Home > Book of Daniel > John Davison’s Discourses on Prophecy, VI Part III

John Davison’s Discourses on Prophecy, VI Part III

August 9, 2013

John Davison discussed prophecy related to pagan nations on Part III of Discourse VI, presented below.

John Davison, Discourses on Prophecy: In which are Considered Its Structure, Use, and Inspiration. William Warburton Lectures. J.H. Parker, 1845.  pp. 288-303.




On the Pagan Prophecy within that Period, and its Moral Use.

Upon the whole of that branch of Prophecy which relates to any thing in the condition of Pagan States and Kingdoms, I shall speak very concisely; perhaps with more conciseness than the great extent of the subject may appear to admit. But it happens that many of the most eminent of the Scripture prophecies in this class, as those concerning Tyre, Babylon, and Egypt, and some others, by the ancient splendour of the states to which they refer, by the curiosity which watches the fate of great kingdoms, and by the collateral attractions of Pagan history and literature, have had, to a certain degree, the preference in the general attention, and have been advantageously set forth in those popular works upon prophecy which are the most commonly read: for which reason, in my survey of the structure of Prophecy, I may in this branch of it rely the more freely upon the stock of a received and known information. Another reason for some brevity in this line of my discourse is, that I shall have occasion to revert to some of the same subjects of Prophecy, in examining its Inspiration; and whilst they are brought forward in that second point of view, its form and character will partly be illustrated at the same time. On these accounts I shall confine and abridge my present remarks; the object of them being to shew, in one general view, the moral use of the whole of this branch of ancient Prophecy.

1. When prophecy began its communication to Abraham, he had discovered to him the remote judgment of God upon Egypt [1] and the Amorites, [2] and the nearer judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah. These were nations placed within his view, or connected with the future state of his family, the Hebrew people. The revelation, thus opened to Abraham, continued in its after-age to hold the same order: for the Temporal Prophecy continued to embrace the condition of the Hebrew Church and Nation, and the condition of other states and kingdoms, so far as the people of Israel were either affected by those other kingdoms, or were so placed as to see and understand the tenor of God’s providence in their history. “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?” is the introduction of the prophecy which revealed to Abraham the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret to his servants the prophets;” [3] this is the range of prophecy concerning his own people. “I have ordained thee a prophet unto the nations;” [4] this is the mission of Jeremiah at the time when prophecy took its largest scope among the kingdoms of the earth, and God’s Government and Providence were to be most conspicuously displayed in their rise and fall, their conquests and desolations. In the Mosaic era the like union of the Pagan subject with the others may be observed; [5] and throughout the one principal age of Prophecy, from Samuel to Malachi, the connexion is constantly maintained, including some prediction of the affairs of those states which gave to the Israelite a ground either of public interest and concern, or of clear observation. There is then a general consistency in the prophetic system, in this article of it; and the analogy begins in the revelation to Abraham, to whom indeed was exemplified the entire scheme of prophecy, though in its simplest form, in all its parts, Christian, Jewish, and Pagan.

2. The use of this prophecy concerning Heathen nations was in part the same as that of all other temporal prophecy; viz., to demonstrate the Providence of God. For his ordination of things, although it might have been explained by his revealed word after the event, was yet more forcibly exhibited to men by the disclosure made before the event took place. His prescience, his counsel and positive appointment, were thereby manifested together. “Who shall declare it, and set it in order for me,” [6] is his double claim, expressed in the promulgation of prophecy, and attested in its completion. But had his prophets confined their revelation to the affairs of the Hebrew People, the proof of his providence would have been imperfect; his overruling sovereignty in the sphere of other kingdoms might have remained in question: and since his moral government in those kingdoms was of the ordinary and less sensible kind, administered by the agency of second causes, and with a rare interposition of miracle, it became so much the more useful to demonstrate, by the medium of prophecy, his equal direction in those other systems of human affairs, and by the unrestricted range of his revelation to shew the universality of his Providence. The state of religion in the world rendered this exercise of prophecy infinitely expedient. For one of the most prevalent notions of false religion was in the belief of local and tutelary divinities. Polytheism divided the world, and its own creed, in severalty; it set up its deities over particular regions or kingdoms, within which it circumscribed their power. Under such ideas, the God of Israel might have appeared the deity of one place or people. But all this error of belief was effectually refuted to the Israelite by the prophetic cognizance which he had imparted to him. In his prophecies he read the general disposal of the kingdoms of the earth, their changes and fortunes the subject of God’s prescience, the appointment of his sovereign will.

3. A further reason, which gave to this one kind of prophecy a fitness, as a moral instrument of Truth, was in the universal reverence paid to oracles, or systems of divination. [7] The desire to see into futurity, which is a passion so natural to man, and so powerful, was soon abused by the craft of policy, or religious imposture; or, without such management, degenerated of itself into the superstitions of augury, necromancy, and other forms of credulous delusion. To the Israelite all these modes of exploring futurity were forbidden, as the devices of heathenism. [8] But the prohibition was made most rational, and the argument of it enforced, by the genuine gift of prophecy, which shewed the omniscience of God in that quarter where the arts and oracles of superstition had their reign; in the affairs of those countries wherein they were practised. “Those nations which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.” This was the practice of the ancient Canaanite. The Egyptian, and the cultivated Chaldaean, in a later age, infused more of the mystery of pretended science into the same kind of superstition. But the inspired prophets of Israel furnished the antidote, and the refutation, of all this science, when they could contrast with its vanity the truth of their own predictions in one and the same subject. “Thus saith the Lord, that frustrateth the tokens of the liars, and maketh diviners mad, that turneth wise men backward, and maketh their knowledge foolish: that confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers.” [9.] By this test God vindicated his own foreknowledge, and put the pretences of human skill, and of idol oracles, to confusion. Nor were the Israelites free from the contagion of credulity in these heathen arts. [10] They were “replenished from the East, and became soothsayers like the Philistines.” It was their inveterate fault to be for ever adopting the practices of false religion under all the light of their own: but to this their propensity the instruments of their own religion were opposed; and prophecy in particular maintained the contest with their spirit of defection.

Herein is evinced the entire futility of those insinuations of Collins, “that the Jews had an order and succession of prophets in analogy to the heathen diviners;—and that not only the business of the diviners among the heathen, and of the prophets among the Jews, was much the same, but also that the prophets were raised up in Israel, to supply the place of those diviners.” [11] In which statement, (omitting some of the grosser phrase of it,) he objects to Revealed Religion a fact which resists the perversion he would put upon it. It is true that Diviners and Prophets had both the same office, to foretell the future. Prophets were sent to supply the place of Diviners. Real prophecy, real miracles, real revelation, are given to fill the place which their counterfeits attempt to fill. Truth supplies the place of falsehood by refuting and excluding it. What is there in this but what is reasonable, and even necessary? For Revealed Religion does not differ, and cannot differ, from the inventions of craft and superstition, by the total absence of the like professed media of belief which they employ, but by the reality of those media in its own case, and the substantial evidence with which it invests them. It cannot differ from them by having no miracles, no prophecy, no communicated doctrine, but by having those things real and true. The question therefore is not whether Prophets and Diviners had the same business, to foretell the future, but which foretold it with truth; which performed the office in a manner worthy of the prescience of God, and to the service of religion. To which question, after a comparison made between the two, the answer cannot be difficult, or uncertain.

The sentiment of Origen, on this head, has therefore great truth and reason in it. He says of prophecy, that it had one use in being a kind of compensation [12] for the prohibited rites of augury, soothsaying, and other received modes of the prognostic art; and that, whilst heathens had these rites in repute among them, if the Israelite had been indulged with no discoveries of the future, and especially on subjects affecting his present interest and experience, despising his own religion for its defect in this particular, he would have revolted to the oracles or arts of heathenism, or set up for himself something like them. [13] A representation perfectly natural and consistent, and arguing the great reasonableness of making prophecy an instrument of Revealed Religion, which was thereby enabled to demonstrate the prescience and providence of God, and to expose and condemn the fallacies of human craft, otherwise too successfully making a prey of the world. For it is to be remembered, that Prophecy, and all the other evidence of Revealed Religion, was directed to the refutation of false systems, as well as the establishment of the true. The One God, and his exclusive truth, were the object of that evidence.—There is also good sense in the further observation of Origen, that by the gratification and conviction afforded by prophecy to the Israelites in some of its meaner occasional subjects, it gained, or might reasonably demand, their confidence and regard to its greater predictions, whether of a temporal, or a Christian kind, to which they might have been less disposed to pay a voluntary attention.

Origen’s general doctrine on this subject is adopted by Spencer; in whose hands however it has passed into a license of representation, not to be reconciled either with truth, or with the dignity of God’s appointment, when he describes the various gifts of prophecy, as so many concessions in imitation of heathen practices, and in lieu of them. [14] There is an original and independent reason of prophecy; that reason is, to authenticate, and unfold, the Revelation of God. Collaterally prophecy is opposed to the oracles of falsehood. But had there been no false oracles in the world, Prophecy, which had its beginning in Paradise, and was anterior to their existence, would have had its office in the scheme of Revealed Religion. Consequently it is a derogation from its origin and character to view it so widely and so liberally as Spencer has done, in the secondary sense of an expedient, and an accidental provision. But this is a kind of fault from which the theory of his celebrated work, replete, as it is, with erudition and research, cannot, in some other parts of it, be wholly excused.—It would be nearer the truth to say, that Prophecy, as it respected the arts and devices of heathenism, was framed to their condemnation and exclusion.

To resume the point in hand;—When Ahaziah’s messengers, going to consult the god of Ekron, received the reproof from Elijah, “Is it not because “there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?” the reproof was valid, (as Origen justly argues,) because in Israel they had prophets of their own: and the prophecy which Elijah delivered on the occasion, was equally to the shame of Ahaziab, and of his oracle of Ekron. [15] —When Daniel recalled and interpreted the vision of the king’s dream, which the astrologers and the soothsayers of Chaldaea could not recall, the omniscience of God in “revealing the deep and secret things,” the inspiration of Daniel, and the ignorance of the Chaldaean sages, [16] with all their natural and mystical science, were equally illustrated.—Again: When Isaiah, [17] foreshewing the destruction of Babylon, challenged and exposed the skill of those same sages, its inhabitants; the conclusion was evident. The prophet in Israel was the effectual witness of God and his Revealed Religion; and this testimony was the most convincing, when it struck upon those subjects or cases wherein the heathen art was sure to be consulted and appealed to; which of course was generally in the concerns of those heathen kingdoms.

4. It is a material fact to be observed, that the information of Prophecy on the subject of heathen states and kingdoms, becomes most copious and explicit in the age when those states and kingdoms seemed to triumph the most, in trampling upon, and overwhelming, the adopted people of God. The most disastrous times of that people are the most largely furnished with the evidence of prophecy concerning their spoilers and invaders. The success of the Pagan was in some measure the triumph of Paganism. For we know how much of the honour of their victories they were accustomed to ascribe to their divinities: and the victor’s triumphal return was commonly to the celebration of his idol’s worship, or to some new improvement of it; whilst the religion of the conquered sunk in the disgrace of their defeat. Accordingly the memorials of these times of reproach and distress in Israel shew how much the faith of men, and the credit of religion, were assailed by the boasts of their alien conquerors. The cry of the oppressed Israelite was, “Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? [18] Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O Lord, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy name. The ways of Zion do mourn: her adversaries are the chief—her enemies prosper.” But the prophetic information was one relief provided under these perplexing and questionable circumstances of heathen triumph. For all those kingdoms of the East, which for a time filled the world with commotion, had their rise and their victories, their changes and downfall, delineated in the page of prophecy. The controlling Providence of God was thereby explained, when it was most liable to be called in question: his people were most directed when their sufferings and their fears were at the greatest height: his supreme moral government was elucidated equally in their own predicted afflictions, and the appointed and foretold victories of their present conquerors, or their expected deliverer. The predictions of Jeremiah, which immediately precede the Captivity, and those of Daniel, which are concurrent with it, were the witness of God, previously set up in the heart of the heathen world, and formed the most appropriate bulwark adapted to the necessities of Religion, as it then had to contend with its heaviest storm under its first dispensation.

5. Another fact to be remarked is, that the evidence of Prophecy gained a greater compass and clearness when the interposition of Miracles was withdrawn. For general miracles, either of destruction, or deliverance, miracles affecting the entire state of the Jewish people, were no longer wrought. The days of Moses and Joshua were past; but the days of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, that is, of the enlarged prophetic revelation, intervene; and theirs was a time when not only more of prophecy was given, but more of it was accomplished. It was in a constant course of fulfilment. It furnished therefore to religion a reinforcement of evidence.

6. I know not with what feeling others may read the afflictions, overthrow, slaughter, and dispersion of God’s ancient people, his only Church in the world, delivered into the hand of barbarous enemies, with the utter extirpation of the one part of it, and the suppression and bondage of the other; or how they may reflect upon the apparent severity of his judgment upon his own adopted people, the dishonour of his name among heathens, or the afflicted condition of his upright and virtuous servants, whose faith and integrity were cast upon these times of perturbation, and tried in the furnace; but I think the impression made upon serious minds in a review of this scene of things will be of no ordinary sort, nor exempted from some degree of pain and amazement. When Christian Churches suffer in their temporal safety, or are shaken in their peace, the case is different. For Christianity stands upon other promises revealed. The captivity, devastation, and public orphanhood of the Jewish Church was a far more perplexing phenomenon—the trials, joined with it, of the constancy and faith of good men, more severe.

One book of Scripture there is, in which God has pleased to preserve the memorial of this great struggle of religion, both in its public and its private state; wherein every feeling, and every reflection, adapted to such a scene, are recorded and expressed to the life. It is the short volume of “the Lamentations” of that Prophet who lived in the midst of it; a book which is the perfect moral history of those times, and of religion, in its public and its interior personal trials; a book of a more profound and exquisite feeling than can be equalled in any of the most boasted of uninspired writings, and of the most exact delineation on the whole question of the dark and fearful visitation of God, under which his Church and People were cast.

But after taking a full view of this troublous state of things, turn to the Prophets: see what they had already disclosed, and were continuing to disclose, both concerning the Pagan kingdoms, and in their renewed and enlarged promises of the Gospel dispensation. All that revelation which shewed God’s controlling power over those kingdoms, proving them to be the regulated instruments of his Providence, and marking the appointed periods, the particular rise and fall, of many of them; all that other revelation which discovered the prospect of the Gospel, and opened more largely its doctrines and mercies; were fitted, in union, to support the cause of Religion, and to administer consolation and instruction to the minds of men who were willing to seek it. It is plain, that the prophetic revelation, at this great era of it, corresponded to the difficulties, perhaps I might say, the decays, of the Jewish Covenant. When the apparent visible ruins of the elder dispensation were most likely to perplex and alarm, Paganism could not triumph, the Gospel could not be despaired of. In the very heart of the Captivity, in the abyss of the Babylonian bondage, Daniel weighed and numbered the kingdoms of the earth. There also he measured the years to the death of the Messiah, and marked the place of order, assigned, in the succession of the empires of the world, to the establishment of his kingdom.—Great and instructive revelations; fitted alike to uphold the Jewish Religion, and to sustain the expectation, and complete the prophetic evidence, of the Christian.

Author’s notes and References

1. Genesis xv. 14.

2. Ver. 16.

3. Amos iii. 7.

4. Jerem. i. 5.

5. See particularly the predictions of Balaam, which give an instance of this union. They include the Amalekite, the Kenite, and the Assyrian; i. e. some of the less and the greater states; and also some of the nearer and more distant events. Moreover, if the whole chain of Balaam’s prophecy be examined, it will seem to comprehend 1st, the condition of the Hebrew people; their safety; their victories; their lonely and insulated character. 2dly, The rise and dominion of the Gospel; if “the Star and the Sceptre” be admitted to be the signs of the advent and religion of Christ, which is their most legitimate interpretation. 3dly, The visitation of some of the heathen enemies of Israel. Thus it will comprehend the Hebrew, the Christian, and the Pagan subjects; and according to this view the constrained predictions of this perverse prophet will bear the greater testimony to the directing power of God, who put into his mouth every parable of prediction with a sense and import the most opposite to his will, and to the will of those heathen enemies who sought to suborn his prophecy, and try for “divination and enchantment” against Israel.

6. Isaiah xliv. 7.

7. This general disposition of belief in systems of divination is expressed by Cicero, in the opening of his Treatise De Divinatione: “Vetus opinio est, jam usque ab heroicis ducta temporibus, esque et populi Romani et omnium gentium firmata consensu, versari quamdam inter homines divinationem, quam Graeci *** appellant, i. e., praesensionem et scientiam rerum futurarum. Magnifica quidem res, et salutaris, si modo est ulla: quaeque proxima ad Deorum vim naturae mortali possit accedere.”—”Gentem quidem nullum video, neque tam humanam atque doctam, neque tam immaneni tamque barbaram, quae non significari futura, et a quibusdam intelligi praedicique posse sentiat.”

8. Deut. xviii. 14; Levit. xix. 31, &c.

9. Isaiah xliv. 25.

10. Isaiah viii. 19; Jerem. xxix. 8; Micah v. 12. “I will cut off witchcrafts out of thine hand, and thou shalt have no more soothsayers.”

11. Grounds and Reasons, p. 28. Scheme of Literal Prophecy, p. 259.

12. παραμνφία.

13. Contra Celsum, p. 28.

14. De Legib. Hebr. lib. iii. cap. ii. sect. 3. Diss. I. Deum Oracula et Prophetiam seculi moribus et Hebraorum imbecillitati concessisse, &c.

15. 2 Kings i. 3.

16. Dan. ii.

17. Isaiah xliv. 25. xlvii. 11.

18. Psalms lxxix. lxxx. &c. Lament. &c.