THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPHECY
In the history of the church, the eschatological or prophetic portions of Scripture have suffered more from inadequate interpretation than any other major theological subject. The reason for this is that the church turned aside from a normal and grammatical literal interpretation of prophecy to one that is nonliteral and subject to the caprice of the interpreter. This false approach to interpreting prophecy is contradicted beyond question by the fact that so many hundreds of prophecies have already been literally fulfilled.
In the first two centuries of the Christian era the church was predominantly premillennial, interpreting Scripture to teach that Christ would fulfill the prophecy of His second coming to bring a thousand-year reign on earth before the eternal state will begin. This was considered normal in orthodox theology. The early interpretation of prophecy was not always cogent and sometimes fanciful, but for the most part, prophecy was treated the same way as other Scripture.
In the last ten years of the second century and in the third century, the heretical school of theology at Alexandria, Egypt, advanced the erroneous principle that the Bible should be interpreted in a nonliteral or allegorical sense. In applying this principle to the Scriptures, they subverted all the major doctrines of the faith, including prophecy. The early church rose up and emphatically denied the Alexandrian system and to a large extent restored the interpretation of Scripture to its literal, grammatical, historical sense. The problem was that in prophecy there were predictions that had not yet been fulfilled. This made it more difficult to prove that literal fulfillment was true of prophecy. The result was somewhat catastrophic for the idea of a literal interpretation of prophecy, and the church floundered in the area of interpretation of the future.
Augustine (AD 354–430) rescued the church from uncertainty as far as nonprophetic Scripture is concerned, but continued to treat prophecy in a nonliteral way with the purpose of eliminating a millennial kingdom on earth. Strangely, Augustine held to a literal second coming, a literal heaven and a literal hell, but not to a literal millennium. This arbitrary distinction has never been explained.
Because amillennialism, which denies a literal millennial kingdom on earth following the second coming, is essentially negative and hinders intelligent literal interpretation of prophecy, there was little progress in this area. The church continued to believe in heaven and hell and purgatory, but neglected or explained away long passages having to deal with Israel in prophecy and the kingdom on earth as frequently revealed in the Old Testament. Even in the Protestant Reformation, prophecy was not rescued from this hindrance in its interpretation.
Though remnants of the church still advanced the premillennial view, it was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that a movement to restore the literal truth of prophecy began to take hold. The twentieth century was especially significant in the progress of prophetic interpretation in that many details of prophecy were debated and clarified in a way that was not possible before. Though amillennialism continues to be the majority view of the church, among those who hold a high view of Scripture the premillennial interpretation has been given detailed exposition, serving to provide an intelligent view of the present and the future from the standpoint of biblical prophecy.
The importance of prophecy should be evident, even superficially, in examining the Christian faith, for about one-fourth of the Bible was written as prophecy. It is evident that God intended to draw aside the veil of the future and to give some indication of what His plans and purposes were for the human race and for the universe as a whole. The neglect and misinterpretation of Scriptures supporting the premillennial interpretation is now to some extent being corrected.
In the nature of Christian faith a solid hope for the future is essential. Christianity without a future would not be basic Christianity. In contrast to the eschatology of heathen religions, which often paint the future in a forbidding way, Christianity’s hope is bright and clear and offers a Christian the basic idea that the life to come is better than this present life. As Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” In the Christian faith the future is painted as one of bliss and happiness in the presence of the Lord without the ills that are common to this life.
The revelation of prophecy in Scripture serves as important evidence that the Scriptures are accurate in their interpretation of the future. Because approximately half of the prophecies of the Bible have already been fulfilled in a literal way, it gives a proper intellectual basis for assuming that prophecy yet to be fulfilled will likewise have a literal fulfillment. At the same time it justifies the conclusion that the Bible is inspired of the Holy Spirit and that prophecy, which goes far beyond any scheme of man, is instead a revelation by God of that which is certain to come to pass. The fact that prophecy has been literally fulfilled serves as a guide to interpret the prophecies that are yet ahead.
Scriptural prophecy, properly interpreted, also provides a guideline for establishing the value of human conduct and the things that pertain to this life. For a Christian, the ultimate question is whether God considers what he is doing of value or not, in contrast to the world’s system of values, which is largely materialistic.
Prophecy is also a support for the scriptural revelation of the righteousness of God and a support for the assertion that the Christian faith has an integral relationship to morality. Obviously, the present life does not demonstrate fully the righteousness of God as many wicked situations are not actively judged. Scripture that is prophetic in dealing with this indicates that every act will be brought into divine judgment according to the infinite standard of the holy God, and accordingly, prophecy provides a basis for morality based on the character of God Himself.
Prophecy also provides a guide to the meaning of history. Though philosophers will continue to debate a philosophy of history, the Bible indicates that history is the unfolding of God’s plan and purpose for revealing Himself and manifesting His love and grace and righteousness in a way that would be impossible without human history. In the Christian faith, history reaches its climax in God’s plan for the future in which the earth in its present situation will be destroyed, and a new earth will be created. A proper interpretation of prophecy serves to support and enhance all others areas of theology, and without a proper interpretation of prophecy all other areas to some extent become incomplete revelation.
In attempting to communicate the meaning of Scripture relative to the prophetic past and future, prophecy serves to bring light and understanding to many aspects of our present life as well as our future hope. In an effort to understand and interpret prophecy correctly as a justifiable theological exercise, it is necessary to establish a proper base for interpretation.
GUIDELINES FOR INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
The interpretation of prophecy has its own peculiar problems of interpretation when prophecy reveals some future event or is couched in figurative or apocalyptic form. In some instances it is difficult to determine the precise meaning of the text because there is no corroborative comparison with history. In general, however, prophecy is factual. Because so many prophecies have already been literally fulfilled, the nature of this fulfillment provides guidelines for the interpretation of prophecy which is yet unfulfilled. In addition to the general rules of interpreting the Bible, certain additional guidelines assist the interpretation of prophecy.
- As is true in the interpretation of all Scripture, it is most important to determine the meaning of significant words in the interpretation of prophecy. Often these words have a historical background that will help in understanding the reference.
- One of the important decisions necessary in the interpretation of prophecy is the determination of whether the prophecy concerns the present or the future, that is, whether it refers to a situation now past or present or is prophetic of future events. A biblical prophet, especially in the Old Testament, often delivered contemporary messages that dealt with current problems which were not necessarily futuristic in their revelation. This problem is compounded by the fact that many times prophecy was given in the past tense, where the writer of Scripture took a position of looking back on the prophecy as if it were already fulfilled. Normally, however, it is possible to determine quickly whether the prophecy deals with the past, present, or the future.
- Many prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled shortly after their revelation. At least half of the prophecies of the Bible have already been fulfilled literally. Such fulfillment confirms the fact that unfulfilled prophecy will also be literally fulfilled. Fulfilled prophecy is an important guide in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy and generally confirms the concept of literal interpretation of a prophecy.
- Prophecies may be conditional or unconditional. This becomes an important aspect of the conclusion that may be reached from the revelation of the prophecy. If a prophecy is conditional, it is possible it will never be fulfilled. If it is unconditional, then it is certain to be fulfilled, regardless of human response. This is an area of confusion in the interpretation of prophecy, as some have assumed that prophecy is conditional when there is no supporting data that indicates this.
- Prophecies sometimes have more than one fulfillment. This is referred to as the law of double reference. It is not unusual in Scripture for a prophecy to be partially fulfilled early and then later have a complete fulfillment. Accordingly, what seems to be a partial fulfillment of a prophecy should not be assumed to be the final answer as the future may record a more complete fulfillment.
- One of the most important questions in the interpretation of prophecy is whether a prophecy is literal or figurative. As discussed earlier, early in the history of the church, especially in the third century, a school of prophetic interpretation arose in Alexandria that attempted to interpret all the Bible in an allegorical or a nonliteral sense. The influence of this school was one of the major reasons why premillennialism in the early church faded and a form of amillennialism became dominant.
Though the Alexandrian school of theology is labeled by all theologians as heretical, the effect of nonliteral interpretation on prophecy was rendered acceptable by the theological writings of Augustine who applied allegorical interpretation only to prophecy and not to other forms of Scripture revelation. This influence continued through the Protestant Reformation to the present day.
Among conservative interpreters of the Bible, the issue of literal versus figurative or allegorical interpretation is a major issue because on it hangs the question as to whether the Bible teaches a future millennial kingdom following the second advent, or whether it does not. Because the church is divided on this issue, full attention should be given to the interpretation of prophecy as this unfolds in the Bible to see what the Scriptures themselves indicate concerning literal versus nonliteral interpretation.
Confusion also reigns in terminology that sometimes contrasts the literal to the spiritual or the literal to the typical. The nonliteral interpretation of the Bible is not necessarily more spiritual than the literal. The consideration of types in this connection is another confusing aspect. Types, however, depend on the historical fact which is then used as an illustration of a later truth, but it is not prophetic in the ordinary sense. Though it may be demonstrated that most prophecy should be interpreted literally, this does not rule out figurative revelation, allegories, apocalyptic Scriptures, or other forms of nonliteral prophecy. Though it is difficult to deal with these things in the abstract, when studying a particular Scripture, it is not too difficult to determine to what extent it is literal.
- Apocalyptic literature is in a place all by itself because all agree that this is not, strictly speaking, literal in its revelation. Outstanding examples, of course, are the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. The fact that such revelation is not literal, however, does not deny it reveals specific facts. Here, skill in interpretation is most necessary, and careful comparison of Scripture with Scripture is essential in determining the actual meaning. This will be illustrated as prophecies of Scripture are interpreted.
As in reading all other types of literature, it may be presumed in studying prophecy that a statement predicting a future event is factual and literal unless there are good reasons for taking it in another sense. Here, the good judgment of the interpreter and avoidance of prejudice and preconceived concepts are most important to let the passage speak for itself.
(Source: John F. Walvoord – Every Prophecy of the Bible: Clear Explanations for Uncertain Times)