A simple beggar sits at a rich man's gate, begging for crumbs. After their death, they go to different places. The poor beggar is taken to "Abraham's bosom" but he sees the rich man "tormented in flames" in "hades." It is now the rich man's turn to beg—for a "cup of water to cool his tongue." He is denied, because between the two there is "a great gulf fixed." The story is simple. But what does it all mean?
We suggest that the "rich man" represents the leadership of Israel at the time the parable was spoken. Like this rich man, Israel was "rich"—chiefly because to them was given "the oracles of God." Israel was clothed in the purple of prospective royalty (Exodus 19:6); and in the fine linen of justification through the sacrifices of the Law. They "fared sumptuously" on the promises of the God who had said, "you only have I known of all the families of the earth."
The "beggar" describes both the outcasts of Israel—the "publicans and sinners"—and the Gentiles. The use of the figures "dogs" and "crumbs" call to mind similar uses of these expressions regarding the Gentiles in Matthew 15:21-28.
Martin Luther explained, "By Abraham's bosom we understand to be meant the Abrahamic Covenant." This Covenant, recorded in Genesis 22:16-18, provided for a seed "to bless all the families of the earth."
This is the privilege that was lost by the leadership of Israel and offered to the outcasts, not only of Israel, but to "all nations." Shortly after Jesus gave this parable the experiences of Israel turned. With the invasion of the Roman armies in A.D. 68, culminating in the fall of Masada, Israel entered the dark days of their "Diaspora."
Persecution has since followed them from land to land. No people have been so hunted, so often falsely accused, so frequently maligned, as the Jew. It is thus that they have been "tormented" by their experiences, particularly because of the accusation that they are "Christ-killers."
All requests for alleviation of their sufferings were denied. Truly they were divided from the Christian by "a great gulf fixed." Only in recent years has this "gulf" been partly bridged and a more tolerant attitude been established between the Christian and the Jew. The "torture" of their experiences of nearly 2,000 years has been greatly reduced, especially after their return to their homeland and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Whose Story Is It?
The parable is puzzling and is sufficiently at variance with the balance of the Scriptural record that some scholars consider it spurious. However, all textual evidence indicates that it is a part of the original record. This story is the only case in the New Testament where flames are found in "hell" (KJV). Though the majority of commentators concur that the story is a parable, it remains highly unusual for even a parable to center around an erroneous and fictitious legend.
One thing seems certain. Jesus did not originate the story. Dr. John Lightfoot, among others, has shown that a story to the same intent is found in the Jewish Mishneh, a commentary on the Torah. It is to these writings that the Jewish historian Josephus alludes in the following quote from his Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades. After describing how the unjust are thrust into "the very neighborhood of hell itself," he notes that "a chasm deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them, cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it." He also notes that heaven is the "place we call The Bosom of Abraham." These are the sentiments of Josephus, which Jesus
The Jewish Mishneh is a commentary on Deuteronomy 32:15-22:
"But Jeshurun [a poetic name for Israel] waxed fat, and kicked; Thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness; Then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They provoked Him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they Him to anger. They sacrificed unto devils, not to God; To gods whom they knew not, to new gods that came newly up, whom your fathers feared not. Of the Rock that began thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee. And when the Lord saw it, He abhorred them, because of the provoking of His sons, and of His daughters. And He said, I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be: For they are a very forward generation, children in whom is no faith. They have moved Me to jealousy with that which is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their vanities; and I will move them to jealousy with them which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled in Mine anger, And shell burn unto the lowest hell, And shall consume the earth with her increase, And set on fire the foundations of the mountains."
First, the Deuteronomy text quoted above is the only case in the Old Testament where fire is found in "hell," just as the Luke reference is the only such occurrence in the New Testament.
Secondly, both stories concern a rich man who is displaced by a poor outcast. In Deuteronomy, the poor man is only designated as being "those which are not a people," while the rich man is called "Jeshurun," Israel. In Luke, it is the rich man that goes unnamed, while the poor man is called "Lazarus," a proper name meaning "helpless."
From the above evidence, it appears that Jesus adapted a current well-known story to illustrate the truth for which it was originally intended. This truth was that the Jewish Scribes and Pharisees had become "rich" and arrogant and were about to be displaced by a "poor" class, the "poor in spirit." This class was to be first taken from among the repentant "publicans and sinners" and to eventually include even the despised Gentiles.
The "Flames" of Hell
"I am tormented in this flame." – Luke 16:24
"There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." – Ecclesiastes 9:10
Parable or reality? If there is no wisdom or knowledge in the grave, and if "hell" is the unconscious state of the dead, how can there be "flames" in "hell?"
In the Bible there are two primary words translated "hell," the Hebrew sheol (Old Testament) and the Greek hades (New Testament).
In all the places these words appear, only twice are they found in connection with either "fire" or flames."
The first of these is found in Deuteronomy 32:22, "For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell. And shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains."
The context of this verse, treated elsewhere in this article, is a "song" which Moses sung just before Israel entered their Promised Land (Deuteronomy 31:30). As in all songs and poetic writings, similes are used more often than literal allusions.
In the preceding verse (21), God says Israel "provoked Him to jealousy." It is thus a "fire of God's jealousy," and not a literal fire. His anger is kindled hot against their idolatry. We use such idioms today, a zealous person is said to be "on fire" for his favorite cause.
The account in Luke of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable, and like all parables, full of much metaphoric language.
"A Great Gulf Fixed"
In the parable when the rich man requested a drop of water to cool his tongue, he was denied because "between us and you there is a great gulf fixed." The word "fixed" implies a pre-established or pre-determined gulf that would prohibit the Christian from comforting the displaced Jew. Such a prohibition is not only out of accord with the Christian character of forgiveness, but with the direct admonition of Isaiah 40:1-2—
"Comfort ye, comfort ye My People, saith your God, Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins."
The answer to this problem lies in the Hebrew word here translated "warfare." More properly it should be translated "time of conscription," "time of servitude" or "sentence of hard labor." All of these are time-related words, implying their punishment would eventually come to an end. This "time" or "sentence," answers the word "fixed" in the parable.
How long was this sentence and when did it begin? The reference in Isaiah 40 explains the duration of the sentence:
"For she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins."
This word "double" is from the Hebrew "kephel" which means "a fold," and can be illustrated with the diagram below. An equal portion of the page would lie on either side of the middle fold line, demonstrating how the punitive sentence of the "double" was equal to a period of time of prosperity, which preceded it.
"Kephel" – A Fold
Now let's determine the middle and beginning points of this "double" and it becomes a simple matter to calculate its ending point. The word "double" appears in a similar context in Zechariah 9:12, "today do I declare that I will render double unto thee."
The context is a prophecy relating to Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The pronouncement of Israel's punishment came on that very day.
The year A.D. 33, therefore, is the middle point of the "fold" or "double."
Now, when did it begin? The logical time to begin the existence of Israel as a nation is when the term "the twelve tribes of Israel" is first used is in Genesis 49:28, at the death of Jacob, whose name was changed by an angel to "Israel."
Chronologists establish the death of Jacob was in 1813 B.C. A simple calculation reveals that from1813 B.C. to 33 A.D. is a period of 1845 years (one year must be subtracted because of the lack of a "0" year). This was Israel's period of prosperity.
The "double" of their punishment then would be a like period of 1845 years from the middle or turning point of the "fold" in 33 A.D. This extends their punishment forward to 1878 A.D.
1. The Jewish people were first allowed to purchase land, under a provision of the Berlin Congress of Nations.
2. The First Aliyah, or wave of immigration, began.
3. Petach Tikvah, the first Jewish colony of modern times, was established near the present city of Tel Aviv and is a thriving city today.
This evidence is strong that the "great gulf fixed" of Jesus' parable has been bridged, and the "double" of Israel's chastisement has ended. The time has indeed come to "Comfort ye my people."
The Jewish Double
The Rich Man's Five Brothers
At the close of the parable, an unusual dialog takes place concerning a request for help by the rich man for his five brothers.
“Then he said, ‘I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham saith unto him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.’ And he said unto him, ‘If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.’” Luke 16:27-31 (KJV)
Who are these five brothers? If the rich man represented Israel at the time Jesus spoke these words, they would naturally represent their kinfolk. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom was divided into a ten-tribe kingdom of Israel in the north, and the two-tribe kingdom of Judah in the south. In later years, the ten-tribe kingdom was taken captive by Assyria, and the two-tribe kingdom by Babylon.
It was this two-tribe kingdom that was released by the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1), and returned to Palestine. It was this two-tribe kingdom that formed the audiences to which Jesus preached. Noting this, many scholars have extended the thought that if the rich man represents these two tribes, then his five brothers represent a group five times as large—or the ten-tribes (5x2) that did not return.
It was of this remainder of Israel that the Lord’s words were: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And, again, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
How true these words have been. All Israel, not just the two tribes residing in Palestine, have failed to hear the message of a “risen Messiah” because they failed first to hear their prophets’ words of a “suffering Messiah.” We thank God that this will not always be true. The Apostle Paul speaks of this eventual hearing and acceptance of their Messiah in Romans 11:25-29:
“For 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 fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the father's sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.”