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Rediscovering Lost Adventist Literature


Our commentary on this week’s lesson focuses on Zechariah 14 and two lost-and-found items from our Adventist heritage that are linked with it. One is an astonishing Ellen White quotation on conditional prophecy1; the other, a seminal article from the SDA Bible Commentary that almost no one knows about, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy.”2 All this should allow Adventists to take a fresh look at our understanding of the end of time.

But human beings do not easily take a fresh look at anything, a truth quaintly expressed in the original preface to the King James Version as the translators defended their “new” version of the Bible. “Was anything ever undertaken with a touch of newness or improvement about it that didn’t run into storms of argument or opposition?” asked the translators. And when change involves religion, whoever attempts it “sets himself up to be frowned upon by every evil eye, and casts himself headlong on a row of pikes to be stabbed by every sharp tongue.” Even though people don’t like what they have, “they cannot bear to have it altered.”3

In Adventism, however, the polarizing debate over law and righteousness in 1888 triggered a warning from Ellen White about the tendency to “cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth.” Men “discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.”  “When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures,” she continued, “when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what.”4 That’s good counsel if the lost-and-found items in our Adventist heritage are to help us understand Zechariah 14.

Along with Zechariah , two other minor prophets, Joel and Jonah, lay out solid principles that will help us take a fresh look at our understanding of the end times.  Here is a brief summary of the contribution of each book:

Joel: Repetition and Reapplication. The “Day of the Lord” in Joel 2 – actually a grasshopper plague in Joel’s day – provides the “dark day” imagery which Adventists saw fulfilled in 1780. But that’s not all. In Acts 2 Peter applies Joel’s prophecy to events linked with crucifixion and Pentecost; and Revelation 6 reapplies the same imagery to the second coming. Thus repetition and reapplication are solidly rooted in Scripture.

Jonah: Conditionality.In Jonah, God repents when the people repent. Even though the prophet admitted that he knew all that from the outset, he was still angry when it happened. The NRSV says “God changed his mind” when Ninevah turned away from evil (Jonah 3:10). The KJV simply states that “God repented.” Neither option is good news for a Calvinist. In Scripture, the principle of conditionality means that predictions are not locked in place. God changes when people change.

Zechariah: Differing Events Leading to the Same Goal.To be blunt, Zechariah 14 sketches out an end-time plan that differs significantly from the one presented in Revelation 21-22. The ultimate goal of restoration is the same in both passages, but the events leading up to it are not. Can we compare the vision of Zechariah 14 as a whole with the vision of Revelation 21-22?  That is our question here.

The standard Study Guide starts down the right path with the following sentence at the head of its comments for Tuesday, June 18: “Zechariah 12-14 reveal several things that could have happened had Israel been faithful to God.” A change in God’s plans, no less, because Israel had not been faithful! But the Study Guide does not follow up on that hint of conditionality. For Thursday, the Study Guide opens the door for further discussion: “Read Zechariah 14: How are we to understand that which is being said there?” But the comment that follows does not address the crucial issue of how Zechariah contrasts with Revelation 21-22.

From the standpoint of our Adventist heritage, we must recognize that the consistent and thorough-going historicism of the Reformers and of our Adventist forebears left no room for a comparison of Zechariah 14 with Revelation 21-22. They were looking for a single road-map from beginning to end. A well-traveled quip applies here: “If I hadn’t believed it I never would have seen it with my own eyes.”

So why compare Zechariah 14 with Revelation 21-22 instead of following in a strict historicist tradition as the Reformers and our early Adventist forebears did? Because three crucial developments have shaped our world and our understanding.

1.  October 22, 1844 as the end of historicism. The Great Disappointment marked the end of the strict historicist mode of thinking among Protestants. From being part of a great host of Protestant historicists, Adventists now stand all alone, at least insofar as they are strict historicists. 

2. The shift from historicism to futurism among conservative Christians. If historicists were vulnerable to the charge of using proof texts out of context to prove their system, futurists are even more so, and coming with a Calvinist bent, these futurists can cite their proof texts in the name of God. Their system calls for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem where a Moslem mosque now stands, and envisions child birth, death, and animal sacrifice during the 1000 years, even though these are evangelicals who believe in the completed atonement of Christ on the cross. Remarkably, the term “rapture” – originally used by futurists to refer to a secret coming of Christ seven years before his public coming – has now wormed its way into Protestant vocabulary in general and is often used by conservative Christians generally to refer to the second coming of Christ even if they are not strict futurists.

3. A sharper focus on contextual understanding in the larger world of scholarship. While dispensationalist futurists were busily moving away from contextual understanding in order to fit passages into their system, the larger world of professional biblical studies was focusing more sharply oncontextual understanding. Realizing that they could never be futurists in the technical sense, Adventists began taking context more seriously. From such a perspective, a straight comparison between Zechariah 14 and Revelation 21-22 became inevitable. And here we need to dip into the lost-and-found items from our Adventist heritage.

Lost-and-Found #1: An Astonishing Ellen White Quote on Conditionality

The astonishing Ellen White quote on conditionality is this one:

The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional.

Her treatment of this quotation is tantalizing. First, it is part of a longer manuscript in which she responds to a critic who quoted this 1851 statement as proving her testimonies false: “I saw that the time for Jesus to be in the most holy place was nearly finished, and that time can last but a very little longer.”5

After addressing the question of conditionality at some length (the point of the quoted paragraph), she then refers to her critics in vivid language, declaring that heretofore she had “not felt at liberty even to notice their vile speeches, reproaches, and insinuations.” She goes on to say that she “would not now depart from this custom, were it not that some honest souls may be misled by the enemies of the truth who are so exultantly declaring me a deceiver. In the hope of helping the minds of the honest, I make the statements that I do.”

But she apparently had second thoughts, for there is no evidence in the White Estate files that this response (Ms 4, 1883) was ever sent to anyone and the critic is not identified. The manuscript was found in the Ellen White files after her death. Apparently she never used any part of it while she was still alive. A number of such manuscripts were brought to light in the1930s and then step-by-step brought to the attention of the church. In this instance, part of the statement was published in Evangelism in1946. In1958, it was published in full in Selected Messages, Bk. 1, 59-73.

Now I have used the phrase “astonishing” to refer to this quotation because of the reaction of a retired pastor with whom I have had extensive email correspondence in recent years.  He is devout and thoughtful, conservative, but open to new perspectives. I had used the quote several times in dialogue with him, and more than once he read through the SDABC article, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” described here as lost-and-found item #2.6 “I had read it before, but enjoyed it again,” he said. I finally told him that I would answer no more of his questions until he gave me a straightforward answer to my question about Zechariah 14:

I know this is a volatile question, but if Scripture includes an end-time scenario which no SDA would now affirm, shouldn’t we conclude that specific end time plans, including the specifics in the book The Great Controversy, may not happen exactly that way? I have pressed you on that point because if that conclusion is wrong, I would like to know why. If it is correct, shouldn’t we take steps to educate the church – including those ancient preachers who would rather not come to that conclusion?

“Do you have a plan?” he returned. “I’m afraid it would be a catastrophic religious earthquake of 10 magnitude.” Earlier he had written, “This is scary stuff. The context is the time of the 2nd Advent, but can it be limited to that? It would seem to close the gate to any and all prophecy as well as all Bible promises!” 

With those vivid comments in mind, let’s turn more specifically to the second lost-and-found item in our Adventist heritage.

Lost-and-Found #2: “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy”

That fear of a monumental earthquake, probably links up with Ellen White’s decision never to publish or use her astonishing statement on “conditionalism.” It also may explain the fate of the other lost-and found item, the 1955 article entitled “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” an article that is scarcely known among Adventists today, even though it caused quite a stir when it was first published. Given everything that is happening in our changing world, we should ask if the time has come for Adventists to take that quotation and that article seriously – and to renew our study of the minor prophets, especially Joel, Jonah, and Zechariah.

The story behind the article, indeed behind the writing of the whole SDA Bible Commentary, was told by Raymond Cottrell, associate editor of the SDABC, and published in 1985 in Spectrum as “The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary.”7 Cottrell was also the one who actually wrote the article, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy.”  

The Commentary article concludes with a summary of “rules” for interpreting Old Testament prophetic passages, rules that resulted in a sketch of God’s original plan for Israel, relying heavily on Zechariah 14 and supported by Ellen White’s statement on conditionalism. This original plan focused on a renewed Jerusalem in Israel which would have become a center for evangelism; the world would have been attracted to God’s people because of their prosperity; the Messiah would have come and died, but would have been accepted by his people; evil would have gradually disappeared.8 All that is largely driven by this first rule:

Examine the prophecy in its entirety. Note by whom it was spoken, to whom it was addressed, and the circumstances that called it forth. Remember that – generally speaking – it was originally given with respect to the historical circumstances that called it forth. It was ordained of God to meet the needs of His people at the time it was given and to remind them of the glorious destiny that awaited them as a nation, of the coming of the Messiah, and of the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Discover what the message meant to the people of that time.9

But at the end of that first rule, F. D. Nichol, the overall editor of the Bible Commentary and editor of The Adventist Review, out of “overriding pastoral concern,” according to Cottrell, added this parenthetical comment: “(This rule does not apply to those portions of the book of Daniel that the prophet was bidden to ‘shut up’ and ‘seal,’ or to other passages whose application Inspiration may have limited exclusively to our own time.)”10

At the beginning of this on-line article is an Ellen White quotation that warns against the danger of becoming conservative and avoiding discussion. But her treatment of her own statement on conditionalism (never publishing any part of it while she was still alive), F. D. Nichol’s “overriding pastoral concern” in adding the parenthetical statement, and the fear of my retired pastor friend of “a catastrophic religious earthquake of 10 magnitude,” all point in the direction of listening to those quotations of Ellen White which urge caution and patience. My favorite in that respect is in the context of health reform, but could apply to virtually every teaching and practice of the church, and even to our study and discussions of prophecy:

We must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are. Some of us have been many years in arriving at our present position in health reform. It is slow work to obtain a reform in diet. We have powerful appetites to meet; for the world is given to gluttony. If we should allow the people as much time as we have required to come up to the present advanced state in reform, we would be very patient with them, and allow them to advance [20/21] step by step, as we have done, until their feet are firmly established upon the health reform platform. But we should be very cautious not to advance too fast, lest we be obliged to retrace our steps. In reforms we would better come one step short of the mark than to go one step beyond it. And if there is error at all, let it be on the side next to the people.11

Adventists long for a restored creation; it is central to Adventism and is a hope that reverberates through both testaments. Israel looked forward to God’s great vegetarian kingdom where no one eats anyone else: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:9).

In the New testament, the classic KJV of 2 Peter 3:13 echoes that hope of “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” No one has ever seen a world like that.  But that’s why the word “hope” is so crucial. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:24-25, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

As Adventists continue to share that hope with the world, we should also continue to study God’s prophetic messages so that we can join in saying with our brothers in Christ who came together at the first apostolic general conference, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”12

1. Ms 4, 1883, first published in part in Evangelism, 695 [1946], then more completely in Selected Messages, Book 1, 67 [1958]. 

2.  “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy,” in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 4:25-38 (1955).

3. Erroll F. Rhodes and Liana Lupas, eds., The Translators to the Reader: The Original Preface of the KING JAMES VERSION of 1611 Revisited(New York: American Bible Society, 1997), 67, 69.

5. First published in Experience and Viewsin1851. It is currently in print in Early Writings (1883), 58.

7. Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Untold Story of the Bible Commentary,”Spectrum, August 1985 (16:3), 35-47.

11. Testimonies3:20-21 (1872).

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