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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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is the discoursing publicly on any religious subject. From the sacred records, says Robert Robinson, we learn that when men began to associate for the purpose of worshipping the Deity, Enoch prophesied, Judges 1:14-15 . We have a very short account of this prophet and his doctrine; enough, however, to convince us that he taught the principal truths of natural and revealed religion. Conviction of sin was in his doctrine, and communion with God was exemplified in his conduct, Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5-6 . From the days of Enoch to the time of Moses, each patriarch worshipped God with his family: probably several assembled at new moons, and alternately instructed the whole company. "Noah," it is said, "was a preacher of righteousness," 1 Peter 3:19-20; 2 Peter 2:5 . Abraham commanded his household alter him to keep the way of the Lord, and to do justice and judgment, Genesis 18:19; and Jacob, when his house lapsed to idolatry, remonstrated against it, and exhorted all them that were with him to put away the strange gods, and go up with him to Bethel, Genesis 35:2-3 . Melchisedec, also, we may consider as the father, the priest, and the prince, of his people; publishing the glad tidings of peace and salvation, Genesis 14; Hebrews 7.

Moses was a most eminent prophet and preacher, raised up by the authority of God, and by whom, it was said, came the law, John 1:17 . This great man had much at heart the promulgation of his doctrine: he directed it to be inscribed on pillars, to be transcribed in books, and to be taught both in public and private by word of mouth, Deuteronomy 4:9; Deuteronomy 6:9; Deuteronomy 17:18; Deuteronomy 27:8; Deuteronomy 31:19; Numbers 5:23 . He himself set the example of each; and how he and Aaron preached, we may see by several parts of his writings. The first discourse was heard with profound reverence and attention; the last was both uttered and received with raptures, Exodus 4:31; Deuteronomy 33:7-8 , &c. Public preaching does not appear under this economy to have been attached to the priesthood: priests were not officially preachers; and we have innumerable instances of discourses delivered in assemblies by men of other tribes beside that of Levi, Psalms 68:11 . Joshua was an Ephraimite; but, being full of the spirit of wisdom, he gathered the tribes to Shechem, and harangued the people of God, Deuteronomy 34:9; Joshua 24. Solomon was a prince of the house of Judah; Amos, a herdsman of Tekoa; yet both were preachers, and one at least was a prophet, 1 Kings 2; Amos 7:14-15 . When the ignorant notions of Pagans, the vices of their practice, and the idolatry of their pretended worship, were in some sad periods incorporated into the Jewish religion by the princes of that nation, the prophets and all the seers protested against this apostasy; and they were persecuted for so doing. Shemaiah preached to Rehoboam, the princes, and all the people at Jerusalem, 2 Chronicles 12:5; Azariah and Hanani preached to Asa and his army, 2 Chronicles 15:1; 2 Chronicles 16:7; Micaiah, to Ahab. Some of them opened schools, or houses of instruction; and there to their disciples they taught the pure religion of Moses. At Naioth, in the suburbs of Ramah, there was one where Samuel dwelt; and there was one at Jericho, and a third at Bethel, to which Elijah and Elisha often resorted. Thither the people went on Sabbath days and at new moons, and received public lessons of piety and morality, 1 Samuel 19:18; 2 Kings 2:2; 2 Kings 2:5; 2 Kings 4:2-3 . Through all this period, however, there was a dismal confusion of the useful ordinance of public preaching. Sometimes they had no open vision, and the word of the Lord was precious, or scarce; the people only heard it now and then. At other times they were left without a teaching priest, and without law. And at other seasons again, itinerants, both princes, priests, and Levites, were sent through all the country, to carry the book of the law, and to teach in the cities. In a word, preaching flourished when pure religion grew; and when the last decayed, the first was suppressed. Moses had not appropriated preaching to any order of men: persons, places, times, and manners, were all left open and discretional. Many of the discourses were preached in camps and courts, in streets, schools, cities, villages; sometimes, with great composure and coolness; at other times, with vehement action and rapturous energy; sometimes, in a plain, blunt style; at other times, in all the magnificent pomp of eastern allegory. On some occasions, the preachers appeared in public with visible signs, with implements of war, with yokes of slavery, or something adapted to their subject. They gave lectures on these, held them up to view, girded them on, broke them in pieces, rent their garments, rolled in the dust, and endeavoured, by all the methods they could devise, agreeably to the customs of their country, to impress the minds of their auditors with the nature and importance of their doctrines. These men were highly esteemed by the pious part of the nation; and princes thought proper to keep seers and others who were scribes, who read and expounded the law, 2 Chronicles 34:29-30; 2 Chronicles 35:15 . Hence, false prophets, bad men, who found their account in pretending to be good, crowded the courts of princes. Jezebel, an idolatress, had four hundred prophets of Baal; and Ahab, a pretended worshipper of Jehovah, had as many pretended prophets of his own profession, 2 Chronicles 18:5 .

When the Jews were carried captive into Babylon, the prophets who were with them inculcated the principles of religion, and endeavoured to possess their minds with an aversion to idolatry; and, to the success of preaching, we may attribute the re-conversion of the Jews to the belief and worship of one God; a conversion that remains to this day. The Jews have since fallen into horrid crimes; but they have never since this period lapsed into gross idolatry, Hosea 2, 3; Ezekiel 2; 3:34. There were not wanting, however, multitudes of false prophets among them, whose characters are strikingly delineated by the true prophets, and which the reader may see in Ezekiel 13; Isaiah 56; Jeremiah 23. When the seventy years of the captivity were expired, the good prophets and preachers, Zerubbabel, Joshua, Haggai, and others, having confidence in the word of God, and being concerned to possess their natural, civil, and religious rights, endeavoured, by all means, to extricate themselves and their countrymen from that mortifying state into which the crimes of their ancestors had brought them. They wept, fasted, prayed, preached, prophesied, and at length prevailed. The chief instruments were Nehemiah and Ezra; the former was governor, and reformed the civil state; the latter was a scribe of the law of the God of heaven, and applied himself to ecclesiastical matters, in which he rendered the noblest service to his country, and to all posterity. He collected and collated MSS. of the sacred writings, and arranged and published the books of the holy canon in their present form. To this he added a second work, as necessary as the former: he revised and new modelled public teaching, and exemplified his plan in his own person. The Jews had almost lost, in the seventy years captivity, their original language; that was now become dead; and they spoke a jargon made up of their own language and that of the Chaldeans, and other nations, with whom they had been mingled. Formerly, preachers had only explained subjects: now they were obliged to explain words; words which, in the sacred code, were become obsolete, equivocal, or dead. Houses were now opened, not for ceremonial worship, as sacrificing, for this was confined to the temple; but for moral and religious instruction, as praying, preaching, reading the law, divine worship, and social duties. These houses were called synagogues; the people repaired thither for morning and evening prayer; and on Sabbaths and festivals, the law was read and expounded to them. We have a short but beautiful description of the manner of Ezra's first preaching, Nehemiah 8. Upward of fifty thousand people assembled in a street, or large square, near the water gate. It was early in the morning of a Sabbath day. A pulpit of wood, in the fashion of a small tower, was placed there on purpose for the preacher; and this turret was supported by a scaffold, or temporary gallery, where, in a wing on the right hand of the pulpit, sat six of the principal preachers; and in another on the left, seven. Thirteen other principal teachers, and many Levites, were present also, on scaffolds erected for the purpose, alternately to officiate. When Ezra ascended the pulpit, he produced and opened the book of the law, and the whole congregation instantly rose up from their seats, and stood. Then he offered up prayer and praise to God. The people bowing their heads and worshipping the Lord with their faces to the ground; and at the close of the prayer, with uplifted hands, they solemnly pronounced, "Amen! Amen!" Then all standing, Ezra, assisted at times by the Levites, read the law distinctly, gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. The sermons delivered so affected the hearers, that they wept excessively; and about noon the sorrow became so exuberant and immeasurable, that it was thought necessary by the governor, the preacher, and the Levites, to restrain it. "Go your way," said they, "eat the fat, and drink the sweet, send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared." The wise and benevolent sentiments of these noble souls were imbibed by the whole congregation, and fifty thousand troubled hearts were calmed in a moment. Home they returned, to eat, to drink, to send portions, and rejoice, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them. Plato was living at this time, teaching dull philosophy to cold academics; but what was he, and what was Xenophon, or Demosthenes, or any of the Pagan orators, in comparison with these men? From this period to that of the appearance of Jesus Christ, public preaching was universal; synagogues were multiplied, vast numbers attended, and elders and rulers were appointed for the purpose of order and instruction.

The most celebrated preacher that arose before the appearance of Jesus Christ was John the Baptist. He was commissioned from heaven to be the harbinger of the Messiah. His subjects were few, plain, and important. His style was vehement, his images bold, his deportment solemn, his action eager, and his morals strict. But this bright morning star gave way to the illustrious Sun of righteousness, who now arose on a benighted world. Jesus Christ certainly was the Prince of teachers. Who but can admire the simplicity and majesty of his style, the beauty of his images, the alternate softness and severity of his address, the choice of his subjects, the gracefulness of his deportment, and the indefatigableness of his zeal? Let the reader charm and solace himself in the study and contemplation of the character, excellency, and dignity of this divine teacher, as he will find them delineated in the evangelists.

The Apostles copied their divine Master. They formed multitudes of religious societies, and were abundantly successful in their labours. They confined their attention to religion, and left the schools to dispute, and politicians to intrigue. The doctrines they preached they supported entirely by evidence; and neither had nor required such assistance as human laws or worldly policy, the eloquence of schools or the terror of arms, could afford them.

The Apostles being dead, every thing came to pass as they had foretold; the whole Christian system, in time, underwent a miserable change; preaching shared the fate of other institutions, and the glory of the primitive church gradually degenerated. Those writers whom we call the fathers, however, held up to view by some as models for imitation, do not deserve that indiscriminate praise ascribed to them. Christianity, it is true, is found in their writings; but how sadly incorporated with Pagan philosophy and Jewish allegory! It must, indeed, be allowed, that, in general, the simplicity of Christianity was maintained, though under gradual decay, during the first three centuries. The next five centuries produced many pious and excellent preachers, both in the Latin and Greek church, though the doctrine continued to degenerate. The Greek pulpit was adorned with some eloquent orators. Basil, bishop of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, preacher at Antioch, and afterward patriarch, as he was called, of Constantinople, and Gregory Nazianzen, who all flourished in the fourth century, seem to have led the fashion of preaching in the Greek church; Jerom and Augustine did the same in the Latin church. The first preachers differed much in pulpit action; the greater part used very moderate and sober gestures. They delivered their sermons all extempore, while there were notaries who took down what they said. Sermons in those days were all in the vulgar tongue: the Greeks preached in Greek, the Latins in Latin. They did not preach by the clock, so to speak, but were short or long as they saw occasion; though an hour was about the usual time. Sermons were generally both preached and heard standing; but sometimes both speaker and auditors sat, especially the aged and the infirm. The fathers were fond of allegory; for Origen, that everlasting allegorizer, had set them the example. Before preaching, the preacher usually went into a vestry to pray, and afterward to speak to such as came to salute him. He prayed with his eyes shut in the pulpit. The first word the preacher uttered to the people when he ascended the pulpit was, "Peace be with you;" or, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with you all;" to whom the assembly first added, "Amen," and in after times they answered, "And with thy spirit." Degenerate, however, as these days were, in comparison of those of the Apostles, yet they were golden ages in comparison with the times that followed, when metaphysical reasoning, mystical divinity, yea, Aristotelian categories, and reading the lives of saints, were substituted in the place of sermons. The pulpit became a stage where ludicrous priests obtained the vulgar laugh by the lowest kind of wit, especially at the festivals of Christmas and Easter.

But the glorious Reformation was the offspring of preaching, by which mankind were reformed; there was a standard, and the religion of the times was put to the trial by it. The avidity of the common people to read the Scriptures, and to hear them expounded, was wonderful; and the papists were so fully convinced of the benefits of frequent public instruction, that they, who were justly called unpreaching prelates, and whose pulpits, to use an expression of Latimer, had been "bells without clappers" for many a long year, were obliged for shame to set up regular preaching again. The church of Rome has produced some great preachers since the Reformation, but none equal to the reformed preachers. And a question naturally arises here, which it would be unpardonable to pass over in silence, concerning the singular effect of the preaching of the reformed, which was general, national, universal reformation. In the dark times of popery there had arisen now and then some famous popular preachers, who had zealously inveighed against the vices of the times, and whose sermons had produced sudden and amazing effects on their auditors; but all these effects had died away with the preachers who had produced them, and all things had gone back into their old state. Law, learning, commerce, society at large had not been improved. Here a new scene opens; preachers arise less popular, perhaps less indefatigable and exemplary; their sermons produce less striking immediate effects; and yet their auditors go away and agree by whole nations to reform. Jerom Savonarola, Jerom Narni, Capistran, Connecte, and many others, had produced, by their sermons, great immediate effects. When Connecte preached, the ladies lowered their head dresses, and committed quilled caps by hundreds to the flames. When Narni taught the people in lent, from the pulpits of Rome, half the city went from his sermons crying along the streets, "Lord, have mercy upon us;" so that in only one passion week, two thousand crowns' worth of ropes were sold to make scourges with; and when he preached before the pope to the cardinals and bishops, and painted the sin of non-residence in its own colours, he frightened thirty or forty bishops, who heard him, home to their diocesses. In the pulpit of the university of Salamanca, he induced eight hundred students to quit all worldly prospects of honour, riches, and pleasure, and to become penitents in divers monasteries. We know the fate of Savonarola, and others might be added; but all lamented the momentary duration of the effects produced by their labours. Narni himself was so disgusted with his office, that he renounced preaching, and shut himself up in his cell to mourn over his irreclaimable contemporaries; for bishops went back to the court, and rope makers lay idle again.

Our reformers taught all the good doctrines which had been taught by these men, and they added two or three more, by which they laid the axe to the root of the apostasy, and produced general reformation. Instead of appealing to popes and canons, and founders and fathers, they only quoted them, and referred their auditors to the Holy Scriptures for law. Pope Leo X did not know this when he told Prierio, who complained of Luther's heresy, "Friar Martin has a fine genius." They also taught the people what little they knew of Christian liberty; and so led them into a belief that they might follow their own ideas in religion, without the consent of a confessor, a diocesan, a pope, or a council. They went farther, and laid the stress of all religion on justifying faith.

Since the reformers we have had multitudes who have entered into their views with disinterestedness and success; and in the present times, both in the church and among other religious societies, names might be mentioned which would do honour to any nation; for though there are too many who do not fill up that important station with proportionate piety and talents, yet we have men who are conspicuous for their extent of knowledge, depth of experience, originality of thought, fervency of zeal, consistency of deportment, and great usefulness in the Christian church.

The preceding sketch will show how mighty an agent preaching has been in all ages, in raising, and maintaining, and reviving the spirit of religion. Wherever it has had this power, let it however be remarked, it has consisted in the declaration, the proclamation, of the truth of God, as contained in his early revelations to man, and afterward embodied in the Holy Scriptures. The effect too has been produced by preachers living themselves under the influence of this truth, and filled "with faith and the Holy Ghost," depending wholly upon God's blessing for success, and going forth in his name, with ardent longing to "win souls," and to build up the church in knowledge and holiness. For preaching is not a profession; but a work of divine appointment, to be rightly discharged only by him who receives a commission from God, and fulfils it as under his eye, and in dependence upon his promise, "Lo, I am with you alway."

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Preaching'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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