Studies in the Scriptures
by Arthur W. Pink
We have decided to write, or rather compile, this article, as an appendage to the recent ones on Conditions in the Past, that our readers may be furnished with a sample of the thoughts and opinions of men in previous generations respecting the coming of our Lord and the end of the age. Not only hysterical sensationalists, but some of the most sober minded and spiritual servants of God have attempted to draw conclusions and forecast the future from the “signs of the times” which appeared in their sky. The state of the world in their day, the corruption and apostasy of Christendom, and the calamitous judgments sent by God on an evil and adulterous generation, convinced them that such things were most certainly the immediate prelude to the appearing of Christ in Person. Others averred that Divine Prophecy intimated the very year in which the Papacy would be overthrown or the Day of Judgment would occur.
“Towards the close of the tenth and at the beginning of the eleventh centuries the passion for pilgrimages was greatly increased by an opinion which prevailed all over Europe—that the thousand years mentioned by John in Revelation 20:2-4 were nearly accomplished, and the end of the world at hand. A general consternation seized the minds of men. Numbers relinquished their possessions, deserted their families and friends, and hastened to the Holy Land, where they imagined Christ would suddenly appear to judge the living and the dead” (From “A History of the Church” by Charles Goodrich, 1835, p. 104). Perhaps some of our readers are inclined to smile at the credulity of those who lived a thousand years ago, but we can assure them that human nature is still the same. The writer is personally acquainted with a lawyer of considerable repute, who thirty years ago was so convinced by “the signs of the times” that the coming of Christ was at the very doors, that he abandoned all thoughts of provision for old age and gave away his fortune to the promotion of missionary work. Recently, when past three score and ten, he has been obliged to take up again the practice of law to provide for his daily needs. Nor is this by any means an isolated case.
In his work on the Thessalonian Epistles, John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, (1583 A.D.), in his comments on 1 Thessalonians 5:1 said, “What may we think then, of them that write books and almanacs, and say such a year and at such a time Christ shall come; and with their fine speeches tray [frighten] and mock the world? These two hundred years past, there have ever been some which have adventured to tell such news. They have appointed many such years, and days; only to give witness to their folly” (p. 123). William Perkins informs us (Vol. 3, p. 473), “A Jew prophesied that in the year 1364 Messiah should come and deliver his own nation,” and that a celebrated astrologer, by the name of Albumazar, “prophesied that in the year of our Lord 1460 an end should be made of the Christian religion.” In his piece on “The End of the World” (which the printer in 1604 says “was written many years ago”) Perkins represents one saying, “All the signs of the coming of Christ are fulfilled: O what terrible earthquakes have there been! what famine! what wars and revolutions among men! what signs in the sun and moon! what flashing in the air! what blasting stars! Surely, surely the world cannot last long” (Vol. 3, p. 470).
In the same piece Perkins went on to quote the following, as something which deeply stirred many in his early days:
“When after Christ’s birth there be expired,
of hundreds fifteen, years eighty and eight,
Then comes the time of dangers to be feared,
and all mankind with terrors it shall freight:
For if the world in that year do not fall,
if sea and land then perish nor decay:
Yet empires all, and kingdoms alter shall,
and man to ease himself shall have no way.”
Again we say, such silly doggerel may now raise a smile (but for many years thousands were terrified by it), yet we well recall that in our early boyhood many in this country were rendered uneasy by the prophecies of “Mother Shipston,” two of which were: “Carriages without horses shall go, and accidents fill the world with woe,” and “The world to an end shall come, in eighteen hundred and ninety one.”
“If any age had cause to think Christ would come, certainly we have. It was not far off in the Apostles’ days—they were called ‘the last days’; but ours are the very dregs of time. When we see an old man weak and feeble, aches and diseases of the present life increasing upon him, we say, Certainly he cannot live long: so if we look upon the temper of the world, surely it cannot endure long; Christ will come to set all things at rights” (Thomas Manton, Vol. 16, p. 215). Yet almost three hundred years have passed since that able expositor drew his conclusion: and for all we know another three thousand years may yet run their course before human history expires.
After referring to a number of different ones who had prophesied the exact year in which Popery was to be totally destroyed, Thomas Goodwin went on to say, “I find also Mr. Mede in his Clavis, to pitch upon 1656, though tacitly and implicitly, yet clearly enough, as the time he is most inclined unto for the expiration of Antichrist’s kingdom. For in his ‘Synchronisms,’ he makes the first trumpet and the Pope’s 1260 days to begin together; and in his ‘comment’ he makes the beginning of the first trumpet to be in the year 395. So that if the reign of Antichrist begins at the year 395 A.D., then his 1260 days or years will end in 1655. And thus there will be so many years from Christ unto the beginning of the new world, as there was from the beginning of the world until the days of Noah, unto which Christ compares His coming, even 1656 years” (Vol. 3, p. 196).
In 1655 the Church of France thus addressed itself to brethren abroad: “Inasmuch as by these overturnings of the world, ’tis visible that its last end cannot be far off, and that our long-looked and long-hoped for redemption, and the coming of the eternal kingdom of the Son of God draweth nigh” (J. G. Lorimer, “Protestant Church of France,” 1842, p. 199). In a letter to General Fleetwood, Oliver Cromwell said (August 22, 1653): “If the Day of the Lord be so near, as some say, how should our moderation appear!” (from J. H. D’Aubigne’s “Vindication of the Protector,” p. 159).
Well did John Owen (v. 17, p. 552) warn people of his day, “But in the meantime what things may come, I know not. Those who pretend to a clearer inspection into future things may not do amiss to strictly examine the grounds whereon they proceed. For many have been ashamed of their predictions, that within such or such a time the yoke of Babylon (Rome) should be broken.” The only difference in our day is that modem prophets (?) are devoid of shame, for when the flight of time refutes their fancies, instead of acknowledging they were wrong, they manipulate their premises and draw new conclusions, always fixing their dates just a few years in the future, thus keeping their dupes continually on the tiptoe of expectation.
“But this same revelation informs us that it shall not always be so: the time is coming, and is now just at hand, when God will destroy the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations, by causing the Gospel to be preached to them all, in giving them a heart to discern and understand the truth. Then ‘the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days.’ And the eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear, shall hearken. The heart also of the rash or foolish shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly, and the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (S. Hopkins, 1772, a contemporary and intimate friend of Jonathan Edwards in New England, Vol. 1, p. 56).
“There are certain very memorable events, the dates of which are peremptorily fixed: as the treading of the Holy City forty-two months, the witnesses prophesying in sackcloth and under discouragements a thousand two hundred and three-score days; during which term of days also the Church is to be nourished in the wilderness even for a time, and times, and half a time; and power is given to the beast, or Antichrist, to continue forty and two months (Rev. 11:2, 3; 12:6, 14; 13:5). All which began, and will end together; for these dates are exactly the same; and could we be certain when these dates begin, we should have no difficulty about the expiration of them, or how long it is to be. Good men have been mistaken in their calculations for want of this: however, though we can come at no certainty as to the precise time these things shall be, yet some degree of understanding of these times may be come at; and from the circumstances of things it may be concluded that these dates cannot reach beyond an hundred and fifty years more, and it may be they may expire much sooner” (John Gill’s sermon on Isa. 21:11, 12, preached December, 1750).
“Why cannot you pray along with the faithful for Christ’s speedy coming? Surely you do not doubt of the fact that He will come to judge the world is as certain as that He did come at the first time to judge the Jewish nation: ‘For we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ.’ The matter of fact upon Scriptural principles is undeniably clear and certain. Why then are you not so prepared for it as to make it the subject of your prayers? Is it because you put it at a great distance, and therefore think yourselves safe? Consider attentively what the Scripture says upon this point. Our Lord has given us several marks or signs of His coming, by which we might know as certainly when it was at hand, as we could know when the fig-tree puts forth her green figs that summer is nigh. There were to be wars and rumours of wars, pestilences, earthquakes in divers places, very little true faith left upon the earth, and yet as great security among careless sinners as there was in the days of Noah, when the flood came and swept them all away.
“Do you think these cannot be the forerunners of our Lord’s speedy coming because there always have been such things in the world? But when all these signs are at once upon the earth, and in a manner they never were before, then they become loud calls to an immediate preparation. Were there ever greater wars, or more rumours of war? Has not an uncommon pestilence raged among the cattle for several years, in this and in other countries? Were there ever such earthquakes, so universal, and of so long continuance, as have been for some years past? And does not the present state of the world as to religion greatly resemble our Lord’s description of the men upon whom that day shall come unawares as a thief in the night? And when could the account which St. Paul gives us in several of his Epistles, of the men of the latter times be more true, than it is at present? Have they not the name and form of Christianity without the power of it? Are they not worldly minded, sunk into carnal security, and so entirely influenced by the love of pleasure, that the love of God and of the things of God is not only waxed cold, but quite frozen up?
“Was there ever any age wherein our Lord’s words could be more strictly fulfilled, ‘When the Son of man cometh shall He find faith on the earth?’ By these signs our Lord is alarming a sinful world with notices of His speedy coming, and if sinners are not at all alarmed, but continue still secure in their sins, this is a Scripture proof that He will soon come as a thief in the night and surprise them: for when they shall say Peace and safety, then sudden destruction shall come upon them, and they shall not escape” (W. Romaine, Discourses on Solomon’s Song, 1771, p. 368 to 370). Note well, dear reader, that this most godly man spoke repeatedly of the “speedy coming of Christ” a hundred and fifty years ago!
At the end of his “Notes on the New Testament” (about 1780) John Wesley fixed the following dates for the fulfillment of prophecies in the Revelation: “1614: an everlasting Gospel promulgated (14:6). 1810: the end of the forty-two months of the Beast; after which and the pouring out of the vials, he is not, and Babylon reigns queen (15 and 16). 1832: the Beast ascends from the bottomless pit (17 and 18). 1836: the end of the non-chronos, and of the many kings; the fulfilling of the Word and of the mystery of God; the repentance of the survivors in this great city; the end of the ‘little time’ and of the three times and a half; the destruction of the Beast; the imprisonment of Satan (19 and 20).”
There seems no need for us to make citations from those who have lived nearer our own times and give quotations from such men as Edward Irving, Richard Baxter, Gratton Guinness and others, who set dates for the destruction of the Papacy, the end of the age, and the appearing of Christ. We could quote from the early writings of the Plymouth Brethren and show that eighty and ninety years ago they were just as convinced that Christ would return in their own lifetimes, as many of their followers are today. Nor will we burden the reader by exposing the date-fixing fallacies of the “Seventh Day Adventists,” Russellites, and Christadelphians. Sufficient has been advanced to indicate that throughout the centuries one and another has arisen posing as prophets by forecasting coming events, only for the passage of time to make evident their folly, and to exemplify the fact that “thou knowest not what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1).
And what is the moral to be drawn from all of this? What is the practical lesson—for it is a practical end we have had in view, and not the amusing of the curious or the entertaining of those who have an idle hour to pass away. Surely it is this, “For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt” (Job 11:12): yes, wise in his own conceits, wise above that which God has revealed, wise in the esteem of his fellows. He would pose before others as possessing a spiritual light and discernment which lifts him above the rank and file; he pretends unto light received from the Word which is denied those who walk not so closely with God as he does. The Spirit has shown him “things to come,” only for the passing of time to demonstrate it was some other spirit than the Spirit of God.
When the disciples asked Christ, “Wilt Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), He did not say whether He would or would not, neither did He tell them that they entertained an erroneous conception of “the kingdom.” No, He struck more deeply, and made answer which applies to all His followers till the end of time: “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power” (v. 7). That is definite and it is final. Shun, then, my reader, those who controvert the Son of God by seeking to persuade that you may, “know the times and the seasons,” that if you will accept their interpretations (?) of Prophecy you will be granted a spiritual insight into those things of which the world is ignorant. “The coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 3:8): it is ever drawing nearer, but for any man to affirm that the coming of the Lord is now at the very doors, is to affirm what Scripture nowhere warrants, and is a piece of bombastic impertinence.
Our pressing duty is to set bounds to an unholy curiosity, and rest content with the blessed fact that the future is entirely in the hands of the Most High. It is the present which limits the boundaries of our responsibility. God is working all things after the counsel of His own will, so that there is no cause for alarm or fear. Not only cannot the forces of evil go one inch farther than what has been Divinely ordained, but, even now, God is making them to subserve His own wise and holy purpose. Nothing we do, or fail to do, will either hasten or retard by a single hour the consummation of God’s counsels. “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28) provides a sure resting-place for the renewed heart.
Speculations about future history are not only futile, but impious. An itching mind that craves information about coming events is a hindrance and not a help to present godliness. Leave the future with God, and seek grace to discharge your present duty. Part of our present duty, as well as our precious privilege, is to be “looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13), but that is a vastly different thing from occupying our minds with the evil that is at work in the world. To be “looking for that blessed Hope” is entirely an attitude of the heart—the soul being engaged with the person of Christ Himself, anticipating that glad moment when He will perfectly conform us to His image. But as to when He will appear, the angels in Heaven know not, much less can we on earth ascertain it. To be prepared for His coming is the great thing, and not to be curiously prying into the how and when of it.—A.W.P.