Humility is essential when addressing one such as J.C. Ryle, first bishop of Liverpool and beacon of 19th century Anglican Evangelicalism, and I am sure there will be those who suggest that humility is not my strong point.
In his book ‘Are You Ready for the End of Time’ Ryle claims that Christians have taken literally the biblical condemnations – and applied them to the Jews – and taken spiritually the promises – and applied them to the church. There is a deal of truth in his warning, and much that he writes to which we should pay attention, even 150 years after he published. If he is correct in diagnosing a problem, he is wrong in identifying the treatment; seriously mistaken in his understanding of how the prophetic works. Ryle insists that, whether for the first or second advent, (and his direct concern is of the Second), our interpretation of prophecy must be literal and exact. If only scripture were that straightforward. As a beginning example, not of prophecy but of God’s direct word, we have the flood story. In Genesis chapter 6, to himself God says, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created, people together with animals…”. Then to Noah,
“I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth… I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy it from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.”
Sounds fairly straightforward, especially if we take it literally and exactly, ‘but Noah found favour in God’s sight’. Taken literally and exactly as Ryle wants involves a literal and exact contradiction. The problem isn’t God’s; it is Ryle’s, and ours. The ancient peoples of Israel would have understood. Here is a relatively simple example of how paradox is used to create tension in a story. God will destroy: God will destroy utterly: but grace is present, if faith can be found.
Ryle, in his book, demands that we speak to ‘the Jew’ as literally about the Second Coming as we do about Christ’s first; that we are as exact with Isaiah 11 as we are with Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 is clearly understood by Christians as referring to Jesus, see for example Acts 8: 26-39. Yet even here there is paradox. The one who was “despised and rejected by others”, the one who had “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” was so undesirable that – paradoxically to spell it out – he attracted hundreds to hear his words and feel his healing touch. Some even thought he might be Messiah. If there is paradox here then try reading Isaiah 53 in the context of chapters 48 onwards (noting, perhaps especially in this context, chapter 49 verses five and six).
Ryle wants his readers, including presumably those who promote the modern state of Israel by quoting him in their publicity, to pay as exact and literal attention to Isaiah 11 as to Isaiah 53. Let us see what happens when we do. The first problem is where to begin. The chapter and verse divisions so familiar to us are a relatively late development: chapter divisions from the 13th century and verses from the 16th. (Complicating matters, The Masoretic text, so I understand, is in some places divided differently).
We could begin for example in chapter 8 where is prophesied that the king of Assyria will take ‘the spoil of Samaria’ and ‘Sweep on into Judah as a flood’ with the strange ascriptions ‘Immanu el’ ‘God is with us’. Exactitude here is problematic, for, whilst Assyria took Samaria, and, one presumes, it’s ‘spoil’, in 722 BC., it was another Empire and a different century before Judah was overtaken: by Babylon in the period 597 to 585 BC. Does it need a ‘nod’ toward that ‘failed prophet’, Jonah, for us to understand that prophecy often foretells a future that will happen unless we change. The paradox, present from Moses onwards (read Deuteronomy) is that even when people change, as with, for example, Hezekiah, it won’t be sustained, see Manasseh (2 Chron. 29 & 33).
Moving on into chapter 9 we meet an early ‘fulfilment’ reference from Matthew’s Gospel ‘so that what has been spoken…’ (Matt 4: 13-17 referencing Isaiah 9:1-2). Chapter 9 has the verse, ‘For a child has been born for us …’ clearly: even exactly: a first Advent reference. That being said Chapter 10 verse 1 on could stand for the Israel of today,
‘Ah, you, who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice … what will you do on the day of punishment …?’
In the same chapter we read of ‘a remnant of Israel’, ‘a remnant of Jacob’ and we are told:
For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord God will make a full end, as decreed in all the earth. Isa 10:22-23).
the text could indeed signify the second advent beginning as it does ‘on that day’ (v.20) but not without difficulty. If we are looking for literal exactitude we must ask when were the people of Israel even ‘like the sand of the sea’. Also, is ‘that day’ at verse 20 the same day as ‘that day’ at verse 27, a problem that extends into Chapter 11 at verses 10 and 11, and on into chapter 12 at verse one.
If these chapters speak exactly and only of the second Advent then Chapter 11, set in the middle of them, raises further problems for Bishop Ryle. Is the ‘shoot’ and ‘branch’ of verse 2 the same as the ‘root of Jesse’ at verse 10; and, if not, why, and what determines the difference? If verses 1 to 3 are clearly first advent where do we locate the subsequent verses? They seem to be both now, verse 5, but not yet, verse 6. For Bishop Ryle and those who use his writing in support of Israel, the modern nation state, problems multiply from verse 10. These verses, given as evidence for a Jewish pre-second-coming ‘restoration to their land’, are actually evidence to the contrary. Only ‘on that day’ will ‘the Lord… extend his hand… and assemble (them) from the four corners of the earth’. Taking this text literally and exactly, if it is ‘second Advent’, then the assembling of Israel and Judah takes place on that day and not before. (All of which raises important questions as to the meaning of ‘on that day’. Questions which cannot be dealt with here).
Another text put forward by Bishop Ryle, and used by Balfour ‘celebrationists’ as justifying belief in the restoration of Jews to their land before the second Advent, is Jeremiah 30: 10-11. Once again these verses, placed in their context, are far from straightforward, especially given Ryle’s insistence on a literal and exact understanding. Verse 11 for instance concludes, ‘… I will chastise you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished,’ which, when compared with the fate of ‘all the nations’ seems good until we read on into verses 12 and 13: ‘… Your hurt is incurable and your wound is grievous. There is no one to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you.’ This continues into verse 15, ‘why do you cry out over your hurt? Your pain is incurable. Because your guilt is great…’ . But, ‘for I will restore health to you…’ in verse 17. Could it not be more evident that we are in the realm of metaphor and paradox. However much we may desire helpful literalism, scripture denies us; there is work to be done.
Here, again we have ‘that day’ in verses 7 and 8 and ‘the days’ in verse 3. Whichever way we read these verses, if they refer to a nation of Jacob returning to Palestine that event must be post-second Advent. If the attempt is made to locate verse 8 in the events 1947-9, we are required to make a biblically unjustifiable separation from verse 9, ‘they shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, who I will raise up for them’. In any case verse 8 depends on the action of ‘the Lord of hosts’, ‘on that day’. There is a clear indication of an event that is Righteous, and completed with an identified individual about whom there can be no doubt, by contrast with a wholly human, and heavily unrighteous, series of events which began before 1948 and continue to this day.
Ryle’s use of Daniel chapter 12 verse 1, I find particularly odd. To be sure, Michael is identified as ‘the protector of your people’ but there is nothing here about restoration to the land. Taken as literally as possible ‘your people shall be delivered’ is not to land but to judgement. Christians believe that Jesus will return for the final judgement. Daniel writes ‘many shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt’ . There is nothing here to justify belief in the restoration of Jews to Palestine (on the assumption – unproven and unprovable – that Jews are the ethnic descendents of Jacob-Israel and sole inheritors of the land promises to Abraham and Jacob).