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Book 4 - Chapter 13: Of the Real Defects of the Old Testament - by Herman Witsius

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

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Herman Witsius (1636-1708)

Arguably known for the best work on Covenant Theology in print (at least in the top 5).

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) was Professor of Divinity in the Universities of Franeker, Utrecht, and Leyden. A brilliant and devout student, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of fifteen, when he entered the University of Utrecht. He was ordained at twenty-one and served in several pastorates, filling both the pulpit and the academic chair over the course of his life.

This, his magnum opus, is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century, and still holds a preeminent place in our own day.

Chapter XIII: Of the Real Defects of the Old Testament

I. HOWEVER the Old Testament had really some peculiar defects, on account of which it is found fault with, Heb. 8:7, 8; and, because of these, it was to make room for the New. When we say this, we do no injury to the divine wisdom, as if it were inconsistent with that, to make the first covenant with his people such as would afterwards want correction. For as God, in the first creation of the world, began with things that were more rude, and by degrees, as it were, first rough-hewed them, then polished and exactly squared them, till they attained to that beauty in which he acquiesced; so, in like manner, in the formation of his church, he would have the beginnings to be more unpolished, which, in the regular course of things, were to arise in process of time to a more beautiful symmetry and proportion, till he should put the last hand to them, at the consummation of the world. And if it was not unworthy of God, to have made something imperfect in the kingdom of grace, which shall be brought to absolute perfection in the kingdom of glory; neither is it unworthy of him to have granted something more sparingly under the Old Testament, which he most liberally vouchsafed under the New. Nay, by this very thing he displayed his manifold wisdom, in that he distinguished the diversity of times by proper and suitable marks or signs. Paul represented the Jews, as resembling children; Christians, grown men. What irregularity is there in God’s thus ordering matters, that he should confine the former to the rudiments, as being more suitable to their measure of age, and train up the latter in a more hardy, and, as it were, manly discipline?

II. But let us particularly rehearse, in order, the things in which the Old Testament was defective. The first is, that the fathers under the Old Testament had not the cause of salvation present, much less completed. They had the figure of Christ, in various appearances, as preludes of his future incarnation, in the pillar of cloud and fire, in the tabernacle, the temple, in the pictures of the ceremonies, the riddles of the prophecies; but they had not the privilege of beholding him present among them. The prophets of those times “prophesied of the grace that should come unto us. And unto them was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things which are now reported unto us concerning the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow,” 1 Pet. 1:10–12.

III. And as the cause of salvation did not then appear, namely, God manifested in the flesh, neither did righteousness, or that on account of which we are justified. Because the Captain of their salvation was not yet made perfect through sufferings, Heb. 2:10; that in which the expiation of our sins consists, did not then exist, and consequently, everlasting righteousness was not yet brought in, Dan. 9:24. For, as the ransom was not yet paid, the debts were not actually cancelled; that day had not yet shined, on which God removed the iniquity of the earth, Zech. 3:9. The fathers, indeed, had a true and a sufficient remission of sins; yet had not that, for which sins are justly, and in a manner worthy of God, remitted; namely, the satisfaction and expiation of Christ. Pareus says well, ad Heb. 10:18, “the expiatory offering was not yet made, in which the remission of sins wherewith they were favoured, was founded.”

IV. In this respect, it is no absurdity to say that the sins of believers remained, and still existed till they were cancelled by Christ’s satisfaction. For, they existed in the accounts of the surety, who was to answer for them: nor were they blotted out till after the payment was made. We are not to think they so lay upon believers, as that they went to heaven loaded with the guilt of them; than which nothing can be more absurd; nor are we to maintain, that they were entirely cancelled out of the book of God’s accounts; for, in that case, Christ’s satisfying for them had been superfluous. But they remained as debts upon the surety, which he was to pay; and therefore God, who had already before-hand remitted very many sins, exacted them of Christ at the time appointed, Isa. 53:7, “to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past,” Rom. 3:25. Pareus again, l. c., “In the mean time, therefore, sins, even remitted without true expiation, remained till they were, at length, expiated by the death of the mediator; which expiation being made, both their sins and ours were, at last, truly abolished in the judgment of God.” Calvin uses the same way of speaking, Instit. lib. ii. c. 7, §. 17, “For which reason the apostle writes, that the remission of the sins which remained under the Old Testament, was at length accomplished by the intervention of Christ’s death.” This then was the first defect of the Old Testament, that it had not the cause of salvation completed, and, consequently, not a true expiation of sins.

V. The second defect was the obscurity of the old economy. This follows from the preceding. What can there be, at most, but twilight before the rising of the sun? The Lord therefore dispensed the light of his word to them, in such a manner, that they could only view it still at a distance, and obscurely. Peter has elegantly represented this, by comparing the prophetic language “unto a lamp that shineth in a dark place,” 2 Pet. 1:19. When he calls it a lamp, he intimates the absence of the sun; and when he speaks of a dark place, he represents the condition of the ancients, which, amidst the darkness, had the glimmering small light of a burning taper, and no more than a taper, which is used only in the night time, not in the full day. To this purpose, also, is the saying of Christ, Matt. 11:13, that “the law and the prophets were until John. From that time, the kingdom of God was preached.” What did the law and the prophets discover to those who lived in their days? certainly nothing but a taste of that wisdom which was afterwards to be clearly displayed, by foretelling it as shining at a distance. Whenever Christ can be pointed out with a finger, the kingdom of God is disclosed.

VI. There was certainly in the ceremonies, an institution concerning Christ’s person, offices, and benefits. And therefore, it was a distinguishing favour that God should honour Israel alone, above all other people, with that kind of instruction, as we have formerly intimated. But, as the ceremonial rites were vastly increased, and the repetition of the promises of grace was, in the mean time, more sparing and uncommon; the very great number of rites was like a veil, by which the naked simplicity of the ancient promise was very much clouded. And the event showed, that the greatest part of the Israelites cleaved to the ceremonies themselves, sought for justification and expiation of sin in them, and did not penetrate into the spiritual mysteries which were hid under the veil, with the eyes of the understanding and of faith. This, indeed, was their own fault; but that method of teaching was not so well adapted and effectual for the correcting of it. This is also represented by the type of Moses, who “put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is now abolished, as useless,” 2 Cor. 3:13. There the apostle, by way of allegory, proposes the person of Moses, to represent the economy of the Old Testament. It had, indeed, the light of the promises of grace, as the face of Moses had an extraordinary glory, ver. 7. But, while Moses spoke with the Israelites, he covered this glory with the veil of the ceremonies, which he had introduced, the end of which, indeed, was Christ and his grace; but Israel, being intent on the contemplation of these, satisfied themselves in them, and forgot to look to that to which, had they turned their mind as became them, they would have been led by the ceremonies themselves. And this is “that veil which, in the reading of the Old Testament, not being taken away, still remaineth on Israel,” ver. 14.

VII. To the same purpose was the veil of the tabernacle and temple, which kept the Israelites from entering and beholding the sacred things. These two veils may be thus compared together. By the veil of the temple they were reminded of something which they were not yet suffered to behold, because something stood in the way; namely guilt, which was removed in the flesh of Christ, Heb. 10:19, and that the way to the heavenly sanctuary was not yet set open to them. Heb. 9:8. By the veil over the face of Moses, they were put in mind that the eyes of their understandings were weaker, than that they could bear the naked declaration of the truth. For if it were thus at that time with Christ’s apostles, John 16:12, how much more with ancient Israel.

VIII. It is remarkable that the Lord Jesus himself, in the days of his flesh, suited his doctrine to that more obscure dispensation; and laid before the promiscuous multitude the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, scarce in any other manner than under the veil of parables, the meaning of which was to be rather guessed at than thoroughly understood. And himself gives this reason for it, Matt. 13:10, 11, when his disciples asked him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He answered, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” And ver. 13, “Therefore speak I to them in parables, because they seeing, see not; and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand.” But as the time of his consummation was drawing nearer, he more clearly, and without further circumlocution, proposed the truths of salvation, John 16:25; which the disciples themselves observed. ver. 29.

IX. The third defect was the great rigour and unrelenting severity of that economy, on account of the threatenings of the law, which so often occur, and of the promises of grace, which are more seldom and more obscurely repeated. To this purpose is what we have Heb. 12:18, that believers are not now come to the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, where nothing was to be heard or seen, but what was apt to strike the mind with dread and terror, so that Moses himself quaked and feared; where the terrible voice sounded in their ears, which all of them entreated they might not hear any more, to all which he opposes the mild sweetness of Mount Sion, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. Neither was that rigour and terror without reason; for it was scarce possible, by any other means, to conquer the forwardness of the Israelites, whom Moses and the prophets so often reproached as a stiff-necked generation, and a people whose heart was like an adamant.

X. The fourth defect of the Old Testament was the bondage under the elements of the world, of which Paul speaks, Gal. 4:3, 9. By the elements of the world, he understands the ceremonies of the old economy; which he calls στοιχεια, elements, because of their rudeness and imperfection; by a twofold metaphor, the one borrowed from nature, the other from art. Nature hath her elements, that is, bodies more simple and rude, from whose various combination and mixture others more perfect are generated. And the rudiments of art, or the first more easy precepts suited to the capacities of children, are usually called elements, Paul himself using this term in that sense, Heb. 5:12, “the first principles (elements) of the oracles of God.” He adds, the elements of the world, either because they were earthly borrowed from the world, and from those things which even worldly men have in common with the pious, and which contain not in themselves the blessings and privileges of the inheritance; or because God being willing to instruct the world, that is, the inhabitants of the world, began from these slender principles, having first set up a lower form or school, as it were in one corner of the world only. The Israelites were in bondage to these elements. For God had also given these elements with a severe commination, lest they should be either neglected, or used any other way than he had prescribed; and they had princes and elders, with sufficient authority, and sitting in Moses’ seat, to keep and constrain them to the observance of the rites. In fine, the observance itself had an air of servility inconsistent with the full liberty of sons.

XI. But let us take a more particular view of what was hard and unpleasant in this bondage. 1st. There was, in that vast multitude of rites, which were enjoined upon Israel under such a severe threatening, a grievous burden, and a yoke hard to be borne, Acts 15:10, which the apostle calls the “yoke of bondage,” Gal. 5:1. Circumcision, which was as it were the first undertaking of the yoke, caused such pain, that even adults were heavily afflicted with it. Gen. 34:25. The number of the other ceremonies exceedingly fatigued the people, and involved them in difficulties. They were not allowed to light a fire on the Sabbath; nor to sow on the seventh year. All their males were obliged thrice a year to go up to Jerusalem. The paying the first-fruits and tithes was to be scrupulously observed. They were put to great expense in all kinds of sacrifices. Moreover there were many washings, distinctions of meats, legal pollutions from the touch of a dead body and of any unclean thing whatever, and pollution in sleep. And all these things wherewith they were harassed, were but weak and beggarly elements, Gal. 4:9, which could not make the comers thereunto perfect, Heb. 10:1, and in the observation of which, of themselves, there was no holiness, nor the image of God, nor a reasonable service. Rom. 12:1. However their mystical signification, and the relation they bore to the Messiah and his grace, made believers cheerfully undertake and joyfully bear that yoke, grievous in itself, and beggarly and useless separately from Christ.

XII. 2dly. There was also, in that bondage, the reproach of children; for it was wholly pedagogical, or adapted to children, Gal. 4:2, which consisted of little minute precepts and ordinances, such as are prescribed to young children, “touch not, taste not, handle not.” Col. 2:21. On which place Theophylact says elegantly, “See also how he tacitly upbraids them, saying ‘Ye are subject to ordinances,’ ver. 20. You sit as children, says he, as just beginning their elements, who require what they ought to do to be said before and prescribed to them.”

XIII. 3dly. There was also “the middle wall of partition,” not only separating them from all other nations, and depriving them of the joy which, in other respects, would result from the Gentiles being taken into communion with God, but also, in some measure, secluding themselves from familiar access to God. Eph. 2:14, 15. The apostle seems to allude to the double wall, or inclosure of the temple. The Jews, who were clean, met for worship within the outermost of these, which had a fence or breast-work, on which small pillars were ranged at equal distances, inscribed with Greek and Latin characters, to signify that no stranger was allowed, under pain of death, to pass over that breast-work, and break into the inner inclosure. In like manner, there was in the inner inclosure, another breast-work like the former, whereby the people were excluded from entering into the temple, and the porch of the priests, who were there employed in sacred services; which Lud. Capellus has observed on this passage from Josephus. See what Const. l’Empereur has ad titul Middoth, cap. 2. §. 3, and Selden de jure Natur. lib. iii., cap. 6. With both those walls or breast-works the apostle ingeniously compares the ceremonies, which separated the Gentiles from the Jews (on which account they resembled the breast-work of the first inclosure) and the Jews themselves, in some measure, from God, and familiar access to him. For they themselves were commanded to stand at a distance, while God kept himself, as it were, concealed in the inner sanctuary, and to treat with him about the expiation of sins, only by the intervention of a priest. And in this respect the ceremonies are compared with the latter inclosure.

XIV. 4thly. Besides this, the apostle calls the law of commandments, contained in ordinances, enmity, because, in a certain respect, they were a symbol of the enmity both between God and man, and between Israel and the Gentiles. For the ceremonies, in their legal consideration, were signs of that hatred wherewith God, from the righteousness of his nature, pursues sinful man; because our guilt was typified by these, and man behoved to be expiated and purged by those rites, before he could be allowed, with hope of pardon, to have access to God. They also begat a mutual hatred and contempt between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews, being proud of the ceremonies of God’s institution, despised the Gentiles, who were enslaved to human or even diabolical superstitions. The heathen, on the other hand, looked upon many of the Jewish ceremonies, as is plain from Tacitus and others, as hateful, ridiculous, and absurd. And hence arose a mutual and national hatred and enmity, by no means commanded, far be it, but yet as it were rivetted by that law of discriminating rites. And this alienation of minds was at such a height, that the godly themselves judged it a crime in a Jew to come near or approach to a stranger. Acts 10:28.

XV. 5thly and lastly. There was a hand-writing in the religion of ceremonies ὑπεναντίον, “contrary (in part) to those who loved and observed them.” Col. 2:14. On which Calvin particularly has learnedly discoursed, as well in other places as in his Institutions, lib. iii. cap. 7. §. 17. In his commentary on Col. 2:14, he declares that no one had given him any satisfaction in explaining this matter. “But I trust,” says he, “I have reached the genuine meaning, if it be only granted me as a truth, what Augustine has somewhere very truly written; nay which he deduced from the plain words of the apostle, that in the Jewish ceremonies, there was rather a confession than an expiation of sins; for what else did they by their sacrifices, than confess their being conscious to themselves that they were worthy of death, who in their own stead substituted despicable animals? What by their purifications, but to testify their uncleanness? So upon this they renewed the hand-writing of their guilt and impurity. Yet in that declaration there was no manner of payment. Justly therefore does the apostle call them handwritings, contrary to those who loved and observed them; since by them they openly declared their own condemnation and uncleanness.”

XVI. But this on no account is to be so understood, as if believers were bound in part by the exacting of this hand-writing, to satisfy divine justice in their own person; for that would be contrary to the promise of grace, which was founded on the irrevocable suretiship of Christ, and accepted by the Father, whose inseparable fruit is the discharge of the principal debtor. But by this hand-writing they acknowledged two things. 1st. That they were unclean, and deserved utter destruction if considered in themselves, and could not escape destruction unless satisfaction was made to divine justice. 2dly. That this satisfaction was not yet accomplished; nor the true expiation, in virtue of which they were to be justified, yet performed; thus far that hand-writing was contrary to them. But because, as I have often observed, the ceremonies had, besides a legal, also an evangelical consideration, believers were at the same time confirmed, by the use of them, in the faith of the Messiah, who was to come and satisfy for them. And thus the hand-writing was only in part contrary to them, ὑπεναντίον. For though it showed that satisfaction was not yet made, a circumstance which was against them, yet it assured them that satisfaction was never to be demanded of them, but was certainly to be performed by the surety; which certainly was very much for them.

XVII. The fifth thing, in which the Old Testament was inferior to the new, was a spirit suited to that servile economy, which Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, chap. 8:15, calls the spirit of bondage. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear.” Where the particle again denotes a distinction, by which the present condition of the Christian church is contradistinguished from the preceding condition of the church of Israel, as interpreters generally observe. But they do not by this explain the full force of that particle. I take it in this light. The Romans, having now become believers, were united into one body with believing Israel. Eph. 3:6. For in Christ there is a gathering together of all in one. Eph. 1:10. “He made both one,” Eph. 2:14, and would have believers both of the Jews and of the Gentiles be accounted one seed. Gal. 3:16. And therefore what was formerly granted to Israel, was accounted to have been also granted to them. And if the Gentiles, after the liberty of a more joyful testament was proclaimed, should put on the ancient fetters of the Israelites, they were said to return to bondage; “How turn ye (back) again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire, πάλιν ἄνωθεν, returning back to the former, to be in bondage?” As Paul chides the Galatians. chap. 4:9. In this sense therefore it might also be said to the Romans; You, who are now believers, living under the New Testament, have not received again the spirit of bondage, or the spirit of bondage, again to fear; such as believers of the Old Testament had, with whom you have been incorporated, and such consequently as you had in and with them.

XVIII. Moreover, that spirit of bondage, as we now consider it, is the good Spirit of God, working in those that belonged to the Old Testament, in a manner suitable to that servile economy. It is plain that, under the Old Testament, the things which regarded the law and its terrors were very often and clearly inculcated upon them, and confirmed by extraordinary prodigies, and by fearful judgments, striking the eyes of all; but the other things, which belong to the gospel, and were adapted to beget filial boldness and alacrity, were proposed more sparingly, and indeed in an enigma. The Spirit, therefore, whose office it is to apply to the mind the words of God, externally proposed, and to render them internally effectual, suited himself to that dispensation, and commonly rather wrought terror by the law, which daily sounded in their ears, than cheerfulness by the doctrine of grace, which was more sparingly and more obscurely preached unto them.

XIX. Besides, as it is a great degree of bondage, to fatigue oneself in carefully keeping the law of a carnal commandment; the Spirit, who made them undergo with complacency and in faith this bondage, deserves in a peculiar manner to be called the spirit of bondage. But its operations in believers were these following. 1st. He taught them that it was just in itself, good for them, and glorious to God, suitable to the economy of his covenant, willingly to submit to the bondage of the elements of the world, which God commanded them. 2dly. He stirred them up to dive into the mystery of that bondage, and not to cleave to the outside of the ceremonies. 3dly. He inclined the wills of believers to be thus in bondage, willingly and in faith, and in the mean time to long for the liberty of a happier period.

XX. This Spirit, which wrought these things in them, was indeed an eminent gift of God, suitable to that age; yet a much inferior gift than is the Spirit of pure grace and liberty, which declares that the yoke is broken, the hand-writing torn; and excites to a reasonable service, which it alone enjoins to perform with joy and cheerfulness.

XXI. We would again have it remembered, that we speak not these things as if we thought that the Spirit of God was only a spirit of bondage in the believers under the Old Testament, or as if he wrought nothing, that may be called servile in its measure, in believers of the New Testament, against which we argued with care in the last chapter. Neither do we imagine that all the operations of the spirit of bondage, are to be confined to those we just recited, because these alone made for our present purpose. What we mean is, that the operations of the Spirit of God, under the Old Testament, compared with the operations of the same Spirit under the New, savoured commonly somewhat more of bondage than what can be suitable to the full liberty of the sons of God; in a word, were accommodated to that condition, in which the infant heir differed not much from a servant. We willingly conclude this point in Calvin’s words; to which we heartily subscribe. Instit. lib. ii. c. 11. § 9. “But the whole comes to this, that the Old Testament struck horror and dread into the consciences of men; but, by the benefit of the New, these are set at liberty, and made to rejoice. That the former bound the consciences to the yoke of bondage; which, by the bounty of the latter, were set at liberty. But if the case of the holy fathers of the people of Israel be objected, who were evidently partakers of the same spirit of faith with us; it follows, they were partakers of the same liberty and joy: we answer, that neither was from the law. And then we deny they were so endowed with the spirit of liberty and security, as not to experience, in some measure, both a dread and a bondage from the law.” See what follows.

XXII. Sixthly. There was also, under the Old Testament, a more scanty measure of the gifts of grace; both with respect to extent and degree. That the extent of these was very much confined, appears from these. 1st. Because God communicated himself to the nation of Israel alone, who yielded themselves to him, as his portion, and the lot of his inheritance: Deut. 32:9, and in the mean time suffered other nations, as if they had no concern or intercourse with him, “to walk in their own ways;” Acts 14:16, so that, as they were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,” they were also “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” Eph. 2:12. “Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people;” while Jehovah did arise, and shine upon Israel alone. Isa. 60:2. 2dly. In that one nation of Israel, very few were partakers of saving grace; 1 Cor. 10:5, “with many of them God was not well pleased:” and therefore Moses said to the whole people, with a reference to the generality of them, Deut. 29:4, “Jehovah hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear:” for they who were favoured with that grace, compared with the rest, were inconsiderable.

XXIII. If we consider the degree, the measure of the grace was commonly small. 1st. With respect to the knowledge of spiritual mysteries. For it was proper, since the Sun of righteousness was not yet risen, that there should be neither that clearness of revelation, nor such quickness of understanding. And therefore Paul expresses this slenderness of conception by the term childhood. Instances of gross stupidity are all along obvious in the very disciples of our Lord; Isa. 42:19, “Who is blind, but my servant? Or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? Who is so blind as he that is perfect, and blind as Jehovah’s servant?” 2dly. With respect to the abundance of spiritual consolations. This is a necessary consequence from what we have said before concerning the condition and manner of that economy, and the operations of the Spirit, who suited himself to that dispensation. 3dly. With respect to holiness: and this also depends on the preceding two. For where there is a smaller degree of spiritual light, a less abundance of the love of God shed abroad in the heart, a less measure of familiarity and friendship with God, it is reasonable to believe that there was also a smaller degree of holiness.

XXIV. However, we by no means speak thus, as if we would represent the ordinary believers of the New Testament, either as preferable, or even as on a level with those ancient heroes. For how few in the Christian church are found comparable to Abraham in excellence of faith? In light of knowledge to the prophets, who even at this day enlighten the whole universe? In abundance of consolations and eminence of holiness to David, who was both a man according to God’s heart, and so often chanted forth those most delightful odes, with a soul exulting in God? For the question here is not, What measure of grace the Lord bestowed on a few? but, What ordinary dispensation he observed towards the whole body of the people? It is proper to compare church to church, prophets to apostles, ancient heroes to martyrs of the New Testament, and ordinary believers to their like.

XXV. It will not be from the purpose, to explain on this occasion that saying of our Lord, Matt. 11:11, “Verily, I say unto you, among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than he.” Little regard is to be had to those who, with some of the ancients, understand by the kingdom of heaven, the state of the church triumphant; and tell us, that this is the meaning of Christ’s words: the least of the blessed in heaven is greater, that is, more happy, perfect, excellent and glorious, than John, who was still in a state of mortality, and a traveller. For who can be ignorant, that the state of the heavenly country is far more excellent than that of travellers on the earth? This being so evident in itself, there was no occasion for our Lord to speak it with such solemnity, as if he asserted something extraordinary.

XXVI. They come nearer to our Lord’s meaning, who, by the least in the kingdom of heaven, think is intended the least minister in the Christian church, who is intrusted to preach the gospel in its perfect state. He is compared to John, not in respect of knowledge, holiness, and gifts of the like nature; but in respect of his ministry, as John himself was compared to his predecessors the prophets. For John was greater than all of them, because he was the immediate harbinger and brideman of the Messiah; and pointed him out with the finger, as present, or come. Again, any preacher of the gospel is greater than John in that respect, as he declares Christ not only born, but also dead and risen, and ascended to heaven, and as sitting at the right hand of God, and as having happily erected the kingdom of liberty. The comparison therefore is not so much of persons in their absolute qualities, as of their ministry. The ministry of Moses, and the other prophets, may not improperly be compared to the night, distinguished by many prophecies concerning Christ, as by many interlucent constellations: the ministry of John, to the dawn; when the sun not being yet risen, yet drawing towards the horizon, the heavens brighten with some light: but the gospel, to the day, when the sun, being risen, fills all things with the brightest and purest light.

XXVII. It may, however, seem strange that the Lord Jesus, who, in the whole of his discourse, speaks so many excellent things concerning John, should presently, when one could have least expected it, represent him as less than the least of his disciples. And, therefore, some of the ancients think there is a comparison rather made between John and Christ, who calls himself the least in the kingdom of heaven; either because he was really so in the opinion of men; or rather, because he was younger than he, and posterior to him in the ministry. In which sense, James, the son of Alpheus, was called the Less, Mark 15:40; that is, the younger, in respect of James, the son of Zebedee, who is called the elder. What Christ then intended was, that though John was truly far greater than all the other prophets, yet he was not that great prophet, not the Messiah, which some, but falsely, imagined, Luke 3:15; but that himself, though inferior to John in age, and posterior to him in preaching the kingdom of heaven, yet very far excelled him in dignity. And thus this saying of Christ would very well agree with the testimony of John concerning himself and Christ, John 1:15: “He that cometh after me, is preferred before me; for he was before me.” To this same purpose, almost, Epiphanius adversus Gnosticos, Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, Clarius, Zegerus, Salmero, Jansenius, and others, from whose opinion, I own, I am not averse.*

XXVIII. Seventhly, All these things joined together, excited an ardent desire in the ancient church, and a kind of hunger and thirst after a better condition, which God had promised with the coming of the Messiah. For, as most of all the things hitherto bestowed upon them, were evidences of their imperfection, and, in the mean time, better things were pointed out to them at a distance, they could not, without throwing contempt on the grace of God, but desire these things. Whatever the mercy of God had thus far bestowed on them, especially when more precious promises were added, tended rather to raise than quench their thirst. Even Abraham, to whom God so familiarly revealed himself, “rejoiced to see Christ’s day,” John 8:56. The whole church cried out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens, that thou wouldst come down!” Isa. 64:1. “O that thou wert as my brother, that sucked the breasts of my mother!” Cant. 8:1. That is, O that thou wert made partaker of flesh and blood, that thou wouldst show thyself familiarly in the midst of our congregation, in the communion of the same worship! We cannot have a better interpreter of this their desire, than our Lord himself, Matt. 13:17, “Verily I say unto you, many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.” The ancient fathers certainly enjoyed the grace of God, with a quiet and joyful heart, knowing that it was sufficient for their salvation; they glorified God, and gave him thanks on that account: yet, as a better condition was made known as at a distance, they reached out, also, in desire after it. “These all died in faith,” and therefore calmly and happily; yet, “not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, were persuaded of them, and embraced them,” Heb. 11:13.

XXXIX. I dare not, for this purpose, wrest Deut. 29:19, לטען ספות הרוה את הצמאה, to add the drunken, or the watered, to the thirsty: as if a twofold state of the church was imitated here; that of thirst, under the Old, and of watering, under the New Testament: and to add the watered to the thirsty, was to reduce the church, when satisfied with the exhibition of the promise, to the order or rank of the thirsting church; to load the believers of the New Testament with the ancient ceremonies: and, from another signification of the word ספות, to destroy the satiated with the thirsty: to endeavour the destruction of those in covenant with God, first, while they expect the salvation of God; and then when they have received the gospel of salvation. To these interpretations, we have a third to this purpose, that the full shall destroy the thirsty; that is, that those who falsely think themselves full, shall, at the time expected, oppress those that are thirsty; and, afterwards, harass those that are filled. And these things are so joined, as, taken together, to complete the full meaning of the words. See Ult. Mosis, §. 121–138; and Lexicon ad vocem רוה. But I think that, as these things are altogether new; so they are remote from the meaning of Moses, for the following reasons.

XXX. 1st. Because in these words, Moses describes the language of an idolater, whose heart is turned away from the Lord God, to go after the worship of the gods of the Gentiles, and who, having renounced all fear of God, slights the solemn engagements of the covenant, and, notwithstanding this, promises peace to himself, ver. 16, 28; such as were those of whom, Jer. 44:17. But surely such an idolater as this can give himself no trouble to force New Testament believers, who are free, to submit to the yoke of the Mosaic bondage, which he himself has shaken off, and has in abhorrence. 2dly. The person whom Moses here represents, is one of abandoned impiety, which he himself does not so much as conceal, and an avowed despiser of God and religion; but they whom the celebrated interpreter imagines to be here pointed out, put on a great appearance of sanctity, and, in all their actions, made religion a pretence, as is well known from the gospel history. 3dly. If the thirsty signifies the church of the Old Testament, and the watered the church of the New; to add the watered to the thirsty, can only signify, to add the New Testament church to that of the Old, and join both together; which the Scripture declares was done by Christ, Eph. 2:13 and Eph. 3:6. But it is one thing to add the satiated to the thirsty; another, to reduce the satiated to the condition of the thirsty. The obstinate zealots for the ceremonies are nowhere said to have joined to themselves the free Christians; but rather to have separated them from themselves, and expelled them the synagogues, Isa. 65:6, and Isa. 66:5. 4thly. As there can be only one literal sense, it is asserted, contrary to all rules of right interpretation, that the word ספות can, in the very same proposition be taken partly for, to destroy, or consume; partly, to join, and unite; and the participle את, partly, for עם, with; partly, for the sign of the accusative. It is one thing, under the general signification of one word to comprize more things pertaining to the same signification, which often takes place in explaining Scripture: another, to ascribe to the same word, at the same time, different or opposite significations, which is contrary to all reason. If ספות signifies here, to join, it cannot signify, to destroy. If את signifies with, it cannot be the sign of the accusative. 5thly. What is more absurd than, after having established at large, that the full signifies the church of the New Testament, to understand by the thirsty, that which is oppressed with the ceremonies; and immediately to undo all this, and turn the words to this meaning, that the full shall destroy the thirsty; that is, the Jews, who are zealous for the discarded ceremonies, who seem to themselves to be full, shall persecute those that pant after Christ. What is it to put white for black, if this is not? Can any thing more absurd be devised, than that one word should signify, at the same time, the Christian church which suffers persecution, and the congregation of the malignant Jews, who persecute her? And yet learned men fondly please themselves with such inventions.

XXXI. What then, you will say, is the genuine meaning of the words of Moses? I really think it is plain and obvious. When any person commits, with pleasure, the crime he has conceived in his mind, he is said proverbially, “to drink iniquity as water,” Job 15:16. When a person ruminates on impious projects, in his mind, he is as one that thirsteth after evil; but, when he executes his premeditated designs, he surfeits himself with diabolical delights, and becomes as it were satiated or drunk. Finely says the celebrated Cocceius, on Zech. 9 §. 14: “Outrageous, savage men, are said to thirst after blood, and, while they shed it with pleasure, are said, to drink it,” Rev. 16:6. What any one is delighted with, is said to be his meat, and he is said to drink it as water, John 4:34; Job 15:16; and Job 34:7. To add, therefore, the drunken, or the satiated, to the thirsty, is not only to burn with an eager desire to commit wickedness, but also to accomplish it by abominable actions, and to follow after it, till his mind, which is bent upon evil, is fully satisfied. This the despisers of the Deity do, who, secure in their crimes, call the proud happy, and give way, in all things to their, unbridled lusts. And these are they whom Moses here describes. Should these things give less satisfaction, I recommend, above others, the discourses of the very learned Lud. de Dieu, who is large on this passage.

XXXII. They also seem to be as far from the meaning of Zechariah, who think that he compares the condition of the fathers of the Old Testament, “to the pit wherein is no water,” Zech. 9:11. For, 1st, Those very fathers sung, Psa. 23:2, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters;” which is quite different from the pit, wherein is no water. 2dly. We admit, as a most certain rule of interpretation, which the brethren usually insist upon, that the words, unless any thing should hinder, are to be taken in their full import. But the emphasis is far greater, if, by the pit without water, we understand the condition of an unregenerate sinner, who, while in himself, he is without Christ, is wholly destitute of all those things which can yield him consolation, and quench his thirst after happiness. And there is no reason why we may not thus explain it. For, the prophet speaks concerning what is impetrated by the blood of Christ, which is the blood of the covenant, or New Testament, and shed not only to remove the yoke of ceremonies, but especially to abolish the bondage of sin. Why shall we confine what is spoken to that which is the less, since the words may not only bear, but also persuade, nay almost constrain us, to interpret them of what is greater? 3dly. The prophet here comforts the mourners in Zion, and promises them deliverance from that evil, with which they were most of all oppressed, and for which they expected a remedy from the Messiah, who was to come. But that evil was not the bondage of ceremonies, which yielded little or no comfort; but rather the abyss of spiritual misery, into which sin had plunged them. The yoke of which, under the Devil who exacts it of them, is infinitely more grievous than that yoke of ceremonies that God laid upon them. 4thly. Though the ceremonies, considered in themselves, and separate from Christ, could not yield so much as a drop of comfort; yet the fathers were not, on that account, in a pit wherein is no water. For, what they could not draw from the ceremonies, they drank out of the streams of divine grace flowing from Christ, an everlasting fountain, to whom they looked by their faith. We therefore dare not say, the ancient condition of the fathers was a pit wherein is no water: though, with Scripture, we maintain, that they had a third after better things; nevertheless they were not destitute of the waters of saying grace, for their necessary consolation.

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Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind