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THE SYSTEM OF INTERPRETATION.-SYMBOLICAL AND
The fact that the Sacred Scriptures, and especially the prophetical parts, abound in figurative language, is not to be questioned. God has expressly declared, that He sometimes spoke alphabetically by the prophets ; at other times employed visions, and at others still, used similitudes, i. e. symbolical objects and actions, for the purpose of making known his will : “I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions and used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets."* The style of speech, therefore, adopted by Him, must be duly and carefully attended to, in order to understand his meaning. It would be altogether inappropriate, to interpret alphabetical speech by the rules applicable to tropical language. Equally so would it be to lose sight of the peculiar nature of symbolical language, and to interpret it as we would ordinary metaphors. Each has its own character; and the rules of rhetoric and the general laws of human thought must be appealed to, in order to understand its import.
This, we have shown, does not militate against what is called the literal, in contradistinction from the spiritual interpretation, the leading and essential characteristic of which is, that the prophecies set forth
* Hos. 12. 10.
real persons and events, as literally and historically to arise and occur in the world, as any matters of historical observation and verity which have already transpired. In defending and illustrating this position, we noticed, in the last chapter, the alphabetical style of writing, which is devoid of rhetorical embellishment and explains itself, and the metaphorical or tropical, to be interpreted according to the ordinary rules of rhetoric. Notice, too, was taken of a third style of speech in the prophetical Scriptures, viz. symbolical language ; on the origin, use and nature of which some remarks were submitted. We resume the consideration of this subject.
It was shown that symbols are things, used as signs or representatives of ideas, instead of words; that this style of speech originated in the poverty of language, and is the most natural, appropriate, and universal method adopted by infant nations and half civilized tribes, to express their thoughts to each other; and that hieroglyphics are but the painting or exhibition to the eye, which the sound or name of the things are to the ear, both being the representatives or signs of thought. Symbolical language, it was shown, was the language of ideas rather than of words, and founded on some definite, established, and well-understood import of the thing, when used as an emblem or symbol of thought. This well-understood import of symbols, it was further shown, formed the foundation on the one hand of the whole science of heraldry—yet prized in some parts of the world—and on the other hand, of the whole system of the Oneirocritics, or of divining future events by dreams believed to be prophetical-pretensions to which sort of sorcery are yet made, even in Christian countries, and books circulated purporting to aid the fortune-teller and others in
the interpretation of symbols. There is scarcely a nation on the face of the earth, among whom, in some form or other, either of science or of superstition, the language of symbols does not to some extent obtain.
It is characteristically different from what are called emblems, though symbols and emblems are often confounded. Symbols, as we have shown, are things, either of nature or of art, used to denote ideas. Em. blems are no more than paintings, carvings, engrav. ings, basso-relievos, or other representations intended to hold forth some moral or political instruction--presenting one thing to the eye and another to the understanding. Inlaid Mosaic works and all kinds of ornaments, vases, statues, sculptured and fine-wrought productions, were called emblems by the Greeks. We more commonly mean by them, some pictured representation with a device, such as are found on seals, or use the word in a tropical sense. Some, who have undertaken to write what are called symbolical dictionaries, as Daubuz, and Wemyss who has followed him very closely, are not careful to distinguish between metaphors, emblems, symbols, and allegories, but use the term synonymously with figurative—a thing very common among commentators, and which, we doubt not, has contributed to much confusion in the study and interpretation of the prophecies. Bishop Warburton has shown,* that the hieroglyphical style of writing, which led to the employment of emblems, and, in the progress of idolatry and superstition, to the use of sacred gems called abraxas and of the talisman, grew most naturally out of the necessity there was in infant nations and high antiquity, before language was refined and extended, to employ symbols, or make things the representatives of ideas.
* Divine Legation, v. ii. sec. iv.
The practice of the Mexicans, whose only method of writing their laws and history was by means of picture writing—the hieroglyphics of Egypt--the present characters of the Chinese, which are an improvement on the hieroglyphics of Egypt, the images having been thrown out, and the outlines and contracted marks only being retained—all are to be traced to the necessity there was for the employment of symbols. He accounts it the uniform voice of nature speaking to the rude conceptions of mankind; for not only the Chinese of the East, the Mexicans of the West, and the Egyptians of the South, but the Scythians, likewise, of the North, and the intermediate inhabitants of the earth, viz. the Indians, Phænicians, Ethiopians, &c., used the same way of writing by pictures and hieroglyphics--written symbols.
That the prophets, who had alphabetical characters, and were thus enabled to write in a manner entirely different from these rude attempts, should nevertheless preserve in their writings a large amount of sym. bolical expressions, need not be thought a strange thing, nor derogatory to the spirit of inspiration, which indicted their communications. For, the language of symbols is not only the natural language of men in the primitive state of society, but also the most universal-all nations, whether civilized or barbarous, being capable of understanding it much better than the abstract alphabetical, or unfigurative language of those highly cultivated. It is, therefore, the fittest and most appropriate, for the Spirit of God to employ, in uttering those predictions, which involve the interests of the world. None can be more universal. In order to understand symbolical language, it is not necessary to understand the vernacular language of the nation which uses it. It is said that those who understand the import of the hieroglyphical characters employed by the Chinese, can read their books, though they may not understand a word of their spoken language, because its characters are not alphabetic, the signs of words, but of things.
The immutable nature of the thing which is used as a symbol, forms a better representative, than the changing character of the words which denote that thing. It matters not how much living languages may change, of how much the sounds of words, which express things, may vary, if we understand the thing that forms the symbol, we catch more readily the idea symbolised by that thing. Thus, for example, it is a matter of little moment with us, when we understand what the sun symbolises, whether it is called Schemesch by the Hebrew, Shemsco by the Syrian, Schams by the Arab, Schims by the Moor, Je by the Chinese, Zahado by the Ethiopian, Helios by the Greek, Sol by the Latin, Soleil by the Frenchman, Sonne by the German, Schiin by the Mantschou Tartar, Sunna by the Anglo-Saxon, or Sun by the English. Whatever may be the written mark or character, or syllabic sounds, which in different languages denote the thing, the thing itself is the same, and stands an immutable symbol, much to be preferred as a representative of thought, than naked unfigurative language. What we thus say of one is true of every symbol, and therefore the definite and fixed import of symbolical language, renders it the best and fittest vehicle of prophecy.
This conclusion contradicts the opinion of many. For, against such language it has been often objected, and especially by persons predisposed to infidelity, that it is of necessity very obscure and uncertain in its meaning. Persons of this description, having read the prophecies of Daniel, of Zechariah, and of the