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ORIGIN, DESIGN, AND USES OF THE JEWISH DISPENSATION.
BY JOHN FORBES, D.D.,
MINISTER OF ST. PAUL'S PARISH, GLASGOW.
Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises. --Romans ix. 4.
Ar no period in the history of our race has God left himself altogether without a witness; for although the world, since the fall, has become an uncongenial clime for pure religion, and idolatry, impiety, and iniquity have abounded with fatal influence among all nations, still a series of holy individuals have been reserved throughout the most benighted and corrupt ages, who have maintained the cause of God, and set themselves to resist the predominance of sin; and by a miraculous preservation has the Church, composed of these, the pillar and ground of the truth, been continued downwards from the time of Adam, Abel, and Seth, to the present day: nor shall the chain of transmission fail until it has extended over all generations; and, as it began with the commencement, terminate only with the final close and consummation, of man's residence on the earth which we inhabit.
Although the essence of true religion has in all ages been one and the same, yet has it been enshrined in various forms of administration, adapted to the circumstances of mankind at different periods; and from this has originated what we are accustomed to term the Patriarchal, the Jewish or Levitical, and the Christian dispensations: the two former being preparatory and introductory to the last, which constitutes a complete developement of the plan of Divine mercy, and can therefore admit of no ulterior change in respect of its form or constitution, whatever progress may attend its further diffusion, or however pure, beneficent, or universal may be its influence in those latter ages of triumph which we are taught to anticipate for it, when, like the meridian sun, in high and unclouded ascendant, it shall cover the whole earth with the glorious robe of its divine and unspotted effulgence.
During the earliest ages of the history of our race, although mankind had become degenerate and corrupt ever since the fall, there was perpetuated amongst them a knowledge of those religious truths which Adam had learned and brought with him from paradise; and the longevity of human life at that period, superseding the liability to error and perversion incident to a frequent transmission of knowledge by oral communication from one short-lived generation to another, rendered unnecessary the publication of a written revelation, recording the will, the character, and the operations past and prospective of God, which afterwards came to be so essentially requisite, for the safe information and direction of a more distant posterity, to whom the light of Divine truth, if it reached them at all, came broken and discoloured through the medium of mixed and corrupted tradition. It is a remarkable fact, that in the chain of patriarchal communication no more than one link was required to convey the knowledge of Adam to the mind of Noah; for Methuselah, according to the sacred record, must have enjoyed intercourse with the great progenitor of the human race for the space of two hundred and forty-eight years, and he lived with his grandson Noah during no less a period than six hundred years. As there was no necessity in these circumstances for upholding the knowledge of pure religion by a miraculous interposition, and as it is a principle pervading the whole of the Diviner government that nothing is done in vain, mankind under the patriarchal dispensation appear to have received no additional institutes or communications from Heaven beyond what were handed down from Adam. They observed the Sabbath in commemoration of the work of creation, and in anticipation of that rest which is provided by the Redeemer in heaven after death for his people. They offered sacrifices to typify the great work of atonement which was in the fulness of time to be accomplished by the sufferings and death of the holy Lamb of God. Besides this we have no account of any further ritual worship observed among the patriarchs. The spirit of the dispensation under which they lived had a peculiar resemblance to the Christian in many of its leading and most important features. There was no burdensome ceremonial imposed upon them, as at a subsequent period—nature was their temple, and the true worshipper was only required to worship God in spirit and in truth. Of the history of that ancient and remote period we have only a few brief records, and it cannot be expected, that any thing approaching to a full and detailed view of the nature of the patriarchal dispensation can be supplied. Much less can we pretend to unfold the origin and progress of that general apostasy by which it was forsaken, for the corruptions of idolatry, under the various forms of Sabaism, or the deification of the sun, moon, and stars; hero-worship, or the apotheosis of departed kings, warriors, legislators, and other distinguished personages, who were exalted to the rank of gods; or Pantheism, under which every object of nature, even the lowest and vilest, was worshipped, as constituting part of that universe which was substituted in the place of its divine Creator as the object of religious adoration by a blind and degraded race.
Perhaps of all the periods of decay and threatened extinction through which the cause of pure religion ever passed, the darkest and the most critical was that which occurred at the close of the first or patriarchal, and the beginning of the second or Jewish dispensation, when the descendants of Shem and Japheth, no less than the Canaanites, or posterity of Ham, were become indiscriminately involved in the
guilt and darkness of an all-engrossing idolatry. The Chaldeans, the Egyptians, and all the other empires then existing on the face of the earth, forgetting the lessons that had descended to them from antiquity, and also the reformation and warning which accompanied the deluge, and for some time followed that event, made gods of the host of heaven, and of the basest terrestrial objects, not excepting the brute creation, and even creeping things, and precipitated themselves into all the vileness and immorality connected with the extinction of the principles of pure religion and the substitution in their place of every licentious, superstitious, and degrading form of false worship. At this eventful crisis, when the earth was filled with the deepest pollution, both spiritually and morally, did God interpose, and call to himself Abram, the son of Terah, a native of Ur of the Chaldees, to constitute him and his family witnesses for the truth, a people distinct from every other, a nation of priests, and prophets, and saints, retaining among them the purest and most sublime principles of religion and morality; maintaining a ritual emblematic of the blessings of that latter dispensation under which we now live, and governed by a code of civil law and ordinances of a local and temporary description, adnirably adapted to preserve them distinct from all other nations, and thus to subserve the high design of rendering them the organs for transmitting pure and unmixed the knowledge of the true God through the long night of darkness which elapsed previous to the introduction of the Gospel dispensation. And if we carefully estimate the dealings of God towards this remarkable people, we shall admire even more the moral miracle of saving them so many ages from the prevailing corruptions of a world overflown with idolatry and iniquity, than even the natural miracle connected with the preservation of Noah and his family amid the perils of that overwhelming inundation in which the generation of their contemporaries indiscriminately and miserably perished.
With respect to the divine origin of the Jewish dis
pensation, we may warrantably affirm, that there can be no historical truth whatever better accredited or more completely ascertained. You are to bear in mind that the Jews have always lived in the centre of the civilized world : that they have been more or less connected with the great revolutions which occurred in the ancient monarchies, and which form the subject of general history: and though their antiquity is very high, it was nevertheless so far from being lost amidst those mists which involve the early existence of much more modern but illiterate nations, that their great law giver became their historian, and the whole transactions connected with their earliest origin were early committed to writing and carefully preserved. The light of civilization and learning originally sprung from the East, and accordingly, four hundred years before the Trojan war, while Greece and Rome had not yet taken their place in the scale of nations, and the inhabitants of the whole of Europe were a race of wild illiterate savages, the Jews were a formed nation, holding treaties, waging war, and carrying on intercourse with the most ancient and civilized dynasties, such as the Egyptian, the Persian, and the Assyrian. There is a danger of transferring a prejudice naturally derived from the uncertainty of the early history of our own and other European nations, which have emerged from a state of barbarism at comparatively a late period in the annals of the world, to the whole range of historical information; and because we find ourselves lost in fable when we attempt to penetrate beyond the beginning of the Christian era, in tracing the early accounts of our own and neighbouring nations, we are apt to attach an undue suspicion even to the most valid documentary evidence, on finding that it relates to events as much prior to the Christian era, as that is to the day in which we live. But it ought to be kept in view, that even the most ancient facts relative to, the history and condition of any people, provided they are properly authenticated and confirmed by evidence, cannot and ought not to be overturned and laid aside by mere