THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
By J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come, 1958
THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
I. GENERAL OBSERVATION CONCERNING PROPHECY
The problem that is of particular concern to the student of Eschatology
is the problem of interpreting the prophetic portions of Scripture. Before
considering the specific rules governing the interpretation of prophecy,
it would be well to draw certain general observations concerning the nature
of prophetic language.
A. The characteristic of prophecy.
Some of the general characteristics which are marked features of the
prophetic Scriptures are given to us by Oehler, who summarizes:
The characteristics of Old Testament prophecy are: (1). The matter of
revelation being given to the prophet in the form of intuition, the future
was made to appear to them as either immediately present, complete, or
all events in progress. (2). The fact that the matter of prophecy is given
in the form of intuition also furnishes the reason why it always sees the
realization of that matter in particular events which are complete in themselves;
Le.1 a prophecy may appear as just one event, but in reality there may
be a two-, three-, or four-fold fulfillment (3). Since the matter of prophecy
presents itself to view as a multitude of individual facts, it may sometimes
appear as though single predictions contradict each other when they are,
in fact, only those parts into which the ideas revealed have been separated,
mutually completing each other, e.g., contrasting pictures of the Messiah
in states of suffering and states of glory. (4). The matter of prophecy
is in the form of intuition which further means that as far as its form
is concerned, it is on the plane of the beholder himself, i.e., the prophet
spoke of future glory in terms of his own society and experience.1
Von Orelli adds to these basic observations the following:
(1). Prophecy may be fulfilled shortly after its delivery or at a much
later date. (2). Prophecy is ethically conditioned, that is, some of it
is conditioned as to fulfillment on the behavior of the recipients. It
may even be recalled. (3). Prophecy may be fulfilled successively. (4).
We must not pedantically demand that the prophecy be fulfilled exactly
as given. Orelli means by this that we must separate the kernel of prediction
from the husk of the contemporary garb. (5). Many prophecies, especially
those about Christ, are literally fulfilled. (6). The form and character
of prophecy are conditioned by the age and location of the writer. (7).
Prophecies frequently form parts of a whole and, therefore, must be compared
with other prophecy. (8). The prophet sees things together which are widely
separated in fulfillment.2
B. The time element in prophecy.
It is to be observed that the time element holds a relatively small place
in prophecy. Angus-Green summarize the relationships thus:
In regard to the language of prophecy, especially in Its bearing upon
the future, the following points should also be noted:-
1. The prophets often speak of things that belong to the future as if
present to their view. (Isa. 9:6)
2. They speak of things future as past. (Isa. 53)
3. When the precise time of individual events was not revealed, the
prophets describe them as continuous. They saw the future rather in space
than in time; the whole, therefore, appears foreshortened; and perspective,
rather than actual distance, Is regarded. They seem often to speak of future
things as a common observer would describe the stars, grouping them as
they appear, and not according to their true positions.3
C. The law of double reference.
Few laws are more important to observe in the interpretation of prophetic
Scriptures than the law of double reference. Two events, widely separated
as to the time of their fulfillment, may be brought together into the scope
of one prophecy. This was done because the prophet had a message for his
own day as well as for a future time. By bringing two widely separated events
into the scope of the prophecy both purposes could be fulfilled. Horne says:
The same prophecies frequently have a double meaning, and refer to different
events, the one near, the other remote; the one temporal, the other spiritual
or perhaps eternal. The prophets thus having several events in view, their
expressions may be partly applicable to one, and partly to another, and
it is not always easy to make the transitions. What has not been fulfilled
in the first, we must apply to the second; and what has already been fulfilled,
may often be considered as typical of what remains to be accomplished.4
It was the purpose of God to give the near and far view so that the fulfillment
of the one should be the assurance of the fulfillment of the other. Girdlestone
emphasizes this when he says:
Yet another provision was made to confirm men's faith in utterances
which had regard to the far future. It frequently happened that prophets
who had to speak of such things were also commissioned to predict other
things which would shortly come to pass; and the verification of these
latter predictions in their own day and generation justified men in believing
the other utterances which pointed to a more distant time. The one was
practically a "sign" of the other, and if the one proved true
the other might be trusted. Thus the birth of Isaac under the most unlikely
circumstances would help Abraham to believe that in his seed all the families
of the earth should be blessed.5
D. Conditional prophecies.
It has been stated by Allis that
". . . a condition may be involved in a command or promise without
its being specifically stated. This is illustrated by the career of Jonah."6
On the basis of Jonah's message it is often implied that there are hidden
conditions connected with every prophecy which may be the basis for the
withdrawal of the fulfillment In reply to such a contention Horne says:
Predictions, denouncing judgments to come, do not in themselves speak
the absolute futurity of the event, but only declare what is to be expected
by the persons to whom they are made, and what will certainly come to pass,
unless God in his mercy interpose between the threatening and the event.7
Girdlestone deals with the problem of conditioned prophecies at length.
Among the points bearing on the nature and fulfillment of prophecy,
few call for more special attention than this,--that some predictions are
conditional, whilst others are absolute. Many of the utterances of Scripture
(e.g. Lev. 26) present alternative prospects....
But the conditional nature of a prediction is not always plainly stated
in Scripture. Thus, Jonah is said to have preached that within forty days
Nineveh should be destroyed; the people repented at his preaching, and
Nineveh was not destroyed; yet so far as we know, the people were not told
that if they repented the judgment should not fall on them.
Predictions of this class are so numerous that we conclude that there
must have been some unexpressed but underlying condition in all such cases
which justified God in departing from the literal fulfillment of the prophetic
utterance. What that condition is we may gather from such chapters as Jer.
18 and Ezek. 33. After Jeremiah had watched the potter at his work and
had learned the great lesson of the Sovereignty of God, a further message
was presented to him: "At what instant I shall speak concerning a
nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to
destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their
evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at
what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom,
to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my
voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit
them" [Jer. 18:7-10]. Acting on this principle, Jeremiah speaks thus
to the princes when the priests and prophets wanted to have him slain:
"Then spake Jeremiah unto all the princes and to all the people, saying,
The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all
the words that ye have heard. Therefore now amend your ways and your doings,
and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will repent him of
the evil that he hath pronounced against you [Jer. 26:12-13]." If
the people would repent, in one sense, the Lord would repent, in another.
And on what ground? On the ground of the original, essential and eternal
attributes of the Divine nature, and on the ground of the old promises
and covenants which God had made with the fathers as a result of these
Even though Girdlestone recognizes that prophecies of judgment may be
conditioned on repentance and, according to God's universal dealing with
sin and the sinner, judgment might be averted If the sinner turns to God,
he does not mean that one can imply conditions where none are stated in
other areas of prophecy. He safeguards against this false conclusion by
Shall it be said that all prophetic utterances are conditional? By no
means. There are some things concerning which "the Lord hath sworn
and will not repent" (Ps. 110:4)....
These irreversible promises do not depend on man's goodness, but on
God's. They are absolute in their fulfillment, even though they may be
conditional as to the time and place of their fulfillment.
Times and seasons may be modified, days may be shortened, events may
be accelerated or delayed, individuals and nations may come within the
scope of the promises or may stand outside; but the events themselves are
ordered and sure, sealed with God's oath, and guaranteed by His very life.9
The relationship between the conditional and unconditional aspects of
prophecy has been observed by Peters, who comments:
The prophecies relating to the establishment of the Kingdom of God are
both conditioned and unconditioned.
By this paradox is simply meant that they are conditioned in their fulfillment
by the antecedent gathering of the elect, and hence susceptible of postponement
. . . and that they are unconditioned so far as their ultimate fulfillment
is concerned, which the conduct or action of man cannot turn aside. . .
. The kingdom itself pertains to the Divine Purpose, is the subject of
sacred covenants, is confirmed by solemn oath, is to be the result or end
designed in the redemptive process, and therefore cannot, will not, fall.
The inheritors of the kingdom, however, are conditioned certain number
known only to God--and the kingdom itself, although predetermined... is
dependent ... as to its manifestation upon their being obtained .. 10
It may then be concluded that although a prophecy which depends on human
agency may be conditional yet that which depends on God can not be conditional
unless conditions are clearly stated. Prophecies based on unchanging covenants
cannot admit the addition of any condition. Thus there Is no warrant for
assuming any conditions to the fulfillment of prophecy.
II. METHODS OF PROPHETIC REVELATION
In addition to the straightforward prophetic utterance, future events
are revealed through types, symbols, parables, dreams, and prophetic ecstasy.
Since there are attendant problems concerning the interpretation of such
prophetic revelations, consideration must be given to each of these before
considering the problem of the interpretation of prophecy as a whole, for
there will be no understanding of prophecy apart from Understanding its
channels. The student must therefore familiarize himself with the language
of prophecy--its figures and symbols as well as its method of communication.
A thorough interpretation of the prophetic portions of the holy Scripture
is largely dependent upon a mastery of the principles and laws of figurative
language, and of types and symbols. It requires also some acquaintance
with the nature of vision-seeing ecstasy and dreams.11
A. Prophetic revelation through types.
Terry has given us a good brief definition of a type, when he says: "In
the science of theology it properly signifies the preordained representative
relation which certain persons, events and institutions of the Old Testament
bear to corresponding persons, events and institutions in the New."12
This basic concept is enlarged by Angus-Green, as they point out that the
following points must be especially noted:
1. That which is symbolized--the "antitype"--is the ideal
or spiritual reality, at once corresponding to the type and transcending
2. The type may have its own place and meaning, independently of that
which it prefigures. Thus the brazen serpent brought healing to the Israelites,
even apart from the greater deliverance which it was to symbolize.
3. Hence It follows that the type may at the time have been un-apprehended
in its highest character.
4. As with regard to symbols generally, the essence of a type must be
distinguished from its accessories.
5. The only secure authority for the application of a type is to be
found in Scripture. The mere perception of analogy will not suffice. Expositors
have often imagined correspondence where none in fact exists, and where,
even if it did, there is nothing to prove a special Divine intent . . .
In the words of Bishop Marsh: "To constitute one thing the type
of another, as the term is generally understood in reference to Scripture,
something more is wanted than mere resemblance. The former must not only
resemble the latter, but must have been designed to resemble the latter.
It must have been so designed in its original institution. It must
have been designed as preparatory to the latter. The type, as well
as the antitype, must have been preordained, and they must have been preordained
as constituent parts of the same general scheme of Divine Providence. It
is this previous design and this preordained connexion which constitute
the relation of type and antitype."13
Fritsch not only defines a type carefully, but goes on to give a helpful
distinction between a type and an allegory, which it Is well to observe.
The definition which I propose for the word "type" in Its
theological sense is as follows: A type is an institution, historical event
or person, ordained by God, which effectively prefigures some truth connected
with Christianity. ...
Firstly, by defining the type as an institution, historical event or
person we are emphasizing the fact that the type must be meaningful and
real in its own right....
In this respect a type differs from an allegory. . . . For an allegory
is a fictitious narrative, or to put it less bluntly, in an allegory the
historical truth of the narrative dealt with may or may not be accepted,
whereas in typology, the fulfillment of an antitype can only be understood
in the light of the reality of the original type.
Secondly, there must be a divinely intended connection between the type
and the antitype. As Bishop Westcott says, "A type presupposes a purpose
in history wrought out from age to age. An allegory rests finally in the
Thirdly, the type is not only real and valid in Its own right, but it
is efficacious in its own immediate milieu. It can only effectively prefigure
the antitype because It has inherent in it already at least some of the
effectiveness which is to be fully realized in the antitype.
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Fourthly, the most important characteristic of the type, as has come
out in the preceding point, is the fact that it is predictive of to Come
some truth connected with Christianity, or of Christ Himself.
Typology differs from prophecy in the strict sense of the term only
in the means of prediction. Prophecy predicts mainly by means of the word,
whereas typology predicts by institution, act or person.
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It is most important to make the distinction . . . between type and
allegory, for in the early church the allegorical method of interpretation
had blurred the true meaning of the Old Testament to such an extent that
it was impossible for a legitimate typology to exist. According to this
method the literal and historical sense of Scripture is completely ignored,
and every word and event is made an allegory of some kind either to escape
theological difficulties or to maintain certain peculiar religious views.
Without question, it has been the failure to observe this last distinction
which has led some to feel that the Scriptural use of types warrants the
allegorical method of interpretation. Fairbairn makes the same observation,
which must be heeded, when he writes:
. . . When we interpret a prophecy, to which a double meaning is ascribed,
the one relating to the Jewish, the other to the Christian, dispensation,
we are in either case concerned with an interpretation of words. For the
same words which, according to one interpretation, are applied to one event,
are, according to another interpretation, applied to another event. But
in the interpretation of an allegory, we are concerned only in the first
instance with in interpretation of words; the second sense, which is usually
called the allegorical, being an interpretation of things. The interpretation
of the words gives nothing more than the plain and simple narratives themselves
(the allegory generally assuming the form of a narrative); whereas the
moral of the allegory is learnt by an application of the things signified
by those words to other things which resemble them, and which the former
were intended to suggest. There is a fundamental difference, therefore,
between the interpretation of an allegory, and the interpretation of a
prophecy with a double sense.15
By its very nature a type is essentially prophetic in character. This
has been observed by Fairbairn, who points out:
A type, as already explained and understood, necessarily possesses something
of a prophetical character, and differs in form rather than in nature from
what is usually designated prophecy.
The one images or prefigures, while the other foretells, coming realities.
In the one case representative acts or symbols, in the other verbal delineations,
serve the purpose of indicating beforehand what God has designed to accomplish
for His people in the approaching future. The difference is not such as
to affect the essential nature of the two subjects. . . .16
In interpreting the prophecies revealed through types, it Is important
to observe that the same sound hermeneutical maxims that have been previously
established apply here as well. Angus-Green give an adequate summary, by
In the interpretation of all these types, and of history in its secondary
or spiritual allusions, we use the same rules as in interpreting parables
and allegories properly so called; compare the history or type with the
general truth, which both the type and the antitype embody; expect agreement
in several particulars, but not in all; and let the interpretation of each
part harmonize with the design of the whole, and with the clear revelation
of Divine doctrine given in other parts of the sacred volume.
Cautions.--In applying these rules, it is important to remember that
the inspired writers never destroyed the historical sense of Scripture
to establish the spiritual; nor did they find a hidden meaning in the words,
but only in the facts of each passage; which meaning is easy, natural,
and Scriptural; and that they confined themselves to expositions illustrating
some truth of practical or spiritual importance.17
B. Prophetic revelation through symbols.
The second method of prophetic revelation Is through the use of symbols.
Ramm, following a generally accepted pattern, says that there may be six
kinds of symbols that are prophetic in character: (1) persons, (2) institutions,
(3) offices, (4) events, (5) actions, and (6) things.18
Bahr gives the following rules to guide in the interpretation of such
(1) The meaning of a symbol is to be determined first of all by an accurate
knowledge of its nature. (2) The symbols of the Mosaic cultus can have,
in general, only such meaning as accords with the religious ideas and truths
of Mosaism, and with its clearly expressed and acknowledged principles.
(3) The import of each separate symbol is to be sought, in the first place,
from its name. (4) Each individual symbol has, in general, but one signification.
(5) However different the connexion in which it may occur, each individual
symbol has always the same fundamental meaning. (6) In every symbol, whether
it be object or action, the main Idea to be symbolized must be carefully
distinguished from that which necessarily serves only for its appropriate
exhibition, and has, therefore, only a secondary purpose.19
Terry presents three fundamental principles in dealing with symbols.
. . .we accept the following as three fundamental principles of symbolism:
(1) The names of symbols are to be understood literally; (2) the symbols
always denote something essentially different from themselves; and (3)
some resemblance, more or less minute, is traceable between the symbol
and the thing symbolized
The great question with the interpreter of symbols should, therefore,
be, What are the probable points of resemblance between this sign and the
thing which it is intended to represent? And one would suppose it to be
obvious to every thoughtful mind that in answering this question no minute
and rigid set of rules, as supposably applicable to all symbols, can be
expected.... In general it may be said that in answering the above question
the interpreter must have strict regard (1) to the historical standpoint
of the writer or prophet, (2) to the scope and context, and (3) to the
analogy and import of similar symbols and figures elsewhere used. That
is, doubtless, the true interpretation of every symbol which most fully
satisfies these several conditions, and which attempts to press no point
of supposable resemblance beyond what is clearly warranted by fact, reason,
Certainly what has been said by the above writers on the subject of the
interpretation of symbols in general will apply to the interpretation of
the prophetic symbolism. Terry, however, has added a particular word concerning
this specialized field of symbolism:
In the exposition, therefore, of this class of prophecies it is of the
first importance to apply with judgment and skill the hermeneutical principles
of biblical symbolism. This process requires, especially, three things:
(1) that we be able clearly to discriminate and determine what are symbols
and what are not; (2) that the symbols be contemplated in their broad and
striking aspects rather than in their incidental points of resemblance;
and (3) that they be amply compared as to their general import and usage,
so that a uniform and self consistent method be followed in their interpretation.
A failure to observe the first of these will lead to endless confusion
of the symbolical and the literal. A failure in the second tends to magnify
minute and unimportant points to the obscuring of the greater lessons,
and to the misapprehension, ofttimes, of the scope and import of the whole.
. . . A care to observe the third rule will enable one to note the differences
as well as the likeness of similar symbols...21
There is one observation which seems to have been overlooked by many
students of the interpretation of prophecy and that is the fact that Scripture
interprets its own symbols. Feinberg says:
. . . some prophecy is conveyed to us by means of symbolic language.
But whenever such is the case, the symbols are explained in the immediate
context, in the book in which they occur, or elsewhere in the Word, no
room being left to the imaginations of man to devise explanations.22
This same fact is evidenced by Girdlestone, who writes:
Taking the Apocalypse as a whole, there is hardly a figure or vision
in it which is not contained in germ in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, or Zechariah.
Probably the study of these Books in his old age had prepared the seer
for the visions which had to do with the near or the far future.23
Since this is true, diligence in searching the Word is the price of accurate
exegesis in symbolic portions.
C. Prophetic revelation through parables.
A third method of revealing future events is through the use of the parabolic
method of instruction. A parable, according to Angus-Green "denotes
a narrative constructed for the sake of conveying important truth. . ."24
The Lord makes frequent use of this method as the channel of prophetic revelation.
Thus the interpretation of parables is of utmost importance.
Ramm has succinctly stated the rules to guide in interpretation of parables.
(1). Determine the exact nature and details of the customs, practices,
and elements that form the material or natural part of the parable....
(2). Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach.
(3). Determine how much of the parable is Interpreted by the Lord .
(4). Determine if there are any clues in the context as to the parable's
(5). Don't make a parable walk on all fours. . . .
(6). Be careful of the doctrinal use of parables. . .
(7). A clear understanding of the time-period that many of the parables
are intended for is necessary for their full interpretation.25
Consistency seems to be the major emphasis in the rules given to us by
Angus-Green. They write:
The first rule of interpretation is: Ascertain what is the scope, either
by reference to the context, or to parallel passages; and seize the one
truth which the parable is intended to set forth, distinguishing it from
all the other truths which border upon it, and let the parts of the parable
that are explained be explained In harmony with this one truth. . . .
Any Interpretation of a parable or allegory that is inconsistent with
the great truth, which it is thus seen to Involve, must be rejected.
... From the inspired interpretation of parables given us In Scripture,
we may gather that we are to avoid both the extreme of supposing that only
the design of the whole should be regarded, and the extreme of insisting
upon every clause as having a double meaning.
Second rule of interpretation.--Even of doctrines consistent with the
design of the parable or type, no conclusion must be gathered from any
part of either of them which is inconsistent with other clear revelations
of Divine truth....
Third rule of interpretation.--It is important that parables should
not be made the first or sole source of Scripture doctrine. Doctrine. otherwise
proved may be further illustrated or confirmed by them, but we are not
to gather doctrine exclusively or primarily from their representations.
It is of extreme importance when dealing with parables to separate that
which is essential from that which is only attendant to the theme. If this
is not done false emphasis may be placed on the parable and wrong conclusions
Horne has given a careful and thorough system of rules to guide in the
interpretation of parables. He writes:
1. The first excellence of a parable is, that it turns upon an image
well known and applicable to the subject, the meaning of which is clear
and definite; for this circumstance will give It that perspicuity which
is essential to every species of allegory.
2. The image, however, must not only be apt and familiar, but must also
be elegant and beautiful in itself, and all its parts must be perspicuous
and pertinent; since It is the purpose of a parable, and especially of
a poetic parable, not only to explain more perfectly some proposition,
but frequently to give it animation and splendour.
3. Every parable is composed of three parts: 1. The sensible similitude.
. . the bark. . .2. The explanation or mystical sense. . . the sap or fruit.
. .3. The root or scope to which it tends.
4. For the right explanation and application of parables, their general
scope and design must be ascertained.
5. Wherever the words of Jesus seem to be capable of different senses,
we may with certainty conclude that to be the true one which lies most
level to the apprehension of his auditors.
6. As every parable has two senses, the literal or external, and the
mystical or internal sense, the literal sense must be first explained,
in order that the correspondence between It and the mystical sense may
be the more readily perceived.
7. It is not necessary, in the interpretation of parables, that we should
anxiously insist upon every single word; nor ought we to expect too curious
an adaptation or accommodation of it In every part to the spiritual meaning
inculcated by it; for many circumstances are introduced into parables which
are merely ornamental, and designed to make the similitude more pleasing
8. Attention to Historical Circumstances, as well as an acquaintance
with the nature and properties of the things whence the similitudes are
taken, will essentially contribute to the interpretation of the parables.
9. Lastly, although in many of his parables Jesus Christ has delineated
the future state of the church, yet he intended that they should convey
some important moral precepts, of which we should never lose sight in interpreting
D. Prophetic revelation through dreams and ecstasies.
In the earlier periods of prophetic revelation the revelation was frequently
made through dreams and ecstatic trances. Terry, on this phase of prophetic
Dreams, night visions, and states of spiritual ecstasy are mentioned
as forms and conditions under which men receive such revelations. In Num.
xii, 6, it is written: "And he said, Hear now my words: if there be
a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision,
and will speak unto him in a dream."
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The dream is noticeably prominent among the earlier forms of receiving
divine revelations, but becomes less frequent at a later period. The most
remarkable instances of dreams recorded in the Scriptures are those of
Abimelech (Gen. xx, 3-7), Jacob at Bethel (xxviil, 12), Laban in Mt Gilead (xxxi, 24), Joseph respecting the sheaves and the luminaries
the Midianite (Judg. vii, 13-15). Solomon (1 Kings iii, 5; ix, 2), Nebuchadnezzar
(Dan. ii and iv), Daniel (Dan. vii, 1), Joseph (Matt 1, 20; ii, 13, 19),
and the Magi from the East (Matt. II, 12). The "night vision"
appears to have been essentially the same nature as the dream (comp. Dan.
ii, 19; vii, 1; Acts xvi, 9; xviii, 9; xxvii, 23).
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But dreams, we observed, were rather the earlier and lower forms of
divine revelation. A higher form was that of prophetic ecstasy, in which
the spirit of the seer became possessed of the Spirit of God, and, while
yet retaining its human consciousness, and susceptible of human emotion,
was rapt away into visions of the Almighty and made cognizant of words
and things which no mortal could naturally perceive.
The prophetic ecstasy. . . was evidently a spiritual sight seeing, a
supernatural illumination, in which the natural eye was either closed .
.. or suspended from its ordinary functions, and the inner senses vividly
grasped the scene that was presented, or the divine word which was revealed.28
The interpretation of the prophecies given through dreams or prophetic
ecstasy will present no special problems of interpretation. Although the
method of giving the prophecy may have been unique that which was given
did not differ from a prophecy stated in clear language. In such a revelation
the method differed, not the words, and so they may be interpreted without
III. RULES FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
The last section has dealt with the problems relative to the interpretation
of prophecies that arise because of the nature of the language involved.
Attention is now directed to a discussion of the general principles involved
in the interpretation of the prophecies when once that which is prophesied
is clearly understood.
The interpretation of prophecy requires attention to the same considerations
in regard to words, context, grammar, and historical situations that are
the accepted principles in respect to any field of interpretation. Terry
states this thus:
. . .it will be seen that, while duly appreciating the peculiarities
of prophecy, we nevertheless must employ in its interpretation essentially
the same great principles as in the Interpretation of other ancient writings.
First, we should ascertain the historical position of the prophet; next
the scope and plan of his book; then the usage and import of his words
and symbols; and, finally, ample and discriminating comparison of the parallel
Scriptures should be made.29
There is no lack of lists of rules to guide us in the interpretation
of prophecy.30 Perhaps those suggested by Ramm are the most helpful:
(1) Determine the historical background of the prophet and the prophecy.
(2) Determine the full meaning and significance of all proper names, events,
geographical references, references to customs or material culture, and
references to flora and fauna. (3) Determine if the passage is predictive
or didactic. (4) If predictive determine if fulfilled, unfulfilled, or
conditional. (5) Determine if the same theme or concept is also treated
elsewhere. (6) As a reminder, keep vividly in mind the flow of the passage,
i.e., pay attention to context. (7) Notice that element of the prophecy
that is purely local or temporal. (8) Take the literal interpretation of
prophecy as the limiting guide in prophetic interpretation.31
A. Interpret literally.
Perhaps the primary consideration in relation to the interpretation of
prophecy is that, like all other areas of Biblical interpretation, it must
be interpreted literally. Regardless of the form through which the prophetic
revelation is made, through that form some literal truth is revealed. It
is the problem of the interpreter to discover that truth. Davidson affirms:
This I consider the first principle in prophetic interpretation--to
read the prophet literally--to assume that the literal meaning is his
meaning-that he is moving among realities, not symbols, among concrete
things like peoples, not among abstractions like our Church, world, etc.32
The reason a non-literal method of interpretation is adopted is, almost
without exception, because of a desire to avoid the obvious interpretation
of the passage. The desire to bring the teaching of Scripture into harmony
with some predetermined system of doctrine instead of bringing doctrine
into harmony with the Scriptures has kept the method alive.33
Without doubt the greatest confirmation of the literal method of interpreting
prophecies comes from an observation of the method God has employed to fulfill
the prophecies that have already been fulfilled, Masselink says:
We can therefore derive our method of interpretation for the unfulfilled
prophecy from the fulfilled, because we may safely deduce the guiding principles
for the unfulfilled prophecy from the fulfilled predictions which are recorded
in the New Testament.34
From our vantage point in time prophecy is divided into that which has
been fulfilled and that which is unfulfilled. From God's viewpoint prophecy
is a unit, indivisible on the time basis. Since it is a unit, and therefore
indivisible, that method used in those prophecies that are now fulfilled
will also be the method used to fulfill those prophecies that await future
fulfillment. In the field of fulfilled prophecy it is not possible to point
to any prophecy that has been fulfilled in any way other than literally.
The New Testament knows of no other method of fulfilling the Old. God has
thus established His divine principle. Feinberg says:
. . . in the interpretation of prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled,
those prophecies which have been fulfilled are to form the pattern. The
only way to know how God will fulfill prophecy in the future is to ascertain
how He has done it in the past All the prophecies of the suffering Messiah
were literally fulfilled in the first advent of Christ We have no reason
to believe that the predictions of a glorified and reigning Messiah will
be brought to pass in any other manner.35
The conclusion must be that the New Testament literal method of fulfillment
establishes the literal method as God's method in regard to unfulfilled
B. Interpret according to the harmony of prophecy.
The second rule is laid down in 2 Peter 1:20-21, where the author affirms
that no prophecy is of "private interpretation." Prophecy must
be interpreted in harmony with the whole prophetic program. Feinberg says:
There are several well-defined laws for the interpretation of prophecy.
The Scripture itself lays down the first and most essential of all. Peter
tells us in his second letter that "no prophecy of the scripture is
of any private interpretation." By this it is not meant that no private
individual can interpret prophecy. The idea intended by the apostle is
that no prophecy of the Word is to be interpreted solely with reference
to ....... but all other portions of the prophetic revelation are to be
taken into account and considered. Every prophecy is part of a wonderful
scheme of revelation; for the true significance of any prophecy the whole
prophetic scheme must be kept in mind and the interrelationship between
the parts in the plan as well.36
This will call for a careful study, not only of the general themes of
prophecy, but also of all passages related to any given theme so a harmonized
view be gained, for one prediction will often throw light upon another.
C. Observe the perspective of prophecy.
Events which bear some relationship to one another and are parts of one
program, or an event typical of another so that there is a double reference,
may be brought together into one prophecy even though separated widely in
fulfillment. Feinberg states:
. . .in the interpretation of prophecy . . . due attention must be paid
to perspective. Certain events of the future are seen grouped together
in one circumscribed area of vision, although they are really at different
distances. This is particularly true of the predictions of the so-called
major prophets where many times prophecies concerning the Babylonian captivity,
the events of the day of the Lord, the return from Babylon, the world wide
dispersion of Israel, and their future re-gathering from all the corners
of the earth, are grouped together seemingly almost indiscriminately.37
Failure to observe this principle will result in confusion.
D. Observe the time relationships.
As has previously been pointed out, events that are widely separated
as to the time of their fulfillment may be treated within one prophecy.
This Is particularly true in the prophecies concerning Christ, where events
of the first and second advents are spoken of together as though taking
place at the same time. In like manner the second and third dispersions
of the Jews are viewed in prophecy as taking place without interruption.
Feinberg refers to this principle by saying:
Another rule of prophetic interpretation is what is known a. foreshortening
which, according to Dr. Arthur T. Pierson, may assume any one of several
forms. Two or more events of a like character may be described by a common
......... Furthermore, a common and important example of foreshortening
is evident where future events are placed side by side whereas in the fulfillment
there is a great gap. . .38
It is important to observe that the prophet may view widely separated
events as continuous, or future things as either past or present.
E. Interpret prophecy Christologically.
The central theme of all prophecy is the Lord Jesus Christ. His person
and His work is the grand theme of the prophetic story. Peter writes:
Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently,
who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you; Searching what,
or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify,
when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that
should follow [1 Pet. 1:10-11].
John writes: "...the testimony of Jesus Is the spirit of prophecy"
(Rev. 19:10). Both are emphasizing this very fact.
F. Interpret historically.
It hardly need be pointed out that before one can interpret he must know
the historical background of the prophet and the prophecy. Ramm says;
". . . a study of history is the absolute first starting point
in any study of prophecy, whether the prophecy be didactic or predictive."39
This historical background will include .... . the full meaning and significance
of all proper names, events, geographical references, references to customs
or material culture, and references to flora and fauna."40
G. Interpret grammatically.
Sufficient has been said earlier on this point to make it necessary to
do no more here than remind the interpreter of prophecy that the strict
rules that govern grammatical interpretation must be applied to this field
of study with no less care.
H. Interpret according to the law of double reference.
This has likewise been dealt with previously. It is sufficient to be
reminded that oftentimes in a prophecy there may be a near view and far
view. Of these the near view may have been fulfilled and the far view await
fulfillment, or both may be in the realm of fulfilled prophecy. Again there
may have been a double reference to two events of similar character, both
of which were in the distant future. The fact that part of the prophecy
has been fulfilled without the fulfillment of the rest of It does not argue
for a figurative or non-literal method of fulfillment of that unfulfilled
portion, but such a partial fulfillment does promise a complete, literal,
future fulfillment of the whole.
I. Interpret consistently.
It is impossible to mix the methods of interpretation in the field of
prophecy. One method must be adopted and used consistently throughout. It
may safely be stated that the problem in the interpretation of prophecy
is this problem of consistency. To the degree we have been inconsistent
in the application of sound hermeneutical principles we have been in error
in our conclusions and interpretations. The observance of these sound rules
of prophetic interpretation will lead one into a correct interpretation
of the Scriptures.
Return to Bible Interpretation Page
1. Gustav Friedrich Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 488 ff.
2. C. Von Orelli, "Prophecy, Prophets," International Standard
Bible Encyclopedia, IV, 2459-66, summarized by Ramm, op. cit., p. 158.
3. Joseph Angus and Samuel G. Green, The Bible Handbook, p. 245.
4. Thomas Hartwell Horne, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge
of the Holy Scriptures, I, 390.
5. R. B. Girdlestone, The Grammar of Prophecy, p. 21.
6. Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 32.
7. Horne, op. cit., I, 391.
8. Girdlestone, op. cit., pp. 25 ff.
9. Ibid., pp. 28 ff.
10. George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, I, 176.
11. Milton, R. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 405.
12. Ibid., p. 336.
13. Angus-Green, op. cit., pp. 225-26.
14. Charles T. Fritsch, "Biblical Typology," Bibliotheca Sacra,
104:214, April, 1947.
15. Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, pp. 131-32.
16. Ibid., p. 106.
17. Angus-Green, op. cit., p. 227.
18. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 147.
19. Cited by Terry, op. cit., pp. 357-58.
20. Terry, op. cit., pp. 356-57.
21. Ibid., p. 415.
22. Charles L. Feinberg, Premillennialism of
Amillennialism, p. 37.
23. Girdlestone, op. cit., p. 87.
24. Angus-Green, op. cit., p. 228.
25. Ramm, op. cit., pp. 179 ff.
26. Angus-Green, op. cit., pp. 230-33.
27. Horne, op. cit., I, 366-68.
28. Terry, op. cit., pp. 396-97.
29. Ibid., p. 418.
30. Cf. Ramm, op. cit., pp. 157-162 for a summary of the rules by various
writers on hermeneutics.
31. Ramm, op. cit., pp. 163-73.
32. A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, p. 167.
33. Cf. Angus-Green, op. cit., pp. 247-48.
34. William Masselink, Why Thousand Years?, p. 36.
35. Feinberg, op. cit., p. 39.
36. Ibid., p. 37.
37. Ibid., p. 38.
39. Ramm, op. cit. p. 163.
40. Ibid., p. 164.