Author: Ron Graham
—Should Bible Prophecy Be Taken Literally?
The third idea about Bible prophecy, is that prophecy should consistently be taken literally. This is a basic idea of premillennialism.
In this lesson we examine whether the premillennial interpretation of the Bible really is as literal as premillennialists claim.
1 How Premillennialists Interpret Bible Prophecy
One of the things that this lesson will bring out, is that although premillennialists claim to interpret Bible prophecy literally, and genuinely think they do, in fact they don't. This is surprising to many people because it’s often taken for granted that premillennialism uses a literal approach to the scriptures whilst others use an allegorical or “spiritualising” approach. Not so, as we shall see.
What the Premillenialists claim
Here are two quotes representative of the “Literal Bible” idea...
“The real issue between amillennial and premillennial viewpoints is whether prophecy should be interpreted literally or allegorically... all prophecy about past events has been fulfilled literally ... more than 300 prophecies regarding Christ’s first coming, all of which were literally fulfilled...”
Hal Lindsey 'The Late Great Planet Earth', chapter 13.
“Every prophecy pointing to the first advent of Christ was literally fulfilled to the letter in every detail”.
Jesse F. Silver in "The Lord’s Return"
Again Hal Lindsey’s comment is representative, and Jesse F. Silver makes an interesting claim. If these writers are correct in their assertion, then there is a very good case for expecting all prophecy about the second coming to likewise be fulfilled literally. The premise, however, is wrong.
2 Problems With These Assertions
Let’s examine the basic idea itself, that every prophecy pointing to the first coming of Christ was literally fulfilled. This proposition won't pass the test.
The first problem is that the premise has a catch, because it does not really have in view every prophecy pointing to the first coming of Christ.
Many prophecies that figuratively point to the first coming of Christ have been excluded because the writers believe them to refer to Christ’s second coming, not his first.
It’s like my claiming that all the apples in a box are green after I've taken out the red ones. The apples in the box might all now be green, but not all the apples are in the box that ought to be there.
The statement “every prophecy pointing to the first coming of Christ was literally fulfilled” is meaningless if it has not taken into account all the prophecies that Christ fulfilled..
The second problem is that nobody, not even one who makes the claim, really believes that all prophecy is literally fulfilled. Premillennialists claim to take prophecy literally but they don't. If they did, their theories would be far different from what they are.
3 Examples From the Bible
Ezekiel 37:24, Hosea 3:5.
"And my servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd... The sons of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king".
If premillennialists really took prophecy literally, they would believe David, not Jesus, will be their king in the Millennium.
We all understand that the fulfillment of those prophecies is not literal to the letter. It is generally recognized that the name "David" here does not literally mean king David himself. The name stands figuratively for David’s descendant Jesus Christ of whom David was the ancestral type.
This is the first Old Testament prophecy about Jesus. The serpent was told, "He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel."
This is correctly recognised by premillennialists as a reference to the crucifixion (or possibly incorrectly as battles at the time of the millennium) not to a literal contest between Jesus and a snake in which the snake bites Jesus on his literal heel.
This is the last Old Testament Prophecy about Jesus. It says, "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."
Now Jesus said that Elijah had come (Matthew 11:14 Mark 9:13). Jesus referred to John the Baptizer who was the herald of Jesus Christ. As most premillennialists correctly understand, the prophecy did not refer literally to Elijah as the herald of Christ. but figuratively to his antitype John the Baptizer.
Many other examples could be given, but these are enough to show that although everything prophesied about Jesus came true it did not all come literally true. Even though premillennialists claim that it did, they cannot keep consistently to that claim when interpreting prophecies like these.
This is true not only of prophecies about Jesus’s first coming, but of other prophecies about him, as the following examples show.
"He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked."
Prophecy is full of symbols like that, which premillennialists do not take literally. Nobody thinks this means literally what it says. Who would imagine that Jesus Christ will use some kind of deadly pea shooter? Everybody understands such language to be poetic and figurative.
We often hear the criticism that the Bible’s prophecies are "allegorised" or "spiritualised". However those who make this criticism do the same themselves if it suits them. Therefore the question is not 'literal' versus 'figurative' as a general principle, as if one is always right and the other always wrong.
Rather, it is a matter of deciding (1) which prophecies are correctly taken 'literally', (2) which prophecies ought to be taken 'figuratively', and (3) which should be seen as both.
Premillennialists interpret prophecy with as much "this means that" as anybody else. But they come up with a materialistic or earthly result rather than a spiritual or heavenly.
Premillennialists don't interpret the prophecies 'literally'. Rather, they make them figurative of a material kingdom here on earth rather than a spiritual kingdom of Heaven.