By Charles H. Welch
Parable. As the student of Scripture grows in grace and knowledge of the truth, things which once seemed trivial appear of great importance; passages which once he thought he "knew all about" are approached with deepening humility, to be re-read and learned afresh. Among our earliest recollections, either as scholars in Sunday Schools or as members of churches, will be those passages of Scripture known as "The Parables". The time worn definition, "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning" is doubtless familiar to us all. Do we not begin to realize, however, that these parables contain teaching which some of our teachers never saw, and that the dispensational key, which has turned the lock of so many difficulties and opened doors into such treasuries may be profitably applied to these "dark sayings"?
The first thing to do is to be sure of the meaning of the word. The word "parable" has been taken over into the English tongue from the Greek word parabole. Para means "near" or "beside" and bole is from ballo, "I cast" or "throw". Literally it signifies something "cast beside" another, and as applied to discourse it means a method of teaching which demands the use of simi1itude or comparison. A good example of this "throwing beside" is the interpretation of the "Tares" (Matt. 13:36-43).
All the parables of Scripture are weighty and wise sayings. This may be gathered from the words of the proverb, "the legs of a lame man are not equal, so is a parable in the mouth of fools" (prov. 26:7). The Companion Bible gives the meaning, "the clothes of a lame man being lifted up expose his lameness, so a fooI exposes his folly in expounding a parable". (See also Prov.26:9.) An American writer has given a very helpful translation of Proverbs, chapter 1:2-6 which reads thus:
It is in this frame of mind that we approach these "dark sayings" in the fear of the Lord to learn their "secrets".
In Matthew 13:35 the Lord quotes from Psalm 78:2 in relation to His speaking in parables, and therefore we may expect to find some help in that Psalm to guide us to the right understanding of the purpose of parables. The heading of the Psalm is "Maschil of Asaph". The Hebrew word maschil is from the word sakal, which means, "to look at", "to scrutinize", and the term maschil means, "an understanding arising from a deep consideration" (Neh. 8:8).
"Give ear, 0 My people, to My law,
The remaining portion of the Psalm is a rehearsal of the history of Israel from Moses to David, showing the inner reasons of their failures. Take for example verses 9 and 10:
"The children of Ephraim, armed, carrying bows,
"They kept not the covenant of God,
From this we may infer that a parable urges us to consider deeply the ways of God with His people, and to look for the hidden causes, and workings which are veiled from the eyes of the uninstructed.
That a parable has some connexion with a secret, a reference to Matthew thirteen will prove. There for the first time in the New Testament do we read the word "mystery" or "secret" and there for the first time occurs the word "parable". Further, the Lord Jesus translates the words, "I will utter dark sayings of old," by the words, "I will utter things which have been kept secret since the overthrow (katabole) of the world" (Matt. 13:35).
The first parable of the Bible is one which concerns the people of Israel in relation to their separate calling as a distinct nation and peculiar people:
In Hebrews 9:9 and 11:19 we find the word translated, "a figure". A parable and a proverb are much alike. The parable of Matthew 15:13-15 might be termed a proverb. Indeed the word translated "proverb" in Luke 4:23 is really "parable". The words, "Physician, heal thyself" are called in the original a "parable". That a "proverb" carried the same hidden teaching as did the "parable and dark saying" can be seen by referring to John 16:25 and 29:
In the Old Testament we have "type"; in the Gospels we have "parable" , and in the epistles we have "doctrine", as the more prominent features. The parables lead us to contemplate the hidden causes of the failure of Israel in relation to the kingdom that had been proclaimed and look forward to the time when all will be put right at the Coming of the Lord in glory.
The first occurrence of a word very often suggests its fundamental meaning. The first occurrence of the word parable in the New Testament is Matthew 13:3. It follows that chapter wherein the rejection of the Messiah by the people in the land became evident. He had been heralded as their Messiah and King. He had vindicated His claims by the fulfilment of numerous prophecies, both with regard to His person and His works, and in chapter 12:6,41 and 42, although greater than the temple, greater than the prophet Jonah, and greater than king Solomon, He is "despised and rejected".
The reader should observe that these parables of Matthew thirteen ARE NOT about "The Kingdom of Heaven" pure and simple, but about "The mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven", a very different aspect of truth.
Such is the setting of the first occurrence of the word parable in the New Testament. The parables were used when Israel manifested that the prophecy of Isaiah 6:10 was fulfilled in them. The parables veiled the teaching from the majority whose eyes were judicially closed. The parables relate to "the secrets" of the kingdom. They teach things hitherto "kept secret since the overthrow of the world" (Matt. 13:35). Prophets desired to see and hear these things, as Matthew 13: 17 and 1 Peter 1:10-12 tell us:
Here, as in the majority of Old Testament prophecies, no break is made between the sufferings and the glory. No interval is allowed between "the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God" (Isa. 61:2, but cf. Luke 4:19). The rejection of God's King was only partly seen; the abeyance of the kingdom was a secret. Thus we may place the two passages together:
Everything leads us to expect that, just as in Psalm seventy-eight, we shall find in these parables some of the inner working of God's counsels relative to His purpose in Israel, and that to introduce the doctrinal teaching of the gospel of the grace of God, or the dispensational teaching of the Mystery which is not a subject of revelation until over thirty years later (Eph. 3: 1-10), or to attempt to make them speak of the millennial kingdom, wilt be to confound things which differ, and signally to fail rightly to divide the Word of Truth.
The parables are particularly dispensational in character. Their object is not to provide a moral lesson or a text for a gospel address. How many have gone astray by reason of this mischievous practice! The parable of the Prodigal Son serves those who have no desire for the retention of the Atonement with a "proof" text for the universal Fatherhood of God, and the reception by Him of all who come, irrespective of the one way of acceptance, the mediation of Christ. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant is made to teach, in direct opposition to the doctrine of the epistles, that sins once forgiven may be re-imputed, or that a sinner once saved by grace can fall away again!
Let us remember the Scriptural settings of these parables, the reasons which drew them from the Lord Jesus, the dispensation in which they were uttered, and the people and the kingdom about which they speak; we shall then have no need to be ashamed of our testimony.
Thus far we have sought to clear the way for the study of these parables. We shall next endeavour to present to the reader the arrangement of the parables of Matthew thirteen and to enter into the teaching of these parables of the secrets of the kingdom of the heavens. While all the parables of the N .T. have a dispensational setting that must be perceived before their true teaching can be discovered, the parables of Matthew thirteen are peculiarly important, so that we supplement these introductory notes on parables generally, with a fuller exposition of the parables of this chapter.
Before we examine the parables in detail, we must examine them together. Some of our readers may be surprised to find us speaking of the EIGHT parables of Matthew thirteen. It has become almost sacred to prophetic students to speak of the seven parables of Matthew thirteen, so that we shall have to set out the complete arrangement in order to demonstrate the fact that the Lord gave eight parabolic or figurative utterances in connexion with the "mysteries (or secrets) of the kingdom".
The harmony that exists between the component parts of this structure is quite evident to all. If we can see the disposition of any passage of Scripture, we are in possession of a help to its interpretation. Sometimes a word may have more than one meaning, and the balance in favour of either rendering may be fairly equal. If we can find its place in the structure, we shall often, by so doing, fix its meaning also.
Look at the central pair of parables. The Leaven "hidden" in three measures of meal in the parables spoken outside the house finds its corresponding member in the contrasted Treasure "hidden" in the field which was spoken to the disciples only. The parable of the Tares finds its complement in the parable of the Drag Net. The parable of the Sower is balanced by that of the Scribe, and the Mustard Seed by the Pearl.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
We now approach the consideration of this initial parable. Initial not only because it is the first in order of utterance, but because its interpretation supplies a model for the interpretation of all parables, "Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?" (Mark 4:13).
John tells us that although he has recorded eight "signs" to support the particular purpose of his gospel (John 20:31), yet the number actually wrought by the Lord far exceeded this, so much so that "if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written" (John 21 :25). What is true concerning the Lord's works is also true concerning His words; each Gospel narrative gives a divinely inspired selection of his wonderful teaching. If this is so, what importance must be placed upon that miracle, parable or discourse which is repeated twice or even thrice!
The parable of the Sower occurs in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9, Luke 8:4-8). In each record we read of the four sowings, on four kinds of ground. One of the differences between Matthew's account and that of Mark is that Matthew speaks always in the plural, "they", "them", whereas Mark speaks of the seed in the singular, "it". Luke adds the words, "and it was trodden down," in the first sowing, and omits the reference to "no depth of earth" and the effect of the sun, telling us that it withered because it lacked moisture. The addition of the words, "with it", in Luke's account of the thorns is also suggestive.
Parallel with this teaching of the Sower is the witness of the same truth in the parable of the Fig Tree (Luke thirteen) and the Great Supper (Luke fourteen). The primary teaching of these parables is not merely to supply a moral or spiritual lesson, but to depict the secret course of the mysteries of the kingdom on through its apparent defeat at the rejection of the King, to its glorious close.
It will not be possible to analyse all the parables in this fashion, the interested reader is referred to the book by the Author, entitled, Parable, Miracle and Sign.
We sum up the remaining parables for the guidance of the student thus:
The ministries of John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus, and the Apostles during the "Acts" were to a large extent, externally, failures, but there is yet to be a gloriously fruitful sowing when the time comes for the New Covenant to be put into operation (Jer. 31 :27).
The reason for the delay in the setting up of the kingdom is discovered in the fact that an enemy is at work, and side by side with the true children of the kingdom are the children of the wicked one, but these are not removed until the end of the age (see articles SEED and GIANTS).
THE MUSTARD TREE
The next reason for the delay is that whereas the small seed of Israel should have 1lourished and filled the earth with fruit, the sovereignty changed hands and was deposited with the Gentiles, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar, "until the fulness of the Gentiles come in". This stage is marked by the words, "it becometh a tree, and the fowls 10dged in its branches" (see Daniel four). That which should have been pre-eminently the kingdom of righteousness, becomes the habitation of Satan and his angels.
The third reason for delay is that the leaven of evil has been put into the meal of God's truth. This will work its course until the rise of Antichrist, and the complete corruption of the visible witness for God (see use of leaven, Matt. 16:6,12).
Thus we see that the Lord Jesus had no idea of the gradual uplifting of the masses, and the permeating influence of the gospel. He saw that man had corrupted his way upon the earth, even as it was in the days of Noah. Hence it is that He uses the same words to represent the end. Blessed be God, that out of all this corruption and apostasy He will yet bring His treasure and display His grace.
We have considered the first four parables and discovered something of their bearing upon the course of the rejected kingdom of the heavens. A division is now observable, emphasized alike by the structural arrangement, the teaching, and the different p1ace in which they were spoken.
After the parable of the Leaven the Lord dismissed the multitude, and went into the house. There He explained the parable of the Tares, and then proceeded to unfold the inner or Godward aspect of the kingdom in the four parables that followed. Their relation to each other may be summarized thus:
The group of parables that come after the great dividing line of Matthew sixteen "From that time forth" are linked with those of Matthew thirteen by the parable of Matthew 15:10-20. The second group of parables in Matthew is contained in chapters eighteen to twenty-five.
Sufficient we trust has been exhibited to prove beyond a doubt that these parables are of paramount importance in the realm of Dispensational Truth, and a comprehensive acquaintanee with them is incumbent upon all who would attempt to teach. These parables are given a thorough exposition in the volume, Parable, Miracle and Sign, and this is commended to the earnest student.