THE INTERPRETATION OF BIBLICAL PROPHECY*
by Oral E. Collins, Ph.D
© Copyright 2001 by Oral E. Collins
"Blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written. . . ." (Rev. 1:3; cp. Luke. 11:28, John 12:47). The verb "to hear" in this context means "to be informed," and implies understanding. The crucial question for the earnest Christian reader of the book of Revelation is the question of hermeneutics—How do I hear? By what approach and by what interpretive methods do I arrive at a useful understanding of such a strange and complex book? How can I chart my course among the multifarious interpretations offered for each aspect of the prophecy? The serious student will want to study the biblical text and develop his personal understanding with some assurance. To do this, it is absolutely necessary to know and to apply sound principles of biblical interpretation.
The difference between general hermeneutics, which apply to any literature ancient or modern, and biblical hermeneutics is not fundamentally a difference in principle. The same general laws of language and communication apply to both. Similarly, the difference between the interpretation of biblical prophecy and the interpretation of other parts of Scripture is not a fundamental difference in principle. But prophecy is as different from historical narration or from epistolary style as poetry is from prose. Moreover, apocalyptic is a still more specialized literary mold. The peculiar difficulties of prophetic interpretation involve (1) an acquaintance with the common thought forms and structures of the ancient prophetic and apocalyptic literatures as distinctive literary types, (2) an understanding of the manner in which the original reader would have read such literature, and (3) an acquaintance with the specialized vocabulary, especially the symbols, in which prophecy is expressed.
Many serious errors in prophetic interpretation arise out of lack of regard for general principles. These principles are inherent in language communication and are generally agreed upon by those who are considered authorities on hermeneutics. They may be summarized as follows:
1. Ordinarily, no one text may have more than one meaning. This principle is essential to the integrity of language as communication. The legitimate exception to this rule arises when there is evidence in the context that the author makes a play upon a word having more than one meaning (see John 3:3, “again”/“from above”).
2. The meaning of a text should be that which is most natural from the standpoint of the historical and cultural background, including the linguistic and cultural orientations of both the author and the original, ancient reader.
3. The meaning of a text should be that which most naturally harmonizes with its context—what precedes and what follows.
4. A text should be interpreted with due respect for the literary structure and style of the larger passage of which it is a part.
5. The sense derived from a text should be that which results from a proper and full grammatical explanation of the language.
6. Words should be understood according to their various meanings as established and known through customary usage. This principle applies whether words are used literally or figuratively. In the latter circumstance, the figure should be either intrinsically obvious or else commonly known through usage. The literal meaning of a word is its primary or ordinary sense , as viewed in its context. An extension of rule six is the principle that the literal is to be assumed unless there is indication in the passage that figurative usage is involved. Any text can quickly be reduced to nonsense if arbitrary word meanings are introduced.
7. Only those inferences which may be drawn from a text which are necessarily implied may be taken as having the full authority of Scripture. An unnecessary inference requires confirmation from another text the meaning of which is clear.
Biblical hermeneutics is complicated by the fact that the Bible contains sixty-six books written in three languages by many authors over a span of fifteen hundred years. The linguistic and cultural background as well as some understanding of the history of the period is prerequisite to thorough study and exegesis of a biblical text. Although it may often prove helpful "to compare Scripture with Scripture," where questions of interpretation are involved, this should be done with awareness of the relationships between the meaning of words and the context and background of each particular text. It should not be assumed, for example, that the original readers of the Epistle of James (ca. A.D. 45-50) had access to the Epistle to the Romans (A.D. 57-58) for clarification.
Our approach to biblical hermeneutics assumes a supernatural view of the Bible as holy Scripture—the divinely inspired and therefore true Word of God. This presupposition of biblical
hermeneutics is derived principally from the teachings of Jesus (Matt. 5:17, 18, John 10:35, et al.). It is, as we should expect, reiterated by the Apostles (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21). Rule one below results directly from this approach. Rules two to four also follow from this Judeo-Christian concept of Scripture as Revelation.
1. A correct interpretation of any text will not stand in essential contradiction to any other statement of Scripture.
2. A doctrine which appears in Scripture unambiguously only once has equal authority to those which are frequently stated, being equally the Word of God, and may not therefore be altered by comparison with other texts.
3. Since God has revealed his Word progressively in history, we may expect that later texts may clarify or supplement those which are earlier.
4. No later text should be understood as contradicting earlier texts.
5. The illumination of the Holy Spirit, by means of which the Word of God is received, should not be understood as contraverting the mental processes (thereby avoiding in a mystical fashion the general principles above), but rather as a quickening or renewing of those faculties, so that they may function as free from the normal presuppositions, prejudices, and other encumbrances of sinful human nature (Rom. 12:2).
The Hermeneutics of Predictive Prophecy
The interpretation of prophecy is involved especially with prediction of events which were future from the standpoint of the original composition. Such predictions may have been fulfilled at some time now past or they may still await fulfillment. Although the general meaning of unfulfilled prophecies may be determined from the text, the full meaning may not be evident until the event predicted has actually occurred. It may be presupposed that the actual fulfillment of the prophecy in history will offer a correct alternative to previous misinterpretations. For this reason, it is to be assumed that the process of interpretation of historical prophecies is necessarily dynamic and progressive, every generation being responsible to study the prophecies and to discern the signs of its own times (Matt. 16:3).1
Several principles for the study of prophecy require particular consideration:
1. It is necessary first to reiterate a fundamental general rule of interpretation. Prophecy must be allowed its ordinary, or common sense meaning. William LaSor states: “The literal interpretation of a prophecy is the only basis of objectivity. Without it, any interpreter, with his own system, can make any prophecy mean anything.”2 A literal interpretation in so far as possible accepts common figures of speech and symbols according to the manner in which they were likely to have been known and understood in the days of the writer. To the extent that certain prophecies may have been intentionally veiled, it is reasonable to suppose that they may have been intentionally veiled to the original reader, but intended to be understood at some future time when in the Divine providence the prophecy is unveiled.
2. It is necessary to distinguish between conditional and unconditional prophecy. A conditional prophecy, if the condition is never met, will not be fulfilled. An example of such is Moses’ promise to Israel of God's blessings upon the nation pending her obedience (Lev. 26:3-13). To determine whether a prophecy is conditional, we are dependent upon the language of the text. For example, Zech. 14:4, which states in terms unqualified either by text or context, that one day the Lord shall stand upon the Mount of Olives cannot rightly be discarded as a conditional prophecy as some have done (see Ezek 36:22ff.).2
3. It is necessary to discover and give attention to biblical interpretations of biblical prophecies. These must give direction to any related prophetic exegesis. Some interpretations are explicit, as Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzor’s dreams (Daniel 2, 4), or Jesus’ interpretation of Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:18-21). Others consist only of allusive references which must be searched out, such as Daniel's quoting of Deuteronomy 32:34 (9:24) or Jesus' allusion to the “days of vengeance” of Deuteronomy 32:35 (LXX; Lu. 21:22).
4. It is necessary to study prophecy systematically throughout the Scriptures. Prophecy is interwoven with redemptive history and therefore is largely progressive and developmental by nature. As Cachemaille well states, "We must begin at the beginning, and work onwards; not at the ends to work backwards.”3 The great prophecies of Moses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are fundamental to an understanding of Daniel 9 or Matthew 24. Parallel prophecies must be searched out and compared, as for example, those of Ezekiel 36-48 and Zechariah 9-14.
5. It is necessary to distinguish between the message of the prophet and the fulfillment. As a matter of procedure, the meaning of the prophetic text should be determined first. Only after this should the question of fulfillment considered. It is true, however, that exegetical considerations which remain obscure or ambiguous may be clarified immediately when the broad outlines of the particular prophecy are recognized as fulfilled. Nevertheless, the interpreter must resist the temptation to wrongly identify the prophecy with a particular fulfillment in order to accommodate it to a particular historical event or to a particular prophetic system.
6. It is necessary to recognize the first complete fulfillment of a prophecy as the true fulfillment. Some prophecies are telescopic with the result that fulfillment will occur partly at one time and partly at
another. An example of this is Joel 2-3, a partial fulfillment of which occurred at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21). This is commonly called “double fulfillment,” a term which wrongly suggests double meaning. The integrity of prophecy may be at stake in the question of first fulfillment. See for example John the Baptist’s question of Jesus, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Jesus’ reply was to point up the fact that He was indeed doing the works predicted of Messianic times (see Isa 35:5, 6, 61:1; Matt 11:4).
The question of fulfillment presupposes that the student of prophecy must also be a student of history. One cannot discover the fulfillment of Daniel 11 without learning in some detail about the wars between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies in the third and second centuries, B.C., and neither can he know which prophecies of the Apocalypse have been fulfilled without a study of the history of the church from the days of the Apostle John. “The true Church of Christ has a perpetual interest in all the events of history; and if patiently and reverently followed, no study will more richly repay the devout disciple with spiritual profit and delight" (Cachemaille, p. 11).
The Special Hermeneutics of Apocalyptic Prophecy
1. It is necessary to identify the literary type. The visions of Daniel and the vision of Revelation, for example, are expressions of the apocalyptic dream-vision format. (An early biblical model in some respects analogous is Joseph’s dream in Gen. 37:9-101. Several of Daniel’s visions, where the form is more extended, carry their own interpretations. In the classic dream-vision genre, future events are often portrayed as if experienced in symbolic representation, consecutively one after the other. These represent the progress of history from the time of the prophet (or from some other indicated time) and extend into the future, usually to the end time. (See in addition to Daniel and Revelation the extra-biblical IV Enoch 83-90; 93, 91:12-17; II Baruch 36-41; 53-74; IV Esdras 11-12.)
2. It is necessary to recognize that the apocalyptic prophecies in God’s Word are real prophecies, concerned with real temporal, mundane future events which from the author's standpoint are subject to future fulfillment. They are not to be understood merely as a “philosophy of history”; that is, a disclosure of principles which govern future events. This follows from the manner in which the visions of Daniel are interpreted, as well as from what is stated in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1, 4:1).
3. It is necessary to recognize the characteristic concern of apocalyptic with the dualism of two world kingdoms, the rule of God and the rule of Satan, Christ and Antichrist. Thus we are normally and legitimately involved with such mundane matters as the course of nations, world politics and human warfare (see, e.g., Daniel 11).
4. It is necessary to distinguish between prophecies delivered primarily to Israel as the covenant nation (Daniel) and those delivered to the Church (Revelation), but at the same time to recognize that the Gentile church is now "grafted in," that is, included within the covenant framework and prophetic purview of Israel.
5. It is necessary to cope with the dramatic symbolism of apocalyptic literature. Most of the symbols were derived from the commonly known and understood language of the ancient Orient. It has been learned recently from Vulgarity literature that the seven-headed hydra or sea dragon is found in Canaanite mythology. Others no doubt were originally Babylonian or Persian. Some were astrological (as the sun, moon, and stars of Joseph's dream), others heraldic (the four beasts of Daniel 7). Greek mythology had similar composite monsters, such as the sphinx (a lion-like creature with wings and human head), the Chimera (a fire-breathing monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and the tail of a snake), or the Minotaur (half-bull and half-human). All were enemies of mankind. Numbers may be used as symbols, as for example, the number 666 (Rev. 13:18), where each figure has alphabetic value, or the "70 weeks" of Daniel 9, where the 70 "sevens" is traditionally understood to mean 490 years.
Only a very naive approach to Daniel or to Revelation would attempt to take the symbols with concrete literalism. Interpreters have little trouble with the beasts, but sometimes slip into hyper-literalism with more comfortable imagery, like the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19 or the falling of the stars in Revelation 6. A study of the interpreted visions of Daniel is helpful for developing our hermeneutic for Revelation.
The Year-Day Principle for the Interpretation of Numerical Prophecies
One of the more controversial principles of prophetic interpretation is the “year-day” principle. This is the principle whereby chronological designations such as “day,” “week,” or “month” are understood to be used symbolically. This interpretation presupposes that “day” or its derivative multiples used as symbols means “year” or corresponding multiples of years, so that one “day” means one year, one “week” means seven years, and so forth. The year-day principle is explicitly indicated in several old Testament texts (cited below), and is commonly applied to the “seventy weeks” prophecy of Daniel 9, but is often rejected in the interpretation of the Apocalypse. The following evidence strongly supports a more general respect for the “year-day” principle than is often allowed.
1. The principle has the support of the nearly unanimous voice of Protestant interpretation, especially with regard to the “70 weeks” of Daniel 9, from the Apostolic Church through the nineteenth century. The current skepticism is characteristic of the antisupernaturalistic attitude of our time. The negative attitude of some conservatives appears to result both from a somewhat simplistic and generalizing approach to prophetic study and the tendency of some nineteenth-century historicists to project dates for the return of Christ.
2. The symbolic character of the Apocalyptic vision favors a symbolic approach to the numerical chronologies which they contain. Note also that the year-day formula is an appropriate mask for the long periods of time involved. The 1000 years of Revelation twenty may be literal since it occurs after the second advent of Christ and therefore need not be veiled.
3. The principle of counting years for days is clearly established in non-apocalyptic portions of the Old Testament. This provides a reasonable source for understanding the numerical symbolism in the biblical apocalyptic. The relevant texts are Num 14:34, "According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you shall know My opposition," and Ezek 4:4-5, in which Ezekiel was to lie on his left side 390 days for the Israel's punishment and on his right side 40 days for the punishment of Judah, "for I have assigned you a number of days corresponding to the years of their iniquity" (NASB; emphasis mine). The obvious fulfillment of the Mosaic prophecy was the forty years of Israel's wandering in the wilderness. The rationale for the Ezekiel prophecy is less than clear, but the principle of a year for each day is unambiguously spelled out.4 Note that in both of the above instances the year-day formula is used in predictions of judgments against the covenant nation of Israel.
4. The principle is used in the “70 weeks” prophecy of Daniel with regard to the appearance of the Messiah. This, though not explicitly interpreted in the prophecy ("seventy sevens") is accepted as standard usage (Hebrew shab‘uim = “heptad or seven [weeks] of years ”).5 The 490 year period thus extends from 458 B.C.-A.D. 33, B.C. 1 & A.D. 1, being the same year.
In all occurrences of the year-day symbolism, a period of judgment is predicted, suggesting that Num 14:34 is the prototype for subsequent usage. In using the year-day principle it is important to distinguish between interpretation and application. Interpretation is concerned with the "year" as a symbol in the text and utilizes a 360-day year. Application applies the meaning of the text to history and involves real, 365¼-day years.6
We have now concluded our brief summary of principles for the interpretation of biblical prophecy, in which we first introduced as presuppositional some guidelines for general hermeneutics, then offered special rules for interpreting prophecy, followed by some of the more specialized requirements of apocalyptic literature. The thoughtful student of biblical prophecy will raise other questions requiring further in-depth study of interpretive method. In no other aspect of biblical study will one’s method more largely predetermine the results of one’s quest for biblical truth.
*Revision of an article which appeared in Henceforth 3.1 (Fall, 1974) 23-31.
1 For an excellent reading on this, see H. Grattan Guinness, “Progressive Interpretation,” The Approaching End of the Age (New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1884), pp. 79-138.
2 “Interpretation of Prophecy," Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), p. 99.
3 E.g., A. E. Hatch, Handbook of Prophecy, (Mendota, Ill.: Western A. C. Publication Society, 1913), p. 80.
4 The 390 years for the northern kingdom calculates from the Assyrian conquest in 721 B.C. The period would then have ended in 331 B.C., the time of Alexander's" conquest of Mesopotamia. The 40 years of Judah's punishment coincides with her captivity in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. It extends to 547 B.C., a time when Judah was still captive in Babylon. The captivity of Judah did not terminate until sometime after 538, the date of Cyrus' decree permitting the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. H. L. Ellison suggests that the number forty may have been "chosen by God as being less than the total of Babylonian lordship, and being at the same time reminiscent of the 40 years in the wilderness" ([Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956], p. 34.). Just how Alexander effected the destiny of the ten northern tribes is unknown. For a rather thorough discussion , see C. F. Keil and F. Delitzch, Commentary on the Old Testament: Ezekiel, Daniel (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrikson Publishers, 1989), p. 71-78.
5 F. Brown, S. R. Driver, & C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), p. 989 (col. 1.2.).
6 There is biblical and scientific evidence which suggests that some celestial occurrence effected a change in the length of the year about 747 B.C., at which time the Babylonians adopted a new calendar system with a solar year of 365 days (Era of Nabonassar; see The Velikovsky Affair, ed. by Alfred de Grazia (New I!yde Park; N.Y.: University Books, 1966), pp. 157-168.). The probable basis for the 360 day symbol is that earlier calendar, was in fact 360 days, as required by the Genesis account of the Flood. Since year-day symbolism is based upon the 360 day "year, a "month" is thirty days. The prophetic time periods should be calculated accordingly, while application of the time periods to actual history should be done on the basis of the regular calendar, the 365¼ day year. For readings on the year-day principle, see Albert Barnes, Notes on Revelation. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1949), pp. xi-xxviii; Basil F.C. Atkinson, The War with Satan (London: The Protestant Truth Society, n.d.), pp. 210-216; and C. H. Hewitt, The Seer of Babylon, unabridged ed. (Boston: Advent Christian Publications, Inc., 1948), pp. 413-420; .