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tain whether a prophecy is to be taken in a double sense, the following rules have been laid down by the celebrated Vitringa.1
(1.) That we may attain an accurate and distinct knowledge of the subject of a prediction, we must carefully attend to all the attributes and characters which are applied to the subject of the prophecy : if the subject be not specifically mentioned by name, it must be discovered by its characteristics; of this description are many of the prophecies concerning Christ, particularly Psalms ii. xxii. xlv. ix. Isa. liii. Zech. iii. 8. If the subject be named, we must inquire whether it is to be taken properly or mystically, or partly properly and partly mystically; as in Psalm lxxii.
(2.). We must not, however, depart from the literal sense of the subject, when called by its own proper name, if all the attributes, or the principal and more remarkable ones, agree to the subject of the prophecy. This rule will be found of considerable use in interpreting the prophecies concerning Israel, Judah, Tyre, Babylon, Egypt, and other countries and places.
(3.) If the attributes by no means agree with the subject expressed in a prophecy by its own name, we must direct our thoughts to another subject which corresponds to it, and which assumes a mystic name, on account of the agreement between the type and antitype. Examples of this occur in the prophecies concerning Edom (Isa. Ixiii. 1-6.), David (Ezek. xxxiv. 24-31.), and Elijah. (Mal. iv. 5.)
(4.) If, in prophecies, the subject be expressed by name, which may bear both a proper and a mystical interpretation, and the attributes of the prophetic discourse be of a mixed kind, so that some of them agree more strictly with the subject mystically taken, while others are more correctly predicated of it in a literal and grammatical sense in such cases, we must take the subject of the prophecy to be, not simple, but complex: and the prophet, actuated by divine illumination, expresses himself in such a manner as designedly to be understood of both senses, and to intimate to the reader that the mystical or allegorical sense is enveloped in the literal sense.
Thus, many of the prophecies concerning Babylon, Edom, Egypt, and Tyre, contain such august and magnificent expressions, as, if taken properly, will admit of a very poor and barren exposition: and therefore it must be presumed that the Holy Spirit designed something more, and to lead our minds to the mystical Babylon, &c. In like manner, such grand things are sometimes spoken concerning the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity, and mention is made of such distinguished blessings being bestowed upon them, as necessarily lead us to look for a further and more complete fulfilment in the redemption by Jesus Christ, and the spiritual blessings of grace bestowed upon the people of God, under the gospel dispensation. Isa. hii. 1-3. and Jer. iii. 14-18. to cite no other examples, present very striking illustrations of this remark. Hence it follows that,
(5.) Prophecies of a general nature are applicable by accommodation to individuals; most of the things, which are spoken of the church, being equally applicable to her individual members.
(6.) Prophecies of a particular nature, on the other hand, admit, and often require, an extended sense: for instance, Edom, Moab, or any of the enemies of God's people, are often put for the whole;
2 In his Typus Doctrine Propheticæ, cap. ii. Dr. Apthorpe has translated eighteen of Vitringa's canons (which are admirably illustrated by numerous examples in his valuable commentary on Isaiah) in his Lectures or Prophecy, vol. i. pp. 90 106. Jahn has given several additional examples. Introd. ad. Vet. Fœdus, PP.
what is said of one being generally applicable to the rest. And, in like manner, what is said either to or concerning God's people, on any particular occasion, is of general application; as all, who stand in the same relation to God, have an interest in the same prophecies.
(7.) In continued prophecies, which are not distinguished one from another, we should carefully attend, first, to the beginning and end of each discourse, and secondly, to the epoch of time which commences the scene of the prophetic vision, and the term in which it ends.
The first observation is of principal use in the discourses of Isaiah, from the fortieth chapter to the end of the book. This distinction, often difficult and somewhat obscure, is of great moment in the interpretation of the prophecies, that we may not consider as a continued discourse what ought to be divided into several distinct topics. The last part of this canon is indispensable in explaining the Psalms and Prophetic Visions. See Psal. xxiv. 1. Isa. vi. 1.
II. Predictions, denouncing judgments to come, do not in themselves speak the absolute futurity of the event, but only declare what is to be expected by the persons to whom they are made, and what will certainly come to pass, unless God in his mercy interpose between the threatening and the event.
"So that comminations do speak only the debitum pœnæ, and the necessary obligation to punishment: but therein God doth not bind up himself as he doth in absolute promises; the reason is, because comminations confer no right to any, which absolute promises do, and therefore God is not bound to necessary performance of what he threatens. Indeed the guilt or obligation to punishment is necessary, where the offence hath been committed, to which the threatening was annexed: but the execution of that punishment doth still depend upon God's arbitrarious will, and therefore he may suspend or remove it upon serious addresses made to himself in order to it. For, since God was pleased not to take the present forfeiture of the first grand transgression, but made such a relaxation of that penal law, that conditions of pardon were admittable, notwithstanding sentence passed upon the malefactors, there is strong ground of presumption in human nature, that God's forbearance of mankind, notwithstanding sin, doth suppose his readiness to pardon offenders upon their repentance, and therefore that all particular threatenings of judgments to come do suppose incorrigibleness in those against whom they are pronounced; upon which the foundation of hope is built, that, if timely repentance do intervene, God will remove those judgments which are threatened against them:" of these conditional comminatory predictions we have examples in Jonah's preaching to the Ninevites (Jonah iii. 4-10.), and in Isaiah's denunciation of death to Hezekiah. (Isa. xxxviii. 1.) See also a similar instance in Jer. xxxviii. 14-23.
III. Predictions then express divine purposes, when many prophets in several ages concur in the same prediction.
"Because it is hardly seen but all those tacit conditions, which are supposed in general promises or comminations, may be altered in different ages: but, when the conditions alter, and the predictions continue the same, it is a stronger evidence that it is some immutable counsel of God, which is expressed in those predictions. And in this case one prediction confirms the foregoing, as the Jews say of prophets," one prophet that hath the testimony of another prophet, is supposed to be true:" but it must be with this supposition, that the other prophet was before approved to be a true prophet. Now, both these meet in the prophecies concerning our Saviour; for to him bear all the prophets witness, and in their several ages they had several things revealed to them concerning him; and the uniformity and perfect harmony of all these several prophecies by persons at so great distance from each other, and being of several interests and employments, and in several places, yet all giving light to each other, and exactly meeting at last in the accom plishment, do give us yet a further and clearer evidence, that all those several beams came from the same sun, when all those scattered rays were at last gathered into one body again at the appearance of the Sun of Righteousness in the world. 2
1 Stillingfleet's Origines Sacra, book ii. chap. vi. § 10. pp. 120, 121. 8th edit. Jahn, Enchiridion Hermeneuticæ Sacræ, pp. 148, 149.
2 Stillingfleet, p. 120.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE ACCOMPLISHMENT OF PROPHECIES CONCERNING THE MESSIAH IN PARTICULAR.1
JESUS CHRIST being the great subject and end of Scripture revelation, we ought every where to search for prophecies concerning him. We are assured by Christ himself that the Scriptures testify of him (John v. 39.), and that in Moses, the Psalms, and Prophets, there are things concerning him (Luke xxiv. 25-27. 44.): further, we have the declaration of an inspired apostle, that to him give all the prophets witness (Acts x. 43.), and of an angel of God, that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Rev. xix. 10.) It may therefore be remarked generally, that whatsoever is emphatically and characteristically spoken of some certain person, not called by his own name, in the psalms or prophetical books, so that each predicate can be fully demonstrated in no single subject of that or any other time, must be taken as said and predicted of the Messiah. The twenty-second psalm, and the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah's prophecy, may be adduced as illustrations of this rule, which will not mislead any student or reader of the sacred volume. The four remarks in pp. 643, 644. may be advantageously employed in the application of this rule.
II. The interpretation of the word of prophecy, made by Jesus Christ himself, and by his inspired apostles, is a rule and key by which to interpret correctly the prophecies cited or alluded to by them.
The propriety of this canon must be obvious: for as every one is the best interpreter of his own words, so the Holy Spirit, (under whose influence the antient prophets wrote and spoke,) in more recent prophecies, refers to former predictions, and often uses the same words, phrases, and images, thus leading us to understand the true sense of those oracles.2 For instance, the prophecy (in Isa. viii. 14.) that the Messiah would prove a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence, is more plainly repeated by Simeon (Luke ii. 34.) and is shown to have been fulfilled by St. Paul (Rom. ix. 32, 33.), and by St. Peter (1 Pet. ii. 8.); and the sixteenth psalm is expressly applied to Jesus Christ by the latter of these apostles. (Acts ii. 25—31.)3
III. In the Prophecies and Psalms, whatever is predicated of a person not named, in terms expressive of such excellence, glory, and other characteristics, as are suitable in their just emphases to no other subject, must be interpreted as spoken and predicated of the Messiah.
It is thus that the writers of the New Testament interpret and allege the antient prophecies; instances may be given in Deut. xviii. 18. Psalms viii. xvi. xxii. xl. Ixix. lxxviii. cxviii. 22, 23. Isa. iv. 2. vii. 14, 15. xlii. 1. liii. Zech. iii. 8. and xii. 10. It is worthy of remark that the writers of the New Testament directly apply to the SON OF GOD the most magnificent descriptions and attributes of the FaTHER in the Old Testament; as Psal. lxviii. 18. xcvii. 17. cii. 26, 27. Isa. xlv. 22 -24.; which teach us to acknowledge the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Col. ii. 2, 3.) IV. Since it is certain that there are, in the prophetic parts of the Scriptures, distinct delineations of the whole counsel of God concerning Messiah's kingdom, those interpreters act rightly, who, in prophecies that evidently treat of the kingdom of Christ and its affairs, industriously attend to the events concerning the Christian church, which are known from history, and apply them accordingly; provided this be done without doing violence to the Scripture, since " Jehovah doeth nothing, but he revealeth his secrets unto his servants the prophets." (Amos iii. 7.)
1 Bishop Marsh (Divinity Lectures, part iv. lect. xx. and xxi.) has several admirable observations on the connection subsisting between the truth of Christianity and the prophecies relating to the Messiah: nearly the whole of Lecture xxi. is occupied with examples of predictions literally and strictly foretelling the coming of Christ. 2 Bishop Lowth has some fine remarks on this topic towards the close of his eleventh Lecture.
3 The petty cavils and evasions of Ruperti and other modern commentators, who deny (without being able to disprove) the above canon, is well exposed by Dr. J. P. Smith, on the Person of Christ, vol. i. pp. 222, 223
The prophecies of Daniel and John are concurrent in very many circumstances concerning the church of Christ; and it is only by the application of this rule that learned and pious men have been able to trace the accomplishment of many parts of their predictions.
V. Where the prophets describe a golden age of felicity, they clearly foretel Gospel times.
At the time the prophets respectively flourished, the Israelites and Jews were, in general, notoriously wicked, although, even in the worst of times, there was a considerable number who feared Jehovah. Hence, while the prophets denounce national judgments upon the wicked, (in which temporal afflictions the righteous would necessarily be involved,) they at the same time hold out to the latter, to strengthen their trust in God, predictions of future and better times; and, with promises of some great and temporal deliverance, they invariably connect a display of the yet greater though future deliverance of the Messiah; the peace and happiness, that are to prevail in consequence of that deliverance, are portrayed in such a beautiful assemblage of images, and delineate so high a state of felicity, that, as there is no period in the history of the world, prior to the Christian dispensation, to which they can in any way be applied, these predictions of future happiness and peace must necessarily be understood exclusively refer to Gospel times. Many passages might be adduced from the prophetic writings in confirmation of this rule. It will however suffice to adduce two instances from Isaiah, ch. ix. 2—7. and xi. 1-9. In the former of these passages, the peaceful kingdom of the Messiah is set forth, its extent and duration; and in the latter, the singular peace and happiness which should then prevail, are delineated in imagery of unequalled beauty and energy.1
VI. Things, foretold as universally or indefinitely to come to pass under the Gospel, are to be understood, — as they respect the duty, of all persons; but, as they respect the event, — only of God's people. Thus, when the peace, that is foretold to prevail in Gospel times, is stated to be so great that men should then beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks; that nation should not lift up sword against nation, neither learn war any more (Isa. ii. 4.); and that the wolf should lie down with the lamb, and the leopard with the kid, (Isa. xi. 6. and lxv. 25. with other passages that might be adduced); all these highly figurative expressions are to be understood of the nature, design and tendency of the Gospel, and what is the duty of all its professors, and what would actually take place in the Christian world, if all who profess the Christian doctrine did sincerely and cordially obey its dictates. And, so far as the Gospel does prevail upon any, it reclaims their wild and unruly natures; from being furious as wolves, they become meek as lambs, and from raging like lions, they become gentle and tender as kids; so far are they from hurting or injuring others, that they dare not entertain any the slightest thoughts of malevolence of revenge, towards their most inveterate enemies.
VII. As the antient prophecies concerning the Messiah are of two kinds, some of them relating to his first coming to suffer, while the rest of them concern his second coming to advance his kingdom, and restore the Jews; in all these prophecies, we must carefully distinguish between his first coming in humiliation to accomplish his mediatorial work on the cross, and his second coming in glory to judgment.
This distinction is sufficiently obvious in those passages which treat of either coming separately, as in Isa. vii. 14. ix. 6. liii. &c., which treat of his first coming in the flesh; and in Isa. ii. 10-21., which refers to his second coming to judgment. To the former must be referred all those passages which relate to his humiliation. But it is more difficult to distinguish each advent in those passages, in which the prophet makes an immediate transition from the one to the other. For instance, in Isa. xl. 1-9., the prediction relates to the first advent of Christ, but in v. 10. his second coming to judgment is noticed, express mention being made of the solemn work of retribution, which is peculiar to judgment. Again, in Jer. xxiii. 5-7. the promise of sending the Son of God into the world is, in v. 8. joined with a prophecy concerning the conversion of the Jews, which is yet future. A similar instance of uniting the two advents of Christ occurs in Mal. iii. 1-5. By distinguishing, however, between them, we shall be better able to combat the objections
1 Rambach, Inst. Herm. pp. 175-177. J. B. Carpzov, Prima Lineæ Hermeneuticæ, pp. 25, 26.
of the Jews, who apply to the Messiah all those predictions which refer to a state of exaltation, while they overlook all those plain, though less numerous prophecies, in which is described Messiah's first coming in a state of humiliation.
Before we dismiss the important subject of prophecy, there are two cautions, which must uniformly be kept in view in studying the prophetic writings.
1. The first is, that we do not apply passing events as actually fulfilling particular prophecies.