Unquenchable Fire

"He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."--Matt. iii"12 "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."--Mark ix:43,44.

Many suppose that the words "unquenchable fire" mean a fire of endless duration, whereas, it is a fire that cannot be quenched until its puepose is accomplished.

Says Dr. Paige: "When a house is destroyed by fire, the fire, strictly speaking, is unquenchable, because no effort that is made could extinguish it; but no one would allege that it would never expire of itself."

Dr. Hammond, a very judicious commentator, says: "They put fire to the chaff at the windward side, that creeps on and never gives over, till it hath consumed all the chaff, and so is a kind of asbeston pur, here, a fire never quenchable, till it have done its work."--Com. on Matt. iii:12.

The Old Testament shows the application of the figure of fire burning chaff: Job says, the wicked are "as chaff that the storm carrieth away," xxxv:5, xxi:18. See also Psalms. Isaiah v:24. xvii: 13. xxix:5. xxxiii: 14. xli:15. The Jewish nation, which was about to be destroyed, was represented by chaff, reserved for destruction, as it was in Matt. iii:10, by the tree which was to be hewn down and cast into the fire. The fire by which the Jews were destroyed was the fire of divine judgment: and as it did its work effectually, so it was unquenchable. It is for this reason that the punishment and destruction of the Jews are described in the Old Testament as being effected by unquenchable fire.

See Isaiah lxvi:23-24. "And it shall come to pass from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." The unquenchable fire here spoken of is in this world, as is evident from the phrase "new moon" and "Sabbath." Again, Jer. xvii:27. "But if you will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on theSabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched." Fire kindled in the gates of Jerusalem, which devoured the palaces of Jerusalem, is said to be unquenchable. Ezek. xx:45 "Moreover, the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face toward the south, and prophesy against the forest of the south field; and say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the Lord:—Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree, the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therin. And all flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched."

Here the forests are devoured in an unquenchable fire. The meaning is, not that the fire was endless, but that it was not quenched,--it continued to burn—until all the material was destroyed. So the judgments of God on the Jews were effectually done— the nation was completely devastated and destroyed. They were like chaff of the Summer threshing floor in the consuming fire of God's judgment.

The phrase unquenchable fire, is found in six places in the New Testament. Matt, iii: 12. Luke iii: 17. Mark ix:43,44,45 and 46. In all of these passages the phrase should be quenchless fire. The Greek word asbestos, unquenchable, inextinguishable, is the original term in all the passages, verses 44 and 46 in Mark having the verb form, sbennutai. What does it mean? That the fire was never to expire, literally, or that nothing could extinguish it till it accomplished its purpose? The usage of the word will determine. How did Greek authors at the time of Christ employ it?

Josephus says, [Jewish War, B. ii, ch. xvii:6.] speaking of afire that used to burn in the temple—though at the time he wrote [A.D.80] it had gone out, and the temple was destroyed-"Every one was accustomed to bring wood for the altar, that fuel might never be needed for the fire, for it continued always unquenchable."

Strabo, [A.D. 70} described the "unquenchable lamp" that used to burn in the Parthenon, though it has long since ceased to burn. [Lib. ix: p. 606.]

Plutarch, {A.D. 110} in Numa, [p. 262] speaks of places in Delphi and Athens, "where there is a fire unquenchable," (asbeston) though in the same breath he describes it as having ceased to burn.

Eusebius, [A.D]325, Eccl. Hist. Lib. vi, chap. 41] in his account of the martyrdom of Cronon and Julian, at Alexandria, says they were "consumed in unquenchable fire, asbesto puri," though it burned only long enough to destroy their bodies.

In the Scriptures an unquenchable fire is one that cannot be extinguished until it has fulfilled its purpose.

Lev. vi: 12-13, "And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out: and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn thereon the fat of the peace offerings. The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out."

Now this fire was long ago extinguished, and yet it was "never to go out." So we read in Isa. xxxiv:9-10, "And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up forever; from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever."

This language is all figurative; the unquenchable fire has long since expired.

These passages and extracts suffice to exhibit the Biblical and common usage of this term. In all cases it denotes fire of temporal duration. Of course our Savior used the words in the same sense in which they had always been employed.

God's judgments are denoted by fire in frequent passages: "For there is a fire gone out of Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon; it hath consumed Ar of Moab, and the lords of the high places of Arnon." Num. xxi:28. David represents the judgments of God upon the wicked in this life: "A fire goeth before him and burneth up his enemies round about." Psalms xcvii:3.

God is spoken of as a "consuming fire." because he brought judgments upon the disobedient and sinful. In the prophecy of Isaiah, the destruction of Babylon is spoken of under the same figure: "Behold they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them: they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame." Isaiah xlvii: 14. "He is a God thatjudgeth in the earth." Psalms lvii:11. Paul uses nearly the same language that Moses employed when addressing the children of Israel, Deut. iv:24. "For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God."

Stuart says: "In the valley of Hinnom (gehenna,) perpetual fire was kept up, in order to consume the offal which was deposited there; and, as the same offal would breed worms, hence came the expression—where their worm dieth not and their fire is not quenched."

Dr. Parkhurst adds" Our Lord seems to allude to the worms which continually preyed on the dead carcasses that were cast out into the valley of Hinnom, {gehenna), and to the perpetual fire, kept up to consume them."

The idea of endless duration was not in the minds of the authors of these terms. They used the language to denote either literal fire that should burn until its object was accomplished, or as an emblem of divine judgments, thorough but limited.

Canon Farrar, in "Eternal Hope," "Consequences of Sin," says: "The exression 'quenchless fire,'—for the phrase 'that never shall be quenched,' is a s\mp\emistranslation—is taken from Is. Ixvi:24, and is purely a figure of speech, as it is there, or as it is in Homer's Iliad, xvi:123." In his Appendix to the volume he observes: "it was in answer to the bitter taunt of Celsus, that the God of the Christians kindled a fire in which all but the Christians should be burned, that Origen first argued that the fire should possess a purifying quality (katharsion) for all those who had in themselves any materials for it to consume. All, even Peter and Paul, must pass through this fire (Isa. xliii:2) and ordinary sinners must remain in it till purged. It is in fact, a baptism of fire, at the resurrection, for those who had not received effectually the baptism of the spirit (Peri Arkon i:6, Cels. vi:26; Horn, in Psalm iii:1; in Jer. ii:3; in Ezek. i:13). It was not a material fire, but self-kindled, like an eternal fever. It was in fact remorse for remembered sin, a 'figurative representation of the moral process by which restoration shall be effected.'"

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