T. R. Birks on the time periods of prophecy 1
The following is the four part series, presenting a discussion of the time periods of prophecy by T. R. Birks (1810-1883), who defended the year-day theory, and responded to criticisms by the futurist S. R. Maitland.
Thomas Rawson Birks. First elements of sacred prophecy: including an examination of several recent expositions and of the year-day theory
London, W. E. Painter, 1843.
ON THE YEAR-DAY THEORY.
The truths which have now been established, and cleared from the objections lately brought against them, are the natural basis for the interpretation of the other parts of these symbolical prophecies. They show that the rest of Daniel’s visions, and nearly the whole of Revelation, relate to the times of the Gospel, and reach from the close of the Jewish dispensation to the second coming of our Lord.
The interpretation of the parts which remain is a subject of greater difficulty, and has given rise to a far wider diversity of judgment. This is occasioned, in part, by the various and complex nature of the symbols themselves; but its chief cause is the moral character of the predictions, and the faithful protest which they bear against the corruption and degeneracy of the Church of God. They carry the war at once into the strongest fortresses of ecclesiastical pride and Christian worldliness. The prophecies of a Messiah rejected in spirit are as obnoxious to the Gentile Church, as those of a Messiah rejected in person were to the unbelievers among the Jews.
To enter on this difficult subject would, therefore, be unsuitable to the present work, which is merely designed to clear away obstructions, and to prepare the way for a sure and firm interpretation of the word of the prophecy. But there is one topic so distinct in its own nature, and so much perplexed and obscured by recent controversy, that it deserves, and almost requires, a separate consideration. The true meaning of the prophetic times has a close and vital connexion with the general exposition of these sacred visions. It has been the general impression of the best Protestant interpreters, for near three centuries, that a prophetic day signifies a natural year, and that all the other periods are to be expounded by the same rule. It will be my object, in these next chapters, to ascertain the truth or falsehood of this hypothesis, called, popularly, the year-day theory.
When the new school of interpretation arose, this theory was almost the first object of attack, as the least defensible outwork of the Protestant expositions. The arguments in its favour had never been fully collected, or very clearly stated, and its implicit reception, for many years, by a large class of readers, made it be held very loosely, and gave a skilful assailant many advantages. Several pamphlets, in succession, from the pen of Mr. Maitland, had a powerful effect in breaking the spell of mere authority, and compelled his readers either to abandon the opinion, or to seek some better reasons for maintaining it than the mere fact of its extensive prevalence. Several replies appeared; but all of them were partial in extent, and some very defective, either in their facts or their reasonings; and his rejoinders seemed to leave him in possession of the field. Hence there is no branch of controversy on which writers of this school assume a more confident tone. Dr. Todd assures his readers that the year-day theory is “an untenable assumption, which an eminent living writer has so completely refuted, that no theory built upon it can now be considered as requiring any further confutation.” It is true that any one who reads his work with any discernment, will attach very little weight to the author’s judgment on any subject involving the interpretation of prophecy. But still the fact, that such confident assertions are made, proves the need there is for a calm and full review of the whole question, in order to dispel the mists by which it has been obscured.
The remarks of Mr. Faber on this subject in the “Provincial Letters,” like most-of those which proceed from his pen, are distinct and forcible. But even these are confined to one or two topics out of many, and exhibit only a small part of the evidence, from Scripture and from reason, which may be brought to converge oft this difficult and important inquiry. Two or three chapters shall therefore he devoted to the argument, in the hope that, by an orderly treatment, the objections may be fully removed, and the evidence for the theory be placed in a stronger and a clearer light than has been attempted by previous writers.
The simplest arrangement is, first, to define the real question, removing those objections which have arisen from the frequent misconceptions of its true nature: next, to exhibit, under distinct heads, the scriptural evidence, proceeding from the more general to the more specific arguments: and thirdly, to unfold more clearly those principles of reason or sacred analogy which confirm the same view. I will then, finally, reply to all the remaining objections, which could not be treated under the former divisions, and subjoin a few remarks on popular errors connected with this whole subject of prophetic dates and sacred chronology.
I. The general nature of the theory has already been, in some measure, explained in the first chapter. It may be convenient, however, to present it more fully in that particular form of it which will be here maintained, and which exhibits, in the clearest light, the scriptural basis on which it rests. It may be summed up in these maxims:–
1. That the Church, after the ascension of Christ, was intended of God to be kept in the lively expectation of His speedy return in glory.
2. That, in the divine counsels, a long period of near two thousand years was to intervene between the first andthe second advent, and to be marked by a dispensation of grace to the Gentiles.
3. That, in order to strengthen the faith and hope of the Church under the long delay, a large part of the whole interval was prophetically announced, but in such a manner that its true length might not be understood, till its own close seemed to be drawing near.
4. That, in the symbolical prophecies of Daniel and St. John, other times were revealed along with this, and included under one common maxim of interpretation.
5. That the periods thus figuratively revealed are exclusively those in Daniel and St. John, which relate to the general history of the Church between the time of the prophet and the second advent.
6. That, in these predictions, each day represents a natural year, as in the vision of Ezekiel; that a month denotes thirty, and a time three hundred and sixty years.
The first of these maxims is plain from the statements of Scripture; and the second from the actual history of the world. The third is, on a priori grounds, a natural and reasonable inference from the two former, and is the true basis of the year-day theory, viewed in its final cause. The three following present the theory itself, under its true limits. Perhaps no simpler method could be suggested in which such a partial and half veiled revelation could be made, than that which the Holy Spirit is thus supposed to adopt, resting as it does on one plain analogy of natural times.
Now the mere statement of these axioms removes at once several main difficulties, which have been used to perplex and embarrass the whole inquiry.
I. First, it has been urged that this larger interpretation of the prophetic times is inconsistent with the repeated commands of our Saviour, that the Church should always be watching for His return. How could this be possible, it is asked, if it were revealed from the first that 1,260 years must elapse before that advent should arrive?
This objection disappears in a moment, when the facts and the hypothesis are simply compared together. The very reason for which the times are asserted to have been given in this unusual form is, that they might not be understood too early, when they would have interfered with the earnestness of continual expectation. The two opposite arguments, indeed, which have been brought against this view, destroy each other, and help to establish its truth. One writer condemns it, because it was unknown for twelve centuries; and others, because, if it had been understood in those days, it must have paralyzed all watchfulness for the return of the Lord. Surely these objections, when compared together, yield a presumption in favour of the view they were designed to confute. They prove that these revelations, as thus explained, were exactly suited to the need of the Church; that they concealed the length of the delay, when the knowledge might have been injurious; and revealed it, when once it became a help to the faith of the Church that it should be known.
The only way of sustaining the objection is to assume that the fact of such a revelation being given made it the duty of the Church to understand at once its true meaning. Two duties would then seem to contradict each other–the obligation of continual watchfulness, and the duty of understanding the message, that more than twelve centuries would intervene before the advent. But the contradiction is not real. There must either be a defined measure of light, which the Christian is not allowed to pass, or else a duty and privilege of unlimited progress. In the former case, the difficulty ceases, since there could be no obligation to understand the times from the first: and on the other supposition, the motive to watchfulness, which was drawn from the ignorance of the Church, would be replaced, as her knowledge increased, by higher motives, drawn from a lively sense of the real vastness of eternity.
2. Again: it has often been argued that the mystical interpretation would compel us to lengthen the millennium into 360,000 years. But the principle on which the theory has just now been founded removes this objection also. The millennium is not included in that time of waiting, which made it desirable to conceal the times under a symbolic veil. There are, indeed, other internal reasons, which furnish a still more evident warrant for the distinction between this period and all the rest; but that which has now been assigned is sufficient, even alone.
3. It has been further made a prominent objection to the year-day, that it was totally unknown for twelve, or, as some assert, for fifteen centuries. The fact, however, has been greatly exaggerated beyond its true limits. And besides, the late period at which this interpretation was unfolded was a natural and necessary consequence of the principle on which it depends. Instead, therefore, of being a valid objection, it forms a remarkable presumption in favour of its truth. In fact, this exposition appeared first at the very time when it must have appeared, if the principles on which it is founded had a real existence.
4. The above maxims enable us, further, to avoid those loose and vague assertions which have given a great advantage to the opponents of the theory. The term, a prophetic day, has been used, till many writers seem to have lost all clear apprehension of the limited extent of the principle, and fallen into serious errors in its application. We have no warrant, either from the reason of the case, or from direct evidence, for extending the maxim, as a general law, to all other predictions.
Even Mede is not quite faultless in this respect; yet it may be not improper to digress for a moment, to clear him from a charge of gross and inexcusable error, to which a misconception of his words has given rise. He had said in his argument on this subject, “Secondly, let it be shown in all the prophecy of Daniel (or, for aught I know, in any other of the prophets), where times of things prophesied expressed by days are not to be understood of years.”
Mr. Maitland replies to this remark in the following words:–
“I am perfectly amazed at this brave challenge, which I sincerely lament, because I know that bold assertion will generally carry the multitude by storm, and that comparatively few readers take the trouble to inquire whether a writer has good ground, or any ground, for what he affirms with confidence. I answer, that I know of only these prophecies in the Scriptures which predict a period in terms of days; and whether any one of them is to be understood of years, let the reader Judge.”
He then adduces eight passages (Gen. vii. 4; xl. 12;: Exod. viii. 10; x. 4; Josh. vi. 4; 2 Kings vii. 1; Jonah iii. 4; Matt. xii. 40; John ii. 19; Rev. 5i. 10); and subjoins: “I am not aware that any individual has supposed the word day in any one of these passages, except the seventh and eighth, to mean a year. I would beg the reader to look again to Mr. Mede’s question, and I think he will wonder how a writer so well acquainted with the Scripture could ever propose it.”
Now the natural inference of the reader, from these remarks, must be, that Mede is guilty either of great ignorance, or of a worse fault–controversial dishonesty. One such blot would go far to damage his reputation, and cast suspicion on all his other statements. Yet the mistake is entirely Mr. Maitland’s own, in extending the challenge beyond its evident meaning. Of the eight examples he brings, the five first are not in “the prophets” at all, but in the historical books of the Old Testament. The sixth is the message of Jonah to the Ninevites, which, if meant solely of literal days, was not fulfilled at all, but averted; and if it were fulfilled, must have implied, as many have thought, a judgment after forty years. The next is our Lord’s own prediction (Matt. xii. 40; John ii. 19). This is a clear instance of literal fulfilment, but does not occur strictly in “the prophets.” The last is the ten days’ tribulation of Smyrna, of which the literal fulfilment is unknown, but which many commentators have referred, and with apparent reason, to the ten years’ persecution of Diocletian. There is a further passage (Hos. vi. 2), which Mr. Maitland has overlooked, and which seems to have both a literal and mystical fulfilment, though not on the principle of the year-day.
The words of Mede, then, do not imply the gross oversight which Mr. Maitland’s readers would infer. Their fault is of a different kind. They aim at an illusive generalization, for which there are no sufficient materials. In the prophets there are only two instances given by Mr. Maitland, one possibly, and the other with high probability, fulfilled on the year-day principle; one of them certainly, and perhaps the other, having no fulfilment in literal days. On the whole, therefore, Mede has more warrant for his assertion, than Mr. Maitland for contradicting it so strongly. But still the remark is faulty, because it tends to place the argument on a false basis. The real contrast is not between predictions in the prophets and in the historical books, but depends on a cause of a very different kind.
II. The nature of the evidence to be expected must be the next object of our inquiry. This requires us to notice, first of all, the indictment preferred against the truth of the theory.
The first and palmary argument of its opponents is the general duty of adhering to the literal sense. The words of Hooker are frequently adduced: “I hold it for a most infallible rule, in the exposition of Scripture, that, where the literal construction will stand, the furthest from the letter is commonly the worst. There is nothing more dangerous than this licentious and deluding art, which changeth the meaning of words, as alchemy doth, or would do, the substance of metals, maketh of anything what it listeth, and bringeth, in the end, all truth to nothing.” If it be replied that these dates occur in the symbolical prophecies, it is rejoined at once that they are given in the explanation of the visions. To this general reason other arguments are added of much apparent weight. Every prophecy, it is said, except those in dispute, has been fulfilled literally. Twelve or more instances occur of intervals predicted in years, which were all fulfilled in years, and five or six predicted in days, which have been fulfilled in days. The year-day interpretation was not only unknown for above a thousand years, but has given birth to many conjectures which have been successively falsified by time. Finally, the contrast is drawn between the prophecies whose fulfilment is allowed by all Christians, and the disputable nature of all the expositions connected with the mystical times. This argument is advanced, not with perfect correctness of statement, but with much point and force, in the close of Mr. Maitland’s “Enquiry:”–
“We point the infidel to the captive Jew and the wandering Arab; but who challenges him with the slain witnesses? We set before him the predicted triumphs of Cyrus; but do we expect his conversion from the French revolution and the conquests of Napoleon? We send him to muse on the ruined city of David and to search for the desolate site of Babylon; but who builds his argument on the opened seals of the Apocalypse? And why is this? I do not speak hastily, and I would not speak uncharitably; but I cannot suppress my conviction, that it is because the necessity of filling up a period of one thousand two hundred and sixty years has led to such forced interpretation of language, and to such a constrained acquiescence in what is unsatisfactory to sound judgment, that we should be afraid, not only of incurring his ridicule, but of his claiming the same license which we have ourselves been obliged to assume” (Enq. p. 84).
The previous remarks seem to comprise the chief strength of the argument against the year-day system. Let us now examine more closely the elements of which it is composed, and we shall find that this imposing array has only a seeming strength, and will not bear the test of a strict inquiry.
1. The maxim of Hooker is doubtless important, when restricted within its just limits; but, without the help of other principles, it will be found quite insufficient to ensure a sound and just interpretation. Often as these words have been quoted, it seems to have been overlooked, that, in the very instance referred to, Hooker’s own maxim fails him, and the interpretation which he advocates is just as far from being strictly literal as that which he condemns. Indeed, it may be questioned whether the deviation from the exact letter be not twice as great as in the exposition which he condemns. Now, if so profound a reasoner could be so deceived in the application of his own principle in the very instance for which it is adduced, it must be clear that the greatest caution is needful in its use at all times. No interpretation can properly be literal which neglects any indication, whether direct or indirect, of the mind of the revealing Spirit. If we read no deeper meaning in a message from the Infinite Wisdom, than we should suspect in the same words had they been spoken by a mere child, we adopt a false maxim, which would freeze out all the life and glory of the oracles of God. Where a phrase is distinctly marked out and separated, as containing a hidden sense, the meaning which lies on the surface, and which might otherwise have been counted literal ceases to be such, strictly and exclusively, any longer.
2. Let us next consider, for either hypothesis, the circumstances which would indicate its truth. If’ the meaning of the times had been designed to be clear from the first, we might reasonably anticipate that they would be given in the most usual and customary form. On the other hand, if they were intended to disclose their true sense only after the lapse of ages, they would then be presented in a more ambiguous manner. The true meaning would not then lie on the surface, but would depend on some combination of indirect evidence, all pointing to something hidden and mysterious, and only after close inquiry revealing definitely the exact sense really conveyed. Evidence apparent at first sight, or strictly demonstrative in any one part, would be excluded by the object of the revelation. We might therefore expect, in this case, that the terms would suggest a shorter period, and yet bear such marks of peculiarity and strangeness as to hinder us from resting with confidence on that outer sense, and to suggest strongly the existence of a deeper meaning. But if short periods were really designed, there seems no imaginable cause why they should not be stated in the most usual and simple terms. This remark is of primary importance to the whole inquiry.
III. The general character of the passages themselves has next to be examined. If these do really occur, all of them, in the explanation of the visions –if they are worded in the most simple, usual, and natural terms, to express the intervals which they seem to indicate at first sight, the presumption will be strong in favour of the shorter interpretation. But if the reverse be true–if they either occur in the midst of the symbols themselves, or bear plain marks of a singular, uncommon, and peculiar phraseology, or are prefaced by words importing concealment, then the presumption in favour of some figurative or analogical sense will be no less-strong. Let us now proceed to examine their actual character* The following are all. the passages in Daniel and St. John to which the year-day principle has usually been applied:–
(1). Dan, vii. 24-26. “And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings, And he shall speak great words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand, until a time, and times, and the dividing of a time. But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end.”
(2). Dan. viii. 13, 14, 26. “Then I heard one saint speaking; and another saint said unto the wonderful numberer, which spake, How long shall be the vision of the daily sacrifice and of the transgression of desolation, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot? And he said unto me, Unto evenings mornings, two thousand three hundred [or, unto an evening morning, two thousand three hundred]; then the sanctuary shall be cleansed.”
“And the vision of the evening and the morning which was told is true: wherefore shut thou up the vision; for it shall be for many days.”
(3). Dan. ix. 24-27, ” Seventy weeks [or sevens] are determined upon thy people, and upon thy holy city, to finish transgression, &c.
“Know, therefore, and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem, unto Messiah the Prince, shall be seven weeks) and threescore and two weeks.
“And after the threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, and they shall not be his; and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. And the end shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
“And he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week; and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and oblation to cease, and with the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined, shall be poured on the desolator.”
(4). Dan. xii. 5-9. “Then I, Daniel, looked, and behold there stood other two, the one on this side the bank of the river, and the other on that side the bank of the river. And one said to the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, How long shall it be to the end of these wonders? And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by Him that liveth for ever, that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished. And I heard, but I understood not; then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things? And he said, Go thy way, Daniel; for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.”
(5). Dan. xii. 10-13. “None of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand. And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and Jive and thirty days. But go thou thy way till the end be, for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.”
(6). Rev. ii. 10. “Ye shall have tribulation ten days”
(7). Rev. ix. 5,10. “And to them it was given that they should not hurt them, but that they should be tormented five months; and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion when it striketh a man.
“And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails; and their power was to hurt men five months.”
(8). Rev. ix. 15. “And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year (***), to slay the third part of men.”
(9). Rev. xi. 2, 3. “But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not, for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophecy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.”
(10). Rev. xi. 9, 11. “And they of the people, and kindreds, and tongues, and nations, shall see their dead; bodies three days and a half; and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves. And after the three days and a half the spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood on their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.”
(11). Rev. xii. 6, “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.”
(12). Rev. xii. 14. “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”
(13), Rev. xiii. 6. “And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and power was given unto him to continued forty and two months.”
2. From a review of these passages, in order, the following conclusions evidently arise.
In the first passage, the words do not, of themselves, literally denote three years and six months, but three and a half times some unit, which is left quite undefined. The shorter computation is, therefore, not in the least more literal than the other.
In the second, if we accept the common rendering in a more exact form, the phrase will be–unto evenings and mornings, two thousand three hundred. Now, although this might denote the period either of 1,150 or 2,300 natural days, it is not, on either view, the natural or usual form in which such a period would be expressed. The literal expression would be six years, three months, and twenty days; or three years, one month, and twenty-five days, and is very different from that which is actually employed.
But a comparison with the end of the chapter suggests a different version. The angel there tells the prophet, “the vision of the evening and of the morning is true.” Now, since the words evening and morning before occurred in the singular, this reference seems to prove that they ought to be so rendered, and are together descriptive either of the whole interval, or else of its close. In every other case in this prophet, the times, if really plural, are in the plural form. The conclusion can hardly be avoided that one evening and morning only is meant in this passage; and therefore the numeral stands alone, without any specified unit of time. The reckoning, then, of 2,300 natural days is not at all more literal than if we expound it of the same number of months or years.
The third passage is the prophecy of seventy weeks. The word employed must denote, properly, either common weeks, or simply sevens. In the one case, the proof is clear that the literal sense is abandoned for a larger meaning: on the other hand, if the meaning of the word be sevens, this is included under the same remark with the two former; and the longer is equally literal with the shorter reckoning.
The same remarks apply to the fourth passage as to the first. The terms employed are exactly similar, and have the same inherent latitude in their signification.
The fifth passage is the first in which the shorter period has any just claim to be called the literal interpretation, since days are directly expressed. But there are three counteracting circumstances, which, on the most general view, tend to throw doubt on such an exposition. First, it is added, like an appendix, to another period expressed in an indefinite form. Secondly, it is; prefaced by direct assertions that it has a mysterious meaning. And, finally, the form of expression is entirely different from that which is commonly used, both in Scripture and elsewhere, to denote that number of natural days.
The other passages are all taken from the book of Revelation. All of them, except the first, occur in the midst of the symbols, and not in explanatory passages. Two of them are quite indefinite in their significance, when taken alone, and two others are expressed in a manner which varies greatly from the most usual form.
The result, then, of the whole examination may be thus given. Of the five passages in Daniel one must certainly be expounded on the larger scale of reckoning; in three of the others the shorter calculation is not at all more literal than the other; and in the fourth there are several features which tend to except it from the literal exposition. The passages in Revelation, several of them, are indeterminate, like those in Daniel; and all of them, except one, are found, not in the interpretation of the symbols, but imbedded in the midst of the emblems themselves.
The general argument, drawn from the maxim of literal interpretation, has already vanished almost entirely. There is not a single passage on which its advocates can rest a decisive argument. The only one in Daniel which appears to offer a solid footing is fenced by a special announcement that its true meaning is mysterious; and those in the visions of St. John are so connected with the symbolical language of the prophecy, that it is plainly rash and unwarrantable to decide, without a deeper search, that they must be intended in a barely literal sense. It is now time to examine, more in detail, the presumptions which exist in favour of an opposite view.
IV. The general symmetry of the sacred prophecies is a first argument against the shorter acceptation of these numbers. When a declaration of future events is attended also with one of definite seasons, it is natural to expect some degree of correspondence between the two parts of the revelation: and this presumption of reason is confirmed by a still safer guide–that of Scripture precedent. The chief instances of definite times revealed in Scripture, in connexion with the history of the Church, are the hundred and twenty years’ delay of the flood, the four hundred years and four generations of sojourning in Egypt, the forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness, the sixty-five years to elapse before Ephraim’s captivity, the seventy years‘ captivity of Judah, the forty years of Egypt’s desolation, the seventy weeks before the coming of Messiah, with its minor portions, the three days of our Lord’s burial, and the seven years to follow on Israel’s restoration. (Ezek. xxxix.) In all of these, except the two last, there is an evident proportion between the time predicted and the general of the events announced; and even in those, the event to which they apply is clearly expressed, and was plainly limited and brief in its own nature.
Now here we have twelve or thirteen specified seasons of time, connected with an interval which extends from the reign of Cyrus to the second advent. And it is plain that, by the shorter reckoning of times, all proportion is lost between the range of the events and the periods which enter into the predictions. If, indeed, there were no features on the surface of the prophecy which suggest the idea of a meaning different from the bare letter, it would be hazardous to reason from analogy against a direct statement. But the reverse of this is evidently true. Even on a general and cursory view of the passages the balance inclines in favour of some concealed meaning. And now the analogy has its full weight. We must reverse the law which prevails in all the other examples of revealed times, before we can accept the short and contracted interpretation.
The Church before the flood (Gen. vi. 3), the early patriarchs (Gen. xv. 13), the Church in the wilderness (Num. xiv. 33, 34), Israel and Judah under their kings (Isa. vii. 8; Ezra iv, 5), the Jews in their first captivity (Jer. xxv. 11, 12; xxix. 10), and after their return, before the coming of Christ (Dan ix.)–all of them had times prophetically announced, which bore a direct proportion to the season of the delay, or the length of the trial, and the least of which exceeded the average length of one generation. It is not easy to conceive that in these comprehensive prophecies of Daniel and St. John, which clearly contain so many statements of sacred time, the Church would be deprived, for the first time, of a help which had been given her in every main stage of her former history.
V. The symbolical nature of the books in which these numbers occur is a further presumption of the same kind. Except in Daniel and the Apocalypse, no definite revelation of time occurs between the time of Cyrus and the future restoration of Israel. From the close of the seventy years’ captivity to those seven years (Ez. xxxix. 9) which follow the final recovery of the captives of Israel, there is a total blank, with regard to distinct times and seasons, in all the other prophecies. In these two books alone, however, there are at least twenty dates, if each be numbered distinctly, which reveal definite periods of time. These dates form, therefore, a broad distinction between these books and the other prophecies; and conversely, the nature of these books must throw light on the true meaning of the dates contained in them.
Now the one feature which distinguishes these books from the other prophecies is their symbolical character: an air of mystery pervades them from first to last. Thus In Daniel, three of the visions are directly symbolic. The three histories which are interposed bear distinct marks of a typical meaning. And the last vision, which is the most simple and direct in its form (Dan. x.-xii.), is closed by expressions which plainly import concealment and mystery: “Go thy way, for the words are closed and sealed till the time of the end.” “None of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand.”
The same remark applies, in still greater force, to the visions of the Apocalypse. Even those who attempt to literalize them the most are compelled to allow that a large portion is strictly symbolic, and their expositions of much that remains are forced and discordant. No one can read the prophecy without being struck forcibly by the peculiar mystery which prevails in it.
Since the prophetic dates, then, are found exclusively in these two books, which possess, also exclusively, this symbolical and mysterious character, it is a natural inference that those dates have or may have themselves a covert meaning. And the clear statements of our Lord, that the Church was at first designedly kept from a knowledge of the times and seasons, would concur with this view, and raise it to a weighty presumption against the short reckoning of these prophetic intervals, which limits them within five or six years.
The only direct reply to this argument of any weight is, that these dates occur in the explanations of the visions. But, in the first place, this is not true, as we have seen of those in the Revelation, which are the greater number. In the next place, even the explanatory parts of these symbolical prophecies retain something of the same mysterious character with the rest. For instance, Rev. xvii. is the only chapter in the Apocalypse of direct interpretation: and there is so much remaining mystery, that the best expositors vary considerably in the details of its meaning; and Mr. Maitland, while seeking to explode the more usual expositions, frankly confesses his entire inability to substitute a better. Hence it would not be surprising, if even the dates which occur in the explanatory parts should still be mysterious, and have their true sense hid beneath the surface, like the other parts of the prophecy.
VI. The dispensation to which they belong is a further presumption in favour of the same view. The dates in question relate, all of them, to the times of the Gospel and of the rejection of Israel. The seventy weeks are the only exception, the meaning of which is demonstrably four hundred and ninety years, and not four hundred and ninety days. But all the others are included between the first and the second advent.
This character is expressly noted for us in the word of God. If we compare Dan. xii. with 1 Pet. i. 10-12, we shall see a distinct assertion of this peculiar reference of the times to the Christian dispensation. It was not for the prophets themselves, but for the Christian Church, that these mysterious dates were revealed. In like manner, in Rev. x, Christ solemnly declares that in the days of the seventh angel the mystery of God shall be finished. The comparison of other Scriptures shows that this expression refers to the calling of the Gentile Church in the place of Israel. (Rom. xi.; Eph. iii.) The six first trumpets, therefore, and all the numbers connected with them, including the time, times, and half, must be contained within the limits of this Gentile dispensation.
Now the most distinctive character of this dispensation is, that it is composed of mysterious counterparts to the literal types and ordinances of the older economy. This truth may be traced in almost every part of the Christian Church, and every step of the Gospel histories. There is a new and spiritual Israel, in place of the Jews after the flesh: “As many as walk after this rule, peace be on them and mercy, even on the Israel of God.” There is a mystical and heavenly Mount Zion, in contrast to the earthly Jerusalem: “Ye are come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God.” “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” There is a spiritual passover, with its distinct paschal Lamb: “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” “Ye were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” There is an antitypical circumcision: “In whom ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” There is an antitypical Exodus: “All our fathers were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Now these things happened unto them for types.” There is a feast of spiritual first-fruits: “These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and the Lamb.” There is an antitypical harvest and feast of tabernacles (Rev. vii. xiv.) There is a counterpart to the Sabbath; and the year of jubilee itself was a type of “the acceptable year of the Lord.” There is also a wilderness sojourn of the Church (Rev. xii.), answering to the journey of Israel through the desert from Egypt to the land of promise.
It is in evident harmony with all these analogies, which link the times of the Gospel with the previous dispensation, to interpret these dates, in the symbolical prophecies, on a principle of analogy also. Such an analogy, and one of the simplest kind, is presented by the year-day system; and there is, consequently, no light presumption in favour of this, or some similar explanation.
VII. The mysterious introduction, by which these dates are prefaced in several of the visions, forms another argument that they are not designed to be taken for short periods of natural days only.
There is nothing spoken in vain in the word of God. Every part, as it proceeds from Infinite Wisdom, is suited, in the most minute particulars, to the special truth which has to be revealed. Wherever there is a peculiar solemnity in the introduction of any statement, there must clearly be something answerable in the truth which that statement was designed to convey.
Now, in the case of most of these numbers, this peculiarity appears very striking in the manner of their introduction. They are not given in passing, nor as matters of subordinate importance. On the contrary, the most various methods are used to point out their peculiar character, and the deep significance of the message they contain. It is in connexion with one of these dates that our Lord receives the title of the “Wonderful Numberer.” Two of the celestial company are introduced as fresh persons in the sacred drama, and one of them propounds the question to which this date forms the reply–a reply given by the Lord himself. This surely implies some meaning deeper than appears, on the first glance at the words of the vision.
The time, times, and half, exhibit the same character still more clearly. They are twice revealed to Daniel, in two visions at an interval of twenty years. In the second of these they are introduced with peculiar solemnity. Two saints are again exhibited as the speakers. One of them inquires the duration of the predicted wonders. The reply is given by the Lord himself, with all the solemnity of a direct appeal to God: “I heard the man clothed with linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by Him that liveth for ever, that it shall be for a time, and times, and the dividing of a time.” No words could well be more expressive of deep mystery, and of the special importance to the Church of the period thus revealed.
The same character appears conspicuously in the book of Revelation. The five months, under the first woe, are twice mentioned. The period named in the second woe has a singular and unusual form. In the tenth chapter, as in the twelfth of Daniel, there is a most impressive oath, the only one of a direct kind which appears in the New Testament; and here, also, it is connected with these sacred times. The oral message of Christ to the apostle, in the following chapter, consists mainly in a revelation of chronology. The same period, again, which has been twice mentioned in Daniel, and twice under the temple vision, is three times repeated in the succeeding chapters. And thus, wherever these sacred numbers occur, there is always some mark given to us, apparently to lead our thoughts beyond the surface to a deeper truth which they really contain.
These general presumptions, against a barely literal sense of the dates, may be confirmed by several others of the same kind. They clearly suggest the conclusion that the words are to be taken in some analogical signification, which may restore their harmony with the wider range of the prophecies to which they belong. Such a principle is found in the year-day system, which enlarges the scope of these numbers, and yet maintains the definite and precise character of each interval that is revealed.
It may just be observed, however, before entering on this second stage of the inquiry, that the direct testimony of early times to the shorter acceptation of these dates has often been over-rated. Their mysterious adjuncts had led to hesitation and doubt as to their being meant literally, long before the period when the year-day system could have been understood without injury to the hopes of the Church. The five months of the first woe, the period of the second, the twelve hundred and sixty days, the forty-two months, and, most of all, the time, times, and a half, were figuratively expounded by very early writers. Primasius, Ambrose, Ansbert, and not a few others, explained this last phrase to denote the whole time of the Church’s sufferings. And we learn from Justin that, before his time, the same expression in Daniel was commonly supposed by the Jews to have a century for its unit, and to denote three hundred and fifty years.