"We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation" (II Pet. 1:19-20).
In order to interpret prophetic Scripture aright the Word of God must be consulted and believed as the authoritative and infallible Word of the living God. We must learn to take heed to what God's Word plainly says if we are to understand the truths of prophetic Scripture. The interpretation of prophecy is not up the private whims of the individual. Rather, we must bow to the clear and literal teachings of the Holy Book.
The study of prophetic Scripture is no easy task. It requires diligent labor, prayer, and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit in order to come to Scriptural conclusions. There are certain keys or laws that must be used if the treasures of prophetic study are to be opened to the Bible student. I offer the following suggestions to be used as keys to the interpretation of prophecy.
1. In order to interpret prophetic Scriptures, or any Scriptures for that matter, the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit is necessary. We must pray for the Holy Spirit, who is the Divine Teacher, to open our eyes and hearts so that we may receive the truths of God's Word. When we study prophetic Scripture we should pray as the Psalmist did in Psalm 119:18 which states: "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law." When we come to the Word of God we ought to come as eager students wishing to be taught by the Blessed Holy Spirit. We should come with a deep sense of humility, recognizing our need of instruction, along with a holy reverence for the Word of God. Since the subject matter is Divinely inspired we need the direction of the One who inspired it if we are too "rightly divide the word of truth" (I Tim. 2:15). I Corinthians 2:10-11 declares: "But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God."
I am convinced that if we earnestly and fervently pray for the leadership and illumination of the Holy Spirit He will guide us into all truth and shew us the truth about things to come. John 16:13 states: "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come." I believe that if an individual comes to the Scriptures with an unprejudiced mind and an open heart he will at once identify with the truths of premillennialism. I have long been of the opinion that one of the reasons why so many men defect to the theories of amillennialism is because they have spent more time poring over the writings of fallible men than they have the writers of sacred Scripture.
2. Prophetic Scripture should be interpreted literally unless otherwise indicated by the context. As a general rule, we are to interpret the words of Scripture as meaning exactly what they say. By a literal explanation, we mean that the words of prophetic Scripture should be explained in a simple, natural, unrestrained manner, and that we must not depart from the literal meaning except when forced to. A word is a vehicle of a thought, so the meaning of any passage must be determined by arriving at a correct grammatical understanding of the words in the text. We have no right to give the words of Scripture another meaning other than the common and literal one unless the Scriptures themselves plainly tell us to do so. For example, when Revelation twenty employs the phrase "thousand years" six times we are to understand that the writer is referring to a literal thousand year period of time since there is no indication from the context that it should be interpreted otherwise.
I like what George N. Peters, the writer of the massive three volume study entitled The Theocratic Kingdom, wrote concerning the literal interpretation of prophecy:
"In confirmation of such a course, it may be said: if God has really intended to make known His will to man, it follows that to secure knowledge on our part, He must convey His truth to us in accordance with the well-known rules of language. He must adapt Himself to our mode of communicating thought and ideas. If His words were given to be understood, it follows that He must have employed language to convey the sense intended, agreeably to the laws grammatically expressed, controlling all language; and that, instead of seeking a sense which the words in themselves do not contain, we are primarily to obtain the sense that the words obviously embrace, making due allowance for the existence of figures of speech when indicated by the context, scope, or construction of the passage." (1)
The reason why a non-literal interpretation is resorted to by many is because the literal meaning does not fit in with their preconceived opinions and theological training. Those who abandon the law of literal interpretation do so because they want to avoid the obvious meaning the words of the text are trying to convey. For example, those who deny a future for the nation of Israel say that the terms of the Abrahamic Covenant were conditional and temporary. Yet God said unconditionally to Abraham and his seed: "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an EVERLASTING COVENANT, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an EVERLASTING POSSESSION; and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:7-8). An amillennialist who refuses to believe that the land of Canaan was intended by God to be the everlasting possession of His chosen nation must give the word "everlasting" a new and foreign meaning. This is dangerous indeed. What would prevent the same interpreter of Scripture from giving the word "everlasting" in John 3:16 a new and foreign meaning? Unless otherwise indicated by the context all Scripture should be interpreted in a literal fashion, otherwise the individual could make the Bible say anything they want it to.
3. When interpreting prophecy the student must understand the literal method of interpretation is sustained by the literal fulfillment of certain prophecies. Consider all of the unlikely prophecies concerning the first coming of Jesus Christ. His birth, His ministry, His unparalleled sufferings, His death and resurrection were all prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures. All of the prophecies relating to His first coming were literally fulfilled, so we may safely conclude that all of the prophecies relating to His Second Advent will likewise be literally fulfilled. The only way to know how God will fulfill prophecy in the future is to see exactly how He has fulfilled it in the past.
A prime example of the literal method of interpretation being justified by literal fulfillment of prophecy is found in Hosea 3:4-5 which states: "For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod and without teraphim: Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days." The things mentioned in verse four have already been fulfilled. During the present age, the times of the Gentiles, Israel has been without a king. The things mentioned in verse four are literally true concerning the nation of Israel. Any amillennialist will agree with that. Why then do they change their method of interpretation when they come to verse five? Why not read it and believe it in the same way you read verse four? The literal fulfillment of the prophecy of verse four sustains and justifies the literal interpretation of verse five.
4. When interpreting prophetic Scripture the student must understand the principle of partial or double fulfillment. Often times prophetic Scripture has fulfillment in the immediate circumstances as well as in the distant future. The angel's announcement in Luke 1:31-33 is a prime example of this, it states: "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS, He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever: and of his kingdom there shall be no end." The things mentioned in this text were literally true at the birth of Jesus Christ, but will not be universally true until the Second Advent when He comes to reign upon the throne of David. The fact that Christ was literally conceived in the virgin womb of a literal woman named Mary, that He was literally named Jesus, that He was literally the Son of the Highest points us to the conclusion that He will literally reign upon the throne of David some time in the future because He did not do so at His first coming. Thus, the law of double or partial fulfillment must be recognized in some portions of Scripture where there is a partial fulfillment of a prophecy first, followed by a complete fulfillment later.
5. Another key to interpreting prophetic Scripture correctly is to understand that many of the prophecies by the Old Testament prophets are mingled together in one verse. A majority of prophetic utterances by the Old Testament prophets contain no reference to the time period between the first and second advent of Jesus Christ. Their vision of the future was like viewing two mountain peaks, yet not viewing the valley in between the two mountains. The first advent of Christ was the first mountain peak, and the second mountain peak was the second advent of Christ. The valley in between the two peaks, which they did not see, is what many call the church age. The fact that two events are prophesied side by side, in the same context, is no proof that the fulfillment will take place at the same time, or in immediate succession. This is particularly true in the prophecies concerning Christ, where events of the first and second advents are spoken of together in the same context as though taking place at the same time.
A good example of this law operating is seen in Micah 5:2-3 which states: "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel: whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel." In this passage of Scripture the exact place of Christ's birth is foretold which relates to His first advent. Jesus was definitely not a ruler in Israel in His first advent. Rather, He was despised and rejected by men, and finally crucified like a common thief on a tree of cursing. So the reference to His rule in Israel must relate to the second advent. In the very same context we have an allusion to Christ's birth as well as His reign and rule in Jerusalem on the throne of David. The restoration of Israel is alluded to as well. Thus, The prophet foretold of the first and second advents of Christ without seeing the period in between. Much of ammillennial error could easily be avoided if this law of interpretation were applied in such passages.
6. Another key to interpreting prophecy is to understand that the church and the age in which it was to operate was an unseen mystery to the Old Testament prophets. The focal point of most of their prophecies relate to the apostasy, restoration, and latter day glory of Israel. The establishment of the church by Christ during His earthly ministry, its development and growth as an institution, as well as its commission were largely unknown to the Old Testament prophets. God used the apostle Paul to unveil the mysteries of the New Testament church which had been hid up until that time. Ephesians 3:9-11 declares: "And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord."
When this principle is understood the amillennial attempt to make Old Testament Israel the New Testament church becomes utter foolishness. They are two distinct and separate entities. The New Testament church did not take the place of Israel. The fact that many of the Old Testament promises to Israel may be applied to believers in the New Testament in no way nullifies their literal fulfillment to Israel. There is no warrant from Scripture to either cancel or transfer the promised blessings made to Israel in the Old Testament. Romans 11:1-2 and 29 makes this very clear: "I say then, hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew...For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance." The reason why so many amillennialists are so far off base in their interpretation of Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel is because they fail or refuse to see that the New Testament church was an unseen mystery to the Old Testament prophets.
7. Finally, prophetic Scripture should be interpreted in light of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ: "...Worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10). All of the prophecies in the Word of God, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, relate in some way to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the center and focal point of all of God's revelation to man. He forms the central theme of all of prophecy. Thus, all of the lines of prophetic Scripture converge upon some aspect of the glorious Second Person of the Sacred Trinity, the holy Son of God. I Peter 1:10-11 declares: "Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow."
Any system of prophetic interpretation that takes away from the glory and sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ should be immediately shunned. Postmillennialism would have you believe that there will be a kingdom of peace and righteousness without King Jesus. This certainly robs Christ of His kingly glory. On the other hand, Amillennial eschatology limits the reign of Jesus Christ to that of a spiritual nature rather than a literal reality. Both systems fail to believe all that the law and prophets spoke concerning Jesus Christ. Luke 24:25 declares: "...O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken."
May God grant us grace and wisdom to see the wonderful truths of prophetic Scripture. May the keys listed above enable and help us to unlock the vast treasures of the prophetic Word.