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Henry Alford on the woman in the wilderness

May 23, 2011

In 1857 the Prime Minister of England, Lord Palmerston, appointed Henry Alford Dean of Canterbury. As a pillar in the Anglican Church, Alford would probably not have viewed the church as fleeing to the wilderness, at least in his time. Some have suggested that such a condition may have existed in the early centuries of the church, when Christians were persecuted. Alford’s comments about the vision of Revelation 12 indicate he struggled to understand the meaning of the part of the vision where the woman flees to the wilderness. He wrote: [1]

I own that I have been led by these circumstances to think whether after all the woman may represent, not the invisible church of God’s true people which under all conditions of the world must be known only to Him, but the true visible Church; that Church which in its divinely prescribed for as existing at Jerusalem was the mother of our Lord according to the flesh, and which continued as established by our Lord and His Apostles, in unbroken unity during the first centuries, but which as time went on was broken up by evil men and evil doctrines, and has remained, unseen, unrealized, her unity an article of faith, not of sight, but still multiplying her seed, those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus, in various sects and distant countries, waiting the day for her comely order and oneness again to be manifested–the day when she shall “come up out of the wilderness, leaning on her Beloved:” when our Lord’s prayer for the unity of His being accomplished, the world shall believe that the Father has sent Him. If we are disposed to carry out this idea, we might see the great realization of the flight into the wilderness in the final severance of the Eastern and Western churches in the seventh century, and the flood cast after the woman by the dragon in the irruption of the Mahometan armies. But this, though not less satisfactory than the other interpretations, is unsatisfactory. The latter part of the vision yet waits clearing up).

In England in the nineteenth century, many controversies arose about the interpretation of prophecy. Various competing theories gave rise to scores of ministries, societies, sects, and denominations, and the same kind of activity occurred in America. Today, there are tens of thousands of sects and denominations. Christians involved in them are in a spiritual wilderness; they have not yet arrived in the promised land of the truth, to which Jesus said the Spirit will guide the church. In the metaphorical wilderness of confused interpretations, the land is barren and dry. The scattered Christians all possess the same Bible, but they are divided by their diverse interpretations.

Isaiah 35:1-10 tells of a time when the wilderness will “blossom as the rose.” Waters will break out, and streams in the desert. In the thirsty land there will be springs of water; “an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness.” Understanding the land metaphorically, as representing the truth to which the Spirit guides the saints, Isaiah’s prophecies seem to show that many of the obscure prophecies that have resisted interpretation for centuries will be understood. The land, by itself, is unproductive, but when watered, it produces abundance, like a desert land after showers of rain. The rain represents the word of God. [Isaiah 55:10-11] Similar prophecies about the wilderness becoming fruitful are Isaiah 41:18-20, and Isaiah 43:19-21.

The flood that the dragon sends forth from his mouth after the woman, Revelation 12:15, is a flood of false teachings, and flawed interpretations of the scripture. It threatens to carry away the woman, but the land opens its mouth, and swallows up the flood. The land that swallows up the flood spewed out of the serpent’s mouth, a flood of flawed interpretations, and false teachings, must be metaphorical, and I suggest that it represents the truth. This is the spiritual promised land, into which Jesus said the Spirit will guide the saints. [John 16:13]


1. Henry Alford, DD. The New Testament for English Readers Vol II. Deighton, Bell & Co., Cambridge. 1872. See this post.

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