*    *    *

The Science of
Interpreting the Scriptures


Study earnestly to present yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing (Strong's: dissecting correctly) the Word of Truth.
- 2 Timothy 2:15 -

*    *    *

Dr. David L. Cooper

Editor's note - In many places in the Scriptures, the believer is encouraged to study the written Word as the foundation for a holy, godly and fruitful life before God and man. But how are we to study this unified, but daunting, compilation of sixty-six books written by over forty authors between nineteen hundred and thirty-five hundred years ago in languages and cultures that may be totally foreign to us? Enter the science of hermeneutics.

To understand hermeneutical principles is to be equipped for an intelligent study of the Word of God, tending greatly to our approval before God as workmen that do not need to be ashamed.

"How to Interpret Prophecy" by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, is an important study for a healthy hermeneutic, and is the second of several studies on prophecy by Dr. Cooper that the Shofar team is blessed to offer. Due to length, this study will be presented in two parts: Part I in this edition, Part II in the next.

*    *    *    *    *


Dr. David L. Cooper


*    *    *


THE word, prophecy, literally means "to speak in behalf of" another. This meaning is derived from the original Greek. It has the same significance in the Hebrew. This fact is seen in the statement, "And Jehovah said unto Moses, See, I have made thee as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet" (Exod. 7:1). The fundamental idea of the word, whether in Hebrew or in Greek, is that the one who does the speaking is a representative of another.

The content of the message is not implied in the word. It might relate to something in the past, in the present, or in the future. The facts of each context indicate the thought and its application. In the Hebrew Bible the historical portion beginning with Joshua and running through II Kings is designated as the "former prophets." Those books which we usually term "prophets" are called the "latter prophets."

Thus in these names is preserved the original significance of the word, prophet. This thought is also seen in I Corinthians 14. Prophecy in this chapter refers to teaching - one's teaching another. It does not imply that the one speaking is talking of the future. In fact, in this chapter the one who is doing the prophesying is building up the church in the faith, which thought would imply a full, rounded ministry dealing with things past, present, and future. This conclusion is confirmed by the regular practice of the apostolic writers who in their epistles discuss things past, present, and future. Let us therefore keep this original meaning of the word in mind as we study the Scriptures.

In the present day, however, since we see so very many signs and events which point most definitely to the conclusion of the age, we use the word, prophecy, largely to refer to things future. One aspect of prophecy, the predictive element, today has become the dominant one in use and is so understood by the popular mind. Let us, however, always study the context of any given case in order that we might understand exactly what the original speaker or writer had in mind.


AS HAS just been noted, the inspired writers who recorded the history of Israel in such books as Samuel and Kings were really prophets, in that they narrated things past. There is, however, buried in the historical sections, here and there, an utterance which at the time when spoken related to things future, but which has long since been fulfilled. If we are to obtain an accurate and exact knowledge of how to interpret prophecy, we would do well to examine such predictions in their original settings and then to study them in the light of the historical events which brought them to realization. Furthermore, in those books which we now call "the prophets," there are many predictions, especially those that relate to certain countries and their destinies, which have been fulfilled. In order to see how they were accomplished, one must resort to secular history for the exact picture in its historical unfolding. For example, a visit to old Memphis and No-amon (Luxor) in Egypt will show how literally and exactly were fulfilled the predictions made by men of God centuries before their materialization. Another excellent illustration of this point is Tyre on the Syrian coast. I could multiply these instances many times, speaking from experiences which I have had in visiting these ancient sites. On this point, there is no study that will strengthen the faith and clarify many issues more than the study of fulfilled prophecy. The small volume entitled Fulfilled Prophecy by John Urquhart discusses many prophecies that have been fulfilled, as one sees in this volume, exactly as spoken. Let us remember the slogan: "God fulfills prophecy as written and not as interpreted by the speculations of men."

WHENEVER anyone reads a document, he must take into consideration that there are figures of speech which must be interpreted according to the origin of the comparison and its historical development together with the facts of the immediate context. Figures adorn language, but they always, in serious speech, have a definite meaning. The one who wishes to understand literature must know the various figures and how to interpret them, because each stands for a reality.

We must also recognize that in the Scriptures there are parables, symbols, allegories, etc. It is highly important that one understand what a parable is. Etymologically, the word means "that which is laid down beside another." That which is known is mentally thrown down beside the unknown, and by a comparison the quantity sought is ascertained. Always a speaker who uses a parable picks some fact or event which is well-known and uses it as an illustration in order to elucidate the unknown factor.

In this connection let me call attention to the fact that very frequently we hear people speak of "the parable of the rich man and Lazarus" (Luke 16). The Scriptures do not call this story a parable. The Lord Jesus simply stated that "there was a certain rich man"; and that there was a "certain beggar named Lazarus." He did not intimate that He was speaking a parable. There is nothing in the context to suggest such an idea. If He had been speaking of an historical fact, He could not have chosen words to convey His meaning more definitely than those which He used on this occasion. We are sure to make a mistake if we call this a parable or anything else a parable unless a clear statement is made to that effect, or unless there are other indications which prove positively that such is the case.

Parable in the Hebrew generally has a different signification. Here it means a proverb. In fact, the Book of Proverbs is called in the Hebrew "The Parables of Solomon." A parable is a short, concise statement consisting of two or more poetic lines, which construction we call "Hebrew Parallelism." The second line is supplemental to the first and proves to be a comment upon it.

We must, therefore, in view of the facts just mentioned, know whether the word under consideration is used in the Old Testament sense or in that of the New.

SYMBOLS likewise appear in the prophetic word. Usually they are found in predictive prophecy. Whenever they are used, one must not impose upon the language a meaning of his own choice. They must be interpreted by the author or writer who uses them. We have illustrations of them today. For instance, the secret lodges have various symbols to which they attach an arbitrary meaning. This significance may be the natural one, but it is given upon the authority of the one making the selection.

God chose such symbols as suited His purpose. Whenever He uses one, we must let Him interpret it, telling us what He means. For instance, Jesus instituted the supper before His betrayal. He selected the loaf and the fruit of the vine and said that He attached a symbolic significance to them; namely, that the loaf typifies His body and the fruit of the vine, His blood. No matter where a person sees this supper observed, he knows that these elements have the significance which Jesus gave them. Once again, we may note the symbolic significance of a beast. The Lord has interpreted its meaning. A glance at Daniel 7:17 shows that a beast, when thus used, signifies a civil government. Since the Lord has attached a definite idea to this symbol, we must not give it any other meaning. To do so is mere speculation. Such a procedure is not interpretation.

We also see a few allegories in the Scripture. The principal one is that of the Song of Solomon. The chief actors in this case are the lover and the maiden upon whom he bestows his affection. It is quite evident that this poem was used to convey a deeper significance than simply the telling of a love story. Though love and marriage are placed on the highest possible plane in the Scriptures, to lower the song to this level is to fall short of that which is demanded by the facts of the poem. It is therefore recognized by interpreters as being an allegory. Since there is a parallel significance which is reflected in the development of the story, we might call the real meaning of the allegory the undertone, which can be recognized by the trained ear. Asserted elsewhere, this allegory sets forth the relationship existing between King Messiah and Israel. Again we have another allegory in Galatians 4. There Paul speaks of Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. The former of these corresponds to Hagar, the symbol of the old covenant, whereas the latter represents Sarah who signifies the new. In interpreting an allegory one must be very careful not to read into it his own ideas.

All that has been said in regard to the interpretation of fulfilled prophecy is but an enlargement upon the Golden Rule of Interpretation, which was discussed under "The Laws of Interpretation." A failure to observe this rule and to follow the suggestions that have just been made with reference to special types of literature in the Scriptures means to arrive at the wrong conclusion in interpreting the message.

*    *    *    *    *

Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other
outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper and Burl Haynie may be accessed.