The Chosen People
FOR more than a thousand years the Jewish
people had awaited the Saviour's coming. Upon this event they had rested their brightest
hopes. In song and prophecy, in temple rite and household prayer, they had enshrined His
name. And yet at His coming they knew Him not. The Beloved of heaven was to them "as
a root out of a dry ground;" He had "no form nor comeliness;" and they saw
in Him no beauty that they should desire Him. "He came unto His own, and His own
received Him not." Isa. 53:2; John 1:11.
Yet God had chosen Israel. He
had called them to preserve among men the knowledge of His law, and of the symbols and
prophecies that pointed to the Saviour. He desired them to be as wells of salvation to the
world. What Abraham was in the land of his sojourn, what Joseph was in Egypt, and Daniel
in the courts of Babylon, the Hebrew people were to be among the nations. They were to
reveal God to men.
In the call of Abraham the
Lord had said, "I will bless thee; . . . and thou shalt be a blessing: . . . and in
thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." Gen. 12:2, 3. The same teaching was
repeated through the prophets. Even after Israel had been wasted by war and captivity, the
promise was theirs, "The remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many people as a
dew from the Lord, as the showers upon the grass, that tarrieth not for man, nor waiteth
for the sons of men." Micah 5:7. Concerning the temple at Jerusalem, the Lord
declared through Isaiah, "Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all
peoples." Isa. 56:7, R. V.
But the Israelites fixed
their hopes upon worldly greatness. From the time of their entrance to the land of Canaan,
they departed from the commandments of God, and followed the ways of the heathen. It was
in vain that God sent them warning by His prophets. In vain they suffered the chastisement
of heathen oppression. Every reformation was followed by deeper apostasy.
Had Israel been true to God,
He could have accomplished His purpose through their honor and exaltation. If they had
walked in the ways of obedience, He would have made them "high above all nations
which He hath made, in praise, and in name, and in honor." "All people of the
earth," said Moses, "shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord; and
they shall be afraid of thee." "The nations which shall hear all these
statutes" shall say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding
people." Deut. 26:19; 28:10; 4:6. But because of their unfaithfulness, God's purpose
could be wrought out only through continued adversity and humiliation.
They were brought into
subjection to Babylon, and scattered through the lands of the heathen. In affliction many
renewed their faithfulness to His covenant. While they hung their harps upon the willows,
and mourned for the holy temple that was laid waste, the light of truth shone out through
them, and a knowledge of God was spread among the nations. The heathen systems of
sacrifice were a perversion of the system that God had appointed; and many a sincere
observer of heathen rites learned from the Hebrews the meaning of the service divinely
ordained, and in faith grasped the promise of a Redeemer.
Many of the exiles suffered
persecution. Not a few lost their lives because of their refusal to disregard the Sabbath
and to observe the heathen festivals. As idolaters were roused to crush out the truth, the
Lord brought His servants face to face with kings and rulers, that they and their people
might receive the light. Time after time the greatest monarchs were led to proclaim the
supremacy of the God whom their Hebrew captives worshiped.
By the Babylonish captivity
the Israelites were effectually cured of the worship of graven images. During the
centuries that followed, they suffered from the oppression of heathen foes, until the
conviction became fixed that their prosperity depended upon their obedience to the law of
God. But with too many of the people obedience was not prompted by love. The motive was
selfish. They rendered outward service to God
as the means of attaining to national
greatness. They did not become the light of the world, but shut themselves away from the
world in order to escape temptation to idolatry. In the instruction given through Moses,
God had placed restrictions upon their association with idolaters; but this teaching had
been misinterpreted. It was intended to prevent them from conforming to the practices of
the heathen. But it was used to build up a wall of separation between Israel and all other
nations. The Jews looked upon Jerusalem as their heaven, and they were actually jealous
lest the Lord should show mercy to the Gentiles.
After the return from
Babylon, much attention was given to religious instruction. All over the country,
synagogues were erected, where the law was expounded by the priests and scribes. And
schools were established, which, together with the arts and sciences, professed to teach
the principles of righteousness. But these agencies became corrupted. During the
captivity, many of the people had received heathen ideas and customs, and these were
brought into their religious service. In many things they conformed to the practices of
As they departed from God,
the Jews in a great degree lost sight of the teaching of the ritual service. That service
had been instituted by Christ Himself. In every part it was a symbol of Him; and it had
been full of vitality and spiritual beauty. But the Jews lost the spiritual life from
their ceremonies, and clung to the dead forms. They trusted to the sacrifices and
ordinances themselves, instead of resting upon Him to whom they pointed. In order to
supply the place of that which they had lost, the priests and rabbis multiplied
requirements of their own; and the more rigid they grew, the less of the love of God was
manifested. They measured their holiness by the multitude of their ceremonies, while their
hearts were filled with pride and hypocrisy.
With all their minute and
burdensome injunctions, it was an impossibility to keep the law. Those who desired to
serve God, and who tried to observe the rabbinical precepts, toiled under a heavy burden.
They could find no rest from the accusings of a troubled conscience. Thus Satan worked to
discourage the people, to lower their conception of the character of God, and to bring the
faith of Israel into contempt. He hoped to establish the claim put forth when he rebelled
in heaven,--that the requirements of God were unjust, and could not be obeyed. Even
Israel, he declared, did not keep the law.
While the Jews desired the
advent of the Messiah, they had no true
conception of His mission. They did not seek
redemption from sin, but deliverance from the Romans. They looked for the Messiah to come
as a conqueror, to break the oppressor's power, and exalt Israel to universal dominion.
Thus the way was prepared for them to reject the Saviour.
At the time of the birth of
Christ the nation was chafing under the rule of her foreign masters, and racked with
internal strife. The Jews had been permitted to maintain the form of a separate
government; but nothing could disguise the fact that they were under the Roman yoke, or
reconcile them to the restriction of their power. The Romans claimed the right of
appointing and removing the high priest, and the office was often secured by fraud,
bribery, and even murder. Thus the priesthood became more and more corrupt. Yet the
priests still possessed great power, and they employed it for selfish and mercenary ends.
The people were subjected to their merciless demands, and were also heavily taxed by the
Romans. This state of affairs caused widespread discontent. Popular outbreaks were
frequent. Greed and violence, distrust and spiritual apathy, were eating out the very
heart of the nation.
Hatred of the Romans, and
national and spiritual pride, led the Jews still to adhere rigorously to their forms of
worship. The priests tried to maintain a reputation for sanctity by scrupulous attention
to the ceremonies of religion. The people, in their darkness and oppression, and the
rulers, thirsting for power, longed for the coming of One who would vanquish their enemies
and restore the kingdom to Israel. They had studied the prophecies, but without spiritual
insight. Thus they overlooked those scriptures that point to the humiliation of Christ's
first advent, and misapplied those that speak of the glory of His second coming. Pride
obscured their vision. They interpreted prophecy in accordance with their selfish desires.