The Rich Man And Lazarus, Part Two

Human Destiny

Concordant Studies


In this reference to divorce, an illustration is probably given of the manner in which the stewards of Israel were lowering the high standards of their divinely given laws. They were reducing them to the low levels of their conveniences. In contrast to such an attitude, we find the holiness and unchangeableness of those laws not diminished, but if anything increased, magnified, and emphasized, by the utterance of Messiah, “Not one serif shall fall.”

In a parable so essentially dispensational as this, the reference to divorce is evidently not without its special meaning. The laws of wedlock and of social purity were being relaxed in their severe requirements by the nation. The sullied purity of the marital relation within the nation was but a shadow of the loosening of the bond which bound Yahweh’s wife to Himself. And indeed the difference between the divorced one in chapter sixteen and the harlots of chapter 15 is but one of degree, consisting mainly in the fact that the harlots had not necessarily ever known the marriage covenant, and thus perhaps stand more for the nations with whom Yahweh had never entered into covenant relationship, and to none of whom He could cry: “I am married unto you.” Israel’s coming degradation as the Harlot of Antichrist is shown in the book of Revelation. But God is not man, and so the weakness of man is not copied by Yahweh in His dealings with His unfaithful wife. God honors His own law of separation and puts upon it such a glory as only He could bestow. He does not look to man for a pattern of His ways (cf Jer.3: 1).

Without unduly pressing the point, the close grouping of these two well-known symbols of divorce and death is suggestive of a dispensational connection between the two. National divorce, or the separation of Israel from its covenant union with Yahweh, was a national death. In Ezekiel 37 the well-known vision of the Valley of Dry Bones carries us forward to the time when Israel’s night of death shall vanish in the morning of resurrection, as Hosea 2 brings us on to the time when the straying wife of Yahweh returns once more to the bridal freshness and joy of union with her covenant Husband.


We must now endeavor to interpret the symbolism of the last portion of the parable. The absence of any divine, or inspired explanation of the typical persons who figure in the action of the parable, may best be accounted for by considering the meaning of them as being so obvious and so well known to its original hearers as to render their interpretation superfluous. The absence of such a commentary in the fifteenth chapter has led many to the conclusion that the father who is there seen welcoming his returning child is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing in the parable itself which would definitely warrant such an interpretation. If, however, we note the parallelism between this section and the last part of Luke 16, it will be acknowledged that as in both we have the portrayal of a father and his two sons, and as the father of these two sons is plainly called Abraham in the sixteenth chapter, so the father of the two sons in chapter 15 is in all probability the same personage.

Again, the clothing of the rich man, to which attention is specially called, needs no explanation. The royal purple of the king mingles with the linen garment of the priest. And this is what Israel was called out to be, what Israel failed to be, and what Israel will yet be through grace: a kingdom of priests unto God (Exodus 19:6).

The well-stocked table, at which the rich man dines, reminds us of God’s unstinted provision for His earthly people. But Israel’s failure resulted largely from her occupation with the gifts instead of the Giver. The purple and the linen recalls the garments in which her national place and privilege were laid aside. That Israel’s blessings became Israel’s curses is clear from Romans 11:9 where the divine pronouncement is recorded: “Let their table become a trap.” Was this the sumptuous fare on which the rich man feasted? Was it not Israel’s false attitude towards the good things God had given them which spelled disaster to the nation? The law with its condemnatory glory was but cause for pride to their Pharisaic self-righteousness. What they were, and what they had—their prophets, their kings, and their position led the nation on to its awful fall.


Another person is introduced to us in Lazarus, whose name (Hebrew, HELPLESS) is the antithesis of Pharisaism. Their hope was in themselves; his hope was in God alone. We must be careful how we interpret the description here of Lazarus’ condition. A reference to the opening section of the parable may keep us from missing the true point of view. In the story of the lost sheep, we saw that the ninety-and-nine “just persons” were merely just and without need of repentance in their own minds. As in the story of the sheep, we have the Pharisees’ conception of themselves, so in the story of Lazarus we have their conception of the tribute collectors and sinners whom Christ received. They virtually placed themselves outside the bounds of Israel’s national favor; as having no part in the nation’s wealth; and without any claim to its prerogatives. The dog—the accepted type of the Gentile—who comes and licks his sores may tell of the plane to which the tribute collectors belonged in the Pharisees’ estimation. The dog had no part in the rich man’s feast, though bones and scraps were not denied him. Lazarus had merely the dog’s share of the rich man’s banquet.


In comparing the parallel or companion section of the parable, we note the use of a similar symbol. When the younger son has spent his substance in riotous living and has run down the gamut of degradation to beggary and want, the abjectness of his state is described in his vain attempt to fill his belly with the husks which the hogs ate. The poverty of the profligate or “prodigal” son is evidently akin to that of Lazarus; the “husks” of the one to the “crumbs” of the other, and the “hogs” in the one to the “dogs” in the other. The choice of these two unclean animals as symbols of sinfulness is repeated by Peter in his second epistle where he likens apostate Jews to “a cur turning to its own vomit,” and “a bathed sow to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Pet.2:22). Peter groups the symbols which Luke employs separately and distinctly. Their use, in conjunction with other considerations, helps to bind together the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of Luke as forming one parable.

But the state of wretchedness and disease in which Lazarus is pictured may also represent the tribute collectors’ and sinners’ estimate of their own sad condition. The returning prodigal could cry out in the tense agony of his soul “I am no longer worthy.” Back he came as a whipped hound to its master’s feet. In chapter eighteen the tribute collector’s vision is focused on his own vileness, and he pleads in contrition, “Be propitiated to me the sinner.” The Pharisee was all too conscious of his robes of purple and fine linen; but the tribute collector saw himself clad in the tattered rags of his unrighteousness.

When we come to the mention of “death” in connection with the Rich Man and Lazarus, we touch on the vital spot of the parable’s interpretation. If it refers to the physical death of two specific individuals, then the teaching of Christendom touching on the intermediate state is correct, and the speculative guesses of Plato, the heathen theorist, were in advance of Scriptural revelation. We need but to remember, however, the unity of the entire five-fold parable, and the fact that it was employed by the Master to illustrate the difference between the two classes into which the nation could be divided, to recognize the “death” as national and dispensational, instead of individual and physical. The “death” which came upon the nation necessarily involved the nation in its entirety and affected each and all of the different classes within it.

When Lazarus died he is said to have been carried by the messengers into “Abraham’s bosom.” Though God did not leave them without comfort, when the place and priority of blessing was taken away (for the present) from Israel, the kingdom believers necessarily lost it too, even as the unbelieving bulk of the nation. They then became associated with Abraham, and identified with him in his faith and expectation. To Abraham, the kingdom was cast in the future tense. Its glory, to him, lay on the horizon of hope. It was not a present possession. It lay “beyond.” He was one of those who “died in faith, not being requited with the promises” (Heb.11:13). With Abraham, then, in his faith and expectation, the Lazarus class must hereafter be linked.


But what of the rich man’s words in “hades” 2 (“hell,” AV), “I am pained in this flame” (Luke 16:24)? Has Israel’s lot during the centuries of its dispensational death (cf Rom.11:7-15; Acts 28:25-27) been other than this? What country has not been drenched with Jewish blood? The flame of torment has ever pursued the tribe of the weary foot. The wandering Jew, weary and worn, has found but few havens of rest, and but short respite from the tyrant’s lash. History, then, interprets the rich man’s doom. The story of Israel is the story of the flame of fire.

Again we would point out a parallelism between the story of the Prodigal and that of Lazarus. In both cases, a certain relationship is claimed and acknowledged to exist. In chapter 15 the father addresses the elder brother as “son,” so also does Abraham acknowledge the relationship to which the rich man laid claim (16:25).

And let us deplore the persistent attempt to add to the divine words. The Abrahamic utterance that a great chasm had been established which made it so that those wanting to cross hence “may not be able” 3 (Luke 16:26), must not be warped into declaring that it can never be crossed. The employment of such careless and ignorant assertions when handling the inspired Scriptures involves not merely an adding to the Word itself, but a subtracting from one’s proper respect for it.

Let it be carefully noted as well that if inability is taught, as it certainly is, in this twenty-sixth verse, it is man’s inability and not God’s. What man can, or cannot do, is not the measure of divine might or weakness, If Abraham in the unwise goodness of his heart did desire to bridge the gulf in order to alleviate the torments of his son, he would be but similar to many modern saints who, in the largeness of their hearts, would seek to convert the world before its time. It is too large a work for weak humanity to do. It is a divine work which God alone may successfully perform.


Another parallelism between these two portions of the parable may be found in the fact that prayer is prominent in both. The prodigal prays in the fifteenth chapter. The rich man prays in the sixteenth. But with the fact of prayer, the parallelism ceases. In character, the two petitions differ immensely. The prodigal in his rags is burdened with his sin. The rich man—so lately clad with purple and linen—thinks only of his suffering. “I sinned” is the prodigal’s plea. “I am pained” is the rich man’s cry. In his plaint, no word of guilt, no consciousness of demerit, is to be found. The flame was all without, there was none within. Was not this moral blindness on the rich man’s part the real gulf between him and Lazarus? It certainly is the gulf existing now between the world and God. And until Israel cries, “All we like sheep have gone astray,” the gulf will also remain fixed between Yahweh and His chosen people.

The contrast of a drop of water with a crumb of bread is apparent. It is employed here to point up the moral of the story. Not even a drop of relief could be had from Lazarus, for while the opulence of the rich man’s estate had vanished, the hardness of the rich man’s heart remained. While it does, the gulf must also remain established. Between the prodigal (who confesses his sin rather than his suffering) and his father, there is no chasm. When sin is confessed distance is removed. And the contrast is heightened by comparing the impossibility of the father (Abraham) in the sixteenth chapter even sending Lazarus, with the father in the fifteenth chapter who himself runs to greet his repentant son. Lazarus’ finger is denied to one, while the father’s arms are bestowed upon the other.

The rich man’s plea for his brethren is not so much that they should be saved from his sin as his pain. He mentions the fact that his brethren were five in number. But why five? If this is not a parable we can hardly see the reason why the number of his brethren should be so definitely enumerated. If it is a parable then the number given is as symbolic, and pictorial, as any other item in the story. It has been suggested that as the people of Palestine were mainly composed of the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and were symbolized in the parable as the rich man himself, that the five “brethren” mentioned here must stand for the ten remaining tribes, who are supposed to have been more largely found outside of the land. One thing, however, seems plainly taught concerning them: they were in the same callous, hardened state as that of the rich man.


To those who do not look upon this section as a parable, but as a literal account of the happenings of the intermediate state, Abraham’s reference to the result, should one be allowed to arise from the dead, is interpreted as referring to a physical resurrection. Having determined its parabolic character, and consequently interpreting the “death” referred to as being dispensational, we must consequently interpret the “resurrection” here as being of the same nature. And if the allusion to the five brethren does have reference to the Israel scattered abroad, how the history and ministry of Paul in its kingdom aspect, as given in Acts, suggests itself here! Not that he is mentioned, or even typified, but the passage, if it does not bring him in, at least makes room for him.

Abraham does not say either that one will or will not be raised from the “dead,” but contents himself apparently with stating the result should such an event take place. “Neither will they be persuaded” was the Abrahamic prophecy which verified itself in Israel’s treatment of the Pauline ministry. And we must also remember that no direct mention of this “resurrection” ministry was possible at the time the Master spoke, for it was largely, if not altogether, a hidden one.

Here the parable comes to an end. It bears the marks of being an unfinished picture. The revelation of truth concerning the rich man’s future rests, so to speak, while waiting the further unfolding of the divine will concerning him. That unfolding takes place elsewhere in Scripture. This particular passage does not contain the entire history of this unhappy nation. It is but the darker side of it. There is glory beyond the gloom, as Romans 9 to 11 makes clear: “What will the taking back be if not life from among the dead?” (Rom.11:15).

In conclusion, may we ask those who interpret the death of Luke sixteen as being physical and literal, because it is not called symbolic in the immediate context, to give us an equally literal interpretation of the father’s words in Luke fifteen: “this your brother was dead and lives again”? Was this death and resurrection physical? A consistent interpretation of both passages would be interesting to read.

Alan Burns

It is important to perceive the setting of this story concerning Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is not some sudden and disconnected literal revelation concerning the state of the dead, certainly not one which is contradictory to the law and the prophets!
indent.gif (829 bytes)
At this juncture, the Lord was at the summit of His condemnation of the Pharisees for invalidating the word of God by their traditions. He avails Himself of some of those very teachings, adapting them for His own purpose, judging them out of their own mouths (cf Luke 19:22). When the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is read in the light of the rest of the Scriptures, and especially in the light of the context, we may readily perceive in it the traditions of the Pharisees, which were “high among men,” yet “an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

Following these words, the Lord declares, “The law and the prophets are unto John; thenceforth, the evangel of the kingdom of God is being brought, and everyone is violently forcing into it, and the violent are snatching it. Yet it is easier for heaven and earth to pass by than for one serif of the law to fail. Everyone dismissing his wife and marrying her who has been dismissed from a husband is committing adultery” (Luke 16:16-18; cf Matt.12:39).

These are the words which immediately precede those concerning Lazarus and the Rich Man. “God’s revelation was made by many modes, each appropriate to the time when it was used. ‘The law and the prophets,’ a title of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we now misname the ‘Old Testament,’ was His means of dealing with Israel until John the baptist, the greatest of all the prophets. He was the forerunner of a new method of divine revelation through the incarnation of Christ. The proclamation of the kingdom did not receive the response of contrite hearts, according to the law, but rather awakened a desire for its establishment by carnal means. At one time they would have taken Christ by force, because He had satisfied their hunger, and would have made Him king. This would have meant a revolt and war and bloodshed.

“Not only does He intimate that the Pharisees are to be dismissed from the stewardship, but this apparently unconnected statement [concerning adultery and divorce] suggests that the nation is to be divorced from Yahweh, and left desolate. This is a fitting link to lead us up to the final section of this five-fold parable, in which Israel’s fate during her divorce is discussed” (CONCORDANT COMMENTARY, p.122).

The Talmud (Hebrew, talmudh, “instruction”) is the traditional, uninspired, body of Jewish civil and religious laws (and related commentaries and discussion). In it “we have those very traditions gathered up which the Lord refers to through the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in His condemnation of the Pharisees. We can thus find out exactly what those popular traditions were.

“ ‘Paradise,’ ‘The carrying away by angels,’ ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ and so forth, were the popular expressions constantly used. Christ was not the first Who used these phrases, but He used the language of the Pharisees, turning it against themselves.

Take a few examples from the Talmud:

“(1) In Kiddushin (Treatise on Betrothal), fol.72, there is quoted from the Juchasin, fol.75, 2, a long story about what Levi said of Rabbi Judah: ‘This day he sits in Abraham’s bosom,’ i.e., the day he died.

“There is a difference here between the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds—the former says Rabbi Judah was ‘carried by angels’; the latter says that he was ‘placed in Abraham’s bosom.’

“Here we have again the Pharisees’ tradition as used against them by our Lord.

“(2) There was a story of a woman who had seen six of her sons slain (we have it also in 2 Macc. vii.). She heard the command given to kill the youngest (two-and-a-half years old), and running into the embraces of her little son, kissed him and said, Go thou, my son, to Abraham my father, and tell him: Thus saith thy mother, Do not thou boast, saying, I built an altar and offered my son Isaac. For thy mother hath built seven altars, and offered seven sons in one day, etc. (Midrash Echah, fol.68. 1).

“(3) Another example may be given out of a host of others (Midrash on Ruth, fol.44, 2; and Midrash on Coheleth (Ecclesiastes) fol.86, 4): ‘There are wicked men, that are coupled together in this world. But one of them repents before death; the other doth not; so the one is found standing in the assembly of the just, the other in the assembly of the wicked. The one seeth the other and saith, Woe! and Alas! there is accepting of persons in this thing: he and I robbed together, committed murder together; and now he stands in the congregation of the just, and I, in the congregation of the wicked. They answered him: O thou most foolish among mortals that are in the world! Thou wert abominable and cast forth for three days after thy death, and they did not lay thee in the grave; the worm was under thee, and the worm covered thee; which, when this companion of thine came to understand, he became a penitent. It was in thy power also to have repented, but thou didst not. He saith to them, let me go now, and become a penitent. But they say, O thou foolishest of men, dost thou not know, that this world in which thou art, is like the Sabbath, and the world out of which thou comest is like the evening of the Sabbath? If thou dost not provide something on the evening of the Sabbath, what wilt thou eat on the Sabbath day? Dost thou not know that the world out of which thou camest is like the land; and the world, in which thou now art, is like the sea? If a man make no provision on land for what he should eat at sea, what will he have to eat? He gnashed his teeth and gnawed his own flesh.

“(4) We have examples also of the dead discoursing with one another; and also with those who are still alive (Berachoth, fol.18, 2—Treatise on Blessings). ‘R. Samuel Bar Nachman saith, R. Jonathan saith, How doth it appear that the dead have any discourse among themselves? It appears from what is said (Deut. xxxiv. 4), And the Lord said unto him, This is the land, concerning which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob, saying: What is the meaning of the word saying? The Holy Blessed God saith unto Moses, Go thou and say to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the oath which I sware unto you, I have performed unto your children. Note that: Go thou and say to Abraham,’ etc.

“Then follows a story of a certain pious man that went and lodged in a burying place, and heard two souls discoursing among themselves. ‘The one said unto the other, Come, my companion, and let us wander about the world, and listen behind the veil, what kind of plagues are coming upon the world. To which the other replied, O my companion, I cannot; for I am buried in a cane mat; but do thou go, and whatsoever thou hearest, do thou come and tell me,’ etc. The story goes on to tell of the wandering of the soul and what he heard, etc.

“(5) There was a good man and a wicked man that died; as for the good man, ‘he had no funeral rites solemnized’; but the wicked man had. Afterward, there was one who saw in his dream, the good man walking in gardens, and hard by pleasant springs; but the wicked man ‘with his tongue trickling drop by drop, at the bank of a river, endeavoring to touch the water, but he could not.’ (Chagigah, fol.77. Treatise on Exodus xxiii. 17).

“(6) As to ‘the great gulf,’ we read (Midrash [or Commentary] on Coheleth [Ecclesiastes], 103. 2), ‘God hath set the one against the other (Ecc. vii. 14) that is Gehenna and Paradise. How far are they distant? A hand-breadth.’ Jochanan saith, ‘A wall is between.’ But the Rabbis say ‘They are so even with one another, that they may see out of one into the other.’

“The traditions set forth above were widely spread in many early Christian writings, showing how soon the corruption spread which led to the Dark Ages and to all the worst errors of Romanism. The Apochryphal books (written in Greek, not in Hebrew, Cents. i. and ii. B.C.) contained the germ of this teaching. That is why the Apocrypha is valued by Traditionists and is incorporated by the Church of Rome as an integral part of her Bible.

“The Apocrypha contains prayers for the dead; also ‘the song of the three Children’ (known in the Prayer Book as the Benedicite), in which ‘the spirits and souls of the righteous’ are called on to bless the Lord.

“The Te Deum, also, which does not date further back than the fifth century, likewise speaks of the Apostles and Prophets and Martyrs as praising God now.” 4

From all this, it is clear that the Lord was not giving a special revelation of His own as to the death state, but was taking the current, false teachings of the Pharisees, and using them against themselves.

The testimony of God’s Word is clear concerning the state of the dead. In all cases, reference is not made merely to man’s body, but to man himself. All such passages are words of faith, and are “beneficial for teaching, for exposure, for correction, for discipline in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped, fitted out for every good act” (2 Tim.3:16,17). Since we have need of them, God has given them to us. Let us freely and unreservedly accept them, and intensely believe them. It is ideal to be like the apostle Paul, “believing all that is written, according to the law and the prophets” (Acts 24:14). There are many passages of Scripture which are concerned with the state of the dead. Here are a few examples:

“I will praise Yahweh in my life, I will make melody to my Elohim in my future. You must not trust in patrons, In a son of humanity in whom is no salvation. His spirit will fare forth, He will return to His ground, In that day all his reflections perish” (Psalm 146:2-4).
“The dead are not praising Yah, Nor any descenders to stillness” (Psa.115:17).

“Return, Yahweh! Liberate my soul! Save me on account of Your kindness! For in death there is no remembrance of You. In the unseen, who is acclaiming You?” (Psa.6:4,5).

“This evil is in all which is done under the sun, for one happening is for all. And, moreover, the heart of the sons of humanity is full of evil, and blustering is in their heart in their lives, and after them—to the dead! For anyone who is joined to all the living, forsooth, has trust, for a living cur, it is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, and for the dead there is no knowing aught” (Ecc.9:3-5a).

“All that your hand is finding to do, do it with your vigor, For no doing or devising, or knowledge, or wisdom, is in the unseen, where you are going” (Ecc.9:10).

James Coram


2. The Greek term hades (UN-PERCEIVED) in modern English is “unseen.” The old English equivalent for “hell” was “hel,” and simply referred to that which was unseen. In the Scriptures, hades refers not to an unseen place (as in Greek mythology), but to the unseen state, whether of a city (Matt.11:23) or of the human soul (Acts 2:27,31). Likewise, in the Scriptures, “soul” (psuchê, COOL) refers not to some supposed noncorporeal form of life, but to the sensation resulting from the combination of an organic body with breath or “spirit” (cf Gen.2:7).
3. mê dunõntai, a present (or incomplete), active, subjunctive phrase, employing the relative negative, not the absolute.
4. SELECTED WRITINGS, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” pp.135-137, E. W. Bullinger: Bagster.

This publication may be reproduced for personal use (all other rights reserved by the copyright holder).