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 four random books. When you got home you realized one was a personal daily journal of someone, one was a poetry book, one an old science textbook, one was a collection of love letters from the 1940’s, written back and forth between a navy man and his wife. It would not make since to read the love letters the same way as you would the science textbook, or the science textbook 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 is concerning prophecy. Prophecy is one of the more difficult genres to interpret because it is usually overly vague or overly specific. 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 of the end times. Specifically in 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 fulfilled within a relatively short period after the original prediction.
Most predictions, 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. That must be remembered when attempting to interpret this genre of literature. The time between the prediction of John the Baptist and his actual coming was roughly 400 years. That 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 that was specific and a more general 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 by holding basic meanings.
This is simply preaching God’s word to the people, which 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 done by 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 the Jews 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 the Jews 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 that truth. Anyone can take anything out of context to make any phrase mean anything. That is not sound interpretation. 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, not through inspiration. One must concentrate on the letter and not just the verse or the chapter.
Study the culture. Studying the culture helps us to understand the people and how they would interpret the letter. This helps us understand some of the visions and imagery that prophets received. 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, 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 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.