For much of my Christian life, I believed that Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) had a postmillennial view of biblical prophecy. Postmillennialism is the belief that the gospel will have a Christianising effect on the entire world until it reaches a state of perfection (the millennium) – after which Messiah Jesus will return to earth.
To my surprise I discovered recently that Spurgeon was actually premillennial. He believed that Jesus would return to establish his reign on the earth for a significant period of time before the final judgement and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21-22). I was also surprised to find this information in Steven Sizer’s Christian Zionism, which is itself against such views!
Prominent UK Christians tend to be amillennialists, seeing the millennium as symbolising the gospel age. Perhaps because this non-literal view is currently normative in the UK, most have overlooked Spurgeon’s premillennial vision.
C. H. Spurgeon believed that biblical texts should be exegeted plainly before any attempt is made to draw out other implications or applications from the text. In 1864 he spoke on Ezekiel 37:1-10 (the valley of dry bones) to help raise funds for the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Jews. Speaking against reading into the passage what is not there, he said: ‘This vision has been used, from the time of Jerome onwards, as a description of the resurrection, and certainly it may be so accommodated with much effect … But while this interpretation … may be very proper as an accommodation, it must be quite evident to any thinking person that this is not the meaning of the passage. There is no allusion made by Ezekiel to the resurrection, and such topic would have been quite apart from the design of the prophet’s speech’.1
Concerning the actual sense, he continued: ‘The meaning of our text, as opened up by the context, is most evidently, if words mean anything, first, that there shall be a political restoration of the Jews to their own land and to their own nationality; and then, secondly, there is in the text, and in the context, a most plain declaration, that there shall be a spiritual restoration, a conversion in fact of the tribes of Israel’.2
And again on Ezekiel 37:1-10: ‘If there be meaning in words this must be the meaning of this chapter. I wish never to learn the art of tearing God’s meaning out of his own words. If there be anything clear and plain, the literal sense and meaning of this passage – a meaning not to be spirited or spiritualised away – must be evident that both the two and the ten tribes of Israel are to be restored to their own land, and that a king is to rule over them’.3
One resurrection or two?
When it came to interpreting prophetic passages in the Old Testament, Spurgeon was prepared to treat them as if they meant what they said. He did not resort to a ‘spiritualised’ interpretation negating or obscuring the clear teaching of the text. Indeed, in one of his first Metropolitan Tabernacle sermons, he criticised a famous commentator for allegorising the first resurrection in Revelation 20:
‘Would any man believe that to be its meaning, if he had not some thesis to defend? The fact is, we sometimes read Scripture, thinking of it what it ought to say, rather than what it does say’.4
Spurgeon’s approach to the biblical text also emerges when he rejected amillennialism. A crucial divergence between the premillennial and amillennial positions is whether there will be a single resurrection or two resurrections (of the just and then the unjust) separated by the 1,000 years of Revelation 20:1-15. Spurgeon repudiated the amillennial position in the clearest terms: ‘We expect a reigning Christ on earth; that seems to us to be very plain, and to be put so literally that we dare not spiritualise it. We anticipate a first and second resurrection; a first resurrection of the righteous, and a second resurrection of the ungodly, who shall be judged, condemned, and punished for ever by the sentence of the great King’.5
And again: ‘I once had the misfortune to listen to an excellent friend of mine who was preaching upon this very text [i.e., Revelation 20:4-6], and I must confess, I did not attend with very great patience to his exposition. He said it meant, blessed and holy is he who has been born again, who has been regenerated, and so has had a resurrection from dead works by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
‘All the while he was preaching, I could not help wishing that I could propose to him the difficulty, how he would make this metaphorical interpretation agree with the literal fact, that the rest of the dead lived not till the thousand years were finished? For, if the first resurrection here spoken of is a metaphorical, or spiritual, or typical resurrection, why the next where it speaks of the resurrection of the dead must be spiritual, and mystical, and metaphorical too … Brethren, the Holy Ghost does not jumble metaphors and facts together …
‘I could not help seeing there are two literal resurrections here spoken of, one of the spirits of the just, and the other of the bodies of the wicked; one of the saints who sleep in Jesus, whom God shall bring with him, and another of those who live and die impenitent, who perish in their sins’.6
Later in the same sermon, he explained: ‘You have perhaps imagined that all men will rise at the same moment; that the trump of the archangel will break open every grave at the same instant, and sound in the ear of every sleeper at the identical moment.
‘Such I do not think is the testimony of the Word of God. I think the Word of God teaches, and teaches indisputably, that the saints shall rise first. And be the interval of time whatever it may, whether the thousand years are literal years, or a very long period of time, I am not now about to determine; I have nothing to do except with the fact that there are two resurrections, a resurrection of the just, and afterwards of the unjust – a time when the saints of God shall rise, an aftertime when the wicked shall rise to the resurrection of damnation’.
The millennium itself
Spurgeon was very clear in his belief in a literal millennium, although undogmatic as to its length: ‘We shall at once profess our attachment to the pre-millennial school of interpretation, and the literal reading of those Scriptures that predict the return of the Jews to their own land’.7
Spurgeon also set forth his premillennialism, as against postmillennialism, as follows: ‘If I read the word aright, and it is honest to admit that there is much room for difference of opinion here, the day will come, when the Lord Jesus will descend from heaven with a shout, with the trump of the archangel and the voice of God.
‘Some think that this descent of the Lord will be postmillennial – that is, after the thousand years of his reign. I cannot think so. I conceive that the advent will be pre-millennial; that he will come first; and then will come the millennium as the result of his personal reign upon earth’.8
And again: ‘For when the Jews are restored, then the fullness of the Gentiles shall be gathered in; and as soon as they return, then Jesus will come upon Mount Zion to reign with his ancients gloriously, and the halcyon days of the Millennium shall then dawn; we shall then know every man to be a brother and a friend; Christ shall rule with universal sway’.9
The conclusion of this material is clear – Spurgeon believed in taking the Old and New Testament prophecies exactly as they were written and consequently he believed in a literal millennium.
1. The restoration and conversion of the Jews – Ezekiel 37:1-10. Sermon 582. The Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit. Vol. X (London: Passmore & Alabaster [P&A], 1865) pp. 425-426.
2. Ibid., p.428.
3. As reference 1.
4. The First Resurrection – Revelation 20:4-6, 12. Sermon 391. The New Park Street and Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol.VII. (P&A, 1862), p.346.
5. Things to Come – 1 Corinthians 3:22. Sermon 875. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. Vol. XV. (P&A, 1886), p.329.
6. The first resurrection – Revelation 20:4-6, 12. Sermon 391. The New Park Street and Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit Vol.VII (P&A, 1862), p.346.
7. Jerusalem which is above, in: The wword and the trowel; a record of combat with sin and labour for the Lord. Edited by C. H. Spurgeon, (P&A, 1866), p.372.
8. Justification and glory – Romans 8:30.Sermon 627. The Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit. Vol. XI (P&A, 1866), p.249.
9. The Church of Christ – Ezekiel 34:26.Sermon 28. The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol. I (P&A, 1892), p.214.