Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ghosts of End Times Past: J. R. Church's "Psalm Readings"

From the December 2008 E-Block.

***

1988 saw a spate of end times books with the theme that 1988 was "it" as far as the Rapture was concerned. In the last article in this series, we looked at Edgar Whisenant's definitive pronouncements. This time, we have someone who urged caution on our Rapture Diet even as he presented us with what appeared to be chocolate cake!

J. R. Church's Hidden Prophecies in the Psalms advanced the thesis that the Psalms -- the 19th book in the Bible -- offered thematic prophecies for the years of the 20th century (the "1900s"). As might be expected, the further development of the idea was that the Psalm numbers were providentially arranged so that they matched the 20th century year of their number (e.g., Psalm 48 predicted events of 1948; Psalm 79, of 1979, and so on).

Unlike Whisenant, who reportedly died in 2001, Church remains active to this day with his ministry "Prophecy in the News" as well as a website titled "Rapture Ready." Church is certainly still wedded to the dispensational paradigm, as for example, he answers questions like, "How do you plan to maintain this site after the rapture?" by saying:

I have no master plan for maintaining Rapture Ready all the way through the seven-year tribulation. After the big event takes place, I expect RR to last several months. After all, the internet was designed to survive a nuclear war. It should be able to survive the great catching up of all believers.

It is unlikely any one domain will be able to service the massive traffic surge that will be directed at all prophecy sites. The best hope for achieving enough bandwidth to allow for millions of people to view Rapture Ready's content is for tribulation saints to mirror the site dozens of times.

...Another way to disseminate the site would be to copy the pages onto CDs. This method lacks the worldwide reach of a web server, but it has the advantage of being free from any efforts by authorities to block all sites related to Bible prophecy.

According to Church, his thesis began when his research assistant decided that passages in Psalm 48 sounded like thematic predictions of the birth of the modern nation of Israel in 1948. To him, it seemed "obvious" that Israel's birth was foretold by Psalm 48 [page 13]. Then he found a similar correspondence in Psalm 17 and the events of 1917 [14], and after that, embarked on a survey of the 20th century up to his time that convinced him that Psalms was a chronologue of Israel's 20th century history.

Church wrote this book in 1986, so beyond that time, he naturally read the Psalms in terms of what he thought would happen, not what already had. His thesis for Psalms 88 through 95 was that it was possible that these would be the seven-year Tribulation period. He was not as definitive in this claim as Whisenant, only saying that a Tribulation fulfillment was possible. Nevertheless, we will indicate the means by which Church arrived at his conclusions, which may be broken down into three general methodologically-flawed practices; and we will use his treatment of Psalm 1 as an exemplar to begin. Then we will examine his case for the two Psalms that inspired him (17 and 48) and seem to be his strongest exemplars.

  • Practice #1: Selective Use of the Psalms. One estimate has stated that the average length of each Psalm is approximately 17 of our verses. Church stacked the deck of potential fulfillment in his favor by using as few verses as possible from each Psalm.

    For example, here is Psalm 1, with the portions used by Church in bold:

    1 Blessed [is] the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight [is] in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. 3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. 4 The ungodly [are] not so: but [are] like the chaff which the wind driveth away. 5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. 6 For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

    It's not hard to see a serious methodological problem here. Church has used perhaps 15% of the Psalm and discarded the remainder without explanation. He has thus already improved his chances for a fulfillment with a selection bias. He needs only pick and choose what finds fulfillment.

    Treatment of other Psalms reveal the same selection bias with the Psalmic texts. Again, we'll see how this is so with respect to his two prime exemplars (Ps. 17 and Ps. 48). Not all of the Psalms are used so sparingly for Church's exegetical efforts (he uses nearly all of Psalm 46, for example) but the overall rule is sparse use of the Psalmic texts.

  • Practice #2: Selective Use of History. This methodological flaw is similar to the first, except that it selectively uses history in the way the first practice used the Biblical text.

    Put it this way: Church has Psalm 1 before him. He needs to look for events in 1901 that fulfill this Psalm. He has an entire year's worth of history to pick out events that would fit. In this case, here's how he made matches to the history of 1901:

    • "Blessed is the man" -- signifies how, at the "fourth conference of the Bund" (Jewish Socialist Union), "it was decided for the first time that the term NATION be...applied to the Jewish people." Thus Ps. 1 "appears to describe the mind-set of world Jewry in 1901." [42]
    • "delight in the law of the Lord" and "like the chaff which the wind driveth away" -- merely used to describe the reactions of the Jewish people.

    We'll discuss how Church arrives at these interpretations shortly, but for the moment, it is enough to point out that it would hardly be difficult to create a correlation between a selected phrase and some selected event in history. Church had 365 days of history to choose from, and the events which concerned the millions of people of Jewish heritage around the world to choose from that year. And the events did not even have to be "big news." A survey of Jewish history websites reveals the following events as significant in the year 1901:

    • The Industrial Removal Office, organized by several Jewish organizations, relocate Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side to communities across the United States.
    • The Fifth Zionist Congress decides to establish Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (KKL) - The Jewish National Fund.
    • RELIEF SOCIETY FOR GERMAN JEWS (Hilsvereinder Deutschen Juden) (Germany) was founded. It was designed to help Eastern European Jews immigrate to Germany.
    • JASCHA HEIFETZ (Lithuania-USA) Violinist. He started lessons at age three and debuted at age seven. He is considered by many to be the greatest violinist of the century. Heifetz arranged and transcribed more than one hundred classical and modern compositions.
    • HERZL (Ottoman Empire) Met with the Sultan of Turkey to discuss the establishment of a Jewish state and the obtaining of a charter. Herzl failed in both attempts.
    • WILLIAM SAMUEL PALEY (USA) Radio and television pioneer. Paley began his career working in his father's cigar manufacturing plant. In 1920, he bought a failing chain of radio stations and turned it into the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Paley was also one of the first to see the possibilities of television right after WWII.

    Strangely, the 1901 meeting of the Bund that Church mentions did not even make any of the lists I surveyed, though it apparently did happen as he claims. But it is also clear that the emergence of personalities like Heifitz and Paley were regarded as more significant for Jewish history!

    The implication is clear -- Church once again stacked the deck in his favor by selection bias with history. But there's one last flawed methodolgy to uncover.

  • Practice #3: Midrashic use of Scripture with history. By now the reader will have perceived that Church's use of Psalm 1 is quite free with the text in terms of how it is "fulfilled." The two points above are illustrative. The application of "blessed is the man" is arrived at by claiming that the "man" is corporate Israel [42]. There is simply no exegetical basis for this claim. Moreover, the fulfillment is vague and generalized, and illustrates the selection bias with reference to history. Why is not the "blessed" man Herzl, to be "blessed" for at least trying to get a charter? Or maybe the Fifth Zionist Congress could be called "blessed" for establishing the Jewish National Fund. Or, why is the "man" not perhaps Heifetz or Paley (because of their talents)?

    The second aspect of proposed fulfillment is little better, and reflects a common tactic of Church's. "Delight in the law of the Lord" and "like the chaff which the wind driveth away" are descriptive phrases so vague in context that they might be applicable to any Jewish population in any year -- whether 1901 AD or 364 BC.

Sadly, these tactics reflect the overarching rule of Church's methodology, not the exception. Now let's see how this is the case with Church's two strongest exemplars, the ones that inspired his book to begin with: Ps. 17 and Ps. 48.

  • Psalm 17: Selective Use of the Psalms. Psalm 17 is more than twice the size of Psalm 1, but Church proportionately uses less of it than he did Psalm 1. Once again, here is the text of the Psalm, with the portions he uses highlighted:
    1 Hear the right, O LORD, attend unto my cry, give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips. 2 Let my sentence come forth from thy presence; let thine eyes behold the things that are equal. 3 Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress. 4 Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer. 5 Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not. 6 I have called upon thee, for thou wilt hear me, O God: incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech. 7 Shew thy marvellous lovingkindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them which put their trust in thee from those that rise up against them. 8 Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings, 9 From the wicked that oppress me, from my deadly enemies, who compass me about. 10 They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly. 11 They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth; 12 Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places. 13 Arise, O LORD, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword: 14 From men which are thy hand, O LORD, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes. 15 As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

    With over 90% of the Psalm summarily discarded, Church substantially increases his chances for a "fulfillment."

  • Psalm 17: Selective Use of History. This is one of Church's "best case" scenarios; he finds fulfillment in the 1917 British capture of Jerusalem, and there is little doubt that this would be regarded as "a" major event in Jewish history of 1917. But had Allenby waited a month and done his work in 1918, there was plenty for Church to appeal to in 1917 otherwise: The establishment of the Tarbut, or Jewish cultural organization; the start of a new round of pogroms after the Russian Revolution; the establishment of the Jewish welfare board, and so on. In addition, since Church has now opened the door to actions of other nations that affect the fate of Jewish peoples (in this case, Britain) he has expanded his range of potential choices. Finally, the campaign against Jerusalem was a complex affair that took almost two months (see here) giving Church plenty of material to select from to match up to any part of Ps. 17.
  • Psalm 17: Midrashic use of Scripture with history. This is the most significant difficulty. Even Church is compelled to admit that these references are "cryptic":
    • "Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings..." -- is interpreted in terms of the "wings" of airplanes that Allenby sent over Jerusalem to intimidate the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The figure of speech here, though, is of a mother bird nestling her young under her wings, and that is decidedly not what Allenby's purpose was.
    • "Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey..." Interpreted in terms of Britain (symbolized by a lion, which is indeed their national symbol) becoming "greedy of their new protectorate" because they did not allow Jews "to return with dignity" and "collaborated with the Arabs." It is clear that Church must treat the text midrashically, divorcing this phrase from all else that is said about the "wicked" to whom these words apply.

      In addition, the "greedy" acts of Britain Church describes took place well after 1917, and it is hard to apply "greed" as a motivation even with the descriptors of events that Church uses (which he does not explain, or document with correlations to actual events; e.g., he does not explain how Jews were not allowed to "return with dignity" and how this reflected "greed" by the British.

  • Psalm 48: Selective Use of the Psalms. Psalm 48 is only slightly shorter than Psalm 17 and more than twice the size of Psalm 1. This time, however, Church uses approximately 55% of his text:
    1 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. 2 Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. 3 God is known in her palaces for a refuge. 4 For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together. 5 They saw it, and so they marvelled; they were troubled, and hasted away. 6 Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail. 7 Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind. 8 As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God: God will establish it for ever. Selah. 9 We have thought of thy lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of thy temple. 10 According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness. 11 Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments. 12 Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. 13 Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. 14 For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.

    55% is better than 15%, but still reflects a significant selection bias. That said, even with this 55%, there is some that is lacking enough in specifics that it could be applied to a variety of historical events (e.g., verses 1-2, 11, 13-14).

  • Psalm 48: Selective Use of History. As with 1917, this represents a "best case" scenario for Church since there is nothing else in 1948 that could conceivably vie for being the most important event for Jewish persons. Indeed, we may fairly admit that no other historical event of 1948 would fit as well.

    It is here, in the final category, that Church's use of Psalm 48 is at its weakest:

  • Psalm 48: Midrashic use of Scripture with history. Although Church says that Psalm 48 "clearly describes the revival of the nation of Israel," I find that I must squint a great deal to see it!

    • "Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King." These two verses are quoted at the start of Church's commentary, but his application amounts to identifying the words "beautiful for situation" with Israel, based on a late rabbinic commentary (11th century AD!) that these words come from a Hebrew term that means, "branch of a tree" -- a conclusion for which I can find no substantiation. (The words refer to attractiveness and elevation -- as in, above sea level).

      That said, even if the "tree" reading is granted, this could obviously apply to Israel at any time in history and is not specific to 1948 events. It is this next passage that Church most directly ties to 1948:

    • "For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together. They saw it, and so they marvelled; they were troubled, and hasted away. Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail."

      Church improbably identifies the "kings" of this passage with "the General Assembly of the United Nations" and says these "passed by together" in the form of a "delegation sent to Palestine to investigate the situation existing in 1947 between the British, Jews and Arabs." It is hard to accept an identification of mere delegation members as "kings." Church is presumably referring to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which consisted of representatives from 11 nations.

      Church goes on to say that the remainder of this quote "remarkably portrays the conclusions of the UN delegation who returned to New York with the suggestion that a new Jewish nation be formed." And so it is that Church says that the baby "born" is Israel.

      The immediate interpretive problem is that the "birth pains" are used as a figure of speech -- not of an actual birth. Moreover, the reason for the kings being in pain is that they see the amazing height of Jerusalem, which makes it a problematic military target. Ps. 48 is a picture of foreign invaders taking a good look at Jerusalem's tactical position and realizing that they're not going to have an easy time taking the city in conquest. Verses 11-13 are offered in the same vein, as a survey of Jerusalem's fortifications (which Church does agree to, and sees as a warning to the Jews of 1948 to get ready for an Arab attack!). Church's interpretation is substantially midrashic.

      At this point, it may be objected that Church is taking no more liberties than New Testament authors did in their use of the Old Testament. We may grant that the NT use of the OT at least permits a precedent, in theory. However, what Church offers is much more radical than anything found in the New Testament (to say nothing of the fact that there is no evidence that Church possesses the inspirational or prophetic authority to take such liberties).

      For example, when Matthew uses a phrase from Hosea and applies it to Jesus -- "out of Egypt I have called my son" -- this is a type of midrashic exegesis, for Hosea's original reference is to Israel coming out of Egypt in the Exodus. Matthew applies this to Jesus (God's Son) returning from Egypt. This is legitimate midrashic exegesis. The idea is substantially the same. The elements are substantially the same: Egypt is the same nation for both Hosea and Matthew; both Israel and Jesus are called "sons" of God. Matthew is properly working under the principle that God acts the same way in history over and over again.

      Church, in contrast, must change the idea (from the fear of the difficulty of conquest, to fear over the fate of displaced, persecuted Jews) and change several meanings (kings, reference to the height, reason for the pain) to make his exegesis work. While NT midrash takes some contextual liberties, none go as far as Church has with this reading. There is no guiding principle of God acting in a way similar to what He did before.

    • That leaves the reference to the ships of Tarshish, which Church reads in terms of Britain occupying Israel, under the assumption that the British could find their ancestry in the people of Tarshish! The picture of Ps. 48, however, is one of a naval attack being deflected by God's power (through the miracle of a wind), and even if we accept the questionable equation Church makes of Britain with Tarshish (an equation I have yet to see in any commentary), the picture will not fit the British of 1948, who withdrew of their own accord.


Conclusion:

Church wisely did not extend himself too far with his thesis, such that he definitively associated 1988 with the Rapture; but he did come close enough. It becomes clear, however, that neither he nor his readers learn from their mistakes. In 1991, Church issued a volume entitled Hidden Prophecies in the Song of Moses that followed the same "freelance" exegetical principles, and offered new readings of Psalms in the 90s range. In this respect, Church is far too reminscent of Jehovah's Witnesses who predicted Jesus' retun at various dates (like 1914) and thereafter re-interpreted and/or denied their prior prophecies when there was a failure to fulfill.

Regrettably, there are those who will willingly go along with such failures, and even enable authors like Church in the throes of their failings. A 2000 Amazon review of Hidden Prophecies in the Psalms provides just such an example of this:

The only problem I have with this book is that it is dated and the auther was jumping the Gun a little bit, too eager to see the return of our Lord. He guessed about 1998 (Based on this concept of psalms as mordern prophecy I would guess 2010) He did however predict a war in 1991 (the updated version of this book was printed in 1988) he even included by name Iraq, the threat of bio warfare and that it would not effect the Isreali's directly. (They)"Need only wacth (as in on CNN/TV)the punishment [of the] wicked. Psalm 91 even gives the approximate casualties of the war. 91:7 though a thousand fall on your side (the allies) tens of thousands at you right hand (Iraq) near you it shall not come. The concept is confirmed!

If as this book suggests, each Psalm is a prophecy for the corrosponding year, than look for a devestating war in the middle east in the year 2002 (perhaps beginning as early as october or November 2001)

I expect that this reader eventually found some way to identify that "devastating war" with action in Afghanistan in 2002 -- making whatever midrashic adjustments were necessary to make the connection!

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