A major obstacle in the way of greater unanimity on eschatological subjects is the fact that the prophetic field is so vast, the Scriptures involved are so numerous and the issues become so complex. The problem of the time of the rapture in its relationship to the Tribulation period is no exception. In fact, it is but part of the larger doctrine of the premillennial faith, yet it is in itself an important and determinative issue. Let those who consider it a mere detail of eschatology ponder the fact that the Christian's hope, incentive for purity of life and zeal for service, all are involved. What is decided in respect to the time of the rapture will affect an amazingly large part of the prophetic Scriptures, for prophecy is a strangely interwoven tapestry.
A further obstacle to greater unity in the area of prophetic study is the tendency of some to avoid discussion of subjects thought to be controversial. The comment of Chafer in respect to an entirely different problem is just as applicable at this point:
It is not easy to disagree with good and great men. However, as they appear on each side of this question, it is impossible to entertain a conviction and not oppose those who are of a contrary mind. The disagreement now under discussion is not between orthodox and heterdox men; it is within the fellowship of those who have most in common and who need the support and encouragement of each other's confidence.
Others avoid private investigation of subjects considered not readily understandable. The experience of James H. Brookes, noted Bible student of a past generation, is a case in point:
It was Dr. Brookes' habit to read the Bible through in course, but he stopped habitually at the end of Jude and turned back to Genesis, accounting that The Revelation was not understandable and hence not worth reading. One day he was convicted that he was not dealing fairly with the Bible since The Revelation is an integral part of it. He read on into it and through it. That reading changed the whole course of his life. Dr. Brookes found himself possessed of a key to Bible truth; using it he became known as one of our greatest Bible scholars and expositors. More: he became surpassingly helpful to others.
Even more, through his study he became an ardent believer in the hope of the imminent, pretribulational return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too few thus search the Scriptures for themselves. The demands made upon our overly busy lives make it easy, rather, to follow the sometimes undigested opinions of a favorite teacher or author. While the thinking of men may be a valued guide, if accompanied by a sincere scholarship and godly understanding, final authority must ultimately rest in the Word of God. May we all be more like the Bereans, who "searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:10, 11).
After all of the facts are in, there may yet be some disagreement as to the time and manner of the rapture – but this should not be permitted to deter evangelical unity on the reality of that blessed hope. Believers need more emphasis upon their common faith in the great verities of Christianity, that they may be of one mind before an unbelieving world. Nevertheless, any Bible problem which involves issues as important as the unity of the body of Christ, the doctrine of imminency, and the hope of the believer, has a right to a thorough hearing. In the very nature of the case, three of the four viewpoints involved cannot be in accord with Bible truth. While all discussions which shed light on the problem are highly in order, through it all the Bible sustains but one program of prophecy.
It is the firm conclusion of this present investigation that pretribulationalism is highly defensible and has far more to commend it than any of the three alternate viewpoints. Even Cameron must admit that "it would be a blessed thing if this view could be substantiated," and Reese himself recognizes that a pretribulational hope is a "brighter and more comforting view" and that if the Scriptures were with it, the case would be convincing. The writer earnestly believes that his thesis has herein been substantiated, and that it has been clearly demonstrated from the Scriptures that the Church will enter no part of the Tribulation. All of the major arguments, objections, and Scriptures used by opposing views have been dealt with, together with not a little by way of detail. The writer is aware of the fact that there are additional Scriptures, some less significant objections, and even some arguments in favor of pretribulationalism which have not been included in this study, but a halt must be called somewhere. It is believed that any additional inquiry into the details involved will only serve to substantiate further the conclusion of this present investigation that the rapture of the Church is truly imminent and will be pretribulational.
Pastors and teachers, and others in positions of authority over the visible church of Jesus Christ, are in particular exhorted to study these issues for themselves, and being persuaded, to stand upon this ground. The imminent return of Christ, preached – not argumentatively, but from a heart which loves His appearing – will provoke within the flock of God a quickening interest in spiritual things, a new enthusiasm, a desire to live and serve so as to be unashamed at His coming.
It is not possible to give an adequate summary of all the evidence presented in favor of pretribulationalism in the preceding chapters. It has been demonstrated that the Tribulation period differs in its fundamental nature from any trials and tribulations which may now be a normal ingredient of Christian experience. The Church is expressly promised deliverance from the wrath of God and from the hour of trial which shall fall upon the dwellers of the earth. Proof was offered that the Church is not Israel, and that her eschatology cannot be built upon that which is clearly predicated of Israel in the end time. Moreover, it was seen that two different redeemed and witnessing bodies in the Tribulation at the same time would involve God in a serious dilemma and make void the cardinal doctrine of the unity of the body of Christ. It was seen that the Day of the Lord, viewed as a period rather than as a single day, strengthens more than it weakens the pretribulational position. Evidence was presented to prove that the restrainer of II Thessalonians 2 is none other than the Holy Spirit, to be removed with the Church prior to the manifestation of the Man of Sin. Arguments against the doctrine of imminency were dealt with, and the doctrine substantiated by the Scriptures, the hope of the Early Church, and the attestation of the Church Fathers.
Other lines of evidence included an identification of the twenty-four elders, and analyses of the seventh and the last trumpets and of the time of the resurrection. The rapture was distinguished from the revelation of Christ by the presence of intervening events and by a score or more of their leading characteristics. The ideas and claims of some of the most prominent contenders for the three alternate positions were discussed and objections noted. Thus pretribulationalism has been defended and substantiated by the cumulative force of positive argument, by analysis of the Scriptures involved, and by a portrayal of the weaknesses of all opposing systems.
It is sincerely hoped that many who read these pages will be confirmed in the truth of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. There is abundant evidence that the last generation of believers shall be kept from the hour of trouble, not in response to human merit but because of the limitless grace of God. While Christians stand fast in this assurance, may others who know not this hope come to share the joyful expectation of those at Thessalonica, of whom Paul wrote:
For others are telling of their own accord, concerning me, how gladly you received me, and how you forsook your idols, and turning to the service of God, the living and the true; and that now you wait with eager longing for the return of His Son form the heavens, even Jesus, whom He raised from the dead, our deliverer from the coming vengeance. (I Thess. 1:9, 10).
There is practical value to such a hope. If Christ may momentarily appear, how pointed John's exhortation to godly living:
Abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming (I John 2:28).
Our citizenship is in heaven, and since Christ's coming may be soon, how vital it is to "look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). Yet this looking, this waiting for the Redeemer, does not consist of idly "gazing up into heaven" (Acts 1:11). God would not have us so detached from the world that we lose our vision for service. The second coming is not the sum total of theology. There must be balance. Therefore, Christ prayed not only that we might be with Him and behold His glory (John 17:24), but that while in the world we should be kept from evil, and go forth into the world that through our words men might believe on Him (John 17:15, 18, 20).
To this end have believers been commissioned "ambassadors for Christ." Our opportunity and privilege is to acquaint the lost with the good news of His salvation, for it is little gain for an unsaved man to hear of the second advent before he has understood and appropriated the blessings of the first advent. As ambassadors, we beseech men in Christ's stead to be reconciled to God (II Cor. 5:20). May we keep before us the solemn responsibility of this task, knowing full well that it may not be long before Christ begins His work of judging the living and the dead. For believers, there is the bright prospect of rapture experience before the day of Tribulation wrath. Ambassadors are called home before war is declared. Even so shall we be called into His glorious presence.
The promise of Christ is, "Surely, I come quickly." May each heart respond fervently, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." In this dark night, let us look toward the morning. His coming is our hope. Let us be among the number who "love his appearing" (II Tim. 4:8).
Lift up your heads, Pilgrims aweary,
See day's approach, now crimson the sky.
Night shadows flee, and your Beloved,
Awaited with longing, at last draweth nigh.
Dark was the night, sin warred against us;
Heavy the load of sorrow we bore;
But now we see signs of His coming;
Our hearts glow within us, joy's cup runneth o'er.
O blessed hope! O blissful promise!
Filling our hearts with rapture divine;
O day of days! Hail Thy appearing!
Thy transcendent glory, forever shall shine.
Section II - LITERAL INTERPRETATION, FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE AND PROPHECY
No other book of human history has been criticized and attacked as much as the Bible. Enemies from without have attempted to tear its pages to shreds with the barbed darts of satire and stinging ridicule, while enemies from within – posing as scholars and exegetes – have attacked more insidiously by emptying its contents of any real or significant meaning. Liberal churchmen, having abandoned the cardinal doctrine of inspiration, making the Bible a book about God rather than a book from God, have now set about to determine if possible "the spiritual contribution of the Bible to this modern age." Any doctrine not considered "modern" they have relegated in the process to their theological trash pile.
Men who are prone to drift in their Biblical interpretations from the sure anchorage of the literal method would do well to consider the theological company in which they have chosen to travel, and the strange destinations arrived at by some who have unwittingly charted their course by the allegorizing method of Origen. A completely liberal theory is the natural and ultimate terminal of all who approach the Scriptures unencumbered with convictions about verbal inspiration and grammatical, literal interpretation. That the shameful position of liberalism today is the logical result of the denial of the literal method is evinced by Roehr, a higher critic. In describing Jesus as just another man, the product of his age and nation, Roehr exclaims: "Those who deny this are stupid, servile, and literal."
Speaking of the allegorizing school, Farrar concludes:
Origen borrows from heathen Platonists and from Jewish philosophers a method which converts the whole of Scripture, alike the New and the Old Testament, into a series of clumsy, varying, and incredible enigmas. Allegory helped him to get rid of Chiliasm and superstitious literalism and the "antitheses" of the Gnostics, but it opened the door for deadlier evils.
Origen, though not wantonly liberal, could not avoid liberal conclusions once he affirmed the allegorizing method. "No man, not altogether unsound and hypocritical, ever injured the Church more than Origen did," is the conclusion of Milner, the great English historian of the past century. The allegorizing method fosters modernism. It is well know that many of the leading Protestant denominations, avowedly amillennial, are now engaged in a death struggle with liberalism. On the other hand, it is practically impossible to find a liberal premillenarian.
A second major departure from the literal school of interpretation is the amillennial view of eschatology. This view, which spiritualizes the reign of Christ and makes the millennial promises to be fulfilled, if at all, in this present age, is found among three distinct groups: (1) It is the eschatology of liberalism. Among the doctrines herein denied are those of literal resurrection and literal judgment. (2) It is the eschatology of the Roman Catholic system. Significantly, The Catholic Encyclopedia, an authority on the amillennialism of Rome, describes amillennial interpretations as "allegorical." (3) It is the eschatology of a considerable body of men of conservative Reformed faith, who as a whole accept the literal method but feel that the rule is not valid for the interpretation of prophetic portions, particularly the kingdom passages.
No one defends or employs the allegorizing method of exegesis. Calvin and the other great Bible students of the Reformation saw clearly that the method was wrong and taught the now generally accepted "grammatical-historical" literal interpretation, so far as the Scriptures in general are concerned. That they retain the spiritualizing method in expounding many of the prophecies was because they found themselves forced to do so in order to be faithful to the New Testament.
The difference, then, between a premillennialists and a conservative amillennialist is not, simply, that one is a literalist and the other is an allegorizer. The conservative amillennialist uses two systems of interpretation: the literal for most areas of Biblical study, but the allegorical for all passages which, if taken literally, would lead to a premillennial conclusion. Both groups are theologically harmonious wherever the literal method is followed. It should be noted that the basic doctrinal agreement amount premillennialists, even in respect to the main outline of prophecy, argues strongly in favor of their interpretative method. Conversely, the wide and basic diversity of amillennial belief reveals the weak foundation of that structure. Any system which at the same time fosters liberalism, Roman Catholic eschatology, and a measure of conservatism, is open to serious question.
It has been demonstrated in chapter 7 that midtribulationalists and posttribulationalists resort to the spiritualization of much of the Tribulation period to sustain their respective theses. It now remains to answer the amillennial contention that the presence of figurative and symbolic language in Scripture is inharmonious with the literal method and justifies a departure from it.
I. Three Cardinal Rules of Bible Interpretation
It is not the purpose here to enumerate and discuss the many varied laws of Bible interpretation, save to suggest, in brief, three of the most important. The last of these will lead directly to the major problems at hand.
A. Interpret According to Context
In the words of Myles Coverdale:
It shall greatly helpe ye to understande Scripture,
If thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten,
But of whom, and to who,
With what words, at what time,
Where, to what intent, with what circumstances,
Considering what goeth before and what followeth.
There is nothing better, in the interpretation of a difficult passage, than to have the author explain himself. This explanation must take precedence over any other interpretation. Frequently, the author's purpose may be discerned by careful attention to "what goeth before, and what followeth" after. The general purpose and spirit of the book – indeed, of the entire Bible – must also be taken into account, for that which is a problem in one setting may well be restated and clarified elsewhere. Particularly should one guard against snatching a phrase out of context and making it say something far removed from the author's original purpose.
Bishop Wilberforce once attended morning worship and heard a discourse on "Hear the Church" (Matt. 18:17). The following day the preacher asked the Bishop what he thought of the sermon which had been along the lines: if in doubt, hear the Church; if in darkness, hear the Church, etc. The Bishop admitted that the matter, method, and delivery were all good, and concluded his comment with the statement, "But, you know, my friend, I should have as much right to preach on ‘Hang all the law and the prophets.' It is imperative that we should consider ‘what goeth before' and ‘what followeth after.'"
B. Interpret After Comparison With Other Scriptures
The Bible is not a collection of good texts put together without any relation the one to the other. Rarely does a doctrine stand upon a single isolated text; the pattern is usually woven into the entire warp and woof of the fabric of Scripture. It is therefore important to heed the role rule of comparing Scripture with Scripture, rather than grasping at an isolated text which may seem to support some preconceived opinion. "A doctrine clearly supported by the Analogy of Faith, can not be contradicted by a contrary and obscure passage."
As in an organism no member or part, however minute, can be fully understood aside from its relation to the whole, so in Scripture every paragraph and sentence is part of its totality and must be studied in relation to all the rest. The text will be illuminated by the context, or scripture immediately preceding and following. Every occurrence and utterance should be studied in its surroundings. How, why, when, a word was spoken or an act done, helps to explain it, is its local coloring.
C. Interpret The Bible Literally
The Bible should be interpreted, wherever possible, according to the usual, ordinary meaning of the words of the text. Grammatical and historical rules should be strictly observed, including the use of lexicons to solve problems of translation and other helps to determine the influence of local custom and historical setting. As Neil has said "A passage is to be taken literally provided it is not limited by age conditions or local church customs." According to Farrar "Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the ordinary rules of human language." Verbal inspiration demands literal interpretation, and basic to both is correct grammatical study from these sources: the text itself, the context, parallel texts, and other pertinent materials, though foreign to the text. Cellerier presents this fundamental rule as follows:
The interpreter should begin his work by studying the grammatical sense of the text, with the aid of Sacred Philosophy. As in all other writings, the grammatical sense must be made the starting point. The meaning of the words must be determined according to the linguistic usage and the connection.
Granting that the literal interpretation of the Bible includes within its scope the right use of figurative language, for even types and figures were given to convey some literal truth, what then is the rule for determining that which is clearly literal? Allis cites H. Bonar, "literal wherever possible," and Govett, "literal unless absurd," but cannot accept these statements, lamenting "This literalistic emphasis has shown itself most plainly in their insistence that Israel means Israel. ..." Clinton Lockhart states the issue more helpfully:
Look carefully for a literal meaning before accepting one that is figurative.... The literal or most usual meaning of a word, if consistent, should be preferred to a figurative or less usual signification.
By literal interpretation is meant that which should be interpreted word for word in its primitive or most fundamental current sense.
Lockhart gives two tests for literal interpretation: sense, and usage, explaining that "If the literal meaning of any word or expression makes good sense in its connections, it is literal; but if the literal meaning does not make good sense, it is figurative." Pascal expresses it this way: "Whoever wishes to give the sense of Scripture, and does not take it from the Scriptures, is the enemy of Scripture." Further, "If plain sense makes good sense, do not seek any other sense or you will find nonsense." Cooper sums up the matter quite adequately:
Take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual ... meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.
"There are many definitely and directly state truths," Rogers writes, "by which God says clearly what He means, and in which He means what He says, and which allow for no tampering or spiritualizing." This is clearly evident, but it would seem that an exaggeration of this truth has been stated by Owen: "If the Scripture has more than one meaning, it has no meaning at all."
Literal interpretation need not be this restrictive: it incorporates the recognition of figurative language, and allows for a spiritual application of that which first has been literally interpreted. Within limits, it recognizes the double sense of certain passages, but this in no wise permits and allegorized interpretation to enter and rob the words of their literal meaning. For example, one may sing "O, Zion, haste, thy mission high fulfilling," and recognize that "Zion" is used of the Church in a figurative sense, but this does not cancel out the fact that Zion is a literal geographic location in Jerusalem, the capital city and spiritual center of the nation Israel.
Although there may be problems attached to the right use of the literal method, it yet remains that literal interpretation (rightly understood) is one of the golden rules of Biblical hermeneutics. It permits God to say what He means without straining it to fit some pre-conceived notion, and holds in check the "spiritualization" of those passages which should merely be classified as figurative. The interpretation of Biblical types and figures has long been an exegetical stumbling stone, and deserves more detailed analysis.
II. The Problem of Interpreting Figurative Language
Every language used by man abounds in figures of speech, and the original languages of the Bible are no exception. When a word, which has been appropriated by usage to designate one thing, is transferred to a new and different meaning, it is said to be used figuratively. When a word is used in its primitive, natural, or usual sense, it is said to be used literally. Figurative language, then, is a departure or deflection from the usual, primary meaning of the word. We speak of "stony ground": this is literal. We speak of a "stony heart": this is figurative. Christ in particular was accustomed to clothe His thoughts in the figuration and popular language of the day: "I am the vine," "living water," "destroy this temple," "this is my body which is given for you," to mention a few instances.
The fact that such figures are in the Bible is a good indication that they were meant to be understood, but the part must be in harmony with the whole, and interpretation must not be allowed to give way to license.
A. Ten Practical Suggestions
The following suggestions may not be exhaustive, but it is believed that they will materially aid in the interpretation of Biblical figures:
(1) When is language figurative? In the greater number of cases, the fact that language is figurative appears in the very nature of the language itself, or from the connection in which it stands. Christ is the door to heaven, but not a literal door. Christians are the sheep of His pasture, and the salt of the earth, but not literally sheep, nor salt.
A figure is called a trope, from the Greek word ??????, "I turn." It is the turning of a word from its common, ordinary meaning, as in the expression "so many head of cattle," generally on the principle of resemblance. If that which is said, when taken according to the letter, cannot harmonize with the essential nature of the subject spoken of, the language must be regarded as tropical. Or conversely, if the language when taken literally would imply something incongruous, or morally improper, the figurative sense is presumably the right one. If the literal proves to be absurd, or inconsistent with that which is being discussed, one may conclude with at least tolerable certainty that the language is figurative.
(2) The use and interpretation of figurative language does not compromise literal interpretation, nor is it contrary to verbal inspiration. The interpreter should not limit himself to the literal meaning of individual words comprising the figure, but seek the literal sense intended and illustrated by the figure as a whole. This is no concession to the spiritualizing or allegorizing method, for it enables the figure to yield its full and obviously intended meaning.
Spiritualizing also attacks the non-figurative portions of Scripture. It seeks to water down the text and robs it of any true and significant meaning. It is not bound by rules of speech or of reason, but solely by the fancy of the interpreter. Paul says: "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath" (Eph. 4:26), meaning, not that anger is permissible for a time, but that should wrath arise, it should not be continually harbored in the mind, but one should subdue it before the end of the day. But see how fantastically Thomas Fuller draws out the passage, making it the carrying of news to another world of one's revengeful nature, and saying that if understood literally, "men in Greenland, where day lasts about a quarter of a year, have plentiful scope of revenge."
The Premillenarian insists that spiritualization is an element foreign to Scripture, to rhetoric, and to logic, since it is a direct and immediate substitution of one idea for another, arbitrary in hits method and often violent in its use.
The most dangerous form of "second-sense" interpretation is that in which the interpreter supplies the proposed connections from his own imagination. Over this there is no control. Double-sense interpretation is not an evil itself; but as a method it is fraught with difficulties and dangers. Therefore, to state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principal method is "spiritualizing," is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control in interpretation is the literal method.
Therefore, the "literal" method of a word is the basic, customary, social designation of that word. The spiritual, or mystical meaning of a word or expression is one that arises after the literal designation and is dependent upon it for its existence.
(3) The literal meaning is preferred first. Since the literal is the customary usage of a word, this sense occurs much more frequently than the figurative. Therefore the term will be regarded as literal until there is a good and sufficient reason for regarding it otherwise.
(4) Where there is doubt as to whether the language is literal or figurative, the interpreter should endeavor to dissolve the doubt by reference to the parallel passages (if there are any) which may treat the same subject in more explicit terms.
(5) There is a vital difference between interpretation and application. The former shows the one and only true meaning according to the laws of hermeneutics. The latter permits a greater degree of freedom in applying it to the varied spiritual needs of men. Some may overwork this freedom, but if so, it is an error of degree and not of kind.
(6) Care should be taken to give the figure of speech, as much as possible, a fair and natural meaning, in preference to a far-fetched or fanciful interpretation. The Bible was given to point men to God and to direct their steps on their earthly sojourn. It was not given to justify the curiosity or to foster fanciful imaginations. This rule can be applied to all Biblical interpretation, and those who are prone to seek theological novelties, particularly in the field of prophecy, would do well to heed it.
(7) In connection with figurative language that refers to the eternal order of things, to God, and to His Son, Jesus Christ, it must be remembered that figures offer but a very inadequate expression of the perfect reality. God is called Light, a Rock, a Fortress, a Tower, a Sun and a Shield. Christ is the Door, the Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God. It takes far more than one figure to express the nature of God; therefore, such expressions should not be overly pressed, but understood in the light of all other such figurative descriptions.
(8) If in doubt as to the meaning of a figure, one can test his insight into its meaning by attempting to express his interpretation in literal language.
(9) Discover the principle idea of the figure, without placing too much importance on the attendant details. In figures of similitude or of analogy, very few points of comparison are normally to be expected. When extended figures based on similitude are being analyzed, the major points should be interpreted first, from which the minor points should be worked out reservedly. Any indications of the interpretation suggested by the author should be carefully followed. Doctrines must not be based on details; in fact, the figure is to be interpreted by the doctrine, rather than the doctrine by the figure. Parables in particular emphasize one truth, or point out one principle. When Christ's coming is likened unto that of a thief, it is obvious that the figure must not be pressed beyond its intended purpose.
(10) Since the figurative use of words is founded essentially on resemblance or similarity, every effort should be made to have a clear conception of the things on which the figure is based. Details must not be supplied from the imagination, but from a historical study of the times and a geographical study of the places. This is important, for Biblical figures are so often drawn from the physical features of the Holy Land, the religious institutions of Israel, the history of the Jews, and the daily life and customs of the various people who occupy so prominent a place in the Bible.
It is sincerely hoped that the ten principles set forth above will be sufficiently comprehensive to aid the Bible student in his interpretation of Biblical figures. May they help him to select meanings which will open the Scriptures, and prevent him from shutting them by idle speculation.
B. Recognizing Figures of Speech
In order to aid the recognition of Bible figures, it may be helpful to give the general classifications into which most of them will fall, together with (in briefest form) an illustration of each:
Figures of speech are divided into two great classes: figures of words, and figures of thought. "The distinction is an easy one in that a figure of words is one in which the image or resemblance is confined to a single word, whereas a figure of thought may require for its expression a great many words and sentences." Figures of words include metaphor and metonymy, in which the comparison is reduced to a single expression (as in Luke 13:32, "Go ye, and tell that fox"). Figures of thought are seen in similes, allegories, and parables, where no single word will convey the comparison intended.
(1) A simile is a figure in which a comparison is distinctly stated, marked by the words "like" or "as." "His countenance was like lightning" (Matt. 28:3). "Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" (Jer. 23:29; cf. Matt. 7:24; Ps. 2:9; 59:6; Prov. 10:26 Isaiah 55:10, 11 is a beautiful example of a simile).
(2) A metaphor is a direct comparison much like the simile, but it is not set off by the words "like" or "as." Often more brief and more forceful than the simile, one object is likened to another by the simple expedient of asserting or implying that it is the other. "Judah is a lion's whelp" (Gen. 49:9). "All flesh is grass" (Isa. 40:6). "Ye are the salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13). "I am the vine, ye are the branches" (John 15:5). What sorrow and bloodshed could have been averted by a right understanding of Matthew 26:26, 28. "This is [represents] my body.... This is[represents] my blood."
If to take a statement of this kind, which occurs in Scriptures, literally would involve an absurdity, be contrary to the evidence of our senses, contrary to reason, and contrary to other statements of Revelation, then we both may and must conclude that it is a metaphor.
(3) A metonymy (from the Greek ????, denoting change, and ?????, a name) is a figure of speech where there is a change of name for another, in order to make an impression not otherwise attainable. "At the mouth [word, testimony] of two witnesses" (Deut. 17:6). So also, when the part is used for the whole: ". . . then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave" (Gen. 42:38). It is also metonymy when an object is used to represent something intimately connected with it, as in Isaiah 51:3: "For the Lord shall comfort Zion," and in Matthew 10:13: "And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it." "Zion" is used for the people that dwell there, and "house" speaks figuratively of its inhabitants (cf. Luke 16:29; Isa. 22:22).
(4) A synecdoche is quite similar to a metonymy, except that it stresses a physical rather than a mental resemblance. It is generally found when a part is used for the whole, or the whole used for a part. In Luke 2:1, "all the world" is used for the Roman Empire in its greatest extent. In Acts 27:37, "two hundred threescore and sixteen souls" speaks, of course, of two hundred seventy-six persons.
(5) Personification, often found in Scripture, occurs whenever objects of nature, inanimate things, or even abstract ideas, are spoken of as if they were living creatures, or as if they were indued with the characteristics of life. Both Numbers 16:32: "The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up," and Matthew 6:34: "take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself," illustrate this particular figure.
(6) Apostrophe occurs when a speaker turns from his immediate hearers to address some absent person, either living or dead. David does this when he laments the death of his son, crying as if the departed soul were present to hear: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (II Sam. 18:33). If an inanimate object is addressed, the figures of apostrophe and personification combine in the one passage. This is well illustrated by Psalm 114:5-7: "What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back? ... Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob."
(7) Hyperbole is a rhetorical figure which consists in the exaggeration or the magnification of an object beyond true reality. "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, and I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people" (Jer. 9:1; cf. Gen. 49:11; Psa. 6:6; John 21:25).
(8) Irony is a figure of speech in which the speaker says for effect the very opposite from that which is intended. The words of Elijah to the prophets of Baal: "Cry aloud: for he is a god ..." (I Kings 18:27) is an example of irony. Words of scorn and derision, like the mockery of the soldiers in Matthew 27:29: "Hail, King of the Jews!" might better be considered as examples of sarcasm, rather than irony.
Passing now to the less common figures of speech found in the Bible, one finds fables, riddles, enigmas, allegories, parables, proverbs, types, and symbols, only two or three of which need to be mentioned here.
(9) An allegory is generally defined as an extended metaphor, bearing the same relation to the parable as the metaphor does to the simile. The important thing in the interpretation of an allegory is to seize the main truth which it intends to set forth, interpreting the lesser details in harmony with that truth. Psalm 80:8-15 is an example of an allegory, but the most famous is that of Paul in Galatians 4:21-31.
It is constantly claimed by those who seek to take liberties with the theology of the Bible that the presence of allegories in Scripture is a confirmation of their allegorizing method of interpretation. Nothing could be further from the truth! To interpret correctly a plain allegorical figure of speech according to the laws of figurative language offers no the most vague statements, wrests from them their obvious meaning, and substitutes something entirely different, even opposite, in its place. Legitimate interpretation seeks to determine the purpose of the author in giving the allegory, while allegorizers seek to change the plain intent of the author. Returning to Paul's allegory in Galatians, the spiritual meaning is solidly based on a literal foundation, for the geographic locations and the characters involved are all literal. Lightfoot expressed it well:
With St. Paul, on the other hand, Hagar's career is an allegory because it is history. The symbol and the thing symbolized are the same in kind. This simple passage in patriarchal life represents in miniature the workings of God's providence hereafter to be exhibited in grander proportions in the history of the Christian Church. With Philo the allegory is the whole substance of his teaching; with St. Paul it is but an accessory. He uses it rather as an illustration than an argument.
It seems evident that the occasional use of allegories, along with other legitimate figures of speech, in no wise constitutes a departure from the basic method of literal interpretation.
(10) A parable has been called "a short earthly story with a heavenly meaning." The name is derived from the Greek verb ?????????, "to throw," or "place by the side of," and carries the idea of placing one thing by the side of another for the purpose of comparison. It is, in a sense, an extended simile, but unlike the simile, its imagery never departs from that which is real and factual. Terry says: "It moves in an element of sober earnestness, never transgressing in its imagery the limits of probability, or of what might be actual fact."
The general design of parables, as of all other kinds of figurative language, is to embellish and set forth ideas and moral truths in attractive and impressive forms. Many a moral lesson, if spoken in naked, literal style, is soon forgotten; but clothed in parabolic dress, it arouses attention, and fastens itself in the memory. Many rebukes and pungent warnings may be couched in a parable, and thereby give less offense, and yet work better effects than open plainness of speech could do. Nathan's parable in 2 Sam. xii, 1-4) prepared the heart of David to receive with profit the keen reproof he was about to administer.
Some of the Lord's most pointed rebukes against the Jews were clothed in parables. According to Matthew 13:10-17, a parable has a two-fold use: to reveal divine truth to those who are ready to receive it, and to conceal this same truth from those who would meet plain precepts with derision. Thus, Christ instructed his followers by means of the same instrument that He used at other times to reprove those who had rejected His words.
C. The Typology of Scripture
While types and symbols, strictly speaking, are not figures of speech , since their presence in the Scriptures also has been used to excuse the spiritualizing method, they deserve brief consideration at this point.
Type, from the Greek ?????, denotes the mark of a blow, an impression made by a die, or an example or pattern. "Types are the emblems which are designed by God to represent and prefigure some great and good things to come." Many New Testament verses sanction typology (Luke 24:27; I Cor. 10:11; Matt. 12:40). It has truthfully been said: "The typology of the Old Testament is the very alphabet or the language in which the doctrine of the New Testament is written."
Types have three main characteristics: (1) There must be a notable real point of resemblance between the type and its antitype. (2) The type must be designed by divine appointment to bear a likeness to the antitype, although not necessarily so designated in the New Testament. (3) A type always prefigures something future, differing only in form from predictive prophecy.
Five classes of types have been distinguished: (1) persons: Adam, Abraham, Elijah, David, etc., (2) institutions: Levitical rites, the sabbath, the passover, etc.; (3) offices: the prophetic office, the high priest, Melchizedec, etc., (4) events: the exodus, the smitten rock, the brazen serpent, etc.; (5) actions: the ministry of the high priest on the day of atonement, etc.
The following rules should be observed in the interpretation of types: (1) That which is evil cannot typify that which is good. There must be congruity. (2) Old Testament types were also symbols of spiritual truth to their own day. (3) The type can be fully understood only in the light of its New Testament antitype. (4) Types are not of a complex nature, but have one radical meaning. (5) The antitype must be on a higher spiritual plane. Rome loses sight of this when she finds the antitype of Old Testament sacrifice in the mass, Old Testament priesthood as the type of apostolic succession of priests and bishops, and the high priest as a type of the pope. (6) The historical, literal meaning must be taken first, then the typical. In this way, the interpretation of Biblical types falls within the framework of the literal method and in no wise constitutes a departure from it.
It may be concluded, therefore, that the stress of the premillennial fundamentalist upon the literal method of Bible interpretation is a valid one, even in those areas which are most hotly contested, namely, typology and figurative language. The literalist does not disparage the presence of types and figures in the language of the Bible, for they have formulated orderly principles and definitions to aid the interpreter both to recognize them and to determine their contribution to the passage as whole. Figures of speech are a normal ingredient in any language, but even a figure must be framed out of basic literal elements; moreover, it would not be in the Sacred Text at all unless given to convey or illustrate a literal thought.
III. Special Rules for the Interpretation of Prophecy
In these days of world unrest and confusion, with nations in upheaval, with Israel unwittingly fulfilling ancient prophecy, with voices in increasing number crying "Lo, here," or "lo, there" (Matt. 24:23), Bible students have felt constrained to turn with a renewed interest to the examination of the prophetic Scriptures. Unfortunately, conclusions reached have differed so extensively that the Church has appeared before the world as a trumpet of "uncertain sound" (I Cor. 14:8), unable to unite its testimony or utter persuasively its warnings. Since prophecy, like other Scripture, is inspired of God and is profitable, and since God Himself is not the Author of confusion, it is quite evident that most wrong interpretations stem from incorrect principles and faulty exegesis.
Premillennialists are convinced that the basic rule of literal interpretation still holds good for prophecy, even though its peculiar problems may call for additional rules to govern interpretation. Amillennialists deny this, claiming that prophecy calls for the forsaking of the literal principle and the adoption of a new hermeneutical principle at least in this area. Terry says" "It is principally those portions of the prophetic Scriptures which forecast the future that call for special hermeneutics." Hamilton claims that a departure from the literal sense is justified if that sense creates an apparent contradiction:
A good working rule is to follow is that the literal interpretation of the prophecy is to be accepted unless (a) the passages contain obviously figurative language, or (b) unless the New Testament gives authority for interpreting them in other than a literal sense, or (c) unless a literal interpretation would produce a contradiction with truths, principles, or factual statements considered in the non-symbolic books of the New Testament.
This might be well, were it not for the fact that the amillennialist heavily favors his own system when he chooses that which is "obviously figurative" or that which would "produce a contradiction" with other New Testament truth. Hamilton himself says" "Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament gives us just such a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialists pictures." But rather than give up a favored theory, he gives up his basic hermeneutical rule, and is illustrative of the fact that conservative amillennialists reject literal interpretation, not only in the area of eschatology, but wherever the Scriptures touch upon the millennial issue.
While considerable difference of opinion exists among amillennarians regarding the best method of disposing of the mass of Old Testament prophecies which seem to indicate a future earthly kingdom for Israel, they agree in the main principle, that is, that these promises will not be fulfilled to Israel in a kingdom age to follow the present dispensation. Whether cancelled because of rejection of Christ as Messiah or spiritualized according to Calvin's formula, amillennialism with one voice condemns any literal fulfillment of these promises.
That such rejection of the literal principle is considered unwarranted even by some amillennialists is seen by the statement of Case:
Premillennialists are thoroughly justified in their protest against those opponents who allegorize or spiritualize pertinent Biblical passages, thus retaining scriptural phrases while utterly perverting their original significance.
Yet an allegorizing of millennial passages is the only alternative open to men who reject a literal earthly kingdom. It is a return to allegory – a return to a method theologically unsound and historically discredited – that is demanded by amillennialism. Literal for all else, but allegory when it comes to the covenanted kingdom. To do otherwise would be to concede the premillennial view. This fact already has been seen in the admission of Pieters that the Reformers could not defend the allegorizing method of exegesis so far as the Scriptures in general were concerned, but that they retained the spiritualizing method in expounding many of the prophecies.
One must not lose sight of the fact that a great number of prophecies contained in the Bible already have been fulfilled, and that in every case the fulfillment was literal rather than otherwise. Feinberg illustrates this point by recalling the fivefold promise of the angel to Mary, as recorded in Luke 1:31, 32:
All the prophecies of the suffering Messiah were literally fulfilled in the first advent of Christ. We have no reason to believe that the predictions of a glorified and reigning Messiah will be brought to pass in any other manner. Take, for example, the words of Gabriel in the first chapter of Luke where he foretells of the birth of Christ. According to the angel's words Mary literally conceived in her womb; literally brought forth a son; His name was literally called Jesus; He was literally great; and He was literally called the Son of the Highest. Will it not be as literally fulfilled that God will yet give to Christ the throne of His father David, that He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and that of His glorious kingdom there shall be no end?
In the words of Todd: "If any prophecy which is clearly known to have been fulfilled is examined, it will be found that the fulfillment was literal." The basic harmony of the Scriptures would require, one might judge, that all future fulfillment must follow the same pattern.
One must also remember that although strict literalism may not have led to harmony of opinion on every detail of prophecy, yet the over-all pattern arrived at is harmonious, and all the Scriptures involved have been treated. Those who depart from literal procedures rarely attempt to treat all the Scriptures, and have yet to produce a system which is basically harmonious.
When it comes to the actual rules for the interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy, many and varied have been the suggestions made. Ramm gives a digest of the interpretative principles of a number of leading authorities: Oehler, Von Orelli, Meyrick, R. T. Chafer, Terry, Angus and Green, and Davidson. Since this summary is readily available, there is little point in repeating the various rules here. Ramm himself has suggested the following principles:
(1) Determine the historical background of the prophet and the prophecy.
(2) Determine the full meaning and significance of all proper names, geographical references, references to customs or material culture, and references to flora and fauna.
(3) Determine if the passage is predictive or didactic.
(4) If predictive determine if fulfilled, unfulfilled, or conditional.
(5) Determine if the same theme or concept is also treated elsewhere.
(6) As a reminder, keep vividly in mind the flow of the passage, i.e., pay attention to context.
(7) Notice that element of the prophecy that is purely local or temporal.
(8) Take the literal interpretation of prophecy as the limiting guide in prophetic interpretation.
It has been seen that in the interpretation of prophecy not yet fulfilled, those prophecies which have been fulfilled provide the pattern. The literal fulfillment of scores of Old Testament predictions concerning the first advent of Christ is a familiar matter. W. E. Blackstone, Jesus is Coming, lists some three dozen plain prophecies about many different aspects of the second advent, and the presumption is that these will be fulfilled after the same manner, that is, literally. It should not go unnoticed that it would have been easy for the Old Testament Jew to spiritualize very many of the details which were minutely fulfilled by Christ, such as the virgin of Isaiah 7:14; Bethlehem, of Micah 5:2, that tiny village which was called in derision "a mere weed-patch by a Roman highway," and so on throughout the life of the Suffering Servant to the shame of the cross.
Perhaps it is not going too far to say that if present amillennialists were transported back to the time when these predictions were first uttered, they would have insisted on spiritualizing them away as "obviously figurative." Yet the fulfillment was consistently literal, and as Walvoord tersely remarks: "A method that has worked with such success in the past is certainly worthy of projection into the future."
The above rules for the interpretation of prophecy are not exhaustive. Stress has been given to the law of fulfillment, that in the interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy, the pattern of those which have been fulfilled should be followed. There is also the law of time relationship, that two events placed side by side in a prophecy will not necessarily be fulfilled simultaneously, or even in immediate succession. There is the law of double reference, that both an immediate and a future fulfillment of the same prediction may be found. There is the principle that the prophets often took in great periods of time in a single glance, called by Delitzsch "the foreshortening of the prophet's horizon." There is the principle that even when the language contains symbols, the language is not necessarily symbolic throughout.
When Joel speaks of locusts, he means those creatures. When he speaks of the sun, moon and stars, he means those bodies. When he says, "How do the beasts groan?" he means the beasts, and not as Hengstenberg thinks, "the uncovenanted nations of the heathen world."
These are, in the main, the principles which govern the right interpretation of prophecy. When coupled with the rules for the recognition and interpretation of Biblical figures, they should enable the careful interpreter to steer his course through the difficulties of predictive prophecy without sacrificing or compromising the basic tenet of literal interpretation. To study the Book, and to face its interpretative problems according to established rules and accepted methods – this is the orderly, the God-honoring way of rightly interpreting the Word of Truth. To read the Bible loosely, spiritualizing whatever appears to be difficult or contrary to preconceived theology – this is the way fraught with danger, the way which opens the door for liberalism to spiritualizing the essential doctrines rather than the secondary details of the Christian faith.
Special laws for the interpretation of prophecy do not destroy literalism as the basic principle, but merely become a part of its outworking. Payne has summarized the situation adequately:
If there is to be a departure from the generally accepted literal sense of language it must be positively justified. Then a new rule must be laid down to insure uniformity and that rule in turn must be substantiated by evidence as to its correctness. This is the only true and scholarly approach to the problem of spiritualizing interpretation.
This is the crux of the prophetic problem, and a conclusion which might well be heeded by all who apply to Scripture two different and opposing principles of interpretation, whether they be Tribulationalists or Amillennialists. To delete the literal principle from the interpretation of prophecy is to admit the spiritualizing method. Once admitted, spiritualizing becomes exceedingly difficult to regulate, for it tends automatically to spread to other areas of Christian doctrine. When it does, it may destroy the very Book it once set out to interpret!
IV. The Symbolism of the Book of Revelation
To some, the Revelation is an obscure book, full of deep mysteries and dark sayings, and so loaded with prophetic symbolism that the possibility of a clear understanding of its meaning is most doubtful. To the contrary, the very title of the book reveals its true nature. "It is not an obscuration but a revelation; it reveals, not conceals. Its symbols are not to hide the meaning but to illuminate it. Symbols form part of its method of instruction, but they teach, not confuse." It is an unsealed book meant to be read and understood, for it carries a promise of blessing for those who keep the sayings of its prophecy (Rev. 22:7).
There have been a great many attempts made to allegorize the Revelation in order to make its events appear as fulfilled during some particular era of history. Those who have so labored are called Preterists, time alone serving to reveal the utter bankruptcy of their interpretive methods. In this connection, Walvoord remarks:
There are literally scores of interpretations of the book of Revelation by the amillennarians who have attempted to interpret this book by the historical setting which was contemporary to them. The history of interpretation is strewed with the wreckage of multiplied schemes of interpretation which are every one contradictory to all the others. This writer has personally examined some fifty historical interpretations of Revelation all of which would be rejected by any intelligent person today. The literal method which regards the bulk of Revelation as future is the only consistent approach possible. The spiritualizing method of interpretation is a blight upon the understanding of the Scriptures and constitutes an important hindrance to Bible study.
Interpreters who believe the prophecies of Revelation (particularly from the fourth chapter) are to be fulfilled at some future date are designated simply as Futurists. Even among these there is considerable division of opinion over the extent to which the literal method may be applied. It is not our purpose here to attempt a solution of this phase of the problem but rather to demonstrate that the book of Revelation, although known for its symbols, is not without a heavy literal content, and that even in this book there is no need for departures from the basic method of literal interpretation.
Some expositors have given so much emphasis to apocalyptic symbolism that one wonders if they have not overlooked just how much of a literal nature the book of Revelation contains. The chief personages involved are all literal: God the Father, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Michael the archangel, Satan, Antichrist, angels, men, and so forth. So are the places literal: heaven, earth, the abyss, mountains, islands, seas, Jerusalem, Babylon, and the seven cities of Asia Minor, to name a few. Revelation 11:8 speaks of "the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt," and in so doing employs a metaphor, but the city is none the less literal, clearly identified as that "where also our Lord was crucified." The twenty-four thrones and twenty-four elders of chapter four are literal rather than symbolic, as many opponents of pretribulationalism insist, for John records that one of the elders conversed with him (Rev. 7:13). It is far more sensible to understand the elder to be a literal individual than it is to maintain that one-twenty-fourth part of a symbolic group held conversation with the apostle. Similarly, the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3-12 evidently are literal. They do not symbolize the Church, as the details of their ministry, death, and resurrection indicate (although Lenski ignores such details and makes them the principle of "competent legal testimony," whatever that may mean during torturous Tribulation days). Following the death of the witnesses there is to be a great earthquake. The tenth part of Jerusalem shall fall and seven thousand sinners will perish. Those who refused burial to God's two prophets now lie buried beneath the rubble of their own buildings. Of this incident, Lang has written: "Attempts to ‘spiritualize' such details are hopeless; their plain sense is simple." So also must the forty-two months be literal rather than symbolic, for they comprise half the seven year period of Daniel's "seventieth week," measured also in days and by the formula "a time, and times, and half a time" (Rev. 11:3; 12:14). A non-literal interpretation of such specific periods and events would introduce much confusion, if not bring the entire book to chaos.
However, it is the twentieth chapter of the Revelation, when interpreted literally, which come in for the lion's share of scorn and criticism. Charles R. Erdman, speaking of this chapter and of the Millennium, writes:
This obscure and difficult passage of Scripture contains a highly figurative description of a limited time during which Satan is found, and the nations are at rest, and risen martyrs reign with Christ: but after this "Thousand Years" Satan is loosed and leads the nations of the earth against "the camp of the saints," and "the beloved city"; but his hosts are destroyed by fire from heaven and he is "cast into the lake of fire and brimstone." All this is full of mystery. These symbols cannot be interpreted with certainty or with confidence. No prediction of such a limited period of peace and blessedness is found elsewhere in the Bible.
The Scriptures challenge all such trembling uncertainty. The Old Testament prophets are full of predictions of Israel's golden age, and whole handfuls of Scripture can be cited to substantiate the kingdom reign of Christ of which Revelation 20 speaks. Note from a random selection the promise of the land and of an everlasting seed (Gen. 26:2-4; 28:13-15; Ezek. 37:24, 25); the final and permanent restoration to the land and the extent of its boundaries (Amos 9:15; Hos. 3:4, 5; Gen. 15:18-21); the perpetuity of the nation in spite of disobedience (Jer. 31:35-37; II Sam. 7:14, 15; Ps. 89:30-37); the time of Israel's fullness and national conversion (Jer. 31:33, 34; Rom. 11:12, 23); the everlasting throne and kingdom (Isa. 9:7; II Sam. 7:12, 13; Luke 1:31-33); the period of safety under the Davidic King (Jer. 33:14-17, 20, 21; its peace and its blessedness (Jer. 23:5, 6; 30:8, 9) with the curse largely removed from nature (Isa. 11:6-9). Other portions of the Revelation harmonize with its twentieth chapter, as in Revelation 5:10, which records that the saints shall reign on the earth, and as in Revelation 12:12, which intimates the binding of Satan by saying that he knows his time is short.
This is the time of rest and peace upon earth of which Revelation 20 specifically speaks. In language which is neither obscure nor highly figurative, the length of the period is set of a six-fold reference to a duration of one thousand years. It is both interesting and pathetic to behold how allegorizers dismiss the plain force of these Scriptures in their effort to exchange what God has spoken for a meaning more in accord with their own ideas. Auberlen gives the following significant bit of "exegesis":
Thousand symbolizes the world is perfectly pervaded by the divine: Since thousand is ten, the number of the world, raised to the third power, the number of God.
Another would make the thousand years symbolize "potentiated ecumenicity"! In view of such trifling, it might be well to ask: Suppose God actually meant one thousand years, how else would He, or how else could He write it? This one chapter of the Revelation repeats the figure six different times in as many verses."
The binding of Satan, in this same chapter, has become another center of confusion at the hands of those seeking an allegorized interpretation of the event. Lenski says: "The binding of Satan means that he shall not prevent this heralding of the Gospel to all the nations." Warfield, however, provides a more outstanding example of how sane and sensible men can be led astray by parting company with the principle of literal interpretation. Concerning the binding and the loosing of Satan, Warfield writes:
...The element of time and chronological succession belongs to the symbol, not to the thing symbolized. The "binding of Satan" is, therefore, in reality, not for a season, but with reference to a sphere; and his "loosing" again is not after a period but in another sphere; it is not subsequence but exteriority that is suggested. There is, indeed, no literal "binding of Satan" to be thought of at all: what happens, happens not to Satan but to the saints, and is only represented as happening to Satan for the purpose of the symbolical picture. What actually happens is that the saints described are removed from the sphere of Satan's assaults. The saints described are free from all access of Satan – he is bound with respect to them: outside of their charmed circle his horrid work goes on.
All of which serves to demonstrate that the plain meaning of Scripture can be reversed completely the by the application of an allegorizing principle. No wonder havoc is made of the faith when this vicious method is applied to more cardinal points of Christian doctrine. Peter has stated plainly: "Be sober, be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour" (I Pet. 5:8; cf. I Cor. 7:5; II Cor. 4:3, 4; II Thess. 2:9; I Tim. 1:20; I John 3:8). Yet fundamentally, the modern amillennial view still embraces this unscriptural Augustinian concept that Satan was bound at the first advent of Christ. Judging by present day Satanic activity, he must be tethered on a long chain!
The statement by Warfield is mot significant, for it illustrates the power of the spiritualizing method, even in the hands of an outstanding conservative theologian, to alter if not to reverse the plain teaching of the Word of God. Also, it shows how allegorizing may invade and enter other areas of theology (here, angelology) in addition to eschatology.
As to the actual treatment of the symbols contained in the book of Revelation, the writer makes the following five suggestions:
(1) Revelation is a message to the Church directly from the throne of God. Since it is evidently meant to be understood, seek the interpretation of the book by careful study and prayerful meditation. The deep things of God are open only to those walking in full fellowship with God. Revelation is the great watershed of all Biblical doctrine; therefore, a grasp of the teaching of the entire Bible is essential, particularly the book of Daniel, the Olivet discourse, and other major prophetic passages. Prophecy must be studied with great dependence upon the teaching power of the Spirit of God, who has come not only to guide His own into all truth but also to show them "things to come" (John 16:13).
(2) Not all of the word-pictures of the Revelation are symbols. Many are plain, everyday figures of speech, and should be identified and interpreted by the special rules for figurative language – just as one would go about interpreting a figure in the non-prophetical portions of the Word of God. For example, Revelation 1:12 introduces a metonymy: "the voice that spake with me." The book simply abounds with simile: "his hairs were white like wool ... his eyes were as a flame of fire"; "the moon became as blood"; "the stars of heaven fell ... as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind"; "the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together"; "the nations of the earth ... the number of whom is as the sand of the sea" (Rev. 1:14; 6:12, 13; 20:8). Revelation 20:9 uses the figure of personification: "fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them." Examples of figurative language in the book might be extended almost indefinitely, but since every legitimate figure is incorporated within the scope of the literal method of interpretation, there is certainly no need for superimposing the many figures of the Revelation over that which actually is symbolic.
(3) In the study of the apocalyptic visions of John, do not fail to distinguish between "things seen and heard" in a vision and the facts evidently given John directly by God or by His angel apart from the vision. For instance, John might see an angel or elder, a heavenly city or a shaft to the abyss, but even when transported to heaven he could not see "a thousand years." It is evident that the duration of Satan's binding and the length of the reign of the saints must have been given to John by direct revelation. As such, the thousand year figure cannot be treated to the hazards of "symbolic interpretation."
(4) When a symbol or sign does appear in the Revelation, it is often plainly designated as such in the immediate context, together with what the symbol represents. Lange gives this rule:
Nothing could be symbolically interpreted which is not proved to be symbolical in the Apocalypse itself or by Old Testament visions. Nothing should be apprehended literally which is demonstrated to be a symbol.
In Revelation 12:3 "there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon..." who is clearly identified in verse nine as "the great dragon...called the Devil, and Satan." Another example is Revelation 17:18, where the woman sitting upon a scarlet colored beast is identified: "And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth." It is religious Babylon wherein are seven mountains (verse nine), the place of ecclesiastical scarlet and the blood of martyrs, evidently the city of Rome.
(5) It must be remembered that the book of Revelation is not independent of previous prophecy. There are in the book some three hundred allusions to some other part of the Bible, and the main roots of the book are in Daniel. Some themes are carried through the entire Scriptures, the book of the Revelation being the final terminal. It is to be expected, therefore, that much of the imagery of the Revelation is to be found, and to some extent explained in some of the earlier books of the Bible. Such is indeed the case. As Ironside explains:
This book is a book of symbols. But the careful student of the Word need not exercise his own ingenuity in order to think out the meaning of the symbols. It may be laid down as a principle of first importance that every symbol used in Revelation is explained or alluded to somewhere else in the Bible.
Thus, the sharp sword of Revelation 19:15 may well speak of judgment through the application of the Word of God, according to Hebrews 4:12. The star which fell from heaven unto the earth, in Revelation 9:1, is identified in its own context as a person (verse two, "he opened"), but may well be an angel or heavenly ruler, according to parallel passages such as Numbers 24:12, Isaiah 14:13, and Revelation 12:4. Light is shed on the nature of the four "living creatures" of Revelation 4:6-8 by a comparison with the four "living creatures of Ezekiel 1:5-14. Likewise must the "four and twenty elders" be interpreted in the light of those called "elders" elsewhere in the Bible.
Especially is the vision of Christ in the first chapter of the Revelation highly symbolic, but here also the key is in the Scriptures. Daniel 7:9 speaks of one called the Ancient of Days, with "the hair of his head like the pure wool." Isaiah 11:5 notes that "righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins." His voice "as the sound of many waters" is part of the imagery of the twenty-ninth Psalm. John fell at His feet as head, but so did Isaiah, Moses, Job, and others, when they beheld His glory. Because the pattern is plain, the conclusion is obvious. The interpreter must be one who searches the rest of the Sacred Text rather than his imagination for the interpretation of prophetic symbols. As it has so often been said, all of the Scriptures are self-explanatory, and although the Revelation is not the easiest book to understand, many of its basic problems yield to earnest, Spirit-led Bible study.
These conclusions and suggestions, although a bare introduction to the vast field of prophetic study, should be of value to the student of prophecy because they are all in harmony with the principle of literal interpretation. This method, when applied to the book of Revelation, alone yields consistent answers to its interpretive problems, unfolding a prophetic program in complete harmony with the rest of Scripture.
Literal interpretation, whether examined historically or in the laboratory of actual exegesis, is the foundation principle of conservative Protestant theology. It needs not to be bolstered, or confounded, or modified, by allegorizing or anything which resembles it. Literal interpretation, returning to the wise words of Bonar, is "the only maxim that will carry you right through the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation."