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Life of Jesus Christ in Its Historical Connexion and Historical Developement.
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§ 16. The Announcement to the Shepherds.

It is in accordance with the analogy of history that great manifestations and epochs, designed to satisfy the spiritual wants of ages, should be anticipated by the prophetic yearnings of pure and susceptible hearts, inspired by a secret Divine consciousness. All great events that have introduced a new developement of human history have been preceded by unconscious or conscious prophecy. This may seem strange to such as ascribe to God the apathy of the Stoics, or who believe only in the cold, iron necessity of an immanent spirit of nature; but to none who believe in a personal, self-conscious Deity, a God of eternal love, who is nigh unto every man, and listens willingly to the secret sighs of longing souls, can it appear unworthy of such a Being to foreshadow great world-historical epochs by responding to such longings in special revelations.

Far more probable, then, would such manifestations be, in reference to the highest object of human longings, the greatest of all world historical phenomena; and so, at the time of Christ’s coming, the people of Judea, guided by the prophecies of the Old Testament, yearned for the appearance of the Messiah with an anxiety only rendered more intense by the oppressions under which they groaned. This feeling would naturally be kept alive in Bethlehem, associated as the place was with recollections of the family of David, from which the Messiah was to come. So, even among the shepherds, who kept nightly watch over the flocks, were some who anxiously awaited the appearance of the Messiah. It is true, the account does not say that the shepherds thus longed for the Messiah. But we are justified by what followed in presupposing it as the ground for such a communication’s being especially made to them; and it is not unlikely that these simple souls, untaught in the traditions of the scribes, and nourished by communion with God, amid the freedom of nature, in a solitude congenial to meditation and prayer, had formed a purer idea of the Messiah, from the necessities of their own hearts, than prevailed at that time among the Jews. A vision from Heaven conducted them on that night, so big with interest to man’s salvation, to the place where the object of their desire was to be born.4545   Justly and beautifully says Schleiermacher, “There is something remarkable, something divine, in the satisfaction not seldom afforded in extraordinary times even to individual longings.” We agree with this great teacher in thinking that this account came indirectly from the shepherds themselves, as it recites so particularly what occurred to themselves personally, and makes so little mention of what happened to the child after their arrival. The facts may be supposed to have been as follows: The faithful were anxious to preserve the minute features of the life of Jesus. (We cannot be persuaded by the assertions of modern Idealism that this feeling had no existence. We see every day how anxiously men look for individual traits in the childhood of great men.) Especially would any one who had the opportunity prosecute such researches in the remarkable place where Christ was born. Perhaps one of these inquirers there found one of the shepherds who had witnessed these events, and whose memory of them was vividly recalled after his conversion to Christianity. We cannot be sure that such a man would give with literal accuracy the words that he had heard; but, taking them as they stand, it is astonishing how free they are from the materialism which always tinged Jewish expression, and in how purely spiritual a way they describe the sublime transaction of which they treat. Whether we follow the received version or that of the Cod. Alex., we find the same thought expressed in the statement of the shepherds, viz., that “God is glorified in the Messiah, who brings peace and joy to the earth, and restores man again to the Divine favour.”


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