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The Covenantal Kingdom

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Chapter Two:

Interpreting Prophecy

Creation Symbolism:

The Biblical Paradigm

Considering the place of figurative language in the Bible allows us to study the whole debate from a different perspective. We are looking for the Bible's own guidelines for understanding the Bible's own language. The problem is not just with the prophetic Scriptures -- figures of speech also occur frequently in the historical and poetical books. We need an approach to figurative language that relates all the strands of Biblical literature, an approach that is clear, consistent, and grounded in the Bible itself.

The Biblical doctrine of creation provides a theological and linguistic foundation that is comprehensive and consistent. A creationist hermeneutics can unite the various types of Bible literature and the figures of speech that occur in them. Bible scholar James Jordan offers a systematic approach to the Bible's use of figurative language, grounded in the doctrine of creation.[11] He treats symbolism as a central issue in understanding the Scriptures, based upon the doctrine of creation.

In his manifesto on Biblical symbolism, Jordan makes the following rather surprising statement:

Symbolism is more important than anything else for the life of man. Anyone who does not understand this has [not] yet fully come to grips with the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til, or more importantly, with the Biblical doctrine of creation.[12]

Jordan explains that the doctrine of creation means that the created order as a whole reflects the Creator Himself.[13] The entire creation -- as a whole and in detail -- points to God and is, thus, a sign or symbol of God. This perspective -- that the whole created world is a general symbol of God, and that man is a special symbol of God -- should be readily conceded by anyone who believes that God is the Creator. But this view is the very antithesis of the thinking of sinful men, who assume that things and events either have meaning in themselves or no meaning at all, and that whatever symbolic dimension there may be is added by man.[14]

As Jordan points out, symbolism not only precedes man's interpretation of reality, it precedes the very existence of reality. How can that be? Because God's plan to create the world to reveal Himself, that is, God's determination of the symbols of His glory, preceded the actual creation. In the Bible, essence precedes existence. The world is created in terms of God's previously determined meaning or interpretation. Man, rather than imposing a symbolic meaning on brute facts, is called to understand the God-created symbolism. Man's role in history is to discover the God-designed meaning of reality. When man attempts to create the symbolic meaning autonomously, he is denying that God created the world according to His plan to express the meaning that He intended.

The belief that man should not "create" symbols, however, is not to deny that man is a "symbolizer." On the contrary, man was created as a special symbol of God to reveal, among other things, the Creator's symbolizing nature. In this sense man cannot escape being a "symbol-generating creature." Although man's symbols are secondary, they are the means by which he restructures reality, which itself reflects God's primary symbols. Even as a sinner, man generates symbols. The problem is that he uses them to deny God and escape from the knowledge of God which everywhere confronts him. Nevertheless, the sinner's revolt against his Lord and King reveals his God-determined nature, for the sinner cannot change what he is: a symbol of God. Symbolism is central to his life, even as air, food, and water are inescapable concerns.[15]

The true knowledge and proper covenantal use of symbols, therefore, is a vital concern for Christians. How can we understand the symbolism of creation, however, given the sinful tendency of the human mind? Reason and common sense are certainly inadequate to guide us in the right direction. But God has given us in Holy Scripture a standard to enable us to understand both the symbolism of creation and the symbolism of the Bible itself. The Bible's approach to symbolism must be systematically studied in order to understand the teaching of the Bible and the symbolism of the world around us.[16] Systematic study of Biblical symbolism begins with an understanding of the symbolic themes in the creation narrative of the book of Genesis.

Jordan argues that symbolism is vital to our understanding of the Bible as a whole, since symbolism is essential to the entire Biblical worldview. Symbolism is especially important, however, for the exegesis of prophecy, because the basic symbolic themes of the book of Genesis[17] continue all the way through Scripture and find their realization in Biblical eschatology. Though Jordan himself has not written extensively on eschatology, David Chilton's Paradise Restored and Days of Vengeance apply Jordan's creation symbolism to the doctrine of the millennium.[18]

Creation Symbolism and Eschatology

Understanding Biblical symbolism in the doctrine of creation leads to a fresh approach to the interpretation of Daniel, Revelation, and other highly figurative passages. David Chilton follows Jordan's general outline of Biblical symbolism by interpreting prophecy according to the basic symbolic themes that arise from the Genesis creation narrative. When dealing with difficult figurative language, knowing the symbolic themes that run throughout the Bible, from creation to Revelation, helps us avoid the erratic, let's-decode-the-Bible approach. The book of Revelation is not interpreted by a speculative attempt to find prophetic fulfillments in the latest edition of the local newspaper, but by relating it to the whole of previous Biblical teaching.

In other words, the Bible itself is the "key" to understanding the Bible's use of figurative language -- not the cultural and linguistic orientation of the interpreter. As Vern Poythress points out, what may seem to a 20th-century American to be the "literal interpretation" of the text is not necessarily the most Biblical interpretation and may, in fact, be a speculative attempt to conform the teaching of the Bible to our cultural circumstances.[19]

As Chilton explains, symbolism gives us sets or patterns of association.[20] Reading Biblical symbolism is like reading poetry -- words conjure up pictures and associations with other words and ideas -- in particular, the themes of creation. Chilton also urges us to read "visually,"[21] since the basic creation themes of Scripture usually appeal to the world as we see it.

The ambiguity involved in figurative language does not inhibit communication. It is, rather, essential to the depth and breadth of poetic expression. Consider the words of Psalm 23:1, "The LORD is my Shepherd." No expositor can fully explain all that this passage means, because poetic expression is intended to be broader and deeper than literal language. But does the "ambiguity" of the figurative language inhibit communication? Not in the least. We meditate on the meaning of God's shepherd care in many different situations and enjoy Him in new and unexpected ways.

To illustrate the approach in more detail, consider the questions Chilton says we must ask in order to understand Revelation 12:1ff.[22] This passage speaks of a "woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon and laboring in childbirth while a dragon hovers nearby to devour her child." Chilton's interpretive method is in remarkable contrast to what is all too common in churches today:

A radically speculative interpreter might turn first to news of the latest genetic experiments, to determine whether a woman's size and chemical composition might be altered sufficiently for her to be able to wear the sun; he might also check to see if the Loch Ness Monster has surfaced recently. A Biblical interpreter, on the other hand, would begin to ask questions: Where in the Bible does this imagery come from? Where does the Bible speak of a woman in labor, and what is its significance in those contexts? Where does the Bible speak of a Dragon? Where does the Bible speak of someone trying to murder an infant? If we are going to understand the message of the Bible, we must acquire the habit of asking questions like this.[23]

To see how Chilton approaches a theme running all the way through the Scriptures, study the following extended quotation on the significance of mountains in Biblical symbolism:

Finally, a very important aspect of Eden's location is that it was on a mountain (Eden itself was probably a plateau on a mountaintop). This follows from the fact that the source of water for the world was in Eden: the river simply cascaded down the mountain, parting into four heads as it traveled. Furthermore, when God speaks to the king of Tyre (referring to him as if he were Adam, in terms of man's original calling), He says: "You were in Eden, the Garden of God. . . . You were on the holy mountain of God" (Ezek. 28:13-14).

That Eden was the original "holy mountain" explains the significance of God's choice of mountains as sites for His redemptive acts and revelations. The substitutionary atonement in place of Abraham's seed took place on Mount Moriah (Gn. 22:2). It was also on Mount Moriah that David saw the Angel of the Lord standing, sword in hand, ready to destroy Jerusalem, until David built an alter there and made atonement through sacrifice (1 Chron. 21:15-17). And on Mount Moriah Solomon built the Temple (2 Chron. 3:1). God's gracious revelation of His presence, His covenant, and His law was made on Mount Sinai. Just as Adam and Eve had been barred from the Garden, the people of Israel were forbidden to approach the holy mountain, on pain of death (Ex. 19:12; cf. Gn. 3:24). But Moses (the Mediator of the Old Covenant, Gal. 3:19), the priests, and the 70 elders of the people were allowed to meet God on the Mountain (after making an atoning sacrifice), and there they ate and drank communion before the Lord (Ex. 24:1-11). It was on Mount Carmel that God brought His straying people back to Himself through sacrifice in the days of Elijah, and from whence the ungodly intruders into His Garden were taken and destroyed (1 Kings 18; interestingly, carmel is a Hebrew term for garden-land, plantation, and orchard). Again on Mount Sinai (also called Horeb) God revealed His saving presence to Elijah, and recommissioned him as His messenger to the nation (1 Kings 19).

In His first major sermon, the Mediator of the New Covenant delivered the law again, from a mountain (Matt. 5:1ff.). His official appointment of His apostles was made on a mountain (Mark 3:1-13). On a mountain He was transfigured before His disciples in a blinding revelation of His glory (recalling associations with Sinai, Peter calls this the "holy mountain," in 2 Pet. 1:16-18). On a mountain He gave his final announcement of judgment upon the faithless covenant people (Matt. 24). After the Last Supper, He ascended a mountain with His disciples, and proceeded from there to a Garden where, as the Last Adam, He prevailed over temptation (Matt. 26:30; cf. Matt. 4:8-11, at the beginning of His ministry). Finally, He commanded His disciples to meet Him on a mountain, where He commissioned them to conquer the nations with the Gospel, and promised to send them the Holy Spirit; and from there He ascended in the cloud (Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:19; . . . )

I have by no means exhausted the list that might be given of Biblical references to God's redemptive activities on mountains; but those which have been cited are sufficient to demonstrate the fact that in redemption God is calling us to return to Eden; we have access to the Holy Mountain of God through the shed blood of Christ. We have come to Mount Zion (Heb. 12:22), and may boldly approach the Holy Place (Heb. 10:19), granted by God's grace to partake again of the Tree of Life (Rev. 2:7). Christ has built His Church as a City on a Hill, to give light to the world (Matt. 5:14), and has promised that the nations will come to that light (Isa. 60:3). The prophets are full of this mountain-imagery, testifying that the world itself will be transformed into Eden: "in the last days, the mountain of the House of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it" (Isa. 2:2; cf. Isa. 2:2-4; 11:9; 25:6-9; 56:3-8; 65:25; Mic. 4:1-4). Thus the day will come when God's kingdom, His Holy Mountain, will "fill the whole earth" (see Dn. 2:34-35; 44-45), as God's original dominion mandate is fulfilled by the Last Adam.[24]

This excerpt illustrates both the immense practical value and the exegetical importance of recognizing basic creation themes in Biblical symbolism. Following such themes as the garden, the harlot,[25] the wilderness, the serpent-dragon, the cloud of glory, and the Biblical imagery of trees, minerals, water, and so forth, Chilton interprets the book of Revelation in the context of the whole Scripture by applying the vivid and powerful imagery of the Old Testament.[26] The imagery of Revelation flows from the stream of Biblical symbolism beginning in Genesis; it is an organic part of the Biblical story.[27]

Creation Symbolism and the Coming of Christ

One of the more controversial aspects of the eschatological debate is the Reconstructionist assertion that many -- not all -- of the New Testament references to the coming of Christ were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.[28] This assertion is based on the Old Testament symbolic language of judgment, which is itself grounded in the creation narrative.[29] Chilton, for example, points to Old Testament references to the coming of God -- thematically reminiscent of His appearance in the Garden -- in which no literal physical appearance actually takes place.[30] Rather, God "comes" in judgment through historical agents at His disposal. Thus the fall of Babylon to the Medes is described as the Day of the Lord in which the sun, moon, and stars will no longer give light (Is. 13:9-10). In the judgment against Edom the very host of heaven will "wear away, and the sky will be rolled up like a scroll" (Is. 34:4). At Samaria's destruction in 722 B. C., the sun again disappears (Amos 8:9). And God says to Egypt, "Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt" (Is. 19:1).

That such passages are couched in the language of final judgment is natural and to be expected, since all historical judgments are foretastes of the final revelation of God's wrath and the fulfillment of the Genesis warning: "You shall surely die!" The following language, for example, if not understood in context, would certainly seem to be either a reference to the Noahic deluge or perhaps eschatological judgment:

Then the earth shook and trembled;

The foundation of the hills also

Quaked and we were shaken,

Because He was angry.

Smoke went up from His nostrils,

And devouring fire from His mouth;

Coals were kindled by it.

He bowed the heavens also,

And came down

With darkness under His feet.

And rode upon a cherub, and flew;

He flew upon the wings of the wind.

He made darkness His secret place;

His canopy around Him was dark waters

And thick clouds of the skies.

From the brightness before Him,

His thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.

The LORD also thundered in the heavens,

And the Most High uttered His voice,

Hailstones and coals of fire.

He sent out His arrows and scattered the foe,

Lightenings in abundance,

And He vanquished them.

Then the channels of waters were seen,

And the foundations of the world were uncovered

At Your rebuke, O LORD,

At the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.

We know from the title of Psalm 18 that, although using apparently eschatological language, David is describing the Lord's rescuing him from his enemies. The Lord's intervention on behalf of David, however, is described as a cosmic cataclysm. The Lord came down from heaven and delivered David from those who sought to kill him. The passage sounds like the great passages of Scripture dealing with God's judgment of the world by the Flood, God's judgment on the tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the judgment of Egypt. It also sounds like references to the coming of Christ at the end of history. The various judgment passages sound similar because of a common symbolic system, and because historical judgments derive their meaning from their relationship to the final judgment to which they point.

The proper interpretation of the New Testament references to Christ's coming, therefore, must take into account the Old Testament prophetic language of judgment. The prophecies in Matthew 24, for example, follow Jesus' scathing denunciation of Israel's leaders in chapter 23. Matthew 23 includes Jesus' prophetic judgment that "this generation" shall persecute prophets and wise men sent by Christ and so be held guilty for "all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zechariah, son of Barachiah" (Mt. 23:35). That one generation should be held accountable for the crimes against God's righteous prophets of all generations suggests unparralled judgment.

Dispensationalists insist that the language in Matthew 24 must be eschatological, even though the New Testament uses the same figures of speech employed in the Old Testament to describe God's covenantal wrath. Matthew 24, for instance, speaks of a coming judgment on Jerusalem and therefore Israel. This passage contains expressions which in any interpretation must be regarded as figurative -- unless we believe that stars can "fall," etc. In fact the language in some places in Matthew 24 virtually quotes figurative language word for word from the Old Testament. Dispensationalists, however, assert dogmatically that we must "literally" interpret this language. But they are not always consistent. In Matthew 24:34, for example, Jesus states the time of that judgment very clearly: "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Mt. 24:34). Here they insist that "generation" should be given the figurative meaning "race" -- a meaning no where else supported in Scripture. Isn't it more "literal" to interpret the passage to mean the generation of Jews alive at the time Christ was speaking? This certainly appears to be a more Biblically justifiable approach.

Essentially Jordan and Chilton, in line with the preterist interpreters of the past, call for a re-thinking of the New Testament references to the coming of Christ. Given the covenantal connection between historical and eschatological sanctions, the sense of the language of judgment naturally is the same, even when the specific referent -- the flood, the exodus, the destruction of Jerusalem, etc. -- varies. Whether a particular passage refers to His final coming or to the imminent judgment on Israel must be determined by the context. The essential point that postmillennialists insist upon is that the Bible itself must be our standard for interpreting prophetic Scripture.


11. Jordan's work is especially important in that it is a further extension of Cornelius Van Til's epistemology. Though Van Til himself taught that all of life must be known and lived in submission to the Word of God, his categories of explaining the teaching of the Scriptures were taken from philosophy rather than the Bible. Of course, explaining the teaching of the Bible in philosophical categories is not wrong. Jordan, however, by expounding the Biblical worldview in terms of the Bible's own system of symbolism, has made the doctrine of creation normative for the methodology and content of our worldview. If nothing else, this approach is much easier for most Christians to understand. It has the further advantage of integrating the methodology and content of our worldview with our understanding of the language of the Bible. See Jordan's fascinating development of Biblical symbolism in Through New Eyes (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1988). Detailed studies related to a Biblical worldview are available from James Jordan's ministry: Biblical Horizons, P. O. Box 1096, Niceville, Florida, 32588. Another good introduction to this approach is James Jordan's cassette tape series The Garden of God, also available from Biblical Horizons. See also: James Jordan, Judges: God's War Against Humanism, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), and The Sociology of the Church (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Ministries, 1986).

12. James Jordan, "Symbolism: A Manifesto," The Geneva Papers, May 1984, no. 28.

13. Cf. Ps. 8:1,9; 19:1-6; 29; 97:6 Rom. 1:18-20; etc.

14. Cf. The Sociology of the Church (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Ministries, 1986), p. 283.

15. The above is a radical simplification of Jordan's presentation in "Symbolism: A Manifesto." It may be added that Jordan also believes that a concern for symbolism cannot be reduced to rationalism: "The primacy of the symbolic is not the same thing as the Greek notion of the primacy of the intellect, for symbolism often does not operate at the conscious or rational level of the human psyche. Symbolism entails the equal ultimacy of the rational and the non-rational (as Van Til might put it), unlike the intellectualist heresy which tries to shave away the mysterious."

16. Jordan's commentaries on the book of Judges and on the book of the covenant contain many illustrations of the practical, exegetical, and theological value of his understanding of symbolism. His commentary on Judges in particular is very helpful in understanding how symbols are used in historical narrative. It is not necessary to agree with all of Jordan's suggestions to profit from his very interesting approach. See: Judges: God's War Against Humanism, and The Law of the Covenant.

17. Jordan explains that the early chapters of Genesis provide basic symbolic themes that are developed through the rest of the Scriptures. To name just a few: Light and Darkness, the Spirit-Cloud of Glory, the Holy Mountain, the Garden-Sanctuary of the Lord, Trees, Rivers, Paradise, the Serpent, the Seed, the Mother, the Younger Brother, etc. See Jordan's series on Genesis One in the Geneva Review, starting from July 1985; his article "Rebellion, Tyranny, and Dominion in the Book of Genesis," Christianity and Civilization No. 3 (Tyler, Texas, Geneva Divinity School Press, 1983), pp. 38-80; and also David Chilton's exposition of these themes in Paradise Restored (Tyler, Texas: Dominion Press, 1985). Jordan refers frequently to Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).

18. See: David Chilton, Paradise Restored, and Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth: Dominion Press, 1987).

19. Understanding Dispensationalists, pp. 59-62.

20. Paradise Restored, p. 18ff.

21. Ibid., p. 19. On page 21, Chilton suggests the following rules for studying imagery:

1. Read visually; try to picture what the Bible is saying.

2. Read Biblically; don't speculate or become abstract, but pay close attention to what the Bible itself says about its own symbols.

3. Read the Story; try to think about how each element in the Bible contributes to its message of salvation as a whole.

22. Paradise Restored, p. 17.

23. Ibid. Chilton's humorous description of the extremes of dispensational interpretation may offend some readers, but the embarrassing fact is that premillennialists have used the headlines as a guide for exegesis throughout this century. See Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now!

24. Paradise Restored, pp. 30-32.

25. The great harlot of Revelation 17-19 is an interesting example. Though often understood as a reference to Rome, Chilton says that if we knew our Bibles well we would recognize the language as taken largely from other Biblical passages describing Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the harlot city fornicating with the nations in Isaiah 57 and Ezekiel 16 and 23. The harlot in the wilderness picture comes from Jeremiah 2-3 and Hosea 2. John's statement that the blood of the prophets and the saints is to be found in this harlot points to the words of Jesus concerning Jerusalem in Matthew 23:34-37. The city which has a kingdom ruling over all the kingdoms of the earth (Rev. 17:18) refers to Jerusalem as the center of God's kingdom, not to Rome, for John sees history covenantally. God's temple and God's people are central, not political power. Paradise Restored, pp. 187-93.

26. Cf. Days of Vengeance, p. ix., the comments in the Foreword by Gordon J. Wenham.

27. Paradise Restored, p. 15.

28. It goes without saying that this view is not original with Reconstructionist writers; it has been around for a long time. See J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), who refers to many older writers who also hold this position.

29. Cf. Meredith Kline, Images of the Spirit.

30. Chilton, Days of Vengeance, pp. 64-65, Paradise Restored, pp. 57ff., 97ff.; cf. also Kline, Images of the Spirit, pp. 97-131.

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