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Prophecy and Application: Principle (Alva McClain) In Practice (Spurgeon)


From my recent readings — Alva McClain’s The Greatness of the Kingdom and sequential reading through Charles Spurgeon sermons — comes a rather interesting parallel: a stated principle from McClain, followed by a good example of that principle in the same day’s Spurgeon sermon reading.

In McClain’s chapter concerning “The Nature and Interpretation of Prophecy,” (p. 141), comes this great point:

just as in any proper interpretation of Old Testament history Joseph is always Joseph and not Christ, even so in prophecy Israel is always Israel and never the Church. This does not mean that the preacher may never take a prophecy concerning Israel and apply it to the Church.  But he should always know what he is talking about, and make certain that his hearers know, so that there can be no possible confusion between the history and its typical application, or between a prophecy and any so-called “typical interpretation.” (emphasis in original)

Next came Spurgeon sermon #399, “A Peal of Bells.”
I’m not sure that Spurgeon necessarily made application specifically to the Church, but clearly he made application to our everyday lives in this age (and a very good and convicting sermon, too).  But before expanding on his application in his textual style of preaching, Spurgeon first explained the primary meaning and focus of his text, Zechariah 14:20:

There are days yet to come for whose advent we may well be eager!  There is the day when Ephraim shall not envy Judah, nor Judah vex Ephraim—for all the Church of Christ shall be one in spirit. There is the day when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. There is the day, too, when Israel shall be restored to its own land—when its country shall be called no more desolate, but Beulah; and no more forsaken, but Hephzibah shall its name be—for the Lord delights in it. There is specially the day of the Second Advent —that day of days for which I think all other days that went before were made, that day which shall be the summing up, the total of all ages—for the fullness of time shall come—and Christ, in the fullness of His Glory shall reign among the sons of men.

Yes, Spurgeon, as a covenantal premillennialist, described some things in different terms than I would use, such as the statement “for all the Church of Christ shall be one in spirit” at the end of the second sentence.  Still, though, he explained and expressed his understanding that these events are “days yet to come,” as contrasted with the now past events of the First Advent (in the sentences preceding the above quote).  The primary meaning and the application are thus both clearly presented.  Also I consider that if Spurgeon had immediately launched into his application part without first explaining the literal meaning of the passage, such approach would have greatly distracted me from appreciating the application, burdened with the though, “that’s not what the text is about.”

Spurgeon here further revealed his literal approach to the word of God, avoiding the time-compression error so well described by McClain a few pages earlier:

we shall find in Old Testament prophecy no absolutely continuous and unbroken chronology of the future.  The prophets often saw together on the screen of revelation certain events which in their fulfillment would be greatly separated by centuries of time. This characteristic, so strange to Western minds, was in perfect harmony with the Oriental mind which was not greatly concerned with continuous chronology.  And the Bible, humanly speaking, is an Oriental book.

The unyielding determination of numerous commentators to pour the events of Old Testament prophecy into a rigid mould of unbroken time, has led to disastrous results. … it has led directly to a scheme of interpretations which is the main foundation of highly erroneous eschatological systems.
(Concerning Isaiah 9:6-7):  now consider what happens if an unbroken mould of continuous time is clamped on the prophecy. Because the regal Child did not immediately take the literal throne of David to rule the world, it is argued that such a thing will never come to pass. And then, to preserve the assumption of unbroken time-sequence which cannot allow room for any literal fulfillment of the second part of the prophecy at some future time, the throne of David on earth is changed into the throne of God in heaven, and Messiah’s reign is reduced to the “influence of the Gospel or the rule of God in the “hearts of men.” (emphasis in original)

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  1. March 20, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    McClain’s quote should either be taped to pulpits throughout our land, or at least framed on the walls of pastors’ studies or taped to their desks!

    1. While I might add that at least five usages for “Israel” may be found in the Scriptures, none warrant the equation of the term with “Church”. The term is often used for:
    1) an individual so renamed (Gen. 32:28; 35:10);
    2) his physical descendants (the nation of the twelve tribes descended from the individual so named – Gen. 32:32; 34:7; 49:16, 28; Ex. 1:8; Rom. 11:25; etc.);
    3) his elect descendants (the remnant, or “true” Israel of the twelve tribes descended from the individual so named – Ps. 73:1; Rom. 9:6; Gal. 6:16; Rev. 21:12);
    4) the northern 10 tribes of the divided nation (contrasted with Judah allied with Benjamin – 1 Kings 12; Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8; etc.); and,
    5) Christ in corporate solidarity with the nation (Is. 49:3; Hos. 11:1; Mt. 2:15; cp. Ex. 4:22; etc.;).
    Note: It is not uncommon for two or more of these usages to be found in the same context.

    So, as McClain puts it, “Israel is always Israel and never the church”, to which I respond, “Amen!” Yet Israel, even considering it as always referring to the physical descendants of the Fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in Biblical usage may bear connotations that view those descendants in a variety of ways.

    2. Unfortunately, as with the throne of David, error results from simply insisting on an “either/or” proposition, rather than considering that “both/and” is what the true reality encompasses.

    3. Finally, here are some resources on the concept of “corporate solidarity” that may help in handling the Scriptures not only where the term “Israel” is involved.

    Abner Chou, “Corporate Solidarity: A Heuristic Grid For New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” Paper delivered at the Far West Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, May, 2, 2003, at Sun Valley, CA. Available from TREN: ETS-1613 [11937].

    Douglas A. Oss, “The Interpretation Of The “Stone” Passages By Peter And Paul: A Comparative Study”, JETS 32/2 (June 1989), pp. 181-200.

    Arthur H. Lewis, “Resurgent Semitisms In The Testament Theology”, JETS 17:1 (Winter 1974), pp. 3-10.

    John Murray “The Imputation Of Adam’s Sin”, WTJ 18:2 (May 1956), pp.146-162, and WTJ 19:1 (Nov. 1956), pp. 25-44.

    Kenneth D. Litwak, “The Use Of Quotations From Isaiah 52:13-53:12 In The New Testament”, JETS 26:4 (December 1983), pp. 385-394.

    Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

    E. Earle Ellis, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), pp. 58-60, 72-73, 95, 132-133, 136, and 139.

    S. Aaron Son, Corporate Elements in Pauline Anthropology (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2001). [Cited in “Perspectives On Biblical Interpretation: A Review Article”, by E. Earle Ellis, note 134.]

    Note: The following works by Robinson may shed light on his development in the understanding of this concept.
    Henry Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945), The Christian Doctrine of Man (1934).
    Henry Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945), The Old Testament: Its Making and Meaning (1937).
    Henry Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945), The History of Israel: Its Fact and Factors (1938).
    Henry Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945), The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament (1956).

    See also:
    J. Pedersen, Israel
    R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel
    M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London: SPCK, 1959)

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

    20 MAR 2013

    • March 21, 2013 at 8:22 am

      Thanks, Jack, great resources and good points. Yes, I’ve found that point 2 is a common error of the anti-millennials, that things in God’s word can only be either/or, not Both/And. And some of them take it to ridiculous extremes, so as to reason (as in one fairly recent example) that a literal interpretation of the text about everyone sitting under a fig tree somehow cancels out all the biblical texts that have to do with our bearing spiritual fruit.

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