UNDERSTANDING OF PROPHECY
INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
BIBLE TEACHERS AND INTERPRETERS generally approach Bible
prophecy in one of two ways: (I) with a literal hermeneutic, or
(2) by allegorizing or spiritualizing the prophecies. Jewish
orthodoxy generally interpreted the Old Testament literally. The
Pharisees in Jesus' day also maintained that the prophecies about
the Messiah and the kingdom would come to pass in history. Now,
many amillennialists claim the Pharisees' acceptance of
literalism is a good reason for us to reject it. But this is a
fallacious argument. Christ never chided the Pharisees for their
literal interpretation of prophecy. Rather, He criticized their
legalism and pride.
Ramm points out that the literal meaning of a prophecy
should guide its interpretation. To the Jew, "Zion" meant Zion,
and "Canaan" meant Canaan. The first rule of the interpretation
of prophecy should be to establish the literal meaning. That
meaning is the prophet's meaning. Though the prophet may use
symbols, readers should take literally the plain meaning of the
passage. To interpret "Zion" or "Jerusalem" as the church is to
destroy the Bible's teaching about Christ's literal return to
earth and about the land promises to Israel. Those promises are
not given to the church! (See Ramm, p.46.)
John E Walvoord rightly contends that the interpretation of
Bible prophecy really falls into two distinct camps:
The premillennial and the amillennial (Walvoord, chapter 5).
Walvoord also focuses on the method of interpreting Scripture.
Premillennialists use a "grammatical-historical" or literal
interpretation, and amillenarians use a spiritual interpretation.
The amillennial approach of interpreting Bible prophecy is
not consistent. Amillennialists believe Christ's first coming was
literal and historical, but His second coming and the attending
events are spiritual. Most amillennialists would say that to take
Christ's second coming in a literal manner is actually
"Judaizing" the biblical text.
Philo (ca. 10 B.C.- A.D. 50)
Philo Judaeus was an Alexandrian Jew who was influenced by
Hellenistic thinking and culture. Philo was a Platonist and a
mystic. Most of the rabbis of his day rejected his writings, and
because of this some Christian groups preserved his writings as
defense against the legalism of the Jews. Philo employed an
allegorical hermeneutic. The word allegory actually means "to say
another thing," or to look for a hidden meaning. Allegory is the
direct opposite of a literal interpretation. Philo interpreted
the story of Cain and Abel, the laws of Moses, circumcision, and
certain numbers in Scripture allegorically. Philo was loyal to
his Jewish roots, but his thinking was Greek. Most evangelicals
claim to have abandoned his Alexandrian school of allegory, but
many still retain this approach to prophecy.
Origen (ca. 185 - 25-4)
Origen of Alexandria may be the first Christian theologian
to challenge the premillennial orthodoxy of the early church.
Scholars agree that the early Christians were distinctly
Origen considered the literal method of interpretation to be
too simple, though he allowed for the literal approach to be used
alongside the typological and the spiritual. He taught that these
three approaches were likened to the human being - body, soul,
and spirit. Origen also allowed for multiple symbolic meanings
and interpretations of the Bible. He employed mystical and
speculative methods of interpretation to prophecy. Origen's
allegorical interpretations, including his views about prophecy,
gained acceptance in the early church. His influence, followed by
Constantine's acceptance of Christianity and Augustine's teaching
in the fourth century, helped amillennialism to become more
dominant than premillennialism.
Augustine took an allegorical and spiritual approach to
interpreting the book of Revelation. He spiritualized the
millennium of Revelation 20, equating it with Christ's present
reign with the saints in the church age. Augustine argued that
during this church age, Satan is bound, or limited in power.
Nevertheless, he still held to the 1000 years of Revelation 20 as
some kind of literal period. Augustine's interpretation of
prophecy persisted even after the Reformation; most of the
reformers and their followers accepted Augustinian eschatology.
CONSISTENT, LITERAL HERMENEUTICS
Hermeneutics is a science of language study that follows set
patterns of objective thinking. The term is most used in the
field of theology and in relation to the approach one uses to
interpret the Word of God. Bible readers should interpret
prophecy the same way they interpret any other portion of
Scripture. They should understand that (1) the Scriptures are the
inspired and inerrant message of God, delivered through His
appointed prophets and apostles, and that (2) such messengers did
not simply record their own thoughts but were "men moved by the
Holy Spirit [who] spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:21 NASB).
The message of the Bible unfolds from Genesis to Revelation.
This is called progressive revelation. God did not reveal
everything at once, so His revelation was not complete and final
until the last book was written. Bible passages should be
interpreted by the grammar, the history, the social context, and
the religious background - that is, in a normal and literal way.
"When we come to a prophetic passage, our commitment must be to
understand that passage according to the accepted laws of
language and not to seek some mystical or figurative
interpretation." It is essential, therefore, "to have this
literal mind-set as we approach the prophetic Word of God"
A literal interpretation allows for the normal use of signs,
symbols, figures of speech, parable, poetry, and the like. Yet
all of these natural literary devices point to a literal idea.
While some consider this a daunting interpretative task, in
reality it is not. This does not mean that those who take the
Bible in a more literal way never have interpretative problems.
Yet a consistently literal approach to prophecy brings forth a
clearer message of what is to come.
Benware provides us with some very important principles
about the interpretation of prophecy:
* Interpret prophecy literally. Literal interpretation assumes
that God wants people to understand His revelation, so He based
it on the normal rules of human communication. Literal
interpretation understands that in normal communication and in
the Scriptures, figures of speech are valuable as communication
* Interpret by comparing prophecy with prophecy. Prophecies weave
their way from some of the earliest chapters in Genesis to the
very end of Revelation. Thus, the interpreter of prophecy should
compare Scripture with Scripture in order to ascertain the entire
teaching on prophetic subjects. By so doing, a complete and
accurate picture comes into focus of what God is going to do and
perhaps how and why He is going to do it.
* Interpret in light of possible time intervals. Because the
ancients did not fully understand the flow of time, sometimes the
prophetic message compresses the time between events. This
telescoping phenomenon is common in the prophets and reveals gaps
in prophetic fulfillment......
(An example would be Isaiah 61:1-2. Christ quoted this at the beginning
of His ministry in the Gospels. He quoted or read from verse 1 to the
middle of verse 2, then stopped. For the last half of verse 2 is the
beginning of the prophecy of the end time, when God will step in to
judge the earth, and bring in the 1,000 year age or what is often
called "the millennium" - given in the book of Revelation chapter 20.
There is an interval or gap of about 2,000 years from the first part of
verse 2 to the last part of verse 2. But be aware that some make the mistake
of putting "gaps" where there is none. Daniel 9 and the 70 week prophecy
is often cited as a "gap prophecy" when in fact it is anything but an
interval prophecy. The truth of Daniel's 70 week prophecy is given in
detail on this Website - Keith Hunt)
* Interpret figurative language scripturally. Look within the
Bible for the interpretation of figurative language. Symbols and
figures of speech need to be interpreted in light of (1) the
immediate context, (2) the larger context, and (3) the
historical-cultural context. (See Benware, pp.19-29.)
Benware adds, "Prophecies that have been fulfilled
completely have been fulfilled literally, and that gives us
confidence to expect that those prophetic utterances that are not
yet fulfilled (or completely fulfilled) will also end up being
fulfilled literally. We believe that Jesus Christ will literally
return to this earth and reign at His second coming because He
literally came to this earth the first time, being born of the
virgin Mary at Bethlehem" (Benware, p.29).
COVENANT VS. DISPENSATIONAL HERMENEUTICS
Covenant theology is mainly amillennial in its origin. It is
based on the so-called covenant of grace that becomes the main
theme from Genesis to Revelation. Covenant theologians believe
salvation is the main work of God in time. They also blend the
various dispensations, blurring important distinctions in
Dispensationalists interpret Scripture literally. Therefore,
they keep the church distinct from Israel. The dispensation of
the millennial kingdom is different from the theocracy of Israel
or the church age. A normal hermeneutic brings these distinctions
to the surface. "If plain or normal interpretation is the only
valid hermeneutical principle and if it is consistently applied,
it will cause one to be a dispensationalist. As basic as one
believes normal interpretation to be, to that extent he will of
necessity become a dispensationalist" (Ryrie, p.90). With such an
approach, the interpreter will come to understand other aspects
of prophecy ...
Typology is one of the most difficult parts of interpreting
prophecy. The word type Greek, 'tupos' is used quite loosely in
the New Testament. Sometimes it refers to a figure or a divinely
intended resemblance. Typology illustrates the principle that
prophetic utterances somtimes have a latent and deeper meaning
than at first appears. Types prefigure coming realities, whereas
prophecies delineate the future. The Passover lamb of the Jews is
a type of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7). This interpretation does
not deny the historicity of Passover lambs vicariously slain in
every Jewish home, but it finds a higher application of the
Passover lambs in Christ, the Lamb of God.
Here are some rules about the use of types as explained by
Paul Lee Tan:
* Typological interpretation is not a different method of
interpretation. The interpretation of a type arises from the text
and has a higher application of the same sense of that text.
* Typological interpretation is therefore the unfolding of the
literal sense of the type, not the allegorization of that which
* When an Old Testament element is said to be a type of an
element in the New, this does not mean that one equals the other.
* Some fanciful typologists see types lurking everywhere and
anywhere in Scripture. Careful interpreters will avoid this.
* Some go to the other extreme and say that a type is not a type
unless the New Testament specifically says so.
* Types must be based on either the explicit or the implicit
teachings of Scripture. Imagination has no place in typology.
(See Tan, pp.169-71.)
Finally, some critics reject the prophetic teachings about a
coming literal millennial kingdom. They argue a literal kingdom
fails to recognize the truly spiritual nature of the kingdom, and
that a literal kingdom would merely be an earthly political
kingdom. However, the Old Testament predicts that the millennial
kingdom will be the greatest outpouring of the Spirit, with joy,
gladness, and peace in the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 35:10; 51:11;
Ezekiel 11:19; Joel 2:18-32). Those who argue against a literal
kingdom fail to recognize the difference between spiritualizing
the kingdom and the kingdom being spiritual. Spiritualizing is
equivalent to allegorizing. The Lord Jesus' reign and rule here
on earth will be a spiritual kingdom empowered and refreshed by
the work of God's Holy Spirit.
Interpreting the prophetic Word is not that difficult a
task, but it has been clouded by contrary voices that have
confused many earnest students of the Bible who wish to know what
the Lord has said about the future. Our enthusiasm for
understanding prophecy may begin with the words of the apostle
John in Revelation 4:1. Looking upward, he wrote:
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing
open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like
the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, "Come up
here, and I will show you what must take place after these
Benware, Paul. "Understanding End Times Prophecy." Chicago: Moody
Cohn, Norman. "The Pursuit of the Millennium." New York: Oxford
University Press, 1970.
Couch, Mal, " Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000.
--- "Dictionary of Premillennial Theology." Grand Rapids:
Ramm, Bernard. "Protestant Biblical Interpretation." Grand
Rapids: Baker Books, 1982.
Pyre, Charles C. "Dispensationalism." Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.
Tan, Paul Lee. "The Interpretation of Prophecy." Rockville, MD:
Assurance Publishers, 1988.
Trigg, Joseph Wilson, "Origen." Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983.
Walvoord, John F "The Millennial Kingdom." Findlay, OH: Dunham
Publishing Company, 1959.
Zuck, Roy B. "Basic Biblical Interpretation." Colorado Springs:
Victor Books, 1991.
The writer here is correct in what he has given you - Keith Hunt
Entered on this Website March 2009