Horatius Bonar, the Blessings and Curses, and Hermeneutics and Application

May 7, 2020

It’s been ten years since I read Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks, and it’s time to revisit it, a good refresher, now that my overall doctrinal views in other areas – from the last several years of study – more closely align with the 19th century covenantal premillennialists.  (For reference, here are posts from 2010 on Horatius Bonar:  On Interpreting the Prophets  and On the Millennial Question.)

While reading through the Westminster Confession and catechisms (a calendar year reading), along with the scripture references, I noticed WLC question 28

Q 28. What are the punishments of sin in this world?

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward,
as blindness of mind,
a reprobate sense,
strong delusions,
hardness of heart,
horror of conscience,
and vile affections;
or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes,
and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments;
together with death itself.

The highlighted phrase in the answer, includes as scripture reference, a large section from Deuteronomy 28, verses 15-68 — which describes the prophecy regarding the nation of Israel in its apostasy.

Now, as I understand, the Westminster Divines added the ‘scripture proofs’ only upon request from the Parliament, and their intent was for people to focus not so much on the actual scripture proofs, but as a guide to their commentaries on the scripture references.  That would be the next step in a study here, to find and read their commentaries on this passage.  I understand the general application purpose—from apostate Israel and the temporal evils that befell them, to the general precept of what can happen, temporally, to unbelievers.  That unbelievers, along with the godly, suffer affliction in this life is clear from many places; Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot (which I’m currently reading), an exposition of Ecclesiastes 1:15, explains well the type of suffering experienced by everyone, and the purpose of that suffering in unbelievers, as contrasted with its purpose in the lives of God’s people.

Deuteronomy 28, though, includes very specific prophecies, regarding what would happen to the Jews in the centuries and millennia after Moses’s speech – specific things that were later experienced, including drought, defeated before enemies, property being given to the nation’s enemies, cannibalism, followed by being scattered throughout the world and even to the point that they would offer themselves as slaves to their enemies, but “there will be no buyer.”  If Deuteronomy 28 could be used as an application and a scripture reference for the temporal suffering experienced by unbelievers generally, then Deuteronomy 7:12-14 and 28:3-14 should equally apply in a general application sense to believers.   As both sets of passages apply to the same people group (in this case Israel, the Jewish church), I see that a general application could be made:  the one part, curses, applies to the unbelieving part of Israel (the visible members of the covenant community, who do not have the true inward saving faith), while the other part, the blessings, to the invisible church, those who actually are saved.  Yet the specifics of these passages, the primary meaning, has reference to the specific nation of Israel and its history, with specific, detailed curse events as well as detailed blessing events.

Horatius Bonar was writing in response to 19th century spiritualizing amillennialists, and provided a great lesson on plain-language literal hermeneutics and the treatment of prophecy in scripture, such as this chapter on Israel.  Regarding the idea of literal curses upon Israel (which were fulfilled, the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy 28) versus “spiritual” blessings in Christ, Bonar observed:

Up to this hour, then, everything respecting Israel has been literally accomplished. Nothing in what has hitherto occurred in their strange history gives the slightest countenance to the figurative interpretations for which some so strenuously contend. Why is Israel still an exile, an outcast, a wanderer, if there be no literal curse? Why is Jerusalem laid in heaps, and Mount Zion ploughed as a field (Jer. 26:18)? Why is the crown of Samaria broken, its ruins rolled down into the valley, and its vines all withered from the mountain side (Jer. 31:5; Mic. 1:6)? Why is Lebanon hewn down, the oaks of Bashan withered, the roses of Sharon gone? Why do the fields of Heshbon languish? Why is the vine of Sibmah uprooted, the summer fruits of Elealeh faded, and why is Carmel bare? Why is baldness come upon Gaza, and why is Ashkelon cut off? Why is Ammon a couching-place for flocks, and the palaces of Bozrah swept away? Why is Moab fled, Idumea become a wilderness, and Mount Seir laid desolate? Why is all this, if there be no literal curse? And why, if there has been such a literal curse, is the literal blessing to be denied?

It is foolish to answer, as many do, “The spiritual blessing is far richer; why contend about blessings of meaner value?” Why? Because we believe that God has revealed them; because we believe that as God has been dishonored by Israel’s being an outcast from the land of promise, so He will be honored by their peaceful settlement again; because as we know He was glorified in leading up Israel, His firstborn, out of Egypt, from the tyranny of Pharaoh, through the wilderness into Canaan, so we believe He designs to glorify Himself by a second exodus, and a second establishment in the land given to Abraham and his seed; because as He magnified His name and power in the sight of the heathen by bringing His people out from Babylon after seventy years’ captivity, so we believe He will magnify that name again by leading them out of Babylon the Great, and planting them in their ancient possessions to inherit them forever; never to be disturbed by the enemy; never to hear the voice of war again.

Among the general principles that Bonar sets forth for the literal interpretation of prophecies regarding Israel, is this one:

When their scattering and their gathering are placed together, and when we are told, that as they have been scattered, so they shall be gathered. Very striking and explicit are the prophecies to this effect in Deuteronomy, where the plainness of the style precludes the idea of figures. How, for instance, could the most ingenious spiritualizer contrive to explain away such a passage as this,—“If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will he fetch thee; and the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers” (Deut. 30:4)

Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks is still good reading, with Bonar’s rich prose style and use of scripture, and its explanation of solid hermeneutical principles.

  1. alf cengia
    May 7, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Good article, Lynda. I think it was you who first alerted me to Barry Horner’s “Future Israel” a few years ago. I still have it sitting on the pile of books on my messy desk.

    • May 7, 2020 at 11:35 am

      Thanks Alf. Yes, I first learned about Barry Horner and Future Israel around that time, I think back in 2009, after listening to and reading John MacArthur’s then-current “Why Every Calvinist is a Premillennialist” series. (MacArthur added his own dispensational focus to his messages, but the teaching of Israel’s future restoration is not unique to Dispensationalism, as Horner pointed out.) Future Israel is a great resource, highlighting the Reformed writers’ views about future Israel.

  2. jeff rauf
    May 7, 2020 at 10:33 am

    I’ve been reading your offerings since 2014. I just want to finally thank you for introducing me to the Bonars and Ryle. I’ve enjoyed so many of their tracts and writings, and in comparison of whats being pumped out by our present day evangelicals, they have kept my mine focused on the truth and the old paths.

    • May 7, 2020 at 11:32 am

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff. Yes, the Bonars and Ryle are timeless quality, and underappreciated/less well known in our day.

  3. alf cengia
    May 7, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Quote: :”MacArthur added his own dispensational focus to his messages, but the teaching of Israel’s future restoration is not unique to Dispensationalism, as Horner pointed out.”

    Agree with Horner. But oh the irony that J Mac is seen by some to be a leaky dispensationalist!

    • May 7, 2020 at 12:53 pm

      Yes, and a lot of people don’t know what that means, or what J Mac means by it. J Mac actually, as far as I can tell, is in the Revised Dispensational category, though with 5 point Calvinism added to that; or maybe he’s somewhere between Revised and Progressive dispensationalism.

      • alf cengia
        May 7, 2020 at 3:27 pm

        I won’t go into specifics but it’s fleshed out in the “Biblical Doctrine” ST J Mac and Mayhue edited. He prefers the term “Futuristic Premillennialism” (page 856).

      • May 7, 2020 at 4:09 pm

        Okay, and now yes, I recall that term, FP… it does describe the futurist premillennial view without describing views on other doctrines, or even saying anything about one’s views on dispensationalism or non-dispensationalism.

  4. May 8, 2020 at 5:47 am

    Interesting article!

  5. Gerry
    May 8, 2020 at 9:39 am

    Thank you Lynda for another informative and interesting presentation of truth.

    I only read a little of Bonar years ago when I was led to the covenantal premill position.

    McCheyne and Ryle were and still are some of my favorites, and reading the sections from Bonar you link to are a treat of Truth.

    I was thinking about how pleasant it is to read words of Truth such as he writes about in those excerpts on interpretation of prophecy.

    It seems to me that since Jesus tells us “I Am: The Way, The Truth, and The Life”, that when we read such words of Truth, “see Jesus”, if only briefly, and “darkly”, still, we do see Him, Whom to view, if only partially, is always a most precious sight for sore eyes.

    He is, after all, Truth personified, Truth walked out, fleshed out, born out, Revealed, manifest in the flesh.

    Truth is always precious to those that are indwelt by “The Spirit of Truth”, Who illuminates, gives understanding, and draws us to The Savior, Who, as the Lord taught: “Will glorify Me, for He will take of what is mine and declare it unto you” (John 16:14, NKJV)

    That is why I think it is pleasant to the soul to read such things as you shared with us from Bonars writings.

    I think also of Proverbs 2:10: “When wisdom enters your heart, and knowledge is pleasant to your soul.”

    We are told in Proverbs 8 that Christ is Wisdom personified, so applying Proverbs 2:10, this experience is Christ “entering your heart”, which of course must be a most pleasant thing indeed.

    It must one of the many forms of communion with Him that true believers cherish.

    Thank you for being the instrument of such communion!

    In Him

    • May 12, 2020 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Gerry, and the encouraging thoughts from Proverbs. Yes, the Bonars, and McCheyne and J.C. Ryle had a special quality in their writing, that still has effect with us believers in our day. I look forward to the day when the church is together, in heaven, and we meet the many saints, including these men, who have gone before us.

      • Gerry
        May 13, 2020 at 7:30 am

        Me too Lynda. I have often thought that other than “seeing Him as He is”, one of the many great pleasures of heaven will be meeting and thanking my elder brothers and sisters for their help along the way to the “celestial city”.


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