How to Interpret Prophecy


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How to Interpret Prophecy

How to Interpret Prophecy

The word, prophecy, literally means “to speak in behalf of” another. This meaning is derived from the original Greek. It has the same significance in the Hebrew. This fact is seen in the statement, “And Jehovah said unto Moses, See, I have made thee as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exodus 7:1). The fundamental idea of the word, whether in Hebrew or in Greek, is that the one who does the speaking is a representative of another.

The content of the message is not implied in the word. It might relate to something in the past, in the present, or in the future. The facts of each context indicate the thought and its application. In the Hebrew Bible the historical portion beginning with Joshua and running through II Kings is designated as the “former prophets.” Those books which we usually term “prophets” are called the “latter prophets.”

Thus in these names is preserved the original significance of the word, prophet. This thought is also seen in I Corinthians 14. Prophecy in this chapter refers to teaching—one's teaching another. It does not imply that the one speaking is talking of the future. In fact, in this chapter the one who is doing the prophesying is building up the church in the faith, which thought would imply a full, rounded ministry dealing with things past, present, and future. This conclusion is confirmed by the regular practice of the apostolic writers who in their epistles discuss things past, present, and future. Let us therefore keep this original meaning of the word in mind as we study the Scriptures.

In the present day, however, since we see so very many signs and events which point most definitely to the conclusion of the age, we use the word, prophecy, largely to refer to things future. One aspect of prophecy, the predictive element, today has become the dominant one in use and is so understood by the popular mind. Let us, however, always study the context of any given case in order that we might understand exactly what the original speaker or writer had in mind.
Fulfilled Prophecy

As has just been noted, the inspired writers who recorded the history of Israel in such books as Samuel and Kings were really prophets, in that they narrated things past. There is, however, buried in the historical sections, here and there, an utterance which at the time when spoken related to things future, but which has long since been fulfilled. If we are to obtain an accurate and exact knowledge of how to interpret prophecy, we would do well to examine such predictions in their original settings and then to study them in the light of the historical events which brought them to realization. Furthermore, in those books which we now call “the prophets,” there are many predictions, especially those that relate to certain countries and their destinies, which have been fulfilled. In order to see how they were accomplished, one must resort to secular history for the exact picture in its historical unfolding. For example, a visit to old Memphis and No-amon (Luxor) in Egypt will show how literally and exactly were fulfilled the predictions made by men of God centuries before their materialization. Another excellent illustration of this point is Tyre on the Syrian coast. I could multiply these instances many times, speaking from experiences which I have had in visiting these ancient sites. On this point, there is no study that will strengthen the faith and clarify many issues more than the study of fulfilled prophecy. The small volume entitled Fulfilled Prophecy by John Urquhart (Google Books PDF) discusses many prophecies that have been fulfilled, as one sees in this volume, exactly as spoken. Let us remember the slogan: “God fulfills prophecy as written and not as interpreted by the speculations of men.”

Whenever anyone reads a document, he must take into consideration that there are figures of speech which must be interpreted according to the origin of the comparison and its historical development together with the facts of the immediate context. Figures adorn language, but they always, in serious speech, have a definite meaning. The one who wishes to understand literature must know the various figures and how to interpret them, because each stands for a reality.

We must also recognize that in the Scriptures there are parables, symbols, allegories, etc. It is highly important that one understand what a parable is. Etymologically, the word means “that which is laid down beside another.” That which is known is mentally thrown down beside the unknown, and by a comparison the quantity sought is ascertained. Always a speaker who uses a parable picks some fact or event which is well-known and uses it as an illustration in order to elucidate the unknown factor.

In this connection let me call attention to the fact that very frequently we hear people speak of “the parable of the rich man and Lazarus” (Luke 16). The Scriptures do not call this story a parable. The Lord Jesus simply stated that “there was a certain rich man”; and that there was a “certain beggar named Lazarus.” He did not intimate that He was speaking a parable. There is nothing in the context to suggest such an idea. If He had been speaking of an historical fact, He could not have chosen words to convey His meaning more definitely than those which He used on this occasion. We are sure to make a mistake if we call this a parable or anything else a parable unless a clear statement is made to that effect, or unless there are other indications which prove positively that such is the case.

Parable in the Hebrew generally has a different signification. Here it means a proverb. In fact, the Book of Proverbs is called in the Hebrew “The Parables of Solomon.” A parable is a short, concise statement consisting of two or more poetic lines, which construction we call “Hebrew Parallelism.” The second line is supplemental to the first and proves to be a comment upon it.

We must, therefore, in view of the facts just mentioned, know whether the word under consideration is used in the Old Testament sense or in that of the New.

Symbols likewise appear in the prophetic word. Usually they are found in predictive prophecy. Whenever they are used, one must not impose upon the language a meaning of his own choice. They must be interpreted by the author or writer who uses them. We have illustrations of them today. For instance, the secret lodges have various symbols to which they attach an arbitrary meaning. This significance may be the natural one, but it is given upon the authority of the one making the selection.

God chose such symbols as suited His purpose. Whenever He uses one, we must let Him interpret it, telling us what He means. For instance, Jesus instituted the supper before His betrayal. He selected the loaf and the fruit of the vine and said that He attached a symbolic significance to them; namely, that the loaf typifies His body and the fruit of the vine, His blood. No matter where a person sees this supper observed, he knows that these elements have the significance which Jesus gave them. Once again, we may note the symbolic significance of a beast. The Lord has interpreted its meaning. A glance at Daniel 7:17 shows that a beast, when thus used, signifies a civil government. Since the Lord has attached a definite idea to this symbol, we must not give it any other meaning. To do so is mere speculation. Such a procedure is not interpretation.

We also see a few allegories in the Scripture. The principal one is that of the Song of Solomon. The chief actors in this case are the lover and the maiden upon whom he bestows his affection. It is quite evident that this poem was used to convey a deeper significance than simply the telling of a love story. Though love and marriage are placed on the highest possible plane in the Scriptures, to lower the song to this level is to fall short of that which is demanded by the facts of the poem. It is therefore recognized by interpreters as being an allegory. Since there is a parallel significance which is reflected in the development of the story, we might call the real meaning of the allegory the undertone, which can be recognized by the trained ear. Asserted elsewhere, this allegory sets forth the relationship existing between King Messiah and Israel. Again we have another allegory in Galatians 4. There Paul speaks of Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. The former of these corresponds to Hagar, the symbol of the old covenant, whereas the latter represents Sarah who signifies the new. In interpreting an allegory one must be very careful not to read into it his own ideas.

All that has been said in regard to the interpretation of fulfilled prophecy is but an enlargement upon the Golden Rule of Interpretation, which was discussed under “The Laws of Interpretation.” A failure to observe this rule and to follow the suggestions that have just been made with reference to special types of literature in the Scriptures means to arrive at the wrong conclusion in interpreting the message.

Unfulfilled Prophecy

A study of the messages of the prophets of the Old Testament, as well as those of the New, shows very clearly that the major portion of these predictions await fulfillment. How are we to interpret them in order that we might not make any false deductions? The fact that a similarity between the mere wording of a prediction and some event or description of it may be discovered is no justification for our hastily arriving at the conclusion that said occurrence is the fulfillment of the prediction. There are many coincidences in life. There must be positive proof at hand before we are justified in saying that such and such an event is the fulfillment of a given prophecy.

We should bear in mind that “no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:20, 21). No scripture is of private interpretation. No one has a monopoly on expounding the Word of God. I am perfectly aware of the fact that there are those who claim that they alone have the key to the Bible and that no one else can rightly and correctly interpret what God has said. Such claims are spurious. Again, let me repeat that no one individual or group of persons has a monopoly, on explaining the Word of life. Let us, therefore, beware of any one who makes such grandiose claims.

A study of Matthew 2 will show that all predictive prophecy falls into four classes. If one will only master these types and the underlying principles involved in each, one will be able to classify any passage of Scripture which has prophetic import.

The Literal Signification

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem inquiring as to where the King of the Jews was born in order that they might worship Him. They reported that they had seen His star in the East. Naturally they went to King Herod who was the reigning sovereign at that time and asked him where the Christ child was. Of course, this reprobate had no spiritual discernment. Their message troubled him greatly, together with all who were in Jerusalem. He, therefore, gathered the scribes together in order to inquire of them where, according to the prophets, the Messiah was to be born. Their reply was, “In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written through the prophet. And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come forth a governor, Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (Matthew 2:5,6).

There were two Bethlehems in Palestine in the days of Christ. One was about three miles from Nazareth in Galilee; the other, about five miles south of Jerusalem in Judaea. In rationalistic circles, certain ones have argued that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem of Galilee — without giving any proof whatsoever for their opinion. Sir William Ramsey's book, Was Christ born in Bethlehem?, has settled that question once and for all — for those who want truth and are willing to accept facts.

According to Micah, who uttered the original prediction, the Messiah was to be born in the literal city of Bethlehem in the land of Judah. The scribes, who were thoroughly acquainted with the utterances of the prophets as well as with the law, interpreted this passage literally. That they were correct in thus understanding the literal import of the language is evident from Matthew's quoting their interpretation in an approving manner and making it coincide with his statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea (Matthew 2:1). The wise men understood this prophecy literally and went their way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The star which they had seen in the East appeared going before them and stood over the place where the Babe was. Thus all the facts show that this prophecy had a literal fulfillment.

Of course, a prophecy like this one, which is to be interpreted literally, might have figures of speech in it, as this one does; but we must make the same allowance for metaphorical language here as we do in any other type of literature. According to this prediction, there arises out of Bethlehem this one who is to be the governor, and who is called the “shepherd of my people Israel.” In this last statement we see a figure of speech, a metaphor. A shepherd is one who cares for literal sheep, protecting them and leading them to green pastures and still waters. What the shepherd does for his flock, this one of whom the prophecy speaks is to do for Israel, God's flock. A close study of this passage shows that this prophecy is to be taken literally — at its face value. At the same time we make allowance for any figurative expression, interpreting each as the facts of the context and the use of such language demand. This prophecy is purely of the literal class. In fact, it is the type of the great mass of prophecies.

The Literal Significance Plus a Typical Meaning

The second type of prophecy appears in Matthew 2:15 in the following words: “Out of Egypt did I call my son.” This sentence is taken from Hosea 11:1. Whenever we read a passage in the New Testament, quoted from the Old, the first thing to do is to turn back to the original passage and study the quotation in the light of the facts of the original context. “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. The more the prophets called them, the more they went from them: they sacrificed unto the Baalim, and burned incense to graven images. Yet I taught Ephraim to walk; I took them on my arms; but they knew not that I healed them. I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love; and I was to them as they that lift up the yoke on their jaws; and I laid food before them. They shall not return into the land of Egypt; but the Assyrian shall be their king, because they refused to return to me. And the sword shall fall upon their cities, and shall consume their bars, and devour them, because of their own counsels. And my people are bent on backsliding from me: though they call them to him that is on high, none at all will exalt him” (Hosea 11:1-7).

From this quotation it is beyond dispute that the words, “out of Egypt did I call my son,” refer to Israel — the twelve tribes — whom God brought out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. (For the full record of this historical account, see the first fifteen chapters of Exodus.)

Nevertheless, this statement is applied to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ with His mother and Joseph out of Egypt. The occasion of their being in that country is recorded in the account as given by Matthew. Herod planned the destruction of the baby Jesus. An angel, therefore, warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with the child and his mother and to remain there until he should receive instructions to return to Palestine. He, therefore, did as the angel commanded him and remained there until the death of Herod “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son.”

As we have seen, the original statement referred to the children of Israel in the literal land of Egypt and of their coming out of that country into Canaan, the Holy Land. Although it had this original signification, Matthew by the Spirit applied the prediction to the Lord Jesus Christ, His residence in Egypt, and His coming out of it into Palestine. Was the meaning which Matthew gives latent in the sentence as it was spoken by the prophet? Hosea lived about the middle of the eighth century before Christ. In making the statement which is the subject of this investigation, he looked backward across seven centuries to the time when Israel came out of Egypt. The statement, therefore, was an historical fact and was so interpreted by the prophet's audience and readers, then as well as now. There can be no misunderstanding about this position; nevertheless, Matthew places an interpretation upon this utterance which no one of us today probably would have recognized if the inspired apostle had not pointed out this hidden meaning. Was Matthew arbitrary in his handling of this passage, or were there fundamental reasons justifying his interpretation and his applying it to the Lord Jesus? These are fundamental questions that demand attention.

The answer is in the word, son, as it occurs in Exodus 4:22,23, and parallel passages. The Lord instructed Moses to speak to Pharaoh, saying, “Thus saith Jehovah, Israel is my son, my first-born: and I have said unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and thou hast refused to let him go: behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born.” God was speaking of the nation of Israel as His son, His first-born. This people indeed was God's son, His first-born, in a peculiar sense. This fact becomes evident if we remember that, when Abraham and Sarah were past the age of parenthood, God performed a biological miracle upon their bodies, which made possible the birth of Isaac. Thus Isaac was in a special sense God's first-born just as he was the first-born of Abraham and Sarah. The children of Israel are thought of as being in the loins of Isaac, just as Levi is spoken of as being in the loins of Abraham in the following quotation: “And, so to say, through Abraham even Levi, who receiveth tithes, hath paid tithes; for he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchizedek met him” (Hebrews 7:9,10). This mode of thought laid the foundation for the conception of the solidarity of the Hebrew race and of their being God's first-born. As stated, they were God's son, His first-born, in that He performed a biological miracle which made possible the birth of Isaac. From this point of view, Isaac and his birth are thought of as being typical of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was and is God's Son, in the highest sense of the term. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God ... and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,2,14). The Lord Jesus is again spoken of as God's Son in this high sense in Hebrews 1:1-4:

God, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds; who being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had made purification of sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become by so much better than the angels, as he hath inherited a more excellent name than they.”

In view of the fact that Isaac was miraculously begotten and of the further fact that our Lord's entrance into the world was a stupendous miracle, one can readily see how Isaac and the children of Israel are typical of the Messiah. This signification finds expression in Hosea's statement which Matthew quotes. Matthew by inspiration knew these facts and was led unerringly by the Spirit to interpret this prediction as referring to our Lord's departure out of Egypt.

In the case of Israel and in that of the Lord Jesus, we see that Egypt was literal, that both the children of Israel and the Lord Jesus were literal, that they were in Egypt, and that they literally came out of it into Canaan. There was thus a literal basis in both occurrences. Everything about both of these instances was literal; but the application which Matthew made of Hosea's statement shows that, while it was literal, there was a typical signification included in it. The inspired apostle has called our attention to this secondary significance. This second type of prophecy, therefore, includes those predictions which have both a literal meaning and a typical import.

The Literal Meaning Plus an Application

The third passage quoted in Matthew 2 is found in verse 18. “A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not.” Again we must study the original passage in order to see the setting from which this verse was taken before we notice Matthew's interpretation of it. Let us now turn to Jeremiah 31.

Jeremiah lived in the fateful days prior to the Babylonian captivity, through the siege of Jerusalem, and into the post-war days of that mighty crisis which befell the Jewish people. He did all he could to prevent the catastrophe by calling the people to repentance, but they would not heed. After the capitulation of the city, the captives were led out to Ramah, which is about ten miles north of Jerusalem, by Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard of the King of Babylon. There this official released Jeremiah, giving him permission to go either to Babylon with him or to remain anywhere in the land. But the captives were taken into exile. It was indeed a bitter, heart-breaking experience for the mothers of the heroic captives to see their sons, and in many instances husbands, led into exile in a land far away. Hence they wept and mourned over the lamentable situation.

These mothers are spoken of in terms of the favorite wife of Jacob, Rachel, whose tomb is beside the Bethlehem-Hebron Road four miles south of Jerusalem. It was she who was the mother of Benjamin, the tribe in whose territory Jerusalem was located. It was therefore natural for Jeremiah to think of these sad, stricken mothers, as he did, in terms of Rachel.

The prophet spoke to these weeping women and gave them hope that though their loved ones were going into captivity, there were brighter days ahead. He had, as we see in chapter 25 of his book, foretold that the exiles would remain in Babylon for seventy years, and that at the expiration of that time they would have the privilege of coming back to the land of their fathers. Jeremiah in chapter 31 not only speaks of this return after the Exile, but looks beyond it to the time when all Israel shall be gathered from all nations back into their own land, when every man shall live under his own vine and fig tree. Such is the significance of the quotation which we are studying, as the facts of the original context indicate and as is reflected in the historical records of the times of Jeremiah.

Matthew takes this verse from Jeremiah 31 and applies it to a similar situation of sadness and sorrow on the part of the mothers of Bethlehem. Herod had ordered the slaughter of all the male children of Bethlehem two years and under, thinking that by so doing he would accomplish the death of the Christ child. As we have already seen, Joseph had taken Mary and the child to Egypt before the massacre of the children was ordered. These Bethlehem mothers naturally wept for their babes. Matthew, thinking of the solidarity of the Jewish people and seeing this time of heart-rending sorrow piercing the very souls of these bereaved mothers, was led by the Spirit of God to use this prophecy and to apply it to this case of similar grief.

The original event which called for this utterance was literal and real as well as the one to which the passage was applied. This position cannot be denied. Bethlehem was literal. The slaughter of the innocent babes likewise was literal. There was, therefore, a literal basis in both cases. Since they were similar in one respect, Matthew applied the language of the former prophet to the situation of his day. From all the facts we draw this conclusion: This prophecy is a case of the literal meaning plus an application to a similar case.

We have made the same allowance for figurative language in this prophecy as we did in the prediction from Hosea. After that is done, we see the literal significance of this passage as well as that of the one from Hosea.

The Literal Meaning Plus a Summation

The fourth type of prophecy is found in Matthew 2:23 in the following words: “and (Jesus) came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene.” Here we are told that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in Egypt after the death of Herod and told him to bring the child and His mother back into the land of Israel. Upon reaching Judaea, he found that Archelaus was reigning in the place of Herod. He, therefore, wisely avoided settling in Judaea and located in Nazareth. Matthew tells us that he did it in order that the prophecy might be fulfilled which foretold that Jesus should be called a Nazarene. This language is clear and unmistakable.

What is meant by “a Nazarene”? Let us remember that a Nazarene, a resident of Nazareth, is not necessarily a Nazarite. It is altogether possible that there were some residents of that city who had taken the Nazarite vow and, of course, they would be both Nazarenes and Nazarites. Anyone who took a certain vow was designated a Nazarite. The facts regarding a Nazarite are found in Numbers 6:1-4. Samson also was a Nazarite (Judges 13), but the words used by Matthew have no connection with such a vow. Nazarene referred, as the word shows, to an inhabitant of Nazareth.

But why should He be called a Nazarene? Are there any prophecies in the Old Testament which foretold that He would live in Nazareth, similar to Micah's prophecy which indicated that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem? There is no such prediction to be found anywhere. Hence the word Nazarene cannot be used simply with its literal meaning. Does this name have any other connotation? Yes. It was a term to indicate reproach and shame. When Jesus was at Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles, prior to His crucifixion, there arose a dispute among the people as to whether or not He was the Messiah. Some said that He was indeed the prophet (mentioned by Moses, Deuteronomy 18). Others believed that He was the Messiah; while still others retorted by saying, “What, doth the Christ (Messiah) come out of Galilee?” (John 7:41). This question reflects the contempt with which Galilee was held by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the days of our Lord Galilee was spoken of as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” The strict Jews, of course, looked down on anything connected with Gentiles as a thing of shame and contempt.

But there must be something more specific than this general attitude against the Galileans. In Isaiah 53 and also in Psalm 22, we see predictions concerning Messiah which foretell that He would be despised and rejected of men and finally be executed as a criminal. The word Nazarene was a term of reproach and also was a synonym for one despised and hated. This attitude is reflected in the question which Nathanael put to Philip: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). This term, therefore, being one of contempt and reproach, well summarizes the predictions which foretold that the Messiah would be hated and finally rejected by His people. Thus, when all the facts are taken into consideration, one is led to the conclusion that, since there is no specific prophecy foretelling that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene, Matthew was in his statement summing up those predictions which speak of His being despised and rejected.

Nazareth was a literal city. Our Lord resided in it. He was hated and despised because the people looked down upon its residents. In addition to this fact the natural enmity of the unregenerated heart caused people who did not want truth to hate and despise Him. He himself said, “The world hated Me.” This attitude, therefore, could not have been expressed in a more concise way and with more feeling than by calling Jesus a “Nazarene.”

The conclusion to which this investigation leads is that this prophecy is a literal one plus the idea of summation — the labeling of many prophecies by a single term, which adequately expresses the thought of this special type of prediction.

From this study we see that there are four classes of prophecy and that they are all to be taken literally — at what they say. The second type, however, has the additional idea of a typical signification. The third is the literal meaning plus an application. The fourth is the literal with an added thought of summarizing the general teaching of the prophets on a definite subject.

All utterances of the prophets fall into one of these classes. We must, therefore, examine each passage realizing that it has a literal meaning only, or that it has the literal plus one of the three supplemental ideas which we have discovered. Furthermore, we are to make allowances for all figures and interpret them as we do the same language in any other portion of the Scriptures. If we will only keep these general principles in mind, as we endeavor to arrive at the meaning of the prophets, we shall not go very far a field but shall, by the aid of the Spirit of God, arrive at a correct, definite idea of their teaching.