Principles of Interpretation
by John Bennett, D.D.
(The author of this work died in 1893. This article is taken from the book The Second Advent which is a very helpful publication, though now quite rare).
When Demosthenes was asked the secret of his wonderful oratory, his reply was ‑ Firstly, action; secondly, action; thirdly, action. So when the believer is asked what is the key to the interpretation of Scripture, his answer is ‑ Firstly, secondly, thirdly, its verbal inspiration and infallible authority. To understand the Bible aright, we must reverently bow before it, carefully study its every word, and implicitly receive its teaching.
It distinctly claims, be it ever remembered, this verbal inspiration: Which things also we speak, not in the WORDS which mans wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth (1 Corinthians 2: 13). The following is written for those who have tested and admitted this claim. I do not attempt to prove it. That has been done by many writers. I assume its reality.
In order to ascertain what is taught in Scripture as to unfulfilled prophecy, it is needful to lay down clearly at the outset that we seek to know what the Word of God says. We do not ask what is likely, but what is revealed. Erroneous inferences may indeed be drawn from the Bible, but my endeavour is to present to the readers mind a summary of those passages which relate to the Lords coming and the events connected therewith. There can be no error in THEM. May the [Holy] Spirit of God bless them to our hearts.
From this fact of Scriptures plenary verbal authority two principles may be readily deduced. These principles are, I believe, of the utmost importance, not only in the study of prophecy, but of all revealed truth. I bespeak for them most earnestly the candid and prayerful consideration of the reader.
The first of these is, that there is no exaggeration in Scripture. Exaggeration necessarily implies untruth, and that could never be written by the finger of God. Even believers get into the habit of reading a passage and passing it by with the comment It is only poetry! This is a most pernicious practice. What is meant by poetry? Does it involve exaggeration ‑ that is, untruth? If so, there can be no poetry in the Word of God. Does it, on the other hand, mean simply figurative language? Then we gladly admit that the Bible contains poetry. Everything turns upon the meaning attached to the word poetry. Only let us bear in mind that every figure has a meaning; that every illustration is intended to show something: and that in the figure or illustration there is no exaggeration.
I will select two passages which are often emptied of their
meaning on the plea that they are figurative. These are samples of many others. (1) Matthew 24.
After describing a siege of
Surely any unprejudiced reader of the Bible would see here clearly set forth that great event which is the hope of the Church ‑ the Lords Coming. The language is plain, obvious, and not figurative. Yet a well-known commentator (Scott), having decided that the siege here prophesied is past, is obliged, in order to square his system of interpretation with the passage, to take this as already fulfilled!
I quote from his commentary as follows: The expression immediately
after the tribulation of those days restricts
the primary sense of them (i.e. these words) to the destruction of
primary fulfilment of this simple prophecy of Christ, according to the commentator,
took place at the siege of
But (2) the other passage I venture to select is Revelation 6. We find there, couched in language of awful sublimity, a description of the last great day of the Lord. I transcribe part of it: And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood ... And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: for the great day of His wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?
It seems almost incredible that any should suppose this scene to have been accomplished. But so it is. Elliott tells us in his Horae Apocalyptica that what is intended here is that paganism was to be defeated, and Christianity (or rather a corrupt form of it) made the state religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine! The language here is startling, the judgment universal, the wrath irresistible. The constellations are darkened, earth shaken; every mountain and island moved out of their places; all men flee to the hills and rocks for shelter; the great day of Gods wrath has come. And yet, it all means that a state religion is changed! Nothing more. I appeal to every candid reader, is not this on the face of it an explaining away of the most solemn denunciations of Scripture? We may rest assured that not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law till all is fulfilled. There is no exaggeration in Revelation 6.
No one will deny that there are figures of speech in the
Bible. They abound. As an Eastern book it is clothed in language
suited to the East. What I contend for
is, that each figure has a simple definite meaning, and that for this meaning
we must search. Thus in Ezekiel 37: 15-22, the prophet is commanded to
take two sticks, one to represent
Take another case. In Revelation 1: 20, we read of seven stars and seven candlesticks. This is figurative. But how plain the interpretation! The stars are the angels of the churches, while the candlesticks are the churches. In daily conversation figures of speech are freely employed. But they are used to explain or express, not to mystify. So in the Bible. The entrance of Thy Words giveth light. This then, is my first principle or canon of interpretation. Scripture, being truth, contains no exaggeration.
A Literal Fulfilment
My second is this, we must expect a literal fulfilment of its Prophecies.
Hookers authority is deservedly great in the Church of England. His dictim is this, I hold it for a most infallible rule in expositions of Sacred Scripture, that where a literal construction will stand, the farthest from the letter is commonly the worst (Eccl. Pol. v. ix. 2). But let me not be misunderstood. If a passage is a plain statement of simple facts, then receive it as such; but if it is figurative, seek by careful study the meaning of the figure, and look then for the actual accomplishment of that which is foretold. In daily life we know when we read a figurative expression, and we can generally tell the meaning of the figure.
But it may be asked, is there any ground for expecting a
literal fulfilment of the prophecies? Our
reply is, Ample ground. - In the Word are found two
series of predictions regarding our blessed Lord, the one describing His first coming,
and the latter His second. One series
has been accomplished. The other has
not. The former was fulfilled to the
letter, and therefore the inference is irresistible, so will the latter be. The
Jews indeed spiritualized the cross, but the event showed that they were wrong.
not a very large section of the Church spiritualised the crown? And
will not the event prove them in error too?
But the Church is less excusable than
Let us examine some of these predictions concerning our Lords
life on earth. Christ was to be born in
Again, Christ was to be born of a virgin: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His Name Immanuel (Isaiah 7: 14). In Matthew 1: 18-25, the accomplishment of the prophecy is revealed by the evangelist. It was fulfilled literally.
Christs betrayal by an intimate friend for a definite sum of
money was foreshown: Mine own familiar friend, in whom
I trusted, which did eat of My bread, hath lifted up
his heel against
So too was the triumphal entry into
They part My garments among them, and cast lots upon My vesture (Psalm 22: 18). Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also His coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be; that the Scripture might be fulfilled (John 19: 23-24). They gave Me also gall for My meat; and in My thirst they gave Me vinegar to drink (Psalm 69: 21). They gave Him vinegar to drink mingled with gall (Matthew 27: 34). He was numbered with the transgressors (Isaiah 53: 12). They crucified Him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left (Luke 23: 33). He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death (Isaiah 53: 9). When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb (Matthew 27: 59-60).
These incidents, so minutely
described, were all of them fulfilled literally. Every detail came to pass just exactly as had
been foretold. Prophecy in the past has,
then, beyond dispute been accomplished to the letter. And this is our guide for
the future. We expect the [coming millennial] glory to be as real as the shame, the throne in
There is another reason, however, for reading prophecy literally.
If the prophecies are
spiritualised, why not the miracles? If the Revelation, why not the Gospels? If I am at liberty to say that the Lords
coming means death, that His reigning in
Thus then we conclude, that when prophecy can be understood literally without an absurdity, it is to be so taken. When the language is obviously figurative, the meaning of the figure is to be sought.
then, laid down our two canons or principles of interpretation, let us proceed
to apply them to one or two passages by way of illustration. First let us turn to Zechariah
14. There we read as follows: Behold, the day of the LORD
cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against
[* Note. We must compare scripture with scripture to find the correct interpretation of the word all here. It must be interpreted in a limited sense. That is, it refers to those who were rapt alive before the Great Tribulation set in (Luke 21: 34-36; Rev. 3: 10); and also tose described as considered worthy of taking part in that age (Luke 20: 35), resurrected saints; and also the raptured saints (who were still alive and left till the coming of the Lord (1 Thess 4: 15), at the time of Christs descent to earth with His holy angels. These conditional requirements on the part of the saved, are often overlooked!]
Here the whole passage can be understood literally.
The assertions of Zechariah
touching the entry into
Clear as all this may seem to some, it is not so to all. Thus Scott
expounds the chapter to mean that Christ came when
Take another chapter ‑ Revelation 13. There a beast is brought before us, who blasphemes God and persecutes the saints, who shall be worshipped by all the dwellers upon the Roman earth except the elect. Any child can see at a glance that the beast is a figure. This being admitted by all, the next question is, of what is it figurative? Naturally enough opinions are here divided. Some say it means a system or empire, others a man. Comparing the passage with other Scripture, many reasons are apparent which induce us to regard it as a man. Thus, Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a MAN (Revelation 13: 18). Here is no figure, but an explanation of the figure. The beast is a man.
Again we read, I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him that sat on the horse, and against His army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet ... These both were cast alive into a lake of fire (Revelation 19: 19‑20). One can hardly speak of an empire or a system being cast alive into hell. That can be asserted only of a man. So at the close of the millennium, a thousand years after the event described above, we read, The devil ... was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever (Revelation 20: 10). A system or empire cannot be tormented in hell, a man can. I merely allude to this as showing how by attention to plain Scriptures we get the key to the symbol. The beast is a figure, but, we humbly think, on the strength of the three passages quoted, of a man.
Not Always in Chronological Order
In reading prophecy, however, one caution must be borne in
mind. The visions are not always in chronological
order. In fact, it is often found that
the blessing to be ultimately given is first described, and then the sorrows
and darkness which precede it. The
heavenly city is seen with the
The same course is commonly followed in natural things. The brief announcement is first made that the victory is [can be] won, and then follows an account of the struggle and the steps which [we must take to] lead to the result. So in the Word of God, The morning cometh, and also the night (Isaiah 21: 12). Night precedes
morning, but, amid the shades of darkness deepening around us, we are cheered with the hope the morning cometh. The bright morning without clouds shall yet dawn; but remember, before that the darkness must deepen into antichristian gloom. Inky black shall be the darkness, relieved only by the fires of Satans kindling. The victory is sure, but before the church* is yet her hardest struggle. God points us in prophetic Scriptures to the morning, the victory, and then details the darkness and the conflict.
[* That is, those of the church, who missed out on the pre-tribulation rapture as shown in the note above.]
Thus we may take Isaiah 2: 1-5
as a case in point. Millennial glory is here depicted: It
shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORDS house shall be established in the
top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations
shall flow unto it ... He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many
people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears
into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither
shall they learn war any more. Blessed prospect! Here, unmistakably, is the
fulfilment of the oft-repeated prayer Thy kingdom come.
But what follows? In verse 6, we read Therefore
(or, but) Thou hast
forsaken Thy people the house of Jacob. And through the remainder of chapter 2 and the whole of chapter 3 is contained a sorrowful account of
Another instance that may be adduced is Revelation 6. 1 have already alluded to the unsatisfactory attempts made by many expositors to fit in the prophecy there given with past events. Such attempts show how sadly mens minds may be warped with prejudice. If a writer starts with the definite principle that the Revelation MUST contain an outline of a series of events in chronological order, then chapter 6 must be made to correspond with something that has taken place. How much simpler to admit at the outset that the language there used has reference to the judgments of the great day, and to see in the chapter a brief view reaching up to the end. The same principle which has already been shown to underlie the opening chapters of Isaiah will be then recognised here. The final outpouring of wrath is first given, and then the judgments by which it shall be preceded.
Nor let it be supposed that this principle is confined to the prophetic Scriptures. It is equally seen elsewhere. Thus in Genesis 1 to 2: 4 is a preliminary account of the creation. This includes the work of the 6th day: So God created man in His Own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them (verse 27). Here then is the creation not of Adam only, but of Eve also; and yet no hint is given as to the means employed in either case. This is the outline, afterwards the details are filled in. In the next section, chapter 2: 4 to 3: 24, which is marked by the introduction of the name LORD God, particulars are furnished. God, the Creator, appears now as Jehovah or LORD, the God of grace, about to inaugurate His dealings with men. We are told of the formation first of Adam, then of Eve. The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul (verse 7). The fact of mans creation was given in the first account, but here the means are described.
Similarly with Eve [sometime later]. The LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof: and the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made He a woman (2: 21-22). There is no contradiction. The latter is fuller than the former.
Take another case ‑ the history of the flood. Noah is bidden first of all to take of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort (Genesis 6: 19). Subsequently he is commanded to take of every clean beast by sevens i.e., seven pairs (Genesis 7: 2); of others by pairs, i.e., one pair. The second command was supplementary to the first, not contradictory to it. Thus we need not be surprised to find the prophetic visions constructed on the same basis. It is exactly what we should expect.
To sum up briefly, then, what has been laid down. We believe Scripture to be inspired plenarily and verbally. It cannot be broken. Not one jot or tittle can fail. Recognising this truth, we deduce from it two principles: the first is, that there is no exaggeration in the language employed; and, the second, that where the passage is not obviously and incontestably figurative, it is to be taken literally. With these two principles we bear in mind one caution, viz. that the visions are not always in chronological order, but frequently describe first that which is to be fulfilled last.
If these principles are fairly applied, I believe it will be found that prophecy becomes, what it was intended to be, a light, a guide, and not a riddle. I would earnestly commend to the study of the reader the often-misread passage, 2 Peter 1: 19-21, a few remarks upon which may fitly close this article. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed in your hearts ‑ until the day dawn: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation (unravelling). The unravelling or interpretation does not, I believe, refer to the exposition of the Scripture, to our unfolding of its teaching, as is often hastily assumed.
Rather does Peter say that the written Word, or prophecy, is not the private idea of the writer. He does not unravel the future himself. What he says is not his own personal thought. It is the result of Gods interpretation to him by revelation. God thus interprets the future, and this is committed to writing. What is so written is Scripture, which is the direct result of Gods interpretation to the prophet. Hence the force of what follows: For the prophecy came not in old (at any) time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
Prophecy is here regarded not as darkness but light, not as an enigma but its solution, not as a mystery but as a key wherewith to unlock the mystery. It was given to teach, not to perplex, to make plain, not to obscure.
Reader, do you thus view it? All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable. This includes prophecy.