Saturday, October 31, 2015

Cage Match: Zechariah 14 vs Matthew Henry

Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Bible has gained a reputation as the “best and most widely used work of its kind”. I have its three bulky volumes on my own bookshelf and have found it surprisingly useful at times given its age and the limited number of translations and study tools available when it was written in the early decades of the 18th century. Philip Doddridge said, “Henry is, perhaps, the only commentator … that deserves to be entirely and attentively read through”. Evangelist George Whitfield is said to have read Henry’s commentary daily with his devotions.

So this is not me having another “Rachel Held Evans” moment. Critiquing the opinions of a social justice wannabe looking to amp up pageviews, book sales and personal appearance invitations is not in the same league as tackling a respected and serious writer whose work has been influential for almost three centuries.

That said, there here is no better way to highlight the absurdities inherent in some methods of interpretation — even well accepted and venerable methods — than to simply lay a commentary side-by-side with the word of God.

The Literal Method

I believe in interpreting scripture literally. Not slavishly, absurdly literally, of course. Not failing to recognize poetry, parables, prophecy and other literary issues. Not ignoring hyperbole, rhetoric, metaphors and other figures of speech. Not skimming over cultural and historical references as irrelevant. Definitely never ignoring context.

Where Matthew Henry interprets literally, he says much that is useful. Where he wanders off into allegory … well, you may see for yourself how well that works in interpreting this particular Old Testament prophecy.

Zechariah 14:1-7

Zechariah says:

“Behold, a day is coming for the Lord, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. And you shall flee to the valley of my mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach to Azal. And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.

On that day there shall be no light, cold, or frost. And there shall be a unique day, which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but at evening time there shall be light.”

Matthew Henry says:
“The Lord Jesus often stood upon the Mount of Olives when on earth. He ascended from thence to heaven, and then desolations and distresses came upon the Jewish nation. Such is the view taken of this figuratively; but many consider it as a notice of events yet unfulfilled, and that it relates to troubles of which we cannot now form a full idea. Every believer, being related to God as his God, may triumph in the expectation of Christ’s coming in power, and speak of it with pleasure. During a long season, the state of the church would be deformed by sin; there would be a mixture of truth and error, of happiness and misery. Such is the experience of God’s people, a mingled state of grace and corruption. But, when the season is at the worst, and most unpromising, the Lord will turn darkness into light; deliverance comes when God’s people have done looking for it.”
The most obvious deficiency here is that Henry seeks to import the “state of the church” into a passage that is evidently and very specifically Jewish in nature and involves real people and places in Israel (Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, Azal, King Uzziah). Further, he attempts to spiritualize what appear to be vivid descriptions of real-world atrocities (“battle”, “city taken”, “women raped”, “houses plundered”) and seismic events (a specific, existing geographic location “split in two” and its halves moving in different directions to create a valley; or an absence of light, cold or frost) rather than concede they are meant in the obvious sense.

When we take the passage in its literal sense the meaning is perfectly clear, though certainly apocalyptic and unprecedented. When we don’t, we get what Henry gets: things like a “mingled state of grace and corruption”, a statement that is entirely disconnected from and irrelevant to the passage it attempts to exposit.

Zechariah 14:8-15

Zechariah says:

“On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter.

And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.

The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s winepresses. And it shall be inhabited, for there shall never again be a decree of utter destruction. Jerusalem shall dwell in security.

And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. And on that day a great panic from the Lord shall fall on them, so that each will seize the hand of another, and the hand of the one will be raised against the hand of the other. Even Judah will fight at Jerusalem. And the wealth of all the surrounding nations shall be collected, gold, silver, and garments in great abundance. And a plague like this plague shall fall on the horses, the mules, the camels, the donkeys, and whatever beasts may be in those camps.”

Henry says:
“Some consider that the progress of the gospel, beginning from Jerusalem, is referred to by the living waters flowing from that city. Neither shall the gospel and means of grace, nor the graces of the Spirit wrought in the hearts of believers by those means, ever fail, by reason either of the heat of persecution, or storms of temptation, or the blasts of any other affliction. Tremendous judgments appear to be foretold, to be sent upon those who should oppose the settlement of the Jews in their own land. How far they are to be understood literally, events alone can determine. The furious rage and malice which stir up men against each other, are faint shadows of the enmity which reigns among those who have perished in their sins. Even the inferior creatures often suffer for the sin of man, and in his plagues. Thus God will show his displeasure against sin.”
Here “living waters” become “the gospel and means of grace … the graces of the Spirit wrought in the hearts of believers by those means” that Henry says will never fail. And yet in Henry’s interpretation, the waters DO fail in the very next verse, for he declares “Tremendous judgments appear to be foretold”. Evidently grace and the gospel are not enough for a large number of hearts. In fact, the judgments are so specific and vivid (rotting flesh, tongues and eyeballs) that Henry suddenly switches to a literal reading (subject to “events” yet to occur), and begins talking about the “settlement of Jews in their own land” and those who oppose it.

Zechariah 14:16-21

Zechariah says:

“Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, Holy to the Lord.’ And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar. And every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them. And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.”

Henry says:
“As it is impossible for all nations literally to come to Jerusalem once a year, to keep a feast, it is evident that a figurative meaning must here be applied. Gospel worship is represented by the keeping of the feast of tabernacles. Every day of a Christian’s life is a day of the feast of tabernacles; every Lord’s day especially is the great day of the feast; therefore every day let us worship the Lord of hosts, and keep every Lord’s day with peculiar solemnity. It is just for God to withhold the blessings of grace from those who do not attend the means of grace. It is a sin that is its own punishment; those who forsake the duty, forfeit the privilege of communion with God. A time of complete peace and purity of the church will arrive. Men will carry on their common affairs, and their sacred services, upon the same holy principles of faith, love and obedience. Real holiness shall be more diffused, because there shall be a more plentiful pouring forth of the Spirit of holiness than ever before. There shall be holiness even in common things. Every action and every enjoyment of the believer, should be so regulated according to the will of God, that it may be directed to his glory. Our whole lives should be as one constant sacrifice, or act of devotion; no selfish motive should prevail in any of our actions. But how far is the Christian church from this state of purity! Other times, however, are at hand, and the Lord will reform and enlarge his church, as he has promised. Yet in heaven alone will perfect holiness and happiness be found.”
So according to Henry, the correct interpretation of an absence of rain followed by a plague on specifically-named nations of the world is this: that Christians who can’t be bothered to go to church regularly will miss out on a blessing.

If such interpretations satisfy the modern Christian mind, so be it. They do not satisfy me, nor do they satisfy many other students of the word of God, no matter how godly the individuals who advance them.

After a short and comparatively coherent flirtation with literalism, Henry plunges right back into spiritualizing with nothing more to compel him there than the unwarranted assumption that “it is impossible for all nations literally to come to Jerusalem once a year, to keep a feast”. But note that what Zechariah actually says is not “all nations” but “everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem”. This will assuredly be a much smaller group and much easier to fulfill literally.

But on the basis of this dubious reasoning, literalism is again abandoned. Instead, we get “Every day of a Christian’s life is a day of the feast of tabernacles; every Lord’s day especially is the great day of the feast; therefore every day let us worship the Lord of hosts, and keep every Lord’s day with peculiar solemnity.”

Now while it is excellent advice to “worship the Lord of hosts”, the daily experience of the Christian’s life has nothing whatsoever to do with this passage. Thus “rain” becomes “grace”, “nations” become “Christians”, the “Feast of Tabernacles” becomes “Christian worship” on the basis of no evidence more profound than Henrys simple declaration of disbelief: “It is impossible”.

The Bottom Line: Unbelief

In such an interpretive schema, the text has become all but meaningless. Whatever is not ignored or summarily explained away is merely recycled New Testament truth yanked out of its proper context. Or the plain words of the text are disbelieved outright simply because they seem implausible in the limited experience of the commentator.

That’s what it boils down to, folks. Unbelief. “Can’t see how this could be, so it must mean something else.” And so we start to fantasize rather than exercise faith.

The Jews in the days of the Lord Jesus were confronted with exactly the same dilemma: take literally the promises of Messiah’s first advent or spiritualize them into something so meaningless and content-free that when Messiah arrived, he had become unrecognizable to those who claimed to study the scriptures most diligently.

But as David L. Cooper wrote:
“When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”
Sound advice in every age.

1 comment :

  1. Just a thought about today’s post:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about Matthew Henry’s approach.

    In regard to 14:16-19, I have often thought of it this way: When we speak of Washington being at the table, or some such statement, we don’t necessarily mean that every person from Washington, or from the U.S.A., but rather “their representatives”. In a similar way, The Lord did not necessarily mean that every inhabitant (or those remaining) of Gog or Magog would be coming to Jerusalem to keep the Feast; but their representatives. I think this would agree with other passages in the Scripture where a representative (possibly a king or prince) would be spoken of in a similar way.