Rules for Interpreting Prophecy

By James S. Smelser

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all other Premillennialists, appeal to such prophecies as Isa. 65:17-25, and proclaim they have not yet been fulfilled. These passages are to be fulfilled after Christ returns to establish His kingdom on the earth, according to the Witnesses. Consider with me some rules to follow while interpreting prophecy.

Not all prophecy was revealed in the same manner (Heb. 1:1). God spoke by the prophets in divers portions (sundry times) which means “in many parts.” God’s scheme of redemption was revealed gradually and in fragments through the prophets. God also spoke in divers manners which means “in many ways or methods.” Some prophecy was literally revealed (Isa. 13:17-22). Some prophecy was set forth figuratively (Isa. 40:3-5). Some prophecy was presented by types and antitypes (Mal. 4:5, 6). Some prophecies were revealed by dreams and visions (Dan. 8:1). Sometimes the past tense was used as though the event had already occurred (Isa. 53). Sometimes the prophecy appeared in the present tense (Isa. 9:6). And sometimes the future tense of the verb was used (Dan. 2:44). Therefore, all prophecy cannot be interpreted alike.

The truths revealed through prophecy were said to be a mystery (Eph. 3:7-9). The angels of God in heaven could not interpret these prophecies (1 Pet. 1:12). The prophets themselves did not appreciate their full import (1 Pet. 1:10). The Jews and their leaders failed to understand the voice of the prophets (Acts 13:27). The disciples of Jesus were slow to understand the words of the prophets (Lk. 24:25-27). And even the apostles themselves failed to be able to interpret prophecy accurately (Lk. 24:44, 45). If all these could not understand and interpret prophecies, how is it that our modern day prognosticators of- the kingdom can understand these “unfulfilled” prophecies with crystal clarity? What advantage do these have today that enables them to understand “unfulfilled” Old Testament prophecies so easily? What makes matters worse, these premillennialists cannot agree among themselves as to the correct explanation of these prophecies, but each will offer his own explanation and assure you that he has the proper explanation.

Notice, Jesus said he would fulfill all prophecies concerning Himself (Lk. 18:31). Did not the prophecies of the kingdom concern Jesus, since He was to be its king? Later, Jesus said He had fulfilled all Old Testament prophecies concerning Himself (Lk. 24:24, 25). Peter said Jesus fulfilled all that was spoken by the mouth of the prophets, and all the prophets spoke of these days (Acts 3:17-24). He said the prophets spoke of these days, not some future kingdom. Paul said he preached what Moses and the prophets said should come to pass (Acts 26:22, 23). Paul never taught some future kingdom on earth. Finally, James said the prophets spoke of the things which occurred in his life time, not some future millennium (Acts 15:14-18). If the testimony of all these witnesses be true, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong in looking for some future fulfillment of the prophecies. All Old Testament prophecies have already realized their fulfillment.

In giving consideration to the proper manner in which to interpret Old Testament prophecies, one must accept the New Testament interpretation of those prophecies. Some read the prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 and apply it to the 20th century. But when we read where Peter said “this is that” in Acts 2:17-21, we should accept his explanation of Joel 2:28-32. We need to accept the New Testament interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. We may think that a prophecy should be interpreted literally, but if the New Testament places a figurative explanation to the prophecy, so should we. Malachi said Elijah was to come (Mal. 3:1; 4:5, 6), and the Jews were expecting Elijah to literally come. But Jesus said John the baptist was Elijah (Matt. 11:9-15). The reverse is also true. If we believe a prophecy is to be interpreted figuratively, but the New Testament interprets it literally, we must accept the New Testament interpretation of any Old Testament prophecy as being the true explanation of that prophecy.

But what of the Old Testament prophecies that are not interpreted in the New Testament, such as Isa. 65:17-25? How are we to interpret these? Interpret such prophecies so as to allow them to harmonize with New Testament teaching, and not to contradict the New Testament. To say this prophecy has not yet been fulfilled, contradicts all the New Testament scriptures which state that all Old Testament scriptures have been fulfilled. One may object and say that the wolf and the lamb do not feed together nor does the lion eat straw. And the peace which this text pictures is not being enjoyed today. Since all prophecy has already been fulfilled, and these things have not literally transpired, then this prophecy must be interpreted figuratively with a spiritual application rather than with a literal application as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wont to do.

Therefore, (1) interpret all Old Testament prophecies as having been fulfilled. (2) Do not interpret all Old Testament prophecies in the same manner, since they came in divers portions and in divers manners. (3) Always accept the New Testament interpretation of any Old Testament prophecy as being the correct explanation thereof. (4) If the prophecy is not quoted or referred to in the New Testament, then interpret the prophecy in a manner which will allow it to harmonize with other Bible truths, rather than to come into conflict with them.

Truth Magazine XIX: 26, pp. 408-409
May 8, 1975