Robert Richardson Thoughts on Parables (1834)



E V A N G E L I S T ,


Go you into all the world, proclaim the good news to the whole creation:--he who be-
lieveth and is immersed shall be saved; and he, who believeth not shall be condemned.

  NO. 2. CARTHAGE, FEBRUARY 2, 1834. VOL. 3.  


No. 1.

      The word parable, (derived from the Greek, parabolee, formed from the verb paraballo, to compare, or, to set one thing by the side of another,) signifies primarily, a comparison.

      The Proverbs of Solomon were called parables by the Ancient Hebrews, probably because they abound in comparison, as may be seen in the following extract:

      18. A man that bears false witness against his neighbour, is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow.
      19. Confidence in an unfaithful man in time of trouble, is like a broken tooth and a foot out of joint.
      20. As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre; so is he that singeth songs to a heavy heart.
      21. If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:
      22. For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee. [25]
      23. The north wind bringeth forth rain; so doth a backbiting tongue an angry countenance.
      24. It is better to dwell in the corner of a house top, than with a brawling woman and in a wide house.
      25. As cool waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.
Chap. XXV.      

      On account perhaps of this application of the term, it came to signify an adage, or wise-saying, even where there was no comparison. It is twice used in this sense by the Saviour,--as in Luke, iv. 23. "You will doubtless say unto me this parable, (parabole,) "'physician, heal thyself:'" and in chapter xiv. 7. "He put forth a parable, &c. saying, when thou art bidden to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room," &c.; which injunction indeed, resembles one in Solomon's Proverbs, chap. xxv. 5, 6, 7. See also Habakkuk, ii. 6.

      Hence, too, it was sometimes applied to a solemn declaration, whether prophetic or otherwise. Thus Balaam is said to 'take up his parable;' Job 'to continue his parable,' &c. See Micah, ii. 4. Psalms, lxxii. 2., and Matth. xv. 15.

      The primitive and original signification of the word, however, is, as has been already stated, a comparison, or similitude, and in this sense it is used whenever it occurs in the New Testament, with the exceptions mentioned. Thus in Hebrews, ix. 9. the tabernacle is called "a parabole," a model or figurative representation of that more perfect one not made with hands; and in chap. xi. 19, Abraham is said to have received Isaac from the dead in a parable, or emblematic figure: that is, there was a comparison between the Jewish tabernacle and the true one; and between Abraham receiving Isaac, and a resurrection from the dead.1

      Parables or similitudes are of various kinds. Some are simple, in which, one thing is compared to another; for example, as swallows appear in summer, but retire at the approach of winter, so false friends shew themselves in prosperity, but disappear in the season of adversity. Compound similitudes are those in which one thing is compared to several others, as in the following: what light is to the world, physic to the sick, water to the thirsty, and rest to the weary, that is knowledge to the mind.

      Similitudes are presented in an abbreviated form, as where it is simply stated, that one thing resembles another, and the mind is left to trace out for itself the points of comparison. At other times they are enlarged upon, and drawn out in the form of short historical narrations, whether fictitious or otherwise, or in that of accurate and striking descriptions of natural objects, presenting to the mind finished pictures, and requiring nothing but an application. Thus, when it is said, "As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons," [26] the comparison is complete, yet it may be carried out more fully, by speaking of the delight experienced in being "seated beneath his shadow," and the gratification enjoyed in partaking of "his pleasant fruits." Again, when he who keeps the precepts of the Saviour is compared, by him, to "a prudent man who built his house upon a rock," the comparison is perfect, yet it may be beautifully enlarged upon, by introducing the torrents descending upon the house in vain, and by representing it as standing unmoved and uninjured by the overflowing rivers, and the stormy winds of heaven.

      Similitudes of this latter description are susceptible of a subdivision into the fabulous and the rational. Of fabulous similitudes we have well known examples in the Fables of Esop, and in Jotham's Fable of the Trees in the 9th chapter of Judges. In these, different animate and inanimate objects, are represented as conversing, or addressed,2 and as performing the actions of men. Rational similitudes consist of narrations of things that are natural and possible, things which did happen, or might have happened; and are thus distinguished from the fabulous, for the former, whether feigned or not, might be true, while the latter are necessarily false, it being impossible for brutes or trees to speak.

      There is yet another species of similitudes called symbols or iconisms, from eicon, an image. Here the object used for the purpose of comparison is substituted for that which it represents. This seems to be what constitutes a symbol. These are found chiefly in the prophetic writings.

      Concerning the purpose for which similitudes are employed, we have to observe, that it is for illustration. It is a common error, and a very common one to suppose that the use of this description of figure, necessarily involves a subject in doubt and obscurity. On the contrary, nothing tends so much to elucidate and explain, as appropriate similitudes or comparisons, which communicate to the mind more perfect and determinate ideas of things before unknown, by comparing them with those with which we are already familiar. Indeed in this respect, they far surpass any literal language, as is evident from several considerations, as,

      1. They are found by experience better fitted to communicate instruction to the infant mind. Thus if I want to elucidate, or make plain to a child the prudential maxim, 'Do not undertake more than you can accomplish,' by what naked arguments, or logical process of reasoning, can we succeed so well, as by the use of some simple and striking comparison, as for instance, the following [27] from Epictetus: 'A boy discovering a jar with a narrow mouth, which contained some figs, thrust his hand into it, and seizing as many as he could hold, endeavoured to withdraw his hand, but found himself unable. Grasp but half the quantity, cried a person who observed him, and you will easily succeed'? Or if we would explain and enforce the moral precept: 'Indulge not extravagant desire,' where could we find any literal language capable of effecting this object in so perfect and brief a manner as the familiar fable of the dog and his image: 'A hungry dog having obtained a large piece of meat at the butcher's, was carrying it in his mouth across a narrow bridge, but seeing his own image in the water, and supposing it to be another dog carrying another piece of meat, he attempted to lay hold of the imaginary prize, and in doing so lost what he already possessed'?

      2. They have been found to be better adapted to the infant state of society. We would suppose indeed from analogy, that the method or means of instruction, best suited to a child, must necessarily be best adapted to men, in a state of incipient civilization, where the intellectual faculties are just beginning to be exercised in the pursuit of knowledge. And when we examine the early records of nations, we find their first teachers invariably clothing their instructions in the familiar language of similitudes. Thus the Fables of Esop formed the first step towards the literature of Greece, and were, no doubt, regarded by the people of that age as a very serious and useful composition. Thus too, picture-writing, and hieroglyphics, formed the early written language of Egypt, of China, and of Mexico; and hence, also, the Aborigines of our own country are so much addicted to the use of comparisons. It is evident then that a mode of instruction so well adapted to the infant mind, and the infant state of society, must be pre-eminently calculated to elucidate, explain, or illustrate. But we would notice

      3dly. That they abound in the sacred writings more than in any other writings whatever, and as these are intended to be understood by the humblest as well as the most exalted capacity, this circumstance furnishes another proof that they possess, in a higher degree than any literal language, the power of illustration. When drawn from Nature, they have also this additional advantage, that in all ages of the world they have the same meaning, Nature being always the same. For example: when the Saviour is compared to a Lamb, there is presented to the mind a more beautiful and perfect image of his character, than could be afforded by any literal description; and this representation is unchangeably true, for a lamb has been at every period, what it will always continue to be, the emblem of gentleness and innocence. Again, when he is called the "Sun of Righteousness," what other expression could, in so few words, communicate an idea so brilliant--so sublime, and at the same time so easy of apprehension?

      It is also worthy of remark, that the frequent use of similitudes, or parables, constituted one of the most striking traits in the character of our Saviour, as a teacher. He who 'spake as never man spake,' in preaching the Gospel, to the poor, and adapting his instructions to the ignorant, opened his mouth in parables, and with the hand of a master drew from Nature those charming pictures [28] with which his discourses are adorned, and which are at once inimitable in design, and unrivalled for simplicity and beauty.

      While, however, we thus clearly perceive, that the effect and intention of parables, or comparisons, is to illustrate, or make plain, we are aware that there are some passages of scripture, which seem to favour the idea that they are intended to obscure and conceal. For instance, we are told that Jesus taught the people in parables, and explained every thing to his Disciples in private. But that we may have the matter fairly before us, we will here quote a part of Matthew, to which chapter we shall particularly advert, and to the consideration of which, the preceding remarks are in some degree introductory.

New Version.--Matthew, sect. VII. verse 10-17.

10         "Then the disciples addressed him, saying, Why do ye speak to them
11   in parables? He answering, said to them, Because it is your privilege,
12   and not theirs to know the secrets of the Reign of Heaven. For to him
that has, more shall be given, and he shall abound; but from him that has
13   not, even that which he has shall be taken. For this reason I speak to
them in parables; because they seeing, see not; and hearing, hear not, nor
14   regard; insomuch that this prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in them, "You
will indeed hear, but will not understand; you will look, but will not perceive.
15   For this people's understanding is stupefied, their ears are deafened,
and their eyes they have closed, lest seeing with their eyes, hearing
with their ears, and apprehending with their understanding, they should
16   reform, and I should reclaim them." But blessed are your eyes, because
17   they see; and your ears, because they hear. For, indeed, I say to
you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see the
things which you see, but have not seen them; and to hear the things
which you hear but have not heard them."

      From this passage and some others it appears evident, and we are of course quite willing to admit, that the parables of the Saviour did, in certain cases, tend to veil the truths he taught, and confuse the minds of those who heard him. And here then we are presented with this interesting question: How does it happen that similitudes, which are plainly calculated, and fitted for illustration, and explanation, become a means of involving the mind in uncertainty and confusion? This we shall endeavour to answer in our next essay.



[The Evangelist 3 (February 2, 1834): 25-29.]



E V A N G E L I S T ,


Go you into all the world, proclaim the good news to the whole creation:--he who be-
lieveth and is immersed shall be saved; and he, who believeth not shall be condemned.

  NO. 5. CARTHAGE, MAY 5, 1834. VOL. 3.  

The following piece by the beloved Alumnus, on Parables, is most interesting and instructive. It contains some fine matter on the subject of the kingdom, and is worthy of an attentive and repeated perusal by every student of the Holy Oracles.


NO. 2.

      We have now before us the following inquiry:

      How does it happen that parables, which, as we have seen, are eminently fitted for illustration and explanation, sometimes not only fail of this, but become a means of involving the mind in uncertainty and confusion? [98]

      In seeking to explain this difficulty, we have to observe, that various causes may be assigned for such an effect, and we might reasonably expect it to occur in any one of the following cases: 1st, Where there is no definition or statement given of the subject of comparison. 2d, Where there is in the mind an erroneous definition of that which is the subject of comparison. 3d, Where the comparison is applied to a part of the subject to which it was not intended to be applied, or 4th, Where the object chosen for comparison is mistaken for the subject itself.

      These cases we will now proceed to consider more fully; and as it regards the first, to wit, where there is no statement or definition given of the subject of comparison, it is obvious that here there is nothing whatever presented to the mind, to which the comparison can be applied, and consequently there is nothing which it can explain: nay, in this case a comparison has plainly the effect of confusing the mind by leaving it a prey to vain and uncertain conjecture, and in fact, constitutes a puzzle, a riddle or enigma. We have an example of this in Sampson's riddle--"Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." This it seems puzzled the Philistines seven days, and had they not ploughed with Sampson's heifer, as he styles his better though certainly his weaker half, they might have wearied themselves seven years before they could have discovered that strength was made the emblem of a Lion and sweetness the symbol of honey.

      Symbols indeed are always enigmatical unless we distinctly understand what they are intended to represent and being made to stand in the room of the subject of comparison, which therefore is not necessarily mentioned, they afford us ready examples of comparison without definition. A symbol as we have already defined it is the object of comparison substituted for the subject; in other words, it is an object used for the purpose of comparison, yet spoken of and even addressed as though it were the thing or person which it resembles; or to express it perhaps more clearly, it is a species of comparison in which the object selected for comparison is made to personify that which is compared. For example, the Saviour is compared to a Lamb, and this lamb is used as a symbol, or is made to personify the Saviour, so that John, in Revelation, does not say, that "in the midst of the throne and of the elders there stood" the Lord Jesus, but "there stood a Lamb;" and again he represents the Lamb as opening the seals, as standing on Mount Sion, &c. The Redeemer used the same figure, when taking bread and wine he said, "This is my body," and "this is my blood." Here he constituted the bread and wine symbols of his body and blood. On another occasion, he made his own body the symbol of bread, when he observed "I am the bread which came down from heaven."

      This then is what we mean by a symbol, and if we understand those which we have just mentioned, it is only because we certainly know what they are intended to represent. A Lamb is a familiar symbol of Christ, and in the other instances the subject is distinctly stated; and this is no sooner understood than we can see the greatest force, beauty, and propriety in the comparisons, and are [99] enabled by them to appreciate more fully the character of that which they are employed to illustrate. But without this information they would forever remain enigmas. Thus in the first chapter of John's Revelation, we read that the Lord appeared to John in the midst of "seven golden lamps," and that he had "seven stars" in his right hand. When we are informed, immediately after, that the seven lamps represent the seven churches, and the stars their messengers, we can see great propriety and beauty in these comparisons; but is it not evident that if the subjects of comparison were no where stated, the comparisons themselves would merely involve the mind in doubt and uncertainty? And this we find really to be the case with regard to those symbols which are made to personify something which is concealed or not defined. Of this we have an example in the 11th chapter of Revelations, where something is presented to us in the symbols of "two witnesses," "two olive trees," "two lamps, which stand before the God of the earth." Now there is perhaps no passage in the book upon which commentators have dwelt more earnestly or exercised more ingenuity, and yet to this day no one has been able certainly to discover the meaning of these symbols. No doubt we would see the greatest relevancy in them as objects of comparison, if we were made acquainted with the things to which they apply, but until we obtain this information, we may indulge imagination as we please, and they will still continue to be inscrutable and incomprehensible, a means of producing in the mind uncertainty and confusion. The same may be said of other symbols in the Book of Revelation, and indeed they seem to be employed for the very purpose of concealing the things which were about to happen, until they should actually occur, and thus reveal the meaning of the comparisons, by presenting the subjects to which they related.

      We have then discovered a case in which comparison however relevant and striking, will not only fail to elucidate a subject, but actually become a means of vailing or concealing it. And here we would remark how important it is that those who attempt to communicate instruction to others, should pay regard to the laws that govern the human mind. There are certain avenues through which alone the human mind can be approached, and it becomes every teacher to be well acquainted with these, that he may readily gain access to it. As a walled town can be entered only through its gates, so knowledge can be communicated to the mind only through what may be termed its portals; and although in respect to these, various minds may differ somewhat from each other, on account of a discrepancy in age, education, prejudices, &c., yet there are certain general rules applicable to all, and among these there is no one of greater importance than this; that an unknown subject, (unless we wish it to remain unknown) must be distinctly stated and laid down, before the comparisons employed to illustrate it can be understood--in a word, that definition must always accompany illustration.

      It maybe well to observe further, that although a statement of the subject must always accompany, it is not necessary that it should always precede illustration. In some cases, on the contrary, it is with much elegance made to [100] follow, as where it is wished to make a sudden and forcible impression upon the mind, or to obtain its previous consent to certain truths or principles, which from pride, selfishness, or some other cause, might not be readily admitted, if the subject to which they were to be applied were already stated. When the prophet, divinely guided, appealed to the king for justice against "a rich man who had exceeding many flocks and herds," and yet to feast the traveller, took away from the "poor man" his "only lamb," which "had grown up together with his children," had "eaten of his own meat, drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, David's anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die, and he shall restore the man four fold because he hath done this thing, and because he had no pity." How striking then became the application of the parable! How overwhelming the solemn annunciation of the subject. "Thou art the man!"3 Again, comparisons are introduced before the subject they are designed to illustrate, for the purpose of exercising the mind upon things, with which it requires time to become conversant, and inculcating certain leading truths, which are in due time required to be fulfilled in the subject of comparison. The effect of comparisons thus presented is to excite the eagerness of curiosity, and engage the faculties of the mind in a close and anxious search for their hidden meaning, while any truths which they may teach incidentally, or which may be connected with them, produce in the mean time a lasting impression. Thus the Mosaic institution preceded and shadowed forth the Christian, and while by the most graphic imagery it displayed its various parts, and exhibited by the most appropriate symbols the great sacrifice which was to be offered up for the sins of the world, it impressed at the same time upon the minds of men these all-important truths--the unity of God, the holiness of his character, his justice, his mercy, his faithfulness, the nature and exceeding sinfulness of sin, and that without the shedding of blood there could be no remission,--preliminary lessons which it required time to communicate, and without which the world could never have understood, or in any degree appreciated the atonement made by Him who was the "end of the law," in whom "the veil was done away," in whom (the true subject of comparison) all types and symbols had their explanation, and without whom these would have remained forever mysterious and incomprehensible.

      If we now turn our attention to the 13th chap. of Matthew, we will find presented the very case which we have just been considering; and will perceive that the first parable, that of the sower, was delivered to the multitude by the Messiah, without any statement or definition of the subjects or persons, to which it was intended to apply. "He spoke many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold a sower went forth to sow &c." But they were not informed who was represented by "the sower," nor of what "the seed" was [101] made a symbol, nor was there any thing previously presented to their minds to which they could apply the comparison of seed fallen "by the way side," or "among thorns," or "upon stony places," or "in good ground." Consequently the parable could not be understood; and that the want of definition was the only cause, will appear abundantly evident when we observe the manner in which the Saviour expounded it, which was by simply stating what the symbols he employed stood for. "The seed," says he, "is the word of God;"4 the "sower," he who "sows it;" that "which fell by the way-side," and was "picked up" by the "fowls of the air," represents the case of one who "hears the word of the kingdom and receives if not, then cometh the wicked One and taketh it away;"--that which fell upon "stony places," represents the case of one who "at first receives the word," but having "no root in himself, soon withers away;"--that which fell "among thorns" exhibits the case of one who "hears and receives" the word, but "cares" and riches render it unfruitful; and that which fell into "good ground," and "brought forth fruit abundantly," is an illustration of the effect produced by the reception of the word in "a good and honest heart." So we see that however striking the parable may appear to us, after we are supplied with a statement of the subjects to which its various parts relate, it would, without such aid, only serve to embarrass, and confuse the mind. In these cases, indeed, definition is to knowledge what eyes are to vision; and as the radiant noon-day sun would pour forth floods of light in vain, if we were without eyes, or if our eyes were closed; so the most appropriate and beautiful comparison which could be imagined, would unless the mind distinctly perceived the subject to which it applied, not only fail to enlighten, but actually become itself an insolvable enigma, and as difficult of comprehension to us as light to one born blind. Yet as the sun is intended and fitted to give light to those who have eyes, and will use them, so a just comparison is eminently calculated to communicate knowledge to those who are furnished with, or will receive a definition.5 [102]

      We come now to the consideration of the second case, Where there is in the mind an erroneous definition of that which forms the subject of comparison. Here the subject is stated, but is imperfectly or erroneously understood; that is the idea which the mind has conceived of the subject, is erroneous, and consequently is not a representation of the true subject of comparison. The comparison, therefore, not being applied to the true subject, and having no legitimate application to any other, either leads to error or becomes a source of doubt, conjecture, and confusion. Thus when Baptism is compared to a being born of water, to a washing, to a burial and resurrection, these comparisons serve only to confuse the minds of those who imagine that Baptism is sprinkling or pouring, while they appear very fit and striking illustrations to those who have a correct definition of the term. But the parable which follows that of the "sower," is so striking an exemplification of this, and has, for this reason, been so long misunderstood, that it deserves our particular attention. It is as follows: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a field in which the proprietor had sown good grain, but while people were asleep, his enemy came and sowed darnel among the wheat and went off. When the blade was up and putting forth the ear, then appeared also the darnel. And the servants came and said to their master, sir, you sowed good grain in your field; whence, then, has it darnel? He answered, An enemy has done this. They said, Will you, then, that we weed them out? He replied, No: lest in weeding out the darnel, you tear up also the wheat. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the time of harvest, I will say to the reapers, first gather the darnel, and make them into bundles for burning, then carry the wheat into my barn." Thus explained to the disciples: "He who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world: the good seed are the sons of the kingdom; and the darnel are the sons of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the conclusion of this state; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the darnel is gathered and burnt, so shall it be at the conclusion of this state. The Son of Man will send his angels, who shall gather out of his kingdom all seducers and iniquitous persons, and throw there into the burning furnace: weeping and gnashing of teeth shall be there. Then shall the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father."--[Dr. GEO. CAMPBELL'S Translation.]

      This parable has often been appealed to in justification of corrupt communion. When sects have been charged with harboring in their churches the unjust, the ungodly, and the profligate, their reply has usually been, 'The Saviour himself [103] declares that the church or kingdom of heaven would contain both tares and wheat, both wicked and righteous, that these tares or darnel must be permitted to grow with the wheat, and cannot be separated until the harvest--the church cannot be purged until the end of the world!' This has commonly been rebutted by saying, that the tares and the wheat are indeed to grow together, but not in the church, for, says the Saviour, "The field is the world." It is evident, however, that neither party have understood the parable; for the comparison is plainly between the kingdom of heaven and a field containing both darnel and wheat; so that it matters not what the field may be, whether the world or not, the kingdom of heaven is just like such a field; now if the kingdom of heaven be like such a field, and this phrase "kingdom of heaven" mean the church as is commonly supposed, and that by both parties, it follows that the church is actually compared to such a field, and that the children of the devil and the sons of the kingdom must remain together in the church, until the end of the world. Besides, it is said that the angels will gather the wicked "out of the kingdom," and of course it must be admitted that they are now in it. But this conclusion that the openly wicked (for the darnel were observed as soon as the wheat and were quite conspicuous) are not to be separated from the church is too sweeping even for the sects, who do sometimes excommunicate, the parable to the contrary notwithstanding; and it is plainly irreconcileable with many plain injunctions of holy writ, as well as the principles and genius of the Christian religion. Thus this parable has remained a source of confusion, obscurity, and error, and wholly in consequence of the want of a correct definition of the subject of comparison!

      But it will be asked, If the phrase "kingdom of heaven" cannot be understood to mean the church without involving this difficulty, what does it import? To this we would reply, that as we have no reason to suppose these words to be used in an appropriated sense, we are bound to take them in their common acceptation; and that whatever meaning we ordinarily attach to the word kingdom or the word heaven, they should be permitted to retain. What then do we mean by kingdom? This term usually includes several ideas. 1st, It implies a king, as a kingdom cannot exist without a king. 2ndly, It implies subjects without which there can neither be king nor kingdom. 3dly, It implies also a territory or realm, in or over which the king reigns, and in which the subjects live. These three things, king, subjects, and territory, we conceive to be essential to the existence of a kingdom. When a territory is possessed, and the subjects have vowed allegiance to the king, we can say with truth, a kingdom exists, if it should have commenced but an hour before, and there should be as yet no constitution, no law promulgated or administered. Yet the administration of law, and perhaps a constitution, are to be considered as absolutely essential to the subsistence and perfection of a kingdom. Every kingdom too has its manners and customs, and kingdoms are distinguished from each other by these more perhaps than by any thing else; at least a peculiarity of manners and customs distinguishes nations from each other, more than a difference in laws, and is a more invariable attribute, as some nations possess peculiar manners and customs and have no laws--for example, the inhabitants of the Marquesas islands, who are [104] regulated solely by their customs. Kingdoms may be also good or evil, and greatly prised and esteemed on account of the happiness and privileges enjoyed by the subjects, or be disliked or avoided by reason of the tyranny and oppression of the Monarch. For our present purpose, however, it will suffice to consider these three essential attributes of a kingdom--viz. king, subjects, and territory.

      In the kingdom of heaven, then, we must have a king, subjects, and a territory. It will be at once conceded that CHRIST is the King, Son of the Living God. "I have set my King," says God, "upon my holy hill of Zion." Therefore it is called the kingdom of heaven by Matthew, or the kingdom of God by the other Evangelists, being under the government of God in Christ, and belonging to God or to heaven. It is also evident that the subjects are those who have vowed allegiance to King Jesus, and submitted to his authority. And now where is the territory? Not in the moon certainly, not in Jupiter or Saturn, Mars or Mercury. No: undoubtedly it must be upon the earth. But does any particular part of the earth form this territory? Is it confined to any of the islands of the ocean--to any of the great continents? Is it limited to any district? By no means. Time was when the land of Canaan was the territory of God's kingdom among the Jews--they were the subjects, and the land in which they dwelt was the territory. But the landmarks of Judea have been broken down, the rebellious subjects have ceased to possess the land of promise, and THE WORLD--the WHOLE EARTH has become the territory of a more glorious and extensive kingdom--the kingdom of heaven. Therefore said the Saviour to his apostles, "Go ye into all the world."   *     *     *     *   Therefore said an apostle to the subjects of King Jesus: All things are yours, the world.   *     *     *     *   Therefore the saints rejoice before the King, saying, We shall reign with thee upon the earth. Therefore said the Saviour, The field is the world. It is scarcely necessary, however, to adduce further proofs of a matter so plain, for the subjects of Christ live in the world, and may enjoy the blessings of his reign in every part of it, and the territory of every kingdom is where the subjects live under the government of their king. So we perceive that the kingdom of heaven is not the church, and that in this parable, the church is not at all the subject of comparison; in short that it has in reality no more to do with it than holiness has to do with the Pope of Rome. Being therefore always applied to a wrong subject, it has always been misunderstood, or rather not understood at all; nay for want of a correct definition it has been a means of confusion and the occasion of erroneous views and practice.

      It is worthy, however, of enquiry here, if this parable of the darnel in the field, do not apply to the church, how does it apply to the kingdom of heaven as we have now defined it? This inquiry brings us to the consideration of the 3d case in which comparisons may produce confusion, viz. where the comparison is applied to a part of the subject to which it was not intended to be applied. This is indeed equivalent to applying it to a wrong subject, for, as every parable relates to a particular subject, and all subjects may be looked at in various points [105] of view, so every parable or comparison has some particular part of that subject to illustrate, and will only confuse the mind and lead to error, if applied to the whole subject, or to any other part of it, than that which it is intended to elucidate. In this respect, a parable resembles a painting, which can give but one side of an object; it may be a front, back, or side view, but it cannot present all sides. Or it may be compared to a lamp shining upon an opaque body; it cannot shine upon all sides at the same time, but if one part is illuminated, others are left in the shade. Yet as we can, by a series of paintings, display all sides of an object; and as the whole of an opaque body can be illuminated by surrounding it with lamps, so every part of a subject may be illustrated by a series of appropriate comparisons. Hence the necessity for so many parables to illustrate one subject--the kingdom of heaven.6

      To what part, then, of the kingdom of heaven relates the parable of the darnel in the field? Can we apply it to the king? No: this is wholly out of the question. Can we apply it to the subjects? This would be equally incorrect; for though the subjects might be fitly represented by the wheat, they cannot be supposed to be like the field, and the comparison is between the kingdom of heaven and a field containing both wheat and darnel. In what particular, then, we repeat, does the kingdom of heaven resemble such a field? Certainly, as it regards its territory. And this is just the explanation given of it by the Saviour,--"the field," says he, is, or represents "the world," which is the territory of that kingdom. We can now perceive the whole beauty of the parable. The main purpose of it is to show, that in the territory of the kingdom of heaven the righteous and the wicked must be permitted to remain together till the end of the world;--that a separation cannot be made sooner; else, as Paul says, "we must needs go out of the world." For 'the darnel cannot be rooted out, without tearing up also the wheat:'--if the Lord Jesus would descend in flaming fire, with all his holy angels, to reap the "harvest of the earth,"7 and to take vengeance on those who know not God and obey not the gospel, while the righteous and the wicked are mingled together as at present, both being equally susceptible of injury, would equally suffer--both would be destroyed. But at that time, says the apostle, the saints "shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air," and thus be far removed from danger. Till this "reaping time" has come, however, it seems they are to remain together. And why not? Do we not know that people may live in the territory of a kingdom without being subjects? How many thousands live in the territory of Great Britain who are not subjects of King William--foreigners, strangers, aliens, who yield no homage, and own no allegiance? So is it in the kingdom of heaven. As it regards its territory [106] every one is in the kingdom of heaven--but every body is not in the church, every one is not a subject!--Nay the aliens and rebels are by far the most numerous, and many false kings exercise dominion over different portions of this territory, and even oppress the people of God, during this the suffering state of Christianity, but the time will come when the rightful sovereign shall he revealed, the "Lord of Lords," the "King of Kings," who is called also the "Blessed and only Potentate"--the "King of saints;" when he "shall cause his enemies who would not have" him to "rule over them," to be slain before him, and "shall reign before his ancients gloriously." Then shall the righteous shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father!

      How perfect, then, how strikingly descriptive is the parable! How important the lesson which it teaches! How joyful the truth which it confirms! Let us then rejoice, for this territory is ours--this beautiful earth with all her green valleys, and her lofty mountains,

"Rock-ribb'd, and ancient as the sun;"
with all her pleasant islands, and mighty continents, her boundless oceans and her winding streams--with all her fields and forests, her fruits and flowers--this world is ours! Thanks be to God!--well indeed may we say, with the apostle, "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him freely give us all things!"

      To return, however, to our subject:--We have seen that parables have each some peculiar point of application, and that if applied to any other, they produce obscurity, and lead to error. Of this we have other instances in the parables which follow that of the tares of the field. In the two immediately succeeding, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a grain of mustard-seed which became a great tree; and to leaven which, hid in three measures of meal, increased until the whole became leavened. These evidently illustrate the great increase, from a small beginning, of the kingdom of heaven as it regards subjects. They have no relation to the king, territory, laws, privileges or any thing else belonging to the kingdom, but to this single point alone, and consequently would be without meaning if applied to any other. The three following parables delivered to the disciples alone, also afford examples of this. In the first, he compares the kingdom of heaven to treasure hid in "a field, which when a man has discovered, he conceals the discovery and for joy thereof, sells all that he has and buys that field." In the second, he compares it to "a pearl extremely precious, which a merchant, in quest of fine pearls, having found, sold all that he had and purchased it." In these the only point illustrated is the value of the kingdom. For, as we have before observed, one kingdom may be more valuable than another, and more to be desired, as it regards the privileges to be enjoyed in it, the perfection of the government, and the happiness of the subjects. In the third, it is likened to a sweep-net cast into the sea, which encloses fishes of every kind, &c., which are separated when it is drawn ashore. This exhibits the same point as the parable of the darnel in the field. The territory of the [107] Kingdom is as a sweep-net &c. containing good and bad, which are to be separated at the end of the world. "Then," says he, "the angels" (before compared to reapers gathering the darnel from among the wheat) "will come and separate the wicked from among the righteous, and throw them into the burning furnace; weeping and gnashing of teeth shall be there." Having the subject thus plainly before them, the disciples, it appears, understood these parables; and when Jesus inquired, "Do you understand these things, they replied, yes, Master."

      While we are speaking of the error of attempting to apply a parable to every part of a subject, while it relates only to a single part of it, it may be well to notice another error connected with it, viz. that of seeking to find an application for every part of the parable. There are many things introduced into parables, particularly when these are drawn out in the form of short historical narrations, which have no application whatever to the subject of comparison, though they are very necessary to the parable itself. These are like the ground or the drapery of a portrait, which forms no part of the person or figure represented, but serves to beautify the picture and render the portrait itself more conspicuous. Thus in the parable of the mustard-seed, it is represented as becoming a tree, and we are told that "the birds of the air took shelter in its branches." Now what have these birds to do with the kingdom of heaven? Just nothing at all! Spiritualizers, it is true, have found many an application for them, and displayed their ingenuity in publishing a fine story about the tree being the church and the birds representing the sinners as resting in it, during dark seasons, &c. &c. for the parables have always afforded these gentry great scope for the exercise of their imaginative faculties. But the purpose for which these birds are introduced is extremely plain, being merely to impress the mind more strongly with the fact that the small mustard-seed had grown into a large tree; of which, its being capable of affording shelter to the birds is adduced as proof, thus constituting the imagery or drapery. Again; the case of the man who found the treasure and concealed the discovery of it, has given rise to many wise conceits, and some, in this day of "seeking religion" and "getting religion," have supposed, that, when a person discovered where "religion" is to be got, like the man with his treasure, he should keep it a profound secret until he has helped himself well. But the kingdom of heaven is compared to the treasure, and how greatly it enhances the value of that supposed treasure in our eyes, when we are told, that he who found it, was so anxious to secure it, that he carefully concealed the discovery until he had made the field his own? This is just what we would expect him to have done. For had he made it known, some one might have anticipated him in the purchase and he would thus have been deprived of a treasure, to obtain which he willingly parted with all he possessed.

      We come now to the 4th and last case which we have mentioned in which comparison may lead to error, viz. where the object selected for comparison is mistaken for the subject itself.

      This case is most likely to occur where symbols are employed, and we have several examples of it in the New Testament. On one occasion, the Saviour said to his disciples, [Matthew xvi.] "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees." [108] On which they said, reasoning among themselves, "This is because we have brought no loaves with us," supposing the leaven itself to be the subject of which he spoke. But Jesus said to them--"How is it that you do not understand, that I spoke not concerning bread, when I bade you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Then they understood that he cautioned them not against the leaven, which the Pharisees and Sadducees used in bread, but against their doctrine." The woman of Samaria fell into the same mistake when she supposed the Saviour to mean literal water when he spoke of "living water." Accordingly she spoke of the well being deep--of his having no bucket, and finally expressed a desire to obtain some of that water, that she might never be thirsty, nor have the trouble of coming to draw. The Roman Catholics also have committed the same blunder. For they, when it suits their purpose, are quite ready to insist "that the scriptures mean what they say," and in endeavouring to substantiate transubstantiation are wont triumphantly to ask: "Does not Christ say this [bread] is my body?" Yes, we would reply, most assuredly he does!--and just as certainly he says in another place, "I am bread." Now the same argument which will prove that the bread and wine are the real flesh and blood of Christ, will prove that he himself was bread, and consequently possessed of neither flesh nor blood. To such absurdities are men driven from ignorance of the common figures and rules of language!

      It would seem then that the phrase "the scriptures mean what they say," is not correct, if when we say it, we mean what we say. For when they speak figuratively and symbolically they do actually say one thing and mean another; and though in order to know what they do mean we most certainly first know what they say, yet it is equally necessary to know how they say it: that is, whether they speak literally or figuratively. This being determined, they are of course to be understood according to the common rules of language, and just as we understand each other. It is therefore more correct to say, 'The scriptures speak as those to whom they were written were wont to speak--they are in the language of men, and are to be interpreted not by the power of imagination, but according to the laws that govern language.'--

      But we must conclude for the present. We trust that we have ascertained that parables or comparisons are eminently fitted for illustration, and that we have sufficiently explained the circumstances which sometimes cause them not only to fail of this, but to become a means of involving the mind in uncertainty, and, like ignis fatui rather to lead into the quagmire of error, than like a steady and brilliant lamp to guide us to the firm and everlasting abode of truth.



      Will our beloved Alumnus favour us with a third piece on Parables, and furnish us in it with an exposition of the nature of an emblem; how it is connected with the thing signified by it; whether it is appointed to do what the thing signified should do: whether our attention to the emblem is to be regarded as reverence for the subject of the emblem; and whether there are emblems in our religion, &c. &c.? By doing this Alumnus will confer a favour on many brethren.


      1 Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus. [Ed. [26]
      2 Those similitudes in which irrational creatures are addressed as though they were rational, even although they are not represented as replying, are properly classed with the fabulous. Of this kind is the Epilogue of Cyrus, sent to the Ionians, who after having at first rejected the proposals of accommodation offered by Cyrus, became more submissive after some reverses of fortune, and sued for peace. "A piper," said he, "on the sea-shore, seeing some fishes in the water, began to play in order to allure them to land; but finding them insensible to the music, employed a net with better success. When taken, they began to jump about upon the shore, but he observed to them, It is unnecessary now to dance, as I have ceased to play." [27]
      3 This affords a striking proof of the power of illustration which parables possess as soon as the subject of comparison is stated. [101]
      4 Mark and Luke. [102]
      5 The question may arise here, why did the Messiah address the Jews in parables without stating the subject of comparison, or without communicating instruction to them? This enquiry was made by the disciples, and the reply was, "that they seeing might not see, and hearing might not understand." And this was justice. For "to him that has, more shall be given, but from him that has not shall be taken even that which he seems to have." These self-righteous Jews supposed themselves already wise. They seemed to have eyes, nay they had eyes, but as the Saviour declared, quoting the prophecy of Isaiah, "their eyes they" had "closed" lest they should "see with their eyes," their ears they had stopped "lest they should hear," and be converted and healed by the Messiah. Their eyes they had closed against the light and their ears would not hear the instructions of Jesus, for being filled with thoughts of worldly grandeur, and distinction, "their hearts" having "become gross," they had prejudged his character, and already virtually rejected him as the Messiah. As, therefore, it would have been fruitless and unwise to have attempted to teach or reveal any thing to those who obstinately closed their eyes against the light of truth, so it was perfectly consonant to justice and propriety that their pretended wisdom should be utterly confounded by parables without a definition. "Because you say, we see," observed the Saviour, "therefore [102] your sin remains." Again, "For judgment am I come into this world, that they which see not, might see, and those who see might be made blind." And even if he had stated the subject of comparison, they would not have received his instructions, for in some cases in which he did so, as in the parables following "the sower" where he stated the subject, the kingdom of heaven, the result was the same. In a word, they had eyes, but not to see--they had ears, but not to hear. Therefore on such occasions, the Saviour usually concluded by saying; "He that has ears to hear let him hear;" and to his disciples who were teachable, and desired to know the meaning of the parables, he remarked; "Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear." [103]
      6 There is perhaps do point or trait in the kingdom of heaven which the Saviour has not illustrated by a comparison. It would be both pleasing and profitable to draw out an analysis of the kingdom, marking the true application of the parable, to its various parts, and tracing accurately every point of resemblance. [106]
      7 See Revelations, chap. xiv. 14-20. [106]


[The Evangelist 3 (May 5, 1834): 98-109.]


      Robert Richardson's "Thoughts on Parables" was first published under the pseudonym "Alumnus" in The Evangelist in two parts: "Thoughts on Parables, No. 1" (Vol. 3, No. 2, February 1834) and "Thoughts on Parables, No. 2" (Vol. 3, No. 5, May 1834). The two-part series was reprinted as "Essay on Parables" in two installments in The Millennial Harbinger, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 8, August 1842, pp. 350-355; No. 9, September 1842, pp. 387-399. The electronic version of this essay has been produced from the College Press reprint (1980) of The Evangelist, ed. Walter Scott (Cincinnati, OH: Walter Scott, 1833), pp. 25-29, 98-109. The text has been scanned by Colvil Smith and formatted by Ernie Stefanik.

      Pagination in the electronic version has been represented by placing the page number in brackets following the last complete word on the printed page. In the printed text, footnotes are indicated by printer's devices (asterisks, daggers, etc.); in the electronic text, they are treated as sequentially numbered endnotes. Inconsistencies in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and typography have been retained; however, corrections have been offered for misspellings and other accidental corruptions. Emendations are as follows:

 Page       Printed Text [ Electronic Text
 p. 26:     "'physician [ 'physician
            chap. xxv. v. 6, 7. [ chap. xxv. 5, 6, 7.
            Habakuk, [ Habakkuk,
            Job to continue [ Job 'to continue
            Math. xv. 15. [ Matth. xv. 15.
            exception [ exceptions
            "a parabole, [ "a parabole,"
            fixious [ fictitious
 p. 27:     an image.) [ an image.
            "It is unnecessary [ It is unnecessary
 p. 28:     succeed?" [ succeed'?
            Indulge not [ 'Indulge not
            affecting [ effecting
            possessed?' [ possessed'?
 p. 29:     unrivelled [ unrivalled

 p. 100:    they very purpose [ the very purpose
 p. 102:    "no root in himself," [ "no root in himself,
            he seems to have " [ he seems to have."
 p. 103:    father.-- [ father.------
 p. 108:    of the Pharisees. [ of the Pharisees."

      Addenda and corrigenda are earnestly solicited.

Colvil L. Smith
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Ernie Stefanik
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Created 1 August 2000.

Robert Richardson Thoughts on Parables (1834)

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