DESCRIPTIONS OF THE DIVINE BEING
By Gershom F. Cox
It is a difficult task to shadow forth spirit. The best
emblems of the earth can give but faint and distant
views of its incomprehensible nature. Our own consciousness,
too, must fail to give us adequate notions
of the mysterious traits of its character. Aided by the
brightest images of earth, or the most subtle principles
of philosophy, who can bring to view any tolerably
good picture of a human soul!—who can draw the
outlines of thought!—thought that is as immeasurable
as the universe!—thought that could encompass, with
more than the quickness of the lightning's flash, all that
God has made!—thought that gives to us, at once, the
gravity of the merest atom, the beauties and properties
of the petal of a single flower, or the structure, density,
size and weight of the worlds that border on the outskirts
of our own universe; and when it has done its
noble work, as if plumed for fresh conquests, stretches
itself far beyond the material universe, into the deep
solitudes of eternity, in quest of something more!
Who, we ask again, can give the outlines of thought?
Who can tell us of its yet hidden resources; or of a
mind like that of Newton, or of Bacon, which, after
they had taken from the arcana of nature some of her
most hidden principles, "entered the secret place of
the Most High, and lodged beneath the shadow of the
Almighty?" How much less, then, can we give just
descriptions of the Deity! How can we describe Him
"who covereth himself with light as with a garment,"—whom
no man hath seen, nor can see.
We are aware that every thing speaks of a God.
All nature has its language; and however dark the
alphabet, it still speaks, and speaks every where; for
there is no place where he has not "left a witness."
We acknowledge, too, that the only reason why the
deep tones of nature are not more audible, may be
found in the imbecilities or transgressions of man.
But, while the babbling brook hath its story to tell of its
Maker, and the willow that bends and sighs by its side,
and the pebble o'er which the streamlet rolls;—while
the glorious dew-drop has its power of speech—the
soft south breeze, and "the hoar-frost of heaven;"
while the deep vale may offer its chorus to the waving
corn, or to the lofty summit by its side; while often
may be heard the full notes of the angry tempest, and
of the tornado as it sweeps by us, carrying fearful desolation
in its path; although these may all speak forcibly
of the power, of the goodness, of the wisdom, of
the terrible justice of God; yet, without divine revelation,
like the inscription at Athens, they only point to
a God unknown. The awful precipice, where
"Leaps the live thunder,"
in the hour of the tempest, doth but stun the intellect
of man with its overhanging and dizzy heights. And
"the sound of many waters," or "the deep, lifting up
his hands on high,"—although they may arouse every
passion of the spirit, and address it as with the voice of
God; yet, to man, these all want an interpreter. Lo!
these are but "parts of his ways." But what a mere
"whisper of the matter is heard in it, and the thunder
of his power who can understand!"
Nature speaks—we repeat it—but her language, to
us, is often indefinite; like the dream of Nebuchadnezzar,
it may arouse the spirit to inquiry—agitate
every passion to consternation; but without a Daniel to
interpret her admonitions, "the thing is passed from
us." Else why this gross ignorance of the character
of God among even the enlightened, or rather civilized,
nations of antiquity? Why did not Egypt, when all
the "wisdom of the east" was concentrated in her
sons, have some notions of the Deity that would have
raised their minds above the serpent or crocodile, or
some insignificant article of the vegetable creation?
Why did not the savage, roaming in the freedom of his
interminable forests, have some correct views of God?
He had talked with the sun, and heard the roar of the
tempest; the evening sky in its grandeur was an everlasting
map spread out before him, and the broad lake
mirrored back to him its glories. But how confused—how
degraded were the loftiest notions of the Deity,
among the most powerful of Indian minds!
But I have already strayed from my purpose. I intended
only to give a specimen or two, of attempted
descriptions of the Deity, for the purpose of showing
the infinite superiority of those contained in the bible,
above every other in the world.
It ought, however, to be recollected, that the descriptions
we find among heathen authors, are doubtless
more or less indebted to sentiments borrowed from the
Jewish scriptures; although we believe the contrast
will show that they have passed through heathen hands.
One of the most sublime to be met with in the world,
out of the bible, was engraved in hieroglyphics upon
the temple of Neith, the Egyptian Minerva. It is as
"I am that which is, was, and shall be: no mortal
hath lifted up my veil: the offspring of my power is
A similar inscription still remains at Capua, on the
temple of Isis:
"Thou art one, and from thee all things proceed."
In the above, evident traces are to be seen of the
Hebrew term Jehovah. Some of Homer's descriptions
have their excellencies; but they all suffer from
the fact, that he clothes the deities he describes, not
only with human passions, but with human appetites
of the most degrading character. And he never seems
more satisfied with himself than when he represents
them heated for war! "Warring gods," when placed
at the foot of Calvary, or contrasted with any just description
of the true God, is certainly a revolting idea;
and it is still worse to introduce them as does Homer,
with the shuddering thought that,
"Gods on gods exert eternal rage!"
And our impressions are scarcely more favorable
when he presents us with an unincarnate, and yet
"bleeding god," retiring from the field of battle,
"pierced with Grecian darts," "though fatal, not to
die." The following from this author is singular indeed:
"Of lawless force shall lawless MARS complain?
Of all the most unjust, most odious in our eyes!
In human discord is thy dire delight,
The waste of slaughter, and the rage of fight.
No bound, no law thy fiery temper quells,
And all thy mother in thy soul rebels!"—Illiad, Book 5.
The following is far less exceptionable:
"And know, the Almighty is the God of gods.
League all your forces then, ye powers above,
Join all, and try the omnipotence of Jove;
Let down our golden everlasting chain,
Whose strong embrace holds heaven, and earth and main:
Strive all, of mortal or immortal birth,
To draw, by this, the thunderer down to earth:
Ye strive in vain! If I but stretch this hand,
I heave the gods, the ocean, and the land;
I fix the chain to great Olympus' height,
And the vast world hangs trembling in my sight!
For such I reign unbounded and above;
And such are men, and gods, compared to Jove."—Ill. b. vi.
Some of the above ideas are certainly sublime, and
considering the age that produced them, they have no
superior but the bible.
As the koran has attained considerable celebrity,
we should hardly be pardoned should we not notice it.
The passage on which the Mohammedan rests his
whole faith, for sublimity, and which is confessedly
unapproached by any thing else in the koran, is the
"God! There is no God but he; the living, the
self-subsisting; neither slumber nor sleep seizeth him;
to him belongeth whatsoever is in heaven, and on earth.
Who is he that can intercede with him but through his
good pleasure? He knoweth that which is past, and
that which is to come. His throne is extended over
heaven and earth, and the preservation of both is to
him no burden. He is the High, the Mighty."
If the above passage contained a single original
thought, it might entitle it to higher praise than it can
now receive. But as there is no thought expressed, but
may be found in the book of Job, or among the inimitable
Psalms of David, written from sixteen hundred to
two thousand years before Mohammed, and which this
pretended prophet had before him—and as we can
hardly allow their originality of expression—the only
praise that can be bestowed upon its author is, that of
having studied the Jewish scriptures pretty closely, a
fact that is exhibited throughout his famous production.
But while we acknowledge that this is a brilliant passage,
it evidently does not surpass, nor even equal, either
of the following, selected from our own times.
"Eternal Spirit! God of truth! to whom
All things seem as they are. Thou who of old
The prophet's eye unsealed, that nightly saw
While heavy sleep fell down on other men,
In holy vision tranced, the future pass
Before him, and to Judah's harp attuned
Burdens which make the pagan mountains shake,
And Zion's cedars bow,—inspire my song;
My eye unscale; me what is substance teach,
And shadow what, while I of things to come,
As past rehearsing, sing the course of time.
—Hold my right hand, Almighty! and me teach
To strike the lyre——to notes
Which wake the echoes of Eternity."—Pollok.
In the above extracts there is this remarkable difference:
Mohammed, in his description of Deity, has no
thought that refers to a moral perfection of God! And
indeed gross sensuality, and a destitution of high and
spiritual views, characterize his whole work.
But with Pollok, the first thought is spirit—a second,
truth. And aside from this peculiarity, although you
turn over every leaf of the koran, we affirm that you
cannot find so sublime a conception as the following:
"Hold my right hand, Almighty! and me teach
To strike the lyre,——to notes
That wake the echoes of eternity."
But how infinitely, both in grandeur and simplicity,
do all these fall short of the inimitable original of most
of these, penned by David of the Old, or Paul of the
"O, my God, take me not away in the midst of my
days: thy years are throughout all generations. Of
old hast thou laid the foundations of the earth, and the
heavens are the work of thine hands. They shall
perish, but thou shalt endure; yea, all of them shall
wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change
them, and they shall be changed. But thou art the
same, and thy years shall have no end."
"Who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King
of kings, and the Lord of lords; who only hath immortality,
dwelling in Light which no man can approach
unto,—whom no man hath seen, nor can see!"
Or as in another place, "The King eternal, immortal,
invisible,—the only wise God."
In the above specimens, there is a grandeur and
simplicity not to be found in any merely human composition.
The following is very fine, from Habakkuk:
"God came from Teman,
The Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens,
And his praise filled the earth.
His brightness was like the sun,
Out of his hand [or side] came flashes of lightning,
And there was only the veil of his might.
Before him walked the pestilence,
And burning coals went forth at his feet.
He stood, and the earth was moved;
He looked, and caused the nations to quake.
And the everlasting mountains were broken in pieces,
And the perpetual hills did bow.
His goings are from everlasting."
We scarcely know which to admire most, the above
or the following from the same author:
"The mountains saw THEE and trembled,
The overflowing waters passed away.
The deep uttered his voice,
And lifted up his hands on high.
The sun and moon stood still in their habitations.
At the shining of thine arrows, (i. e. the lightnings,) they disappeared—
At the brightness of thy glittering spear!"
The following paraphrastic reference may be regarded
as barren in some respects, compared with others
that might be selected from the same living fountain.
The Eye of the Supreme Being is regarded as so
piercing as to pervade heaven, earth and hell, and the
awful depths of eternity. His countenance is as the
sun shining in his strength. The wind, in its endless
whirl, is but his breath or breathing. His hand is represented
so immense, that even its "hollow" will
"contain the waters of the great deep,"—and, when
"spanned," he "measures with it the whole heavens."
While "sitting in the circle of the heavens," the earth
is represented as the place where his feet rest. So
rapid in his motion, that "He walks upon the wings of
the wind." Of such awful strength, "that the earth,"
with its countless inhabitants, are "less than the dust"
that accumulates "upon the balance." At one time
"He covereth himself with light as with a garment,"—and
at another, "He maketh darkness his pavilion, and
the thick clouds of the skies."
These however are images all borrowed from sensible
objects, and, magnificent as they may be, they
fail of throwing upon the mind a full image of Him
who hath "no likeness in the heavens above, nor in the
earth beneath." And, besides, these glowing pictures
present to the mind none of his moral attributes. For
a description of these, we must look either to the
events of his providence, or a more particular disclosure
in the bible. And it may well astonish us, that,
after the lapse of more than three thousand years, we
may look in vain for a fuller or more perfect description
of the Divine Being, in words, than is given by Moses
in that memorable moment upon Mount Sinai—
"Whose grey tops did tremble, when God ordained their laws."
A description that is like the sun rising upon the
chaos that surrounded him in the Egyptian mythology,
which at that time was so gross that no object in nature
was too mean for a deity. But "in the midst of
this darkness that might be felt," God was pleased to
reveal himself in the following language, at once sufficiently
grave and impressive to afford irrefragable proof
of its high origin.
ויעבור יהוה על־פניו ויקרא יהוה יהוה אל רחום
וחנון ארך אפים ורב־חסד ואמת׃ נצר חסד
לאלפים נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה לא ינקה
פקד עון אבות על־בנים ועל־בני
בנים על־שלשים ועל־רבעים׃
"And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed,
The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious,
long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,
keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and
transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear
the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the
children, and upon the children's children, unto the
third and to the fourth generation."
Or, as these striking appellatives of the Divine Being
might be translated, without offering any violation
to the Hebrew,—the Jehovah, the strong and mighty
God, the merciful One, the gracious One, the long-suffering
One, the great and mighty One, the Bountiful
Being, the True One, or Truth, the Preserver
of Bountifulness, the Redeemer, or Pardoner, the
Righteous Judge, and He who visits iniquity.
This is a remarkable description indeed to come
from one educated in the midst of Egyptian mythology;
and the awful names by which the Supreme Being
is designated, can only be accounted for, under
such circumstances, on the supposition that Moses received
them directly from the Almighty himself.
But to close our article. The Divine Being is nowhere
so perfectly, so interestingly described as in the
character of Christ. Here love is unbosomed as
it could not be by language. Here heaven drops down
to earth; and the otherwise invisible beauties of the
invisible God, are made tangible even to the eye. The
arm of mercy, outstretched to the sinner—the eye of
justice softened by the tear of mercy—the heart of love
beating intensely with benignity, as well as every perfection
of the divine nature; are all laid open to the
view of sinful, helpless man, and we become "eye
witness of his glorious majesty." Here the tears of
mercy may be seen dropping upon its wretched objects
of commiseration; and the most secret emotions of the
divine mind, we may behold, heaving in the bosom of
the immaculate Jesus. Here indeed "God tabernacles
and walks with man." And as a confirmation of the
glorious truth, at beholding Him, "the sun stood still in
his habitation." "The sea saw him, and was afraid."
The earth trembled at his presence, and gave back the
dead at his voice. Well indeed might one exclaim, to
behold such a personage, "My Lord and my God."