We live in a perilous and tumultuous world today. Negative reports of war, hostilities, terrorism, killings and natural disasters dominate the headlines of our daily newspapers. As Christians, we should not be surprised by these troubling and chaotic events. This is because God’s Word has warned us to expect these global upheavals as signs of the Lord’s soon coming. These warnings also remind us to look to the Holy Scriptures for prophecies concerning the end-times.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of attending an FEBC course on “The Interpretation of Prophecy” which focused mainly on the events of the Last Days. It was conducted by Dr. Paul Lee Tan, author of The Interpretation of Prophecy and A Pictorial Guide to Bible Prophecy.
Among the topics covered were: “Introduction to Bible prophecy”, “History of prophetic interpretation”, “Literal method of interpretation”, “Language of Bible prophecy”, “Principles of prophetic interpretation”, “Views on the rapture and millennium”, and “Hermeneutical and theological issues in prophetic studies”. The following is a brief summary of the lessons learnt, which I hope will enhance our understanding of Biblical prophecies and their relevance to our troubled world today.
o Importance of prophecy
Because they concern the future, prophecies are often dismissed as something incredible. But God’s Word places great emphasis on prophecies. It is interesting to note that one quarter of the Bible is prophetic. Bible interpreter R B Girdlestone observes: “There is hardly a book in the Bible which is wholly devoid of the prophetic element.” It is inevitable, therefore, that every reader of the Bible will find himself dealing with prophecy.
o Interpretation of prophecy
There is no short-cut to true prophetic interpretation. Having said that, we must not be afraid of prophecy, and think that it is beyond us. God has given us the ability to understand even the darkest prophecy. This truth was reiterated by the Lord Jesus Christ when He spoke about the prophet Daniel’s prophecy of the last days: “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)” (Matt. 24: 15). Note the parenthesis “(whoso readeth, let him understand:)” – it is God’s intent for us to understand the things that He has revealed in the Holy Scriptures, even Bible prophecies. D L Moody aptly commented: “If God did not wish us to understand the revelation, He would not have given it to us at all.”
The Scriptures must be interpreted using the literal method which accepts that which is normal and customary in language and structure. This method assumes that:
1) The Bible is written to be understood;
2) God meant the Bible to be a revelation, not a riddle. “Because of man’s finiteness, God did not use an incomprehensible heavenly or ‘spiritual’ language to write the Scripture” (The Interpretation of Prophecy – Dr Paul Lee Tan). He chose to use regular human language to convey spiritual truths and principles. The words of Scriptures are adequate to convey all that God wants man to know, understand and apply: “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29: 29).
Like all fine literature, the Bible uses both figurative and non-figurative expressions. Examples are: “The earth mourneth and fadeth away” (Isa. 24: 4); “All the trees shall of the field clap their hands” (Isa. 55: 12); “Behold, the Lamb of God” (Jn. 1: 29); “I am the Light of the world” (Jn. 8: 12); “His eyes were as a flame of fire” (Rev. 1: 14). “Figures of speech are the legitimate, charming ornaments of language” (http://www.biblesprout.com/articles/bible/) which help to enliven God’s Word and make it more vivid. However, it is important that we seek out and understand the original intent behind the figures.
o History of interpretation
It is interesting to learn of how men through the centuries attempted to interpret the Word of God. After the Babylonian captivity, Ezra, assisted by a group of godly men, expounded the law of Moses before the people from morning to noon (Neh. 8: 1-8). However, this Bible study movement initiated by the young priest “later deteriorated under the rabbis into a school which fanatically worshipped the bare letters of Scripture” (The Interpretation of Prophecy – Dr Paul Lee Tan).
The early church fathers adopted the allegorical method of exegesis because “the Church of this early period was too much engaged in struggles for life to develop an accurate or scientific interpretation of Scripture … and it was very natural that many of the early Christian writers should make use of methods of Scriptural interpretation which were widely prevalent at the time” (Milton Terry). “Allegorism” is a figure of speech which expresses one thing under the image of another in order to convey a moral or Scriptural truth. Some would call this “an extended metaphor.” One example is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a book which is an allegory of the Christian’s spiritual journey.
o Views held by early church fathers
1) Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD) assumed that the OT writers always spoke in mysteries, types and oracles. He saw the cross in almost every Old Testament stick and piece of wood.
2) Origen (185 – 254 AD) – who was also known as “Mr Allegorism” – popularised the allegorical method; he followed in the steps of Philo the Jew and assumed that the Old and New Testaments contained deep and hidden senses.
3) Augustine (354 – 430 AD) was called “the father of Dualism” because he interpreted the non-prophetic Scriptures literally and prophetic Scriptures allegorically.
4) Chrysostom (354 – 407 AD) applied the literal method in his interpretation of Scriptures. Sharing the same view was the School of Antioch whose alumni included Chrysostom and Theodoret (386 – 458 AD). Together they produced some of the best exegetical literatures of ancient times. They totally rejected the fanciful exegesis of the allegorists by interpreting the Scriptures based on the historical reality of its events and personages.
While the Middle Ages perpetuated mysticism – “First learn what you are to believe, and then go to the Scripture to find it there”, the Reformation revived the literal method – “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal Word, he that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay” (Martin Luther).
In the Preface to his Commentary on the Book of Romans, John Calvin laid down the golden rule: “It is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.” (… to be continued)