Chapter Two - Interpretation of Biblical Prophecies


No question facing the student of Eschatology is more important than the question of the method to be employed in the interpretation of the prophetic Scriptures. The adoption of different methods of interpretation has produced the variant eschatological positions and accounts for the divergent views within a system that confront the student of prophecy.

This chapter is designed to help the readers to understand the different methods of interpretation of Biblical prophecies and their effects on the eschatological positions. As we know that there are a lot of principles in interpreting the Bible, I will concentrate on those underlying principles and assumptions which are relevant to Eschatology in order to save space. I hope that the readers is able to analyze and evaluate the variant eschatological positions by themselves and make their own judgments after studying this chapter.

This chapter is divided into the following seven major divisions:

  1. unity of the Bible;

  2. conflict between literal and nonliteral interpretation;

  3. nature of Biblical prophecy;

  4. guideline for understanding predictive prophecy;

  5. presuppositions;

  6. God's covenant with Abraham; and

  7. God's covenant with David.



Since God is the Author behind the authors and He is the ultimate source of revelation, Scripture must be interpreted as true in all its parts, and the unity of all its parts must be sought.

1.1 True in All Its Parts

Since Scripture is true in all its parts, it will not do to distort one's interpretation of Scripture or to disallow a portion of Scripture because it might seem to be in conflict with a scientific theory, a historical source, or some contemporary theological or eschatological theories. For example, any understanding of the book of Revelation must treat those chapters as true, or the interpreter will have used naturalistic presuppositions. Did God punish sinful men at the Great White Throne, or was that the Apostle John's idea? Who wrote the book called "Isaiah"? There are many passages whose interpretation depends on answers to questions like those, but the interpreter who accepts the evaluation of Jesus Christ concerning the Bible must make every interpretation on the assumption that the Bible is true in all its parts.

Some Bible students deliberately select a small portion of Bible verses to support their own eschatological positions and they tend to ignore the other conflicting Biblical evidences (i.e. those unwanted parts). They refuse to believe that all the unfulfilled prophecies recorded in the Old Testament will be fulfilled in the New Testament period or in the distant future. For example, they don't believe that the nation Israel will become a great nation and a peaceful period will come upon the earth in the future as foretold in the Old Testament (Isaiah 65:1-66:24). That is the reason why some people hold the amillennial position.

1.2 The Unity of Its Parts

If, indeed, the Bible is true in all its parts, a true unity must be sought by the one who would understand Scripture. Scripture must be compared with Scripture, and the context of the writer and the first receiver of the writing must be examined. Questions might arise such as: How does the Old Testament relate to the New? For example, what is the relationship or similarity between the prophecy recorded in the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation? The task of harmonizing Scripture requires certain skills. But we must begin with the basic principle that because all parts of Scripture are true, the harmony is already there, and our task is to search it out.

The searcher for truth is responsible for compiling all that the Bible says on a particular subject. Furthermore, it is a worthy task to seek to relate all Biblical teaching in a comprehensive under standing of the whole body of Biblical truth and try to interpret the Scripture by Scripture. We should believe conclude that all Scripture is trustworthy, simply because God is the Author.

Some Bible students are not careful enough to compare all the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament with the New Testament. For example, they think that the book of Daniel is merely a historical book, therefore they don't know that the Great Tribulation period recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 24:15) and the book of Revelation (Revelation 11:2) are parallel to the mid-point of the "one week" mentioned in the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27). That is the reason why some people don't understand why the duration of the Great Tribulation period is 42 months (i.e. 3 and a half years).



2.1 Introduction and Definitions

2.1.1 Definition of literal interpretation

Literal interpretation is a system of limitations which takes into consideration context, grammar (or normal meanings of words), historical background, culture, and figures of speech. The term literal, might better be replaced by the term normal, since this type of interpretation pertains to the normal sense of words in their historical context. Literal interpretation, simply defined, is the normal sense of words in their historical context.

The word "literal" needs to be carefully defined and clarified, because it is customary in our modern society for unbelievers, liberals, and some evangelicals to disparage its meaning. I believe this is because they resent, and therefore resist, the teachings of the Bible which come when the literal interpretation is practiced consistently.

Sometimes literal interpretation is misrepresented as meaning that every thing in the Bible is taken literally, even its obvious figures of speech, so that the literalist looks ignorant or naive. But more commonly, some circumvent the Bible's plain teachings by simply regarding the Bible as written long ago in a world totally different from the present, and thus no longer applicable to today's complex, advanced world. When this is done a kind of interpretation is used which tends to overlook the historical situation and ignore the principle that lies behind the passage. Thus, the Bible appears to be hopelessly irrelevant.

Another typical problem non-evangelicals have with "literal" interpretation is this: they perceive it as sort of an independent, individualistic approach to the Bible, one without regard for the interpretation of the whole Christian community, giving them the right to interpret it for political and cultic purposes. This criticism is partly justified, because some whom these critics call "fundamentalists" have indeed made the Bible say whatever they want, appealing to a misconceived notion of what "literal" means. They seem to think "literal" means what it appears on the surface to them to mean. The methodology prescribed in this course with its historical-grammatical approach and the safeguards of "consensus" of the Christian community, guided by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, should avoid the excesses of these so-called fundamentalists.

A better description of literal interpretation is contained in a longer phrase: historical-grammatical interpretation. This means that the background contemporary to the Bible ("historical") must be determined as much as is possible; also the way words are used in their normal meaning ("grammatical") is considered as part of the process of seeking the author's meaning. Some prefer to substitute the word normal for the word "literal" because "normal" is less likely to be misunderstood.

However, literal interpretation needs further clarification as seen in the definition's reference to "system of limitations." There are places in the Bible which do not yield a clear meaning. What literal interpretation means in these cases is that a limit, or boundary, is placed on interpretation so that extremes are avoided. In other words, we begin with a literal interpretation (when an obvious figure of speech is not involved) and look to the immediate context or the rest of the Bible for clues for further interpretation.

Genesis 3 provides a good example of this problem. Eve is approached by what the text calls "the serpent [who] was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made." Since elsewhere Scripture teaches that angels (Satan was one) are spirits and that Satan possesses personality, how are we to interpret the reference to "serpent"? The inclination is to go the symbolic route and take it as a metaphor (i.e. not a real serpent). But then the question is what is there about an actual serpent (it usually appears as a reptile in Scripture) that is true about Satan? There really is nothing about a snake that lends itself to metaphorical usage, at least in this case.

Usually interpreters, who believe in literal interpretation as previously defined, are not satisfied with the metaphorical approach to this text, especially since, in this straightforward historical narrative, Adam and Eve are to be taken literally (as they are in the rest of the Bible) and there is no reason to think otherwise about the serpent. Thus, they take the word serpent literally but note clues from the context that the serpent is a literal serpent but is more than a serpent. Those clues are provided, for example, by the comparison
with the "other animals" the fact that the serpent speaks and tempts, and the fact that the serpent is not mortal (subject to death), a fact implied by the words of Genesis 3:15.

Belief in literal interpretation puts limits on interpretation by requiring the interpreter to look carefully at the context as well as the whole Bible for clues to interpretation and not resort to imagination, the danger inherent in nonliteral interpretation.

2.1.2 Assumptions behind literal interpretation

There are two basic assumptions behind literal interpretation, they are:

  1. There is one interpretation. This assumption means that the author (assuming divine inspiration) intended only one meaning to any given passage. This differs especially with allegorical interpretation, as we shall see, in that in the past there have been up to three possible meanings to Scripture. What this also assumes is that the Bible is like all speech and literature with the obvious exception that it alone is inspired by God. When anyone expresses himself in everyday conversation or when someone writes a book or provides instructions for an operating manual, he intends what he is expressing to be understood in one sense only - otherwise communication would be quite impossible. Why should the Bible be any different? I suspect the Bible is taken in a nonliteral manner simply because the interpreter does not like what it is saying and wants to have an excuse to change it. He may also want others to be dependent upon him for interpretation, such as in the case of a cult leader. There may be some passages where a deeper meaning is intended, but these are relatively few. This phenomenon is found especially in Biblical prophecy in the case of a near fulfillment and a distant fulfillment. However, even in these cases there is a close relationship between the two, so that they are not entirely different in meaning. Another limitation to this concept is the fact that a New Testament writer gives this "deeper meaning" under divine inspiration. We have no right to impose deeper meaning on a text.

  2. Interpretation requires no special qualifications. Other than those factors we have already noted, like the Holy Spirit or belief in the Bible's authority, anyone can apply the rules of interpretation and understand the Bible's meaning. There are spiritual gifts such as teaching, it is true, but even the teacher's teaching is to be discerned by those who listen (1 John 4:1-3), and even though discernment is also a spiritual gift, it is the obligation of all believers, even those without the gift. Giftedness does not make one who is gifted the only one qualified for a ministry, it rather enhances the ministry. There are, for example, "evangelists" given to the church (Ephesians 4:11), but evangelism in some sense is commanded of all believers (Acts 1:8).

2.1.3 Definition of nonliteral interpretation

Nonliteral interpretation assumes that there is other than the obvious or normal meaning behind words and that this meaning is to be preferred.

2.1.4 Assumptions behind nonliteral interpretation

There are two basic assumptions behind nonliteral interpretation, they are:

  1. The author has veiled the preferred meaning in ordinary language. Perhaps to conceal the meaning from ordinary people and make it available through a properly initiated or qualified interpreter, the original author has deliberately given a double meaning to all his words. He may have felt that spiritual truth cannot be communicated through plain language.

  2. Only certain people are given special qualifications for interpretation; these qualified few can penetrate behind the ordinary language and perceive the spiritual truth. This truth involves mystical insights given to a few or the realization of certain principles for interpreting the Bible by the scholar. Such an assumption creates an elitist group who are able to interpret the Bible and also strikes at the heart of the idea that God gave the Bible in human language to be read and understood by anyone.

2.1.5 The prevalence of nonliteral interpretation

It might be safe to say that some form of nonliteral interpretation has tended to dominate the history of interpretation. For the sake of illustration, here are a few examples of nonliteral interpretation that you may have witnessed in contemporary sermons and books:

  1. Many preachers, in order to get an idea from a text, may force a meaning upon that text that makes you wonder where it came from. The idea may be a Biblical one, but the preacher has chosen the wrong text. You may have accepted his interpretation in the belief that you were simply not as well educated as he or that he may have an insight too deep for you.

  2. Another example is the tendency on the part of some to see typology where no one else has seen it. For example, one author of a well-known Bible handbook sees in the story of Ruth more than a beautiful romance that illustrates the concept of the Kinsman-Redeemer of the Old Testament. He sees behind the story a typology of the whole history of Israel. To be fair, this same author does acknowledge the reality of the literal story and the purpose of showing how Christ is the believer's Kinsman-Redeemer, but he simply sees yet another meaning. Fortunately, no real harm is done other than giving the impression that the author has a special ability for interpretation.

  3. Perhaps the most common modern use of nonliteral interpretation is in the area of eschatology. For example, many evangelicals interpret the Millennium of Revelation 20 as an indefinite period of time rather than a literal thousand years. This form of nonliteral interpretation is based, however, on more reasons than the examples above. It is their view that the large amount of obvious symbolism in the book of Revelation points to the symbolic nature of the numbers as well. We will look at this issue in more detail in the next section 3.

2.1.6 Summary

Literal interpretation:

  1. Text has one interpretation.
  2. Anyone can interpret Scripture.

Nonliteral interpretation:

  1. Text has more than one meaning.
  2. Special qualifications are needed to interpret Scripture.

2.2 The History of Biblical Interpretation

It is time now to survey the history of Biblical interpretation. This survey will introduce you to all of the alternatives to literal interpretation, and will help you appreciate the need to apply that method.

2.2.1 The time of Ezra

The first occasion of interpretation we know of is found in the Bible itself in Nehemiah 8. A remnant of Israelites have returned from the seventy-year Captivity to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. During their absence from Palestine the people had lost touch with the Hebrew language of their Old Testament. Thus Ezra and his fellow Levites read the book of the Law, "making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Nehemiah 8:8). This probably involved first a translation into Aramaic, which the people understood, and second an interpretation.

What was the nature of their interpretation? Apparently, it was literal, since Nehemiah 8:14-15 says, "They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem." The "word" was to observe the festival literally and this, of course, points to a literal interpretation.

In all fairness, I should point out that this is not an adequate basis to judge how they would have handled other types of Biblical literature. They were a nation under the covenant, still in their inherited land, where there was little difference between interpretation and application. It is when the culture and the situation are radically different, that interpretation, as we know it today, requires us to determine a basic principle which can then be applied to our different situation.

This incident during the time of Ezra is significant, because it gave rise to the kind of interpretation that was current during the time of Jesus among the Jewish people.

2.2.2 Intertestamental interpretation

By the time of Jesus, there were three major strains of interpretation among the Jews that had developed during the period between the Testaments:

  1. Rabbinic Judaism;
  2. Hellenistic Judaism; and
  3. Qumran Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism

This branch of Judaism took a mixed approach to interpretation, sometimes literal, at other times nonliteral. This is seen in what we today refer to as the Talmud. The Talmud originated in material called the Mishnah, which was once oral, and consisted of teachings of the leading rabbis, which were attempts to interpret the Law. Later material, known as the Gemara, was a commentary on the Mishnah by later rabbis.

There are three kinds of interpretation in the Talmud:

  1. The first is a tendency to refer back to what the previous rabbis have said, similar to modern law's case histories in which previous court decisions provide a precedent for current decisions.

  2. The second is a rather extreme form of literalism which went beyond the intent of the Law. For example, Deuteronomy 21:18-21 provides that a rebellious son be brought by his parents to the tent of meeting to be stoned. Rabbinic interpreters suggested that the rebellious son could escape this judgment if his parents were either maimed, blind, dumb, or deaf; they based this on the interpretation of this passage which says the parents are required to lay hold of the son, bring him out, say he was rebellious, and would not obey their voice. They could not do this if they were maimed, lame, mute, or deaf!

  3. The third kind (the most common) is called Midrash. This, perhaps, was the most nonliteral approach of the three. The interpreter would break up the text into small parts and then interpret each of these parts independently of the context in an effort to apply them to current situations, not a bad reason in itself. As an example, take the way rabbi Ben-Jose deals with Jeremiah 46:22, "The voice of it shall go like a serpent" (KJV). Ben-Jose says that besides describing the loud cry of Egypt, it indicates that the serpent (Satan) set up a great cry when the Lord pronounced his curse in Genesis 3:15. Sometimes in Midrash interpretations are given based on the numerical value of the letters of a word, such as in Genesis 14:14 where the name of Eliezer, Abraham's servant, is equivalent to three hundred and eighteen, the number of his trained men, and thus shows that Eliezer alone was worth a host of servants. Hellenistic Judaism

The conquests of Alexander the Great resulted in the spread of Greek culture throughout the world, lasting even into the Roman period. Many Jews who were scattered throughout the empire embraced Greek culture, which included both the Greek language and philosophy. Plato taught that true reality lay behind the material, and when this was applied to Biblical interpretation it meant that the true meaning of a text lay behind the apparent meaning of the words.

In Alexandria, Egypt, a Jew named Philo desired to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Bible. There is little resemblance between the two, of course, so Philo resorted to one of the more extreme forms of allegory. Genesis 2:10-14 says, "A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; and from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold ... The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates."

Philo interpreted the four rivers as the four great virtues of Greek philosophy:

  1. prudence;
  2. temperance;
  3. courage; and
  4. justice.

The number "four" in the Biblical text implied to him these four items from Greek philosophy. Observe the fact that the reader's initial impression would never have been so bizarre. Philo's personal agenda - to bring Greek philosophy and the Bible together in some sort of harmony - stands as an inclination behind his imaginative interpretation, certainly nothing in the text or context itself. Qumran Judaism

The monastics of the Dead Sea area who provided the world with what may prove to be the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century also had their own nonliteral approach to the Scriptures. Their presence at Qumran was due to their rejection of what they considered to be a hopelessly corrupt established religion in Jerusalem. In this remote desert area they waited for what they believed would be the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah; they justified their position and attitude toward the Sadducees and Pharisees by a unique interpretation of statements in the Old Testament prophets.

This form of interpretation, known as pesher, would take liberties with the text, as is illustrated in how they contemporized the prophecy of Habakkuk 1:6 which reads, "I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own." In the Qumran interpretation the Babylonians are changed to Romans (called "Kittim" in the pesher), an arbitrary updating of the original prophecy so that it refers to the enemies of Qumran. This sort of procedure is not only nonliteral but - by our modern standards - not even honest, since it is a form of textual emendation, or fraudulent change, of the original Biblical text.

2.2.3 Jesus and the apostles (to about A.D. 100)

Generally, it is safe to say that Jesus and the apostles (through the Holy Spirit) interpreted the Old Testament literally. This is not to say that they did not reflect some rabbinic techniques in order to appeal to their audiences, but even when they did, there was no abuse of the text. Jesus was an interpreter of the law, not only the Mosaic Law and parts of the rest of the Old Testament, but also those rabbinic interpretations to which we have earlier referred. The Sermon on the Mount is a good example of this. For example, He was referring to Moses' words in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 when He commented, "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31-32). In Matthew 10:1-12 Jesus offers further comment on His apparent repudiation of this text. He said it represented a temporary permission by Moses to divorce because their hearts were hard; that the original command of God provided for no divorce. This is a straightforward interpretation of Genesis 2:24 and a clarification of Deuteronomy 24:1-2 which was never a "law" of divorce (which the religious leaders of His day had made it), but a reform of the current abuse of the people.

However, when Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44), He is clearly quoting from Leviticus 19:18, where it commands us to love our neighbor, but it is not clear where the words "hate your enemy" are taken from. Certainly when the two are juxtaposed as they are here, Jesus has to contradict the second part about hating one's enemies. It is possible that the rabbis had put the two together this way, because in two possible places in the Old Testament where enemies are mentioned with hate, neither says what this phrase implies. In Deuteronomy 23:6 it refers to Balaam and those like him; in other words, enemies of God. Jonah's apparent hatred of the Ninevites was not commended, but criticized, by God. Jesus' approach to Biblical interpretation was to clarify and correct misconceptions.

The literal approach of the apostles is seen best in their frequent citation of Old Testament prophecies of Jesus as being fulfilled literally. When Micah 5:2, for example, predicts that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the literal fulfill ment is the actual town of Bethlehem. No hidden meaning is offered.

However, they were not adverse to seeing a typological meaning to some things and events. The writer to the Hebrews sees the sacrifices as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ, and articles of the tabernacle foreshadowed truth, although he does not go into detail but allows the reader to figure it out for himself (Hebrews 9:1-5).

There is, in Matthew 2, an interesting use of past historical events in the life of the nation of Israel as typical of events in Jesus' life. In Matthew 2:15 the apostle claims that Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I called my son," was "fulfilled" when Jesus and his parents were able to return to Nazareth from exile. Matthew 2:17-18 quotes Jeremiah 31:15, "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." The death of the male children of Bethlehem by the hand of Herod "fulfilled" this passage too in a typological sense.

Note, however, that these "typological" uses of the Old Testament do not teach that the original, historical meaning of Hosea 11:1 in the Exodus and Jeremiah 31:15 in the Captivity was less significant. In fact the typological meaning is derived from the historical, literal meaning.

1 Corinthians 9:9 appears on the surface to be a nonliteral interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 by Paul. He is teaching the right of ministers of the Word of God to be supported by those to whom they minister with the words, "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Paul says that Moses' concern was not for oxen, but for people; that is, although the command has its normal interpretation in regard to oxen, there is a deeper principle behind the command which pertains to support of the physical needs of those who labor which is more significant that the needs of oxen. Literal interpretation has as its ultimate goal application of principles derived from historical-grammatical interpretation.

2.2.4 The Patristic period (about A.D. 100 - 600)

The word Patristic is a Latin adjectival form of the word father. What this refers to historically is the early leaders of the church who succeeded the apostles and who wrote various things about Christianity, including comments on the Bible. These comments provide an example of their way of interpreting the Bible.

Simply stated, two influences were at work, both derived from the basic tendencies toward interpretation we have already discussed. They were, of course, literal versus nonliteral interpretation. The patristic period falls into three sub-periods:

  1. the apostolic fathers;
  2. the Alexandrian Antiochan debate; and
  3. the church council deliberations. The Apostolic Fathers (A.D. 100 - 150)

The Apostolic Fathers were men who were associated with the apostles in some way. One in particular, Clement of Rome, may have been the one the apostle Paul mentioned by name in Philippians 4:3. Others were Ignatius and Polycarp, along with some anonymous writers of such documents as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache (pronounced DID-a-kay), the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle to Diognetus. These writings served to instruct believers and defend Christianity against Jewish opponents.

Although at times fairly literal in their interpretation, some of these men were fond of seeing typological meaning, for examples:

  1. they saw midrash in the Qumran literature which finds symbolic meanings in numbers;
  2. they saw the scarlet thread which Rahab hung in Jericho as representing the blood of Christ; and
  3. they saw an allegory in the six days of creation standing for six thousand years of history for the earth from creation to its end (see below chart for illustration).

(Source: The Second Coming of Christ, p. 41, Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, 1922 Edition, by Clarence Larkin)

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Another approach, traditional interpretation, was to become prevalent during the Middle Ages, and can be found in the apostolic fathers. Since during this time the total number of books of the New Testament had not been brought together into a universally recognized canon, great authority was placed upon what was perceived as a tradition handed down from the apostles. This was quite valid. The problem is that authority was extended to traditional interpretation of Biblical passages among the churches - an authority which rivaled that of Scripture itself. The Alexandrian-Antiochan debate (A.D. 150 - 400)

In the course of time two schools of interpretation began to emerge, first in Alexandria, later in Antioch of Syria. The "Alexandrian school" carried on a tradition of allegorical interpretation due to the influence of Jewish interpreters like Philo, while scholars in "Antioch" reacted against them and advocated a more literal approach.

Clement of Alexandria was the prominent teacher and believed in a twofold form of interpretation, the literal and the spiritual, with the spiritual meaning the more important. When Clement came to the Mosaic prohibition of eating the swine, the hawk, the eagle, and the raven his interpretation was that the eagle represents robbery, the hawk injustice, and the raven greed.

His successor, Origen, went a step further and proposed a threefold meaning:

  1. the literal;
  2. the moral; and
  3. the spiritual.

By "moral" he meant ethical instruction regarding relationships with others. As a defender of the Christian faith one of his purposes in using allegory was as a solution to some Biblical "problems," such as the existence of days before the creation of the sun and the references in Scripture to God's having parts of the human body (God's "face," for example). Seeking the "deeper" meaning would remove these problems, for the Bible would not mean what it appears to mean in its literal sense.

Extremes like these caused several leaders of the church in Antioch to react by repudiating allegorism. To them, the only validity of a meaning behind the literal was the spiritual insight to which the literal pointed, something which most literal interpreters would now recognize as the spiritual principle which makes the passage applicable for today.

Names associated with this school were Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and the great preacher, John Chrysostom. Theodore even went so far as to question whether some Psalms which traditionally had been thought to be "messianic," that is, predictive of the coming of Jesus the Messiah, were merely reflective of certain events in Jesus' life. Similarly, he rejected the interpretation of the Song of Solomon as allegorical of Christ's love for the church and claimed that it was simply a love poem celebrating Solomon's affection for one of his wives.

The Alexandrian school captured the influence over the Western (Roman) church. This Western church became the leader in subsequent Western civilization, and thus the allegorical method predominated, especially with the help of the split between East and West and the invasion of the East by Islam. The Church Councils (A.D. 400 - 590)

The dispute over how to interpret Scripture created a crisis. As we have learned, orthodox theologians did not agree on interpretive principles, a fact attested by the two schools of Alexandria and Antioch. As time progressed, challenges to orthodox doctrine were made by a few. The problem was that both unorthodox and orthodox theologians used the Bible to prove their views.

In A.D. 312 the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the empire. With the union of church and state under Constantine, the hope of Christ's coming faded some. The Alexandrian school of interpretation attacked the literal hermeneutic on which premillennialism was based. To Constantine, political stability was built upon unity in religion as much as anything. Since theologians would argue in their writings against each other and all would use the Bible, Constantine ordered the church leaders of the Holy Roman Empire to convene councils to reach agreement. On one hand, a consensus was reached on a particular doctrine, but on the other hand the concept of the church's official interpretation was strengthened.

One of these leaders, St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 - 430), proposed that interpretation should involve what the original writer intended. This, so far, corresponds with good "literal" interpretation and works well when a passage is reasonably clear. But what procedure should occur in disputed, more obscure passages? Augustine suggested the following steps:

  1. consult other clearer passages;
  2. consider the church's traditional interpretation (the most important step); and
  3. if the conflicting interpretations meet all these criteria, the context should be consulted to see which best fits.

Augustine stressed that the Bible must be interpreted with reference to church orthodoxy and everything in Scripture which appeared to be unorthodox or immoral must be interpreted mystically (i.e. the allegorical method). He was one of the first to make Scripture conform to the interpretation of the church. In addition, he did not take into account the place of the Jew in the future and believed that the present age of the church is the Millennium. His interpretation of the Millennium as the era between the Incarnation and Second Advent of Christ in which the church would conquer the world led to the Roman emphasis on the Church of Rome as the universal church destined to bring all within its fold and to the idea of Postmillennialism.

The practical result of this was that church interpretation took precedence over the context. Literal interpretation should do both, but in reverse order: context should take priority over the church's interpretation.

Church tradition became yet stronger when Jerome's Latin version became the official Bible of the church. This resulted in a neglect of the original languages of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew, and thus the death of careful exegesis.

2.2.5 The Middle Ages (A.D. 600 - 1500)

During the Middle Ages Biblical hermeneutics went through a kind of transition from the previous influences of the church Fathers to the Reformation.

One strain of interpretative methodology, in fact, leaned heavily on the tradition established by the Fathers even to the extent that the Fathers' interpretations, called catenas, were often inserted between the lines of Biblical texts. Another (and dominating) form of interpretation was allegorical, which had been refined into four kinds of meanings:

  1. literal;
  2. allegorical (most important);
  3. moral; and
  4. anagogical.

To illustrate this, take Isaiah 2:1-4 which tells of the day in which Jerusalem will be the "chief" city of the nations who will pilgrim age there to be instructed in the "ways" of the Lord. The literal meaning of "Jerusalem" would be the actual city located on the hills of Zion in Israel; the allegorical meaning would be the Christian church (which is to present the gospel to the nations); the moral meaning would be the believer who is faithful to teach the truth to others; and finally, the anagogical meaning is the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22).

A third form of interpretation during the Middle Ages was much more literal in nature and attempted to preserve the approaches of men like Jerome. Though a minor influence during most of this period, it is possible that it kept alive the literal, historical methodology, and served as partly an influence in the Reformation hermeneutic. It is clear that it developed during this time into what is called scholasticism, an intellectual trend that started in monastic schools and worked its way into the pre-Renaissance universities. This movement probably influenced the decline of the allegorical method near the end of the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, was its principal exponent.

2.2.6 The Reformation (A.D. 1500 - 1650)

As the Reformation witnessed a theological revolution, Biblical interpretation also witnessed a revolution. This was due partly to the legacy of scholasticism, but may owe its occurrence more to the revival of the study of Biblical languages, long eclipsed by the dominance of Latin and the Latin Bible. This drove men like Martin Luther and John Calvin back to the text of the Bible and the natural attractiveness of the more scientific, literal interpretation of Scripture. What also drove the reformers back to literal interpretation was dissatisfaction with some of the traditionalism of the scholastics and a desire for what they perceived was the faith and devotion of the early church. Since all the early Christians had was Scripture, Luther developed the rather nontraditional approach known as sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as he battled the bankrupt traditions of his day.

One of the evidences of the vigor and viability of Reformation interpretation is how much modern commentators on the Bible put to use the Biblical commentaries of Calvin and Luther. Since so many modern Biblical commentaries review the history of the interpretation of important passages, one notes that unless a scholar has indicated what Luther and Calvin said about a given text, his work cannot be considered academically respectable. Indeed, the Reformation set the pattern for modern evangelical interpretation. Frequently for us, the motto is "let's get back to Reformation interpretation."

2.2.7 The Post-Reformation period (A.D. 1650 - 1800)

The Renaissance somewhat preceded and partly overlapped the Reformation (A.D. 1300 - 1600). This revival of learning and
the rise of humanism contained the seeds of a movement of the post-Reformation period called rationalism. This was the belief that the human mind is independently capable of determining truth and is thus able to judge the truth of Scripture. The Bible was subjected to the rules of historical investigation which, of course, were purely naturalistic and therefore unable to accept the supernatural elements of the Bible. Bernard Spinoza represents this group, and this movement was to influence much in modern Biblical interpretation.

Another movement which tended to preserve more of the Reformation was called pietism, an approach which was basically literal in its interpretive method but which emphasized personal piety (hence the name) and moral development. People like John Wesley in England and Jonathan Edwards in America fall into this movement.

There was, however, a tendency toward excessive allegory, or perhaps more accurately, typology. Straightforward narratives in the Old Testament were seen as typological of Christian virtues or of Christ Himself. Edwards, for example, saw the story of Jacob and Rachel as typifying the willingness of Christ to endure the Cross for his "Rachel," that is, the church.

2.2.8 The Modern period (A.D. 1800 - Present)

The rationalism of the post-Reformation period gave rise to the historical-critical method, largely a product of German universities of the early 1800s. Like rationalism, this approach to the Bible is anti-supernatural in its basic assumptions. Everything in the Bible was explained in naturalistic terms and, after the advent of Darwin's Origin of the Species, evolutionary terms. Thus the Bible was a product of gradual development from oral traditions to written traditions edited by different people at various times, not the product of divine revelation to men of God like Moses or Joshua or the later prophets. Archaeology has forced many of the historical-critical method's original views to be abandoned, but it tenaciously maintains its grip on modern liberal scholarship and some who call themselves "evangelical."

At the turn of the century liberalism interpreted the Bible as partly true except where the supernatural occurred and where now outmoded ideas on morality and culture appeared. Thus Jesus never rose from the dead; this was merely the early Christians' effort to give His teaching greater authority. Jesus was essentially a moral teacher, no more.

Such a method leads to a kind of "nonliteral" approach that essentially holds that the Biblical stories may or may not have occurred, but that is not important anyway; they are given in the Bible to teach us moral lessons or lessons of faith, not to be taken seriously as history.

Two popular techniques of Biblical study, form criticism and redaction criticism, emerged during the first half of the twentieth century, they are:

  1. Form criticism is an attempt to identify the alleged oral traditions behind specific Biblical passages in the effort to reconstruct their life-setting, and thus try to determine which are authentic historical incidents and which are legendary. It is applied mostly to the Gospels to determine who the "historical Jesus" really was.

  2. Redaction criticism ("redactor" = editor) assumes that Biblical writers (or gatherers of oral and written traditions) had their biased theological purposes and sought to promote their views in Biblical writings. Biblical interpretation, to the redaction scholar, cannot ignore this theological purpose as part of the interpretive endeavor.

These two techniques, form criticism and redaction criticism, as well as the historical-critical method underlie the basic philosophy of Biblical interpretation of two influential men of the twentieth century:

  1. Karl Barth (the "h" is silent thus Bart); and
  2. Rudolph Bultmann.

Even though they are both influenced by existential philosophy, which teaches that truth can only be known within man's existence (hence the name) or experience, their outcomes are somewhat different, Karl Barth the less radical and more conservative of the two.

Karl Barth made a distinction in Biblical writings between what was historical (German, historie) and what was myth with a theological purpose (German, geschichte). He was concerned with what he perceived as the modern, scientific mentality to reject the supernatural (this may have been the real "myth" in Barth's mind), but wanted to preserve the theological value of many Biblical stories, so he created the category of "true myth" (geschichte) so that they might retain divine authority without historicity. Barth would probably have personally accepted the miracles of Jesus as historical occurrences, and he believed the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as "true," that is, in the sense that through it God taught truth.

Rudolph Bultmann also regarded the modern world as beyond the belief in the supernatural. Nevertheless, Bultmann believed that God had somehow encountered the writers of the Bible and communicated spiritual truth to them, but that the truth lies behind the myths of the supernatural; the myth was their first century way of trying to say something important. For example, Jesus was not literally raised from the dead, but we must take the resurrection stories seriously, not as history, but as expressions of a belief in his immortality. This form of interpretation is called "demythologizing," not a removal of myth but an interpretation of myth into modern terms.

Following World War II those who had been influenced by Rudolf Bultmann refined his thinking in what has become known as the new hermeneutic. Relying on new theories of language, this method puts more emphasis on what effect the Biblical text has on the reader, not a bad idea if traditional hermeneutics are balanced with its insistence on the historical situation of the Biblical writer.
The problem is that the new hermeneutic does not do this, and its focus on the reader tends to divorce the intent of the author from the experience of the reader. It is true that the Word of God impacts the reader, and that the reader needs to apply it to his own situation, but not at the expense of grammatical-historical principles. Given the depravity of man, man cannot be trusted to interpret Scripture this way because of his sinful biases.

Other interpretive schemes have come into being in recent times:

  1. literary criticism;
  2. structuralism; and
  3. deconstruction.

It is beyond the scope of this brief history of interpretation to go into these, because their effect upon Biblical scholars has been minimal.

In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of Pretribulational Premillennial teaching. A number of reputable commentators (like J.A. Bengel, Henry Alford, John Nelson Darby, C.I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Feinberg, Harry Ironside, Eric Sauer, R.E. Harlow, William MacDonald, Charles Ryrie) wrote from this viewpoint. The spread of Dispensationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought with it a lively interest in prophetic studies.

The history of nonliteral interpretation is summarized in below table:


Form / Name Time Period Characteristics
Rabbinic Judaism Intertestamental Talmud, Gemara, Mishnah, Midrash
Hellenistic Judaism Intertestamental Plato - True reality lies behind the material. Philo - Reconciled Greek philosophy with the Bible.
Qumran Judaism Intertestamental Pesher - Rejected Jerusalem establishment.
Apostolic Fathers Patristic Saw much typological meaning. Sometimes tradition" had more authority than Scripture.
Alexandrian School Patristic Took allegorical approach.
Church Councils Patristic Church's interpretation took precedence over context.
Allegorical Middle Ages Literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical
Rationalism Post-Reformation Human mind can determine truth.
Pietism Post-Reformation Tendency towards excessive allegory and/or typology
Historical-Critical Method Modern Period Bible is a gradual development from oral to written tradition.
Liberalism Modern Period Bible is true except for supernatural occurrences and outmoded ideas on morality and culture.
Form Criticism Modern Period Attempted to separate Biblical truth from legend.
Redaction Criticism Modern Period Biblical writers had personal theological agendas in what they wrote.
Karl Barth Modern Period Made a distinction between what was historical and what was myth.
Rudolf Bultmann Modern Period Must interpret Biblical myths to find Biblical truth.
New Hermeneutic Modern Period Emphasizes the effect the Biblical text has on the reader.

2.3 Conclusion

The point of this brief history has been to show how a struggle between literal interpretation and nonliteral interpretation has caused one or the other of these two to dominate a given period of time. When literal interpretation dominates, as it did during the times of Ezra, Jesus and the apostolic period, part of the patristic period, and the Reformation and post-Reformation period, Biblical knowledge and spiritual awakening occur. When nonliteral interpretation dominates, a society falls into spiritual ignorance and decline. This has been seen in the latter part of the intertestamental period, the later patristic period, the Middle Ages, and the modern period, (especially the later twentieth century).

I am convinced that any form of nonliteral interpretation will lead ultimately to ignorance of the message of God in the Bible. Only literal interpretation gives confidence to the ordinary reader (as well as the expert) that it is possible for him to understand the Bible. When interpretation falls into the hands of "experts" alone, as is the case with all the forms of nonliteral hermeneutics, it falls finally into oblivion. 



When we use the term prophecy in this chapter, and in relation to prophecy as a special form, we are thinking of predictive prophecy. In its broader Biblical usage, it contains the idea of divine revelation which may be a form of preaching or prediction.

There is another form of prophecy, apocalyptic, which we will study in the next Section 3.2. The point I would like to make is that except for apocalyptic, predictive prophecy is to be interpreted quite literally. Not all interpreters, especially those among the Amillennial and Postmillennial schools of thought, would agree with this point of view.

At the heart of prophecy, especially in the Old Testament, is what I will call the "Davidic kingdom." The Biblical covenants - the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New Covenant - all focus on promises concerning that kingdom, and prophecy throughout the Old Testament centers on aspects of that kingdom. In the New Testament, the classic passage on the Davidic kingdom, so far as Premillennialists are concerned, is Revelation 20.

3.1 Unique Features of Predictive Prophecy

I will discuss some of the unique features of predictive prophecy which will enhance your abilities to interpret it, including:

  1. the possibly of a deeper sense;
  2. the problem of figures of speech;
  3. the possibility of fulfillment conditioned on human response;
  4. the phenomenon of multiple reference; and
  5. the phenomenon of "Telescoping" and lapses of time between prominent events (called "Split Reference" by McQuilkin).

3.1.1 The possibly of a deeper sense

Too often the words "deeper sense" (also Latinized as sensus plenior) is an appeal to allegory and too often allegory is a meaning spun out of pure imagination. The "deeper sense" to which I refer here is something which seems to be supported by later New Testament interpretation.

Some interpreters object to this idea, insisting that we should limit all interpretation to the author's original intent, and that the alleged deeper meaning could not possibly have been part of that intent. I would agree, except for the fact that God, the ultimate Author of all prophecy, had the intent, not necessarily the human author. I also believe this concept is supported by 1 Peter 1:10-11:

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11).

Peter is saying that things the prophets themselves wrote were partly a mystery to them. They could not reconcile the sufferings of Messiah with the glories to follow. At any rate, the control placed on this "deeper sense" should prevent wild speculation characteristic of gross allegory. This control is the New Testament itself. Take Isaiah 7:14 as one example: Isaiah refers to a virgin that would conceive and bear a son. It is quite possible that only Isaiah himself understood this prophecy as of a young virgin, perhaps in the king's harem, eventually conceiving and bearing a child, a prophecy apparently fulfilled in the next chapter (see Isaiah 7:16; 8:3, 18).

However, Matthew's gospel quotes this prophecy as having been fulfilled in Mary's virginal conception of Jesus (Matthew 1:23). Note also, that this, too, is a literal fulfillment, perhaps even more literal than the original inasmuch as Mary was a virgin at the time of her conception, quite unlike the young girl of the nearer fulfillment. God, not necessarily Isaiah, had this intent in the original prophecy a deeper meaning.

3.1.2 The problem of figures of speech

Even in straightforward predictive prophecy, figures of speech or symbols appear. I suppose the reverse could be said of apocalyptic prophecy: among largely symbolic language, words may appear that are literal. In either case, this creates problems in knowing how to interpret.

For example, Isaiah 2:1-4. If the rule "take it literally if it makes sense" can apply in predictive prophecy, then most of the language makes sense that way. The "mountain of the Lord's temple" would be Zion and the literal temple. The words, "The law will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem," also makes sense literally.

But is the reference to the "swords into plowshares" to be taken literally when we are talking about the end times, with its developments in technology?

Most premillennialists take it as symbolic of modern warfare converted to articles of peace, but those who take prophecy as nonliteral argue that this is inconsistent. (They, incidentally, take Zion and Jerusalem as symbolic of the church, but they obviously ignore a rule they otherwise follow: if it makes sense literally, take it that way.) Some premillennialists suggest that perhaps in some future war there will be a return to primitive forms of warfare, but this is unconvincing.

On the other hand, even in what may otherwise be literal language, how else could an eighth century writer communicate but in terms which he knew? We often mix figures of speech in otherwise literal passages; in fact, we still use the word "sword" to stand for warfare. Thus the charge of inconsistency may be unfair.

3.1.3 The possibility of fulfillment conditioned on human response

Some prophecies depend on a human response for their fulfillment. Most of these kinds of prophecies are contingent on the repentance of those who are warned. For example, the prophecies of the Captivity were contingent, up to a point at least, on Israel's repentance and reform of her idolatry. Although Jeremiah was commissioned to preach to the kingdom of Judah the message of warning of impending judgment unless the nation repented, one gets the impression that the nation was confirmed in its rebellion, and the prophet was even told in advance that no one would listen to him. Another example where repentance forestalled judgment was the message of Jonah which predicted the Ninevites' destruction contingent on their repentance.

Students of eschatology are divided over whether the promises of the Davidic kingdom as predicted throughout the Old Testament were contingent on the repentance and faith of the Jewish generation of Jesus' day. Amillennialists and postmillennialist believe that Israel's rejection of their Messiah, except for a small remnant of Jews in the first century, has caused the Davidic kingdom to be canceled, at least the earthly promises to the nation specifically. Premillennialists, on the other hand, believe these promises and predictions to be ultimately unconditional, and that they will be fulfilled when a future generation indeed repents and believes at Messiah's return. We will look at this issue more carefully in Section 7.

3.1.4 The phenomenon of multiple (double) reference

There appears to be a phenomenon called "multiple reference" or "multiple fulfillment" in connection with some prophecies. The early occurrences of these fulfillments could be called "generic" because not all the elements of the prophecy are fulfilled, while the last of these could be called the "eschatological" or "complete" fulfillment, because of the anticipation or actual literal fulfillment. Isaiah 7:14, which we examined earlier in another connection, might fit this description, although it might be argued that the first fulfillment was literal, while the later fulfillment was "more literal." This phenomenon is illustrated in below chart:

(Source: Bible Prophecy, Lesson 5, p. 5/2, Emmaus Bible College, 1972 Edition, by C. Ernest Tatham)

wpe14772.gif (57797 ????)

I believe one of the clearest examples of multiple reference is the prophecy of Daniel 9:27, fulfilled first as reported in Daniel 11:31, and to be fulfilled eschatologically near the return of Christ as predicted by Jesus in Matthew 24:15. The prophecy of Daniel 9:27 reads as follows:

"He [the 'ruler who will come,' 9:26] will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of that 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him" (Daniel 9:27).

Daniel 11:31 further predicts, and history records, the fulfillment of a desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, but without the attendant time factor of the "seven." Later, according to Matthew 25:15, one of the signs of the nearness of Christ's return is a similar desecration, but this time it will mark the middle of the last, or seventieth, "seven." Some believe yet another fulfillment took place when Titus, a Roman general, destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, and that this was the fulfillment of Jesus' prediction. The foremost problem with this theory is that Jesus connected it with His Second Advent. Consequently, I would regard it as possibly an earlier or "generic" fulfillment.

3.1.5 The phenomenon of "Telescoping" and lapses of time between prominent events (Split Reference)

Sometimes a prophecy is characterized by a lapse of time between one element of the prophecy and another. Some have illustrated this with the phenomenon of looking at a group of mountains from a great distance, seeing the peak of one of the foothills partially superimposed over the peak of another, higher mountain, but not seeing the valley in between. This "telescoping" usually involves the First and Second Advents of Christ. We saw this in the prophecy of the "seventy sevens" of Daniel 9 where the church age lies between the prophecy of Messiah's "cutting off" and the events of the seventieth seven. This phenomenon is illustrated in below picture:

(Source: The Second Coming of Christ, p. 6, Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, 1922 Edition, by Clarence Larkin)

wpe66005.gif (211461 ????)

One of the most dramatic examples is found in Isaiah 61:1-2:

"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn" (Isaiah 61:1-2).

The "year of the Lord's favor" speaks of Jesus' First Advent, and the "day of vengeance of our God" refers to the Second, yet to come, Advent. Notice that no reference is made to a lapse of time between the two. To confirm that this interpretation is correct, notice Jesus' quotation of the passage in Luke 4:18-19. Jesus reads it in the synagogue at Nazareth as being fulfilled at that time, but He stops reading in the middle of the sentence, omitting the words "day of vengeance of our God," as though that part were not being fulfilled at that time.

3.2 Unique Features of Apocalyptic Literature

Recognizing a genre (i.e. style) of literature can alert the interpreter to what he can expect to encounter and the limitations of this form of communication. Thus the effect upon interpretation is not easy to detect.

Only one book in the New Testament fits the category of apocalyptic literature - the book of Revelation. The term apocalyptic is a transliteration of the Greek word usually translated "revelation." It is used to describe a genre of literature because of its predictive nature; the major characteristic of apocalyptic literature is that it is highly symbolic. However, what complicates this genre is that not all the language is symbolic.

For example, in Revelation 20:1-2:

"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:1-2).

Which words are symbolic and which are literal? Some are inclined to say simplistically that everything in the genre is symbolic, but is "angel" symbolic? Is "heaven" symbolic? The words "dragon" and "serpent" are symbolic, but certainly the words "devil" and "Satan" are not symbolic, since the words dragon and serpent are symbols of Satan, or the devil.

One of the major issues in eschatological debate is whether the figure "one thousand" in the above passage is symbolic or literal. That issue divides amillennialists from premillennialists. At this point, I believe that the same rule we followed in prophecy - take it literally if it makes sense - is applicable here as well in the paragraph above.

The difference, then, between normal prophecy and apocalyptic prophecy is that normal prophecy is generally literal and apocalyptic prophecy is generally more symbolic. Realizing this simply reassures the interpreter that if he sees more symbolism in the apocalyptic genre he is not being inconsistent.

What is the purpose of apocalyptic literature? The purpose of apocalyptic literature is as follows:

  1. To describe the future in terms adaptable to it. Thus giving the prophet a means of speaking about things to come that would be incomprehensible if he were given futuristic words to name things not yet in existence during the times when he wrote; and

  2. For the sake of the dramatic. Apocalyptic prophecy engages itself with cosmic events that are of great significance, and symbolism gives a greater dimension to them.

3.3 Summary

Both normal and apocalyptic prophecy are predictive in nature. Books such as Isaiah or Jeremiah are mostly straight prophecy and the rule that you take it literally whenever it makes sense to do so should be practiced. Parts of Daniel and Ezekiel, the dreams and visions for example, are apocalyptic. The same problem in identifying what is figurative and what is literal, as exists with the book of Revelation, appears in these Old Testament books also.



A great deal of predictive prophecy of Scripture is yet unfulfilled. In the time before a prophecy comes to pass, it is designed to affect present thought and conduct, not to satisfy curiosity concerning the future. Yet, in order for any prophecy to have an impact on our thinking or actions, its meaning must be understood. Are there any special characteristics of predictive prophecy in Scripture that must be considered? Predictive prophecy is a special and unique form of communication, and there are guidelines that will assist us in understanding this part of God's revelation, including:

  1. begin with the assumption that the prediction is intended as literal unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise;

  2. use guidelines for identifying and interpreting the figurative;

  3. give special attention to typology; and

  4. be alert to the special time features of possible multiple or split references.

4.1 Literal Language

The first guideline for understanding predictive prophecy in Scripture is a principle that guides in the interpretation of all Scripture: take the passage in its most simple, direct, and ordinary meaning unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise. In other words, predictive passages, like any other human communication, should be taken as literal unless there are compelling reasons to understand them in some figurative sense. We will review those compelling reasons but first it is important to begin with the principle of looking at the straightforward, ordinary meaning of language. Consider the following prediction:

"Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, they will also plant vine yards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them, says the Lord your God" (Amos 9:14-15).

There is no indication in that passage that the language is to be taken figuratively. There are no compelling reasons, either in the ordinary rules of human language or in subsequent Biblical revelation, for taking this passage figuratively. We must begin with the assumption that a prediction is to be understood literally. Nevertheless, to begin there does not mean that we end there. A great deal of prophecy is indeed figurative, and we must be able to distinguish between the literal and the figurative.

4.2 Figurative Language

The second guideline for understanding prophecy is to identify figurative passages by following the ordinary rules of language in making the distinction between literal and nonliteral. Let us apply the three basic guidelines to the specific question of prediction in Scripture:

  1. Some language is obviously figurative because it would be absurd to understand it literally.

  2. Other figurative language is so identified in the context itself.

  3. Other Scriptures may identify an apparently literal statement as having a figurative meaning.

4.2.1 Some language is obviously figurative because it would be absurd to understand it literally

The moon might literally be turned into a vast pool of blood (Joel 2:31); a branch could conceivably grow out of a human being (Isaiah 11:1); a literal mountain could be removed (Zechariah 4:7) - but none of those things is likely. On the surface, they do not seem to be literal predictions of literal events to come. They were intended by the author and understood by the original readers just as we understand them today: as picture language. The task of the interpreter is to discover the literal meaning intended in the picture.

Dreams are one of the ways of revelation in the Bible, particularly in prophecy. When Pharaoh dreamed that seven healthy ears of corn would eat up seven blasted ears of corn, neither Pharaoh, his courtiers, nor his wise "prophets" understood that as a prediction of something that would literally come to pass. On the surface, it was intended to refer to an ordinary human event. So the search was on to interpret the prophecy, to find the literal meaning of an obvious figure.

Daniel and Revelation are both filled with marvelous imagery of fantastic animal-like creatures that have never existed. To take those as prophecies of the appearance of literal beasts fitting such descriptions would not only trivialize the work of the prophet, it would be a putdown of human intelligence. Many predictive passages are figurative on their face.

4.2.2 Other figurative language is so identified in the context itself

Daniel tells us of four great beasts that appeared from the sea. The first was like a lion with eagle's wings; the second was like a bear; the third, a leopard with four wings and four heads; and the fourth, so extraordinary that it could not be defined in terms of an animal known to the reader. What do those things signify? In the context itself, Daniel said, "These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings, who will arise from the earth" (Daniel 7:17).

When Christ stood before the Temple He predicted, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19). That could be a prediction of a literal event, and His hearers took it that way. But in the immediate context there is an explanation. "But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (John 2:21). The result was that the disciples remembered His prediction after the prophecy was fulfilled "and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken" (John 2:22).

John explained many of the symbols of the book of Revelation, for examples:

  1. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven candlesticks are seven churches (Revelation 1:20).

  2. The golden bowls full of incense are the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5:8).

  3. "The Lion that is from the tribe of Judah," "the Root of David," and "the Lamb" as references to Jesus Christ.

  4. Those who are arrayed in white robes are the ones who come out of great tribulation, and the white robes symbolize their forgiveness in Christ (Revelation 7:13-14).

  5. Jerusalem is figuratively called "Egypt" and "Sodom" (Revelation 11:8).

  6. The great dragon, the old serpent, is identified as the devil, Satan, and the deceiver (Revelation 12:9).

  7. The seven heads are seven mountains (Revelation 17:9).

  8. The ten horns are ten kings (Revelation 17:15).

  9. The waters are peoples, multitudes, and nations (Revelation 17:15).

  10. The woman is the great city, the capital of the whole world (Revelation 17:18).

Symbolic and typical language is often defined in the context quite clearly. The interpreter must not impose literal or other meanings on those symbols.

4.2.3 Other Scriptures may identify an apparently literal statement as having a figurative meaning

Later Scripture may legitimately interpret earlier, because the Holy Spirit is the Author behind the authors. This does not mean it is legitimate for contemporary interpreters to take a literal passage and impose on it a figurative meaning. We hold that Scripture alone is inspired in this unique way. Only the Biblical writers are authoritative spokesmen for God in giving wholly true revelation. Present-day interpreters are illuminated by the Holy Spirit, but their interpretation is subject to error and should have as its object the identification of the author's own intended meaning. But that which is not legitimate for the contemporary interpreter is quite legitimate for the Son of God or for His authorized spokesmen of divine revelation, the apostles in the New Testament.

For example, when God predicted that there would be war between the descendants of Eve and the descendants of the serpent (Genesis 3:15), a literal understanding of that would lead one to expect a continuing war between men and snakes, with men crushing snakes' heads and snakes biting men's heels. However, subsequent Scripture does not reveal any such battle between people and snakes. On the other hand, it does reveal, as its main theme, the war between Satan and the powers of evil, and God's forces, with Eve's descendants as the battleground. The serpent is used in Scripture as a symbol of Satan (Revelation 12:9; 20:2). In fact, in the Genesis account, it was not the animal that was the focal point but rather the satanic power of darkness embodied in the serpent. Furthermore, the seed of the woman, although ordinarily a figure of the descendants of the woman, has gradually come to have a special meaning, culminating in Paul's interpretation: "He does not say, 'And to your seeds,' as referring to many; but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ" (Galatians 3:16). The promise to Eve was fulfilled in the New Testament person of the Descendant, the Man, the Deliverer who would vanquish Satan and crush his power.

All of subsequent revelation seems to flow out of that original prediction. Subsequent revelation then interprets the prediction in its profound meaning, with cosmic implications.

Note again that figurative does not mean "mythical." The most profound of all truths may be expressed in nonliteral language. The goal of interpretation is to discern what the figure points to because the thing figured is to have a literal fulfillment in history. Predictions in Scripture, therefore, should be taken at their face value. If there are no compelling reasons to understand a nonliteral meaning, the literal meaning is to be accepted. Since the compelling reasons are limited to the above, present-day interpreters are not free to assign figurative or "spiritual" meanings to prophecy. Scripture itself is the authority, not the interpreter.

Even if the New Testament seems to allegorize a specific Old Testament passage, that does not free the interpreter to treat other passages in the same way. If a New Testament author establishes a whole category explicitly designating something in the Old Testament as figurative, other Old Testament references to the same thing may have figurative characteristics. For example, the Tabernacle is explicitly cited as typical, so it is legitimate for the interpreter to examine every reference to the Tabernacle with this in mind. But without such Biblical authorization, literal passages must be interpreted literally.

4.3 Typology

In considering figurative prediction, we need to give special attention to typology, a major category of prophecy. Types are common in Scripture - and commonly misunderstood. People, rites and ceremonies, acts and events, objects, offices (e.g., prophet, priest, and king) - all are used in Scripture as types. A type can be defined as a "prophetic symbol." So to understand Biblical types, it is helpful to compare them with ordinary symbols.

A symbol is something used to represent something else; it is often a material object representing something immaterial. For example, there are many symbols representing the Bible. It is referred to as meat, milk, bread, fire, water, seed, sword, and light. Symbolic language, like other figures of comparison, does not attempt to make a full-scale comparison of many points of likeness, but uses an object to designate one characteristic held in common by the symbol and the thing symbolized. The task of the interpreter is to identify, not from his own experience or culture, but from the Biblical culture, what that point of reference is.

Understanding symbols is important, for they are abundant in Scripture. For example, there are symbolic numbers in the Bible. That does not mean that every time such a number is used it has a symbolic meaning. However, numbers often have a particular meaning, such as:

  1. '40' being used to symbolize testing;

  2. '6' to symbolize man; and

  3. '7' to show completeness or perfection.

There are material symbols such as brass, water, and leaven. Animals such as sheep, dog, and serpents may also be used symbolically. Places such as Babylon or Egypt are often used symbolically. People may be symbolic; for example, Abraham came to stand for faith. Events such as the Exodus and rituals such as circumcision are constantly used symbolically.

Symbols in the Bible are to be understood according to the same rules by which any symbolic language is understood. However, when a symbol is used to predict something future, it assumes a supernatural character and partakes of the nature of prophecy. The principles for understanding prophecy apply when prophetic symbols are used in Scripture.

Before considering an approach for understanding types, it might be helpful to note the distinction between symbols and types.

Symbols Versus Types

(Source: Understanding and Applying the Bible, Chapter 18, pp. 261-262, Moody Press: Chicago, 1992 Edition, by Robertson McQuilkin)

  Symbol Type
Definition Something taken to represent another thing; often a material object representing something immaterial. Prophetic symbolism
Essence A symbol normally represents something different in essence from itself. A book and bread are quite distinct in essence, but bread is used to symbolize the Bible. A type may be different in essence from the thing typified, as an ordinary symbol, but it may be something similar or even the same. Animal sacrifice and the sacrificial system were designed to foretell the sacrificial, redemptive work of Christ. Death is similar in both the type and the thing typified. Melchizedek and David are seen as types of Christ. Both the type and the object typified are human beings.
Time Relationships A symbol is timeless. It can symbolize something past, present, or future. A type, by definition, points to the future. It is usually an Old Testament type prefiguring something about redemption in the New Testament.
Reference The thing symbolized may vary with a single symbol. Seed can refer to the word (Matthew 13:19) or to sons of the kingdom (Matthew 13:38). Water can refer to cleansing, satisfaction, the Bible, or Jesus. A sheep can symbolize meekness or stupidity, vulnerability or sacrifice. A dove can symbolize peace, harmlessness, God's people, or the Holy Spirit. A serpent, on the other hand, can symbolize evil, Satan, or wisdom. A type points to one particular fulfillment, or antitype. Usually Biblical typology relates to redemption. The Tabernacle is so used in the book of Hebrews.
Parallel Elements Usually a single parallel is intended between a symbol and the thing symbolized. As noted above, a single symbol may be used to parallel a variety of other things. A type may parallel many points in the antitype. The Passover is a detailed picture of many elements of redemption. Likewise, the sacrificial system and the Tabernacle both contained many parallels to New Testament truth.

Note that a type often contains symbols. The Tabernacle is treated in the New Testament as having foreshadowed the redemption of Christ. Yet in the Tabernacle were many symbols, such as water, that pictured spiritual cleansing. A type, by definition, is an explicitly divinely planned prophecy. When items not designated as typical in Scripture are so named by the interpreter, he rather than Scripture tends to become the authority. Restraints are broken so that "spiritualizing" and using Biblical language typically are doors opening to almost unlimited abuse.

We are often tempted to ignore symbols and types. But the problem is that the Bible is full of symbols. The opposite temptation is to delight in making use of the idea of typology and to improvise freely. We must reject both of those temptations, accept types as God's good and purposeful gift, and work hard to understand the meanings intended by the authors. The only valid way to spiritualize or allegorize is when the author himself or some later Bible author gives a second or hidden meaning. Otherwise, we are restricted to using words in their ordinary, literal sense. When the interpreter finds the Old Testament full of typical language and symbolic references that the Bible itself does not identify, he has undermined the authority of Scripture.

Once a statement is identified by Scripture as a symbol or type, how do we identify the meaning? What meaning was intended by the author or, in the case of types, by the Holy Spirit? We may follow three guidelines:

  1. consider the context;

  2. refer to other Scriptures; and

  3. let the author's intention control.

4.3.1 Consider the context

The context is especially important in the case of symbols and types, because in different contexts a symbol may have different meanings. The context of Matthew 16:6 clearly says that leaven symbolizes wrong teaching. Yet what does the context of Matthew 13:33 indicate about leaven? Is the spread of the kingdom of God wrong? The context points, rather, to an expansion of a good thing.

4.3.2 Refer to other Scriptures

As we have learned, later revelation may identify something as symbolic that was not so identified in the Old Testament passage. Since Joseph is not identified as a type of Christ, one should not call him such. It is quite legitimate to see parallels to Christ in his sojourn in Egypt, his betrayal, his being sold, his advance to royal domain, and his forgiving spirit. Such parallels exist, yet there are other elements that cannot be made to parallel the experience of Christ, such as his marriage to the daughter of a pagan priest, the assignment of pagan names to his children, his arrogance with his brothers, and his bringing his family out of their Promised Land. In addition, Joseph inaugurated one of the most oppressive regimes in human history. It is much safer to use Joseph as an illustration rather than a type.

If other Scriptures use a word symbolically, it is legitimate to try that symbolism in passages in which the meaning is not clear. But the context must determine whether the symbol can be carried over. For example, six is said to be the number of man (Revelation 13:18), but does it always have that significance? The context must determine. In Isaiah 53, sheep symbolize (by their straying) human beings and, in the same passage (by their meek docility) the Lord Jesus. Thus, when the term sheep is used in a symbolic way, it is legitimate to ask if either of those meanings is intended, or if yet another meaning was in the mind of the author.

4.3.3 Let the author's intention control

In identifying the meaning of a symbol, we must draw a parallel compatible with the nature of the object, as viewed by the author and the immediate recipients.

Since the relationship described in the Song of Solomon is nowhere identified as a type of Christ and the church, the interpreter should not assume that Solomon and the Holy Spirit intended it as a type. On the other hand, both the Old and New Testaments use the imagery of marriage to reflect the ideal relationship between God and His people. Therefore, it is quite legitimate to find in the Song of Solomon parallels to and illustrations of the spiritual relationship between God and His people. However, the interpreter should approach the text with the central purpose of determining what the author intended to communicate. If Solomon intended to write a song of human love, that is the meaning the interpreter should seek in all of the rich symbolism. Afterward, if need be, parallels to divine love may be pointed out and used as illustrations, but not as interpretations, of the meaning intended by Solomon.

This rule of language can be seen clearly in the case of symbols. When Scripture tells us not to cast our pearls before swine nor give that which is holy to dogs (Matthew 7:6), it jars the sensibilities of many contemporaries. How could this passage refer to giving spiritual truth to people who are not prepared to receive it wisely? How could we call people "swine" or "dogs"? The answer to such questions does not lie in the symbolism we find in a particular object, but in the point of parallel seen by the original hearers. In this case, Jesus' listeners would not analyze the many characteristics of a pig and apply them all to a person, but would rather take the overall image of incongruity and foolish wastefulness of giving an expensive jewel to an animal who was interested only in food. The guideline of interpreting by the cultural understanding of the original recipient is clearly necessary in the case of symbols, inasmuch as symbolism represents a normal use of language. The same guideline also applies to Biblical types.

Did Jewish people see their history as a typical prototype of the personal pilgrimage of every believer in subsequent generations? Is the wilderness symbolic of the normal Christian life, or is it a picture of a defeated Christian life? Is Canaan symbolic of the victorious Christian life or of heaven? The wilderness wanderings, particularly because there is a great deal of revealed interpretation of the significance of the event, may legitimately be used to illustrate various aspects of the Christian life. However, those historical events are not identified as typical in the same way that the Passover, the sacrificial system, and the Tabernacle are identified as being designed to foreshadow particular events. Therefore, it is not wise to use those applications as if they were interpretations of the meaning intended by the author. To call them types is to imply such an intended meaning or divinely revealed, and thus authoritative, interpretation. If the Bible does not identify something as being typical, it may still be legitimate to draw parallels and use the object, the event, or the person as an illustration, but it is questionable to designate it as a type.

We have considered in some detail guidelines for distinguishing figurative language in predictive prophecy and guidelines for understanding figurative language, especially types. This has been necessary because so much of prophecy is figurative, and this part of Scripture has been abused and misunderstood more than any other. We turn now to a special feature of prophecy, the time reference.

4.4 Special Time Features

Predictive prophecy relates to the future. That presents no problem when a specific event is predicted, such as the death of Jesus Christ. However, the New Testament made one thing clear about Old Testament predictions: the prophesied Messiah came, left, and is coming again. Old Testament prophecies that relate to the coming of Messiah could refer to either His first coming, His second coming, or both. As I have mentioned in previous Sections 3.1.4 and 3.1.5, the special time features of predictive prophecy are as follows:

  1. the phenomenon of multiple reference; and

  2. the phenomenon of "Telescoping" and lapses of time between prominent events (Split reference).

4.4.1 The phenomenon of multiple reference

As we have discussed earlier (Sections 3.1.1 and 3.1.4), it is quite legitimate to have more than one meaning in a statement. However, if a person is not trying to deceive, the secondary meaning must become clear either in the immediate context (as in the case of a joke, lest it become a lie) or in a larger context. For example, a code may be given to the recipients so that they can understand the secondary meaning. A subsequent explanation, either verbally or in action, may be given.

There is some debate as to whether the prophets actually had both the initial fulfillment and the larger fulfillment in mind, or whether the Holy Spirit revealed to later prophets a second or third reference. Nevertheless, all should agree that there is in some Biblical prophecy a multiple reference and that any larger fulfillment or second reference must be made by the Holy Spirit through an inspired author of Scripture.

Some call this multiple referencing "partial fulfillment"; the prophecy is one, but has both a partial and a more complete fulfillment. In the one view, there is only one meaning; in the other view, there are two or more meanings. Proponents of both views agree that the Holy Spirit must indicate any additional reference. Others call this "progressive fulfillment," emphasizing that the prophecy is one, with a larger or greater fulfillment at a later time.

Consider some examples of multiple reference:

  1. If the initial reference is to Joshua, the ultimate reference is to Christ (compare Deuteronomy 18:15-18 with John 1:21,45; 6:14; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37).

  2. Similarly, David's messianic psalms (Psalm 2, 22) often referred to his own experience, but the final, complete fulfillment was to be accomplished in his descendant the Messiah.

  3. Matthew 24 seems to be a New Testament example of multiple reference in a single prophecy. The destruction of Jerusalem seems clearly in mind, but the final fulfillment is certainly future.

4.4.2 The phenomenon of "Telescoping" and lapses of time between prominent events (Split reference)

As I have mentioned in previous Sections 3.1.4 and 3.1.5, in multiple reference, the same prediction refers to more than one fulfillment, the second is a more complete and final fulfillment of the same prediction; whereas in split reference, part of the prediction refers to one future event (near at hand) and another part of the prediction to another future event (more distant). Consider Isaiah's prophecy of a coming Messiah:

"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6-7).

The first coming and the second coming of Christ are combined in a single prophecy. It is quite understandable that Biblical interpreters before the time of Christ should see no time difference between the prophecies that spoke of the coming of a meek and mild, even suffering Messiah, and those that spoke of the coming of a conquering king. It is not simply that one naturally prefers a physical deliverance from bondage and the victory of a conquering king. The predominant view of prophetic Scripture at the time of Christ was based on the emphasis in the prophetic Scriptures concerning what we now know to be the second coming of the Messiah.

The elements of multiple reference and split reference should not come as a surprise. When the future is predicted and a whole series of events are anticipated, a summary view may legitimately combine a number of elements, which at a later time may be distinguished. So it is with Biblical prophecy. Those characteristics should be borne in mind when interpreting a specific prophecy, whether already fulfilled or yet to be fulfilled. Ours is the advantage of standing between the first and second comings of Christ so that certain distinctions can easily be made. On the one hand, we should be prepared to discover that what may appear in prophecy to be a single event, upon fulfillment may break into consecutive elements. On the other hand, if we believe that we discern separate events and a specific time sequence that are not so clearly seen by other interpreters, the experience of interpreters before Christ should caution us to modesty concerning the authority we invest in our particular interpretation.

One problem with dogmatically detailing future events is that the very dogmatism, if misplaced, may lead us astray when events other than those we anticipated unfold, as in the case of first-century teachers (i.e. the Pharisees) of the Old Testament prophetic Scriptures. In fact, when strongly held opinions prove to be false, the misunderstanding that results can undermine faith rather than establish it.

4.5 Summary

The great body of predictive prophecy in Scripture can be understood when reasonable guidelines are followed:

  1. begin with the assumption that the prediction is intended as literal;

  2. use guidelines for identifying and interpreting the figurative;

  3. give special attention to typology; and

  4. be alert to the special time features of possible multiple or split references.



A "presupposition" is an assumption which an interpreter begins with as he interprets Scripture. People take various theological perspectives within the evangelical community because of differing presuppositions. Technically, presuppositions are in the area of theology, not hermeneutics.

Every interpreter wants to believe that his presuppositions are the result, not the cause, of his approach in interpretation, something he has arrived at as a result of reflection and decision based on his reading of the Bible. Obviously, not everyone's presuppositions can be entirely correct, for truth is one, not many.

The problem is compounded by the fact that those with the following perspectives honestly believe themselves to be advocates of grammatical-historical, or literal, interpretation. None of them would have any objection to the principles I have thus far set forth.

The purpose of this Section 5 is to make you aware of these presuppositions and perspectives, not to influence you toward any one of them in particular. I hope that your decision will be based on careful and thoughtful consideration of each presupposition as you eventually pursue conclusions of your own, not by admiration or friendships.

In this section, I will attempt to present the different presuppositions an interpreter might have, including:

  1. the relation of law to grace;
  2. convenant theology verses dispensationalism; and
  3. amillennialism, postmillennialism and premillennialism.

5.1 The Relation of Law to Grace

What is the relationship of the Old Testament Mosaic Law to the believer today? This question is difficult, because the New Testament explicitly says that some Mosaic Laws are no longer applicable to Christians, such as dietary restrictions and the laws of "clean" and "unclean" animals. Yet other laws such as the Ten Commandments seem to be in force, for they are part of the ethical system of the New Testament.

Several approaches attempt to explain this relationship in a systematic way, including:

  1. One way is to say that the Law of Moses has no relationship whatever to the believer. This position argues that the Mosaic Law has been abolished as a whole and as a system, although there may be elements of the Mosaic Law "reincorporated" into the grace system, such as the moral code. This approach claims to be the only consistent way to interpret some verses in the New Testament which state clearly the law has "ended." This is the position of Classical Dispensationalism.

  2. Another way is to take the view that the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Mosaic system have been abolished, but the moral code remains. The ceremonial code was temporary, serving as a preview of the sacrifices and priesthood of Christ, while the civil code was addressed to God's people while they were a theocracy, and since that theocracy no longer exists, neither does the civil code. This, basically, is the position of Reformed Theology.

  3. Yet another perspective is that the entire Mosaic Law is, or ought to be, in force today, because Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that not one part of the Law would pass away. These same interpreters believe that the church should be doing everything it can to influence society to impose such law in order to bring about the millennial period of righteousness which Scripture predicts. These interpreters are known as theonomists, those who believe in the "law of God" as the will of God today.

  4. The latest view of the Law of Moses is a blend of the Classical Dispensationalist and the Reformed. They see a clear-cut distinction between Israel and the church, and it is obvious to them that the Law of Moses cannot be transferred intact to the church or civil government. Their "rule of thumb" is to look in the New Testament for indications that parts of the Law have been laid aside for the Christian and that the rest can be applied in the sense of deriving enduring principles; Paul does this with the law concerning not muzzling oxen treading out corn. They lean on the side of discontinuity because they see more differences than similarities between the Old and New Testaments. This position actually represents what is being called Progressive Dispensationalism.

The underlying presupposition behind these perspectives is the issue of continuity versus discontinuity. In other words, is there more continuity or discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament? There are differences, of course, but are the differences relatively minor in significance or major? Those taking the last of the perspectives described above (theonomists) see more continuity; the Law of Moses ought to be intact for today. For those taking the first of the positions, the classical dispensationalists, there is more discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.

For example, the classical dispensationalist sees the Law as the rule of life for the nation of Israel, as a code of behavior uniquely tailored to a theocratic, earthly nation. The system of grace, on the other hand, contains laws, but also contains the factor of the presence of the Holy Spirit who gives the believer the ability to obey those laws. All of this suggests difference or discontinuity.

The theonomist sees mostly continuity on the other hand. The Law can be applied in modern times as well as ancient times. The nation of Israel is really not all that different from the church today; he tends to minimize the distinctions which the dispensationalist points out.

5.2 Convenant Theology Verses Dispensationalism

On a broader scale than the issue of law versus grace is that of Covenant Theology versus Dispensationalism. As a matter of fact, the relation of law to grace is part of this broader scheme, and the same is true of Postmillennialism versus Amillennialism and Premillennialism, perspectives we will examine next.

The presuppositions are the questions of:

  1. continuity versus discontinuity; and

  2. the identification of covenants versus dispensations as the unifying factors of the Bible.

The search for unifying factors in the Bible has been undertaken by theologians in order to see how the Bible as a whole fits together. The problem with such an enterprise is that the system, once constructed, can become determinative in interpretation, rather than interpretation determining a person's system. The healthiest thing that can happen is for a system to come under the scrutiny of unbiased interpretation and to change when interpretation so dictates.

5.2.1 Covenant Theology

Covenant theology is proposed by Johannes Cocceius (A.D. 1603 - 1669) in A.D. 1648. Definition

Covenant theology believes that two or three covenants provide the Bible with structure. These covenants are not the Biblical covenants like the Abrahamic, Noahic, Mosaic, etc., but "theological" covenants, including:

  1. a covenant of "works" under which Adam was tested and failed;

  2. a covenant of "grace" which is God's subsequent covenant; connected with the latter is

  3. a covenant of "redemption," God's plan to rescue man from the Fall during the covenant of works.

Since the covenant of grace is really the unifying concept, there is a tendency to see things in continuity.

See the following chart for illustration:

(Source: Dispensationalism, Chapter 10, p. 188, Moody Press: Chicago, 1995 Revised Edition, by Charles C. Ryrie)

wpe97712.gif (47334 ????) Characteristics

Some of the characteristics of Covenant theology are given below:

  1. Allegorical Interpretation - they are well known for their use of nonliteral interpretation, especially when interpreting prophecy. For examples, in order to add support to Posttribulational view, it is forced to regard the 144,000 of Revelation 7 as referring not to literal Israel but to spiritual Israel, or the church. In addition, Covenant theologians cannot agree with the dispensationalist's idea of the Jewish character of Matthew's gospel, for instance, how they can interpret in any normal way our Lord Jesus Christ's words of commission to the Twelve recorded in Matthew 10:5-10. They attempt to interpret plainly this commission, which forbade the disciples to go to the Gentiles, and the commission that commands the same group to go to the Gentiles (Matthew 28:19-20) either (a) give up in confusion or (b) resort to spiritualizing one of the passages.

  2. God's People - God has one people, represented by the Israel of the Old Testament era and the new Israel or called spiritual Israel (i.e. the church) in the New Testament era.

  3. The Birth of Church - the church existed prior to the New Testament era, including all the redeemed since Adam. Pentecost was not the beginning of the church but the empowering of the New Testament manifestation of God's people.

  4. The Purpose of Christ's First Coming - Christ came to die for our sins and to establish the new Israel, the New Testament manifestation of the church. This continuation of God's plan place the church under a new and better covenant, which was a new manifestation of the same Covenant of Grace. The kingdom that Jesus offered was the present, spiritual and invisible kingdom.

  5. The Fulfillment of the New Covenant - the promises of the New Covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34 are fulfilled in the New Testament church.

  6. Eschatology - it has been amillennial historically, believing the kingdom to be present and spiritual, or postmillennial, believing the kingdom is being established on the earth with Christ's coming as the culmination. God's dealings with Israel will be in connection with the church. Postmillennialists believe that the church is bringing in the kingdom now, with Israel ultimately to be made a part of the church.

  7. The Second Coming of Christ - Christ's coming will be to bring final judgment and the eternal state. Postmillennialists believe that the kingdom is being established by the work of God's people on the earth until the time when Christ will bring it to completion at His coming.

5.2.2 Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism is originated from the early church fathers. Dr. John F. Walvoord, President of Dallas Theological Seminary writes, "Dispensationalism should be considered, not as a new doctrine, but a refinement of premillennialism such as was held by the early church fathers." It is not a new doctrine invented by John Nelson Darby (A.D. 1800 - 1882) in the 19th century. The dispensational teaching of the Word of God is found in too many writings antedating Darby, and has been accepted by too many accredited Bible teachers and early church fathers including:

  1. Justin Martyr (A.D. 110 - 165);

  2. Irenaeus (A.D. 130 - 200);

  3. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150 - 220);

  4. Pierre Poiret (A.D. 1646 - 1719);

  5. Isaac Watts (A.D. 1674 - 1748);

  6. John Nelson Darby (A.D. 1800 - 1882);

  7. C. I. Scofield (A.D. 1843 - 1921);

  8. Clarence Larkin (A.D. 1850 - 1924);

  9. Lewis Sperry Chafer (A.D. 1871 - 1952);

  10. John F. Walvoord (Now); and

  11. Charles C. Ryrie (Now).

Dispensationalism is also widely accepted by most of the traditional orthodox Christian churches including: Anglicans, Baptist, Brethren, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterian. Definition

Dispensationalism sees a "dispensation" as a unifying concept. A dispensation is a period of time during which God works according to a principle or test upon humankind. Dispensationalism is that system of Biblical interpretation which recognizes various distinct periods in the outworking of the divine administration of human affairs. Each period is characterized by a communication from God revealing His will and man's responsibility. Thus man is entrusted with a stewardship requiring faithfulness. This trust constitutes a test of man's obedience. God tests man under each of these dispensations, man fails, there is some sort of judgment, and then a new dispensation.

In the progress of the dispensations there is a gradual unfolding of truth about God (progressive revelation), and man learns about God's expectations for him. And amid the various changes in the divine dealings certain basic principles remain unchanged in keeping with the immutability of the God who is administrating the affairs of mankind. Because of the fact that it recognizes progress in the divine revelation and variety in the divine administration, dispensationalism insists on certain sharp contrasts. Included in these are:

  1. Israel and the Church;
  2. Law and Grace; and
  3. The Rapture of the Church and the Revelation of Christ.

Since the transition between dispensations brings radical changes, especially in the case of the shift from Old Testament law to New Testament grace, discontinuity characterizes the system.

See the following table and charts for illustration:

Division of Time or Dispensations

(Note: Please note that the years given in below table are for reference only and therefore should not be dogmatically held.)

(References: Dispensationalism, Chapter 3, p. 54, Moody Press: Chicago, 1995 Revised Edition, by Charles C. Ryrie; Revelation - The Coming King, pp. 48-49, Everyday Publications Inc., 1990 Third Impression, by R.E. Harlow)

Beginning Years Dispensations / Ages Historical / Future Periods Scripture Responsibilities Judgments
4141 BC Innocence / Paradise Adam and Eve Genesis 1:3-3:6 Keep garden, Do not eat one fruit, Fill & subdue earth, Fellowship with God Curses,   physical and spiritual death
4??? BC Conscience Adam to Noah Genesis 3:7-8:14 Do good Genesis Flood
2485 BC Human Government Noah to Abraham Genesis 8:15-11:9 Fill earth, Capital punishment Forced scattering by confusion of languages
2055 BC Promise / Covenant Abraham to Moses Genesis 11:10 to Exodus 18:27 Stay in Promised Land, Believe and obey God Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings
1625 BC Mosaic Law Moses to Christ Exodus 19:1 to John 14:30 Keep the Law of Moses, Walk with God Captivities
AD 32 Grace / Church The Church Age Acts 2:1 to Revelation 3:22 Believe in Christ, Walk with Christ Death, Loss of rewards
AD ???? Tribulation 7 Years, Still Future Revelation 4:1-19:21 Believe in Christ, Refuse worshipping Antichrists and Satan Death, Fire came down from Heaven
AD ????+7 Millennium / Kingdom 1,000 Years, Still Future Revelation 20:1-15 Believe and obey Christ and His government Death, Great White Throne Judgment

(Source: The Second Coming of Christ, p. 58, Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, 1922 Edition, by Clarence Larkin)

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(Source: Charts on Revelation, p. 38, AMG International Inc., 1981 Edition, by Salem Kirban)

wpe45167.gif (148329 ????)

Through the ages God has tested men under different conditions, and men have always failed at the end:

  1. Adam and Eve were at first innocent and without a sinful nature. They failed due to the seduction of Satan (Genesis 3:1-14).

  2. All men since Adam and Eve have been born with a sinful nature, but they also have a conscience which tells them what is right and wrong (Romans 2:15). After Adam men got steadily worse until God destroyed everyone in the world except Noah and his family (Genesis 6:5-9:19).

  3. After the flood God commanded men to govern themselves (Genesis 9:6). Again men failed and became idol-worshippers (Joshua 24:2).

  4. Next God called Abraham and promised to make his descendants into a great nation (Genesis 15:1-5). God made a covenant that He would bless Israel, but in Egypt the people shared in the religion of their masters. This is shown when God had delivered them and they were on their way to the promised land. They made idols and worshipped false gods (Joshua 24:14; Acts 7:39-43).

  5. Then God gave them the law, the tabernacle, priests and judges, but they refused to obey (Read Exodus 1-40). God Himself was their leader but they demanded a king (1 Samuel 8:6-9). Some of the kings of Judah led the people in the right way, but sin became so common that God set aside the nation and the temple (2 Chronicles 36:14-20). Failure.

  6. Israel came back to their land, but Gentiles still ruled over them. This punishment should have taught them to obey God. Indeed they never went back to idolatry, but when Christ came they rejected Him (Matthew 27:11-26). Failure.

  7. Now we are not under law but under grace (John 1:17). We will see in Revelation chapters 1 and 2 that the Church age ends in failure.

  8. Someone might say, "God should plainly punish men for their sins, surely they would repent and obey Him." In the Great Tribulation God's anger against sin will be poured out, but we shall see that men will not repent (Revelation 9:20, 21; 16:9). Failure.

  9. Another might say, "No, let God fully show His love to men, then they will love and obey Him." After the Tribulation, Christ will rule on the earth in righteousness for a thousand years (i.e. Millennium), there will be no hunger, no wars and every people will be treated equally. Yet at the end of that time millions of men will follow Satan in the last great attempt to reject Christ (Revelation 20:7-9). Failure.

He will have tried them under different circumstances and in different ages, but every age ends in man's failure. So God will show that men must be born again. Characteristics

Some of the characteristics of Dispensationalism are given below:

  1. Literal Interpretation - they are well known for their use of literal interpretation, especially when interpreting prophecy. For examples, they regard the 144,000 of Revelation 7 as referring to literal Israel.

  2. God's People - God has two people - Israel and the church. Israel is an earthly people, and the church His heavenly people.

  3. The Birth of Church - the church was born on the day of Pentecost and did not exist in history until that time. The church, the body of Christ, is not found in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament saints are not part of the body of Christ.

  4. The Purpose of Christ's First Coming - Christ came to establish the messianic kingdom. Some dispensationalists believe that this was to be an earthly kingdom in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Israel. If the Jews had accepted Jesus' offer, this earthly kingdom would have been immediately established. Other dispensationalists believe that Christ did establish the messianic kingdom in some form in which the church participates but that the earthly kingdom awaits the second coming of Christ to the earth. Christ always intended the cross before the crown in the millennial kingdom.

  5. The Fulfillment of the New Covenant - Some dispensationalists believe that there is one new covenant with two applications: one for Israel and one for the church. Others believe that there are two new covenants: one for Israel and another one for the church.

  6. Eschatology - All dispensationalists are premillennialists, though not necessarily pretribulationalists. Premillennialists believe that God will turn to the nation of Israel again apart from His work with the church and that there will be a thousand year period of Christ's reign on David's throne in accordance with and in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament.

  7. The Second Coming of Christ - The Rapture of the church will occur first, according to most, then a seven year tribulation period, followed by a thousand year reign of Christ, after which there will be judgment and the eternal state. The major advantage of Dispensationalism

It provides an adequate answer to apparent contradictions. Because the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, difficulties will always be encountered in their interpretation. But many of these supposed difficulties disappear when the true dispensational interpretation is recognized. This is true in connection with apparent contradictions. For examples:

  1. How can we reconcile the commission of Matthew 10:1-7 with that of Matthew 28:18-20? In one the disciples are told, "Go not in the way of the Gentiles." In the other they are commanded, "Go ye therefore and teach (disciple) all nations." The death and resurrection of Christ had ushered in a new dispensation. Israel's rejection of her Messiah opened the door for world-wide proclamation of the gospel to all men everywhere.

  2. Why do we have strict dietary regulations in Leviticus 11, and yet we read in 1 Timothy 4:3-5: "Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the wod of God and prayer." The restrictions were for Israel under the law of Moses; the removal of them came to the church under grace.

  3. Why were Gentiles excluded from the congregation of the Lord in Deuteronomy 23:3, yet recognized as fellowheirs, of the same body, and joint partakers of the promise in Ephesians 3:6, and enjoying the same access to the Father in Ephesians 2:18? The answer is that during the age of Israel they were excluded, but what they were included in the age of the church. There was a change in the divine economy. A comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism

A comparison of covenant theology and dispensationalism is shown in below table:

(Source: Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine, pp. 15-16, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1992 Edition, by H. Wayne House)

Viewpoint Covenant Theology Dispensationalism
Description Covenant theology centers on one overall major covenant known as the covenant of grace. Some have called it the covenant of redemption. By many this is defined as an eternal covenant among the members of the Godhead including the following elements: (1) the Father chose a people to be His own; (2) the Son was designated with His agreement to pay the penalty of their sin; and (3) the Holy Spirit was designated with His agreement to apply the work of the Son to this chosen people.

This covenant of grace is being worked out on earth in history through subordinate covenants, beginning with the covenant of works and culminating in the new covenant, which fulfills and completes God's work of grace to man on earth. These covenants include the Adamic covenant, Noahic covenant, Abrahamic covenant, Mosaic covenant, Davidic covenant, and new covenant.

The covenant of grace is also used to explain the unity of redemption through all ages beginning with the Fall when the covenant of works ended.

Covenant theology does not see each covenant as separate and distinct. Instead, each covenant builds on the previous ones, including aspects of previous covenants and culminating in the new covenant.

Dispensational theology looks on the world and the history of mankind as a household over which God is superintending the outworking of his purpose and will. This outworking of his purpose and will can be seen by noting the various periods or stages of different economies whereby God deals with His work and mankind in particular. These various stages or economies are called dispensations. Their number may include as many as seven: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom.
God's People God has one people, represented by the saints of the Old Testament era and the saints of the New Testament era. God has two people - Israel and the church. Israel is an earthly people, and the church His heavenly people.
God's Plan for His People God has one people, the church, for whom He has one plan in all the ages since Adam: to call out this people into one body in both the Old and New Testament ages. God has two separate peoples, Israel and the church, and also has two separate plans for these two distinct peoples. He plans an earthly kingdom for Israel. This kingdom has been postponed until Christ's coming in power, since Israel rejected it at Christ's first coming. During the church age God is calling out a heavenly people. 
God's Plan of Salvation God has one plan of salvation for his people since the time of Adam. The plan is one of grace, being an outworking of the eternal covenant of grace and comes through faith in Jesus Christ. God has only one plan of salvation. Some misunderstood that Old Testament believers were saved by works and sacrifice. However, most have believed that salvation has always been by grace through faith, but that the content of the faith may vary until the full revelation of God in Christ.
The Place of Eternal Destiny for God's People God has but one place for His people, since He has but one people, one plan, and one plan of salvation, His people will he in his presence for eternity. The church will sit with Christ on His throne in the New Jerusalem during the Millennium as He rules over the nations, while Israel will be the head of the nations on earth.
The Birth of the Church The church existed prior to the New Testament era, including all the redeemed since Adam. Pentecost was not the beginning of the church but the empowering of the New Testament manifestation of God's people. The church was born on the day of Pentecost and did not exist in history until that time. The church, the body of Christ, is not found in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament saints are not part of the body of Christ.
The Purpose of Christ's First Coming Christ came to die for our sins and to establish the New Israel, the New Testament manifestation of the church. This continuation of God's plan placed the church under a new and better covenant, which was a new manifestation of the same Covenant of Grace. The kingdom that Jesus offered was the present, spiritual, and invisible kingdom.

Some covenantalists (especially postmillennialists) also see a physical aspect to the kingdom.

Christ came to establish the messianic kingdom. Some dispensationalists believe that this was to be an earthly kingdom in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Israel. If the Jews had accepted Jesus' offer, this earthly kingdom would have been immediately established. Other dispensationalists believe that Christ did establish the messianic kingdom in some form in which the church participates but that the earthly kingdom awaits the second coming of Christ to the earth. Christ always intended the cross before the crown.
The Fulfillment of the New Covenant The promises of the New Covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31ff. are fulfilled in the New Testament. Some dispensationalists believe there is one new covenant with two applications: one for Israel and one for the church. Others believe that there are two new covenants: one for Israel and another one for the church.
The Problem of Amillennialism and Postmillennialism versus Premillennialisrn Covenant theology has been amillennial historically, believing the kingdom to be present and spiritual, or postmillennial, believing the kingdom is being established on the earth with Christ's coming as the culmination. Postmillennialists believe that the church is bringing in the kingdom now, with Israel ultimately to be made a part of the church. All dispensationalists are premillennialists, though not necessarily pretribulationalists. Premillennialists of this type believe that God will turn to the nation of Israel again apart from His work with the church and that there will be a thousand year period of Christ's reign on David's throne in accordance with and in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament.
The Second Coming of Christ Christ's coming will be to bring final judgment and the eternal state. Postmillennialists believe that the kingdom is being established by the work of God's people on the earth until the time when Chrfst will bring it to completion at His coming. The Rapture of the church will occur first, then a seven year tribulation period, followed by a thousand year reign of Christ (i.e. Millennium), after which there will be judgment and the eternal state.


Since I see so many differences between periods of time marked often by the Biblical covenants, I prefer a view which emphasizes discontinuity. However, unlike classical dispensationalism, I see grace operating in all the dispensations, and I do not see grace and law as antithetical systems. Rather, I view grace as the divine means of obeying law. However, I agree with dispensationalists in the view that Israel and the church are distinct, not merely merged into one another as the covenant theologians believe.

5.3 Amillennialism, Postmillennialism and Premillennialism

Evangelicals differ in regard to the doctrine of last things. These systems of eschatology are characterized by their own presuppositions, but it is customary for dispensationalists to be premillennialists and covenant theologians to be either amillennial or postmillennial, though some crossover does occur. All three of these systems have a presupposition regarding the meaning of the one-thousand-year kingdom of Revelation 20 and the relation of the return of Christ to the Millennium.

5.3.1 Definitions

Both amillennialists and postmillennialists have a more or less nonliteral view of the one thousand years, perhaps the amillennialist's view more nonliteral than the postmillennialist's. In both cases the return of Christ comes following the Millennium, but the big difference is in the fact that the amillennialist believes the Millennium is taking place in the church at the present time, while the postmillennialist believes that the church through evangelism will bring about the Millennium in the course of time.

Premillennialists take the one thousand years of Revelation 20 as a literal one thousand years and the return of Christ as coming before their view of the Millennium.

See the following charts for illustration:


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5.3.2 Presuppositions

Regarding presuppositions, the premillennialist assumes a "literal unless it makes no sense" approach to the one thousand years of Revelation 20. Granted, apocalyptic writing is loaded with symbolism, but the rule still applies, so far as most premillennialists are concerned. There indeed are some premillennialists who take a more covenant approach, but their literal interpretation of the thousand years is based on contextual reasons coming exclusively from that passage, while dispensational premillennialists look to the broader context of the Old Testament's teaching on the kingdom and lean toward a more literal interpretation for that reason as well.

Amillennialists and most postmillennialists stress the fact that the book of Revelation is symbolic, even in terms of the numbers in the book. But yet another presupposition is at work in this tendency as it concerns the relationship of Israel to the thousand-year reign. As a matter of fact, in their view all Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom must now be taken nonliterally. This is because Israel's rejection of Jesus as Messiah has canceled out those promises so far as national Israel is concerned, making them applicable to the church, the "new Israel." In order to apply them to the church, therefore, they must be taken in a "spiritual," or nonliteral sense.


It is my view that Israel's rejection does not cancel out the kingdom promises, because they do not appear to be conditioned by obedience for ultimate fulfillment. Obedience will characterize the last generation of Israel at the time of Christ's return. If, then, the Old Testament promises can be taken literally instead of being applied to the church, it leaves us with a future, quite literal, kingdom age for Israel.

I will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of amillennialism, postmillennialism and premillennialism in great details in the next Chapter 3.



The interpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant is a watershed between premillennialism and amillennialism. The central question concerns its fulfillment. All agree that certain aspects of it have been fulfilled. But all do not agree on the fulfillment of other aspects of it, particularly the land promise.

Amillennialists, while not agreed on the time of fulfillment of the land promise, unanimously agree that it will not be fulfilled in a future earthly millennial kingdom.

Premillennialists, on the other hand, insist that since there has been no literal fulfillment in the past or present, there must be one in the future, and theirs is the only system that includes a future time when it may be fulfilled on this earth.

6.1 The Promises of the Covenant

The promises of the covenant contain three parts, they are:

  1. personal promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:2);

  2. universal promises (Genesis 12:3); and

  3. national promises (Genesis 15:18-21).

6.1.1 Personal promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:2)

Three short clauses addressed to Abraham contain the personal promises God made to Abraham:

  1. "1 will make you a great nation." When God said this, Abraham had no heir. The promise refers, of course, to the Jewish nation, the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob.

  2. "1 will bless you." In fulfillment of this promise, God gave Abraham temporal blessings of land (Genesis 13:14-15, 17), servants (Genesis 15:7), and wealth (Genesis 13:2; 24:34-35), and He gave him spiritual blessings (Genesis 13:18; 21:22).

  3. "I will make your name great." God promised Abraham fame, renown, and good reputation.

The last clause of Genesis 12:2 states the purpose or result of God's blessing Abraham -  "so that you shall be a blessing."

6.1.2 Universal promises (Genesis 12:3)

There are two universal promises God made to Abraham:

  1. The promise of divine blessing or tuning people on the basis of their treatment of Abraham. Abraham's relationship with God was so close that to bless him or curse him was, in effect, to bless or curse God (Genesis 20:2-18; 21:22-34; 23).

  2. The promise that all the families of the earth would be blessed. Paul makes it clear that Christ fulfilled this promise (Galatians 3:16). "Seed" may be both collective and individual; that is the seed was one line, one family, and especially one Person, Christ (Galatians 3:19). Paul's concluding point in chat chapter is this: do not try to become sons of Abraham by being circumcised but by being in Christ (Galatians 3:27, 29). Our position in Christ makes us heirs of this particular promise of the Abrahamic Covenant. Note carefully that Paul is not saying that the church fulfills the entire covenant. He focuses only on this one promise concerning blessing in the seed (Galatians 3:16 - the plural, "promises," is used because the covenant was repeated several times to Abraham, not because Paul wants to indicate that the church fulfills the entire covenant.

6.1.3 National promises (Genesis 15:18-21)

There are two national promises God made to Abraham:

  1. The promise that Abraham would father a great nation was both a personal and a national promise. Abraham did have an heir miraculously by Sarah (Genesis 21:2).

  2. The promise to that nation of specific land as an inheritance. See Genesis 12:7; 13:15, 17; 15:7-8, 18; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3; 28:13-14; 35:12; 48:4; 50:24. Genesis 17:1-8 emphasizes that the land was to be an everlasting possession; and 15:18 describes the boundaries as from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates.

Debate continues on the identity of the river of Egypt:

  1. One view equates the river (nahar) of Egypt with the wadi (nahal) of Egypt, the modern wadi el-'Arish which, during the rainy season, flows from the middle of the Sinai Peninsula into the Mediterranean ninety miles east of the Suez Canal (Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:4, 47; 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Kings 24:7; 2 Chronicles 7:8; Isaiah 27:12; Ezekiel 47:19; 48:28). This is the view of Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View, Bibliotheca Sacra, 138:n.6, p. 311).

  2. The other view identifies the river of Egypt as the Nile, specifically its eastern channel. The word nahar used in Genesis 15:18 always refers to a continuously flowing river which the Nile is and the wadi el-'Arish is not. This is the view of Bruce K. Waltke (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 5:121) and K.A. Kitchen (The New Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, pp. 353-354). Please see below atlas for the locations of Rivers Nile, Euphrates and wadi el-'Arish.

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To be sure, in some passages the focus is on Canaan, or some part of that larger area promised in Genesis 15:18 (Genesis 17:8; 1 Kings 8:65; Ezekiel 47:13-20). Israel has occupied at various times part of the larger area, but never the larger area, nor ever as an everlasting possession.

6.2 The Solemn Ratification of the Covenant

The ratification ceremony described in Genesis 15:9-17 indicates that God alone obligated Himself to the terms of the covenant since only He walked between the pieces of the sacrificial animals. The significance of that is striking: it means that God swore fidelity to His promises and placed the obligation on their fulfillment on Himself alone. Abraham made no such oath; he was in a deep sleep, yet aware of what God promised. Clearly the Abrahamic Covenant was not conditioned on anything Abraham would or would not do; its fulfillment in all its parts depends only on God's doings.

6.3 Alleged Conditions in the Covenant

The unconditionality of the Abrahamic Covenant furnishes an important support for premillennialism, since the land promise needs a future time (the Millennium) in which it will be fulfilled. Therefore, amillennialists allege that there were in fact conditions attached to the fulfillment of the covenant which make it impossible to view the covenant as unconditional.

6.3.1 Genesis 12:1

The command, ''Go forth from your country,'' expresses a condition that would have invalidated the covenant if Abraham had not obeyed. However, grammatically this command, expresses an intention, namely what God intended to do for Abraham.

6.3.2 Genesis 12:2

The phrase "be a blessing" is seen by some to be a condition for fulfillment of the covenant. However, grammatically this expresses a consequence which is expected to occur with certainty or an intention.

6.3.3 Genesis 17:1

Some understand ''walk before Me'' as a condition for fulfillment of the covenant. However, the grammar is the same is in Genesis 12:1 and expresses intention.

6.3.4 Genesis 22:16-18; 26:5

Since the covenant has been firmly established several times before these events, it would be incongruous to view these passages as conditions imposed after the clear statements of unconditionality. Rather, in these instances God acknowledged the worthiness of Abraham to remind him and his descendants that faith and obedience were necessary for participation in the benefits of the unconditional promises of the covenant.

6.4 Viewpoints As to the Fulfillment of the Covenant

6.4.1 The amillennial viewpoint

Amillennialism teaches that all the provisions of the covenant have been fulfilled, including the land promise. This is done either by:

  1. spiritualizing the land promise so that the church fulfills it, or

  2. seeing it fulfilled in Israel's past history in the days of Joshua.

In the several statements of the covenant the land promised was both from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates (Genesis 15:18) and the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:8). The former which was greater, included the latter, which was smaller. Under Joshua the Israelites in no way occupied the larger limits of the land. Of course, they did not possess the land of Canaan forever, nor had they fully conquered it at that time. So neither promise has been fulfilled everlastingly.

In Joshua 21:43-45 we read that God told Joshua that He had now kept the promises made to Israel in giving them the land which He promised to their fathers. The same is true for the alleged fulfillment of the land promise under King Solomon (1 Kings 4:21). Though Solomon's kingdom was extensive, he did not reign over all the territory promised to Abraham, nor did he do it eternally. The larger promise of the land between the two rivers includes the land of Canaan and the territory Solomon ruled, but it does not mean that the land of Canaan or Solomon's kingdom is equivalent to the larger area.

But, those considerations aside, God did declare that what had happened was a fulfillment of the covenant. How could this be?

Perhaps an illustration will help. Suppose I promise to pay for a student's entire university degree education. This might normally mean four one-year payments. At the end of the first year I could say that I have kept my promise. And I could even say (like Genesis 26:5), because you have made such good grades I am happy to pay the next year's tuition. The larger promise of paying for the total education includes the lesser promises to pay for each year's expenses.

The book of Joshua tells us that the conquest of the Promised Land was completed in Joshua's day (Joshua 11:16-20). In Judges we discover a sense in which the conquest was not complete. The whole land was conquered by and was subject to the control of the Israelites. In that sense the conquest was complete. God kept His promise and gave Israel the whole land. The conquest was incomplete in the sense that individual tribes did not fully possess the land conquered and alloted to them. Throughout the land there remained pockets of resistance. Both Joshua and Judges make it clear that God had given the land to the Israelites, but they had to fight to take it; they needed to possess their possessions. The book of Judges shows the Israelites' failure to appropriate all that God had given them and make it clear that Israel was disobedient to God; that the people did not press on to total victory, even though victory was within their grasp (Judges 2:20-33). The Scripture is emphatic in asserting that God kept His promise to Israel in giving it the land of Canaan unconditionally, "I will never break My covenant with you" (Judges 2:1). In all of this there was a blending of the divine and the human - God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. God did not fail even though man was weak and frail and did not obey completely (Joshua 21:45).

Please observe the inherent self-contradiction of the amillennial position. If the covenant is conditional, then even the amillennialist does not need to look for a fulfillment in the days of Joshua or those of Solomon. If the covenant was fulfilled in either of those times, then it was not conditional. If it was fulfilled under Joshua or Solomon, then the church does not fulfill it. If the church fulfills it, then one need not look for a fulfillment in the days of Joshua or Solomon. It would appear that the amillennialist needs to have the spare tires of possible fulfillments under Joshua or Solomon or by the church in case the argument for conditionality goes flat.

6.4.1 The premillennial viewpoint

Premillennialism insists that all the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant must be fulfilled since the convenant was made without conditions. Much of the covenant has already been fulfilled literally; therefore, what remains to be fulfilled will also be fulfilled literally. This brings the focus on the yet-unfulfilled land promise. Though the nation Israel occupied part of the territory promised in the covenant, she has never yet occupied all of it and certainly not eternally as the covenant promised. Therefore, there must be a time in the future when Israel will do so, and for the premillennialist this will be in the coming millennial kingdom. Thus the Abrahamic Covenant gives strong support for premillennial eschatology.



God's covenant with David, like His with Abraham, also gives strong support to premillennial eschatology.

7.1 The Provisions of the Covenant (2 Samuel 7:12-16)

David desired to build a temple for the Lord to replace the temporary tentlike tabernacle. Since David himself lived in a house of cedar, it seemed only fitting that there be a more permanent building for the worship of God. But God revealed to Nathan the prophet that He had something far greater in mind for David, and that revelation is the Davidic Covenant which consists of the following two parts:

  1. promises related to David; and

  2. promises related to Solomon.

7.1.1 Promises related to David

The promises related to David are as follows:

  1. Descendants. David would have a son who would succeed him and establish his kingdom (2 Samuel 7:12).

  2. Kingdom. David's house, throne, and kingdom would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). However, the covenant did not guarantee uninterrupted rule by David's family though it did promise that the right to rule would always remain with David's dynasty. The Babylonian Captivity did, of course, interrupt the Davidic rule.

7.1.2 Promises related to Solomon

The promises related to Solomon are as follows:

  1. Temple. Solomon, rather than David, would build the temple (2 Samuel 7:13a).

  2. Throne. The throne of Solomon's kingdom would he established forever (2 Samuel 7:13b).

  3. Punishment. He would be chastened for his sins, but not deposed (2 Samuel 7:14-15).

God did not promise specifically that the posterity of David would be through the line of Solomon. Jeconiah (or Coniah), one of Solomon's descendants, was decreed by God to be "childless" (Jeremiah 22:30). Actually Coniah had seven sons (perhaps adopted, 1 Chronicles 3:17-18), though none occupied the throne.

Thus as far as a continuing dynasty was concerned, Coniah was "childless." His line did retain legal throne rights which were claimed for Jesus through His legal father Joseph (Matthew 1:7, 12, 16).

Again it is important to remember that these promises were made unconditionally. Still some attempt to deny that it was unconditional, claiming that the covenant could be broken and citing the "if'' in 2 Samuel 7:14 and verses like 1 Kings 2:4; 8:25; 9:4-5; Isaiah 24:5 and Ezekiel 16:59. The resolution is simply this: "The 'breaking' or conditionality can only refer to personal and individual invalidation of the benefits of the covenant, but it cannot affect the transmission of the promise to the lineal descendants. This is why God would staunchly affirm His fidelity and the perpetuity of the covenant to David in spite of succeeding rascals who would appear in his lineage. For in that case, He 'finds fault with them' but not with His Abrahamic-Davidic-New Covenant" (Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, p. 157).

7.2 Old Testament Confirmation of the Covenant

Actually all Old Testament passages which describe the Messiah as King and His coming kingdom confirm the promises of the Davidic Covenant. All the royal psalms, for example, give more information about the Davidic kingdom (Psalm 2; 18; 20-21; 45; 72; 89; 101; 132; 144). Psalm 89:3-4, 19-37 provides strong confirmation of the immutability of the covenant. It seems almost as if God was anticipating the amillennial claim chat the kingdom promise should be spiritualized into the church when He said that even though chastisement for sin would come, the covenant would not be broken or altered (Psalm 89:32-34).

A number of passages in Isaiah also predict and describe the visible, earthly kingdom promised in the Davidic Covenant. Isaiah predicted the reign of Messiah "on the throne of David and over his kingdom" (Isaiah 9:6-7). In other places he describes some of the characteristics of that kingdom (Isaiah 11; 24-25; 54; 60-61).

Other significant Old Testament promises concerning the Davidic kingdom include Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:8-9; 33:14-17, 20-21; Ezekiel 37:24-25; Daniel 7:13-14; Hosea 3:4-5; Amos 8:11; and Zechariah 14:4, 9.

7.3 New Testament Confirmation of the Covenant

The crucial question concerning the New Testament evidence about the kingdom is this: did the teachings of Christ or the apostles in any way change or alter the Old Testament concept of an earthly kingdom? At the time of our Lord's first advent the national hope for a kingdom was exceedingly strong among the Jewish people. The terms "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" were on everyone's lips. The chief characteristics of this kingdom in the conception of the Jewish people were that it would be:

  1. earthly;

  2. national;

  3. messianic;

  4. moral; and

  5. future.

This meant: on this earth, specifically related to the nation Israel, rule on by the personal presence of Messiah, with high, God-given stundards, and not yet in existence. Did the teachings of the Lord Jesus or others change this conception?

7.3.1 In the preaching of John the Baptist

His message was simplicity itself: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:1-2). His emphasis was on repentance and not on describing the kingdom, though his preaching confirmed the promises of the Davidic Covenant.

7.3.2 In the preaching of Christ

Gabriel announced to Mary that God would give to her Child the throne of His father David and rulership over Israel forever (Luke  1:31-33). The magi sought the "King of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). Our Lord Jesus proclaimed the kingdom was at hand (Matthew 4:17, 23; 9:35). He insisted on righteousness for entrance into the kingdom (Matthew 5:20). He also commissioned the seventy disciples with this same message (Luke 10:1-9).

However, as His message continued to be rejected by the people, and especially by their leaders, our Lord Jesus introduced the mysteries of the kingdom (Matthew 13). These described aspects of the kingdom not revealed up to that time, for they describe what form the kingdom would take between the first and second advents of Christ. Did this mean that the Davidic kingdom would take a new form with the church fulfilling the promises made to David? No, for the simple reason that the Lord Jesus continued to speak of the Davidic kingdom to the end of His earthly life (note especially Matthew 25:34). Also, when the disciples questioned the Lord Jesus just before His ascension concerning when the kingdom promised to Israel and (not to the church) would come, He did not tell them that the kingdom had been changed to the church, but only said that He could not reveal the time when the kingdom would come (Acts 1:6-8). In other words, whatever form the kingdom would take in the present age (i.e. the mysteries of the kingdom) would not change or abrogate the promises of the Davidic Covenant concerning the future, earthly kingdom.

7.4 Conclusion

I conclude that both the teachings of the Old and New Testaments confirm the Davidic Covenant.

The different methods of interpretation of Biblical prophecies and their effects on the eschatological positions are summarized in below table:

Underlying Principles Eschatological Positions
Amillennialism Postmillennialism Premillennialism
Unity of the Bible Deny Deny Affirm
Literal v. Nonliteral Interpretation Nonliteral Nonliteral Literal
Relationship of Law to Grace Continue Continue Discontinue
Covenant Theology v. Dispensationalism Covenant Theology Covenant Theology Dispensationalism
God's Covenant with Abraham Conditional, Fulfilled in History / Church N/A Unconditional, To Be Fulfilled
God's Covenant with David Conditional, Fulfilled in History / Church N/A Unconditional, To Be Fulfilled



  1. Understanding and Applying the Bible, Chapters 1 to 6, 15, 18, Moody Press: Chicago, 1992 Edition, by Robertson McQuilkin.

  2. Basic Theology, Section XIII, Chapters 81 to 82, ChariotVictor Publishing, 1999 Edition, by Charles C. Ryrie.

  3. Things to Come, Section 1, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1996 reprint, by J. Dwight Pentecost.

  4. Countdown to Eternity - A Study of Dispensationalism, Chapters 2 to 11, Emmaus Bible College, 1976 Revised Edition, by Harold G. Mackay.

  5. Bible Prophecy, Lesson 5, p. 5/2, Emmaus Bible College, 1972 Edition, by C. Ernest Tatham.

  6. Dispensationalism, Chapters 1 to 10, Moody Press: Chicago, 1995 Revised Edition, by Charles C. Ryrie.

  7. Charts on Revelation, p. 38, AMG International Inc., 1981 Edition, by Salem Kirban.

  8. The Second Coming of Christ, pp. 41, 6, 58, Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, 1922 Edition, by Clarence Larkin.

  9. Revelation - The Coming King, pp. 48-49, Everyday Publications Inc., 1990 Third Impression, by R.E. Harlow.

  10. Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine, pp. 15-16, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids: Michigan, 1992 Edition, by H. Wayne House.


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