testimony of the Sacred Scriptures
"Then He said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken." (Luke xxiv. 25)
The Sacred Scriptures are the primary source of all our knowledge concerning the Second Coming of the Lord. In them He has revealed the fact and the manner in which this great event will take place. It is, therefore, of essential importance to a true knowledge of the subject that we should understand what their real teaching is. It is generally acknowledged by all honest minds that many and great difficulties lie in the way of gaining this accurate knowledge, and of learning distinctly and truly what the Lord has revealed to people about it. The language in which the manner of His coming is predicted is so vague, the signs which will precede and attest it, and the results which will be effected by it, are described in imagery so bold and extravagant, that it has been found impossible to get from them a satisfactory knowledge of the subject. Theologians are in doubt about the meaning of the signs and the events which are to precede and follow it, and even about the nature of the coming itself. They have not been able to decide whether the signs are literal or figurative, and they have found it impossible to disentangle the natural from the spiritual. They have been unable to discover the precise natural events referred to as the signs which are to precede and foreshadow His coming. There are wars and rumors of wars in all ages, earthquakes are not of uncommon occurrence, false prophets are constantly arising and deceiving many, iniquity always abounds, and the love of many waxes cold. How, then, can we determine which are the specific events which, as stars, must guide our judgment to a just conclusion? The inevitable result of this confusion of ideas is indefiniteness, variety, and even opposition of opinion.
As there is such a diversity of opinion about the facts which are the data for all our doctrines and reasonings upon this subject, it is hardly possible to arrive at true and rational conclusions without some new light upon them. If we mistake natural symbol for spiritual fact, and the appearances of truth for the truths themselves, we must inevitably come to false conclusions. In every investigation of the subject our first effort, therefore, should be to understand the Scriptures, to learn what they do really teach in their whole scope and spirit. If we succeed in doing this, we shall know for a certainty when and in what manner the Lord is coming. He has commanded us to watch for it, and there is no other way of genuine watching than using our best powers to gain the knowledge necessary to understand the signs which He has given us.
There are two methods of interpreting the language of the Sacred Scriptures, a natural and a spiritual method. They differ from one another as widely as the two methods of interpreting the facts of nature, which are the sensuous and the scientific. According to the sensuous method, the report of the senses is accepted as the genuine truth upon which we are to base our judgment and form our theories of the universe. The scientist looks to the inherent qualities of substances, and to their essential relations to one another, and regards the knowledge of them as the only data by which true principles can be established. By the former method we are constantly subject to the illusion of appearances; by the latter, we see them in their real and permanent order; and we can trust them to the uttermost. The results reached by these two methods differ as widely as the methods themselves. The miraculous changes which have been wrought in the material world by the aid of scientific knowledge have clearly demonstrated its immense superiority over sensuous knowledge in the service it can render to every human use.
According to the principles of the natural method, the Scriptures are written like any book of merely human composition, and they are to be interpreted by grammar and lexicon, according to the natural laws of language. As a rule, the literal, obvious, natural meaning is the true one. The truth revealed is bounded by the horizon of time and space. Spiritual truth is brought within the domain of nature, takes on the forms of nature, becomes natural, and the literal meaning of the words is to be taken as the measure of the spiritual meaning. Material facts and historical events are stated for the value of the facts themselves, to teach the truths they naturally convey, and to serve as data for such moral conclusions as the reader can draw from them. They have no meaning in the Bible which they would not have if used in any other book.
This principle of interpretation may be seen more clearly by examples than by abstract statement. According to it the words "earth" and "heavens" mean the same they do to the scientist. The creation of the heavens and the earth refers only to the creation of the material universe. Speech means merely vocal utterance when it refers to God, the same as it does when it refers to humankind. Prophecy foretells natural events or spiritual events which are to take place in the material world, and therefore under material conditions, and we must look to them for its fulfillment. Coming and going, when spoken of the Lord or of spiritual beings, mean the same as when applied to people and animals, and they mean no more than a passage from one place to another. Death is the dissolution of the material body, and resurrection its reorganization and the return of the soul to give it life. And, generally, the scope and form of the meaning of the Scriptures are natural, and subject to the laws of time and space.
It is true there are many passages in the Scriptures which cannot be so interpreted as all will admit. The natural meaning is sometimes contrary to all our ideas of what is proper and useful, and to the teachings of the Scriptures themselves in many other places. For example: they say we cannot be the disciples of the Lord without hating father and mother. They command us to pluck out the right eye, to cut of the right hand, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and even to let the dead bury the dead, while we follow the Lord. It is true, also, that the words are sometimes winged and rise from the earth into the realms of the spirit; but their wings are soon clipped, and they are kept as near the earth as possible. Spirit is brought into the domain of nature, and weighted and measured by it. If the language is sometimes transparent and a spiritual light shines through it, revealing heavenly forms, it is regarded as exceptional, and untrustworthy as a basis for doctrine. The only safe course consists in sticking to the letter. Spiritual truth as it appears in the natural forms of the letter is regarded as the genuine truth, from which our ideas of spirit are to be formed and our doctrines of religion are to be drawn.
The spiritual method reverses this order and process. According to this method, the spiritual meaning is the real one. The letter must be interpreted by the spirit. While the natural facts and historical events may have actually occurred, still they are not given primarily to teach natural truth, but to be a vehicle of communicating spiritual truth. Natural ideas bear the same relation to spiritual ideas that material words and natural sounds and actions bear to spiritual ideas. The spiritual realm is above nature, as the spirit of a person is above their body. It is governed by different laws, and when any natural actions or qualities are attributed to it, they must be understood in a sense applicable to spiritual subjects. For example: when we apply the terms sweet, sour, large, small, high, low, bright, dark, or motion of any kind to the spirit, we must understand them in a sense applicable to spirit and not to nature. According to the same law, the Sacred Scriptures, which were given to reveal spiritual and Divine truth, must be understood in a sense applicable to spiritual and Divine things.
When natural actions and qualities are attributed to the Lord, they must be understood in a sense applicable to His nature. The coming and going of Him who is omnipresent, cannot be like that of a person who travels through space. If the Lord has made a revelation of His nature and attributes and relations to people by means of natural actions and events, those actions and events must be understood according to the spiritual and Divine ideas embodied in them; they cannot be limited to the natural meaning without destroying their character as a revelation of spiritual and Divine truth.
This principle may be seen more clearly, perhaps, by taking the same examples already used in illustrating the natural method of interpretation. There are spiritual as well as material heavens and earths, and it is the Lord's primary purpose to create the spiritual, and to reveal to us how it is done, by telling us how the material earth and heavens were made. The account means more than the scientist imagines, and only so much is given as is essential to the purpose. The speech of God is something more than vocal utterance. It must mean those Divine activities which bear the same relation to speech that peoples’ ideas do to their words. Prophecy refers primarily to spiritual events, which can only take place in the spiritual world, and, therefore, cannot be measured by time and space, and no natural event could be its fulfillment. Coming and going, when attributed to the Lord, cannot mean passage through space; it cannot be a change in the immutable, but alterations of state in a person, by which the person comes into harmony or opposition to the Divine forces. Time and space have nothing to do with spiritual proximity or remoteness. The essential meaning of death must be the death of the soul, and resurrection must be a change in the soul from spiritual death to spiritual life.
According to this method of interpretation, the Sacred Scriptures are regarded from a spiritual point of view. The natural is given for the spiritual. From this point of view there are no contradictions, and no unmeaning phrases. Every word is winged with spiritual forces, and rises into the realms of the spirit. Every fact, however dry and material it may be, is an Aaron's rod which blossoms with spiritual truth. Through the cloud of the letter the sun of spiritual truth shines with clear and steady radiance, revealing new heavens and new earths, and new capacities in our own natures, for the reception of life from the Lord. It shows us the methods and laws by which the Lord can prepare a place for us in the mansions of the Father's house, and can come to us and take us unto Himself, that where He is we may be also. I propose to use both the natural and the, spiritual methods in the interpretation of those parts of Scripture which relate to the Second Coming. In this way we can see which is the most rational, which accords the most fully with the whole of Scripture, which reveals the Divine character in the clearest and most attractive light, and which leads to results the most worthy of infinite love and wisdom and omnipotent power.
The fairest and most effective way of testing the results of the natural method will be to examine the prophecies of the First Coming and their fulfillment. Here the circuit is complete. We have the prophecies and their fulfillment before us, and we can easily compare them, and judge for ourselves whether a natural interpretation will yield the well-established results.
In doing this we must endeavor to put ourselves in the spiritual point of view of the Jews to whom the prophecies were given. We must take the prophecies for what they could mean, and only for what they could mean, to the people to whom they were given. We must interpret them literally. It will not do to import our knowledge into them - a knowledge gained by many generations of experience and study in the light of events long since passed. Prophecy cannot be fully understood until it is fulfilled.
It is impossible to give a full exposition of the subject within the limits of a lecture. I can only consider some of the most prominent points. These, however, will be sufficient to establish the principle, and to show how important is its bearing upon the whole subject.
1. The prophecies clearly declare that the Lord would come as King of Israel. In Jeremiah (xxiii. 5, 6) it is said: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In His days Judah shall be saved; and Israel shall dwell safely : and this is His name whereby He shall be called, 'the Lord our righteousness.’" The same prophet, in the 33rd chapter from the fifteenth verse to the end, declares: "David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel;" that He had made a covenant with David which could not be broken, that he should never fail to have a son to reign upon his throne, and that He would multiply his seed until, like the hosts of heaven and the sand of the sea, they could not be numbered. It is promised as clearly as language can express an idea that David, through the royal line of his descendants who were to culminate in the Messiah, was to reign forever. The prophet Ezekiel, after declaring that Joseph and Ephraim should be united into one nation and that one king should rule over them, says (xxxvii. 24, 25), "And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one Shepherd : they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children's children forever and my servant David shall be their prince forever." In Psalm lxxxix. 3, 4, it is written, " I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant: Thy seed will I establish forever, and build up thy throne to all generations." The Lord is often called the King of Israel before He came into the world, and sometimes after He came. His entry into Jerusalem as the King of Israel was clearly foretold. The wise men from the east came to worship Him who was "born King of the Jews." Nathaniel said, " Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the King of Israel." But it is not necessary to multiply testimony to a fact which is generally acknowledged. The Sacred Scriptures unequivocally declare that Jehovah, who was to come into the world as the Lord Jesus Christ, was to come as the King of the Jews, the King of Israel. The Jews expected Him to come as their king, with the power and glory foretold by the prophets.
The conception of a king in the minds of the Jews was a purely natural one. They had no idea that the word could mean anything more than a civil ruler. The history of their own nation supplied them with conspicuous examples, in the persons of David and Solomon, of the quality of kings, and what they could do for a people. It did not shake their confidence in the promises contained in their Sacred Writings that there were some things connected with those promises which would be difficult if not impossible of fulfillment. They looked at the main subject. It did not awaken any doubts in their minds of the possibility of a literal execution of the prophecies, because they were so grand and comprehensive. That was fully in accord with their ways of thinking.
They expected a king who would establish his throne at Jerusalem on an imperishable basis, with a splendor more glorious than Solomon's, and a power greater than David's. Their hearts warmed with an inward delight at the thought of the vengeance He would take upon their adversaries, and swelled with joy at the visions of universal dominion promised their nation. Even the disciples believed the Lord was to be a civil ruler, and they were looking forward with bright hopes of occupying high places in His kingdom, when He should take the reins of power in His own hand. They even disputed with one another about the positions they hoped to occupy. By redemption they understood release from the galling servitude of a foreign yoke. The enemies from whose hand they hoped for deliverance were the Romans and the other nations who had conquered and made them captive. They had no idea of any invisible and more terrible foes to whom they were subject. Their thoughts and of actions did not pass beyond the horizon of this natural life.
This is evident from their terrible disappointment when they were told by the Lord that He was to be crucified; by their desertion of Him in His hour of trial, their disbelief in His resurrection, and their return to their humble employments when they supposed that His mission had failed. They told the whole story of their disappointment when they said to the apparent stranger who joined them on their way to Emmaus, "We trusted it had been He who was to redeem Israel." The Lord recognized and rebuked this purely natural state of their understanding when He replied, " O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken." Would He not have just occasion to administer the same rebuke to many who claim to be His disciples and the expositors of what the prophets and He Himself have foretold concerning His Second Coming, for the pure naturalism of their interpretation?
2. The prophecies concerning Jerusalem and the Jewish people also give ample testimony to the fact that they cannot be naturally interpreted. The most remarkable statements are made concerning the beauty and power and glory and perpetuity of that celebrated city. The Lord declares by the mouth of His prophets that "He will rejoice in Jerusalem;" that " it shall be a crown of glory in the hand of Jehovah, and a royal diadem in the hand of God;" that "it shall be a city of holiness, and the unclean shall no more come into her;" that the King of Israel is in the midst of her;" that " Jerusalem shall be the throne of Jehovah, and all nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of Jehovah, to Jerusalem." Even the glories of nature are to be eclipsed when the Lord takes up His abode in her. "Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of Hosts shall reign in Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before His ancients gloriously" (Isaiah xxiv. 23). I might take up many other points in the prophecies concerning the First Advent, to the same import, which were never literally, and which cannot be literally, accomplished. But those I have adduced are sufficient for my purpose. Let us look at them in the light of history.
What testimony could be stronger and more direct than that the Messiah was to be King of the Jews, and to set up His glorious throne in Jerusalem? But, in the natural meaning of the word, He never was a king. On the contrary, He held no civil office; He did not perform any civil functions. "He was despised and rejected of men." He did not set up His throne in Jerusalem, from which He issued mandates to the subject nations. His royal palace was the humble dwelling of a carpenter. The grand apartments in which He was born were a stable, and His bed of down, a manger. He was poorer than the beasts. "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head." His imperial retinue was a few illiterate fishermen, and people from the humblest walks of life, who wandered with Him from village to village; His sceptre was a reed, His diadem a crown of thorns, and His throne a cross.
The people who were to welcome Him as their sovereign, and to become the joy and rejoicing of His heart, never admitted His claims. They denied His descent from the royal line of David; they despised and rejected Him and His doctrines; they ridiculed His pretensions, accused and condemned Him to death for the rumor that He claimed the office which the prophets had given Him, and with wicked and bloody hands they crucified Him who, according to the plainest predictions, was to reign over them forever.
Jerusalem, the holy city, the joy of the whole earth, the peaceable habitation, the "royal diadem in the hand of God," " the city of holiness," whose glories were to outshine the splendors of the sun, has been the scene of the direst conflicts. Its temple has been destroyed, its inhabitants driven into exile, its streets trodden by the feet of infidels, and the nation which was to be multiplied as the sands of the sea, which was to rule the world, and be enriched by the gold and the service of all peoples, and which was to endure to all generations, has had no country and no home and no existence for [twenty] centuries.
It is impossible to conceive of events more remote and diverse from those so clearly predicted. It is not surprising that the Jews could not see in Jesus Christ the glorious King the prophets had described. When viewed in a purely natural light, and judged by the ideas of the people and the knowledge of the age, He did not answer to the predictions concerning Him, except in some minor and apparently unimportant particulars. Tell the Jew of that day that the natural things and acts mentioned were not the ones meant, and they would laugh you to scorn. Did not they know what a king was? Could you persuade them that by Jerusalem is meant some ideal state of society? Tell them that there is a grander temple in every human soul than even Solomon's itself, that there is a realm in every mind wider than Judea, or even the whole world, and a more august throne than David's or Caesar's, and they would think you had lost your reason. They would say, as the literalists of the present time say with regard to the Second Coming, - We want a real and substantial king, one that is cognizable by the senses; we want the pomp and circumstance of a natural and imperial government; we want to see the king's face, and hear his voice, and to know that his throne has a permanent locality; we want to have his enemies feel the crushing hand of his power, and to see the captive nations come bending the knee to him. And they could say it with as much weight of authority and right of reason.
But we must not leave the subject with only this reverse side of the picture before us. Let us regard the prophecies concerning the First Coming from a spiritual point of view, and see how the whole aspect is changed; how every jot and tittle of the promise is fulfilled.
He was to come as a king of the royal line of David. He came as the Word - as Divine truth - and truth is the universal king. He declared this when He was asked by Pilate, "Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth." By this answer He practically assents to the truth implied in Pilate's question, and declares that He is king because He is the truth. Truth is king. Where there is any just government it is administered by the truth. Truth acquits, and truth condemns. Truth regulates, guides, controls, and rewards. How wonderfully its dominion has extended over the realms of nature during the last century! Mind is taking the place of instinct, and rational knowledge of sensuous appearances. This vast extension of the sway of mind over matter is but the shadow of the power of Divine truth. This power is quietly but steadily working its way and establishing its kingdom in the minds of all of us, and it will continue to destroy error and extend its dominion until "all the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ; and he shall reign forever."
David also represents the Divine truth, and his whole history is a bold and true picture of the conflicts of truth with error, of its defeats and victories, its sufferings and labors to establish its kingdom, and its triumphs and songs of victory. The royal line of David can never become extinct, and he can never want a man to sit upon his throne, until Divine truth shall perish and the Lord Himself shall cease to rule. His throne is the essential principles of the Divine order; it has omnipotence for its power, and infinite wisdom for its direction.
From a spiritual point of view, the real, permanent Jerusalem is a spiritual society organized by the principles of Divine truth. The earthly Jerusalem was only a type and shadow of the real one. The Church, which is the true Jerusalem, is the Lord's kingdom on the earth. This kingdom He is in the constant effort to establish. But by Church we must understand something more than a name, or a sect. It is a society governed by heavenly principles, living a heavenly life. So far as any person or any society of people possesses a knowledge of Divine truth, and live according to it, the Lord is their King, His throne is established in their understandings, and His love in their affections. He dwells in them, and they in Him.
When we rise into the spiritual plane of the creation, we ascend above time and space; we come into the domain of principles, of states of being and life. These principles are as immutable as the source from which they emanate. A human being, a function of office, a nation, a material city, or a natural object may represent them in one or more of their forms or activities, and then pass away, while the truth remains the same. The Israelites represented the principles of a heavenly society, and their history is employed by the Lord to reveal those principles to us in a form in which every one, even the ignorant, even "the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein." They were not a heavenly society, but quite the reverse of it. Yet they were of such a nature that they could be made to represent one.
Regarding Jerusalem as the representative of the heavenly principles which constitute the Church on the earth, and the Israelites as representing the people who compose the Church, we can see how every prediction concerning the upbuilding and destruction, the beauty and deformity, the prosperity and adversity, the glory and the shame of the earthly city, has been and is in the process of being literally fulfilled in regard to the Church. All the suffering, shame, and death which have come upon the Church by error and sin, and all the power, life, and blessedness which are the fruits of obedience to the Divine laws, have their earthly symbols and embodiment in the history of that remarkable city.
It is true that God is in the principles which Jerusalem represents. He "sets up His throne" in them; He "dwells" in them. Jerusalem is a "quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken." This Jerusalem is a" holy city," "the joy of the whole earth," " a royal diadem in the hand of thy God," whose glories were to outshine the sun. It is from this Jerusalem that the law goes forth which is to subdue the nations, and to which all people are to gather and bend the knee and bow the heart in submission. Not one "jot or tittle" of the prophetic promises concerning her can fail of literal and exact fulfillment.
Such is the difference in result between the natural and spiritual methods of interpreting the Word. By the natural method we mistake the appearances of truth for the truth itself. Those who adopt this rule of interpretation are compelled to resort to many shifts and devices to make one part coincide with another; to substitute suppositions for established facts,, and even then to spiritualize after their own fashion many things which they cannot dispose of literally. By this practice truths entirely distinct are brought together. Symbol and fact, matter and spirit are unequally yoked together. Spiritual principles, which are universal and eternal, are brought within the limits of time and space, and, as an inevitable consequence, their light is dimmed, the true meaning of the symbol is perverted, and the mind which seeks to understand it is distracted and led into endless perplexities. ' The history of opinions and doctrines upon all spiritual questions gives abundant testimony to the tact that such are the logical results of abiding in the letter which killeth.
The spiritual method, while more specific and exact, giving no room for any play of fancy to those who follow its laws, deals with principles which are ever the same, under whatever form they may appear, and by whatever symbols they may be expressed. We are led by them into order and harmony. Apparent difficulties vanish, and we come into clearer light and a larger life. "The spirit maketh alive." The temporal points to the eternal; the real shines through the apparent, as the sun through clouds, as the light of science through sensuous appearances. We rise above the obscuring mists of the senses into the serene atmosphere of stable principles, from which we can see the spiritual meaning of the wildest visions of the prophets and the plainest facts of history. By following this light we can hardly fail to come to rational and satisfactory conclusions.
We have now gained position from whose clear heights we can understand the predictions of the Second Coming. We learn from the Word itself, and from the history of events during the last [twenty] centuries, that the prophecies concerning the First Advent were not literally fulfilled in their plainest and essential declarations. We have also seen that in the highest and noblest sense, in their application to the spiritual history of the human race, and in the relations of the Lord as a Divine Being to them, they were fulfilled to the letter. Are we not justified, then, by the Lord Himself in following the same principles, and in using the same methods, in interpreting the signs and predictions of the Second Coming? Is it not logical, rational, and in accordance with the practice and plainest teaching of our Lord when He was upon the earth, to take the highest rather than the lowest, the spiritual rather than the natural, the universal rather than the local and personal, meaning of the words He uses to convey Divine truth to us? If doubts still remain in the mind of any lover of the Word that this may not be the true method of interpreting its language; if any fears exist that it may tend to dissipate the force and divert the special aim of revelation, we trust that the results, as we proceed in examining the subject, will not only dispel his doubts and quiet his fears, but will demonstrate that the spiritual method of interpretation intensifies the force of every prohibition and commandment, and, while it elevates their meaning into a new world of truth and life, it gives direct and specific aim to their application.