The Hermeneutic of Synonyms

Before we continue our pursuit of a detailed scriptural exploration of Elijah, Elisha and John the Baptist as a foundation for understanding the “Elijah to come”, I regret that we have to take a slightly painful “nerd” detour into a side issue concerning biblical interpretation. But please stick with this as it is actually necessary, especially for establishing the final reason why Elijah really is not one of the Two Witnesses. This technical adjunct was actually the starting point which sparked an eventual forest fire permanently altering the landscape of my overall interpretation where Elijah is concerned, and it actually has direct application to the whole field of eschatology, so I hope you will find this useful. But it begins with an examination of how Scripture uses synonyms.

Today every good writer knows that one of the worst sins they can commit is to keep using the same word or phrase over and over. Good writers are known for their ability to keep things interesting by using colorful alternatives for an oft-repeated term or phrase. I would get a very bad mark from my English teacher if I turned in, “My really big nose experienced a really big itch which resulted in a really big sneeze ejecting a really big booger”. Four consecutive uses of “really big” make this sentence grosser than the actual topic. No, I would get a much better grade if instead I submitted, “My Pinocchio-like proboscis, experiencing an irresistible and exasperating itch, eventually produced a herculean eruption catapulting into planetary orbit a capacious booger”. (I don’t care who you are; that’s good writing!) Although in secular literature synonyms are used to keep the reader’s attention and the topic interesting, this is not how it works in biblical literature.

One of the blessings and curses which came out of the Reformation was a way of handling Scripture called “Grammatical-Historical Exegesis” and is probably the most common approach to interpretation employed today. Like every hermeneutic, it can be used to great effectiveness or misused to great harm. The Reformers obviously set us on the right path by studying the Scriptures in their original languages of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic instead of an often bad Latin translation, and by seeking to understand the original historical and cultural setting in which each book of the Bible was written. Their primary goal was to restore literalness to Scripture so as to be rid of the crazy and fanciful allegorization and symbolism popularly superimposed for so long which characterized teaching within the Catholic church from which they were separating.

However, a problem with this approach develops when someone employs it as if the Bible is just another book of human literature instead of first and foremost respecting its divine origin as inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit chose to use many authors and different types of literature, but He is absolutely 100% consistent across them all. In other words, the Holy Spirit does not “get tired” of using the same word over and over again and thus selects a pleasing synonym just to keep the reader interested. Instead, the same word is used consistently to specifically describe the same person, place or thing across the whole of God’s Word because, regardless of the type of literature any book of the Bible employs, it is ultimately holding to the exact, same unchangeable Truth from an unchangeable God regardless of the time, place or author of each book. This is why there are so many resources dedicated to biblical word studies, because a word or phrase is found to be consistently referring to or describing the exact, same thing across all the books of the Bible regardless of different authorship, alternative literary types, or even the more than 1,500 years over which its individual books were produced.

Scriptural Examples

For instance, there are three words which are related, but not actually identical synonyms for each other: “sin”, “transgression” and “iniquity”. Underlying each instance of these English translations is an individually unique Greek or Hebrew word which reveals a relationship to each other, but at the same time specifies that they are each addressing something intrinsically unique from each other. Rather than being synonyms describing the exact, same thing which can are interchangeable, they are actually members of the same category with a close relationship of each other. This is roughly similar to how a lion, tiger and leopard are all members of the genus “Panthera”, and although they are all “big cats” with similar features, they are not the exact, same thing.

Once we understand what these specific words mean, then we can better understand the greater context of their usage each and every time they appear throughout God’s Word, regardless of the time, author or literary genre of the specific book in which they are found. In this case, knowing the proper definition of “iniquity” informs us that whenever it is used, it is always in the context of addressing people who claim to know and adhere to God’s standard but through various attempts are trying to twist it into a new or alternate meaning to suit themselves. The Holy Spirit did not get “tired” of using “sin” and switched over to “transgression” to make the reading more interesting, nor to “iniquity” just to change things up. Regardless of the type of literature used in in the sixty-six books of the Bible, specific terms are used consistently across them all to address the same situation; synonyms as a human writer employs them are not a literary device employed by the Holy Spirit. But as we will discuss further on, many wrongly treat Scripture as if He does.

There are times, however, when multiple terms do describe the same person, place or thing, but this is always done in order to teach about different spiritual aspects of the same thing. A good example which was previously discussed is when God, through the Old Testament Prophets, calls His people “Jacob” as opposed to “Israel”. “Jacob” is the backslidden sinner who lied, connived and deceived in order to get whatever he wanted, “Israel” is the “new creation”, so to speak, after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord (an Old Testament appearance of Christ) and was forever changed going forward and given a new name. It’s a picture of the old life versus the new. Likewise we see this kind of usage with the terms “Jerusalem” and “Zion” to describe the same thing as either a fallen earthly institution or its potential perfect heavenly counterpart.

The Antichrist is referred to not only as “the son of perdition”—meaning “destined for destruction”, but “the lawless one” to describe the earthly actions which justify his ultimate fate and overall character. There are many names of Christ revealed throughout Scripture to teach about the various characteristics and facets of the One, ultimate Messiah.

So there are words and/or terms which have an obvious relationship to each other but which ultimately describe something unique to each one such as “sin”, “transgression” and “iniquity”, and then there are those which address a different spiritual aspect of the same thing such as “Jerusalem” and “Zion” or all the names of Christ. However, although most conservative Evangelical scholars teach and believe this, it is a hermeneutic which more often than not is thrown out the window when it comes to interpreting the prophetic portions of God’s Word.

Usage in Eschatology—The Textual Terms

This would take an entire dedicated book to fully explain as well, but the short version is that there are seven basic terms associated with the Last Days, and how they are defined not only determines the “ism” under which their assigned eschatology is published, but qualifies to what degree their interpretation of God’s prophetic Word is ultimately right or not:

Per the previous discussion, some of these may be like “sin”, “transgression” and “iniquity” in that they have a relationship to each other but ultimately describe something unique to each one, or if they do refer to the same event or time period are purposely used by the Holy Spirit to teach about different spiritual aspects of the same thing as in the example of “Jerusalem” and “Zion”. But how each of these is interpreted as a whole combines to provide the foundation upon which every eschatology is ultimately derived and elicits their mutual points of agreement and disagreement with competing interpretations.

For instance, probably the defining difference between someone who holds to Pre-Tribulationism and another devoted to Pre-Wrath is their drastically opposing definitions when it comes to “the day of the Lord”. Pre-Tribulationists maintain that Daniel’s 70th Week, the entire final seven year tribulational period leading into the Millennial Reign, is the exact same thing as “the day of the Lord” and therefore the Rapture occurs before the whole of the final seven years; Pre-Wrath holds that the onset of “the day of the Lord” does not take place until between the 6th and 7th Seals inside those 7 years and therefore the Church will not be raptured until it experiences at least part of the Tribulation. They maintain that “the day of the Lord” does not commence until the 7th Seal from which all the trumpet and bowl judgments spring. From such drastically different interpretations of these two terms is derived two entirely separate positions.

Usage in Eschatology—The Mathematical Terms

The interpretation of these fundamental terms is usually found to be the source of the difference between the different schools of thought when it comes to the very deep issue of eschatology, and I cannot stress enough the importance of our study of these defining labels, hopefully that we will mutually pray and seek the answer as corroborated by other Scripture. However, in addition to these seven textual terms, to show just how involved this becomes, there are eight additional what I call “mathematical expressions” of duration used in Scripture, all of which may or may not precisely correspond to the seven labels above:

The biblical calendar is based on a lunar year consisting of 360 days each, so based on that ideal model, 3-1/2 lunar years consist of 42 months of 30 days each which elicits a total of 1,260 days. On the face of it, at least, it would appear that “time, times and half a time”, “three years, six months”, “42 months” and “1,260 days” are mathematically equal to each other. But is this a case of “synonyms” as found in human literature? Did the Holy Spirit get tired of using one expression and, to make the reading interesting, switch to an alternate term? No, it is more likely that even if some or all of these things are equal in quantity to each other that they are being used to describe a different spiritual aspect of the same thing by the Holy Spirit and therefore cannot be substituted for each other. But if we carefully study each one in context, we will find that some of them do not refer to the same thing at all, but something entirely distinct and unique.

Now I am going to perform a disservice by announcing that, in reality and by biblical standards, these things are not mathematically equal to each other without providing but the briefest of explanations. But it is important for the purpose of understanding that these may be similar, but not 100% identical, because the Holy Spirit has a greater purpose which is consistent with similar things throughout Scripture.

Remember, we are dealing with a lunar calendar. Let’s take the easiest one first, the “2,300 evenings and mornings”, because this is the Scripture which was famously used by the Millerites in 1843 who were convinced this was the year of Christ’s Return, one of the earliest examples of date setting in the modern era. Their insistence on 1843 as the year of Christ’s Return was calculated by multiplying the “2,300” by years, estimating the original year in which this all began as revealed to Daniel, and arriving at an end date of 1843. When it did not happen, many realized they forgot to account for the difference between “BC” and “AD” and therefore did not count the year “0”, so many of them went out and, believe it or not, did it all over again in 1844. Many cults sprung from the Millerites, most notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventists, neither of which has overcome their roots when it comes to this inauspicious beginning.

The most basic of hermeneutics was overlooked in this case, because the text categorically states “evenings and mornings”. This is actually the specific biblical definition of a single, literal day and why Jews have always calculated a day in this manner; it goes back to the Creation Narrative. Over and over again in Genesis God would work and Scripture says, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day”. (Gen. 1:5) And at the end of the second day, “And there was evening and there was morning, a second day”, (Gen. 1:8) and likewise for each of the days of Creation. A biblical “day” is defined not as we in Western society construct it as spanning from midnight to midnight in twenty-four one hour increments, but in the character of the Creation Narrative as “an evening and a morning”. The Millerites took a literal quantity and assigned it a new, non-scriptural allegorical value. Their eschatology was wrong because of this basic error in their theology which allowed them to arbitrarily substitute a “year” in place of a literal “day”.

Likewise, the notion that every lunar year contains 360 days is wrong because not every lunar month has a full 30 days. A lunar year may be calculated as “twelve new moons” or months, but a new moon appears on average every 29.5 days, meaning some lunar months have 30 days, but some only 29. Because the operation of the Old Testament Temple required a sacrifice for the appearance of each new moon, this was a very big deal to ancient Israelites who lived in a country so small that inclement weather could cover the whole nation and make confirmation of a new moon difficult. The Talmud has detailed instructions for how to address this issue, along with a set of rules for determining exactly what makes up a year. In fact, during the Second Temple Period leading up to Jesus’ First Coming and the Temple’s ultimate destruction in 70 AD, the rule was that no year could have more than 10, nor less than 4, 30-day months. In other words, every lunar year was actually a 350-356 day year—not 360; each 3-1/2 year period was therefore 1,225 to 1,246 days, not 1,260!

It is obvious that it would not take very long for a lunar calendar to become completely disassociated with the seasons and the solar cycle, so the solution was to frequently introduce “leap months” as needed. In such cases, an additional month of Adar was added to make up the difference, which under certain circumstances could mean that a 3-1/2 year period could have more than 1,260 days and the balance would carry over. Oh, but wait…if a leap month was added, that particular 3-1/2 year period actually had 43 months instead of 42, but it would still qualify as a 3-1/2 year period! Can you see what happens when we start to handle these things biblically? They are probably not mathematically equal at all, or in order to be would warrant very special circumstances to align themselves just so. The constant adjustments to a lunar calendar means that both the number of days and months in any given 3-1/2 year period actually varies from each other.

Jacob Prasch points out that the answer to the difference between “1,260 days” and “1,290 days” may simply be an accounting for a leap month, an extra month of Adar. He further stipulates that although it is rare, it is not unprecedented for a 3-1/2 year period to contain two leap months due to the timing of the preceding 3-1/2 year period and the current one—that would provide us with 1,320 days, just 15 days short of the “1,335 days” figure used by Daniel. He also notes, interestingly enough, the eschatological overtones of Mordecai and the Book of Esther, and the fact that although Purim is first celebrated on the 14th of Adar, in walled cities such as Jerusalem it is celebrated on the 15th of Adar—the same month which is used as a “leap month” to bring the calendar back into balance. Or perhaps there are 15 days carried over in a unique leap month scenario between two back-to-back 3-1/2 year periods. This definitely warrants further investigation as it may turn out that these numbers have a much simpler scriptural explanation than previously postulated, and are not as supernaturally derived as appear at first blush.

The most important takeaway from this exercise is that these numbers need to be handled literally according to biblical standards, and not “multiplied” or misapplied beyond their plain meaning.

An Obvious Example

OK, OK, OK…the nerd’s point is taken; these are not synonyms for the exact, same thing nor precisely interchangeable for each other. Aside from rendering practically every End Times chart ever produced as moot whenever they willy-nilly substitute these quantities for each other, what is the actual and practical application of all this jibber-jabber? How does this ultimately bear on the discussion of “Elijah to come” and/or the Two Witnesses?

In the course of taking dictation for a book with an eschatological theme which I was editing, the author said something he has said a thousand times, which I have said a thousand times, which I have heard and read a thousand times, and it felt so right that I typed it in without the slightest doubt that it was true: “…yada-yada-yada…Daniel’s 70th Week, which consists of two halves of 1,260 days…yada-yada-yada…” At the end of each session I would proof the text and enter the verse numbers for any biblical references such as this. So I open up my super-duper Bible software with the digital concordance and search features which make even online search engines envious and I am completely perplexed; nowhere in Daniel is there a mention of “1,260 days”. How can Daniel’s 70th Week consist of two halves of 1,260 days if Daniel never, ever mentions “1,260 days”? I thought I had gone temporarily insane or perhaps experienced some kind of textual myopia where I just could not see the words I was looking for. I further discovered that neither does Daniel ever use the term “42 months”. It is only John in Revelation who uses “1,260 days” and “42 months”; Daniel uses seven years, “1,290 days”, “1,335 days” and “2,300 evenings and mornings”, and both use “time, times and half a time”.

Why does the Holy Spirit only use one term which is common to both Daniel and Revelation, but employs other unique terms independent of each? What is He trying to teach us? Remember, there are no synonyms in Scripture in the secular literary sense, so they are being independently employed for a purpose. Again, without endlessly bogging us down in this, let us take the easiest example, going back to our hermeneutic of how Scripture handles synonyms.

John only uses “1,260 days” for two specific things: the ministry of the Two Witnesses (Rev. 11:3) and the escape of Israel into the wilderness (Rev. 12:6); he only uses “42 months” to describe “The Times of the Gentiles” (Rev. 11:2) and the Antichrist (Rev. 13:5). These are four completely separate and unique entities with their associated activities. When I showed this to Jacob, he instantly saw the distinction which I had not, that “1,260 days” refers to “good guys”—Israel and the Two Witnesses, while “42 months” refers to the “bad guys”—the Gentile nations trampling Jerusalem and the Antichrist! Even if these quantities align themselves on top of each other and point simultaneously to the same time period, they are still being used separately by the Holy Spirit in order to communicate something about a greater spiritual work taking place. Although it may be turn out they transpire in parallel to each other time wise, they are absolutely not interchangeable as they are describing distinctly unique activities.

End Times Mathematical Expressions

In fact, with further research, we came to realize that “42” was a number used in Scripture to identify apostasy, a number arrived at by multiplying “6” (the number of man) times “7” (the number of perfection) so as to provide a deeper meaning as to what “apostasy” means, the way man corrupts what would ordinarily be perfect in the same character as what took place at the beginning in Eden. Furthermore…

Here is a prime example, first of all, of how Scripture uses specific terms which are referring to uniquely different items so as to convey a greater, spiritual lesson, and a confirmation of why we cannot simply substitute such things at our own discretion, one for another, because we end up attaching meanings to them which are absolutely not Holy Spirit authored, much less scripturally supported. One of the root causes of error when it comes to interpreting God’s prophetic Word is treating all of these as being not only equal with each other, but then substituting them back and forth at will. Just as they are specifically assigned, so must they be respectfully and consistently handled within the strict context in which they are given.

The Specific Issue

Believe it or not, this overall examination of End Times “mathematical expressions” of time not only relates to Elijah, but as stated before, is the spark which ignited this line of interpretation to begin with. Interestingly enough, it was pointed out to me that Elijah is spoken of eschatologically by both Jesus and James, but assigned a completely different “mathematical expression” than everyone else!

25“But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. (Luke 4:25–26)

17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:17–18)

Remember, Scripture has assigned a completely different expression to the Two Witnesses…

3“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” (Revelation 11:3)

If Elijah is one of the Two Witnesses, what is the Holy Spirit trying to convey by using one term for the pair but a different, exclusive term for just Elijah by himself? Or is this telling us that he is not either of the Two Witnesses and actually independent from them? And notice that while the Two Witnesses as their “1,260 days” association is restricted to describing their working in the course of the Second Coming, the “three years and six months” attributed to Elijah alone refers to him in the context of both the First and Second Comings.

The first and literal Elijah worked by himself, ultimately seeing God provide a double portion of his spirit in the process of his rapture to Elisha, who also worked independently and without a partner. When John the Baptist came as the first fulfillment of the return of Elijah, he worked with no other, beginning his ministry before the formal appearance of Christ and overlapping it by quite some time. (I have often wondered if John’s total ministry was 3-1/2 years, but there is no indication of this in Scripture. But he was active for some time before Christ’s public ministry and could have been around for as long as two years afterward before his execution.) The final “Elijah to come” is here provided with an individual designation unique from that of the Two Witnesses: it’s not “1,260 days”, but rather “three years and six months”, and it is used in reference to both appearances of Christ.

This has been a long and tiring exercise in biblical mathematics as it relates to hermeneutics, but the purpose is to establish that we handle Scripture the exact, same way consistently and do not make “exceptions” to suit our presuppositions or by introducing something outside of the biblical text. Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and “Elijah to come” are all singularly unique and independent of any kind of pairing. This distinct mathematical designation and its dual use for both Comings cannot be overlooked. While the final “Elijah to come” may or may not minister for the same length of time and simultaneously with other events and/or persons designated with a similar but different 3-1/2 year designation, we cannot look past the fact that the Holy Spirit purposely uses these different terms, at the very least, to separate and highlight something spiritually set apart.

At Christ’s First Coming, just as John the Baptist came as a lone harbinger preparing Israel for the arrival of the Messiah, so it would seem that at His Second Coming “Elijah to come” will replay that work, preparing Israel for the Messiah’s Second Coming. What took place literally and historically with Elijah, Elisha and John the Baptist foreshadows the ultimate and final work of “Elijah to come”. And the reference to “three years and six months” outside of Revelation, in contrast to the Two Witnesses who are associated with “1,260 days”, may be confirming that Elijah’s ministry in the Second Coming is separate and overlapping in the character of John the Baptist in the First Coming, whereas the Two Witnesses are wholly contained within the final seven year Tribulation period itself. (This is because their death and resurrection is identified as the “second woe” and anchored between the 6th and 7th Trumpets in Revelation 11.)

This additional role of preparing Israel is no small point to be lost among all these others, as there is nearly endless debate as to precisely how and when the final spiritual revival of literal Israel will take place within the scheme of every eschatology. This discussion is nearly always centered on either the 144,000 sealed, or the Two Witnesses, or a combination of both; although not unprecedented, it is very rare that anyone entertains the notion of it coming through a separate return and ministry of Elijah independent of them, even though there is no past precedent on which to base it. But when we look at all the texts connected with either the 144,000 or the Two Witnesses, there is not one scriptural scrap of a statement assigning them any kind of a role of evangelism to Israel specifically, much less to the whole world in general; this is a presupposition which must be superimposed on them, something which must be read into Scripture (a bad method of interpretation called “eisegesis”) rather than drawn out through proper “exegesis”. This was the role of John the Baptist—the Elijah who came at Christ’s First Coming, and will again be realized in the promised “Elijah to come” in the same capacity at His Second Coming, only as we will see, with much greater effectiveness.

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