Archives November 2010

The Fig Tree Has Budded

Evidence from Matthew 24 That the Lord Will Return in the Span of a Generation from Israel’s Birth

Introduction

As a boy I remember feeling the rush of the wind strike my face, the sky grow dark as ominous clouds rolled in and covered the sun.  Then the sounds of the thunder could be heard in the distance and the sky flashed.  It was a time of great anticipation and excitement.  Even though the storm was several miles away, it was clear to all that it was coming.  The end times can be likened a great deal to a coming storm.  We can see the storm coming and feel its effect even though it has not yet arrived fully.  So it is with the Lord’s return, the signs are evident even though the event itself has not yet arrived.

Concerning the time of the Lord’s return, Jesus’ disciples asked him: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24:3b ESV).  Jesus then began to describe the many things that would precede His second coming – many of which are being fulfilled before our eyes.  Jesus said “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many,” (Matt 24:5).  Since 1900 there have been many dozens who have either claimed to be Jesus or the Christ in one form or another.  Some of the most notable are Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church and David Koresh of the Branch Davidian religious sect, Ariffin Mohamed from Malaysia and Sergei Torop from Russia.

He then spoke of wars, rumors of war and nation against nation.

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows, (Matthew 24:6-8).

Only in the twentieth century have we seen the entire world at war not just once but twice.  The projected death toll for the Second World War alone is upwards of fifty million people – a number unheard of before in human history.  The past century could easily be classified as wars, rumors of wars, nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom.

There are many signs of the Lord’s second coming just as there were for his first coming and the Lord rebuked the leaders of his day for not picking up on the revealed signs that were evident of his first coming.

When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens.  You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:54-56, emphasis mine).

Just as the signs of the coming storm were obvious to me as a boy, so should those leaders have known that their Messiah was coming.  Jesus noted that they could easily and successfully forecast the weather by simply looking at the sky yet failed to see (or at least to accept) the Messiah in front of them.  We too see the last days’ signs that Jesus spoke about are either happening or about to happen in our day.

Knowing the Times and Seasons

Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians wrote that believers could and should know the times and seasons of the Lord’s (second) coming since they were not in the darkness like others.

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness,” (I Thessalonians 5:1-5, emphasis mine).

 

Birth Contractions

Jesus likened all of the events mentioned above to birth pains by saying:  “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains,” (Matthew 24:8). Just like for a woman in labor, the contractions will get closer and closer until finally the child is born, so it is if we were to consider today’s events in terms of giving birth, we might say that prophetically all that is left is to push the baby out.  All that the Lord had said so far (discussed above) was a response to the disciples’ question “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

The Fig Tree is the Sign of His Coming

Fig Tree

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near.  So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near–at the doors!  Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place, (Matthew 24:32-34, emphasis mine).

The Fig Tree Is Israel

There are two obvious questions concerning this parable: who or what is the fig tree and how long is a generation?  The answer to the first question is unmistakably Israel.  God clearly compares Israel with a fig tree.  The following verses are given in chronological order.

I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the firstfruits on the fig tree in its first season, (Hosea 9:10, emphasis mine).

Here God compares Israel to grapes and the fathers to fruits of the fig tree.  Then in Joel He speaks of “my land” as being comparable to “my fig tree” again showing that Israel (both ethnically/nationally and geographically) is symbolized as a fig tree.

For a nation has come up against My land, strong, and without number; His teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he has the fangs of a fierce lion.  He has laid waste My vine, And ruined My fig tree; He has stripped it bare and thrown it away; Its branches are made white, (Joel 1:6-7, emphasis mine).

Next God shows Jeremiah a vision of baskets of good figs and bad figs. Note that both the good and the bad are representative of Israel (Judah). The “good” are taken out of the land, that is, out of danger, and the “bad” are left to be judged. [1]

One basket had very good figs, like the figs that are first ripe; and the other basket had very bad figs which could not be eaten, they were so bad.  Then the LORD said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” And I said, “Figs, the good figs, very good; and the bad, very bad, which cannot be eaten, they are so bad.”  “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: “Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans.  “And as the bad figs which cannot be eaten, they are so bad’–surely thus says the LORD–“so will I give up Zedekiah the king of Judah, his princes, the residue of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt, (Jer 24:2, 3, 5, 8 emphasis mine).

Jesus continues the correlation of Israel with a fig tree during the final stage of His ministry.  Keep in mind that Jesus had been ministering in Israel for about three years when He gave this parable.  Just like the illustration of God seeking good fruit from His vineyard and finding none in Isaiah 5:1-7, so too Jesus, had come in person expecting to find some good fruit and found little or none.

He also spoke this parable: A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.  Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’  But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down,’ (Luke 13:6-9, emphasis mine).

That Jesus had Israel in mind is confirmed at the end of the chapter when Jesus laments over Jerusalem because of their unwillingness to receive their Messiah and declares that their house is left desolate.  Furthermore, the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem could in no way say “blessed is He…” so long as they were not living in the land of Israel (during the time of their exile).

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ (Luke 13:34-35).

The Cursed Tree

Jewish men were to present themselves before the Lord three times a year.  Jesus came up to Jerusalem via Jericho on a number of occasions during the three plus years of His ministry in order to celebrate the feasts.  There was a fig tree by the road (Matt 21:19) that He invariably must have seen on a number of occasions as He went up to Jerusalem.  The day of the triumphal entry, when He came up from Jericho on His way to Jerusalem, Jesus must have seen the tree noting that there was not any fruit on it – just as the land owner in the parable found none.  Coming into Jerusalem, He was hailed as the Messiah by the masses.  He then drove out the money changers from the temple foreshadowing his coming pronouncement that Israel, like the fig tree, was barren. In the evening He set out for Bethany to spend the night with His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Bethany was on the same road which came up from Jericho).  Returning to Jerusalem in the morning, Jesus passed by the fig tree, noted that there was no fruit on it when there should have been at least some early fruit.  Seeing that the tree was unfruitful, He then cursed it.

And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away. (Matt 21:19)

Thus, just like His parable of the fig tree, He had come looking for fruit from the Jewish leadership for over three years finding none.  They were like the barren fig tree with no fruit was to be found and so He then pronounced judgment on the worthless tree causing it to die immediately which symbolized the nation.  With all of that as our backdrop, we then come to the time markers that He gave us during the Olivet discourse, this time reading Luke’s account:

Then He spoke to them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near, (Luke 21:29- 30).

When Jesus commanded them to learn a parable from the fig tree, they must have had swirling in their minds the recent events of the parable and the cursed fig tree.  The Hebrew Bible (OT) background makes it clear that Jesus is likening Israel to the fig tree and just as the fig tree withered, so too would Israel soon be destroyed by the Romans.

Israel was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and then again in 135 AD.  After the second Jewish revolt they were warned not to return to Jerusalem upon the pain of death.  They were then dispersed to the four corners of the earth – without a home land for nearly 1900 years.  Furthermore, the curse appears to apply to the land itself as well.  Rabbi Menachem Kohen of Brooklyn discovered that the land of Israel “suffered an unprecedented, severe and inexplicable (by anything other than supernatural explanations) drought that lasted from the first century until the 20th – a period of 1,800 years coinciding with the forced dispersion of the Jews.” [2] Journalist Joseph Farah, prompted by the research of Rabbi Kohen, later discovered that only after the Jews returned did the rain begin to come:

For 1,800 years, it hardly ever rained in Israel. This was the barren land discovered by Mark Twain. So-called “Palestine” was a wasteland – nobody lived there. There was no indigenous Arab population to speak of. It only came after the Jews came back. Beginning in A.D. 70 and lasting until the early 1900s – about 660,000 days – no rain.

I decided to check this out as best I could and examined the rainfall data for 150 years in Israel beginning in the early 1800s and leading up to the 1960s. What I found was astonishing – increasing rainfall almost every single year – with the heaviest rainfall coming in and around 1948 and 1967. [3]

Then after those many years and just as Isaiah had foretold, Israel was born in one day:

Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth [4] be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, She gave birth to her children, (Isaiah 66:8).

On May 14, 1948 Israel (the fig tree) declared independence and then was ratified as a nation by edict of the United Nations and literally was born in one day.  1948 [5] becomes the year by which a generation can be measured against.

Early Christian Commentary Confirms Israel is the Fig Tree

Getting a “second opinion” is always advisable when there is a lot riding on a decision or when contemplating a new perspective.  Thus investigating what early Christians thought about the fig tree parable would seem prudent.  An early Christian writing, the Apocalypse of Peter, clearly identifies the fig tree as Israel and the time of its budding as the time of the end. [6] While we do not consider extra-biblical sources to be Scripture, they can occasionally serve as a type of commentary from early Christians.  Scholars generally accept a date of composition [7] around A.D. 135.  This is a significant date because the early Christians had seen Israel destroyed once in AD 70 under Titus who destroyed the Temple, killed upwards of a million Jews and took the rest as slaves. However, not all of the Jews were taken away and those that remained made a comeback.

Caesar Hadrian visited the city in AD 130 and had intimated that he might rebuild the city as a gift to the Jews.  When he changed his mind and also outlawed circumcision, the Jews found themselves once again in a deadly conflict with the Romans a mere 62 years after the destruction of the temple.  The Jews rallied behind a man named Simon Bar Koseba.  Rabbi Akiva would later declare him to be the messiah at which point the Christians who had been helping in the battle left the non-believing Jews to fight for themselves.  Hadrian squashed the rebellion in AD 135.  He was so angry that he changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria Palestina and salted the land so that nothing would grow.  Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and a temple to Zeus would eventually be built on the ruins of the Temple mount.  Hadrian also banished all Jews from the city on pain of death. With this in mind, to find a text that declares that Israel, which had been utterly decimated, would one day flourish again is truly incredible.

This text, which again, we are treating like a commentary on the Scripture (and not equal to Scripture), clearly states that when the fig tree has budded, the end of the world would come.  The text has interpreted Jesus’ parable of the fig tree to be speaking of Israel.  When Israel comes back as a nation, then the last days would come:

(learn a parable) from the fig-tree: so soon as the shoot thereof is come forth and the twigs grown, the end of the world shall come. […] Hast thou not understood that the fig-tree is the house of Israel? […] when the twigs thereof have sprouted forth in the last days, then shall feigned Christs come and awake expectation saying: I am the Christ, that am now come into the world. […] But this deceiver is not the Christ. And when they [Israel] reject him [the deceiver] he shall slay with the sword, and there shall be many martyrs. Then shall the twigs of the fig-tree, that is, the house of Israel, shoot forth: […] Enoch and Elias shall be sent to teach them that this is the deceiver which must come into the world and do signs and wonders to deceive. [8]

The correlation of the fig tree being Israel in the text is unequivocal.  According to this text, Israel, likened to a fig tree, was cut down (twice in fact) and exiled (in agreement with the parable of the land owner in Luke 13:6-9).  Thus the author clearly saw Israel removed from her land and the people no more.  But the author firmly believed that they would come back as a nation:  “when the twigs thereof have sprouted forth in the last days” and then the end will come in the days of their sprouting.  Notice also that the two witnesses (Enoch and Elias) will come back in the days of their shooting forth and be killed by the false Christ (Antichrist).  This text certainly proves that some in the ancient church interpreted the end times in a very literal fashion.  However, it also demonstrates that Israel was considered to be the fig tree and that the shooting forth of its branches would happen in the time of the end and more specifically, at the time of the Lord’s coming. Thus we have ancient testimony that Jesus’ mention of the fig tree was a reference to Israel.  Her putting forth branches and becoming tender was a reference to her rebirth in the last days which would also be the time of the two witnesses and the Antichrist.

All the Trees

We have seen that the fig tree represents Israel in the parable that Jesus told His disciples.  No less than three prophets clearly used the fig tree as a representation of Israel.  Jesus also did so in the parable of the land owner and the fig tree, He then cursed a fig tree and told the parable of the fig tree concerning the last days. However, when we read in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus also mentioned “all the trees” – just what are we to make of this?  Jesus said to learn the parable of the fig tree and all the trees. We learned what is the Scriptural meaning of the fig tree, but what do “all the trees” represent? Sometimes when Jesus would tell a parable He would then give its interpretation.  For example in Matthew 13:18, Jesus interpreted the meaning of the parable of the sower in which each ground represented a type of person and their particular spiritual condition.  So it is with our parable and for the answer, we need to go to God’s Word.

Since the fig tree represents Israel as a nation, then we should expect that “all the trees” would represent nations as well.  Looking in the pages of God’s Word we find this to indeed be the case.  In fact, we find that trees are often used to represent people and especially nations in at least eight passages of the Tanakh (Old Testament) alone.  We first encounter a parable of trees in Judges 9:7-16 where Jotham, a son of Gideon, addresses the men of Shechem who had just killed seventy of his brothers in order to follow his other brother Abimelech.

The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I cease giving my oil, With which they honor God and men, And go to sway over trees?’ “Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come [and] reign over us!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit, And go to sway over trees?’ “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come [and] reign over us!’ But the vine said to them, ‘Should I cease my new wine, Which cheers [both] God and men, And go to sway over trees?’ “Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come [and] reign over us!’ And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me as king over you, [Then] come [and] take shelter in my shade; But if not, let fire come out of the bramble And devour the cedars of Lebanon!’ Now therefore, if you have acted in truth and sincerity in making Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as he deserves, (Judges 9:8-16).

In Isaiah 10:33 God refers to chopping off “the tops of trees” as to those who are arrogant and will be “hewn down”.   Similar imagery is used in the book of Ezekiel.  God in Ezekiel 15:2-6   likens the wood of the vine to the inhabitants of Jerusalem which will be burned in the fire because they are useless (that is idolatrous).   God uses the tree motif to speak of Judah being taken into captivity in chapter 17 as well.  “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘A great eagle with large wings and long pinions, Full of feathers of various colors, Came to Lebanon And took from the cedar the highest branch.   He cropped off its topmost young twig And carried it to a land of trade; He set it in a city of merchants,’”  (Ezekiel 17:3-4).  In 606/5 BC Nebuchadnezzar took some of the leadership of Judah into captivity – thus Judah is likened to the cedar of Lebanon and the highest branch represents the leadership, which probably included Daniel. We know this to be the case because God gives the interpretation “Say now to the rebellious house: ‘Do you not know what these things mean?’ Tell them, ‘Indeed the king of Babylon went to Jerusalem and took its king and princes, and led them with him to Babylon,’” (Ezekiel 17:12).

God later in the chapter tells what He is going to do with the highest branches in contrast to what King Nebuchadnezzar had done.  Whereas King Nebuchadnezzar made it a “spreading vine of low stature” (Ezekiel 17:6) God would set up a king and a kingdom that would be great among the nations. “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell.“ (Ezekiel 17:23).  God then makes reference to all the trees of the field, which represent the nations.  Whether all the trees represent all the nations of the world or just the nations of the area is not clear.  “And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the LORD, have spoken and have done it,” (Ezekiel 17:24).

Ezekiel 20:46-48 contains another example of nations represented as trees.  However, perhaps the most telling of all is Ezekiel 31:3-15.  There Assyria is likened to a cedar of Lebanon that was greater than all the other trees (which is to say nations).  “Therefore its height was exalted above all the trees of the field […] and in its shadow all great nations made their home,” (Ezekiel 31:5, 6). God describes how Assyria, the cedar of Lebanon was greater than other kinds of trees though God would send another to cut it down.

‘The cedars in the garden of God could not hide it; the fir trees were not like its boughs, And the chestnut trees were not like its branches; No tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. I made it beautiful with a multitude of branches, So that all the trees of Eden envied it, That were in the garden of God’. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because you have increased in height, and it set its top among the thick boughs, and its heart was lifted up in its height, therefore I will deliver it into the hand of the mighty one of the nations, and he shall surely deal with it; I have driven it out for its wickedness,’ (Ezekiel 31:8-11).

Daniel 4:10-11 and Zechariah 11:2 also offer more examples of rulers and nations represented as trees.  With the background of the Old Testament, we can now turn back to the New Testament and find Jesus’ use of seed (Matthew 13:6, 40), vine branches (John 15:6) and trees (Luke 3:9; 21:29) to represent people or nations not surprising but very much in keeping with the Scriptures.  Therefore, let’s look again at Luke 21:29 “Then He spoke to them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.’” The fig tree is Israel and therefore all the trees are other nations.  The question then becomes which nations was He referring to?

The answer comes from the comparison with the fig tree; it was dried and then sprouted again.  Israel was dried for many years and then came back to be a nation.  It would appear therefore that Jesus was referring to other nations close to Israel which would also be reborn.  What is astounding to discover is that all of the countries that border Israel came back to be independent nation states around the same time as Israel.  The CIA World Fact Book discusses how Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt gained their independence all between the years 1943 and 1952 – all within five years of the birth of Israel.

Lebanon

Following World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French separated out the region of Lebanon in 1920, and granted this area independence in 1943.

Jordan

Following World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the UK received a mandate to govern much of the Middle East. Britain separated out a semi-autonomous region of Transjordan from Palestine in the early 1920s, and the area gained its independence in 1946; it adopted the name of Jordan in 1950.

Syria

Following World War I, France acquired a mandate over the northern portion of the former Ottoman Empire province of Syria. The French administered the area as Syria until granting it independence in 1946.

Egypt

Following the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt became an important world transportation hub, but also fell heavily into debt. Ostensibly to protect its investments, Britain seized control of Egypt’s government in 1882, but nominal allegiance to the Ottoman Empire continued until 1914. Partially independent from the UK in 1922, Egypt acquired full sovereignty with the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy in 1952, (CIA World Fact Book, emphases mine). [9]

These countries, like Israel, did not exist as independent countries until 1943 and after.  They were simply parts of the Ottoman Empire and then parts of the British Empire or a colony of the French.  Their birth around the birth of Israel strengthens the significance of 1948.

What is a Generation?

We have determined what the fig tree represents and now what we must determine is just what is a generation.  “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation [genea γενεά] will by no means pass away till all these things take place,” (Matthew 24:34).  When considering this question we might first of all do well to remember that Jesus was not speaking Greek to His disciples but Hebrew, which is documented in my book Discovering the Language of Jesus. Not only was Jesus speaking Hebrew to the Jews of His day, which most certainly included His disciples, but according to what are known as the fragments of Papias, the book of Matthew was first written in Hebrew and then later translated to Greek.

Papias was one of the early Church Fathers who lived from 70 to 155 AD.  The early church historian Eusebius notes that he “had the privilege of association with Polycarp, in the friendship of St. John himself, and of ‘others who had seen the Lord.’” (Eusebius 3.39.15)  […] He says about Matthew (fragment VI) “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Eusebius, III, 39, 1) (Hamp, 2005 Discovering the Language of Jesus).

Given that Jesus was speaking Hebrew, the word that we ought to be truly considering is the Hebrew word dor (דּוֹר), which underlies the Greek word genea (γενεά) (the Greek Septuagint translates dor as genea).  Dor is defined by Gesenius’ Hebrew Lexicon as “(1) an age, generation of men, as if the period and circuit of the years of life.” Brown Driver Briggs defines it primarily as “1. period, age, generation, mostly poet.: a. of duration in the past, former age(s)” and also as “2. of men living at a particular time (period, age).” Based on my own research where I examined the 79 times that word is used in the Hebrew Bible, the word should be defined as the period of a person’s life.  In other word, generation is defined both as period of time and a group of people which cannot be separated. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) explains the meaning of generation as it relates to the entirety of a person’s life:

Occasionally there is a Hebrew word wherein etymology, as a route to discovery of ancient thought patterns, is all-important in discovering the true life-situation in which the word must be understood. Such is the case here. Authorities all agree that dor, the noun, is derived from dur, the verb. The simple primitive sense, not expressly found in any biblical text, is to move in a circle, surround. […] In this manner an original meaning of “go in a circle” […] provide[s] the basis for a word of important theological meaning. […]  By a thoroughly understandable figure, a man’s lifetime beginning with the womb of earth and returning thereto (Gen 3:19) is a dor, (TWOT Dor).

While it is true that a new generation begins with the birth of one’s offspring, that still does not negate the fact that the length of a particular generation is the total lifespan.  In reality, the Hebrew or Greek word is not that different from their English equivalent.  If we talk about my parents’ generation it is the people group born around the similar time as them.  I am not in my parents’ generation – I am the second generation.  In fact, I was born some thirty years into my parents’ life.  However, we should not define the length of a generation as the interval between the two but rather as the lifetime of a given person.  After all, my mother is still alive and many people in her generation are too.  Some people in her generation, like my father, have already passed on.  However, there will be some that will live into their eighties and even a few into their nineties.

Let’s consider the following verses that show that the people group of a certain period of time all died: “And Joseph died, all his brothers, and all that generation,” (Exodus 1:6 emphasis mine). The verse clearly was not talking about people in Abraham’s day or people in Moses’ day.  It was the people group of a particular time that died – that is a generation. The Psalmist demonstrates a similar usage wherein he is exhorting those living at his time to not be like the generation (time of) their fathers: “And may not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, And whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (Psalms 78:8).  Notice that generation is being used as both a people group (fathers) and also a time period (since fathers necessarily come before their progeny).  Therefore, when the psalmist says “a generation that did not set its heart aright” he is talking about a specific group of people who lived at a specific time.

This is reinforced by Deuteronomy 2:14 where Moses discusses the time that was spent in the desert as punishment against the generation that rebelled against the Lord.  “And the time we took to come from Kadesh Barnea until we crossed over the Valley of the Zered was thirty-eight years, until all the generation of the men of war was consumed from the midst of the camp, just as the LORD had sworn to them,” (Deuteronomy 2:14).  The generation was the lifetime (forty years plus twenty) of a group of men as derived from the book of Numbers in which God gives the minimum time of a generation [Hebrew: dor דּוֹר Greek: genea γενεά] as sixty years (twenty and above plus wandering forty years):

Surely none of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and above, shall see the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because they have not wholly followed Me…  So the LORD’s anger was aroused against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation [LXX reads: genea γενεά]  that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone, (Numbers 32:11, 13 emphasis mine).

Thus the minimum age of a generation is sixty years (forty years is never a generation in Scripture contrary to what many have claimed).  However, there is another verse that provides a more average lifespan of a human being which is also the key to see approximately when the Lord will return for the second time, (a fact pointed out to me by Dr. Kenton Beshore, Sr.).

The days of our lives are seventy years; And if by reason of strength they are eighty years, Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; For it is soon cut off, and we fly away, (Psalms 90:10).

The fullness of a generation being 70 or 80 years is striking when one considers that Moses, the author of this Psalm, lived to be 120 years old.  Bible commentator Thomas Constable points out:

It is interesting that he said the normal human life span was 70 years. He lived to be 120, Aaron was 123 when he died, and Joshua died at 110. Their long lives testify to God’s faithfulness in providing long lives to the godly as He promised under the Mosaic Covenant, (Constable, Psalm 90)

It would seem that the Holy Spirit guided Moses to write of what a typical lifetime is, versus his (and other ancients’) lifetime.[10] We find further biblical evidence that a generation is a lifetime which is equivalent to 70 (or 80) years in Isaiah 23:15 which correlates: “seventy years like the days of one king.”

Modern Research Confirms Psalm 90:10

According to the CIA World Fact Book [11] the longest average life expectancy (by country) for 2009 was 84.36 years in the country of Macau.  The Swiss had the 10th longest life expectancy of 80.85.  Israelis ranked 12th in the world and on average lived to be 80.73 years old, Americans ranked 49th with an expectancy of 78.11 years and Guatemalans ranked 143rd with an expectancy of 70.29.  People in only 38 countries (out of 224) live less than 60 years on average.

Psalm 90:10 therefore provides a very realistic picture of how long a generation is.  The vast majority of people (by nationality) on the planet live until they are sixty (185/224 or 82.5%). Fewer, though a majority still, live into their seventies (144/224 or 64.2%).  However, only a fraction live on average into their eighties (22/224 or 9.8%).

Matthew provides our last clue in the beginning of his Gospel when discussing the number of generations from Abraham until Christ thereby demonstrating that generation (genea γενεά – the same word used in Matthew 24:34) signifies the lifetime of a person:

So all the generations [genea γενεά] from Abraham to David are fourteen generations [genea γενεά],  from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations [genea γενεά], and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations [genea γενεά], (Matthew 1:17, emphasis mine).

Here we see that a generation was the lifetime of a person and not the specific amount of years though we have learned that the duration of a generation is anywhere from sixty years to eighty.  We need to understand that generations overlap one another.  When a father and mother have children a new generation is born, but so long as all the people born around their birthdates are living, their generation has not passed away.  Think of it this way: the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) has not yet passed away.  In fact, the oldest members would just now be reaching their mid 60’s. Certainly some of its members have passed away already, but the majority can expect to make it well into their 70’s and some into their 80’s.  In the same way, the generation spoken of by Jesus will not pass away until all the things he mentioned take place.  The following diagram depicts how generations overlap one another.  The 1st generation could be likened to the Baby Boomer generation.  Generation X (2nd Generation) was born toward the beginning of a Baby Boomers life (generation) but they are not of the Baby Boomer generation.  Considering all the evidence we explored, I’d like to propose that the Baby Boomer generation is the generation that will not pass away until the Lord comes back.

1st Generation (Total lifespan)
2nd Generation (Total lifespan) overlaps 1st
3rd Generation (Total lifespan) overlaps 1st and 2nd

Which Generation?

So you also, when you see all these things, know that itis near – at the doors!  Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place, (Matthew 24:33-34, emphasis mine).

The generation spoken of here must be the generation that would see all of the things that Jesus spoke of when the disciples questioned Him and specifically it would be the generation that would see the “fig tree budding”.  Since we have seen that the fig tree was Israel in both the prophets and according to Jesus, then “this generation” must be the one that began at the commencement of the new state of Israel. [12]

The Fig Tree Has Budded

Thus we see Israel was a dried tree for about 1900 years and then miraculously the branch put forth leaves in one day on May 14, 1948.  Jesus told us that when this happens His return is at the doors.  He said that the generation that saw this would by no means pass away.  A generation is the lifetime of a person and that is on average between seventy or eighty years.  Thus, according to the above considerations we could write out our equation in the following manner:

1948 + 70 ≈ 2018

OR if by reason of strength

1948 + 80 ≈ 2028

The parable of the fig tree was the answer to the disciples’ original question at the beginning of the chapter:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (Matthew 24: 3).

The observant student of the Word has noted that this reference to when the end of the age will be is in seeming contradiction to Jesus’ own words in Acts 1:6-8.

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,’ (Acts 1:6-8).

This apparent contradiction is resolved however, when we consider just who Jesus was talking to – the disciples that He was speaking to in Acts were the same men who, only some forty days earlier, He had told what to look for at the end of the age.  And the sign that He told them would definitively mark the beginning of the generation that would see the end was nothing less than the fig tree putting forth its branch and becoming tender.  Thus, the solution is the fig tree. They asked a question which he had already answered for them – look for the revival of the fig tree (which Jesus had pronounced cursed).  In other words, there was no point in looking for the end of the age so long as Israel was a dried tree!  There was no point in looking for the second coming so long as the fig tree remained cursed (that is: not a nation).  Only when it would become tender could the restoration of the kingdom occur.  That is why Jesus told the disciples of what they would receive in the meantime (“but you shall receive power”) and what their task was to be (“and you shall bewitnesses to Me”) until the revival of the fig tree and ultimately His coming.  Therefore, until the fig tree (Israel) was revived, there would be no restoration of the kingdom to Israel – which is of course only logical: Israel cannot have the kingdom if they do not exist as a national entity (a dried tree).  But within a generation (lifetime of a person) of the revival of the fig tree (Israel) the kingdom will be restored in the millennial/messianic era.

Occupy Until He Comes

We have seen that the biblical interpretation of the fig tree is clearly Israel.  We have also seen that a generation is the lifetime of a person which according to Psalm 90:10 is generally 70 or 80 years.  Whether or not the Lord is required to return within 80 years exactly we obviously cannot be dogmatic.  Nevertheless, in light of the incredible accuracy of His first coming, we ought to be persuaded that the above dates are both reasonable and likely.  The Lord’s second coming, therefore, appears to be between 2018 – 2028. [13] The beginning of the Great Tribulation (subtract seven years) then would most likely commence between 2011 – 2021. [14] Remember we are to know the times and the seasons yet Jesus said very literally that the day and the hour no one can know.  The Lord’s second coming between 2018 and 2028 is seemingly the time and the season, but is not predictive of the day or the hour.  In light of the events that are happening in numerous categories (economics, natural disasters, etc.) on a global scale, the Lord’s return within the 80 years from the reestablishment of Israel in 1948 appears almost certain.  Nevertheless, no matter when the Lord returns, occupy until He does and tell others the good news of the gospel.  Heed Jesus’ warning:

“Constantly be on your guard so that your hearts may not be loaded down with self-indulgence, drunkenness, and the worries of this life, or that day will take you by surprise like a trap. For it will come on all who live on the face of the earth. So be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and to take your stand in the presence of the Son of Man.”

(Luke 21:34-36 ISV).


[1] This is analogous to the rapture in that the “good” are taken out of the land and the “bad” are left to be judged.

[2] Retrieved October 4, 2010 from: http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.printable&pageId=65288.  Thanks to my friend Bob Rico for bringing this to my attention.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Could the earth be a representation of the UN?

[5] An interesting circumstantial confirmation of the 1948 date is found concerning the birth of Abraham.  According to biblical chronology (reading from the Massoretic text) he was born 1,948 years after creation (Anno Mundi).  While that calculation is based on the year of creation and not the Gregorian calendar, the same number is striking.  Furthermore, the date of Abraham receiving the covenant in Genesis 15 was given 2,018 years anno mundi. Given that the birth of Abraham, the father of the nation, and the rebirth of the nation both occurred in the same year (on their respective calendars), is it possible that AD 2,018 (on the Gregorian calendar) will also be significant?

[6] My study of the Scriptures was not influenced by the Apocalypse of Peter – I in fact found it after I had written most of the chapter.

[7] Retrieved July 15, 2010 from: http://www.ntcanon.org/Apocalypse_of_Peter.shtml.  The authorship of the work is uncertain though some suggest that it was Clement, Peter’s disciple since he is mentioned in the work itself.

[8] First published by the Abbe Sylvain Grebaut in Revue de l’Orient Chretien, 1910: a fresh translation from his Ethiopic text by H. Duensing appeared in Zeitschr. f. ntl. Wiss., 1913.

[9] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

[10] If we understand from Genesis 15 that Abraham’s descendants will be afflicted for four hundred years and that they would come back in the fourth generation, then the maximum lifespan would appear to be 100 years – which again demonstrates that generation is the lifespan of an individual.

[11] Retrieved May 3, 2010 from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

[12] A speech given by Benjamin Netanyahu May 16, 2010 at Ammunition Hill in honor of Jerusalem Day confirms that he is of the generation that is saw the rebirth of Jerusalem.  Netanyahu was born in 1949 which makes him just one year younger than the nation itself. “We are the generation which was lucky enough to see our holy sites liberated and returned to our hands, and it is upon us to transfer this right to our children.” Retrieved May 20, 2010 from: http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=175392

[13] Thanks to my good friend Dr. Beshore for his valuable insights into these dates via personal communication.

[14] These dates seem to be confirmed extra-biblically by virtue of several discoveries: a massive Coronal Mass Ejection from the sun is expected between 2012-2014; there will be a series of four total lunar eclipses (tetrad) between 2014-2015 all of which fall on biblical feast days (as discovered by Mark Biltz) which potentially spells trouble for Israel; the all seeing eye on the back of the dollar bill (as discovered by Tom Horn) point to the coming of the antichrist between 2012 and 2016; both the Mayan and Aztec calendars have ending dates of 2012.

The Fig Tree Has Budded Dec 2010


How Should We Read?

How Should We Read?

The Method of Interpreting the Bible

By Douglas Hamp

December 2007

A frequent accusation against the Bible is that one can make it say whatever one wants.  Unquestionably there are people that take such liberty and try to make the Bible fit into their philosophies. However, is it true that the Bible allows for such liberties?  Is God’s Word really so ambiguous?  Or is there a method to properly understand and capture the message that He intended for us to receive?  The importance of this question is staggering because where one begins will often determine where one ends up.  If our method of interpretation is so fluid that the Bible can say anything, then it generally will.  However, if our method assumes that what is said is what is meant, then we will arrive at trustworthy conclusions not based on how clever we are in our interpretation, but on our simply reading and believing what the text says.

This type of interpretation is known as the grammatical-historical method.  It assumes that the words and thoughts that are conveyed in the Bible are used in the same way that normal speech, writing, and conversation occur in everyday life.  Basically stated, we don’t have to read between the lines of the Bible to understand what it means.  The greatest advantage of interpreting the Bible in a straightforward manner is that we are able to test our conclusions regarding what it says against archeology, historical documents, and examination of the Hebrew and Greek grammar of the particular passage.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

The wonder of the Bible is that we use Scripture to interpret Scripture based on the words of Jesus in John 10:35, where he said “…and Scripture cannot be broken.”  The apostles Paul and Peter reiterate this:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (1 Timothy 3:16)

[…] as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.  (2 Peter 3:15, 16, emphasis mine)

Notice that Peter equates the writings of Paul with “the rest of the Scriptures”, that is, the Old Testament.  Since Peter considers the writings of Paul to be inspired by God as those of the Old Testament, which were obviously considered authoritative, we can confidently use one book of the Bible to help interpret other books.

Using the Bible to interpret itself is not circular reasoning.  The Bible is not just one single document written by one author at one time.  Rather, it is a collection of sixty-six books written by forty authors over a period of about 1,500 years.  As a teacher of the Bible trained at the secular, humanistic Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I am well aware of its critics.  Therefore, I take great interest in making sure that our approach to interpreting Scripture be consistent.  The fact that the Bible is a compilation of many books by many authors over the period of 1500 years and that its message is unified permits us to cross-reference its various books.  Thus, when we use one portion of Scripture to interpret another, we are not just performing a tautological exercise.  Rather we are referencing ancient documents and comparing those to other ancient documents.

Hermeneutics

This discipline of interpretation is formally called hermeneutics, which is how we decide what the Bible, or any text for that matter, actually means.  Many people take a very relaxed view of interpreting the Bible; they subscribe to a type of moral relativism.  However, they would fight tooth and nail when it comes to something like their portion of an inheritance as defined in a will, or how much money is owed according to a legal contract.

In the above cases, no one would be looking for a hidden meaning but would look at the plain meaning of the text.  No competent judge would try to “read between the lines” in order to make a will, contract, insurance claim, or our bank balance say something that it really doesn’t say – and if a judge did such a thing, we would all cry “injustice!!”

What Do We Mean By Literal?

Just as the normal method of understanding everyday letters, contracts, and documents is literal, straightforward, and uses the historical-grammatical approach rather than the allegorical approach, this is also the method we use to interpret the Bible.  This does not mean that the biblical authors did not occasionally use metaphors, similes, analogies, and once in a while even allegory to teach a point.

John, in the book of Revelation, sees a vision in heaven where Jesus is referred to as a lamb and also as a lion (Rev 5:5, 6).  Other times Jesus Himself states that He is the Bread of Heaven (John 6:51), the Door (John 10:7), the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), etc.  Does this mean that we cannot understand the text or that everything is to be taken allegorically?  By no means!  Jesus is making illustrations about Himself in order to teach an important lesson.  They are all true in the context of what He was teaching.  We would never assume that Jesus is actually flour, salt, and water, the ingredients in literal bread, nor would we think that He is a piece of wood as a door, nor even a four-footed creature as John saw in Revelation.  We understand that He is speaking figuratively.  However, there are real truths behind what He was saying.  Jesus frequently used parables, a type of allegory to teach certain truths, yet there was no question that it was a story.  There was no thought that Jesus was actually communicating a real, historical event.  Telling stories (parables) was a very Jewish way of teaching employed by many Rabbis of Jesus’ day.

What is Allegory?

We have spoken of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation and have suggested that it is the normal method to be employed.  What is the allegorical method and why should we avoid interpreting the Bible in such a manner?  J. Dwight Pentecost addresses this manner of interpreting Scripture in great detail in his classic work Things to Come.  “In this method the historical import is either denied or ignored and the emphasis is placed entirely on a secondary sense so that the original words or events have little or no significance” (Pentecost 1958: 4).  He also cites Ramm who defines allegory as “…the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense” (Ramm 1950: 1).  Pentecost summarizes this by saying that “it would seem that the purpose of the allegorical method is not to interpret Scripture, but to pervert the true meaning of Scripture, albeit under the guise of seeking a deeper or more spiritual meaning” (Pentecost 1958: 5).

Dr. Pentecost points out three dangers of the allegorical method:

1.       The first great danger of the allegorical method is that it does not interpret Scripture.

2.       The basic authority in interpretation ceases to be the Scriptures, but the mind of the interpreter. The interpretation may then be twisted by the interpreter’s doctrinal positions, the authority of the church to which the interpreter adheres, his social or educational background, or a host of other factors.

3.       […] one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested.  (Pentecost 1958: 5,6)

An example of allegory is found in Galatians 4:24-26 where Paul plainly tells us that he is using an allegory and he then gives us the meaning behind those symbols.  We are not left to dig for a deeper hidden meaning, nor are we to address every Old Testament passage looking for the “real” truth behind the text.  Paul is taking real, historical events significant in their own right and is simply drawing out a typology to teach a spiritual truth.

[…] which things are symbolic [ἀλληγορούμενα – allegory]. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.

The above example is not truly the employment of the allegorical method, but rather the explanation of an allegory (Pentecost 1958: 7).  We can be sure that Paul is not using the allegorical method of interpretation because he did not deny the historicity of the Old Testament account, but merely employed the story as an illustration.

The real issue between a literal and an allegorical method of interpretation is in essentially knowing how God communicated with His people in Scripture.  Did He communicate in such a way that one had to read between the lines to truly get at what He was saying?  Or did He generally use plain language that was easy for mankind to understand?  What was God’s normal method of communication?

There are numerous examples of where the Bible interprets itself in very clear language leaving no doubt whatsoever as to its intent.  An example is found in Genesis where God declares that man may eat from any tree except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Regardless of which method of interpretation we use, we see that behind God’s words was a very real consequence.  According to Genesis and the rest of the Bible, man’s decision to eat of the tree had very real consequences not to be undone until the end of time when the tree of life is restored (Revelation 22:2).  At least from the Bible’s standpoint, God’s words were to be taken literally; to understand otherwise would confuse the entire message of the Bible (see: Romans 5:12, 6:23 and I Corinthians 15:21).  Let’s consider in detail the accounts of Moses and Daniel to see which method of interpretation they employed.

Striking the Rock

The Children of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness offers an example of where several biblical writers interpret in a literal fashion.  After fleeing from Egypt through the wilderness, they came to a place where they had no water.  God commanded Moses to strike the rock so that water would come out of it (Exodus 17:6).  Moses did so, and as a result, water gushed forth from the rock providing life-giving water to the thirsty Israelites.  This episode is recounted hundreds of years later as a historical fact by the Psalmist Asaph in Psalm 78 where he declares:

Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. […] we have heard and known […] our fathers have told us. For He […] appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should make them known to their children […] And His wonders that He had shown them. Marvelous things He did in the sight of their fathers, In the land of Egypt […] He divided the sea and caused them to pass through; And He made the waters stand up like a heap. In the daytime also He led them with the cloud, And all the night with a light of fire. He split the rocks in the wilderness, And gave them drink in abundance like the depths. He also brought streams out of the rock, And caused waters to run down like rivers.  (Psalm 78:1, 3, 5, 7, and 11-16, emphasis mine)

Asaph uses very concrete words to describe the historical fact of the rock being struck and water coming out, such as: “we have heard”, “our fathers have told us”, “(God) appointed a law…to make known”.  He makes it abundantly clear, that he, at least, believed that the striking of the rock was a very real, historical event and that the events occurred as stated.  There is no sense of allegory whatsoever in his language.  The striking of the rock and water coming forth is reiterated in Psalm 105:41 where another Psalmist states: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; It ran in the dry places like a river.”  Both of these writers have interpreted the events in Exodus literally and straightforwardly.

Years later, in the Exodus story, they encountered another place where there was no water.  God then told Moses to speak to the rock, rather than hit it.  Moses, extremely frustrated with these people who seemed to never stop complaining, struck the rock, rather than speaking to it as God commanded.  As a result of Moses’ moment of wrath, he was not allowed to enter into the Promised Land.  God’s reasoning for doing so was that Moses had not represented God accurately to the people.  God was not angry with the people, although Moses had communicated just the opposite through his actions.  God’s words were given plainly, “Speak to the rock” (Numbers 20:8).  Moses disobeyed and so there was a real consequence.  “Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’” (Numbers 20:12).

We later find in the New Testament that Paul uses this real, historical event to teach a spiritual truth.  He claims the Rock to be Christ – that is Christ is He who satisfies our true spiritual thirst.  In fact, according to ancient Jewish sources, the rock was believed to have physically traveled with the Children of Israel. [1] Nevertheless he never questions the original account’s historicity:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.  But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.  Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.  (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, emphasis mine)

Paul obviously thought that these events actually did occur and were not just metaphors or allegories because he says that the fathers truly were under the cloud and did pass through the sea, but God was not happy with them and, consequently, their dead bodies were all over the desert.  He says that they became examples so that we should not do as they did.  Thus Paul discusses Jesus as the Rock to teach a truth, but he in no way questions the historicity of the actual events.  He rather confirms that those things indeed happened and exhorts the Corinthians not to follow suit.

Daniel’s Interpretation of Jeremiah’s 70 Years

In 606 B.C., the Neo-Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar the Second, came to Jerusalem and took away a portion of its inhabitants captive to Babylon for failure to pay the necessary tribute.  This first deportation in 606 B.C. was followed by another in 597 B.C. and then a third, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C..  During this time, the prophet Jeremiah was acting as the voice of the Lord toward a rebellious people.  In spite of the tremendous castigation falling on His people, God gave Jeremiah a word of encouragement.

And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.  “Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity,” says the LORD; “and I will make it a perpetual desolation.  So I will bring on that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah has prophesied concerning all the nations.” (Jeremiah 25:11-13, emphasis mine)

God Himself says that He would set them free after seventy years.  There are two important things to notice here.  There is absolutely no question that the Judeans went into captivity – that is established historical fact.  There is also no question that in 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and then three years later, in 536 B.C. the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the Temple – both are historical facts.

Daniel’s Understanding of the 70 Years

In Daniel chapter nine, we see that Daniel, a biblical writer, interprets Jeremiah’s prophecy for us.  He sets the stage by telling when in history this chapter occurs: “In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the lineage of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 9:1).  It is established historical fact that Darius the Mede existed and was governor over Babylon.  Daniel then tells us that he was reading the prophet Jeremiah, who had written approximately seventy years earlier:  “in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:2, emphasis mine).  Here we have Daniel interpreting the prophecy of Jeremiah in unmistakable terms – he understood from the prophet Jeremiah that God would keep His people in Babylon for seventy literal years.  Daniel does not try to look for a hidden message as to what God meant by seventy years or punishing Babylon, he assumes it to be literal.  And judging from history, we can conclude that was indeed the case.  Exactly seventy years after the first deportation, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem.

Moved by the nearness of the fulfillment of prophecy, Daniel sets his face “toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.  And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made confession…” (Daniel 9:3) Daniel confesses the sins of his people to the Lord, acknowledging that they have not sought God’s face and have received exactly what they deserved although God would be gracious enough to restore them after seventy years.  He then confirms that the curse given in Deuteronomy was 100% literally fulfilled through the destruction of Jerusalem.

“But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you […] The LORD will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken Me.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 20)

It was not just true in a spiritual sense, but came to pass in a very real and literal sense, at least as far as Daniel was concerned.  He in no way intimated that the curses were mere spiritual consequences of not following God, but that they were specific to the nation of Israel exclusively and that they had been completely fulfilled.

“Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us; yet we have not made our prayer before the LORD our God, that we might turn from our iniquities and understand Your truth.”  (Daniel 9:11, 13)

The Chronicler Agreed

Daniel’s comments are extremely important for the question of our method of interpretation.  Daniel was much closer to and was a part of the writing of the Old Testament – less than seventy years after Jeremiah, less than two hundred from the time of Isaiah.  His own writings are also considered canonical, inspired, and authoritative.  If he took such writings as literal and straightforward, how much more should we?  The literal interpretation of Daniel regarding Jeremiah’s prophecy is also shared by the writer of 2 Chronicles in extremely plain language:

And those who escaped from the sword he [Nebuchadnezzar] carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.  Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:  All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!  (2 Chronicles 36:20-23, emphasis mine)

The author of Chronicles emphatically stresses the point that after seventy years God freed his people just as Jeremiah predicted.  There obviously was no question in the mind of the writer that this prophecy was fulfilled completely and literally.  What we have here is merely one of countless examples of where numbers in the Bible are not given just to draw out a spiritual truth, which one would do using the allegorical method but rather they are used literally.

Undoubtedly, many clever meanings could be assigned to the number seventy.  For example, certain Bible commentators have suggested that seven is the perfect number and ten represents completeness.  Therefore, we could say that seventy is the perfect number of completion.  This interpretation sounds rather erudite and sophisticated.  It might even “minister” to people’s hearts.  In fact, there is no way to argue that the number seventy doesn’t mean that.  Maybe it is the number of “perfect completion”.  This interpretation, however, is nothing more than the product of my imagination.  The problem with applying the allegorical method of interpretation to the Bible is that it leaves interpretation up to the imagination of the Bible commentator rather than the interpretation being drawn out of the Bible through the textual, historical, and linguistic constraints.

Interpreting Literary Genre

The above examples certainly provide weighty evidence in favor of a literal method of interpreting the Bible. However, there are passages in Scripture, which should not be taken literally.  Consider Isaiah’s beautiful line, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12).  Isaiah is using a literary form known as personification because I doubt that he, or God, intended to mean that the literal mountains would start singing or that the trees would actually take their branches and start clapping.  Nevertheless, although he is using poetic language, the truth that he is telling is going to be very real.  And when it happens, even creation, in a sense, will rejoice just as Paul alluded to in Romans 8:22.  Thus, we recognize the literary genre, but still understand the real and accurate message it is conveying.

What is Meant By Literary Genre?

There are, broadly speaking, two literary genres (classes) in the Bible: prose and poetry.  Prose simply means that the author is speaking in normal every-day language and is not attempting to speak poetically.  Newspapers, history books and even most emails employ prose, also known as narrative.  Prose, however, contains many figures of speech, metaphors, similes and the like.  We can talk about the sun going down or hungry as a horse – both figures of speech that communicate a simple message; it is getting dark and I am hungry, respectively.  In English there exist at least 440 animal sayings that we employ in our every-day language. [i] Expressions such as you’re barking up the wrong tree or it’s raining cats and dogs are certainly metaphors since my conversation partner is not truly outside barking at a tree in the park!  Rather, I am using the metaphor to convey a real message: you have got the wrong idea.  Likewise none of us has actually seen cats and dogs fall from the sky, it simply means that it is raining very hard.  These expressions are considered prose and not poetry, which is defined as speaking or writing in such a manner where a particular rhyme, rhythm, cadence or some other form of dramatic language is used to communicate.

Poetry in the Bible is occasionally marked making it easy to identify. Exodus 15:1 unmistakably states that a song (poetry) to the Lord is going to follow:  “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying…”  Interestingly, Exodus 15 is the poetic form of chapter 14 which was written in prose – that is, a plain straightforward kind of language.  What we must not miss, however, is that both the prose account in chapter 14 and the poetic in 15 tell a true and historic account of what happened immediately prior in the departure from Egypt.  Just because something is poetic does not mean that it is not also an accurate and historic account of what truly happened.

Final Thoughts Concerning Biblical Interpretation

We have seen that the biblical writers took God’s words at face value.  The author of Genesis took God’s words about the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as an event that had literal consequences.  Moses was barred from entering into the Promised Land due to not obeying carefully, in every detail, God’s instructions – evidence that God spoke literally and not figuratively.  Furthermore, both Daniel and the writer of Chronicles demonstrated their literal understanding of several Scriptures.  Essentially, we have seen from just a few examples that the normal method of biblical writers (when reading other Scripture passages) was to take them literally.

There are many other examples that could be examined such as the prophecies regarding the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Every believer fully accepts those passages as being literally fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  Even if one were to reject Jesus as Lord, one could not reject that the New Testament writers understood Jesus to be the literal fulfillment of hundreds of passages.  The literal understanding of a coming messianic, divine, supernatural figure was shared by numerous Jews during the period of the Second Temple in addition to the disciples of Jesus and was later affirmed by all of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers.  They were looking forward to a figure that would come and bring salvation from sins through his righteousness and then usher in a new era of peace under his divine rule on earth.  If the prophecies regarding the first coming of Christ were and are taken literally, what is different when it comes to any other topic in the Bible?  In fact Basil, a church father of the fourth century to whom we owe the correct understanding of the Trinity in contrast to the Arian heresy, boldly declares that the literal is the only right method of interpretation of Scripture.

Those who do not accept the Scriptures in their ordinary, common meaning, say that “water” is not water but something else; plants and fishes they interpret as they please; the creation of reptiles and wild beasts they explain in their own way, twisting it from the obvious sense as do the interpreters of dreams — who give whatever meaning they choose to the images seen in sleep. As for me, when I hear the word “grass” I think of grass, and the same with plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal. I take everything in the literal sense, for “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” (Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily IX)

Bibliography

Basil. Catholic Information Network Retrieved August 12, 2006, from www.cin.org/saints/basilgre.html

Leedy, Loreen and Street, Pat, There’s a Frog in My Throat. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Pentecost, J. Dwight (1958). Things To Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Ramm, Bernard (1950). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


[1] The Targumim, cf. John Gill Commentary on I Cor 10:4 speak of the belief that the rock physically traveled with the Israelites: “that it again ascended with them to the highest mountains, and from the highest mountains it descended with them to the hills, and encompassed the whole camp of Israel, and gave drink to everyone at the gate of his own dwelling place; and from the high mountains it descended with them into the deep valleys” (Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel).

[i] See: Leedy, Loreen and Street, Pat, There’s a Frog in My Throat.


The Last Years of Time

How should we interpret the 1000 years of Revelation 20?

The question regarding the last years of earth’s history is, in a sense, very similar to that regarding earth’s first days: what do numbers and units of time in the Bible actually mean?  Are they merely figurative or are they to be taken literally? The interpretation of the days in Genesis 1 and the meaning of the thousand years in Revelation 20 are related due to the use of numbers and measurements of time in the Bible.

In Revelation 20 verses 2-7, six times we are told that Satan will be bound and that Christ will reign for a thousand years.  Understanding this to be a literal period of one thousand years or an allegory of an indefinite period of time has been an issue that has, generally speaking, created two camps of believers.  When we look at the ancient interpretations of both the creation account and Revelation 20, we will see that before the time of Augustine (354 to 430 A.D) both were interpreted literally.  Those holding to a literal interpretation are historically called millenialists (although today they are called premillenialists) and believe that the Great Tribulation will occur before Jesus returns to set up His kingdom for a literal period of a thousand years in which He will reign physically from Jerusalem.  Justin Martyr, a church father from the early second century A.D. declared emphatically in his Dialogue with Trypho,

But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.  (The Fathers: Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 80)

Clearly, Justin Martyr took the literal interpretation rather than a figurative or typological approach as Augustine, who is the father of the amillenial position, would later do. [i] The amillenialists purport that the thousand years in Revelation should be taken figuratively and that, in fact, there will not be an actual, literal, physical reign of Christ nor a binding of Satan for a literal, thousand years.  Again, we are faced with the question of whose view is right.  Is it really a matter of theological preference as to which view one holds?  Or is there some key to unlock this enigma?  Rather than looking to the Church Fathers for validation, let’s first look at the passage and allow Scripture to interpret itself.  I believe that we will find that, as with Genesis 1, only one of the two approaches is acceptable.

There are in essence two words that we need to study in order to determine the duration of time in Revelation 20.  We will first of all look at years to appreciate how the word is used in the Bible.  Once we have recognized what is the normal meaning, we will explore what writers meant when stating one thousand.  Does the number have just a simple meaning of thousand?  Or if as the amillenialists state, should it be understood as an indefinite period of time similar to the days of creation as purported by evolution supporters?

Years in the Bible

The word year (ete ἔτη) appears a total of 29 times in the New Testament.  In every occurrence the meaning of year (or years) is simply that of a real, literal period of a year whenever a number precedes it.  For example, we read in Mark 5:25, “Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years.”  The text treats this as a real number of real years — and why shouldn’t it?  What else could years mean?  In Luke, we read of the prophetess Anna, “and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years…” (Luke 2:37).  In John 2:20, the Jewish leaders reply to Jesus’ claim, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”  Furthermore, in Acts 13:20 we read, “After that He gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.”  In all of the examples, the word years (ete ἔτη) is referring to a real (specific) amount of time and is used in its literal sense.  The 450 years of the time of the judges is considered to be a real amount of time.  The fact is that year, when preceded by a cardinal number, is never used in any other way.  Years always refers to what we understand to be a year – that is, the completion of twelve months (with the exception of an occasional 13th month added every several years to balance out the Jewish calendar), once around the sun.  Similarly to day in the Old Testament, which when preceded by a cardinal number means only a real day, so too when the words years and years are preceded by a cardinal number, they always and only signify a definite period of time.

The Number Thousand

Since year (and years) has only a literal and absolute meaning when preceded by a cardinal number, our next undertaking is to try to correctly understand “thousand.”  Is there something in the word which would lead us to conclude that thousand could mean something other than its literal and plain meaning?

Thousand (chilia χίλια) occurs in the New Testament eleven times, six of those being in the twentieth chapter of Revelation.  Twice it occurs in 2 Peter 3:8, “…that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”  The other three occurrences are in the book of Revelation as well.  The number of verses with which we can compare the word thousand in the New Testament in order to correctly determine the meaning is somewhat limited since six of the eleven examples occur in Revelation 20.  Thus, we need to turn to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew in approximately 270 B.C.

The word thousand appears 504 times in the Septuagint where it is translated from the Hebrew word אלף elef, which simply means thousand.  It never refers to any kind of imaginary number, nor does it signify an indefinite quantity.  The Septuagint merely translates that word literally and carries the same meaning.  There are cases where a text will say thousands in the plural and of course, that by definition is indefinite.  But whenever a text refers to one thousand it is speaking in a literal sense.

So, you might ask, why doesn’t the word one appear before the word thousand?  Quite simply, Greek does not require the word “one” to appear before thousand for it to be understood that it means one thousand.  Many languages are parallel to Greek in this respect.  For example, in Hebrew, there is no need to say one before thousand.  In fact, it is impossible to say that and to do so would sound very foreign; so too in Greek.  When it is only one thousand, then no other word is necessary to qualify the number.  Only when it is two thousand plus does a number come in front of it.

The Definite Article

The phrase thousand years appears six times in the passage of Revelation 20:2-7.

He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while. And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.  Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison.  (emphasis mine)

Three times in the passage the author, John, states “…bound him [Satan] for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:2); “…And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4); and “…and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).  In all three of these passages, the literal rendering of the text is that Satan is bound and the saints reign one thousand years (one is included in the word thousand in Greek).  The other three occurrences “…till the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:3); “again until the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:5); and “…when the thousand years have expired…” (Revelation 20:7) all refer to a specific time indicated by the use of the definite article the.  The word the is a limiter or a definer.  It tells us that something specific is indicated.  Therefore, the time frame is not something undefined but in fact it is very defined.  “The thousand years…” reinforces the fact that a literal amount of time is indicated since it points back to “a thousand years” already mentioned in verse 2.

Summary of Years

In conclusion, we have seen that years and numbers (just like days) in both the Old and New Testaments are taken as literal.  Years always refers to a literal amount of time.  Year, when used with a number, is never used to refer to anything more than once around the sun.  When the writer wished to indicate a longer period, then the exact number of years was mentioned.  We also saw that the number thousand is treated just like the other numbers in both Testaments.  The references to years in the New Testament are numerous and all of them are treated as real years, including the one of 450 years.  Furthermore, the Greek word chilia χίλια, meaning “one thousand,” is used hundreds of times in the Greek Septuagint and every time has a simple meaning of a literal number, that is one thousand!  And finally, we noted that the grammar in Revelation, by the use of the definite article, limits the use of what one thousand can mean.  It is not an indefinite period of time, but rather is very definite.

Thus we are left with the conclusion that the thousand years of Revelation should be understood to mean precisely that – one thousand, literal years.  Having used Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see that any other interpretation is both inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible and grammatically unsound.


[i] Augustine formulated this eschatology primarily in response to the Donatists’s drunken feasts in their “cult of the dead” ceremonies honoring the martyred brothers.  Augustine also reacted to the millenialists’ anticipation as the year 500 approached since they thought that to be the culmination of the 6000 years since creation. (Anderson 2002: 4)