Home > Book of Revelation, The 3 ½ years > Patrick Fairbairn on the 3 ½ years of prophecy

Patrick Fairbairn on the 3 ½ years of prophecy

June 9, 2011

This post presents Patrick Fairbairn’s comments about the symbolic nature of the 3 ½ years of Revelation 11, 12, and 13, from his book:
Prophecy viewed in respect to its distinctive nature, its special function, and proper interpretation
T. and T. Clark, 1865.

It remains only to notice the indications of time contained in the portion of the Apocalypse we have been surveying. These appear to be simply three, though one of them is expressed in a threefold manner. It is the period of the church’s tried and oppressed condition–denoted first in chap. xi. 2, as a period of forty-two months, during which “the holy city is trodden down of the Gentiles,” during which also the beast was to continue in its power to blaspheme and injure (chap. xiii. 5); then as consisting of 1260 days (forty-two months multiplied by 30 days), during which the witnesses, representatives of a faithful, but oppressed and persecuted church, were to prophecy, chap. xi. 3, and the church was to abide in the wilderness, chap. xii. 6, having a place and food prepared for her by God; and finally, as a time, times and a half (corresponding to one year of twelve months, two of the same, and a half-year of six, or to forty-two months, or again to 1260 days), during which the church was to remain and be fed in the wilderness, chap. xii. 14. In Dan. vii. 25, where the expression first occurs, it is the time during which the saints of God were to be given into the hand of the power that was to speak great words against the Most High. These are manifestly but different modes of expressing one and the same period, as the state of things also to which they are applied is substantially identical, though variously represented. For the sojourn in the wilderness on the part of the faithful and proper spouse, the treading down of the holy city by those who belonged only to the court of the Gentiles, and the testifying for the truth of God by a faithful remnant clothed in sackcloth, and wrestling against error and corruption; these are obviously but different symbolical representations of the same abnormal and dislocated state of things. The other two periods mentioned are both very brief, as compared with the one just noticed. The shortest is that during which the bodies of the faithful witnesses are represented as lying dead, though unburied, three and a half days, chap. xi. 12; and the other is the five months during which the scorpion-locusts were to have power to torment the followers of the beast, chap. ix. 5.

Now, it is scarcely possible to avoid being struck even on the most cursory inspection of these periods, with a peculiarity that is common to them all–the broken and incomplete aspect they present. A certain whole was evidently in respect to each of them in the mind of the Divine author of the vision, as that toward which the parties spoken of were aiming, but were arrested midway in their career. This is particularly observable in the largest and by much the most important number, which in every form–whether as time, times and a half, or as the months and days that make up three and a half years–is most expressive of an unfinished course, a period somehow cut off in the middle. In like manner, the three and a half days of rejoicing over the unburied corpses of the slain witnesses, betokens the same violent and abrupt termination of the course indicated; in their ungodly triumph, the adversaries could not complete more than half of one of the briefest revolutions of time–one of the smallest cycles of the whole period allotted to the ascendency of evil. The incompleteness may appear less palpable in the five months specified for the plague of scorpion-locusts; but it will scarcely do so to those who have attended to the use made in Scripture of ten with reference to certain kinds of totality. The five is simply the broken ten.

So marked a peculiarity in the use of all these numbers is itself a strong presumption in favour of their symbolical import. It seems to stamp their value as indications of relative, rather than of absolute periods of duration–relative both as regards each other, and also as regards an ideal whole. And it will appear to do so the more convincingly the more the periods are viewed in reference to the parties mentioned, which are the entire spiritual church throughout the world, on the one side, and the whole antichristian power on the other; for in regard to such vast bodies, and their wide-reaching interests, what could such periods avail in their natural sense! They could obviously afford but a mere fraction of the time necessary for the accomplishment of the results connected with them; nor could such results in actual history be shut up into any periods consisting of such exact and definite measures. Another, and very powerful consideration in favour of the same view is the place of these historical numbers–surrounded on every hand, not with the literal, but with the symbolical. The woman that is persecuted, and the dragon who persecutes; the wilderness into which she flees, and the floods sent after her; the beast that rages against the truth, and the two witnesses who testify for it to the death; the holy city that is trodden down, and the Egypt or Babylon by whom the treading is effected; all are symbolically used, and shall the periods of working be otherwise than symbolical? In that case there would be the violation of one of the plainest laws of symbolical writing, and confusion and arbitrariness, as a matter of necessity, would be brought into the interpretation. It is true, the number seven, as applied to the heads of the beast, and the number ten spoken of its ultimate forms of separate organization, have already been found by us to possess a kind of historical verification. But this, when more closely considered, manifests an evident striving after the symbolical. For, it is to make out the number seven, that St John diverges so strikingly here from the representation of Daniel, taking in the two earlier worldly kingdoms, which Daniel had omitted, and making of the divided state of Daniel’s fourth empire a separate kingdom–the seventh. Nay, even this seventh he calls in a sense also the eighth–chap. xvii. 11–although seven still is taken as the proper number, because it alone has the proper symbolical import. The beast comes into view mainly as the rival of God, and seven being the common symbol of completeness for the Divine manifestations in the world (Isa. xxx. 26; Zech. iii. 9, iv. 2; Prov. ix. 1; Rev. i. 4, iii. 1, etc.)–originating, no doubt, in the sevenfold acts of God at creation–the worldly rival of God’s power and glory in the world is, in token of its God-defying character, presented under the same number of manifestations. For a like reason the divided state of the last manifestation is distributed into the number ten. This also is often used as a symbol of completeness, on which account the ancients called it the perfect number, which comprehends all others in itself. But it commonly denotes completeness in respect to human interests and relations–as in the tithes or tenths (ten being regarded as comprising the entire property, from which one was selected to do homage to him who gave the whole), and the ten commandments, the sum of man’s dutiful obedience. When, therefore, the divided state into which the modern Roman world fell, is represented under ten horns or kingdoms, it may well be doubted whether this should be pressed farther than as indicating, by a round number, the totality of the new states–the diversity in the unity–whether or not it might admit of being exactly and definitely applied to so many historical kingdoms. There is always some difficulty in making out an exact correspondence; and we should the less hold such a correspondence to be necessary, since even in the case of the tribes of Israel, when taken to represent the company of an elect people (chap. vii.), one tribe is totally omitted to preserve the symbolism of the historical twelve. This shows very strikingly the stress laid on the symbolical element, and strengthens the conclusion, that both in the seven and ten, as applied to the beast, and in the broken periods now under consideration, that element is primarily respected. Lastly, there is to be added on the same side the obviously loose setting of the periods; neither their starting-point, nor their termination is sharply defined. Viewed historically, indeed, one does not see how it could have been otherwise. The flight of the church into the wilderness, or the treading down of the holy city by the Gentiles, came on gradually; and appeared in different places at different times. It cannot be linked to definite historical epochs, as if at one or other of these it commenced for the first time, and for the whole church; and from the very nature of things, the termination must have a like diversity and gradation in its accomplishment. This draws a plain line of demarcation between the periods before us, and Daniel’s seventy weeks, which are definitely bounded both in respect to their commencement and their close. The narrower field, and more outward character of the things they referred to, easily admitted of such a limitation; but here the world is the field, and the cause of vital Christianity throughout its borders the great interest at stake.

Giving all these considerations their due weight, we cannot avoid arriving at the conclusion, that the periods mentioned, in accordance with the general character of the book, are to be chiefly, if not exclusively, understood in a symbolical manner, as serving to indicate the times of relative length or brevity which the operations described were destined to occupy. If anything further is implied, it should only, we conceive, be looked for in some general correspondence, as to form, between the symbol and the reality, such as might be sufficient to guide thoughtful and inquiring minds to a more firm assurance of the realisation of the vision. But all precise and definite calculations respecting the periods, as they necessarily proceed upon a disregard of the symbolical character of the book, and upon a too external and political contemplation of the events to which it points, so they must inevitably be defeated of their aim in the future, as they have continually been in the past. The prophecy was not written to give men to know after such a fashion, the times and the seasons, which the Father has put in His own power.