Guests: Jon Dybdahl and Dave Thomas
Leading Question: When times change, can the hope be the same?
The crucial issue in this second lesson on Zechariah is last day events (eschatology), for the end-time picture portrayed in Zechariah 14, the last chapter of the book, differs dramatically from the picture represented in the book of Revelation. In Zechariah the events are still located in Palestine where the city of Jerusalem plays a central role. In addition, the events in Zechariah depict a gradual elimination of evil, rather than a sudden one as is the case in the book of Revelation.
A Summary of the Important Lessons from this Quarter:
A number of the lessons from this quarter flow into this one and help make our discussion complete. Here is an overview of how these lessons are essential for this week’s study.
Joel (#3): Multiple applications: Day of the Lord, Dark Day
Jonah (#6) Conditional prophecy; a gracious God who repents when people repent
Micah (#7) An illustration of an absolute prophecy that turned out to be conditional
Zephaniah (#9) Multiple applications: Day of the Lord
Zechariah (#12) Compared with Revelation: differing preliminaries, the same final
The “Day of the Lord” and the “Dark Day” in Joel show how a crucial theme in Scripture can recur in several settings. A succinct summary would be that in the Old Testament, the “day of the Lord” could refer to any day of judgment. A local judgment – of which there are many – then serves as a type or a harbinger of the final Day when Jesus returns.
The imagery of the dark day and the signs in the heavens appear frequently in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Indeed, they are almost “standard” equipment whenever the “day of the Lord” is mentioned. This being the case, how can we understand the “dark day” and the falling of the stars that caused such a stir in the 18th and 19th centuries? In Adventist prophetic interpretation, the three great signs of the advent are given specific dates: earthquake (Lisbon, 1755), dark day (New England,1780), falling stars (New England,1833).
Such an approach is vulnerable to the secularist who points out that there have been numerous dark days and numerous meteorite showers through history. Why should believers single out the 18th and 19th century events as if they were unique?
To help address that question Lesson 3 includes chapter 18 from Alden Thompson’s book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other. It explores the idea of “applied historicism” as a way of preserving a both/and approach to last day events, an approach that is best seen in connection with the four basic approaches to eschatology in our world. This summary was also included in the lesson on Joel (#3):
Eschatology : Four Perspectives
- “All-time Road Map”: HISTORICISM: The single road-map through history leading up to the end-time events. The traditional Adventist perspective, rooted in Daniel 2 and 7 and shaped by the teaching of the great reformers.
- “Yesterday”: PRETERISM: Predicted “end-time” events were in the author’s own day. In its pure form, held by “liberals” who deny any predictive element in prophecy or any “real” end of time.
- “Tomorrow”: FUTURISM: “End-time” events yet to come. In its pure form, futurism denies conditional prophecy. It is the most popular view of eschatology among conservative Christians today (cf. “Left Behind” [movie]). Unfulfilled events in the Bible (especially from the OT) are predicted to take place at some future point to a literal and restored Israel (the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem at the present site of the Moslem mosque, Dome of the Rock. The best-known modern form of futurism is Dispensationalism. Note the seven-fold division of history (fully developed in the Scofield Bible notes):
- Innocence: Before the fall
- Conscience: Before the flood
- Human government: Before Abraham
- Promise: Before Sinai
- Law: Before the Cross
- Grace: Before Second Advent
- Kingdom: 7 years and millennium.Note: The seven year period falls between the secret coming of Christ (“rapture” [parousia]) and the public coming [epiphaneia]; the saints spend the next 1000 years on earth, during which there will be birth, death, and animal sacrifice.
- “Today, Today, Today!”: APPLIED HISTORICISM (“Idealism”): Multiple applications for “end-time” events. This perspective suggests that there were several points in history when Christ could have come. It builds on the idea of “conditional” prophecy. See summary of God’s “original” plan for Israel, based on SDABC 4:25-38:
- On-site Evangelism. The world would be attracted to God by Israel’s witness and prosperity. Many would ask to become part of Israel.
- Salvation through the Messiah. God’s anointed one (the messiah) would have come, died, and risen again, but would have been accepted by his own people.
- Jerusalem as Missionary Headquarters. The present city of Jerusalem would have become a center for outreach into the whole world.
- Final Confrontation but the Gradual Elimination of Evil. A confrontation would finally take place between good and evil; God’s rule would be established; but the marks of evil would gradually disappear.
A Study Suggestion: Read through Isaiah 65 – 66 and Zechariah 14 to see the various ways that these chapters illustrate key elements noted in the fourth perspective outlined above.
In Adventism, the idea of conditional prophecy was articulated most clearly by Ellen White in Ms 4 1883:
The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional. – Ms 4, 1883 [Ev. 695 (1946); 1SM 67 (1958)]
A fascinating story lurks behind this quotation, one that was discussed briefly in Lesson #6 on Jonah. In short, the idea of conditionality flies in the face of a strict historicist interpretation of world history. If the hopefuls in1844 had believed in conditionality, there would have been no Disappointment. Firmly gripped by the historicist perspective, Adventist pioneers never dreamed of seeing their experience in terms of conditional prophecy. But as the years passed, the gap between their early expectation and the reality became more evident, at least to some observers.
In 1883 Ellen White wrote a lengthy response to a critic who was accusing Adventists of maintaining a faulty view of prophecy. But she apparently never sent her response to the critic or to anyone else. Ms 4, 1883 is simply an orphan in the Ellen White files. Furthermore, there is no evidence that she used any part of this “defense” during the rest of her life. No part of it was published until 1946 when five paragraphs from the manuscript appeared in the book Evangelism. Then the full manuscript was published in1958 in Selected Messages, Bk 1, 59-73.
The tantalizing question is: Did Ellen White decide not to publish the article and perhaps not even to respond to the critic because she knew how volatile the issue of “prophecy” could be? Ms 4, 1883 was discovered in the White Estate vault during the 1930s, excerpted in Evangelism in 1946, then published for all the world to see in 1958 in Selected Messages, Bk. 1. It undoubtedly played a key role in the preparation and publication of the seminal article entitled “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy” published in 1955 in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (4:25-38), an article that is scarcely known among Adventists today, even though it caused quite a stir when it was first published. Given everything that is happening in our changing world, maybe the time has come for Adventists to take that quotation and that article seriously – and to renew our study of the Minor Prophets, especially Joel, Jonah, and Zechariah.
That article from the fourth volume of the SDABC follows here. The story behind it, indeed behind the writing of the whole SDA Bible Commentary, was told by Raymond Cottrell, associate editor of the SDABC and published in Spectrum as “The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary,” Spectrum, August 1985 (16:3).
The published edition of the original article from SDABC4 (“The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy”) includes a parenthetical sentence at the end of the first “rule” for interpreting the Old Testament. The parenthesis effectively neutralizes much of went before it. Note the rule and then the parenthetical comment that follows:
1. Examine the prophecy in its entirety. Note by whom it was spoken, to whom it was addressed, and the circumstances that called it forth. Remember that – generally speaking – it was originally given with respect to the historical circumstances that called it forth. It was ordained of God to meet the needs of His people at the time it was given and to remind them of the glorious destiny that awaited them as a nation, of the coming of the Messiah, and of the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Discover what the message meant to the people of that time. – SDABC 4:38
The parenthetical comment: (This rule does not apply to those portions of the book of Daniel that the prophet was bidden to “shut up” and “seal,” or to other passages whose application Inspiration may have limited exclusively to our own time.)
Cottrell explains that the parenthetical comment came from the editor, F. D. Nichol, placed there because of his “overriding pastoral concern.” – Cottrell, Spectrum 16.3, 42. It is highly probable that Nichols’ action mirrored Ellen White’s original concerns for not distributing Ms 4, 1883 after she had written it.
But now the church has to face the question: Is this the time to explore something like “applied historicism” so that we can address the rapidly changing events in our world? One can cite strong passages from EGW on both sides of the issue. Here are two samples, one urging caution – the context is health reform; the other urging more open discussion – the context is the traumatic 1888 debate over righteousness by faith:
Don’t Go Too Fast. We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform. It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet. We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony. If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance [20/21] step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people. (Testimonies 3:20-21 )
Dangers of Conservatism. Peter exhorts his brethren to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” [2 Pet. 3:18]. Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.
The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what. (Testimonies 5:706-707 ; also GW 297-98 and CWE 38-39])
In the article that follows, Nichol’s parenthetical comment is in italics type and Cottrell’s interpretation of its origin is briefly noted.
The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy
Francis D. Nichol, ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 4 (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1955, 1978. 2002), pp. 25-38.
This article surveys the fundamental problem of the interpretation of the prophetic portions of the Old Testament in terms of their message to Israel of old and to the church today. Consideration is given to the role of literal Israel as God’s chosen people, to the way His plan for them was to have been accomplished, to the way in which it actually did work out, and to the eventual transfer of the privileges and responsibilities of literal Israel to spiritual Israel, that is, to the Christian church. A clear understanding of these aspects of the problem is essential to the formulation of a valid procedure for interpreting the messages of the Old Testament prophets. Any interpretation that fails to give these matters due consideration does violence to the Scriptures.
Few passages of Scripture are more commonly misunderstood and variously interpreted than those containing the divine promises made to ancient Israel through the prophets. It is an undeniable historical fact that, to this day, the majority of these predictions have not been fulfilled. In the endeavor to account for this seeming enigma, Bible expositors have set forth various explanations:
- The modernist school of interpretation denies the predictive element in prophecy altogether, arguing either that the “predictions” were written down after the events thus “foretold” took place or that such “predictions” reflected nothing more than the prophet’s hopes for the future, or those of his people.
- The futurist school of interpretation contends that the many promises of restoration and world leadership made to ancient Israel are yet to be fulfilled in connection with the establishment of the modern state of Israel in Palestine.
- The British-Israel movement teaches that the Anglo-Saxon peoples are the literal descendants of the ten so-called “lost tribes” of the northern kingdom and that the promises will, in large measure, be fulfilled to their modern posterity.
- A less-well-defined school of interpretation bases its approach to the prophetic portions of the Old Testament on the theory that the prophet, while bearing messages to the people of his day, also took occasional excursions into the distant future, with the result that many of his forecasts did not apply to literal Israel at all, but were intended exclusively for “Israel after the spirit,” that is, for the church today. Following this line of interpretation, some have gone to the extreme of proposing a Christian migration to Palestine.
- Seventh-day Adventists believe that, generally speaking, the promises and predictions given through the Old Testament prophets originally applied to literal Israel and were to have been fulfilled to them on the condition that they obey God and remain loyal to Him. But the Scriptures record the fact that they disobeyed God and proved disloyal to Him instead. Accordingly, what He purposed to do for the world through Israel of old He will finally accomplish [25/26] through His church on earth today, and many of the promises originally made to literal Israel will be fulfilled to His remnant people at the close of time.
The modernist school of interpretation bases its position on the a priori assumption that any knowledge of the future is impossible, and ignores all evidence to the contrary. The futurist school ignores both the conditional element pervading predictive prophecy, clearly and emphatically proclaimed by the prophets themselves, and the specific statements of the New Testament that affirm that the privileges and responsibilities of ancient Israel have, in Christ, been transferred to the church. The exposition of Scripture attempted by proponents of the British-Israel theory consists of an admixture of selected Bible passages with legend, folk tales, and speculation. The fourth school of interpretation may, at times, arrive at a valid application of the predictive portions of Old Testament prophecy to the church today and to its future experience, but neglects the primary application of these messages to their historical setting, and proceeds, quite arbitrarily, to determine that certain selected passages were written more or less exclusively for the church today. In one way or another each of these attempts at interpreting the messages of the Old Testament prophets neglects significant teachings of Scripture, evades fundamental principles of exegesis, and provides a distorted picture of the predictive sections of prophecy. The following discussion sets forth the principles of interpretation described under “5,” and followed by this commentary, together with the scriptural basis on which these principles rest.
II. Israel as God’s Chosen People
With the call of Abraham, God set in operation a definite plan for bringing the Messiah into the world and for presenting the gospel invitation to all men (Gen. 12:1–3; PP 125; PK 368). In Abraham God found a man ready to yield unqualified obedience to the divine will (Gen. 26:5; Heb. 11:8) and to cultivate a similar spirit in his posterity (Gen. 18:19). Accordingly, Abraham became in a special sense the “Friend of God” (James 2:23) and “the father of all them that believe” (Rom. 4:11). God entered into solemn covenant relationship with him (Gen. 15:18; 17:2–7), and his posterity, Israel, inherited the sacred trust of being God’s chosen representatives on earth (Heb. 11:9; PP 125) for the salvation of the entire human race. Salvation was to be “of the Jews,” in that the Messiah would be a Jew (John 4:22), and by the Jews, as messengers of salvation to all men (Gen. 12:2, 3; 22:18; Isa. 42:1, 6; 43:10; Gal. 3:8, 16, 18; COL 286).
At Mt. Sinai God entered into covenant relation with Israel as a nation (Ex. 19:1–8;24:3–8; Deut. 7:6–14; PP 303; DA 76, 77) upon the same basic conditions and with the same ultimate objectives as the Abrahamic covenant. They voluntarily accepted God as their sovereign, and this constituted the nation a theocracy (PP 379, 603). The sanctuary became God’s dwelling place among them (see Ex. 25:8), its priests were ordained to minister before Him (Heb. 5:1; 8:3), its services provided an object lesson of the plan of salvation and prefigured the coming of the Messiah (1 Cor. 5:7; Col. 2:16, 17; Heb. 9:1–10; 10:1–12). The people might approach God personally and through the ministry of a mediating priesthood, their representatives before Him; He would direct the nation through the ministry of prophets, His appointed representatives to them. From generation to generation these “holy men of God” (2 Peter 1:21) called Israel to repentance and righteousness and kept alive the Messianic hope. By divine [26/27] appointment the sacred writings were preserved, century after century, and Israel became their custodian (Amos 3:7; Rom. 3:1, 2; PP 126).
The establishment of the Hebrew monarchy did not affect the basic principles of the theocracy (Deut. 17:14–20; 1 Sam. 8:7; PP 603). The state was still to be administered in the name, and by the authority, of God. Even during the Captivity, and later under foreign tutelage, Israel remained a theocracy in theory if not fully in practice. Only when its leaders formally rejected the Messiah and declared before Pilate their allegiance to “no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) did Israel as a nation irrevocably withdraw from the covenant relationship and the theocracy (DA 737, 738).
Through Israel of old, God planned to provide the nations of earth with a living revelation of His own holy character (COL 286; PK 368) and an exhibit of the glorious heights to which man can attain by cooperating with His infinite purposes. At the same time, He permitted the heathen nations to “walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16), to furnish an example of what man can accomplish apart from Him. Thus, for more than 1,500 years, a great experiment designed to test the relative merits of good and evil was conducted before the world (PP 314). Finally, “it was demonstrated before the universe that, apart from God, humanity could not be uplifted,” and that “a new element of life and power must be imparted by Him who made the world” (DA 37).
III. The Ideal: How the Plan Was to Operate
God placed His people in Palestine, the crossroads of the ancient world, and provided them with every facility for becoming the greatest nation on the face of the earth (COL 288). It was His purpose to set them “on high above all nations of the earth” (Deut. 28:1; PK 368, 369), with the result that “all people of the earth” would recognize their superiority and call them “blessed” (Mal. 3:10, 12). Unparalleled prosperity, both temporal and spiritual, was promised them as the reward for putting into practice the righteous and wise principles of heaven (Deut. 4:6–9; 7:12–15; 28:1–14; PK 368, 369, 704). It was to be the result of wholehearted cooperation with the will of God as revealed through the prophets, and of divine blessing added to human efforts (see DA 811, 827; cf. PP 214).
The success of Israel was to be based on and to include:
- Holiness of character (Lev. 19:2; see on Matt. 5:48). Without this, the people of Israel would not qualify to receive the material blessings God designed to bestow upon them. Without this, the many advantages would only result in harm to themselves and to others. Their own characters were to be progressively ennobled and elevated, and to reflect more and more perfectly the attributes of the perfect character of God (Deut. 4:9; 28:1, 13, 14; 30:9, 10; see COL 288, 289). Spiritual prosperity was to prepare the way for material prosperity.
- The blessings of health. Feebleness and disease were to disappear entirely from Israel as the result of strict adherence to healthful principles (see Ex. 15:26; Deut. 7:13, 15; etc.; PP 378, 379; COL 288).
- Superior intellect. Cooperation with the natural laws of body and mind would result in ever-increasing mental strength, and the people of Israel would be blessed with vigor of intellect, keen discrimination, and sound judgment. They were to be far in advance of other nations in wisdom and understanding (PK 368). They were to become a nation of intellectual geniuses, and feebleness of mind would eventually have been unknown among them [27/28] (see PP 378; cf. DA 827; COL 288).
- Skill in agriculture and animal husbandry. As the people cooperated with the directions God gave them in regard to the culture of the soil, the land would gradually be restored to Edenic fertility and beauty (Isa. 51:3). It would become an object lesson of the results of acting in harmony with moral, as with natural, law. Pests and diseases, flood and drought, crop failure – all these would eventually disappear. See Deut. 7:13; 28:2–8; Mal. 3:8–11; COL 289.
- Superior craftsmanship. The Hebrew people were to acquire wisdom and skill in all “cunning work,” that is, a high degree of inventive genius and ability as artisans, for the manufacture of all kinds of utensils and mechanical devices. Technical know-how would render products “made in Israel” superior to all others. See Ex. 31:2–6; 35:33, 35; COL 288.
- Unparalleled prosperity. “Obedience to the law of God would make them marvels of prosperity before the nations of the world,” living witnesses to the greatness and majesty of God (Deut. 8:17, 18; 28:11–13; COL 288; DA 577).
- National greatness. As individuals and as a nation God proposed to furnish the people of Israel “with every facility for becoming the greatest nation on the earth” (COL 288; see Deut 4:6–8; 7:6, 14; 28:1; Jer. 33:9; Mal. 3:12; PP 273, 314; Ed 40; DA 577). He purposed to make them an honor to His name and a blessing to the nations about them (Ed 40; COL 286).
As the nations of antiquity should behold Israel’s unprecedented progress, their attention and interest would be aroused. “Even the heathen would recognize the superiority of those who served and worshiped the living God” (COL 289). Desiring the same blessings for themselves, they would make inquiry as to how they too might acquire these obvious material advantages. Israel would reply, “Accept our God as your God, love and serve Him as we do, and He will do the same for you.” “The blessings thus assured Israel” were, “on the same conditions and in the same degree, assured to every nation and to every individual under the broad heavens” (PK 500, 501; see Acts 10:34, 35; 15:7–9; Rom. 10:12, 13; etc.). All nations of earth were to share in the blessings so generously bestowed upon Israel (PK 370).
This concept of the role of Israel is reiterated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God was to be glorified in Israel (Isa. 49:3) and its people were to be His witnesses (43:10; 44:8), to reveal to men the principles of His kingdom (COL 285). They were to show forth His praise (43:21), to declare His glory among the heathen (66:19), to be “a light to the Gentiles” (49:6; 42:6, 7). All men would recognize that Israel stood in a special relationship to the God of heaven (Deut. 7:6–14; 28:10; Jer. 16:20, 21). Beholding Israel’s “righteousness” (Isa. 62:1, 2), “the Gentiles” would “acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed” (Isa. 61:9,10; cf. Mal. 3:12), and their God the only true God (Isa. 45:14; PP 314). To their own question, “What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?” the Gentiles would answer, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:7, 6). Hearing of all the advantages with which the God of Israel had blessed His people and “all the prosperity” He had procured for them (Jer. 33:9), the pagan nations would admit that their own fathers had “inherited lies” (ch. 16:19). [28/29]
The material advantages that Israel enjoyed were designed to arrest the attention and catch the interest of the heathen, for whom the less obvious spiritual advantages had no natural attraction. They would “gather themselves together” and “come from far” (Isa. 49:18, 12, 6, 8, 9, 22; Ps. 102:22). “from the ends of the earth” (Jer. 16:19), to the light of truth shining forth from the “mountain of the Lord” (Isa. 2:3; 60:3; 56:7; cf. ch. 11:9, 10). Nations that had known nothing of the true God would “run” to Jerusalem because of the manifest evidence of divine blessing that attended Israel (ch. 55:5). Ambassadors from one foreign country after another would come to discover, if they might, the great secret of Israel’s success as a nation, and its leaders would have the opportunity of directing the minds of their visitors to the Source of all good things. From the visible their minds were to be directed to the invisible, from the seen to the unseen, from the material to the spiritual, from the temporal to the eternal. For a graphic picture of how one nation would have responded to the irresistible appeal radiating from an Israel faithful to God, see Isa. 19:18–22; cf. Ps. 68:31.
Returning to their homelands, the Gentile ambassadors would counsel their fellow countrymen, “Let us go speedily to pray before the Lord, and to seek the Lord” (Zech. 8:21, 22; cf. 1 Kings 8:41–43). They would send messengers to Israel with the declaration, “We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech. 8:23). Nation after nation would “come over” (Isa. 45:14), that is, “be joined with” and “cleave to the house of Jacob” (ch.14:1). The house of God in Jerusalem would eventually “be called an house of prayer for all people” (ch. 56:7), and “many people and strong nations” would “come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before” Him “in that day” and be His people (Zech. 8:22; 2:11). The “sons of the stranger [or Gentile, 1 Kings 8:41; see on Ex. 12:19, 43]” would “join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord” (Isa. 56:6; Zech. 2:11). The gates of Jerusalem would be “open continually” to receive the “wealth” contributed to Israel for the conversion of still other nations and peoples (Isa. 60:1–11, RSV ; Ps. 72:10;Isa. 45:14; Haggai 2:7, RSV). Eventually, “all the nations” would “call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord” and “be gathered unto it,” not to “walk any more after the imagination of their evil heart” (Jer. 3:17). “All who …turned from idolatry to the worship of the true God, were to unite themselves with His chosen people. As the numbers of Israel increased, they were to enlarge their borders, until their kingdom should embrace the world” (COL 290; cf., Dan. 2:35). Thus Israel was to “blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit” (Isa. 27:6).
These promises of prosperity and a successful mission were to have “met fulfillment in large measure during the centuries following the return of the Israelites from the lands of their captivity. It was God’s design that the whole earth be prepared for the first advent of Christ, even as to-day the way is preparing for His second coming” (PK 703, 704). In spite of Israel’s ultimate failure, a limited knowledge of the true God and of the Messianic hope was widespread when the Saviour was born (see on >Matt. 2:1). If the nation had been faithful to its trust and had appreciated the high destiny reserved for it by God, the whole earth would have awaited the coming of the Messiah with eager expectancy. He would have come, He would have died, and would have risen again. Jerusalem would have become a great missionary center (COL 232), [29/30] and the earth would have been set ablaze with the light of truth in one grand, final appeal to those who had not as yet accepted the invitation of divine mercy. God’s call to the nations would have been, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isa. 45:22). See on Zech. 1:8.
Had Jerusalem known what it was her privilege to know, and heeded the light that Heaven sent her, she would have stood forth in magnificent prosperity, “the queen of kingdoms,” “the mighty metropolis of the earth” (DA 577), and would, like a noble vine, have filled “the face of the world with fruit” (Isa. 27:6). “Had Israel as a nation preserved her allegiance to Heaven, Jerusalem would have stood forever, the elect of God” (GC 19; cf. PK 46; Jer. 7:7; 17:25).
After the great final call to the world to acknowledge the true God, those who persisted in refusing allegiance to Him would unite together with the “evil thought” of laying siege to the city of Jerusalem and taking it by force of arms, in order to appropriate to themselves the material advantages with which God had blessed His people (Eze. 38:8–12; Jer. 25:32; Joel 3:1, 12; Zech. 12:2–9; 14:2; cf. Rev. 17:13, 14, 17). During the siege, reprobate Israelites would be slain by their foes (Zech. 13:8; 14:2). In the prophetic picture God is represented as gathering the nations to Jerusalem (Joel 3:1,2; Zeph. 3:6–8; cf. Eze. 38:16, 18–23; 39:1–7). He has a controversy with them because they have rebelled against His authority (Jer. 25:31–33), and He will judge (Joel 3:9–17) and destroy them there (Isa. 34:1–8; 63:1–6; 66:15–18). Any “nation and kingdom” that would “not serve” Israel was to “perish” (ch. 60:12). “Those nations that rejected the worship and service of the true God, were to be dispossessed” (COL 290), and Israel would “inherit the Gentiles” (ch. 54:3).
The earth would thus be rid of those who opposed God (Zech. 14:12, 13). He would be “king over all the earth” (vss. 3, 8, 9), and His dominion “from sea even to sea,” even to “the ends of the earth” (ch. 9:9, 10). In that day “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” (Zech. 14:16; cf. ch. 9:7; Isa. 66:23).
IV. Israel’s Failure to Carry Out God’s Plan
God provided Israel with “every facility for becoming the greatest nation on the earth” (COL 288). When they “brought forth wild grapes” instead of the mature fruit of character, He inquired, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (Isa. 5:1–7). There was nothing God could have done for them that He did not do, yet they failed. It was “their unwillingness to submit to the restrictions and requirements of God” that “prevented them, to a great extent, from reaching the high standard which He desired them to attain, and from receiving the blessings which He was ready to bestow upon them” (PP 378).
Those in Israel who put forth their best efforts to cooperate with the revealed will of God realized, personally, a measure of the benefits He had promised. Thus it had been with Enoch (Gen. 5:24), Abraham (ch. 26:5), and Joseph (ch. 39:2–6; PP 214). Thus it was with Moses, of whom, to the very day of his death, it could be said that “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7). Thus it was with Daniel, “a bright example of what man may become, even in this life, if he will make God his strength and wisely improve the opportunities and privileges within his reach” (4T 569; see Dan. 1:8–20; PK [30/31]490; cf. DA 827). Thus it was also with Samuel (PP 573, 574), Elijah (COL 301), John the Baptist (see on Matt. 3:4), John the Beloved (see on Mark 3:17), and many others. The life of Christ is a perfect example of the character of God would have His people develop (see on Luke 2:52). “Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children. Godliness – godlikeness – is the goal to be reached” (Ed 18).
The glorious era of David and Solomon marked what might have been the beginning of Israel’s golden age (see PK 32, 33). One royal visitor to Jerusalem exclaimed, “The half was not told me!” (1 Kings 10:1–9). The glory that distinguished the early part of the reign of Solomon was due in part to his own faithfulness during that time, and in part to the fact that his father David had seemed to appreciate fully Israel’s exalted privileges and responsibilities (see Ps. 51:10, 11; Isa. 55:3; cf. Acts 13:22).
Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God warned them not to forget that the blessings they were to enjoy there if they cooperated with Him would come as divine gifts (see Deut. 8:7–14), not primarily as the result of their own wisdom and skill (vss. 17–19). Solomon made his great mistake when he failed to realize the secret of Israel’s prosperity (see Introduction to Ecclesiastes), and with a few noteworthy exceptions, leaders and people sank lower and lower from generation to generation until apostasy was complete (Isa. 3:12; 9:16; Jer. 5:1–5; 8:10; Eze. 22:23–31; Micah 3).
The kingdom was divided following Solomon’s death (see 1 Kings 11:33–38). This division, though tragic, served to insulate, for a time, the southern kingdom, Judah, from the tide of idolatry that soon engulfed the northern kingdom, Israel (see Hosea 4:17). In spite of the bold and zealous efforts of such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea, the northern kingdom rapidly deteriorated and was eventually carried into Assyrian captivity. Its people were given “no promise of complete restoration to their former power in Palestine” (PK 298).
Had Judah remained loyal to God its captivity would not have been necessary (PK 564). Again and again He had warned His people that captivity would be the result of disobedience (see Deut. 4:9; 8:9; 28:1, 2, 14, 18; Jer. 18:7–10; 26:2–16; Zech. 6:15; etc.). He had told them that He would progressively diminish their strength and honor as a nation until they should all be carried away into captivity (Deut. 28:15–68; 2 Chron. 36:16, 17). God designed that Israel’s experience should prove to be a warning to Judah (see Hosea 1:7; 4:15–17; 11:12; Jer. 3:3–12; etc.). But Judah failed to learn the lesson, and a little more than a century later her apostasy, also, was complete (see Jer. 22:6, 8, 9; Eze. 16:37; 7:2–15; 12:3–28; 36:18–23). The kingdom was overturned (Eze. 21:25–32) and the people removed from the land, which had been theirs only by virtue of the covenant relationship (Hosea 9:3, 15, Micah 2:10; cf.Hosea 2:6–13). Deported to Babylon, they were to learn in adversity the lessons they had failed to learn during times of prosperity (Jer. 25:5–7; 29:18, 19; 30:11–14; 46:28;Eze. 20:25–38; Micah 4:10–12; DA 28), and to impart to the heathen Babylonians a knowledge of the true God (PK 292, 371, 372). For the prophetic guidance during the Captivity see SDABC 4, p. 569.
God did not forsake His people, even during the Captivity. He would renew His covenant with them (Jer. 31:10–38; Eze. 36:21–38; Zech. 1:12, 17; 2:12), including its accompanying blessings (Jer. 33:3, 6–26; Eze. 36:8–15). All that had been promised might yet come to pass if they would only love and serve [31/32] Him (Zech. 6:15; cf.Isa. 54:7; Eze. 36:11; 43:10, 11; Micah 6:8; Zech. 10:6). According to His beneficent purpose, the covenant promises were to have “met fulfillment in large measure during the centuries following the return of the Israelites from the lands of their captivity. It was God’s design that the whole earth be prepared for the first advent of Christ, even as to-day the way is preparing for His second coming” (PK 703, 704).
It is important to note that all the Old Testament promises looking forward to a time of restoration for the Jews were given in anticipation of their return from captivity (seeIsa. 10:24–34; 14:1–7; 27:12, 13; 40:2; 61:4–10; Jer. 16:14–16; 23:3–8; 25:11; 29:10–13; 30:3–12; 32:7–27, 37–44; Eze. 34:11–15; 37; Amos 9:10–15; Micah 2:12, 13; etc.). Daniel himself so understood these promises (Dan. 9:1–8). Captivity, he said, had “confirmed” the “curse” that came because of disobedience (vss. 11, 12) and Jerusalem lay desolate (vss. 16–19). Then Gabriel came to reassure him of the restoration of his people and the eventual coming of the Messiah (vss. 24, 25). But, said the angel, Messiah would be rejected and “cut off,” because of the abominations of Israel, and Jerusalem and the Temple would once more life waste (vss. 26, 27). Between the return from Babylon and the rejection of the Messiah, Israel was to have its second and final opportunity as a nation to cooperate with the divine plan (see Jer. 12:14–17). “Seventy weeks” – 490 years of literal time – were “determined” upon the Jews, “to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness” (Dan. 9:24).
Eventually, however, it became apparent that the Jews would never measure up to the standard God required of them, as Malachi makes evident (chs. 1:6, 12; 2:2, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 17; 3:7, 13, 14; PK 705). Formal worship took the place of sincere religion (DA 29; cf. John 4:23, 24; 2 Tim. 3:5). Human traditions came to be honored in place of the revealed will of God (see on Mark 7:6–9). Far from becoming the light of the world, the Jews “shut themselves away from the world as a safeguard against being seduced into idolatry” (PK 708; see Deut. 11:26, 27; cf. Mark 7:9). In their meticulous attention to the letter of the law they lost sight of its spirit. They forgot that God abhors a multiplication of the forms of religion (Isa. 1:11–18; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:7; Mal. 2:13), and asks of man nothing “but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly” with his God (Micah 6:8; cf. Matt. 19:16, 17; 22:36–40). Yet in mercy, God still bore with His people, and in due time Messiah came (Mal. 3:1–3; DA 37). To the very last, “Christ would have averted the doom of the Jewish nation if the people had received Him” (PK 712). When the probationary period of 490 years ended, the nation was still obdurate and impenitent, and as a result forfeited its privileged role as His representative on earth.
V. Why Israel Failed
Israel’s “unwillingness to submit to the restrictions and requirements of God, prevented them, to a great extent, from reaching the high standard He desired them to attain, and from receiving the blessings He was ready to bestow upon them” (PP 378). They cherished the idea that they were favorites of Heaven (COL 294), and were ungrateful for the opportunities so graciously afforded them (COL 302; cf. 391). They forfeited God’s blessing because of failure to fulfill His purpose in making them His chosen people, and thus brought ruin upon themselves (COL 284, 290; PK 705). [32/33]
When Messiah came, His own people, the Jews, “received him not” (John 1:11). They blindly “overlooked those scriptures that point to the humiliation of Christ’s first advent, and misapplied those that speak of the glory of His second coming. Pride obscured their vision [see Luke 19:42]. They interpreted prophecy in accordance with their selfish desires” (DA 30; cf. 212, 257), because their ambitious hopes were fixed on worldly greatness (DA 28). They looked for Messiah to reign as a temporal prince (DA 415; cf. Acts 1:6), to appear as a liberator and conqueror, and to exalt Israel to dominion over all nations (PK 709; see on Luke 4:19). They would have no part in all that Christ stood for (see on Matt. 3:2, 3; Mark 3:14; DA 243, 391). They eagerly sought the power of His kingdom, but were unwilling to be guided by its principles. They grasped at the material blessings so generously offered them, but refused the spiritual graces that would have transformed their lives and fitted them to be His representatives. They brought forth “wild grapes” rather than the mature fruit of a Godlike character (Isa. 5:1–7; cf. Gal. 5:19–23), and because of this failure to bear the fruit expected of them, forfeited their role in the divine plan (see Rom. 11:20).
Having declined, thus, to surrender themselves to God as His agents for the salvation of the human race, the Jews, as a nation, became “agents of Satan” for the destruction of the race (DA 36). Instead of becoming light bearers to the world they absorbed its darkness and reflected that darkness instead. They were doing no positive good; therefore they were doing incalculable harm, and their influence became a savor of death (COL 304). “In view of the light they had received from God, they were even worse than the heathen, to whom they felt so much superior” (DA 106; COL 293). “They rejected the Light of the world, and henceforth their lives were surrounded with darkness as the darkness of midnight” (PK 712, 713).
In these tragic events the words of Moses met their final and complete fulfillment: “As the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goes to possess it. And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other” (Deut. 28:63, 64). The completeness and finality of this rejection is evident from ch. 8:19, 20: “As the nations which the Lord destroyeth before your face, so shall ye perish; because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the Lord your God.” The rejection of Jesus by the leaders of Israel (cf. Isa. 3:12; 9:16) meant the permanent, irrevocable cancellation of their special standing before God as a nation (COL 305; cf. Jer. 12:14–16).
At the time of the Babylonian captivity God had specifically announced that that experience was not to mark “a full end” of Israel as God’s people (Jer. 4:27; 5:18;46:28). But when the Jews rejected Christ there was no such assurance of reinstatement. The present-day return of the Jews to Palestine and the establishment of the modern state of Israel do not imply reinstatement as God’s people, present or future. Whatever the Jews, as a nation, may do, now or in time to come, is in no way related to the former promises made to them. With the crucifixion of Christ they forever forfeited their special position as God’s chosen people. Any idea that the return of the Jews to their ancestral home, that is, to the new state of Israel, may in any way be related to Bible prophecy is without valid scriptural foundation. It ignores the plain statements of the Old Testament that God’s promises to Israel were all conditional. (See p. 34.) [33/34]
VI. The Nature and Purpose of Conditional Prophecy
God’s word is sure (Isa. 40:8; 55:11; Rom. 11:29), and His plan for the salvation of man will ultimately prevail (Isa. 46:10). With Him there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). He is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). His word “endureth for ever” (1 Peter 1:25). Eventually God’s purposes will prevail and the plan of salvation will succeed, irrespective of the failure of any person or group (PK 705, 706). The plan itself never changes because God never changes. But the manner in which it is carried out may change because man may change. The fickle, human will is the weak, unstable factor in conditional prophecy. God may reject one nation or group of people in favor of another if those first summoned persistently refuse to cooperate with Him (see Jer. 18:6–10; cf. Dan. 5:25–28; Matt. 21:40–43; 22:3–10; Luke 14:24). For illustrations of the reversal of threatened judgment, see Jonah 3:3–10; cf. 2 Kings 20:1–5; and of promised blessing, see Ex. 6:2–8; cf. Num. 14:26–34. The covenant with literal Israel proved faulty, not because God failed to carry out His part of the covenant, but rather because Israel’s fair promises proved evanescent as the morning dew (Hosea 6:4; 13:3; Heb. 8:6, 7). It should be remembered that God does not force the human will, and that Israel’s cooperation was essential to the success of His plan for the nation.
God’s promises are made conditional upon man’s cooperation and obedience. “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional” (EGW MS 4, 1883, in, F. M. Wilcox, The Testimony of Jesus, 2nd edition [(1934) 1944], p. 99 [= Selected Messages, Bk 1 (1958), p. 67]). Again and again God warned Israel that blessing goes hand in hand with obedience and that a curse accompanies disobedience (seeDeut. 4:9; 8:19; 28:1, 2, 13, 14; Jer. 18:6–10; 26:2–6; Zech. 6:15; etc.). Continued obedience was necessary to the continuance of divine favor, whereas persistent disobedience must inevitably culminate in the rejection of the Jewish nation as God’s chosen instrument for carrying out the divine plan (Deut. 28:15–68). Owing to the failure of the Jews as God’s chosen people, many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, such as those affirming the worldwide mission of Israel and the ingathering of the Gentiles (see Gen. 12:3; Deut. 4:6–8; Isa. 2:2–5; 42:6; 49:6; 52:10;56:6, 7; 60:1–3; 61:9; 62:2; Zech. 2:11; 8:22, 23; etc.), those pointing forward to the eternal rest in Canaan (Isa. 11:6–9; 35; 65:17–25; 66:20–23; Jer. 17:25; Eze. 37; 40–48; Zech. 2:6–12; 14:4–11), and those promising deliverance from her enemies (Isa. 2:10–21; 24–26; Eze. 38; 39; Joel 3; Zeph. 1; 2; Zech. 9:9–17; 10–14; etc.), have never been and can never be fulfilled to them as a nation.
Had Israel measured up to the noble ideal, all of the promises contingent upon obedience would long since have been fulfilled. Predictions of national disgrace, rejection, and woe that were to result from apostasy would never have been realized. But because of apostasy it was the predictions of national honor and glory that could not be fulfilled. Yet, since God’s purposes are immutable (Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 46:10; Acts 5:39; Heb. 6:17; etc.), success must and will come – through Israel after the spirit. Though, on the whole, literal Israel failed to realize her exalted destiny, the chosen race did make a worth-while, though imperfect, contribution to the preparation of the world for the first advent of the Messiah (see on Matt. 2:1). Furthermore, it should be remembered that the Messiah, after the flesh, was a Jew, that the charter members of the Christian church were all Jews, and that Christianity grew out of Judaism.
VII. Spiritual Israel Replaces Literal Israel
The formal rejection of Jesus by the Jews, as a nation, marked the close of their last opportunity as the special agents of God for the salvation of the world. It was “last of all” that God “sent unto them his son,” according to Christ’s own words (Matt. 21:37), but they “caught him” and “slew him” (vs. 39). Thereafter, God “let out his vineyard [see Isa. 5:1–7] unto other husbandmen” who would “render him the fruits in their seasons” (see on Matt. 21:41). Upon His final departure from the sacred precincts of the Temple, Jesus said, “Your house is left unto you desolate” (Matt. 23:38). The day, before, He had called it “my house” (ch. 21:13), but henceforth He no longer owned it as His. Jesus’ own verdict was, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matt. 21:43; cf. 1 Peter 2:9, 10).
The transition from literal Israel to spiritual Israel, or the Christian church, is the subject of Rom. 9–11. Here Paul affirms that the rejection of the Jews did not mean that the promises of God had “taken none effect” (Rom. 9:6), and explains immediately that they are to become effective through spiritual Israel. He quotesHosea 2:23. “I will call them my people, which were not my people” (Rom. 9:25, 26). Spiritual Israel includes both Jews and Gentiles (v. 24). Peter concurs, saying, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons,” for “in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34, 35; cf. ch. 11:18). Many years later, in writing to the “strangers,” or Gentiles (1 Peter 1:1: see on Ex. 12:19, 43), as the “elect” of God (1 Peter 1:2), Peter refers to them as the “chosen” ones of God, a “holy nation, a peculiar people” (ch. 2:9), formerly “not a people,” but “now the people of God” (vs. 10). Paul states the same truth in Rom. 9:30, 31, where he makes it plain that the Christian church has replaced the Hebrew nation in the divine plan. Henceforth, he says, there is no difference between “Jew” and “Greek” (ch. 10:12, 13).
Paul emphasizes the fact that the rejection of literal Israel as God’s chosen instrument for the salvation of the world does not mean that individual Jews can no longer be saved (chs. 9:6; 11:1, 2, 11, 15), for he is a Jew himself (chs. 9:3; 10:1; 11:1, 2). But they are to be saved as Christians and not as Jews. It is true, he says, that national Israel “stumbled” at the “stumblingstone,” Jesus Christ (Rom. 9:32, 33; 11:11; cf. 1 Peter 2:6–8; 1 Cor. 1:23) but this need not mean that they are to fall – “God forbid,” he exclaims (Rom. 11:1, 22). Literal Jews may still find salvation by being grafted into spiritual Israel, in precisely the same way that Gentiles are to be grafted in (vss. 23, 24). “All Israel” consists of both Jews and Gentiles, thus “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:25, 26; PK 367). Paul makes it clear beyond argument that when he speaks of “Israel” as the chosen people of God he means it in this sense. He says specifically that by “Jew” he does not mean a literal Jew but one converted at heart, whether he be Jew or Gentile (ch. 2:28, 29). All who have faith in Christ are one in Him, and, as a the spiritual “seed” of Abraham, are “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:9, 28, 29).
“That which God purposed to do for the world through Israel, the chosen nation, He will finally accomplish through His church on earth to-day” (PK 713, 714). The glorious promises originally made to literal Israel are meeting their fulfillment today in the proclamation of the gospel to all men (PK 374, 375; GC 451; Rev. 14:6, 7). “The blessings thus assured to Israel are, on the [35/36] same conditions and in the same degree, assured to every nation and to every individual under the broad heavens” (PK 500, 501; cf. 298). “The church in this generation has been endowed by God with great privileges and blessings, and He expects corresponding returns. …In the lives of God’s people the truths of His word are to reveal their glory and excellence. Through His people Christ is to manifest His character and the principles of His kingdom” (COL 296). Now it is spiritual Israel, in the past “not a people” but “now the people of God,” that are to “shew forth the praises” of the One who has called them “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
We should never forget that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written” for the “learning” of future generations to the end of time, to inspire patience, comfort, and hope (Rom. 15:4). They were “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
The prophets did not always clearly understand messages they themselves had borne pointing forward to the distant future, to the coming of the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10, 11). These repeated Messianic predictions were designed to lift the eyes of the people from the transitory events of their own time to the coming of Messiah and the establishment of His eternal kingdom, in order to afford them a view of the things of time in the light of eternity. However, these messages pertaining to the then-distant future were intended, not only to inspire patience, comfort, and hope in the day they were first given, but also to provide men of Christ’s day with confirming evidence of His Messiahship. The profound conviction that the messages of the prophets had been fulfilled led many to believe in Christ as the Son of God (DA 775, 799). The prophets thus provided a firm foundation for the faith of the apostolic church and made a direct and vital contribution to the Christian faith.
It was therefore not alone “unto themselves” and to their contemporaries that the prophets ministered, but also to all sincere men and women of later generations (1 Peter 1:12). It is ever the privilege of those who witness the fulfillment of prophecy to “remember” and “believe” (John 13:19; 14:29; John 16:4). Prophecies that Inspiration clearly applies to our day were designed of God to inspire us with patience, comfort, and the hope that all things foretold by these holy men of old will soon meet their final and complete fulfillment.
VIII. Conclusion: Principles of Interpretation
In general, Old Testament promises and predictions were addressed to literal Israel and were to have been fulfilled to them, conditional on obedience. Partial compliance on their part with the will of God made possible a partial fulfillment of the covenant promises on God’s part. Yet many of the promises, particularly those concerning the giving of the gospel to the nations and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, could not be fulfilled to them because of their unfaithfulness, but would be fulfilled to the church on earth preparatory to Christ’s return, particularly to God’s remnant people, and in the new earth.
When the Jews rejected Christ as the Messiah, God in turn rejected them and commissioned the Christian church as His chosen instrument for the salvation of the world (Matt. 28:19, 20; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; 1 Peter 2:9, 10; etc.). Accordingly, the covenant promises and privileges were all permanently transferred from literal to spiritual Israel (Rom. 9:4; cf. Gal. 3:27–29; see on Deut. 18:15). Promises not already fulfilled to literal Israel either would never be fulfilled at all or would be fulfilled to the Christian church as spiritual Israel. Prophecies that fall into the latter classification are to be fulfilled in principle but not necessarily in every detail, owing to the fact that many details of prophecy were concerned with Israel as a literal nation situated in the land of Palestine. The Christian church is a spiritual “nation” scattered all over the world, and such details obviously could not apply to it in a literal sense. Prophecies of the former classification cannot now be fulfilled because they were strictly conditional in nature and limited in scope, by their very nature, to literal Israel.
The fundamental principle by which we can tell unerringly when any particular promise or prediction of the Old Testament made originally to literal Israel is to meet its fulfillment with respect to spiritual Israel is – when a later inspired writer makes such an application of it. For instance, the prophecy of the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38, 39 was never fulfilled to literal Israel; but John the revelator assures us that in principle, though not necessarily in all details (such as those of Eze. 39:9–15), this battle will occur at the close of the millennium (Rev. 20:7–9). But to go beyond that which is clearly set forth by Inspiration – in the immediate context of the passage concerned, in the New Testament, or in the Spirit of prophecy – is to substitute personal opinion for a plain “Thus saith the Lord.” Where Inspiration has not thus clearly spoken it is our privilege to compare scripture with scripture in an endeavor to understand more perfectly the mind of the Spirit. But here, as in all exposition of Scripture, we should avoid affirming as the explicit teachings of the Bible that which is our private, finite view, however plausible it may appear to be. Furthermore, Old Testament prophecy must first be examined in terms of its historical application to literal Israel before the validity of a derived application to spiritual Israel may be undertaken.
One of the main objectives of the Bible commentator is to reconstruct the historical setting in which the declarations of the prophets were originally made. Christianity is a historical religion, and its inspired messages are anchored to the hills and valleys, the deserts and rivers, of the ancient world, and to literal men and women who once walked the earth. There is no surer protection against the speculative vagaries of religious visionaries than a clear knowledge of the historical context of Scripture.
Though the prophet looked at events about him, he also could see far beyond his own day. In a mysterious way known only to God the prophet’s words were sometimes intended to meet their fulfillment in the then far-distant future. At times they had an import, not only for the age in which the prophet lived, but also for a day far future; in other words, they had a dual application. Similarly, the ways in which God dealt with men in crises of the past are often cited as examples of the manner in which He will deal with all the world in the last day (see on Deut. 18:15). For example, the judgment that came upon Sodom and Gomorrah, literal cities of the ancient past, is used by Bible writers as descriptive of the judgment God will eventually bring upon all the world.
The student of the Bible who hopes to secure from it the greatest help will first proceed to reconstruct the historical context of each passage. He will listen to the prophet speaking to Israel of old and endeavor to understand what his words meant to the people who originally heard them. But he will listen also for the further import the prophet’s words may have for later times, particularly, our time. Indeed, this secondary application is for us today the more significant. [37- 38] But it is only against the background of the original historical context of the message that its meaning and value for us can be established with certainty.
A study of the Old Testament prophets that consists primarily of lifting selected passages here and there out of their historical context and arbitrarily applying them to our day – as if the prophet spoke exclusively for our benefit – is fraught with grave danger. In fact, this procedure is responsible more than anything else for the fanciful interpretations that distinguish the teachings of certain religious groups.
In an age when every wind of doctrine is blowing it is well to make certain that our understanding of Bible prophecy rests upon a positive “Thus saith the Lord” (seeDeut. 29:29; Isa. 50:11; Jer. 2:13; Matt. 7:24–28; 1 Cor. 2:4, 5, 12, 13; Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:2–4, 8; 2 Peter 1:16; Rev. 22:18). In so doing we shall be secure against the fanciful explanations sometimes given certain Old Testament prophecies. We shall be protected against the grossly literal explanation of some expositors concerning the return of literal Israel to literal Palestine to rule the world for a thousand years prior to the close of human probation, and also against other equally unscriptural interpretations that propose to apply allegorically to the church all the details of the promises originally made to literal Israel. Both of these extreme methods wrest the obvious intent of the Scriptures and render a sound understanding of the messages of the prophets for the church today unattainable.
The following simple rules are suggested as a safe approach to the study of each prophetic passage of the Old Testament:
- Examine the prophecy in its entirety. Note by whom it was spoken, to whom it was addressed, and the circumstances that called it forth. Remember that – generally speaking – it was originally given with respect to the historical circumstances that called it forth. It was ordained of God to meet the needs of His people at the time it was given and to remind them of the glorious destiny that awaited them as a nation, of the coming of the Messiah, and of the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Discover what the message meant to the people of that time. (This rule does not apply to those portions of the book of Daniel that the prophet was bidden to “shut up” and “seal,” or to other passages whose application Inspiration may have limited exclusively to our own time.) – [Text in italics was added by general editor F. D. Nichol. See Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary,” Spectrum, August 1985 (16:3), p. 42: “Elder Nichol’s overriding pastoral concern, however, led him to insert the parenthetical caveat on page 38.”]
- Observe the conditional aspects of the prediction and ascertain whether or not, or to what extent, the conditions were met.
- Discover what application later inspired writers make of the prophecy, and on this basis determine its possible significance for God’s people in this time.
- Remember that the record of God’s dealings with His people in ages past has been recorded for the benefit of all later generations to the end of time. Our study of messages originally proclaimed by holy men of old to the people of their day is not to become an end in itself, but a means of discovering the will of God for all who would render Him truehearted service now, at the climax of the ages. The voice of God through the prophets distinctly speaks to us today.
If these rules are consistently followed the resulting interpretation can be accepted with confidence. In the inspired utterances of the prophets of old the sincere seeker for truth will thus find messages of inspiration, comfort, and guidance for today.