Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 27: Joel, Amos, Obadiah, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This volume contains the Writings of three Prophets. Joel exercised his office among the Jews; Amos, though a native of Judea, was yet appointed a Prophet of The Ten Tribes; and Obadiah’s prophecy refers only to Edom.
The great master of Hebrew criticism, Bishop Lowth, speaking, in his twenty-first Prelection, of Joel, says, that though he differs much in style from Hosea, he is yet “equally poetical.” He represents him as “elegant, clear, diffuse, and flowing, and also very sublime, severe, and fervid.” Admitting the perspicuity of his diction, and the clearness of his arrangements, he yet confesses that the matter which he handles is sometimes obscure, especially towards the end of his Prophecy.
With regard to the style of Amos, the Bishop differs widely from Jerome, who has characterized the Prophet as “unskillful in speech, but not in knowledge,” (imperitum sermone, set non in scientia.) Lowth, on the contrary, regarded him as “not a whit behind the very chiefest Prophets, being in elevation of sentiment and nobleness of mind almost equal to the very firsts and hardly inferior to any of them in splendor of diction and elegance of composition.” 1
Of Obadiah, nothing more is said by the Bishop than that he left but a small monument of his genius, and that a considerable portion of that is contained in the prophecy of Jeremiah. Of his composition Dr. Henderson says, “Its principal features are animation, regularity, and perspicuity.”
There is especially one subject in connection with the present Volume, which seems to require particular notice — The interpretation of those prophecies which speak of the future restoration of the Jews to their own land. Calvin viewed some passages, as having been already accomplished in their return from Babylon, which in the estimation of others are yet to be fulfilled; while he interpreted those which evidently refer to what is future, in such a way as clearly shows that he did not consider that the Jews are to be restored again to their own country. That justice may be done to him, we must know and bear in mind the principles by which he was guided: for it is not to be supposed, that one so versed in Scripture, who had studied it with so much labor, and manifested, as it is commonly admitted, so much penetration and discernment as an expounder, would have taken such a view of this subject on slight grounds, without adopting a rule of interpretation, which, according to what he thought, was countenanced by Scriptural examples.
It must first be observed, that Calvin, in common with others, regarded the history as well erg the institutions of the people of Israel, as in great measure typical of things under the Gospel. Their temporal evils and blessings, their temporal oppressions and deliverances, were intended to set forth the spiritual state and condition of the Christian Church. The free choice of the people by God, their Egyptian bondage, their passage through the wilderness and their possession of the land of Canaan, were events symbolical of things connected with that spiritual community afterwards formed by the preaching of the Gospel; and of the same character was the subsequent captivity of that people in Babylon, and their restoration afterwards to their own land.
The next thing to be noticed is, that Promises of Blessings made to the people of Israel had in some instances a twofold meaning, and had reference to two things — the one temporal and the other spiritual. The restoration, for instance, from Babylon, was a prelude of the restoration or redemption by Christ. It was not only typical, but a kind of an initiative process, which was to be completed, though in a sublimer sense, by the Savior of man. The first was a restoration from temporal evils; the second was still a restoration, but from evils of a spiritual kind. The performance of the promise, in one case, was the commencement of a restorative work, which was to be completed in the other: the temporal restoration was eventually succeeded by that which is spiritual.
But the most material point in interpreting the Prophecies is The Language which is Used: rightly to understand this language forms the main difficulty. There are Promises which, as admitted by Calvin, look beyond the restoration from Babylon; and they are couched in terms, which, if taken literally, most evidently show that there is to be a second restoration. What is there, it may be asked, which can justify a departure from the letter of the promises? This is the chief question, on which the whole matter depends. Calvin evidently thought that the literal sense cannot be taken, as that would be inconsistent with the general character of the ancient prophecies; for he considered that many of the prophecies, which relate to the Church of the New Testament, were conveyed in a language suitable to the institutions then existing, and in consistency with the notions which then prevailed, as to religion and divine worship. Hence the Temple, Mount Sion, sacrifices, offerings, the priests, as well as the restoration of the people to their own land, and their perpetual establishment in it, are often spoken of in those very promises which incontestably refer to the Gospel dispensation. Now, if in some cases, as confessed by most, if not by all, the language is not to be taken literally, but as representing the success, the extension and the blessings of the Gospel, why should it be taken literally in other similar cases? The possession of the land of Canaan was to the people of Israel one of their chief blessings, and was a signal token of the divine favor. Banishment from it was not only a temporal loss, but involved also the loss of all their religious privileges. Nothing, therefore, could have conveyed to their minds a higher idea of redemption than the promise of restoration to their own land, and a perpetual possession of it.
The foregoing seem to have been the views by which Calvin was guided in his interpretation: and the Editor must be allowed to express his concurrence, though he is fully aware, that there have been, and that there are still, many celebrated men of a contrary opinion.
There is another idea which Calvin suggests, in connection with this subject. He regarded The Promises made in some instances by the Prophets as to the future prosperity of the people of Israel, and the perpetuity of their institutions and privileges, as Conditional, even when no condition is expressed. Instances of the same kind are to be found in the writings of Moses and of the earlier Prophets. Promises of perpetuity are made, (as for instance, respecting the priesthood,) and often unaccompanied by any conditions; and yet they were conditional, as the event proved, and in accordance with the tenor of the covenant under which the Israelites lived. The same view may also be taken of such promises as are found in the later Prophets, that is, such as bear on them a national stamp: they were announced unconditionally; but as they included blessings which belonged to the people as subjects of the Mosaic covenant, they were necessarily conditional, dependent as to their accomplishment on their obedience. Hence Jeremiah, who had himself announced promises of this kind, says, that the time would come when God would establish another covenant; and for this reason, because the people of Israel had broken the former covenant.
The Editor feels it to be his duty to say generally of Calvin’s Expositions that the more maturely he considers them, after having compared them with those of others, both modern and ancient, the more satisfied he is with them, and the more he admires the acuteness and solid judgment they display. Perhaps no individual, possessing his high qualifications, natural, acquired, and spiritual, has ever, either in ancient or modern times, exercised himself so much in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and produced Comments so original and so valuable.
What is remarkable in Calvin as an Expositor is his unvarying attention to the context. This was his polar star, which enabled him to steer clear and safe through many intricacies and ambiguities no to the meaning of particular words, and even of sentences. His first object seems to have been to ascertain the general drift of a passage or of a chapter; and his next, to harmonize its several parts. There are many words which have various meanings, and the surest way of ascertaining their meaning in any given sentence, is to inquire what comports with the context. There is indeed no other way by which we can make a choice, when a word admits of different senses. Probably no Commentator has ever paid so much attention to this canon of interpretation as Calvin did. The ground on which he almost at all times rejects a sense given by others to words or to sentences is, that it does not suit the place, or, to adopt an expression he frequently uses, that it does not square (non quadrat) with the passage.
It has been often thought that more difficulty attends the Hebrew language than other languages, owing to the variety of meaning which belongs to some of its words. But this variety exists quite as much, and indeed much more, in many other languages, and even in our own. What enables us in numberless instances to ascertain the meaning of a word, and even often of a sentence, is what stands connected with it, that is, the context. It is what goes before and comes after, not only in a sentence, but often in a long passage, that explains the precise meaning of many words. To transfer the meaning of a word from one passage to another, and to say that because it has a certain meaning in one place, it must have the same in another, (except the word has but one meaning,) is certainly not the way to explain Scripture or any other writing. The best expositor in this respect is no doubt the context.
It is well known that these Lectures were delivered extempore, and were taken down by some of those who heard them; and we have them now as thus taken down, and afterwards corrected by Calvin. This circumstance accounts for the occasional defect of order and for occasional repetitions. But these drawbacks seem to have been more than compensated by the freshness and vigor, the life and animation which these spontaneous effusion of his mind exhibit. In none of his other writings, as it appears to the Editor, has Calvin shone forth with so much lustre as an able, clear, plain, and animated an Expounder, as in these Lectures. There is a flow and energy to be found in them not equaled in those productions which he composed in private, and finished with more careful attention to order and style. When the mind is well stored and the memory retentive, as was the case in no ordinary degree with Calvin, a public auditory has usually the effect of calling into action all the powers of the mind; and, as frequently in the present instance, the consequence is, that the finest and the most striking thoughts are elicited, and are expressed in a language the most energetic, calculated to produce the deepest impressions.
Thrussington November, 1846.
— Pastoreum nostrum μηδεν ὑστερηκεναι των ὑπερ λιαν προφητων; ut sensuum elatione et magnificentia spiritus prope summis parem, ita etiam dictionis splendore et composititonis elegantia vix quoquam inferioreum. — Lowth, Prael. xxi.