Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. The text of the address at the convocation exercises of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary held at Southwest Protestant Reformed Church of Grandville, MI on September 7, 1999.
In the year of our Lord 1999 the seminary begins a critical two semesters of studies. This is not simply because the new year will span the end of the second millennium of the new dispensation and the beginning of the third; but the passing of this second millennium reminds us forcibly that time is running towards its close and our Lord will soon bring history to an end.
Scripture makes abundantly clear that as the church nears the end of the ages, evil will grow significantly, and the powers of darkness will increase in boldness and in the ferocity of their attacks on the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. What person here tonight who has paid attention to what is happening in the world today and in the church both in this land and abroad can doubt that the return of the Lord is near?
That makes the work of the seminary all the more crucial. Perhaps the final, great battle lies just over the next hill as the armies of Christ march onward under the Captain of their salvation.
In some respects, this thought makes what is no doubt my last speech at Convocation somewhat sad for me. Only the Lord knows what lies ahead for all of us. But it seems likely that my teaching days are all but over, and I cannot help but feel a bit as if I am leaving the battlefield as the last and most crucial battle is about to be fought.
But God has so willed it, and I am thankful that I need not leave with fear in my soul about the future of the seminary. God has given us faithful men to carry on the work, and I bid you farewell with confidence in the integrity of the seminary and a sure hope for the ultimate victory of our cause.
I have chosen to speak to you tonight on a striking passage of God’s Word, Ezekiel 22:30: “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none.”
Because the language of our AV may be a bit misleading, I offer you the translation of a noted Bible scholar which is closer to the idea of the text: “I seek among them for a man who might build a wall and step into the breach before me on behalf of the land, that I might not destroy it, but I find none.”
It is obvious that the Lord is speaking, through the prophet Ezekiel, of the city of Jerusalem with its mighty fortress on the hill of Zion. Ezekiel was with the captives in Babylon, on the river Chebar, after Jerusalem had been sacked by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. This text was God’s explanation for the necessity and inevitability of the captivity. God had looked for one to stand in the gap in the wall of Zion. One. Just one. One would have been enough. One to step into the breach. One to build the wall. One to lead the cowering armies against the enemy.
But there was none….
The references to Zion as a strong fortress and a walled city are many in Scripture. I need only remind you of Psalm 48: “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: count the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces…” (vv. 12, 13). Zion’s citizens (and anyone of interest outside Zion) must do this, for Zion is “beautiful for situation.” It is “the joy of the whole earth.” It is “the city of the great King.” “God is known in her palaces for a refuge,” and the kings of the earth, when they looked upon Zion, marvelled, and were troubled, and hasted away, because “fear took hold upon them there…” (vv. 2-5).
That great and mighty city was now destroyed and her citizens were in captivity — because when God had looked for one to stand in the gap, there was no one. Not even one.
God had built Zion as an almost impregnable fortress because it was an abiding picture of His church in the world. It was the church of God in the old days when the nation of Israel sought refuge behind its walls. It remains a picture of the church throughout all time. No wonder that the author of the epistle to the Hebrews could say in astonishment: “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (12:22, 23).
Even today the church sings of her own glory:
Zion founded on the mountains,
God thy Maker loves thee well.
He has chosen thee most precious;
He delights in thee to dwell.
God’s own city:
Who can all thy glory tell?
When Scripture compares the church with the walled and fortified city of Zion, Scripture does so for two reasons. The first is that by means of the walls built on Mount Zion and surrounding Jerusalem the church is pictured as separated from the world. The church is in Jerusalem; the world is outside. The people of God are within the walls; the enemy, on the other side. The wall is between them as a mark of separation.
The second reason for Scripture to present the church as a city with mighty fortifications is to depict Zion as indestructible, a city which cannot be taken, a fortress against which the enemy forever battles in vain. The reason is clear. God is the strength of Zion. “Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind. 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.” Forever and ever and ever. It is a city beyond capture into all eternity. It is a fortress against which the enemy hammer, but finally break themselves into pieces. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, was speaking of the church when he said to one of the bloodiest persecutors of the church: “Sire, it belongs, in truth, to the church of God, in the name of which I address you, to suffer blows, not to strike them. But at the same time let it be your pleasure to remember that the church is an anvil which has worn out many a hammer.”There is one other point that needs making.
When the church, whether in the old dispensation or in the new, is pictured by Mount Zion, it is the church of Christ in her historical manifestation. That is, the church is here pictured with elect and reprobate alike within her walls. Already in the Old Testament times not all those of Israel were truly Israel (Rom. 9:6). This is not less true today.
So, when we think of the figure so graphically used by Ezekiel in chapter 22:30, we must not think of one denomination such as our own Protestant Reformed Churches. We must think of the church at large, the church in her historical reality, the church represented by many denominations.
If I may extend the figure a bit, the church is like some castles which one can still find in the British Isles. While the castle as a whole is surrounded by thick walls and various towers and fortresses, in the middle of the castle is what is called a “keep.” This part of the castle is a high tower with its own thick walls, its own source of water, large stock piles of food, living quarters for many people on many different floors. It is the last line of defense, should the walls of the castle be breached. To it the defenders flee. It is a last resort. If it falls, the castle is taken. The faithful church is today the “keep” of the castle.
Perhaps God has given to us the calling to be the “keep” of the castle. May we have the grace and strength to realize this and to welcome within the walls of our “keep” those who flee for safety to this last line of defense.
The city of God in this passage in Ezekiel is pictured as having breaches or gaps in its walls. This is, at it were, a given in the text. The Lord does not seem to be surprised by the fact that the gaps are there. What is a matter of some surprise is that no one can be found to stand in the gaps.
We ought not to be surprised that there are gaps in the walls.
One obvious reason why these gaps are always there is the fact that the city is under constant attack. The city is, after all, something of an anomaly in the world. Satan succeeded in gaining man as his ally and the world as his possession when he successfully persuaded Adam and Eve to join his cause. The world, under the leadership of Satan, is God’s enemy. The world is determined to destroy God’s cause, rob God of His world, banish God from the creation which God Himself made, and make all the creation useful in the cause of sin and unrighteousness.
Into that world God puts the church through the power of His Son Jesus Christ. That church testifies of God’s cause, God’s truth, God’s claims to this present creation. That church is a heavenly institution, a bit of heaven, so to speak, planted in the soil of this earthly abode. The church is an alien presence, a perpetual condemnation of Satan and the wicked hosts of men and demons. It is, therefore, an intolerable institution, a city which cannot be permitted to stand, a nagging, incessant reminder to all wicked men that Christ is on His throne and that they shall end up in hell. The church has got to go. The city of God cannot be permitted to survive. And so it is under constant attack.
No wonder that as Isaiah casts about for figures which adequately depict the church he speaks of it as “a besieged city” (Is. 1:8). The enemies are many, are fierce, are determined at any cost to destroy this citadel which always spells the defeat of their plans.
The world, incessantly bombarding the city, breaks down here and there parts of Zion’s walls. That is not surprising. That ought not to catch us off guard. Indeed, if we are caught unawares at the breaches that are made it is because we have a view of the enemy which underestimates seriously the severity of the hatred of wicked men and sees the world through some kind of rose-tinted glasses.
We ought, I think, to mention some of these gaps in the walls, these breaches, which, if left unguarded and unprotected and without repair, will be holes through which the enemy can pour in hordes to take over the entire city.
Some of these gaps are false doctrines. One such doctrine is the doctrine of common grace, with its Arminian teaching of the well-meant gospel offer and its serious compromise with worldliness. Already in the early history of our churches, Herman Hoeksema wrote a pamphlet in Dutch which, in its English translation, is familiar to us under the title “A Triple Breach.” Through the breach created by common grace rush, unless a man can be found to stand in the gap, the enemies of Arminianism, the advanced skirmishers of modernism, and the cold and deadly force of worldliness. The gap is there. Can a man be found to stand in the gap?
Another such gap is the breach of higher criticism of the Bible, a serious and awful hole in the wall, to which most of the seminaries in the land are committed. It is a gap which, left unguarded, will permit the enemy to destroy the Scriptures themselves. It is a gap which already has been widened by the errors of evolutionism, denial of the miracles, and attacks on Scripture’s clear and obvious condemnation of women in office.
We do well to mention the gap of postmillennialism, through which pour enemies who rob the people of God of their hope of the coming of Christ. Should they lose their hope of the coming of Christ, they will be content in the world, will leave the safety of Zion’s walls, and will make their dwelling among the enemies of the church.
Another significant gap in the walls is the error of a conditional covenant, which leaves the city wide open to Arminian hordes who destroy the one reason why Zion was built in the first place: to give all glory to God who alone does wondrously.
Add to that the significant gap of an erroneous doctrine of divorce and remarriage. Through it stream those enemies that are bent on the destruction of the home and family — enemies which have already left certain quarters of the city of God a desolation and a ruin.
We need look at our own churches, represented here tonight, to find gaps of worldliness, Sabbath desecration, a certain toleration of the enemy which results in speaking well of those who wish Zion’s overthrow, and a certain softening of the battle cries as if the church has shouted “wolf” too often in her history. A perpetual clamor for change in worship, for an abandonment of the Psalms, for the introduction of hymns — all these things are gaps in the walls, breaches in Zion’s defenses. Perhaps they are not yet as serious as to let the enemy flood the church; perhaps they are only cracks appearing as the walls are battered; but once a gap is struck, there are only two things to do: man the gap and repair it, or see the gap widen until it can no longer be defended.
(… to be continued)