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On Miracles.

A Sermon.*

* This sermon is the first of a short series of four lectures on miracles, of which the one in the first number of the Occident was the third. We probably may give the other two hereafter.

O Thou! who appearedst unto thy messenger in the flaming bush, which though lucent with fire was not consumed, we acknowledge thy power and greatness as did our fathers whom Thou didst call unto thy service. And now, unworthy though we be of thy mercy, we come before Thee to seek thy undeserved favour, because that Thou didst swear to preserve us when thy justice would visit our iniquities. Do Thou therefore unto us even according to the prophetic vision which Moses beheld when he was first called to become thy messenger of grace and justice; and let us be unconsumed, our numbers undiminished, whilst the flaming fire of tribulation purifies us of our impurities, whilst the stains of sin are cleansed by the fiery ordeal of the wrath which our transgressions provoke. Cause us thus to feel thy chastening rule, O Thou! who art the God of nations, and Arbiter of the fate of man; the everlasting One, who speaketh and fulfilleth; who commandeth and every thing springeth into being; who slayeth and there is no one to hinder Him; who showeth mercy and forgiveness, and there is no one to say, “What doest Thou?” And let thy name be glorified through us, the children of Israel, and cause many nations to behold thy mercy in thy return to Zion, the city of our desires. Amen.


In my last address I laid before you the three principal articles on which our religious system is founded. These were, briefly, the belief in the existence of God, the existence of a revelation, and the existence of accountability, or a righteous scheme of rewards and punishments. We may say with perfect truth, that without admitting the whole of these three, there can be no religion; for we would not submit to its restraints if there were no Head and Chief, capable through his wisdom and power to direct our will; we could not obey Him if there were no prescribed rule which we could follow out in our course of conduct; and lastly, many, if not all, of us would not follow the dictates of an acknowledged Supreme even, if we did not dread his power, or looked up to Him for a favourable judgment of our deeds. Man may aver that he would practise what he terms virtue, even if there were no God, from motives of general benevolence to his species; exercise justice and mercy, though there were no precepts to direct him, as being most consonant with the refined feelings of human nature, and lastly, be good and righteous from no motives of reward, from no fear of punishment, but only because the good man must naturally love the good and eschew the evil, simply because of their intrinsic qualities, and because the inherent loveliness of virtue and the natural deformity of vice carry with them their own reward and punishment, as the case may be. Such reasoning would hold good, were man that perfect being which this theory would require him to be; were he in a state of nature benevolent, generous, docile, obedient, honest, chaste, and sober; were he, when tempted, always averse to practising vice, though there were no fear of bodily injury to prevent him. But experience proves, that man is only capable of a high degree of perfection, not perfect, however, in his natural state; that even with instruction he may feel drawn towards benevolence and generosity, and be capable of becoming docile, honest, chaste, and sober, and yet be the very reverse in his conduct; and that lastly the abstract love of virtue is no safeguard against the desire for indulgence, if opportunity, unchecked by outward restraint, tempt the weak son of earth to taste of the dangerous fruits of self-indulgence. Without, therefore, enlarging at present on these points, we will re-assert what we started with, that without God, revelation, and retribution, no virtue, deserving of the name, can have any existence, no matter what the unthinking may say to the contrary.

Besides, however, these necessary truths, there are others which might have been otherwise, but which have become incorporated with religion, either as historical events, or as the promises of the spirit of God, which both must be admitted as true, the first class, as things which have actually taken place, the second, as certain to occur; since the Being from whom they emanate is infallible, and cannot therefore predict or promise any thing which will not ultimately be fulfilled.

Historical facts, which serve as the basis of doctrines connected with our religion, are solely and alone to be looked for in Scripture, which of itself bears internal evidence of its truth, and is itself an historical fact, or traditional truth of religion. In the same manner the prophetic truths, as we aptly term the promises of God, are also contained in the same vehicle of faith; and consequently such only are to be admitted into the articles of our religion, as are substantially borne out by internal consistency, and supported by the words of the Bible, in their evident and common sense meaning. This belief in the history and prediction of the Bible becomes the duty of every Israelite; although this acquiescence in facts and promises would presuppose our admission of a state of things differing materially from every-day life, in other words, the truth of miracles and a change of nature as we see it organized by means of our bodily organs.

It is true that revelation, or the Biblical record, contains also the commandment of the acknowledgment of the Deity as a part of divine legislation; nevertheless this command did not establish the existence of God as a new fact which did not exist before, but merely recited this existence as a truth which had existed already from the beginning, and which the sound common sense of man must admit as a matter of necessity more than of belief. God’s existence is not established by the precept; but the precept was given because of his existence being the basis, the starting point, upon which all good acts are founded, and from which all virtuous resolves must proceed. So also that there are acts which are pleasing to God is, as we have said, a prerequisite for religion; and if the record now contains such general directions as are evidently conducive to the general prosperity of society and the well-being of individuals, we must say, that these laws or facts of revelation are not only true because they are commanded, but also because the human mind requires such directions to satisfy its craving for what is in itself good and beautiful. But there are other facts recorded, and other commandments given, which need not necessarily be so, and which might have been otherwise if God had so ordained it; and though the latter are necessary now to a correct religious life, human reasoning would not have discovered them by unaided research; and they therefore do not, and many of them cannot, appeal to our reason as a ground for believing the first and obeying the latter.

But, although the details of the Scriptures are not necessary truths, they are manifestations of the will of the Lord, who in this manner declared what He chose to decree as evil, and what He wished to command as good. In the same manner, though the flood, for instance, was not a necessary consequence of the deeds of the Antediluvians, as another punishment equally efficacious might have been dispensed, its occurrence has rendered it an historical fact, recorded in the Bible, and thus it has become a matter on which we are not at liberty to doubt or to offer any speculations of our own, inconsistent with the text of the sacred volume. The same holds good with almost every fact of which we have any account in the Bible. Yet it has to be observed, that all the occurrences which are related to us, although of their truth there can and ought to be no doubt on the mind of a believer, are not of themselves articles of faith, or that kind of facts which has a bearing on our course of conduct. In fact the greater number is merely recorded as having occurred in the course of the transactions which the Lord was pleased to permit being done, and all such acts are only surprising or claiming our attention, as they are of uncommon magnitude, or out of the ordinary course of events with which our experience has rendered us familiar. It would evidently consume a great deal of time to glance even at all the facts of Scripture, and to argue their reasonableness; we will therefore only take up a few in connexion with some brief remarks on the miraculous power.

Perhaps no one fact of Scripture has given more cause of exultation to the unbeliever, than the improbability of miracles, especially as they do not occur before our eyes in our own days. But let us look into the nature of any miracle recounted in the Bible; take for instance the first mission of Moses, when he beheld a bush flaming in fire without being consumed, and it will strike you, that the object of the appearance was not of a trifling kind, not merely performed to show off an extraordinary power before an astonished audience: but to introduce some great and important event in history, which had an important bearing union the affairs of mankind in general, or at least to teach a true and wholesome lesson to the people before whom the transaction took place. To infer the probability of such an occurrence, we should consider who caused the same to happen, and what gives to general events, of which we are informed, an air of plausibility?

To commence with the latter part of our proposition:—we say that we believe any event to have happened, no matter how grand the effect said to have been produced, if we can suppose that the means and strength of the agents were equal to the effect said to have been produced. Let us take an example from an occurrence not now very rare, but which was utterly unheard of within less than the age of many persons yet living, that of a man ascending high above the earth in a machine of peculiar construction. Were we to be told that the aëronaut accomplished this feat by means of a heavy iron structure, and of complicated contrivance, we would, with our present impressions, pronounce the thing impossible and untrue. [Bear in mind this was written 60 years before the Wright Brothers' first flight, and more than a century before the 747 and the Space Shuttle.--Webmaster.]

But if we were to be informed that he employed an air-tight silken bag, filled with a well-known fluid, many times lighter than the air we breathe, and which will therefore float in the atmosphere, just as lighter substances will float on the surface of the water, though partly immersed therein, and that he was conveyed in this voyage in a frail car attached by ropes to the airfilled silken bag: they who are familiar with the laws of nature, as laid open by the late discoveries in science, would pronounce the relation not alone probable, but true likewise, although no ocular demonstration had made the thing manifest to their outward sensual organs. But suppose that before the discovery of the existence of the different gases had been demonstrated, and their respective specific weights had been determined, one had proposed to accomplish a voyage in the air, he would have been pronounced as attempting impossibilities; or should he have succeeded, by a natural process known to him only, he would have risked an accusation of witchcraft, which would have been fatal to him from the ignorance of those who witnessed his miraculous exhibition. Of course there are many hundred instances which, at one time actually impossible from the want of the proper knowledge of producing them, have become of late matters of common notoriety, to such a degree that we cease to regard them with wonder. I will notice one single fact only, bearing strongly upon our discussion. Before the art of printing was invented, books could only be multiplied by the slow process of transcribing each letter separately, one at a time. Just about four hundred years ado the inventive genius of man was led upon the idea of contriving the multiplying of transcripts by machinery of very simple construction; and so wonderful were the cheapness at which books were offered, and the rapidity with which they were multiplied by those who did not at once make public their mode of accomplishing this astonishing work, considered, that the art was ascribed to supernatural agency and demoniacal power, by those whose ignorance caused them to doubt the possibility of man to accomplish that which in our day is too generally diffused to excite the smallest attention.

This is the case where a mere mortal is the agent; impossibilities to some are pastime to others; and what one age fails to realise, becomes in a succeeding one matter of every-day occurence.—Now let us ascend from man to his Maker. What is God, regarded as Master of the world? All-powerful. What do we call all-powerful? That He is able to do whatever He pleases, every thing which is beyond the power of accomplishment by the greatest of men, nay, even of all men combined.What is nature? The organization of things in every state of existence in all the extent of creation, from the commencement to the end, as God has ordained them, and as they were arranged by Him; just in such a manner as seed best adapted to the ends of his wisdom.—Can God change nature? Certainly; nature adds nothing to his power and greatness, since He alone ordained it; there is moreover no other power to interfere with Him in his judgment and the execution of his almighty pleasure; consequently nature as an entire, and as constituted of an infinite number of details, becomes of itself subject to the immediate control of its sovereign Lord, and He can consequently change, alter, or subvert it, if his designs require such change. Indeed were miraculous power claimed by any other than the Creator, we might freely say that it would be an impossibility; because a miracle is contrary to the course of nature, or that surprising system of organization established by the Supreme Wisdom. But when the Creator himself comes to instruct, to govern, to restrain, to control, to reward, to punish,—what, we ask, is to prevent Him from working a miracle? Ay, He changes nature! but is the new arrangement any thing more wonderful than the ordinary course of events? When there was darkness upon the face of the deep, and the Lord spoke, “Let there be light,” was the instantaneous burst of the flood of brilliancy which rejoiced the face of creation, till then buried beneath ages of gloom and desolation, any less wonderful than the change of the waters of Egypt’s river into stagnant blood? or the sudden burst of hail, rain, and fire which whelmed that hapless country with despair and dread because of the sin of its ruler and inhabitants?—Some indeed have of late years endeavoured to render the Bible more credible, by explaining all, or nearly all, the miracles recorded there by the ordinary laws of nature. In this they certainly do not act wisely and scarcely honestly. The Bible claims for God the power of doing what He deems best; it teaches that he empowered man, acting under his special guidance, to work astonishing things at different periods of the history of the world; it tells us as facts that such events did happen: and it is therefore not proper that we at this late day should attempt to do away with the evident meaning of Scripture by substituting our own fancies in its stead. It is certainly true that in several instances the miracles are within the range of the laws of nature; for instance, the locusts which devoured every thing in Egypt, the destruction by a sort of earthquake of Korah and his fellow conspirators; but in all cases we shall see that it is not so much the event as the promptness of the occurrence, which is dwelt upon as a sign or evidence of the truth of that which it was intended to verify. It does not derogate from the dignity of the Lord that He called in the aid of nature as it is already constituted, as little as He is restrained by the non-existence of the thing he wishes to produce, which his creative power has to call into being, before his will can be accomplished.

We are too apt to think of the immaculate Sovereign as we would think of a mortal; in using the terms wonderful—impossible,—we fancy that we have expressed something too great for every being, the Supreme no less than ourselves. But when we say that any thing is impossible for us, we only say that with our present capacities and powers we cannot accomplish the act mentioned; but this does not say, that another is equally weak with ourselves, or that we also, with an increase of energy, proceeding from any source, either by the march of discovery, or an augmented experience elaborated by our own mind, might not be able to accomplish the thing conceived impossible.—Now grant that not one miracle in the Bible should ever be within the scope of human possibility, it does not restrict in the least its being done by divine possibility. The acts of God are not limited by our will, nor restrained by our power; it is enough that He wishes to do strange things, and they are done. He created the sea and the dry land; and when He means to let the waters flow over delightful valleys and fruitful mountains, or to convert the ocean into fertile fields, the change must take place, and desolation speeds onward at his nod, or prosperity hastens hither by the King’s command. The word “impossibility” is not applicable to the Deity; whatever exists is in being through his sufferance only, and it is only existing because He has made it as it is. When now He finds it consonant with his wisdom, of which fact He is the sole judge, He can so change nature for the time being as to produce the intended effect, or He can work counter to the ordinary course of events without deranging the same. Every source of events, and every thought in the moral, with every cause in the material world, are alike within his view and knowledge; consequently He can arrange events in one spot of the creation without in the least affecting the other parts. So then if a miracle be confessedly a breach of the laws of nature, it is a breach produced by the great Architect himself, who, whilst effecting it, has the mastery over all nature, so as not to injure or derange the other portions, nor to break up the harmony which governs every sphere in the most distant orbit.

It is said by some who, whilst professing an intimate knowledge with the laws of nature, doubt the truth of the Bible history, that the recurrence of a miracle would subvert the course of nature, and that consequently God would not, if He could, permit any such to take place.—But such an objection has no force if we carefully consider what we have advanced, already. Were it that God, having once fixed certain laws for the government of the universe, had retired, to use a human phrase, from the active rule of things, and left it altogether to these unalterable laws of his own institution: then indeed might it be said that He would not suffer any miracle to occur for fear of disturbing the universal harmony of creation.—Yet both reason and religion teach us a different idea of the Supreme; He not alone founded the structure of the universe, but continues to superintend it by his wisdom and direct overruling providence; He is not wearied with watching, nor fatigued by his exertions; He is not overtasked in his labours, nor inadequate to the part which He has assumed; He is the same as from the beginning, and knows not sleep nor slumber, and might, wisdom, and goodness are yet his characteristics as in the days of old. Now imagine a case where a great event is yet buried deep in the recesses of time; the welfare of a large portion of sentient beings, either on our globe or in one of the many other worlds which compose our Master’s kingdom, should require a chain of events to bring the desired occurrence to pass; and imagine farther that the ordinary course of things would be inadequate to bring it forth at all, or not with sufficient effectiveness:—we would ask, why should the Lord not abrogate for the time the laws of nature and make himself manifest as the Ruler of events by the recurrence of an astounding thing, one beyond the laws of nature, to accomplish? We have already proved that to God there is nothing impossible; and his having left nature endued with such harmonious laws only places it beyond the power of creatures to arrest, alter, or destroy in the smallest particular; but to the Maker himself it must be evidently as easy to act counter to his own institutions, if He desires, it, as it was in the first instance, to institute those laws of wonderful harmony, to which the thousands of suns, with their millions of planets; to which on earth all the minerals, all the mountains, all the valleys;—all the plants with their immense variety of flowers and fruits;—all the animals, they who range the forest, they who live in peace with man and are obedient to his word; the birds that sing amid the leafy branches, and the fishes that sport in the sea;—all mankind, from the sage whose lips drop the honey of wisdom, to the nursling in its mother’s arms, bow in silent submission, acknowledging all their Maker’s power.

Already, in the early part of the history of man, we find an instance of unbelief recorded in one from whom such ought not to have been looked for. I allude to the announcement to Sarah, that at the expiration of a year she should be the happy mother of a son, with whom the Lord would establish his covenant. She affected to consider the fulfilment impossible, having reached the age of near ninety in her childless state. But the Lord reproved Abraham for the unbelief of his wife, in these words “Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, when I am old? Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed, I will return unto thee, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen. 18:13, 14.) This occurrence will serve us as an illustration for many other miracles. All that was needed to accomplish the prediction was to restore the youth of Sarah, which she thought unlikely to occur. But from the child with which God meant to bless Abraham it was intended to raise up a people that should become the light of the world; moreover it was deemed necessary that its mother too should be one who had a due knowledge of divine things, fittingly to educate the son who should become the successor to the covenant of Abraham with God. However the superficial may view the subject, it has had the most important bearing upon man, that Abraham and his son Isaac were true worshippers in the time of general idolatry. Hence the birth of Isaac was thought worthy to be attended by a miracle, in order to signalize more emphatically the sacred calling for which he vas destined, to transmit. the blessing of true religion to the latest descendants of Adam.

Now let us go down in our inquiries to later generations, and we will be surprised at the actually small number of prodigies recorded in the Bible. Were it then that this book should not be a true record, the authors thereof would have introduced necessarily many attestations of their truth, and would thus have recorded many wonders as proofs of their authenticity, if they once had claimed them to be within the range of divine economy. But from the time of Noah to the mission of Moses there are but few indications of supernatural occurrences, with the exception of the confusion of tongues, the destruction of Sodom, and the manifestation of prophecy to various pious persons. When, however, we come to the time of the redemption of Israel, we see a more evident display of the divine power before the eyes of mankind. Why is this?—Let us attempt an answer. The promise which had been given when the birth of Isaac was first announced, had now ripened to a fulfilment. The descendants of Abraham had increased, though in servitude, and become a numerous nation, distinct and separate, despite of their being the fellow countrymen of a people of a different origin and a peculiar mode of thinking.—But the promise of the Lord had to be fulfilled, since He is the God of truth, in whom there is no deception; yet He found his people oppressed, slaves to those who regarded not his name, nor feared his power. How then, we ask, was the promise to be kept? Should the Lord, by his almighty influence, so work upon the heart of the king of Egypt and his people as to cause the liberation of Israel without their having any outward cause to discover the potency of Him who had thus influenced them; or should there be such manifestation of divine might that, though unwilling, the oppressors would have to acknowledge that the Creator was too mighty for mortals, exalted above the strength of man and the idols which he had made for his worship?—Either action would have been a miracle; the first, though inward, no less wonderful than the second, for man is too tenacious of power, too greedy for his own interest, ever to relinquish his hold from a free accord over the rights of others, especially if, as was the case in Egypt, the governing class thought themselves far superior to those they held in bondage. Yet if this inward influence alone had been exerted, the effect would have been only very transient upon the minds of the Egyptians, and quite unfelt by the Israelites, despite of their being thus the recipients of the Lord’s bounty; they would have ascribed their freedom to an act of grace on the part of their masters, and would probably have little valued a boon so easily obtained. But the course indicated in the Bible was decidedly more calculated to produce a lasting effect, and one much more likely to reduce such a man as the arbitrary king of Egypt to obedience. He was told that the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, demanded of him to let his people go free. He answered insolently: “I know not the Lord, and also Israel I will not let go.” It was then that the Most High deemed it necessary to show the manifestation of his power which we find narrated in the first chapters of Exodus, till Pharaoh was compelled to acknowledge the omnipotence of the Protector of Abraham’s sons. During the time that these miracles transpired, there was no cessation of the powers of nature, except as it regarded the bodies of the Egyptians themselves, for to the Israelites there was neither the plague of the pestilence, nor injury from the wild beasts, nor death from the hailstones, nor darkness in their dwellings; but all the afflictions were special creations to warn and punish those whom it was necessary thus to reduce to obedience to the divine commands. This will explain to us the first two verses of the tenth chapter of Exodus, which speak as follows:

ואמר ה׳ אל משה בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו ואת לב עבדיו למען שתי אתתי אלה בקרבו׃ ולמען תספר באזני בנך ובן בנך את אשר התעללתי במצרים ואת אתתי אשר שמתי בם וידעתם כי אני ה׳׃ שמות י׳ א׳ ב׳׃

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, for I have caused to be heavy his heart and the heart of his servants, for the sake that I might do these my signs in the midst of them. And for the sake that thou mightest tell in the ears of thy son and of thy son’s son that which I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

We have explained on a former occasion what is to be understood by the word hardening or making heavy the heart of Pharaoh, and stated it to be nothing else than what we see every day among sinful men, who do not open their souls to divine admonition, and remain callous to the wrathful dispensations which others around them consider as sufficient to open their eyes to the erroneousness of their course. We then stated that the Lord must not be supposed as active in preventing Pharaoh’s repentance, but as not compelling him to pay obedience before the chain of events had produced the necessary conviction on his mind. We have now merely to apply the miraculous part to our to­day’s discussion. It has been stated before that, like their masters, the Israelites had learned to pay divine honours to idols; witness the many murmurings mentioned during their travels in the wilderness. Now let us not forget what we have insisted on in several previous lectures, that the ultimate salvation of all mankind was to be brought about by the education of the seed of Abraham as the Lord’s peculiar people. They had therefore need to be purified of their reverence for the superstitions of Egypt, no less than to be cautioned against the pernicious practices unblushingly perpetrated in that unhappy land, which, amid a high state of civilization, was prostrated beneath the sway of idolatrous priests, the coadjutors of despotism, who enslaved the minds as much as the sovereigns the bodies of the people. But when the Israelites beheld the destruction which reached alike the people, the king, the priests, and their idols, they could not help feeling that the power of the God who humbled all that were held up to them as objects of reverence, must be vast, infinite, immeasurable; that He who arrested nature at his mere word, who made the winds his messengers, and the flaming fire his servants; who covered the heavens with darkness, and sent the angel of death unerringly into every house to slay the oldest of every family from the prince down to the captive slave, must in truth be the Lord, the Creator, the sovereign of the universe, He who builds up and destroys, who revives and slays, and there is no one to snatch or save from his hands. This it was that should be told to the descendants of Israel, namely, that their God is the Most High, who abideth unto everlasting, unchangingly holy, wise, and pure, great beyond human conception, all-powerful in the execution of his will, cognizant of nature, and changing its laws whenever He wills a change to take place; but who is true to his word, to repay the obedience of the fathers unto their children, and who is ever at hand to hear the prayer of the oppressed, and to save the weak and humble from the hand of him who is stronger than they are; who is the God of truth, in whom there is no evil, no falsehood, who shields from the arrows of life all those who put their trust in Him!

Be it now thy will, O our Father and God, to open our eyes unto the knowledge of thy ways, and fill us with understanding to study with humility the word of salvation which thy wisdom has written down for our instruction; subdue in us the pride of human reason which refuses to be taught by thy word, and cause thy law to be engraven on our hearts, that we may observe its precepts, and speak of the great deeds Thou hast wrought for us, and through us for all the world, to those who are to come after us. Let thus thy name be sanctified through our humble efforts, and let us feel the assurance that Thou art with us whenever we assemble in this house, which we have built unto thy glory, to offer up our prayer at the foot of thy mercy-seat, and to proclaim aloud our abiding trust in the truth of thy law which Thou hast imparted to us as the best heritage of the congregation of Jacob thy servant.—May this be ever thy will, and may thy abundant blessing be poured out over all Israel thy people! Amen.

Fri. Jan. 6. Shebat 5, 5603.