How to Interpret Biblical Prophecy
From a Historicist point of view
Unfortunately hermeneutics like any direction manual is about as thrilling a read as the paper work that came with your refrigerator. However if you don’t follow the instructions to wipe down those seals about once a year they will fail over time and the refrigerator will not last as long as it should. So it is with the study of the Bible if you don’t pay attention to the rules things will not last with your relationship with God.
It is impossible to read anything including the Bible without preconceived notions affecting what we think we are reading, what it is about, and what it means to our lives. Hermeneutics are rules we use to identify those preconceived notions so that we can use or disregard these notions. It is impossible to lose them, but one can with a great deal of effort change them. They are built of our memories, our life experience and our general knowledge, because of this, any holes in our memories, life experiences, or general knowledge (particularly Biblical History) well cause us to make fatal errors in interpretation.
Some of the more important considerations in Bible study is to keep in mind is that none of it was written yesterday in English. We were not the primary audience that the human writer had in mind. These books are literally someone else’s mail. They thought that the information was of such importance that they preserved it so it could be passed on to others. It is important for us to become familiar with the original audiences culture, geography and history.
FYI: Hermeneutics are how one proceeds in determining the meaning of any passage. The term comes from the name of the Greek god Hermes who was the interpreter of the gods.
General Rules for any Passage
The rules are actually common sense rules that for the most part, most of us do without thinking. For instance, from the time we all learned to read we know that poetry is to be looked at differently than historical narrative. So it is with the Bible. Applied properly hermeneutics will guide one into sound rational reasonable conclusions. However just like in logic where an invalid presupposition will lead no matter how logically one proceeds through the reasoning will lead to an invalid conclusion. So invalid hermeneutics will lead to doctrine and dogmas that are from the pit not the Throne.
General Principles to understanding the text:
There are two rules that go all the way back to the early church. So far back they are in Latin.
Sola Scriptorium i.e. the Scriptures are Supreme, meaning that the Bible is the final authority as to what the Bible means. There can be no conflicts with what one passage means and another, if there is a disagreement then the fault is not with the text but rather the interpreter.
Quod non est Biblicum, non est Theologicum i.e. if it is not in the Bible, it is not Theology. It might be doctrine or dogma but it is not Theology.
Then there is a Third Rule, Context. Nothing is more important than Context. The Bible as a whole is unified in its teachings. Passages must be read in their full context so that any partial interpretation must be supported by the text. The text is never wrong. If an interpretation does not fit the whole then the interpretation must be reexamined.
It all comes down to some really common sense things. Just ask yourself these simple questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how? Who wrote the book? Who did they write it to? What is written? What did the original reader think was written? Where was it written? Where are the events in the writing to happen?
Principles of Basic Language:
The very first thing one must determine about a passage is what type of literature is it? Poetry, historical narrative, teaching parable, and is the subject matter to be taken as literal, symbolic or typologic?
Short simple stories that are intended to illustrate a moral or religious lesson. They usually involve situations and local history or agrarian themes that were familiar to the audience at the time, but may have become unfamiliar to the post modern reader. Remember parables have only one point, don’t get lost in the details.
These documents are factual events in history. Peoples names are given, places are named, and sometimes dates are given. This is the exact opposite of mythological tales. Where the names and details change over time and from place to place.
There are forms and rules that are distinct from English poetry. English poetry seeks rhythm and rhyme, where Hebrew poetry is about word play i.e. paronomasia. There are four basic kinds parallelism – synonymous, climactic, antithesis, and external, as well as acrostics.
Cultural idioms and euphemism:
The Bible was original written in three different languages; Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, all of which are quite different from English. Translators sometime translate passages woodenly and other times they will just put their own understanding of the meaning. The puns and jokes never make it in translation. There is no rule or reason for the choices translators make. Just think how hard it would be hard to translate or explain the meaning in 1000 years of “hotter than a little red wagon.”
There is an argument among scholars as to whether allegory, typology, or mystical interpretations are different from each other or the same thing with different names. It is really a matter of church history.
During the Dark Ages the Church of Rome abused the allegorical or mystical method to such a great extent, that when the Reformation happened, those terms were used to explain the abuses of the Roman Church. These improper fanciful interpretations were then tagged with the now pejorative terms of allegory or mystical. The Reformers now needed a term to legitimize their interpretations which they called typological to separate their ideas about the passages from those that were improper.
Typology is that which in the Old Testament shadows, prefigures, or elucidates something in the New Testament. In theological discussions of typology there is the type and antitype. The type is in the Old Testament as a historical event, or instruction that prefigures the antitype in the New Testament. As such it demonstrates the unity of both Old and New Testaments.
Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (type) and a prefigure of Messiah’s crucifixion (antitype). [Gen 22]
Joseph being rejected by his brothers (type), yet rules over them (antitype). [Gen 37, 42]
The entire sacrificial code of the temple (type) of Messiah’s atonement (antitype).
The birth of Isaiah’s son (type) and the birth of Messiah (antitype). [Is 7:14]
The books of The Song of Songs and Hosea are both consider typological of God’s relationship with his people. One is the faithful bride the other is the unfaithful whore.
History and Geography:
One must understand what was written from the writer’s and/or his intended readers point of view. Cultural and religious contexts must be constantly kept in mind. Is the passage pre or post exile, or pre or post second temple? Who is king, emperor, or high priest? Is the passage about Judea, Galilee, Jerusalem, Rome, Babylon etc.?
For the most part the Bible was written by and for a very agrarian culture. Understanding basic farming techniques and animal husbandry is imperative. e.g. when the wheat crop is white for the harvest does not mean that the wheat is ready. Because it is the inside of the husk that is white it means that the crop is dropping to the ground and being lost.
All languages use such devices, including the Bible.
A figure of speech comparing one thing, often with as or like, to something of a different kind or quality.
A word or phrase denoting the kind of object or idea used in place of another suggesting a likeness between the two.
An extravagant exaggeration of statement; a statement exaggerated fancifully, as for effect.
A skillful or artistic use of speech.
An assertion or sentiment seemingly contradictory, or opposed to common sense, but that yet may be true in fact.
Interpretation Peculiar to Biblical Prophecy:
Biblical prophecy has its own unique grammar. The big problem and the argument on how to interpret Biblical prophecy, is how to deal with all the symbolic figurative language.
In all passages but particularly in prophetic sections, one must give proper attention to the meanings of proper names, the geography, customs, flora and fauna, and the climate.
Prophetic passage are full of symbolic language. Some of these symbols are repeated over and over in many prophecies, in diverse book in the Bible and are understood by the culmination of their uses. Others appear only once and those are usually explained in text. In the end some will only be understood in the light of fulfillment.
The term literal to the Reformers meant a departure from the allegorical interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church, and not the hyper literalism that dispensationalist in the last 150 years have been teaching. They have made it their stock in trade to turn the locusts into helicopter, and the horses into tanks [Rev 9] without any regard for that fact that locusts and horses are known to be fulfilled Old Testament prophecies as invading armies. Yet when they come to the lamb they all say it is symbolic of Messiah [Rev 14]. All this makes their literal interpretation subject to their own whims, which leads to bizarre ego centric rules based on their own personal imaginings. “I know it true because it makes since to me.” This is a departure of the historic grammatical exegesis that is the corner stone of rational interpretation the Reformers left us.
It is absolutely essential that we return to the basic rules of interpretation. “The Bible is its own best commentary.” The best way to speculate on what unfulfilled prophecy might mean is to look at fulfilled prophecies with the similar language usage. Consider what was predicted and look at the history and then make an extrapolation as to what the fulfilled might mean.
Understanding Prophetic language
The next historical event, which appears to fulfill the prophecy, is most likely the fulfillment.
In all case’s prophecy has specific meaning intended for our understanding.
The prophecy is often hidden from the unsaved (see Jesus’ explanation of why He spoke in parables – Matt. 13:9-17; Rev 13:10-17; Daniel 12:10 was told none of the wicked will understand).
Apocryphal language (such as in The Revelation) is known for its unusual word combinations and descriptions of unusual phenomenon.
Hermeneutic principles as applied to Prophecy
The special considerations that apply when interpreting prophecy.
The Four Main Prophetic Views
Over the centuries many theories and ideas about these passages have been offered up for consideration. Some are certainly more valid than others. But when all is said and done they boil down to just four principle schemes of hermeneutics or interpretation. In the theological world there are four principle schemes or hermeneutics of interpretation regarding the book of The Revelation. These are called ESCHATOLOGICAL SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT.
FYI: Eschatology means the study of “Things to Come.”
1. The Spiritual – events described are only symbols of spiritual realities and struggles without any literal or historical application
2. The Preterit – everything has already been fulfilled
3. The Futurist – all predictions are in the future
4. The Historicist – the predictions are in the process of fulfillment.
The four views come from three hermeneutical schools of thought; Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and Progressive Revelation.
It is always important to know where and why people who are teaching get their ideas from. Sometime a hermeneutical view can be ruled invalid simply on the basis of who and where it came from.
These four views have the roots in the—
The General Schools of Hermeneutics
These are the main those preconceived notions among Protestants. They fall into three main divisions.
These people are largely Presbyterian and Reform churches including some Methodist and Reformed Baptist. They interpret all scripture from the point of view that there are only two covenants. This comes from their interpretation of Gal 4:22-31. There are several names for these two covenants, but no matter what the individual author may call them there are only two, the Covenant of Law and the Covenant of Grace. This view spiritualizes nearly all prophecy making The Revelation to be about the Churches struggle with apostasy. All the promises God made to the Jews are for the Church either literally or figuratively. The doctrine of election is often emphasized.
Under this hermeneutic, one finds two of the eschatological or prophetic schools of interpretations:
They would say that the book of The Revelation represents the battle between good and evil in which good ultimately wins over evil. Nothing is literal or historical.
This interpretation takes a mystical or allegorical approach to most of the book. Because of this spiritualization they of necessity do not hold to a literal millennium. Some of the early proponents were Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and later Augustine and Jerome. Recent interpreters who accept this view find the book dealing primarily with the general struggle between the church and evil throughout the entire age, thereby giving encouragement to tested saints.
Such an interpretation, however, fails to expound the book meaningfully, and practically ignores the claims to its prophetic nature [Rev 1:3; 10:11; 22:7, 10, 18-19]. This tenet fails to recognize the interpretive key to the book [Rev 1:19] focusing on the Second Advent and following events [Rev 1:7; 3:11; 16:15; 22:7, 12].
Preterits believe that all or most of The Revelation is fulfilled. Promulgated by a Spanish Jesuit monk by the name of Alcazar around the close of the 16th century, this was a Roman Catholic view, with the Pope as Christ on earth. This however makes the Dark Ages the Millennium. This view maintains that this prophecy was fulfilled with the defeat of the Jews who were the enemies of the early church. Nero is considered the anti-christ with the last half of The Revelation being represented as vaguely future. From the 17th century on, preterits have held that the Church’s conflict with Judaism is represented in Rev 4-11 and the Church’s conflict with paganism is depicted in chapters 12-19. Chapters 20 through 22 describe her present triumph.
This position ignores the interpretive key of Rev 1:19, “Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter”. It gives arbitrary meanings to the symbols found in the book, and fails to account for the indications of a short span of time covering the events of chapters 4 through 10 preceding the Second Advent. Also note that variations of this view are used by many modern day cults who claim their leaders as Christ on earth and that they are about to enter their millennium.
This is the view most fundamental evangelicals are familiar with.
A. The Futurist
This third hermeneutical school of thought is a modern interpretation that views scripture through seven dispensations of covenants corresponding to human history. Although there are numerous views of salvation, a primary feature is that they view the redemption of Jews as being distinctive from that of gentiles. John Nelson Darby, Edward Irving and C.I. Scofield promoted this tenet, but its foundations originated with a 16th century Jesuit Priest, Ribera.
Ribera’s writings were a Roman Catholic rebuttal to the Reformers view of the office of Pope as the “antichrist”. There are many variations in this viewpoint. Originally it spoke of a 3 1/2-year tribulation, but by the time it had infiltrated the Protestant church, it had grown to 7 years.
This view moved from being a Roman Catholic doctrine to a common view among Protestants after the ecstatic utterances of Margaret MacDonald in 1830 Glasgow Scotland.
Irving, originally a Presbyterian Minister translated the Jesuit priest’s futurist writings adding the secret rapture from Margaret’s utterance. Irving’s preaching from these writing eventually led to his dismissal from the Presbyterian Church. A further series of ecstatic utterances breaking out in his and other London churches disseminated the revelation of a yet future seven-year tribulation.
This doctrine then became the litmus test for the Darbyites (Plymouth Brethren), one literally cannot be a Plymouth Brethren and not believe in the Futurist view. Scofield also incorporated the view into his notes in his Scofield Reference Bible.
Dispensationalists hold to the following positions:
1 Covenantal promises that Israel will be restored, including a Temple to be built and animal sacrifices reinstated.
2 Jews are God’s chosen people; gentiles are distinctive and experience redemption apart from Jews.
3 All Jews will be saved.
4 The Church Age is a gap (before the 70th week of Dan 9:24-27) occurring between Israel’s rejection of Christ and Israel’s national restoration.
5 Christ’s present Kingship has no relationship to the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant and His Messianic rule; and the Church has no relationship to the Kingdom of God on earth, totally ignoring Matt 11:12.
6 Uneven application of Hyper-literal interpretation of symbolism in prophecy that allows for little figure of speech, typology, or foreshadowing of the Church as “the mystery made manifest.”
Because Futurist Sees nearly everything in the Revelation as being yet future. They have to put gaps in the chronology within the scriptures.
- Many have a gap between verse one and two of Genesis.
- There is a gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel 9.
- Many groups have a gap of 3 1/2 or 7 years between the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ.
- There is a gap between chapters 3 and 4 of The Revelation, making the bulk of that book apply to a short period of 7 years at the end of this age.
A. Historicist or the Historical Protestant Interpretation
We believe God reveals himself to man in a series of Progressive Revelations. These revelations have been made though His work: Ps. 19:1, Rom 1:18-23, His Word: Jn 1:1-5, and His Son: Heb 1:1-4. A fourth revelation of God, His Glory: fuller and more perfect than any other, is yet to be revealed in Rev 22:4.
The the entire Bible presents one grand underlying story. That the Messiah should suffer rise, again, that this great act should be preached to the nations bringing many to repentance and remission of their sins. That the telling of His humiliation, exaltation, and reign is the whole history of the Kingdom of God.
Progressive revelation is like an artist painting a picture. He knows what His painting will look like when finished however the onlookers see the work as it progresses. “One stroke” of revelation at a time as the Lord brings into sharper focus the final image or a fuller understanding of prophesied events.
Examples of fulfilled revelation is in the Messianic prophecies:
Gen 3:15 Enmity between the woman’s Seed and the Serpent
Gen 9:25-27 Blessed be Shem
Gen 12:3 By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves
Gen 49:10 The scepter will not depart from Judah
Duet 32:18 The Rock that begot You
Ps 118:22 The rejected Cornerstone
Is 7:14 Virgin Birth
Is 11:1 Coming from Jesse
Is 42:2-3 A willing Sacrifice
Is 53:4-6 Our iniquity fell upon Him
Is 55:3-5 He will come from David
Is 59:20 He comes to Zion as Redeemer
Dan 9:24-27 Daniel reveals the timing of the Messiah
Hos 11:1 Messiah comes out of Egypt
Zech 9:9 Describes the triumphal entry into Jerusalem
Is it any wonder that in all of Israel there were only two people (Simeon and Anna, Lk 2:25-38) waiting in the Temple when Jesus arrived during the purification rites of His mother? If you only had these prophetic artist’s strokes, could you have recognized the complete picture and been waiting with Simeon and Anna? This is how prophecy is given. It is vague, and hard to understand by design.
The rest of the Jew had their own preconceived notions that Messiah would come and destroy Rome and set up a Jewish kingdom to rule the world. They felt so strongly about this that they missed the hour of their visitation.
The Historicist View of Prophecy
The Historical, Historicist or Presentist view interprets the book of The Revelation as symbolic and in the process of fulfillment. We see the fulfillment of prophecies, in the history of the church, beginning in John’s day through this present day. This view has been popular since the time of Berengaud (9th cen.), and Joachim (12th cen.). Wycliffe, Luther, Joseph Mede, Isaac Newton, Bengel, Barnes and others also held to it. Most would agree that the Bishop of Rome is the “anti-christ” and that “Babylon the Great” is the Roman Catholic Church. Every commentator until the end of the sixteenth century held to this view.
Historicists hold to the tenet that the prophecies of Daniel and The Revelation are being fulfilled progressively throughout history. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream [Dan 2] of a great, metallic statue And Daniel’s dream [Dan 7] symbolically portrays four gentile empires beginning with Babylon. Each successive empire giving way to the next, progressively unfolding without any gaps in time. The majority of the prophecy of The Revelation concentrates on the ten kingdoms, or toes or horn, the little horn out of Rome, and the whore of Babylon. These gentile empires are assigned the duration of seven times or 2520 years [Lev 26, Dan 4] and are referred to as The Full Times of the Gentiles. Where Daniel is told at the end of his prophecies to seal up the scroll, John is presented with an unsealed scroll.
The Essential Points of Historicists
H. Grattan Guinness, England foremost authority on prophecy stated in his Light for the Last Days page 40, what are the essential points of Historicist’s hermeneutics.
Here therefore we take for granted, what has been abundantly proved by many godly and learned writers, and what we have ourselves also in a former work demonstrated, and assume the following conclusions:
- That in symbolic prophecy a “day” is the symbol of a year, and a “time” of 360 years.
- That Daniel’s prophetic visions of the fourfold metallic image and of the four beasts have been fulfilled in the histories of the Babylonian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman empires.
- That “Babylon the Great” in Rev 17. is the Roman Catholic Church.
- That the little horn of Daniel 7 represents the Papal dynasty, and the little horn of chapter 8 is, as to its final form, the Mohammedan power,—the one arising out of the Roman empire, and ruling in western Europe; the other arising out of one of the divisions of the Greek empire, and ruling in eastern Europe and in Asia.
Historicists Do Not Believe:
1. In a seven-year tribulation at the end of the Church Age preceding the millennium. Therefore, there is no separation between Daniel’s 69th and 70th week.
2. That the abomination of desolation will be fulfilled in a future antichrist who will declare himself god in a rebuilt temple.
3. That most of the book of The Revelation is future, yet to come.
4. In wild speculation concerning future events, dates, etc.