The calculation of times in connection with the coming of the Lord has been a fruitful cause of disappointment to those believing in the pre-millennial coming of the Lord while, to unbelievers in it. it has naturally given some apparent justification of their unbelief. Our Lord too has specially warned us against it. "It is not for you.'' He says to His disciples, in the forty days which intervened between His resurrection and ascension, it is not for you to know the times and the seasons, which the Father has put in His own power.'' (Acts. i. 7)
This has been sought to be explained as a temporary restriction now removed, and the language of the prophets, that the vision was shut up and sealed till the time of the end,'' but ''at the end would speak, and not lie,'' (Dan. xii. 9 Hab. ii. 3,) has been taken to prove that we might expect to know them all as the time drew nigh.
It is naturally enough asked, if the dates are in Scripture. must they not be intended to serve some purpose and, like all the rest of it, are they not " profitable for doctrine? '' Nor can we answer this. as long as it is not seen that " times and seasons '' are connected with Jewish hopes, to which the whole Christian dispensation is in reality an interregnum. The want of "rightly dividing the word of truth" is the great cause of perplexity as to its interpretation. The division of the Word into two Testaments ought to help us, and the apostle of the Gentiles distinctly teaches us that the "promises" of the Old Testament (taken in the letter) are Jewish Rom. 9: 3. 4); while the Gospel of Matthew. on the other hand, assures us that the "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven," the kingdom in the form it takes during the present dispensation - are ''things which '' up to that time had been kept secret from the foundation of the world".
It is therefore in vain to look for the record of events in Christendom in the prophecies of the Old testament. I do not deny, of course, a typical significance. but this only can he discovered by the direct teaching of the New and has limits as all typical teaching has, carefully to be ascertained. The literal application of Old Testament prophecy isalwavs connected with Israel as the subject of Divine care and providence, and the pivot around which the wheels of His earthly government revolve. The period in which they are nationally set aside is a gap, sometimes just marked out, often passed over in silence, a time of the suspension of purposes which are afresh taken up the other side of it.
But this uncounted interval of time deranges all attempts at calculation of the periods. Take, for instance, the great prophecy of the "seventy weeks" one of the highest importance to understand as connected with the whole plan of the book of Revelation the commencing and terminal points are marked as clearly as can be. The commencement is clearly passed for it dates from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem. Nehemiah's commission, about the middle of the fifth century B.C. The termination is when Israel's transgression is finished, and their sanctuary restored, a period as plainly not yet reached. And yet the whole period of 70 weeks is only 490 years, while more than 2000 have actually intervened. The reason for this is indicated, however, in the prophecy itself, which gives us 483 years or more to Messiah's cutting off, and then an uncounted time of desolation for the city and sanctuary, at the close of which occurs the seventieth week.
The gap is thus just indicated, but that which in the wisdom of God fills it up is left unnoticed: the Christian revelation alone supplies it. But often the gap even is not noticed, as where, in Isa. lxi. 2, "the acceptable year of the Lord" and "the day of vengeance of our God" are brought together; and in like manner the first coming of the Saviour often blends with His second coming.
A remarkable break in this way in the apparent continuity of Old Testament prophecy is found by comparing Rev. xvii. with Dan. vii. The latter chapter gives us the well-known four empires as apparently stretching from Nebuchadnezzar till the coming of the Son of Man. And upon this a seeming argument is based for regarding that coming as a spiritual one only, and the kingdom of the Son of man as the Gospel dispensation; For plainly the Roman empire which seems to exist in the prophecy up to that time is not existing now. It is broken up, the independent kingdoms vf southern and western Europe being its severed parts. Nor, from the prophecy of Daniel only, could we answer this. But in the light of Rev. xvii., we can at once explain it: for we find here a second rise of the Romish beast out of a non-existent state. "The beast that was, and is not, and yet is," should be rather (as is confessed by critics) "the beast which was, and is not, and shall be present" and thus the difficulty is cleared up in a way which makes this prophecy agree with the character of Old Testament prophecy generally, the days of the Gospel dispensation being omitted from it. Any reckoning of times into which this uncounted gap may come is thus seen at once to be impossible.
It is important to note this at the outset, when we propose considering the probable nearness of the Lord's approach. We are not going to set time, or take up chronology at all, in this connection. Still less are we going to supplement the teachings of the word of God with the calculation of the Pyramid measurements. God has given us Scripture as able thoroughly to furnish us to all good works, and it is Scripture alone that we admit as having title to be heard at all.
Astronomical cycles for the same reason we leave entirely to astronomers, refusing to be guided by anything which proposes itself to us as knowledge outside the volume of inspiration itself. To this nothing can be added, as no jot or tittle written there can fail. The rambling off to other things may be a proof of the ferment in which men's minds are, but it cannot be considered a healthy sign.
God's word itself, however, teaches us that we may be seeing the approach of "the day" (Heb. X. 21); and while we believe that to look for certain things as necessarily to take place before His advent would be in some measure at least to echo the wicked servant's cry, "My lord delayeth His coming," it is a very different thing to ask if there be not already signs to indicate His being near. That God has given us such indications to quicken our faith after so long a lapse of time as has been "since the fathers fell asleep," every one in whose heart glows the "blessed hope" will, I think, admit. Still it will not be in vain to remind ourselves of what may be familiar truth, while to many it may be encouraging to find how very much remains, after laying aside everything that is doubtful or obscure, in which we may surely see the glimmer of the morning.
There are signs, in fact, whichever way we look, in the social, political, ecclesiastical, and spiritual spheres alike.
We do not propose to classify them, however, in that way, nor pretend indeed even to enumerate them all - they are so many. We propose only to take up some of the most striking. To begin with what is most external. Politically there are many remarkable signs: the growth and extension of Russia, the revival of Italy and Greece, the Eastern question, the commencing return of the Jews to Palestine. With each of these we might fill pages, where we shall have to confine ourselves to as many lines.
1. Russia is the power spoken of in Ezek. xxxvlii. as to come up against Israel in the last days, when they shall again be dwelling safely in the land brought back from its long desolation. It is well known, although still struggled against, that instead of "chief prince of Meshech and Tubal," we should read Prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal." Unbelief itself can hardly maintain that Meshech and Tubal do not find their modern representatives in the countries of which Moscow and Tobolsk are the chief cities in this day. The oldest Greek translation (the Septuagint) also gives archonta Rhosh, the ruler of Rhos. The "land of Magog" no one doubts to be Scythia or Tartary, mostly now Russian; Persia and Togarmah (Armenia) are at his borders, as is also, the Asiatic Cush, in our version Ethiopia. Other names may be more difficult to identify; but these are ample to show that the great power foretold by Ezekiel is indeed getting ready to fill her predicted place, while she has been for long extending herself in the very direction indicated, the waning power of Turkey alone intervening.
2. The resurrection of Greece is another remarkable occurrence. She is expressly named by Zechariah as among Israel's adversaries at the time the Lord finally takes up their cause (Zech. ix. 13). Moreover, in Daniel (chap. viii.), "in the last end of the indignation" of God against Israel, we find a king of Greece who destroys "the mighty and the holy people" (Israel), and who at last, standing up against the Prince of princes, is broken without hand. He appears to be the final "king of the North" in the eleventh chapter, who manifestly, throughout the chapter up to this point, is a Grecian king.
Yet Greece had seemed to be, as a kingdom, blotted out of existence. She is risen up again, and bent upon claiming her old possessions, as we know.
3. Still later, and very recent indeed, is the revival of Italy. We have already seen that the book of Revelation fully recognizes a time of non existence for the Roman empire, which is yet to have a form it never has had, "ten horns," or kings, giving their power to the beast. The barbarian kingdoms of the past, formed by the division of the empire, never gave power to, but took it from, the empire; but in this form it also will be found in conflict with the King of kings, and be overcome by Him when He appears. (Rev. xvii. 11-14, xix. 11-21.)
Now the. empire still "is not," nor is it probable that Christians will see it restored; its time of revival fills up the interval between the time in which the Lord takes up His people, and that in which He appears in glory with them; but the kingdom of Italy, which had been broken up into a number of small states, is restored, and is an evident first step towards that which God has written, and which (spite of the anxiety of politicians to preserve the balance of power) will surely come to pass.
4. Again, everybody has heard much about "the Eastern question." But everybody familiar with God's prophetic Word knows that the East (particularly Palestine) is to be the place of settlement, Divine settlement, of national controversies. The powers of the North and South and West are thus depicted in a final struggle before the interference of Him under whose peaceful and powerful sway "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Man's "Eastern question" may not be at all the same as God's, and is not; but who that has looked as guided by the Word at the impending future, but must see that the one is rapidly merging into the other?
5. The return of the Jews to their land is actually accomplishing. In Jerusalem itself there are said to be now 23,000 Jews, and they are buying up all the available ground within it. Agricultural labour is being resumed, and the latter rains, long absent, are reported to be returning. A Jew is currently reputed to have a mortgage upon the land. Lastly, the British occupation of Cyprus is giving a new sense of security in the East, which must needs have the effect of encouraging their most sanguine expectations. Let us bear in mind, that Scripture intimates no complete return of Israel,- no proper restoration, in fact, till the Lord himself restores, and that after His coming. Their return before that is but partial, and in unbelief,- a state which will be the cause of their last and sorest trouble. But the budding again of the fig-tree is the Lord's own special sign of His being at the door; and the fig-tree (as in Luke xiii. 6) is the type of Israel (Matt. xxiv. 32). No more significant sign can we have than this.
6. Another prominent sign of the times is the spirit of lawlessness and independence prevailing everywhere. The spirit of Communism, in its various forms, is a matter causing the most serious alarm, not merely to despotic governments, but to those of the most popular character also: in the United States, for instance, as well as in Russia. Nor is this a mere passing ebullition. The rulers of conservative Europe have had uneasy and uncertain possession of their seats for a long time past. The voice of the people is making itself heard more and more, and in no respectful tones. They are newly interpreting the very ancient maxim, "Might is right," by the assumption that might should be with the many, and not with the few. In result it is individual self-will casting off restraint, and with man's law, God's also.
We shall find this character of the last days in the prophecies both of the Old and New Testaments. It is the "clay" which enfeebles the feet and toes of Nebuchadnezzar's imperial image (Dan. ii). Peter and Jude both speak of it as a special element in the decline and corruption of Christianity which they depict; but I must leave my readers to follow out this for themselves in Scripture: a mere reference to it must suffice us here.
7. That Christendom as a whole ends in open infidel apostasy is what the word of God distinctly teaches. Antichristian as Rome surely is, there remains yet to be developed a final form exceeding all in blasphemy and iniquity. The beast will at last throw off the woman who at first rides upon it, and with the ten horns will "hate the whore, and make her desolate and naked, and eat her flesh and burn her with fire" (Rev. xvii. i6); but it will be only to be found in open antagonism to the Lamb (ver. I 4). Popery will thus not be the last nor the worst form of evil. The Antichrist will deny both the "Father and the Son" (i John ii. 22). No longer content to be at all the "woman," and to own subjection to Christ at all, he will be "the man," although it be "the man of sin," and sit in the temple of God, and show himself as being God (2 Thess. ii.). Thus the present "mystery of iniquity" will issue in a "falling away," or apostasy, and that in a strong delusion in which all will be taken, who, while they had the truth, believed not the truth, that they might be saved (vers. II, ii).
Looking round, we may say that the apostasy has begun already. Germany, the leader once in evangelical reformation, has become the leader in a destructive rationalism which leaves little for the most open infidelity to destroy. In England it almost divides the Establishment with Puseyism, and has largely leavened the dissenting bodies. Dr. Smith and his following are signs of what is doing in Presbyterian ranks. In France infidelity has long shown an open and increasing front. In Italy and elsewhere a large number, who have learned it secretly under the garb of Popery, are escaping from the pressure of this, to practice it openly elsewhere. America is a field in which all growths develop rapidly, and where they attain, a corresponding stature. That God is working, with all this, I fully and thankfully own yet not to alter the face of things, but to save individuals out of it. When presently the voice of the Lord shall summon His own to meet Him in the air, Christendom will be but a tare-field ready for the burning, in the fire of His wrath.
8. Apart from this, the signs of the last days are, in the professing church, painfully evident. Such texts as "In the last days perilous times shall come; for men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof," need only be quoted. Those who are acquainted with the wonderful prophecy of Rev. ii. and iii., in which the whole course of the professing church is mirrored for us from the apostles' day till the Lord takes His people, will know how near the close we seem to be. I cannot do more than refer to this just now. In Philadelphia the last announcement of His coming is given, and the word is now, "Behold, I come quickly." Is not this the cry now to us on every side? Shall we not hear it?
9. But this links with another statement, and that also from the Lord's own lips. In the familiar parable of the ten virgins, in which the state of Christendom is described in connection with His coming, the tarrying time which has tested so the hearts of His people is brought to an end by the sudden cry, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet Him." That cry wakes up the sleeping virgins, and they rise and trim their lamps. Upon that the Bridegroom comes, too suddenly for some of the slumberers. Now the great and grave question is, is not the time of the church's slumber passing, if not past? Has there been nothing answering to that cry, the echo of the announcement to Philadelphia, "Behold, I come quickly?" Has there been no announcement? no consequent stir in the professing church? no fresh going forth with kindling of heart to meet One whose coming sounds to it as the greeting of a marriage bell,- the coming of the Bridegroom? If so, may we not be very sure that He is near?
Are you awake, reader? Has the cry thrilled your very soul? Do you respond to the love which greets you,- the love which expects response from His redeemed? Is it all settled and sure that you are His? Is your whole future His as well? If ere this year yet ran out He came,- if you began next year in eternity with Him,- would you regret it?