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.


Verbal Inspiration


It distinctly claims, be it ever remembered, this verbal inspiration: ‘Which things also we speak, not in the WORDS which man’s 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 reader’s mind a summary of those passages which relate to the Lord’s 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 Scripture’s 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.


No Exaggeration


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 Jerusalem which synchronises with the period of unequalled tribulation, our Lord foretells His coming: ‘As the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be’ (verse 27).  He then adds ‘Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened and the moon shall rid the stars shall fall from heaven, an the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.  And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth (land) mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’ (verses 29-31).


Surely any unprejudiced reader of the Bible would see here clearly set forth that great event which is the hope of the Church ‑ the Lord’s 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 Jerusalem and the events consequent to it.  The darkening of the sun and moon, the falling of the stars, and the shaking of the powers of the heavens, denote the utter extinction of the light of prosperity and privilege to the Jewish nation ... At the same time He would send forth His angels (or messengers, the PREACHERS OF THE GOSPEL), as with a great sound of a trumpet Feeling, I suppose, the inadequacy of such an exposition, Scott adds ‘But the whole passage will have a more literal and far more august accomplishment at the day of judgment


The primary fulfilment of this simple prophecy of Christ, according to the commentator, took place at the siege of Jerusalem by Titus.  The signs in the heavens and the darkening of the sun and moon meant simply the extinction of Israel’s prosperity, and the sending forth of the angels, the preaching of the Gospel.  Strange indeed!  In Matthew 13: 40-41, I read ‘As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of the world (age).  The Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend;’ and in verse 49, ‘So shall it be at the end of the world (age); the angels shall come forth In 2 Thessalonians 1: 7, we are told that ‘the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels  And yet in Matthew 24 the coming of the Lord with His angels means that at the destruction of Jerusalem He sent out preachers of the Gospel!  Such an exposition seems to me dangerously like explaining away the Word of God.  There is no exaggeration in Matthew 24.


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 God’s 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 Judah, the other Israel.  These sticks become one in his hand.  Thus God taught that the two kingdoms shall even yet be reunited.  The action was symbolic, but how easily understood!  How simple!


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.


Hooker’s 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.  Has 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 Israel.  If she spiritualises the [coming millennial] glory, she does so after having seen the Jewish spiritualiser convicted of error.


Let us examine some of these predictions concerning our Lord’s life on earth.  Christ was to be born in Bethlehem.  ‘Thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be Ruler in Israel; Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’ (Micah 5: 2).  The fulfilment of this is thus recorded: Herod ‘demanded of them where Christ should be born.  And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda’ etc (Matthew 2: 4-6).  It was literally fulfilled.


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.


Christ’s 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 Me.’  ‘They weighed for My price thirty pieces of silver’ (Psalm 41: 9; Zechariah 11: 12).  The fulfilment is thus given: ‘I speak not of you all; I know whom I have chosen: but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with Me ... And when He had dipped the sop, He gave it to Judas Iscariot ‘Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver Him unto you?  And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver’ (John 13: 18, 26; Matthew 26: 14-15).  All was fulfilled literally.


So too was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy King cometh unto thee; He is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass’ (Zechariah 9: 9).  Carefully is it pointed out that the Lord Jesus did enter into the city riding upon the foal of an ass (Matthew 21: 1-9).  Jerusalem did not mean the church, or the ass humility, as might have been imagined.  Jerusalem meant Jerusalem, and the ass meant the ass.  It was fulfilled literally.


In Gethsemane and on the cross the same thing is observable.  ‘They shall smite the Judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek’ (Micah 5: 1).  ‘They ... took the reed (rod) and smote Him on the head’ (Matthew 27: 30). ‘They pierced My hands and My feet ‘They shall look upon Me Whom they have pierced’ (Psalm 22: 16; Zechariah 12: 10).  ‘There they crucified Him’ (Luke 23: 33).  Yet not one bone of the sacred body could be broken: ‘Neither shall ye break a bone thereof’ (Exodus 12: 46).  ‘These things were done, that the Scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of Him shall not be broken’ (John 19: 36).  ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ (Psalm 22: 1).  ‘Jesus cried with a loud voice ... My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ (Matthew 27: 46).


‘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 Jerusalem as literal as the cross ‘without the gate.’


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 Lord’s coming means death, that His reigning in Jerusalem means reigning in the heart of His people, why may not the rationalist explain the resurrection of Lazarus as an allegory?  Nay, why should he not contend that the resurrection of Christ means the spread of Christianity?  One spiritualizes, that is, explains away, the prophecies, and the other the miracles.  Is there much to choose between the two?  Is not one as bad as the other?


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.




Having, 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 Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken ... Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when He fought in the day of battle.  And His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives ... The LORD my God shall come, and all* the saints with Thee’ (Zechariah 14: 1-5).


[* 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 Christ’s 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 Jerusalem, the thirty pieces of silver, and the piercing of the Lord, have been already literally fulfilled, as we have seen.  So we conclude that Jerusalem here, as in chapter 9, means Jerusalem; that the city shall be besieged by the nations, and that in the midst of the siege the Lord shall come in person: ‘His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives


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 Jerusalem was taken by Titus, ‘to destroy Jerusalem and to establish the Gospel church (The prophet, be it observed, says that He shall fight FOR Jerusalem and AGAINST the nations).  The cleaving asunder of the Mount of Olives means the admission of the Gentiles to the church!  Such a system of exposition stands self-condemned.  Such handling of the Word of God is to be deeply deplored.  To treat the Bible so is to make it mean anything we choose, and to put into the hand of infidelity a weapon ready made.


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 Delectable Mountains before the enchanted ground and the dark river are crossed.  God cheers us with the prospect of the glory, and then details the duties pertaining to us in this present evil age.


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 Satan’s 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 LORD’S 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  Jerusalem is restored to favour.  She is the centre of light and blessing to the whole world, and peace reigns universally.  Never yet has anything corresponding to this been seen.


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 Israel’s apostasy and consequent chastisement.  Not that this is subsequent to the glory already depicted.  It precedes it in point of time.  The millennial glory of God’s people is first given, and then the sad period of darkness and rebellion which, as other passages teach, shall immediately usher in the reign of the Lord Jesus.


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 men’s 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.


Historical Passages


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 man’s 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.


Summing up


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 God’s 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 God’s 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.