The "times of the Gentiles" is the Lord's own expression for the whole period of their divinely appointed supremacy over Israel (Luke xxi. 24). It is the period, therefore, of Israel's rejection nationally, and begins with Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the temple and city when Judah was carried away captive into Babylon, and ends with their deliverance from the assembled nations by the coming of the Lord from heaven (Zech. xiv. 3, 4, 9). It is the time of the four Gentile empires seen in the visions of Daniel and the Gentile king, with a noteworthy exception which we find in the hook of Revelation, that there is a time in which the last empire ''is not "(xvii. 8), before its final appearance and complete overthrow. In this gap we stand, for none of the great world - empires exist, and all the political effort of the present is to prevent any possibility of the revival of such a thing. Napoleon's history is a warning of how easily God can break through these human counsels, and bring about what He has ordained.
For the history of the times of the Gentiles we are dependent largely upon prophecy. even though much of this be now historical fact. But the history of the Old Testament almost ceases with the subversion of the kingdom of Judah, and no mere human hand can supply the deficiency. It is God's view of things we are seeking, and "the Lord seeth not as man seeth." 'l'hus man's history would be likely by itself to lead us only astray from the divine view, which alone has any real significance. We should hold fast, then, to prophetic scripture as to our sure guide through the mazes of human history.
But prophecy, while it throws light upon the darkness of the present. hastens ever onward to the accomplishment of God's counsels in the time before us. and indeed mainly in revealing this declares the present to us. The end is the time of manifestation, for the tree is known by its fruit. We misjudge constantly by anticipating this, mistaking the true harvest-time which it is the glory of Him who knows the end from the beginning to make certainly known.
This will prepare us for a character of prophecy to miss which will leave us in continual perplexity. All prophecy connects with the end, and by this means with every other prophecy. None is its own interpreter, as that passage in the second of Peter, so commonly perverted, really means. And why? ''For prophecy came not in old time by the will of man. but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. It is all one plan, one counsel. To separate one part from the rest would be to make a rent in a seamless robe. Every seeming by path connects at any rate with some road that ends not, save in the city of the Great King. And as we approach this, the highway widens, the view lengthens, road after road comes in and pours its contribution into the ever swelling stream that hastens onward whither all ends - at the feet of the King Eternal.
It is to prophecy that we mainly turn, then, and for our present purpose especially to Daniel and its complement, the book of Revelation. And the fact that the history is at the present time prophetic has a significance which we must now consider. With Israel in the Old Testament man's history morally ends. The law has given its judgment as to him. "There is none righteous,- no, not one" is the verdict it renders. If true of the favoured nation, true then of all, for "as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man."
There is indeed another trial to be made here, but for which we must pass on to the pages of the New Testament. Will he not, now convicted and exposed, be ready for grace when it is offered him? Will not the prisoners of hope turn to the stronghold,- to the Mighty One on whom God has laid help? The answer to this is but the cross; and in this the full and final judgment of the world is found. In the meanwhile, the law has already, and to leave him thus shut up to grace, given its verdict. Man's history closes with Israel's ruin. The record closes. God may predict the future of him with whom He has now parted company; but He has parted company.
It was the throne of the Lord upon which Solomon had sat (i Chron. XX1X. 23), and the ark of the "God of all the earth" had long before passed through the dried-up Jordan to the place of His rest. But now the glory of God had passed from the mercy-seat, and Ezekiel had seen its lingering sorrowful departure from the city (Ezek. Xi. 23); and now God's title is, in the books which speak of this time, the "God of heaven" (2 Chron. XXXV1. 23; Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel). The God of heaven gives Nebuchadnezzar the kingdoms of the earth, and the Gentile kingdom widens out soon into an empire such as never had been seen in Israel. Nebuchadnezzar is thus a king of kings,- a petty image again of Him who will be the "King of kings and Lord of lords;" somewhat also in the absolute authority possessed by him. But there the resemblance ends. How different the character of the one who possesses this power, and how rapid the degeneration of it!
To him whom God had raised up He appears, that he may know the hand that has raised him up; making him debtor too for the interpretation of his dream to one of the scanty remnant of the people he had overthrown, that he may learn the vanity of his false gods in the presence of Him to whom they are opposed. This dream makes him aware of the fact that He who had placed can displace, and of the continual degradation of power in the kingdoms which succeed his own until at last they all together come to an end, smitten by a kingdom which becomes really world-wide and which stands forever. About this final kingdom little is said; only that it is of no human shaping, but set up in a peculiar way by the God of heaven Himself, that it destroys all others, and abides. It is the vanity and corruptibility of all mere earthly power that is insisted on: a homily against pride and independence of heart read to one who is in the greatest need of it.
In this view of the kingdoms, the debasing of material shows the decay of power in the successive forms. The Babylonian was the head of gold, owing no allegiance save to God Himself. In the Persian - the silver,- the law when made, although the king might make it, could not be altered even by himself. The kingdom of Alexander - the "brazen-tunicked Greeks" had risen on the ruins of a pure democracy, of which it retained many elements; while Rome, which succeeded this, though strong as iron, was in principle entirely such, the power of the emperors being gained by their assuming to themselves a number of democratic offices. Finally, in the latter days of the divided empire, the inroads of barbarian nations mixed the iron with clay. There was no real cohesion, and the heterogeneous elements falling apart, the kingdoms of Europe arose out of this division. But this was not the smiting of the image with the stone.
This belongs to a still future time, as we shall see, if the Lord will, as we proceed. The next four chapters of Daniel show, step by step, the character which these world-powers assume, and are the preface to the seventh chapter, in which they are viewed prophetically in their history as before God, the history in which these features are manifested. The third chapter shows the assumption of control over the conscience, which has characterised man's rule wherever he has had the necessary power. Nebuchadnezzar's image is marked as that which he has set up. To refuse to worship in the prescribed way is rebellion, therefore, against himself. How invariably, we may say, has the civil power assumed to be the religious also, wherever it could. Liberty of conscience - precious as the boon is,- is in our days the sign of the decay of absolute authority, and it will not last, but give way finally to the worst form of spiritual despotism which the world has ever seen. But this, as in the case before us, surely leads into opposition to God in the persecution of His people. Others may escape by submission, but not they; although the Son of God is with them in the furnace.
The fourth chapter is the descent of the kingdoms from what has at least the form of a man, as in the second chapter, to the beast-form in which they are seen in the seventh. It is the pride of power which forgets God, which levels man with the beast that has none. Nebuchadnezzar claims the great city over which he rules as built by his own power and for his own glory. In the same hour he is driven to the beasts, until he has learnt that the "Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will." Then he is restored, but the lesson remains, not, alas! to avert the doom of the Gentile empires, but as a note of warning for him who has the secret of the Lord.
The fifth chapter shows us the moral declension still progressing unchecked. Beishazzar openly lifts himself up against the Lord of heaven, exalting above Him the senseless idols of silver and gold; and fingers of door come forth and write his sentence before his eyes. Thus the Babylonian empire runs its course, and is followed by the Persian; but the Persian we see also, in the next chapter, brought in to complete the terrible picture of decline, ending in complete apostasy. The king exalts himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, making a decree that for thirty days no petition is to be asked of any god or man except himself. That Darius himself is not the real author of this decree, and is personally very different from what it would imply, does not alter the significance of this terrible act,- the presage of that last antichristian blasphemy for which the Gentile powers come to an end, while Israel, like Daniel, is delivered from the paw of the lion. The seventh chapter now gives these empires, seen in the prophetic vision, as four wild beasts. But attention is concentrated upon the last, and that, too, as seen at the time of the end. It has already its ten horns, corresponding to the ten toes of Nebuchadnezzar's image, and then there arises another little horn, on account of whose blasphemous words, the beast is destroyed, and his body given to the burning flame. But the kingdom now becomes His in whom meet the characters at once of the Son of Man and of the Ancient of days; and "His do-minion is an everlasting dominion, that shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."
Thus when Israel's course is ended for the present in utter ruin, God takes up the Gentiles, (not as yet to reveal Himself in Christ to them - that is another and totally different thing, as will, I trust, in its due place appear,)- but to give them their trial also. This will seem strange and contradictory at first sight, for has it not been just said that with Israel in the Old Testament man's history morally ends? That is surely true also. In all this history of the Gentiles, there is no fresh stirring of that question. No law, no moral code, is given to them. No revelations at all are made, save only Nebuchadnezzar's vision; although Cyrus speaks of a charge which God had given to him to build Him a house in Jerusalem. This he might readily have found in Isaiah's prophecy (chap. xliv. 28), and probably was shown it there. At any rate, the founders of the first two empires were made perfectly aware from whom it was they had received their greatness. Here all personal communication ends. God does not bring them nigh, as He had brought Israel. He has significantly left the earth, putting it afresh, in the most decisive way since Noah's time, into man's hand, but with scarcely a word as to its government. There was His written Word, indeed, if they had heart for it; for ignorant He took care, as we see in Cyrus, that they should not be. And there He leaves it.
What, then, can be the new test when God takes up the Gentiles? He has not left us without plain intimation as to this, and it must be our endeavour now to trace it out.
Two reasons the Word of God gives for the delay of Christ's coming. For why should God delay in what was nearest to His heart? The need of the discovery of man's need fully is the reason assigned. "When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." So there was a "due time;" and to what this has reference is plain from the apostle's statement. It refers to the trial of man morally in Israel under God's righteous law. This had been proved to have no help for man. Where it had found him, there it had left him - ungodly, and without strength. He was shut up to Christ, then; there was no hope but in Christ.
In i Corinthians, the apostle gives us another side of this delay. The Jew had had the law,- true; but what about the Gentile? Had God altogether left him out? The book of Daniel, if nothing else, would prove the contrary. Even God's silence, moreover, must have its significance. There must be a meaning even in "the times of ignorance" which "God winked at." And so the apostle declares. "For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of the preaching"- not the manner, but the matter -"to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom." But "hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" Yes, wisdom as well as righteousness, for Gentile and for Jew alike, are found in Christ: "who is made unto us wisdom from God, righteousness as well as sanctification and redemption:" "that no flesh should glory in His presence," but that "he that glorieth should glory in the Lord." Here, then, is the secret of the matter. The question of man's wisdom was for him an excessively grave one. Where had he got it? Alas! a "tree to be desired to make one wise" was the bait which Satan held up before the woman, and by which our first parents were seduced and fell. "Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil," says the tempter. "The man is become as one of Us," says the Lord God, "to know good and evil." What, then, is the value of the wisdom he has attained? Taught of necessity, into which he has now got, he has "sought out many inventions." The apron of fig-leaves was only the first of a long line which is not ended with the steam engine and the telegraph; and all, if it be considered, are but inventions to cover his nakedness, or like John Bunyan's "wholesome instructions," of which cart-load after cart-load the slough of Despond swallowed up, and was nowise bettered after all.
What blanks man's wisdom? We shall find it in the Old Testament "preacher", clothed in sackcloth though a king. For God has given us, as I have elsewhere said, side by side, in two Old Testament books, the two questions we are looking at. A divinely pronounced best man, Job, is the preacher of repentance: a divinely pronounced wisest man, Solomon, is the preacher of vanity. Yes, the vanity of wisdom, if it be only human, more than all. For the beast has no regrets and no sad anticipations; finds his place in a world of change, enjoying the present, and never thinking of the future. But man, if he does not know, anticipates and dreads; cannot bear his every-day burden and lie down in quiet. Death levels all; and what beyond death? Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward? Yet the heart says, "God judgeth the righteous and the wicked." Here we stop, the one thing certain our ignorance, with eternity in the heart and no sure outlook beyond time,- except God give it. Human wisdom fails: we must await, says one of the wisest of the Greeks, God's revelation.
But "vain man will be wise, though he be born a wild ass's colt." Even yet he prefers a guess to the truth,- the first being his own, the latter God's. It is strange and significant, in that blessed Word where all is significant, that in these two books of Job and Ecclesiastes, the Jew takes up the Gentile question, the Gentile Job takes up the Jew's. Thus the same truths are applied to all the world.
Notice, too, that Solomon is not only the wisest of men, but the richest and most powerful. Man's wisdom needs plenty of material to work with. God gives him all he can desire. When He takes up the Gentile, He gives him just the same things. The Gentile becomes the possessor of the world, and the controller of it But he only forfeits his power and loses it, runs through the portion of goods that falleth to him, and leaves his crown to his successor. The Babylonian leaves and the Persian enters; the Persian thrusts at the Greek, and falls by a back-thrust; the Greek power breaks into fragments, and is devoured piecemeal by the Roman. When Christ comes, after the predicted sixty-two weeks of silent waiting (Dan. ix. 26), the Roman is already issuing his mandate that all the world shall be registered, although he does not know that God is making him move all the machinery of his empire to bring a Jewish woman to Bethlehem, that her child may be born there, and then for years will stop the census, which is not taken up again till Cyrenius is governor of Syria. So must the world wait after all upon Christ.
And He comes, He lives among men, He dies, He ascends to heaven, and the Holy Ghost is sent down at Pentecost. The Church is formed, and the world is dropped. Since that time, the world has had no history. Even prophecy in the meantime is silent. The empires are for God already gone, although their history yet for a space will be taken up again after the Church is gone from earth, and when the harvest of the world is come.
The voice of Old Testament prophecy does not cease without predicting the time of the coming of the Deliverer, in whom now plainly is man's only hope. The seventy weeks of Daniel, to which we shall have to return hereafter to consider them more fully, foretell this as to take place sixty-nine weeks (of years - 483 years) after Nehemjah's commission to restore and to build Jerusalem. This plainly reaches to the time of Christ's public ministry, after which the prophecy declares He Would be "cut off." Before this, the Gentile empires have already reached their fourth or final form; the Jewish Maccabean revival has shown itself to be but the flash of an expiring flame; politically, the people lie helplessly under the foot of the oppressor, while the law is over-weighted by human observances, in the vain attempt to patch with new cloth their rags of legal righteousness. It is at this time, when utter failure and hopeless ruin are everywhere manifested, that we reach a new beginning,-the beginning of what is not susceptible of failure or decay at all. A new, a second Man,- since Adam, there had been no second,- appears upon the scene, to - be the "last Adam" of a new creation, "the Beginning" - of what God can identify as His thought from the first -"the creation of God."
Man, true and perfect Man, is here, holy and righteous, not merely innocent; perfect in obedience in the scene of the first man's failure - not in a garden, but in a wilderness, which sin has made the world. To man at first, the trial had been made as light as possible: to the Second Man, everything that could make the trial full and searching to the utmost was ordained. With miraculous power freely used in behalf of others, He never uses it to minister to His own need, or to take Himself out of the condition of absolute dependence upon God, which is the necessity of the creature. "Tempted in all things like as we are, sin apart" (Heb. iv. 15, Gr.), He not merely walks by faith, as the people of God in all ages have done, but is "the Leader and Perfecter of faith." (chap. xii. 2, Gr.) One who fills the whole possibility of such a life in His own person. Moreover, as He lives not in a scene like the first paradise, where all ministers to Him, so He does not walk as One who is served, but as One who serves. The law of His life is that of sacrifice. - He closes it with laying down of Himself what none could take from Him. His one principle throughout is, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, 0 God."
Such, then, as He is, He is no product of His times- no outgrowth of preceding generations. Light does not develop out of darkness, nor life out of death. And in Him the Eternal Life is manifest; not that He has it merely, struggling, as in His people, with many discord-ances; He is it,- the Eternal Life itself.
But this brings us where to know is to worship. It is God who is come down to us. He who visited man's abode in goodness at the beginning, to prepare it for him, has now visited it after another fashion; and "we beheld His glory," says the apostle, "the glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."
Here, indeed, is a new beginning, and who shall tell the blessedness of it? God, always Light, is now in the light. Exactly when it is fully proved that man can never find his way into the presence of God, His glory is unveiled, and in grace, not in judgment. Judaism is plainly over. God's grace can never be manifested side by side with law. The hopelessness of all attempt to develop anything out of man for God has been made apparent. And the light now come into the world, although not come to condemn the world, but for its salvation, yet only confirms the solemn fact. God's own Son, come in grace, awakes man's heart only to enmity and rejection of Him. It is not mere ignorance: "They have both seen and hated both Me and My Father."
He comes with His hands filled with the blessing which He has to communicate; With Him, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Let them own but to what palpably their sins had brought them, and He was there on God's part with remission of their sins. The power ready to banish from among them the effects of sin already showed itself. Sickness removed, Satan's power destroyed, death itself made to give way at His word, what more evident than that in Him God was reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them? Paradise was once more opening the way to the tree of life, where no flaming sword forbad men's access. Would not the blessing under their eyes prevent their refusing Him who thus by every tie of interest would bind them to Himself? So one might surely reason. Alas! such is man's enmity to God that not even blessing will win him to receive Him in whom alone it can be found. "For my love, they are my adversarieso they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love." Of this the cross is the fullest proof. They can taunt Him there with that good itself -" He saved others, Himself He cannot save."
Jew and Gentile have their part in. this. It is the commencement of that grand conspiracy which the second psalm predicts, and it ends not until the Lord asks and obtains the world for His inheritance, the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession. And how then must He make good His claim? "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." This is of course when He comes again; and the opposition, although at times more covert, only ceases then. "Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thy foes Thy footstool." Still we know He sits there; and then He actually comes forth (as Rev. xix. depicts it), it will be when the enmity of the world has blazed out again most fiercely, and there is no concealment of it any longer. The cross, then, is the expression, on the one side, of the world's hatred: "The mind of the flesh is enmity against God." Thus it is the judgment of the world - a judgment pronounced, but waiting execution. On the other hand, it is the expression of God's over-abounding grace-a grace reigning through righteousness unto eter-nal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Whatever man's enmity, then, this grace must find utterance - must be published and have its proclamation in the world. The sweet savour of Christ's work must come abroad. The fruits of it must be gathered and garnered. This pause of blessing is Christianity. Christ, then, as come to Israel, their Messiah, is (in the language of Daniel's prophecy) "cut off, and has nothing." Israel is not gathered. Three years He comes looking for fruit upon that fig-tree, whose leaves give a deceptive promise of fruit that is not found. But man's condition is apparent, and "without shedding of blood is no remission." "The Son of Man must be lifted up." His followers in Israel must see their Jewish hopes expire in His death, and be "begotten again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead," now "to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven."
Judaism must give place to the "precious faith" of Christianity. The risen Lord ascends to heaven, receives from the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost (Acts ii. 31), Pentecost beholds His coming, and the kingdom of God begins upon earth.
Yet Israel is not at once set aside; on the contrary, "to the Jew first" the message of grace is proclaimed. Nor only individually, but nationally also. The three years of Christ's ministry have found no fruit upon the barren fig-tree; still, the words are uttered, "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it; and if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that, thou shalt cut it down." So, at the cross, the Lord intercedes, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do;" and Peter proclaims to them the acceptance of that prayer:
"And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and He shall send Jesus Christ, who before was preached unto you; whomn the heavens must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began." (Acts iii. 17-2 i, Gr.) National repentance would even then avail to bring Christ back from heaven, and to bring in the glories of His reign on earth, as the Old-Testament prophets had pictured it. Alas! there was no repentance. Numbers indeed believed, but the nation remained what it remains to this day - rejecters of the Prince of Life. They who had said that if they had lived in their father's days, they would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets, proved themselves, as the Lord had predicted, the children of those who killed the prophets, by persecuting, even to death, the new prophets God had raised up. Stephen, arraigned before their tribunal, sums up their guilt, proving from their history how they had always resisted the Holy Ghost, rejecting the divinely raised up deliverers sent to them; and they consummate their sin by stoning him, and sending him, as it were, a messenger after Christ, to say, "We will not have this man to reign over us."
Thus the time given for repentance ends. Persecution scatters the saints from Jerusalem, and they go everywhere preaching the Word. Philip goes down to Samaria, and evangelizes it. Then the Ethiopian eunuch carries away his new-found blessing. Then Saul, the incarnation of Jewish enmity, is converted to be the apostle to the Gentiles; the first of them, however, are received by the apostle of the circumcision - Peter himself. Antioch soon after becomes the new centre of Gentile evangelization, and from thence Paul and Barnabas go forth to their mission among the heathen round. Jerusalem yet remains, however, and converts even multiply there greatly; but the nation is unceasingly hostile. Nor only so: the zeal for the law, which disfigures Jewish Christianity, and which warps even Peter himself and Barnabas (Gal. ii.), after it has been decided that it must not be imposed as a yoke on Gentile converts (Acts xv.), persuades even the great apostle of the Gentiles to conduct which brings the fury of a Jewish mob upon him, and shuts him up in a Roman prison. From Italy he writes to warn the Christians to leave the camp of Judaism altogether. Finally, according to the Lord's prophecy, Jerusalem is destroyed, and the temple-worship of necessity wholly ceases.
Alas! that still remains which becomes a subtle infection for the new and spreading faith. This we shall see, if the Lord will, as we proceed; but first, we must look at this new faith itself, and ask ourselves, (alas! in the nineteenth century of its existence, not a needless question,) What is Christianity?