TAKE HEED

CARE NEEDED IN APPLYING PROPHETIC SCRIPTURE

 

By G. H. LANG.

 

That our Lord Jesus Christ will return in person to this earth in power and glory is the definite testimony of the Bible and is to be believed. Yet neither the day nor hour of His coming can possibly be ascertained from Scripture (Matt. 24: 36), and the many attempts to calculate even the year have proved ill-starred and harmful. Yet Christ gave very many details as to the major events that will take place in the period that will directly precede His return and said that, even as men know that summer is at hand when the fig tree bursts into leaf, so "when ye shall see all these things, know ye that He is nigh, at the doors" (Matt. 24: 32, 33), and therefore "when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh" (Luke 21. 28).

 

But when, on the occasion that Jesus gave these details, He was asked what would be the sign of His parousia with the consummation of the age, He prefaced His reply with the express warning "Take heed that no man lead you astray ... Take heed that ye be not led astray" (Matt. 24: 4; Luke 21: 8). To the same effect Paul, when writing to the Thessalonian Christians as to the coming of the Lord and our gathering together unto Him, warned them "to the end that ye be not quickly shaken from your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us, as that the day of the Lord is just at hand : let no man beguile you in any wise" (2 Thess. 2: 1-3).

 

This is most impressive. Our Lord stressed that many false prophets would endeavour to lead astray even God's chosen ones upon this great hope of His return. Paul emphasised this danger by intimating that false spirits would attempt this deception, that is, by secretly instilling wrong suggestions into the mind of believers, or speakers would utter words to the same end, and that there was possibility that some would even write forged letters as if from the apostle. It indicates how keen and determined are the powers of darkness that the people of God should be misled and confused as to the Lord's return. The sequel shows how well they have succeeded. Nor is it the least deplorable feature that many true lovers of Christ and of His appearing have been deceived and have misled many others upon this important subject. Let us note some examples of this.

 

1. Answering the very question as to the time and sign of His parousia (presence) the Lord stated explicitly that "the end is not yet ... the end is not immediately" (Matt. 24: 6; Luke 21: 9). This was a prefatory warning to all the instruction He would then give. Paul pressed this by his earnest plea and warning that Christians were on no account to think "that the day of the Lord has set in" (ensteken, perf.); for this cannot occur until after certain events shall have preceded.

 

In spite of this explicit teaching the most determined and persistent assertions have been made that the apostles taught that the Lord might have returned forthwith after His ascension: that prophecy is not concerned with the church of God, but only with the future of Israel and the Gentiles; and in one dominant scheme as to the subject it has been pressed that the Lord might have, and may, come "at any moment." This has been sincerely believed, and taught, by many Christians devoted to Christ, eminent for learning, and painstaking students of the Word of God. The effect has been to nullify for Christians Christ's warnings by the plea that He was speaking of "Jewish" disciples, not Christians; and to turn aside Paul's warning by urging that he was speaking of the day of the Lord, not of Christ's return for His church. This in spite of the plain fact that he specifically includes "our gathering together unto Him" as one of the events associated with Christ's parousia as to which he would warn his Christian readers.

 

More than twenty-five years after His ascension the Lord gave to Paul specific information that he was to testify to Him in Rome. Two years or so later this was definitely confirmed to him by an angel (Acts 23: 11; 27: 23, 24). It is undeniable that until this had been fulfilled Paul could not have expected the second Advent. Moreover, nearly thirty years earlier than this intimation by the angel, the Lord informed Peter that he would live to be an old man and then die by violence. John and five other disciples heard this announcement (John 21: 18, 19,). Peter lived in the expectation of death, for in his last epistle he said: "the putting off of my tabernacle cometh swiftly even as our Lord Jesus Christ signified unto me " (2 Pet. 1: 13-15). Therefore Paul, Peter, John and others of their fellowship knew that the Advent could not be until after the death of Peter. In the light of these His own statements it is manifest that the Lord did not teach His apostles that He might return during their lifetime.

 

Between Christ and the apostles, on the one hand, and the assertions mentioned, there is a plain and irreconcilable contradiction, and one wonders that these ideas could have been insinuated into godly minds without being at once detected and rejected.

 

2. The aforementioned false expectation has often concurred with equally unwarranted misconceptions that passing events have been the things described by Christ as to indicate His near return. This attitude has marked devout and eager souls from early days, even from before the time of Christ. Some examples follow.

 

(1) Writing of events in the second century B.C. the Jewish author of II Maccabees said:-

 

"We hope also that God ... will shortly have mercy upon us, and gather us together out of every land under heaven into the holy place" (II Macc. 2: 17, 18).

 

This pious hope even yet awaits fulfilment. The hope was justified, for God has so promised, but the expected immediacy was unjustified.

 

(2) Gregory Nazianzen (born A.D. 324), pained by the sorrowful condition of Christianity in that early period, wrote:-

 

To what will these things grow, and at what point will they stop? I fear lest the things now around us should be the smoke of expected fire, lest Antichrist should come in upon these things and make our failures and weaknesses the occasion of his own greatness; for he will not, I suppose, assault those who are in sound spiritual health, nor those who are fenced about with love: (Oratio 21, p.419).

 

Gregory is one example of the fact that in the first Christian centuries, the belief of Christians was that Antichrist would be a person, not a system, such as the Papacy. He also rightly expected that the church of God would be on earth when Antichrist arises. But he misread the conditions of his own day as being possibly the events to precede the time of the end.

 

(3) Into this mistake Luther also fell. Writing to Nikolas Hausmann on October 14th, 1526, he said:-

 

"You are right in saying the world is going to ruin. But I hope the day of the coming of the Great God is approaching for we hear only of fires, murders, and fury over all: (Letters of Martin Luther, Mgt. A. Currie, p.153).

 

(4) Hugh Latimer (about 1530).

 

And to be short, He shall come at the latter day, but He shall find a little faith. And I ween the day be not far-off. To which his biographer adds:-

 

Latimer was deeply impressed with the idea that the end of the world was at hand, and often refers to it: (Hugh Latimer (about 1530).

 

(5) Melchior Hoffmann (died 1533);

 

A man of the people, with glowing zeal and stirring eloquence ... To him all things appeared to indicate the near return of slaughtering and persecuting of many true Christians he saw a sign that the day of redemption must have drawn nigh: (Johannes Warns, Baptism 206).

 

(6) So also John de Labadie, dying in 1573/4, said:-

 

I believe the end is near, and the beginning of the reign of God and His Son Jesus Christ, for whom I have waited, whom I have known; for whom I now wait, whom I now know: (Sketches of the Quiet in the Land, p. 174).

 

Coming to the last century we have:-

 

(7) J. N. Darby writing in 1843:-

 

What happiness to await the precious Saviour, and to know that His glory that one has so desired, so wished for, is drawing near. And again in 1879:-

 

But all over the world the Spirit of God is working, and it awakes the bright hope that the blessed Lord is soon coming. (Letters. i. 81 , ii. 588).

 

(8) Dr. John Cumming (Lectures on the Book of Daniel, 1852, p.277):-

 

The first dawn begins to overspread the distant lands of the world, of that emerging Sun, which shall soon arise with healing in His wings, assume His noontide throne, and cover the whole earth with that glory that never shall be diminished.

 

It is ninety-five years since the Advent was thus expected to take place "soon."

 

(9) Robert Govett, 1884:-

 

The psalm [2] speaks first of the crisis of unbelief which is rapidly drawing near, when kings and nations will, in enmity against God, throw off even the name of Christ and His restraints ... A period is now near, when the day of grace and invitation shall close. It is called the end of the age" (Christ Superior to Angels, Moses and Aaron, 14, 15, 105).

 

(10) Major General J. H. Huggan, 1892:-

 

The Jews are now returning to Jerusalem in great numbers, in a way they have never done before. If this interpretation has really hit the truth regarding the reformation of the Pentecostal Church, then we have a most sure and certain sign that it will not be very long now before the church of God Christian is suddenly removed (Amos 3. 7), because God never deals with two peoples at one and the same time (The Eternal Purpose of God, Plate iv).

 

These examples cover a period of 2000 years. They include godly men of very different persuasions and opinions. Their hopes were based on a false reading of the conditions of the times, regarding Israel, the nations, or the church of God, as supposedly corresponding to the conditions declared by Christ to indicate His parousia as just at hand. In these men of God the wish was father to the thought. The healthy yearning to see our Beloved needs to be balanced by the strictest consideration of the details given in the Word as to His return.

 

The reports of our Lord's words cited above from Luke and Matthew when combined say: When all these things shall begin to come to pass know ye that He is nigh;" that is, there will be no need to wait until the events have nearly run their course, for their beginning will be sign enough to conclude that the end days have come: only, in order to afford this indication, "all" the events predicted must be present, not some only. Wars, famine, pestilences, earthquakes have occurred in all ages, but have not shown the near return of Christ. For this purpose there must be a concurrence of these features; they must all occur together, and, moreover, at the same time there must be the terrors and great signs from heaven, with alarming disturbances of land and sea. Nations have often been in distress, but it has not been caused by these convulsions in Nature, in both heaven and earth. Too often godly minds have been misled regarding some only of these conditions; and an eager desire to see the Lord has not hindered, but has perhaps aggravated, the confusion of thought and false reading of the times.

 

In the outworking of the plans of God there come points when it looks to fallible human judgment (even of godly persons) as if the very next event must be the final event; yet there intervene what men reckon delays. Thus the disciples, in the excitement of mind caused by great miracles and enthusiastic crowds, "supposed that the kingdom of God was immediately to appear" (Luke 19: 11); whereas the next event was to be the crucifixion of their Lord, with the collapse of their hopes. Later, the exultation of soul caused by His resurrection prompted their hope and question, "Lord, dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" which thought the Lord did not repudiate, though it was necessary to divert their minds from the idea of its immediacy to the vast gospel task which they must carry out before Israel can be restored nationally. "Ye men of Plymouth, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus shall so come as ye have seen Him go. Get on with your work" (Spurgeon).

 

3. The paramount necessity of our Lord's warning to take heed as to truth divinely revealed was most urgently emphasised at the end of the second century and in century three, when the teachers of the Catechetical School at Alexandria, pre-eminently Clement and Origen, applied to the Scriptures the maltreatment that is called allegorizing, but which ought properly to be called falsifying them. It is legitimate, and may be very helpful, for a writer of ability to present his own thoughts in the pleasing garb of allegory, as Bunyan did in The Pilgrim's Progress and The Holy War; but it is in the highest degree reprehensible to treat as allegory statements which another set forth as literal, giving them a foreign and fictitious sense. We shall exemplify this latter process by quoting from Dr. Patrick Fairbairn's Typology of Scripture (pp.3-7 in the Zondervan edition). Concerning the Greek Fathers in general (a wider company than the Alexandrine Fathers) it is said that

 

They do not appear, for the most part, to have discredited the plain truth or reality of the statements made in Old Testament history. They seem rather to have considered the sense of the letter true and good, so far as it went, but of itself so meagre and puerile, that it was chiefly to be regarded as the vehicle of a much more refined and ethereal instruction. Origen, however, certainly went farther than this, and expressly denied that many things in the Old Testament had any real existence. In his Principia he affirms, that "when the Scripture history could not otherwise be accommodated to the explanation of spiritual things, matters have been asserted which did not take place, nay, which could not have taken place; and others again, which, though they might have occurred, yet never actually did so." Again, when speaking of some notices in the life of Rebecca, he says, "In these things, I have often told you, there is not a relation of histories, but a concoction of mysteries." And in like manner, in his annotations on the first chapters of Genesis, he plainly scouts the idea of God's having literally clothed our first parents with the skins of slain beasts - calls it absurd, ridiculous, and unworthy of God, and he declares that in such a case the naked letter is not to be adhered to as true, but exists only for the spiritual treasure which is concealed under it.

 

Quoting from Origen's Homily 6 in Genesis Fairbairn continues:

 

Origen does not expressly disavow his belief in the fact of such a marriage having actually taken place between the parties in question, though his language seems to point in that direction; but he intimates that this, in common with the other marriages of the patriarchs, contained a sacramental mystery. And what might this be? Nothing less than the sublime truth, "that there is no end to wisdom, and that old age sets no bounds to improvement in knowledge. The death of Sarah (he says) is to be understood as the perfecting of virtue. But he who has attained to a consummate and perfect virtue, must always be employed in some kind of learning - which learning is called by the divine word his wife. Abraham, therefore, when an old man, and his body in a manner dead, took Keturah to wife. I think it was better, according to the exposition we follow, that the wife should have been received when his body was dead, and his members were mortified. For we have a greater capacity for wisdom when we bear about the dying of Christ in our mortal body. Then Keturah, whom he married in his old age, is by interpretation incense, or sweet odour. For he said, even as Paul said, 'We are a sweet savour of Christ.' Sin is a foul and putrid thing; but if any of you in whom this no longer dwells, have the fragrance of righteousness, the sweetness of mercy, and by prayer continually offer up incense to God, ye also have taken Keturah to wife." And forthwith he proceeds to show, how many such wives may be taken: hospitality is one, the care of the poor another, patience a third - each Christian excellence, in short, a wife; and hence it was, that the patriarchs are reported to have had so many wives, and that Solomon is said to have possessed them even by hundreds, he having received a plentitude of wisdom like the sand on the sea-shore, and consequently grace to exercise the largest number of virtues.

 

We have here a genuine example of allegorical interpretation, if not actually holding the historical matter to be fabulous, at least treating it as if were so. ... But sublimated into the ethereal form woven for it by the subtle genius of Origen, the whole, history and interpretation together, presently acquires an uncertain and shadowy aspect. For what connection, either in the nature of things, or in the actual experience of the Father of the Faithful, can be shown to exist between the death of a wife, and the consummation of virtue in the husband; or the wedding of a second wife, and his pursuit of knowledge? Why might not the loss sustained in the former case as well represent the decay of virtue, and the acquisition in the latter denote a relaxation in the search after the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge? There would evidently be as good reason for asserting the one as the other; and, indeed, with such an arbitrary and elastic style of interpretation, there is nothing, either false or true in doctrine, wise or unwise in practice, which might not claim support in Scripture. The Bible would be made to reflect every hue of fancy, and every shade of belief in those who assumed the office of interpretation; and instead of being rendered serviceable to a higher instruction, it would be turned into one vast sea of uncertainty and confusion.

 

After citing in confirmation Clement's similar fanciful treatment of the Scripture regarding Abraham and Hagar (which we shall consider later), Fairbairn passes to Augustine, the chief Western Father a century later, and gives several examples of like import in his dealing with the Old Testament, and then adds:-

 

In the treatment of New Testament Scripture also, the same style of interpretation is occasionally resorted to - as when, in the six waterpots of John's Gospel, he finds imaged the six ages of prophecy; and in the two or three firkins which they severally held, the two are taken to indicate the Father and the Son, the three the Trinity; or, as he also puts it, the two represent the Jews and Gentiles, and the third, Christ, making the two one. But we need not multiply examples, or prosecute the subject further into detail. Enough has been adduced to show that these of the earlier divines of the Christian Church had no just or well-defined principles to guide them in their interpretation of Old Testament Scripture, which could either enable them to determine between the fanciful and the true in typical applications, or guard them against the worst excesses of allegorical license.

 

It is no wonder therefore that Adolf Harnack (Enc. Brit., vol. xvi, 90 1, ed. 14) wrote of Origen:-

 

The ethico-religious ideal is the sorrowless condition, the state of superiority to all evils, the state of order and rest. In this condition man enters into likeness to God and blessedness; and it is reached through contemplative isolation and self-knowledge, which is divine wisdom.

 

As a means to the realisation of this ideal, Origen introduces the whole ethics of Stoicism. But the link that connects him with churchly realism, as well as with the Neo-Platonic mysticism, is the conviction that complete and certain knowledge rests wholly upon divine revelation, i.e., on oracles. Consequently his theology is cosmological speculation and ethical reflection based on the sacred Scriptures. The Scriptures, however, are treated by Origen on the basis of a matured theory of inspiration in such a way that all their facts appear as the vehicles of ideas, and have their highest value only in this aspect. That is to say, his gnosis [knowledge] neutralises all that is empirical and historical, if not always as to its actuality, at least absolutely in respect of its value. The most convincing proof of this is that Origen (1) takes the idea of the immutability of God as the regulating idea of his system, and (2) deprives the historical "Word made flesh" of all significance for the true Gnostic. To him Christ appears simply as the Logos who is with the Father from eternity, and works from all eternity, to whom alone the instructed Christian directs his thoughts, requiring nothing more than a perfect - i.e., divine - teacher. In such propositions historical Christianity is stripped off as a mere mask. The objects of religious knowledge are beyond the plane of history, or rather belong to a supra-mundane history.

 

On this view contact with the faith of the church could only be maintained by distinguishing an exoteric and an esoteric form of Christianity. This distinction was already current in the catechetical school of Alexandria, but Origen gave it its boldest expression, and justified it on the ground of the incapacity of the Christian masses to grasp the deeper sense of Scripture, or unravel the difficulties of exegesis.

 

It is obvious that these pagan and Gnostic principles involved a rejection of that plain sense of prophetic Scripture which had been drawn from the writings of the inspired prophets and apostles. The virtually unanimous testimony of other Christian teachers of the second and third centuries was that a personal Antichrist would fulfil literally the relevant predictions of Daniel, our Lord, and the apostles; that he would be overthrown by a personal descent of Christ in glory, accompanied by a literal bodily resurrection of the godly, the restoration of the people of Israel, now repentant, to their place on earth, as frequently asserted in Scripture, with the establishing on earth of the millennial kingdom of God, to be followed by the eternal kingdom in new heavens and a new earth. Such acceptance of the literal sense of Scripture was wholly contrary to the allegorizing method of the Alexandrian school; whereupon Hamack writes:-

 

The old Christian eschatology is set aside; no one has dealt such deadly blows to Chiliasm [the doctrine of the thousand years reign of Christ] and Christian apocalypticism as Origen. It need hardly be said that he spiritualized the church doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh: (Ibid, p.902).

 

Here, then, is the historical origin of the rejection of the expectation of the millennial kingdom on earth with its accompanying events and conditions of life. So far from being apostolic and Biblical it is a direct and pernicious result of pagan and Gnostic philosophy and speculation as applied to the Word of God.

 

As Harnack has shown above its chief initiator was unreliable upon such fundamental truths as the Person of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the body. Alas, that many chief Reformers retained and propagated this "spiritualizing" of Scripture on matters prophetic, forcing the New Testament to lend support to their perversion of the Old Testament.

 

The testimony of Harnack is the more important that so painfully liberal a scholar had not the least interest to decry Origen in favour of apostolic doctrine. This may be said of so decided a critic as Dr. R. H. Charles. In his Commentary The Revelation of St. John (I.C.C 184, 185) he gave urgent reasons why the words in ch. 20: 5, "This is the resurrection the first" must be taken literally of an actual reign of Christ with the glorified martyrs on earth, and affirmed that

 

The spiritualizing method which emanated from Alexandria put an end to all trustworthy exegesis of the Apocalypse, when adopted in its entirety with reference to the Apocalypse. The meaning assigned by the votaries of this method became wholly arbitrary, and every student found in the Apocalypse what he wished to find, and he added:

 

Hence attempts to revive the spiritualizing interpretation of the Millennial kingdom are to be deplored from every standpoint.

 

TAKE HEED LET NO MAN BEGUILE YOU IN ANY WISE

(2 Thess. 2. 3)

 

Perhaps the most serious aspect of the allegorizing method dealt with in the former article is its false attitude to Holy Scripture. God says one thing, but He means another thing. He says that Sarah died, but He means that by prayer Abraham continually offered up incense to God. Or, to take Clement's treatment of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, God says that Abraham married successively Sarah and Hagar, but He means that a Christian ought to cultivate philosophy and the liberal arts before he devotes himself wholly to the study of divine wisdom. For Abraham had no fruit from Sarah (divine wisdom) until he had first had a son by Hagar (worldly philosophy). God says this union was by Sarah's suggestion, but He means that divine wisdom inculcates the study of philosophy and human art. Perhaps the facts given are historical, perhaps they never took place: it is immaterial, was the view taken of the sacred histories.

 

Surely such most, reprehensible dealing with the Word of God repeats aloud the Lord's warning, "Take heed that no one lead you astray," so strongly emphasized by the [Holy] Spirit in Paul's words to the Colossian Christians, "Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world and not after Christ " (Col. 2: 8). This is the only place where philosophy is mentioned in the New Testament, and the writer, who knew human philosophy, describes it as a robber carrying off spoil (sulagogeo). Philosophers are likewise mentioned only once and then as speaking contemptuously of Paul and mocking at his teaching (Acts 17: 18, and 32). How just was the statement by Luther which I give from memory: "The Schoolmen used to teach that if one would be a theologian he must begin with Aristotle, but I say whoever would be a theologian must first get rid of Aristotle."

 

4. It is deplorable that this irreverent treatment of the oracles of God gained a wide and permanent grip upon Christian teachers, including many truly godly men in succeeding periods. God says (Isa. 10; 11; 12) that a remnant of Israel, also called the remnant of Jacob, shall return to Him; that a Shoot out of the stock of Jesse shall bear fruit and be the righteous Judge of the earth; that nature shall be cured of the deadly result of man's sin; that this Root of Jesse shall be sought unto by the Gentile peoples at His glorious resting place in Zion; that He will gather thither all the remaining outcasts of Israel and dispersed of Judah, that the excellent things God has done to Israel shall be made known in all the earth and the grand prophecy concludes on the ringing climax, cry aloud and shout, thou inhabitress of Zion, for great in the midst of thee is the Holy One of Israel " (A.S.V.).

 

This is what God says, and says in a hundred passages in His Book. But oh no, say the Reformers and their Protestant followers, oh no! this is indeed what God says, but what He means is quite different: He means that Israel as a nation is removed from His purposes, that it is a spiritual and heavenly Israel and Zion to whom alone these noble promises will be fulfilled, and then not in their first, their plain, their literal earthly sense, but only in a "spiritual" sense. This, say these godly men, is the force of Christians being termed in the New Testament "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6: 16); this is to be fulfilled in the heavenly Zion and Jerusalem, not in an earthly city that bore that name, the obvious primary sense of Scripture.

 

But they overlook that in Isaiah's prophecy the people in view are called not only Israel but also Jacob, which term is never applied in the New Testament to the heavenly people; and they are further subdivided into Ephraim and Judah, which terms also are not applied to the church of God. This division of the people is continued into the New Testament, where Heb. 8: 7, 8 repeats the prophecy in Jeremiah 31 by saying that the new covenant is to be duly made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

 

This is essentially how those earlier allegorists mishandled God's statements; they say one thing, but they mean something different; and the direct meaning is of little or no value, it is only the "spiritual" that matters.

 

The Lord Himself, after His resurrection, instructed the two disciples on the road to Emmaus upon the double topic of Messiah's sufferings and glory. His instruction on this subject took the form of an exposition of the whole Old Testament. His words were (Luke 24. 25-27):-

 

And He said unto them, 0 foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken ! Behoved it not the Christ to suffer these things, and to enter into His glory ? And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.

 

So that Messiah's coming glory, as He taught in resurrection, was that glory of which Moses and all the prophets had spoken. Now they had said nothing distinct about the heavenly future of the church of God and its association with the Son of God in that glory. Their messages concerned Messiah's glory as the future king reigning on David's throne at Jerusalem. The heavenly prospects were to be revealed later by the Spirit (John 16: 13). This is the open and utter contradiction of the non-millennial views which cancel the Old Testament on this subject and coerce a few New Testament passages to support the annulment. For our Lord the whole Old Testament stood intact and unchanged in its foreview of His glorious future.

 

Seeing that He thus established the Old Testament, it is easy to see why His disciples inquired whether He was about "to restore the kingdom to Israel," for that was a distinct feature of the Old Testament prophecies He was endorsing. Had the expectation been itself unwarranted this was occasion for Him to have said so, and have thus delivered their minds from a false outlook: this He did not do, but only explained that the times and seasons for fulfilment were reserved to the ordering of the Father, implying that there would be fulfilment in due season.

 

5. Or take again how Scripture is treated by the godly brethren who deal with prophecy on the "historical" theory. They regard the far greater part of the predictions in Daniel and the Revelation as having been fulfilled during this Christian age. Dr. John Cumming, a devout evangelical minister of a century ago, shall show how they treat Scripture to support this view. In 1847 he delivered Lectures on the Revelation, afterward published. A twelfth edition was issued in 1850, and the 1853 edition gives 16,000 as the copies printed to that time. This shows that his views found wide reading. In the main he was following the opinions of Dr. Thomas Newton, Bishop of Bristol, who in 1754 had published Dissertations on the Prophecies, a learned book still in repute among historicists.

 

In ch. 9 of the Revelation John spoke of (1) a star fallen from heaven; (2) that he was given the key of the pit of the abyss; (3) that out of the abyss there rose an air-befogging smoke (4) that out of the smoke came locusts, shaped like horses (5) that these were led by a king, the angel of the abyss, whose name is in Hebrew Abaddon, in Greek Apollyon.

 

(1) God says that this "star fell from heaven," which tells that he was of heaven as to his origin: our interpreters, however, assure us that God means Mohammed! (2) The abyss, as Cumming rightly says, is the region of the lost, a definite locality within the earth: but, says he, the abyss being opened by Mohammed means that he led his savage hordes out of Arabia! That the star received the key of the abyss was fulfilled by Mohammed having acquired the key of the Kaaba, the sacred holy place of pagan Arabia! Thus God says a heavenly being fell from heaven, but He means that Mohammed was descended from a line of Arabian princes but had reached a low status socially. (3) God says that smoke came up from the abyss,. but He means, says our writer, that Mohammed spread a false religion. (4) God says that swarms of creatures pictured as abnormal "locusts" came up out of the abyss; but He means that swarms of Arabs spread from Arabia! (5) God says (a) that these armies from the abyss were led by a king, (b) that he was an angel, (c) that he was a Destroyer well known by the Hebrews and Greeks. But the good minister says that God means that he was Mohammed, of whom neither of the three particulars was true, or could be true.

 

Take another example of this treatment of Holy Scripture. The rest of ch. 9 of the Revelation foretold that the sixth angel was ordered "to loose the four angels which are bound at the great river Euphrates." God says that four angels were loosed, to attack mankind in general, but, says Bishop Newton, He means that four Turkish or Othmanic leaders advanced from the region of the Euphrates to wage war on Christendom. God says that the number of these horsemen was given at 200 million; Newton is satisfied with perhaps a million Turks as fulfilment. So God says 200 million, but all He means is one million. Cumming thinks it enough fulfilment that "the forces of the Turks are more numerous than the forces of the Saracens," which feeble indefinite comparison takes the place of the colossal figure mentioned from heaven.

 

Incidentally it is clear that for the 1200 years between the giving of the Revelation and the rise of the Turkish power no one could on the above line of thought have formed any true idea of the meaning of the visions here considered. We add two prominent particulars. In Rev. 16: 12 God says that the great river, the Euphrates, shall be dried up. He had already announced this eight hundred years earlier (Isa. 11: 15). By Isaiah the event was put forward to the day of Messiah's glorious intervention for Israel's final restoration, even as in Revelation it is likewise placed in connection with the same period, the battle of Har-Magedon and the thief-like return of the Lord. But while God says the Euphrates shall be dried up, He means, says the historicist, that the Turkish empire shall decline! Again, God says in Revelation (14: 8, and 17 and 18), and says very distinctly, that "the great city, Babylon the Great" shall be judged, both in its religious aspect, the harlot, and its political aspect, the city; but, said the Reformers and say their successors, what He means is the Papacy, as centred at Rome!

 

If this method of treating documents were applied to a secular writer it would amount to this - that when he says Smith, he means Brown; when he says Brown, he means Jones; when he says Jones, he means Robinson, or whatever each reader may prefer. His real meaning would be indiscoverable.

 

Again. In Rev. 11 it is recorded that John was instructed to measure the temple of God, the altar, and the worshippers. The outer court is distinguished from the holier area, because Gentiles are in possession of it, who shall tread down the holy city for 42 months. If this be taken literally the scene is simple. The holy city, the outer court of the temple, the inner court with the altar, the worshippers, the Gentiles, the devastation of Jerusalem by them in the latter half of Daniel's 70th seven - all is familiar to the student of the Bible, and the details form a consistent whole.

 

But Newton will not have it so. The holy city is not Jerusalem but the church of God! The statement of verse 8 that the city in question is "where the Lord was crucified" would appear to settle beyond controversy that Jerusalem was meant; but no, it means, according to Newton, "some conspicuous place within the jurisdiction of Rome" for the Roman Catholic Church destroyed the witnesses of Jesus and so crucified Christ afresh. In this Cumming agreed. The two witnesses are not individuals, but long lines of confessors of Christ, the Paulicians in the east, the Waldenses in the west. That they shut heaven for 1260 years does not, naturally enough, mean that Europe would have no rain for this extended period, but that there will be a spiritual drought. We pause, and inquire: Did the confessors of Christ named above make it their business that the truth of God should not be spread abroad, or were they not rather its disseminators? The murder of the two witnesses means that the Catholic Church suppressed the "heretics" named; their return to life after three days afore told the revival of truth through the Reformation. Their hearing a great voice from heaven, saying, "Come up hither. And they went up to heaven in the cloud: and their enemies beheld them," does not in the least mean what it says, but that the Reformed Churches "obtained great civil and national power: (Cumming). This implies that the very course which corrupted and stultified the Reformation, even the alliance of Church and State, was brought about by the direct command of heaven and was the true exaltation of the church of God! This is pernicious teaching, but the historicist view of prophecy and history compelled its adoption.

 

It is very true that the Bible, like all speech, interweaves figurative and literal language, but the former does not negative the latter, but rather enforces it. For example: in Rev. 20. 1-3 it is said that an angel descends out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain. He seizes the Dragon, who is the old serpent, the Devil, Satan, binds him with the chain, flings him into the abyss, which he then shuts and seals. Here the angel and the Devil are literal beings, and heaven and the abyss are known localities. But we conceive so feebly the nature of such beings or of these localities that we cannot know the nature of the bonds that can restrain a spirit or how one can open and close the abyss. Therefore our minds are aided by the figure of chain and key and seal, things we understand; but these figures of speech in no wise nullify the literal elements in the picture, but visualize and intensify the actual operation of the arrest, fettering, and incarceration of the Devil.

 

It will be recognised that this treatment of a passage differs radically from, for example, the "historical" treatment of ch. 9 of Revelation noticed above. In the latter, the statements of fact are not accepted literally, but are given a meaning foreign to what it said. The known locality within the earth, the abyss, is made to represent a known locality on the surface of the earth, Arabia; the infernal beings from within the earth, pictured as "locusts," are treated as human beings, desert soldiers, their angelic leader, a well known senior angel prince, whose actual name is given in two languages, is reduced to a Bedawi chief, Mohammed, the power to release spirit beings from the abyss, the receiving a "key," is simply that Mohammed got hold of a literal key of a pagan shrine; the "smoke" which John in vision saw rise from the underworld is something mental, a false religion. Thus the literal features of the vision - the abyss, its leader, his demonic hordes, which all readers of John's day knew to be dread facts of the world invisible, are emasculated into merely earthly and human items, and the solemnity of the judgment is impaired, the reality and terror of that supernatural realm, and its active interference in the affairs of mankind, being set aside.

 

6. We shall not pursue the subject in more detail. Enough has been presented for our present purpose, even to show that the method of treating God's oracles by these godly men is essentially that of the early allegorizers. Scripture does not mean what it says, but something very different. It remains only to notice a feature maintained by historicists and vital to their system. It affords a plain example of this regrettable treatment of the Word of God. They insist upon what is called the year-day system of calculating periods, that is, that very usually when God says "day " He means year."

 

The locusts that are to come out of the abyss (Rev. 9: 5) are permitted to torment men for five months. If this meant five literal months its fulfilment is taken to mean that the Saracens confined their military excursion to the five months of summer in each year; whereas in the vision the period occurs but once, not during successive years. But Newton prefers to calculate that the 150 days (that is, five months, each of 30 days), means 150 years, for this can be made to run from A.D. 612, when Mohammed "first opened the bottomless pit" to A.D. 762, being 150 years. And what determines this last date? It is fixed by the purely arbitrary choice that in this year Caliph Almansor built Baghdad as his capital, consequent upon which the Saracens gradually ceased to be warlike and to torment mankind!

 

Again. In Daniel 12: 7 it is stated that to the end of the wonders that had been foretold would be "a time, times, and a half." In Daniel 4. 23 it had been announced that the madness that should afflict Nebuchadnezzar should last for "seven times" and then he should recover and resume his sovereignty. Obviously this did not mean seven years of 360 days each, a day meaning a year, that is, 2520 years. Here the year-day theory is out of the question. Why should it be imposed on Daniel elsewhere? In ch. 4: 25 the supremacy of the blaspheming last head of the fourth wild beast, during which he shall afflict the godly, is likewise given as "a time, times, and half a time." In the prophecy of the 70 Sevens (ch. 9: 24-27) this Persecutor will make a firm covenant with Israel for the final Seven, and "in the midst of the Seven" he will violate the covenant and suppress the worship of the true God at the holy city, Jerusalem. Now in Rev. 13: 5 this same period of persecution by this wild beast is defined as forty two months, as also in ch. 11: 2; and in ch. 12: 6 the same period is given as 1260 days. Thus the one period is given under four descriptions - a time, times and a half, half of a "Seven, forty two months, and 1260 days.

 

Could any device make more clear that the period meant is three and a half years? No, say our good brethren, what God says is 1260 days, but what He means is 1260 years. In the same way the 1290 and 1335 days in Daniel 12: 11, 12 mean years; and, most especially, the "times of the Gentiles" were to last for seven times, or 2520 years, and therefore the half "Seven" covers 1260 years. It would be a lengthy task to detail the differences between various writers as to the starting and closing years of these periods. It must suffice to remark briefly upon the calculations of the chief modern calculator, Dr. Grattan Guinness. His work Light for the Last Days is still quoted by historicists. He worked out a series of no less than nineteen cycles of events to cover the Times of the Gentiles. These ended at different points over a period of years. It was therefore most necessary that he should find an opening period of years within which his cycles could commence. To secure this indispensable margin he affirmed that the first empire of prophecy, the head of gold, was not to be reckoned from Nebuchadnezzar personally, but from the start of the Babylonian kingdom, which he reckoned as 160 years from the ascension of Nabonassar (pp. 49, 50). Thus his whole system of reckoning was based on a rejection of an unequivocal statement of God's prophet to Nebuchadnezzar, "THOU art the head of gold" (Dan. 2: 38). When "thou" addressed to an individual is made to cover several persons over a period of 160 years the second personal pronoun singular has ceased to have meaning or force. Moreover, the precise reason why Nebuchadnezzar himself was the head of gold was that to him the God of heaven had granted universal sovereignty: "wheresoever the children of men, the beasts, the fowls ... dwell He bath given them into thy hand, and made thee ruler over them all: thou art this head of gold" (Darby). This had no application at all to his predecessors. God said "thou, thee. thy," but He meant several persons!

 

A consequence of this system of calculations was that the Times of the Gentiles began, for Guinness, at the accession of Nabonassar in B.C. 747, though Judah's royal house continued another century and a half before it was terminated by Nebuchadnezzar. Thus the Gentile Times commenced long before the sovereignty in David's house lapsed. This overlapping is asserted by Guinness, but Scripture says (Dan. 9. 25) that the Seventy Sevens were to start from a decree to rebuild Jerusalem, whereas the Babylonians only destroyed it. Therefore the Seventy Sevens, did not commence during the Babylonian period, but later. As regards the Seven Times, by which term our brethren describe the whole period of Gentile supremacy, we ask attention to the following passage from G. H. Pember's The Great Prophecies of the Centuries concerning Israel and the Gentiles, 256, 257 (my 1941 edition, pp. 104, 105). Speaking of the period of Nebuchadnezzar's mania, Pember wrote:-

 

we notice it because an attempt has been made to interpret it as if it referred to the whole period of Gentile domination; not merely in a moral sense, as by of analogy, which would be legitimate and instructive, but as a definite prediction.

 

Nebuchadnezzar is assumed to be a type of the entire course of Gentile power, an assumption for which no reason can be given ... Then, with an almost incredible absence of logic, the seven times which passed over the Chaldean king while he was exiled from his throne, are supposed to stand for the precise period during which those he is supposed to represent were to sit enthroned as lords of the world.

 

And this period is obtained in the following manner:- The seven times "are regarded as seven years, and apparently with good reason ... But the typical interpreters resolve these years into 2,520 days, reckoning 360 days to a year, and not troubling them selves in regard to the necessary intercalary months. Then they affirm that each of these days stands for a year, so that the precise length of the times of the Gentiles will be 2,520 years. Even, however, if we could both admit the untenable year-day theory and regard Nebuchadnezzar as a type of the course of Gentile power, it would still be incongruous in the extreme to suppose that the period of his humiliation could represent the times of Gentile supremacy.

 

An attempt has also been made ... to evolve a "seven times" of Jewish rejection, corresponding to the supposed "seven times" of the Gentiles, from the 26th chapter of Leviticus. The idea is taken from the phrase, "I will punish you seven times more," or, "yet seven times," as it reads in the 18th, 21st, and other verses of the English Versions. But, without going further, a quiet perusal of the passage in English should be sufficient to show that "seven times" in this case is an expression of degree; while if we turn to the original [Hebrew] we shall find that it contains no word for "times," but only the numeral seven used as an adverb. We might, therefore, avoid ambiguity by rendering, "I will add a sevenfold chastisement," "punish you seven times more severely."

 

It would thus appear, that there is no Divine prediction revealing the number of years during which Gentile power must be supreme and Israel remain in exile. And, therefore, all calculations based upon the assumption of such a prediction are vain. The chronological system which has been before us was a human invention based on a false initial assumption.

 

Arbitrary dealing with numbers is seen in the way our esteemed brethren treat the toes of the colossus of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2). The fourth empire of the image they take to be the Roman, and endeavour to show that after its division into Eastern and Western regions, the empire had ever since been continued by about ten smaller states occupying its original territory, corresponding to the ten toes. It is no wonder that considerable variations are suggested by different historicists in naming these kingdoms. One prominent advocate of the idea urged on me that the number ten was general, not exact; it was enough that in that area there had always been about ten states, though sometimes, may-be, there were thirteen, sometimes only eight.

 

Apart from the incongruity of this last idea, the notion of ten kingdoms is not based on anything actually said in Daniel 2, for the record does not specify the number of the toes. If it be urged that, inasmuch as the human figure was used to forecast history, the number of the toes must be assumed to be ten, but that this ought not to be pressed literally, it is to be observed in reply that in ch. 7 of Daniel the same prospect is pictured as ten horns on the fourth wild beast, where it was not natural to give the number ten since no beast has that number of horns, and that therefore this number must here have been chosen with intention. When explaining to Daniel these ten horns the interpreting angel repeated the number, so emphasizing it, saying "ten kings shall arise" (Dan. 7. 24). If the number is not precise why was it specified? It would have been simple to have said that the beast had "several" horns.

 

Moreover, these ten horns will exist at a time when another little horn will push among them, by which three of the ten will be plucked up. Why is this number three given thrice if it be not literal (vs. 8, 20, 24)? The numbers 10, 3, and I will afford to watchful believers valuable indication of the stage of affairs then reached in the closing era of this age, but only if the numbers are taken literally. Who is to know that the "I" represents an individual king if the "3" and "10" are not literal ? Understanding of the vision is rendered obscure and uncertain by the assumption that when God says something definite He means something indefinite, though there is no reason to assume this.

 

Again, this little horn will exist only at the close of the career of the Beast, because he is operating at the time the judgment sits, himself is slain, and the kingdom is transferred to the Son of man and the saints. Therefore it is to no purpose to endeavour to establish that the ten horns are concerned with the long career of the fourth beast and that the Roman world has been occupied for many centuries by about ten states. Consistently, the toes of the image picture the final stage of Gentile rule, not its long career, the stage when the sudden descent of the Stone will crush Gentile rule to powder.

 

It must suffice to refer but briefly to the regrettable out-working of the year-day theory.

 

In 1826 conferences on prophecy were held at: Albury Park, Surrey, the home of Henry Drummond, M.P., one of Edward Irving's elders, in whose church were given sundry false prophecies as to the advent of Christ. Using the year-day theory it was agreed at the conference that the return of Christ was to be expected in 1847. Referring to similar gatherings about the same period at Powerscourt House in Ireland, Blair Neatby drew this instructive contrast :

 

In all this pre-occupation with the study of unfulfilled prophecy, the Brethren never in any single instance fell into the snare of "fixing dates." They strongly opposed all the ill-starred attempts of the kind that many of their fellow-students have made. (A History of the Plymouth Brethren, 39)

 

As far as I know, this, which was written in 1901, has remained true ever since. No teacher among the Brethren has fixed dates. One earnest man of my acquaintance left them, followed Grattan Guinness, "fell into the snare" by adopting the year-day theory, and reached a tragic public fiasco.

 

There lies before me a photographic reproduction of an article in The Times of November 3, 1859. It gives two and a half columns, in the small type then used, to a combined review of three then recent books by historicists. Would The Times today give so much space to reviewing books on prophetic scripture? The books were E. B. Elliott's Hore Apocalypticae, Dr. John Cumming's The Great Tribulation (1859), and a smaller work on Daniel 8 by Lord Carlisle. The last named expressed his belief that they were "in all probability approaching the close of this dispensation." That was a century ago!

 

The review sums up the subject by saying, that according to the year-day theory of the writers reviewed, Daniel's great epoch would end in 1867, "and that then, as they believe, the crescent in the east and the crucifix in the west [that is, Mohammedanism and Roman Catholicism] will both disappear, and Christianity, the light of the few, be then the glory and the gladness of all mankind." Surely there was need for Christ's warning "Take heed that no one lead you astray." Whoever was the inventor of the year-day theory has led many astray.

 

Daniel's Epoch did not end in 1867, but, nothing daunted, Grattan Guinness shortly came to the rescue of his brethren. In 1886 he published Light for the Last Days, and the final outcome of his elaborate calculations and complicated cycles was that the times of the Gentiles foretold by Daniel would terminate in 1934, for "no chronologic prophecy of Scripture indicates any date whatever beyond this year" (p. 255). It was safe to announce this date fifty years ahead, for the writer would have died, as he did many years in advance of 1934.

 

We are almost a quarter of a century beyond that last possible date and the age of Gentile rule has not ended. The crescent and the crucifix are still held aloft, and Turkey is still an important factor in world affairs. Yet in spite of this positive but dismal miscalculation our historicist brethren still quote Guinness and still adhere to their year-day theory. They still urge that Guinness foretold that 1917 would see important developments in fulfilled prophecy and they stress heavily that in that year the British drove the Turks from Jerusalem. Too great importance is attached to this event. From the prophetic aspect what happened was simply that one Gentile power supplanted another Gentile power. Is it just to the public to stress Guinness' opinion as to that year but to conceal the far weightier fact that his main calculations have already been disproved by his absolutely final year proving absolutely incorrect?

 

It is painful that many have been misled by following him. On September 1st, 1936, a godly correspondent wrote to me as follows:-

 

As one who listened to the late Grattan Guinness in the eighties, I have ever since been a student of chronological prophecy, with the result that it has been made clear to me by Scripture that the end of this age and the commencement of the millennial reign of the Lord will be in 1940. [Then followed a calculation of the 2,520 years on the year-day basis, and the conclusion.] Hence the translation of all in Christ will be accomplished in A.D. 1936/1937, namely 31 years before the end of the age.

 

This dear brother was one of those who went even beyond their master in their calculations.

 

The need for the strictest dealing with Bible terms is seen in the persistent assertion, found far beyond the historicist school, that our Lord's words in Luke 21: 24 that "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" had reference to the destruction of the city by Titus in A.D. 70. That was indeed a "treading down " of the city, but as it did not last until the expiry of this Gentile age it was evidently not the treading down of which Christ spoke. Neither did all things written in Scripture concerning Israel and Jerusalem then find fulfilment as our Lord then intimated. It is unwarranted to regard the Saracenic and Turkish occupation of the city as a "treading down." The word pateo implies in Scripture the feature of violence, as when grapes are trodden in the winepress (Rev. 14: 20; 19: 15), or as a man crushes a serpent with his heel (Luke 10: 19). On the contrary, Moslems regarded it as a very sacred place, and erected a grand mosque, for on that spot Abraham offered up their ancestor Ishmael, as they assert. Our Lord's words point to a destruction of Jerusalem to take place at the very close of this period of Gentile supremacy, when this is just running out. Rev. 11: 2 points to the same event, using the same word pateo, "the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months." It is the final desolation by Antichrist.

 

In writing thus we are by no means dissuading Christians from watching carefully for the beginning of those events that Christ said would indicate the end of this age: we are stressing His emphatic warning and call to take heed that we be not led astray. Good and learned disciples have been misled; we may be so. Let us take warning by their errors and failures, and ask for the heart of a little child, that is ever ready to learn and unlearn. Let this last thought be emphasised by these instructive and searching words of Dr. F. J. A. Hort:-

 

To have become disabled for unlearning is to have become disabled for learning; and when we cease to learn, we let go from us whatever of vivid and vivifying knowledge we have hitherto possessed.

 

The sorry state of mind here indicated, the disability to unlearn, largely explains why the study of prophecy may become sterile, not vivifying. And these further words of the same profound teacher point to yet another danger, as applicable to the study of prophecy as to other subjects, even the facile accepting as true what one takes from others:-

 

But beliefs worth calling beliefs must be purchased with the sweat of the brow. The easy conclusions which are accepted on borrowed grounds in evasion of the labour and responsibility of thought may or may not be coincident with truth : in either case they have little or no share in its power (The Way, the Truth, the Life, xxiv, xxxv).

 

It was the great apostle who said to young converts: speak to wise men; judge ye what I say!" (1 Cor. 10: 15).

 

Going back to the early centuries, it was not surprising that the depriving the Scriptures of their plain meaning hid the blessed Lord, who is their subject, from the eyes of His espoused virgin, so that her thoughts were "corrupted from the simplicity and the purity that is toward Christ" (2 Cor. 11: 2, 3). His return in glory ceased to be her great hope and consolation, she was seduced into fellowship with the world, became the Consort of the State, and presently, Jezebel-like, oppressed cruelly the few who adhered to apostolic doctrine and walk. Such was one disastrous effect of that early blurring of the meaning of the Divine Oracles.

 

"TAKE HEED THAT NO ONE LEAD YOU ASTRAY"