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The Science of
Interpreting the Scriptures
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 -
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HOW TO INTERPRET PROPHECY
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
"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.
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HOW TO INTERPRET PROPHECY, Part
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
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
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
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.
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permission of the
Biblical Research Society, where other
outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper and Burl Haynie may be accessed.