On the Symbolism of Prophecy - Russell

with special reference to the Predictions of the Parousia

J. Stuart Russell


(Editor's Note:  The following article was written by the late J. Stuart Russell and was appended as a note to his book entitled The Parousia, published in 1887.)


The slightest attention to the language of Old Testament prophecy must convince any sober-minded man that it is not to be understood according to the letter.  First of all, the utterances of the prophets are poetry; and, secondly, they are Oriental poetry.  They may be called the hieroglyphic pictures representing historical events in highly metaphorical imagery.  It is inevitable, therefore, that hyperbole, or that which to us appears such, should enter largely into the descriptions of the prophets.  To the cold prosaic imagination of the West, the glowing and vivid style of the prophets of the East may seem turgid and extravagant; but there is always a substratum of reality underlying the figures and symbols, which, the more they are studies, commend themselves the more to the judgment of the reader.  Social and political revolutions, moral and spiritual changes, are shadowed forth by physical convulsions and catastrophes; and if these natural phenomena affect the imagination more powerfully still, they are not inappropriate figures when the real importance of the events which they represent is apprehended.  The earth convulsed with earthquakes, burning mountains cast into eh sea, the stars falling like leaves, the heavens on fire, the sun clothed in sackcloth, the moon turned into blood, representations of great civil commotions, - the overturning of thrones and dynasties, the desolations of war, the abolition of ancient systems, and great moral and spiritual revolutions.  In prophecy, as in poetry, the material is regarded as the type of the spiritual, the passions and emotions of humanity find expression in corresponding signs and symptoms in the inanimate creation.  Does the prophet come with glad tidings?  He calls the forest to clap their hands. Is his message one of lamentation and woe?  The heavens are draped in mourning, and the sun is darkened in his going down.  No one, however anxious to keep by the bare letter of the word, would think of insisting that such metaphors should be literally interpreted, or must have literal fulfillment.  The utmost that we are entitled to require is, that there should be such historical events specified as may worthily correspond with such phenomena; great moral and social movements capable of producing such emotions as these physical phenomena seem to imply. 

It may be useful to select some of the most remarkable of these prophetic symbols as found in eh Old Testament, that we may note the occasions on which they were employed, and discover the sense in which they are to be understood. 

In Isaiah xiii we have a very remarkable prediction of the destruction of ancient Babylon.  It is conceived in the highest style of poetry.  The Lord of host mustereth host of the battle; the tumultuous rush of the nations is heard; the day of the Lord is proclaimed to be at hand; the stars of heaven and the constellations withhold their light; the sun is darkened in his going forth; the moon ceases to shine; the heavens are shaken, and the earth removed out of its place.  All this imagery, it will be observed, which if literally fulfilled would involve the wreck of the whole material creation, is employed to set forth the destruction of Babylon by the Medes. 

Again, in Isaiah xxiv, we have a prediction of judgments about to come upon the land of Israel; and among other representations of the woes which are impending we find the following: "The windows from on high are open; the foundations of the earth do shake. The earth is utterly broken down; the earth is clean dissolved; the earth shall fall, and not rise again," etc.  All this is symbolical of the civil and social convulsion about to take place in eh land of Israel.

In Isaiah xxxiv, the prophet denounces judgments on the enemies of Israel, particularly Edom, or Idumea.  The imagery which he employs is of the most sublime and awful description: "The mountains shall be dissolved; the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig-tree."  "The streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch.  It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall  go up for ever; from generation to generation it shall be waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever." 

It is not necessary to ask, Have these predictions been fulfilled? We know they have been; and the accomplishment of them stands in history as a perpetual monument of the truth of Revelation.  Babylon, Edom, Tyre, the oppressors or enemies of the people of God, have been  made to drink the cup of the Lord's indignation.  The Lord has let none of the words of His servants the prophets fall to the ground.  But on one will pretend to say that the symbols and figures which depicted their overthrow were literally verified.  These emblems are the drapery of the picture, and are used simply to heighten the effect and to give vividness and grandeur to the scene.

In like manner the prophet Ezekiel uses imagery of a very similar kind in predicting the calamities which were coming upon Egypt: "And when I shall put them out, I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark.  I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light.  All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over them, and set darkness upon the land, saith the Lord God":  (Ezek.  xxxii.7,8) 

Similarly the prophets Micah, Nahum, Joel, and Habakkuk describe the presence and interposition of the Most High in the affairs of nations as accompanied by stupendous natural phenomena: "Behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth, and the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place"  (Micah i.3,4). 

"The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.  He rebuketh the sea and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers.  The mountains quake at him and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence: yea, the world, and all that dwell therein. His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him" (Nahum i.3-6). 

These example may suffice to show, what indeed is self-evident, that in prophetic language the most sublime and terrible natural phenomena are employed to represent national and social convulsions and revolutions.  Imagery, which if literally verified would involve the total dissolution of the fabric of the globe and the destruction of the material universe, really may mean no more than the downfall of a dynasty, the capture of a city, of the overthrown of a nation. 

The following are the views expressed by Sir Isaac Newton on this subject, which are substantially just, though perhaps carried somewhat too far in supposing an equivalent in fact for every figure employed in the prophecy: - 

"The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom considered as world politic.  accordingly, the world natural, consisting of heaven and earth, signifies the whole world politic, distract and overthrown them; the creating of a new heaven and earth, and the passing of an old one; or the beginning and end of a  world, for the rise and ruin of a body politic signified thereby.  The sun, for the whole species and race of kings, in the kingdoms of the world politic; the moon, for the body of the common people considered as the king's wife; the stars, for subordinate princes and great men; or for bishops and rulers of the people of God, when the sun is Christ.  Setting of the sun, moon, and stars; darkening the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, - for the ceasing of a kingdom."  (Sir Isaac Newton, Observations on the Prophets, Part I, Chpt. 2) 

We will only quote in addition the excellent remarks of a judicious expositor - Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh: - 

"'Heaven and earth passing away,' understood literally, is the dissolution of the present system of the universe; and the period when that is to take place is called ' the end of the world.' But a person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament scriptures knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and new heavens. For example, 'Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.'  'For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain'  (Isa. lxv.17; lxvi.22)  The period of the close of the one dispensation and the commencement of the other is spoken of as 'last days,' and 'the end of the world,' and is described as such a shaking of the earth and heavens as should lead to the removal of the things which were shaken.  (Hagg. ii.6; Heb. xiv.26,27)"  (Discourses and Sayings of our Lord, Vol. I, pp.199,200) 

It appears, then, that if Scripture be the best interpreter of Scripture, we have in the Old Testament a key to the interpretation of the prophecies in the New. The same symbolism is found in both, and the imagery of Isaiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets helps us to understand the imagery of St. Matthew, St. Peter, and St. John.  AS the dissolution of the material world is not necessary to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, neither is it necessary to the accomplishment of the predictions of the New Testament.  But though symbols are metaphorical expressions, they are not unmeaning.  It is not necessary to allegorize them, and find a corresponding equivalent for every trope; it is sufficient to regard the imagery as employed to heighten the sublimity of the prediction and to clothe it with impressiveness and grandeur. There are, at the same time, as true propriety and an underlying reality in the symbols of prophecy.  The moral and spiritual facts which they represent, the social and ecumenical changes which they typify, could not be adequately set forth by language less majestic and sublime.  There is reason for believing that an inadequate apprehension of the real grandeur and significance of such events as the destruction of Jerusalem and the abrogation of the Jewish economy lies at the root of that system of interpretation which maintains that nothing answering tot he symbols of New testament prophecy has ever taken place.  Hence the uncritical and unscriptural figments of double senses and double, triple, and multiple fulfillments of prophecy.  That physical disturbances in nature and extraordinary phenomena in the heavens and in the earth may have accompanied the expiring throes of  the Jewish dispensation we are not prepared to deny.  It seems to us highly probable that such thing were.  But the literal fulfillment of the symbols is not essential to the verification of the prophecy, which is abundantly proved to be true by the recorded facts of history.

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