A Principle of Hermeneutics: Prophecy
The first step to correctly interpreting a text, whether it be Scripture or any other text, is to understand what genre of text you are interpreting so that you can have a better grasp of the overarching context. Different genres require different principles of interpretation. One would not interpret a parable in the same way they would interpret law because a parable is allegorical and a law is fact and code. Likewise, one should not interpret a narrative in the same way they would interpret law because a narrative is historical while law is fact and code. There are dozens of examples like this; showing the importance of understanding the genre so that you can understand the overall context of the passage.
Imagine you went to the library and bought 4 random books. When you got home you realized one was a personal daily journal of someone, one was a poetry book, an old science text book, one was a collection of love letters from the 1940’s, written back and forth between a navy man and his wife. I would not make since to read the love letters the same way as you would the science text book, or the science text book the same way you would read the collection of poetry or the narrative of the personal journal. There would be specific things to keep in mind as you read. You would understand that there is an overall point that makes “this” book different from “that” book. You consider the context. This is what I mean when I say “genre” in this article.
The genre that will be written about here will be concerning prophecy. Prophecy is one of the more difficult genres to interpret because it is usually either vague or overly specific; rarely allowing the reader to see which extreme it is. This paper will explain what prophecy is and show some examples in the Scripture.
Most people, when thinking about prophecy, cannot help but to think about foretelling. Foretelling is another way to say prediction. Dispensationalist believe that every “era” in the Christian age represents a new chapter into the end times. Specifically places like Daniel and Revelation. Most believe that every “church” of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation represents an age of the universal church. In other words, the prophecy that John received was valid for thousands of years.
The fact of the matter is that only a small percentage of the prophecies in the Bible are “predictive prophecies.” They are more along the lines of forth-telling. Secondly, most of the prophecies that were foretelling in nature were also brought to time within a relatively short period after the original prediction.
Most predictions given, especially in the old testament, were brought to fruition within the next few generations after it was revealed. Usually, it was concerning the destruction and/or captivity that would take place for Israel or for a surrounding nation if repentance did not take place. Most any other time, the predictions were messianic in nature; showing the perfection of the coming Christ, and the insufficiency of physical kings, rituals, etc.
Very rarely were the prophecies predictive in nature. This must be remembered when attempting to interpret this genre of literature. Between the prediction of John the Baptist and his actual coming was roughly 400 years. This was one of the longest predictions we read of and even so it is also one of the more specific predictions in a lot of ways.
There were also prophecies that held “double-meanings.” This means they had both a direct context and a more futuristic context. It is easy to see this type of writing in Psalms and in Isaiah. Symbolism is used frequently when speaking of predictive prophecy. However, even then it is usually contextually understood by the readers of the time. It is rare that there is an occasion that would validate over-thinking when it comes to symbols and types. Symbols are usually to help better understand the message; holding basic meanings.
This is simply preaching God’s word to the people. This is most likely what is being talked about when reading about the gift of prophecy in the new testament. This type of prophecy, in essence, is simply speaking the concepts of God. Sometimes, prophets would do this by doing strange acts, like the things seen in Elijah and Ezekiel. Other times, the prophets would do this by writing a song or a letter to the people. Mostly, however, this was done by preaching.
Before Israel’s captivity, the prophecies focused on repentance of God’s people. During the captivity, the prophecies focused on admonishing and edifying God’s people. After the captivity, when Israel came home, the prophecies were a reminder of the importance of the law, temple, and relationship they were to have and keep. In a simple sense, this kind of prophecy still exists through preaching. A preacher still should remind, edify, exhort, and admonish.
One could not emphasize enough the truth that these prophecies were written at a specific time, to specific people, for specific reasons. An interpreter should never take prophecy out of context by trying to apply it to a false people, place, or purpose.
How to Interpret:
Context is always key. This is true for interpreting any form of literature. If one ignores the context, one ignores the concept. There is no way around this truth. Anyone can take anything out of context to make any phrase mean anything. This does not at all mean that this method of interpretation is sound. Consider the genre and then consider the person, place, things, and ideas before anything else takes place. This requires reading the text as a letter and not as a verse. The numbers for the verses and chapters were put in by man, many years later, and not through inspiration. One must concentrate on the letter and not just the verse or the chapter.
Study the culture. It helps to understand the people when understanding their culture. This helps understand some of the visions and imagery that prophets receive. Corinth, for example, was a Greek-influenced city in the province of Rome. Corinth worshiped the goddess, Aphrodite. They worshiped her by having sexual relations with temple prostitutes who shaved their heads or kept their hair short in order to distinguish themselves aside from normal, married women, in Corinth. Knowing this helps us to interpret chapters such as the 11th chapter of 1st Corinthians. This same principle applies to interpreting prophecy. One should try to understand the context so that they can better understand the people and the writer. Does one have to know everything, even the cultural context to be saved? NO! Does one need to know things to the best of their ability, including culture, to understand God and His will better? YES!
Do word studies and language studies. It is sometimes hard to understand some sayings in the Bible because of the translation. This is especially true when it comes to understanding prophecy. The Bible is written in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. Study these languages as well as the English language (grammar) so interpreting will come easier. Also, study specific words that stand out. Examine what certain words mean in their original language, examine what they meant in the time of the people, examine what they mean now, and examine to see what the author usually meant when he used these specific words in the book that holds said prophecy.
An Example for Fun:
Malachi 4:5-6 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
John 1:7-15 “He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’) “
Israel was told that there would be a forerunner to come who was Elijah. Obviously they would have understood this as “someone ‘like’ Elijah” or someone who held his characteristics and purpose. This forerunner was to proclaim and prepare the coming of the messiah. Evidence of all these things are seen through the text in John chapter 1.