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Horatius Bonar on Interpreting the Prophets

April 15, 2010

Another great excerpt from Horatius Bonar, concerning those who would obscure the prophetic texts rather than simply understand them in the normal, plain language sense:

A great deal of obscurity has been ascribed to the prophets which does not really belong to them, and much that is both unmeaning and untrue has been spoken about the “necessary obscurity of figurative language.” . . .

What liberties do some interpreters take with the prophetic word! They find in every page almost what they call figurative language, and, under this idea, they explain away whole chapters without scruple or remorse. They complain much of the obscurity of the prophetic language. It is an obscurity, however, of their own creating. If they will force figures upon the prophets when they are manifestly speaking with all plainness and literality, no wonder that darkness and mystery seem to brood over the prophetic page. . . . Proceeding, then, upon this principle, that we must take all as literal till we are forced from it by something inconsistent or absurd, we shall find a far smoother and straighter way through the fields of prophecy than most men will believe. If we take the waters as we find them, we shall enjoy them clear and fresh; but if we will always be searching for some fancied figure at the bottom, or casting in one when we do not readily discover it, we need not be astonished nor complain that the stream is turbid and impure.

Isaiah 9:6 Lion and LambHow plain, for instance, is that description in Isaiah 11:6-9, of the blessed condition of the renovated earth, and the share which even the lower creation is to have in this glad event! How can any one reading it not call to mind the peace of Eden, with all its rejoicing creatures, brought back to the harmony and happiness of their primeval being, or fail to contrast with that condition, thus foretold, the miserable state in which the apostle paints them, when he tells us that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now?” [Rom. 8:22]. Who, in reading this plain prophecy, can fail to realize the time when Eden and its scenes shall revisit the earth; and when, as once, beneath its overshadowing verdure, the newborn crea-tures took their pastime, and tasted their sinless enjoyment; so again, beneath the shadow of that “Branch which is to grow out of the root of Jesse,” “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them?” [Isa. 11:1, 6]. Yet even this plain passage has been subjected to an allegorizing process, in order to compel it to yield another meaning. It is said to signify the harmony which will one day subsist between men of the most turbulent passions and discordant dispositions! When we ask, with astonishment, if words so definite and simple can have such a meaning, we are told that it is a far more noble and sublime idea that men of evil passions should be softened, than that the beasts of the field should become harmonious in their natures! It may be so. It may be a sublime meaning, but it will be difficult to prove it to be the meaning of the passage. Attempts of this kind to bring out a “spiritual and sublime meaning” from language so plainly literal, destroy the simplicity of Scripture. Instead of elevating, they degrade it, and, moreover, cast over it an air of puerility and feebleness which are ill redeemed by the fancied “sublimity” of the idea extorted from its imaginary figures.
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We freely consent that prophecy should be spiritualized, that is, should be made to give forth a spiritual utterance; and not prophecy only, but the whole Bible. Only we would first interpret it. Now here is the point at which so many stumble. They confound spiritualizing with interpreting Scripture. They think that when they have contrived to wedge in a spiritual observation (often by main force) between every verse or clause, they have succeeded in explaining it. It will generally be found that those who so spiritualize Scripture do little else than graft their own ideas upon it, instead of gathering the meaning of the Spirit from it; they force a sense into it, instead of drawing one out of it. Every verse, from Genesis to Revelation, may be spiritualized, and yet not one be interpreted.

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  1. April 29, 2013 at 1:59 am
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