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Dispensationalism’s Interpretive Inconsistencies

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Dispensational author Paul Benware accuses preterists of not interpreting prophetic passages in a literal way. As an example, he points to Matthew 24:29: “But 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.” Since Jesus tells His questioners that this event will take place before “this generation passes away” (Matt. 24:34), and “this generation” refers to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking, the sun, moon, and stars language must refer to events of the first century. Dispensationalists say this is impossible given a literal hermeneutic. When similar passages are found in the Old Testament, dispensationalists have no trouble dropping their so-called literal hermeneutic.

Charles L. Feinberg, writing in the dispensational Liberty Bible Commentary, writes: “The sun, moon, and stars indicate a complete system of government and remind the reader of Genesis 37:9.”[1] Notice that Feinberg argues that sun, moon, and stars relate to “a complete system of government” and not literal stellar phenomena. He also references Genesis 37:9 where sun, moon, and stars are used as symbols for Israel. Other dispensational authors follow a similar pattern of interpretation.

John A. Martin, writing in the dispensational-oriented Bible Knowledge Commentary, argues that “the statements in [Isaiah] 13:10 about the heavenly bodies (stars … sun … moon) no longer functioning may figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of the Near East. The same would be true of the heavens trembling and the earth shaking (v. 13), figures of speech suggesting all-encompassing destruction.”[2] So why couldn’t Jesus be using the language from Isaiah 13:10 in Matthew 24:29 to “figuratively describe the total turnaround of the political structure of” Israel that took place with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70?

Consider the comments of dispensational author John F. Walvoord on Revelation 12:1 and how he draws from the Old Testament to explain the meaning of the cosmic language used: “The description of the woman as clothed with the sun and the moon is an allusion to Genesis 37:9–11, where these heavenly bodies represent Jacob and Rachel, thereby identifying the woman with the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. In the same context, the stars represent the patriarchs, the sons of Jacob. The symbolism may extend beyond this to represent in some sense the glory of Israel and her ultimate triumph over her enemies.”[3] If sun, moon, and stars represent Babylon (Isa. 13:10) and Israel (Gen. 37:9) in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Rev. 12:1), then why can’t sun, moon, and stars represent Israel in Matthew 24:29? Benware never discusses these issues and seems oblivious to what his fellow dispensationalists say about the nature of cosmic language and how the prophets use it to describe past local judgments.

R.T. France’s comments on the use of cosmic language from his commentary on Mark 13:24–25, which parallel Matthew 24:29, show how Jesus borrows language from the prophets and uses them to make His judicial case against Israel:

The passages cited in [Mark 13] vv. 24b–25[4] use the language of cosmic disintegration to denote, as often in prophecy, climactic (not climatic!) changes to the existing world order. The lights are going out in the centres of power, and the way is being prepared for a new world order. . . . The language of v. 24b is paralleled at several points in the prophetic literature (Ezk. 32:7; Jo. 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9) but is verbally most closely related to LXX[5] Is. 13:10, part of the oracle against Babylon. . . . In most of these passages the immediate reference is to the imminent downfall of specific nations (Egypt, Babylon, Edom, Israel, and Judah). . . . In the original prophetic context, therefore, such ‘cosmic’ language conveys a powerful symbolism of political changes with world history, and is not naturally to be understood of a literal collapse of the universe at the end of the world. . . . The natural sense of such language, used in a Jewish context, is surely clear. Mk. 13:24b–27 is not about the collapse of the universe, but about drastic events on the world scene, interpreted in the light of the divine judgment and purpose. What is startling about the use of such language by Jesus in this context is not that he uses the same language as the prophetic, but that he uses it with regard to the fate of Jerusalem and its temple.[6]

A good way to test interpretive methodologies is to compare Psalm 18 with the actual historical events when “the LORD delivered [David] from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” The language of the Psalm is as apocalyptic to what we find in Isaiah 13:10, Matthew 24:29, and Mark 13:24–25, and yet Psalm 18 describes God’s deliverance of one man over his flesh and blood enemies with depictions of a “volcanic eruption that shook the mountains and raised the sea bed.”[7] A reading of David’s encounter with Saul in the historical narratives of 1 Samuel will show that no series of events line up with the narrative of Psalm 18. Following the standards of dispensational interpretive principles, the descriptions in Psalm 18 are yet to be fulfilled in some future prophetic scenario when David and Saul are raised from the dead to battle again.

Benware and other dispensationalists insist on a literal interpretation of Revelation. If the claim is made that the “stars” are actually meteorites, then there is a problem with Revelation 12:4 where a “great red dragon” uses his “tail” to sweep a “third of the stars of heaven” to throw “them to the earth.” Such a barrage would destroy the earth, making it uninhabitable for man and beast for millennia. And yet, we are to believe that the armies of the entire world are going to pick a fight with Israel (Rev. 16:13–16) after a third of the earth’s population has been wiped out. Robert L. Thomas, who consistently criticizes those who interpret much of Revelation as symbolic, interprets the stars as “angels who fell with Satan in history past.”[8] He might be correct, but this seems to violate his interpretive premise and that of dispensationalists in general that “a symbolic interpretation assumes the absence of strict realism in a vision.”[9] So why not a real red dragon and literal stars in this context?

Footnotes:
[1]
Charles L. Feinberg, “Revelation,” Liberty Bible Commentary: New Testament, eds. Jerry Falwell and Edward E. Hindson (Lynchburg, VA: Old-Time Gospel Hour, 1982), 820.
[2]John A. Martin, “Isaiah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 1059. Futurist William E. Biederwolf offers these comments on Isaiah 13:10: “Here is the usual description or the usual Scriptural characteristics of the ‘day of the Lord’—any day of His judgment. Here it must be figurative for anarchy, distress and revolutions of kingdoms, ‘although,’ says Fausett, ‘there may be a literal fulfillment finally, shadowed forth under this imagery.’ (Rev. 21.1.)” (The Millennium Bible [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, (1924) 1964], 65).
[3]
John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 188. Emphasis added. Michael Wilcock’s comments are equally helpful: “[The woman] is not simply Mary, the actual mother of Jesus; nor Mary’s ancestress Eve, whose offspring was to be the serpent’s great enemy (Gn. 3:15); nor even all mothers in the chosen line between them. For regarded as a ‘sign,’ she is adorned with the splendour of sun, moon, and twelve stars, which in a parallel Old Testament dream (Joseph’s in Gn. 37:9–11) represent the whole family of Israel. . . . She is in fact the church: the old Israel [Acts 7:38], ‘the human stock from which Christ came’ (Rom. 9:5, Knox), and the new Israel, whom he has now left in order to go back to his Father’.” (Michael Wilcock, I Saw Heaven Opened: The Message of Revelation [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976], 118–19].
[4]“But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24–25).
[5]
LXX=Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
[6]R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 530, 532–533.
[7]George R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 6.
[8]Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 124.
[9]
Thomas, Revelation 8–22, 16. John Walvoord, a thorough-going dispensationalist, sees the stars as symbols of political powers. See his The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 189.

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