A Rebuttal to Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” – Letter VI



This version ©2006 – 2009 Perry S. Marshall & Associates. All Rights Reserved.

Letter VI

After what I conceive to be a great misrepresentation of the character and conduct of Jeremiah, you bring forward an objection which Spinoza and others before you had much insisted upon, though it is an objection which neither affects the genuineness, not the authenticity, of the book of Jeremiah, any more than the blunder of a bookbinder, in misplacing the sheets of your performance, would lessen its authority.

The objection is that the book of Jeremiah has been put together in a disordered state. It is acknowledged, that the order of time is not every where observed; but the cause of the confusion is not known.

Some attribute it to Baruch collecting into one volume all the several prophecies which Jeremiah had written and neglecting to put them in their proper place. Others think that the several parts of the work were at first properly arranged, but that through accident, or the carelessness of transcribers, they were deranged.

Others contend that there is no confusion that prophecy differs from history, in not being subject to an accurate observance of time and order. But leaving this matter to be settled by critical discussion, let us come to a matter of greater importance – to your charge against Jeremiah for his duplicity, and for his false prediction. First, as to his duplicity:

Jeremiah, on account of his having boldly predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, had been thrust into a miry dungeon by the princes of Judah who sought his life. There he would have perished, had not one of the eunuchs taken compassion on him, and petitioned King Zedekiah in his favor saying, “these men (the princes) have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, (no small testimony this, of the probity of the prophet’s character) whom they have cast into the dungeon, and he is like to die for hunger.”

On this representation Jeremiah was taken out of the dungeon by an order from the king, who soon afterwards sent privately for him, and desired him to conceal nothing from him, binding himself by an oath, that whatever might be the nature of his prophecy, he would not put him to death, or deliver him into the hands of the princes who sought his life.

Jeremiah delivered to him the purpose of God respecting the fate of Jerusalem. The conference being ended, the king, anxious to perform his oath, to preserve the life of the prophet, dismissed him, saying, “let no man know of these words, and thou shalt not die.

But if the princes hear that I have talked with thee, and they come unto thee and say unto thee, “Declare unto us now what thou hast said unto the king, hide it not from us, and we will not put thee to death.” Also what the king said unto thee, then thou shalt say unto them, I presented my supplication before the king, that he would not cause me to return the Jonathan’s house to die there.

Then came all the princes unto Jeremiah, and asked him, and he told them according to all these words that the king had commanded. Thus, you remark, “this man of God, as he is called, could tell a lie, or very strongly prevaricate; for certainly he did not go to Zedekiah to make his supplication, neither did he make it.”

It is not said that he told the princes he went to make his supplication, but that he presented it. Now it is said in the preceding chapter, that he did make the supplication, and it is probable that in this conference he renewed it.

But be that as it may, I contend that Jeremiah was not guilty of duplicity, or, in more intelligible terms, that he did not violate any law of nature, or of civil society, in what he did on this occasion. He told the truth, in part, to save his life, and he was under no obligation to tell the whole to men who were certainly his enemies and no good subjects to his king, “in a matter (says Puffendorf) which I am not obliged to declare to another, if I cannot, with safety conceal the whole, I may fairly discover no more than a part.”

Was Jeremiah under any obligation to declare to the princes what had passed in his conference with the king? You may as well say that the house of lords has a right to compel privy counselors to reveal the king’s secrets.

The king cannot justly require a privy counselor to tell a lie for him, but he may require him not to divulge his counsel to those who have no right to know them. Now for the false prediction – I will give the description of it in your own words.

“In the 34th chapter is a prophecy of Jeremiah to Zedekiah, in these words, verse 2: ‘Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will give this city into the hands of the king of Babylon, and will burn it with fire; and thou shalt not escape out of his hand, but thou shalt surely be taken, and delivered into his hand; and thine eyes shall behold the eyes of the king of Babylon, and he shall speak with thee mouth to mouth, and thou shalt go to Babylon.

Yet hear the word of the Lord, O Zedekiah King of Judah; thus saith the Lord, thou shalt not die by the sword, but thou shalt die in peace; and with the burnings of thy fathers, the former kings that were before thee, so shall they burn odors for thee, and will lament thee, saying, Ah, lord! For I have pronounced the word, saith the Lord.’

“Now, instead of Zedekiah beholding the eyes of the King of Babylon, and speaking with him mouth to mouth, and dying in peace and with the burnings of odors, as at the funeral of his fathers (as Jeremiah had declared the Lord himself had pronounced) the reverse, according to the 52nd chapter, was the case. It is there stated in verse 10: ‘That the king of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes.

That he put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and carried him to Babylon and put him in prison till the day of his death.’ What can we say of these prophets, but that they are impostors and liars?”

I can say this – that the prophecy you have produced, was fulfilled in all its parts; and what then shall be said of those who call Jeremiah a liar and an impostor? Here then we are fairly at issue, you affirm that the prophecy was not fulfilled, and I affirm that it was fulfilled in all its parts.

“I will give this city into the hands of the King of Babylon and he shall burn it with fire.” So says the prophet. What says the history?

“They (the forces of the King of Babylon) burnt the house of God, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire.” (II Chronicles 36:19) “Thou shalt not escape out of his hand, but shalt surely be taken and delivered into his hand.” So says the prophet.

What says the history? “The men of war fled by night, and the king went the way towards the plain, and the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho and all his army were scattered from him.

So they took the king, and brought him up to the King of Babylon, to Riblah.” (II Kings 25:5) The prophet goes on, “Thine eyes shall behold the eyes of the King of Babylon, and he shall speak with thee mouth to mouth.”

No pleasant circumstance this to Zedekiah, who had provoked the king of Babylon, by revolting from him! The history says, “The king of Babylon gave judgment upon Zedekiah,” or as it is more literally rendered from the Hebrew, “spake judgments with him at Riblah.”

The prophet concludes this part with, “And thou shalt go to Babylon.” The history says “The King of Babylon bound him in chains and carried him to Babylon and put him in prison till the day of his death.” (Jeremiah 52:11)

“Thou shalt not die by the sword.” He did not die by the sword; he did not fall in battle. “But thou shalt die in peace.” He did die in peace. He neither expired on the rack, nor on the scaffold; was neither strangled nor poisoned; no unusual fate of captive kings!

He died peaceably in his bed, though that bed was in a prison. “And with the burnings of thy fathers shall they burn odors for thee.”

I cannot prove from the history that this part of the prophecy was accomplished, nor can you prove that it was not. The probability is, that it was accomplished; and I have two reasons on which I ground this probability.

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to say nothing of other Jews, were men of great authority in the court of the king of Babylon, before and after the commencement of the imprisonment of Zedekiah; and Daniel continued in power till the subversion of the kingdom of Babylon by Cyrus.

Now it seems to me to be very probable. That Daniel, and the other great men of the Jews, would both have inclination to request, and influence enough with the king of Babylon to obtain permission to bury their deceased prince Zedekiah after the manner of his fathers.

But if there had been no Jews at Babylon of consequence enough to make such a request, still it is probable that the king of Babylon would have ordered the Jews to bury and lament their departed prince, after the manner of their country. Monarchs, like other men, are conscious of the instability of human condition; and when the pomp of war has ceased, when the insolence of conquest is abated, and the fury of resentment subsided, they seldom fail to revere royalty even in its ruins, and grant without reluctance proper obsequies to the remains of captive kings.

You profess to have been particular in treating of the books ascribed to Isaiah and Jeremiah. Particular in what!

You have particularized two or three passages, which you have endeavored to represent as objectionable and which I hope have been shewn, to the reader’s satisfaction, to be not justly liable to your censure; and you have passed over all the other parts of these books without notice.

Had you been particular in your examination, you would have found cause to admire the probity and the intrepidity of the characters of the authors of them. You would have met with many instances of sublime composition and what is of more consequence, with many instances of prophetical veracity.

Particularities of these kinds you have wholly overlooked. I cannot account for this; I have no right, no inclination, to call you a dishonest man. Am I justified in considering you as a man not altogether destitute of ingenuity, but so entirely under the dominion of prejudice in every thing respecting the Bible, that like a corrupted judge previously determined to give sentence on one side, you are negligent in the examination of truth?

You proceed to rest of the prophets, and you take them collectively, carefully however, selecting for your observations such particularities as are best calculated to render, if possible, the prophets odious or ridiculous in the eyes of your readers. You confound prophets with poets and musicians.

I would distinguish them thus: many prophets were poets and musicians, but all poets and musicians were not prophets, Prophecies were often delivered in poetic language and measure; but flights and metaphors of the Jewish poets, have not, as you affirm, been foolishly erected into what are now called prophecies.

They are now called, and have always been called, prophecies – because they were real predictions, some of which have received, some are now receiving, and all will receive, their full accomplishment.

That there were false prophets, witches, necromancers, conjurors, fortune-tellers, among the Jews, no person will attempt to deny. No nation, barbarous or civilized, has been without them but when you would degrade the prophets of the Old Testament to a level with these conjuring, dreaming, strolling gentry- when you would represent them as spending their lives in fortune-telling, casting nativities, predicting riches, fortunate or unfortunate marriages, conjuring for lost goods, &c. I must be allowed to say, that you wholly mistake their office, and misrepresent their character.

Their office was to convey to the children of Israel the commands, the promises, the threatening of Almighty God, and their character was that of men sustaining, with fortitude, persecution in the discharge of their duty. There were false prophets in abundance amongst the Jews and if you oppose these to the true prophets, and call them both party prophets, you have the liberty of doing so, but you will not thereby confound the distinction between truth and falsehood.

False prophets are spoken of with detestation in many parts of Scripture; particularly by Jeremiah, who accuses them of prophesying lies in the name of the Lord, saying, “I have dreamed. I have dreamed. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues, and say, he saith that prophesy false dreams, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness.”

Jeremiah cautions his countrymen against giving credit to their prophets, to their diviners, to their dreamers, to their enchanters, to their sorcerers, “which speak unto you, saying, ye shall not serve the king of Babylon.” You cannot think more contemptibly of these gentry, than they were thought of by the true prophets at the time they lived.

But, as Jeremiah says on this subject, “What is the chaff to the wheat?” What are the false prophets to the true ones? Every thing good is liable to abuse, but who argues against the use of a thing from the abuse of it – against physicians, because they are pretenders to physic?

Was Isaiah a fortune-teller, predicting riches, when he said to King Hezekiah, “Behold the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

Fortune-tellers generally predict good luck to their simple customers that they may make something by their trade. But Isaiah predicts to a monarch, desolation of his country, and the ruin of his family.

This prophecy was spoken in the year before Christ 713; and, above an hundred years afterwards, it was accomplished when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, and carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the house (II Kings24:13) and when he commanded the master of his eunuchs (Daniel. 1:3) that he should take certain of the children of Israel, and of the king’s seed, and of the princes, and educate them for three years, till they were able to stand before the king.

Jehoram king of Israel, Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and the king of Edom, going with their armies to make war on the king of Moab, came into a place where there was no water either for their men or cattle. in this distress they waited upon Elisha, (a high honor for one of your conjurors) by the advice of Jehoshaphat, who knew that the word of the Lord was with him.

The prophet, on seeing Jehoram, an idolatrous prince, who had revolted from the worship of the true God, comes to consult him, said to him, “Get thee to the prophets of thy father and the prophets of thy mother.” This you think shews Elisha to have been a party prophet, full of venom and vulgarity.

It shews him to have been a man of great courage, who respected the dignity of his own character, the sacredness of his office as a prophet of God, whose duty it was to reprove the wickedness of kings, as of other men he ordered them to make the valley where they were full of ditches.

This, you say, “every countryman could have told, that the way to get water was to dig for it.” But this is not a true representation of the case.

The ditches were not dug that water might be gotten by digging for it, but that they might hold the water when it should miraculously come, “without wind or rain,” from another country, and it did come “from the way of Edom, and the country was filled with water.”

As to Elisha’s cursing the little children who had mocked him, and their destruction in consequence of his imprecation, the whole story must be taken together. The provocation he received is, by some, considered as an insult offered to him, not as a man, but as a prophet, and that the persons who offered it were not what we understand by little children, but grown-up youths; the term child being applied, in the Hebrew language, to grown-up persons.

Be this as it may, the cursing was the act of the prophet. Had it been a sin it would not have been followed by a miraculous destruction of the offenders, for this was the act of God who best knows who deserves punishment.

What effect such a single judgment had on the idolatrous inhabitants of the land, is nowhere said; but it is probable it was not without a good effect.

Ezekiel and Daniel lived during the Babylonian captivity; you allow their writings to be genuine. In this you differ from some of the greatest adversaries of Christianity, and in my opinion cut up, by this concession, the very root of your whole performance.

It is next to an impossibility for any man, who admits the book of Daniel to be a genuine book and who examines that book with intelligence and impartiality, to refuse his assent to the truth of Christianity.

As to your saying, that the interpretations, which commentators and priests have made of these books, only shew the fraud, or the extreme folly, to which credulity and priestcraft can go. I consider it as nothing but a proof of the extreme folly or fraud to which prejudice and infidelity can carry a minute philosopher.

You profess a fondness for science. I will refer you to a scientific man, who was neither a commentator nor a priest, – to Ferguson – in a tract entitled – The Year of our Savior’s Crucifixion

Ascertained; and the darkness at the time of his crucifixion proved to be supernatural. This real philosopher interprets the remarkable prophecy in the 9th chapter of Daniel, and concludes his dissertation in the following words.

“Thus we have an astronomical demonstration of the truth of this ancient prophecy, seeing that the prophetic year of the Messiah’s being cut off, was the very same with the astronomical.” I have somewhere read an account of a solemn disputation which was held at Venice, in the last century, between a Jew and a Christian.

The Christian strongly argued from Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy week so that Jesus was the Messiah whom the Jews had long expected from the predictions of their prophets. The learned Rabbi, who presided at this disputation, was so forcibly struck by the argument, that he put an end to the business, by saying, “Let us shut up our Bibles for if we proceed in the examination of this prophecy, it mill make us all become Christians.”

Was it a similar apprehension which deterred you from so much as opening the book of Daniel? You have not produced from it one exceptionable passage. I hope you will read that book with attention, with intelligence, and with an unbiased mind follow the advice of our Savior when he quoted this very prophecy – “Let him that readeth understand” – and I shall not despair of your conversion from deism to Christianity.

In order to discredit the authority of the books which you allow to be genuine, you form a strange and prodigious hypothesis concerning Ezekial and Daniel, for which there is no manner of foundation either in history or probability. You suppose these two men to have had no dreams, no visions, no revelation from God Almighty but to have pretended to these things and, under that disguise; they have carried on an enigmatical correspondence relative to the recovery of their country from the Babylonian yoke.

 That any man in his senses should frame or adopt such a hypothesis, should have so little regard to his own reputation as an impartial enquirer after truth, so little respect for the understanding of his readers, as to obtrude it on the world, would have appeared an incredible circumstance, had not you made it a fact.

You quote a passage from Ezekiel in the 29th chapter, verse 11, speaking of Egypt, it is said – “No foot of man shall pass through it, nor foot of beast shall pass through it; neither shall it be inhabited forty years. This, you say, “never came to pass, and consequently it is false, as all the books I have already reviewed are.”

Now that this did come to pass, we have, as Bishop Newton observes, “the testimonies of Megasthenes and Berosus, two heathen historians, who lived about 300 years before Christ; one of whom affirms, expressly, that Nebuchadnezzar conquered the greater part of Africa; and the other affirms it, in effect, in saying, that when Nebuchadnezzar heard of the death of his father, having settled his affairs in Egypt, and committed the captives whom he took in Egypt to the care of some of his friends to bring them after him, he hasted directly to Babylon.”

And if we had been possessed of no testimony in support of the prophecy, it would have been a hasty conclusion, that the prophecy never came to pass. The history of Egypt at so remote a period, being no where accurately and circumstantially related, I admit that no period can be pointed out, from the age of Ezekiel to the present, in which there was no foot of man or beast to be seen for forty years in all Egypt.

But some think that only a part of Egypt is here spoken of and surely you do not expect a literal accomplishment of a hyperbolical expression, denoting great desolation; importing that the trade of Egypt, which was carried on then, as at present, by caravans, by the foot of man and beast, should be annihilated.

Had you taken the trouble to have looked a little farther into the book from which you have made your quotation, you would have there seen a prophecy delivered above two thousand years ago, and which has been fulfilling from that time to this.

“Egypt shall be the basest of the kingdoms, neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations. There shall be no more a prince of the land of Egypt.” This you may call a dream, a vision, a lie.

I esteem it a wonderful prophecy, for as is the prophecy, so has been the event. Egypt was conquered by the Babylonians; and after the Babylonians by the Persians; and after the Persians it became subject to the Macedonians; and after the Macedonians to the Romans; and after the Romans to the Saracens; and then to the Mamelukes; and is now a province of the Turkish Empire.”

Suffer me to produce to you from this author not an enigmatical letter to Daniel respecting the recovery of Jerusalem from the hands of the kings of Babylon, but an enigmatical prophecy concerning Zedekiah the king of Jerusalem, before it was taken by the Chaldeans.

“I will bring him (Zedekiah) to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans; yet shall he not see it, though he shall die there.” How? Not see Babylon, when he shall die there!

How, moreover, is this consistent, you may ask, with what Jeremiah had foretold that Zedekiah should see the eyes of the king of Babylon? This darkness of expression and apparent contradiction between the two prophets, induced Zedekiah (as Josephus informs us) to give no credit to either of them yet he unhappily experienced, and the fact is worthy your observation, the truth of them both.

He saw the eyes of the king of Babylon, not at Babylon, but at Riblah. His eyes were there put out; and he was carried to Babylon, yet he saw it not; and thus were the predictions of both the prophets verified, and the enigma of Ezekiel explained.

As to your wonderful discovery that the prophecy of Jonah is a book of some gentile, “and that it has been written as a fable, to expose the nonsense and to satirize the vicious and malignant character of a Bible prophet, or a predicting priest,” I shall put it, covered with hellebore, for the service of its author, on the same shelf with your hypothesis concerning the conspiracy of Daniel and Ezekiel and shall not say another word about it.

You conclude your objections to the Old Testament in a triumphant style; an angry opponent would say in a style of extreme arrogance, and sottish self-sufficiency.

“I have gone,” you say, “through the Bible (mistaking here, as in other places, the Old Testament for the Bible) as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulders, and fell trees. Here they lie and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never grow.”

And is it possible that you should think so highly of your performance, as to believe, that you have thereby demolished the authority of a book, which Newton himself esteemed the most authentic of all histories, which, by its celestial light, illumines the darkest ages of antiquity;

which is the touchstone whereby we are enabled to distinguish between true and fabulous theology, between the God of Israel, holy, just, and good, and the impure rabble of heathen Baalim;

which has been thought, by competent judges, to have afforded matter for the laws of Solon, and a foundation for the philosophy of Plato;

which has been illustrated by the labor of learning, in all ages and countries; and been admired and venerated for its piety, its sublimity, its veracity, by all who were able to read and understand it?

No, Sir, you have gone indeed through the wood with the best intention in the world to cut it down, but you have merely busied yourself in exposing to vulgar contempt a few unsightly shrubs, which good men had wisely concealed from public view.

You have entangled yourself in thickets of thorns and briars. You have lost your way on the mountains of Lebanon, the goodly cedar trees whereof, lamenting the madness and pitying the blindness of your rage against them, have scorned the blunt edge and the base temper of your axe and laughed unhurt at the feebleness of your stroke.

In plain language, you have gone through the Old Testament hunting after difficulties, and you have found some real one. These you have endeavored to magnify into insurmountable objections to the authority of the whole book.

When it is considered that the Old Testament is composed of several books, written by different authors, and at different periods, from Moses to Malachi, comprising an abstracted history of a particular nation for above a thousand years, I think the real difficulties which occur in it are much fewer and of much less importance, than could reasonably have been expected.

Apparent difficulties you have represented as real ones, without hinting at the manner in which they have been explained. You have ridiculed things held most sacred and calumniated characters esteemed most venerable.

You have excited the scoffs of the profane; increased the skepticism of the doubtful; shaken the faith of the unlearned; suggested cavils to the faith of the unlearned; suggested cavils to the “disputers of this world; and perplexed the minds of honest men who wish to worship the God of their fathers in sincerity and truth.

This and more you have done in going through the Old Testament, but you have not so much as glanced at the great design of the whole, at the harmony and mutual dependence of the several parts.

You have said nothing of the wisdom of God in selecting a particular people from the rest of mankind, not for their own sakes, but that they might witness to the whole world in successive ages, his existence and attributes and that they might be an instrument of subverting idolatry, of declaring the name of the God of Israel throughout the whole earth.

It was through this nation that the Egyptians saw the wonders of God; that the Canaanites (whom wickedness had made a reproach to human nature) felt his judgments; that the Babylonians issued their decrees – “That none should dare to speak amis of the God of Israel – that all should fear and tremble before him” – and it is through them that you and I, and all the world, are not at this day worshippers of idols.

You have said nothing of the goodness of God in promising that, through the seed of Abraham, all the nations of the earth were to be blessed; that the desire of all nations, the blessing of Abraham to the gentiles, should come.

You have passed by all the prophecies respecting the coming of the Messiah; though they absolutely fixed the time of his coming and of his being cut off; described his office, character, condition, sufferings, and death, in so circumstantial a manner, that we cannot but be astonished at the accuracy of their completion in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

You have neglected noticing the testimony of the whole Jewish nation to the truth both of the natural and miraculous facts recorded in the Old Testament.

That we may better judge of the weight of this testimony, let us suppose that God should now manifest himself to us, as we contend he did to the Israelites in Egypt, in the desert and in the land of Canaan; and that he should continue these manifestations of himself to our posterity for a thousand years or more, punishing or rewarding them according as they disobeyed or obeyed his commands.

What would you expect should be the issue? You would expect that our posterity would, in the remotest period of time, adhere to their God and maintain against all opponents the truth of the books in which the dispensations of God to us and to our successors had been recorded.

They would not yield to the objections of men, who, not having experienced the same divine government, should, for want of such experience, refuse assent to their testimony. No, they would be the then surrounding nations, what the Jews are to us, witnesses of the existence and of the moral government of God.

Click Here to continue to Letter VII

Comments are closed.