THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
By J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come, 1958
GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS IN INTERPRETATION
The history of interpretation has shown us that the adoption of the correct
method of interpretation does not necessarily guarantee correct conclusions
by those who hold this method. Rabbinism, which used the literal method,
produced a host of erroneous views and interpretations through the misuse
of the method. It is therefore necessary to lay down some principles of
interpretation, even after establishing the right method, so that the method
be not misapplied so as to produce false conclusions.
I. THE INTERPRETATION OF WORDS
It is recognized without question that words form the medium of communication
of thought. All sound exegesis must of necessity, then, begin with an interpretation
of the words themselves. Home, in his invaluable Introduction to the Critical
Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, has given an excellent summary
of the principles to be employed in the interpretation of words.
1. Ascertain the usus loquendi, or notion affixed to a word by
the persons in general, by whom the language either is now or formerly
was spoken, and especially in the particular connection in which such notion
2. The received signification of a word Is to be retained unless weighty
and necessary reasons require that it should be abandoned or neglected.
3. Where a word has several significations in common use, that must
be selected which best suits the passage in question, and which is consistent
with an author's known character, sentiments, and situation, and the known
circumstances under which he wrote.
4. Although the force of particular words can only be derived from etymology,
yet too much confidence must not be placed in that frequently uncertain
science; because the primary signification of a word is frequently very
different from its common meaning.
5. The distinctions between words, which are apparently synonymous,
should be carefully examined and considered.
6. The epithets introduced by the sacred writers are also to be carefully
weighed and considered, as all of them have either a declarative or explanatory
force, or serve to distinguish one thing from another, or unite these two
7. General terms are used sometimes in their whole extent, and sometimes
in a restricted sense, and whether they are to be understood in the one
way or in the other must depend upon the scope, subject-matter, context,
and parallel passages.
8. Of any particular passage the most simple sense--or that which most
readily suggests itself to an attentive and intelligent reader, possessing
competent knowledge--is in all probability the genuine sense or meaning.
9. Since it is the design of interpretation to render in our own language
the same discourse which the sacred authors originally wrote in Hebrew
or Greek, it is evident that our interpretation or version, to be correct,
ought not to affirm or deny more than the inspired penmen affirmed or denied
at the time they wrote; consequently we should be more willing to take
a sense from Scripture than to bring one of it.
10. Before we conclude upon the sense of a text, so as to prove anything
by it, we must be sure that such sense is not repugnant to natural reason.1
Angus-Green supplement Horne by saying:
The words of Scripture must be taken in their common meaning, unless
such meaning is shown to be inconsistent with other words in the sentence,
with the argument or context, or with other parts of Scripture. Of two
meanings, that one is generally to be preferred which was most obvious
to the comprehension of the hearers or original readers of the inspired
passage, allowing for the modes of thought prevalent in their own day,
as well as for those figurative expressions which were so familiar as to
be no exception to the general rule.
The true meaning of any passage of Scripture, then, is not every sense
which the words will bear, nor is it every sense which Is true in itself,
but that which is intended by the inspired writers, or even by the Holy
Spirit, though imperfectly understood by the writers themselves. . .2
Words must be interpreted, then, in the usual, natural, literal sense.
II. THE INTERPRETATION OF THE CONTEXT
The second great subject of consideration must be the context in which
any passage appears. There are certain rules which will guide in the contextual
interpretation. These are summarized by Home:
1.... a careful consideration of the preceding and subsequent parts
will enable us to determine that signification, whether literal or figurative,
which is best adapted to the passage in question.
2. The context of a discourse or book in the Scriptures, may comprise
either one verse, a few verses, entire periods or sections, entire chapters,
or whole books.
3. Sometimes a book of Scripture comprises only one subject or argument,
in which case the whole of it must be referred to precedents and subsequents,
and ought to be considered together.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In examining the context of a passage, it will be desirable,
1. To investigate each word of every passage: and as the connection
is formed by particles, these should always receive that signification
which the subject-matter and context require.
2. Examine the entire passage with minute attention.
3. A verse or passage must not be connected with a remote context, unless
the latter agree better with it than a nearer context.
4. Examine whether the writer continues his discourse, lest we suppose
him to make a transition to another argument, when, in fact, he is prosecuting
the same topic.
5. The parentheses which occur in the sacred writings should be particularly
regarded: but no parenthesis should be interposed without sufficient reason.
6. No explanation must be admitted, but that which suits the context.
7. Where no connection is to be found with the preceding and subsequent
part of a book, none should be sought.3
III. THE HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION
The third consideration in any interpretation must be the historical
interpretation, in which the immediate historical setting and influence
is carefully weighed. Berkhof gives us an excellent summary of considerations
in this phase of interpretation.
1. Basic Assumptions for Historical Interpretation.
a. The Word of God originated in a historical way, and therefore, can
be understood only in the light of history.
b. A word is never fully understood until it is apprehended as a living
word, i.e., as it originated in the soul of the author.
c. It is impossible to understand an author and to interpret his words
correctly unless he is seen against the proper historical background.
d. The place, the time, the circumstances, and the prevailing view of
the world and of life in general, will naturally color the writings that
are produced under those conditions of time, place, and circumstances.
2. Demands on the Exegete. In view of these presuppositions, historical
interpretation makes the following demands on the exegete:
a. He must seek to know the author whose work he would explain: his
parentage, his character and temperament, his intellectual, moral, and
religious characteristics, as well as the external circumstances of his
b. It will be incumbent on him to reconstruct, as far as possible, from
the historical data at hand, and with the aid of historical hypotheses,
the environment in which the particular writings under consideration originated;
in other words, the author's world. He will have to inform himself respecting
the physical features of the land where the books were written, and regarding
the character and history, the customs, morals and religion of the people
among whom or for whom they were composed
c. He will find it to be of the utmost importance that he consider the
various influences which determined more directly the character of the
writings under consideration, such as: the original readers, the purpose
which the author had in mind, the author's age, his frame of mind, and
the special circumstances under which he composed his book.
d. Moreover, he will have to transfer himself mentally into the first
century A. D., and into Oriental conditions. He must place himself on the
standpoint of the author, and seek to enter into his very soul, until he,
as it were, lives his life and thinks his thoughts. This means that he
will have to guard carefully against the rather common mistake of transferring
the author to the present day and making him speak the language of the
twentieth century. . . .4
IV. THE GRAMMATICAL INTERPRETATION
The fourth consideration in any interpretation must be the interpretation
of the grammar of the language in which the passage was originally given.
This of course can not be done apart from a knowledge of the original languages.
Elliott and Harsha, translating Cellerier, state the basic rule:
The interpreter should begin his work by studying the grammatical sense
of the text, with the aid of Sacred Philology. As in all other writings,
the grammatical sense must be made the starting-point. The meaning of the
words must be determined according to the linguistic usage and the connection.5
"Grammatical and historical interpretation, when rightly understood,"
says Davidson, "are synonymous. The special laws of grammar, agreeably
to which the sacred writers employed language, were the result of their
peculiar circumstances; and history alone throws us back into these circumstances.
A new language was not made for the authors of Scripture; they conformed
to the current language of the country and time. Their compositions would
not have been otherwise intelligible. They took up the usus loquendi
as they found it, modifying it, as is quite natural, by the relations internal
and external amid which they thought and wrote." The same writer also
observes: "The grammatico-historical sense is made out by the application
of grammatical and historical considerations. The great object to be ascertained
is the usus loquendi, embracing the law or principles of universal
grammar which form the basis of every language.... It is the usus loquendi
of the inspired authors which forms the subject of the grammatical principles
recognized and followed by the expositor. . . . we attain to a knowledge
of the peculiar usus loquendi in the way of historical investigation. .
Terry well describes the methodology and intent of the
method. He says:
. . . we may name the Grammatico-Historical as the method which most
fully commends itself to the judgment and conscience of Christian scholars.
Its fundamental principle is to gather from the Scriptures themselves the
precise meaning which the writers intended to convey. It applies to the
sacred books the same principles, the same grammatical process and exercise
of common sense and reason, which we apply to other books. The grammatico-historical
exegete, furnished with suitable qualifications, intellectual, educational,
and moral, will accept the claims of the Bible without prejudice or adverse
prepossession, and, with no ambition to prove them true or false, will
investigate the language and import of each book with fearless independence.
He will master the language of the writer, the particular dialect which
he used, and his peculiar style and manner of expression. He will inquire
into the circumstances under which he wrote, the manners and customs of
his age, and the purpose or object which he had in view He has a right
to assume that no sensible author will be knowingly inconsistent with himself,
or seek to bewilder and mislead his readers.7
V. THE INTERPRETATION OF FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE
One major problem facing the interpreter is the problem of interpreting
figurative language. Since the prophetic Scriptures frequently make use
of figurative language this form of communication must be studied in detail.
A. The use of figurative language. It is generally recognized that figurative
language is used both to embellish a language by way of adornment and to
convey abstract ideas by way of transfer.
It is a necessity of the human intellect that facts connected with the
mind, or with spiritual truth, must be clothed in language borrowed from
material things. To words exclusively spiritual or abstract we can attach
no definite conception.
And God Is pleased to condescend to our necessity. He leads us to new
knowledge by means of what is already know He reveals Himself in terms
B. When is language literal or figurative? The first problem facing the
interpreter is that of determining when the language is literal and when
it is figurative. The implications of this problem are stated by Horne:
In order, then, to understand fully the figurative language of the Scriptures,
it is requisite, first, to ascertain and determine what is really figurative,
lest we take that to be literal which is figurative, as the disciples of
our Lord and the Jews frequently did, or lest we pervert the literal meaning
of words by a figurative interpretation; and, secondly, when we have ascertained
what is really figurative, to interpret it correctly, and deliver its true
A simple rule to follow in determining what is literal and figurative
is given by Lockhart, who says:
If the literal meaning of any word. or expression makes good sense in
its connections, it is literal; but if the literal meaning does not make
good sense, it is figurative.10
Later the same author adds:
Since the literal is the most usual signification of a word, and therefore
occurs much more frequently than the figurative, any term will be regarded
as literal until there is good reason for a different understanding. .
. . The literal or most usual meaning of a word, if consistent, should
be preferred to a figurative or less usual signification.11
Thus, the interpreter will proceed on the presupposition that the word
is literal unless there is a good reason for deciding otherwise. Hamilton,
who advocates the use of allegorical interpretation in prophecy, states
this very supposition.
. . . a good working rule to follow is that the literal interpretation
of the prophecy is to be accepted unless (a) the passages contain obviously
figurative language, or (b) unless the New Testament gives authority for
interpreting them in other than a literal sense, or (c) unless a literal
interpretation would produce a contradiction with truths, principles or
factual statements contained in non-symbolic books of the New Testament.
Another obvious rule to be followed is that the clearest New Testament
passage. in non-symbolic books are to be the norm for the interpretation
of prophecy, rather than obscure or partial revelations contained in the
Old Testament. In other words, we should accept the clear and plain parts
of Scripture as a basis for getting the true meaning of the more difficult
parts of Scripture.12
It will usually be quite obvious if the language is figurative.
. . . it may be noted that in a large number of cases, by much the larger
number of cases where the language is tropical, the fact that it is so
appears from the very nature of the language or from the connection in
which it stands. Another class of passages in which the figure is also,
for the most part, quite easy of detection are those in which what is called
The same author goes on to give us some principles by which one may determine
whether a passage is literal or figurative. He says:
The first of these is that, when anything is said which if taken according
to the letter would be at variance with the essential nature of the subject
spoken of, the language must be tropical. A second principle applicable
to such cases is that, if the language taken literally would involve something
incongruous or morally improper, the figurative and not the literal sense
must be the right one. A third direction may be added, viz., that where
we have still reason to doubt whether the language is literal or figurative
we should endeavor to have the doubt resolved by referring to parallel
passages (if there be any such) which treat of the same subject in more
explicit terms or at greater length.14
On settling this problem Cellerier writes:
This investigation cannot be successfully accomplished by intellectual
science alone. Judgment and good faith, critical tact and impartiality
are also necessary. A few general indications are all that can be given
in this connection. (a) A priori. The probability that the language is
figurative is strong in the poetical or sententious writings and also in
the oratorical and popular discourses. Generally this probability is augmented
when it is a fair supposition that the writer has been induced by his situation,
his subject, or his object to make use of such language. There is a probability
of the same kind, but much stronger, when the passage under examination
is animated and highly wrought and seems to make allusion to objects of
another nature. (b) A posteriori. There is a probability still greater
when the literal sense would be absurd. . . . All these probabilities,
however, are still insufficient. It is further necessary to examine the
passage in all Its details, critically, exegetically, and faithfully. The
figurative sense must be sustained by all these processes before it can
be relied upon as the true interpretation.15
This whole problem of when language is figurative and when literal has
been well summarized by Terry, who comments:
It is scarcely necessary, and, indeed, quite impracticable, to lay down
specific rules for determining when language is used figuratively and when
literal. It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words
should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation
involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity. It should be observed,
however, that this principle, when reduced to practice, becomes simply
an appeal to every man's rational judgment. And what to one seems very
absurd and improbable may be to another altogether simple and self-consistent
. . . Reference must be had to the general character and style of the particular
book, to the plan and purpose of the author, and to the context and scope
of the particular passage m question. Especially should strict regard be
had to the usage of the sacred writers, as determined by a thorough collation
and comparison of all parallel passages. The same general principles, by
which we ascertain the grammatico-historical sense, apply also to the interpretation
of figurative language, and It should never be forgotten that the figurative
portions of the Bible are as certain and truthful as the most prosaic chapters.
Metaphors, allegories, parables, and symbols are divinely chosen forms
of setting forth the oracles of God, and we must not suppose their meaning
to be so vague and uncertain as to be past finding out. In the main, we
believe the figurative parts of the Scriptures are not so difficult to
understand as many have imagined. By a careful and judicious discrimination
the interpreter should aim to determine the character and purport of each
particular trope, and explain it in harmony with the common laws of language,
and the author's context, scope, and plan.16
A rule to guide us as to when to interpret literally and when figuratively
has been carefully stated by Cooper. He says:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other
sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal
meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light
of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly
This might well become the axiom of the interpreter.
C. The interpretation of figurative language. The second problem rising
out of the use of figurative language is the method to be used in interpreting
that which is figurative.
It should be observed at the very outset that the purpose of figurative
language Is to impart some literal truth, which may more clearly be conveyed
by the use of figures than in any other way. The literal meaning is of greater
importance than the literal words. Chafer states it:
The literal sense of the words employed in a figure of speech is not
to be taken as the meaning of the figure, but rather the sense intended
by the use of the figure. In all such instances, therefore, there is but
one meaning. In such cases the literal is not the sense. In this connection
Cellerier says: "Revelation... has been clothed with popular forms
strongly impressed with the habits of the East, that is to say, with metaphorical,
poetical, and parabolical forms, which convey a meaning different from
that of the literal sense of the words. But even then there are not two
senses, the literal and metaphorical The metaphorical is alone the real
sense; the literal does not exist as a sense; it is only the vehicle of
the former; it contains in itself no result, no truth. There is therefore
only one true sense [Ma. d'Hermen., p. 41]."18
Horne has given an extensive set of rules in order to determine properly
the sense implied in any figure:
1. The literal meaning of words must be retained, more hi the historical
books of Scripture than in those which are poetical.
2. The literal meaning of words is to be given up, if it be either improper;
or involve an impossibility, or where words, properly taken, contain anything
contrary to the doctrinal or moral precepts delivered in other parts of
3. That we inquire in what respects the thing compared, and that with
which it is compared, respectively agree, and also in what respects they
have any affinity or resemblance.
(1.) The sense of a figurative passage will be known, if the resemblance
between the things or objects compared be so clear as to be immediately
(2.) As, in the sacred metaphors, one particular is generally the principal
thing thereby exhibited, the sense of a metaphor will be illustrated by
considering the context of a passage in which it occurs.
(3.) The sense of a figurative expression is often known from the sacred
writer's own explanation of it.
(4.) The sense of a figurative expression may also be ascertained by
consulting parallel passages; in which the same thing is expressed properly
and literally, or in which the same word Occurs, so that the sense may
be readily apprehended.
(5.) Consider history.
(6.) Consider the connection of doctrine, as well as the context of
the figurative passage.
(7.) In fixing the sense exhibited by a metaphor, the comparison ought
never to be extended too far, or into anything which cannot be properly
applied to the person or thing represented.
(8.) In the interpretation of figurative expressions generally, and
those which particularly occur in the moral parts of Scripture, the meaning
of such expressions ought to be regulated by those which are plain and
4. Lastly, in explaining the figurative language of Scripture, care
must be taken that we do not judge of the application of characters from
modern usage; because the inhabitants of the East have very frequently
attached a character to the Idea expressed widely different from that which
usually presents itself to our views.19
It will be observed from these rules that the same fundamental principles
apply to the interpretation of figurative language that apply to any other
language. The use of figurative language does not necessitate a non-literal
interpretation. The same sound exegesis required elsewhere is required in
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1. Thomas Hartwell Horne, Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge
of the Holy Scriptures, I, 325-26.
2. Joseph Angus and Samuel G. Green, The Bible Handbook, p.180.
3. Horne, op. cit., I, 336 ff.
4. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Interpretation, pp. 113ff.
5. Charles Elliott and W. J. Harsha, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 73.
6. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 203-4.
7. Ibid., p. 173
8. Angus-Green, op. cit., p. 215.
9. Horne, op. cit., I 356.
10. Clinton Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, p. 49.
11. Ibid., p. 156
12. Floyd Hamilton, The Basis of Millennial Faith, pp. 53-54.
13. Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, p. 138.
15. Elliott and Harsha, op. cit., pp. 144-45.
16. Terry, op. cit., pp. 159-60.
17. David L. Cooper, The God of Israel, p. iii.
18. Rollin T. Chafer, The Science of Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 80-81.
19. Horne, op. cit., I, 356-58.