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E. W. Hengstenberg on balanced interpretation

June 5, 2012

The following are comments by Lutheran scholar Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg on determining the meaning of Old Testament prophecies, and pitfalls that exist in either literal or excessively figurative views. [From Christology of the Old Testament, Volume 2. T. & T. Clark, 1858. pp. 430-439.]

If the visionary character of prophecy be admitted, it necessarily follows that there must be a difference between the figure and the fact. At the same time it must not be forgotten, that the figurative style employed by the prophets is moderated by the endeavour, to render themselves intelligible to the people, and to exert an influence upon them; and this constitutes the great distinction between a strictly poetical style and that employed by the prophets (see my work on Balaam, p. 77 sqq.).

Many erroneous views have been entertained, with regard to this connexion between the figure employed and the facts referred to. There are two opposite views, both equally wrong, to which we would especially direct attention. The representatives of the first are the carnally-minded Jewish commentators, in whose footsteps most of the rationalistic expositors have trodden, though under the influence of different motives. The latter either ignore the figurative character of the prophecies altogether, or insist upon a literal interpretation, without the guidance of hermeneutical principles, in every case in which they obtain a result, that will serve to confirm their preconceived opinions. And even of the commentators, who believe in the Scriptures, the same error has been fallen into by those, who insist upon the strictly literal interpretation of such portions of the prophecies as have not yet been fulfilled. This view has been chiefly adopted in England (for proofs see v. Oettingen die synagogale Elegik des Volkes Israel, p. 24) ; but it has also found many supporters in Germany, particularly in Würtemberg. In relation to one preconceived notion, peculiar to the supporters of this view, it has already been remarked in the article previously referred to “zur Auslegung der Propheten:” “We cannot possibly understand, how the supporters of the strictly literal interpretation of the prophets can maintain that it is the result of stronger faith. We should have thought, that history would suffice to save them from such an error. This mode of exposition is essentially the very same, as that which the Jewish commentators adopt; and we may see clearly enough from their example, that no peculiar assistance from the Holy Spirit is needed, to bring a man to believe, on the ground of Is. ii., that in the Messianic age the temple-hill was to stand upon the top of the loftiest mountains, which were to be piled up under it, or on that of Zech. xiv., that the Mount of Olives was to be split in two. According to this theory, D. Michaelis, another predecessor of these commentators, must have possessed a faith that would remove mountains. And there are many Dutch expositors in the present day (Palm and others), who tread in their footsteps, but of whose faith we can form no very high opinion, seeing that it is but too obvious, that they are destitute of any vital acquaintance with the simplest truths of the gospel.” But the strongest argument that can be brought is this, it was this very method of interpretation which led to the crucifixion of Christ. In the other wrong road we find those who rob the prophecies of their actual meaning, by laying excessive stress upon their figurative character. This method has been adopted by not a few of the rationalistic expositors; and whilst the supporters of the former were chiefly actuated by a desire to establish a positive opposition between the Old Testament and the New, the leading object in the case of the latter was to generalise as much as possible, and thus to do away with the harmony between correctly interpreted prophecy and its fulfilment. [1] It is by no means a rare thing to find the same expositor adopting both methods, just as it suits him. And to some extent we find the latter course pursued by those of the believing commentators, who give such an interpretation to any of the prophecies, which look beyond the coming of Christ in humiliation and the present condition of the Church, as to do away as much as possible with the actual facts to which they refer, and rob the kingdom of God of its glorious termination. Luther was not altogether exempt from this fault. In his later writings, for example, he declares himself a decided unbeliever in the future conversion of the Jews. “To convert the Jews,” he says (Works, vol. xx. p. 2528), “is quite as impossible as to convert the Devil. The heart of a Jew is as hard as stone or iron, as hard even as the heart of the Devil himself, and nothing will ever move it.” “Others may cherish what hopes they please, I have no hope of the whole herd” (p. 2529). In the article “zur Auslegung der Propheten,” it was said of Calvin, “he was repelled by the scrupulous literality of earlier commentators. For forced interpretations, such as necessarily result from this literality, were exceedingly distasteful to his sound exegetical feelings. And in addition to this, he was so firmly convinced that the sacred Scriptures must everywhere possess the characteristics attributed to them by the apostle, that he could not look on with complacency, and see a considerable portion robbed of the light of life by being referred to something absolutely past or absolutely future. But he, again, went to the other extreme. For the purpose of connecting the whole with the present, he proceeded invariably to generalise, overlooked those cases in which there is evidently an announcement of a special realisation of the idea, and robbed the kingdom of God of its glorious termination, by completely identifying its present and future condition.” In the orthodox exposition of the 17th century, that of a Calovius for example, we find a great deal of this system of interpretation. Whether v. Oettingen is correct in charging it upon the author himself, as he does at p. 23, where he speaks of a “rationalising spiritualism represented by Hengstenberg and his school,” will appear from the remarks which follow.

If we would avoid these two by-paths, having proved that the figurative character of prophecy, generally, results inevitably from its very nature, we must look round for safe rules by which to determine the limits between the figure and the fact.

1. Where we can compare the fulfilment, the distinction may be determined, with the greatest certainty, under its guidance. But even then prudence is necessary, for, as we have already shown, the prophets frequently represent events, which are separated by long intervals of time, especially the weak commencements of the kingdom of Christ and its glorious termination, as though they were continuous. The first enquiry, therefore, must be, whether a prophecy has been fulfilled at all; and, if so, to what extent? In deciding this question, the statements of the New Testament, respecting the future history of the kingdom of God, will render the best possible service. The book of Revelation is of peculiar importance, inasmuch as it takes up the unfulfilled portion of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and represents their fulfilment as still in futurity. [2]—So far as that portion of prophecy is concerned, which can be proved to have been already fulfilled, either by simply comparing the prophecy with history, or from the statements of Christ and the apostles, it is quite right to make use of history, for the purpose of drawing the line between the mere figure and the literal meaning. But we must take care to distinguish between the two questions, what was the meaning which the prophets found in their prophecies? and what was the meaning which God intended? The two questions may be shown to be distinct, if it can once be proved that the prophets spoke in a state of ecstasy, and in the Spirit (see 1 Pet. i. 11; 2 Pet. i. 21). The reply to the first question cannot be found in this way: nor is it of any great importance. The reply to the second question can be thus obtained. The same God, who opened up to the prophets a vision of the future, far beyond the power and comprehension of their own minds, was He, who afterwards brought about the fulfilment. The rule of hermeneutics, that the meaning intended by the author must invariably be what we look for, is not violated here. The simple difference between us and our opponents has respect to the question, who is to be regarded as the true author of the prophecies? Our opponents confine their attention to the human instrument; we ascend to the divine Author.

At the same time, there are not wanting boundary remarks between the figure, and the literal signification in the prophecies themselves; and therefore they were within the reach of the prophets and their contemporaries, although the want of the leading mark, namely fulfilment, must have prevented them from arriving at any safe and satisfactory result.—We have now to examine the marks in question.

2. Descriptions are undoubtedly to be regarded as figurative, in which there is an evident allusion to earlier events in the history of Israel. In this case we have only to extract the general and fundamental thought, which links together the future and the past. Examples of this are to be found in Habakkuk (chap, iii.), who prays in ver. 2, “O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years”—in other words, do the same to us now as thou didst of old—and who then sees, not only the glorious phenomena connected with the giving of the law repeated, but also the victories over Kushan and Midian; and in Is. xi. 15, 16, where we find it stated that, when the redemption of Israel takes place, the Lord will dry up the Arabian gulf, and divide the river into seven brooks. The thought, intended to be expressed here, is merely that all the obstacles to the deliverance of the covenant-nation will be removed. When Hosea says, in chap ii. 14, 15, that God will lead Israel into the desert, speak to her there in a friendly manner, and then conduct her into the land of Canaan, it is evident that it is merely in substance, that he expects a repetition of the former dealings of God with his people. (See the remarks on Zech. x. 11; Is. iv. 5, and xii. 3).

3. In many other passages we are shut up to a figurative explanation, unless we would make the prophets contradict themselves. If, for example, we were to follow in the steps of many of the Kabbalists (Glaesener de gemino Judaeorum Messia, p. 52), and interpret all those passages literally, in which the prophets call the Messiah King David, and were to attribute to them the belief, that David would rise from the dead and assume the government again, we should bring these passages into contradiction with the very many others, in which they speak of the Messiah as the offshoot or son of David (see the notes on Ex. xxxiv. 23). If we were to interpret Jer. xxxiii. 18 literally, and understand it as predicting the continuance of the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial worship, this passage would be at variance with chap. xxxi. 31 sqq., and iii. 16 (see Vol. ii. p. 464). When we read in Is. xiv. 2, “nations shall take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord for servants and handmaids; and they shall take them captives whose captives they were, and they shall rule over their oppressors,” the idea of outward slavery is excluded by the opening words, “nations shall take them,” &c, (compare lxvi. 20), and still more by the numerous passages to be found elsewhere, in which the Gentile nations are promised an equality with Israel in the kingdom of God, for example, chap. xix. 23, and lxvi. 21, where the Gentiles are even promised a share in the priesthood. From this it is evident, that the idea intended to be conveyed cannot be any other, than that the Israelitish principle will become the predominant spiritual power. The drapery is selected from a regard to the outward servitude, which awaited Israel. If we were to understand Is. xlv. 13, “the labour of Egypt, and the merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine; they shall come after thee; in chains they shall come over, and they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee, and there is no God besides,” as denoting outward bondage, the passage would stand in direct contradiction to chap. ii. 2—4; in fact, there would be a contradiction in the passage itself, for if the heathen submit of their own accord—they shall “come over”—the thought suggested is not that of outward subjection, but rather of dependence in a spiritual point of view. This spiritual dependence is represented under the image of servitude, because at the period, into which Isaiah was carried, Israel followed the power of the world in chains. And again a literal interpretation of Is. xi. 14, “they shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines towards the west, they shall spoil them of the east together; they shall lay their hand upon Edom and Moab, and the children of Ammon shall obey them,” would be a direct contradiction, on the one hand, to ver. iv., :he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked”–(the people of such a king are not appointed to make war after the manner of David; and the fact that, according to the announcement of the prophets, the nation was to become utterly defenceless before the coming of Christ–Vol i. p. 578–is a sufficient proof that the allusion could not be anything of this kind in the kingdom of Christ)–and on the other hand to the prophetic anticipation, which is especially obvious in Isaiah, that the neighbouring nations mentioned here would be entirely destroyed before the coming of Christ by the empires which were afterwards to arise, and would entirely lose the importance which they possessed previous to the rise of these imperial powers. In this passage the idea of the victorious power of the kingdom of God is clothed in imagery, taken from the circumstances of David’s times. A literal interpretation of Is. lxvi. 23, where all flesh is represented as coming from month to month, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, to worship at Jerusalem, would not be in harmony with chap. xix. 19 (Vol ii. 238), Zeph ii. 11; Mal i. 11 (“in every place incense shall be offered into my name, and a pure offering:” Michaelis, “sicut olim in uno loco”), and Deut. xii. 5, 6 (Vol. iv. p. 166). In such cases as these, the figure is always to be sought for in those points, in which the idea can be proved to have been suggested by something within the range of the prophet’s vision.

4. Other passages contain within themselves the proof, that they cannot be understood otherwise than figuratively. Thus, even if we were to look altogether away from history and the testimony of Christ, we could not regard Elijah the prophet, whose coming is predicted by Malachi, as meaning the literal Elijah, as the earlier Jews and some moderns have done, but must necessarily understand it as meaning a prophet, who would come in the spirit and power of Elias. For we could not attribute to the prophet so abnormal a thought as this, unless it were impossible to find any safe analogies, on which to found the figurative interpretation. So, again, the literal interpretation of Is. liii. 12 is proved to be untenable, from the simple fact that worldly triumphs are not obtained by the deepest humiliation, and the worldly rulers do not confer upon their subjects the forgiveness of sins and justification. The literal explanation of the last nine chapters of Ezekiel is disproved by chap. xlvii. 1-12, where the spiritual meaning is very conspicuous. That Edom is a figurative term, employed to denote the enemies of the kingdom of God, in Is. xxxiv and lxiii, is evident from the whole context, where the judgment predicted is represented as falling upon all the nations of the earth. Very often a literal explanation leads to romantic ideas, which a sound exegetical feeling at once detects as at variance with the sacred Scriptures; for example in Is. ii., where according to the literal reading, Mount Zion is to be raised upon the top of the loftiest mountains of the earth, and in Zech. xiv. 10, where the mountains of Judea, with the exception of those in Jerusalem itself, are said to be turned into plains.

5. In distinguishing between the figure and the fact, we must never lose sight of the general character of each particular prophet. It is undeniable that, although in many respects they all see the truth in a figure, yet in the case of some the figure bears a much greater resemblance to the fact, and the covering is much more transparent, than in that of others. Several of the Jewish scholars noticed this (see the passages quoted by J. Smith; also Maimonides, c. 45), and attempted to make a classification of the prophets accordingly. In Isaiah, for example, much more could be said in defence of a literal interpretation of such a description as that contained in Ezek. xl–xlviii., than in the case of Ezekiel himself.

6. Sometimes the figurative character is expressly pointed out, and the clue is given to the literal meaning which lies beneath it. Thus Zechariah (chap. x. 11) explains the figurative expression, “they pass through the sea,” which is borrowed from the deliverance from Egypt, by adding the words, “the affliction.” In Is. ii. the figurative view is suggested at once, by the frequency with which mountains are employed to represent kingdoms; and in Ezek. xl.—xlviii., by the fact that the temple is undoubtedly used elsewhere as a symbol of the kingdom of God.

7. In prophecies, which have not yet been fulfilled, the boundary line between the figure and the fact is always to be drawn according to the analogy of faith. On this ground, as Theodoret (on Ezek. xlviii.; opp. ed. Hal. ii. p. 1045 sqq.) has conclusively shown, all those explanations of the prophecies relating to the future are to be rejected, in which, through a false adherence to the letter, such doctrines are maintained as the future restoration of the exclusive privileges of the Jewish nation, the rebuilding of the temple, the renewal of the Levitical ceremonies, and consequently a return to the “beggarly elements,” which the Church has left behind it. Those passages, which speak of the return of Israel to Zion in the Messianic times, must be regarded as figurative, because Zion always means the seat of the kingdom of God. And under the Old Testament it was merely the local sanctuary, which gave to Zion this central importance. That the sanctuary would lose its importance, when the Messiah came, was expressly declared by Jeremiah, in chap. iii. 16. With His coming the kingdom of God received a new centre, and the temple bore the same relation to Him, as the shadow to the substance. This is also the case with such passages as announce the coming of the converted heathen to Zion, passages which cannot be literal, for the simple reason that, if they were, we should be compelled to maintain, in opposition to the evident fact, that their fulfilment belonged exclusively to the future. Isaiah (chap. ii. and lxvi. 23), Micah, and Zechariah speak of Zion, as being without exception the only place of salvation for the heathen world, so that whoever does not come to Zion can have no part in salvation itself (compare Zech. xiv. 17—19); from Zion alone goeth out the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem, and whoever does not fetch it thence is excluded altogether; Zion is the only place of prayer for the whole earth, and therefore the only place, where any one can have part in God himself. These consequences of a literal interpretation ought to be well considered, before any one resolves to adopt it. v. Oettingen has made a perfectly vain effort to escape them. We have but one of two alternatives in this case, and all attempts at reconciliation, or at steering a middle course, must be regarded as unscientific. If Zion be once understood locally, in direct contradiction to the New Testament, where the temple, Jerusalem, and Zion, all assume a spiritual character, it will also be necessary to go a step farther, and to conclude that the end will come back to the beginning, that the clear and decisive declaration of the Lord in John iv. 21 will lose its force, and that the Church will relinquish its universal character (see my commentary on the Revelation i. p. 558). A preference for literal interpretation leads eventually to a renewal of the early error of the Jewish Christians, which has long been overcome and rejected by the Church; and the fact cannot be concealed, that there are many, who not only approach it, but have reached it already.

8. Just as the prophets and their contemporaries were not always able to distinguish the figure from the literal meaning, by means of the marks alluded to; so are we also not always in a position to make this distinction with certainty, in the case of prophecies that are still unfulfilled. We must take care therefore, that our conclusions do not go beyond the marks we possess. And since history has proved, in connexion with that portion of prophecy which is already fulfilled, that many things are literal, which must have appeared figurative, and others again figurative, which must have appeared literal, before the fulfilment took place; there are many instances connected with unfulfilled prophecy, in which the question can be decided by history alone.

Author’s Notes & References

1. See, for example, Meier’s Hermeneutik des A. T. Part 2.

2. No one, who notices the careful and systematic way, in which the prophecies of the Old Testament are repeated in the New, could possibly fail to observe,  that it is altogether out of place, to assume that any portion is unfulfilled, merely on the ground of the Old Testament. And for this reason, if for no other, the return to Zion, in the prophecies of the Old Testament, must not be understood literally. The New Testament knows nothing of a return to the outward Zion. And Paul, in particular, who professedly treats of the future of Israel, merely announces its conversion, but not a national restoration. This silence, in what is really the classical passage, is  of very great importance.