Interpreting Biblical Prophecy

The interpretation of Biblical prophecy is something that is very important for any student of the Bible and is unfortunately very neglected by pastors and lay people alike.  Between 1/4 to 1/3 of the Bible is prophecy and this alone makes proper interpretation important for anyone who wants to understand the Bible.

The interpretation of Biblical prophecy has gained importance all the more in our era however as more and more people are claiming that we are near the end times. 

If this is true, we need to know what we can expect – and whether or not we will even be on earth to witness most of it.  And even if the end time events are still very distant, it is prophecy that gives us a glimpse of heaven and what we can expect.

The most important question concerning prophecy is whether we should interpret it literally or figuratively.  This has been a divisive issue for centuries going well back into the early church of the third and fourth centuries.

Augustine was one who advocated a so called “dual hermeneutic.”  In other words, interpret normal scripture to be literal, interpret anything prophetic to be symbolic.  Certainly, his ideas are popular even to this day.

But the question must be asked, was prophecy intended to be interpreted literally or figuratively.  I believe that the question can be answered by looking at prophecies that we know have been answered.

Abraham was promised descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore even though he was old and did not have an heir.  This was fulfilled literally despite the improbability of it.

In Isaiah 7:14 the prophet predicts that the virgin will be with child, we see this fulfilled literally in the birth of Jesus, despite the impossibility of it. 

When Daniel tells King Belshazzar the meaning of the words “mene mene tekel parsin” and informs him that his kingdom will be taken from him that very night, it happens literally that very night.

And of course there are numerous other prophecies, many concerning the coming of Christ that have been fulfilled literally.  So the question must be asked, would God fulfill some prophecies literally and other prophecies figuratively?  And if God would do such a thing, how does one discern which will be fulfilled literally and which will be figuratively?

The second important thing to consider when studying prophecy is the concept of time.  Time means very little with prophecy and this lead many to miss the coming of Christ.  They saw prophecies of a coming Messiah that would overthrow the oppressors and rule from David’s throne.  What they missed was the prophecies that speak of a suffering Messiah and they could not untangle the two.

Looking at prophecy is like looking at a set of mountains.  From a distance, the back mountain looks like it is right behind the first mountain.  It is only when a person is on top of the first mountain that the realize the second mountain is quite a distance off.

It is the same with prophecy.  It may look like all one part, but often there is a time gap.  Only when the first part has been fulfilled are we able to look and realize that the next part is still future.

This is no better illustrated than perhaps in Luke 4:18-21.  Jesus speaks:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 in this passage, but he stops speaking abruptly in the middle of the second verse.  Verse 2 in its entirety says, “… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn…”

So why did Jesus stop in the middle of the sentence?  The day of vengeance was still future.  However, if Jesus is speaking the truth, the first part of this prophecy was fulfilled in their hearing.

So how do we distinguish prophecy and prevent the same errors as the Jews of Jesus’ time?  We may pay close attention to what scripture says and understand what has already been fulfilled and what has not been fulfilled.  If a prophecy has not been fulfilled literally, it is safe to conclude that it is yet future, even if part of the prophecy has already been fulfilled.

A third step is to determine what are conditional promises and what are unconditional promises.  God gives some promises that hinge upon a people acting a certain way while other promising are unconditional and will happen regardless of what happens.

For a conditional prophecy, consider the book of Jonah.  It was Jonah’s job to go to Nineveh and prophesy that God would destroy the city.  But Jonah did not desire to do the Lord’s will because Nineveh was a very wicked city and he did not want to pronounce God’s judgment upon it.  If this was an unconditional promise, Jonah would have delighted in seeing the destruction of a wicked city full of the enemies of God.

But when Jonah finally goes and prophecies the people repent and he complains to God in Jonah 4 , “‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

Jonah had prophesied to Nineveh that it had forty days left, but the unspoken condition was that this was true if they did not repent.

For an unconditional prophecy, consider Psalm 89 where God guarantees an eternal throne for the kingdom of Israel.  Verses 30-37 tell us of unconditional promises:

“If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statutes, if they violate my decrees and fail to keep my commands, I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; but I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.  I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered.  Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness– and I will not lie to David– that his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun; it will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.”

The fourth principle in interpreting prophecy should be a given but it is often overlooked.  Scripture does not contradict itself.  If another passage of scripture would appear to contradict your interpretation of a prophecy one of two things must be done.  Either explain why that passage does not contradict your interpretation of the prophecy or re-evaluate your interpretation of this passage. 

The positions many people take on prophecy involve ignoring certain passages of scripture because they can offer no explanation for them.  For a blatant example of this, consider the position taken by some amillennialists.  (An amillennialist is a person who does not believe in a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ at the second coming.)

Some amillennialists say that we are currently living in the millennial kingdom, beginning at the first coming of Christ, or at the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Revelation 20 describes that during this time, Satan will be bound.  This means that if we are living in the millennial kingdom, Satan is currently bound. 

Yet, if Satan is bound during this time, one has to explain the casting out of demons that occurs in the New Testament.  If Satan was bound at the first coming of Christ, one has to explain how Satan entered Judas in John 13:27.  And if Satan was bound at the beginning of the church age, one has to find a way to explain 1 Peter 1:8 which says, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

If one has found a way to satisfactorily explain these passages, that is fine.  As such, I have not heard an explanation and many choose to ignore these passages.  If one re-evaluates their view on this, they must then re-evaluate how Satan can not be bound and still consider the present age to be part of millennial kingdom.

The important thing is that one considers all of the details and makes sure that they do not contradict other scriptures.

In summary, the four keys to interpreting prophecy are:

Determine if prophetic passages should be taken literally

Understand that time doesn’t matter in regards to prophecy – parts may be fulfilled and parts may yet be future

Determine if the prophecy is conditional or unconditional

Understand that scripture cannot and does not contradict itself.  If your interpretation contradicts scripture, you must either explain the contradictory passage or re-evaluate your view.

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