Recommended Guidelines
Interpreting Prophecy

Prophetic interpretation of future events can be quite difficult. Foretelling is sometimes done using symbols, giving only parts of events or chains of events. On the other hand, we have a wealth of fulfilled prophecies which we can use as a guide. Before venturing forth with this list, please review my "Recommended Guidelines for Scriptural Interpretation" which applies to prophecy as well. The following guidelines are distilled from a number of sources.

1. Examine the original context of the writing in history and language. Words and symbols often change meaning over time. Proper interpretation depends on the historical/political background surrounding the prophet.

2. From the prophet's perspective, does the prophecy concern present, near-term, or the distant future? Then from our perspective, is it fulfilled in our past or present, or does it point to our future? Prophets mostly prophesied about then current situations in and around Israel. This determination is somewhat complicated by the fact that many prophecies are describes as if they were already fulfilled, when in fact they lay in the prophet's future. Remember, God exists outside time (2 Pe 3:8).

3. Most of Biblical prophecy has been fulfilled, mostly in or just after the prophet's lifetime. This fact provides guidance for the interpretation of all prophecy, supporting interpretations. It also carries God's promise that the as yet unfulfilled prophecies will certainly be fulfilled.

4. Some prophecies are conditional. They may never be fulfilled if the conditions are/are not met. A prime example is Jonah's mission to Nineveh. Nineveh repented, and therefore God did not destroy the city. It must be noted that if a prophecy is conditional, God always makes the conditions clear when the prophecy is given. Unconditional prophecies are always fulfilled.

5. Biblical prophecies are always fulfilled completely, though not always all at one time. The prophecies concerning Tyre fall into this category. Although now complete, these prophecies were fulfilled over hundreds of years. The same is true of Daniel's prophecies, with some of those yet to be fulfilled.

6. When the New Testament interprets an Old Testament passage, that interpretation is authoritative by virtue of the doctrine of Scriptural infallibility.

7. God often uses the law of double reference. For instance, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 possibly provides many insights into the life of Zerubbabel [Note: This interpretation of Isaiah is often hotly disputed by those who believe a prophecy can only fit one circumstance, however, we shall see that the law of double reference is well established in Scripture. As such, this interpretation of Scripture takes nothing away from the same passages' description of Christ's suffering and death.], but also provides sharp details of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. A "single" prophecy covers both lives, hundreds of years apart. This is common in the Scriptures. God, after all, is infinite in nature, power, and knowledge. If we build a box for God, it will be too small by definition.

8. Should prophecy be interpreted literally? I talked about this in the Scriptural interpretation guidelines. All Scripture should be interpreted within the context of the sense of its particular literary form. A wide variety of language forms are used—hyperbole, allegory, historical narrative, poetry, etc. Thus, some prophecies are given figuratively in symbols, but these can usually be clearly seen as such because no "literal" interpretation presents itself. Comparisons with fulfilled prophecies are often helpful. The topic of how much is given literally vs. allegorically or symbolically is pivotal in the study of prophecy, as it divides historical premillennialism from amillennialism and postmillennialism.

9. Apocalyptic literature is particularly difficult. Correct interpretation depends on considering these writings in context with the rest of Scripture. There is a reason that Revelation is the last book of the Bible: its proper interpretation depends heavily on the first 65 books! Daniel and Ezekiel also fall into this category. Even so, we don’t have a license to allegorize for our convenience. Careful comparison with other prophecies and related passages is required.

The Crux of Literal vs. Figurative Interpretation

This debate comes to a head when discussing the end times, especially the thousand-year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:4-6. Denominations are split/created over this issue (amongst others, of course), and we will certainly not settle the debate in these pages. I prepared the following paragraph for a previous class in Christian doctrine, and hope it provides some early insight into the issue.

There are primarily three mainstream views of the Millennium and its relationship to the Rapture and Great Tribulation: historical premillennialism (from NT times), amillennialism (which arose in the third century), and postmillennialism (which arose in the eighteenth century). Dispensational premillennialism arose in the eighteenth century, and has become wildly popular in our times. Although it accounts for almost all of popular apocalyptic literature on the bookshelf these days, it is fraught with interpretive error and is slowly morphing back to a mainstream covenantal theology. I will not discuss the dispensational view in detail here, but only contrast a few points with the historical view.

Historical premillennialists believe that Old Testament prophesies should not be interpreted allegorically when parallel passages indicate a more literal approach. They believe that Christ will reign literally on the earth for a thousand years as Revelation 20:4-6 states, the church is the spiritual Israel IAW Gal 3:7 (as opposed to the eternal distinction between Israel and the church in dispensationalism), and that much of physical Israel will come to accept Christ as in Revelation (see also Rom 11:16). Also unlike dispensationalists, historical premillennialists believe in one resurrection of believers (a physical one), and that at the start of the millenium. They also believe that Christ's return is necessary to the defeat of Satan in the world. Amillennialists believe that the thousand year reign is not literal but symbolic. They see the Millennium as being now on earth, with Satan now bound. We (the church) are the instruments of the undeceiving of the nations. Christ will return, but to consummate the millennium, not initiate it. They believe that the focus of Rev 20:4-6 is in heaven, not on earth. Again, the consummation of the church will be at Christ's Second Coming. Postmillennialists also see current church activity as the fulfillment of the millennium, but go farther in saying that the church will establish God's reign in all the earth through preaching the gospel. They believe that only after the church is truly universally established will Christ return. This view is obviously very optimistic. Postmillennialism had all but died out since the nineteenth century, but has seen a recent resurgence.

Please keep in mind that many great books have been published on these topics, and that this summary hardly does justice to any of the millennial views.