Prophets' Intentions

How important are the prophet's intentions when seeking to interpret his prophecies?

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It's important when we interpret biblical prophecy to take very seriously the prophet's original intention in what he said and what he wrote. It's a common problem, among preachers in particular, but Bible students as well, to read the prophecy and immediately jump to an application. I think sometimes we're afraid that if we spend too much time telling the congregation, or the Bible study, the historical context and what was behind this particular imagery, or this particular sin that he was addressing, or this particular social event or political incident, that they'll become bored. But his original intention, like any author, becomes the core of his message. Now, one biblical scholar has talked about the periphery vision of these prophets, and it's out of the side of their spiritual eyes that, in one way, they're looking back on Genesis, and especially the book of Deuteronomy. They see themselves, as William VanGemeren calls them, "covenant prosecutors." They're bringing a case as an attorney; representing God, they're suing the people of Israel for breaking the covenant. Out of the other eye, they're looking down on this side of history to a grand conclusion where that covenant comes to complete and full consummation. This is in their minds, and this is in their hearts and in their vision — spiritual vision. But they're addressing the context that they're in, so we have to start from there, whether it's by their using their message as a typology, or as prophecy, or as a general inference to something that's coming later on. And you see that in the New Testament prophets… They'll sometimes make applications to the prophets that would surprise us, but when you see it in the grand scope of their periphery vision, you could say, you know, that's a legitimate inference and a legitimate application of their original message. And when that happens, then you know that you have applied the prophet correctly. And of course, we see the prophets applied that way all the time in the New Testament. We have our first rule of hermeneutics that the Scripture interprets Scripture, and that's what these prophets are doing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They're drawing this inference or application from this original message so that both of these things, although they seem maybe radically different, are actually true.

Answer by Dr. Michael Ross

Dr. Mike Ross teaches Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC, and was formerly Senior Pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina.