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4. Eschatological Bible Interpretation

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As we consider cosmic eschatology, we must start with one’s hermeneutics. Hermeneutics simply means principles of interpreting Scripture. The key to Bible interpretation is having a consistent hermeneutic. In general, all conservative Christians employ a literal or normal hermeneutic when interpreting Scripture. This means interpreting words in their plain grammatical-historical sense unless it is clear the author is using figurative language or symbols.

Since grammatical-historical interpretation does not deny the use of symbols in Scripture, especially in certain literary genres, it is important to understand principles for identifying symbols. Here are a few: (1) Often the writers of Scripture will introduce a symbol and then provide the literal meaning of it. For example, Revelation 1:16 says, “He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth…” Revelation 1:20 tells us that the stars refer to churches. (2) Sometimes, the context necessitates a symbolic or metaphoric interpretation by contradicting other Scriptural truths. For example, Psalm 91:4 says this about God, “He will shelter you with his wings; you will find safety under his wings. His faithfulness is like a shield or a protective wall.” God having wings is clearly a metaphor because Scripture tells us that God is spirit and, therefore, has no physical body (John 4:24, cf. Lk 24:39). (3) Other times, the symbolism is clear because of the impossibility of a literal reading. For example, Psalm 98:8 says, “Let the rivers clap their hands! Let the mountains sing in unison.” The author is obviously using symbols of fantastic joy over God and his works (cf. Ps 98:1). At times throughout history, interpreters carefully sought hidden, spiritual meanings behind every text—rendering the Bible almost impossible to understand. For example, a tree represented obedience, a river represented the Holy Spirit, and fruit represented evil. We should be wary of figurative readings that are not demanded by the context.

With all that said, though a normal hermeneutic is common for conservative Christians, there is a long history of using spiritual or figurative hermeneutics when it comes to eschatological passages. Here are a couple of examples: In Isaiah 2:2-4, the author describes a time on earth when the nations will all go to Jerusalem to worship at God’s temple. From there, the nations will be instructed in God’s Word. God will judge disputes between nations and settle cases. It will be a time of peace and no war. It says:

In the future the mountain of the Lord’s temple will endure as the most important of mountains, and will be the most prominent of hills. All the nations will stream to it, many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the temple of the God of Jacob, so he can teach us his requirements, and we can follow his standards.” For Zion will be the center for moral instruction; the Lord will issue edicts from Jerusalem. He will judge disputes between nations; he will settle cases for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations will not take up the sword against other nations, and they will no longer train for war.

This passage refers to the millennial kingdom where Christ will rule as the promised Davidic king from Jerusalem and the nations of the earth will seek him there (cf. Zech 14:12-19, Ez 37:21-28, Rev 20:1-10). It does not fit in our current stage as Christ is not ruling in Jerusalem settling disputes, and we still have war. And, it does not fit in the eternal stage since nations will probably not have disputes, as people will no longer have sin natures and Satan will not be available to tempt people. Therefore, this is a millennial passage where God fulfills his promises to Israel, giving them a king that comes from Abraham, Judah, and David to bless the nations of the earth (cf. Gen 12:2, 22:18, 2 Sam 7:12-13). A literal hermeneutic, which just accepts the plain sense of the words, leads to this interpretation. However, some instead use a spiritualized hermeneutic and make this passage refer to this current age. This is fulfilled by the gospel going forth, people from various nations being saved and joining the church, and Christ ruling in the heavenly Jerusalem. However, the original audience whom Isaiah wrote would not have interpreted the passage this way.

Another example of a spiritualized or figurative hermeneutic employed with eschatological passages is seen in Revelation 7:4-8 when referring to the 144,000 Jewish followers that God seals during the tribulation period (cf. Ez 9:3-6). It says,

Now I heard the number of those who were marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from all the tribes of the people of Israel: From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.

Though John goes out of his way to detail Jewish believers by tribe, this passage is commonly applied to the church who is a mixture of Jew and Gentile—though there is nothing in the passage which demands this interpretation. Even within the same chapter, John contrasts this group with a remnant of believers who are saved out of the tribulation and who come from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Revelation 7:9-10 and 14 says,

After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” … So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!

By using a consistent hermeneutic of taking the plain sense of the words, it can be established that God will seal a group of Jewish believers during the tribulation period for a special work, and he will save believers from every nation, tribe, and tongue during the tribulation. Many believe that God will use these sealed Jewish believers for this work (cf. Joel 2:28-32).

Further evidence for using a consistent literal hermeneutic when considering eschatological passages is the fact that prophecies of Christ’s first coming were literally fulfilled. He was born in the line of Abraham (Gen 22:18 ESV), Judah, and David (2 Sam 7:12-13). He was born of a virgin (Is 7:14), in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), and died a gruesome death for our sins (Is 53). If prophecies concerning Christ’s first coming were literally fulfilled, certainly those concerning the events of and surrounding his second coming should be taken literally as well.

Conclusion

In seeking to understand eschatology, a normal or literal interpretation must be used consistently; if not, it becomes almost impossible to be certain about the meaning of various passages. Symbols and figurative elements do exist, but they must be the clear intention of the author as demonstrated by the context; otherwise, the plain or literal sense should be assumed, just as with interpreting non-eschatological passages and regular communication in general.

Reflection

  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What is hermeneutics?
  3. What are some principles for discerning symbols or figurative language in the Bible?
  4. Why is it important to use a consistent literal hermeneutic if possible when interpreting eschatological passages, as well as the rest of Scripture?
  5. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

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Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)

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