Studies in Mark: the Hearing Ear and the Mystery of the Kingdom

Mark 4:9‑12  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 10
The Mystery of the Kingdoms
It was not altogether a new thing for divine predictions to be conveyed to men in a form which concealed its import from the many and revealed it to the few. In the Old Testament we read of dreams, of visions, and, though not as frequently, of parables wherein God spoke to man. But we can only refer now to one or two of such instances in which He revealed matters affecting the government of the world. Take, for example, the dreams of Pharaoh. He who gives fruitful seasons, and in His providence fills the hearts of men with food and gladness, foretold events which were of the utmost importance in the administration of the great empire of Egypt. That seven years of phenomenal fruitfulness were at hand, and further that these were to be succeeded by a like period of absolute barrenness, were facts of incalculable value to the statesmen of that land. God who knew and gave these things was pleased to communicate them beforehand to the responsible governing head of Egypt. But the prediction came to Pharaoh in dreams, the significance of which he could not unravel. The heathen monarch and the wisest men of the land were alike constrained to confess their impotence, and compelled to solicit the aid of Joseph, the pious servant of the most high God. He came forth from the dungeon and interpreted Pharaoh's dreams which to human wisdom were otherwise in soluble.
Again, when Israel was displaced and God had granted universal dominion to the Gentiles, we find Him communicating with Nebuchadnezzar, the first head, but in the form of a dream. This forgotten dream presented an outline-sketch of the four great world-kingdoms (Dan. 2), but, apart from Daniel the prophet, it was unintelligible to the mighty king. In the writing on the wall of Belshazzar's banqueting hall we have another instance of a cryptic message, needing special interpretation; while the visions subsequently received by Daniel himself required to be explained to the prophet by an angel from heaven.
These examples are sufficient to illustrate the nature of what is called in Scripture a “mystery.” It may consist of a dream, a vision, a parable or a verbal prophecy, the essential feature being that the divine communication cannot be understood without a subsequent divine communication which explains the first. And it will be found that the Greek word, μυστήριον, mystery, first occurs in the chapter of Daniel to which reference has been made (Dan. 2). In the Septuagint version the term is applied repeatedly to the forgotten dream of Nebuchadnezzar and its interpretation. Daniel and his friends “sought mercies from the God of heaven concerning this mystery.” “Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night.” Daniel said, “The mystery which the king asks the explanation of.” “There is a God in heaven revealing mysteries.” “He that reveals mysteries has made known to thee what must come to pass.” Nebuchadnezzar said, “Of a truth your God is a God of gods, and Lord of kings, who reveals mysteries; for thou past been able to reveal this mystery” (Dan. 2:18, 19, 27, 28, 29, 30, 4718That they would desire mercies of the God of heaven concerning this secret; that Daniel and his fellows should not perish with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. 19Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven. (Daniel 2:18‑19)
27Daniel answered in the presence of the king, and said, The secret which the king hath demanded cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers, show unto the king; 28But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Thy dream, and the visions of thy head upon thy bed, are these; 29As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass. 30But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart. (Daniel 2:27‑30)
47The king answered unto Daniel, and said, Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret. (Daniel 2:47)
; 4:6).1 It may be seen therefore that a mystery is a secret thing which would, remain such apart from divine revelation a matter to the knowledge and understanding of which initiation is necessary.
Now, as there was the mystery concerning the Gentile monarchies, so, the Lord said, there was a mystery concerning that kingdom which, according to Daniel (ii. 44) the God of heaven would establish, never to be destroyed. This mystery He set out in His teaching by parables, thereby concealing from the multitude for the time being the meaning which He afterward revealed to His apostles. For He said, “Unto you is given [to know] the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables; that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand.” He thus added a solemn warning to the people. Upon the nation at large the sentence of judicial blindness would fall, as Isaiah had prophesied (Isa. 6:9, 109And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. 10Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9‑10)). For the Light of the world was among them, yet they refused to see light in His light; hence darkness would come among and upon them, and even as He was speaking, the truth as to God's provision in view of their rebellion was veiled from their eyes in parables.
Just what was signified by the mystery of the kingdom will appear in the interpretation of the parables that the Lord Himself gave. The altered character of the kingdom consequent upon the rejection of the Anointed One and the absence of the King is delineated most fully and categorically in the series of parables recorded in Matt. 13. Here we only emphasize the essential element of mystery in the Scriptural sense, viz., not that which in itself is difficult of understanding, but rather that which in both its communication and its reception is dependent upon divine revelation, and, as must necessarily follow, that which is only made known to a selected few who are fitted to receive it.
The New Testament, associated as it is with the advent both of the Son and the Spirit, contains the revelation of many mysteries. Many matters kept secret from the foundation of the world, many truths concealed in Old Testament prophecies are therein brought to light and made known. We read of the mystery of God, of Christ, of God's will, of godliness, of faith, of the gospel, of iniquity, of the seven stars, of the scarlet woman, Babylon the Great. The secret rapture of the church is called a mystery (1 Cor. 15:5151Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, (1 Corinthians 15:51)), and so its union with Christ the Head (Eph. 5:3232This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)). The setting aside of Israel and the admission of the Gentiles to equal privileges in the gospel is a mystery (Rom. 11:2525For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (Romans 11:25)). Eye had not seen, nor ear heard these things in the ancient oracles. They are now freely given us by God's Spirit.
THOSE WITHOUT
Those not following Jesus are described as “them that are without,” and no explanation of the parables is offered to them. The term2 is one peculiar to Mark, not occurring in Matthew or Luke. It is used similarly, however, in the Epistles, where it refers to those outside the assembly of believers. Thus Paul writes, “What have I to do with judging them that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within, whereas them that are without God judgeth?” (1 Cor. 5:12, 1312For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? 13But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. (1 Corinthians 5:12‑13)). He exhorts the Colossian saints to “walk in wisdom toward them that are without” (Col. 4:55Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. (Colossians 4:5)), and also the Thessalonians to “walk honestly toward them that are without” (1 Thess. 4:1212That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing. (1 Thessalonians 4:12)). One instance of its adverbial use is so striking and solemn that it may be quoted here: “Blessed are they that wash their robes that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city. Without are the dogs, and the sorcerers, and the fornicators, and the murderers, and the idolaters, and every one that loveth and maketh a lie” (Rev. 22:14, 1514Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. 15For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. (Revelation 22:14‑15)). This instance is one of its final and irrevocable sense, no passage being possible from one side of the fixed gulf to the other.
THE JUDICIAL BLINDNESS
Isaiah centuries before had prophesied of the obduracy of the nation and the spiritual darkness that should fall upon it as a people in consequence. The prophet recorded the words of Jehovah to him. He was commanded to “go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.” Such was their condition—in the position, and having the privilege, of hearing and seeing, but utterly oblivious to heavenly sights and sounds. The message went on to warn of what would come upon the nation as a righteous retribution of this gross abuse of their privileges. “Make the heart of this people fat and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed” (Isa. 6:9, 109And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. 10Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9‑10)).
In the Septuagint version of Isaiah, this insensate condition is declared to be the result of the people's own neglect rather than of a divine infliction, as in the Hebrew text. The Greek version runs as follows: “Go, and say to this people, Ye shall hear indeed, but ye shall not understand; and ye shall see indeed, but ye shall not perceive. For the heart of this people has become gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them."3
Now, in turning to Matthew's Gospel it will be seen that the Lord, speaking of the complete fulfillment(ἀναπληρόω) of this prophecy, quoted from the Greek version and not from the Hebrew text (Matt. 13:13-1513Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. 14And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: 15For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. (Matthew 13:13‑15)). The people had themselves closed their eyes. Mark and Luke (8:10) only record the reference to the former part of the prophecy which states the condition of Israel—hearing and not understanding; while all three agree in showing that the Lord adopted the parabolic form of teaching in view of their insensate moral state.
John also quotes Isaiah's prediction, but in a different connection. It is cited at a later stage in the history of Israel's opposition to their Messiah. Though Jesus did so many signs before them yet they believed not. And since they would not believe, it came to pass that they could not believe. And the Evangelist brings forward the ancient oracle which warned of this blindness which came as a divine judgment upon the nation. “For this cause they could not believe, for that Isaiah said, He hath blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and should turn, and I should heal them” (John 12:37-4037But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: 38That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? 39Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, 40He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. (John 12:37‑40)). This quotation, it will be observed, is from the Hebrew text, and is introduced historically immediately before the final act of unbelief—the crucifixion of Christ. The truth was there hidden from their eyes, even the eyes of the wise and prudent (Matt. 11:2525At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. (Matthew 11:25); Luke 19:4242Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (Luke 19:42)).
Through sovereign grace the gospel was offered to the guilty people by the testimony of the Holy Ghost, as is recorded in the Acts. But there was no response from the nation. In the concluding chapter of this book we have the final appeal of Paul at Rome to the Jews as such; but they closed their eyes and ears to this call also. And the apostle applied to them the witness of the Holy Spirit in the same scripture from Isaiah, quoting as in Matthew the Septuagint version, and laying the responsibility upon their own shoulders (Acts 28:25-2725And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, 26Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: 27For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. (Acts 28:25‑27)). The nation was thereupon abandoned. So far as Holy Writ speaks, no further opportunities of repentance were offered them. And less than ten years later, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the Jews scattered over the face of the earth.
By the testimony of the Son of God, and of the Spirit of God, Israel had been summoned to hear the message of God. They refused to hear, and the apostle told them in his final address what was the consequence: “Be it known, therefore, unto you, that this salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles; they will also hear” (Acts 28:2828Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it. (Acts 28:28)). It was sent to such as would hear.
Thus we see that the prophecy is quoted in the Synoptical Gospels and in the Acts to show that the blindness of Israel was due to their own willful obstinacy, and in the Gospel of John to show that it was the result of the judgment of God. Both aspects are of course true and necessary to a complete presentation of the truth.
W. J. H.
(To be continued)