Discourse 23 - Commentary on the "Manual of Hermeneutics".

The education of the Bible reader (book p. 21 f).

The Holy Spirit and piety (book p. 23 ff).

The translations (book p. 33 ff).

The language of symbols (book p. 54).

The symbolic visions (book p. 63).

The bond-servants of God from the twelve tribes of Israel (book p. 66).

The Great Tribulation (book p. 67).

The age of human beings (book p. 68).

The ‘fallen tabernacle of David’ and the congregation (book p. 107).

The re-establishment of Israel (book p. 108).

(Manual of Hermeneutics by Dr. David Ewert)

This discourse is devoted to an analysis of the book “Do you Understand what you are Reading? / A Manual of Hermeneutics” by Dr. David Ewert (New Testament Professor, Congregation of Mennonite Brethren, Canada), obtainable from the Bonn Biblical School at ICWBSB@aol.com

In view of the considerable number of points at issue, it has not been possible to follow the normal practise of quoting the text before commenting on it. Instead the relevant extracts from the text will be quoted separately in the course of each analysis.

The education of the Bible reader (p. 21 f).

In his remarks on the level of education that an individual requires in order to be able to interpret the Scriptures, David Ewert describes what in his opinion is absolutely the first prerequisite for an understanding of the Bible (p. 21):

“We need literary knowledge. Seeing that as Biblical researchers we have to do with literature, if we have no knowledge of literature at all we cannot become clever[1] from the Bible.”

This is a most astonishing conclusion! It would mean that we would first of all have to study world literature, that is, practically have to be literary scholars, to be able to read the Word of God correctly. Can this possibly be true?

But he then tells us (p. 22):

“(...) Someone who knows the ancient languages of the Bible, someone who has studied history, who knows something of antiquity, who is acquainted with the geography of the Mediterranean countries, who knows the Roman government system of the 1st century and is familiar to some degree with rabbinical literature, is of course a great deal better equipped for biblical study (...).”

And with that he gives us the conclusive impression that it is only university professors who can “learn anything” from the Bible. Quite apart from the view, somewhat surprising to a Christian who believes in Scripture, that history and the knowledge of antiquity, geography or the Roman system of government are taken to be essential requirements for the understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the question can also be put whether it is actually, in the first instance, “cleverness” that the Holy Scriptures aim to communicate? Or whether it is not rather faith, faith which is established and strengthened by the Word of God, the Bible?

The second most important factor for the understanding of the Bible, the author tells us, is “help from above”. Here he writes (p. 23):

“So grammatical knowledge is not sufficient for the hearing of God’s message. Jesus reproached the scribes of his own times: ‘You search in the scriptures; for you think that in them you have eternal life; and they are that which testifies of me; and you are not willing to come to me, so that you might have life.’ (Jn 5,39-40).”

Now, one can make many reproaches against the scribes who lived at the time of Jesus, but surely not that the only tool they had for scriptural interpretation was grammatical knowledge. On the contrary, these very scribes were the “university professors” of those days. They were familiar with the literature of the Old Testament as no one else was. They knew the history of their people and the geography of the world they lived in, from Egypt to the Caspian and from Rome to Babylon. The Roman system of government of the first century was a regime they suffered under so long as they lived, and they had probably been taught rabbinical literature while still in primary school.

So it is not to be supposed that the Lord Jesus would have criticized the scribes for an inadequate knowledge of Scripture. The scribes had more extensive knowledge than any one in the entire Jewish population. And not just on religious issues! So what the Lord here complains of is not these people’s inability to understand, but their unwillingness to understand. He tells them: “You are not willing to come to me”, thereby indicating their arrogance and narrow-mindedness, qualities which, in spite of their great knowledge, have darkened their eyes to the correct interpretation of those scriptural passages pointing to the Messiah, so that they were unable to recognize him.

Why did these scribes, who had studied the Scriptures all their life long, nonetheless fail to recognize, grasp and understand the most important event in the whole history of the world contained there? It is to be put down to the fact that for them this very “help from above”, that is, the Holy Spirit, was of secondary importance. They thought that with their learning and their adherence to the commandments of the Law they were able to do all that was required of them, not recognizing that it is the grace and Spirit of God, not the zeal of human beings, which lead to the correct understanding of Scripture.

To enable us to understand the Scriptures correctly, then, we do not need either the study of literature or a knowledge of antiquity or Roman law. Rabbinical literature, likewise, will rather be a hindrance to us in our Christian understanding of the Bible. We need only to stand firm in our faith and ask the Lord to send His Holy Spirit. The Spirit will then lead us and show what it is willing to open to our understanding we and what not. If, alongside this, we have a general education that is part way adequate, that will help us in our task.

The Holy Spirit and piety (p. 23 ff).

As a proof that to understand the Bible we have need of the Holy Spirit – of “help from above”, as the author says – he cites the testimony of the following individuals: Johann Bengel, Hermann Menge, J. B. Phillips, Martin Luther, Adolf Schlatter, Blaise Pascal, Sören Kierkegaard, Augustine, Donald Carson, Hans Denck, not to speak of Zwingli and Calvin; at last and at least, as it seems, he refers also to the apostle Paul. Not that anything could be urged against the mention of all these respected authorities, but this is all nonetheless, with the exception of Paul, “secondary literature”. On the basis of certain statements from the Word of God – for example from the Acts of the Apostles – the question about the Holy Spirit might perhaps have been answered in a much more illuminating and effective manner.

But when we are then told (p. 24)

“that the Holy Spirit is not a substitute for linguistic knowledge or for the knowledge of history and geography”

we will not be surprised, either, by the following statement:

“Personal piety, however, cannot guarantee that we will interpret the text of the Bible correctly.”

Be it clearly understood that we do not wish to promote stupidity here. But any one who knows the Bible is aware that God and our Lord Jesus Christ consistently chose men of simple piety from among the people to preach his Word to the learned unbelievers. This was the case in the Old Covenant, where simple folk like Moses and David led the people, and prophets from Jeremiah right through to John the Baptist gave instruction to the kings of Israel. And so it was also at the time of Jesus, when simple apostles preached to the scribes of their day a different form of learning, that of the wisdom of God.

But when we are then told as well (p. 25) that

“Prayer just is not a theological method“

we must first of all agree. With the codicil, however, that for this very reason theology alone is not a method for the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Particularly when we consider the statements of that modern liberal theology which takes the view that the Bible is a book of fairytales and that its Revelations are nothing but “trip to heaven literature” (J. Nelson Kraybill, president of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, in “Apocalypse Now” / Christianity Today), it becomes plain that these theologians have an eye to headlines in the tabloid press and that prayer is definitely not their method of choice.

The translations (p. 33 ff).

On the question of the translations of the Bible we are told the following, for example:

“In 1The 2,7 it is not absolutely certain whether a letter has been repeated or left out. So in some translations we have: ‘We have been gentle (epioi) with you’, and in others: ‘We have been as children (nepioi) with you’. The difference lies in a single letter.”

If we now look at this “translation problem” in its context, here is what we find:

1The 2,6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.

2,7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 1The 2, 6- 7;

In view of the following phrase “as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children”, it is plain to see that the interpretation of the preceding half-sentence can only be: “We have proved to be gentle (friendly) with you, as a nursing mother...”. It therefore has to be “epioi” and not “nepioi”. Otherwise the sentence would read “We proved to be as children among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children...”, which makes no kind of sense.

As we can see, this may be an interesting play on words, but it is absolutely not a translation problem when the whole context is considered, rather than extracting half-sentences in isolation.

The language of symbols (p. 54).

On the Bible’s language of symbols we have the following comment:

“The direct method of comparison, the metaphor, as much as the indirect one, presupposes that the reader is familiar with the images that the writer uses. Many biblical images have become foreign to 20th century readers. What is Paul, for instance, saying when he urges his readers to love their enemies, with the inducement: ‘By doing so you will heap coals of fire upon his head’ (Rom 12,20) – a quotation from Pro 25,22. Is this not rather a symbol for revenge, which Paul has just been condemning? The context, however, shows us that this is not the case. Some interpreters think it is a symbol of shame. If we give food and drink to our enemy, he will be ashamed that he has done evil to us.

But there are now some commentators as well who claim to know of an Egyptian ritual in which this was a symbol of reconciliation. The evildoer is sorry for what he has done, and comes to meet the innocent party, who has done good to him, with fiery coals in a container which he carries on his head. This seems a more sensible explanation of the symbolic language of this passage.”

It is most interesting to see how this phrase, which in view of the unambiguous nature of its utterance has in the course of centuries entered into the languages of many countries, should now all at once turn out to be incomprehensible and in need of reinterpretation.

The explanation on the basis of an “Egyptian ritual” then does not seem very plausible either. Why should a person carry coals of fire on his head, of all things? It would be much more obvious, after all, to carry the container with the coals in his hands. For even if he carries them in a container, this container, of whatever material it may be, will soon become so hot from the heat of the glowing coals that it cannot possibly be carried on a man’s head. Leaving that aside, this is precisely the kernel of the symbolic statement – that the evildoer, as a result of the “glowing coals” on his head, suffers the torments of conscience and experiences a change of heart. And the author’s question – “Is this not rather a symbol of revenge, which Paul has just been condemning?” – brings with it the danger that the victim may be forced into the role of the perpetrator. In that case the righteous man would be guilty for doing good to the one who has harmed him, thus subjecting him to the pangs of conscience. But this cannot be the case.

Moreover, Paul is of course not instructing us to revenge by means of this similitude: on the contrary, he wants to encourage us – as do many other scriptural passages – not to seek revenge for ourselves, but to leave vengeance to the Lord. We should return evil with good. If the villain is ashamed and apologizes, we have acquired a friend, perhaps even a brother. If, however, he does not, but laughs us to scorn as fools who have let ourselves be taken in, then the heaping of “fiery coals” on his head can then again be seen quite concretely – as a reference, that is, to the Last Judgment.

The symbolic visions (p. 63).

In the author’s discussion of the symbolic visions, he refers to the woman in heaven of Rev 12:

“The symbolism of the images is not always clear, and sometimes a single image can represent more than one truth: John, for instance, sees a woman who bears a son. At all events Israel, who has given us the Messiah, is represented here. The child is caught up into heaven and the dragon then persecutes the woman (Rev 12, 13). Now the woman represents the congregation, which will suffer persecution and yet will be upheld by God.”

If we take a closer look at this passage in Rev 12, we find that this event is mentioned for the first time in Rev 12,5-6:

She gave birth to a son, a male child.

Rev 12,5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 12,6 Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. Rev 12, 5- 6;

A little further on, in Rev 12,13, we discover why the woman had to flee: she was being persecuted by the dragon.

The dragon persecuted the woman.

Rev 12,13 And when the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child. 12,14 But the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. Rev 12,13-14;

And now it is very peculiar that the same woman who in Rev 12,5 has given birth to the male child, and so is correctly identified by the author with Israel, should suddenly – in the next verse, and in Rev 12,13-14 – become the Congregation of Christ. To what do we owe this conclusion? To the fact that she is persecuted? Israel was persecuted long before the congregation was, and as we all know, the persecution of the Jews has continued into our own times. Nor is there any other scriptural proof to support this interpretation. Unless, of course, the view of the Seventh Day Adventists is to be advanced here – who think that basically all prophecies of the New Testament which refer to Israel are to be applied to the congregation. Besides, on the present interpretation the congregation since the death of the Lord would have to have been living hidden away “in the wilderness” – wherever that is – so would not have been able to appear in public in the last two thousand years.

No – we must not make such an easy business of scriptural interpretation. If this woman in Rev 12,5 symbolizes Israel – and she undoubtedly does – then she must do so in the following verse likewise, and in Rev 12,13-14 as well. There is no convincing reason why the congregation should suddenly be brought in here. Just as in Rev 12,5-6, so also in Rev 12,13-14 the people of Israel is intended. In the first case, after the first coming of Christ (the Diaspora in the early Christian centuries), and in the second, before the Second Coming of the Lord (Diaspora in the Last Days).

(See also Excursus 10: “”The woman in heaven.”)

The bond-servants of God from the twelve tribes of Israel (p. 66).

In treating of this theme, the author refers to the symbolism in Revelation:

“Apocalyptic literature, with which the Jews were thoroughly familiar, contains a good deal of numerological symbolism. So we must expect to find this kind of symbolism in the last book of the Bible as well.”

This statement too is surprising to any one who has ever read the Apocalypse with a view to understanding its content. For as we are told in the first verses of Revelation, the last book of the Bible is a Revelation of Jesus Christ.

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him.

Rev 1,1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, 1,2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Rev 1, 1- 2;

So it is a Revelation of Jesus Christ, given to Him by God. Only then does the Lord Jesus communicate it by his angel to John. Thus it is originally a Revelation of God the Almighty.

And now David Ewert tells us, in this quotation from this “Manual of Hermeneutics”, arguing from analogy, that since “a good deal of numerological symbolism” was used by the Jews, we must expect to find that God the Almighty as well, in his Revelation to his Son Jesus Christ, was influenced by the extant apocalyptic literature of the Jews and made use of their numerological symbolism. This is to put God the Almighty on the same level as any Jewish rabbi.

And with this the author then proceeds to discuss the 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel:

“John allots to the People of God a symbolic number: 144,000. This is a concrete representation of the fact that God knows who they are; he knows how many children he has. (...) We should not be surprised at the fact that they come of the twelve tribes of Israel, for the New Testament writers repeatedly use names drawn from the Old Testament to characterize the new People of God. (...) The number 144,000 is designed to tell us that God knows all who are His, and this counted multitude finally, in Rev 7, becomes ‘a great multitude which no one could count’ (7,9). That is to say, in a human perspective the multitude of believers is uncountable, while seen from God’s point of view they are all counted.”

If we now look more closely at this passage, we actually get quite a different impression:

The sealing of the 144,000.

Rev 7,2 And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, 7,3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” 7,4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 7,5 From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 7,6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,  7,7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 7,8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed. Rev 7, 2- 8;

So there are 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, making 144,000 altogether. How is it that some people get the idea here that this number should be taken symbolically, and that it refers to the congregation of all time? Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses have already “reserved” these 144,000 places for the highest among their brethren. If this is meant to be the congregation, the question would have to be asked now, who comes from which tribe of Israel? And more than this: if the number 144,000 is symbolic, why should it not then at once be the number of all human beings of all time? That would give us a scriptural proof of the view of those who support the Universal Atonement theory, which states that in the end all human beings, the believers and the ungodly, even the devil himself, will go to heaven. We can draw the conclusion that if we once let ourselves in for this kind of symbolic game, there is nothing that cannot be read into the text, and we will find ourselves joining the company of sectarians and dreamers.

If we reinterpret such an unambiguous text as that of the sealing of the 144,000, and assert that here Israel is not Israel, the 12 tribes are not the 12 tribes, the 12,000 are not 12,000 and the 144,000 not 144,000 either, how will we be able to defend ourselves against those who come and assert that Jesus is not the Christ (1 Jn 2,22)? Our pointing to what is written would then be completely unavailing, for they would tell us: Of the 144,000 it is also written that they are Israelites, and in your opinion they are not.

The author’s belief, shown in the above passage, in a miraculous multiplication of these 144,000 into the uncountable multitude of Rev 7,9 is likewise completely at odds with the text. The great multitude of Rev 7,9 does not come of the 12 tribes of Israel, but are “of every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues”.

A great multitude from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.

Rev 7,9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 7,10 and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Rev 7, 9-10;

These then are believers from the entire world, who here stand before the throne – not the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel. But this is just the problem with any such arbitrary reinterpretations: once one has made a start in this direction (Israel is not Israel, but the congregation), one just has to continue on the same lines, for good or ill.

A further argument to show that this uncountable multitude cannot be the congregation of all time neither, as the author supposes, can be found in the context of the passage referred to.

These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.

Rev 7,13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” 7,14 I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 7,15 For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. 7,16 They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; 7,17 for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Rev 7,13-17;

They have come out of the Great Tribulation. That means that they have lost their lives in the Great Tribulation, and are now in heaven before the throne of God. And seeing that the great majority of interpreters are agreed that this great tribulation is a future event (Last Days, Mt 24,21.29), these people will only live and die in the future and so can at best be the congregation of the Last Days, but on no account the congregation of all time.

(See also Discourse 06: “The 144,000 who were sealed.”)

We can see that it is not the symbolism of the Scriptures which makes them hard to interpret: it is rather the fact that some commentators quite simply do not read the text through to the end, and then need to have recourse to symbolism in their interpretations.

The Great Tribulation (p. 67).

On the judgments of the seals, the trumpets and the bowls in Revelation, and the great tribulation, the book advances the following opinion:

“The middle part of the book (sc. of Revelation / FH) describes 7 seals, 7 trumpets and 7 plagues. These are divine judgments which fall upon this ungodly world from time to time, for the wrath of God has now already been revealed from heaven (Rom 1,16). They all occur in the same span of time, between the first and the Second Coming of Jesus, and are precursors of God’s Judgment at the end of the age. (...) The congregation’s service as a witness will last just as long as its tribulation, that is from Pentecost right through till the Parousia of Jesus Christ.”

The author here advances the view that the judgments of the seals, the trumpets and the bowls are events which have already been occurring here on earth “from time to time” over the last two thousand years.

It would exceed the space available here if one were to marshal a detailed refutation. Readers are merely advised to read through these texts for themselves in order to prove to themselves that plagues like this, as they are described in the Revelation of John, have never yet appeared on earth (and so can also not be said to occur “from time to time”).

With reference to the Great Tribulation, the argument also permits itself considerable latitude. When the Lord Jesus says in Mt 24,21-22:

There will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world.

Mt 24,21 For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will. 24,22 Unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Mt 24,21-22;

and if we consider that this tribulation, in terms of the view represented in the book we are commenting on, is supposed already to have lasted almost two thousand years (“from Pentecost”) and is to continue until the Second Coming of the Lord, we can wonder how it is that we, for instance, in our present life circumstances should be living in the greatest of tribulations “such as has not occurred from the beginning of the world until now”. And if it were so, why then should the Lord want to shorten this tribulation at the end of thousands of years by the space of just a few days? This argument is strikingly similar to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who assert that the Millennial Kingdom of God started in 1914, and that since 1914 Jesus Christ has been ruling the earth “invisibly” from heaven. If we look at the reality of the world we live in, we can see that we have to do here with a very different kind of “ruler”.

(See also Chapter 03: “The Great Tribulation.”)

The age of human beings (p. 68).

In connection with the symbolic content of the number 40, we find, amongst other things, this discussion of the age of human beings:

“In the Old Testament the number “forty” occurs with such frequency that it has also come to be used with a symbolic meaning. The life of Moses was divided into three periods of 40 years, and to this day Jews wish one another ‘May you live to be 120...’. They do not mean this literally, but 120 (3x40) symbolizes a full life.“

By contrast with this opinion of D. Ewert’s, which has plainly been derived from rabbinical literature, Jews do indeed mean this quite literally, referring here to the Torah (the book “In the beginning” / Genesis) and to what is said by the Almighty God, who at the end of the “first times”, that is, shortly before the Flood, seeing that humanity comes to be ever more corrupt, shortens the allotted lifespan of human beings from a possible 969 years (Methuselah) to a maximum of 120 years.

His days shall be 120 years.

Gen 6,3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” Gen 6, 3;

It is this passage in the Torah which Jews are referring to, and it is the fulfillment of this age limit established by God which they wish one another when they say “May you live to be 120”.

In this connection it is exceedingly interesting that just recently the Jewish historian and theologian Ruth Lapide has found a reason for the great age of human beings before the Flood, namely that age might have been reckoned not in solar years but in lunar orbits. If we convert the number of months into years, human beings then would have enjoyed similar life expectations to what they have today.

At first glance this thesis is admittedly a very attractive one, but on closer examination it has an essential flaw that spoils its prettiness. To stay with the example of the above-mentioned Methuselah, Gen 5,21 tells us that he was begotten by his father Enoch at the age of 65 years. If the years given here were indeed months, then Enoch would have to have begotten a child at the very juvenile age of 5 years and 5 months. Mrs. Lapide – who in other respects is a great authority in her field – would have to provide an explanation for this phenomenon.

(See also Table 01: “Chronological table from Adam to Jacob.”)

The ‘fallen tabernacle of David’ and the congregation (p. 107).

In David Ewert’s discussion of prophecy in the course of his book, Acts 15,17, for example, is quoted:

From the teachings of Jesus, His miracles, His Death and Resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit a new People of God is born, the reign of God, the congregation. At the Council of Jerusalem James declares that God has now rebuilt the fallen tabernacle of David (Amos 9,11, Acts 15,17).”

To form a judgment of these statements we must first of all look at the scriptural text:

So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord.

Acts 15,13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 15,14 Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15,15 With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 15,16 ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 15,17 so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the gentiles who are called by My name,’ 15,18 says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. Acts 15,13-18;

We see here that the apostles at the time of this Council found themselves in a patent quandary. The issue was circumcision. They were all Jews, and circumcised, and some of them were of the opinion that the new converts from among the Gentiles must also submit to circumcision. And now Peter comes and tells them that these converted Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, although they have not yet been circumcised. Paul and Barnabas also reported on the miracles that they had been able to work among the Gentiles. But the apostles did not know what to make of this. Should they now make circumcision obligatory or not? They could not find anything to say, and remained silent.

And then James recalled a foretelling by the prophet Amos, who had said that all nations as well – that is, non-Israelites, Gentiles – who are called by the name of the Lord will seek the Lord. And that broke the ice, and solved the problem. Nothing was said there about circumcision. The nations of the world – including, incidentally, Christian believers who are Jews – do not need to be circumcised in order to attain salvation. That was the decision of this Council of the apostles in Jerusalem.

We see that James here made absolutely no use in his argument of the first part of this quotation from Amos 9,11-12 – that relating to the “fallen tabernacle of David”: he brings it in only for the sake of completeness. What he wanted to point to was the second part of this sentence – that is, Acts 15,17 and Amos 9,12 – where the prophet expressly indicates that the Gentiles (the nations) will also come to believe in the God of Israel. And this was a proof that these Gentiles did not need to be converted to the faith of Moses, with its commandment of circumcision.

What the first verse (Acts 15,16 and Amos 9,11) tells us, however, is a message delivered to us by many other biblical prophecies: namely, that God will also return to the “fallen tabernacle of David” – of Israel, that is (in the Last Days) – and will forgive them, gather them from all the ends of the earth and restore them to their own country.

If we take a closer look at the context of these prophecies – both in the Acts of the Apostles and in Amos – we can discern what lies in the background.

After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David.

Acts 15,16 ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 15,17 so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the gentiles who are called by My name,’ 15,18 says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. Acts 15,16-18;

The verse Acts 15,16 begins with the words “after these things”, from which we may draw the conclusion that this promise is the continuation of certain other events. In the next verse too there is a reference to “the rest of mankind”. Why should they be described as “the rest”? To answer this question, let us look at the original text in the Book of Amos:

That they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations.

Amos 9,11 “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, And wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins And rebuild it as in the days of old; 9,12 That they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,” declares the LORD who does this. Amos 9,11-12;

Here too it is said, “that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations...”. Let us work backwards through the text in hope of coming upon that event from which Edom and the peoples of the nations will have survived as a remnant.

GOD touches the land so that it melts and all of it rises up like the Nile.

Amos 9,5 The Lord GOD of hosts, The One who touches the land so that it melts, And all those who dwell in it mourn, And all of it rises up like the Nile And subsides like the Nile of Egypt; 9,6 The One who builds His upper chambers in the heavens And has founded His vaulted dome over the earth, He who calls for the waters of the sea And pours them out on the face of the earth, The LORD is His name. Amos 9, 5- 6;

(See also Chapter 08: “The reorganization of heaven and earth.”)

I will shake the house of Israel among all nations.

Amos 9,8 “Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are on the sinful kingdom, And I will destroy it from the face of the earth; Nevertheless, I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,” Declares the LORD. 9,9 “For behold, I am commanding, And I will shake the house of Israel among all nations As grain is shaken in a sieve, But not a kernel will fall to the ground. 9,10 All the sinners of My people will die by the sword, Those who say, ‘The calamity will not overtake or confront us.’” Amos 9, 8-10;

And now we can recognize the connection: the Lord will touch the earth so that it shakes, so that it rises and falls like the water of the Nile. And the house of Israel will also be shaken among all nations as grain in a sieve. And after that the Lord says:

In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David.

Amos 9,11 “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, And wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins And rebuild it as in the days of old; 9,12 That they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,” declares the LORD who does this. Amos 9,11-12;

And it is to be understood from the following verses as well that this promises relates to the re-establishment of Israel in the Millennial Kingdom.

This passage, then, does not refer to the “birth of a new People of God” or the “congregation’s reign of God”, but to the rebuilding of Israel, frequently promised in the Old Testament, when the Messiah comes with his Kingdom. After the catastrophes that have gone before, the remaining Jews will be converted to belief in their Messiah who has come again, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the duration of a thousand years be “chief among the nations” (Jer 31,7) on earth.

To reinterpret these prophecies so that they point to the congregation does not just reveal inadequate knowledge of the Scriptures: it also makes a still open question of the author’s objectivity and of his Christian and brotherly love towards the future people of God that comes from Israel.

The re-establishment of Israel (p. 108).

This question, however, is presently answered by the author himself in quite definite terms:

“There is actually nothing said in the New Testament that points to the re-establishment of an earthly Israelite nation, a kingdom upon earth, a temple and so on. In Christ and in his congregation God has fulfilled his plan of salvation, which is often expressed in the Old Testament in terms of nationalist images. In interpreting the prophetic books of the Old Testament one must not leave the New Testament out of account, so as to look for the fulfillment of prophetic utterances in historical events of the present day. Jesus and the apostles are our guiding stars for the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.”

The statement that one must not look for the fulfillment of prophetic utterances in events of the present day is correct, so long as the time specified by the prophecy is not actually the present. So, for instance, in the year 40 AD Jesus’ prophecy referring to the Temple in Jerusalem (Lk 21,5-6) could still be considered to have missed the mark, but with the destruction of the Temple by Titus’ Roman soldiers it had to be seen as a tragic reality.

The author’s somewhat one-sided assertion – “In interpreting the prophetic books of the Old Testament one must not leave the New Testament out of account” – may be of course be countered, objectively enough, by pointing to the fact that in the interpretation of the New Testament, equally, one must not leave the prophetic books of the Old Testament out of account.

But since we are told that the demonstration of proof is to come from the New Testament alone, let us see if we can find there too a confirmation of Amos’ above-mentioned promise of the re-establishment of Israel. And here Rom 11 suggests itself. There the apostle Paul refers to Israel as an “olive tree”, and to the rest of us, the Gentile Christians, as “wild olive branches”.

But if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.

Rom 11,13 But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, 11,14 if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. 11,15 For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 11,16 If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too.

11,17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 11,18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 11,19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 11,20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 11,21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 11,22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. Rom 11,13-22;

The author states, in the passage quoted earlier, that nothing is said of the re-establishment of Israel in the New Testament, and that God has rejected Israel, so to speak, having fulfilled his plans of salvation exclusively through his congregation. Here Paul forcefully contradicts this view. He thinks that the attitude “The branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in” is quite right, but we should not be arrogant on that account. If God has not spared the natural branches – Israel, that is – he will probably not spare us either, if we become conceited.

And Paul then too makes a quite explicit statement regarding the regrafting of Israel:

Do not be wise in your own estimation! All Israel will be saved.

Rom 11,23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 11,24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

11,25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery – so that you will not be wise in your own estimation – that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 11,26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written (Isa 59,20; Jer 31,33), “the Deliverer will come from Zion, he will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” 11,27 “This is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” 11,28 From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 11,29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Rom 11,23-29;

So it would be a serious error to suppose that we, as the congregation, have inherited all that was promised to Israel, and that Israel has been rejected by God. Through the hardening of Israel, and by the grace of God, we have been granted salvation. But we should not be arrogant on that account, for all Israel will yet be converted to its God and experience the fulfillment of all the promises both of the Old and of the New Covenant, as the People of God in the Millennial Kingdom, along with the other Christian believers from the nations who will be living at that time.

(See also Chapter 09: “The return home of the redeemed.”)

But the Israel of today, and of times to come up until the Second Coming of the Lord, is hardened, and is not willing to accept Jesus Christ as its Messiah. We learn this from Paul, in his second Epistle to the Corinthians:

But Israel’s mind is hardened.

2Cor 3,14 But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 3,15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 3,16 but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 3,17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 3,18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. 2Cor 3,14-18;

Here too Paul indicates that “whenever they turn to the Lord” Israel’s eyes will be opened, and that the Israelites then living will be converted as well and so attain salvation. The apostle John likewise points to this connection.

They shall look on Him whom they pierced.

Jn 19,35 And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. 19,36 For these things came to pass to fulfill the Scripture (Ex 12,46), “not a bone of Him shall be broken.” 19,37 And again another Scripture says (Zech 12,10), “they shall look on Him whom they pierced.” Jn 19,35-37;

John is here quoting Zech 12,10, where it is written:

The tabernacle of David will look on Me whom they have pierced.

Zech 12,10 I will pour out on the tabernacle of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. Zech 12,10;

David Ewert’s claim that “There is actually nothing said in the New Testament that points to the re-establishment of an earthly Israelite nation” may be considered to have been clearly refuted by now. And we can see also that it is by no means the case, as dispensationalism teaches, that Israel is saved by the Law, and we by the grace of God. That remnant of Israel that is left at the Second Coming of the Lord will be converted to Him, to its Messiah. For as the author rightly says (p. 100), God has only one basic plan of salvation for humanity – whether of Israel or of the Gentiles – and that is Jesus Christ our Savior.

It can be seen from this commentary that, from page 72 of the book on, there have been only two further comments. That these are somewhat extensive has to do with the demonstration of proof required, and not with the statements as given in the book, which themselves only amount to a few lines in the context of the last seven chapters. This finally quite astonishing agreement with the author’s views in the second half of the book results on the one hand from his highly interesting and convincing descriptions of the historical and cultural background to the scriptural texts; on the other, it also certainly follows from the fact that in the second part of the book – that is, from chapter 7 on – a completely different attitude of mind seems to predominate. This shows itself also immediately in the title of the first section of the second part, where we find: “The Bible must be interpreted literally”. The author must himself be fully conscious of this sudden change of tack, for he remarks here:

“After all that we have been saying about the symbolic language of the Bible, this may perhaps appear to be a contradiction. (...) Literal interpretation of Scripture simply means that one gives the words of the biblical text their normal and usual sense.”

And here I am now completely and unreservedly on David Ewert’s side.

[1]Translator’s note: literal translation from the German.