Interpretation of Prophetic Passages

By Gil Rugh

Why are there different views?

We frequently hear people say, “Everyone has their own interpretation,” as if the Bible is difficult to understand. But, consider this: If God chose to reveal himself, and he has, wouldn’t He reveal himself in a way we could understand?

The Bible is the Word of God.

We believe God has chosen to reveal himself and that the Bible is that revelation. This revelation is everything we need to know. We also believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures. By this we mean that the Holy Spirit moved the human authors of the Scriptures so that what they wrote were the very words of God.

Diversity over Prophecy

Bernard Ramm identified the cause of diversity in the interpretation of prophetic passages in his book, Protestant Biblical Interpretation.

“The real issue in prophetic interpretation among evangelicals is this: can prophetic literature be interpreted by the general method of grammatical exegesis, or is some special principle necessary?” (p. 244)

Clarence Bass introduces and defines allegorical interpretation in his book, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism.

“Two basic principles of interpretation are thus available: the grammatical-historical (literal) and the allegorical. The literal method is that method which gives the word the meaning it would normally have according to its natural construction and usage. The allegorical method is that method which takes the same word and seeks to find a deeper meaning than the natural one.” (p. 22)

Principles of interpretation and where they lead

We would be on shaky ground if we were to cast aside the historical, grammatical principles of interpretation. And, it’s interesting that even those who disagree with the literal interpretation of prophecy know what conclusions would result from the literal method of interpretation.

Bass, in his attempt to discredit literal interpretation, correctly identified the result of literal interpretation.

“This leads to exact futuristic fulfillment of every detail of early prophetic statements.” (p. 23)

“If the pattern of rigid literalness is to be followed to its natural conclusions, the same dispensationalists who insist that the unconditional promises to Israel must be literally fulfilled as to the land, seat of government, restoration of temple, etc., during the millennial reign of Christ, must also (as true dispensationalists do) believe that the “new Jerusalem” described in the closing chapter of Revelation will actually be the eternal abode of the saints continuing on earth.” (p. 23)

Yes! That is exactly where the literal interpretation of prophecy takes us! We believe that.

Another spokesman against the literal interpretation of prophecy is Graeme Goldsworthy, author of Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics. He goes so far as to say that literal interpretation of the Bible is not consistent with the gospel (p. 167). However, Goldsworthy does acknowledge that in the prophecies that were fulfilled, they were fulfilled literally.

“Because Jesus is an historical figure, an Israelite who has come in the flesh, he indeed fulfils some prophecies in a rather literal way.” (p. 170)

Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. (Not somewhere in the Middle East.) Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That is not rather literal. It is completely literal.

The interpretation problem is not over the meaning of “literal.” It’s over whether we choose a literal or allegorical interpretation of prophecy. The allegorical interpretation embraces deeper, hidden meanings to the words. Can you imagine where that could take you?

The only trustworthy method for interpreting the Bible, including the prophetic passages, is via a literal, historical, grammatical method.

Principles of Interpretation

The principles for interpreting Scripture in a literal manner are the following:

Historical Setting: We look at Scripture in its historical setting and consider it in that context.

Rules of Grammar: We must know what words mean and interpret them according to their normal usage. We need to understand sentence structure and follow the normal rules of grammar as we seek to understand the meaning of a passage in the Bible. Literal does not mean there are not figures of speech or symbols in the Bible. Those things are part of speech. We read them and understand what they mean.

Context: This determines meaning. Words have different meanings depending on their context.

Authorial Intent: What did the original author mean?

Progressive Revelation: God did not reveal everything to the prophets at once. For example, He did not tell the Old Testament prophets about the two comings of Christ. The prophets wrote what God revealed to them, but they did not know that some events would occur at one time in history and other events at another time. Later, more revelation was given, which helped clarify previous revelation. That did not change previous revelation, but it may change our understanding of it.

Progress in Revelation

At the last supper, Jesus told the disciples that they would sit on thrones in His kingdom. Even after His resurrection, the disciples still did not understand that the kingdom would not be established until His second coming. Shortly before He ascended to heaven the disciples asked, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus told them that they didn’t need to know the timing of that event.

God chose to reveal the chronological order of future prophetic events to the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation. This book lays out many of the events prophesied in the Old Testament in the order that they will occur and it is not difficult to understand using the literal, historical, grammatical method of interpretation. We are blessed to see how God’s plan throughout the ages fits together perfectly as we study the Book of Revelation.