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What is THE MEANING, then, OF THE LITERAL SENSE OF PROPHECY ? False notions on this point have been very general, and absurd consequences have been grafted upon these, to justify a system of glosses and allegories, and transfer all the Jewish promises to the Gentile Church. The definition may be given in two forms, which agree in their result, and help to explain each other. First, “ the literal sense is that in which we adhere to the common usage of terms, and the natural scope of the passage, as inferred from the context alone.” Secondly, it is “when we attach to a prophecy that same sense which we should naturally assign to it, if it were a history of past events, and not a prediction of the future.”
Let us explain by a few examples. The prophet Isaiah, in chap. iv., has the following words, “ And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem : When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning. And the Lord shall create upon every dwelling-place of Mount Zion, and upon all her assemblies, a cloud and a smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire
by night, for upon all the glory shall be a defence.”
Here the context will determine the literal meaning. The Jerusalem spoken of is the same of which it was said just before, “ Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen; because their tongue and their doings are against the Lord, to provoke the eyes of his glory.”* The daughters of Zion are the same class who have just been so sternly reproved for their haughtiness and pride—the daughters of Israel dwelling at Jerusalem. The assemblies of Mount Zion are the same of which it had been declared, “ The calling of assemblies I cannot away with : it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting :”+ they are the assemblies of Israel for worship in the holy city. The literal sense is, therefore, that Jerusalem, then fallen so low, should rise from her ruin; that her daughters shall be as glorious for purity and meekness, as once they were detestable for their pride; that the judgments of God, and the power of his Spirit, shall effect this mighty change; that all the dwellers in Jerusalem shall then be holy, without any mixture of the profane; and that a glory, like the pillar of cloud and of fire in the desert, shall then rest, as a sacred token of God's holy presence, upon all the assemblies for solemn worship in Jerusalem. * Isaiah iii. 8.
+ Isaiah i. 13.
Again, let us compare Isaiah i. 7-10 with the opening of chap. Ixii., and, on applying the second definition, the sense of the prophecy will be clear. One passage is historical, the other prophetic; one speaks of Zion's glory, the other of her shame; but in other respects they entirely correspond. If we expound the prophecy as the history must be expounded, no doubt can arise upon its meaning. The country which is to receive the name of Beulah, in token of God's peculiar favour, is the same which before had been “desolate and burned with fire,”*—the land of Israel. The daughter of Zion, to whom the high surname is to be given, Hephzibah, “my delight is in her”--the Zion for whose brightness and salvation Messiah pleads with unceasing fervour—is the same that was left “ as a cottage in a vineyard, and as a besieged city," while the Assyrian invaders were overspreading the land. The figures used in the second place to express the glory of Zion, are scarcely stronger than those in the first to express her degradation. Is it said, in imagery of striking beauty, “Thou shalt be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God”? A metaphor not less vivid has been used to describe her corruption : “ Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of
* Isaiah i. 7.
our God, ye people of Gomorrah.” The same laws of thought by which we explain the history, enable us, withour further strain upon language, or recourse to allegories, to expound the prophecy also.
But there are three main difficulties which have perplexed this subject, and which we must endeavour to remove. These are, the presence of FIGURATIVE TERMS, the SYMBOLICAL nature of some of the PROPHECIES, and the ANALOGICAL or TYPICAL APPLICATIONS of others. The definition of the literal sense which has been already given, will furnish us, in every case, with an easy solution.
First, it has often been thought, that to advocate the literal sense of prophecy involves the absurd consequence of denying all metaphorical and figurative language. And the strange paradoxes which must be maintained on this view, are sometimes urged with an air of triumph, to prove the need for adopting allegorical glosses, and rejecting the literal sense. Specimens of such paradoxes might be multiplied with ease, if it were consistent with due reverence for God's most holy Word. But to all such objections, whether brought forward with flippancy or with seriousness, there is a simple reply. The literal interpretation, rightly understood, does not exclude the admission of figures o wherever the context of itself shows their
presence, or wherever we should allow them to exist, if the prophecy were a history of past events.'
How beautiful, for instance, is the patriarch's blessing upon his favoured son. Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall: the archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: but his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob.” Let us compare this with the close of the blessing of Moses on the tribe of Joseph. “ His glory is as the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are as the horns of unicorns; with them shall he push the people to the ends of the earth; and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and the thousands of Manasseh.” In the first, or historical passage, we find it easy to expound the figures, and still to retain their literal application to the sufferings of Joseph and the treachery of his brethren. Why, , then, should the metaphors in the words of Moses obscure from us its literal application to the tribe of Joseph ? Or why, because of the presence of figures, should we have recourse to systematic allegory in prophecies of the future more than in histories of the past ? The metaphors, in each case, are only a veil or flowing drapery, beneath