H. A. Ironside’s Great Parenthesis theory
Dispensationalists tend to discount the application of Old Testament prophecy to the church in the present age. In this they differ from the Reformers, who applied those prophecies to the church. Instead, dispensationalism says, the promises and prophecies apply to the Jews, in a future seven year tribulation, followed by the millennial age, and they claim that the church of the present age was unknown to the prophets. They called the present age of the church a great parenthesis. Dispensationalist author Harry A. Ironside wrote a book that promoted this idea, called The Great Parenthesis the mystery in Daniel’s prophecy.
Ironside said, “I believe it can be shown from Scripture that this Great Parenthesis is the true key to a right understanding of prophecy.” With this premise, based on their interpretation of the 70 weeks of Daniel 9, the dispensationalists reinterpret all prophecy. But scholars have found that the book of Revelation is chock full of allusions to Old Testament prophecy. Its opening verse says, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass.” It seems strange, if there was to be a two thousand year gap, before the prophecies described in the book were to occur. These facts suggest that the idea of a Great Parenthesis which Ironside took as his “key” to unlock all prophecy was a flawed premise. In his book, Ironside described his view of the prophecies, which he represented metaphorically as mountains. The church age, he said, lay in a valley that was hidden from the prophets. He wrote:
It has often been pointed out by others, but is well worth repeating, that the Old Testament seer might be likened to a man standing on one of our Western plains looking off toward a great mountain range. Many miles before him is a vast mountain which for the moment fills all his vision. Clouds cover the top of it, so that it seems to pierce the heavens, but suddenly the clouds are lifted and in the blaze of the westering sun he sees another and higher peak beyond, covered with snow, which seems to shine in resplendent glory. What the man gazing upon this scene cannot see, however, is the valley or the lower ranges of mountains that come in between these two peaks. The one may be many miles beyond the other. In between may be lesser hills, valleys, rivers, villages and farms, but all of these are unseen by the man upon the plain.
Let us imagine a cross surmounting the first peak, and call this the vision of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to suffer and to die for our sins. Then imagine that the glory surrounding the second and higher peak takes the form of a crown of light, and think of it as indicating the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus to reign in power and glory over all this lower universe. Peter spoke of the “sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” These two mountains illustrate both. But now, in between them we have all the events of the present age of grace, and these could not be seen by the Old Testament prophets for it was not yet the will of God to make them known. These are the mysteries kept secret from the foundation of the world, which began to be made manifest by our Lord Jesus as He told of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; and then were more fully unfolded in the unique revelation of the mystery of the Church, the body of Christ, given to the Apostle Paul, and the unfolding of the mystery of iniquity and of Babylon the Great through Paul and John. Other mysteries there are linked with these, and nearly all of them have to do with what is going on between the First and Second Comings of our Lord.
Whether the present age is represented by a valley, that was hidden from the Old Testament prophets, is a question that needs to be considered carefully. It is one of the premises of dispensationalism. It follows from dispensationalism’s denial that the Christian church is represented in prophecy by Israel, or the Jews, or Jerusalem etc.
Ironside viewed the prophecies through thick dispensational lenses. That the church was unknown to the prophets was taught by John N. Darby, William Kelly, W. E. Blackstone, C. I. Scofield and others. They viewed the present age as a “parenthesis” in God’s plan, which according to them, is really focused upon the future of the Jews.
The mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, and seas associated with the promised land all have a significance in prophecy. The mountains are associated with the promises and blessings of the gospel, and revelations of God that are high and lofty, or spiritual in nature. [Genesis 49:26] These mountains are called “everlasting,” as mountains are very durable, and remain as landmarks over many generations; like the mountains, the promises of God are everlasting. David said “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains.” [Psalm 36:6]
Valleys are significant too, and they are associated with judgments, or places where God makes war. Gehenna represents a judgment, as of one who is cast out of Jerusalem. The valley of Jehoshaphat is a judgment of the nations. Rivers that flow from the throne of God, and the temple, and from Jerusalem, represent the truths of the Gospel going forth from the church to all the world. [John 7:38] The Euphrates has another significance. Seas which formed the borders of the promised land are symbolic of the peoples and nations. [Isaiah 57:20; Revelation 17:15]
Perhaps the meaning of the prophecy of Isaiah 2:2 was hidden from dispensationalists. That prophecy says the mountain of the Lord’s house will “established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills,” and from what I see in the New Testament, it must have happened when Jesus ascended to heaven, because in Galatians 4:26 Paul speaks of the “Jerusalem which is above,” and Hebrews 12:22 speaks of the “heavenly Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem was raised up. Paul said those who are in Christ are raised up, and “sit together in heavenly places.” [Ephesians 2:6] It seems to me that the dispensationalists were probably blind to the fact that Isaiah 2:2 was fulfilled in a spiritual way in New Testament times, most likely when Jesus ascended to heaven. Jerusalem has been raised up to heaven, and it is now “a city upon a hill,” not hidden in a valley. The church age was not hidden from the prophets, but on the contrary, the church is the subject of many prophecies.
Isaiah 2:1-3, and a similar prophecy in Zechariah 14:10-11 are compared below.
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
All the land shall be turned as a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem: and it shall be lifted up, and inhabited in her place, from Benjamin’s gate unto the place of the first gate, unto the corner gate, and from the tower of Hananeel unto the king’s winepresses.
And men shall dwell in it, and there shall be no more utter destruction; but Jerusalem shall be safely inhabited.
I suggest, both the above prophecies were fulfilled, when Jesus ascended to heaven. Jerusalem became the heavenly city, as Jerusalem is the “city of the great King” and Jesus is the king who was given the throne of David, which was over all Israel, in Jerusalem, and it is the heavenly one, not the earthly city. We see in Galatians 4:26 and Hebrews 12:22 that Jerusalem is raised up.
These prophecies show that there is a continuity of the prophecies of the Old Testament into the times of the New Testament, and the age of the church. The prophecies about Jerusalem apply to the earthly city, up until the crucifixion, and after Jesus ascended, they apply to the heavenly one. The earthly city became a type or a shadow, once the reality of the heavenly kingdom was brought in by Christ.
Dispensationalists like Ironside did not understand that Jerusalem was raised up to heaven, when Jesus ascended to heaven as described in Acts 1. Jesus said Jerusalem is “the city of the great king,” and that “salvation is of the Jews.” But the city where he reigns as king is the heavenly city, not the earthly one, and “salvation” is promised to those who are Jews “inwardly” and their “circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” [Romans 2:29]
If the earthly city were his kingdom, no doubt he would have defended it in 70 AD when the Romans laid siege to it. But that did not happen.
In Ironside’s comments quoted above, the prophecies about Christ’s coming are represented by mountain ranges. This idea was developed by Clarence Larkin as well. The dispensationalists try to cram most of the events in Revelation, from chapter 4 to chapter 19, into a seven year period that is yet future. Their claim that the church age is a “parenthesis” is a denial that Old Testament prophecy applies to Christians in the present age. Similarly they deny that much of the Olivet Discourse applies to the church in the present age. This is why it is claimed the church lies in a valley, and that the prophets did not see it.
The prophet Ezekiel foretold an invasion by the hordes of Gog and Magog, who come against “the mountains of Israel,” and the “prophets of Israel.” The mountains, as implied in the above quote, are symbols of the promises, prophecies and revelations of scripture. These invaders represent deceived people who come against the camp of the saints, and the beloved city, in John’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecy in Revelation 20:8-9. They misrepresent the prophecies, and impose their flawed interpretations upon them. The writings of dispensationalist authors on prophecy are an example. They present a misleading view of the prophecies, and a human point of view, rather than a divine one.
One of the problems with dispensationalism is the statement of James in Acts 15:15-17, where he applies an Old Testament prophecy about Israel to the church, and identifies the church with “the tabernacle of David.” He also says, “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.” This discredits the dispensationalist idea that the church is a kind of “Plan B” implemented because the Jews rejected Jesus, and merely a “parenthesis” in what they think is a Jewish centered plan.
Another problem with their position is Amos 3:7, “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” This contradicts their theory that the prophets did not “see” the church age.
Peter said that the prophets “prophesied of the grace that should come unto you.” [1 Peter 1:10] They wrote about the Gospel. It was the focus of their message. Peter said the Spirit of Christ was in them, which is also denied by dispensationalism. They “spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” [2 Peter 1:21] They ministered to the church; “unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you.” [1 Peter 1:12] The prophets are part of the church’s foundation, Paul said, together with the apostles. [Ephesians 2:20] Jesus presented the prophets as an example for us, as did James. [Matthew 5:11-12; James 5:10] The coming of Elijah was a prophecy of Malachi, that applies to the whole age of the church. [Malachi 4:5-6] The three and a half years of famine in Elijah’s time is a kind of parable, that applies to the church, which has endured a kind of spiritual famine. There has been no scripture written since the age of the apostles, for example. The gifts and signs of that age appear to have ceased. There are several analogies between the story of Elijah and the age of the church.
Dispensationalist authors promote a flawed view of prophecy, because they deny it applies to the church in the present age. They claim the present age is a vast “gap” in the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel 9. The truth is, I think, in the present age we are in the last half of that 70th week, and in this prophetic week, Christ is “confirming his covenant with many.” The disppensationalists misread Daniel, and say it refers to a covenant between the Jews and the Antichrist. Their position is false. Jesus said, “Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them.”
When Jesus said, “it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem,” [Luke 13:33] he meant the heavenly one, of which he is king. He died outside the earthly city. But the prophets, he said, will all be in his kingdom. [Luke 13:28] The Jerusalem to which the prophecies apply, after Jesus ascended to heaven, is not the earthly one. This is where both preterists and dispensationalists go astray. They are blind to the fact that Isaiah 2:2 was fulfilled in the days of the apostles.