|Vol. 13 No. 6 June 2011||
T. Pierce Brown (deceased)
In the Lord’s church, as in all other groups, there is a tendency to take the word of someone of whom we think highly instead of studying the Word of God for ourselves. Although it is very dangerous, there may be some value in this, for each of us is ignorant of many things. For example, although I have been reading the Bible for over 60 years, there are some subjects I have not studied as deeply as I might have. If I discover that Foy Wallace, Gus Nichols, Guy N. Woods and N. B. Hardeman expressed the same specific view of the subject, I confess that until I have had a chance to study the subject in more detail, I would probably adopt their view as the most probable one. I am neither ashamed nor proud of that, but am stating what I think is a valid attitude. A child generally should accept what his parent believes and teaches him until he has a chance to examine the evidence for himself. The danger comes when one has an opportunity to study God’s Word in depth on some subject, but relies instead on one or more scholars for his conclusions.
The subject of this article was suggested to me as I was reading in some scholarly book by a premillennial author about how to interpret prophecy. He suggested that there are only two methods: the allegorical and the literal. He properly points out some dangers in the allegorical method. He defines the literal method as “that which gives each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary customary usage.” Then, he makes this statement, “When the Old Testament is used in the New it is used only in the literal sense. No prophecy which has been completely fulfilled has been fulfilled any way but literally.” He admits that “figures of speech are used as a means of revealing literal truth,” but does not properly apply that knowledge in his interpretation of prophecy. Since the whole of his 633-page book is built on that assumption, I decided to test it, for Paul says, “Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Let us notice a few of the prophetic passages that are plainly taught and are fulfilled in specific cases in the New Testament. First, note Isaiah 40:3-4, “The voice of one that crieth, Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain.” Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5:3, Mark 1:3 and Luke 3:4-6 that this had reference to John the Immerser. In the light of the assertion made by this author J. Dwight Pentecost on page 10 of Things to Come, let us ask the question: “Did John literally exalt every valley, and literally make every hill low? Was John operating a bulldozer to prepare a way for a king?” Of course, figurative language reveals a literal truth. The questions are, “What is the literal truth to which this prophecy pointed? Were the words used in a figurative sense, or did John literally fill up a valley, move a mountain and make a straight road for the King?” One does not need to be a scholar or write a doctoral dissertation to answer that.
In Matthew 12:18-20, there is the following statement of a prophecy from Isaiah 42, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen; My beloved in whom my soul is pleased: I will put my Spirit upon him, And he shall declare judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry aloud; Neither shall any one hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name shall the Gentiles hope.” Who is so blind that they cannot see that if Jesus had literally broken a bruised reed this would not have meant the prophecy did not come to pass? It is plainly not true, as the author asserted, that the language of the prophecy had to be fulfilled by Jesus literally failing to break a bruised reed or put out smoking flax.
In Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10 and Luke 20:17, we find a quotation of a prophecy from Psalm 118:22, “The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner.” Surely one does not have to be a scholar to realize that Jesus was not speaking of a literal stone, or literal builders. To say that the prophetic language of the Old Testament is used in the New only in a literal sense is utter nonsense. Yet, this is the very basis of the whole book of J.D. Pentecost and the premillennial concept that he attempting to uphold.
The question, “Are the prophecies to be interpreted literally or figuratively?” implies something that the Bible shows is not so. The answer to the question of how the prophecies are to be interpreted is, “As Jesus and the inspired apostles showed they were to be interpreted.” Some are literal; some are figurative. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was literally fulfilling Zechariah 9:9-10, but he did not literally “cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem” as verse 10 says. To say that it was not fulfilled any way but literally is the height of absurdity. It is a mark of wisdom to interpret it as Jesus did.
If one reads Zechariah 13:7-10, which begins with, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith Jehovah of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered,” he could not possibly know whether that prophecy was to be fulfilled in a literal or figurative way if he did not read Matthew 26:31 or Mark 14:27. In fact, he would not even know that it was a prophecy if Jesus had not revealed and interpreted it for us.
The fact that the Jews rejected Jesus because they had a false notion of the meaning of prophecy should make us aware that anyone who interprets the Scriptures as they did is wrong. Jesus plainly told His disciples, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” and a few verses later in Luke 24:44-45 we find, “These are my words which I spake unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must needs be fulfilled, which are written in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their mind, that they might understand the scriptures.”
Paul emphasized the same thought in Ephesians 3:3-5, “how that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery, as I wrote before in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.” Anyone who reads the New Testament with even the most elementary understanding can see that the Jews in general, including the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, and the apostles before they received the Holy Spirit, did not properly understand the prophets. If all their language was to be understood literally, this could not have been so.
We should not reject some truth we may learn from someone just because he is premillennial, or because he belongs to some denomination. Truth is truth, from whatever source it may come. However, we should recognize a very important principle. That is, rat poison may be 98% corn or peanuts. It is the 2% that does the damage. If one habitually drinks from contaminated wells, the chances are very high that he will suffer damage. This means that we should be very careful as we study the writings of any person, denominational or otherwise. If we know the basic premise on which he operates, it may help us to discern the falsity of his doctrine more easily. We need to continue to “Prove all things. Hold fast that which is good” and never be afraid to re-examine any doctrine we have been taught, regardless of who taught it.