Upon no points were Jewish beliefs, as reflected in the Apocryphal and Apocalyptic books, more confused than upon the duration of the Messianic Kingdom, and the order of events that should precede and follow it; and especially upon the times of the resurrection and the judgment. It will be well to search out the grounds of this confusion to find, if possible, some data that may give definite and sure results.
As the starting-point of this inquiry, let us recur to the distinction made in the Introduction between the period of redemption and the ages that follow it. That redemption, from its very nature, must come to an end, is obvious. It is a work of God made necessary through man's sin, and has for its end his deliverance; and, when this end is attained as regards all who will be delivered, it ceases. There must come a time on the earth when all shall be obedient to God, and worship Him, and when "death, the last enemy," shall be destroyed; and a period of life and blessedness begin, to which there will be no end. That which distinguishes the redemptive age from that which follows it, lies in this,—that during the former there is moral probation; men are still under trial whether they will repent of sin and obey God or not. But when it is past, probation ceases: the moral state of all men, as good or evil, is fixed and unchangeable. When the work of redemption comes to its end, the final separation of the two classes is made; and they abide forever in the spiritual condition in which they are then found.
It is here, at the end of the redemptive period, that we must place the complete and final separation of the good and the evil. It is plain that it cannot have been before. So long as any are upon trial, God cannot pass sentence upon them determining their eternal destiny; The day of probation must be over before all can be judged. But the time of final judgment is also the time of final resurrection; since, as we are taught by the Lord, all who are in their graves must come forth to stand before Him in judgment. (John v. 28.)
We may now ask, to which of these periods — the redemptive or the post-redemptive — does the Messianic Kingdom belong? Most certainly to the former. As presented to us in the prophets, it is a continuation of the Theocracy under a higher form, but with the same end, — the revelation of God to men, and their salvation. The Messiah is the King under Jehovah, and during this Kingdom probation continues. lie sits in David's throne, that He may bring all blessings to His own people, and salvation to the nations. Great as is the prosperity and happiness of the elect people under His rule, they are, however, never spoken of by the prophets as set wholly free from the law of sin and death. Even their most glowing descriptions do not present redemption as completed, death as abolished, and the law of eternal life as ruling in the earth. Men still remain mortal, and are under trial. It is the purpose of God to "create new heavens and earth," and to swallow up death in victory; and the Messianic Kingdom is the stage immediately preparatory to this, and prefiguring it; but, while the Kingdom continues, disobedience is still possible, and death. "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." (Isa. lxv. 20.) And as individuals may sin and be punished, so we are told that if any left of the nations at that time do not come up year by year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, at Jerusalem, they shall be punished by the withholding of the rain. (Zech. xiv. 17.) The period of immortality and incorruption follows the Messianic age.
Regarded as redemptive, the Messianic Kingdom cannot be eternal; for this involves in it that the evils from which man is to be redeemed are eternal, and redemption is thus made a work without end; nor could it be followed by any resurrection or judgment. But, being redemptive, it comes to an end. How long it shall continue is determined by God, who sets the times and seasons, and who alone can give light as to the time or manner of its termination. And the question here arises, What light did He give by the Old-Testament prophets upon these points? Did He give them visions of the things to follow the Messianic Kingdom? Do they, in their predictions of the future, speak of the post-redemptive age, — of that eternal order into which all things are to be brought when the work of the Messiah as Redeemer is completed? Without presuming to say what might have been the mind of the Spirit in the prophetic utterances, yet taking them in their obvious meaning, we may doubt whether it was the Divine will that His people should then look beyond the Messianic Kingdom. Upon this would He have their attention fastened. So far as the prophetic vision extends, it beholds a world still in process of redemption. It sees in the future a new heaven and earth, as something to be ultimately realized, but only as begun, not completed. The heavenly and perfect and eternal order follows, in the Divine purpose, the Messianic Kingdom; but it is this Kingdom — the last stage of redemption — which is the great theme of prophecy, and which is ever held up to the people as the goal of their hope.
If we ask why this limitation of prophetic revelation, we may find it in the fact that here, as in all God's revelations respecting the future, He makes known only so much as is needful to show men their present duty, to fill them with hope, and prepare them to be workers together with Him. There is a limitation also in the spiritual capacity of man, which God regards in the revelations of His purpose. His children can know what perfected redemption is, only as they themselves advance toward it, and have part in it, one stage preparing them for the next. The heavenly and immortal order that follows redemption, and which is the consummation of all Divine manifestation, cannot be rightly conceived of till the last preceding stage — the Kingdom period — is reached. When His children have been made partakers of the glory of the Kingdom, then will they be able to apprehend the nature of the higher and eternal glory that shall follow. We may therefore say that the prophets do not divide the future, as then lying before them, into the two great periods, redemptive and post-redemptive; their division is that of pre-Messianic and Messianic, — the time before the Messianic Kingdom, and the Kingdom itself. The former continues till the Messiah appears as King to rule for Jehovah, and the end of the pre-Messianic time is defined by the setting up of the Messianic Kingdom; and to this Kingdom no end is assigned, for it was not God's will then to make known what should follow it.
As there is frequent mention of a resurrection and judgment in the Old-Testament prophets, we may here ask to what time in the order of the Divine actings they refer them? As has been said, the final resurrection and judgment must be at the end of redemption; and, as the Messianic Kingdom is redemptive, they cannot be till that kingdom comes to its end. The last separation of the good and the evil is not made till probation ceases. The resurrection and judgment of which the prophets speak, must therefore be placed at the beginning of the Kingdom; they are the initial acts of the Messiah in His administration of the theocratic rule, and must, from their relation to the Kingdom, be partial; universal resurrection and judgment cannot be till its close. But of such close the prophets make no mention. Their farthest vision beholds the children of Israel still enjoying the blessings of the Messianic Kingdom. (Isa. lx.; lxv. 18-23; Joel iii. 20; Amos ix. 14; Ps. lxxii; Ezek. xxxvii. 21-28.)
But it may be asked, if the prophets speak of the Kingdom of the Messiah as without end, how did some of the later Jews come to believe that it would be of limited, and as some said, of brief duration? As we have seen, the conception of the kingdom must be closely connected with the conception of the King. If the words of the prophets respecting Him were not understood, if He were not seen to be more than man, then His Kingdom must be essentially an earthly kingdom; and His administration, however righteous and full of blessing, come at some time to an end. It could not be the final and unchangeable period, but preparatory to it; beyond the Messianic Kingdom must be that of Jehovah. To Him as the eternal God belongs all rule, and His Kingdom must be without end. The real question, therefore, for the Jews was this: What is to be the relation of the Messiah to Jehovah? Is He to be forever His King, the Ruler for Him without end? Or is the relation temporary, as with all the kings before Him; and the Messianic administration after a time, perhaps a very long time, to cease?
We are now prepared to see clearly the difficulty which presented itself to the Jewish students of the prophets in the time preceding the Lord's advent. It was primarily as to the duration of the Messianic Kingdom. On the one hand, there is no prophetic mention of a post-Messianic period, no intimation that the kingdom of Messiah will end, but on the contrary, express declarations that it will be without end. (Isa. ix. 7, Dan. vii. 13-14.) Yet, on the other hand, it was obvious to the thoughtful that the Messianic Kingdom was a stage of redemption, and as such was not itself the final and perfect order, but preparatory to it, and therefore must be limited in time. And as to the person of the Messiah, if the kingdom was limited in time, was not also His life? Or, if not mortal, did not His special relation to Jehovah as His King cease? Those who had most spiritual discernment as to the Divine purpose, might well have been perplexed as they meditated upon these things; nor is it strange that the more rationalistic should have interpreted the predictions of the prophets respecting the Messianic Kingdom, as poetical descriptions never to be realized. Doubtless the time would come, it was said, when the nation would regain its independence, and a son of David sit on the throne, and a period of great prosperity follow. But this was all that the prophets had promised. Jehovah alone was the King, and His kingdom would never pass away.
Thus we may see how, upon the faith of many, the Messianic Kingdom as portrayed in the prophets lost its hold; and as the years went on, and the historic conditions became more and more unfavorable, the fulfillment of the Messianic predictions seemed more and more improbable. Gradually less and less importance was attached to the Messiah and His reign. The silence respecting Him in the Apocryphal books has been noticed; it is Jehovah who raises the dead, and who sits in judgment. Yet it is plain from the words of the people in our Lord's day, that the expectation of a Messiah who should abide forever was still general. "The people answered Him, We have heard out of the law that the Christ abideth for ever;" and this involved a like duration of His kingdom. We may probably say of the larger part of the Jews for many years before the Lord came, that their conceptions of the future were very indefinite, both as to the purpose and nature of the Messiah's reign, and as to its duration.
If the Messianic Kingdom, compared with the age to follow, was relatively of so little importance as some said, where then were the resurrection and judgment spoken of by the prophets to be placed? Would they precede or follow the Messianic Kingdom? The later Jewish writers who speak of a resurrection at all, accept the words of the prophets, and place it before the Kingdom; others are silent as to a resurrection, though they speak of "the day of God," and of national judgment. It was undoubtedly the popular belief, that there would be at the appearing of the Messiah a resurrection of the just, embracing the faithful departed of Israel, and probably also the earlier patriarchs; whether any of the wicked would then be raised for punishment was uncertain. In Daniel only is mention made, as his words are generally understood, of a resurrection of the wicked, but of a part only. (xii. 2.) It was not apparently ever a Jewish belief that there would be, either before or after the Messianic Kingdom, an universal resurrection embracing the dead of all ages and races, but rather that the wicked dead would remain in sheol: in what condition, whether of positive punishment or of semi-conscious misery, was not known; some seem to have thought of annihilation as possible.
With the Jewish conceptions of disembodied life, we are not here concerned. This life may be considered in itself as a mode of being either good or evil, or in its relation to the Messianic Kingdom. As regards the former, there was in the silence of the Scriptures room for great variety of speculation; and the terms Paradise, Gehenna, Eden, Abraham's bosom, designations of differing conditions of disembodied life, began to be familiarly used. But these were all provisional states or places, and were to cease, except perhaps Gehenna, at the resurrection.
Thus we find that before the Lord's advent, there had gradually grown up the conception of three distinct periods as embraced in the Divine actings, — the preMessianic, the Messianic, and the post-Messianic. At the end of the first, according to the more general belief, were the resurrection and judgment of the just; at the end of the second, the resurrection of the unjust, in whole or in part. But how the post-Messianic period differed from the Messianic, and what was the place of the Messiah in it, was all in obscurity. Nor was this obscurity removed till the purpose of God was made known by His actings in His Son.
It was reserved to the apostles, after the Lord had ascended to heaven, to give the simple solution of questions so perplexing to the Jews. When the fitting time had come, St. Paul brought clearly to light the distinction of the redemptive and post-redemptive periods. (1 Cor. xv. 24-28.) The Messiah must reign till He hath put all things under His feet, and then shall He give up the Kingdom to the Father. Having completed redemption, He gives up His office as Redeemer, and the heavenly and eternal order begins. Thus the Messianic Kingdom and the work of redemption end together. Now follows the post-redemptive or post-Messianic age.
But what place in the Divine economy has the Messiah after He has given up the Kingdom to the Father? This question the Jews could not answer. Until the dignity of His person as the Incarnate Son was known, it could not be known that He would continue forever Jehovah's King, the Lord over all. But this once declared, it was easy to see how His rule would have a twofold form, first as Messianic King, then as universal Lord. He must first be seated on the throne of His glory to carry on and complete redemption; and when all things are subdued under Him, and death, the last enemy, is destroyed, then a new period will begin, which is without end, when He will be the Ruler for God over all the creatures He has made. He gives up the Messianic, or redemptive, Kingdom to the Father because its purpose has been accomplished ; but, having established the perfect and unchangeable order, He continues to act as Ruler for the Father forever.
Thus what was full of confusion to the Jews is, through our knowledge of the Incarnation and of the apostles' teaching, made plain to us. We see how there may be the three periods, the pre-Messianic, the Messianic, and the post-Messianic; and the relation of these to each other. The pre-Messianic and Messianic are both redemptive, and the Old-Testament prophets spake only of these. Beyond the Messianic Kingdom as the last stage of redemption it was not the will of God that His people should then look. The true nature of the post-Messianic age, when redemption had been consummated, could not be made known to them: nor even to the apostles who had seen the Lord after His resurrection, was He pleased to give knowledge of any details. St. Paul simply says that God will then "be all in all." It would be both presumptuous, and foreign to our purpose, to attempt to explain these words; but they seem to point to a closer unity with God, into which the redeemed are brought through Christ, and a higher manifestation of His life in them; a full realization of His prayer, "As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us. ... I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one."
It is now easy, also, to see the true place of the resurrection and judgment of which the Old-Testament prophets speak. Out of the Messianic Kingdom, "all things that offend, and them that do iniquity," must be gathered. There is first the separation of the good and the evil, and then their respective awards; and this is "the great day of the Lord." This is done when the kingdom is set up. Of the judgments then to be inflicted upon the disobedient people, and upon the nations, the prophets are full; and of these there will be mention in a later chapter. It is enough to say in general that the Psalmist's words will then be fulfilled: "The Lord hath made Himself known; He hath executed judgment. . . . The wicked shall return to sheol, even all the nations that forget God." (Ps. ix., Rev. Ver.) And as the wicked are then cut off from the earth, so will the Messiah, who is Himself a man raised from the dead, call from their graves all whom He will. Those who are His helpers in the administration of the kingdom — His kings and priests — must be like Him in immortality and incorruption. Thus is accomplished at the beginning of the Messianic age the partial resurrection and judgment spoken of by the prophets. At the end of the Kingdom, of which end they do not speak, when the last stage of redemption is completed, all who are in their graves come forth to judgment.
It is thus through the teaching of the apostles, resting on the dignity of the Messiah's person as the Incarnate Son, and on the immortality and glory into which He admits those whom He counts worthy, that the Messianic Kingdom is restored to the high place it occupied in the prophets. The Spirit of God in them did not exalt it beyond its due measure. It is indeed limited in time, because it is redemptive in its nature, and for the same reason it is not the perfect order; but it is a new revelation of God in Jesus Christ; for it shows forth in the resurrection of the faithful the first-fruits of the life of the Risen One. It is the time when the righteousness and the grace of God are manifested to all nations, and when all the earth is at rest and peace. We may not overestimate it nor disparage it, but give it the place it holds in the Divine order. In it the work of new creation, already begun in the Risen One, will be carried forward in those who shall be changed into His likeness; and foretastes be given of the glory to be revealed when all things are made new. (Rev. xx. i. 5.)
We have still to consider the terms, "this world," or "this age," and "the world to come," or "age to come." These terms are not prophetical, but came into use after the exile, and became very familiar to the later Jews. Says Lightfoot, "The distinction of this world and the world to come is found in almost every page of the Rabbins." The primary meaning of these terms was to designate the two successive forms of the Theocracy, the pre Messianic and the Messianic. "This world" is the present condition of things, looked at especially on its evil side. The misery of the people during and after the exile gave to it the secondary meaning of suf
fering and injustice, a period of oppression and misery. Contrasted with this was the future Messianic Kingdom as foretold by the prophets, — a period of prosperity, of independence, of righteousness and peace. Thus the two worlds, or ages, are not only successive in time, but in strongest moral contrast. "This world," especially in its last days, is full of disorder and wickedness; but in "the world to come " will be obedience and holiness. Thus "the world to come" became the general designation for the Messianic Kingdom.
Gradually, however, these terms underwent a change of their meaning. As the Messianic Kingdom began to be thought of as of limited duration, and was divested of its supernatural features, and regarded as of comparative unimportance, it began to be spoken of as a part of "this world," — its closing period; and "the world to come," as the post-Messianic Age, or the eternal Kingdom of Jehovah. But there does not appear to have been any uniformity of usage among the Rabbins; the usage in the Gospeb will be later considered. The expression, " the last days," or " afterhood " of the days, or "afterpart" of the days, is used in the prophets of the last period of the pre-Messianic time, or of "this world," — that immediately preceding the setting up of the Messianic Kingdom. At a later day, and probably not till after the Christian era, when the Messianic hope had almost failed among the Jews, and the blessed existence of the individual soul after death had become of chief importance to the scattered and desponding exiles, the phrase "the world to come " began to be applied to the disembodied state. It was that condition into which souls entered at death. This was a great departure from its original significance; for the division of the two worlds, or ages, is not one of transition in individual existence, — from the embodied to the disembodied, — but of periods of time in the historical actings of God which embrace all men alike. Neither by the Lord nor His apostles is the condition of the separated soul called "the world to come."
This phrase is used in its true meaning in the Nicene creed: "I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." We attain to this life through resurrection. This is the order in our Lord's words: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."