HOW TO INTERPRET PROPHECY, Part
A study of the messages of the prophets of the Old Testament, as well as
those of the New, shows very clearly that the major portion of these
predictions await fulfillment. How are we to interpret them in order that we
might not make any false deductions? The fact that a similarity between the
mere wording of a prediction and some event or description of it may be
discovered is no justification for our hastily arriving at the conclusion
that said occurrence is the fulfillment of the prediction. There are many
coincidences in life. There must be positive proof at hand before we are
justified in saying that such and such an event is the fulfillment of a
We should bear in mind that "no prophecy of scripture is of private
interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake
from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit" (II Pet. 1:20,21). No scripture is
of private interpretation. No one has a monopoly on expounding the Word of
God. I am perfectly aware of the fact that there are those who claim that
they alone have the key to the Bible and that no one else can rightly and
correctly interpret what God has said. Such claims are spurious. Again, let
me repeat that no one individual or group of persons has a monopoly, on
explaining the Word of life. Let us, therefore, beware of any one who makes
such grandiose claims.
A STUDY of Matthew 2 will show that all predictive prophecy falls into four
classes. If one will only master these types and the underlying principles
involved in each, one will be able to classify any passage of Scripture
which has prophetic import.
THE LITERAL SIGNIFICATION
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, there came wise men from the East
to Jerusalem inquiring as to where the King of the Jews was born in order
that they might worship Him. They reported that they had seen His star in
the East. Naturally they went to King Herod who was the reigning sovereign
at that time and asked him where the Christ child was. Of course, this
reprobate had no spiritual discernment. Their message troubled him greatly,
together with all who were in Jerusalem. He, therefore, gathered the scribes
together in order to inquire of them where, according to the prophets, the
Messiah was to be born. Their reply was, "In Bethlehem of
Judaea: for thus it
is written through the prophet. And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, Art in no
wise least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come forth a
governor, Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel" (Matt. 2:5,6).
There were two Bethlehems in Palestine in the days of Christ. One was about
three miles from Nazareth in Galilee; the other, about five miles south of
Jerusalem in Judaea. In rationalistic circles, certain ones have argued that
Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem of Galilee - without giving any proof
whatsoever for their opinion. Sir William Ramsey's book, Was Christ born in
Bethlehem?, has settled that question once and for all - for those who want
truth and are willing to accept facts.
According to Micah, who uttered the original prediction, the Messiah was to
be born in the literal city of Bethlehem in the land of Judah. The scribes,
who were thoroughly acquainted with the utterances of the prophets as well
as with the law, interpreted this passage literally. That they were correct
in thus understanding the literal import of the language is evident from
Matthew's quoting their interpretation in an approving manner and making it
coincide with his statement that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea (Matt.
2:1). The wise men understood this prophecy literally and went their way
from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The star which they had seen in the East
appeared going before them and stood over the place where the Babe was. Thus
all the facts show that this prophecy had a literal fulfillment.
Of course, a prophecy like this one, which is to be interpreted literally,
might have figures of speech in it, as this one does; but we must make the
same allowance for metaphorical language here as we do in any other type of
literature. According to this prediction, there arises out of Bethlehem this
one who is to be the governor, and who is called the
"shepherd of my people
Israel." In this last statement we see a figure of speech, a metaphor. A
shepherd is one who cares for literal sheep, protecting them and leading
them to green pastures and still waters. What the shepherd does for his
flock, this one of whom the prophecy speaks is to do for Israel, God's
flock. A close study of this passage shows that this prophecy is to be taken
literally - at its face value. At the same time we make allowance for any
figurative expression, interpreting each as the facts of the context and the
use of such language demand. This prophecy is purely of the literal class.
In fact, it is the type of the great mass of prophecies.
THE LITERAL SIGNIFICANCE PLUS A TYPICAL MEANING
THE second type of prophecy appears in Matthew 2:15 in the following words:
"Out of Egypt did I call my son." This sentence is taken from Hosea 11:1.
Whenever we read a passage in the New Testament, quoted from the Old, the
first thing to do is to turn back to the original passage and study the
quotation in the light of the facts of the original context.
was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. The more the
prophets called them, the more they went from them: they sacrificed unto the Baalim, and burned incense to graven images. Yet I taught Ephraim to walk; I
took them on my arms; but they knew not that I healed them. I drew them with
cords of a man, with bands of love; and I was to them as they that lift up
the yoke on their jaws; and I laid food before them. They shall not return
into the land of Egypt; but the Assyrian shall be their king, because they
refused to return to me. And the sword shall fall upon their cities, and
shall consume their bars, and devour them, because of their own counsels.
And my people are bent on backsliding from me: though they call them to him
that is on high, none at all will exalt him" (Hosea 11:1-7).
From this quotation it is beyond dispute that the words,
"out of Egypt did I
call my son," refer to Israel - the twelve tribes - whom God brought out of
Egypt under the leadership of Moses. (For the full record of this historical
account, see the first fifteen chapters of Exodus.)
Nevertheless, this statement is applied to the coming of the Lord Jesus
Christ with His mother and Joseph out of Egypt. The occasion of their being
in that country is recorded in the account as given by Matthew. Herod
planned the destruction of the baby Jesus. An angel, therefore, warned
Joseph to flee to Egypt with the child and his mother and to remain there
until he should receive instructions to return to Palestine. He, therefore,
did as the angel commanded him and remained there until the death of Herod
"that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the
prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son."
As we have seen, the original statement referred to the children of Israel
in the literal land of Egypt and of their coming out of that country into
Canaan, the Holy Land. Although it had this original signification, Matthew
by the Spirit applied the prediction to the Lord Jesus Christ, His residence
in Egypt, and His coming out of it into Palestine. Was the meaning which
Matthew gives latent in the sentence as it was spoken by the prophet? Hosea
lived about the middle of the eighth century before Christ. In making the
statement which is the subject of this investigation, he looked backward
across seven centuries to the time when Israel came out of Egypt. The
statement, therefore, was an historical fact and was so interpreted by the
prophet's audience and readers, then as well as now. There can be no
misunderstanding about this position; nevertheless, Matthew places an
interpretation upon this utterance which no one of us today probably would
have recognized if the inspired apostle had not pointed out this hidden
meaning. Was Matthew arbitrary in his handling of this passage, or were
there fundamental reasons justifying his interpretation and his applying it
to the Lord Jesus? These are fundamental questions that demand attention.
The answer is in the word, son, as it occurs in Exodus 4:22,23, and parallel
passages. The Lord instructed Moses to speak to Pharaoh, saying,
Jehovah, Israel is my son, my first-born: and I have said unto thee, Let my
son go, that he may serve me; and thou hast refused to let him go: behold, I
will slay thy son, thy first-born." God was speaking of the nation of Israel
as His son, His first-born. This people indeed was God's son, His
first-born, in a peculiar sense. This fact becomes evident if we remember
that, when Abraham and Sarah were past the age of parenthood, God performed
a biological miracle upon their bodies, which made possible the birth of
Isaac. Thus Isaac was in a special sense God's first-born just as he was the
first-born of Abraham and Sarah. The children of Israel are thought of as
being in the loins of Isaac, just as Levi is spoken of as being in the loins
of Abraham in the following quotation: "And, so to say, through Abraham even
Levi, who receiveth tithes, hath paid tithes; for he was yet in the loins of
his father, when Melchizedek met him" (Heb. 7:9,10). This mode of thought
laid the foundation for the conception of the solidarity of the Hebrew race
and of their being God's first-born. As stated, they were God's son, His
first-born, in that He performed a biological miracle which made possible
the birth of Isaac. From this point of view, Isaac and his birth are thought
of as being typical of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was and is God's Son, in
the highest sense of the term. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.
. . . and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his
glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and
truth" (John 1:1,2,14). The Lord Jesus is again spoken of as God's Son in
this high sense in Hebrews 1:1-4: "God, having of old time spoken unto the
fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath at
the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of
all things, through whom also he made the worlds; who being the effulgence
of his glory, and the very image of his substance, and upholding all things
by the word of his power, when he had made purification of sins, sat down on
the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become by so much better than
the angels, as he hath inherited a more excellent name than they."
In view of the fact that Isaac was miraculously begotten and of the further
fact that our Lord's entrance into the world was a stupendous miracle, one
can readily see how Isaac and the children of Israel are typical of the
Messiah. This signification finds expression in Hosea's statement which
Matthew quotes. Matthew by inspiration knew these facts and was led
unerringly by the Spirit to interpret this prediction as referring to our
Lord's departure out of Egypt.
In the case of Israel and in that of the Lord Jesus, we see that Egypt was
literal, that both the children of Israel and the Lord Jesus were literal,
that they were in Egypt, and that they literally came out of it into Canaan.
There was thus a literal basis in both occurrences. Everything about both of
these instances was literal; but the application which Matthew made of
Hosea's statement shows that, while it was literal, there was a typical
signification included in it. The inspired apostle has called our attention
to this secondary significance. This second type of prophecy, therefore,
includes those predictions which have both a literal meaning and a typical
THE LITERAL MEANING PLUS AN APPLICATION
THE third passage quoted in Matthew 2 is found in verse 18.
"A voice was
heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children;
And she would not be comforted, because they are not." Again we must study
the original passage in order to see the setting from which this verse was
taken before we notice Matthew's interpretation of it. Let us now turn to
Jeremiah lived in the fateful days prior to the Babylonian captivity,
through the siege of Jerusalem, and into the post-war days of that mighty
crisis which befell the Jewish people. He did all he could to prevent the
catastrophe by calling the people to repentance, but they would not heed.
After the capitulation of the city, the captives were led out to Ramah,
which is about ten miles north of Jerusalem, by Nebuzaradan, the captain of
the guard of the King of Babylon. There this official released Jeremiah,
giving him permission to go either to Babylon with him or to remain anywhere
in the land. But the captives were taken into exile. It was indeed a bitter,
heart-breaking experience for the mothers of the heroic captives to see
their sons, and in many instances husbands, led into exile in a land far
away. Hence they wept and mourned over the lamentable situation.
These mothers are spoken of in terms of the favorite wife of Jacob, Rachel,
whose tomb is beside the Bethlehem-Hebron Road four miles south of
Jerusalem. It was she who was the mother of Benjamin, the tribe in whose
territory Jerusalem was located. It was therefore natural for Jeremiah to
think of these sad, stricken mothers, as he did, in terms of Rachel.
The prophet spoke to these weeping women and gave them hope that though
their loved ones were going into captivity, there were brighter days ahead.
He had, as we see in chapter 25 of his book, foretold that the exiles would
remain in Babylon for seventy years, and that at the expiration of that time
they would have the privilege of coming back to the land of their fathers.
Jeremiah in chapter 31 not only speaks of this return after the Exile, but
looks beyond it to the time when all Israel shall be gathered from all
nations back into their own land, when every man shall live under his own
vine and fig tree. Such is the significance of the quotation which we are
studying, as the facts of the original context indicate and as is reflected
in the historical records of the times of Jeremiah.
Matthew takes this verse from Jeremiah 31 and applies it to a similar
situation of sadness and sorrow on the part of the mothers of Bethlehem.
Herod had ordered the slaughter of all the male children of Bethlehem two
years and under, thinking that by so doing he would accomplish the death of
the Christ child. As we have already seen, Joseph had taken Mary and the
child to Egypt before the massacre of the children was ordered. These
Bethlehem mothers naturally wept for their babes. Matthew, thinking of the
solidarity of the Jewish people and seeing this time of heart-rending sorrow
piercing the very souls of these bereaved mothers, was led by the Spirit of
God to use this prophecy and to apply it to this case of similar grief.
The original event which called for this utterance was literal and real as
well as the one to which the passage was applied. This position cannot be
denied. Bethlehem was literal. The slaughter of the innocent babes likewise
was literal. There was, therefore, a literal basis in both cases. Since they
were similar in one respect, Matthew applied the language of the former
prophet to the situation of his day. From all the facts we draw this
conclusion: This prophecy is a case of the literal meaning plus an
application to a similar case.
We have made the same allowance for figurative language in this prophecy as
we did in the prediction from Hosea. After that is done, we see the literal
significance of this passage as well as that of the one from Hosea.
THE LITERAL MEANING PLUS A SUMMATION
THE fourth type of prophecy is found in Matthew 2:23 in the following words:
"and [Jesus] came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be
fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a
Nazarene." Here we are told that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in
Egypt after the death of Herod and told him to bring the child and His
mother back into the land of Israel. Upon reaching Judaea, he found that Archelaus was reigning in the place of Herod. He, therefore, wisely avoided
settling in Judaea and located in Nazareth. Matthew tells us that he did it
in order that the prophecy might be fulfilled which foretold that Jesus
should be called a Nazarene. This language is clear and unmistakable.
What is meant by "a Nazarene"? Let us remember that a Nazarene, a resident
of Nazareth, is not necessarily a Nazarite. It is altogether possible that
there were some residents of that city who had taken the Nazarite vow and,
of course, they would be both Nazarenes and Nazarites. Anyone who took a
certain vow was designated a Nazarite. The facts regarding a Nazarite are
found in Numbers 6:1-4. Samson also was a Nazarite (Judges 13), but the
words used by Matthew have no connection with such a vow. Nazarene referred,
as the word shows, to an inhabitant of Nazareth.
But why should He be called a Nazarene? Are there any prophecies in the Old
Testament which foretold that He would live in Nazareth, similar to Micah's
prophecy which indicated that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem? There
is no such prediction to be found anywhere. Hence the word Nazarene cannot
be used simply with its literal meaning. Does this name have any other
connotation? Yes. It was a term to indicate reproach and shame. When Jesus
was at Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles, prior to His crucifixion,
there arose a dispute among the people as to whether or not He was the
Messiah. Some said that He was indeed the prophet (mentioned by Moses, Deut.
18). Others believed that He was the Messiah; while still others retorted by
saying, "What, doth the Christ [Messiah] come out of Galilee?" (John 7:41).
This question reflects the contempt with which Galilee was held by the
inhabitants of Jerusalem. In the days of our Lord Galilee was spoken of as
"Galilee of the Gentiles." The strict Jews, of course, looked down on
anything connected with Gentiles as a thing of shame and contempt.
But there must be something more specific than this general attitude against
the Galileans. In Isaiah 53 and also in Psalm 22, we see predictions
concerning Messiah which foretell that He would be despised and rejected of
men and finally be executed as a criminal. The word Nazarene was a term of
reproach and also was a synonym for one despised and hated. This attitude is
reflected in the question which Nathanael put to Philip:
"Can any good thing
come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). This term, therefore, being one of
contempt and reproach, well summarizes the predictions which foretold that
the Messiah would be hated and finally rejected by His people. Thus, when
all the facts are taken into consideration, one is led to the conclusion
that, since there is no specific prophecy foretelling that the Messiah would
be called a Nazarene, Matthew was in his statement summing up those
predictions which speak of His being despised and rejected.
Nazareth was a literal city. Our Lord resided in it. He was hated and
despised because the people looked down upon its residents. In addition to
this fact the natural enmity of the unregenerated heart caused people who
did not want truth to hate and despise Him. He himself said,
hated Me." This attitude, therefore, could not have been expressed in a more
concise way and with more feeling than by calling Jesus a "Nazarene."
The conclusion to which this investigation leads is that this prophecy is a
literal one plus the idea of summation - the labeling of many prophecies by a
single term, which adequately expresses the thought of this special type of
From this study we see that there are four classes of prophecy and that they
are all to be taken literally - at what they say. The second type, however,
has the additional idea of a typical signification. The third is the literal
meaning plus an application. The fourth is the literal with an added thought
of summarizing the general teaching of the prophets on a definite subject.
* * *
permission of the
Biblical Research Society, where other
outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper and Burl Haynie may be accessed.