Biblical Future Prophecy –Part 3: Understanding Apocalyptic Literature

[This is the third in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from the author’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]

The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek apokalupsis, which means, “a revelation” or “disclosure.” Because this term appears in the title of the book of Revelation, which has much to say about the future, the word “apocalypse,” or “apocalyptic” has come to be associated with prophetic literature dealing with the end of the present age and beyond.

The Distinguishing Features of Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic literature in the Bible is not easily distinguished from non-apocalyptic prophecy. In fact, about the only significant feature that can be pointed out is its focus on events associated with the end of the age and the coming visible kingdom of God on earth. If we were to suggest that biblical apocalyptic literature is characterized by visions and dreams, we can find that in non-apocalyptic prophecy; if we were to suggest the use of symbolic language as a distinguishing feature, we can also find abundant examples of that in non-apocalyptic prophecy. Again, if we were to suggest a judgment theme as characteristic of apocalyptic prophecy, we can find an abundance of non-apocalyptic prophecies dealing with judgment. Actually, it is difficult to find any trait that consistently characterizes biblical apocalyptic writings other than a focus on the culmination of the age and the coming kingdom of God. Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from this is that far too much has been made over the distinction of future prophecy as a distinct literary genre. The segregation of future prophecy into a special category has been unfortunate because it is often construed as validation for the dual hermeneutic applied by covenantal interpreters. In other words, it becomes a pretext for the application of a special hermeneutic (i.e., spiritualization).

Future prophecy is simply Bible prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled. All fulfilled prophecies, including those of Christ’s birth, were at one time unfulfilled. As such, they were at one time future prophecies; in the course of time, as they were fulfilled, they no longer pertained to the future. Someday much of what we now consider future prophecy will have been fulfilled, and will no longer be considered future prophecy. The point is this: Other than theme, there is no real difference between future prophecy and fulfilled prophecy, and there is certainly no justification for applying a special hermeneutic to prophecy simply because it has not yet been fulfilled. Having said that, there are some general principles of interpretation that we need to be aware of, as well as some special considerations in the interpretation of prophecy in general.

Applying Normal Interpretation to Prophecy

Whatever conclusion one may reach regarding the nature of apocalyptic literature as a distinct literary genre in the Bible, one thing is clear: Only the normal/objective method of interpretation can ensure that the intended meaning of scripture is correctly understood, because only the normal/objective method is truly exegetical. We will now look at some of the principles for interpreting the Bible in general, and for interpreting prophecy as a general class of literature within the Bible.

General Interpretive Principles

There are some general principles of interpretation that should be applied to any biblical text, whether or not it is prophetic. Those principles are summarized below.

Determining What the Text Says

It should go without saying that before one can determine what a text means, they must first determine what the text literally says. This means that the interpreter must determine the proper reading of the text in the original language and resolve as many difficulties in the wording of the text as possible prior to attempting an interpretation. This requires that the interpreter be familiar with the lexicography (word meanings), accidence (inflectional forms of words), syntax (the use and significance of inflectional forms of words), and grammar (relationships among words and sentence parts) of the passage.

Determining the Historical Context

Every communication is context sensitive; that is to say, the meaning of any passage hinges on the context in which, and concerning which the communication was made. Therefore, determining the historical context is essential for understanding any passage of scripture. Lack of historical context can be as much of an impediment to interpretation as uncertainty over the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

Determining the Theological and Dispensational Context

 The Bible is a progressive revelation; God revealed his truth a little at a time as man was able to receive that truth. In the progressive revelation of truth, later revelations are generally more specific and complete; however, the later revelations are built on the foundation of the earlier revelations, and the later never contradicts the earlier when correctly understood. Earlier revelations are stepping stones to understanding later revelations of the same truth. Taking a verse or passage out of its biblical context removes it from the only setting in which it can be properly understood. Every statement must be understood in the light of what God revealed up to that point in history. The interpreter must be aware of the predisposing (antecedent) theology of the passage he or she is attempting to interpret. In other words, he must know the theological context in which the passage sits. Not only that, but the interpreter must also be aware of the dispensational context of the passage; he must ask himself, “What are the operative principles of the era in which this passage was written?” “Did the events or statements occur before the fall of man, under the law, after the cross, or were they spoken prophetically in reference to some future age?” With all of the foregoing information in hand, the interpreter is usually ready to put forward an interpretation. However, there are some special considerations when dealing with prophetic passages.

Special Considerations in the Interpretation of Prophecy

While the same principles given above apply to both prophetic and non-prophetic passages, there are some features of prophecy that complicate the application of those principles, such as the presence of figurative language, symbols, time compression, historical foreshortening, and parabolic format. It is important to realize that these features do not mitigate against the application of the normal/objective method of interpretation, they simply make it more challenging. The following are things to bear in mind when interpreting biblical prophecy.

Observing Time Relationships

Sometimes prophecies seem to compress or expand time by devoting more space to a shorter span of events than to a longer span (e.g., Revelation 4:1-20:10, in which sixteen chapters are devoted to the seven years of the tribulation, and only seven verses are devoted to the thousand years of the millennium). In other cases prophecies may contain large gaps in a timeline (for example, Isaiah 61:1-3, where the first and second advents of Christ are pictured as one event; or Daniel 9:24-27, where the Church age is entirely omitted), or they may contain no timeline at all and events may not be in chronological order (e.g., Isaiah 65:17-25, where eternity is described before the millennium). In some cases, prophecies can supply time relationships for other prophecies. However, the interpreter must be careful in comparing the information and arriving at conclusions. Also, the supplied time relationship, while helping to understand the overall truth of the subject or event, should not be read back into the more obscure prophecy as if the author were aware of that information; this is particularly the case where a later prophecy clarifies an earlier one. Remember, revelation of truth was progressive, and one revelation builds upon another.

Interpreting Symbols

At times Bible prophecy makes use of symbols, including symbolic objects, actions, representations of people, and symbolic use of names and numbers. The challenge for the interpreter is to determine what the symbol literally represents. One pitfall that students of prophecy must avoid is identifying as symbolic things that were not intended as symbols. The fact that a prophecy contains symbols does not mean that everything in the prophecy is symbolic. Generally, one should only identify something as symbolic when any other interpretation is nonsensical or conflicts with facts clearly established elsewhere.

In seeking to interpret symbols, one should check the immediate context carefully; the meaning of the symbol may be identified in the passage. If the immediate context does not supply the meaning of the symbol, the larger context of scripture should be checked. It is possible that the symbol is used elsewhere, and its meaning may be more apparent from another passage, which in most cases will be a chronologically prior passage. One should always look for the first occurrence of any symbol; often the key to interpreting a symbol will be found where it is first used. In seeking to interpret symbols one must remember that symbols, by their nature, bear some affinity to what is symbolized. Paying careful attention to the properties of the symbol might provide clues as to the meaning. Also, just because a prophecy contains symbols does not mean that the prophecy should be spiritualized (i.e., interpreted non-literally). A symbol serves as an analogy to a literal idea (the sword in Christ’s mouth in Revelation 19:15 is certainly symbolic, but it pictures a literal truth: when Christ returns, he will speak, and his enemies will be slain).

The student of prophecy should be especially careful about interpreting numbers symbolically. Biblical numerology is often just another form of spiritualization. Even in the case in which a number may have some special significance elsewhere, the use of the number in a prophecy does not necessarily mean that it should be interpreted as a symbol. The rule to follow is this: “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”

Interpreting Prophetic Parables

A parable is an extended simile, often in the form of a story; thus, it conveys a truth through the medium of an analogy. Several things should be kept in mind when seeking to interpret parables, whether or not they are prophetic: 1) One should not try to find some special significance for every detail of the parable. Some details are only given to complete a similitude. Even when Jesus interpreted his own parables, he did not assign significance to every detail. 2) As an extended figure of speech, and like all figures of speech, parables generally teach a central truth; the goal is to identify that truth. 3) Some parables are interpreted within the context of the passage; one should look for the interpretation to see if it is supplied. When interpreting parables from the gospels, always check the parallel material in the other gospels. The gospels are highly condensed reports of Jesus’ life and teaching, and each writer condensed that material differently. It is not unusual to find explanations in one gospel that do not appear in others. 4) Even if the interpretation is not given, the context may contain clues as to why the parable was spoken and what it means.

Observing the Larger Context of Prophecy

 A great many prophetic events are dealt with in more than one place; therefore, interpretation should take into account details revealed elsewhere. This does not mean that those details should be imported into the passage under consideration, only that the final interpretation should be in harmony with other scripture. For example, there are over a dozen passages that describe the second coming in detail. Not all of these passages include the same details, but they are all accurate, though individually incomplete descriptions of the event. The complete description of the event, so far as we have it, is the sum of all the biblical information. Therefore, the interpreter should seek to interpret each of these passages in the light of the broader prophetic context of the Bible.

The Single Sense of Scripture

Students of the Bible have debated the question of whether there is a fuller meaning to some passages than what the human authors may have been aware. After all, if the ultimate author of scripture is God, why could he not have infused within it a deeper meaning than even the human authors were aware? Of course, he could have, and undoubtedly did in some cases. However, in such cases that deeper meaning cannot be determined through the exegetical process; it must be identified by a subsequent revelation from God, the meaning of which must be determined by the normal/objective method of interpretation. Whether there is, in some biblical statements, a meaning beyond the obvious normal/objective meaning, only God knows, and only God can reveal. Unless subsequent scripture identifies a hidden meaning, the interpreter should not seek one. If God subsequently reveals a hidden meaning to a previous passage, that is a revelation concerning the prior passage, not an interpretation of the prior passage, and we must be very careful to distinguish between revelations and interpretations. In the absence of a subsequent revelation concerning the meaning of a specific passage, the only legitimate interpretation is what the passage says, as determined by the normal/objective method of interpretation. In keeping with this, a passage can have only one correct interpretation, even if God subsequently reveals a hidden meaning. In such a case, the subsequent revelation would have its own interpretation.

The Question of Near Versus Distant Fulfillment

In some cases prophecies seem to have both a near and a more distant fulfillment. This does not imply a double meaning, rather it may refer to a work spread over time, or accomplished in stages; it may also be that a near event is merely a foreshadowing of the ultimate fulfillment to come. In any case, just as a passage can have only one correct interpretation, a prophecy can have only one fulfillment, even if it is spread over time, or foreshadowed in various ways.


Biblical apocalyptic literature should not be regarded as a separate literary genre from fulfilled prophecy. This does not prevent us from viewing future prophecy as a subset of prophecy in general, as long as we understand that this classification is relative to our position in history, rather than something peculiar to the nature of future prophecy. As with all scripture, prophecy must be interpreted normally/objectively, giving due consideration to figures and symbols. Spiritualization (allegorical interpolation) is an inherently subjective process, since it breaks with the normal/objective and conventional use of language; thus, spiritualization should never be viewed as legitimate biblical interpretation.

To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.

(Adapted in 2017 from What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged], illustrated. Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.)