THE THEOLOGY OF THE SO-CALLED PLYMOUTH BRETHREN EXAMINED AND REFUTED.
DIFFICULTIES OF LITERALISM
In our attempt to accept the teachings of this body of good men, we find an insuperable obstacle in their literal exegesis of Scriptures which are manifestly figurative. By way of illustration, we will examine their method of explaining Zech. xiv. In proof of the personal reign of Christ at Jerusalem, no Scripture is quoted more frequently and more confidently than portions of this chapter, especially the fourth and ninth verses: "And His (the Lord's) feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives." "And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day shall there be one Lord, and His name one." Now, we lay down as a canon of interpretation, that a homogeneous passage of God's Word must be expounded homogeneously; that is, it must be entirely literal or entirely symbolical. It will not do to mix these methods and dodge an absurd literalism by resorting to a figurative interpretation where the passage is a homogeneous unit. In the light of this principle let us go through this chapter, applying a literal exegesis.
In verse 2 "all nations" (not some, or all by representatives, but all the nations of the globe) "gather against Jerusalem to battle." This is, of course, to be as real and visible as Waterloo or Gettysburg, only a myriad-fold more bloody. Jesus Christ is to be in the field in bodily form as really as General Grant was in the battle of the Wilderness. Whether the Prince of Peace will "go forth" singly "and fight against those nations, as when He fought in the day of battle," or as a general in command of an army, is a question which is determined by the fifth and fourteenth verses, in which we find the Jewish brigade in the field and "all the saints" with the Lord.
The inference is, the saints will not stand as idle spectators, but will all have a hand in the fight. These saints are the righteous dead of all past ages, raised from their graves, and the living believers, who were all caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and who descended with Him at His appearing after receiving their reward--some office in the millennial kingdom. This scene brings vividly to mind the Homeric battles before the walls of Troy, where bloodless immortals -- gods and demi gods -- sword in hand, mingled in the gory battles of the Greeks and Trojans. But a scrutiny of our Hebrew Bible develops another difficulty: "And Judah also shall fight against Jerusalem," not at Jerusalem. This complicates matters; for the Jews have all been converted, and have become Christ's foremost adherents. That they should turn against the capital city of their Messiah King, after He had gathered them to the land of their fathers, is something very mysterious. Will some Chiliast rise and explain?
But, in addition to all these difficulties, nature is to be convulsed, the mount of Olives to be cleft asunder, and a great valley to take its place, running eastward to the Dead Sea, through which a stream of water is to run, and another stream is to run westward to the Mediterranean, possibly, making a sea-port of Christ's capital. The convenience of this arrangement will be seen when we read that every one that is left of all the nations which come against Jerusalem, shall even go up, year by year, to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the "feast of tabernacles." This going up of the whole world annually to Jerusalem, which, according to the Levitical law, must be done by families and not by proxy, would be quite impracticable for the Western nations, with the present difficult landing at Joppa, and a horse-back ride over the hills to the Holy City. How many ships it would take to carry, every year, the whole human family, or one half-- say 700,000,000 -- counting out the children, the very aged, and those near enough to Jerusalem to go by land, we leave to the pre-millennial arithmeticians. It would be safe to predict that the ocean-carrying business would be exceedingly lively, and that American shipping would not be so depressed as it has been since the great Rebellion.
In answer to the question how these annual pilgrims to the capital of the millennial kingdom are to be fed, and who is to carry on the world's agriculture, we have at hand the reply of Papias (A. D. 100), the first great millenarian: "In like manner a grain of wheat will produce ten thousand heads, and each head will bear ten thousand grains, and each grain will yield ten pounds of clear white flour; and other seeds will yield seeds and herbage in the same proportion." This fecundity of nature reduces the difficulty to that of a sufficient number of harvesters, millers and bakers. We infer from the statement of Irenaeus that there may be some difficulty in securing the grape crop; "The days will come when vines shall grow, each bearing ten thousand branches, and on each branch there will be ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand clusters of grapes, and each grape, when expressed, will yield twenty-five metratai of wine (i.e., about two hundred and nine gallons). And when any one of the saints shall take hold of a cluster, another cluster will cry out, 'I am a better cluster, take me, and on my account give thanks unto the Lord.'" We infer that when each grape-vine will produce wine to the amount of one hundred and eighty thousand billions of gallons, there will be plenty of work for Gough, Murphy, Dr. Reynolds and Frances E. Willard, during the thousand years of the good time coming; for even the saints may be in danger of repeating the folly, in their regenerated earth, that Noah did, in his renewed world, after all the sinners were drowned.
But let us return from this digression to our literal exposition. What are the human family to do after they have all been transported to Palestine? They are to keep the feast of tabernacles. They are to build booths in the streets of the city and on the house-tops. This will require considerable more space than Palestine itself can afford; for when people are on a joyous picnic it will not be in harmony with the spirit of the occasion to crowd them together like Africans in the hold of a slave-ship.
But this difficulty of literalism we must pass by, and inquire into the kind of religious service these pilgrims are expected to render. We find that in everything except circumcision they are commanded to be Jews. They must attend a localized worship as did the Jews; they must keep one of the great Jewish feasts, under pains and penalties for disobedience; "the Lord's house" will be standing, and there will be the "bowls" -- literally, "sprinkling bowls" for blood-sprinkling, and the "pots" for seething the peace-offerings. In short, it is said that "they that sacrifice" shall come and take of them and seethe therein. "The altar" is spoken of, and its whole ritual is certainly implied as obligatory. The sacrificial slaughter of animals at the Lord's altar and in the Lord's house is spoken of undeniably. What will be the significance of these animal sacrifices after the one and sufficient sacrifice of the Lamb of God? Will some literalist who insists that Jesus will set up His throne at Jerusalem, be so kind as to tell us? It will not do to spiritualize the sacrifice unless you spiritualize the whole chapter.
Our explanation is very simple. When God would convey to the Jews the idea that in some future time all the human race would be worshippers of Him, he condescended to their own narrow notions of true worship, namely, coming to Jerusalem and offering sacrifice. The whole chapter is to be interpreted spiritually. The waters going eastward and westward symbolize a spiritual Christianity going forth from Jerusalem to refresh and save the world. The rending of the mountain to make way for the stream is the prophetic imagery in which is couched the prediction of the providential removal of obstacles in the way of the spread of the Gospel. Thus most of the difficulties of this obscure chapter vanish when we take a spiritual view.
Other difficulties press upon the literal interpretation of this chapter. We mention only one. If any people refuse to go up to Jerusalem, they are threatened with drought and the plague. Here both moral and natural evil, or suffering in consequence of sin, are treated as possibilities, in the very millennium. But, according to Dr. Imbrie, both natural and moral evil will be excluded. Who will relieve this discrepancy between millenarian teaching and the threatened punishments in this their favorite prophecy?
If any reader of Zech. xiv. still insists that the language must be literally interpreted, we advise him to read the eighteenth Psalm, in which David describes his deliverance from his enemies by divine interposition. Can the same reader believe that it is literally true of Jehovah -- "There went up a smoke out of His nostrils, and fire out of His mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it," etc.? Then let the reader turn to Joel ii. 28-32, and read the graphic account which will convulse all nature, if understood literally. Then read Peter's exegesis of this Scripture as descriptive of the coming of the Paraclete (Acts ii. 17).
We venture to say that if Peter's exegesis were not on record, the modern pre-millennialists would stoutly assert that no event in past history corresponds to this picture of "the great and terrible day of the Lord;" and they would be applying the passage to some future upheaval of nature and miraculous revolution of society, whereas it related only to the coming and gentle sway of the Holy Spirit over believers and His work of convicting sinners.
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