by G. Tyler Warner
In Ezekiel 37, there is the famous prophecy of the dry bones. Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, and they became embodied men, yet without breath. Then he prophesied to the wind, and breath came into the bodies, a great army. This is a very popular passage, with numerous applications to draw, and a lot of great preaching points to dig out. But what was God trying to communicate to Ezekiel and his audience through this remarkable vision? That is to say, what is the interpretation of this prophecy? Is it a specific prophecy of the nation of Israel? If so, is it referring to the end of the Exile, the restoration of the Jews to their land in 1948, or the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven? Can it be all of these? And most of all – how can we be sure?
Questions like this are matters of prophetic1 interpretation, a critical part of sound Bible study. A large proportion of Scripture is prophetic literature, it cannot be avoided. Still, some people try to ignore prophecy altogether, out of intimidation. Others have the opposite problem, and wield the predictive passages carelessly, tying every twist and turn of the news cycle to various obscure passages of Scripture. In order to avoid these excesses, and to grow as students and teachers of the Word, we must understand how to go about proper prophetic interpretation. This is a subject fraught with controversy and strong emotion, but we must be equipped to navigate these waters.
Methods of Interpretation
There are a number of philosophies about how to interpret Bible prophecy. It’s important to be familiar with these methodologies, and to be able to identify them in use. A preacher’s or commentator’s methodology will, of course, affect their conclusions. And having a strong foundation in these issues will enable you to better handle the Scriptures yourself.
This philosophy assumes that the prophets spoke of actual events to be fulfilled. That is, properly understood within the appropriate genre and accommodating all relevant figurative language, Bible prophecy speaks of that which will actually come to pass. This method will be discussed in further detail down below.
Those who tend towards this philosophy believe that the prophetic passages provide symbolic truth rather than literal truth. For example, a passage referring to the reign of the Messiah is symbolically pointing to the abundant life
1 While not all prophecy foretells the future, when I speak of “prophecy” in this article I am referring to predictive prophecy, especially that concerning the End Times.
This view is especially popular in some Reformed circles, particularly those who hold to Replacement Theology. For them, God’s promises to Abraham concerning land and blessing and descendants are now being fulfilled in the Church. The books of Daniel and Revelation, under this model, are not predicting literal empires at the end of time, but providing a symbolic template that can be applied to any instance of persecution. Amillennial and Postmillennial models would fall under this category.
A new philosophy of interpretation has come with the Post-Modern wave. Reader-Response Theory denies that a text has any meaning on its own. It does not matter what John or Isaiah meant to say. Meaning is found in a text when the reader gives it meaning. Therefore, it is unimportant what the prophetic passages of the Bible might have meant when they were written. What matters is how we understand them now. This theory is typically unconcerned with anything beyond deconstructing the text for one’s own purposes. But this methodology can be unconsciously used by well-meaning preachers who fail to do the hard work of interpretation and look to the prophets only to mine personal nuggets of motivation.
2This idea is strangely connected and yet distinct from the Post-Modern theories. Unlike Reader-Response Theory, this view believes that there is meaning to a text. However, like Reader-Response Theory, it despairs of being able to know anything beyond what it meant to its original audience. So we can understand what Isaiah wanted to communicate in his day when he wrote Isaiah 53, but it would be inappropriate to assign future significance to it. And we can know how the New Testament authors understood Isaiah 53, but that only tells us something about them, not how it was “meant” to be understood.
This is a sort of agnostic perspective concerning prophecy. Its adherents think that inspecting the details of a passage would be inappropriate, because the author would not likely have understood it that way. We are only looking for what you might call the “gist” of a passage, hence the name “Limited Interpretation”. Many Bible students breathe a sigh of relief upon finding this method because it allows them to distance themselves from the confusing world of prophetic interpretation and its excessive enthusiasts.
There are born-again believers who hold to each of these methods. This is a discussion over the interpretation of the Word, not its inspiration. And there is something to learn from each of them. That said, it is the Literal Interpretation of biblical prophecy that ought to be our default interpretive model. Not only is it able to accommodate the lessons of all the other methods, but it is the method that is in fact modeled in the Bible itself.
2 This is not a term in common use. So far as I know, I have coined it here.
Most teachers who engage with Bible prophecy believe in Literal Interpretation. But it is not without its detractors. Understanding the proper definition and use of this method will set us free to study, but it will also set boundaries around possible conclusions. This allows us to be winsome and sensible as we strive ultimately to be biblical.
As was said before, the belief in Literal Interpretation of prophecy is the belief that the predictive passages of Scripture will be fulfilled literally. While these prophecies often had an immediate application to their first audience (warning, encouragement, etc.), they also have an eschatological significance that extends beyond that day. And while there may be multiple applications to be drawn from a given prophecy, there is a literal interpretation that is the primary purpose of that passage. For example, the book of Revelation has a powerful lesson about endurance through persecution, but its primary function is to reveal “those [things] that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19).
Holding to Literal Interpretation does not mean that every symbol and sign is to be taken rigidly. The terrible beast coming out of the sea is a symbol of the Antichrist, we are not expecting a literal ten-horned monster to crawl up out of the ocean someday (Revelation 13:1)! We must engage in sound exegesis. The genre of the text has to be taken into account: is it poetry, narrative, apocalyptic, an epistle? This will affect how it should be interpreted. As also must be figurative language: simile, metaphor, hyperbole, etc. This will keep us from pressing the text to say more (or less) than it intended. Other issues should be taken into account such as intertextuality (comparing different books of the Bible), historical background (what did that phrase mean in its day?), and good old-fashioned common sense.
Properly understood within its context, accounting for all figurative language, and synthesized with the rest of Scripture, we believe that End-Times prophecy provides actual, dependable revelation of future events.
This may seem obvious, but we should always ground our theories and methods in the Bible itself. And belief in Literal Interpretation does exactly that. We’ll look at just a few important matters here.
First, let’s address prophecy in its own day. Did the authors ever expect that their words would be used to anticipate future events? Those of the Limited Interpretation view would be very skeptical of that fact. But Peter says, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully…what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating.” He goes on, “To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering” (1 Peter 1:12).
The prophets did not always understand everything that was revealed to them. Apparently, they spent time in prayer trying to figure out some of their own words. And they found that many of their prophecies were not meant for them but for a distant generation! This reminds us that Scripture was not written by men alone, but by the
Second, look at what Jesus said to His disciples on the road to Emmaus. After the Resurrection, they were despondent over His death. But Jesus rebuked them for being “slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:45). He expected that they should have known what was coming on Mount Calvary, much as He expected the Jews to recognize His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:42). So there on the road to Emmaus, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).
The prophecies about the first coming of Christ were fulfilled literally. He was literally born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), He was literally the Son of David (Isaiah 11:10), He literally died for our sins (Isaiah 53:5), and He literally rose from the dead (Psalm 16:10). Not only did Jesus fulfill all of these prophecies, He said that those who read them ought to have known what was coming. This is a strong indication that the prophecies concerning Christ’s Second Coming will be fulfilled literally as well.
Third, the Bible uses God’s ability to predict the future as evidence of His power and wisdom. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done…I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isaiah 46:9-11). No idol could predict the future with perfect accuracy, because no false god or demon has the power to make it happen. For us to strip all predictive prophecy of its future orientation is to remove one of the main reasons God gave visions of the future in the first place.
So, (1) the prophets themselves knew that their words had a fulfillment beyond their own time and understanding, (2) Jesus Christ expected His followers to recognize the literal fulfillment of Scripture in His own life, and (3) the Bible uses God’s foreknowledge as a demonstration of His power and Godhead. We are on strong biblical footing when we insist on the Literal Interpretation of prophecy.
Let’s use a familiar example to demonstrate how this method is to be used. The important thing to remember with prophetic interpretation is consistency. If one holds to Literal Interpretation, then prophecies ought to be interpreted that way consistently. If we jump around calling part of a prophecy literal and another allegorical, we had better have good textual reasons for doing so – not just preconceived conclusions we would like to draw.
We’ve already made reference to Micah 5. The prophet writes in chapter 4 about the coming restoration and glory of Israel, but acknowledges the present trials they were enduring at the hands of Babylon and Assyria. Micah then writes, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). For time’s sake we’ll look only at this verse. What is Micah prophesying here?
If we hold to a Post-Modern theory of interpretation, it does not really matter what Micah meant. What matters is what it means to us – maybe, your own insignificance can be overcome. That’ll preach, right? “You might be small,
If we believe in Limited Interpretation, we would only want to concern ourselves with the gist of this passage, the illocution3, as it’s sometimes called. We might conclude that Micah was trying to stir the spirits of his people by calling to mind the picture of David, the king who came from Bethlehem. We could talk about the heartbreak they faced when David’s line was cut off, or examine contemporary Messianic hopes. And then we would discuss how the New Testament appropriated this prophecy, with no concern over what it might mean in the future. These are also legitimate avenues of Bible study, but they do not address the issue of whether Micah gave a legitimate prophecy or not.
Now, those who hold to Literal and Allegorical Interpretation agree on the first part of Micah 5:2: both agree that Bethlehem is literal Bethlehem, that the Ruler was a literal person named Jesus, who was literally born there (Matthew 2:1). But those who hold to an Allegorical Interpretation would change directions in the middle of the verse. They would not necessarily believe that Jesus will be the literal ruler of literal Israel someday. They might talk about the symbolic fulfillment of the Gospel, and how Israel is really a stand-in for the Church now. Even though the first part of this one verse was fulfilled literally, they have no problem with assigning the rest of it (and the resultant bulk of this passage) to allegory and symbol.
We who hold to Literal Interpretation would see the New Testament’s example as definitive. If “Bethlehem” was literal, and the Ruler was literally born there, then we should expect Him to one day literally reign over Israel. This would then inform how we interpret passages like Revelation 20 and others about the Kingdom. That is certainly how Micah’s audience would have received this passage! What kind of comfort would it have been to them to know that their Messiah would indeed be born, but would never reign over anything? That His coming would only signal their destruction and irrelevance? In this way, Literal Interpretation does a better job of understanding the context, culture and linguistic purpose of Micah 5:2, as it does in most instances.
Proponents of Literal Interpretation are often accused of pressing the text beyond its limits, or even of carnality in handling the Word of God. But if we believe that God has actually spoken to His prophets, we should believe that those prophecies will be actually fulfilled. And the method of interpretation demonstrated for us in Scripture is that of Literal Interpretation.
Implications of Literal Interpretation
There are several important implications to taking such a view. Some relate directly to our theological conclusions, others affect the practice of interpretation itself. Depending on your temperament, these may excite or frustrate you, but sound teaching should guide our Bible study, not whatever gets us excited.
3 This is a reference to Speech-Act Theory, a conception of communication that divides every act of speech into three parts: (1) Locution – speech itself, (2) Illocution – purpose of the speech, (3) Perlocution – the effect the speech had.
Literal Interpretation defines the responsibility of the Bible teacher very carefully. In one sense, it expands your responsibilities. You cannot just breeze through some of the most tricky passages of Scripture looking for hot topics, you must take the time to engage in sound Bible study. It takes a long time to become familiar with all the different pieces of the prophetic puzzle, but it’s a step that can’t be skipped. In another sense, it contracts your responsibility by limiting your own influence over the text. Scripture means what it means, and you have no right to project your own personal priorities onto it. Prophecy is not, for example, an excuse to talk about politics with some biblical support. You must limit yourself to what God intended to communicate through His Word.
While Literal Interpretation is used by most people sometimes, when it is used consistently it drives us towards certain theological positions. Most importantly, it pushes us towards a broad Dispensationalism, and a Pre-Millennial view of the Rapture and the Great Tribulation. This only makes sense. When it says Christ will reign for 1,000 years, we believe He will do exactly that for exactly that long. There are still differences of opinion over how that will play out, but the methodology of a Literal Interpretation of Scripture inevitably leads us to Dispensationalism and Pre- Millennialism.4 For me, that gives strong indication of the accuracy of those positions.
The trend in Old Testament studies right now is towards what I’ve called Limited Interpretation. This has served an important function in curbing some of the worst excesses of prophetic speculators, but is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Its proponents focus on the immediate function of a given prophecy without sufficiently considering the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, which enabled the prophets to write beyond themselves and their time. This trend is strangely suspicious of the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old, and has little use for what is traditionally called the sensus plenior (full, often Christological, sense) of the prophets. Ultimately, it gives rise to a prophetic agnosticism – the belief that the fulfillment of prophecy is so obscure and murky that there is no way we can understand it. As long as we can draw sound application from it, they argue, we’ll be fine. I am concerned that such trends will lead us to agnosticism about other matters of theology as well. Literal Interpretation certainly has its abusers, but at the very least it respects the fact that God is the ultimate Author of Scripture, and that through the Holy Spirit’s illumination, we can come to understand what He has revealed.5
The Glory of God
Finally, a belief in Literal Interpretation ought to turn our hearts to worship. Like Isaiah said, the Lord is above all others because He declares the end from the beginning. When Paul considered the ultimate salvation of the Jews, he
4 This is not a boast; Covenant Theologians and others have admitted as much, despite their reservations.
5 Consider the fact that Simeon and Anna (Luke 2) were ready for Jesus when He came. They knew their Bibles, they knew God, and so they were able to recognize Jesus when no one else did.
If Literal Interpretation is the proper default method of prophetic interpretation, then these things are true. We have a responsibility to be faithful to the text, we tend towards Pre-Millennialism, we reject prophetic agnosticism, and we give all the glory to our future-revealing God. Slowing down to clearly state our positions is always a good idea, because it helps us draw out important conclusions like these.
Appeal to the Prophetic Teacher
Before concluding, I want to make an appeal to those of you who are studying, and especially teaching, Bible prophecy. There are so many bad examples out there, we ought to be setting a better one. Here are a few short things to consider.
Literal Interpretation is great because it grounds our Bible study to the Bible itself. If we commit ourselves to context and consistency, we will be less tempted to chase after the flavor of the week. Too many so-called prophecy experts spend far more time exegeting the headlines than they do the Bible itself. It’s important to know what is a possibility and what is a certainty. For example, it is a certainty that the Antichrist will force everyone to take his mark, it is only a possibility that it will consist of some kind of subdermal microchip. Affirming possibilities as certainties makes for some wild speculations! Don’t chase after the grabby headline, and don’t attach prophetic significance to the 24-hour news cycle. Preach the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.
Some people go crazy with prophetic speculation, but there is an equal and opposite danger. Some folks get cynical about this whole matter because they are embarrassed of their brothers and sisters who lack restraint. This is the state of many young Christians and pastors today. They watched their parents insist that everything from Y2K to the election of Donald Trump was foretold in Scripture, and was a sure sign of the imminent end of the world – only to watch those days pass and their parents move on to the next thing like nothing had changed. You can sympathize with their disappointment, but the solution is not to abandon teaching prophecy entirely, but to do it right. Sometimes we have strange partners in our theological camps, but we are servants of Christ, not them. Don’t be cynical with the person at church who is all frothy about the newest “signs” they heard about on YouTube. Be patient, be a teacher, and be a good example.
Do the Hard Work
Bible study is hard work. And the End-Times passages are perhaps the most difficult of all to understand. This calls for diligent study on the part of the Bible teacher. There are many, many great books and podcasts and teachers to help us in this process, so use them.6 But you must do the work yourself. Double-check everything like the Bereans did. If you cannot critically examine the conclusions of your favorite prophecy teacher, then you are at his mercy. Learn the Word for yourself, develop your own insights, and ask good questions that spring from your own investigations. It’s easy to preach your favorite commentator – but it’s much more rewarding to preach the Word.
Finally, let’s avoid the over-the-top, rage-fueled attitude that too often characterizes Eschatology. One group rants and raves about the deceived masses, and the other rants and raves about prophetic conspiracy theorists. They might both have a point, but is that any way to represent Christ? There is much to discuss concerning the Last Days, but we know the most important things: Jesus is coming back, no one knows when, and we must be ready. We all can agree on that! Therefore, we can all show some charity and kindness to one another as we discuss secondary matters. I hope this article has been written in that same spirit.
The best way to interpret biblical prophecy is to default to Literal Interpretation, in context, properly understood. God was sincerely trying to reveal the future to His people, not just to communicate with some color. So we do the hard work of Bible study to synthesize as much of it as we can, while recognizing that, “No one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Even with a shared methodology, there will be disagreement and difference of opinion. But If we can avoid sensationalism and cynicism, and do all things in love, then we will not only learn more of God’s glorious plan for the end of the world, but we will become more like His beloved Son in the process.
May the Spirit of truth guide us in all these things!
Grasping God’s Word – J. Scott Duvall & J. Daniel Hays
The Footsteps of the Messiah – Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum
Inductive Bible Study – Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. & Andreas J. Köstenberger The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy – Tim LaHaye & Ed Hindson Things to Come – J. Dwight Pentecost
Maranatha: Our Lord, Come! – Renald E. Showers
There Really Is A Difference – Renald E. Showers
The Interpretation of Prophecy – Paul Lee Tan
The Prophecy Knowledge Handbook – John F. Walvoord
The Rapture Question – John F. Walvoord