T. R. Birks on the time periods of prophecy 4
This is the concluding article by T. R. Birks in the series on the time periods of prophecy, in which he defends the year-day theory.
Thomas Rawson Birks, 1810-1883: First elements of sacred prophecy: including an examination of several recent expositions and of the year-day theory
London, W. E. Painter, 1843.
pp. 392 -419
THE YEAR-DAY THEORY CONCLUDED.
The direct arguments for the larger reckoning of prophetic times have now been briefly unfolded; and many of the usual objections have been shown, in passing, to be futile and groundless. But there are several others which could not be previously noticed, and which deserve a short examination. There will then be little or nothing, I believe, in the writings of Mr. Maitland, Mr. Tyso, or the other Futurists on this subject, which will not have received, either directly or indirectly, a sufficient and solid answer.
The objections which have to be examined are drawn chiefly from the events connected with these times. Now, in truth, some of the strongest arguments for the symbolical interpretation of them may be derived from this very source. To avoid, however, too long and wide an inquiry, I will confine myself to a few remarks which may remove the force of those difficulties which have been alleged to encumber the theory.
I. The first of these objections is the uncertainty about the ten kingdoms. The times, if they are mystically explained, must have begun long ago. The fourth empire must also, long ago, have been parted into ten kingdoms. But there is the utmost disagreement, it is alleged, in the lists which have been made out of these ten Roman kingdoms. Almost every expositor varies in his account of them. Mr. Tyso has been at the pains to draw up a tabular list of twenty nine varieties. And hence it is argued that this division must be still future, or else there could not be so much doubt as to the kingdoms really designed. “Let the reader only look (Mr. Maitland observes) at the various lists which have been made by learned men, and I think he will have no doubt that if the number mentioned by Daniel had been nine or eleven, the right number would have been found among those petty kingdoms, whose unsettled state makes it so easy to estimate them variously.”
1. The temperate statement which is here made may be owned without difficulty to be true. But the question recurs, how far, in this true and moderate form, it has any real weight as an objection to the fulfilment? We must remember that the prophecies are given to announce actual events, rather than the events fitted to an independent prophecy. If, then, in the providence of God, and for wise ends, the division was to be fluctuating and uncertain, though within narrow bounds, did this put the events out of the pale of inspired prediction? Or if they were to be the objects of prophecy, was it essential that every minute and passing change, however temporary, should be noticed, as well as those broad features which stand out on the page of history? Or, further, if the prophecy could naturally be expected to give only the most permanent and obvious features of the history, can it be asserted that either nine or eleven, or any other number, would have been a more exact description than that which really occurs? If a negative answer be given, as it must, to all these questions, then the objection is worthless. Its nature consists in arguing from uncertain details against the broad and evident outlines of prophecy and history, which clearly accord with each other. History proves that the Roman empire was divided into about ten kingdoms, at the very stage of Providence when we might expect it from the prophecy alone.
2. This explanation, however, may still appear to some minds loose and indefinite. The number ten, five times repeated, may seem to them to demand a more exact and precise fulfilment. There are two further remarks which furnish a complete answer, and leave the objection without any shadow of scriptural warrant.
And, first, let us consider the parallel case of the twelve tribes of Israel. These, it is well known, are always described by the same number, twelve. Yet the Scripture furnishes us with three lists of these, all different from each other (Gen. xlix.; Num. xiii.; Rev, vii.) And if we combine the principles allowed in these separate lists, the number may be reduced to ten, or increased to thirteen, by excluding Dan and Levi, or admitting both Manasseh and Ephraim. Yet, notwithstanding these actual varieties, and the various numbers which might be assigned, they are always described by the same number, twelve. For this was not only their original number, but had evidently a sacred character, which made it the standing description of the Church, and appears again in the twelve apostles and in the symbols of the Revelation.
Now the same reasons will clearly apply to the ten kingdoms. Granting that the list of them may be made to vary–may be reduced to nine or eight, or enlarged to eleven or twelve; still the number ten was the medium in these oscillations, and, according to credible accounts, the original number. And it is plain, from the parable of the virgins and other passages, that it is as peculiarly appropriated to Gentile nations or Churches, as the number twelve is to the tribes of Israel.
3. But there is a further observation to be made, not less important. The prophecy itself does recognize and imply these temporary variations of the actual number. This will appear from two distinct passages; and first of all from the following text:–
Dan. ii. “And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men; but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.”
The plain meaning of these words is, that the powers denoted by the ten toes of the image will repeatedly seek to unite with each other by intermarriage; but that these temporary alliances should lead to no lasting union. This implies, as its natural consequence, that one or more of the kingdoms would for a time be merged and blended with their neighbours; as, for instance, Portugal with Spain, or France or Spain with Naples; but that the transitory union would be followed by a renewed separation.
The second passage occurs in the seventh chapter, and is, perhaps, a still more decisive testimony.
Dan. vii. 8. “I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots.”
Either these uprooted horns are afterwards replaced by others, or not. If not, the number varies at least from ten to seven. But from the renewed mention of the horns in the Revelation, and always with the same number ten, even after the time of uprooting must be supposed to be past, it would appear that the horns are replaced by others. And this, perhaps, is the meaning of the word first, as if the horns germinated in succession, and three of the first were uprooted by the little horn, and then replaced by some which followed.
Now if this be true, which is the most natural exposition, it follows that the reckoning of these horns, according to the prophecy itself, would vary from seven to thirteen. If they were reckoned after the three had fallen, and before they were replaced, the number would be only seven. If the whole number be included, of those which fall and of those which replace them, they will amount to thirteen. These limits are wider than those mentioned above in the objection itself; and the principle thus confirmed admits of a still more extensive application in the temporary changes which might afterwards follow.
The objection then, in fact, is anticipated by the prophecy, and entirely removed on an exact review of what is implied in the vision. And thus, instead of refuting the larger view of the times, it serves rather to lend it a fresh confirmation.
II. The uncertain date of the 1,260 years is a further objection which forms one main topic of Mr. Maitland’s inquiry. The reasoning ought, perhaps, to be given in his own words.
“If such an event as this (the delivery of the saints into the hands of a blasphemous and persecuting power) has taken place, is it possible that the Church of God can be at a loss to decide when and how it happened? Can there be a difference of opinion among pious, and learned, and laborious inquirers into the word of God and the history of the Church? Nay, further, we ask–‘Is the Church at this moment in the hands of the blasphemous little horn, or is it not?’ Mr. Faber, and many more, assert that it is. Mr. Cuninghame, Mr. Frere, and others, are as fully convinced that it is not. And nine-tenths of the Christian world stand silent, avowedly unable to give any opinion on the subject. They may, or may not, be in the hands of the little horn, and he may, or may not, be wearing them out, for anything they know. They hope and believe that they are the saints, but whether the beast is making war with, and has overcome them, they cannot tell: it is a deep, curious, and litigated question, and one on which, among so many conflicting opinions, they never pretended to form a judgment for themselves When did the saints find out that they had been delivered over? Not for ages. Is this credible? But, in fact, when did it happen? When, how, and by whom was this great prediction fulfilled? On this point, too, there is a great difference of opinion. Is it credible that the Church has to wander up and down through a period of three centuries, inquiring when she was delivered into the hands of a cruel and blasphemous tyrant? Might we not expect that this solemn act would be known in her assemblies, registered in her calendar, commemorated in her services, never lost sight of by her members? But, instead of this, the saints who were thus delivered up knew nothing of the matter. One generation after another passed away, and the secret was not discovered. Centuries rolled on, and the saints knew not that he to whom they looked as their father and their head was making war upon them and wearing them out. For ages did the Church of God follow a hireling, with the mark of perdition on their foreheads. I leave it to others to explain how a man can at once bear on his forehead the mark of the beast and the seal of the living God.” (Enq., pp. 53, 76).
1. The objection, when exhibited in this pointed and epigrammatic form, is well adapted to make a deep impression on general readers. There is, however, one great defect which vitiates it in every part; it argues against an hypothesis, by assuming, as self-evident, a vital and essential part of the hypothesis opposed to it. It is quite plain that the literal and mystical exposition of the times involve two views, equally distinct, of the true aim and final cause of the prophecy. In the one case, it was given to sustain the faith of the last generation of the Church only, during a very short, but bitter season of open persecution. Its whole use is limited to three years; and it would then be useless, if the Church could not identify the persecution at once, and fix the date of its commencement. On the other view, it was given for the use of the Church through many successive generations, to unmask a dangerous and subtle delusion, and to throw light on the moral features of God’s providence through many centuries of time. Now it is clear that all these purposes might be fulfilled, even if the true application were not seen for several generations, and if mistakes of two or three centuries were made at first in the date of the event. The influx of error and delusion is almost always gradual; and, although the prophecy itself must refer to some distinct and specific time, it is clear that the practical evil would be small in amount, if the commencement were wrongly placed a century earlier or later than the true era. All the main features and practical lessons would still be substantially the same; as the features and character of a person might be well known, though we were a few months or years in error as to the time of his birth.
2. The analogy of other predicted periods shows still more forcibly the unreasonable nature of this demand, for an exact and full consent in the date of the prophecy. And, first, let us consider the period of four hundred years revealed to Abraham for the sojourning of his posterity. Mr. Cuninghame, in his “Strictures” (p. 49), has referred to this passage for the same purpose; and his argument has been strangely misunderstood by Mr. Maitland, in his reply. “Mr. Cuninghame (he says) is the only critic, so far as I know, who contends that the four hundred years is descriptive of some shorter period. Most commentators, both Jewish and Christian, understand the four hundred years as meaning four hundred years.”
Now Mr. Cuninghame really asserts the very reverse. He maintains that a period of four hundred years was really meant; but that the characters prophetically assigned to those years, sojourning in the strange nation, and affliction, were not applicable with equal distinctness to the whole time of their continuance. “We require it to be shown (he says), that the seed of Abraham did actually serve, and were really afflicted, by the strange nation during the whole of the four hundred years.” Now the reasoning here is strictly applicable to the present instance, and parallel in every feature. A precise period of 1,260 years might be really intended, and yet, as in the other prophecy, the predicted characters of tyrannous persecution might be more dimly and partially realized in the earlier part of the time. The answer, therefore, to Mr. Cuninghame’s arguments turns on a complete misconception of his reasoning.
3. The shorter period of the captivity is another instance not dissimilar. It is clear, that between Jehoiakim’s captivity, B.C. 606, and the destruction of the temple, B.C. 587, even those who had heard Jeremiah’s prophecy might reasonably hesitate as to the correct date of the seventy years. This interval was more than a fourth of the whole time, and would correspond to three centuries and a half in the 1,260 years. The same uncertainty might recur at the close between the first of Cyrus, B.C. 536, and the fourth of Darius (Zech. v.), B.C. 517 And yet in the middle period there could be no doubt of the actual captivity.
4. The prophecy of the seventy weeks is a third instance. This is also adduced by Mr. Cuninghame, and Mr. Maitland replies as follows:–“The truth is, that there has been a very general conviction and agreement as to the event by which the prophecy of the seventy weeks was fulfilled, and that the difference among interpreters in that case has been chiefly chronological, which, with respect to the 1,260 days, it is not.
Now the truth is that the difference is exactly of the same kind in both cases. The question has been, not merely in what year some known decree was given, or some known event occurred; but which, out of four decrees, was the real date of the prophecy; and whether the birth, or entrance into the temple, or baptism, or death of our Lord, marked the close of the period. Mr. Tyso carries out the parallel more fully and correctly. In his first “table” he exhibits twenty-three dates assigned for the seventy weeks; and in his third “table,” about forty-one for the 1,260 years. The resemblance, then, is complete. Mr. Maitland’s argument proves either too much or too little. The various dates assigned to the seventy weeks cannot, as I have shown, disprove the strong and invincible evidence of its fulfilment. And hence the argument urged against the 1,260 years on this ground is also worthless.
5. But, further, the idea on which the whole objection rests, that the time in question must be so distinct in its features as to be evident at once from the first, has no solid basis in the words of the prophecy. “They shall be given into his hand, a time, times, and the dividing of a time.” “He lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware–that it shall be for a time, times, and a half.” “Blessed is he that waiteth and cometh to the 1,335 days.” “It is given to the Gentiles, and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.” “That they should feed her there for a time, times, and a half, from the face of the serpent.” “Power was given to him to practise forty-two months.” It is plain how far most of these expressions are from giving the impression of a boundary line which no one could mistake. The general character of the time is plain; but the precise nature of the event by which it opens is rather left to inference and comparison. Even the most distinct expression, “they shall be given into his hand,” is ambiguous; for it might refer either to the saints themselves, or to the times and laws, which are the more direct antecedent. In the chronology of the Gospels it is still debated what year is designed by the fifteenth of Tiberius Caesar. Some writers date it two years earlier, and others later; some from his joint reign with Augustus, and some from his possession of undivided power. Shall we, then, because this point of detail is scarce yet determined, deny that John ever began to baptize, or that Tiberius ever reigned? The variety in the dates assigned to the 1,260 years is not much greater in proportion.
The questions in the above extract may therefore be met by others of greater real weight. Is it more reasonable, we may ask, to suppose that these predictions were given for the use of many generations, or of one only? Against which of the two evils would the Church be in more need of repeated cautions–open and undisguised blasphemy and atheism, or subtle and perilous delusions, veiled under Christian names and titles? And, lastly, supposing that these times are figurative, what possible warrant can there be for expecting a greater plainness in the date of their commencement, than in the case of other prophecies given in the plainest terms?
III. The repeated failures in the predicted close of the 1,260 years are a third objection against the exposition, and the last which it seems needful to consider. It is indeed well suited for popular effect, and is urged by most opponents of the year-day system, in some cases with no small degree of exaggeration. There is a further reason for submitting it to a full inquiry, since it is closely connected with a most important subject–the true purpose and right use of the dates and numbers revealed in the word of prophecy.
Perhaps there is no topic on which some of the Futurists have indulged more largely in censure and declamation than this; and yet there is none in which their own admissions form a more complete answer to their assaults on the Protestant interpreters. This will appear gradually as we proceed.
1. Let us first state briefly the facts. The year-day theory, as applied to the time, times, and a half, first appeared about the year 1200. From that time down to the present day various dates have been assigned for its commencement and close, from the estimates of Junius (a.d. 34-1294) and Walter Brute (a.d. 130-1290), down to that of Lowman and other writers, who place it A.D. 757-2017, or about that time. Several of these supposed dates were assigned after the close of the time, as those of Junius and More. But others were suggested before their own close, as, for instance, those of Mede, Goodwin, and Jurieu. It is the failure in conjectures of this kind which forms the basis of the objection.
2. Now if we refer to the maxims which have already been stated as the foundation of the year-day system, it will be plain that these successive anticipations are just what it was reasonable to expect. Only by this gradual approach to a correct view of the times and seasons could the two main purposes have been fulfilled–growing knowledge of the prophecy, with a constant and unbroken expectation of the Lord’s coming. The fact, therefore, is so far from refuting the theory, that it might rather be viewed as a direct corollary from its truth.
The objection, in reality, assumes that the Church must either be in total ignorance of the times, or vault at once into the possession of exact and perfect knowledge. Either she must entirely renounce the use of the prophetic dates, as having no connexion with her past history, and float in a complete uncertainty concerning her own place in the stream of Providence; or else she may claim to decide, with unerring exactness, on the very year in which particular events shall be fulfilled.
Now this is a monstrous alternative to propose. Neither Scripture nor reason lend it the slightest warrant. Those who, on such false and foolish grounds, fling out charges of presumption against all who have attended to the dates of prophecy, and viewed them as helps and guides to their expectations, need themselves those rebukes for folly and rashness which they administer so freely to others.
3. But let us examine the subject more closely. And, first, it must be remembered that most of those who object to the year-day system, on the ground of these failures, admit the doctrine that the Church was to be kept always waiting for the second advent. Their objections to the year-day are often made to turn on this very point. Thus, in the “Elucidation,” page 84–“If the 1,260 days be put for years, and their commencement be known, as most commentators suppose, then the time of their termination may be as certainly known. What would be the effects of this foreknowledge? To contradict the Scriptures, and render inapplicable the exhortation of our Lord, “Take ye heed; watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.”
The view occurs in a still more extreme form in the following remarks of Dr. Todd (Lect. v., p. 194):–
“One of the most remarkable features of this passage (1 Thes. iv. 15-18) is, that the apostle has expressed himself as if he and they to whom he was writing were to he alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord–a circumstance in which commentators have found great embarrassment, as if St. Paul had put forward some erroneous or fanatical expectation that the end of all things was immediately to take place. I cannot bring myself to think that the literal interpretation of the passage is, after all, so inconsistent with the full inspiration of the apostle as has been commonly supposed. In the first place, we must bear in mind that he has elsewhere used very similar language (1 Cor. xv. 51, 52). Nor is this mode of speaking peculiar to St. Paul: the language of the apostles, and of the primitive Church for some ages after, was that of men who believed that there was nothing to prevent the immediate appearing of the Lord in the lifetime of the Christians who were then on earth… If we are to take these passages in their literal signification, the apostles really believed, and taught their converts to believe, that the second advent of the Lord might, for aught that was revealed, take place in the course of that generation. This, indeed, has proved that this expectation has not been realized; but it does not therefore follow that the apostles were in error… It was natural, therefore–nay, more, it was their express duty, to assume that the coming of the Lord was near at hand… No man could surely say that the day of Christ was not to come in his own lifetime or that of his contemporaries. The apostle, therefore, in comforting the Thessalonians, takes for granted that he and they might live to the day of judgment.”
Another passage to the same effect, and still more extreme in its statements, has been already quoted. It is there affirmed, that “although the result has shown that many centuries have, in fact, intervened, we have no reason to believe that this formed any part of the counsel of God. Our Lord’s coming may have been delayed by the continued unbelief of the Jewish nation. To suppose it revealed as a part of the immutable counsel of the Most High, that so long a time was to elapse before the day of Christ would come, is manifestly irreconcilable with those numerous passages in which we are exhorted to watch and pray, because we know not when the time. is. The knowledge that the time was long and distant would be as inimical to this watchfulness, as the knowledge of the precise hour at which the master of the house was to come.” (pp. 260, 261).
These views are held, I believe, in substance, by most of the writers who object to the year-day system, from the repeated failure of its predicted close. Let us now compare the two principles together, and the total contradiction between them will at once appear.
(1). And, first, the view of these writers falls doubly under their own censure. Every generation of the Church, on this hypothesis, have been bound, by an express duty, to expect the second advent in their own lifetime. Therefore every generation in succession was bound to believe an error, and to experience a repeated failure of its expectations. How can that be a conclusive disproof of the year-day system, which, by their own plain admissions, was an imperative duty to the whole Church at large?
(2). But, secondly, the failures which the Church, on this hypothesis, was bound to expose herself to, were both longer in continuance, and larger in degree, than those which are traceable to the year-day exposition. These latter have prevailed through twenty generations at the most, and the greatest error or anticipation has been five centuries. But the failures on the other view, necessary failures, the result of fulfilling an express duty, have lasted through sixty generations, and the error has reached an extent of nearly two thousand years. Thus, without a metaphor, the objection lies tenfold against their own theory; for the error it involves has been more than three times as great, and has lasted for thrice as many ages.
(3). But, further, the objection brought against the year-day by these writers is most destructive to the very purpose which they profess to keep in view–a sustained and lively hope of the speedy coming of Christ. The year-day is condemned as worthless, because many expectations have been formed under it, and all of them have proved to be premature. Therefore, in the words of Mr. Maitland, we are to fling this compass overboard as delusive; to reject all helps from the sacred numbers in judging of the nearness of the end; and to hold fast simply by the general declarations of Scripture. But, for the very same reason, these declarations themselves must be set aside, or explained away. Taken in the meaning assigned them by these writers, they have led to errors greater in amount, to failures more numerous, to disappointments more lasting and complete, than the rejected theory. So that the necessary result of the objection is to place the Church in the position of the unfaithful servant, or of those scoffers who inquire, “Where is the promise of His coming?”
4. The whole objection, then, as urged by the Futurists, and made an argument for casting aside all prophetic chronology, is self-destructive and worthless. But let us proceed further, and inquire whether these failures, as they are called, do not really afford a presumption in favour of the year-day system. And this, I think, by a few remarks, will become evident to demonstration, when tested by the principles of reason and of the word of God.
In the first place, it is clear that there are numerous passages which enjoin the Church to be ever watchful for the coming of her Lord. In some of these also her ignorance of the time is one motive assigned for the duty. In several, the time is declared to be near at hand. Yet eighteen centuries have passed, and the event is not hitherto fulfilled.
The reason for this concealment of the time was clearly to keep alive and stimulate expectation; and this, in connexion with the weakness of faith and earthliness of Christians. A soul which had fully realized the vastness of eternity would require no such veil interposed to sustain the utmost instancy of watchfulness and desire. But where the impression of eternal things is so dim and faint, it is profitable that the view of earthly events to intervene should be contracted and foreshortened, that it may not thrust the other more entirely from the view.
Now there are three different notions which may be formed of the possible course which it would please God to adopt in after times, in the knowledge of the seasons to be given to the Church. It might please Him to keep her in total ignorance to the last; or to translate her suddenly, whether at or before the coming of Christ, from complete ignorance to full knowledge; or, finally, to bestow gradually increasing light, till at length the Day-star should arise in His glory. Let us first examine which of these is best suited to sustain the lively expectation of the Advent, and agrees best with the analogy of Providence; and then we shall clearly see the full vindication which it supplies of the year-day theory and its imaginary failures.
5. First, let us suppose that the Church was left with nothing but the general statements for her guide–“the time is at hand; behold, I come quickly.” Christians of the first generation might have some reason for applying the words strictly to themselves, and for supposing that they implied, in their literal sense, that the Lord, would return while some of themselves were still alive. But with the first generation this presumption would have lost its power. Every succeeding generation which arose would have less and less warrant for inferring the strict nearness of the advent, in the common meaning of the term, from these passages alone. The whole time which had elapsed would form an unit, always enlarging, by which alone they could form any conjecture as to the future prospect. If one century had clearly passed since the time was said to be near, there would be little reason, from the phrase alone, why another might not intervene. When ten centuries had passed, it would be just as reasonable to expect ten centuries more, as before to expect one. They might borrow a limit to their expectations of delay from some other source; as, for instance, from a vague impression that the world would last only about six thousand years. But this would be a prophetic date, only in disguise; and therefore a trespass on forbidden ground. So far as the general warnings alone are concerned, each successive generation will be warranted in expounding them with a greater latitude; and these grounds for expecting the Advent to be really near will be weakened more and more with the length of the past delay.
Hence it is a clear and certain truth, that if all prophetic dates and collateral light be excluded, that very ignorance of the times, which tended in the first age to quicken the expectation of the Church, would tend, by necessary consequence, in later times, to indifference and careless unconcern. Now, since the continued denial of all further knowledge would frustrate the very end for which it was withheld at the first, we might infer from this alone, that in the latter days a fuller insight into the times and seasons would be given to the Church of God.
6. Assuming, then, that further light would be given, is it likely that the transition would be sudden and complete? The opponents of the year-day argue throughout on this supposition. If the times are mystical, then they must have commenced long ago. The Church could not fail to be aware of so remarkable an event. It would doubtless have been distinctly known, and registered in her calendar. The commencement being known, the end would be known also. The Church would therefore be utterly unable to fulfil the direction–“Watch and pray, for ye know not what the time is.” Such is, in substance, the objection which most writers of this school bring against the Protestant interpretation.
Now those who reason in this manner do equal violence to the evidence of facts, and to sound reason. It is not true that the 1,260 days were taken for years at so early an age of the Church as to make the difficulty real. It is not true that, when so expounded, their commencement was or could be plain at once. The general effect of them has never been to quench and extinguish the hope of the Lord’s return. The very contrary is true. Ever since the Reformation, those who have most studied the prophetic dates, as an actual chronology of sacred times, have been the main instruments in awaking the Church to a lively expectation of the coming of Christ. Every fact, without exception, contradicts and refutes the objection.
But it is equally opposed to the maxims of sound reason. In every age, and on every subject, the increase of knowledge has been slow and gradual. This seems to be a general law of divine wisdom. In the case of the prophetic times, this truth is even the object of a separate prediction–“Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” To require, then, an interpretation of the prophecy to start forth at once full grown and complete; and that the Church, after total ignorance of the times, should be able to fix, by the year-day theory, the exact time of the end, is a demand so absurd and unreasonable as to bear the stamp of its own condemnation. Yet this is the real postulate assumed by those who would entirely cast aside all prophetic chronology on the ground of these partial failures. The midnight has not changed suddenly into noon-day; and hence they deny that any tokens of the dawn have appeared in the horizon.
7. The increase of light, we may therefore assume safely, would be partial and gradual. The Church would not be left in total ignorance under the growing temptations of a prolonged delay; but would Lave fresh tokens by which she might discern the times, and “see the day approaching.” On the other hand, we could not expect that full light would be given till the very time of our Lord’s return. Now the history of the year-day expositions will be found to accord, in the closest and most striking manner, with these truths. They have been like successive steps of approach towards the just apprehension of the course of Divine Providence.
To understand this clearly, we must remember that the Church has always been placed between the two extremes–complete ignorance of the times, and perfect knowledge. When the end was more than eighteen centuries distant, an almost entire concealment of its real distance, with general exhortations to be always prepared for its arrivals, was the most favourable to hope and watchfulness. Whenever the advent shall be, in truth, only two or three years distant, it is plain that a knowledge of this fact will be an immeasurably stronger motive to prayer and watchfulness, than the ignorance which knows only that eighteen centuries have passed, and therefore as many more may still intervene, before the fulfilment of the promise.
Between these limits of time, increasing knowledge would plainly be safe and desirable. This partial light would place the Church in an intermediate condition. There will neither be the total ignorance, which thinks the advent to be possibly within four years, or possibly at a distance of forty thousand; nor yet the full knowledge which can assign the very year, much less the hour and day. There will be a gradual progress only from the first state towards the second, as the course of Providence moves on.
Let us now suppose that the year-day theory is the divine instrument for conveying to the Church this partial light. Every exposition based on it must then partake of two opposite characters. Compared with the exciting prospect of the instant coming of Christ, as in the Thessalonian Church, it would be a protraction. Measured by the event, or by a full and perfect knowledge, it would be an anticipation. It would serve as ballast to those who were shaken in mind, and troubled, by a false impression of the imminent nearness of the judgment; and it would be a wholesome stimulus to the slothful servant, who should say in his heart, “My lord delayeth his coming.”
Now these, which are the very marks of its practical worth, form the two counts of the inconsistent indictment which has been laid against it. “It interferes with the expectation of the advent.” That is to say, in reality, it serves, from age to age, for a partial corrective of false anticipations, like that of the Thessalonians:–
“It has repeatedly failed in its predictions, ministered occasion to the scoffers, and thrown discredit on the study of prophecy.” In other words, it has not prematurely revealed the whole interval, while the end was still distant, nor given more light to earlier generations of the Church than was profitable for them to receive. It has ministered occasion to the scoffer, and in so doing has fulfilled the prediction, that none of the wicked shall model-stand; while, by the gradual approaches to a just estimate of the times, it has fulfilled the contrasted promise, that knowledge shall be increased, and that the wise shall understand. The opposite objections urged against it are the very proofs of its adaptation to the wants of the Church.
These remarks will be made clearer by one or two examples. Let us take one of the earliest instances, that of Walter Brute, in the fourteenth century. He wrote, as Mr. Maitland tells us, about A.D. 1390, and dated the one thousand two hundred and ninety days, as years, from the destruction of Jerusalem under Hadrian, A.D. 118. This reckoning would place the close of the one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days about fifty years distant. Now a literal view of the times might have led him to contract the distance to five years, and a perfect knowledge to enlarge it to five centuries. The case of Mede is very similar. His view of the probable date led him to place the end at from thirty-five to a hundred and ten years after the time when he wrote. There was a protraction, when compared with the instancy of a false expectation, and yet an anticipation of the true period. The successive failures, then, as they have been called, are no real failures in a practical sense. They are only waymarks in the progress of the Church, from that entire ignorance of the times in which she was purposely left in the apostolic age, to the full and certain knowledge that the Bridegroom is at hand, which shall prepare her, like the wise virgins, to enter in with her Lord to the marriage feast.
8. Besides, however, this general defence, which fully disproves the charge of total failure and deception, brought against the prophetic chronology, we may advance a step further in its vindication. From the nature of the event, an exact apprehension of the time of the advent could not be expected until the end should be really at hand. On this subject, then, dogmatical assertions must always have been rash and presumptuous ; and even the modest conjectures which have often been confounded under the same censure would of course be defective, though far from being practically useless. But on subordinate events, if the general outlines of a past fulfilment be true, there might be a more correct judgment. And, accordingly, in spite of all the vague declamation on the total failure of these prophetic times, there are several instances on record of such anticipations, drawn from the prophecy, which have proved singularly correct in their main features.
First of all, about the year A.D. 1600, Brightman, in his commentary, calculated that the overthrow of the Turkish power would occur A.D. 1696. In the year A.D. 1687, Cressener renewed the prediction, placing the time a year earlier, but restricting it to the close of the “Turkish encroachments,” or “the last end of their hostilities.” In almost exact accordance, the year 1697 was marked by that most signal victory of Prince Eugene over the Turks, which has proved the final limit to their aggressions upon Western Europe.
Secondly, at the deepest depression of the Protestant cause in England, and a full year before the Revolution, Dr. Cressener wrote as follows:–“I make account it is demonstrable that the true religion will revive again in some very considerable kingdom, before the general peace with the Turks, or eight years at furthest.” “The next year seems, in all probability, to be a year of wonders for the recovery of the Church.”
Accordingly, only one year after this time, the Protestant Revolution took place in England, and within about eleven years that general peace of Carlowitz was made with the Turks, which has proved a fated barrier to their destructive inroads upon Christendom.
At the same time this writer announced his conviction, drawn from the prophecy, and especially from the 1,260 days, that before A.D. 1800 Rome would be destroyed, and “soon after, the chief supports of the Roman Church, ecclesiastical and civil, would be destroyed also.” In August, 1797, Cacault wrote to Napoleon, “Discontent is at its height in the Papal states; the government will fall to pieces of itself. We are making it consume by a slow fire; it will soon crumble into the dust.” The next year the Papal government was overthrown, and an infidel democracy reared on its ruins. “The churches and convents, the palaces of the cardinals and nobility, were laid waste. The spoliation exceeded all that the Goths and Vandals had effected” (Alison iii. p. 558). Soon after, the imperial title was abolished, and the Pope deposed and driven into exile. This was surely a very close approach to an exact coincidence.
Again, Fleming, in his “Discourse on the Rise and Fall of the Papacy” A.D. 1700, wrote as follows:–“Whereas the present French king takes the sun for his emblem, and for his motto, Nec pluribus impar, he may at length, or rather his successors and the monarchy itself, at least before the year 1794, be forced to acknowledge that he is even singulis dispar. We may justly suppose that the French monarchy, after it has scorched others, will itself consume by doing so, towards the end of this century.” It is needless to illustrate the fulfilment of these words by historical extracts, as the events are so notorious.
Further, Bengelius, on distinct, but similar grounds, about the year A.D. 1730, stated his opinion, that the chief period of the dominance of the Papacy would close in the year 1809. In May and July of that very year the Pope was stripped of his dominions by the orders of Napoleon, and transported as a prisoner and exile from Rome to Savoy; while the Papal states, an event without precedent for a thousand years, had their government destroyed, and were annexed to the French empire.
These instances are enough to show how groundless are the assertions which are often made, of the total and absolute failure of all predictions based on the year-day theory and the prophetic times. Examples of a general accordance between the anticipation and the actual events might be easily enlarged; but, in the cases just given, even the very date assigned has proved exactly, or almost exactly, true. The charge, then, of delusion and falsehood, brought against these estimates of the prophetic times, unless advanced with important limitations, is itself false and delusive. It applies only to those who dogmatize with arrogant presumption, or pervert the subject into the fuel of a vain curiosity. But it is possible to search into the times with reverence, to conjecture with diffidence, and to derive from them, like Daniel, motives to watchfulness, and incentives to confession and prayer. Nay, to those who are wise with a holy wisdom, and who have the promise that they shall understand, they may even furnish a distinct and accurate insight into the nature of some of those events which may be speedily coming upon the earth.
On the other hand, that entire rejection of all prophetic chronology, which follows, of course, on the denial of the year-day, is most of all to be deplored, from its deadly and paralyzing influence on the great hope of the Church. No delusion can be greater than to expect, by excluding all reference to dates and times, to awaken Christians to a more lively expectation of their Lord’s second coming. For, in truth, without reference to such dates, in an open or disguised form, not one solid reason can be given why the Church may not still have to wait two or three thousand years, before the promise is fulfilled. The declarations, “the time is at hand,” were true and pertinent, when the event was eighteen centuries removed. And hence they form no barrier to the supposition that eighteen centuries more may have still to intervene. Every sign of the times is either too vague to direct us; or, in proportion as it becomes distinct, assumes practically all the characters of a numeral date, and becomes exposed to the same objections. The prophetic times, indeed, when separated from the context, and viewed in themselves only, are a dry and worthless skeleton: but when taken in connexion with the related events, clothed with historical facts, and joined with those spiritual affections which should attend the study of God’s Providence; like the bones in the human frame, they give strength to what was feeble, and union to what was disjointed, and form, and beauty, and order, to the whole outline and substance of these sacred and divine prophecies.
And now I would conclude this important subject by a brief review of the whole argument. It is certain, first of all, that it was the design of God to keep the Church in the attitude of continual and lively expectation of her Lord’s return. It is equally certain that this object would be best secured by leaving her in nearly total ignorance of the times when the advent was remote, and vouchsafing to her an imperfect but growing measure of light as the time drew near. This condition is accurately fulfilled by the year-day hypothesis, but is entirely wanting to the literal view; and this forms a first and general presumption for the figurative interpretations. To this general reason there are added several other general presumptions, from the place and context of these sacred numbers. Among the chief of these are, the general proportion and symmetry of the periods revealed in prophecy, the symbolical nature of the two books in which alone they occur, the remarkable and solemn manner of their introduction, clearly importing that they contain some mysterious sense, and the various forms of expression, all of them unusual, in which most of them are conveyed.
These general presumptions, which plainly indicate the existence of some mystery, are confirmed by many distinct proofs which establish the interpretation of a year for a day. Three of these are typical prophecies, occurring in two passages of Scripture, and on two occasions widely remote; and in all of which, by God’s own express appointment, a day was made the type of a year. Besides these, we have the prophecy of the seventy weeks certainly fulfilled in years; while the term, beyond question, is used elsewhere in Scripture for sevens of days only, and also plainly completes the series of prophetic terms–days, weeks, months, and times, equivalent to years. We have also the words of our Lord to the Pharisees, where it is highly probable that the three days, twice mentioned, refer to the three years which were the duration of His whole ministry.
After these succeed the particular arguments drawn from each separate passage. Of these it is enough to say, that there is not one which does not present some peculiar feature, totally unexplained on the literal interpretation, but which assumes at once a deep significance on the opposite view. Especially three of these numeral dates, by a most express and exclusive reference, point us to the three passages where the substitution of a year for a day has twice been typically announced and three times historically fulfilled. The woman’s abode in the wilderness refers us to the passage in Numbers; the time of the second woe to the type in Ezekiel’s siege of Jerusalem; and the three days and a half of the unburied witnesses, to the prophecy of the seventy weeks, the only place in all Scripture where the very same interval is named either in history or prophecy.
Such is a brief review of the concurrent evidence upon which the year-day theory is founded; besides that harmony of symbolical miniature, which applies to the numbers in Revelation. And I believe no one can fairly and calmly examine the whole subject, whose mind is not imbued with some strong prepossession, or utterly ignorant of the general depth of Scripture, and the character of its allusions, without feeling that these proofs amount as nearly to a strict demonstration, as the nature of the inquiry will allow. Evidence so explicit and simple as to admit of no mistake, and to force conviction at first sight, is here excluded by the nature of the case; for then these times would have been prematurely revealed. But it is a convincing proof that these tokens of mystery, and the application of these examples of the year-day, waited only the bare lapse of time to become clear and transparent, in the fact, that the times, and times and half, were expounded mystically, even in the fifth century; and that the year-day was seen and recognized in the short period of the witnesses’ exposure, long before it could be applied to the whole period of their prophesying in sackcloth. The separate maxims of interpretation were all in readiness; and as soon as the lapse of twelve centuries allowed, they began spontaneously to arrange themselves into one magnificent and harmonious system of revealed times.
And surely, in the present stage of prophetic inquiry, when the strictest of all reasoners, and the first of all discoverers, had inferred, more than a century ago, from “the great successes of interpreters,” that the full disclosure of the prophecy was fast approaching, it is indeed a return to weak and beggarly elements to cast aside all these previous researches as a heap of delusions, and to adopt a view which leaves the Church floating, without a reckoning, on the ocean of time, while it also contradicts every feature in the terms and context of these sacred numbers. Yet the severe sifting of truths, once thought to be firmly established, may be attended with many useful results; and it cannot well be denied that it was very seasonable. When reasons could be used in defence of the year-day so utterly absurd and self destructive as those quoted by Mr. Maitland from the “Dialogues on Prophecy,” or so much arrogance be combined with ignorance, as in the article which drew forth Dr. Mac Caul’s able reply, it was high time that Protestants should either frankly abandon the view as untenable, or learn to support it in a more modest and Christian tone, and by more solid and conclusive arguments. The transition from a hollow, hereditary faith, to a deep and personal conviction of truth, like the return to gold and silver from a false and fictitious currency, may have its temporary evils; but it was absolutely needful, before the Church could attain such a knowledge of the divine prophecies as might really sustain her in the hour of danger and temptation. This change, there are many reasons to hope, is now begun. The Protestant interpretations, cleared from loose and inaccurate statements, or devious fancies, will be unfolded in fuller harmony than before, and serve as a beacon to the Churches of Christ in those various conflicts which seem now to be near at hand. If these pages shall only contribute, in any humble measure, to this great and blessed end, the chief object for which they are now offered to the Church will be fully attained. May it please God, in His infinite goodness, to attend them with His blessing, that they may help to clear the way for a more extensive, and deep, and practical inquiry into every part of the sacred prophecies!