Is everything that we do not - yet - understand
Some criteria for the interpretation of prophetic
As it is the case with all the acts of men, it is also the case with the
interpretation of the texts of the prophets: We can learn from the mistakes of those, who dared to
try their hands at this difficult venture before us. And this is not meant depreciatively at all!
Also after our generation there will be others, younger interpreters who will - I hope so - learn
from our mistakes. If this is the case, also these mistakes will finally have had a good purpose.
In the exercise of this occupation it is - maybe in contrast to some other activities - basically wrong to seek the view and opinion of other "reliable" exegetes beforehand and to adopt them more or less unchecked. We have to and are allowed to count on the help and support of the Holy Spirit with every interpretation of the Bible - provided that it is done in the faith and in the trust in God and the correctness of the Scriptures.
Well, the situation is that everybody receives the Holy Spirit in a different way. This is again not meant as an evaluation. Although, of course, among our religious fathers there were certainly some who had the privilege to dispose of this Holy Spirit to quite a particular extent. But normally, everyone who is willing and open to it, receives a special insight into the relations of the prophetic Scriptures which is completely tuned to him and his personal abilities.
From that you can already see that interpretation can never be the duty and the merit of an individual. We probably need hundreds and hundreds of interpreters in order to be able to understand the mysteries of the prophetic Scriptures even only to a slight extent in such a way that we are able to realize its meaning with a certain degree of certainty.
Well, we today have undoubtedly the advantage that hundreds and even thousands of interpreters before us have already done this work and that we therefore are in the position to base our interpretation on a great deal of already existing "substance". However, this should not induce us - as already mentioned above - to adopt these interpretations without checking them, for the only reason that they originated with a "famous" - or even worse - a "prevalent" author.
When working with the Scriptures we gradually realize,
- what we understand and where we concur with other interpreters,
- what we do not understand and where also other interpreters cannot give
us a really satisfying answer, and finally,
- what we think to understand and where other, previous interpreters for
various reasons did not have any or had an apparently wrong explanation for it.
There is not much to be said about the first two possibilities. The first group
contains all those texts of the Scriptures which most of the exegetes interpret uniformly and which
therefore can be considered to be settled. The second group are the open texts, such as for instance
the identity of the "woman" in Rev 17. These passages enter into the two other two groups
inasmuch as it happens again and again that the one or the other interpreter succeeds in working out
a new and more appropriate interpretation of these texts which conforms with the Scriptures and as
consequently they can be put into the first group.
In this connection I would like to give an example also of the third group. It concerns the identity of the two witnesses from Rev 11. Apart from those exegeses which interpret these two prophets symbolically and see in them the Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament, in the past the following names were mentioned - with varying preferences - Hanoch, Jeremiah, Moses, Ezra, Elijah, Baruch and others. In recent years the possibility that these two witnesses will come in the spirit of Moses and Elijah has been considered to be the most plausible one on the basis of the statements of Ex 4:8-9; 1Ki 17:14-18; Mal 3:1. 4:5-6; Mt 11:10-14. 17:12-13; Mk 9:4-5: Lk 1:17. 4:25; Jas 5:17;
Part of the mistakes in the interpretation of the prophetic texts of the Bible which
can be attributed to contemporary history are above all those misinterpretations which result from
the incapability of the exegete to look beyond his own horizon of contemporary history. An example
of that is also here the interpretation of Rev 11 in the past.
And when the two witnesses have finished their testimony the beast will kill them.
Rev 11,7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes
up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them. 11,8 And their dead
bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where
also their Lord was crucified.
11,9 Those from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations will look at their dead bodies for three and a half days, and will not permit their dead bodies to be laid in a tomb. 11,10 And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth.
11,11 But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God came into them, and they stood on their feet; and great fear fell upon those who were watching them. Rev 11, 7-11;
The circumstance mentioned in verse 9 that all peoples "will look at their dead
bodies for three and a half days…" is for us today who live in the age of electronic media, a
self-evident fact and nobody would puzzle over it today how in all likelihood the people all over
the world could learn about the death of these two witnesses of God within such a short period as
three and a half days.
The whole thing looks completely different in the book "The Apocalypse" in Herder's commentary on the Bible from the year 1942, where the author, ignorant of television and Internet, is amazed at that fact and says,
"It is not necessary to ask how John imagined the spread of the
message of the death of the two witnesses all over the world within the three and a half days."
Well, also John will not have had any idea how this could happen. He, however,
trusted in the words of God and took it for certain that there will be a possibility in the future
to perform this "miracle".
But this is not yet the essential mistake in the statement of this commentary on the
Bible by Herder. Misunderstandings like that have probably happened to the exegetes of all times and
an exclusion of them will not be possible in the future either. But then the author goes on,
"As far as apocalyptic indications of time are concerned, such
calculations are inappropriate. In addition to that, the expression ‘those who dwell on the earth’
is - like at other passages also here - a more religious than a geographical term. It characterizes
those who feel at home on the earth while the true Christians, being children of God, have their
home in heaven."
And he means with that that then only those will see the two witnesses who
"dwell on the earth", who feel at home on the earth, that is to say the godless and the
damned and not the true Christians, the children of God, who have their home in heaven.
We see that a concrete text that is absolutely in touch with reality, namely the statement that "all peoples (…) will look at their dead bodies for three and a half days…", is "allegorized" by the author because of his personal incapability to analyze and explain the connection. But with that the message of this as well as the message of other passages from the Scriptures is interpreted irresponsibly in a wrong way.
First, all "apocalyptical time indications" are declared to be not accessible to an interpretation in general. Then, the meaning of this verse, namely that the inhabitants of the whole earth - that is to say all people of this world - will see these two witnesses, is reduced to the group of the unfaithful, "who feel at home on the earth". The remaining human race, namely those, as it says, "true Christians who - as children of God - feel at home in heaven", will therefore not see the two dead witnesses according to this interpretation.
In order to realize the potential consequences of such manipulations you have to imagine that in the last days there will be a group of true Christians who will see the dead bodies of the two witnesses in Jerusalem on television. On account of the above-mentioned interpretation they would now have to assume that they do not belong to the children of God, but to those "who feel at home on the earth", otherwise they would not be able to see this picture – according to the opinion of the above-mentioned author.
And although the actual occurrence of the situation described here is extremely unlikely, it nevertheless shows the danger and the responsibility, in which the interpreter is involved. Of course, first of all, he has to intensify his studies of the Holy Scriptures and has to take it seriously, but he also has to inform himself on the fields of natural science, technology, and communication science and to try to be up to date in the best way possible. For, as we see in the example given above, the prophecies of the Bible take events, technologies, and methods into account which will become reality perhaps not before thousands of years later.
In order to facilitate the attribution of a prophetic text to the categories
"realistic" or "allegorical", I would like to mention some basic criteria with
the help of various examples.
The sun became black as sackcloth, the whole moon became like blood.
Rev 6,12 I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a
great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became
like blood; 6,13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its
unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. 6,14 The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is
rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every
slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 6,16 and they
said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who
sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb;
6,17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" Rev 6,12-17;
Although there are a great many prophecies in the Scriptures which refer to this
event word for word, as we will see right below, many exegetes nevertheless shy away from a
concrete, literal interpretation. A reason for that may also be that often the specific theoretical
knowledge in natural science is missing in order to understand such global cosmologic relations and
to deal with them in the interpretation.
The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.
Mt 24,29 "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the
sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; Mt 24,29;
Mk 13,24 "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 13,25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Mk 13,24-25;
Lk 21,25 And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, 21,26 men fainting with fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Lk 21,25-26;
Isa13,10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light. Isa 13,10;
Joel 2,10 The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars lose their brightness. Joel 2,10;
Joel 3,15 The sun and the moon grow dark, and the stars lose their brightness. Joel 3,15;
In order to avoid getting lost, we have to ask ourselves, what God and consequently
also our Lord Jesus Christ was aiming at with that when he revealed all those events to John.
Although one can feel in this book of the Bible - as it is also the case with any other book of the
Bible - the glory, wisdom, grace, and love of God, these prophecies have been given to us human
beings in the first place in order that we realize more and more accurately the events of the last
days and that we are able to pass them on in order to leave a support and hope to our brothers and
sisters who will then live in this time of distress.
Therefore it is our duty to take these statements seriously - sentence for sentence and word for word. In most cases what we have here before us are not allegories, but a very serious piece of information, which has been given to us in order to understand God's plan with men better. Some things are simplified to a great extent because a more accurate and more extensive description would divert the attention of the reader from the important passages of the text. This does not mean, however, that these statements are to be understood "symbolically" and that one could read all sorts of things into them.
When the Lord give us these pieces of information because he wants us to understand it better, he will give them to us in a way that we are also able to understand them - provided that we want to understand them. Therefore, we should not assume that the prophecies of the Revelation or the texts of the prophets in general, contain statements which we - as children of God - cannot understand, but at the best such statements, which we cannot understand yet. The well-meant pieces of advice, which say that we had to "leave" these pieces of information "unchanged" remind us of the farm laborer in the parable of the Lord in Mt 25:24-25, who hid the one talent he had got in the soil and who then, when the Lord arrived, had nothing to show for himself but this one talent.
Therefore, we should not take the liberty to decide a priori which of the statements are those that are -according to God's will - reserved to the understanding of future generations. It should rather be our greatest endeavor to concentrate our efforts on trying to understand everything. Then, God will let us realize very soon through the Holy Spirit which pieces of knowledge he wants to give to us and which ones not.
These foundations of the interpretation - on the one hand the obligation to increase and improve our knowledge about these things to come and to pass on this knowledge to each next generation, and on the other hand the conviction that we are not presented here the "unfathomable will of God", but on the contrary that God imparts here his will to us in a way that can be understood by us and that should be understood by us - require a more and more accurate analysis of the texts by us.
Therefore, out of these postulates a principle for the interpretation of prophetic texts of the Bible can be inferred:
- Everything that we can judge as realistic on account of our knowledge
about the Creation, has to be taken as real, that is to say it has to be seen as something concrete
and has to be taken literally.
- Some of these texts – the so-called "mixed" texts - have
apart from their real meaning also a hidden spiritual, that is to say allegoric background, which
must be interpreted and explained by means of the symbolic language of the Bible.
- Everything that is not accessible to a concrete, realistic
interpretation, is to be interpreted as the paraphrase of a more complex relation and/or the veiled
description of a spiritual meaning and consequently as merely allegorical.
Let us now turn to the concrete interpretation of the above-mentioned text from Rev
6,12-17 that we have taken as an example. When the sixth seal is broken, John sees a tremendous
earthquake striking the earth. The sun and the moon are darkened and the stars of the sky fall upon
the earth. Well, if there were a really tremendous earthquake with volcanic eruptions, the sinking
of islands, and the subsidence of entire mountain ranges, a darkening of the celestial bodies would
not be astonishing. In such an event tons of dust and smoke would be flung into the atmosphere and
probably would make the sky impermeable to any kind of light rays for months and years.
But what happens to the stars? It would be absurd to think that the stars of the sky would actually fall upon the earth. Even one of these bright planets alone would be by far larger than the earth and would tear the earth into millions of pieces when it collides with it. The principle of concrete interpretation forbids us the possibility to interpret these stars as "atomic bombs which hit us from spaceships moving on orbits round the earth" because the stars should remain stars just as the sun above is simply the actual sun, and the moon is likewise the moon.
Therefore, we have to ask ourselves what are "the stars" strictly speaking? Well, as it is generally known, stars are bright celestial bodies which describe their orbits in the universe. To these stars belong, of course, above all the billions of suns, which we can observe in our night skies. But there are also other celestial bodies, which are much smaller or even nearly tiny, which sometimes when they get close to the earth dip into the earth's atmosphere due to the earth's gravitational attraction and burn out when they are falling because of the frictional heat. In such a case we call them falling stars. But much more often their orbit is at a distance which is large enough to escape the earth's gravitational attraction. Sometimes we can see the larger ones of them moving past our planet as bright comets.
All these small celestial bodies, which are also called asteroids (which is Greek and means "similar to stars"), move through outer space on various orbits. When they get into the gravitational field, the sphere of attraction of a planet and when their speed relative to their mass is not high enough, these asteroids are attracted by the planet and fall upon it. Examples of that are generally known, such as for instance the craters on our moon (more than 30,000) or the points of impact on Mars.
The effects of such an impact of an asteroid on a planet depend on the one hand on the size of the asteroid and on the other hand on the fact if the planet has an atmosphere or not. Without an atmosphere the fall is not slowed down. That means the asteroid is not heated up, it remains "cold" and there is not the risk that it explodes due to the heat and that the structure of its matter breaks into many pieces already above the surface. If such an asteroid "rain" came down on our earth, the individual fragments would heat up in the atmosphere and it would seem as if the stars of the sky fell upon the earth.
Most of the asteroids in our solar system - there are approximately 75,000 of them altogether - have a diameter of 40 - 80 kilometers and would be an enormous danger to our planet. The mildest consequences would be worldwide earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and a global climatic catastrophe. The most dangerous effects could throw our planet out of its orbit or even tear the earth into pieces.
In Rev 8,8-9 we also have the situation that "a great mountain, burning with fire, is thrown into the sea".
And something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea.
Rev 8,8 The second angel sounded, and something like a great
mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea; 8,9 and a third of the sea became blood, a
third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died, and a third of the ships were
destroyed. Rev 8, 8- 9;
Also in this case the catastrophe would be a worldwide one. If an asteroid of a
diameter of only 1.5 kilometer entered the gravitational field of the earth and plummets into the
sea then, the tidal wave at a height of more than 1,000 meters would destroy all towns on the coast
and would flood the continents far up into the interior of the land. The entire planet would be made
tremble. All volcanoes would erupt and emit thousands of tons of ashes and smoke into the
atmosphere. A black cloud cover would shroud the entire planet and would not be pervious to sunlight
for approximately a year.
The aftereffect of it would be an absolute darkness, icy temperatures and as photosynthesis would not work any more, all plants would die off on the earth. Since – in the last analysis – all animal life of this planet depends on the availability of an appropriate nutritional basis made up of plants, such a darkness would entail a worldwide famine and consequently wide-spread deaths of men and animals.
Therefore, in the interpretation of the above text from Rev 6,12-17 the question arises, to what extent such an asteroid crash could not be in fact – in a causal relation - also responsible for the other phenomena of this catastrophe, that is to say the eclipse of the celestial bodies and worldwide earthquakes.
e can see here that we do not really need much imagination for the interpretation of the statements of the Scriptures in this connection. The only thing we have to do is to take a closer look at the existing and well-known facts and then we will not have any problems any more to see the huge dimensions and above all the reality of these prophecies.
(See also Chapter 04: The great darkness.")
Apart from this reality we find in this text also an allegorical, a hidden meaning.
Thus, the "light" in the Bible is a symbol of God.
For the LORD God is a sun.
Ps 84,11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor
and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly. Ps 84,11;
In your light do we see light.
Ps 36, 9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see
light. Ps 36, 9;
I am the light of the world.
Jn 8,12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of
the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
Jn 12,46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me may not remain in darkness. Jn 12,46;
When the celestial bodies are darkened as it says above in Rev 6,12, and when
darkness spreads over this world, this means in the symbolic sense that God himself is
"darkened" before the eyes of men. And since one of the most important forms of
representation of God in this world is the Holy Scriptures, this Word of God will become more and
more incomprehensible to men. The knowledge will become less and less and the meaning of these words
will be recognized less and less.
But just as in the actual eclipse of the sun and the moon it is not these two planets which stop shining, but only huge clouds of dust on the earth conceal the still bright shining celestial bodies, it is also in the symbolic approach not God, who stops being the light for the men. It is the men who increasingly deny God and do not want to see him. The fact that they "do not want" to see him finally leads to the circumstance that they "cannot see" him.
So we see in the allegorical interpretation of this text the apostasy of mankind from its God. The godless people are convinced that they are able to guide and preserve this world without God as well. In doing so, they forget that the relation between man and his planet is a similar one as between the planets of our solar system as a whole. Everything is embedded in a well-ordered and planned balance. If only one factor is changed, if only one planet comes off its orbit, the whole system could collapse.
And here we find the common background of concrete and allegorical interpretation. The original reason why these real catastrophes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, eclipse of the celestial bodies etc. have been caused lies in the fact that man has changed the balance of this world. He thought that he could do without the "factor God". Man has broken the everlasting covenant and has thought that he himself is the "God" of this world.
The earth is polluted by its inhabitants; for they have broken the everlasting covenant.
Isa 24,3 The earth will be completely laid waste and completely
despoiled; for the LORD has spoken this word. 24,4 The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and
withers; the exalted of the people of the earth fade away 24,5 The earth is polluted by its
inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting
covenant. 24,6 Therefore a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it suffer for their
guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left. Isa 24, 3- 6;
(See also Chapter 08: "The reorganization of
heaven and earth.")
But not only men also the apostate angels have their share in this breach of faith
as against their God. When we read in Rev 6,13, "…and the stars of the sky fell to the
earth…" this statement has – apart from its realistic level - also an allegorical meaning.
The stars are in the prophetic metaphorical language also angels.
How you are fallen from heaven, O Star of the morning.
Isa 14,12 How you are fallen from heaven, O Star of the morning,
son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the earth, you who weakened the nations! 14,13 You said in your
heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit
on the mount of assembly in the far north; Isa 14,12-13;
And when it says then in Rev 6,14, "The sky was split apart like a scroll when
it is rolled up.", and in Mt 24,29 and parallel passages, "…and the powers of the heaven
will be shaken…", we see that after the earth which – as it says above in Isa 24,3-6 - will
be completely laid waste and completely despoiled after this punishment of God and where only few
men will be left, also heaven as the whereabouts of the angels will be rolled up, that is to say it
will be "shut down" which then obviously leads to the "fall of the stars" in the
allegorical interpretation, that is to say the expulsion of the apostate angels from heaven.
Apart from the two levels of interpretation we dealt with above, the concrete, real,
and the allegorical meaning, some texts from the Scriptures even have a third one, the
"analytic" level, which gives us information on the background and the causes.
And although there are – as we will see below – also prophetic texts of this character, it is above all the parables of the Lord, which show this threefold message when you make a thorough analysis. Yet it is in the nature of a parable that the first, the apparent meaning is only the "vehicle" for the intrinsic, the allegorical message. Nevertheless this first meaning is not at all only an auxiliary fašade, but definitely has a real meaning of its own.
Therefore, we would like to take a look at these relations first in the light of a
The parable of the sower.
Mt 13,1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the
sea. 13,2 And great crowds gathered to him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole
crowd stood on the beach. 13,3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: "A sower went
out to sow. 13,4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them
up. 13,5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang
up, since they had no depth of soil,
13,6 but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. 13,7 Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them out. 13,8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 13,9 He who has ears, let him hear." Mt 13, 1- 9;
Every reader of the Bible knows this parable and also its interpretation since it
was explained by the Lord to his Disciples in the intimacy of their circle. However, as we will see
immediately, this interpretation is only one out of several interpretations, which are implicitly
contained in this parable.
Let us place ourselves in our imagination in the midst of this crowd of people who
listened to the Lord at the lake and let us watch an ordinary farmer who happened to pass by and who
became curious and joined the crowd when he saw it.
He hears this speech of the Nazarene and thinks, "As a matter of fact, this man is right! I should also handle my precious wheat seed more carefully. I should avoid sowing it along the path or on rocky ground, for there the seed is lost. Therefore, I should also remove the many stones out of my field so that the seed has a good soil. I should also pluck out the thorn bushes on my field so that they do not screen off the sun necessary for the seed. And when choosing my seeds I should set great store by it to take only seeds coming from excellent ears so that also the fruits of these seed grains are as rich as possible". The thoughts of the farmer could have been like these thoughts or similar and he went home with the intention of taking these pieces of advice to heart and with the conviction of having met a wise man.
But with that he was one of those people of whom the Lord then said to his Disciples, "… seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand".
You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
Mt 13,10 Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you
speak to them in parables?" 13,11 And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know
the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 13,12 For to him who has
will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be
taken away. 13,13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and
hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
13,14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. 13,15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’ 13,16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 13,17 Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. Mt 13,10-17;
One cannot assert that this farmer did not understand the speech correctly. But,
obviously, he only looked at the uppermost, the first level of this text and was satisfied with that
because he was not interested in the deeper sense. Obviously, not even all of the Disciples of Jesus
understood this deeper implication. Otherwise, the Lord would not have had to interpret it to them
when the crowd had left.
The interpretation of the parable of the sower.
Mt 13,18 "Hear then the parable of the sower. 13,19 When
any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches
away what has been sown in his heart; this is the man on whom seed was sown along the path. 13,20 As
for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with
joy; 13,21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or
persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.
13,22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 13,23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." Mt 13, 18-23;
There is nothing to be add to this interpretation of the Lord. And as we see, this
is the second level of the message of the text and thus also the level which the Lord wanted to
impart to his Disciples. But when we take a closer look at this parable, we also find a third level,
which is not paid much attention to.
As it has already become clear in the interpretation by the Lord, he refers in this
parable to the individual, who, depending on the quality of his heart, bears fruit or not. If we now
take a look at the conditions of the surrounding field – in the double lexical meaning –which
this seed grain and this man respectively is exposed to and which have an influence on his growth,
we see a certain connection with the development of man to all intents and purposes.
Let us take the first one, this is the one on whom seed was sown along the path. He hears the Word and does not understand it. And here you already hear the shouts of the ignorant, "Why is he punished who does not understand? This is not fair! Is he to be blamed for it?" But they do not understand because they do not want to understand. This man is guilty. He is guilty because this soil, his heart, has not become that hard by itself like a much-trodden path. Just as the path, which once was a fertile soil, had to be trodden by thousands of people, before it became that hard that nothing could grow on it any more, also this heart had to harden on thousands of occasions. It had to suppress and repress pity, mercy, and love thousands of times in order to finally become that hard that even the Word of God could not penetrate into it any more.
The second one is the man on whom seed was sown on rocky ground. He hears the Word and receives it with joy. But when he gets into tribulation or persecution on account of that, he falls away. He, too, is guilty. His character is so superficial and shallow like the bottom of his heart. He never in his life "investigated the matter" thoroughly, otherwise he would have discovered the stone in his heart and would have been able to remove it. He wants to have fun in life. And he took the Word of God just as he takes everything "new". But when it is getting to become unpleasant, he runs away as fast as he has tried to get there.
Also the third one – the man among the thorns - received the Word. He would have enough deep soil in his heart in order to let it grow. But he sets other priorities. The worries about his goods and possessions take up his entire time and attention. Despite all his good preconditions he choked the Word of God in his heart.
And now it is interesting to notice that in those men where the seeds fell on good soil, diverging results are achieved in spite of the same preconditions. All of them bear fruits, but one of them a hundredfold, the other one sixty fold, and the third one thirty-fold.
When we now take a look at the characterization of these six groups of men, we see that the first three have lost their ability to believe in God on account of their "conditioning", their being moulded by their environment which they did not set anything against and did not prevent which made them become guilty. The second three, on the other hand, have an "intact" environment and also bear fruits. The reason why they have varying yields, does not lie in the outside world in this case. The reason for that is to be found – in man as well as in the seed grain – in the transmitted genetic conditions, the "talents", which everyone has got on his way, which produce different results. See also the parable of the talents entrusted to the slaves in Mt 25:14-30 and its interpretation in Discourse 68:
(See also Discourse 68: Do Matthew 24 and 25 not
have any reference to the congregation?")
As already mentioned before, we find such a multiple background not only in the
parables. Also prophecies often show several levels of messages when they are looked at more
closely. Also here we want to look at a to a large extent well-known text among readers of the Bible
as an example of that: Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the image.
Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the image.
Dan 2,31 "You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image,
mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. 2,32 The
head of this image was of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and
thighs of bronze, 2,33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.
2,34 As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it smote the image on its feet of iron
and clay, and broke them in pieces; 2,35 then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the
gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors;
and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that
struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. Dan 2,31-35;
Also here we immediately see the first, the superficial level. It was simply a dream
of a bright image. Nebuchadnezzar could have also have left it at that and could have turned to his
daily business. But he rather had a presentiment than he knew it that there was something particular
about this matter. And so he finally had Daniel come to whom this dream of his king had been
explained by God himself in order that he could bring the interpretation to the king.
The interpretation of the dream by Daniel.
Dan 2,36 "This was the dream; now we will tell the king its
interpretation. 2,37 You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the
kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, 2,38 and into whose hand he has given, wherever
they dwell, the sons of men, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air, making you rule over
them all - you are the head of gold.
2,39 After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you, and yet a
third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over all the earth. 2,40 And there shall be a
fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things; and like
iron which crushes, it shall break and crush all these.
2,41 And as you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the miry clay. 2,42 And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 2,43 As you saw the iron mixed with miry clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.
2,44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever; 2,45 just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. A great God has made known to the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure. Dan 2,36-45;
So, he himself, Nebuchadnezzar - and thus the whole Babylonian Empire - is the head
of gold. After him another kingdom shall arise and it shall be "inferior" to his kingdom.
We know from history that the Medo-Persian Empire is meant by it. The two arms belonging to this
kingdom "of silver" might be a hint at the ruling coalition between Medians and Persians.
The third kingdom "of bronze/copper" is explicitly called a world empire, it shall "rule over all the earth". And the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great really conquered nearly the entire land of all peoples of those days in no time.
The characteristic feature of the fourth kingdom of "iron" shall be its strength. It shall crush and shatter all things like iron. It was not least this "iron" strength and discipline of the Romans, in their own ranks as well as in the administration of their provinces, which for the first time gave the people of those days a security against thieves, robbers, murderers, and defrauders, and there were even countries, whose kings voluntarily let their countries be integrated into the Roman Empire for these reasons.
The last kingdom finally, shall be partly of potter's clay and partly of iron. Some exegetes do not even recognize and acknowledge this fifth kingdom as such. They are so fascinated by the fourth kingdom, the Roman Empire, that they do not (want to) see the feet as a kingdom of its own. There is, however, no doubt, Daniel explicitly says here "that you saw the feet and toes, however, partly of potter's clay and partly of iron, means that it will be a divided kingdom". That is to say it is a kingdom of its own, in fact a "divided" (iron and potter's clay) kingdom. And this statement can only refer to the feet, for the legs are not "divided".
As we can then gather from verse Dan 2,44 this fifth kingdom shall be the last kingdom of men on earth, before God's kingdom is set up, the Kingdom of Peace of the Lord Jesus. Daniel refers to the ten toes and prophesies, "But in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom (…) . It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end".
And just as this connection of the "legs" and the "feet" of "iron" leads one to see this last world empire as an "off-shoot" of the Roman Empire, also the circumstance that the individual kingdoms can be assigned so unequivocally to the historical world empires leads one to attribute the different metals here also to races. This even goes that far that the people of this last kingdom are seen as the descendants of the Romans and the Teutons.
When we take a closer look at this prophecy, we see that there is always talk about
metals here. First precious metals, gold and silver, then the nonferrous metal copper (strictly
speaking bronze) and finally the ferrous metal iron. This circumstance occurs undoubtedly not purely
by chance, nevertheless, it is neglected in most cases in the exegesis.
These metals are distinguished from one another in their value on the one hand, and in their hardness on the other hand. Gold is the most precious metal, but also the metal which is least hard. In order to be able to convert it into a piece of jewelry, an alloy with another, a harder metal, is needed. Iron is the metal which is least precious, but on the other hand it is the hardest metal of this group.
The fact that this circumstance must be of significance in the interpretation of this prophecy, is confirmed by verse Dan 2,39. There it says, "After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to you". Here it is pointed out emphatically that at least Nebuchadnezzar’s succession kingdom – but presumably also all succession kingdoms – will be "inferior" to his kingdom (just as the metals).
And in this connection the question arises, what this "inferior" refers to. The assumption which is suggesting itself at first glance, namely that these kingdoms will not be so large or so powerful as Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, is obviously wrong. After Nebuchadnezzar there were both larger and more powerful empires than his one (Romans, Greeks). When we now look at the other end of the "chain", we learn about another characteristic of these kingdoms. In Dan 2,40 it is said about the fourth kingdom, the Roman Empire, "the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron; because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things; and like iron which crushes, it shall break and crush all these."
We can now try to draw the following conclusion: The kingdoms become more and more inferior in their "value" - like the metals, which they represent - , but in their "hardness" they get stronger and stronger. But what does this mean? In this connection, we probably should not think in terms of "kingdoms" any more, but should concentrate on the individual persons who ruled and inhabited those kingdoms. It is the "mentality" of those peoples, which is alluded to here and which shall be conveyed here.
And when we now equate "value" and "hardness" with morals and discipline (up to brutality), we do not only have a relatively useful explanation for the interpretation of the "metals", but we also see immediately – in contrast to the "racial" attempt at interpretation - what is meant by the "potter's clay" in the fifth kingdom. It is the mentality which has reduced its values and moral principles to a minimum and to which responsibility, leadership, and discipline have already become alien. This is confirmed to us by the word used for clay in verse Dan 2,41 and 43, namely "miry clay". For "mire" means in the Aramaic language also "dirt", "mud", in the Hebrew language even "feces".
In Dan 2,43 it says then, "As you saw the iron mixed with miry clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay". From the point of view of the above interpretation it can be easily seen now that these two mentalities have in fact nothing in common any more. What can still lead them to each other is sex and mere calculation. But as Daniel says above, they will indeed mix with one another in marriage (the original text speaks of "seed of men" in this connection), but they will not hold together.
This is now the third level in the interpretation of the image from Dan 2, and just as in the parable of the sower we can see here, too, that this third level may not always be recognized, but that it definitely exists and bears a message.
In the following I would like to give you an example - which is also taken from the
Revelation - of the interpretation of a mere allegory. In Rev 13,1-3 there is talk about a beast
with ten horns and seven heads and a mortal wound of one of its heads.
The beast rising out of the sea.
Rev 13,1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns
and seven heads, with ten diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads. 13,2 And the
beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was
like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great
authority. 13,3 One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and
the whole earth followed the beast with wonder. Rev 13, 1- 3;
When we adhere to the principle set up above, we cannot see any realistic message in
this text. It is quite imaginable that a beast is "rising" out of the sea, however, the
relation to reality finds its end as early as when the ten horns and the seven heads are mentioned,
let alone when then the leopard with feet like a bear's feet and a mouth like a lion's mouth is
What we have here before us is a mere allegory and for the interpretation of it we have to look for comparable symbols in the Scriptures. In Dan 7,2-7 we find even four such beasts at a time.
The four beasts out of the sea.
Dan 7,2 Daniel said, "I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the
four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. 7,3 And four great beasts came up out of the
sea, different from one another.
7,4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it.
7,5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’
7,6 After this I looked, and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads; and dominion was given to it.
7,7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. Dan 7, 2- 7;
According to the opinion of many exegetes, these four beasts represent with Daniel
four world empires, namely Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, and the Roman Empire. The sea is
interpreted as "sea of peoples", out of which these world empires emerged. Therefore, we
can proceed from the assumption that our text in Rev 13,1 also deals with a world empire. However,
we have to bear in mind that it must not necessarily deal with the rise of a world empire by means
of expeditions of conquest for the extension of the borders - as it is the case with the historical
empires. Today such things are rather done at the political level. Examples of this are the United
States of America, the union of the states of the former Soviet Union "CIS" and most
recently the European Union. Be it as it may, this passage is in any case about an international
If you want to establish a relation to today's situation of world politics, it can be said that the Babylonian lion corresponds to the Iraq of today, the Medo-Persian bear is the progenitor of the Persians, that is to say of present-day Iran. The Mujaheddin see themselves as the descendants of the former Medians. The Greek leopard is now as before Greece and the "terrible and dreadful beast with the iron teeth" was the Roman Empire and could be identified with Italy today. Of course, none of these four countries is a world empire any more and one could at best see in Italy, which belongs to the European Union, something like a little world empire.
The hint in Rev 13,2, that this beast would be like a leopard, is identical with the statement in Dan 7,6. As Dan 7,6 is interpreted as Greece, one could believe that also by the beast from Rev 13 Greece would be meant. However, one has to bear in mind that the designation "leopard" in Dan 7,6 is, as a matter of fact, a symbol in itself as well. Namely the paraphrase for the speed at which the Greek Empire expanded in those days under Alexander. And therefore, it can be rather assumed that this symbol wants so say here as well that the antichristian Empire – for it seems to concern this empire in Rev 13,1-3 - will expand all over the world in an amazingly short time.
Subsequent to this text we get the hint in Rev 13,3 that "One of his heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth followed the beast with wonder". Some exegetes relate the beast to the Pope and thus draw the conclusion that the Catholic Church will suffer a severe setback or suffered a severe setback in the past and loses its influence for a certain time. One could just as well – or with an even higher probability – take the view that the ideologies of Fascism, Communism or Islam could be meant by it.
And here it becomes apparent that it is of great importance not to define the interpretation too closely.
Finally another important question arises in connection with the interpretation of
prophetic texts. Some interpreters maintain again and again that prophecies which have already come
true once, have to be seen as a finished item that can be "checked off", and which,
therefore, have not to be taken into consideration when interpreting other, similar events.
For someone who knows the Holy Scriptures very well it is undoubtedly an undeniable
fact that some prophecies have come true even several times in the course of thousands of years and
will also continue to come true. Just think of the prophecies in the Old Testament about the capture
of Jerusalem and the deportation of its inhabitants. We have here the fulfillment in 597 B.C. at the
first deportation, 586 B.C. at the second deportation, 70 A.D. by Titus and 135 A.D. at the
suppression of the rebellion of the Maccabees.
But very often, especially in the case of very old prophecies, one fails to see that
upon careful inspection of the general conditions in origin and context, these prophecies actually
have not been fulfilled yet in the past. I would like to give you two examples of that.
The children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king.
Hos 3,4 For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king
or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim. 3,5 Afterward the children of
Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and they shall come in
fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days. Hos 3, 4- 5;
In the text above from Hos 3,4-5 it is said among other things that the children of
Israel will seek "David their king". The fact is that Hosea lived approximately from 750
to 722 B.C. The reign of king David was, however, already 250 years before, from 1012 to 972 B.C..
So, how could Hosea prophesy here that the children of Israel will seek David their king in future
who had died more than 250 years before? As it happens often in such cases, some exegetes go the
easy way and maintain that this is a "supplement" which does not belong here and just take
out the text. But upon closer analysis of the connections we learn that in the Millennium, in the
Kingdom of Peace of the Lord Jesus which will last for a thousand years, king David will be raised
up by God, in order to be the prince of the people of Israel.
My servant David shall be prince among them.
Ezk 34,23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my
servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 34,24 And I,
the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD,
have spoken. Eze 34,23-24;
But they shall serve David their king, whom I will raise up for them.
Jer 30,8 And it shall come to pass in that day, says the LORD of hosts,
that I will break the yoke from off their neck, and I will burst their bonds, and strangers shall no
more make servants of them. 30,9 But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king,
whom I will raise up for them. Jer 30, 8- 9;
So we see that the text from Hos 3,4-5 aims at the last days, to be more precise at
the Millennium, when the children of Israel return to their God and are gathered from all over the
world. And to those exegetes who see a "supplement" here, we can only say with the words
of the Lord, "O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have
spoken!" (Lk 24,25)
This is just what the next text is about, too.
The LORD will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.
Zech 8,7 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will save my people
from the east country and from the west country; 8,8 and I will bring them to dwell in the midst
of Jerusalem; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in
righteousness." Zech 8, 7- 8;
One might think here that this prophecy refers to the return of the people of Israel
from Babylonia. However, some facts speak against this assumption. It says here, "from the east
country and from the west country". This description comprises in the original sense all parts
of the earth and is comparable with the text from Isa 11,11-12:
The Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people.
Isa 11,11 In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time
to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from
Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 11,12 He will
raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed
of Judah from the four corners of the earth. Isa 11,11-12;
Also Isaiah is speaking here of "the four corners of the earth". So
Zechariah prophesies above that God will save his people and wants to bring them home from all
corners of the earth.
Well, at the second expatriation by Nebuchadnezzar the children of Israel were not abducted to all parts of the world or scattered to the four winds. In 586, they were brought into exile to Babylon, where they were allowed to return again to Israel and Jerusalem by the decree of Cyrus - from one direction! - 50 years later. Such a worldwide dispersion did not take place before 70 A.D. when Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus and after the revolt of the Maccabees in the Jewish-Roman war. And here we realize that this prophecy of the gathering simply has not been fulfilled yet. It is a prophecy concerning the gathering and the return of the Israelites at the beginning of the Millennium, after their change of ways and return to their God which they have refused for such a long time.
By the way, the book Zechariah was written approximately around 520 B.C., that is to say already quite some years after the return of the Israelites from Babylonia to their land. This circumstance is sometimes also used to classify this prophecy as a "vaticinia ex eventu", that is to say as a "prophecy" which was formulated only after the occurrence of the events and which was then added to the text. That means that people are rather willing to represent the Word of God as a forgery than to admit to themselves that they have too little knowledge of the Scriptures.
So, in conclusion let us keep in mind the following:
- All statements of the prophetic Scriptures of the Bible, which can
be recognized as events and parts of our real world, have to be primarily also interpreted as
real and consequently as concrete.
- Beneath this real level of prophecy there is, however, also a
second one hidden, which is encoded, that is to say an allegorical meaning, the interpretation
of which emerges from the prophetic metaphorical language of the Holy Scriptures.
- Likewise unmistakably allegorical texts have to be translated by
the help of the proper symbols of the Scriptures.
- When we are judging, whether a prophecy has to be classified as a
prophecy which has already come true or as one which still has to come true, we have to check
carefully on the basis of the Scriptures, to what extent all conditions in the context have to
be seen as fulfilled.
- But even in the case of prophecies which are definitely regarded as
having already come true, an eventual fulfillment of the prophecy for a second time, and even
for several times has to be taken into account in the interpretation.
- Finally we should also bear in mind that it would be arrogant to
think that we would be able to explain all prophetic texts of the Bible. It would be much more
arrogant, however, to think that everything that we cannot explain would be unexplainable