Levels of Biblical Interpretation

By on February 6, 2010

There are three basic levels of biblical structure – primary interpretation, practical application and prophetic implication. Most Christians are aware of the primary interpretation and practical application of Scripture, but shy away from studying prophecy. Too many fail to understand its importance in our personal spiritual development.

According to a November 1999 poll by Newsweek magazine, 40% of American adults believe the world will end as the Bible predicts, with the Battle of Armageddon and the return of Jesus Christ. That is commendable. We are encouraged that so many Americans believe in the prophecies of the Bible. So why aren’t people more deeply involved in the study of biblical prophecy?

The fall of Adam was just the beginning of the rebellion that has taken the human race through 6,000 years of failure. Yet, the Bible offers a bright future.

Most elementary Sunday school lessons are built around primary interpretation – the plain simple message of the Bible. Most intermediate and adult Sunday school lessons are designed to teach practical application – how to live godly in this present world. It is also a fact that most sermons deal with practical application themes. These are necessary foundations for the believer. Their importance cannot be minimized. However, most Christians do not graduate beyond these levels of biblical studies.

The Apostle Paul must have taught the deeper levels of prophecy to the people at Thessalonica. John surely taught an advanced course in the book of Revelation to his congregation at Ephesus. Yet, today’s average modern congregation is woefully lacking in this area.

Mainstream Christianity treats the study of prophecy at arm’s length. In most sermons, a general view of prophecy is usually presented in some abbreviated form. The Christian is left quite unaware of those vast fields of biblical knowledge that lie within the pages of the Bible.

Futurist Views

The Bible is structurally designed to take us on a journey from the past, through the present, into the future. God, Who shows us where we came from and how to live while we are here, does not leave us without some direction of where we are going.

The Bible, as a whole, carries this design. The Old Testament begins with the primary view of the past, whereas the New Testament promises us a bright and eternal future. Note the design: the primary or historical view always opens and the prophetic or futurist view always concludes the work.

The structure of the Old Testament opens with the historical view in Genesis through Deuteronomy and concludes with the futurist view in the prophets – Isaiah through Malachi. The New Testament opens with the historical view of the First Advent of Christ in the Gospels and concludes with a futurist view of the Second Advent of Christ in Revelation.

The Torah

This is also true in the structure of most of the individual books in the Bible. For example, Genesis begins with a primary interpretation, as seen in the Creation and fall of Adam; continues through practical application, as seen in the stories of faith and obedience; and concludes with prophetic implication, as seen in the early rejection and later recognition of Joseph. When we read the story of Joseph we can see the prophetic significance of his rejection; his ascendancy to the governorship of Egypt; and the final redemption of his family. This is clearly prophetic of Jesus Christ – written centuries before His birth and rejection. Furthermore, the story of Joseph leaves us with a view toward the future redemption of Israel.

The book of Genesis concludes with the prophecies of the dying Jacob. We are plainly told that he gave his sons a series of prophecies “… of that which shall befall you in the last days” (Gen. 49:1).

Exodus is another excellent example of a book that begins with the historical account of Jewish slavery in Egypt and concludes with a futurist view of the Tabernacle – a sacred abode being set up in the midst of the camp and the glory of God entering to dwell among His people. It offers prophetic implications of the coming kingdom of heaven.

Leviticus opens with a primary view of various sacrifices, continues with practical lessons for the congregation and concludes in chapters 23-27 with a futurist view of the holy days and what they mean for the nation.

Numbers opens with the beginning of the wilderness journey, takes us through ten tests of faith, and concludes with deep prophetic implications. Balaam is a type of the Antichrist. Their wars against Arad, Og and Sihon are typical of the future conflicts that lead to Armageddon. These concluding chapters in the book of Numbers are clearly prophetic of the end times.

Deuteronomy opens with a review of forty years in the wilderness and concludes with the prophetic implications of chapters 29-34. Chapters 29 and 30 tell of a covenant of Grace, which will be embraced once the chosen people return to their homeland after many years of exile. Chapter 32 gives the Song of Moses – a song sung by the saints in Revelation 15. It is plainly prophetic.

The Prophets

The Old Testament opens with the books of history and concludes with the futurist view of the prophets. We cannot merely study the books of history and leave the prophets to gather dust. Modern theologians cannot honestly dismiss their work as books that were written in later centuries to parade as attempts at prophecy. For example, some would have Daniel’s book to be written in later centuries — after the Ptolemy and Seleucid dynasties had run their course. The preterist would have the book of Revelation as a metaphoric work that saw its final fulfillments in the first century.

We cannot divorce a portion of Scripture from its context in the whole work and fully understand its intended theme. In his introductory remarks to the Scofield Study Bible entitled, A Panoramic View of the Bible, C. I. Scofield wrote:

“The Bible, incomparably the most widely circulated of books, at once provokes and baffles study. Even the non-believer in its authority rightly feels that it is unintelligent to remain in almost total ignorance of the most famous and ancient of books. And yet most, even of sincere believers, soon retire from any serious effort to master the content of the sacred writings. The reason is not far to seek. It is found in the fact that no particular portion of Scripture is to be intelligently comprehended apart from some conception of its place in the whole. For the Bible story and message is like a picture wrought out in mosaic; each book, chapter, verse, and even word forms a necessary part, and has its own appointed place. It is, therefore, indispensable to any interesting and fruitful study of the Bible that a general knowledge of it be gained.”

If we are to understand and believe the opening chapters of Genesis, then we must also give attention to the concluding books of the Old Testament – the prophets. As we review a few of these prophets in order to make our point, let us note that even they begin with the simple level and quickly move toward the more complex. They open with the historical and conclude with the prophetic.

Isaiah

Isaiah begins with the historical view of Israel’s impending judgment and concludes with the two advents of the Messiah. The book is divided into two sections. Generally speaking, the first 39 chapters deal with the events of Isaiah’s day.

There are a few exceptions, such as Isaiah 6:9, where the prophet is told to tell the people that they will become spiritually blind and deaf. As a result of the prophecy, Israel did not recognize their Messiah when He came. This is a prophetic view that continues unto this day.

In Isaiah 7:14 we are told that “… a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” In Isaiah 9:6 we are told that the child will be called, “Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, the Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” and that He will eventually take the reigns of government. In Isaiah 13:6 the prophet transports us into the future – to the days that introduce the seventh millennium:

“Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand.”

In Isaiah 27:1, we are given a glimpse of the Tribulation Period and the destruction of the dragon that rises out of the sea. When we come to chapters 40-66, our attention is decidedly turned toward the future. In these 27 chapters, we can see both the crucifixion of Christ in chapter 53 and His victorious return in chapter 63. The book concludes with such futurist statements as:

“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth …” (Isaiah 65:17).

The 66 books of Isaiah generally follow the themes given in each of the 66 books of the Bible. It is virtually a miniature Bible.

Jeremiah

The prophet Jeremiah lived almost a century after Isaiah. He witnessed the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s Temple and wrote the book of Lamentations to memorialize the catastrophe. His greater work of 52 chapters opens with the impending destruction of Jerusalem — obviously historical in context. However, he moves toward the futurist view as he deals with the Babylonian captivity. Amidst his prophecies, he looks to the far future in chapters 30 and 31:

“For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it” (Jeremiah 30:3).

Alluding to the Tribulation Period, Jeremiah writes:

“Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it” (Jeremiah 30:7).

In the next chapter, he describes that final future return to their promised land:

“Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither” (Jeremiah 31:8).

I am convinced by the context of these chapters that the “north country” must be Russia. That is where it all started in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1991, the Ethiopian Jews were rescued in a dramatic airlift. Huge 747 Jumbo Jets were used to transport 14,400 black Jews from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The seats were removed in order to get 1,080 people into a single airplane. But during the three-hour journey to Tel Aviv, one expectant mother couldn’t wait. Though 1,080 people boarded the flight, 1,081 people landed at the Ben Gurion airport – just as Jeremiah predicted!

We now await the fulfillment of the rest of his prophecy. Jeremiah promises a spiritual redemption:

“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:

“Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:

“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

These verses refer to nothing less than the covenant of Grace established through the death of Christ upon the cross. This is the same covenant that Gentile Christianity has enjoyed over the past two millennia. Now that the Jew is back in his land, we can expect Jewish eyes to soon be opened and Jewish ears to be unstopped. It should not be long now until Jeremiah’s prophecy sees its ultimate fulfillment.

Ezekiel

Here is another marvelous example of a prophet that opens his work with the historical view and moves the reader into the future as he concludes his prophecy. Ezekiel was among the captives taken into Babylon. The first several chapters describe his depression and frustration. But when we get over to the concluding chapters (37-48), the prophet turns his attention toward the future resurrection of his beloved nation. He begins with a vision of the dry bones in chapter 37; moves quickly to the battle of Gog and Magog in chapters 38-39; describes the rebuilt the Temple in chapters 40-42; and welcomes the Messiah in chapter 43 to set up the kingdom. It is decidedly futurist.

Daniel

One more example will suffice. Daniel opens with the history of the Babylonian captivity, and his own enslavement. But in chapters 7-12 he turns our attention toward the final days in which a restored Israel will face the harassment of the Antichrist. Even the Old Testament prophets moved the reader from the past to the future. It is no wonder then, that every Christian should be involved in the study of prophecy.

We cannot simply ignore the last chapters of every book in the Bible. I am sure that the preterist would counter my concerns by reassuring me that they study all the chapters. But my point is that, in truth, they don’t. They simply interpret the prophecies from the viewpoint of a practical application and ignore their prophetic implication. I say it is not fair to the great Author who laid out the futurist view of Scripture. It is time we paid more attention to the prophecies of God’s Word.

Jewish Levels of Interpretation

Our suggestion of three basic levels in biblical interpretation gives us a grasp of the past, present and future. Rabbinical views, however, divide these levels of biblical studies into four areas. They are:

Peshat – the simple level,

Remez – the hint level,

Drosh – the regal level and

Sohd – the secret level.

The first letter in each of these four methods of interpretation – PRDS (xsrp) – combine to spell out the Hebrew word for Paradise. In other words, these Jewish levels of interpretation are designed to take the student back into the garden – past the flaming sword – to reach the tree of life.

Peshat – the Simple Level

Peshat refers to the elementary level – the plain writing of the Scriptures. This is the same method we call primary interpretation. We must begin by reading the book! Read the Bible! Remember that Scofield wrote: “… no particular portion of Scripture is to be intelligently comprehended … apart from its place in the whole.” We cannot fully understand the reading of a single chapter until we have become familiar with the context of all 66 books. We must read the Bible from cover to cover continually until every individual chapter is finally opened to us. Many read it through every year. Some read it through even more often than that. We offer a set of 48 cassette tapes that will recite the entire KJV Bible to you in a matter of only a few days – provided you get no sleep! My point is this. There is no excuse why every Christian cannot become familiar with the Bible in a relatively short period of time. Only then can the serious student of the Word move to the second level of biblical interpretation. We must master the peshat or simple level of understanding.

The Jewish commentary that deals with the peshat level is called the Mishnah, meaning “second to the Torah.” It offers simple explanations of the various Mosaic Laws and rituals. Coupled with the Gamara, the two commentaries make up the Talmud. The Gamara is the commentary used in the Remez or hint level of interpretation.

The four Gospels were written to conform to these Jewish levels of biblical studies. Among the four, Mark fits the Peshat or simple view. It has been called the businessman’s Gospel or the condensed Gospel. One term often used in the book is “straightway.” Mark was simply laying out the historical facts on the life of Christ.

Remez – The Hint Level

Remez is similar to what we call the practical application of Scripture. It is the hint level. If I quote a portion of Scripture, but do not tell you where it is located, you are supposed to know. I don’t have to explain everything to you because you can take the hint. You already have a working knowledge of Scripture. Remez might be explained as, “a word to the wise is sufficient.”

This is also the allegorical and philosophical level. It goes beyond mere elementary knowledge and imparts wisdom – the ability to assimilate knowledge and apply it to our daily living as we develop integrity and character.

The remez level was written for the aristocracy and was higher in its goals and more polished in its content. It was the level of the professional – the doctor, lawyer, philosopher and teacher. This level did not replace the simple peshat, but rather added a philosophical flavoring or seasoning to it.

The Gospel of Luke was written to conform to this philosophical level. He addressed his treatise to a friend named Theophilus – the “beloved theologian.” You can tell from reading Luke’s style of writing that it is more sophisticated and detailed than Mark’s simple style.

Luke records the genealogy of Mary. The aristocratic community would normally be interested in the pedigree of the mother. Mark, writing in the style of the common man, does not bother with genealogy. In Mark, Jesus is presented as a servant, whereas Luke presents the lineage of Mary back to Adam, demonstrating that Jesus Christ is the predicted Messiah “Ben-Adom” — the Son of Adam.

Drosh – the Regal Level

The commentary for the drosh level is called Midrash. The term comes from the process of thrashing grain – separating the kernel from the chaff. It is a far more sophisticated method of interpretation than the remez level. Remez may be allegorical, but drosh deals with parables or riddles.

It is said that Solomon and Hiram, king of Tyre, enjoyed sending each other riddles. It was the game of kings. Solomon’s wisdom gave him a keen ability to find the meanings of riddles, thus gaining him even more fame as the wisest man of his generation. Allegories are simply metaphoric stories that teach a practical lesson. Riddles, on the other hand, are far more difficult to understand.

The drosh level of biblical interpretation is decidedly political. The Jews have always held to the divine promise that they were chosen to produce the Messiah – scion of David.

Someday, our royal descendant of David will establish a world kingdom and bring about utopia upon the earth. This was the promise set forth in God’s covenant with Abraham. It was passed on to Isaac, then to Jacob, Judah and David.

The concept that Christ would become King of kings is the subject of the drosh level of interpretation. Therefore, drosh not only represents the highest form of wisdom or what we might call advanced practical application, but also spills over into the prophetic implications of Scripture.

The prophetic significance of drosh offers the promise of an earthly kingdom. As we shall see, the sohd level is also prophetic, but is distinctly metaphysical – not of this world. Drosh, though prophetic, is of this world.

For royal reasons, Matthew is placed first in the New Testament, ahead of Mark and Luke. Matthew’s introduction of the New Testament presents the regal side of Christ. The concluding book of the New Testament finally unveils Christ as the King of kings.

The term “testament” actually refers to the divine covenant made with Abraham – the covenant that promises a kingdom and a king. Though we are given eternal life through faith in Christ, we should not forget that we will return to this earth to “reign” with Him.

Matthew’s drosh level presents the regal view of Christ by giving the royal generations from Abraham, David and Solomon. The riddle aspects of drosh can be seen in Matthew’s twenty parables about the kingdom of heaven. Luke’s stories take the form of allegory, whereas Matthew’s use of parables or riddles is both prophetic and mysterious.

In Matthew 13, the disciples question the use of these riddles. They ask Jesus to speak more plainly so that the multitudes might understand. To this, Jesus replies that the parable was designed so that the average person could not understand.

In Matthew 24 and 25, Christ discusses the prophetic aspects of drosh. He tells about His future kingdom and the events that will attend its establishment.

Sohd – the Secret Level

The sohd level of biblical interpretation goes beyond this realm of existence. It lifts us into heavenly places to view God’s glory aspects of Scripture. Sohd is not of this world. We can see the sohd level in the story of the flaming sword at the east gate of Eden; Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush and later atop Mount Sinai for 40 days; the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the Israelites through the wilderness; Elijah’s heavenly chariot; Ezekiel’s view of a celestial vehicle; Daniel’s encounters with angels; and John’s description of the New Jerusalem. The sohd level is definitely prophetic.

The rabbis describe it as one standing in the darkness of the early morning and seeing the finger-like radiance of the sun that announces its imminent rising. Once the sun lifts above the eastern horizon, the radiance disappears. It is the radiance or aura that speaks of sohd – the secret level. It can best be seen if one does not look directly at it, but rather catches it out of the corner of the eye.

John is the Gospel that presents the sohd level of Christ. He opens his view by telling us that Jesus was the personification of the “Word” of God, that He is the “Light” that shines in the darkness that cannot comprehend it. These are teachings that cannot be scientifically explained. They are not of this world. However, if you read the sages of Israel, though they may deny the deity of Christ, they go to great lengths to discuss these aspects of their Scriptures.

Conclusion

Eschatology is a subject that requires a solid foundation in the primary interpretation and practical applications of Scripture. It is a post-graduate study. It may not be for the novice, but is required for the serious student of the Bible.

If we stop short of prophetic studies; if we are content with practical application; if we view eschatology as a mere spiritual aberration; then we deprive ourselves of seeing the bigger picture. We fail to view life from God’s perspective. It was Paul who wrote, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Cor. 15:19).

Are we so spiritually lazy that we shun the subject lest we show our ignorance? Then I challenge you to “… study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).

Since the prophets gave us the opportunity to see into the future through their writings, we should not fear taking a peek now and then.

We should be smart enough to differentiate between crystal ball gazing and biblical prophecy. We should not be intimidated into laying aside one of our most rewarding areas of biblical studies.

Go back to Lesson 1: The Importance of Prophetic Studies

Go to Lesson 3: Literal Versus Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture