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Huldah - the prophetess
2 Kings 22
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We have now come to a very important character in our present Period, with little to concern us as women generally, but much to encourage us as women of Israel, and sufficient in itself to give a direct denial to the accusation that the Jewish religion utterly prohibits all spiritual and intellectual privileges, and that for a woman to attempt the study of, or instruction in, religion is little less than folly.
We have already seen a female judge and prophetess in the person of Deborah; but still, if she were the only female so mentioned, we might incline to the idea that women were thus sanctified only in the very first selection of Israel. Such, however, is not the fact; several hundred years had passed away – the kingdom of Israel was sinking deeper into the abyss of sin. Had there been any single portion of the law derogatory to [belittling against] woman, or confining her to a mere household sphere, with neither liberty nor inclination to employ her intellect and influence, now would have been the very time for such laws to obtain ascendency [come to the front]; the state of society must effectually have prevented her rising against it.
If, however, we refer to 2 Kings 22:11-20, also to 2 Chronicles 34:20-28, we shall find a very different picture of woman in Israel.
The wicked kings Manasseh and Amon had been succeeded by the youthful Josiah at the early age of eight years [639BC]. His mother’s name, we are expressly told, was Jedidah, and her influence it probably was which so guided and instructed his youthful years as to make him very different from his predecessors.
‘He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right nor to the left.’
In the eighteenth year of his reign [about 621BC] he gave orders for the repairing and beautifying of the house of the Lord; and it was when obeying this order that Hilkiah the high priest found the book of the law, which he gave to Shaphan the scribe, who, after reading it, brought it unto the king. What an awful picture do these verses present of the national apostasy, that the very high priest should have been ignorant of the existence of the book of the law in the house of God, and its enactments and prohibitions, of course, never read, as was so imperatively commanded, before the people – men, women, and children! [See 2 Kings 22:1-20; 2 Chronicles 34:14.]
The mere formula of high priests, scribes, and other officers of the temple appeared still filled; but what a fearful mockery must it have been before the Lord: the mere empty shell, whence all of obedience, and love, and spirituality had departed.
That the ordinances of the law were utterly disregarded is evident from the effect which the hearing of the law produced upon Josiah. He rent his clothes (always a sign of intense affliction), and sent instantly the priest, and other superior officers, to ‘inquire of the Lord for me, and for all Judah, concerning the words of the book that is found, for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us.’
And to whom did these high officers go? To a mighty man of wisdom? To a holy man of God, whose sanctity and influence gave him courage to threaten and to warn, to risk personal danger from the anger of the populace, whom his denunciations might enrage?
No; it was to a WOMAN that they came – a woman and a WIFE in Israel – and yet an inspired prophetess of the Eternal, the chosen medium between Him and His people, the bold denouncer of His wrath, and the truthful reporter of His love.
‘And Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor [Abdon], and Shaphan, and Asaiah [Asahiah], went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum, the son of the keeper of the wardrobe (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the college), and they communed with her.’ [2 Kings 22:14.]
Now, if the women of Israel were confined entirely to their household duties, it is strange that Huldah could have obtained admission within the college, which was probably an establishment devoted to the study of the law. Her being a prophetess does not make an exception in her favour, or render her dwelling in the college a necessary consequence. We have seen, in the cases of Elijah and Elisha, that the prophets had no appointed residence; but were, generally, wanderers and mere sojourners in the various cities of Judea.
Deborah judged and prophesied under her own palm-tree, between Ramah and Bethel. Huldah, on the contrary, dwelt in the college; and from the officers of Josiah seeking her without any hesitation, as the only one of whom they could inquire of the Lord, we are justified in inferring that her wisdom and piety had long been known and acknowledged in Jerusalem.
[Our note: Huldah was alive during the formative years of Daniel, before he was taken a prisoner to Babylon in 606BC about 14 years old. This event probably took place the year he was born.]
The prophetic power was never intrusted to the undeserving, man or woman; it was always some superior piety and virtue which originally attracted towards them the loving mercy of the Lord, and rendered them worthy to become His messengers. No effort after righteousness and virtue, however lowly, passes unnoticed in His sight; and His love will ever increase the desire after good, and the power to accomplish it.
But virtue and righteousness were not the only requisites for a prophet; they needed intellect, a profound knowledge of the law and of man, and a strong perception of the ways and works of the Eternal. Huldah’s dwelling in the college supposes a mind anxious and inquiring after the study of the law, and a heart yearning to obey every statute therein commanded, while her very selection as a prophetess proves that her spiritual privileges and intellectual powers were on a perfect equality with those of man.
Yet from the very circumstance of her only being mentioned once in the sacred record, we may be convinced that her solemn office interfered not at all with her domestic and conjugal [wifely] duties, or that in any one instance she came unduly forward.
Woman’s natural sphere is to influence, not to command; to entreat, not to threaten; to lead far more by example than by precept; and every woman, conscious of her own weakness, will rejoice that such are the kind of duties assigned her. In the awful condition of Judea, a mind like Huldah’s must have shrunk from coming forward.
The state of restraint, and subsequent depression, which must attend the intercourse [social mixing] of pious and believing hearts with those to whom all of piety and spirituality are utter strangers, was probably the original cause of Huldah’s religious retirement. She sought to conquer the suffering which the public and private condition of her country occasioned, by quietly following the daily routine of domestic duty, and spending every leisure hour in learning to know that merciful and gracious God whom Judea seemed to have forgotten.
Possessed as she was of unusual spiritual gifts, her mind must have been of no ordinary cast, to allow her remaining contented in a retired sphere, without the restless desire to become of public service; her very consciousness of responsibility would urge this, without any failing of woman’s native modesty. But Huldah waits for the Lord. He who had reposed in her a gift so precious would vouchsafe [show] her some sign when to use it; and meanwhile her duty was to pray, and meditate and beseech the Eternal to have mercy of His people. And this we can all do, though we are not prophetesses; and we have His whole Word to prove how much intercessory prayer availeth.
The sign for which the prophetess awaited came.
The highest officers of the state suddenly approached her, and with humility and deference reported the sovereign’s message, inquiring through her the mandate [command] of the Lord. There is neither pause nor doubt, as there must have been had she been a mere pretender in the prophetic art; the rushing spirit of prophecy was poured within her by Him whose instrument she was, and with fearless dignity she answered,
‘Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: Tell the man that sent you to me, thus saith the Lord, Behold I will bring evil on this place and on the inhabitants thereof; even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read; because they have forsaken Me, and burnt incense to other gods, that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands, therefore My wrath shall kindle against this place, and shall not be quenched.’
Then, softening into the tenderest compassion, still inspired by Him who ever tempereth [mixes] justice with mercy, she continued,
‘But to the king of Judah who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall ye say unto him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, As touching the news which thou hast heard; because thy heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes and wept before Me, I also have heard thee, saith the Lord; behold, therefore, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered unto thy grave in peace, and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place. And they brought the king word again.’
Although this prophecy does not properly belong to a history of the women of Israel, we have transcribed the whole, that our readers may better judge the full extent of prophetic power vouchsafed to Huldah; and the bold disregard of all, except of her mission, which it evinced.
‘Tell ye the man who sent ye,’ she says; yet she has no disrespect for the Lord’s anointed [the king], she was simply uttering the words of the Eternal.
The persecution of Elijah and Elisha marked the prophetic office one of danger, but Huldah felt nothing but the spirit which inspired her; feared nothing but to fail in the calm and dignified boldness required of her as the prophetess of the Lord. The high regard in which her words were held is proved by the messengers of Josiah ‘bringing the king word again,’ and by his continuing his endeavours to render himself worthy of the promised forbearance of the Eternal, though the threatened evil to his country and his people he knew could not be averted.
We have no further mention of Huldah, nor do we need more for the confirmation of our assertion, that the women of Israel enjoyed higher and nobler privileges, in the sight alike of God and man, than any other women in the world.
Every former argument, which we advanced in our notice of Deborah is still more strongly applicable to Huldah. One great difference there was, which, however, only marks the national elevation of women still more forcibly. Deborah lived, and exercised her prophetic power, at a time when Israel was under the direct guidance of the Lord; Huldah flourished not thirty years before the first captivity, and some centuries after the nation had, by their sins, thrown a dark cloud between them and their God.
The laws and customs, which, according to our opponents, have crept in and sullied, if not entirely altered, the pure Judaism inculcated by Moses, must have been ascendant [in authority] during the period of which we are writing. And in consequence if they degraded women, it follows that the domestic and social position of the women of Israel must, during the monarchy, have given positive evidence of such degradation; and we certainly should not find a woman dwelling in the college, which is synonymous with devoting herself to the study of the law, and also as the only one, in the whole nation of Judah, who was intrusted with the prophetic power.
To such a height in spiritual privileges the women of Israel cannot now hope to attain; but the example of Huldah is sufficient for them to rest content that the study of the law, and all religious observances, as well as the piety of the heart, are now equally incumbent on them [part of their work] as on men, and equally acceptable before God: and that Israel is the only nation in the whole world in which women sufficiently gifted to perform the offices of Prophetess and Judge have been found.
These truths ought to be enough for us; and the very names of Deborah and Huldah serve as shields to guard us against all arguments tempting us from the Rock of Ages.
We have said this often, but we cannot too often or too forcibly impress it on the female Hebrew heart. It depends on woman, not alone to feel, but to prove, its truth; to shake off all stagnating apathy [lifeless lethargy], all of cold indifference: not to rest satisfied with a due performance of their duties as women – even as pious women, – but to feel and glory in being women of Israel, and infuse the same national spirit within the hearts and minds of their children.
Prophetesses, in our present captive state, we cannot have, nor do we need them, till the spirit of our God rests upon us in our own fair land once more; but we need the same bold uncompromising spirit, the same religious zeal and pious fervour which actuated Huldah. Did every woman in Israel determine to elevate her faith, and to glorify her God in her own proper person, apathy, and that fearful want of nationality too often discoverable amongst us, would vanish altogether.
We should not be content with mere amalgamation [union] with the Gentiles in society; but, without relinquishing the social position which an age of superior civilization and refinement has assigned us, we should still retain our nationality. Still, before man and before God, remain Israelites indeed; and thus compel respect towards our faith, and remove not only the prejudices excited by ignorance, but check the zealous efforts of [Christian] conversionists by convincing them that our constancy, as our religion, must be indeed of God, and therefore no effort of man can turn us from it.
Nor was it to an unmarried, and therefore more independent woman, the prophetic power was granted. We are expressly told that Huldah was the wife of Shallum, the keeper of the robes; and we must therefore feel convinced that the marriage state in Israel was far from being one of slavery or dependence. How she contrived to unite her domestic duties with her divine office Holy Writ does not inform us; but there is no doubt that both were fully accomplished; for the chosen messengers of the Eternal were ever those actuated by the tenderest human emotions, and the earnest desire to serve all the human family.
We read [of] Huldah’s feminine nature in the fact of her being sought in her own dwelling. The condition of Judea must have filled her with deepest suffering, but she left it in the hands of her God; content to perform His mission, when called upon so to do, but never forgetting, even in the furtherance of His service, the modest and retiring dignity of the woman.
And this is the union we should so strenuously endeavour to obtain. More than the females of every other nation are the women of Israel called upon to cultivate their intellect, that they may be enabled to comprehend the religion of their fathers; that reason and conviction, as well as love and long associations, should bind it on their hearts.
Yet that intellect must never be obtruded [become pushy]; never tempt them to quit their own holy and beautiful sphere. Woman may have opportunities for the study – ay, and the practice – of religion, which man has not; such study will never be in vain: opportunities of usefulness, of influence, will come to her: she need never seek them by the sacrifice of feminine gentleness and retirement; and man will thankfully seek that comfort and even guidance from her, which, had they been obtruded [pushed] on him, he would condemn and scorn.
Oh that the history of the past would influence the present; that the women of Israel would feel to their hearts’ core that they are still the same, in the sight of their God, as their ancestors of old; that they have it in their power individually to hasten that day when ‘the earth shall be covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’
Piety must come from the mind as well as the heart; and the more the intellect is cultivated, the better will it enter into the mysteries alike of Creation and Revelation, of the works and the Word of God. And the clearer these become, the purer, higher, more deeply spiritual will be the emotions of adoring love, uniting the soul with God. We must not rest content with mere accomplishment; we must rise superior to the frivolity and excitements which form the existence of some women; or how can we become worthy, or make our souls worthy, to be once more the favoured of the Lord?
Women of Israel! The very name should impress our hearts with a solemn conviction of our individual responsibility, and urge us on to such spiritual and intellectual improvement as will mark us, in the eyes of the whole world, as worthy descendants of the first-born of the Lord.
We have now completed our review of the female characters contained in the Fourth Period of Jewish History. Our readers will, we think, universally agree that it does not contain a single passage, much less a single character or incident, which demonstrates the social, domestic, intellectual, and spiritual position and endowments of women as enslaved and degraded. There is not a hint or allusion to any second law opposed to the written one of Moses; for if there had been, the monarchy lasted sufficiently long for it to have obtained such dominion as to make manifest its existence.
That [Jewish] man’s evil and licentious passions had increased to an extent so fearful as to demand the captivity of the whole nation is no proof of the imperfection of the law, but only of the imperfection of human nature.
That the sins of the women increased the burden of Israel’s guilt we do not deny, because the prophets so inform us. We merely affirm that the social condition of women had not degenerated – that there were no laws then degrading and enslaving her; and, therefore, that as there were none then, there can be none now, as we acknowledge no other law of sufficient power to annul or contradict those given by the Eternal to Moses, and by him transmitted to man.
This important fact is strongly confirmed by the fearful wickedness of Jezebel and Athaliah [2 Kings 8:16-18,26; 2 Chronicles 21:5-6]. The former was the daughter of a notorious idolatrous [heathen] king [1 Kings 16:30-31], and the mother of Athaliah; consequently we may indulge the comfort of the belief that neither was of Israel, and that such awful crimes stained not the women whom the Lord so blessed.
There is no occasion to bring forward their histories, subjects from which no good can be obtained, except that, in the creeping horror of the evil and the sin to which woman can attain, the prayer for help and strength, and freedom from temptation, may arise more frequently from our hearts.
The fact of their influence is all we need, as confirming the assertion that woman had both power and freedom in the land. Ahab’s natural wickedness was fearfully increased, and made productive of still more horrible evil, by the counsels of his wife, as we must perceive by a very casual glance over his history.
And of Athaliah we are expressly told, when speaking of her husband Jehoram, ‘that he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, for he had the daughter of Ahab to wife, so he wrought that which was evil in the eyes of the Lord.’
And, again, of her son Ahaziah, ‘he also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, for his mother was his counsellor to do wickedly.’ What can more forcibly illustrate the power and influence which woman could obtain and exercise in Judea? Had there been any law confining them to one particular sphere and debasing employments, not even the idolatrous wives and mothers of the kings could have obtained such ascendency.
Nor was it only through kings, female authority was exercised. Athaliah reigned six years sole mistress of Judea; and we may be certain, that however low the nation had fallen, however the laws of Moses had sunk into neglect and abuse, still, had there ever been any portion of this law degrading to woman, Athaliah never would have had either the means of making herself queen, or supporting so high a dignity, even for the short space of six years.
The very fact, then, of there being such characters as Jezebel and Athaliah is unanswerable confirmation of the freedom and equality of woman, because, though they were not women of Israel, their union with the Hebrew kings subjected them to all the restrictions of the Mosaic law; and had that law made them slaves, they would not have exchanged their liberty in their own idolatrous countries for conjugal thraldom [domestic slavery] in Judea, the social and domestic position of the Hebrew females being sufficiently well known to them, from the immediate vicinity of the land, to prevent any misconception on a subject so important.
And whilst we shudder at this picture of awful wickedness, and feel inexpressibly thankful that our merciful God has vouchsafed us a law, which, if obeyed, must effectually prevent the dominion of such evil, let us not turn from it as an overcharged portrait, and believe that human nature is incapable of such heinous crimes.
Alas! We have only to look into the annals of modern history, and even amidst those very nations who proclaim themselves so much more enlightened and spiritual than the blinded Jew – ay, and within the last four centuries we shall find woman tempted to follow the same awful path, and instigating husbands and sons to the commission of crimes and massacres, from which the heart turns with loathing sickness, and the vain longing to realize disbelief in the story that it reads.
And if so lately, comparatively speaking, such things have been even in enlightened nations, can we continue to think the Bible-picture of woman’s depravity overcharged? Oh, we know not, we cannot know, the awful effects of unlimited authority and unrestrained passions on the weak human heart.
We can only pray God to guard us from positions in which feelings may be aroused of whose very existence we dream not now; to bind closer and closer still His blessed law upon our hearts, His spirit on our souls; to remove from us all those evil inclinations and embryo passions which His eye may trace, but of which we are unconscious; to enable us to cling closer and closer unto Him in prayer and praise; and we shall be guarded, as by an angel’s wing, from every evil thought and evil deed.
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