Interpreting Prophecy Today—Part 2:The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament

Interpreting Prophecy Today—Part 2:The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament John F Walvoord Wed, 07/18/2007 - 06:00

[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary]

The masterful chapter on “The Kingdom Concept in the Old Testament” by J. Dwight Pentecost in his work, Things to Come,1 sets forth in a comprehensive way the doctrine of the kingdom of God in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, in spite of the comprehensive presentation in this chapter, as well as numerous other books that set forth the doctrine of the kingdom in the Old Testament, amillenarians have repeatedly stated that the Bible nowhere teaches a future kingdom on earth.2 Rather than leave such statements unchallenged, it seems best to review briefly the specific contribution of the Old Testament to the premillennial interpretation of a future kingdom on earth.

The problem is by no means simplistic. Many varying definitions of the kingdom of God are given. As Pentecost states, “Through this maze of interpretations it is almost impossible to make one’s way.”3

Pentecost divides these confusing aspects of the kingdom of God into two categories, the eternal kingdom and the theocratic kingdom.4 As Pentecost and others have noted, the theme of the theocratic kingdom can be traced from the Garden of Eden through the period of human government initiated by Noah, the period of the patriarchs initiated by Abraham, the kingdom under the judges, the kingdom under the kings, and finally the kingdom under the prophets.5 Although interpretations of these aspects of the kingdom of God vary in differing systems of eschatology, the primary problem of interpretation is found in the theocratic kingdom under the prophets. Usually it is conceded that the kingdom was in theocratic form in Israel under Saul, David, Solomon, and their successors. The question remains whether there is a future form of the kingdom that will also be theocratic, political, and on earth. This is the point of tension between premillennial and amillennial interpretation. Obviously for an amillenarian to say summarily that no verse in the Bible teaches a future earthly kingdom is a dogmatic statement that needs to be examined. The purpose of this discussion is to refer primarily to what the Scriptures actually state and then raise the question as to the proper interpretation of these passages.

The Prophecies of Isaiah

As a casual reading of the Book of Isaiah demonstrates, the prophet Isaiah speaks repeatedly on the subject of a future earthly kingdom. In his book he predicts a future kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital and involving the tribe of Judah.

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. And many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples, and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war (Isa 2:2-4, NASB).

This prophecy has had no literal fulfillment in the past, but a future kingdom on earth could fulfill precisely these predictions of Isaiah.

One of the better known of Isaiah’s pronouncements concerning the future kingdom is his prediction of Christ’s birth.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this (9:6-7 ).

Again this passage refers to an earthly government. The child will be born on earth; the throne will be that of David; rule will be characterized by justice and righteousness; and it will be accomplished by the power of God rather than the power of men. His birth has been fulfilled, but the establishment of His earthly government has not.

One of the most extensive passages by Isaiah refers to Christ’s coming and the characteristics of His reign on the earth:

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, and He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; and He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist. And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (11:1-9 ).

These characteristics of Christ’s reign obviously refer to earth. The righteousness of His rule, the destruction of the wicked, the accompanying tranquility in nature does not correspond to anything in history nor anything in the future in heaven, but refers to the earth. Verse 9 refers to “My holy mountain” and “the earth” being “full of the knowledge of the LORD.” To these prophecies Isaiah adds the graphic picture of judgment on earth in chapter 24 in connection with His earthly reign, He concludes, “Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and His glory will be before His elders” (24:23 ).

To this Isaiah adds another point in Isaiah 32:1, “Behold a king will reign righteously, and princes will rule justly.” And in 33:20 , he describes Zion: “Look upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts, your eyes shall see Jerusalem an undisturbed habitation, a tent which shall not be folded, its stakes shall never be pulled up nor any of its cords be torn apart.” Again, this prophecy has never been fulfilled in any way in the past; thus it requires a future fulfillment. Emphasis here is again on Israel’s regathering to her “own land. Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king, and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days” (3:4-5 ),

Hosea, though he lived years after the death of David the king of Israel, predicted that David would return. This resurrection of David is promised by several other prophets and is related to the second coming of Christ. That is when David will live and reign with Christ. The kingdom of God over which David will reign after the second coming of Christ was predicted by Ezekiel. “And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken” (Ezek 34:24).

Ezekiel confirms it again with these words: “And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them” (Ezek 37:24).

Jeremiah adds his confirming word. “But they shall serve the LORD their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up for them” (Jer 30:9).

In these passages it is clear that David is not Christ. The resurrected David who once reigned on the throne of Israel will serve as a prince under Christ, the King of kings.

The revival of the Davidic kingdom and the restoration of the cities and vineyards of Israel is graphically prophesied by Amos. “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). The prophecy concludes:

Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, they will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them, says the LORD your God (9:14-15 ).

This does not describe a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of the followers of Christ, nor does it refer to the eternal new earth. Instead Amos is writing about a literal kingdom on earth with cities and vineyards. This will be a literal Davidic kingdom.

A major prophecy is given in Micah 4:1-5:5 , the early portion of which parallels Isaiah 2:1-5. Zion is declared to be the source of the law (Mic 4:2). Peace will characterize world government (Mic 4:3). This will be when “the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from now on and forever” (Mic 4:7). As in many other promises of the coming kingdom, nothing in history or in the contemporary spiritual situation parallels these prophecies, or in any sense provides a reasonable fulfillment.

Zechariah 2:10-12 adds its testimony to the future joy and blessing of the kingdom.

Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations will join themselves to the LORD in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you. And the LORD will possess Judah as His portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.

As in other prophecies, the center of the government will be Jerusalem and the central fact of the kingdom will be the abiding presence of the Lord on the earth.

Another confirming word is found in Zechariah 8:1-8.

Then the word of the LORD of hosts came saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, I am exceedingly jealous for Zion, yes, with great wrath I am jealous for her. Thus says the LORD, I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts will be called the Holy Mountain. Thus says the LORD of hosts, Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand because of age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets, Thus says the LORD Of hosts, If it is too difficult in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, will it also be too difficult in My sight? declares the LORD of hosts. Thus says the LORD of hosts, Behold, I am going to save My people from the land of the east and from the land of the west; and I will bring them back, and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem, and they will be My people and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.

Familiar predictions of Jerusalem as the center of God’s kingdom and the presence of the Lord and His blessing on His people are again emphasized in this prophecy. Zechariah 9:9-10 adds:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; and the bow of war will be cut off. And He will speak peace to the nations; and His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

This passage, like Isaiah 9:6-7, views both advents of Christ together. At His first coming, the nation welcomed Him as her King. But His crucifixion followed. Christ will nevertheless reign over Jerusalem when He returns again, “and His dominion will be from sea to sea” (9:10 ). Zechariah 14 describes in detail the return of the Lord, the battle of Jerusalem, the establishment of the kingdom, the change in the typography of the land, and the ultimate victory of Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. As in other millennial passages, nothing in history, in the present age, nor in the eternal new earth corresponds to these events. Many other Old Testament passages bring confirming evidence to these passages that have been quoted. The kingdom of God, brought to the world by Christ in His second coming, is not taught merely by an isolated passage here and there; it is a major theme of Old Testament prophetic revelation.

Prophecies in the Psalms

Frequently in the Psalms as in the Prophets, references are made to God’s future theocratic kingdom. Psalm 2:6 predicts that Christ will be “installed [as] My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.” While Psalm 22 prophesies the crucifixion of Christ, Psalm 24 predicts His reign on earth.

Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is the King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates, and lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory (24:7-10 ).

Many understand Psalms 45 and 46 to refer to the reign of Christ. Psalm 48 speaks of the future glory of Zion.

One of the clearest passages is Psalm 72. Although given in the form of a prayer, it will surely be fulfilled, as is evident for instance, in verses 7-8 . “In his days may the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon is no more. May he also rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” The universal submission of the kings of the world in the future theocratic kingdom is described in verses 10-11 , “Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him.” The psalm closes with the prayer, “And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen” (v. 19 ). It should be noted that this prophecy relates to “earth,” not heaven. recent form of amillennialism, which says the prophecies are fulfilled in a nonliteral way for the believer in heaven (in the intermediate state) prior to the creation of the new heavens and the new earth; (3) a combination of the other two forms, that interprets some kingdom passages as being fulfilled in the present age, some fulfilled in their intermediate state during the present period, and others yet to be fulfilled in the eternal state in the new heavens and the new earth.

The variety of approaches of the amillennial view, which is essentially a denial of a literal millennium on earth, is its own commentary. None of these views provides any reasonable literal fulfillment of the passages. Amillennial writings, which sometimes boldly state that not a single verse in the Bible teaches a kingdom of God on earth following the second coming of Christ, usually avoid the many Scriptures which have been cited in this article. Amillennialism nevertheless has appealed to many scholars in the ancient as well as in the modern church. But that theory does not provide an adequate explanation of these passages. Amillenarians often simply avoid passages that would contradict their conclusions or dismiss them by asserting dogmatically that the premillennial interpretation is wrong.

An illustration of this is the discussion by Jay Adams in his work, The Time Is at Hand. This book does mention some passages which seem to teach premillennialism but often his references are only a sentence or two, a footnote here and there, or a strong assertion that the premillennial view is wrong. Of 14 references to Isaiah, 9 are simply references in footnotes. In 2 sentences in a footnote he dismisses 11 passages in Isaiah as being already fulfilled, and he claims that his interpretation “can hardly be questioned.”8

Amillenarians in their interpretation of millennial passages have several alternative explanations: (1) they declare them conditional and therefore never to be fulfilled; (2) they declare them historical and already fulfilled; or (3) when historical fulfillment is doubtful, they say they will be fulfilled in the new earth. But with one voice they declare that it is impossible to find their fulfillment in an earthly millennial kingdom. There is a growing tendency among amillenarians to refer millennial passages to the new earth as this eliminates the difficulty of finding historic fulftllment for many such prophecies.

Adams provides another illustration. In regard to numerous passages on the millennial Jerusalem he writes, “Was Christ to rule in Jerusalem? Of course! And that is precisely what he does. Today he reigns and rules from that ‘Jerusalem which is above’ (Gal 4:26); from that heavenly ‘Mount Zion’ to which the writer of Hebrews says that believers ‘have come’ (Heb 12:22).”9

Certainly all recognize that Hebrews 12:22 refers to the new Jerusalem in the eternal state (and it could conceivably be in existence now). But does this satisfy the many references to a millennial Jerusalem? Again Adams writes, “Come to a millennial city? Come up to a literal mountain? A physical throne? An earthly temple? Of course not.”10 Why does he say, “Of course not”? The answer is that it would teach a millennial kingdom.

All of Adams’s references to the millennium in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Nahum, and Malachi are discussed in footnotes. He avoids giving a detailed exegesis of pertinent passages. A reading of the many Old Testament passages previously quoted reveals that they do not disappear simply because a footnote says a literal interpretation is impossible and a nonliteral interpretation is “of course” the only proper one. Even his claim that the amillennial interpretation is transparently the only possible one is supported by too scanty a New Testament confirmation.

In defense of Adams, it may be pointed out that he is attempting only a relatively small paperback discussion of a large problem. But the sweeping dismissal of alternative views and the failure to recognize that there is a variety of contradictory amillennial interpretations are all too characteristic of amillenarians’ discussions. The fact is that the many allusions to an earthly kingdom yet to be fulfilled in the future are too detailed to dismiss them that easily.

It is not the purpose of this article to provide a detailed refutation of amillennialism. The writer has sought to do that in his work, The Millennial Kingdom, which is confirmed by the extensive work of J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, both of which have been mentioned earlier. The goal of this discussion is to call attention to the many detailed prophecies related to the millennium which premillenarians feel have never been satisfactorily explained by the amillennial approach. Premillenarians believe that it is honoring to Scripture to allow it to mean what it appears to mean when taken literally and that it is just as wrong to explain away prophetic passages about the millennium as it is to explain away historic passages referring to the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and other central doctrines of biblical faith.

The familiar cry of amillenarians is that the New Testament confirms their interpretation of the Old Testament. The next article in this series will deal with the New Testament doctrine of the kingdom of God.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), pp. 427-45.

2 Rutgers states, for instance,”Again the New Testament gives plain indication that Christ will remain in heaven until the end of the world. That kingdom will not be one of earthly, material felicity and blessing, but spiritual. In Christ and His true disciples that kingdom is already established, and in harmony with the confession of the church of all ages, not to establish an earthly, Jewish kingdom, Himself visible and bodily reigning in this semi-earthly, semi-heavenly realm of material existence, but for judgment. An unprejudiced reading of the Scripture renders one universal judgment, one universal resurrection. Nowhere is there intimation of a millennial reign intervening” (William H. Rutgers, Premillennialism in America [Goes, Holland: Oosterbaan and Le Cointre, 1930], pp. 286-87). Hoekema states, “That the millennial reign depicted in Revelation 20:4-6 occurs before the Second Coming of Christ is evident from the fact that the final judgment, described in verses 11-15 of this chapter, is pictured as coming after the thousand-year reign….it is obvious that the thousand-year reign of Revelation 20:4-6 must occur before and not after the Second Coming of Christ” (Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. 1979], p. 227).

3 Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 427.

4 Ibid., pp. 428, 433.

5 Ibid., pp. 435-37, 441.

8 Jay Adams, The Time Is at Hand (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), p. 63.

9 Ibid., p. 27.

10 Ibid.