How To Interpret Old Testament Prophecies About Israel?

What Israel hope to be

The main purpose of this post is to bring clearly to view the important truth that in Scripture the contrast is not between the spiritual and the literal, but between the spiritual and the natural; for a passage of Scripture may refer, when taken “literally”, either to that which is natural or to that which is spiritual. In other words, the literal interpretation may call for a thing which exists in the realm of nature, or for the counterpart of that thing which exists in the realm of spiritual realities (1 Corinthians 15:46).

It is of the utmost importance that this be understood; for the advocates of modern dispensationalism have wrought confusion, and have succeeded in giving plausibility to many misinterpretations of Scripture, by first taking for granted (erroneously, as will be herein shown) that a “literal” interpretation necessarily calls for something material or natural, and by then insisting strenuously that all prophecies which refer to Israel, Jerusalem, Zion, etc., should be interpreted “literally”.

It will not be difficult to show that this is a thoroughly unsound principle of interpretation, that it is based upon a false premise, and that its application has made havoc of many prophecies. For example, those expositors who think the Bible teaches us to expect hereafter a millennium of earthly bliss, a golden age of worldwide peace and plenty, during which the Jewish nation will be reconstituted and will have the place of headship over a world occupied by God-fearing and peace-loving Gentiles, base that expectation upon certain Old Testament prophecies which, they think, are to be fulfilled “literally”; and since they cannot possibly be fulfilled in that manner during this era of the Gospel, there must needs be an age to come of an entirely different character from this day of gospel salvation.

This argument, however, is utterly fallacious, because based upon a false premise. Those who make use of it take for granted that in order to interpret a prophecy “literally” its fulfillment must be located in the realm of nature, and not in the spiritual realm. Thus they assume that the “literal” interpretation is in contrast with the “spiritual” interpretation thereof; and they denounce and repudiate what they refer to disparagingly as “the spiritualizing” of the prophecies.

Undoubtedly our natural bias is in favor of the so-called “literal” interpretation of the prophecies in question; for to the natural man the things that are seen are the real things; and to that view we are disposed to cling tenaciously, notwithstanding the plain teaching of the New Testament that the seen things are but the fleeting shadows of things unseen, the latter being the spiritual and eternal realities with which the promises of future blessing have mainly to do.

For the New Testament Scriptures state, in the most unambiguous language, that the seed of Abraham, to whom all the promises of God belong, are those who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:7, 29; 2 Corinthians 1:20). Further, in the New Testament it is plainly revealed that, even as Abraham had two sons (which might make it uncertain whether the descendants of Ishmael or those of Isaac were to inherit the promises) so likewise there is a natural Israel, Zion and Jerusalem and also a spiritual counterpart of each; and that just as Ishmael preceded in time the true heir (though eventually he was to be cast out and not to be heir with the son of the free woman) even so the natural Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem preceded the respective spiritual realities to which those names properly belong. For God’s invariable order of procedure, in the working out of His eternal purposes, is first — that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:46).

If, therefore, an Old Testament prophecy of blessing, intended for the true Israel (that holy nation of 1 Peter 2:9), be interpreted as applying to Israel after the flesh, the interpretation is not “literal” (i.e., according to the letter) except in the sense in which the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (2 Corinthians 3:6); for obviously in this case the “literal” interpretation destroys the prophecy completely.

And it is specially to be noted that, in the passage from which this Scripture is quoted, Paul is explaining the great differences between the Old Covenant (which was of the letter) and the New Covenant (of the Spirit); and moreover, he is comparing the ministry of Moses, which had to do with things that are seen (an earthly sanctuary and its vessels of service, animal sacrifices, etc.), with the ministry of himself and others whom God had made able ministers of the New Covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit. Also it should be noted that the apostle there speaks of the Old Covenant (under which promises were made to the natural Israel) as that which is done away; whereas the New Covenant is that which remaineth, that is, abideth eternally (verse 11).

From this Scripture alone it is evident (and the same truth is set forth at greater length in Galatians 4:21–31 and Hebrews 8–10) that all future promises of glory and blessing for Israel and Zion must belong to the true Israel and the heavenly Zion. And, in this very passage, we are admonished to look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen (4:18); which admonition, however, is habitually disregarded in the interpretation of prophecies relating to these very subjects.

We ask the reader specially to note that in the above quoted passage, the apostle speaks of the old covenant as that which is done away (verse 11), that which is abolished (verse 13). This shows that the old covenant, under which the earthly nation of Israel had been constituted, was already, in Paul’s day, a thing of the past. Evidently then our difficulty in understanding prophecies of the class referred to above is due to our lack of faith and our spiritual dullness. For, in respect to the things which are not seen, faith takes the place of sight; for faith has to do solely with things not visible to the natural eye; and hope likewise, for hope that is seen is not hope (Romans 8:24). Wherefore it is written that, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen; and through faith we understand (Hebrews 11:1, 3).

Hence, to understand the prophecies it is necessary, and vitally necessary, that we believe the revelations of the New Testament; that we accept as “literally” true that there is now, at this present time, a realm of spiritual realities, into which our risen Lord is actually entered, and we in Him; that the substance of things hoped for is there, not here; and specially that God’s purposes concerning His City, Temple and People are being fulfilled at this very time, in that spiritual realm, though the natural eye cannot see what is going on there.

The writer of these lines can testify from experience that, by the simple process of believing what is written in the New Testament concerning the actual present existence, among the things not seen, of the true Zion, of the city of the living God the heavenly Jerusalem, of the holy nation which is a royal priesthood, and of other spiritual realities, the main difficulty in the understanding of the Old Testament prophecies which speak of a glorified state of the things named above, vanishes away.

An Illustration from Zechariah

Zechariah is one of the books that is frequently referred to as containing prophecies which await a “literal” fulfillment in a future dispensation.

Zechariah, with Haggai, prophesied during the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, after the return from Babylon of some of the deported Israelites; at which time the elders of the Jews builded and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo (Ezra 6:14).

But, as all are agreed, the prophet looks beyond what those men were building, to a temple and a city that were to be far more glorious. He records the word of the Lord concerning Zion: For, Lo I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord. And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day and shall be My people; and I will dwell in the midst of thee (2:10–11). And the prophet goes on to speak of a priest, Joshua, who was clothed at first in filthy garments, but to whom it was said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment (3:3–4).

This Joshua and his fellows were to be men wondered at; for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the Branch. For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua (verses 8–9). There is no difficulty in recognizing in this passage a prophecy of the coming of Christ as the Branch of Jehovah and as the Foundation Stone of the true Temple of God; for Peter (quoting a similar prophecy by Isaiah) writes to those who have been redeemed … by the precious blood of Christ, saying: Wherefore also it is contained in the Scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion a chief corner stone, elect, precious; and he had just said in the preceding verse, Ye also, as living stones are being built up, a spiritual house, an holy priesthood — as typified by Joshua’s change of garments — to offer up spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5–6). Thus by Peter’s application of the prophecy we are given plainly to understand that it relates to spiritual things, and that it is now being fulfilled in the spiritual realm.

It will greatly help us in our efforts to understand the class of prophecies above referred to, if we give due heed to the facts stated in the above quotation from Peter (and stated also in Hebrews 12:22–24, and in the Epistle to the Ephesians, as pointed out below) that God’s Spiritual house is in course of erection now, that it is being built in Zion, and that believers in Jesus Christ are living stones therein, and are also a royal priesthood.

Zechariah refers again (6:12–15) to the Man whose name is The BRANCH, and who shall build the temple of the Lord; and says of Him that He shall bear the glory, and He shall sit and rule upon His throne; and He shall be a priest upon His throne. None will dispute, in the light of New Testament Scriptures, that this prophecy is being fulfilled now (Hebrews 2:9; 8:1, etc.). And the prophet goes on to say that crowns shall be given also to certain men, whom he names, and that they that are far off (a scriptural designation of Gentiles, see Acts 2:39 and Ephesians 2:13), shall come and build in the temple of the Lord.

Furthermore, in Zechariah 9:9 we have the familiar passage: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion …behold, thy King cometh unto thee; and we know to a certainty, from Luke 19:38, that that prophecy was fulfilled when Christ came to Jerusalem to die for our salvation.

In Zechariah 13:7–9 the atoning death of Christ is foretold in the words, Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the Man that is My Fellow, saith the Lord of hosts. Smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered (see Matthew 26:31). And what was to follow as regards the Jewish people is foretold in these words: And it shall come to pass that in all the land, saith the Lord, two parts shall be cut off, and die; but the third part shall be left therein. And in agreement with this, the two great parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were cut off; but a third part, the disciples of Christ, were left. And as to these, the prophecy goes on to say: And I will bring the third part through the fire and will refine them as silver is refined (see 1 Peter 1:6 and 4:12); they shall call on My Name and I will hear them. I will say, It is My people; and they shall say, The Lord is My God (see Romans 11:1–2).

Moreover, the apostle Paul declares the same truth concerning the building of God’s true temple now as declared by Peter. He makes known that those who believe in Jesus Christ are even now quickened together with Christ, — and raised up together, and made to sit together (i.e., on thrones) in heavenly places (Zion) in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5–6); which plainly declares that we live and reign with Christ even now. This indeed is not perceived with the natural eye or realized in our conscious experience. Nevertheless it is true, and this truth is developed in Chapter 20 of this volume.

And furthermore, in the immediate context, Paul also declares the companion truth revealed by Peter, namely that the saints of this era, Gentiles as well as Jews, are being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth into an holy temple in the Lord (verses 20–21).

The expression in that day occurs about twenty times in the book of Zechariah; and, as a judicious commentator says, “It is a synonym for the great Messianic hope.” The first of these occurrences we have nations shall be joined to the Lord quoted, And many in that day (2:11). What was that day then, is this day now; for now is the day of salvation; and all the prophets from Samuel … as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days (Acts 3:24). And so, when Zechariah says (13:1) In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness, we understand clearly that he is foretelling the cross of Christ; as very plainly appears from verse 7, Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the Man that is My Fellow, saith the Lord of hosts; smite the Shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered. Further reference to the prophecies of Zechariah will be found in Chapter 10, The New Covenant.

Enough has been said, however, to make evident that the prophecies of Zechariah referred to above, and hence other prophecies of like character as well, relate to things spiritual and have their fulfillment in this present era of grace.

But it will be profitable to follow a little further the subject of the building of God’s true temple. So we recall that, at our Lord’s first visit to Jerusalem, when He had driven the traffickers out of the temple which Herod had built and which was one of the wonders of the world; and when the onlookers demanded of Him what sign He could give in proof of His authority to do those things, He answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19). The Jews understood this “literally”; that is to say, they took it as applying to that building of material stones which stood on Mount Moriah; and had the record stopped there, it would doubtless be insisted by some in our day that that great edifice, which has been meanwhile destroyed so completely that not one stone remains upon another, is to be miraculously restored in the coming millennium. But, to the end that we should not be misled and also that we might have a key to the interpretation of prophetic utterances of this sort, the Spirit caused John to insert the explanatory note. But He spake of the Temple of His Body.

This is just one of the many, seemingly casual, indications scattered throughout the Scriptures, that God’s promises are to be fulfilled and His purposes are to be accomplished in the resurrection; that is to say, in the new creation.

Again, at a subsequent visit to Jerusalem, at the season of one of the feasts, In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried saying, If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink, he — in other words, both eastward and westward — in summer and in winter shall it be — that is, all the year round.

In the light of John’s explanation, we understand, therefore, that our Lord was foretelling, not some extraordinary physical phenomenon, which was to happen in a far off millennial age, but the then approaching era of the Holy Spirit, when there was to be an outflow of the gospel, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven (1 Peter 1:12), both eastward and westward from Jerusalem. Thus both the place whence (Jerusalem) and the time when (in that day) those living waters were to begin to flow out into all the world, both summer and winter, are plainly foretold in Zechariah’s prophecy.

Further explanations of the prophecies concerning the outflow of living waters from the Temple at Jerusalem will be found below in connection with a discussion of Ezekiel’s temple and of the question, Where did the Spirit descend at Pentecost? And again let it be noted that these explanations put us in possession of the general principle upon which all prophecies of the same sort should be interpreted. They harmonize fully with all other indications contained in the Scriptures; making it abundantly plain that all the prophecies of future glory and blessing for Israel, Zion and Jerusalem, pertain to that holy nation (1 Peter 2:9) the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), and to that heavenly Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to which we already are come (Hebrews 12:22).

Therefore, for the above, and for other reasons set forth elsewhere in this volume, the writer reaches the conclusion that we are to look for the fulfillment of the prophecies in question — not to another age than this, but — to another locality; namely, to that spiritual realm, which Paul designates the heavenlies; where our Lord is gone to prepare a place for us, where the true temple is now in

course of erection, and where already exists the Jerusalem which is above, which is the mother of us all (Galatians 4:26).

The idea of a future dispensation for the fulfillment of prophecies on the earth, abounds in difficulties, and moreover it contradicts many passages of Scripture; whereas the idea of another locality, a spiritual and heavenly realm where those prophecies are in course of fulfillment now, is free from all difficulty, and has, moreover, the support of many New Testament Scriptures.

Concerning that now existing realm of unseen things enough is said in the Scriptures to make known that it is a region of great activity; that the principalities and powers therein are numerous and mighty angels and demons, good spirits and evil — and hence we must infer that there are happenings there which are of immense importance and significance. For example, we read: There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels (Revelation 12:7). Also, that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12).

In this connection it were well to recall that the title of the last book of the Bible, The Apocalypse, means the unveiling; that is to say, the taking away of the Veil that normally separates the realm of spiritual things from that of natural things. That title indicates that the visions described in the book of Revelation bring into view things and happenings in the spiritual realm, whereof, except for this unveiling, we should be wholly unaware. And when we come to Chapter 20, where is found the only reference in the Bible to the millennium — the thousand years — the language of the inspired writer makes it evident that the happenings of the millennium are part of the history of the spirit realm.

This will be shown in the last chapter of this volume. It follows that all effort to find a place for those happenings in the history of this physical world, whether before or after the Second Advent, is utterly vain.

P. Mauro

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The New Covenant

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