A Short Survey of Prophetic Hermeneutics

a reprint of
Appendix B - "The Rhetorical Mode of the Prophets"

"UNTIL The Coming Of Messiah and His Kingdom"
by Robert Shank

Essential to a correct understanding of the Bible prophecy is an acquaintance and appreciation of the rhetorical mode of the prophets. A comprehensive examination of this important area of the science of biblical hermeneutics is beyond the scope of this excursus. A brief survey of several cardinal principles, however, may be useful for some readers.

  1. Foreshortened perspective - The prophetic perspective is a "foreshortened perspective" ("the foreshortening of the prophet's horizon, " Delitzsch) whereby future events are seen as near at hand or already present, though in fulfillment they may prove to be centuries removed from the prophet's day. The prophets often view things future as if they were present or had already occurred. Thus prophecies of things future may be expressed in present and perfect verb tenses as well as future tenses. Observe the mixture of present, past, and future tenses in Isa. 53. The use of "proleptic past" and "proleptic present" verbs as well as verbs in future tense is a common rhetorical device in Bible prophecy.
  2. The Hidden Interval - Closely related to the principle of the foreshortened perspective is the rhetorical device of the "hidden interval" whereby "it is the constant practice of the prophets to view series of future events on the same plane and in the same perspective, the interval [between the events] being left out of view" (Zockler in Lange, footnote on Daniel 12:1-3). Time lapses, "hidden intervals, " may be undisclosed in statements of Scripture, to be revealed only in cognate passages or in historical fulfillment. In the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk. 4:16ff) Jesus ended his reading from Isa. 61:1,2 with the words "to preach the acceptable year of the Lord," for "the day of vengeance of our God" (which pertains to his second advent rather than the first) was not then fulfilled and was (and is) still future. There is no hint of any interval of time in Isa. 61:2. Other examples of hidden intervals in prophetic passages are Isa. 9:6a//6b, 7; Isa. 11:1-3a//3b, 4 ff; Isa. 59:16, 17a//17b ff; Jer. 23:5a//5b ff; Zech. 9:9//10; Zech. 13:6//7//8, 9. Contrary to the assumption of some, contiguous mention in a prophetic passage does not require contiguous chronological fulfillment.
  3. Kaleidoscopic blending - Closely related to the principles of foreshortened perspective and hidden intervals is the "kaleidoscopic" nature of Bible prophecy, the frequent blending of events or circumstances present or near at hand with events or circumstances in the distant future, the blending of the immediate and the ultimate. A prophecy may find dual fulfillment - in an event near at hand, and in an event in the more distant future, in which case the ultimate fulfillment is more significant than the imminent (cf. Isa. 7:14- 16, Mt. 1:22, 23). Prophecies of great events of the distant future often are imposed on prophecies of lesser events of the near future. Thus the prophetic formula "Day of the Lord," which has ultimate reference to the coming of Messiah in righteous judgment at Armageddon at the end of the age and to the inauguration and realization of the Messianic Age, is sometimes used with reference to a lesser historical judgment to occur in the near future. The device of "dual reference" is a prominent feature in the rhetorical mode of Bible prophecy. Many interpreters, having identified facets of a prophetic passage as contemporaneous in the prophet's own day, err in assuming that all of the prophecy must therefore pertain to the prophet's own time. Because of the kaleidoscopic blending of things near and far, no simple continuous chronological sequence is to be assumed in the interpretation of a passage without specific definition.
  4. Representative generation - Closely related to the principle of the foreshortened perspective is the principle that a generation may be addressed as representative of generations (or a generation) to follow. Moses (Deut. 4:26 ff) addressed his own generation as though they would live to see the Dispersion which occurred centuries later) and the Restoration (still future). This rhetorical device is common in prophecies in both OT and NT. Prophecies cannot be limited to fulfillment within the lifetime of the auditors addressed unless such limitation is categorically specified.
  5. Contemporary language - Prophets clothed their messages in forms familiar to the contemporary scene in which they lived. Thus prophecies of end time wars and Armageddon speak of bows, arrows, swords, spears, shields, horses, chariots - the weaponry of the prophets' own time. Geographical areas and nations and peoples of later generations often are represented under contemporary names of nations and peoples of the prophets' own time. Thus the great "northern" antagonist of Israel in the end time (Russia) is often designated in Bible prophecy as "Assyria," and "Edom" is mentioned as an end-time antagonist of Israel, though the Edomites (later known as Idumeans) perished from history early in the Christian Era.
  6. Hyperbole - The prophets often employ hyperbole for emphasis, e.g., Rev. 14:20, "blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse's bridle, for two hundred miles" - a river of blood that would require for its source the bodies of men and horses stacked hundreds of feet high the full length of the Land of Israel. The obvious hyperbole portrays graphically the unprecedented slaughter at Armageddon. The fact that hyperbolic statements are not to be taken literally does not mean that they are not to be understood realistically.
  7. Symbolism - Bible prophecy often contains a mixture of the literal and the figurative. E.g., Rev. 12 contains much that is symbolic, but that does not establish that "the man child who is to rule all nations" is not literal and real, or that any of the entities represented symbolically are not equally real and literal in their own ontological definition. All Bible prophecy is concerned with specific realities, whether presented under forms literal or symbolic.
  8. Prefer literal - As a general rule, the words of the prophets are to be understood literally unless context clearly indicates otherwise. This was the practice of Jesus and the apostles, as examination of NT allusions to OT passages discloses.