|Topical Bible Study||April 1954|
Know Your Bible—Part XVI
The High Thoughts of God
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” —Isaiah 55:8,9
FOR the last fifteen months, we have been examining briefly one after another of the sixty-six books which comprise the Old and New Testaments. We have found that while these books were written under vastly different circumstances, and those who wrote them in many instances lived hundreds of years apart, there is a marvelous harmony running through all their inspired pages.
Not only is there harmony throughout these books, but there is a central theme pertaining to the redemption and recovery of the human race from sin and death. We have seen that the glorious climax of this divine plan of salvation will be reached at the end of the thousand years of Christ’s reign, described as the “times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.”—Acts 3:19-21
In later articles we will examine in more detail God’s plan of salvation as it has progressed throughout the ages, and as it will continue to mature until its completion in what the Apostle Paul describes as the “dispensation of the fullness of times.” (Eph. 1:10) However, we think it best first to examine somewhat the language of the Bible; that is, the manner in which God speaks to us through his Word. This, we trust, will help us to grasp more easily the beauty and grandeur of the divine purpose as it is set forth in the inspired Word.
In our text the Lord tells us that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are his thoughts higher than our thoughts and his ways than our ways. In this respect the situation is somewhat similar to that which exists between adults and children, except that the superiority of God’s thoughts over ours is vastly greater than that of grownups over children.
All who are familiar with the art of teaching know that in conveying thoughts to the mind of a child illustrations are very helpful, whether the illustrations be in story form, in picture form, or otherwise. An infant learns the meaning of the word “round” much more quickly when illustrated by a ball or a circle. The word “orange” takes on a definite meaning when the child sees its color, its shape, and enjoys its odor and taste.
These are simple illustrations, but they have to be simple in order that a child may grasp the thoughts which the adult endeavors to convey to its immature mind. We do not think that we would be straining the comparison to say that the most mature minds, and those possessing the greatest intelligence in the world of grownups, are but as infants before God. Surely this must be true if, as our text declares, his thoughts are higher than our thoughts as the heavens are higher than the earth.
We can readily understand, therefore, the problem involved in our being able to understand the high thoughts of God. Indeed, we would not be able to understand them at all except as he has associated them with objects with which we are at least partially acquainted.
Actually, of course, all language is largely pictorial. The word “city,” for example, would convey no meaning to our minds except as we associate it with a concentration of people living in a relatively small area, and with their homes, office buildings, factories, etc., which help to make up what the word city means to us.
On the Human Plane
God created man in his own image, endowing him with the ability to think, to reason, to know right from wrong. But, with us, these qualities of the Creator are all limited to this earthly realm of existence. Man’s ability to reason is confined to what he can see and feel and hear and taste and smell. He might increase the scope of his vision by a telescope, or enlarge it with a microscope; he might send the sound, of His words around the world by the use of electronics, and by these scientific means enlarge the sphere in which he can reason, but still his reasoning is limited to a material cosmos.
This being true, it should at once become apparent that in order that the Creator may convey to us his thoughts relating to his human creation, he must speak to us in language within the limitations of our understanding. This is the reason, then, that the language of the Bible is human language; that is, language which has its roots of understanding clinging to material, mundane things and objects with which we humans are acquainted.
As we have noted, even our plainest speech is in reality largely pictorial, for nearly every word uttered conjures up in the mind of the hearer an object which gives meaning to our speech. This is true even with the literal language of the Bible. But besides this literal language, which is itself pictorial, the Lord has purposely used objects and creatures of various sorts—those, that is, possessing characteristics known to man—as symbols, or illustrations, to help us grasp some of his high thoughts relative to his plan for human salvation.
In almost all languages, words which are not directly anchored to some particular object or thing frequently undergo changes in meaning. Thus the word “peculiar” originally meant something special, or extraordinary, and this still is one of its meanings; but more frequently today this word is used to convey the idea of being odd, or queer. But the material things of creation, and the phenomena of nature which the Lord uses in his Word to illustrate his high thoughts never change. From this standpoint, the Bible speaks the same language to the Lord’s people today that it did to his ancient people.
In the symbology of the Bible, we find that the Lord has used the sun, the moon, the stars, clouds, storms, rain, mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, oceans, trees, grass, rocks, wheat, tares, and the earth itself. In the animal kingdom he has used sheep, goats, lions, leopards, bears, foxes, serpents, dragons, etc. These do not change their characteristics from century to century.
The sun, with its warming, healing rays, and its blistering heat on the desert sands, is exactly as it was when the Lord caused the writers of the Bible to use it for certain illustrative purposes. Sheep have not changed, nor have goats. Their characteristics today are just as they were when Jesus said in a parable that he would divide the people as a “shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.” (Matt. 25:31,32) The same is true of all the illustrations employed in the Word of God.
In some instances the Lord has explained the meaning of the illustrations he uses. At other times the intent of the symbol is so obvious that no explanation is needed. Indeed, in many instances an explanation would destroy the beauty and force of the intended lesson. How apparent, for example, is the meaning of the language employed in the Twenty-third Psalm—“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”—vss. 1-3
There are also those beautiful illustrative expressions in the Ninety-first Psalm—“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.” (vss. 1,2) Again: “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.”—vs. 4
All are well acquainted with the fact that water is used for cleansing purposes, so no explanation of the symbol is needed when the apostle speaks of our being sanctified and cleansed with the “washing of water by the Word.” (Eph. 5:26) How clearly the idea is thus conveyed to us that God’s Word of truth acts as a cleansing power in the lives of those who obediently yield to its sanctifying influence!
On the other hand, water is also necessary to life, so at times, it is employed in the Bible to illustrate the life-giving power of the Word. In this use of the symbol, the Bible speaks of the “river of water of life.”—Rev. 22:1
The known characteristics of fire make it a suitable symbol of destruction. In this association, fire is employed in the Bible to picture the destruction of a social order; the destruction of the willfully wicked; and the destruction of the “wood, hay, and stubble” of Christian character. But what grossly wrong ideas have been taken from the Bible through a failure to realize that fire is never a preservative in which conscious life is maintained, and the living ones tortured!
Reading the high thoughts of God correctly, as he has portrayed them in his Word by picture language, requires our considering carefully the natural and apparent characteristics of the things used to convey those thoughts. Take, for example, Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. (Matt. 13:24-30; 36-43) Many have supposed that the “wheat” in this parable represents Christians, and that the “tares” are a symbol of sinners.
But this view fails to take into consideration that, in reality, tares bear a very close similarity to wheat, and that the two are used in the parable to represent, on the one hand, the true followers of the Master, and, on the other, those who are merely his professed followers—wearing merely a veneer of Christianity.
In explaining this parable, Jesus said that the “wheat” were the “children of the kingdom,” and the “tares” the “children of the wicked one,” that is, the Devil. The “children of the kingdom” are such because they are begotten of and enthused by their hope of the kingdom and their prospect of participating with Jesus in the work of the kingdom: The tares are “children of the wicked one,” not because they are immoral and unregenerate, for they are often quite the opposite, but because they hold to the erroneous teachings of the “prince of this world,” and their lives are governed by these teachings.
Heavens and Earth
In the natural realm a very close and significant relationship exists between the heavenly bodies which we refer to in a general way as the “heavens,” and the earth. All life on the earth is subject more or less to the influences of the heavens—our seasons, atmospheric conditions, tides, etc., being controlled thereby.
Thus the literal heavens and earth are a fitting illustration of the fact that human associations, or civilizations, are influenced by higher, or spiritual powers. For this reason the Bible describes the social order, or cosmos, which existed before the Flood as consisting of a “heavens” and an “earth.” The Bible also speaks of a “heavens” and “earth” which has existed since the Deluge; and also of the “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (II Pet. 3:6,7,13) This latter will, in reality, be the spiritual and human phases of the kingdom of Christ.
The sun and the moon, in their relationship to each other, are sometimes used in the Bible to illustrate the light of the Gospel, and the reflected light of the Law as given to Israel, together with the types and shadows of their tabernacle services. Because of its warming and healing powers, the sun is also used in the Bible as a symbol of the healing power of Christ when enthroned in his kingdom for the purpose of restoring the human race to health and life. The Prophet Malachi wrote in this connection that “the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings.”—Mal. 4:2
The “Mountain of the Lord”
During the time when the nation of Israel was a kingdom under God, its kings sitting upon the “throne of the Lord,” the governmental headquarters of the nation were located in a mountain—Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Zion was Israel’s Capital Hill. From this mountain, the Lord ruled over the nation. How appropriate, then, that the Bible should refer to the kingdom of Christ as “the mountain of the house of the Lord.”—Micah 4:1
Mountains always occupy a dominant position with relation to the surrounding terrain, and, from this standpoint, fittingly picture kingdoms, or governments, in their dominating position over the people. Thus the prophecy which speaks of the “mountain of the house of the Lord” as being established “in the top of the mountains,” very beautifully portrays the fact that Christ’s kingdom will take control over all the nations of the earth, that the “kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.”—Rev. 11:15
“In the Midst of the Sea”
In answer to his disciples’ questions concerning the signs of his return and of the end of the age, Jesus said that there would then be “upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity,” that “men’s hearts would fail them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” (Luke 21:25,26) He further illustrated this by likening these distressing conditions to the roaring of the sea and the waves.
Long before Jesus uttered this prophecy, David wrote prophetically of the same time, saying to and of the Lord’s people who would be acquainted with the meaning of events, “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.”—Ps. 46:2,3
One who has ever heard the “roaring” noise of voices emanating from an angry mob of people, will at once recognize the similarity of the sound to that of the roaring waves of the sea. And what a powerful symbol this is of world occurrences today. The masses of mankind, in an ever increasing crescendo of demands, are clamoring for their real and fancied rights, with the result that during the last forty years many of the most powerful mountain-kingdoms of the earth have been “carried into the midst of the sea”—that is, brought down into the hands of the masses. Never before in the experience of man has there been, in so short a time, such a toppling of kingdoms, leaving the world in a condition of increasing chaos.
In passing, it is well to note that the Bible uses the earth itself to picture a more or less stable society, in contrast to the restless, roaring sea. Thus, as the prophet foretold, because the “mountains” are carried into the midst of the sea, the symbolic earth is itself removed. We will discuss these symbols in greater detail when tracing the outline of God’s plan of the ages as revealed in his Word. We are mentioning them here briefly merely as examples of the wonderful manner in which the Lord conveys his thoughts to us by associating them with objects and circumstances with which we are already acquainted.
In many instances the pictorial language of the Bible is similar to the manner of speech customarily employed by man. Throughout the centuries, beasts of one kind or another have been used to symbolize kingdoms, or governments: A couched lion was the symbol of the pharaoh’s right to rule over ancient Egypt. Today we have the British lion, the Russian bear, the Chinese dragon, and the American eagle.
Similarly, the Lord uses beasts to represent kingdoms, or governments. In the 7th chapter of Daniel’s prophecy, four beasts are depicted, to represent four kingdoms, which students of prophecy identify as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Of the Roman beast, the prophet said that he saw it stand upon and “devour the whole earth.” (vs. 23) What a lucid picture this is of a selfish and cruel government exploiting the people under its control and appropriating their resources for the furtherance of its own selfish ends!
It is important to observe in connection with the symbology of the Bible that any given symbol is not always used to convey the same idea. We have already noticed that water in one association may be used to represent a cleansing. power, and in another to convey the thought of life-giving energy.
Thus, while in Daniel 7:4 a lion is used to picture the ancient Babylonian empire, the Apostle Peter wrote, “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour.”—I Pet. 5:8
Again, in Isaiah 35:9, in describing favorable conditions which will exists during the age to come when the “highway of holiness” is opened for the people, the prophet wrote, “No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there.” Here “beasts” are used to picture all the devouring or destroying influences from which mankind will be protected during the kingdom age, as they are returning to perfection of life.
Trees of Life
In the 1st chapter of the Book of Revelation the blessings of the people through the agency of Christ’s kingdom are pictured by a “river” which flows out of “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” On either side of this river are said to be trees of life, bearing twelve manner of fruits, and yielding their fruit every month. The leaves of these trees are said to be for the healing of the nations. How beautifully this represents the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless “all families [or nations], of the earth”!—Gen. 12:3
In Psalm 1:1-3 we read, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” Here a tree is used to symbolize a godly person who delights in the law of the Lord.
We are not attempting to explain all the symbols used in the Bible. To do so might well require a book larger than the Bible, itself. We are merely endeavoring to present some of the underlying principles involved in the understanding of Bible symbology, the application of which will help us in our study of the Word. And one of the important things to remember in this connection is that we should not place arbitrary interpretations upon any of the picture language used in the Bible.
If the Bible itself does not explain the meaning of a particular symbol, then we need to take into careful consideration its principal characteristics, and, in harmony with the known elements of truth with which it may be associated, seek humbly to understand the Lord’s mind in the matter. It is well, also, to remember that the symbolism of the Bible is used to give us a clearer understanding of God’s thoughts, not to hide his thoughts from us.
In saying this, we are not overlooking Jesus’ statement to his disciples that his reason for speaking in parables to the world was to prevent the ungodly from understanding his teachings. (Matt. 13:10,11) But these very parables, when explained to his disciples, enabled them, and are helping us, to understand many of the details of the divine plan of the ages much more clearly than otherwise would have been possible.
This brief examination of the style of language the Lord uses, has, we trust, helped to portray to our minds the reassuring fact that he has a plan which has been progressing throughout the ages, which will reach a glorious consummation in the future blessing of all mankind with health and life. Perhaps a fitting closing would be that marvelous picture of the kingdom of Christ presented to us in Revelation 21:1-5. We quote the description:
Go to Part XVII
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride-adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne, said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.”