Interpreting Prophecy: Why a Literal Approach Is Best
We’re going to look at interpreting prophecy. I was once interviewed by the Orange County Register, a large newspaper in Southern California. The paper was doing a story on angels. The reporter expressed incredulity that a modern Christian with a doctoral degree could possibly believe that references to angels in the Bible were to be taken literally. But I stood my ground and affirmed that not only did I believe in them, but that Christ Himself believed in them. A plain reading of the biblical text allows for no other interpretation.
The literal meaning of Scripture embraces the standard, common understanding of every word in Scripture. Words in the Bible have the meaning they usually have in everyday communication. It is the basic or plain way of interpreting a passage.
There are at least six good reasons for adopting a literal interpretation of Scripture, including Bible prophecy:
- A literal interpretation is the normal approach to understanding the meaning of all languages.
- Most of the Bible makes perfect sense when taken literally.
- A literal approach allows for metaphorical or symbolic meanings when the context calls for it. This is often the case in apocalyptic literature such as the books of Daniel and Revelation.
- All metaphorical or symbolic meanings depend on the literal meaning. We would not know what is not literally true unless we first understand what is literally true. (You may want to read this sentence a few times.) To illustrate, we would not know that Jesus is not literally a gate (John 10:9) unless we first know that He is a human being (John 1:14; Galatians 4:4). Because Jesus is literally a human being, we know that He is allegorically a gate in the sense that He is the means of entering salvation.
- The literal method is the only reasonable and safe check on man’s subjective imagination.
- The literal method is the only approach that is consistent with the idea that the very words of Scripture are “God-breathed” or inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). A symbolic approach to interpreting all of Scripture undermines the idea that all of Scripture originates from God.
We find several confirmations of the literal method of interpretation within the biblical text itself. Foundationally, later biblical texts take earlier ones literally. Exodus 20:10-11, for example, takes the creation events of Genesis 1–2 literally. Matthew 19:4-6 and 1 Timothy 2:13 take the creation of Adam and Eve literally. Romans 5:12,14 takes the fall of Adam (and his resulting death) literally. Matthew 24:38 takes Noah’s flood literally. Matthew 12:40-42 takes the account of Jonah literally. First Corinthians 10:2-4,11 takes the account of Moses literally.
In addition, over one hundred prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament were literally fulfilled with the first coming of Jesus Christ. These prophecies include that He would be of the seed of a woman (Genesis 3:15); of the lineage of Seth (Genesis 4:25); a descendant of Shem (Genesis 9:26); the descendant of Abraham (Genesis 12:3); of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10); the son of David (Jeremiah 23:5-6); conceived of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14); born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); the Messiah (Isaiah 40:3); the coming King (Zechariah 9:9); the sacrifice for our sins (Isaiah 53); the one pierced in the side on the cross (Zechariah 12:10); predicted to die around AD 33 (Daniel 9:24-25); and raised from the dead (Psalm 16:10). Nothing allegorical here!
I always remind people that if they want to understand how God will fulfill prophecies of the future, they should look at how He has fulfilled prophecies in the past. God is completely consistent. The prophecies of Christ’s first coming were literally fulfilled. The prophecies of Christ’s second coming—and the events leading up to it—will also find literal fulfillment.
The literal method is certainly consistent with God’s purpose in creating human language. When God created Adam in His rational image, He gave Adam the gift of intelligible speech. This enabled him to communicate objectively with his Creator and with other human beings (Genesis 1:26; 11:1,7). Scripture shows that God sovereignly used human language as a medium of revelation, often through the “Thus saith the Lord” pronouncements of the prophets (Isaiah 7:7; 10:24; 22:15).
If God created language to communicate with human beings—and to enable human beings to communicate with each other—He would undoubtedly intend an ordinary and everyday sense of the words. This view of language is a prerequisite for understanding not only God’s spoken word, but also His written Word (Scripture).
The Literal Approach and Symbols
The literal method does not preclude the use of symbols. The Bible uses symbols often. But every symbol points to something literal. We see this illustrated in the book of Revelation. John said the “seven stars” in Christ’s right hand represent “the angels of the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). He said the “seven gold lampstands” represent “the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20). He said the “gold bowls filled with incense” represent “the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 5:8). He said “the waters” represent “masses of people of every nation and language” (Revelation 17:15).
Every symbol in Revelation represents something literal. There are often textual clues that point us to the literal truth found in a symbol. These textual clues can be found either in the immediate context of Revelation or in the broader context of the whole of Scripture.
The Literal Approach and Figures of Speech
The literal method does not eliminate figures of speech. When the Bible speaks of the eyes, arms, or wings of God (Psalm 34:15; Isaiah 51:9; Psalm 91:4), we do not take these as literal. God does not have these physical characteristics because He is pure Spirit (John 4:24). Nor can He literally be a rock (Psalm 42:9), which is material. God is a rock in the figurative sense of being our rock-solid foundation.
I grant that it can sometimes be difficult to determine when a passage is literal. But specific guidelines help us make that determination. In short, we should understand a passage figuratively—
- when it is obviously figurative, as when Jesus said He was a gate (John 10:9)
- when the text itself provides a clue, such as “this may be interpreted allegorically” (Galatians 4:24)
- when a literal interpretation would contradict other truths within or outside the Bible, such as when the Bible speaks of the “four corners of the earth” (Revelation 7:1).
When interpreting prophecy, it is best to take each word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning, unless there is something in the immediate context that clearly indicates otherwise.
The Literal Approach and Jesus’s Parables
The literal method does not preclude the use of parables. Jesus often used parables that He did not intend to be literal. Yet, each parable always conveys a literal point.
That Jesus wanted His parables to be clear to those who were receptive is evident in how He carefully interpreted two of them for the disciples—the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9) and the parable of the tares (13:24-30). He did this not only so there would be no uncertainty about their correct meaning, but also to instruct believers as to the proper method to use in interpreting the other parables. The fact that Christ did not interpret His subsequent parables indicates that He fully expected believers to understand the literal truths intended by His parables by following the method He illustrated for them.
- Most of the Bible makes perfect sense when taken literally.
- Later biblical texts take earlier biblical texts literally, thereby supporting a literal approach.
- Old Testament messianic prophecies support a literal approach to Scripture.
- Because biblical prophecies were fulfilled literally in the past, we have good reason to believe that prophecies of the future will be fulfilled literally.
- The literal method of interpreting prophecy allows for symbols, figures of speech, and parables, when clearly indicated in the context.
For more on all this, see my book The Eight Great Debates of Bible Prophecy (Harvest House Publishers).