The Sign Question Answered
What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? (Matt. 24:3b, A.S.V.)Analysis of Matthew 24:6,7
In asking this question the apostles knew of at least some of the signs Old Testament Scriptures had given for the end of the age: the regathering of Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the world, the moral break-down of civilization, the rise of lawlessness and decay of civil government and authority. But it was THE sign of the end of the age they wanted to be able to recognize. The words "the end of the world" literally rendered are, "The consummation of the age." They were not thinking of the dissolution of the earth but about the end of the present era, which at that time was dawning, and about our Lord's return to usher in a new era.
Our Lord's answer to the apostles' question is found in Matt. 24:6-8, Mark 13:7,8 and Luke 21:9-11. Since the passage in Mark adds nothing to that found in Matthew's record, we will get the essential facts as presented in the other two. Because so very much is involved in this question it becomes necessary for us to analyze each of these important passages, defining the principal terms:
And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled: for these things must needs come to pass; but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines and earthquakes in divers places. (Matt. 24:6,7)
"Wars and rumors of wars": What is the meaning of this expression? Evidently these words carry the regular connotation, signifying conflicts between certain nations as are recorded in history from time immemorial. The term wars indicates actual combats whereas rumors of wars connotes the brewing of conflicts.
"The end" in this question signifies the end of this present era during which our Lord is absent--the end of the dispensation concerning which the question was asked.
"For" is a word that, when used as a conjunction, is all but universally neglected. The clause or sentence which it introduces is always explanatory of that which has gone before. It is important that we recognize the special function of this conjunction and study carefully the preceding context to ascertain how much of it is explained by the sentence thus introduced.
"Nation ... against nation": What is the significance of this phrase? Since its background is found in Old Testament passages such as Zech. 14, we may be able to gather information there which will determine its meaning.
We should bear in mind that, humanly speaking, our Lord was a Jew, brought up in the atmosphere of the Old Testament and Jewish theology of the day, as were His disciples. The significance of this expression is to be found in the Old Testament.
An Idiom of the Day
This phrase, "nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom," is a pure Hebraic idiom which occurs in two passages of the Old Testament, one of which is Isa. 19:1-4, an oracle pertaining only to Egypt. Before the prophet's vision there loomed a situation which would arise in the future from his point of view. He saw the time when God would "stir up the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor," in a civil war that would rend Egypt from one end to the other.
Are we to understand the terms, "every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor," as meaning that absolutely every individual in Egypt will be engaged in this civil war?
Absolute or Relative
There are two uses of language, the absolute and the relative, and the context and facts connected with the situation must be studied to arrive at the correct conclusion. The facts alone render the final decision as to which usage is to be understood. As stated many times, the fundamental rule of interpreting all languages is to take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the context indicate clearly otherwise.
As an illustration of the absolute type, note the names of the apostles in Matt. 10:2-4 and the statement which follows in vs. 5: "These twelve Jesus sent forth, and charged them, saying, Go not into any way of the Gentiles, and enter not into any city of the Samaritans." In these verses we see a list of the disciples' names and the statement that "these twelve Jesus sent forth," commanding them not to go in the way of the Gentiles. The language is very specific and every word is to be taken in its absolute sense. Otherwise, human speech means nothing.
The following statement in Matt. 3 is an illustration of the relative use of language: "Then went out unto him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about the Jordan; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (vss. 5,6). Are we to understand that every individual in Jerusalem, Judaea and the section around the Jordan went out to John's services and was baptized by him in the Jordan? No, for the seventh verse qualifies this by saying, "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism," he called them an offspring of vipers and asked who warned them to flee from the coming wrath.
This position is confirmed by Luke's statement which declares, "And all the people when they heard, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him" (7:29,30).
Is the expression, "every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbor" absolute or relative language? The major portion of a nation in any war is usually involved, but not every single individual participates actively. In view of this it seems that the expression is to be taken in the relative sense of the term, indicating the great majority of people.
A Major Conflict
After having told of the conflict which would arise in Egypt involving the majority of the people, Isaiah spoke in general terms and used this idiom, "city against city, and kingdom against kingdom." It is clear that the prediction indicated a general war in which the major portion of the nation would be involved and which would rend the entire country, end to end.
The other example of this idiom is found in 2 Chron. 15:1-7. These verses give us Azariah's interview with King Asa at a time of national victory. The prophet went to the king to deliver the message that "Jehovah is with you, while ye are with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you" (vs. 2). This statement is a declaration of the fundamental principle in God's dealing with the human family.
The prophet then began to interpret to the king God's dealings with Israel in the past, looking back to a period of apostasy when the prophetic voice had ceased in Israel. This period of the dearth of God's Word finally was broken when the Lord brought His judgments upon the nation: "But when in their distress they turned unto Jehovah, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found of them" (vs. 4). In speaking of this period of judgment the prophet said, "And in those times there was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in: but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the lands. And they were broken in pieces, nation against nation, and city against city; for God did vex them with all adversity" (vss. 5,6). In this former time of distress which terminated the period of apostasy, a general upheaval in "the lands" occurred. The prophet was speaking of Israel's past history; evidently Palestine was the center of this general uprising and free-for-all conflict, with the lands adjoining it on the north, east and south included. A man of Judaea who wished to escape the calamities of the times by going into some other land ran into worse troubles. The same was true if a Moabite wished to escape by entering Israel, for there he found no relief. This general political upheaval can be interpreted as nothing other than a general conflict affecting those nations, but it does not require us to think of this language in the absolute sense. The probability is that the statements are used with a relative meaning.
This major conflict involving Palestine and adjacent countries is described in the words, "And they were broken in pieces, nation against nation, and city against city; for God did vex them with all adversity" (vs. 6).
A World Involvement
From these two examples it is clear that the idiom, "nation against nation, and city against city" signifies a major conflict involving all of the territory before the prophet's gaze. Since in the context of the Olivet Discourse it is evident our Lord had a world vision, we are forced to the conclusion that this idiom on His lips signified a major conflict that would involve practically all the world. This language also conveyed to the apostles' minds the prediction of a major conflict among the nations, properly considered today as a world war. From the significance of its use in the Old Testament we conclude it is not a forecast of a conflict in which every single nation is involved but rather the majority of nations.Global Catastrophies
From Old Testament predictions the Jew concluded there would be a general war involving the nations immediately preceding the establishment of the great Kingdom age, as pointed out by the following quotations:
At that time wars shall be stirred up in the world; nation shall be against nation, and city against city; much distress shall be renewed against the enemies of the Israelites. --Zohar Chadash
If you shall see kingdoms rising against each other in turn, then give heed, and note the footstep of the Messiah. --Beresch Rabba
"Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes": What is the significance of these words and how can they be interpreted as an integral part of "the sign of the end of the age"? Words are to be taken at their primary, usual meaning unless the context indicates otherwise--but have we not had famines, pestilences and earthquakes throughout all history? The annals of the past show many such calamities which have afflicted the earth. Then how can these things be a sign of the closing era? In view of the passage just quoted, I believe they will appear in an intensified, heightened and increased form at the close of the age. Therefore, nation rising against nation, famines, pestilences and earthquakes are the four things which constitute the sign of the closing era.