The first in a series of articles dealing with prophetic themes.
THE PRINCIPLES INVOLVED
There is no need to consult the Oxford Dictionary to understand the meaning of the word “interpretation.” The Word of God gives to us a clear example of that meaning. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra, the scribe, together with some of his fellow Levites, is said to have “read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and he gave the sense, and caused (the people) to understand the reading” (vs 8). Three elements, basic to the thought of interpretation, will be noted. 1. “They read distinctly.” That is, the words of Gods law themselves were made plain in its public reading. The need for this cannot be over emphasized. 2. “They gave the sense.” To give sense to the reading, commas, periods, and all forms of punctuation and emphasis need to be observed. 3. “And caused them to understand the meaning.” Interpretation was given which showed the meaning of the words read.
In the N. T. we have the supreme example of the Lord Jesus. In the Temple, the Lord “stood up for to read” (Luke 4.16). The Lord proceeded to make the meaning of the prophets words clear, particularly as they applied to the situation then present. The “acceptable year of the Lord” had been inaugurated by the presence of the Great Physician Himself. In a most literal way, the gospel was being preached to the poor, the brokenhearted were being healed, deliverance was being offered to sins captives, sight to the blind, and those who were bruised by Satans thralldom were being liberated. The words of the prophet were shown by the Lord to have good clear etymological sense and that they were meant to be understood in their contextual and grammatical setting.
All those who handle Gods Word in sincerity are readily led to the conclusion, by the Scriptures themselves, that the unambiguous meaning in a grammatical and contextual sense is what is to be expected when the Word of Truth is interpreted.
METHODS OF INTERPRETATION
From early times, two methods of interpretation, particularly with regard to the “sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet 1.19), have vied for the adherence of believers everywhere. These methods have, unfortunately, been labeled as “literal” and “spiritual.” Neither term is really appropriate. In most instances the opposite is also true. Would any lover of Gods Word claim that the literal stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph are bereft of spiritual teaching, or that the highly spiritual Song of Songs does not have a literal background? The trouble arises when the terms are thought to have no figurative meaning at all, as in the case of the “literal,” or to possess “mystical, hidden or secret” meaning as in the instance of the “spiritual.” The Word of God is a revelation. It is not intended to hide or cover anything. Those who read it should be aware that the writers, without exception, were following the usual methods of conveying their meaning so that all would understand, unequivocally, what God had entrusted them to write. Consequently, any attempt to interpret their words must always be governed by this rule. The student of Scripture does not need to go off into “bypath meadows” looking for allegorical meanings.
DANGER IN THE ALLEGORICAL METHOD
As a young believer, the writer heard a mature and well taught brother explain the feeding of the 5,000 in the following way. The multitude represented all believers who were directed to sit down upon the green grass (Mark 6.39). Since “all flesh is as grass” this indicated the need to keep the flesh under, while seating them in companies of hundreds and fifties suggested the ideal number for assemblies of the saints. Allegorical in the extreme and yet even more ludicrous examples are to be found in the writings of the great and famous. It is said that one famous Papist taught that Jobs three friends spoke of heretics, his seven sons represented the twelve apostles, while his seven thousand sheep were Gods faithful ones, and his three thousand humped back camels were unbelieving Gentiles. These show how necessary it is to let the inspired writers speak for themselves in the plain sense of their words wherever possible.
It is the allegorical or “spiritualizing” method which gave rise to amillennialism in the first place and, further, obscured the plain meaning of the book of Revelation. This acted to the detriment of many believers who were unable to reconcile the differing interpretations brought about by much allegorizing on the part of various authors whose interpretations could not be verified, since there was no final standard against which to measure them. The Prophetic Word should be interpreted in exactly the same way as the other parts of Scripture. The original language must be taken into consideration, either directly by those who have the ability or with the aid of helps for the many who lack it. The historical setting as well as the words in context must also be considered. First will come the exegesis, or the making of the meaning as clear as the help of the Holy Spirit and present knowledge allows, and by comparing Scripture with Scripture. This will be followed by the exposition that then, and in complete keeping with the meaning as ascertained, will apply the spiritual truth deduced from the explanation of the Scriptures being addressed. It must also be remembered that, as with all Scripture, words of prophecy will have one true exposition while there will be, perhaps, different applications. These later must ever be in perfect harmony with the true meaning. It will not do to apply any words of truth in a way running contrary to, or not entirely at one with, the meaning the prophet has been commissioned to unfold.
THE FULFILLMENT OF PROPHECY
Sir Robert Anderson in his book, The Coming Prince, has stated, without reserve, that “every prophecy that has been fulfilled has been fulfilled literally.” Since this is so there can be only one way that the words of Scripture dealing with the future can be fulfilled, and that is literally. If this is not to be so, then we are given no standard whatsoever whereby the Prophetic Word can be reliably interpreted. The Lord Jesus said, in connection with future events, “whosoever readeth, let him understand (Matt 24.15), and, “If it were not so I would have told you” (John 14.2). These are not words of ambiguity.
Christ is the center of the prophetic word just as He is of all Scripture. The teacher will desire to be as John the Baptist who found his following reduced as his own disciples sought a more intimate relationship with the One of whom John spoke. The handling of prophecy will draw hearts closer to the Lord and cause steps to quicken in view of His return and of His coming kingdom and glory.
That symbolic language is used in every part of Scripture is something of which we are all aware. This might suggest that a literal meaning is not always possible and that a figurative explanation would be in order. But even when symbolic language is used, it is meant to be an illustration of something literal in every sense of the word.
The interpretation of prophecy, therefore, must follow these principles. The words in their plain sense are meant to be accepted. Historical, grammatical, cultural, and spiritual conditions are to be considered. The details and literalness of fulfilled prophecy will be the guideline as words regarding what is yet future are expounded and applied. The Lord Jesus will be seen as the unique One through whom all of Gods purpose will be fulfilled. “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ…” (Eph 1:10).
This all will be approached with a spirit far from arrogant as we remember that the “sure word of prophecy” was given to us, not that we should become “prophets,” but that we will have Pauls confidence and say “I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” (Acts 27.25).