How we interpret Bible prophecy presents a unique challenge, at least to the extent that the question should be asked…Is Bible prophecy even something we can interpret?

interpret (verb): 1-to explain or tell the meaning of : present in understandable terms. 2-to conceive in the light of individual belief, judgment, or circumstance. Merriam-Webster

We ask the question and identify the challenge because of the class of the prophetic writings themselves. They are by their nature, wildly figurative and symbolic. Whether it’s Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) or John’s vision of the beast emerging from the sea (Revelation 13), we are often left asking ourselves, “What can this mean?”

How Scripture answers "Can we interpret Bible prophecy?"

We can only interpret prophecy to the extent that God, through another inspired writer2,4,6, or “what is written”8, has revealed what it means1. For example, we have cases where we would never even think to make application on our own, and yet the inspired writer does5. In fact, interpreting Bible prophecy and how we handle it in general is the ultimate example of how Scripture interprets Scripture, or literally, God interprets God1.

There are absolutely other cases where prophecy seems to be saying something we could readily understand and apply. First, maybe it’s just the words being used7 (many more examples). Or, maybe it’s the close proximity (e.g. context) of other verses that have been definitively interpreted by an inspired writer (ex: Isaiah 53, where not all verses are interpreted to describe Jesus). How does the sincere Bible student handle these?

Should we be coming to definitive conclusions about doctrine based on these situations? Is that not a form of adding to3,8 His word? Are we not making ourself to be God (or, “puffed up” as Paul points out8? “Yes!” is God’s answer. This principle is part of the broader principle that there are some questions we cannot answer because God has not revealed it to us in His word.

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

We have the prophetic word that is more sure which you should pay close attention to as it is a lamp that shines in the dark.  It shines until that day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts/minds.  You know of first importance that no prophecy of Scripture came from one’s own interpretation, but rather the men were moved by the Holy Spirit to share what was from God.

Peter is warning all Christians about false teachers and goes on to compare them to false prophets.  His overarching message is encouragement to hold fast to his and the apostles’ teaching as they “were eyewitnesses” (vs 16) of Jesus Christ.  In addition to their eyewitness testimony, he is suggesting they pay attention to the prophecies that serve as confirmation of their faith, and he continues in the next few verses to warn about “false words” from “false teachers” (2:1-3).

Scripture-block application to this question

Peter’s main point is that the words of Scripture are from God, not from the person that might be writing them (e.g. Isaiah, Moses, David, etc.). However, there’s also an implication here, or maybe it’s by extension, that no Scriptural prophecy is interpreted by man since no [true] prophecy is given by man. Prophecy is from God [His words], and therefore God’s alone to interpret. Interestingly, Peter tells us this while citing two familiar prophetic images – their meanings we need not speculate about since we have inspired [God] interpretation – “a lamp shining” (Luke 1:76-79) and “the morning star” (Revelation 22:16).

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

The prophets prophesied about the salvation through Christ (or, “grace that was to be yours”) and wondered themselves about the timing and person that would be Jesus as they predicted His sufferings and glories.  Yet, they were told they were serving someone else with the things (prophesies) that have now been fulfilled (“announced”) in the revelation of the gospel by the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s letter(s) of encouragement to the saints that were facing great persecution and longing for their reward in Christ Jesus, revealed to them in the “last time” (vs 3). He goes on to tell them to be prepared for “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (vs 13).

Scripture-block application to this question

The prophets that uttered God’s prophecy didn’t know for themselves the interpretation. They were left to wonder (without God revealing it to them).

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
I warn everyone hearing this not to add to or take away anything from it.  If you do, God will add to him the plagues and take away his share of eternal salvation described herein.
The closing verses of John’s apocalyptic visions, testified by Jesus (vs 20).
Scripture-block application to this question

We are warned not to add to or take away from God’s word. Whether this is specific to just the book of Revelation or the collection of books that are the Bible, the truth remains.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery. Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court.

King Nebuchadnezzar honored Daniel and acknowledged his God as the God of all gods and ruler of kings.  He gave him gifts and made him ruler over the province and put in charge over all the wise men.  Daniel was also to appoint his three friends into positions over the province, while Daniel remained in king Nebuchadnezzar’s court.

With God’s help, Daniel is able to interpret a dream of Nebuchadnezzar’s that nobody else was able to interpret. It was of an image made of different alloys that each represented kingdoms, starting with Nebuchadnezzar’s and ending with a kingdom that God will establish, lasting forever (vs 44).

Scripture-block application to this question

God is the “revealer of mysteries.” Daniel, in all his righteousness, wasn’t able to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream on his own.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

When Israel was young, I [God] loved him, and out of Egypt I called [saved] him.

This chapter appears to begin a distinct prophecy from God (through Hosea).  The personification of the nation of Israel – God’s chosen people – is not at all unique in the Old Testament.  After referring to the love for His people and His saving them from bondage in Egypt, there is a rebuke of their behavior in return, “The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols” (vs 2).  The prophecy continues recounting their history and specifically calling out God’s “kindness” (vs 4) toward them and their rebellion against Him (“the people are bent on turning away from me” vs 7).

Matthew also interprets this verse only to apply to Jesus and the fact that they had to flee to Egypt after his birth (

Matthew 2:13-15
).

Scripture-block application to this question

There is nothing about this verse that would allow for the interpretation that Matthew made regarding Jesus. First, Hosea wrote this some 700+ years before Christ (and Matthew). Second, the very next verse speaks of rebellion and sacrificing to idols (certainly not about Jesus). We can only know this is speaking about Jesus because of an inspired writer’s interpretation.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.
Then He [Jesus] opened their [the Twelve minus Judas and Thomas] minds to fully understand the Scriptures.  He told them that it was written that He would suffer, die, and rise on the third day.  He also told them that they should preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all the world starting in Jersalem.  Finally, He reminded them that they were witnesses of these things and that He was sending the promise of God the Father so they should stay in Jerusalem until power from on high comes on them.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ life after his bodily resurrection.  Jesus has appeared to several people including the two on the road to Emmaus (vss 13-27) and is here appearing the ten (Thomas is absent).

Scripture-block application to this question

Jesus uniquely gave the apostles the ability to “understand the Scriptures” by “opening their minds”.

For he said, Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely. And he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

He said, they are my people that act righteously. So he became their Savior and suffered all that they suffered, and the angel of his existence saved them. In his love and pity he redeemed them, lifting them up and providing for them all the days of old.

This chapter is divided into three sections that seem to be speaking both of the days of Moses as well as the promised new covenant, “last days” time so often spoken of in the prophets generally and Isaiah particularly (though we can’t be sure).

  1. Vss 1-6 describe God’s Messiah coming in “crimsoned garments” that spoke “in righteousness” (vs 1) and brought with Him a “day of vengeance” (vs 4).
  2. Vss 7-14 describe God’s “compassion” and “steadfast love” (vs 7) for His people, their rebellion (vs 10), and the promise that God might still make “a glorious name” (vs 14).
  3. Vss 15-19 is a prayer (presumably of Isaiah) that God might remember His people in spite of the fact they had become “like those who are not called by your name” (vs 19).
Scripture-block application to this question

It seems here that Isaiah is writing about Jesus, the Messiah, His suffering and the salvation He brought for the elect.

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

I [Paul] have applied these things to myself and Apollos to benefit you, brethren, so you will learn not to go beyond what is written and become puffed up favoring one over another. You are not superior to anyone else. You haven’t received more than anyone else. You boast as if you weren’t freely given this gift.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is calling them back to what they have learned and away from the arrogance and divisions that have crept in.

In these first four chapters, he emphasizes the need for them to rely upon the word of God that he had shared with them as the foundation to solve these issues.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul scolds the Corinthian Christians for “going beyond what is written.”

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