1. The scriptural idea of prophecy is widely removed from that of human foresight and presentiment. It is that of a revelation made by the Holy Spirit respecting the future
, always in the interest of God's kingdom. It is no part of the plan of prophecy to gratify vain curiosity respecting |the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in his own power.| Acts 1:7. |Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God| -- this is its key-note. In its form it is carefully adapted to this great end. Its notices of the future are interwoven with exhortations and admonitions, encouragements and warnings, promises and threatenings. These constitute, indeed, the great bulk of the prophetical writings that have come down to us. The subject of the interpretation of prophecy may be conveniently considered under the following heads: prophecies relating to the near future; prophecies relating to the last days; the question of double sense; the question of literal and figurative meaning.
I. PROPHECIES RELATING TO THE NEAR FUTURE.
2. The Bible contains many prophecies relating to the comparatively near future. These are all specific in their character, and have a single exhaustive fulfilment. Examples are: the prediction to Noah of the approaching deluge, and to Abraham of the bondage of his posterity in a strange land; the disclosure through Pharaoh's dreams of the coming famine in Egypt; Joseph's announcement of the future deliverance of Israel from Egypt; the token given to Moses that God had sent him: |When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain| (Exod.3:12); God's threatened judgments upon the house of Eli with the accompanying sign (1 Sam.2:34); the warning that David received by Urim and Thummim of Saul's approach to destroy him (1 Sam.23:9-12); the prediction that Josiah should defile Jeroboam's altar at Bethel with men's bones (1 Kings 13:2); etc. Minute events, in themselves unimportant, sometimes come within the sphere of prophetic revelation, but always in connection with and subserviency to important transactions affecting the interests of God's people. Thus when Samuel anointed Saul as the future king of Israel, he foretold to him the incidents of his journey homeward (1 Sam.10:2-7). But this was in order that Saul might be assured of Samuel's prophetic office, and consequently of the divine sanction to the transaction. An event in the immediate future is frequently predicted as a pledge that some prophecy of more distant fulfilment shall be accomplished. Thus the death of Eli's two sons in one day was to be a token of the fulfilment of all the evils threatened against his house. The same end may be accomplished by a miraculous sign.1 Kings 13:3; 2 Kings 20:9, 11. Prophecies of the kind now under consideration are in general very plain and simple, and their recorded fulfilment is to us a sufficient interpreter of their meaning.
II. PROPHECIES RELATING TO THE LAST DAYS.
3. In Old Testament usage, |the last days,| or |the latter days| (|in the latter years,| Ezek.38:8) denote not simply the distant future, but that future as including the kingdom of the Messiah, which extends to the consummation of all things Gen.49:1; Numb.24:14; Deut.4:30; 31:29; Isa.2:2; Jer 23:20; 30:24; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek.38:16; Dan.10:14; Hos.3:5; Mic.4:1. We are not, however, to conceive of these |last days| as totally separated from the preceding ages. In the plan of God the history of the world constitutes a whole, all the parts of which are closely connected. Hence the prophecies relating to the latter days include, more or less distinctly, the events which precede them, and prepare the way for them. In such prophecies we are not to look for exhaustive details. They give, as a rule, only general views relating to the conflicts of God's people and their final triumph. Where minute incidents are introduced (Psa.22:18; 69:21; Zech.9:9; 11:13) it is apparently for the purpose of identifying to future generations the Messiah as their main subject. See below, No.9.
Prophecies relating to the days of the Messiah are introduced in other more indefinite ways, thus: |Behold the days come| (Jer.23:5; 31:31; etc.): |And it shall come to pass afterward| (Joel 2:28); |In that day| (Isa.4:2, Jer.30:8; Ezek.39:11; Amos 9:11, and elsewhere); or they are sufficiently indicated by their contents, as Isa. chaps.40-66.
These prophecies naturally fall into two classes: those in which the succession of events is distinctly indicated, and those which give only general views of the future, without any clear order of succession.
4. To the first and smaller class belong especially certain of Daniel's prophecies. The four great monarchies, for example, that are to bear rule over the earth are symbolized first by a great image (Dan. chap.2), then by four beasts rising out of the sea (Dan. chap.7). Of these monarchies the fourth, represented by the legs of iron and feet part of iron and part of clay (Dan.2:33), and by the fourth beast with his ten horns (Dan.7:7), belongs in part to the latter days of the Messiah.
The fourth kingdom, represented by the |legs of iron and feet part of iron and part of clay,| is at the beginning |strong as iron| (chap.2:40); afterwards it is |partly strong and partly broken| (ver.42); it is, moreover, the last great monarchy that oppresses the world. All these characters point to the Roman empire, first in its pagan, afterwards in its papal form. From the nature of the symbol, the prophet sees the whole image standing till it is smitten in its feet of iron and clay. This does not mean that the four monarchies are contemporaneous, but that they constitute one great system of oppression, in which the power passes successively down from the head to the feet. It is in its feet that the stone smites it, for it is in this its last form that the kingdom set up by the God of heaven shall encounter and destroy it. The toes, part of iron and part of clay, well represent the kingdoms that grew up out of the old Roman empire, with an intermixture of the northern nations. These could never unite into a compact whole, like the original pagan empire, yet they constituted a continuation of it in a divided form.
That the fourth beast again (chap.7:7-14, 19-28) represents the same Roman empire appears from the following considerations: (1.) Both here and in the second chapter a succession of four great monarchies is represented, of which the first three are admitted to have been universal. It is altogether reasonable, therefore, to look for a universal empire in the fourth; but that empire can be no other than the Roman. (2.) The fourth beast is represented as the strongest and most terrible of them all, which cannot apply to any other than the Roman power. (3.) All its characters agree with those of the Roman empire, and cannot be made to agree with those of any other power. Those who understand by the little horn of the fourth beast Antiochus Epiphanes, must consider the fourth beast as representing the Syrian monarchy, or perhaps Syria and Egypt. But these belong to the third beast. They are two of the four divisions into which his empire was broken, and which have just been represented by the four heads and four wings of the leopard. (4.) No persecuting power comes after this beast. Its dominion is destroyed by that of the Messiah, who takes the kingdom and holds it for ever. This can apply only to the Roman power as perpetuated in its papal form in the ten horns, which correspond to the ten toes of the image. Chap.2:41-43. All the characters of the little horn agree with those of the papal power; and considering the vast influence which this has wielded, and still wields, over God's church, we should naturally expect that it would be included in a comprehensive view like this of the world's history.
The prophecies of the book of Revelation relative to the great red dragon -- pagan Rome (chap.12), the two beasts that succeeded to his seat and power (chap.13), and (what is identical with these two beasts) the woman riding upon a scarlet-colored beast (chap.17), are so intimately related to the fourth kingdom of Daniel, that whatever view be taken of this kingdom must apply to them also. In these prophetic symbols we have again all the characters of pagan Rome as continued in papal Rome. Chap.32, No.4. To the class of prophecies now under consideration belong also, according to the most probable principle of
interpretation, those of the seven seals, the seven trumpets included under the last seal, and the seven vials of the last trumpet (Rev.6:1 seq.); for in these the succession of events is distinctly marked.
The numbers of the books of Daniel and Revelation, particularly the |time and times and dividing of time| -- three years and a half -- during which the little horn is to have dominion (Dan.7:25), and (what is equivalent to this number) the |forty-and-two months| during which the Gentiles are to tread down the holy city (Rev.11:2), and the beast that succeeds to the dragon is to have power (Rev.13:5); or in days, the thousand two hundred and threescore days of the two witnesses (Rev.11:3), and of the woman's sojourn in the wilderness (Rev.12:6), have furnished for centuries matter of curious speculation and computation, upon the assumption that a day here represents a year (Chap.35, No.9); but hitherto history has not verified the results as to time which the students of these prophecies have given. The failure of their computations might have been anticipated. It seems to be the plan of God to throw such a vail over even exact dates of prophecy, that their place in a chronological chart of history cannot be accurately marked out beforehand. Either the time from which the reckoning is to proceed, or the symbolism of the dates, or the place which the whole series holds in relation to other prophecies, is left in obscurity. The experience of those who have busied themselves with the computation of these dates teaches, not that we should wholly withdraw ourselves from inquiries of this kind, but that to pursue them in a confident and dogmatic spirit, as if we had been admitted to the council-chamber of heaven, and had there learned the exact day and hour on which the papal throne must fall, or our Lord reappear on earth, is a mark, not of wisdom, but of weakness and folly.
5. In the second and larger class of prophecies relating to the last days, the element of time, and especially that of succession in time, is either wholly wanting, or is indicated in only a vague and general way.
Examples of this class of prophecies are almost innumerable. A remarkable specimen is found in the fourth chapter of Isaiah, viewed in connection with the preceding context. The prophet's position is that of his own day. He writes at a time when heavy calamities are impending over his countrymen. With these calamities he begins: |Behold the Lord, the Lord of hosts, doth take away from Judah and Jerusalem the stay and the staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay of water, the mighty man, and the man of war, the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient, the captain of fifty, and the honorable man, and the counsellor, and the cunning artificer, and the eloquent orator.| Chap.3:1-3. So he proceeds, in terms which must apply primarily to the Babylonish captivity, to the end of the third chapter, which closes with the terrible denunciation: |Thy men shall fall by the sword, and thy mighty men in war. And her gates shall lament and mourn; and she, being desolate, shall sit upon the ground| (ver.25, 26). To complete the picture of desolation, it is added in the beginning of the fourth chapter: |And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel: only let us be called by thy name to take away our reproach.| The obvious meaning of this last threatening is, that the mass of the men shall perish in war, so that the surviving women cannot find husbands. Seven of them, therefore, ask of one man the privilege of being called each his wife, while they offer to forego all the usual advantages of that relation. Thus far the prophet proceeds in a strain of threatening. But now, with the single formula, |in that day,| there is a sudden transition to promise, and promise of such a character that it must cover the whole future period of the Messiah's kingdom: |In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel| (chap.4:2); and so he goes on to describe the glory of the latter days, when the Lord, having |purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning,| |will create upon every dwelling-place of Mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence| (ver.4, 5). Here we have, in a certain sense, an indication of time, but it is wholly indefinite. No date is given for the fulfilment of the prophecy, nor any exact chronological order of succession. The prophet began with the judgments that impended over his countrymen. He ends with the full glory of the Messiah's reign, without any indication of the intervening interval of time.
Another striking example is furnished by the eleventh chapter of Isaiah in connection with the preceding context. The tenth chapter of Isaiah contains an account of the Assyrian monarch's progress through the land of Judea, ending with a figurative account of his overthrow: |Behold the Lord, the Lord of hosts, shall lop the bough with terror; and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled. And he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one| (ver.33, 34). Immediately upon this prediction, and with reference to the Assyrian bough and the thickets of Lebanon -- Sennacherib with his host -- that have been hewn down, follows a prophecy of the Messiah's advent: |And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.| Chap.11:1. The prophet represents these two events, the overthrow of the Assyrian and the advent of the Messiah, as so connected that the latter follows as a natural sequel to the former, passing over in silence the many intervening centuries. He represents, again, the Messiah's kingdom as one of continuous victorious progress, till |the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea,| without pausing to indicate any intervening period of darkness and depression.
Still a third pure specimen of this form of prophecy occurs in the fifty-ninth and sixtieth chapters of Isaiah. The former of these two chapters is occupied with a description in very dark lines of the sins of God's covenant people (ver.1-15), and of God's interposition in awful majesty to vindicate his own cause (ver.16-21). Immediately upon this follows, in the sixtieth chapter, a vision of the latter-day glory that has no parallel in the Old Testament for brightness, extending down to the full establishment of the millennial age. But when shall these things be? How long shall the present age of iniquity endure? And when Jehovah appears to save the cause of truth and righteousness, shall it be by a single interposition or a series of interpositions? If by the latter, how widely shall they be separated, and what dark scenes shall intervene? When shall the promised Redeemer appear, and how long shall his work be in progress before that blessed consummation contained in the promise: |Thy sun shall no more go down; neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended?| On all these points which involve the element of time the prophecy maintains a majestic silence. The closing promise indeed is: |I the Lord will hasten it in his time;| but with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The time for the consummation of God's plan to rescue this apostate world from the dominion of Satan -- how many slowly revolving centuries may it include, and what fierce and bloody assaults of the adversary, compelling God's suffering people to cry out: |O Lord, how long!|
The whole of the prophecy of Joel belongs to the class now under consideration. It begins with impending judgments, and closes with the conflict and triumph of the last times: |Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining. The Lord also shall roar out of Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake; but the Lord shall be the hope of his people, and the strength of the children of Israel. So shall ye know that I am the Lord your God dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain; then shall Jerusalem be holy, and there shall no strangers pass through her any more.| Chap.3:14-17.
Many more examples might be adduced from the other prophets, but the above will be sufficient.
6. But let no one infer, from this absence of dates and of the exact succession of events, that the view which the prophet gives of the future is loose and confused. Times and successions belong rather to the outward machinery of God's providential government. They are, so to speak, the wheels and bands and shafts which connect the different movements. But the perpetual living power that dwells in the church is above all time and succession. In this lies the guarantee of her final triumph, and with this the prophets are mainly occupied. They take the deepest view of the progress of God's kingdom, for they unfold to our view the indestructible divine life and power which animate it throughout, and which are steadily bearing it onward towards its final destiny -- victory complete and eternal over all the powers of darkness. If we examine more particularly the manner in which the prophets of the Old Testament represent the future of the kingdom of heaven, we shall find that it has its foundation in the unity of the plan of redemption, the end towards which it is tending, the indications of that end which are perpetually given in its progress, and the fact that the end itself is the chief object of interest in prophetic vision.
(1.) The unity of the plan of redemption lies not in its times and seasons, but in the higher connections of cause and effect, which, under God's supernatural presence and agency, bind the whole together laterally, so to speak, as well as backward and forward. It may be compared to the unity of a web, in which each thread of the warp extends from its beginning to its end, and each thread of the woof from one margin to the other; so that every part of the texture is connected with every other part without respect to nearness or distance. So in the plan of redemption, events thousands of years apart and taking place in regions thousands of miles from each other, are as really connected as if they belonged to the same year and country. And since they are thus connected in God's plan, it is natural that prophecy should exhibit them in this connection, passing over, it may be, many centuries in silence; for it is the salient points of the church's future history, the great crises in the process of her development, that the spirit of inspiration will naturally bring to view. Prophecy relating to the last times is not a map, in which the distance from one point to another, with all the intervening mountains, rivers, and towns, is accurately marked; but rather a prospective view, which exhibits only the great features of the region that lies before the traveller. He sees far off in the horizon the goodly mountains rising one behind another, and bathed in the pure light of heaven, with no ability to discern, much less to measure, the intervening valleys and plains. Nay more, mountain ranges that are widely separated may appear to his eye as one and indivisible.
(2.) The plan of redemption has not only complete unity, but continual progress towards a high end. It may be compared to a majestic river, fed by thousands of perennial springs, that cannot stay a moment in its course towards the ocean. Its path is not always straight, but it is always onward. Its current is not always rapid and broken, for it is not always obstructed. Sometimes, like the Arar described by Caesar, it winds through level plains with a current so gentle and noiseless, that the eye cannot discern its direction. Then it plunges over some Niagara, roaring, boiling, and foaming, and shaking the very earth with its mighty cataracts. But it has all the power in the level meadows that it manifests on the fearful brink of the precipice. To arrest its current in one place is as impossible as in the other. Resistance cannot overcome its strength, but only bring it to view. Let any number of Titans build up ever so high a wall across the level meadow, and the stream, every particle of which is pressed forward by an inward force, will quietly rise above their vain rampart, and then it will begin to thunder. Since then God's kingdom -- this river of God that is full of water -- is continually tending towards a high end, and since every event of his providence contributes something towards its progress, what wonder if we find in prophecy events separated by many centuries of time immediately connected as cause and effect? Does the prophet predict the overthrow of Sennacherib's army, or the coming desolation of Jerusalem by the Chaldean armies; he connects these calamities immediately with the advent of Christ, for this is the end towards which they look. Desolating judgments prepare the way for the King of glory to appear. After the storm of thunder and hail there follows a serene light, |as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.| The mind of the inspired bard hastens onward towards the glorious end of God's judgments, without pausing to give us, what it is not necessary that we should know, the chronological distance of that end.
(3.) The progress of God's kingdom gives continual indications of the end towards which it is tending. The first great interposition of God in behalf of Israel contained in itself a pledge of all needful help for the future, and thus of a final triumph in the future; for it was a manifestation of both God's absolute power to save his people, and his absolute purpose to save them. The full idea embodied in this interposition is summed up in the closing words of their triumphal song on the shore of the Red sea: |The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.| What was true of this deliverance was true of every subsequent deliverance. In each of them separately, and in the whole of them collectively, lay the promise: |Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the Lord, and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. Behold I will make thee [make thee to be] a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff. Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them: and thou shalt rejoice in the Lord, and shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel.| Isa.41:14-16.
The chastisements, moreover, which God inflicted on the covenant people through the temporary ascendency of their enemies, and in other ways, gave in like manner indications of a final triumph of the cause of truth and righteousness. However great their severity, they were always so ordered that God's people were never destroyed, but always purified by their power, and thus the way was prepared for their future enlargement. This purifying tendency the divinely illumined eye of the Hebrew prophet clearly discerned. What wonder, then, that he should have constantly connected with present or impending judgments glorious promises respecting the future. The destruction of Sennacherib's army by the destroying angel, and afterwards of Jerusalem itself by the Chaldean armies -- the former event so joyous in its outward form, the latter so sad -- these were both alike to the prophet's vision parts of the preparation through which God was carrying his people for the future glory and blessedness of the latter days. He accordingly connected both with bright visions of the future, without pausing to notice the intervening centuries, respecting the duration of which he had no commission to speak.
(4.) The end itself towards which the plan of redemption tends is the chief object of interest in prophetic representation. To nourish the faith and hope of the church, to invigorate her in her present struggles by the assurance of final victory -- this, and not the gratification of a prurient curiosity respecting the exact dates of |times and seasons,| is the main design of prophecy. That it has other subordinate ends need not be denied. It challenges for itself the attribute of omniscience, and its fulfilment is, to those who live after it, a proof of the validity of its claim. But to become absorbed in calculations beforehand respecting its dates is to elevate the subordinate and circumstantial in prophecy to the place of the essential. The bright end of the present conflict with the powers of darkness is what prophetic vision is continually presenting for our encouragement. To those who love God, this is the point of chief interest; and accordingly the prophets make it, not the exact number of years that is to elapse before the final consummation with the details of their history, the prominent point. Some great crises in the church's history are indicated so clearly that they who can discern |the signs of the times| may understand beforehand that they are near. The general expectation of the Messiah's advent at the time when he actually appeared had its foundation in a sober comparison of the prophecies with the existing condition of the covenant people. The present universal belief among Christians that the time for the final overthrow of the triple league between Satan, wicked kings, and wicked priests for the suppression of the gospel is at hand rests, we doubt not, on the same solid ground. But farther than this we cannot go. We cannot say that it shall be in such a year of the present century, or even in the century, in harmony with the true spirit of prophecy. It is enough for us to know that God |will hasten it in his time| -- that the victory is certain, and that every believer from Abel to the trump of the archangel shall have his share in it.
III. THE QUESTION OF DOUBLE SENSE.
7. The so-called double sense of Scripture, especially of prophecy, concerning which there has been so much discussion among biblical writers, must be distinguished from the double sense of pure allegory, which all admit. In allegory, the first or literal meaning is only a cover for the higher spiritual sense, which alone is of importance. That we may have a true example of double sense, the obvious literal meaning must have its own proper significance, irrespective of the higher sense belonging to it, and this higher sense must be intended by the Spirit of inspiration. The question now to be considered is: Do such examples occur in Scripture, by whatever term we may choose to designate them?
To avoid logomachy, arising from the use of the same phrase in different senses, we prefer the expression literal and typical sense.
8. If, as has been shown above (chap.37, No.4), examples of historic types are found in the Old Testament, these contain a twofold sense. The priesthood of Melchizedek and the transactions between him and Abraham were true historic realities, having their own proper office and meaning. Yet the word of inspiration teaches us that the circumstances connected with Melchizedek's priesthood and his meeting with Abraham were intended by God to shadow forth the higher priesthood of Melchizedek's great Antitype. He brought forth bread and wine, the very symbols that should afterwards represent Christ crucified as our spiritual food and drink, blessed him that had the promises, and received at his hand tithes of all (Gen.14:18-20), thus exercising the prerogatives of one higher than Abraham, and consequently higher than all his posterity. Heb.7:4-10. In the intention of the Holy Ghost, the higher typical meaning lay in this transaction from the beginning, but it was not revealed to the apprehension of believers till the Christian dispensation had begun. So also the rest of the covenant people in the land of Canaan is represented in the New Testament as typical of the true heavenly rest. Heb.4:7-11. Other examples might be adduced, but these will serve as an illustration of the principle now under consideration.
9. The most striking examples of a literal covering a typical meaning are furnished by the so-called Messianic psalms, a part of which describe the victories and universal dominion of a mighty King whom Jehovah himself establishes on Zion to reign there for ever (Psalms 2, 45, 72, 110, etc.); another part, the deep afflictions of a mighty Sufferer and his subsequent deliverance, which has for its result the conversion of all nations to the service of Jehovah. Psalms 22, 40, 69, 109, etc. That such psalms as the second and seventy-second, the twenty-second, fortieth, and sixty-ninth (not to mention others), have a true reference to Christ's person and work, cannot be denied without imputing either error or fraud to the writers of the New Testament. Nay more, our Lord himself said, after his resurrection: |These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me| (Luke 24:44); whence we learn that it was our Lord's custom to refer to the psalms as containing prophecies of himself. If the psalms, when legitimately interpreted, contain no such prophecies, then, when the writers of the New Testament quoted them as referring to Christ, they either believed that they were making a true application of them according to the mind of the Holy Spirit, or they simply accommodated themselves to what they knew to be the groundless prejudices of the age. Upon the former supposition they were in error; upon the latter, they were guilty of fraud. Such is the dishonor which the modern principles of rationalism put upon the word of God. In the interpretation of these psalms, then, we must assume as a fundamental truth that they contain a true reference to Christ. The only question is, whether they contain a lower reference also.
(1.) One class of interpreters understand these psalms simply of Christ; that is, they assume that the writer speaks wholly in the name of Christ, without reference to himself or any merely human personage. There are psalms -- the hundred and tenth, for example -- that may be very well explained in this way. The opening words of that psalm -- |The Lord said unto my lord| -- seem to exclude David as the subject, and it is difficult to see in what sense David could speak of himself as made by a divine oath |a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek| (ver.4). But in the attempt to carry this principle consistently through all the Messianic psalms, one meets with serious difficulties. They contain, at least some of them, historic allusions of a character so marked and circumstantial that it is hard to believe that the writer had not in view his own personal situation. In some of them, moreover, the writer makes confession to God of his sins. Psa.40:12; 69:5.
They who apply these psalms exclusively to Christ assume that these confessions of sin are made in a vicarious way, the Messiah assuming the character of a sinner because |the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all.| Isa.53:6. But the form of these confessions forbids such an interpretation. When the psalmist says: |Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me;| |O God, thou knowest my foolishness, and my sins are not hid from thee,| we cannot understand such language of any thing else than personal sinfulness. It is true that the Messiah bore our iniquities, and that God |made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin;| but the Saviour nowhere speaks or can speak of |mine iniquities,| |my foolishness,| and |my sins.|
(2.) According to another class of interpreters, the subject of these psalms, particularly of those which describe the Messiah as a sufferer, is an ideal personage, namely, the congregation of the righteous considered not separately from Christ, but in Christ their head; or, which amounts to the same thing, Christ considered, not in his simple personality apart from the church, but Christ with his body the church. The contents of these psalms are then applied, according to their nature, to Christ alone, to believers alone who are his members, or to Christ in the fullest sense and believers in a subordinate sense. Much might be said in favor of this view; yet it labors under the difficulty already indicated, that one cannot well read the psalms in question, with their marked historic allusions, without the conviction that the author had in view -- not indirectly, but immediately -- his own personal situation.
(3.) There remains a third, and perhaps preferable view, which may be called the typical view, maintained, as is well known, by Melanchthon, Calvin, and many later expositors. This begins with the well-established principle that David (in a less eminent degree his successors also on the throne, so far as they were true to their office) was a divinely-constituted type of the Messiah, not only in his office as the earthly head of God's kingdom, but in the events of his history also; that the psalms in question, whether they describe his victorious might or his deep suffering at the hand of his enemies, had a true historic origin; that their first and immediate reference was to the writer's own situation and the events which befell him; but that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he was carried beyond himself to describe the office and history of the Messiah; that consequently these psalms have a lower fulfilment in David the type (the seventy-second in Solomon), and a higher in Christ the Antitype.
The second psalm, for example, which describes the vain conspiracy of the heathen rulers against the Lord's anointed king, and God's purpose to give him the uttermost ends of the earth for his possession, may have had its occasion in the combination of the surrounding heathen nations against David. In the victorious might with which God endowed him, it had a lower fulfilment; and this was, so to speak, the first sheaf of the harvest of victories that was to follow. It was an earnest and pledge of the complete fulfilment of the psalm in Christ, in whom alone the promise made to David: |Thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever| (2 Sam.7:16), could have its real accomplishment. Luke 1: 32, 33.
The second class of psalms, of which the twenty-second is a well-known example, may have had, in like manner, a true historic origin. When the psalmist began with the exclamation: |My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?| he may have had immediate reference to his own distressed condition. But since he was the divinely appointed head of the line of kings which should end in Christ, and was thus in his office a type of Christ, God had so ordered the circumstances of his history as to shadow forth in them the sufferings and final triumph of the Messiah. Writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he was led, through these circumstances, to say many things which applied to himself only in a lower and often figurative sense, but which were appointed to have a complete fulfilment in Christ his Antitype (Psa.22:1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 16, 18; 40:6-10; 69:4, 7-9, 21; 109:1-20), and which point to Christ as the chief subject of the prophecies.
How far the psalmist understood this higher reference of his words is a question difficult to be determined. With regard to the sixteenth psalm, the apostle Peter tells us that David, |being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption| (Acts 2:30, 31); whence we infer that in penning this psalm David was conscious of its higher application to Christ. The spirit of the New Testament quotations from the psalms indicates that he had a deeper insight into the prophetic meaning of his words than many modern expositors are willing to admit. But however this may be, the Spirit of inspiration had in view the fulfilment of these psalms in Christ; and his intention, clearly revealed to us in the New Testament, is our rule of interpretation.
10. Different from the above literal and typical sense, yet closely related to it in principle, is that of the progressive fulfilment of prophecy, which has a wide application in the interpretation of those prophecies which relate to the last days. By the progressive fulfilment of prophecy is meant, a fulfilment not exhaustively accomplished at one particular era or crisis in the church's history, but successively from age to age; a fulfilment repeated, it may be, many times, and ending only with the final consummation of the Messiah's kingdom. An undeniable example of such a prophecy is God's message by Isaiah to the covenant people: |Go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not,| etc, with the threatened desolation that should follow (chap.6:9-13). This prophecy had a true fulfilment in the ancient Jewish people before the Babylonish captivity. For their blindness of mind and hardness of heart, they were given over to the power of Nebuchadnezzar, who wasted their land, destroyed their city and temple, and carried the remnant of the people into captivity. But the same prophecy had, in both its parts, a more awful fulfilment in the generation of Jews who rejected and crucified our Lord, and were destroyed with their city and temple by the armies of Rome (Matt.13:14, 15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-41; Acts 28:25-27; Rom.11:8); and its fulfilment is yet in progress. Joel's prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit in the last days upon all flesh, with the mighty accompanying judgments (chap.2: 28-32), and Amos' prediction of the raising up of David's fallen tabernacle (chap.9:11, 12), had both their initial fulfilment in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and the triumphs of the gospel that followed. Acts 2:16-21; 15:16, 17. But the blessings which they promised were not exhausted in the apostolic age. The church has had rich instalments of them, but richer still are reserved for the future of millennial glory. A large part of the prophecies of the Old Testament indicate in their very structure that they are not to be understood of particular events, but of the development of God's kingdom from age to age. The reader may take, as a single example among many others, the prediction of Isaiah and Micah concerning the establishment of the Lord's house in the last days in the top of the mountains, the resort of all nations to it, and the universal peace that shall follow. Isa.2:2-4; Micah 4:1-4. That particularism which seeks for the fulfilment of every prophecy in some one specific event of history must go widely astray in its interpretation of Scripture.
IV. THE QUESTION OF LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE MEANING.
11. On this question expositors are, as is well known, much divided; one class adopting, as far as possible, the literal meaning of the prophetic announcements, the other freely employing the principle of figurative interpretation. A full discussion of the claims of these two methods of interpretation, on which so many volumes have been written, would far exceed the limits of the present work. All that can be done is, to indicate some well-established principles which may help to guide the biblical student in the study of prophecy.
12. We begin by calling attention to the representative use which the Old Testament prophets make of the events of the past history of Israel; that is, to their habit of representing the future under the imagery of this history. When Israel journeyed from Egypt to Palestine through the wilderness of Arabia, God dried up the tongue of the Egyptian sea before the people, guided them miraculously by the cloudy pillar, fed them with manna, made streams of water to burst forth from the rock for their refreshment, and finally divided the waters of the Jordan to give them a passage into the promised land. This primitive history of Israel furnishes for the prophets who lived in later ages a rich treasury of images which it would be absurd to interpret in a literal way.
Thus Isaiah, speaking of the future gathering together of the outcasts of Israel and the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth (chap.11:11, 12), says: |And the Lord shall utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea, and with his mighty wind shall he shake his hand over the river [the Euphrates], and shall smite it in the seven streams, and make men go over dry shod| (ver.15). To suppose that the prophet foretells a literal repetition of the miracles wrought upon the Red sea and the Jordan is unnecessary and most improbable. The meaning is, that God shall remove all obstacles which hinder the return of his people to their own land, as he originally removed all obstacles which opposed their entrance into it. This is, indeed, the very idea of the following verse: |And there shall be a highway for the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.|
Again, the prophet foretells that in the latter day glory |the Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence.| Isa.4:5. Here |the figurative reference is to the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in which the Lord went before the Israelites in the wilderness, and to the glory which rested upon the tabernacle.| Henderson. God will give to his church in the latter day that which the pillar of cloud and of fire signified, his glorious presence and protection. A literal repetition of the miracle is not to be thought of.
Once more, God promises to his weary people, on their pilgrimage to Zion, that |in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert| (Isa.35:6, and often elsewhere), with obvious allusion to the miraculous supplies of water furnished to the Israelites in their journey through the Arabian desert to the land of Canaan. The water here promised is the water of life, and not literal fountains in the desert. Upon the same principle are we to interpret the river that flows out from under the threshold of the temple, and flows down eastward to the Dead sea, growing broader and deeper in its course, and imparting life to everything which comes within its influence. Ezek.47:1-12, and compare Psa.46:4; Joel 3:18; Zech.14:8.
13. The same representative use is made by the prophets of the institutions of the Mosaic economy. One of their offices was, to foretell the extension of the true religion over all the earth; the conversion of all nations to the faith of the covenant people, and their peaceful subjection to Jehovah who reigned in Zion. In what form should this be done while the theocracy was yet in full force? The disclosure of God's purpose to abolish this theocracy in the interest of a simpler and more spiritual dispensation, which should know no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, would have been a premature act. It would, so far as we can judge, have led to much error and misapprehension; and it must have had the effect of disparaging the existing economy before the world was prepared to receive any thing better in its place. God, therefore, allowed his prophets to portray the glories of the latter day, when all nations should come to the knowledge and obedience of the truth, under the forms of the Jewish dispensation, with its temple, sacrifices, and solemn festivals.
A striking example is the bright portraiture of two contemporary prophets: |But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people [Hebrew peoples, that is, as Isaiah, all the nations] shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.| Micah 4:1-4, compared with Isa.2:2-4. The temple at Jerusalem, with its altar and priesthood, was the central point of the old theocracy. There all the sacrifices were to be offered, there was the seat of royal authority, and consequently of public justice, and thither all the males among the people were required to repair three times a year at the great national festivals. Deut.16:16. A Jew could conceive of the conversion of all nations only in the form of their subjecting themselves to the theocracy, and coming up to Jerusalem for worship and the administration of justice. Accordingly the Spirit of prophecy here represents the mountain of the Lord's house as |established in the top of the mountains,| a conspicuous object to all nations, who resort thither for worship, submit themselves to the authority of the great king who reigns there, and thus have universal peace and happiness. To insist on the literal interpretation of these words is contrary to the general analogy of prophecy. It is an attempt to bring back the outward sensuous form of the kingdom of heaven which the gospel dispensation has abolished.
There is another celebrated passage in Zechariah (14:16-21) which is intensely Jewish in its costume. After describing the judgments of God upon the nations that have fought against Jerusalem, the prophet goes on to say: |And it shall come to pass that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem, shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles. And it shall be, that whoso will not come up, of all the families of the earth, unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain. And if the family of Egypt go not up, and come not, that have no rain; there shall be the plague, wherewith the Lord will smite the heathen that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all nations that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles. In that day there shall be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD; and the pots in the Lord's house shall be like the bowls before the altar. Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be holiness unto the Lord of hosts; and all they that sacrifice shall come and take of them and seethe therein: and in that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts.| The prophet's care to include |all the families of the earth| in this ordinance is very noticeable. Whatever nation refuses to observe it shall have no rain. But, recollecting that for Egypt this can be no punishment, he appoints for that country the plague instead of the absence of rain. Is it so, then, that in the last days all the families of the earth are to go up year by year to worship at Jerusalem? If so, they are to sacrifice also; for the prophecy is a homogeneous whole, of which, if the beginning is to be understood literally, so is the end also. The reference is to the peace-offerings of the people, on which, after certain prescribed portions had been burned on the altar, the offerer feasted with his friends; and a special provision is made for the multitude of these sacrifices. |Every pot in Judah and Jerusalem,| as well as |the pots in the Lord's house,| |shall be holiness unto the Lord of hosts,| that it may be used for boiling the flesh of the peace-offerings, precisely as we find done in the days of Eli.1 Sam.2:13-16. But all sacrifices are done away for ever in Christ. Heb.10:10-18. This part of the prophecy must clearly be understood figuratively, and therefore the whole. The future reception of the true religion by all nations is foretold under the symbols of the Mosaic economy, with its ritual, its yearly feasts, and its central place of worship. For this principle of interpretation we have the warrant of the New Testament. Did the law of Moses prescribe a literal priesthood with literal sacrifices; believers, under the new dispensation, are a spiritual priesthood, presenting their bodies as |living sacrifices.| Rom.12:1; 1 Pet.2:5. Did the Mosaic economy have a central metropolis, a literal Zion, whither all the tribes went up; believers in Christ have come to the spiritual |Mount Zion| which this shadowed forth, where the great Antitype of David reigns, that all nations may resort to him, and he may teach them his laws.
Upon the same principle, as well as for other very obvious reasons (see chaps.42:15-20; 45:1-8; 47:1-12, and the whole of chap.48), Ezekiel's minute description of a New Jerusalem, with its territory, its temple, and its Jewish appointments (chaps.40-48), is to be understood not literally but figuratively. This temple has also its Levitical priesthood, its altar, and its sacrifices (chap.43:13-27), all which are done away in Christ. There are other passages kindred to the above which it is not necessary to consider separately, as they all come under the same general principle of interpretation.
14. In the classes of prophecies that have been considered, the principle of figurative interpretation can be maintained upon solid grounds. But it would be wrong to press it as of universal and exclusive application. Where no reasons to the contrary exist, the literal interpretation, as the most natural and obvious, deserves the preference. To draw the limits between the literal and the figurative in prophecy is difficult, and in some cases impossible. In this respect it has pleased the wisdom of God that a vail should rest on some unfulfilled predictions which his own hand alone has power to remove. There are two questions, especially, respecting which interpreters have long been divided, and will probably continue to be divided, till God himself shall decide them. The first is that of the literal restoration of the Jews to the promised land; the second, that of our Lord's personal reign on earth during the promised age of millennial glory. To enter upon the full discussion of either would require a volume. We must dismiss both with some brief hints.
15. The original promise to Abraham included the grant of the land of Canaan to him and his seed |for an everlasting possession.| Gen.12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 26:3; 28:13. It is expressed in the plainest terms, the boundaries of the promised territory are defined, and the nations inhabiting it enumerated (Gen.15:18-21); in a word, every thing indicates the literal as the true interpretation. The remarkable words of the Saviour: |And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled| (Luke 21:24), have had a literal fulfilment in the awful judgments which they foretell; and it seems reasonable to believe that the promise implied in the last clause, |until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled| shall have a literal fulfilment also in their repossession of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The wonderful preservation of the Jewish nation through so many centuries of dispersion points in the same direction. All these things, taken in connection with the numerous and very explicit prophecies of their captivity and dispersion for their sins, and their subsequent restoration upon repentance (Lev. chap.26; Deut. chaps, 28-30: 1 Kings 8:46-50; Isa. chaps.6, 11, 66; Jer. chaps.30, 31; Ezek. chaps.36-39; Hosea 1:10, 11; Joel. chap.3; Amos chap.9; Micah 7:8-20; Zeph.3:8-20), seem to warrant the expectation of a literal fulfilment hereafter of the promise made to Abraham that his seed should inherit the land of Canaan for ever.
16. That Christ will come again in glory to raise the dead, change the living, and judge all nations, is a fundamental article of the Christian faith. But the doctrine |that the fleshly and sublunary state is not to terminate with the coming of Christ, but to be then set up in a new form; when, with his glorified saints, the Redeemer will reign in person on the throne of David at Jerusalem for a thousand years, over a world of men yet in the flesh, eating and drinking, planting and building, marrying and giving in marriage, under this mysterious sway| (Brown on the Second Advent, who correctly states the fundamental principle of the system), cannot lay claim to an irrefragable basis of scriptural teaching. The arguments relied on by its advocates are drawn in part from the very passages that have been considered above (Micah 4:1-4; Zech.14:16-21). How little support the theory derives from these passages, when fairly interpreted, we have seen. Nor is it favored by the references to our Lord's second coming in the gospels and epistles, for they clearly connect it with the final consummation of all things.
Our Saviour says: |The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.| John 5:28, 29. He plainly represents these two resurrections as simultaneous; nor is there in the record of his words any hint of a partial resurrection ages before the reign of death in this world shall close. The resurrection |at the last trump| to which the apostle Paul refers (1 Cor. chap.15; 1 Thess.4:13-18; 2 Thess.1:7-10) is universal. It expressly includes all the dead in Christ and the change of all Christ's living disciples. If nothing is said of the resurrection of the wicked, it is because the apostle has in mind only the |resurrection of life,| and has no occasion to speak of the simultaneous |resurrection of damnation| which the Saviour himself connects with it. This resurrection at the last trump is also the annihilation of the reign of death; for when it happens, |then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.| 1 Cor.15:54. But |the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,| and |then cometh the end.| 1 Cor.15:24-26.
The Saviour teaches, moreover, that his personal presence on earth is inconsistent with the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. |It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.| John 16:7. It is expedient, doubtless, because the dispensation of the Spirit is better adapted to our present state of flesh and blood than his personal presence could be. This dispensation of the Spirit must, from the nature of the case, be continued in its full force throughout the millennial era, when the generations of men will succeed each other as at present. But the New Testament knows nothing of the dispensation of the Holy Spirit existing contemporaneously with Christ's personal reign on earth. Its constant doctrine is that the salvation of men is effected by Christ's intercession in heaven conjointly with the gift of the Holy Spirit on earth.
The passage mainly relied upon by the advocates of this theory is the twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation, which speaks of the first and second resurrection. But the first resurrection there described cannot be identical with the resurrection described by Paul at our Lord's advent. The resurrection described by Paul includes in express terms all the righteous, whereas this first resurrection of the Apocalypse is restricted to a certain class, namely, the martyrs and confessors for Christ's sake (ver.4), while the rest of the dead live not till the thousand years are over (ver.5). Then there is a general resurrection (ver.11-15), which, from its very terms, includes the righteous and the wicked; for among the books then opened is |the book of life.| The risen dead are |judged every man according to his works,| and all whose names are not found in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire. At the same time death and hell (Hades), personified as two enemies of the human race, are cast into the lake of fire, and thus |death, the last enemy, is destroyed,| and |death is swallowed up in victory.| 1 Cor.15:26, 54. This is the resurrection which takes place upon our Lord's advent at the last trump, not a thousand years after his advent; the resurrection and judgment, when the wicked |shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.| We venture not to interpret the meaning of the first resurrection, believing that it is one of the mysteries which God alone will reveal in its fulfilment. But whether it should be taken literally or figuratively, after the analogy of the resurrection of the two witnesses (chap.11:11), it does not seem reasonable to build upon this obscure and difficult passage a doctrine respecting our Lord's pre-millennial advent and personal reign on earth which is so decidedly at variance with the general tenor of Scripture.