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What do you mean by "prophecy?" If you think you know, be sure about it, because in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred people do not know; you may be the hundredth instance. Probably the reply will be: Prophecy means foretelling; prophecy may be described as a species of fortune-telling: such and such things will happen to Tyre in a hundred years, and such and such things will occur to Babylon in a hundred and fifty years. That is not prophecy; it is only one of the least and pettiest definitions of that all-enclosing term. In its highest meaning, prophecy signifies teaching, revelation, disclosure of aspects of providence, government, and destiny. Prophecy is a word which covers the whole school of God; it is the floor and the roof and the ceiling of that sanctuary of education. A prophetic view of the future is a great reading of spiritual and moral issues, not that the palace shall become a desert, and the banqueting-hall the rendezvous of eagles and beasts of prey; all that may be surmised and dreamed of in nightmare. The prophet was a man who read the future in its big print and its little print, its tragedies, its issues, supreme, sublime, and everlasting. Thus the prophet never ceases from the world. The prophets are not dead; they have been reincarnated, shaped in other forms, and set to other uses, and still their great function remains identical namely, the function of reading truly, loudly, solemnly, and fearlessly the harvest when only the seed is in the hand. He is no prophet who looks upon the fields in the autumn, and says, What is in it? He is the prophet who, having seen the seed, foretells the harvest. There was no difficulty in foretelling the issue of Tyre and Babylon, and the empires of wickedness; a child in the kingdom of God could have foretold that. Wherever you see wine triumphant, self-indulgence supreme, the love of luxury carried up to the point of idolatry, then lift up your voice and cry, saying, Thou shalt perish from the earth! That is prophecy. Prophecy does not write almanacs; it publishes eternal issues.
"For the prophecy came not in old time," literally, The prophecy came not at any time: it never did come, by man; it was never a merely human invention. There was always more prophecy than there was vessel to hold it. The casket is not the wine, or the jewel. Man could never invent God's meaning of prophecy. Man was not morally equal to the task. The Old Testament was full of moral sublimity. Its mere intellectual ability is nothing compared with its moral fervour. The morality of the Bible is its inspiration, and its defence. If the Bible be a bad book it is not inspired; if the Bible tend to the belittling, the dwarfing, and the retrogression of human nature, it never came from God. God never published anything but music; God never spake anything but gospels. When any other word was forced out of him namely, the word of wrath, condemnation, and judgment it was forced out of him because of his very love of right and music and gospel. The Old Testament is the great cleansing force in ancient history. It will have every corner looked into; it will have no drain covered up that ought to be exposed, or exposed that ought to be covered up; it will have everything right. Nothing is settled until it is settled right. The Bible will have no compromises. So long as there is one evil force in the land it must not be bribed into silence and non-resistance; it must be cut into little pieces, and be cut again into finer fractions, and the whole integer of wickedness must be cut up and destroyed and forgotten. What wonder if some should arise in the after ages and say, No prophecy ever came by man: man was but the vessel which held the rain of heaven but the instrument through which God breathed his music.
"Holy men" are referred to. Do not let us frivolously pass over that expression. The men become new men by the epithet that is attached to them. The emphasis is not on "men," the emphasis is on "holy": and why is the emphasis on "holy" but to express the thought that God has always elected character? Men of character spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, mentally substantial men, morally noble souls, minds that knew the art, the mystery, and the miracle of prayer; men who walked with God. If there were more such men there would be more prophets. Character is wanting, not genius. The Lord will have nothing to do with what we call the higher mental grade of men. He knows they are never to be trusted, they are always changing their point of view, they are continually recolouring their rainbow, they are always outwriting and outdriving themselves: the Lord, therefore, will employ children, babes, babblers, people who hardly know anything about language, but who, in their very endeavour to speak, blunder and hesitate, and say things upside down; and yet God is so interested in their incoherence that he makes it the sweetest music in the world. God never employs finished preachers, very highly certificated preachers, who know all about grammar, and nothing else. The grammarian can never translate the New Testament. Only he who has lived and moved and had his being in God can tell what Jesus meant by the Sermon on the Mount and by the death on the Cross. The Lord will employ holiness, simplicity, pureness, downright earnest, burning sincerity of heart; but as for genius he has no place for it in all his sanctuary. Yet there have been men of genius in the house of God. Yes, that is true, but the genius has been so outmatched by the simplicity that it has fallen into a secondary place, and itself has been the first to say, Unprofitable! unless thou wilt make use of me, thou condescending Christ.
"Holy men were moved by the Holy Ghost." Observe, the one "holy" is balanced by the other "Holy," like to like: so have I seen two dewdrops roll into one. "Moved by": the literal figure is that of a ship in full sail, heaven's breezes filling the throbbing canvas, and the vessel moving under these great natural impulses. It is not leaves blown by the wind; that would have been a poor figure: it is not sand tossed by the storm; that would have been a bewildering metaphor: but a ship, well-built, well-rigged, well-manned, set to heaven's breeze, and moving to an appointed haven. The figure is clear, vivid, simple, perfect. Understand, therefore, that prophets are not absolutely unconscious. If the figure is to be applied practically, then we shall have the idea of a ship set so as to catch the wind. He is a poor navigator who, having ship and sails, does not know how to spread the canvas, and who may bunglingly spread it the wrong way, so that the very wind of heaven meant to help him shall fight against his purpose. Men must put themselves into the way of inspiration. If men want water they must not go to the wilderness, but to the fountain, the river, the well-head: it men want to grow in religious impulse, they must go to church, they must go to the altar, they must frequent the sanctuary, they must put themselves in the way. Business men will support this theory. Who would open a business establishment on the centre of a boundless plain, and expect to drive a thriving trade in the desolation of the wilderness? Who would put himself to the trouble of carrying up his warehouse to the top of Mount Sinai? Men of commercial instinct and habit would say, You must get amongst the people; you must put yourself in the way of doing trade; you have falsely environed yourself, you are out of place; nothing can come of this but disappointment, alienation, away to the market-place, to the thoroughfare, to the place where merchants most do congregate. This is precisely the teaching of the figure that is now before us: we must so set our sails as to catch the heavenly wind, we must be in the places where God's name is recorded. Men have a right in coming to church to expect to be inspired: but they must come in the right state of mind. No man ever went into the humblest sanctuary and fell down before God, saying, Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth, who did not hear all heaven talking to him. When men go to church in the right spirit, with broken-heartedness, penitence, self-misgiving, they have a right to expect that the sails of the soul will be filled with heavenly gales, and the soul borne on to its desired haven. Oh, wasteful are they who have had the chance to be inspired, and have set their sails in the wrong way!
What we have to do is to wait upon God. Why tarriest thou at the King's door? I tarry for the King's presence. Why not fly abroad and say what is in thy mind to the age? Because there is nothing in my mind, and the age does not want any man; I am waiting for my message, when I receive my message from the King I will be off; I will salute no man by the way, I will hasten to my assigned sphere. The reason why we are making so little headway in the Church is that we are making so many sentences. We are not talking out of God, but out of ourselves, and the age cannot drink out of so empty a vessel. When a man sits down to write a sentence, calling it part of a sermon, he may easily be guilty of blasphemy. We do not want any of thy sentences, poor scribe: come to the house in the right tone of mind, set thy sails in the inspirational direction, say to God, Lord, I am ready, by thy grace, do with me what thou wilt; and the sentences will come, and if they do not come the silence will be better than the speech. Here is the ruin of the ministry. It has become a profession, it has become a sermon-making machine; it is no longer the instrument through which God breathes the blast of fire, or the melody of peace and love. The inspiration must be that of the heart. We must look more to the heart and less to the tongue. The true preacher is as much a hearer as he is a speaker. He does not know what he is going to say; if he did he would be a thief in the house of God, a manufacturer, an artist, a mechanic.
Holy men of God spake as the sails of their souls were filled by the Holy Ghost. This is inspiration; this is power. The music is not in the instrument, it is in the man who uses it; the song is in the soul. It is possible so to utter words as to have no connection with them. A man may have written something and may read it to me, and yet it may not be the man who is reading; he is only uttering with his tongue words which he himself had arranged and forgotten. It is possible so to play music as to lose the music and have nothing but sound, yea, every note may be correct, but there may be no soul. There are perfect skeletons; that is to say, there are skeletons that are perfect; every bone there, the whole anatomy complete: what is wanting? The fire.
"But there were false prophets also among the people." We cannot get rid of this "But." We have often met it, notably in the Acts of the Apostles, early in the history of the first Church. We were reading musically and easily, flowing down the history like a river between green banks, when we came to chapter five of the Acts of the Apostles "But": after that torrent and cascade, rushing, tumultuous, broken, shattered water, the old liquid, mirror-looking river was dead. So we come here upon this same "But," written in significant capitals, standing at the very forefront of the second chapter. This division of verses is of course mechanical and clerical, but there would seem now and then to be something more than human in the arrangement; the words are so picked out and set before the eyes as to be their own annotation. "But there were false prophets also among the people," always amongst the people, promising them impossibilities, selling them painted heavens, offering them paradises in gilt. Why do not the people dismiss such prophets? You can know when a man is a false prophet by the size of his scheme. False prophets always have little schemes, petty ends, selfish policies. Falsehood is known by ignobleness. Where-ever a man is telling you to look out for yourself, he is a false prophet; wherever a man is urging you to save your life, he is a false teacher, he that saveth his life shall lose it: whoever says unto you, "As ye would that others should do unto you, do ye also unto them," is a prophet from heaven; whoever says, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God," came from heaven, and the fragrance of heaven's summer is in his very clothing. There are prophecies that look as if they were full of benevolent and immediate progress, something that can be taken home now; and there are prophecies so big, so grand, that they must be lived a line at a time, before we can really appreciate their magnitude and appropriate their goodness. Such are the prophecies of Christ. O thou Christ, why dost thou not come to-day? That is the inquiry of impatience. Why dost thou permit little kings and queens to be lording it over us? That is the cry of impatience. The Lord is fast dethroning all monarchies and popedoms, the Lord is against them all. The monarchy which he will set up is the monarchy of the Son of man, crowned Immanuel, in the person of Jesus Christ, the infinite Saviour of the world. And as for those of us who hold temporarily little dignities and small offices, we are being used for a purpose, and if we use our office humbly, and carry it as a burden rather than as a pride, we shall not be harshly treated at the last; but if we set up our little functions as if they were of any consequence to the universe he will dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. I will hasten to the school of the prophets, I will not linger in the dame-school of imbecility; I will seek but the man who is most holy, and he shall be my teacher, and he shall pray for me, and show me how to pray; and whether I find that prophet in the Episcopal Church, or in the Papal Church, or in the poorest little conventicle that is roofed in with debt and walled round with difficulty, I will find out that man of the over-soul, that wondrous man that carries fire that does not burn him, and I will abide with him to the end of my days.
O thou giver of all good, thou hast said unto each of us, what is now thy petition, and what is now thy request? and it shall be granted unto thee. These are the challenges of thy love, these are the inquiries of thine omniscience, for thou knowest the answer ere the question is put: yet it hath pleased thee to permit us to speak in our own words, and to tell our own little tale of need and weariness, that we may be comforted somewhat by hearing our own voice. Thou dost work thus mysteriously; whilst we talk of our misery we forget it, when we speak confidingly to thee of all our sorrow we wonder at the end what we have been talking about: thus dost thou displace sorrow by joy; thus dost thou feed our hunger, and we do not see the hand that supplies the bread. Verily it is a mysterious life! sometimes we think we know it, and then we feel that we know nothing whatever respecting it; now and again a light strikes us, and we say, This is the morning we have waited for, and, behold, the light goes as it came and we are left in deeper gloom. Sometimes we think we see right beyond the grave; if we cannot see the flowers that are growing on the farther land we think we detect their sweet odours in the winds that blow from thence; then again death seizes us, and we have no hope, and we lie down in the pit of despair, and cover ourselves with darkness as with a garment. Yet amidst all tumult and unrest and trouble, we hear that same voice of music saying, What is now thy petition? and what is now thy request? and it shall be granted unto thee, as if we could hold all heaven, as if we could find room for thyself. How thou dost bless us, and we know it not; how we forget because of our familiarity that every dewdrop comes from God, and every blade of grass is part of our Father's treasure. Thou has taken all things into thy keeping and not a sparrow falleth to the ground without thee. The very hairs of our head are all numbered; in all the lap of the summer there is not one little flower that thou knowest not, the least of these is thine; thou didst make it, we can but pluck and destroy it. We thank thee for all days that remind us of heaven, days of the Son of Man upon the earth, beautiful in their dawning, grand in their zenith, and tender even in their setting glory. For the sabbath days that open Paradise, how can we thank thee? we know they are thy making, they bear the image and superscription of God our Father; they are gifts of rest, they are pledges of love, they are hints of heaven; we thank thee for great sanctuary calls and visions and privileges; we bless thee for every Tabor of transfiguration, for every Horeb, every mount of God; for all the holy words we have heard which have put us to shame, and then have created great hope in us, we bless the Lord. Be with all whom we love and for whom we should pray; be with those who have come home from school and college and other engagement to complete the household circle; and make every family a joy and a blessing to itself and to others. The Lord look upon those to whom there is no time of joy, burden-bearers, men and women who know the mystery of heartache and daily disappointment; who lift up their head to an empty sky, and look down to the earth and behold it is all winter. Be with those whom thou hast appointed to be teachers of patience, quiet resignation, and domestic heroism; may they not fail in the furnace, may they glorify God in sorrow. Be with every man who meant this year to be the best of his life: he dare not open some of the pages of the record, yet here and there we see some line which gives him heart again, and he says that, God helping him, next year shall be better than the past. We thank thee for every holy vow, for every radiant hope, for everything that makes the soul cleaner, and better, and stronger. Be with those who are looking forward to new engagements, and new relationships, and new responsibilities; honest men who are struggling with daily difficulties, souls that could do more if they had the opportunity: answer thou every lawful and noble aspiration, and crown young hopes with rich benediction. The Lord look upon all the earth: is it not a little one, the Zoar of the skies, a tiny place? Yet it held the Cross. Beside that Cross, our sin so great becomes a departing shadow. O Son of Man, Son of God, dying, rising, triumphing Priest of the universe, wash us, cleanse us from all our sin. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Peter 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany