The autumn season has always been the one in which I most feel the “pull” of prophecy, specifically end-times prophecy or eschatology. The slow fading of the year appeals to my default state of cheerful melancholia, putting me in the right mood for contemplating the end of history with a Messianic hope. In addition to the prophetic nature of the fall feastdays, there’s something about the final brilliant transformation of the leaves before they wither and fall, something about the sudden chill in the wind combined with grey and rainy skies that sets me in the mood to contemplate the End of All Things.
But that of course leads into the question of how we should interpret prophecy.
“The New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old Testament is in the New revealed.” – Augustine of Hippo, Late 4th Century CE
A common criticism of the premillennialist, futurist camp is that our interpretations of prophecy is that our interpretations are not grounded in the New Covenant Scriptures. And, quite candidly, that’s not really an unfair accusation. All too often we premills get far too excited in our quest to see where we stand on the prophetic calendar and start taking Scriptures completely out of context in order to find some reference to what we saw on the news that day. This sort of “newspaper exegesis” really doesn’t help our case with our fellow disciples of the Messiah, let alone with the rest of the world.
On the other hand, the amillennialist camp is just as guilty in its own way. As John MacArthur said a few years ago (hat-tip to the Rosh Pina Project):
I reject the wacky world of newspaper exegesis and cartoon eschatology and crazy interpretation like the locusts of Revelation 9 being helicopters, etc.
Look, I reject all those really abusive and bizarre kinds of interpretation, but frankly, they’re no more wacky then the interpretations of the amillennialists who want to take the entire book of Revelation and stuff it into the events of 70 A.D. and a few years afterwards and come up with things that are just as ridiculous.
So how do we understand the prophetic Scriptures? MacArthur argues that we should understand them exactly as we do every other subject: “Normal, natural, literal interpretation is the only way to stop abuse of Scripture. As soon as you abandon that, then it’s fair game for anybody’s craziness.”
Others would argue that it’s not that simple. Dr. Heiser has argued in many forums that the NT does not always use the Tanakh in a “natural, literal” way. Shouldn’t we, as he suggests, use one Divinely inspired text to interpret another?
Sadly, most of those who sound that cry fall into amillennialism and preterism, using the occasional focus of the NT on the near-term prophecies of Jerusalem’s judgment and destruction to claim that that’s all that there is–at least as far as the Jews are concerned.
Actually, I agree with both men, and this is where Jewish hermeneutics become so important: The Scriptures have a p’shat, a plain, “broadly” understood sense which “makes a road” through the wilderness of Scripture. That simple sense is our guide and our protection when we decide to look for the “hints” and “riddles” (the remez), when we decide to “dig” and “search out” deeper meanings (to drash, seeking the midrash), or most especially when we seek out the “secret intimacy” (the sod) hidden in the Bible’s original languages. While the plain, literal sense that MacArthur highlights is the most important sense, and no other sense can contradict it, it is also true that the NT authors do not restrict themselves to it, and often interpret the prophecies in ways that are not intuitive to a Christian, but which fit perfectly with the Judaism of their day.
As Paul wrote, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2).
The point of this series will be to do a survey of prophecies from the Tanakh–the Torah, Prophets (Nevi’im) and Writings (Ketuvim)–which are used in the NT to understand just how the NT authors interpreted and used them. As we go, we’ll tie in prophecies that we view as eschatological (concerning the End Times) and show how they can be interpreted in light of the New Testament. I won’t attempt to be exhaustive. I think it’s more important to show the various interpretive methods than to hit every single passage.
For those new to the blog, I highly recommend reading the Three I’s series and The Most Important End-Time Prophecy in the Bible as background. The former, while it needs to be re-written somewhat, gives a good overview of Jewish interpretive methods, while the latter gives a “plain sense,” “literal” prophecy that simply has to be understood if we are to understand Biblical prophecy at all.