APOCALYPTIC ELEMENTS IN HEBREW SONG
THERE, has been no little misapprehension, both of single compositions and of entire books of the Bible, by reason of a failure to recognize the pictorial element which is conspicuous therein. The Hebrew tongue is itself the language of metaphor and passion. The frequent occurrence of the word behold is a mark of the animated and pictorial character of the composition. The heart smitten with deep emotion is wont to express its thoughts in glowing style, and often, where the form of composition is not that of poetry, the sentiment and language are elevated quite above the manner of prose.
It is worthy of note that nearly two fifths of the Old Testament are in the style and spirit of Hebrew poetry. This fact demands consideration when we study these ancient writings as the embodiment of divine revelation. A rigid adherence to the letter of a highly wrought composition may blind ones eyes to the rich spiritual significance of the grand total impression it was designed to make. In many cases it involves the absurdity of reducing purely imaginative concepts to crass mechanical notions which could have no external reality in the world of sense. This may be illustrated by the following passage from the eighteenth psalm (verses 6-15):
In my distress I call Jehovah,
The simplest reader of this psalm observes that, in answer to the prayer of the one in distress, Jehovah reveals himself in marvelous power and glory. He disturbs for his sake all the elements of the earth and the heavens. He descends from the lofty sky as if bending down the visible clouds and making a pathway of massive darkness under his feet. He seems to ride upon a chariot, borne along by cherubim, and moving swiftly as the winds. At this point the imagery is remarkably parallel with that of Ezekiels apocalyptic vision (Ezek. 1:4, 5, 22-26). In the psalmists thought winds, fire, hail, smoke, clouds, waters, lightnings, and earthquake are conceived as immediately subservient to Jehovah, who interposes for the rescue of his devout servant.
But who would presume to put a literal interpretation upon compositions like this? The cultivated and appreciative reader feels at once that he is in touch with highly wrought imaginative poetry. A dissecting literalism, which would presume to construct a dictionary of metaphors and apply its own special definitions uniformly and mechanically to the exposition of such a scripture, must needs lead into confusion and error. It borders on folly to ask, in the study of such a psalm, when and where God actually bent down the visible heaven and made a pathway of clouds on which David or anyone else saw him descend. But we do see, in all such emotional word-pictures, how vividly the Hebrew poets apprehended the presence of God in human experience, and also in the phenomena of the natural world. The concepts and expressions are in keeping with the anthropomorphism peculiar to Hebrew modes of thought.
The ninety-seventh psalm is of similar apocalyptic character. Jehovah is celebrated as sovereign of the world, and all the forces of earth and heaven are the ministers of his will. Perowne translates the first part of the psalm as follows
Jehovah is king: let the earth be glad,
It may here be pointed out that the religious purpose and real value of these apocalyptic songs are not affected by the critical question of their literary origin. The authorship of the ninety-seventh psalm is confessedly unknown. The Hebrew text is without a title. The Septuagint ascribes it to David, when his land is established but this heading has no real worth in criticism. Delitzsch regards the psalm as a product of postexilic times and in its subject-matter a compilation out of the earlier literature. The eighteenth psalm, however, claims in its title to be a triumphal hymn of David, who spoke unto Jehovah the words of this song in the day of Jehovahs delivering him out of the hand of all his enemies and out of the hand of Saul. It is also inserted, with the same superscription, in the narrative of Davids history as written in the Second Book of Samuel (chap. 22). The author of the Books of Samuel, says Delitzsch, found the song already existing as Davidic; the difference between his text and that of the Psalter shows that, even when he wrote, the song had been handed down by tradition for a considerable length of time. But others have questioned the Davidic authorship, and in quite recent times it has been suggested that it is an ideal hymn of the Israelitish people, who, as a reward for their irreproachableness and piety, expect the erection of the Messianic kingdom through a theophany, and along with it Israels dominion of the world.
One may naturally feel that the setting aside of the explicit statements placed at the head of such a song is a serious disparagement of the Hebrew writers. But a thorough study of the biblical literature, and the manner of its transmission and use by the Jewish people, will show that little value is to be given to the titles and superscriptions of these ancient songs. The habit of poetical embellishment led the Hebrew annalists to introduce fragments of song, and sometimes entire poems, into their narratives of the great events of the nation. If tradition report that a song was sung, or a prayer offered, or a speech made on some great historic occasion, there will not be wanting men of literary genius in subsequent times to write a composition presumably appropriate for such occasion. Songs celebrating great and notable events are not usually written on the day of their occurrence. On the contrary, they are as a rule the products of a much later time, and may be composed centuries afterward. Even poets of our own day compose psalms, lays, and ballads which they assume to put into the lips of holy men of old, and which may well be believed to represent the real life and spirit of an ancient hero. The Greek historians do not hesitate to formulate the very orations spoken by chieftains of a former age. The reader who will take pains to compare the correspondence between Solomon and Hiram, as given in 1st Kings 5, 2nd Chron. 2, and Josephus (Ant., 8:2, 6), will observe the freedom with which Jewish writers made record of such things. Davids words, as recorded in 1st Chron. 29, are probably a very free report, and therefore very largely the composition of another than David. In 1st Chron. 16:7-36, David is represented as putting into the hand of Asaph and his brethren a psalm of thanksgiving which, upon examination, is found to be compiled out of three probably postexilic hymns (namely, Psalms 96, 105:1-15, 106:1, 47, 48) Delitzsch holds, in reference to this composite ode, that the chronicler strings together familiar reminiscences from the Psalms after the manner of a mosaic, in order to express approximately the festive mood and festive strains of that day.
Such being the habit of the Hebrew writers, no serious weight should be given to the mere critical question of dates and authorship in poems which the historical writers, for purposes of embellishment, incorporate in the body of their narratives. A given poem may or may not have been composed at the time of the event it celebrates, or by the person to whom it is attributed. Such a question must be determined by internal evidence rather than external testimony. If the two agree, no question need be raised; if they do not agree, no serious consequences need be feared by allowing a rational criticism to do its legitimate work.
The fragments of poetry interwoven with the narrative of Numbers 21 are obviously designed in that connection to serve the purpose of pictorial embellishment. Verses 14 and 15 are cited from the Book of the Wars of Jehovah. Verses 17 and 18 and 27-30 are evidently the productions of ballad singers of the nation; but whether they were composed in the same generation as that of the events celebrated or in a later age may be an open question. In the account of Joshuas great battle at Gibeon (Josh. 10) the unknown writer quotes a fragment from the Book of Jasher (verses 12 and 13), and incorporates it in his narrative so naively that the majority of his readers have understood the poetical citation as well as its entire context to be a plain prosaic statement of fact. By calling attention to the constituent elements of these ancient writings modern biblical criticism has led most recent expositors to distinguish the poetry from the prose. The writer of the Book of Joshua quoted this fragment from the national anthology just as the compiler of the Books of Samuel quoted Davids lamentation over Saul and Jonathan from the same source, and also introduced the eighteenth psalm to adorn his narrative of Davids life.
As parallel with these facts of the Hebrew literature, and as a further illustration in point, we may turn to the famous Song of Moses, as recorded in Exod. 15:1-18. This splendid poem celebrates the triumph of Jehovah and his people at the Red Sea. The God of Israel is here depicted as a man of war, who hurls the chariots and hosts of Pharaoh into the sea. By the blast of his nostrils the waters were heaped up.
Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them;
There can be no reasonable doubt that this poem celebrates a momentous event in the history of Israel. One of the later psalmists also broke out in rapture over the thought of his nations rescue from Egypt, and declared that Jehovah rebuked the Red Sea, led Israel in the depths as in the wilderness, and covered their enemies with waters so that there was not one of them left. Then he adds, They believed his words; they sang his praise (Psalm 106:9-12). But while the psalmist thus referred to the wonderful interposition of God in behalf of his people and declared in general terms that they sang his praise, the compiler of the Book of Exodus incorporates in his narrative the song which Moses and Israel sang on the occasion of their deliverance. But must we now believe that the song of Exod. 15:1-18, is a composition of Moses and the identical language employed on the occasion referred to? A question of this kind cannot be permanently settled by dogmatic presumptions or assertions. Scientific criticism avers that songs of this character are not usually written on the day of victory or the next day thereafter. It makes appeal to the facts of literary usage and to the license freely taken by annalists in adorning their narratives with illustrative and appropriate pieces of poetry. It maintains that such expressions as thy holy habitation (Exod. 15:13), and the mountain of thine inheritance; the place which thou hast made for thy dwelling, O Jehovah; the sanctuary which thy hands have established (verse 17), are less natural and appropriate for Moses and Israel at the Red Sea than for Israel after they were established in Canaan. But the Song of Moses as it now stands in Exod. 15:1-18, may be a later revision of what was sung by Moses and Israel. A popular national ode would be likely to undergo many verbal changes and receive much supplement in the course of centuries, and such a poem may preserve the spirit of the occasion for which it was first written after having undergone modifications of a radical character. Later poets would naturally have celebrated such a triumph as that of Israel at the Red Sea, and numerous ballads of like cast may have become current among the people. An historian accustomed to adorn and enliven his description of great events by the insertion of such spirited songs would thus employ a current Song of Moses without ever entertaining the question of its authorship and date. No critic questions the historical purpose or occasion for which this song was written. Nor need we for one moment doubt that God could have inspired Moses with ability to write the song within one hour after he shook out the Egyptians in the midst of the sea (Exod. 14:27), and to have prophesied of the sanctuary that was to be established five hundred years thereafter in Jerusalem, the mountain of his inheritance. But the question is not one of possibilities, but of facts and probabilities. Devout criticism, in the handling of these questions of authorship and date, is in no conflict with the supernatural, but it does cry out against the unnatural. It insists that the true supernatural, which lies back of all divine revelation, is conserved more surely by a rational than by an irrational and unnatural exegesis.
Keeping in mind, then, the habit of the old Hebrew annalists in their free use of current songs to embellish and enliven narrative, we are not to be disturbed at finding poetry and prose singularly blended in the historical books of the Old Testament. Not infrequently one hesitates to say whether a description is to be understood literally or as a metaphorical embellishment of facts. For example, we read in Exod. 13:21, 22, as follows:
Jehovah went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them the way;
These statements and their numerous parallels in other parts of the Scriptures may be understood either as a record of outward, visible, historic fact, or as a poetical picture of the wonderful providence which was conspicuous in Israels deliverance from their numerous dangers at the period of the exodus. But who is to determine absolutely for all readers which of these two interpretations is the more correct? Some will insist that we must believe these words as plain literal statements or sacrifice the trustworthy character of the entire biblical record of the exodus. They refuse to allow any opinion outside of these alternatives. But others, equally learned and devout, see no more necessity for insisting on a literal interpretation of the pillar of cloud and of fire in these passages than of the cherub and the pavilion in Psalm 18:10, 11. They insist that in all such descriptions of divine interposition we have so many illustrative examples of the genius of the Hebrew writers for highly wrought word-painting. Where opinions differ on such a matter of literary judgment each reader must be allowed the liberty of deciding for himself and not for another.
As a further illustration of the apocalyptic elements in Hebrew song we cite the following passage from the song of Deborah (Judg. 5:4, 5):
O Jehovah, when thou didst go forth out of Seir,
Let us observe next how the same idea is expressed in Psalm 68:8, 9:
O God, when thou didst go forth before the people,
What is most conspicuous in these verses is their vivid concept of the immediate presence of God with his people. He marches like a great hero at the head of the thousands of Israel, and clouds and storms, earthquake and flood are recognized as outward symbols of his majesty. The obvious allusion is to the march of the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai. The signal interpositions of the Almighty in behalf of his people, from the time of their leaving Egypt until their entrance into the land of promise, were thus celebrated in the national songs.
The Song of Moses, in Dent. 32, is as fundamental and suggestive in the apocalyptic character of much of its language as it is exquisite in its literary form. It celebrates the principles of the divine government of the world, extols the righteousness and goodness of Jehovah as contrasted with the perverseness of Israel. It reveals God as the judge and avenger of his people, who will come quickly and pour out his fury upon the wicked, redeem his own people, and cause them to exult with him in everlasting triumph. Witness the conclusion of the song (verses 39-43), which may be suitably rendered as follows:
Behold ye now that I, even I, am he,
The prayer of Habakkuk the prophet (Hab. 3) is remarkable for its apocalyptic concepts of the divine government of the world. God is portrayed as coming from Teman and Mount Paran, covering the heavens with his glory. Beams of light stream from his radiant form while he stands and measures the earth, makes the nations tremble, and scatters the eternal mountains. Note especially verses 10 and 11:
The mountains saw thee and were in pain,
There are incorporated in the Pentateuch two apocalyptic songs of such exceptional significance as to justify a more extended comment. They are the oracular blessings attributed to Jacob and Moses, and recorded in Gen. 49 and Deut. 33. These superior products of ancient Hebrew literature were in their nature adapted to become very popular and to be repeated familiarly among the tribes of Israel. They are both in substance poetic apocalypses of various struggles and triumphs of the twelve tribes as supposed to be foreseen by the patriarch and the lawgiver. It was a prevalent opinion of antiquity that highly gifted souls, at the moment of their departure from the world, were wont to prophesy. Socrates is represented in Platos Apology as saying to his judges: Now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power.
That Socrates uttered something of this kind to his judges is altogether probable; that he spoke these very sentiments is certainly not impossible. But the well-trained student of history and literature knows that it is equally possible, and no less probable, that these words, as well as all the rest of the Apology, are the language and thought of Plato. In the introduction to his translation of this dialogue Jowett observes: In what relation the Apology of Plato stands to the real defense of Socrates there are no means of determining. The same thing may be said of the oracular blessings ascribed to Jacob and Moses. Their genuineness must be subjected to the same tests. Did these ancient worthies of the Hebrew people compose and utter the poems in question before their death? He would be bold indeed who would assume the affirmative of this question, and insist withal that the credibility and value of these scriptures depend upon our maintenance of that affirmative.
The fundamental question, first of all to be determined, is one of fact touching the usage and methods of literary art. All the studied compositions of human genius belong essentially to a department of the fine arts, and there is no good reason for excluding Hebrew poems and apocalypses from the same category. Is it, then, or is it not the habit of poets to transfer themselves in imaginative thought to bygone times, and compose sentiments appropriate for great heroes on particular occasions? This question answers itself with everyone who is familiar with the literature of any cultivated people. What we have already shown in our observations on the Song of Moses in Exod. 15 is therefore applicable also to the great poems of Gen. 49 and Deut. 33. The authorship and date of such productions are legitimate questions of criticism. It is usually the case that an author, writing long after the event to which his composition refers, betrays by incidental words and allusions the real period when he lived. The prevailing verdict of modern criticism is that both these oracular poems belong to a period long after the days of Moses. But the approximate date of each is a more difficult question, and they have been assigned by different critics to almost every period between the time of David and the Babylonian exile. This diversity of opinion, however, need not be considered strange, when even greater diversity exists respecting the time and place of the composition of the Book of Job. Our sole object in these pages is neither to maintain nor deny the genuineness of these prophetic songs, but to show that their value for doctrine and instruction in righteousness is not dependent on that question of criticism. We see no antecedent improbability, much less an impossibility, in such men as Jacob and Moses uttering these prophetic blessings on the tribes of Israel. But we are bound in all honor and truthfulness to affirm that it was just as possible, and much more in accord with what we know of the literature of other peoples, for inspired poets of the times of David, or later, to have written them. The author in each case transfers himself in imagination to the position of the great hero to whom the song is attributed. The prophecy of Jacob purports to be a survey of the future of the twelve tribes as seen by the patriarch in Egypt when he was about to die. The blessing of Moses assumes to be the words with which the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death. Both of these poems move in the same general line of thought, but with such numerous variations as two different writers, at the times supposed, would naturally have conceived. Jacobs oracle has a more secular cast, and contains curses as well as blessings; Moses blessing has a more spiritual and theocratic tone, and contains no word of censure for any of the tribes. In Jacobs prophecy Simeon and Levi are associated, and are both condemned because of their wanton cruelty in the slaughter of the Shechemites (comp. Gen. 49:5-7, and 34:25-31). But in Moses blessing Simeon is not mentioned, and Levi is extolled as the well-tried priest and teacher of the chosen people. In Gen. 49:8-12, Judah is praised among his brethren as preeminent for leadership, conquest, royalty, and wealth; but in Deut. 33:7, he is passed over with a few words of doubtful import. From Moses point of view the ultimate glories of the tribe of Judah seem to be hidden by reason of the nearer vision of the priesthood of Levi and the prosperity of Joseph. In both poems Joseph receives notable distinction, for Jacobs passionate fondness for his favorite son was ever memorable, and Moses could not be supposed to ignore the myriads of Ephraim and the thousands of Manasseh.
These prophetic compositions are obviously the products of different periods, but in their contents and general form they are noticeably analogous. There are also verbal correspondencies which show that they are not altogether independent of each other. The patriarch, in telling his children what shall befall them in the after time, is portrayed as a prophet of the future; but Moses blessing contemplates the conquest of Canaan as already accomplished, and Israel dwelling safely in a land of corn and wine. The opening words in Moses blessing, however, are more apocalyptic in style than anything to be found in the prophecy of Jacob. The Hebrew text of Deut. 33:2, is probably corrupt; but with slight emendation we may read it thus:
Jehovah forth from Sinai came,
This is a poetic concept of Gods wonderful kindness toward his people during all their journeys in the desert, and should be compared with Judg. 5:4, 5, and Psalm 68:8, 9. But it would seem very unnatural for Moses to say what is written in verse 4:
Moses commanded us a law,
The probability is that both these songs received modifications in the course of years. The entire exordium. of Moses blessing (verses 2-5) may have been the addition of a later hand. But whatever their origin and history, they occupy their appropriate places in the volume of divine inspiration, and their apocalyptic elements are obvious. They constitute together a twofold poetic picture of the struggles and triumphs of the tribes of Israel.
The oracles of Balaam, as written in Num. 23 and 24, are also deserving of our notice on account of their apocalyptic style and setting. They are more general in their scope than the blessings of Jacob and Moses, but they are of the nature of prophetic blessings on the tribes of Israel. The famous soothsayer is summoned from the mountains of the East to curse Jacob and utter wrath against Israel, but Jehovah puts words of blessing in his mouth, and he declares that he cannot go beyond the word of Jehovah, to do either good or evil of his own mind.
What is very conspicuous in Balaams oracles is their fourfold repetition of blessings. First be speaks from a position whence he can behold the extreme portion of the camp of Israel, and where Balak had prepared for him seven altars, seven bullocks, and seven rams. There he took up his parable and said (Num. 23:7-10):
From Aram Balak leads me,
The king of Moab is chagrined and offended by such words, and takes Balaam to another part of the mountain whence he may not see the whole camp; but the second oracle (Num. 23:18-24) is a fuller blessing than the first, and declares that no enchantment or divination can prevail against the people of God. Thereafter, in varied form, a third and a fourth oracle of blessing follow, each predictive of the future glory of Israel (see Num. 24:3-9, and 15-34). In his God-given strength
He shall devour the nations, his enemies,
. . . . . . .
There shall come forth a Star out of Jacob,
Besides Moab and Edom (which is in the poetic parallelism not different from Seir) five other nations are referred to, namely, Amalek, the Kenite, Asshur, Kittim, and Eber, seven in all, which are to come in contact with the people of Jacob. In all this we may see the outline of an apocalypse of Israels future struggles and triumphs among the nations. The fourth oracle is worthy to be compared with the fuller prophecies of Isaiah (chaps. 13-23), Jeremiah (46-51), Ezekiel (25-32), Amos (1, 2), and Zephaniah (2). All these are but amplified delineations of the concept of divine judgment on the nations, and of God’s overruling wars and revolutions so as to secure in the end the peace and glory of his peoplethe righteous nation. In Joel 3:2, we have it all summed up in a single picture thus: I will gather all nations and bring them into a valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people. This idea of bringing all the nations into judgment, and out of them all redeeming those who fear God and work righteousness, is a fundamental concept of the biblical revelations.
The conclusion we reach from this brief study of apocalyptic songs is that in a faithful and thorough interpretation of them their subjective ideal elements must be duly recognized. Whether they stand apart as independent psalms or are incorporated in the historical narratives, their essential contents as revelations of the righteousness and mercy of God are in either case the same. When they are assigned by their headings to a particular author or occasion such assignment is not in itself sufficient always to determine the authorship or the date of the poem. For the highest literature abounds with compositions which gifted poets have written as appropriate for persons and events of a distant past. And it requires but a slight examination of the habit of the Hebrew historians to see how freely they made use of such poetic compositions to embellish their lifelike annals.
In view of what has now been shown and of what follows in the next chapter, we may here appropriately cite the words of Herder. Poetry, he observes, is a divine language, yet not in the sense that we understand by it what the divine Being in himself feels and utters; whatever was given to the most godlike men, even through a higher influence, to feel and experience in themselves, was still human . The spirit of poetry was first exhibited in significant names and expressions full of imagery and of feeling, and I know of no poetry in the world in which this origin is exhibited in greater purity than in (that of the Hebrews). The first specimen which presents itself in it (Gen. 1) is a series of pictures exhibiting a view of the universe, and arranged in accordance with the dictates of human feeling. Light is the first uttered word of the Creator, and the instrument of divine efficiency in the sensitive human soul. By means of this the creation is unfolded and expanded. The heavens and the earth, night and day, the diurnal and nocturnal luminaries, creatures in the sea and on the land, are measured and estimated with reference to the human eye, to the wants and the powers of feeling and of arrangement peculiar to man. The wheel of creation revolves upon a circumference embracing all that the eye can reach, and stands still in himself as the center of the circle. In giving names to all, and ordering all from the impulse of his own inward feeling, and with reference to himself, he becomes an imitator of the Divinity, a second Creator, a true ______, a creative poet.
Saul hath slain his thousands,
So the great victory at the Red Sea would elicit spontaneous outbursts of exultation from Moses and the children of Israel, and Miriam and the women would respond to it with timbrels and with dances. But that the song of Exod. 15:1-18, was composed and committed to memory by the people of Israel before any celebration of their victory may reasonably be questioned.
I am old and blind!
See the entire poem and introductory note in Schaff and Gilmans Library of Religious Poetry, p. 10. New York, 1881.