Parable of What Has Been Called the Prodigal Son

Having been requested in a letter from brother James P. Howell of Michigan to give through the Signs my views of the Parable in Luke 15:11-32; I will extend this communication, with your permission, Brother Beebe, to the giving of my views of it. This passage, is not by itself directly styled a parable, though from its connection with the parable of the lost sheep, {Lk.15:3-7}, and from its style, it has been generally, and I think rightly understood to be a parable. By a parable is understood a similitude, or relation, founded upon things natural or commonly believed, and designed to illustrate things spiritual; the persons or things therein mentioned being designed to illustrate characters spiritually, and the events related, to illustrate divine truth. But as these circumstances are such as relate to things natural, it is perhaps an error to suppose that in all cases, every incidental circumstance has a correspondency in that which is prefigured.

Brother Howell wishes to know who or what characters (to express his queries in my own language) are designed by the two sons; when the younger left his father's house; and what was the design of the parable in general. The design of the parable, I understand, was primarily to illustrate more fully and distinctly the two characters brought to view in the commencement of the chapter, the publicans and sinners as the one; and the Pharisees and Scribes as the other, and to show the purpose of the grace of God toward the former.

Before we proceed to enquire who are represented by the two sons it seems proper to enquire who is designed by the father. Generally I believe, persons, who have attempted an illustration of this parable, have assumed the idea the God is immediately intended by the father; but I am led to the conclusion that Abraham is immediately intended. This idea is certainly countenanced by the fact that Abraham is prominently brought to view in the New Testament as having two sons, two distinct seeds, the one born after the flesh, the other of promise; the one natural, the other spiritual. Abraham occupies a peculiar station in the Scriptures. This name Abram, signifies high-father ; this was altered of God to Abraham, signifying a father of multitude or many nations. Rom.4:11-18; to his being the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised or be of the law, or of his natural seed. He stands also at the head of the two covenants, or as the father of those existing under each of the two covenants, the earthly Jerusalem and the Jerusalem which is above; Hagar and Sarah representing these two covenants figuratively. Gal.4:21-31. He represents both covenants, or testaments, in the case of his offering his son Isaac. In binding him and taking the knife to slay him, he evidently represented the law as about to inflict its penalty; and in taking the ram and offering him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son, he no less evidently represented the new covenant in its provision of a substitute, a sacrifice for God's Isaacs, those who as Isaac was, are the children of promise. Gen., chapter 12 and Gal.4:28.

It is frequently said that Abraham was a type of Christ; I find no authority for it in the Scriptures. Christ is declared to be Abraham's seed, Gal.3:16. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, {Luke 16:19-31,} the rich man I think represents the self- righteous Jews; and Lazarus is said to be carried, when dead, by angels, to Abraham's bosom, which can mean no less than his being put in possession of the full blessing of the new covenant; Abraham thus representing it. On the other hand the rich man calls Abraham father, and Abraham recognizes him as his son. Perhaps I have thus sufficiently fortified my position that Abraham is the intended father in this parable. Of course the two sons must mean his two seeds, the natural, and spiritual seeds; as Paul said on another occasion, "That was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, afterwards that which is spiritual," I Cor.15:46, so in this case, the types as in Ishmael and Isaac, and in Esau and Jacob, represent the natural seed as the first-born, of course the spiritual seed is the younger son. The law as spiritual must therefore be the younger son's portion. But these spiritual ones, first exist as natural persons, and as such hold on to as long as they can in common with Jews; and which like Saul of Tarsus they esteem as gain. On the other hand the covenant of circumcision, including the Sinai covenant, and all therein promised in the letter of them, relative to the land of Canaan, &c., was the elder son's portion. Thus was divided unto them, Abraham's living, that which God secured unto him by covenant.

The enquiry next in order, is, when did the younger son receive his portion and leave his father's house? Of course not until he began to exist as Abraham's seed, or had spiritual life imparted to him. The idea appears to be this, that the elect of God, whether Jews or Gentiles, whilst in a state of nature, are living, in common with the nation of Israel, as under Abraham's roof, that is, they, like the Jews, expect justification, as Paul says, "As it were by the works of the law." Rom.9:32. They feel at home there, as well as in the possession of an earthly inheritance, like the Canaan of the Jews. But when quickened by the Spirit, they begin to desire the portion of goods that falleth to them; that is, they desire to know more of God and of His law, and also to gather all together , or in other words to bring every good thing and good feeling &c., forward that they can, to render themselves righteous and acceptable to God. But they soon find that the law is spiritual, that they have to do with a God who searcheth the hearts and trieth the reins; the consequence is, they feel no longer at home in the possession of the things of this world, nor under Abraham's roof, or the Abrahamic covenant, nor sheltered by anything substituted for it, they willingly retreat from all such shelters; and indeed find themselves strangers in a strange land, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel; and as soon find all their substance wasted by riotous living, their good hearts, good deeds, sincere seeking &c., all gone, all vilely cast away as they think, by their carnality, their badness of heart, &c. Then comes a famine, they have spent their labor for that which is not bread; they are in a starving situation; they cannot feed upon their tears or prayers, they are loathsome. He joined himself to a citizen of that country. Many such citizens there are, who only know God and the things of religion by education, who are ready to receive these prodigals and give them such employment.

And he sent him into his fields to feed swine. This would look like making legal preachers of these children of Abraham. They however get but few of them so far entangled as that; though they may get many of them into their churches, or have done so in times past. Some of them stay there starving, without coming to themselves, probably till near their death, and then experience deliverance. Others may have Abraham's faith given them to receive Christ as their righteousness, and yet be so entangled in mind, or by family connections, or by being put forward and into office in those churches, that they still remain in those fields, until God takes them away. Others come to themselves and come out. But to return to the import of the parable in this thing. The joining himself to a citizen of that country, seemed designed to show the propensity of these perishing sinners to adhere to the suggestions of natural reason, which is indeed a citizen of that country, and to be persuaded by it, or which is the same by their unbelief; that there can be no hope of God's saving them as they are, they must in some way become better; and as they have failed of coming up to the law, they must try to love God, and to repent and believe, and that God will meet them on this ground. The idea of sending them into the field, is that reason provides no shelter for the sinner, it leaves such cast out into the open field, to the loathing of their persons.

The feeding swine, as these are unclean animals and fond of filth, show that they succeed no better in performing the work of prayer and repentance &c., than in doing the works of the law; their hearts are seen to be so corrupt that the tears they shed are so polluted therewith as to be fit for nothing but for the swine to wallow in, and none but swinish multitude could be satisfied with them. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks (the outside shells) which the swine did eat, and no man gave unto him. These poor sinners would be satisfied, if they could, with the outside repentance and faith, and perhaps at times fret that God does not meet and bless them in their praying and weeping before Him. But no man gave unto them, either to be satisfied with the outward shell of religious exercises; or which perhaps is the true meaning of this sentence, no man gave unto them bread that they could eat, or gave them the bread of life, they heard it preached, but it was not for them.

And when he came to himself; when these come to know themselves, come to their proper place as creatures of God, they see their entire, dependence on Him to sustain them in existence; and their no less dependence on His sovereign mercy to save them. They with this prodigal say how many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger. Yes, they look around them and see multitudes who are working for hire, as mere day laborers, under the law of the Abrahamic covenant, who seem to have plenty of goods, or that for which they expect acceptance, but alas, for me! says this poor one, I am such a sinner; there is none like me; there is but one thing left for me; that is, I will arise and go to my father. For what? Again to attempt to obtain justification by the deeds of the law? No, not that. Is it then to declare off from all relationship to your father, and to live in the full indulgence of sin, as without law, seeing you have no hope of salvation? No, no! What then? To give honor to God and the law; I will, say, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants. This exercise of these experimentally lost sinners, is fitly represented as going back to Abraham as a father; for, "Though Abraham be ignorant of them, and Israel acknowledge them not" yet it is a going back to the law of which, as has been showed, Abraham was a covenant head, to honor it in its sentence, and to acknowledge the justice of God in their condemnation, and to renounce all claim to be accounted as Abraham's sons, or to receive the blessing promised to his seed. And this expression put into the mouth of this returning son, Make me as one of thy hired servants is strikingly illustrative of the truly subdued spirit of those who are thus humbled before God. For though all hope of justification by the law, from such, is gone, yet let what will become of them, they do not wish to sin against God, but rather to continue to serve under the restraints of the law, though it be but serving as hired servants , having no claim to Abraham's blessing as sons.

"And he arose and came to his father." Yes, these poor sinners are no sooner brought to this last resolve, than in true supplication of heart, true lifting up of their souls to God, they cast themselves upon His mercy. "But when he was yet a great way off" - No exercise of the sinner brings him nigher or gives him to feel that he is nigher to God; God must come to him. "His father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him." His father saw him, saw his heart thus humbled and prepared for receiving pardon. And ran and fell on his neck, &c. This illustrates that first exercise the sinner passes through in experiencing deliverance. Suddenly and unexpectedly, as expressed by the father's running, the cloud is removed, the sense of wrath taken away, and peace and joy fills his mind.

Still it seems impossible that he should be an heir of salvation, he is if anything more sensible of his vileness and unworthiness; and therefore with the son says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight and am no more worthy to be called thy son." But the delightful peace he feels in being resigned into the hands of God, who, he now sees is Love, together with the consequent hope of salvation, prevents his going further and saying, make me as one of thy hired servants. The father without appearing to notice the sentence of condemnation he pronounces against himself, "Said to his servants, bring forth the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it and let us eat and be merry. For this my son was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found." There is work for gospel ministers to do, this is the proper sphere for the gospel ministry toward sinners, the pointing them to the Lamb of God. The whole of the above quotation, illustrates that view which is now given to the sinner through the gospel, as preached or as in some way brought to his mind, of the atonement of Christ and the consequent effect. I say, now given, as being the next view given, though hours, and even days may intervene, between his experiencing that peace, and his viewing Christ by faith; and he may endure much of distress in the mean time lest he was deceived in that peace and that as his burden is gone, he is in a worse state than before. Bring forth the best robe; Christ as of God made unto him righteousness, through that perfect satisfaction He rendered in His obedience and death, to law and justice, which as the sinner now sees by faith, was wrought for such lost sinners as he is. Well is this called the best robe, as far surpassing any righteousness which Israelites could attain to under the law, or even the righteousness of angels. And put a ring on his hand. He is led to view the everlasting love of God in Christ; and to feel that it embraces him. And shoes on his feet. He is made to feel that his poor crippled feet are bound up by the promised grace of God, to go forward in obedience to the commands of the Lord. And bring hither the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and be merry. The sinner is thus led to rest in the atonement of Christ, receives and rejoices in Christ's flesh as meat indeed and in His blood as drink indeed; as that which his soul relishes, and on which he can live as before God. Now as Abraham is the father of all that believe, this is properly represented as coming and being received as a son of Abraham; as a partaking of Abraham's faith, and a receiving the blessing of Abraham; a being grafted in and made to partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree. {By which I understand the promise made to Abraham and his seed.} See Rom.4:11; Gal.3:14 & Rom.11:17.

"For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." He was lost and dead as under the law, but was found and raised to newness of life by the promised blessing. For, "The law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect." - Gal.3:17 - "And they began to be merry." Both this now believing son of Abraham, and the other members of his spiritual family, who hear what the Lord has done for his soul.

The account given in the remaining verses, of the elder son's conduct on the occasion, is characteristic of the conduct, not only of those Pharisees mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, but also of the Jews toward the gospel in its being preached to, and received by the Gentiles. His declaration to his father, "Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment; and yet thou never gavest me a kid that I might make merry with my friends," is strikingly descriptive of them and of their situation under the law. Not that Israel never transgressed the law, but they esteemed themselves at that day as living up to it; see the Pharisee's prayer, Luke 18:11 & 12. Neither the covenant of circumcision, nor the law gave them a kid; they provided no substitute for them, but demanded all of them, even the daily and special sacrifices; all depended on their obedience.

The declaration of the father, "Son, thou art ever with me and all that I have is thine," is appropriate in the mouth of Abraham toward the Jews his natural seed in the line of Isaac and Jacob; for they were included with Abraham in the covenant of circumcision; and all that God gave to Abraham in that covenant, including the land of Canaan, was theirs and that forever. The declarations of the covenant were, "I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations, for an everlasting covenant," &c. Gen.17:7 & 8. The further declaration of the father, "It was meet that we should make merry and be glad, for this thy brother was dead,"&c., also befitted Abraham toward them. Because they had been taught in their Scriptures to expect that the Gentiles, even all families of the earth should share in the blessing promised to Abraham and to his seed; and also by the type of Isaac as the child of promise, as well as by the prophets, that Abraham should have a spiritual seed; and of course a seed that should be their brother as they were the brother of Ishmael. It was, therefore, meet that they should be glad and welcome the bringing of their spiritual brother from the dead: for Abraham their father rejoiced to see the day of Christ; he saw it and was glad; and the day of Christ was the day of this spiritual seed's being made manifest. John 8:56.

I have given and endeavored to sustain the views I have of this parable; if brother Howell, brother Beebe, or any other brother does not consider them supported by the testimony, I would be glad that either of them would give a more scriptural and consistent view of it.

Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia,
Sept.23, 1847.
S. Trott.
From: SIGNS of the TIMES: Vol.15 (1847)

Select Works of Elder Samuel Trott
pgs. 353 - 359