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How Should I Interpret Prophecy?
To have validity, our method of interpretation (i.e., our hermeneutic) must be consistent and without contradiction, and it must never be governed by a theological predisposition or school of thought. In other words, if our hermeneutic is controlled by our theology, then the Bible can be twisted to say whatever our theology would have it say—which, of course, is what often happens in the study of the end times.
Likewise, our method of interpretation will have a far-reaching effect on our theological conclusions. Thus, it is axiomatic that those who use a different method of interpretation (i.e., a different hermeneutic) will end up with basically different doctrines and theology. How important it is, then, that we be very clear about what our hermeneutic is—and, even more important, that we are in fact using the right principles of interpretation in order to properly understand the truth of God’s Word.
The following principles of interpretation—none of them unique to this writer but all of them held by careful students of Scripture throughout history—have been followed as honestly and consistently as possible.
The first principle is that all Scripture is to be understood in its most natural, normal, customary (i.e., literal or face value) sense, allowing, of course, for obvious figures of speech (almost always explained further in the same passage or elsewhere in Scripture, i.e., Gen. 3:1; cf Rev. 12:9), which includes both symbols and expressions. Chances are that if the plain sense makes sense, you have the right sense.
Martin Luther called this the principle of literal interpretation, interpreting Scripture by its sensus literalis. Many of the greatest advances in the biblical scholarship of the Reformation resulted from the application of that single principle. In its simplest meaning and application, that principle means that we read and evaluate Scripture with the same normal understanding of words and figures of speech that we use to read any other serious book or carry on any serious conversation.
This principle has special relevance in the study of prophecy, and in fact finds strong confirmation in the way Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled in the life of Christ. For example, the Old Testament contains over three hundred prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ. Although many of those prophecies are virtual duplicates, at least sixty distinct facets of Christ’s life and ministry were predicted, and all sixty, without exception, were literally fulfilled, at face value. It is not only a matter of faith but of biblical principle to expect the many prophecies of Christ’s second coming to be fulfilled with equal literalness and completeness.
Prophecy that is not fulfilled is not true prophecy at all, and it proves itself to be simply misguided human speculation. A biblical argument that speaks directly to how prophecy should be understood is found in Deuteronomy 18:20–22. Here the Israelites are told how to determine if what a prophet is telling them is truly prophecy from God or mere human speculation. The conclusion of this passage is that “when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken.”
Earlier in verse 20, God tells His people that when this man’s prophecy does not come true, “that prophet shall die.” Only a literal, face-value understanding of what is being prophesied could ever be put to that test, and the prophecies concerning Christ’s first coming bear witness to this.
When we use this principle of taking Scripture at face value, the Bible suddenly comes alive in a new way. We have a renewed confidence in the reliability of God’s Word—that it is literally true, that it is something lay persons can understand, and that the events described in its pages really will happen according to God’s sovereign time and plan. No longer do we approach the Bible looking for an obscure spiritualized meaning, but rather for the literal understanding of events that have actually occurred or will happen sometime in the future.
The second principle has to do with the context in which a word, phrase, or larger passage is being presented. Sometimes that involves careful understanding of the complete biblical book being studied, meticulously interpreting a given idea or principle in light of the overall thrust and nature of the book as well as in light of its immediate context. The context involves the persons or kind of persons being addressed in a passage, and the historical setting and situation in which the passage is given. I have never forgotten the truth of the simple dictum, “A text taken out of context is no more than a pretext.”
The third principle, equally important as the first two, is that of comparing Scripture with Scripture. A word, phrase, or concept should first of all be studied in light of its use in the passage being studied and then in light of its use in other passages of Scripture. When a given text is not explicit about a truth, no conclusion should be drawn about that truth until all relevant passages have been studied.
Of course, some passages are not as clear as others, and some truths are more implicit than explicit. When this is the case, those truths that are more implicit always need to be understood in light of those that are more explicit, never the reverse. Likewise, the more important a truth is, the more carefully related truths should be compared and examined. Because Scripture is always its own best interpreter, careful comparison always adds depth and clarity to our understanding.
Fourth, contradictions are never acceptable. The importance of this principle cannot be overstated. After all passages relating to a specific issue are carefully studied and compared, no interpretation is valid that does not genuinely harmonize with all other passages speaking directly to the same issue. If God’s Word is inerrant, it cannot be self-contradictory. If two passages seem to be contradictory, truth has not yet been discovered, and no position should be taken. Rather, keep looking. Eventually a higher common denominator will be found that perfectly harmonizes the critical passages in question. Only then does one have truth, not before.
Fifth, it is recognized that many passages of Scripture, in both Testaments, have both near and far implications and applications. In other words, prophecy often operates on two levels of fulfillment at the same time. On the first level, there is a divinely revealed “near” prediction relating to a soon-coming event. But on a second level, there is a corresponding “far” prediction that will be fulfilled at a later time, or in the events of the end times.
The failure to recognize and apply this principle has caused immeasurable confusion among even the most godly and scholarly students of Scripture. Obviously, misuse of this principle, as of any other, will also cause confusion and misunderstanding. For a near/far interpretation to be valid, it must clearly be allowed for by the context and by the specific wording of the text itself, as well as be consistent with the rest of Scripture speaking to the same issue. Whenever such prophecies are dealt with in this volume, their near/far aspects will be established as carefully and as fully as this author knows how.
Several general comments on the basic issue of hermeneutics need to be made.
In relation to a given prophetic event or issue, careful study of various texts in the Old and New Testaments will reveal that the different terminology and styles of the writers will describe the same event or issue with equal and consistent truthfulness, though often not in the same detail or from the same perspective as the other. Many examples will be seen in our study of end-time events as Scripture is compared to Scripture. But one needs only to look at the first coming of Christ to see the principle in operation.
Psalm 22, written by David, gives the reader one perspective of the crucifixion of Christ; Isaiah 53 gives another perspective of exactly the same event; while Daniel 9:26 simply says, “Messiah will be cut off and have nothing.”
Either the context or the similarity of the events described must be present for the student of prophecy to make the connection between the passages in question. But where a genuine connection exists, the different perspectives found in various passages bring a fuller understanding of the same event.
Our understanding of the end times will increase as history continues to unfold and verify biblical prophecy. Many of the prophetic passages of the Old Testament were unclear to those who first heard or read them. God’s people were not certain whether a given prophetic message related to their own times or to the future. As with near/far prophecies, the biblical language clarified some of the uncertainties. In regard to many passages, the modern student of prophecy has the great advantage of looking back and learning from the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, as revealed in the New Testament or as recognized in subsequent history.
Daniel was told to “conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time … for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time” (Dan. 12:4, 9). When the end times actually do come, the church will have had a long historical base from which to gain understanding of many of the prophetic passages that hitherto were a mystery. History has been, and will continue to be, a source of prophetic insight for those who carefully study God’s Word. Since Israel gained possession and control of her homeland in 1948, for instance, we have a perspective on prophecy that could only have been understood after that momentous event occurred.
In summary, in working on this volume I have tried diligently to be faithful to all of these principles of hermeneutics, never being satisfied with a conclusion or interpretation unless it was in complete harmony with every biblical text I was able to find on the subject. However, whenever clear biblical truth is found, never do we dare to stand in judgment of that truth; rather, that truth always stands in judgment of us! There can be no exceptions; no spiritualizing, no allegorizing, no culturalizing, no semiticizing, no rationalizing is ever permissible. God says what He means and means what He says; our only response is to bow in acceptance of His truth, however reassuring or unsettling we may find it to be.
© 2010 – 2011, Matt. All rights reserved.
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