Also in connection with the subject of interpretation something should be said about the basic nature of prophecy. Premillennialists regard prophecy as history written beforehand. We prefer to say, however, that the primary purpose of prophecy is to inspire faith in those who see its fulfillment, and only secondarily to inform us of what is going to happen in the future. At the time of fulfillment the observer looks back to the author of the prophecy and is led to acknowledge that he could have spoken only by inspiration, and that his message therefore is authoritative and trustworthy. Prophecy thus comes under the general category of miracle, and its primary purpose is to accredit a message or a messenger. This was the purpose set forth when Jesus said: ‘I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe’ (John 14:29); and again, ‘From henceforth I tell you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he’ ( John 13:19). Here the primary purpose of prophecy, like that of a miracle in the physical realm, is to inspire faith. It is in effect a delayed miracle.
As proof that this is the correct principle we find that most of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the First Coming of Christ were so vague and enigmatic that they could not possibly have been understood until after their fulfillment. While some were in language that was easy to understand, such as that He would be born in Bethlehem, that He would be born of a virgin, and that He would heal the sick and afflicted, the meaning of the more important ones relating to the nature of His work of redemption and to the nature of the Kingdom that He was to establish could not be understood until after their accomplishment. As examples of the latter we may cite: the protevangelium, given in Genesis 3:16, ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’; the extensive prophecy concerning the suffering of Messiah as found in Isaiah 53; various prophecies concerning the nature of the Kingdom that was to be established, as found in Isaiah, chapters 2, ll, 66; the nature of the work of atonement as prefigured in the priesthood, ritual and sacrifices; and the promise made to David that the throne of his kingdom was to be established for ever, involving, as we see in the light of the New Testament, a long line of merely human kings and then a transition to the Messiah who is the true King of Israel. The manner in which the events connected with the crucifixion of Christ as predicted in the Old Testament would be fulfilled could not have been understood until their fulfillment, e.g., that His hands and feet would be pierced (Ps. 22:16); that the soldiers would part His garments among them and cast lots for His robe (Ps. 22:18; John 19:24); that not a bone of His body would be broken (Ex. 12:46; John 19:36); His resurrection (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27); and even the death and burial of His betrayer, Judas Iscariot (Ps. 69:25; 109:8; Acts 1:19,20). It was clearly impossible for any Old Testament Jew to draw from these prophecies a plan of the life of the coming Messiah.
The promise given to Abraham that his seed should be very numerous and that through his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed, finds its primary fulfillment, not in the totality of his physical descendants as at first sight would seem to have been indicated, nor even in the descendants through Jacob who stood in a special relationship to God, but in those who are his spiritual descendants (Gal. 3:7,29); and the seed through which all the nations of the earth were to be blessed was not his descendants in general, but one individual, which is Christ: ‘How to Abraham were the promises spoken, and to his seed. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ’ (Gal. 3:16). Who could have understood that before it was fulfilled?
Concerning this feature of predictive prophecy Campbell has well said:
‘The enigmatic form of prophecy precludes the possibility of the merely human actors in the fulfillment being aware that they are participating in the predicted event. It permits the prescience and power of God to appear, while in no way encroaching on the free agency of man. The advent of Christ, His character, ministry, sufferings, death, and enthronement in glory, are all predicted in the Hebrew prophets in such a manner that no one living prior to their fulfillment was able to read their meaning clearly; and yet the diligent reader today who studies the ancient records in the light of the fulfillment cannot fail to see that he has before his eyes clear testimony to the importance and the supernatural origin of the records in which the predictions appear. The disciples of Jesus probably knew well enough what the prophets had spoken; but their familiarity with the written word did not of itself enable them to see the nature or character of the kingdom over which Messiah would reign. Not until they were compelled by contemporary events did they lay aside their racial preconceptions and recognize the glorious vision of all nations of men united in one universal brotherhood under the risen and glorified Christ’ (Israel and the New Covenant, p. 170).
It should be further evident that as the Old Testament prophets used figures of speech with which their people were familiar, that is, language borrowed from the vocabulary of the old economy, such as the land, the temple, the sacrifices, etc., to describe the glories of the Messianic era, so no doubt the New Testament uses terms with which we are familiar to describe the future state which we as yet are able to grasp only faintly. We are told enough to make it clear that great and glorious events lie ahead; but the manner in which those events are to be accomplished, and the details concerning the future course of the Kingdom both on earth and in heaven are left largely unexplained. In all probability the realities of the future state will be as different from our ideas concerning them as the realities of the present era have proved to be different from the ideas of the Old Testament Jews.
We must keep in mind that it was the mechanical, literalistic method of interpreting prophecy that led the Jews at the time of Christ to expect a Messiah who would conquer their enemies and set up an earthly political kingdom in Jerusalem. Fastening their eyes on the very letter of Scripture, they became tragically blind to its real meaning and spirit, with the result that when Christ ‘came unto his own,’ ‘they that were his own received him not’ ( John 1: ll), but rejected and crucified Him. This same literalistic principle can also have tragic results in our day, in that it arouses hopes that are false and disappointing. This is particularly true in regard to the view that the Jews still are to be looked upon as God’s favored people, that Palestine belongs to them as a matter of Divine right, and that prophecy foretells a glorious kingdom for them in Palestine. It is productive of even more serious results in the Church when it is employed to teach that Christ is to set up a one thousand year political kingdom in this world, and so to divert attention from the real purpose of the Church, which is to evangelize the world during this present age. Nearly a century ago Dr. Charles Hodge warned against the unnatural insistence of Premillennialists on literalism as an ignis fatuus, as he called it, a false or misleading fire which ‘leads those who follow it, they know not whither.’ That method proved disastrous for the Jews who tried to predict the details of Christ’s First Coming. Most likely it will not work any better for those who attempt to set forth in detail the order of events for His Second Coming.
As a matter of fact no Premillennialist can carry out the principle of literal interpretation consistently. No one has yet devised a sure method for distinguishing between the figurative and the literal. Many statements in Scripture clearly are figurative, and the Premillennialist must spiritualize them no matter how critical he may be of Post- or Amillennialism. No one can take literally the statement that the saints in Paradise have ‘washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev. 7:14); or that the victorious saint is to be made a ‘pillar’ in the temple of God (Rev. 3:12); or that the Devil, who is a spirit, can be bound with a chain and shut up in a deep pit for a thousand years (Rev. 20:2,3). We do not take literally Christ’s words, ‘This is my body,’ and ‘This is my blood,’ although these two sentences are composed of very plain, short, simple words. Roman Catholics do take those words literally, and get their doctrines of Transubstantiation and the Mass. It is inconsistent for Premillennialists to pick and choose in deciding what statements they will take literally and what ones they will take figuratively while at the same time criticizing Post- and Amillennialists for accepting figurative or symbolical interpretations when those seem preferable. If figurative or symbolical interpretation is wrong in principle it should not be resorted to at all. Otherwise Premillennialists do precisely what they accuse Post- and Amillennialists of doing,– take Scripture literally where that seems preferable, and spiritualize where that seems preferable.
Another principle of interpretation is that when a prophecy or promise has been fulfilled once, there is no valid reason why it must be fulfilled again, or repeatedly. A present day condition involving this principle relates to the State of Israel. Some tell us that since Palestine and the surrounding lands were promised to Abraham and to the Children of Israel, and that since those lands never were fully occupied, or because they later were lost, they now rightfully belong to the Israelis. But in Joshua 21:43,45, we read: ‘So Jehovah gave unto Israel all the land, which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. … There failed not aught of any good thing which Jehovah had spoken unto the house of Israel: all came to pass.’ In I Kings 4:21 we read: ‘And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the River unto the land of the Philistines, and unto the border of Egypt: they brought tribute, and served Solomon all the days of his life.’ And II Chr. 9:26 tells us: ‘And he ( Solomon) ruled over all the kings from the River unto the land of the Philistines, and to the border of Egypt.’ Hence we conclude that those promises have been amply fulfilled, and that they do not apply to the present day State of Israel.