Prof. David J. Engelsma
Those Glorious Prospects in Old Testament Prophesy
It is those glorious prospects in Old Testament prophecy that are the real basis in Scripture for the postmillennial dream. The postmillennialists make a half-hearted appeal to Revelation 20 (see the editorial in the Standard Bearer, April 15, 1995). They refer to a stray text, here and there, in the New Testament. But their theory of the last things rests, in the end, on Old Testament prophecy, specifically, Old Testament prophecy of the coming, victorious, glorious Messianic kingdom.
Here, in the Old Testament prophecies that hold out grand prospects for the future, is the bulwark of postmillennialism. Messiah’s rule over the nations with the iron rod, of Psalm 2; the peaceful kingdom, of Psalm 72; the filling of the earth with the knowledge of Jehovah, of Isaiah 11; the prosperous condition of the saints, of Isaiah 65; and the little stone filling the whole earth, of Daniel 2 — these are the prophecies and these are the passages that ground, and motivate, postmillennialism.
Avoiding the New Testament Testimony
There is a reason for this. There is a reason why postmillennialism deliberately takes its stand on Old Testament Scripture. The reason is that the New Testament is against their theory of a coming “golden age” for the church before the return of Christ. The massive testimony of the New Testament is that the little flock of Christ will suffer tribulation throughout the present age. At the end, lawlessness will increase in the world, there will be great apostasy in the sphere of the visible church, Antichrist will be revealed, and the saints will endure great persecution (Luke 12:32; John 15:18ff.; Matt. 24:3-31; II Thess. 2:3ff.; Revelation 17:8).
Herman Bavinck profoundly and powerfully voiced this New Testament witness when he wrote:
Ominous Concentration on the Old Testament
Postmillennialism, therefore, is forced back upon the Old Testament. This bypassing of the New Testament in order to rely on the Old Testament is both erroneous and ominous. The reason is not that the Old is not inspired and authoritative, or that the Old is less inspired and authoritative than the New. But the reason is that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. As the fulfillment particularly of the eschatology of the Old Testament, the New Testament both clarifies and authoritatively explains the Old Testament prophecies of the last things.
A sound interpreter reads the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. He does not force his understanding of the Old Testament upon New Testament doctrine.
The renowned Old Testament scholar O. T. Allis called attention to the error of ignoring the eschatology of the New Testament, while concentrating on that of the Old Testament, in his classic refutation of dispensational premillennialism (the “rapture theory”). He noted “the tendency to exalt the Old Testament at the expense of the New Testament, to insist that its (the Old Testament’s) predictions stand, we may say, in their own right, and are in no sense dependent upon the New Testament for amplification, illumination, or interpretation.” On the contrary, wrote Allis:
Bavinck made the same telling point against the chiliasts, or millennialists. Bavinck observed that this teaching of a future, earthly kingdom of God “loves to appeal” to the court of Old Testament prophecy. With specific reference to the millennial insistence on interpreting this Old Testament prophecy literally, disregarding the teaching of the New Testament, Bavinck stated:
What is ominous is that in basing its doctrine of the end on Old Testament prophecy, rather than on New Testament clarification and interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, postmillennialism, which claims to be Reformed, lines up with anti-Reformed dispensationalism.
The All-Important Kingdom Prophecies
That Old Testament prophecy is, in fact, the real biblical basis of postmillennialism is evident from such a representative and influential book as Loraine Boettner’s The Millennium (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958). The texts put forward in support of postmillennialism are largely drawn from the Old Testament, e.g., among others, Psalm 97; Zechariah 9:10; Psalm 2; Psalm 72; Isaiah 2; and Daniel 2. The only New Testament passage referred to that conceivably bears on the issue is Matthew 13:33, the parable of the leaven (see pages 22-29).
The main objection raised by Boettner against amillennialism is the kingdom prophecies in the Old Testament:
The kingdom prophecies that Boettner mentioned are Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-5; Isaiah 11:1-10; Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 65:17-25; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Joel 2:28; Malachi 1:11; and Psalm 72 (see pp. 119-124).
A Crucial Text
We may take Isaiah 65:17-25 as representative of all the Old Testament prophecies upon which postmillennialism pins its hope. This is the passage that begins with Jehovah God’s promise that He creates “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17). Verse 20 declares that in this new world “there shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.” Verses 21-23 prophesy a peaceful, prosperous, profitable life for the elect and their offspring. The passage ends by extending the peace of the new creation to the animal world: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock....”
I choose this passage deliberately. The postmillennialists themselves appeal to this passage as the strongest support of their doctrine of a coming golden age and as the clearest refutation of amillennialism. Their argument is that the passage predicts a renewed creation in which there will yet be both death and sinners. In the world of new heavens and a new earth, a child will die at 100 and sinners will be accursed. This cannot be the case in the new creation after Jesus’ return, but this will be true in the golden age of postmillennialism.
Postmillennialist, Christian Reconstructionist Gary North assures his readers that “this detailed and obviously literal prophecy, above all other passages in the Bible, poses the greatest problems for amillennialists, who deny the coming of any period of literal worldwide blessings” (Unconditional Surrender: God’s Program for Victory, Institute for Christian Economics, 1988, p. 145).
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. calls Isaiah 65 “the major passage setting forth the spiritual conception of the change wrought by Christ in history.” The unwary reader must not be deceived by the words, “spiritual conception.” Gentry does not have in mind spiritual blessings such as the forgiveness of sins. Gentry understands Isaiah 65 to be promising “a period of unprecedented, literal (read: physical, carnal - DJE) blessings ... for mankind prior to the resurrection.” With a curious disregard for the eschatological lineup that he is suggesting, Gentry says that Isaiah 65 “poses no problem for the postmillennialist, nor ... for the premillennialist.” Both of them expect, and desire, a carnal kingdom in history, stuffed with material goodies. But the passage is, however, a decided problem for the amillennialist. It is perhaps the greatest single exegetical problem facing amillennialism, which is why amillennialists rarely comment on the passage, and when they do, they do not make a great deal of sense (He Shall Have Dominion: A Post-millennial Eschatology, Institute for Christian Economics, 1992, pp. 360-365).
The Postmillennial Interpretation of Isaiah 65
The postmillennial interpretation of the passage is that Christ will triumph in history in such a way that the saints will enjoy earthly peace, earthly prosperity, and very long earthly life. Somehow, there will even be a kind of “transformation” of nature. But this will take place before the second coming of Christ, since, according to verse 20, children shall die and sinners shall be accursed.
Listen, critically, to Dr. North:
Notice that Isaiah was not speaking about the world beyond the grave and after the final judgment, for sinners will still be operating in the future period of history described by the prophet. He was speaking about a period of time called the new heavens and new earth: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17a). Obviously, this cannot possibly refer to a period beyond the final resurrection, for there will be no sinners among us then. They will all be in the lake of fire, along with Satan and his angelic host (Revelation 20:14-15). Therefore, the new heavens and new earth must begin before Christ comes again in final judgment. (Unconditional Surrender, pp. 143-145).