There are many difficulties involved in interpreting prophecy, but if we take the Bible seriously, we need to study prophecy, because prophecy is a large part of the literature God has inspired to be written and preserved in the Christian canon. Since prophecy encourages us to know God and do his will, it is important for us to study it, even if it is difficult.
Prophecy has a spiritual message, and readers need the help of the Holy Spirit to be able to understand it. But even people who have the Holy Spirit can make errors, and people with the Holy Spirit may disagree with each other. All sorts of erroneous interpretations have been taught by people claiming to have God’s Spirit and claiming to have the inspired interpretation. Therefore, as a practical matter, we cannot convince people of our interpretation if we are using special insight they don’t have access to. If we did that, we would be asking them to have faith in us.
We need to base our understanding, our arguments, and our teaching on what the scriptures say and on what people can see for themselves, in the translations that are commonly available. We have to use an understandable method of interpretation, one that makes sense historically, linguistically and theologically. We need to examine the words, the grammar, the paragraph flow, the type of literature we are dealing with, and the overall message of the Bible.
Prophecy was not inspired to satisfy our curiosity about the future – it has always had a theological purpose. It tells us something about what God is doing with humanity, and it is given to help motivate people to do something in the present. Prophecy is not an end in itself — it supports a more important goal. God’s primary purpose in dealing with humanity is to reconcile us to him, to give us salvation through Christ – and prophecy serves that larger purpose. It tells us something about what God is doing, and it may also tell us something about what we should be doing. Prophecy should lead us toward God, so that we know him, have faith in him, and seek him through Jesus Christ.
We need to understand the type of literature we are dealing with, because this is where many of the difficulties arise. Prophecy is not written in the same way as history is. Prophecy is often poetic, and ancient poetry, like modern poetry, uses words in a metaphorical or symbolic sense more often than history does. Psalm 23 is a familiar example of poetic metaphors, with pastoral imagery. The Lord is my shepherd; he leads me beside still waters; my cup runs over. These are metaphors drawn from different aspects of life.
Psalm 18 is a good illustration. The subtitle says that it is about “when the Lord delivered David from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” Saul tried to kill David, but David kept escaping.
The psalm begins with some common metaphors:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies. (verses 1-3)
David uses a variety of images to describe God as a place of safety – a defensive and passive role. He adds more images when he writes:
The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. (verses 4-6)
From images of the underworld, David now turns to images of heaven, and he puts the matter in cosmic terminology:
The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him — the dark rain clouds of the sky. (verses 7-11)
David is using some of the same language that Canaanite myths use. He is speaking of earthquakes and thunderstorms. Is this the way that God rescued David from Saul? That is not in the history – David is speaking in imaginative, poetic terms.
We see more as we go on:
Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies, great bolts of lightning and routed them. (verses 12-14)
This is primarily thunderstorm imagery. But then David adds something that was surely not involved in his escapes from Saul:
The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (verses 15-18)
In this psalm, we can see how poetic language can be applied to a historical event. It would be a mistake for us to take this literally – and we must be equally cautious about taking the language of prophecy literally, because it is also poetry. Some dramatic figures of speech may be involved. Poetic language about the valleys of the sea should not be taken literally, mountains may not be meant literally, and heavenly signs may not be meant literally.
Hosea 12:10 says some of the prophecies were given as parables, that is, in figurative language: “I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them.”
One school of interpretation stresses the literal interpretation of prophecies. Prophecies are sometimes meant literally, but to begin with an advance assumption about prophecy runs contrary to the biblical evidence. We can’t assume in advance that it is literal; nor can we assume in advance that it isn’t. The literal approach has produced a lot of failed prophecies, and a lot of disappointment. Other schools of interpretation have their problems, too, all of which emphasizes our need to be cautious in our approach.
Amos’ prophecy of blessings illustrates some problems of literal interpretation:
The days are coming…when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. (Amos 9:13)
Will the reaper really be overtaken by the plowman? Why wouldn’t the plowman stop and help the reaper? How can the grape-treader, who works in a wine press, overtake the planter, who works in a field? If streams of wine flow from the hills (other verses might make us wonder whether there will be any hills), why would anyone need a grape-treader? This is not meant literally. But how much of it is figurative? Will there be plowmen and grape-treaders at all? The verse cannot answer that question.
When we read that “mountains and hills will burst into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), we interpret it symbolically, because a literal fulfillment isn’t possible. When we read that “the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:7), we find something equally impossible without a miracle. Maybe it isn’t meant literally, either.
When we read that everyone will sit under a vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4), we need not insist that everyone will have a vine and fig tree. We need to look at the picture before we look at the details. The details are artistic license used to support the picture of peace and prosperity, which is the context of verses 3-4. The details are like those in a photo of happy people. The photo can be representative of happiness, but we don’t expect every detail to be representative. Sitting at home may illustrate peace and abundance, but those details are not required for peace and abundance.
As another example, Isaiah 40:3-4 says that the mountains will be brought low and uneven ground will be made level. Literally, this would mean that there will be no hills. However, Luke 3:4-6 implies that this prophecy was fulfilled by John the Baptist. Luke understood it figuratively, in a very non-literal way. He was not talking about mountains and roads at all.
Due to the way New Testament writers present Messianic prophecies, some readers may think there has been a “literal” fulfillment. But a comparison of Old Testament context and New Testament fulfillment sometimes shows a major shift in meaning. Sometimes the original verse in the Old Testament wasn’t a prophecy at all – it was just given greater meaning in the life and ministry of Christ.
Joel 2:28-29 predicted God’s Spirit on “all flesh” and dreams and visions, but Peter said that this was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when there was no mention of dreams and visions (Acts 2:16-17). Nevertheless, Peter said that Pentecost was a fulfillment of the prophecy. He did not press the details very far, and neither should we. Their understanding of fulfillment is different from the concept many people today have.
Let’s look at an example from the book of Revelation: Does Christ hold a sword in his mouth (Revelation 19:15), or does it metaphorically mean words of war? Similarly in the Old Testament, when we read that people will “beat swords into plowshares,” do we restrict the meaning to swords and plows, or do we update it technologically to include all instruments of warfare and productivity? In this case, the specific item (a sword) seems to refer to a general subject (violence); the same may be true with other details of prophecy. Each word may stand for something else.
What about people? Malachi 4:5-6 predicted an Elijah. But it wasn’t literally Elijah; Jesus said that John the Baptist fulfilled that role. When Elijah comes again, will it be a resurrected Elijah, or someone in his role? What about the prophecies of a future David? In many cases, “David” may be a reference to his descendant and successor, Christ. If Christ fulfills the prediction, it isn’t necessary that David himself will also. When we read that Christ will sit on the throne of David, should we expect the same physical throne, or is it a figure of speech depicting rulership of Israel? Will we all sit on the one throne of God (Revelation 3:21) while the apostles sit on other thrones (Matthew 19:28)?
We should interpret the Bible by asking, What did the writer mean? He may have intended a figurative meaning. However, to understand the figure of speech or the metaphor, we must first understand what the words mean literally. But we cannot reject all other possibilities in advance. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to tell us which words are literal and which are symbolic, and even if we know the word is symbolic, there is no formula to tell us what the symbol means. That is why Bible prophecy is interpreted in many different ways.
Although we’d like to have an answer for every Bible question, we should say “We don’t know” more often. “Some of us think this way, and some of us think that way. I understand how you got your view, and I might happen to disagree with it, but I cannot prove that either view is the only way of looking at it.” This is the approach we need on several issues.
Because of the ambiguities that are involved in prophecy (probably by God’s design), differences of opinion will exist, even among converted Christians. On such matters, we should not be dogmatic, and none of us should insist that the church teach our particular view. On many debatable issues, the church need not teach any view; it is not essential to Christian discipleship or to our commission. There are sections of the Bible we do not understand (even Paul didn’t know everything), and we need to admit it. We cannot be dogmatic about many specific interpretations — and we cannot categorically reject everyone else’s.
A brief word about dates, perhaps one of the most often misused aspects of prophecy: Bible prophecies are often purposely ambiguous about chronology. That isn’t so we will study harder and make lots of guesses – it is because the chronology is relatively unimportant. The more important thing is our spiritual response, and that is more important even if we did know the chronology.
Prophecy is given not so much that we will know the future, but that we will know that God controls the future. It is far more important for us to know God, than it is for us to know the future. Any revelation of the future is given primarily so that we will do something now to be on the side of the One who wins in the end, the one who declares the end from ancient times, the one who will be sure to bring it all to pass just as he has purposed.