Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Where's the carcase and who are the eagles?

Matthew 24:28  For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.

Many people have no idea what this verse means at all.  Modern commentaries openly express that they are so baffled that they would just be guessing at an interpretation.  Whilst I don’t wish to be dogmatic, I do think that the context presents us with the simplest and most beautiful interpretation which was the understanding of Reformers such as Calvin, Cranmer and Trapp, as well as many early church writers such as Chrysostom.  The debate here centres around what the symbolism of the ‘carcase’ and the ‘eagles’ represent.

Whilst the definition of ‘ptoma’ (carcase) is not really contested, with the Lexicons and translations in agreement that it refers to a dead body, the word for eagle or vulture is sometimes contested.  Often, the motivation for interpreting this verse one way or another is purely to suit a preferred prophetical view.  However, though vultures were considered somewhat synonymous with eagles by Aristotle, we must not alter the word to suit our interpretation but must alter our interpretation to suit God’s Word.  The Liddell Scott-Jones Lexicon shows the consistent ancient definition of the word ‘aetos’: ‘eagle…eagle as a standard, of the Persians… of the Romans…the constellation Aquila’, ‘aquila’ being the Latin word for eagle and the name of a Gentile convert from Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  Strong’s Lexicon agrees that ‘eagle’ is the correct translation.

Now, many Protestant commentators have identified the dead body as Jerusalem in its spiritually dead state, which the Lord Jesus had prophesied would be destroyed just previously:

Matthew 24:15-16  When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains…

And, as we have seen, the Roman military standard was an eagle.  So, as the same standard of the eagle was set up as an abomination in the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman prince Titus, the typically conclusion is that the eagles of verse 28 must be referring to this same event. 
But, must we interpret verse 28 as referring to this?  The use of the word ‘eagle’ might cause us to reflect upon this prophecy earlier in the chapter, but does the immediate context allow us to do so? 

As verse 29 marks the beginning of a new paragraph, let us examine the context preceding verse 28:

Matthew 24:23-28  Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Behold, I have told you before.
Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.
For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.

The context is discussing false teachers who declare Christ to have come before that great and terrible day.  But, the Lord Jesus reminds us of the simple truth that every eye shall see Him when He returns in great glory, like lightning, to judge every soul that ever lived.  Therefore, the context indicates that we are no longer discussing the destruction of Jerusalem but Christ’s return.  And His second coming will not be in some secret place or to arrive in a humble stable again.  Yet, Jesus declares that if you want to seek communion with Him today, it is at the Lord’s Supper that we remember Him, indeed where we can find the symbols of His broken body – that bread of life and poured out life which represent the sustenance of eternal life we have in Jesus.  Many react negatively to this understanding as the English word ‘carcase’ has come to take on many negative connotations rather than simply meaning ‘dead body’, as the Greek word does.  There should be no such reaction; doesn’t Paul command us to discern the Lord’s body as we sit at the Lord’s Table (1Corinthians 11:29)?

Christ reminds us that the elect will not be deceived into following the false notions of some false prophet but, being His sheep, they hear His voice and follow Him.  They do not seek a physical kingdom, here and now, but rather understand that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21).  Likewise, they do not follow strangers but rather flee from them and gather together in the name of Jesus and He Himself is there in the midst of that congregation.  We assemble to brake bread and to remember the death and resurrection to new life we have in Jesus.  We are then told, in this chapter, that at the actual return of Christ we will literally be gathered to Him:

Matthew 24:31  And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

But for now we gather to eat His body and drink His blood that we might live.  The eagle is described as doing the same thing in Job:

Job 39:27, 28 & 30  Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?
She dwelleth and abideth on the rock…
Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

The eagles gather where the dead body is.
But how can Christians be represented by eagles?  Where is the scriptural precedent for this?  Well, Christians are likened to eagles in Scripture:

Isaiah 40:31  …they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles…

But even stronger representation is used in the New Testament:

Revelation 12:14  And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished…

Here, the Spirit of God has John use the same symbolism used of the Israelites being led out of Egypt and persecution to be sustained in the wilderness by the manna from heaven:

Exodus 19:4  Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.

We are given eagle’s wings that we might be whisked away from the dog’s vomit of this world’s empty pleasures and be truly nourished in our soul with Christ.  We are spiritual pilgrims in the barren land of this wicked world blinded by Satan.  But our food is not physical food, not manna which the Israelites ate but whose bodies died nonetheless; our food is Christ – He is the true bread sent down from heaven and when we drink the blood of His New Covenant, we shall never die.  Though our bodies die, we know that we have eternal life and have passed from spiritual death to life by the same power of God which conquered the grave by raising our King to glory.

In conclusion, I believe the meaning of this verse can be summarised thus:  No false teaching can lure away God’s elect.  Wherever Christ is fed upon in Spirit and truth, His sheep will gather there and no one can snatch them from God’s hand.

Pulpit Commentary: ‘The carcase is Christ, or the body of Christ; the eagles are the saints, or true Christians; these, whatever happens, will, with keen spiritual sight, always be able to discern Christ and his body, and to flock thereto. He calls himself πτμα, because he saves us by his death, and feeds us by his body, in his Church, Word, and sacraments (see Wordsworth, in loc.). Such is the interpretation of many of the Fathers, and it has many analogies in other places of Scripture.’

Geneva Commentary: ‘The only remedy against the furious rage of the world is that of being gathered and joined to Christ.’

Calvin: ‘The meaning is, that by whatever methods Satan endeavors to scatter the children of God in various directions, still in Christ himself is the sacred bond of union, by which they must be kept united. For whence comes the dispersion, but that many depart from Christ, in whom alone our strength lies? ...Let the adherents of Rome now go, and exclaim that all are schismatics who do not allow themselves to be separated from Christ, that they may transfer their allegiance to a robber.’

Trapp: ‘That is, saith M. Lambert, martyr, wheresoever is declared by the course of the Scriptures, the benefits granted to us by Christ’s death, thither will men seek and flee, to know how they may enjoy the same. The sacrificed body of Christ (saith another) hath a most fragrant smell, inviting the saints (like birds of prey) to fly from far with marvellous swiftness to this dead but all quickening carcase…  Christ’s last supper is called by the ancients, Festum aquilarum, non graculorum, a feast for eagles, not for daws.’

Isaiah 60:8  Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Is Lucifer Satan?

Isaiah 14:12  How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

There are many, particularly those who hold to the view that the Authorised King James Version of the Bible is the preserved Word of God or the only acceptable translation for use in English-speaking congregations today, who believe that because more modern translations do not use the word Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12, they have not only removed Satan from this passage but, by translating this word as ‘morning star’ or ‘day star’, they have put Christ in the place of Satan, as these terms are synonymous with Christ in 2Peter and the Revelation.  They assert that this is either knowingly or unknowingly a part of some satanic conspiracy.
Let us examine these claims.

The word ‘Lucifer’ actually comes from the Latin Vulgate and is not to be found in the Hebrew.  The Hebrew literally means ‘shining one’ or ‘morning star’ and was translated in the Vulgate as a derivative of 'lux', meaning the light bearer.  Strong’s Lexicon confirms the meaning for us:
‘…(in the sense of brightness); the morning star…
And Thayer’s Lexicon agrees, as well as the Ancient Hebrew Lexicon which recognises the use of the word in Hebrew antiquity: ‘
ac: Shine co: Star’.
So, firstly, the more modern translations have done nothing but to translate the Hebrew.  Which Protestant would dare suggest that the Latin Vulgate was 'more inspired' than the original Hebrew?  Therefore, by not reusing the word ‘Lucifer’, these translations are actually getting closer to the original meaning.
The word ‘Lucifer’ isn’t a name for Satan either as this verse does not even implicate the devil at all.  The vast majority of commentators and certainly the best of them recognise that the king of Babylon is being spoken of in Isaiah 14.  Anything else is just speculation.  The context itself declares this:
Isaiah 14:4  That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say…

The very best commentators are in complete agreement, their view being summed up by Barnes here:
There can be no doubt that the object in the eye of the prophet was the bright morning star; and his design was to compare this magnificent oriental monarch with that. The comparison of a monarch with the sun, or the other heavenly bodies, is common in the Scriptures.

So then why is Lucifer such a commonplace term for Satan?
It was Tertullian, whose tongue was Latin, who began to speculate that Lucifer was actually Satan, but he seems to have been alone in this interpretation as other writers, even later Latin writers like Augustine, interpreted Lucifer as the king of Babylon.  The Reformers too did not share this view but rather saw it as ridiculous.  For example, the most famous of the Reformers, John Calvin, also translated the word ‘Helel’ as ‘Lucifer’, as seen in the Geneva Bible.  However, both he and the Geneva Bible commentary reject the idea that Lucifer could possibly be referring to Satan.  Calvin sums up the Reformed position, and indeed the historical position of the church, here: 
‘The exposition of this passage, which some have given, as if it referred to Satan, has arisen from ignorance; for the context plainly shows that these statements must be understood in reference to the king of the Babylonians. But when passages of Scripture are taken up at random, and no attention is paid to the context, we need not wonder that mistakes of this kind frequently arise. Yet it was an instance of very gross ignorance, to imagine that Lucifer was the king of devils, and that the Prophet gave him this name. But as these inventions have no probability whatever, let us pass by them as useless fables.’  
It was only the later writings of the Puritan poet, John Milton, in his Paradise Lost, which depicted Satan as Lucifer, which cemented the idea in the minds of the masses.  Therefore, this interpretation has no Scriptural warrant, no historical pedigree and being based on one man’s imagination (a piece of fiction) no one should be dogmatic about it.

But this was not just the understanding of the church, but the Jews also understood it of the king of Babylon; Dr. Gill quotes the Jewish Targum in his commentary to confirm the interpretation: ‘[H]ow art thou fallen from on high, who was shining among the sons of men, as the star Venus among the stars.’
The Jews fully understood the meaning of this word ‘Helel’.  They could clearly see that this was referring to ‘the morning star’ or Venus and a particular god of the Babylonian people.  The NET Bible notes are exemplary in helping us understand the historic and cultural context of ‘Helel’:
‘The Hebrew text has הֵילֵל בֶּן־שָׁחַר (helel ben-shakhar, “Helel son of Shachar”), which is probably a name for the morning star (Venus) or the crescent moon…
What is the background for the imagery in vv. 12-15? This whole section (vv. 4b-21) is directed to the king of Babylon, who is clearly depicted as a human ruler. Other kings of the earth address him in vv. 9ff., he is called “the man” in v. 16, and, according to vv. 19-20, he possesses a physical body. Nevertheless the language of vv. 12-15 has led some to see a dual referent in the taunt song. These verses, which appear to be spoken by other pagan kings to a pagan king (cf. vv. 9-11), contain several titles and motifs that resemble those of Canaanite mythology, including references to Helel son of Shachar, the stars of El, the mountain of assembly, the recesses of Zaphon, and the divine title Most High. Apparently these verses allude to a mythological story about a minor god (Helel son of Shachar) who tried to take over Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. His attempted coup failed and he was hurled down to the underworld. The king of Babylon is taunted for having similar unrealized delusions of grandeur. Some Christians have seen an allusion to the fall of Satan here, but this seems contextually unwarranted (see J. Martin, “Isaiah,” BKCOT, 1061).’

Venus, even today is still referred to as ‘the morning star’, as it shines at its zenith to herald the dawn. 

Well, even if Satan isn’t being spoken of in this verse, could it be possible that there is a satanic conspiracy in the modern versions of the Bible to liken the king of Babylon to Christ by using terms like ‘day star’ or ‘morning star’, which are specifically used to speak of Christ?
2Peter 1:19  …the day star…
Revelation 22:16  I Jesus…am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.

I don’t think that anyone reading the clear words concerning the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 could mistake this figure for Christ any more than they might mistake the lamb which speaks like a dragon for the true Lamb of God.  His sheep hear His voice and follow Him.  But, nevertheless, the King James translators, who never claimed for their work the perfection and even inspiration attributed to it by many in the second-half of the 20th century, listed the term ‘day star’ as a valid translation for the word ‘Helel’: ‘O Lucifer: or, O day star’ (see marginal notes).
Were the King James translators party to this satanic conspiracy too?  No.  As we have seen, ‘morning star’ etc. is a legitimate translation of the Hebrew here.

Personally, I prefer the NET’s translation, ‘shining one’, and would add a marginal note to indicate the reference to Venus and, briefly, the historic context.