I had an interesting response to my post last week about the Parable of the Fig Tree.  A dear pastor friend of mine, who has taught that the blooming fig tree represents Israel in 1947/48, heard that I had written about the parable, and asked what my conclusion was.  I told him that, in context, it could only refer to the signs during the Tribulation period that pointed to Christ’s return to judge and rule.  He said, “That’s right, if you only take it in context.”

Being a thoughtful person, I took his answer to heart and began to ponder our approach to understanding the Bible.  The basic rules of hermeneutics tell us to read it literally, consider the context, compare scripture with scripture to let it comment on itself, etc.  And these rules work very well–until it comes to the area of prophecy.  

There is a whole movement in the fundamentalist/evangelical world that relies on what I will call “non-contextual prophecy”.  Completely apart from traditional interpretive procedures, this movement looks at things like Bible “codes” (secret messages hidden in the formatting of the Bible in a particular language).  Other non-contextualists follow a procedure I nickname the “geo-political approach”, in which they study the situation that presently exists (or a preconceived notion of what will exist), and then look for Bible passages that could have “predicted” what we see today in a prophetic form.  A lot of dispensationalists unwittingly use this approach–starting with their preconceived timeline, they cherry-pick verses to prove their point.   

A third school of non-contextual prophecy would be termed “typology”, which looks at symbolic people, terms, or events, and uses past occurrences of those symbols (or “types”) to interpret or comment on later appearances; and this area of typology is where the fig tree comes in. 

In the practice of comparing Scripture with Scripture, the interpreters claim that in places like I Kings 4:25 and Hosea 9:10, the fig tree symbolizes Israel; therefore the fig tree can be taken as a “type” throughout the Bible. In passages where the fig tree is fruitless or is damaged, that refers to Israel’s judgment; when the fig tree is blossoming, or is a safe refuge for the home, it refers to the restoration of the nation.  The problem with that, of course, is that many other trees are used in the same manner–the olive, the pomegranate, and the apple, to name a few; if the fig tree is a type, then what do these stand for?

The problem with symbols is that they are used differently by different people at different times.  An honest reading cannot conclude that Egypt always represents backsliding, sin, or imprisonment; leaven is not always used to symbolize sin; and the serpent is not always an embodiment of evil.  And, to prove the point, in John 1:48-50, the fig tree is not Israel–it is a fig tree.  One must be very careful in using typology to arrive at prophetic truth.

So is non-contextual prophecy always wrong?  No.

I have often taught that the Gospel writers apparently had a different set of interpretive rules than we have today.  Matthew in 2:23 (recalling the prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene) seems to be stretching it.  In fact, of the 5 fulfillments of prophecy referred to in Matthew 2, NONE of them hearken back to a context that would make us believe that they could refer to Israel under Rome in the year 4 B.C.  So was Matthew wrong to use a geo-political approach when he assigned a predictive nature to certain verses after he had already seen what had happened?  No.  He wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and what he wrote is true, even though his method does not match ours.  His God-breathed interpretation of prophetic Scripture is far superior to ours.

Should we abandon our contextual approach to interpreting the Bible?  By no means.  We are not prophets, nor the sons of prophets, and we don’t have God whispering in our ears giving us new revelation or private interpretations.  The best we can do is use the tools available to us, and to be aware that “… as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)  God has prepared a future for us that, according to Scripture, man has not comprehended nor ever will fully understand; for we cannot even imagine it–let alone figure it out. 

All that having been said, my rules for interpreting prophecy are as follows: 

  1. Do the best you can with the tools you’ve got;
  2. Prepare to be wrong;
  3. Be ready for His return.

And, in the long run, the last one is the one that really matters.