"THE HARBINGER"

 

AND PESHER INTERPRETATION

 

by Doug Ward



On September 12, 2001, the day after the infamous terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S Congress issued a resolution in response to the crisis. In reading that resolution, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle stated,

 

"I know that there is only the smallest measure of inspiration that can be taken from this devastation, but there is a passage in the Bible from Isaiah that I think speaks to all of us at times like this ... .

 

The bricks have fallen down,

 

But we will rebuild with dressed stone;

 

The fig trees have been felled,

 

But we will replace them with cedars."1

 

Congress chose the biblical passage quoted in the resolution, Isaiah 9:10, as a poetic expression of America's determination to bounce back and rebuild after the September 11 attacks. In its original context, though, Isaiah 9:10 had a different meaning.

 

Back in 732 B.C., the House of Israel had just sustained an attack from the powerful Assyrian Empire. In events described in 2 Kings 15:29-30, King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria had attacked cities in northern Israel and taken captives. This defeat should have served as a wake-up call for Israel, leading the nation to turn back to God in repentance. Instead, Israel responded in "pride and arrogance of heart" (Isa 9:9), announcing in Isa 9:10 that it was perfectly capable of handling its own affairs apart from God. As a result, God allowed the attacks by Israel's enemies to continue (vv. 11-14). A decade later, Assyria conquered the House of Israel.

 

A 2012 Bestseller



Jonathan Cahn, the leader of a Messianic congregation in New Jersey, sees Congress's use of Isaiah 9:10 as one of a number of signs from God that the post 9/11 U.S. faces the kind of imminent divine judgment described in Isaiah 9. In his book The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery that Holds the Secret of America's Future (FrontLine, 2011), Cahn claims that Isaiah 9 gives a special warning to twenty-first century America. In support of his claim, he makes the following assertions and observations:

Isaiah 9:10 expresses ancient Israel's defiance toward God. The U.S. has a similar attitude of defiance.

The U.S. has "rebuilt with dressed stone" at Ground Zero, beginning new construction with a huge stone from the Adirondacks.

At Ground Zero there is a memorial to a fallen sycamore tree, and the "fig trees" in Isa 9:10 are also known as "sycamores" in the English language.

A special evergreen tree has been planted at Ground Zero, the same family of tree as the "cedars" in Isa 9:10.

The economic recession that began in 2008 came one sabbatical cycle after the terrorist attacks, with both the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial disaster occurring right at the end of a "year of release."



The Harbinger has been a popular bestseller, with over a thousand reviews at Amazon.com as of late October 2012. The book seems to have struck a chord with many American Christians who are worried about current events, believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction, and are eager for biblical guidance in trying times.

 

However, I am not at all convinced by Cahn's argument that Isaiah 9 contains a direct message for the post 9/11 U.S. The use of Isa 9:10 by Congress and the new construction at Ground Zero were not motivated by defiance toward God, but by a natural desire to rebuild and defy the terrorists. The U.S. is not in the same kind of covenant relationship with God as the nation of Israel was, so we should not expect to find direct messages to America in the prophets. Moreover, the fact that the fallen tree at Ground Zero and the fig tree of Isa 9:10 are both called "sycamores" in the English language has no relevance to the meaning of a prophecy given in Hebrew.

 

Pesher, Anyone?



Jonathan Cahn's attempt to make a very specific connection between Isa 9:10 and the twenty first century U.S. is an example of what biblical scholars call "pesher" interpretation (from an Aramaic word meaning "to interpret"). In pesher interpretation, a contemporary meaning is assigned to a scripture, usually a prophecy, without regard to the scripture's original context and meaning.

 

The term originates in some biblical commentaries found among the Dead Sea scrolls, especially the Habakkuk commentary (1QpHab) written by someone from the sect that collected the scrolls.2 After quoting a short passage from Habakkuk, the commentator then says, "Its pesher is ... ," and gives an interpretation of the passage.

 

Habakkuk's prophecy comes from the late seventh century B.C., shortly before the House of Judah was attacked by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. But the commentator from Qumran relates the details of the prophecy to the very specific concerns of his sect about 500 years later. For example, a comment on Hab 1:4 ("The wicked hem in the righteous") says that "the righteous" is the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the sect. It identifies "the wicked" as the Wicked Priest (believed to be one of the Hasmonean priest-kings), an opponent of the Teacher of Righteousness. The commentator sees Hab 1:5 ( "For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.") as a reference to those who ignored the words of the Teacher of Righteousness. Habakkuk 1:6-11 describes the Babylonian enemy that would attack Judah. The commentator relates this passage to the Romans, the powerful empire of his own time.

 

The commentary on the second chapter of Habakkuk is similar. The discussion of Hab 2:4b ("the righteous will live by his faith") says, "Interpreted, this concerns all those who observe the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will deliver from the House of Judgement because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness." On the other hand, Hab 2:16 ("The cup from the LORD's right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory.") is seen as a warning directed to the Wicked Priest.

 

So in relating Isa 9:10 to a current construction project in New York City, Jonathan Cahn is not doing something new. Pesher interpretation has been practiced for over two thousand years. In this article, I will discuss several additional examples of what might be called pesher interpretation. These examples raise questions about how to distinguish valid and invalid biblical interpretation, and I will suggest some possible answers.

 

James the Just in Prophecy



Among the first Christians, James the brother of Jesus was a highly esteemed leader. Hegesippus, a second century Christian, states concerning James:

 

"Because of his superior righteousness he was called the Just and Oblias-meaning, in Greek, `Bulwark of the People' and `Righteousness'-as the prophets declare concerning him" (quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in Ecclesiastical History 2.23).

 

Here Hegesippus expresses a belief that James the Just was mentioned by the biblical prophets. What prophecies did early Christians apply to James?

 

Later in the excerpt cited by Eusebius, Hegesippus gives one example. Concerning corrupt leaders in Jerusalem who conspired to put James to death, he comments, "This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: `Let us remove the just man, for he is unprofitable to us. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their works.' "

 

The prophecy referenced by Hegesippus is Isa 3:10 in the Greek Septuagint translation. Isaiah 3 predicts the fall of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 A.D., just eight years after the martyrdom of James in 62. Like other early Christians, Hegesippus no doubt believed that the death of James served to hasten the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

There may be another clue in the obscure word Oblias mentioned by Hegesippus. Prominent scholar Richard Bauckham3 suggests that Oblias may be a rough transliteration of the Hebrew phrase Gevul-Am, which can be translated "bulwark of the people." Bauckham sees a possible reference to Isa 54:12, which pictures a wall around Jerusalem in the Messianic Age as a gevul. Hegesippus, earlier in the passage quoted by Eusebius, says that James was constantly making intercessory prayers for the people, which made his knees as rough as those of a camel (Hebrew gamal). There may be a play on words between gamal and gavul, with early Christians viewing the prayers of James as a protective wall around Jerusalem in fulfillment of Isa 54:12. They may also have seen a reference to the prayers of James in Isa 54:14, which says that Jerusalem would be protected "in righteousness"-i.e., in James the Righteous.

 

Based on these clues, it has been speculated that early Christians may have connected a number of references to "righteousness" in Isaiah's prophecies with James, much as the Qumran sectarians connected "righteousness" in Habakkuk with their Teacher of Righeousness.4 For example, Isa 60:17 says, "I will appoint Peace as your overseer, and Righteousness as your taskmaster" (NRSV). James was the divinely appointed "overseer" or "taskmaster" of the first Christians in Jerusalem, so this verse could have been applied to him. Similarly, one can imagine verses like Isa 1:21 and Isa 5:7 being connected to the martyrdom of James.

 

Flexible Texts



My remaining examples come from the past five hundred years. Our next stop is the early sixteenth century A.D. After Christopher Columbus made his voyages to America, Europeans learned that there were people in the Western Hemisphere of whose existence they had not previously been aware. Looking to the scriptures for ways to understand this new information, some believed they saw a reference to the inhabitants of the Americas.

 

In Jesus' Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24), those who are invited to a banquet decline to attend, making various excuses. The host then instructs his servant to scour the streets looking for people willing to attend.

 

It is generally understood that the host in the parable represents God, while the banquet represents the great messianic banquet in the Kingdom of God. The new twist added in the early 1500s is the idea that the three people in the parable who make excuses represent three population groups to whom the Gospel had already been presented: Jews, Muslims, and nations in the Eastern Hemisphere. In this reading of the parable, the discovery of nations in the Western Hemisphere is an instruction from God, the host, to take the Gospel to these nations. And so in 1524, twelve Franciscan missionaries were sent to central Mexico for this purpose.5

 

Parables are good candidates for pesher interpretation, since their symbolism can be construed in imaginative ways. The same can be said for prophetic passages. Readers of biblical prophecies naturally see the text through the lenses of their own times, and so, for instance, scores of candidates for the Antichrist have been identified over the centuries.

 

I can personally attest to the popularity of pesher interpretation in the Adventist movement, since I spent many years in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), an Adventist denomination with its own idiosyncratic views about prophetic texts. I will illustrate with a few examples.

 

For a number of years, WCG taught that the seven churches in Rev 2-3 represent seven successive eras of Christian history. According to this reading, the message to the church at Ephesus is directed to the earliest Christians, the message to the church at Smyrna is for Christians in the next historical period, and so on. Specifically, since the WCG believed that genuine Christians observed the seventh day Sabbath, the messages were for Sabbath-keeping Christians in their respective historical periods. The WCG saw itself as the "Philadelphia era" of Christianity and a special recipient of the message of Rev 3:7-13, including the promise of protection from tribulation in v. 10.

 

After WCG founder Herbert Armstrong died in 1986, the new leader of the church, Joseph Tkach, instituted sweeping doctrinal reforms. WCG quickly repudiated many of Armstrong's distinctive teachings, to the dismay of a number of members. Among the teachings dropped by WCG was the "church eras" interpretation of Rev 2-3.

 

One disgruntled elder, Gerald Flurry, responded by starting a new group, the Philadelphia Church of God. In Flurry's view, the WCG had entered the "lukewarm" Laodicean era of church history, and Christ had called him to preserve Armstrong's doctrines and help as many WCG people as possible to see the error of their new ways. Flurry believed that his book Malachi's Message, a polemical work directed specifically to WCG members, provided a fulfillment of Jesus' promise to "stand at the door, and knock" (Rev 3:20) to get the attention of the Laodicean church.

 

Malachi's Message is full of pesher interpretation, much of which would only be intelligible to readers from a WCG background. Flurry reads the second chapter of Malachi, a prophecy delivering correction to the priesthood of Israel in the fifth century B.C., as a message directed specifically to the ministry of WCG in the 1990s. For example, when Malachi 2:14 says that God "hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously." he sees a condemnation of WCG clergy. In Flurry's eyes, WCG ministers had betrayed the bride of Christ (the church) by abandoning teachings of Herbert Armstrong. In Mal 2:12, Malachi prophesies that God "will cut off ... the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob." Flurry views this passage as a warning against WCG leaders for relying on the guidance of Christian scholars in their decision to implement doctrinal reforms.

 

Another instance of Flurry's pesher interpretation is his explanation of the second chapter of Paul's second epistle to the Thessalonians. Here Paul mentions someone who would hold back "the secret power of lawlessness" (v. 7, NIV), after which time "the lawless one will be revealed" (v. 8). Flurry identifies Herbert Armstrong as the one holding back the power of lawlessness, and his successor, Joseph Tkach, as the "lawless one."

 

Gaining Perspective



Most readers will be quick to identify Malachi's Message as invalid application of scripture. Gerald Flurry lives in a strange world, one in which he and Herbert Armstrong occupy central positions in the divine plan. Rather like the man in the Carly Simon song, he is vain enough to think these scriptures are about him.

 

However, Gerald Flurry's followers do not believe that he is doing pesher interpretation. They revere him as a servant of God, just as the members of the Qumran sect revered their Teacher of Righteousness. If many prophecies have fulfillments in the end time, and if we are living in that time, then one would expect an end time servant of God to fulfill prophecies.

 

So how can we distinguish pesher interpretation from genuine fulfillment of prophecy? Often the passage of time provides answers. Today we do not even know the identity of the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness, and I am not aware of anyone who thinks that the prophecies of Habakkuk make special reference to him. It is likely that fifty years from now no one will remember Gerald Flurry, and it will be easy to evaluate the claims of The Harbinger.

 

In the meantime, we can gain valuable perspective by consulting high quality sources from multiple points of view. For example, Flurry's writings assume that the only genuine Christians in the world are a small group of Sabbatarian Adventists. But those who read a wide variety of Christian literature and study Christian history are unlikely to come to such a view.6 (For that reason, groups like Flurry's discourage their members from reading sources outside their own literature.)

 

Similarly, if we believe that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" under a special covenant with God but is now in spiritual decline, then we may find The Harbinger compelling. However, a careful study of American history will reveal a more complex picture, one of a nation that has done much good in the world but has always wrestled with moral and spiritual problems.7 Today abortion is such a problem, while earlier in American history, slavery was a great national sin. The United States has not fallen from a moral "golden age" because it has never had one.

 

Studying how a scriptural passage has been interpreted over the centuries is a good way to gain insight into its meaning. Such studies can be helpful both for parables, like the Parable of the Great Banquet, and for prophetic passages. With regard to Rev 2-3, it is interesting to learn that interpreters have been connecting the messages to the seven churches with eras of church history since medieval times. Moreover, the assignment of these eras has varied a great deal according to the time and theological persuasion of the interpreter.

 

During the sixteenth century, English Protestant Thomas Brightman (1557-1607) identified the Church of England of his time as the Laodicean era in a critique of the church establishment.8 However, things looked different to evangelical Protestants four hundred years later. For example, in 1943 Charles A. Nash saw the Philadelphia era extending from 1648 to his time, with modern "rationalistic" trends constituting Laodicea.9 In 1969, Mennonite pastor Menno J. Brunk identified the time of Wesley, Whitefield, and the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century as the Philadelphia era.10

 

There were a number of church era formulations in the early Adventist movement. William Miller, who predicted the Second Coming would occur in 1844, dated the start of the Laodicean era to 1798. In 1850, early Seventh-day Adventist Hiram Edson identified the Sardis era as Protestants who had not heeded Miller's message, Philadelphia as Sabbath-keeping Adventists, and Laodicea as Sunday-keeping Adventists.11 But by the late 1850s, the Seventh-day Adventists settled on their own group as the Laodicean era, and ever since they have used Rev 3:14-22 as a way to promote reflection, repentance, and revival.

 

The exercise of identifying church eras in Rev 2-3 seems to be akin to taking an ink blot test or consulting a newspaper horoscope: There are numerous possibilities, depending on one's point of view. The historical data suggests to me that the "church eras" model is not the best way to interpret these chapters. (Such considerations helped lead to WCG's rejection of this model in the 1990s.)

 

Arguably, pesher interpretation can sometimes have beneficial results. The sixteenth century European interpretation of the Parable of the Great Banquet probably helped promote Christian evangelism and outreach. The call to repentance in Rev 3:14-22 is particularly powerful for Seventh-day Adventists because they believe these verses are directed to them in some special way. But in general, I would argue that the end does not justify the means. Our attempts to apply a scriptural passage stand on firmest ground when they are rooted in the original context and meaning of the passage. For example, a call to repentance from Isa 9:10 simply can be based on the dangers of an attitude of defiance toward God. There is no need to invent more direct connections to specific present day circumstances.

 

What About James?



What about the connections apparently made by early Jewish Christians between "righteousness" in the book of Isaiah and James the Just? As a Christian, I think an argument can be made for the validity of these connections. The prophecies of Isaiah were originally directed to Israelites and have much to say about the Messiah and the messianic age. Since the first Christians were Israelites living in Jerusalem at the dawn of the messianic age, it is not too much of a stretch for them to see references to a close relative of the Messiah in Isaiah's prophecies. Their interpretation seems to me to have a much firmer foundation than the others I have presented.

 

Overall, the activity of assigning fulfillments to biblical prophecies probably should be accompanied by a warning label reading, "Don't try this at home." History suggests that we should be cautious in our application of prophecy, relying first on interpretations based on sound methodology, readings that come to us from Jesus and his early followers and have passed the test of time.


Footnotes:

1quoted on p. 117 of The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn (FrontLine, Lake Mary, Florida, 2011).

 

2For an English translation of this commentary, see The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English by Geza Vermes, Seventh Edition, Penguin Classics, 2012.

 

3Richard Bauckham, "For What Offense was James put to Death?", in James the Just and Christian Origins, Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans, eds., E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1999, p. 209.

 

4D. Thomas Lancaster, Torah Club 6: Chronicles of the Apostles, First Fruits of Zion, Marshfield, Missouri, 2012, pp. 858-859.

 

5See chapter four of the book 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse by Matthew Restall and Amara Solari, Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

 

6I recommend Christian History magazine as one balanced and informative source on Christian history and traditions.

 

7For a more complete picture of America's religious and spiritual history, I recommend the work of historians Mark Noll, Thomas Kidd, and John Fea. On the religious views of the Founding Fathers of the U.S., see Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes.

 

8See Robert Surridge, "Seventh-Day Adventism: Self-Appointed Laodicea", pp. 21-42 in Studies in the Book of Revelation, Steve Moyise, editor, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 2002.

 

9"A Scriptural View of Church History," Bibliotheca Sacra 100 (1943), pp. 188-198.

 

10"The Seven Churches of Revelation," Bibliotheca Sacra 126 (1969), pp. 240-246.

 

11Surridge, p. 26.

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