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Understanding End Times ProphecyA Comprehensive Approach
By Paul N. Benware
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2006 Paul N. Benware
All right reserved.
Every Bible believer would acknowledge that God is the master communicator. Through the creation He has revealed His existence, wisdom, and power. Through the Scriptures He has revealed much of His Person, plans, and purposes. But if He is the master communicator, why do we often not understand what He is saying? Intelligent people regularly disagree on what God is communicating to mankind. They fail to agree on how the universe came into existence, on how the universe will come to an end, and on most points in between those two issues! The fault, of course, does not lie with God the communicator but with man the interpreter of God's messages. And there is probably no part of God's message that is subject to more disagreement and diversity than that of Bible prophecy. Therefore, it is important for us to spend some time discussing how to interpret the prophetic Scriptures before we investigate the specifics of those events yet to come.
Amid the Confusion, Some Clear Truths
Many Christians view Bible prophecy with confusion or cynicism. Some of them are convinced that prophecy is so complicated that only those with special gifts of insight orintellect can make sense of intricate details, such as ten-horned beasts and locusts that resemble horses but have the faces of men. Others have been exposed to enough bizarre interpretations and failed predictions that they have retreated into "eschatological agnosticism," pleading ignorance on prophetic matters.
This is perhaps understandable for the person who once was totally persuaded that a certain prominent politician was the Antichrist or had several times waited for the rapture to take place on specifically announced days. But as we approach the subject of interpreting the prophetic Scriptures, we need to remember several things that the Bible has clearly said.
1. Prophecy Was Given by God to Be Understood.
The apostle John began the book of Revelation with the declaration that this book was "the Revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1); that is, it was an unveiling of truth about the future work of Jesus the King and Judge. The Lord has revealed prophetic truth so that we will be changed by it. This presupposes that truth can be understood. If the prophetic Word is important to the Lord, it ought to be important to us as well.
2. God Has Given Us Help in Understanding the Prophetic Word.
When we were born into the family of God, we were anointed by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20, 27), and this anointing gives us the capacity to understand the truth of God. Prior to our conversion we had darkened minds with no real capacity to understand messages from God. Now we not only have a new capacity to understand God's truth, but the Holy Spirit is committed to illuminating the truth of God so that we can understand it. The Spirit, who alone knows the mind of God, takes these matters and opens them to us (1 Cor. 2:11-13). If that is true, then no Christian can legitimately say that Bible prophecy is unintelligible and the exclusive domain of a few scholars.
3. God Has Given to Us His Scriptures.
The Scriptures given by God through writers are verbally inspired (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21). The very words of Scripture are critical. Contrary to the view of some, God did not simply toss out an idea and have a human author develop the thought. The very words of all Scripture, including those prophetic portions, are significant and worthy of our time and attention.
This should motivate us to investigate Bible prophecy and do our best to understand this message that God has communicated to us: a message He clearly wants us to understand. As the apostle Peter put it, "We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention" (2 Peter 1:19).
Four Principles for Proper Interpretation
With those realities in mind, here are four principles for sound interpretation of biblical prophecy.
1. Interpret the Prophetic Passage Literally.
Of all the rules for interpreting prophecy, this is the most important. But, when we speak of interpreting literally, what do we really mean, since it is obvious to everyone that many prophetic portions are loaded with symbols and figures of speech? We interpret literally when we approach the words of a Scripture passage in the same basic way that we would any other literature or any ordinary conversation.
For example, if I told you that I just saw three brown dogs in the alley, you would interpret that statement literally. You would not seek to find hidden meaning in my comment but would assume that I saw three (not five) brown (not black) dogs (not cats) in the alley (not in the park). Not to interpret literally in everyday life would render our communication confusing and fundamentally useless. And our approach to the prophetic Word is very similar.
The literal method of interpretation is that method that gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage. ... It is called the grammatical-historical method to emphasize ... that the meaning is to be determined by both grammatical and historical considerations.
"To determine the normal and customary usages of Bible language," wrote Paul Tan, "it is necessary to consider the accepted rules of grammar and rhetoric, as well as the factual historical and cultural data of Bible times."
Literal interpretation assumes that, since God wants His revelation understood by people, He based His revelatory communication on the normal rules of human communication.
Literal interpretation understands that in normal communication and in the Scriptures figures of speech are valuable as communication devices. Again, if I were to say to you, "I was sitting in the backyard the other evening, and there were millions of mosquitoes out there," you would immediately recognize "millions" as a figure of speech (in this case, a hyperbole), realizing that I did not count the mosquitoes but was simply saying that there were a large number of them. You would interpret my statement within the normal use of language. If a person declares, "I'm freezing!" we take that statement normally. We do not assume that their body temperature has dropped to 32 degrees but, rather, that they feel very cold. Literal interpretation is not, therefore, a rigid "letterism" or "mechanical understanding of language" that ignores symbols and figures of speech. In light of the many symbols and figures of speech in Bible prophecy, we need to further define the literal (normal/usual/customary) approach to interpretation.
Literal interpretation is to be the basic, primary way of approaching the texts of Bible prophecies. Generally speaking, literal interpretation is a system based on the grammatical-historical approach of hermeneutics. (Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. It sets forth the laws and principles that lead to the meaning of the Scripture text.) Whenever we come to a prophetic passage, our commitment must be to understand that passage according to the accepted laws of language and not to seek some mystical or figurative interpretation.
One author encourages the interpreter of Scripture to "commit [himself] to a starting point and that starting point is to understand a document the best one can in the context of the normal, usual, customary, traditional range of designation which includes ease of understanding." For example, when God said to Abraham that He would give him and his descendants the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession and that He would be their God (Gen. 17:8), how should we approach that passage? Literal interpretation would see it as a promise of God regarding a relationship and a land area. Literal interpretation would take this statement at face value and not seek a mystical meaning, for there is nothing in the passage that would compel one to do so.
This general approach provides the foundation for true interpretation. However, it is not the whole story, as Elliott Johnson observes:
What we have discovered is that a normative principle must be a general principle, but a general principle cannot legislate a particular sense or senses. Rather a general principle can only specify general limits to a textual sense. Thus our definition of literal would be appropriately designated as a system of limits. This system specifies the general maxim ... that any sort of text is consistently interpreted in its own context. As an example, "serpent" as a word normally means "animal" and only an animal. But this normal usage and sense does not legislate that "serpent" in Genesis 3:14 must mean merely an animal. On the other hand, a literal system begins with recognizing "serpent" as an animal. Then it looks to the immediate or extended contexts for other clues to the meaning. This serpent speaks (3:1-5), and speaks as the enemy of God. Thus in the literal system, this serpent is more than an animal; it is God's enemy.... The value of this literal system is that it specifies a normative role for the textual contexts in interpretation and a normative practice of interpretation. It thereby excludes ideas extrinsic to the text.
It is essential, therefore, to have this literal mind-set as we approach the prophetic Word of God. Without it there is no reliable check on an interpretation, and the interpreter becomes the final authority. If in Genesis 17:8 the land of Canaan does not refer to a specific piece of real estate in the Middle East, to what does it refer? Can it refer to heaven or the church? Such ideas would come from outside the text of Genesis 17:8. But when such spiritualizing or allegorizing takes place, the interpretation is no longer grounded in fact, and the text becomes putty in the hand of the interpreter.
Our basic approach to God's prophetic Word, therefore, must be a literal one. Once inside this literal system, we deal with specific words and phrases. Should we take a particular word literally or symbolically? Sometimes it is easy to make such a choice.
When John 1:28 tells us that John the Baptist was baptizing at the Jordan River, we have no interpretive problem. When the next verse records the statement that Jesus is the "Lamb of God," we have no interpretive problem with that either. We immediately recognize that the word lamb is used in a figurative way to communicate truth about the real man Jesus of Nazareth. When Isaiah prophesied that "a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit" (Isa. 11:1), we are dealing with figurative expressions of a literal person-Jesus Christ. "It will thus be observed that the literalist does not deny the existence of figurative language. The literalist does, however, deny that such figures must be interpreted so as to destroy the literal truth intended through the employment of the figures. Literal truth is to be learned through the symbols."
Symbols are valuable tools of communication. Symbols communicate truth concisely, and they communicate it graphically. In Revelation 11 the apostle John could have spent a great deal of time describing the spiritual and moral condition of Jerusalem. Instead, he called the city "Sodom and Egypt." Quickly and vividly he communicated a volume of truth that remains graphically fixed in our minds.
Symbols and figures of speech, then, represent something literal. It is the task of the interpreter to investigate this figurative language to discover what literal truth is there. But there will not always be agreement on some figures of speech:
There may be discussion by literalists as to whether a given word or phrase is being used as a figure of speech, based on the context of a given passage. Some passages are quite naturally clearer than others and a consensus among interpreters develops, whereas other passages may find literal interpreters divided as to whether they should be understood as figures of speech. This is more a problem of application than of method.
For example, in Revelation 2:10 the church at Smyrna is warned that they would have "tribulation [for] ten days." Does the "ten days" refer to a week and a half of intense trouble, or does it symbolize a brief period of time or perhaps ten periods of persecution? This church was literally headed for persecution, but whether or not the ten days is to be understood literally is a point of discussion among literalists.
In Revelation 8:8, John says that one-third of the sea became blood as a result of a judgment from God. Does a part of the ocean actually become real blood? Or should the blood be seen as representing some aspect of this judgment that is yet unclear? Bible students differ on the literalness of this verse. But such differences do not indicate some basic inconsistency in a literal approach. Rather, as noted above, the issue is a problem of application, not method. Because we have different backgrounds, training, and experiences, we will have differing viewpoints on specific details, such as whether the blood of Revelation 8:8 is literal or not. But all literalists will likely be in agreement that this verse is telling us of some terrible judgment to come. So even if they did not agree on the literalness of the blood, they would not leave the literal approach and spiritualize this prophecy, seeing it as a picture of religious delusion coming on the world (Lenski) or the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Vandals (Barnes). These allegorical interpretations illustrate that, when the literal interpretation of prophecy is abandoned, there is a lessened accountability to the text itself.
Those (such as amillennialists) who resist this principle of literal interpretation adhere instead to the spiritualization of prophecy. A spiritual (or allegorical or mystical) approach treats the literal sense as secondary to a deeper, more spiritual meaning. Those who spiritualize prophecy work on the principle that these portions of the Bible have a hidden meaning. They assume that the literal approach obscures the real, deep meaning of the passage. However, abandoning the literal as the primary meaning is a terribly arbitrary way to approach the prophetic Scriptures. As Bernard Ramm observes, "The curse of the allegorical method is that it obscures the true meaning of the Word of God." It should be added that most objectivity in biblical interpretation is lost, since one allegorical interpretation is as valid as another. Why should not Barnes's interpretation that the third trumpet judgment (in the Revelation 8 passage) refers to the Vandals' invasion be just as authoritative and valid as Lenski's idea that the third judgment speaks of a coming worldwide religious delusion?
Though conservative amillennialists faithfully use the literal approach of interpretation in most other doctrinal areas, they have chosen to approach prophetic passages with spiritualization. So, for instance, instead of seeing Jesus Christ ruling in the future over the nation of Israel on this present earth, they say His rule is a spiritual one in the hearts of those who belong to His church. This spiritualizing seems especially out of place when it is combined with a literal approach to a passage such as Luke 1:31-33.
In that passage, the angel Gabriel informed Mary that she, a virgin, was to have a son who would rule on David's throne over the nation of Israel. Amillennialists interpret the statement about the birth using the literal approach and arrive at the conclusion that Jesus was physically born of the virgin Mary. But they then spiritualize the second part of Gabriel's statement concerning the rule of Jesus, making Jesus' rule not over the "house of Jacob" on "David's throne" but over redeemed saints in the church of Jesus Christ. A consistent literal approach, letting language be language, will avoid such an inconsistent and somewhat arbitrary approach to the Scriptures. This example highlights the inherent contradiction of using two different systems of interpretation.
The first and great interpretive rule, then, is to interpret prophetic passages literally. "The literal system is necessary because of the nature of Scripture. First, Scripture is sufficiently clear in context to express what God promised to do. Second, Scripture is sufficiently complete in context to establish valid expectations of the future acts of God." It is the literal approach to the Word of God that provides a solid, reasonable approach to interpreting the prophetic Scriptures.
Excerpted from Understanding End Times Prophecy by Paul N. Benware Copyright © 2006 by Paul N. Benware. Excerpted by permission.
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