BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION. IMPORTANCE OF THE PROPHETIC SCRIPTURES
Before we proceed to examine, and attempt to explain an important subject of revelation, it will be well to offer a few general remarks on the interpretation of the Bible. For in our days, Christianity is vehemently assailed with arguments based upon the diversities of opinion among its professors. Men point with sharp sarcasm to the many sects of Christendom, and to the numerous and serious disagreements of those sects, not merely in questions of Church government and discipline, but even upon vital points of doctrine. They impugn the Divine origin of writings which admit of such variety of interpretation, and can be made the basis of so many differing, and even conflicting, systems.
Nor is this sentiment confined to those who live in professedly Christian countries. It is beginning to spread even among the Heathen: it has already supplied them with a powerful weapon against the worshippers of the Triune Jehovah, and is presenting a new and formidable barrier to missionary success. Now the fact that there are countless diversities in the nominal Church cannot be denied. Nay, we must go Still further, and confess that the mischief may be detected even among those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus in sincerity, and march to meet the future with unfaltering step through faith in His once offered sacrifice for sin: for they, too, have differences of opinion and sundry opposing doctrines all claiming to be derived from the Word of God.
What, then, shall we reply to our assailants? Are the Scriptures really so inconsistent, or so vague, that a multitude of conflicting opinions and doctrines can be fairly deduced from them? Were they so, the fact would indeed be a strong argument against their Divine origin. But we are by no means forced upon such an admission:nay, as soon as we begin to consider the enigma an obvious and certain solution presents itself For not the revelation of God, but the expounders of that revelation, are responsible for the diversities of Christendom: the fault rests with the fallen and corrupt nature of man, which so affects him that he cannot clearly discern truth even when it is set before his eyes.
Do we doubt this? Let us, then, glance at the history of the first reception of the Gospel as recorded in the New Testament. Do we not find error mingling with truth from the very beginning? Does it not seem to have been the first anxiety of an apostle, after planting a Church, to check the simultaneous upgrowth of rank weeds which threatened soon to choke it? Need we instance Corinth, Galatia, Colossae; the strange doctrines taught at Ephesus and Crete, which are mentioned in the letters to Timothy and Titus; the warnings against existing heresies in the Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude? And if we pass on to examine the uninspired writings of the early Church, we shall be still more impressed with the same sad fact, that, from the very first, there were counteracting influences which impaired the purity of the messages of God.
For men did not bring the tablets of their hearts smooth and unmarked to receive a first grand impression from the revealed Will and purposes of their Creator; but came filled with myths, philosophies, and prejudices, which they could not altogether throw off, but retained, in part at least, and mingled -- quite unwittingly, perhaps -- with the truth of God. As time went on, the incongruity of this human admixture became more and more apparent; and yet men clung to it, because they felt that it softened the corrective severity of revelation, and forced it into some kind of sympathy with the lusts of fallen nature.
And so they soon found themselves constrained to devise a means of blunting the sword of the Spirit, lest its keen edge should be used to sever the spurious from the genuine. Those portions of Scripture which were most determinedly antagonistic to the hopes and feelings of men were allegorised, or, as by a sad misnomer it was called, spiritualised, out of their literal and proper meaning ; and being thus deprived of the power which God had placed in them, were no longer able to present insurmountable obstacles to the entrance of false doctrine. And yet, so far, we are speaking only of the mischief done by those who may, perhaps, have been sincere Christians, but who corrupted the Word of God through short-sightedness and lack of wisdom, and, above all, through that inability to clear the mind of fixed ideas which is common to all mortals.
But there was another class of corrupters described by Paul as many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake (Titus 1:10-11), men who, when they saw Christianity rapidly spreading, when they perceived the hold it had upon the minds of those who were affected by it, desired, for their own ambitious or covetous ends, to become leaders of a party which promised to be so influential, which bid so fair for power. These had no scruple in introducing such doctrines as suited themselves, and mightily helped to establish a practice which has been too common in all subsequent time, that use of the Bible which virtually regards it as a book by the aid of which one may justify one's own opinions.
And lastly, there was yet a third class of men devoted to the higher and more intellectual forms of Pagan worship, initiates of the mysteries -- those secret societies which had then woven their nets over the whole of the civilized world. These crept into the fold unawares, as true wolves in sheep's clothing, with deliberate intent to worry and destroy the flock. For from the first, with an instinct of Satan, they marked the Christian as their mortal foe, and perceiving with ever increasing alarm the failure of persecution after persecution, from Nero to Galerius, to suppress the new sect, felt that it could not be exterminated by open warfare, and must, therefore, be seduced and corrupted by craft. This plan was far more successful than the violence of persecution. Where the sword of the World failed its flatteries were victorious. The astonished Church beheld the frown of her cruel oppressor softening into a friendly smile; was bewildered with offers of peace and union from those who had hitherto breathed out threatenings and slaughter; and, becoming elated with the sudden change, was not indisposed for compromise. And thus the World became nominally Christian, and vast crowds of idolaters passed within the pale of the visible Church, bringing with them their old gods and goddesses under new names, as well as their incessant sacrifices, their rites, their vestments, their incense, and all the paraphernalia of their impious worship. Nor did the philosophers fail to contribute their share to the perplexing confusion which speedily obscured every vital doctrine of Christianity. For, by skilfully blending their own systems with the truths of Scripture, they so bewildered the minds of the multitude that but retained the power of distinguishing the revelation of God from the craftily interwoven teachings of men.
So complete, then, even in early times, was the corruption of the Word of God. Nor has the Church ever succeeded in freeing herself from it, though she did make a strenuous effort to do so at the epoch of the Reformation. From the time when the Adversary first sowed them, the tares have been ever mingled with the wheat, as indeed they must continue to be until the harvest. And the result is that inconsistent and unsound interpretations have been handed down from generation to generation, and received as if they were integral parts of the Scriptures themselves ; while any texts which seemed violently opposed were allegorised, spiritualised, or explained away, till they ceased to be troublesome, or, perchance, were even made subservient. From time to time, too, systems and sects were formed more or less pure than the main body, but into which the Adversary never failed to foist some error ; and men, trained to look upon their own Church as the only perfect one, contended fiercely for its tenets, and freely, though often unconsciously, perverted Scripture in maintaining the struggle.
Weighing, then, all these causes, we surely need not accuse the Bible of vagueness or inconsistency in order to explain the diversities of its interpretation. For, if we be observant and honest, we must often ourselves feel the difficulty of approaching the sacred writings without bias, seeing that we bring with us a number of stereotyped ideas, which we have received as absolutely certain, and never think of testing, but only seek to confirm. And yet, could we but fearlessly and impartially investigate, we might find that some of these ideas are not in the Bible at all, while others are plainly contradicted by it. For the tracts of many a popular doctrine may be followed through the long range of Church history, till at length we start with affright at the discovery- that we have traced them back to the very entrance of the enemy's camp.
We will not stay now to illustrate this fact, some proofs of which will come before us in the course of our subject. But it is a matter which every Christian should carefully test for himself, if he be really desirous to seek first, in preference to any other consideration, the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. For he need be in no perplexity as to the mode of procedure, and God will grant him the requisite wisdom if he ask it. Let him but believe that the Bible is the infallible word of the great Creator, and that all men are, and ever have been, prone to error, and he will readily see that to discover the truth of any doctrine he must first strive to divest himself of preconceived notions, of all that he has ever heard about it, and of all feeling either for or against it. And then, with earnest prayer for the Spirit's aid, let him examine every portion of Scripture which bears upon it, noting the simple and obvious teaching of each, and observing how the various texts interpret and corroborate one another. So will he by God's help arrive at the truth. But yet another precaution will be necessary ; he must mark the degree of prominence assigned to it in the Bible, and give it, as nearly as possible, the same in his own teaching. For even true doctrines may sometimes be mischievous if unduly pressed to the exclusion of others, to which, as we may see by their more frequent mention, the Spirit of God attaches greater importance. Were this course generally pursued, there would soon be an end of diversities in the real Church: the true followers of Christ would present an unbroken phalanx to the world; the greatest obstacle to the spread of the Gospel would be removed; and very different would be the result both of our preaching at home and of our missionary work abroad, r or the sword of the Spirit, if drawn forth keen and glittering from its own scabbard, and not merely picked up from the ground where it has been left, blunted and dulled, perchance, by some former warrior, is irresistible, and pierces through body and soul to the inmost shrine of the God-conscious spirit.
We propose now, to examine the testimony of the Divine oracles, in regard to three deeply interesting subjects. the creation of our earth. The changes which appear to have taken place in it during ages preceding the Six Days, though our information concerning these stupendous events is very fragmentary and obscure. And, the history of our own race, until the terrific catastrophe of the Deluge. We shall then endeavour to ascertain, whether such records of the past are able to throw any light upon predicted changes in the future; also what lessons we should learn from them, especially in regard to that already widespread, and continually increasing intercourse with the other world, which is now called Spiritualism, or, if it be of a more philosophic order, Theosophy or Occultism.
And may the Holy Spirit guide us with a wisdom not our own ; keep us from handling the Word of God deceitfully ; enable us to consider it without bias, and to discern the meaning which He Who gave it would convey.
Now the latter part of our investigation will be concerned with prophecy, a subject to which, after more than fifteen centuries of neglect, the Spirit of God is again directing the minds of many of His people. For another long age is drawing to its close, the time to set seal to vision and prophet is at hand, and the Lord will not hide from His own what He is about to do.
Still, however, there lingers in the minds of many Christians a strong objection to prophetic study, though surely a little able, honest consideration would convince them of their error. For more than a fourth part of the Bible is prophetic: and if God chooses to say so much, dare we refuse to listen? If He has bidden us attend to these truths, shall we turn away almost contemptuously, and say, It profiteth not? Certainly, if this be our course, we are setting up our own will in opposition to His, and would do well to inquire whether we really be in the faith or not. For, if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His (Romans 8:9). If, then, the Spirit loves to dwell on the future purposes of God, will not also the mind of every one that has that Spirit exhibit a similar desire? Must there not be identity of feeling? If the Spirit of God be really influencing us, should He not be accompanied in His testimony by our spirit?
In the commencement of the last of the sacred books we find a special blessing promised to readeth, and to them that hear the words of the prophecy (Revelation 1:3). This promise is not merely for him that readeth and is able to explain, nor only for them that hear and fully understand; but for all who read or hear with earnest attention, whether they be able to penetrate into the depths of the meaning or not. Nor is it difficult to see some of the channels through which the blessing flows. We will mention three of them.
First, then, the study of prophecy is commanded (2nd Peter 1:19), and we know generally that the grace of God follows every act of direct obedience on our part. If we search out even the most minute commands of His law, and do them ; if we show that we would not have a word uttered by Him fall to the ground, we testify both to ourselves and to others that we do in very deed, and not in word only, recognise Him as our God and our King, the Rightful Disposer of our every thought, word, and action.
Nor will He on His part be slow in acknowledging us as His subjects, as those who have a claim upon His aid and protection. He will give us grace to help in every time of need ; His covering shield will be quickly interposed when the black air begins to hurtle with the darts of the enemy; His strength, by which the worlds are sustained, will uphold us when our flesh and our heart are failing ; His almighty hand will clasp and guide us when the last impenetrable gloom begins to thicken around us, and a darkness that can indeed be felt veils the place on which we next must set our foot. Nor will His grasp slacken till He has drawn us through the night, and our eyes are dazzled as we behold that for which He had caused us to hope, the golden gates of the Paradise of God.
Secondly ; if a man read and believe prophecy, though he may not altogether understand it, he cannot at least avoid a strong conviction of the transitoriness of the present order of things, and is thus mightily helped in his efforts to look beyond it. We are all by nature inclined to positivism, and for the most part act practically, if we do not theoretically, upon the hypothesis that tilings always have been and always will be as they are; that no changes will ever take place, except such as may be brought about in an ordinary way by agencies already at work.
And the fact that prophecy instantly dispels this false security is the secret reason why, when God draws back the curtain of the future, men either shudder and turn sullenly away, or else explain what they see as no literal picture of that which must shortly come to pass, but as a figurative foreshadowing of something which they are careful to show is by no means alarming, and indeed nothing more than a natural result of existing influences. For they find it difficult to conceive a violent change such as they themselves have never experienced. They are quite willing to talk of development : they love to speak of the time when preachers will be more successful, and somehow contrive to persuade the whole human race out of its pride, its selfishness, and its general ungodliness: they delight to increase the influence of their own particular sect -- though in doing this they frequently confuse political power with the power of the Spirit, and are apt to forget who is the reigning Prince of this World and present dispenser of its brief glory.
Or, perhaps, they are cosmopolitan in their views, and affect to despise the narrow-minded restrictions of sect; while they altogether ignore the fact that they hold sufficiently defined opinions of their own, and are unyieldingly tenacious of them. And so, floating with the stream of a torrent which is now daily increasing in volume and impetuosity, they preach peace and good will towards all men from a beneficent God who has no idea of ever troubling us about sin, and predict a golden age of liberty, equality, and fraternity. And yet if you test in their own case the first absolutely indispensable condition of their Millennium, they will probably fail, in worse fashion than did the young lawyer, to prove that they love their neighbours as themselves, by going away not merely in sorrow but in wrath.
Such ideas, then, man will readily adopt: for they are all consistent with a continuance of the present order of things: they can all come to their perfection -- so he imagines -- without a violent shock, without any supernatural interference.
But he who with earnestness and faith looks down the great vista of futurity which God has opened is quickly penetrated by very different thoughts. He beholds the conflict between good and evil intensifying, until that which is good seems overcome and well nigh annihilated: then he feels the firm ground shaking and giving way beneath him: he looks, and, lo, all the cities of the nations are tottering in ruins upon the trembling earth: the sun is withdrawing its wonted light, the moon becomes as blood: the once solid objects around him wave and reel in confusion, like the breaking up and evanescence of a vivid dream. A sudden flash speeds through the gloom, and he sees the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven : he starts with affright as the red lightnings strike the earth : he gazes with awe upon the many slain of the Lord. And then at length a change passes over the scene : the thunders cease to roll, the flashing of the lightning is stayed ; and forth from smoke and ruin comes the earth, purified and fair as the garden of Eden; the towers and pinnacles of a noble city appear at the foot of Mount Zion, and from the summit of the mountain rises majestically the wondrous temple described by Ezekiel, before which all flesh shall come to worship the Lord.
For by the outstretched hand, and by the strong arm of the Almighty, and not by preaching, will the world be taught to acknowledge her Creator, and at last find rest from her feverish toil. The preaching of the Gospel in this present time is but for the calling out of an election according to the purpose of God, and for a witness to the rest of mankind. It is only, as Isaiah tells us, when the judgments of the Lord are in the earth that the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness (Isaiah 26:9).
These outlines, at least, the devout reader of prophecy will be able to trace : and so, when the close of this present age comes like a snare upon all them that dwell upon the face of the whole earth (Luke 21:35), it will find him prepared and undismayed.
Lastly; the study of prophecy reveals to us the mind and will of God. Seems this a light thing? Do we indeed despise the confidence of our Almighty Creator? Let us fear lest we so insult Him; lest, like swine, we trample on the pearls offered to us. And regarding them in this light, how great is the practical value of the prophetic Scriptures! For if we are already justified by Christ, we still have need of daily progress in sanctification, we should be ever becoming more and more transformed to the image of God. And to that end what greater help could we have than a revelation of His mind and purposes in regard to ourselves, our fellow-creatures, and the earth in which we dwell; an estimate by Him of all temporal things, of those visible surroundings by which we are continually affected, and His declaration of their speedy judgment and destruction.
Is it not a duty, to become minutely acquainted with all this; to meditate on it continually; to shape our wishes, hopes, and aspirations, from it; to bring our whole mind into accordance with it; to use our every endeavour to spread the knowledge of it among men; and so to prepare ourselves and others for that new order of things into which we either must enter individually at the unknown time of death, or may enter simultaneously at any moment by the long-expected return of our Lord and Saviour?