The Bible—What It is, and How to Interpret It
“The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine.… They shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Tim. 4:3, 4).
“Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).
“There shall be false teachers among you … and many shall follow their pernicious ways, by reason of whom, the way of truth shall be evil spoken of” (II Pet. 2:1, 2).
“Try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).
“Their word will eat as doth a canker” (II Tim. 2:17).
“All nations deceived” (Rev. 18:23).
“TO THE LAW AND TO THE TESTIMONY: IF THEY SPEAK NOT ACCORDING TO THIS WORD, IT IS BECAUSE THERE IS NO LIGHT IN THEM” (Isaiah 8:20).
That Christendom is astray from the system of doctrine and practice established by the labours of the apostles in the first century, is recognised by men of very different ways of thinking. The unbeliever asserts it without fear; the church partisan admits it without shame, and all sorts of middle men are of opinion that it would be a misfortune were it otherwise. The unbeliever, while himself rejoicing in the fact, uses it as a reproach to those who profess to follow the apostles whom he openly rejects; the churchman, while owning the apostles as the foundation, regards it as the inevitable result of the spiritual prerogative vested in “the church,” that there should be further unfoldings of light and truth leading away from the primitive form of things; and the moderate and indifferent class accept it as a necessary and welcome result of the advance of the times, with which they think the original apostolic institution has become inconsistent.
Is there not another meaning to the fact? To such as have confidence in the Bible as a divine record, the quotations standing at the head of this chapter must suggest a view of the present state of things very different from that entertained by the common run of religious professors. Do not these quotations require us to believe that it was in the apostolic foresight (a foresight imparted to them by that presence of the Holy Spirit which Jesus before his departure promised he would secure for them during Iris absence—John 14:7; 16:13)—that the time coming was a time of departure from what they preached—when men indulging in “fables” and walking in “pernicious ways,” would wholly turn aside from the saving institutions of the gospel delivered by them, and realise the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy as to the state of things upon earth just before the manifestation of God’s glory at the appearing of Christ, viz., that “darkness should cover the earth and gross darkness the people”? (Isa. 60:2). Such a view may bring lamentable conclusions, and be fruitful of personal embarrassments in a state of society where a man cannot prosper unless he fall down and worship the current “doxy.” But an earnest mind will not be debarred by such considerations from the investigation of a momentous topic. “What is the truth?” is the engrossing question of men of this type, and they follow wherever the answer may lead them, even “to prison and death,” if that were possible in our age.
We propose this investigation in the following lectures. Such subjects have been supposed to pertain exclusively to the clerical province. Obviously, it is not a likely theme for a clergyman to discuss whether the whole system of clericalism itself be not a departure from Bible truth. It is not one which he is specially fitted to consider. And, in point of fact, it is more and more generally conceded that questions of Bible truth are matters of non-professional understanding and concern. Nothing but an untrammelled individual knowledge of the Bible will satisfy the earnest curiosity that would know what the truth is amid the intellectual turmoils, questionings and collisions of modern times. If the Bible is God’s voice to every man that has ears to hear (which it demonstrably is), it is for every man by himself, and for himself, to seek to understand it, and to extend the benefit he may have received.
Qualification for this is not a question of “ordination”: it comes with enlightenment. And not only qualification, but obligation comes with this enlightenment. As soon as a man understands and believes the gospel, he is bound to lend himself as an instrument for its diffusion. The command is direct from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself: “Let him that heareth say, COME” (Rev. 22:17); the example of the early Christians affords unmistakable illustration of the meaning of the command (Acts 8:1–4). Tradition clings to “holy orders.” Of these we hear nothing in the Scripture. Apostolic teaching inculcates the common-sense view that the truth of God is designed to make propagandists of all who receive it.
The subject of this afternoon’s lecture is the natural starting point of all endeavours to ascertain what the Bible teaches. We want to know what the Bible is in itself, and on what principles it is to be understood. On the first of these points, we must take a good deal for granted. We shall assume throughout these lectures that the Bible is a book of Divine authorship. Our present duty is simply to look at the structure and character of the Bible as a book appearing before us with a professedly divine character taken for granted. Looking at it in this way, we first discover that the Bible consists in reality of a number of books written at different times by different authors. It opens with five, familiarly known as the “five books of Moses,” a history written by Moses, of matters and transactions in which he performed a leading personal part. This history occupies a position of first importance. It lays the basis of all that follows. Commencing with an account of the creation and peopling of the earth, it chiefly treats of the origin and experience of the Jewish nation, of whom Moses says, “The Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto Himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth” (Deut. 14:2). The five books also contain the laws (very elaborately stated), which God delivered by the hand of Moses, for the constitution and guidance of the nation.
It has become fashionable, under various learned sanctions, to question the authenticity of these books, while admitting the possible genuineness of the remaining portions of the Sacred Record. Without attempting to discuss the question, we may remark that it is impossible to reconcile this attitude with allegiance to Christ. You cannot reject Moses while accepting Christ. Christ endorsed the writings of Moses. He said to the Jews by the mouth of Abraham in parable: “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them; if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:29, 31). It is also recorded that when he appeared incognito to two of his disciples after his resurrection, “beginning at MOSES and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Further, he said, “Had ye believed Moses; ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But IF YE BELIEVE NOT HIS WRITINGS, HOW SHALL YE BELIEVE MY WORDS?” (John 5:46, 47). If Christ was divine, this sanction of the Pentateuch by him settles the question; if the Pentateuch is a fiction, Christ was a deceiver, whether consciously or otherwise. There is no middle ground. Moses and Christ stand or fall together.
The next twelve books present the history of the Jews during a period of several centuries, involving the development of the mind of God to the extent to which that was unfolded in the message prophetically addressed to the people in the several stages of their history. This gives them more than a historical value. They exhibit and illustrate divine principles of action, while furnishing an accurate account of the proceedings of a nation which was itself a monument of divine work on the earth, and the repository of divine revelation. The book of Job is no exception as to divinity of character. It does not, however, pertain to Israel nationally. It is a record of divine dealings with a Son of God, at a time when that nation had no existence. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, are the inspired writings of two of Israel’s most illustrious kings—writings in which natural genius is supplemented with preternatural spirit-impulse, in consequence of which the writings so produced are reflections of divine wisdom, and by no means of merely human origin. This is proved by Christ’s declarations in the New Testament.
In the books of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, we are presented with a most important department of “Holy Writ.” In these seventeen books—respectively bearing the names of the writers—we find recorded a multitudinous variety of messages transmitted from the Deity to the “prophets,” for the correction and enlightenment of Israel. These messages are valuable beyond all conception. They contain information concerning God otherwise inaccessible, and instructions as to acceptable character and conduct, otherwise unobtainable; in addition to which they have a transcendent value from their disclosure of God’s purpose in the future, in which we naturally have the highest interest, but of which, naturally, we are in the greatest and most helpless ignorance.
Coming to the New Testament, we are furnished in the first four books with a history which has no parallel in the range of literature. The Messiah promised in the prophets, appointed of God to deliver our suffering race from all the calamities in which it is involved, appears: and here are recorded His doings and His sayings, What wonderful deeds! What wonderful words! We are constrained in the reading to exclaim with the disciples on the sea of Galilee: “What manner of man is this?” He entrusted his apostles with a mission to the world at large. In the Acts of the Apostles we have made plain to us in a practical way, what Christ intended them to do as affecting ourselves. In the same book we have the proceedings of the primitive Christians, written for our guidance as to the real import of the commandments of Christ, and the real scope and nature of the work of Christ among men. The remainder of the New Testament is made up of a series of epistles, addressed by the inspired apostles to various Christian communities, after they had been organised by the apostolic labours. These letters contain practical instruction in regard to the character which Christians ought to cultivate, and in a general and incidental way illustrate the higher aspects of the truth as it is in Jesus. Without these epistles, we should not have been able to comprehend the Christian system in its entirety. Their absence would have been a great blank; and we in this remote age should hardly have been able to lay hold on eternal life.
Such is a scant outline of the book we call “the Bible.” Composed of many books, it is yet one volume, complete and consistent with itself in all its parts, presenting this singular literary spectacle, that while written by men in every situation of life—from the king to the shepherd—and scattered over many centuries in its composition, it is pervaded by absolute unity of spirit and identity of principle. This is unaccountable on the hypothesis of a human authorship. No similarly miscellaneous production is like it in this respect. Heterogeneousness, and not uniformity, characterises any collection of human writings of the ordinary sort, even if belonging to the same age. But here is a book written by forty authors, living in different ages, without possible concert or collusion, producing a book which in all its parts is pervaded by one spirit, one doctrine, one design, and by an air of sublime authority which is its peculiar characteristic. Such a book is a literary miracle. It is impossible to account for its existence upon ordinary principles. The futile attempts of various classes of unbelievers is evidence of this. On its own principles it is accounted for God spoke to, and by, its authors “at sundry times and in divers manners.” This is no mere profession on the part of the writers. It is shewn to be a true profession not only of the character of the book and the fulfilment of its prophecies, but by the fact that nearly all the writers sealed their testimony with their own blood, after a life of submission to every kind of disadvantage—“trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonments; were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword, wandered about in sheep skins and goat skins, in deserts and mountains; in dens and caves of the earth—being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (Heb. 11:36–38). To suppose the Bible to be human is to raise insurmountable difficulties, and to do violence to every reasonable probability. The only truly rational theory of the book is that supplied by itself. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). In this we find an explanation of the whole matter. The presence of one supreme guiding mind, inspiring and controlling the utterances of the authors, completely accounts for their agreement of teaching throughout, and for the exalted nature of their doctrines: on any other supposition the book is a riddle, which must ever puzzle and bewilder the mind that earnestly faces all the facts of the case.
There are, unfortunately, those who hold the book in contempt as a priestly imposture. There are few who do so as the result of individual investigation. It is the result of writings which are not careful about facts, or scrupulous in the use they make of them. The result is lamentable to those deceived. They reject the only book which can possibly be a revelation from the Deity, and they throw away their only chance of immortality; for surely if there be a book on earth that contains the revealed will of God, that book is the Jewish Bible; and if there be a possibility of deliverance from the evils of this life—the corruptibility of our physical organisation, the weakness of our moral powers, the essential badness of a great portion of the race, the misconstruction of the social fabric, the bad government of the world—that possibility is made known to us in this book, and brought within our reach by it. By his rejection of the Bible, the unbeliever sacrifices an immense present advantage. He deprives himself of the consolations that come with the Bible’s declarations of God’s love for man. He loses the comfort of its glorious promises, which have such power to cheer the mind in distress. He cuts himself away from all the moral heroism which they impart; he sacrifices the abiding support which they give; the soul-elevating teaching which they contain; the noble affection they engender; the solace they afford in time of trouble; the strength they give in the hour of temptation; the nobleness and interest which they throw around a frittering mortal life. And what does he get in exchange? Nothing, unless it be licence to feel himself his own master for a few mortal years, to sink at last comfortless and despairing into the jaws of a remorseless and eternal grave!
The effect of the Bible is to make the man who studies it, better, happier and wiser. It is vain for the leaders of unbelief to assert the contrary; all facts are against them. To say that it is immoral in its tendencies, is to propound a theory, and not to speak in harmony with the most palpable of facts. To declare that it makes men unhappy, is to speak against the truth; the tormented experience of the orthodox hallucinated is no argument to the contrary, when it becomes manifest, as it will in the course of these lectures, that the Bible is no ways responsible for these hallucinations. To parade the history of unrighteous government and tyrannical priest-craft in support of such propositions, is to betray either ignorance or shallowness or malice. Many are deluded by such a line of argument, and have the misfortune, in many instances, to become conscientiously impressed with the idea that the Bible is an imposture. Such are objects of pity; in the majority of instances they are hopelessly wedded to their view.
It does not come within the scope of the present lecture to deal with the vexed but settleable question of Bible authenticity. Sufficient now to remark that the person who is not convinced by the moral evidence presented to his understanding on a calm and independent study of the Holy Scriptures, in conjunction with the historical evidences of the facts which constitute the basis of its literary structure, is not likely to be altered in his persuasion by elaborate argument. The plan of trying to show what it teaches, and thereby commending it to every man’s sober judgment, will be found the most profitable. Here it may be well to notice an aspect of the question not often taken into account in the discussions which frequently take place on the subject.
The modern tendency to disbelieve the Bible must be traceable to some cause. Where shall we look for that cause? The moral inconsistency of professing Christians has, no doubt, done something to shake the faith of many; the natural lawlessness of the human mind is also an element in the various attempts to get rid of a book which exalts the authority of God over the will of man; but is there not another fruitful source of unbelief in the doctrinal tenets of the very religion professed to be derived from the Bible itself? The result of these lectures will be to show that in the course of religious history there has been a great departure from the truth revealed by the prophets and apostles, and that the religious systems of the present day are an incongruous mixture of truth and error that tends, more than anything else, to perplex and baffle the devout and intelligent mind, and to prepare the way for scepticism. Do you mean to say, asks the incredulous enquirer, that the Bible has been studied by men of learning for eighteen centuries without being understood? and that the thousands of clergymen and ministers set apart for the very purpose of ministering in its holy things are all mistaken? A moment’s reflection ought to induce moderation and patience in the consideration of these questions. It will be admitted, as a matter of history, that in the early ages, Christianity became so corrupted as to lose even the form of sound doctrine—that for more than ten centuries, Roman Catholic superstition was universal, and enshrouded the world in moral, intellectual, and religious darkness, so gross as to procure for that period of the world’s history the epithet of “the dark ages.” Here then is a long period unanimously disposed of with a verdict in which all Protestants, at least, will agree, viz., “Truth almost absent from the earth though the Bible was in the hands of the teachers.” Recent centuries have witnessed the “Reformation,” which has given us liberty to exercise the God-given right of private judgment. This is supposed to have also inaugurated an era of gospel light. About this there will not be so much unanimity, when investigation takes place. Protestants are in the habit of believing that the Reformation abolished all the errors of Rome, and gave us the truth in its purity. Why should they hold this conclusion? Were the reformers inspired? Were Luther, Calvin, John Knox, Wycliffe, and other energetic men who brought about the change in question infallible? If they were so, there is an end to the controversy: but no one will take this position who is competent to form an opinion on the subject. If the Reformers were not inspired and infallible, is it not right and rational to set the Bible above them, and to try their work by the only standard test which can be applied in our day? Consider this question: Was it likely the Reformers should at once, and in every particular, emancipate themselves from the spiritual bondage of Romish tradition? Was it to be expected that from the midst of great darkness there should instantly come out the blaze of truth? Was it not more likely that their achievements in the matter would only be partial, and that their new-born Reformation would be swaddled with many of the rags and tatters of the apostate church against which they rebelled? History and Scripture show that this was the case—that though it was a “glorious Reformation,” in the sense of liberating the human intellect from priestly thraldom, and establishing individual liberty in the discussion and discernment of religious truth, it was a very partial Reformation, so far as doctrinal rectification was concerned—that but a very small part of the truth was brought to light, and that many of the greatest heresies of the church of Rome were retained, and still continue to be the groundwork of the Protestant Church.
Such as it was, however, the Reformation became the basis of the religious systems of Germany and England. Reformation doctrines were adopted and incorporated in these systems and institutions, and boys, sent to college in youth, were trained to advocate and expound them, and indoctrined by means of catechisms, text books, treatises, and not by the study of the Scriptures themselves; and on issuing forth to the full-blown dignities and responsibilities of theological life, these boys, grown into men, had to remain true to what they had learnt at the risk of all that is dear to men. It is not wonderful in such circumstances that they did not get farther than the Lutheran Reformation. The position was not favourable to the exercise of independent judgment. Men so trained were prone to acquiesce in what they were brought up to, from the mere force of habit and interest, sanctioned and strengthened no doubt by the belief that it was, and must of necessity be, true. And this is the position of the clergy of the present day. The system is unchanged. The pulpit continues to be an institution for which a man must have a special training. With a continuance of the system, we can understand how the religious teachers of the people may be grievously in error, while possessing all the apparent advantages of superior learning.
It may be suggested that the extensive circulation of the Bible among the people is a guarantee against serious mistake. It ought to be so; and would be so if the people did not, with almost one accord, leave the Bible to their religious leaders. The people are too much engrossed in the common occupations of life to give the Bible the study which it requires. They do not, with few exceptions, give it that common attention which the commonest of common sense would prescribe. They believe what they are taught if they believe at all. They cannot tell you why they so believe. Everything is taken for granted. Of course, there are exceptions; but the rule is to receive unquestioningly the doctrines of early days. Sometimes it happens that a thoughtful reader comes upon something which he has a difficulty in reconciling with received notions. There are two ways in which the thing comes to nought. The clergyman or minister is consulted; he gives a decided opinion, which, however arbitrary and unsupported, is accepted as final. If the enquirer is not satisfied, his business or his “connection” with the congregation suggests to him the expediency of keeping silent on “untaught questions.” If, on the other hand, he be of the reverential and truly conscientious type, though unable to satisfy himself of the correctness of the explanation prescribed, he thinks of the array of virtue and learning on the side of the suspected doctrine, and concluding that his own judgment must be at fault, he thinks the safest course is to receive the professional dictum; and so the difficulty is hushed up, and what might prove the discovery of Scriptural truth is strangled in the inception. Thus, you see, the great system of religious error is protected from assault in the most effectual manner, and is consequently perpetuated from day to day with effects that are lamentable in every way. Through lack of the understanding that might be attained by the independent and earnest study of the Scriptures, the Bible and science are supposed to be in conflict, with the result of generating a practical unbelief, which is rising like a tide threatening to sweep everything before it. The unconcerned are becoming confirmed in their indifference, and the intelligent among devout persons are growing uneasy with a feeling that their position is unsound at the foundation. It is easy to prescribe a remedy—a something that would prove to be a remedy if it could be generally applied; but it is hopeless to see any effectual remedy, so far as the mass are concerned, apart from that manifestation of divine power and wisdom that will take place at Christ’s return. Nevertheless, the remedy is available in individual cases. Let earnest-minded people throw aside tradition. Let them rise to a true sense of their individual responsibility. Let them emancipate themselves from the idea that theoretical religion is the business of the pulpit. Let them realise that it is their duty to go to the Bible for themselves. If they study diligently and devotedly, they will make a startling but not unwelcome discovery; they will discover something that will make them astonished they ever regarded popular religion as the truth of God. They will attain to what many an intelligent mind anxiously desires, but despairs of obtaining; a foundation on which the highest and most searching exercise of reason will be in harmony with the most fervent and childlike faith.
We pass to the second part of the subject: “How to interpret the Bible.” We get an introduction to this in the words of Paul to Timothy—“The Scriptures are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (II Tim. 3:15). Here we have apostolic authority for the statement that the Scriptures “make wise.” How is this effect produced? Obviously, by the communication of ideas to the mind. But how are these ideas communicated? There is only one answer: by the language it employs. Hence, it ought not to be a matter of difficulty to determine how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. It ought to be easy to maintain that, with certain qualifications, the Bible means what it says. And it is so. This emphasis of a very simple and obvious truth may seem superfluous, but it is rendered necessary by the prevalence of a theory which practically neutralises this truth as applied to the Bible. By this theory, it is supposed and assumed that the Bible is not to be understood by the ordinary rules of speech, but is couched in language used in a non-natural sense, which has to be construed, and rendered, and interpreted in a skilled manner. What we mean will be apparent, if we suppose it were said to an orthodox friend, “The Bible, as a written revelation from God, must be written in language capable of being understood by those to whom it is sent.” To this abstract proposition there is no doubt he would agree. But suppose his attention were directed to the following statements of Scripture: “The Lord God shall give unto him (Jesus) the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32), “and he shall be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2), and “shall reign over them in Mount Zion” (Micah 4:7). For the same Jesus that ascended to heaven shall come again in like manner as he ascended (Acts 1:11). “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him” (Psa. 72:8, 11.) for he shall come in the clouds of heaven, and there shall be given unto him a kingdom, glory and dominion, that all peoples, nations, and languages may serve and obey him (Dan. 7:13–14); and “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 24:23).
And suppose, on the reading of these statements, the remark were made, “It seems plain from this that Christ is coming to the earth again, and that on his return, he will set aside all existing rule upon the earth and reign personally in Jerusalem, as universal king,”—what would he say? It is not a matter of surmise. The answer is supplied by thousands of cases of actual experience. “Oh! no such thing!” is the instant response; “what the prophet says is spiritual in its import. Jerusalem means the church, and the coming of Christ again to reign means that the time is coming when he will be supreme in the hearts and affections of men.”
This is the method of treating the words of Scripture to which we have referred. It cannot be justified on the plea that the Bible directs us so to understand its words. There are, in fact, no formal instructions on the subject. The Bible comes before us to tell us certain things, and it performs its office in a direct and sensible way, going at once to its work without any scholastic preliminaries, taking it for granted that certain words represent certain ideas, and using those words in their current significance. The best evidence of this is to be found in the correspondence between its terms, literally understood and the events they relate to. The events which form the burden of them are fortunately, in hundreds of cases, open to universal knowledge in such a way that there can be no mistake about them, and themselves supply an accessible easily-applied and recognisable standard for determining the bearing of Scripture statements.
Take a prophecy:—
“I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries into desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours, and I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it, and I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you; and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste” (Lev. 26:31–33). “And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee” (Deut. 28:37).
There is no dispute about the mode in which this has been fulfilled. The sublimest spiritualisticism is bound to recognise the fact that the subject of these words is the literal nation of Israel and their land, and that in fulfilment of the prediction they contain, the real Israel were driven from their real, literal land, which became really and literally desolate, as it is this day, and that Israel has become a literal byword and a reproach throughout the earth. This being so, on what principle are we to reject a literal construction of the following?—
“I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they shall be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and ONE KING shall be king to them all; and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all” (Ezek. 37:21, 22).
It is usual, with this and other similar predictions of a future restoration of Israel and their reinstatement as a great people under the Messiah, to contend that they mean the future glory and extension of the Church. That such an understanding of them can be maintained in the face of the fulfilled prophecies of Israel’s calamities will not be contended for by the reflecting mind.
Take another instance:—
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2).
How was this fulfilled? Turn to Matthew 2, 1:—
“Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King.”
The fulfilment of the prophecy was in exact accordance with a literal understanding of the words employed, as every one is aware.
In Zechariah, chap. 9:9, we read:—
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation, lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass.”
It is difficult to conjecture what the spiritualistic method of interpretation would have made of this as a still unfulfilled prophecy. That it would have expected the Messiah to condescend so far as to ride on the literal creature mentioned in the prophecy, is highly improbable in view of the surprised incredulity with which the idea is received that Christ will sit upon a real throne, and be personally present on earth during the coming age. All conjecture is excluded by the fulfilment of the prophecy in a way that compels a literal interpretation.
Matt. 21:1–7—“Jesus sent two disciples, saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her; loose them and bring them unto me … And the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. ALL THIS WAS DONE THAT IT MIGHT BE FULFILLED WHICH WAS SPOKEN BY THE PROPHET, SAYING, ETC.
The event that fulfilled the prophecy was the event spoken of in the prophecy. So it is with all fulfilled prophecies. They came to pass exactly as the terms of the prediction, plainly and literally understood, would have led us to expect; that is, a certain thing was plainly predicted, and that thing came to pass. Is not this a rule for the understanding of unfulfilled prophecy?
But, it will be asked, is there no such thing as figure in the Scriptures? Is there no such thing as predicting events in language that will not bear a literal construction, such as describing the Messiah as “a stone,” “a branch,” “a shepherd,” etc.? True, but this does not interfere with the literal understanding of prophecy. It is a separate element in the case coexisting with the other without destroying it. Metaphor is one thing; literal speech is another. Both have their functions, and each is so distinct from the other, that ordinary discrimination can recognise and separate them, though mixed in the same sentence. This will be evident on a little reflection.
We use metaphor in common speech without causing obscurity. We are never at a loss to perceive the metaphor when it is employed, and to understand its meaning. We never fall into the mistake of confounding the metaphorical with the literal. The difference between them is too obvious for that. When we talk of tyrants “trampling the rights of their subjects under their feet,” we mix the literal with high metaphor; but no one is in danger of supposing that rights are literal substances that can be crushed to pieces under the mechanical action of the feet. When we say, “he carries a high head,” we do not mean a height that can be measured by the pocket rule; “a black look out” has nothing to do with colour; “hard times” cannot be broken with a hammer; so with “over head and ears in love,” “heart melting,” “corn dull,” “beans heavy,” “Oats brisk,” etc. They are well-understood metaphors, beyond the danger of misconstruction; but suppose we say, “The Polish nationality is to be restored.” “A new kingdom has just been established in the interior of western Africa,” etc., we use a style of language in which there is no metaphor. We speak plainly of literal things, and instinctively understand them in a literal sense.
Now with regard to the Bible, it will be found that in the main, this is the character of its composition. As a revelation to human beings, it is a revelation in human language. It is not a revelation of words but of ideas, and hence everything in its language is subordinated to the purpose of imparting the ideas. The peculiarities of human speech are conformed to in the various particulars already mentioned.
Metaphors, for example, find illustration in the following:—
A place of national affliction is likened to an iron furnace. Says Moses in the 4th chapter of Deuteronomy, 20th verse:—
“The Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt.”
The fact that Egypt is metaphorically spoken of as an “iron furnace,” does not interfere with the fact that there is a literal country of Egypt.
Nations are said to occupy a position high or low, according to their political state. Thus in Deuteronomy 28:13, Moses says to Israel:—
“The Lord shall make thee the head and not the tail: and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath.”
So Jesus says of Capernaum (Matt. 11:23):—
“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell.”
And Jeremiah, lamenting the prostration of Judah, says (Lam. 2:1):—
“How hath the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in his anger, and cast down from heaven unto the earth the beauty of Israel.”
Then nations are likened to rivers and waters. In Isaiah 8:7, we read:—
“The Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the King of Assyria, and all his glory.”
And hence, in referring to the constant devastations to which Israel’s land has been subject at the hands of invading armies, the words of the Spirit are, “Whose land the rivers have spoiled” (Isaiah 18:2).
Instances might be multiplied; but these are sufficient to illustrate the metaphorical element in the language of the Scriptures. Metaphor there is, without doubt; but this is a very different thing from the gratuitous and indiscriminating rule of interpretation which, by a process called “spiritualising,” obliterates almost every original feature in the face of Scripture, making the word of God of none effect.
There is another style of divine communication which is neither literal nor metaphorical, but which is yet sufficiently distinctive in its character to prevent its being confounded with either; and also sufficiently definite and intelligible to admit of exact comprehension. This style is the symbolic style, which is largely employed in what may be called political prophecy. In this case, events are represented in hieroglyph. A beast is put for an empire, horns for kings, waters for people, rivers for nations, a woman for a governing city, etc.; but there is in this style no more countenance to the spiritualisation of orthodoxy than in the metaphorical. It is special in its character, can always be identified where it occurs, and is always explicable on certain rules supplied by the context. The literal is the basis; the elementary principles of divine truth are communicated literally; its recondite aspects are elaborated and illustrated metaphorically and symbolically. The one is the step to the other. No one is able to understand the symbolical who is unacquainted with the literal; and no one can understand the literal who goes to the Scriptures with his eyes blinded by the veil which the “spiritualising” process has cast over the eyes of the people. This must be got rid of first; the literal must be recognised and studied as the alphabet of spiritual things, and the mind, established on this immovable basis, will be prepared to ascend to the comprehension of those deeper things of God which are concealed in enigmas, for the study of those who delight to search out His mind.
There remains one other important matter to be considered. Not long ago, on the occasion of an address on a kindred subject, a person in the audience put several questions. In answering them, the writer quoted from the prophets; but was stopped by the remark, “Oh, but that’s in the Old Testament; we have nothing to do with that; the New Testament is our standard; the Old has passed away.” Now this sentiment is a common one with many religious people. It is an erroneous idea, and has done great mischief. It has a slight basis of fact. The “first covenant” dispensation of the law, or the old constitution of Israel, has been abolished; but it is far from being true that what God communicated through the prophets has been annulled. The New Testament itself shews this clearly. As we have already seen, Paul says, “The Scriptures are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (II Tim. 3:15). Now it must be remembered that this could only apply to the Old Testament. When Paul made the statement, the New Testament was not in existence. Consider then the import of the statement—the Scriptures of the Old Testament are able to make us WISE UNTO SALVATION. If this be true, how can it be correct to speak of the Old Testament having been done away?
And this statement of Paul’s is by no means the only one to this effect. Hear what he said before Agrippa (Acts 26:22):—
“Having therefore obtained help of God. I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying NONE OTHER THINGS than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come.”
Now, if, in preaching the Christian faith, he said “none other things than those which Moses and the prophets did say should come,” it is obvious that Moses and the prophets must contain the subject-matter of that faith. This is undeniable. It is borne out by the interesting incident narrated in Acts 17:11, where, speaking of the inhabitants of Berea, to whom Paul preached, it says:—
“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica; … and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so; therefore, many of them believed.”
If the Bereans were satisfied by a searching of the Old Testament, which were the only Scriptures in existence at the time of their search, that what Paul said was true, is it not evident that what he said must in some form be contained in the Old Testament? Does it not follow that the Old Testament furnishes a basis for the things spoken by Paul? That Paul’s faith as a Christian laid hold of the Old Testament, is evident from what he said before Felix the Roman Governor:—
“After the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets” (Acts 24:14).
In harmony with this individual attitude of Paul in the matter, we find that when he went to Thessalonica, he entered the synagogue, and “three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2), that is, out of Moses and the prophets, for there were no other Scriptures for him to reason out of. And when he called together the Jews at Rome, it is testified that “he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets, from morning till evening” (Acts 28:23).
The same fact, that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are accessory to the teaching of Christ and his apostles, is apparent in several other statements to be found in the New Testament. Peter exhorts those to whom he wrote in his second epistle, chapter 3, verse 2, to “be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets?” and in the 19th verse of the first chap. of the same epistle, he says, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy, WHEREUNTO YE DO WELL THAT YE TAKE HEED.” Does not this settle the question? Jesus puts this statement into the mouth of Abraham in a parable (Luke 16:29, 31):—
“They have Moses and the prophets; LET THEM HEAR THEM; If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
And it is recorded of him that during an interview with his disciples, after his resurrection (Luke 24:27), “Beginning at MOSES AND ALL THE PROPHETS, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” If the Saviour himself appealed to the Old Testament in exposition of the things concerning him, and exhorted us to “hear Moses and the prophets,” what further need of argument?
It is obvious that those people fall into a great mistake who suppose that Christianity is something distinct from the Old Testament. So far from Christianity being distinct from the Old Testament, it will be found that Christianity is rooted in the Old Testament. The Old Testament lays the foundation of all that is involved in the New. The New Testament is simply an appendage to the Old, valuable beyond all price, and indispensable in the most absolute sense; but in itself, apart from the Old Testament, far from being sufficient to give us that perfection of Christian knowledge which constitutes a person “wise unto salvation.” The two combined form the complete revelation of God to man, vouchsafed for his spiritual renovation in the present, and his constitutional perfection in the future. Divided, they are each inefficacious to “thoroughly furnish the man of God unto all good works.”
We must request the reader to suspend his judgment on this point, and refrain from thinking too harshly of an idea which, though probably opposed to his dearest accustomed sentiments, is one that is sustained by the general teaching and emphatic declaration of the word of God, as will be shown in the succeeding lectures, to which, as a whole, the conscientious dissentient is referred for an answer to his objections.
Thus we bring the subject of the present lecture to a conclusion—“The Bible: what it is, and how to interpret it.” It was necessary to go into these details by way of preliminary to the investigation which shall be entered into in subsequent lectures—clearing away errors and misconceptions, and laying a distinct and sure foundation for what is to follow.
It only now remains for us to bespeak your sympathy with the subjects, and your patience with the necessarily somewhat dry and tedious process essential to their thorough treatment. It is a vital question, and worthy of all the labour which you can bestow upon it. We cannot be too particular in trying the evidence upon which our faith relies. We ought not to be content to take it second hand. We ought not in a day like this to simply accept what we have been taught at home, in the church and chapel, without ever giving it a thought whether it is right or wrong, or reckoning upon the awful consequences of error.
Never mind if others do not consider it their business to study the Bible. Remember that the majority have always been in the wrong in all ages of the world. Look not at your neighbours, think not of your friends in this matter. They are in all probability like the world in general. They lack independence, and are subservient to their worldly interest. They cannot afford to deviate from orthodox sentiment and usage, and long conformity has deadened their power to judge of the evidence. With all their church-goings and religious profession, the anxiety of the majority of people centres in the present evil world. Act for yourselves. Do as Peter told a Jewish assembly to do in Jerusalem:—“Save yourselves from this untoward generation.”