Milton Terry
©1898 by
Eaton & Mains, New York

THAT God has at many times and in many ways revealed him­self to men is a doctrine fundamental to the Christian faith, and the canonical writings of the Old and New Testaments are believed to be a truthful presentation of such divine revelations. These scriptures comprise a great variety of literature. In them we find ancient ballads, national songs, sacred lyrics, family records, theocratic history, lively narrative, charming romance, poetical dramas, visions and dreams of signal import, impassioned oracles of prophecy, and epistles and memoirs of the early Christian Church. Nearly every form of literary composition known to men is repre­sented in the unique volume. Fables, riddles, enigmas, allegories, parables, types, symbols, and idealistic pictures worthy of the most transcendent genius appear in great number and variety. It would seem that infinite Wisdom intended to appropriate every form and class of human writing in order to make each in some way contribute its portion to the preparation of an authoritative text­book for instruction in righteousness.

    This great variety of composition and modes of thought among the sacred writers has been too often overlooked. The Bible as a whole has been extolled for its supernatural contents to such an extent that not a few seem to have concluded there can be nothing really human about it. Such presumptions of absolute perfection in a book act as barriers against a thorough scientific investigation of its contents and are prejudicial to the interests of truth. All ideas of a normal progress in the revelation are excluded, and apologists, assuming that the morality of the patriarchs and judges ­of Israel must needs be consistent with Christian ethics, have become entangled in inextricable difficulties. The result has been a one­-sided and misleading trend of thought, which has furnished occasion for all manner of vagaries in biblical interpretation. The opening chapters of Genesis have been supposed to be an infallibly correct deliverance of the Creator himself on cosmology, geology, astron­omy, and natural science, and many have taken in hand to reconcile the record and the facts. In a similar way it has been presumed that the Book of Revelation contains detailed predictions of the Roman papacy, the wars of modern Europe, and the fortunes of Napoleon.

    Criticism, on the other hand, has too often gone to the extreme of ignoring the divine element in the Scriptures, and has in recent years so persistently looked after the original sources whence the biblical writers derived their material that the higher purpose of the sacred penman has been lost from sight. Gunkel, for example, in his Schöpfung und Chaos (Göttingen, 1895), takes great pains to show that the first chapter of Genesis is inconsistent with the lofty concept of all creation by one God which appears in Isa. 40:22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:7, 12. He finds there, on the contrary, numerous ideas and expressions which he considers so many echoes of most ancient times and fragments of cosmogonic myths. The chaos of darkness and the brooding of the Spirit over the waters are a reminiscence of the world-egg among the Indians, Egyptians, and Plicenicians. He concludes that Gen. 1 is mainly of Babylonian origin, and Gen. 2 a fragment of old Canaanitish thought. In the various Old Testament allusions to the monsters of the waters, leviathan, Rahab, and the serpent, he finds traces of primeval myths which the biblical writers have worked into their composi­tions. Also in the symbols of Rev. xii he seems concerned only to, prove a mythical origin for the ideas of the woman, the man child, the red dragon, the war in heaven, the great eagle, and the flight into the wilderness. That the analogies are often striking is apparent to every observer, and such investigation into the origin and subse­quent history of mythical ideas is of much archeological interest. How far the biblical writers, first and last, appropriated material from mythical and legendary sources is simply a question of fact and presents a legitimate field of scientific inquiry. But the real meaning and purpose of the Scriptures may be quite independent of that question. It matters not whence the material of Gen. 1 and 2 has been derived as to its possible primitive sources, nor how much the authors of Job and Isaiah knew about the myths of Rahab and the dragon in the sea; nor whether John, in Rev. 12, associated with the great red dragon and the war in heaven any well-defined ideas of the mythology of the ancient world. The one paramount question with the true interpreter of these Scriptures is, What ideas did the biblical writer intend to impart to his readers? It is not necessary to know all about a particular metaphor or the history of a familiar emblem in order to understand the purpose for which an author may employ it. All human speech is to a great extent a dictionary of forgotten figures of thought. There is a traditional element in a thousand familiar concepts which have passed from age to age, from race to race, and even from one religion to another. When, therefore, biblical criticism busies itself almost solely with questions of the origin of documents, and the more or less probable sources of particular figures of thought and of speech, it is apt to become one-sided and to miss the real object of the sacred writers.

    Our continuous inquiry in the present volume is not, Whence did the biblical writers derive their literary material? nor, How far did they modify older compositions to suit their plan? nor, What ancient myths and legends have they embodied in their books? but rather, What use have they made of their material, such as it is, for the higher purposes of divine revelation and instruction? We shall have no controversy with the methods or results of scientific criticism. We gratefully accept the facts and side-lights which archeological research has brought forth to the help of biblical study; but our work is constructive rather than analytical. Our chief aim is to show that the great religious lessons of these Scriptures do not depend for their value on questions of sources, and authorship, and dates of composition. The imperishable treasure of the Word remains, and may even be enhanced in its manifold capabilities by being thus enshrined in vessels noticeably human. Thus indeed may one see that “the highest human is divine.”

    In accordance with this general view I have chosen for exposition those portions of the Holy Scriptures which are remarkable for symbolical presentations of the works and ways of God. Happily it is no longer claimed among intelligent divines that all portions of the Bible are of equal value. A considerable number of the books are of a composite character, and some parts of single books as well as some entire books are better adapted than others to inculcate religious doctrine and morals. The relative importance of the different parts may be differently estimated, but it will scarcely be disputed that those scriptures which purport to contain particular revelations of the works and purposes of God are entitled to special consideration. The apocalyptic element in the Old Testament occupies a larger place than is commonly supposed. The Pentateuch and the Psalms, as well as the Prophets, contain a large amount of pictorial symbolism, and the Book of Genesis exhibits a symmetry of structure comparable to that of the Apoc­alypse of John. These apocalyptic portions of the Old Testament are essential to a proper understanding of the contents and struc­ture of the New Testament Book of Revelation.

    A careful study of these scriptures as a distinctive class of writings will show that the New Testament Apocalypse is the normal con­clusion of a series of biblical revelations, which from beginning to end make known, reiterate, and emphasize the fundamental truth that God is the Creator and Ruler of the heavens and the earth. He is the first and the last, and his holy purposes contemplate all the ages and conditions of the world. Clouds and darkness are round about him, his ways are in many places past finding out, but truth and righteousness are the basis of his throne, and he will surely punish the wicked and glorify the pure and good.

    The exposition of John's Apocalypse naturally occupies the largest as well as the concluding portion of the present volume. A rational interpretation of this remarkable production of inspired genius is one of the great needs of our time. The vagaries of literalist and "world-historical" expositors on the one hand have been offset by the conflicting theories of analytical criticism on the other, and the general confusion has thereby become worse con­founded. Our work will naturally be looked upon with disfavor by both these classes of writers. One will be scandalized by the fact that our exegesis finds nowhere in the prophecies of this book a prediction of Turkish armies, or papal bulls, or the German Refor­mation of the sixteenth century. The other class will find fault with the relatively small space given to the discussion of recent critical hypotheses of the composite structure of the book. In respect to all these criticisms we must let our interpretation speak for itself. If it is in the main sound and tenable all conflicting theories are thereby seen to be at fault, and it would be a bootless task to fill our pages with polemics which could be of no practical use to the common reader. If we are fairly successful in showing that the Apocalypse of John is a fitting conclusion to the biblical apocalypses and dependent mainly for its imagery on what is clearly traceable in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that it is in substance and scope only a symbolico-propbetic amplification of our Lord's escha­tological discourse as preserved in the synoptic gospels, we are thereby sufficiently vindicated against the charge of not paying detailed attention to other expositions.

    The Old Testament apocalypses are a necessary introduction to the interpretation of Jesus' eschatological sermon on the Mount of Olives and to that of the Apocalypse of John. If the reader will take pains to examine our references he will find ample proof that the principal sources of the New Testament prophetic language and imagery are the Hebrew Scriptures. Little help for valid exposition is to be found in the apocryphal apocalypses.(1) They are all at best but weak imitations, and move in a lower realm of thought. There is no evidence that the biblical revelations were in any considerable degree dependent upon that class of literature. Much less are we to search in heathen mythology for an immediate source of the imagery employed in the revelations of Daniel and John. That the war of nature's elements, and the concepts of dragons and monsters of the abyss have their varying mythological analogies in the traditions of ancient peoples, is simple matter of fact; but it is quite a different proposition to affirm that a New Testament writer appropriated such myths as a direct source of his symbolism. Whatever may have been their remote origin in the prehistoric times, and however the Israelitish people first or grad­ually came into contact with them, generations of Hebrew psalmists and prophets had so far consecrated them to the uses of a lofty theistic conception of the world that in the time of our Lord they had lost, for the devout Jew, their polytheistic connotation. John's Revelation is no loose compilation of documents, no incongruous structure of fragments. The author was a sublime genius, easily comparable with Dante and Milton, who found the suggestions of his imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures, but had the native ability and the divine inspiration to adapt his material to the scope and plan of his apocalypse. His originality is seen, not in the invention of all his symbols, but in the unique structure and the sublimity of his completed work.

    It is not the purpose of the present volume to furnish a textual commentary on the portions of Scripture here brought into discus­sion. The nearest approach to a full exposition is made in the treatment of the Apocalypse of John. No other method seemed so suitable for presenting in detail the import of that most notable revelation ofthings about to come to pass.” Being the consum­mation and crown of all the biblical apocalypses, it properly called for fuller treatment, and for the convenience of the reader the text (in the main that of the Anglo-American Revised Version) has been inserted in immediate connection with the exegesis. It was part of my original plan to incorporate a new translation, accompanied with critical and exegetical footnotes, of all the Old Testament apoc­alypses, but this was soon found to be impracticable within the limits of a single volume. My purpose is rather to write a com­prehensive and readable book, adapted to serve as a suggestive help toward the proper understanding of those scriptures which are regarded as peculiarly obscure. In carrying out this purpose I have also kept in view the hope of showing every candid and thoughtful reader that the divine purpose and the abiding lessons of these holy writings are not endamaged by the results of scien­tific criticism.

    For the sake of any who may feel regret that I concede so much to the findings of modern higher criticism I take this oppor­tunity to say that I have in some instances allowed the claims of a radical criticism, which I am personally far from accepting as estab­lished, for the very purpose of showing that the great religious lessons of the scripture in question are not affected by critical opin­ions of the possible “sources,” and date, and authorship, and redaction. To me and to many it is a pitiable spectacle to behold devout and learned men wasting their energy in the maintenance of a traditional theory of the origin of such books as Genesis and Isaiah and Daniel, as if the divine purpose and sole value of these scriptures must needs rest upon a questionable hypothesis of their human authorship. We cannot believe that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any respect for a tradition of the elders that cannot commend itself by open, manly, convincing argument, but presumes rather to hold its ground by dogmatic assertion and ecclesiastical oppression. For the Church's sake, for the sake of an untrammeled Gospel, for Christ's sake, let devout and conscientious criticism be at liberty to perform its legitimate work. God will smite that whited wall of a Protestantism which boasts its encour­agement of a free and fearless searching of the Scriptures, and yet dishonors its throne of judgment by imposing stripes on the truth­-loving disciple of Jesus, who studies with all diligence to present himself approved unto God and to handle aright the word of truth.

    It has long been my purpose to write three volumes on biblical interpretation and doctrine. The first of these, entitled Biblical Hermeneutics, appeared fourteen years ago (1883), and forms one of the volumes of the “Library of Biblical and Theological Litera­ture,” edited by Crooks and Hurst. The present treatise is the second in my plan, and, in nature and scope, is supplementary to the Hermeneutics, being an extended application and illustration of the principles of interpretation set forth therein. The remaining vol­ume, on Biblical Dogmatics, will be an essay toward a luminous, simple, and systematic statement of the principal doctrines of the Old and New Testaments.

End Notes

  1. A brief account of apocryphal apocalypses is given in the Appendix to this volume. However valuable for other purposes, none of them are capable of shedding any considerable light on the canonical Scriptures. Their secondary and inferior char­acter serves rather by its obvious contrast to enhance the real dignity and originality of the biblical apocalypses.