotten, that in feafons of
fimilar calamity and defpondence in paft
ages, the communications of the Prophets
had been mofh frequently and mofh earn-
eftly imparted to the people of Ifrael. Had
facred Prophecy, therefore, been a mere
human artifice, the ftrongefh reafons feemed
not only to favour, but imperioufly to de-^
mand, its longer continuance. It was,
however, withdrawn, becaufe the fublime
fcheme was completed, for the due unfold-
ing of which it had originally been dif-
played. The effed: ceafed, when the caufc
no lonirer operated.



But though numerous ages have elapfed
fince the Prophets termhiated their labours,
yet their writings engage the curiofity, and
are conneded with the deareft interefts and
moft exalted hopes of the prefent inhabi-
tants of the earth. Time, the great foe of
impofture, has confirmed many of their more
remote predidlions, and thus has augment-
ed the general force of the evidence, which
they afford. The generation now living,
though in circumftances in fome refped:s
different, is no lefs interefted in them, than
was the favoured people, to whom they
were originally fent. The general charac-»
teriftics, and the diftinguifliing peculiari-
ties of fbme of the moft remarkable na-
tions, at prefent exifting in the w^orld, were
defcribed by the ancient Prophets with al-
moft the fame accuracy, with which they
may now be traced by the eye of the be-

The Chriftian, indeed, prefcrves with
the moft vigilant attention thofe precious
and holy remains, upon the credit of which,
in addition to other inconteftible evidences,
he has enlifted under the banners of a fpi-
fitual Redeemer, and cheriflied the fure
u 4 and


and certain hope of a refurredion to eter-
nal life.

Hence the veneration, with which thefe
Oracles have been received among man-
kind, has been worthy of their importance
and their truth. When the difpenfation
was terminated, during the progrefs of
which they had been gradually delivered,
they were carried forth from the contra(5lcd
limits of Judea, and propofed to the world
at large in an age, peculiary diftinguifhed
by liberality of fentlment, juflnefs of criti-
cifm, and philofophical feverity of invefti-
gation. Yet among the numerous nations
of the earth, united for the firft time by
one connecting government, in the com-
mon exercife of reafon and of tafte, they
forced their way to general notice, and
were at length received with univerfal af-
fcnt by the whole civilized part of mankind.

At a later asra, upon the revival of learn-
ing, after lying for centuries, together with
genuine Chriftianity, in the grave of igno-
rance and darknefs, they came forth in
their original purity, and excited the im-
mediate attention of the theological fcho-


SERMON Vlllt 297

lar. During the three laft centuries, which
have been marked by pecuHar accuracy
and freedom of refearch, they have been
fubmitted to the examination of numerous
enquirers, unconne(fted with the facred mi-
niftry, and uninterefled in the fecular emo-
luments of rehgion ; whofe names no fcho-
lar can pronounce without enthufiafm, and
no Chriftian can hear without veneration.
They have not only endured the fevere
fcrutiny of thefe eminent and impartial
critics ; but even acquired additional im-
portance and authority from their unqua-
lified approbation and unlliaken belief.

So juft, indeed, and forcible are the
claims of the facred Prophecies to univer-
ial belief, that even the Jewilh people, to
whom they were originally addrelTed, ftill
continue to contemplate them with un-
diminifhed veneration. Though they have
exifted through many centuries, fuffering
the moft tremendous inflidions of Almighty
vengeance in confequence of their ftubborn
rejedion of the Chriftian Religion, the di-
vine nature of which has been maintained in
oppofition to their incredulity partly upon
the authority of thefe very Prophecies ; yet



tliey firmly perfeverc in regarding them as
the produdions of the omnifcient God, and
exped: their full accomplifliment in future
according to their own erroneous interpre*

The advantages, which refult from art
intimate knowledge of the circumftances
conne<5ted with the opening and final clofe
of the great fcheme of Prophecy, will be
confiderably heightened by the farther pro*
fecution of our enquiries. The means,
which the Prophets employed, and the end,
which they uniformly purfued, when clear-
ly and fully underflood, become peculiarly
inflrumental in appreciating their veracity.

The more exalted is the ofHce afTumed^
the more ftriking are the chara<5lcrifi:ics ex-
pedled. Thofe, who prefent themfelves to
the notice of mankind, as minillers em-
ployed for the folemn purpofe of maintain-
ing an immediate and extraordinary inter-
courfe between the Creator and the crea-^
ture, undoubtedly ailume the loftiefl cha-
rader, which can claim the attention, or
demand the reverence of an human being.
If, therefore, the means adopted, by thoie



^ho pretend to fuch a charac^ler, be artful,
J)afe, and myfterious, and the end propofed
,be local, temporary, and merely human, it
is not unreafonable, that doubts fhould be
entertained of the reality of their Divine
miffion. While on the other hand, our
convidlion of their ailual infpiration will
be confirmed, if it fhall appear, that the
oppoUte qualities unque^ionably predomi-
nate ; apd that the charadleriftics difplayed
are altogether worthy of the exalted Being,
whofe Revelation is prefumed to be un-

Thefe obfervations may be applied with
fnigular effect, in the progrefs of our far-
ther enquiries into facred Prophecy. While
the Hebrew Prophets exhibit the digni-
fied charad:eriftics of a real Revelation;
the Heathen Oracles abundantly prove, that
thofe chara6leriftics w^ill not be found a-
mong the falfe pretenders to infpiration in
the depraved lyftems of fuperftition and

When we contemplate the means in-
vented by the prieflis of ancient Polythcifm
for the pretended purpofe of obtaining a



knowledge of the will of the gods, our afton-
ifliment is ftrongly excited by the diverfity
of unworthy modes ' adopted. They were
generally unmeaning ; and fometimes even
bafe in the extreme. They lower the dig-
nity of our nature ; and might be ex-
pe6led rather in an Indian tribe, a Tarta-
rian horde, or a favage clan of Africa, than
in the bofom of refined and civilized fo-
ciety. And they manifeftly prove, that
mankind, even when adorned with the
higheft intelledual improvement, become
debafed and degraded in their nature, if
fuperftition be permitted to obtain its dire-
ful afcendency over the mind.

The Oracles of Greece and Rome uttered
their predi(ftions, not in fudden and unex-
pected effiifions, w4ien infplration irrefillibly
approached, and utterance was impelled by
the divine and overpowering fpirit : but
only at regular hours in the accuftomed
feafons of divination. At the delivery of
the pretended revelations, in the higher
kinds of divination, the moft palpable de-

^ See Potter's Antiquities, v. i. In which may be found
an accurate enumeration of the principal kinds of divina'
tion ufed among the Greeks!



ceptions '^ were generally pra^lifcd, to give
folemnity to the fictitious rites, and delude
the ignorant votaries. The moil moun-
tainous countries were ufually feledted by
the priefts for the imaginary refidence of
the infpiring Deity ^. They eredled their
temples and confecrated their altars in
woods and groves, amidft the awful gloom
of folitude. They fent forth their voices
from the caves of the mountains, fhaded by
branches, and clouded with incenfe. The
Sibylline books, the principal fource of pro-
phetic information among the Romans, were
confulted only by the moil: illuilrious ma-
giilrates of the republic, and in feafons of
danger and turbulence alone, in which it
was neceiTary to overawe the minds of the
people, by the pretended admonitions of
Heaven, and an authority, from which
there could be no appeal. The Grecian
Oracles imitated the power of miracles, by
means of a machinery, the detection of
which exceeded the ability of an illiterate'

'^ Eufebius Praepar. Evang. 1. Iv. c, 2, Theodoret. Hift,
Ecclef. 1. il. c. 22.

^ See Virgil. /Eneid 1. vl. v, 42. See the account of
the Oracle at Delphi in Strabo 1. ix, Ifaiah x!v. 19.




and credulous multitude. They agitated
and deformed their countenances by ecfta-
fies and trances artificially produced ; and
profanely reprefented the hideous appear-
ances, which were the confequences of
fuch violent efforts, as the overpow^ering
emotions of the Deity, by whom they pro-
fefled to be infpired. The attendant myf-
teries awed the trembling worfliipper into
a religious filence, and folemn apprehen-
fion, which, while they heightened the
fandllty of the prophetic ceremony, re-
preffed fufpicion, and intimidated the moll:
daring curiofity. But though, at the mo-
ment of infpiration, the body was appa-
rently convulfed, and the moft frantic gef-
tures were difplayed> yet the language ut-
tered by no means exhibited a correfpon-
dent energy. Far from being dignified by
the fublime ideas, which are connedled
with the contemplation of facred fubjeels ;
or marked by that majeftic fimplicity,
which accompanies the difplay of the di-
vine will ; or elevated by that holy and en-
thufiaftic fervour, which may be expe6led
to be kindled by the immediate intercourfe
of the creature with the Creator ; it was
peculiarly unimpaiTioned and mean, as wxll



as incorredl ^. The poet and the critic, the
mercenary miniiters of fuperftition, were
frequently concealed within the myllerious
recedes of the temple and the cave^, for
the purpofe of affifting the imperfedions
of the prieftefs. The expreffions were not
only obfcure, but often equivocal, and eafily
capable of two interpretations^, diredly op-
pofite the one to the other. By thefe am-
biguities the credulous votary was mifled,
and the moft difaftrous confequences pro^-
duced. Hence the wealthy Lydian mo-
narch boldly croffed the ftream ; and the
lofs of the kingdom was the effed of his
ungrounded confidence.

From thefe arts of bafe and palpable im»
pofture let us dire (ft our attention to fcenes
altogether worthy of a moft ferious confi-

The firft Revelations of Jehovah to man^
kind, as recorded in the facred Writings,
are the moft awful and fublime, which it is
in the power of the imagination to conceive,

f Plutarch, lib. de Pythis Orac. e Id.

^' Cifero dc Diviijatione 1. ii. fe6l. (^6,



and can only be contemplated with fo-
lemnity and ferious devotion, The Deity
himfelf is rcprefented as deigning perfon-
ally to appear, and open the wonderful
fcheme of Prophecy by the moft bene-
volent promife, which could be made to
fallen man. At a later period the high
and mighty One fometimes fpake from out
of Heaven ; fometimes was he difcovered in
the midft of the burning bufh ; fometimes
did he reveal his divine glories, ineffably
effulgent, amidft the folemn folitude of na-
ture ; and fometimes did he appear with
clouded majeffcy in his temple.

During the infancy of the world, the
holy meffengers of the Almighty frequently
vifited the venerable Patriarchs : and while,
in the difcharge of their high million, they
difclofed the fcenes of futurity, they unveiled
to mortal eyes the glory of celeftial intel-

When angels had ceafed to defcend
among a corrupted race of men, the hu-
man Prophet was infpired by the Holy
Spirit, a Perfon of the ever bleffed Trinity,
the lord and giver of life, from whom was




derived the aftonifhing power of fufpend-
ing the laws of the univerfe.

The Prophecy dehvered was frequently
accompanied by fome immediate act of
Omnipotence. The prediction was uttered,
and the miracle performed in the public
ftreets in open day, and before a numerous
aflembly of witneffes. No my fiery, nor
mechanical effort was attempted. The
Prophecy was diflindly delivered, and the
miracle fimply effeded, without effort, and
without oflentation. Though, in conform-
ity w4th one of the great ends purpofed by
the Almighty in his wonderful fcheme of
Revelation, the exprelfions adopted were
fometimes defignedly obfcure till the com-
pletion of the predicted events; and though
they were occafionally capable of receiving,
and were a6lually intended to bear, a dou-
ble meaning, yet they were not ambiguous ;
they could not even in a fmgle inflance
be juftly accommodated to contrary inter-
pretations : while in the greater number of
inflances the predications were fingularly
clear, were intelligible before the feafon of
accomplifhment, and, the event having
come to pafs, were calculated to flrike the
X mind

3o6 S E R M O N VIII.

mind with peculiar force, by the perfe^
coincidence of the Prophecy with the oc-

The exa6t words, in which the facred
Oracles were couched, were received by
the moft exalted characters in the commu-
nity from the infpired perfons by w^hom
they were delivered, and were preferved
with the moft religious fidelity. They
were admitted, in the earlier ages of the
Jewilli theocracy, into the ark ', and, after
the reign of Solomon, into the temple of
Jerufalem. Before the final clofe of infpi-
ration under the Mofaic oeconomy, they
were daily recited in the temple at Jeru-
falem as a part of the fervice of God. And,
in order that they might be preferved from
the pofTibility of corruption, the fentences,
the words, and even the letters were num-

With refpecfl to the peculiar excellence
of the prophetic writings, it is not fuffi-
cient to obferve, that the Prophets digni-
fied divine poetry with lofty imagery, which

» Deuteronomy xxxi, 26.


SERMON Vlir. 307

is fometimes difplayed in the romantic bold-
nefs of an eaftern mind. It has alfo been
maintained, that even the moft celebrated
poets of antiquity were rivalled, and in fome
inftances excelled, by the infpired writers.
Virgil, the fuccefsfnl imitator of the great
Grecian Bard, the grace and pride of the
moft profperous age of Roman grandeur, has
been reprefented as cold and weak, even
upon a fimilar fubjec^l'', in comparifon with
the expreffive and daring imagery of Ifaiah :
and no fimilar produdion, it has been
urged, in all claffical antiquity, can vie ^
with the fublime and animated ode, where-
in the fame Prophet predicted the fall of
Babylon. It has alfo been frequently and
ftrenuoufly aflerted "", that the productions
of Horace and Anacreon, of Pindar, Calli-
machus, and the Greek tragedians, have
been excelled by David and the infpired

^ See Virg. Eel. 4,

' See Bifliop Lowth on Ifaiah xiii. and Micbaelis.

"* Lowth, Praeleft. 29. compares the Hymns of the He-
brews, in celebrating the pralfes of the Deity, with thofe of
Homer and Callimachus. The fame writer, in his letter to
Warburton, compares the Prophecies of Balaam with the
Odes of Homer.

X 2 com-


compofers of the Hebrew Odes and Hymns
in juftnefs of fentiment, boldnefs of tranfi- ^
tion, fervour of poetic enthufiafm, happi-
nefs of dramatic effect, and the variety of
exquifite fenfations, which afFe6l the heart
and overpower the mind : — that in the
ilrain of tender and pathetic lamentation,
the elegiac productions of Oyid and of Ti-
bullus, will be found inferior to thpfe pf Je-
remiah ; — that even the fimple wildnefs,
the vehemence, and the tremendous dig-
iVity of ^fchylus ", has not produced paf-
fages fuperior to fome of the grand ima-
gery of Ezekiel ; — and that the expreffions

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