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Monday, January 26, 2015

Amillennialism and Isaiah 60: Five Problems

King David, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1768
I’ve been enjoying reading amillennialist Dean Davis at Come Let Us Reason. 

Really. When I say “enjoy”, I’m not being snarky. It’s actually of considerable interest to me to see someone set out specific details of an allegorical reading of Isaiah 60, among many other passages Dean exposits as consistently as seems possible within the restrictions of the amillennial schema.

This is something few in his position do effectively.

Mr. Davis makes an effort to work through the chapter on a verse by verse basis, rather than doing the traditional hand wave and dismissal of any further clarification with the words, “But it’s spiritual”. It’s nice to see any fellow believer take his preferred method of understanding the word of God seriously enough to examine the scriptures extensively and in minute detail. Many hours went into this, and I respect that.

I’ve been enjoying Isaiah myself, and one of the questions that occurs to me over and over as I read through the book is “I wonder how the amillennialist deals with THAT?” In chapter 60, “that” means most of the 22 verses. Since Dean Davis has been kind enough to exposit most of the book on his blog, I was kind of excited to see what he would say about it.

Five Problems for the Premillennialist … That Are Not Problems

Mr. Davis prefaces his verse-by-verse explanation of Isaiah 60 with five problems he sees for the premillennial reader. Without being unduly critical of Mr. Davis, let’s see if there isn’t a reasonable response from the premillennialist to these problems.
Problem 1:

“First, it requires a resurrection of such extinct nations or regions as Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth, and Tarshish (vv. 6-9). Similarly, it also requires an implausible return to ancient modes of transportation, such as ships and camels (vv. 6, 9).”
The first statement (the “resurrection” of extinct “nations or regions”) blends two different problems. Regions do not become extinct, though their inhabitants may change over the centuries, but an extinct nation would definitely be problematic — if we could be sure this were actually the case. But can we be sure of that? Unless a nation is deliberately and utterly exterminated, it has descendants somewhere, many or most of them very likely in the same region. The names Midian, Kedar, etc., may no longer be in use, but that doesn’t mean much: If Isaiah’s prophecy were destined to be fulfilled several millennia after being given, how exactly should the Prophet have referred to the people inhabiting these regions? He needed, after all, to communicate intelligibly with those of his own generation who were his initial and primary audience.

Furthermore, the number and specific nature of the details given (gold, camels, place names) argues in favour of literalism. If a figurative interpretation were in view, simply saying “the nations” would suffice nicely, as it does elsewhere. That, or we might reasonably expect there to be some plausible spiritual analogue for most of the details, as there are with the specifics of the tabernacle design and much of the ceremonial Law. But, just as in certain chapters of Ezekiel, the abundance of detail suggests that a particular group of individuals are in view, not a generic mass of heathen.

The second statement relates to the implausible return to ancient modes of transportation. Here Mr. Davis’ problem is primarily one of imagination. A virgin conceiving and bearing a son also leans toward the implausible, but I’m confident Mr. Davis believes that happened literally. I’m not sure it’s that crazy a notion to imagine a return to riding camels in a desert region. Many people still ride camels today, so the idea of returning to more primitive forms of transport is not inconceivable. With computerized tech rapidly replacing mechanical systems in nearly every form of transportation, it is not hard to envision an end-times scenario in which government-sanctioned computer hacking or some form of global disruption has rendered all modern vehicles in a war zone useless lumps of iron and plastic.
Problem 2:

“Secondly, it repeatedly represents Jerusalem as the eternal habitation of God and his people: Its gates will be open continually (v. 11), it will be an everlasting pride (v. 15), it will have the LORD as an everlasting light (20), and its citizens will possess the land forever (21).”
For the premillennialist, this is actually not a problem at all.

There is frequently a blending in Bible prophecy of the near and far-flung futures. This is most evident in the Lord’s own reading of the book of Isaiah in a Nazareth synagogue. He read as far as the words “He has sent me to proclaim … the year of the Lord’s favor” and then stopped mid-sentence and sat down. What did he omit from his reading of Isaiah? The words “… and the day of vengeance of our God”.

Why would he do this? Well, the “year of the Lord’s favour” was being fulfilled at that very moment in history, so the Lord rightly drew attention to it. The “day of vengeance”, however, is still to come almost 2,000 years later. That’s at least a two millennia gap in the middle of a prophetic sentence, but neither the premillennialist nor the amillennialist has any doubt these words of Isaiah will be fulfilled literally one day.

The premillennialist believes in the millennial reign of Christ. He also believes in an eternal state to follow in which a New Jerusalem comes “down out of heaven from God” to the “new earth” where righteousness dwells.

There is no difficulty for the premillennialist in seeing in Isaiah 60 the potential merging of concepts and images related to the millennium and the eternal state. When the events themselves occur, the distinctions of each time period will become just as evident as those in chapter 61 appear to us in hindsight.
Problem 3:

“Thirdly, it conflicts with NT teaching on the eternal obsolescence of the ceremonial Law, declaring that the rams of Nebaioth will go up with acceptance (as bloody sacrifices) on God’s altar (v. 7).”
Again, this does not pose any sort of problem for the premillennialist. The phrase “eternal obsolescence of the ceremonial Law”, per Google, seems to have originated with Mr. Davis. It does not come from scripture, and I note that he does not supply a single verse of evidence that the ceremonial law is “eternally obsolete”.

Rather, what we read in the New Testament is that the Law of Moses is both fulfilled in Christ and inapplicable to the believer in the Church Age. In fact, the Lord himself specifically stated he did not come to abolish the Law, but rather to fulfill it. In any case, if the millennial reign of Christ is not the Church Age, the rules of the current dispensation do not necessarily apply to it. And this is what the premillennialist believes.

Space does not permit a full discussion here, but the subject of millennial sacrifices is addressed at length elsewhere on this blog and is entirely consistent with the teaching of the New Testament as to the current status of the Law of Moses with relation to the Christian.
Problem 4:

“Fourthly, it is filled with passages that loudly proclaim its symbolic character, passages that are meant to nudge us towards a typological, rather than a literal, interpretation of the whole prophecy (vv. 2, 3, 17, 18, 18).”
Statements about what “passages are meant to nudge us toward” are necessarily subjective, since we do not know what Isaiah intended, we only know what he said. Further, Isaiah may well not have known what the Holy Spirit intended when he spoke through the prophet.

As far as the specific verses Mr. Davis calls “symbolic” rather than literal, verses 2 and 3 may well be as literal as the pillars of cloud and fire over Israel as they travelled through the desert. Verses 17 and 18 would be read as symbolism by both premillennialists and amillennialists alike, but nothing about them makes these chapters of Isaiah entirely symbolic any more than “Go to the ant, you sluggard” makes all of Proverbs literal.

Further, bear in mind that the text of Isaiah is continuous. There are no chapter divisions in the original manuscripts. In the first few verses of chapter 61, we run into the aforementioned phrases, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” and “the day of vengeance of our God”, which both schools of interpretation agree are literal, not figurative. These verses also contain the phrases “to bring good news to the poor”, “to bind up the brokenhearted” and “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound”. One of these was fulfilled quite literally in the Lord’s first coming and two were fulfilled in a spiritual sense.

Most impartial observers would have to conclude that Isaiah uses a combination of literal and figurative language here. I cannot see that he is nudging us anywhere in particular, let alone “loudly proclaiming” the symbolic character of his prophecy.

The interpretation of these events requires more than the prophecy itself from which to draw conclusions.
Problem 5:

“And finally, its closing verses clearly envision the City of God as being situated, not in a millennial world, but in the New Heavens and the New Earth (vv. 19-22, 2 Peter 3).”
This is the same “problem” as Problem 2, and its answer is identical.

Here Endeth the Lesson

In short, Isaiah 60 is an absolute minefield for the amillennialist. Mr. Davis’ attempt to read the chapter figuratively as relating exclusively to the Church is unusual in its thoroughness (though it is far from comprehensive), but ultimately fanciful in its application. It tells us nothing we don’t already know about the Church, while gratuitously disinheriting national Israel.

How can Mr. Davis explain verses like “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you”? He does a passable job with the first part, but declines to speculate about the identity of the foreign kings who “minister to” the Church.

Likewise the phrase “for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you”. Really? When did God in his wrath “strike” the Church? Mr. Davis has no answer.

Or this one: “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste”. Wait, what? Really? Which nations has the Lord “utterly laid waste” for their failure to “serve” the Church? How would nations serve the Church in the first place, and to what end? I can think of a few aggressive nations that tempt fate in the geopolitical landscape, but none that have yet been “laid waste”.

The whole chapter is like this. As much as amillennialists are my brothers in Christ, and certainly convinced about what they are teaching, I find their understanding of these chapters of Isaiah simply insufficient.

The “problems” in these chapters are theirs, not ours. If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure Dean Davis will greatly enjoy the millennial reign of Christ, especially when it turns out to be a literal event rather than something he’s been experiencing his entire life.

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