Guidelines in Interpreting Bible Prophecy

Guidelines in Interpreting Bible Prophecy

Bible scholars often tell us that approximately twenty-five percent of the Bible was written as prophecy. This is why studying Bible prophecy and knowing how to correctly interpret them is an enormously important subject.

While much of prophecy is simply straightforward and unambiguous, this means that the immediate context usually provides the interpretive framework; there are cases where a prophetic theme does not follow a tight theme with a strict chronological order.

For instance, the scenes described in the prophecy may appear to be like those of a dream with transitory impressions going back and forth in time and between events. In other cases, the prophets made such extensive use of symbolism, thus making it difficult for the Bible reader to understand what the prophecy is about.

So in this article, we will look at some basic guidelines or rules on how to interpret Bible prophecy.

How to Correctly Interpret Prophecy

1. Study each prophecy as a whole – not just isolated parts.

One of the common errors Bible students make when reading and studying the Bible is taking verses out of their original context. In doing so, one can make the text say whatever he wants it to say even if it’s not what the author had in mind when he wrote them.

This is why people who claim to have read the Bible do not always agree with what the Bible has to say about a certain topic or issue.

In the same way, you cannot correctly interpret a prophecy without studying it as a whole. For instance, if you want to study the prophecy about the Antichrist in Daniel 11:36-45, you must start reading from Daniel 10:1.

Rules in Interpreting Prophecy

2. Know the cultural and historical context of the passage.

Every prophecy should be interpreted taking into consideration its historical and cultural contexts. It is also important to know the intended meaning of the author, thus, reading the introduction to the book that contains it will help.

The prophets composed their books from about 850 B.C. till possibly as late as 400 B.C. Generally speaking, this was a time of great tumult politically, militarily, and economically as Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia waxed and waned in power and influence – with the inhabitants of ancient Israel frequently caught in the middle.

It was also a time of religious unfaithfulness on the part of God’s chosen people – even after their return from exile.

3. Bible prophecies should be interpreted in the light of grammatical considerations.

In addition to understanding the historical and cultural settings of the book that contains the prophecy we are studying, following the standard rules of grammar also helps us arrive at the correct interpretation.

We need to understand that words have a particular meaning in a particular context. And the way the words are placed together in sentences and paragraphs will help the reader derive the appropriate message that the writer wanted to communicate.

The same is true with the Bible, God had a reason for moving the writers to choose the words they used and put them together in the order they did. Our goal as Bible readers is to come up with the proper interpretation, which can be done by following common-sense rules.

The strength of this hermeneutical approach is evident in the way the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament. This is also the only approach that offers an internal system of “checks and balances” to make sure we are on the right track.

4. Know what the book that contains the prophecy is about.

What is the main theme of the book? In other words, what is the author talking about in the book? Why? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you put the prophecy you are studying in perspective.

Where exactly should you look? If you are using a study Bible, you will find them in the introduction to the book.

5. Know the context of the prophecy you are studying.

To correctly interpret a prophecy, you need to examine the outline and chart that is included at the beginning of the book containing the passage you are studying. Look at the survey section as well.

These study aids provide a wealth of information to familiarize you with the book and make you feel “at home” with it. You must also take into consideration what comes before the prophecy in the book and what comes after it. You can also ask the following questions:

  • Who are the actors?
  • What do they do?
  • What is the result?
  • Where does it happen?

6. Check to see if the symbol or symbolism is introduced or explained earlier in Scripture.

The Bible uses a lot of symbolism and understanding the symbolism, say, in Ezekiel and especially Daniel is crucial to understanding the book of Revelation.

7. Check to see if other prophecies parallel the one you are studying.

Many Bible prophecies can only be understood when read side by side with passages that talk about the same subject. For example, the subject matter of Daniel 2 parallels the subject matter of Daniel 7.

8. Presume the passage or thing being referred to as literal unless it is obviously a symbol or interpreted as such.

This means that unless there is firm evidence in the context that the word is used in some other sense, words are to be understood in their normal, natural sense.

It is also important to distinguish between the symbolic and the literal, the prophecy and the interpretation. The interpretation is not symbolic and is meant to be understood literally.

9. Interpret animals, colors, and numbers literally unless the author reveals that they are approximations by using words such as like, as, or about.

The prophets describe fantastic sights, and there are times when they simply run out of earthly things with which to describe heavenly things.


“And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stones in appearance “ (Revelation 4:3).

“The first living creature was like a lion” (Revelation 4:7).

“And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire” (Revelation 15:2).

10. If a prophecy has not been completely fulfilled in the past, you can assume that it will be fulfilled in the future.

A partial fulfillment, like the foretaste of the kingdom experienced by Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration of Christ, makes the future fulfillment of the prophecies relating to the kingdom all the more sure. This is Peter’s point in 2 Peter 1:19-20.

Final Thoughts

Many Christians shy away from studying Bible prophecy because there are difficulties in interpreting them. But if we are to take the Bible seriously and we want to know God and His will, we need to study prophecy.

We cannot deny the fact that there have been several erroneous interpretations taught by people claiming to have the Spirit of God. But this should not discourage us from studying prophecy because in so doing will give us a better understanding of what God has done in the past, what He is doing at present and what God has in store for us in the future.

Recommended Resource: Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach By Alan S. Bandy & Benjamin L. Merkle

An authoritative guide to clearly understanding the place and meaning of prophecy in the Bible

For thoughtful readers who are curious about biblical prophecy, this book will help them learn the place of prophecy in the message of the Bible and clear up the confusion that often surrounds reading these texts.

Studying biblical prophecy is about much more than predicting end-time events. Rather, a proper approach to prophecy acknowledges that the threads of prophecy crisscross throughout Genesis to Revelation, forming the fabric of canonical Scripture. This is why having a good grasp of the prophetic genre is essential for understanding the message of the entire Bible.

Authors Alan Bandy and Benjamin Merkle not only offer thoughtful and careful explanations of individual biblical prophecies but also give the reader the big picture of how all prophecy relates to and should be interpreted in light of Jesus Christ.

This book examines the nature, themes, purposes, and theology of biblical prophecy and provides a framework for how to interpret any passage in the context of the Bible as a whole.

7 Replies to “Guidelines in Interpreting Bible Prophecy”

  1. Do you have any citation information for your quote of Dr. Cooper? I have not found any proof that he ever said or wrote that.

    1. Hello and thank you for dropping by.

      Regarding Dr. Cooper’s quotes, you can check out his Biblical Research Studies Group which he himself founded.

      Here’s the link:

      You can look around, particularly under the topic of “Bible Study” and the subtopic “Rules of Interpretation.”

      God bless!

  2. Alice,

    My question is this, would it be wrong to take a prophecy from the OT about Jesus and take a part of a verse out of context and try to make it say something different from what it was meant?


    1. Hi John,

      I believe the post clearly answered your question.

      The number one rule of interpreting prophecy is studying it as a whole. We cannot just pick out verses from the passage, interpret them, and apply them in a way that is not consistent with what the author originally intended them.

      Again, it’s all about context, context, context!

      Thanks for the question, John.

      God bless!

  3. Prophecy is a very intriguing area of the Bible to examine since it foretells events that will unfold in the future.

    I believe these events expose what God will be doing for the world in the future, and the strategies that Satan will use to destroy that plan and deceive the human race. It’s a very insightful sermon as always!

    As a contributor to this blog, most of my content will feature current events, morality, commentary on Christian literature, including verses of Scripture, and some sermons and other writings I composed over the past few years during quarantine.

    I will send you an About Me page that will be going to this blog very soon. It will be my first post for 2022.
    I pray we will continue to grow in our faith this new year.

  4. Alice, do you preach to men in a pulpit? How do you interpret I Timothy 2 ? I am not mocking you, I really want to know your answer. Thx!

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for dropping by. I appreciate the comment/question. However, I don’t see how it is in anyway related to this post.


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