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July 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 3 · pp. 38–47 

Interpreting Old Testament Prophecy

Response by Delbert L. Wiens 6/3 (1977): 48–49.

Erwin Penner

The scope of this topic is so immense that stringent limitations will be needed. Therefore, I propose to establish basic hermeneutical principles so that the interpretation of specific details will be facilitated.


Grammatical-Historical Exegesis

Basic to understanding any Scripture, including the prophetic, is a thorough grammatical-historical exegesis of the text. Every effort must be made to understand what the author meant by his words in his context. If he uses metaphorical language it must be understood as metaphorical and we must seek the meaning of the metaphor. That meaning is the literal meaning but not, as Kevan states, the “literalistic” meaning. 1 When applied to prophecy it is quite proper to say that prophecy will be literally fulfilled, but that by no means necessarily requires a fulfillment that is “literalistic.” It all depends on the author’s intention in his language. It should be added that a rather common interpretive principle for prophecy, “literal where possible,” is not particularly helpful. The “where possible” needs to be clearly defined and that can only be done consistently with thorough grammatical-historical work. Also the word “literal” here means “literalistic” and this too can only be established by grammatical-historical study. The focus of “literal where possible” aims the interpreter down too narrow a hermeneutical path which may cause him to miss the author’s true meaning. For example, the claim that Israel must always mean physical Israel and never means the Church cannot be substantiated from a study of the NT (cf., Rom. 4, 9-11; Gal. 3, 5:16). A much better approach is to stress the normal meaning of words in their grammatical-historical context. Though this is not necessarily easier it does provide a broader and more helpful interpretive focus. {39}

Theological Exegesis

Theological exegesis must not be construed to mean that we adopt the biblical text to suit our theological or prophetical presuppositions. Rather it means, as Bright says,

. . . an exegesis of the text in theological depth, an exegesis that is not content merely to bring out the precise verbal meaning of the text but that goes on to lay bare the theology that informs the text. 2

Theological exegesis is basic to completing the exegetical task. So when we read a prophetic word we must seek to discover the theological convictions that prompted it and gave it its shape.

Furthermore, Kevan is quite correct in asserting that:

A passage of Scripture has theological meaning according to its dispensational place; that is to say, its true significance as part of the revelation of God is to be discovered by paying heed to its position in the unfolding of God’s progressive self-revelation. 3

Particularly, it should be noted that the form of an OT prophecy will be conditioned by its dispensational place. In interpreting such a passage we should not necessarily expect the fulfillment in the same form. In fact, it is quite proper to expect a new form in a new dispensation (i.e., the NT). Thus the Levitical sacrifices (OT shadow) are fulfilled in Christ (NT reality). The form is different but the theology that informs both, substitutionary atonement for sins, is the same. This point, however, leads us to the next basic hermeneutical principle.

New Testament Interpretation of the Old

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2a). The biblical concept of progressive revelation teaches us that we must read the OT (and its prophecies) in a forward direction, realizing that the OT revelation is preparatory of the NT. We must also read the OT backward in the light of NT truth since it gives us the final and fulfilled revelation. It should be recognized that “prophecy undergoes transmutation when it passes from one dispensation to another.” 4 This means that in interpreting prophecy we must look to the NT for fulfillment realizing that the form of the kingdom of God being now altered, never to return to the old form, the fulfillment will take place in an altered form commensurate with the principles of the NT dispensation, without violating the truth of the prophecy. 5 Therefore, one cannot accurately understand OT prophecy by simply reading it and then turning to a twentieth century newspaper for the fulfillment. Rather, we must read it through the NT revelation. We must bring the {40} earlier, more obscure, revelation under the light of the later and clearer NT revelation. Furthermore, we must recognize that all prophecy will remain essentially vague as to its details until we actually see the fulfillment. In fact, adherence to a very strict literalism in details can lead us to the same misconceptions in prophetic expectations as the unbelieving Jews had concerning the Messiah.

Kevan points out that obedience to the rule that prophecy undergoes transmutation in passing from one dispensation to the next leads to a three-fold method in interpretation.

(1) If the prophet’s words apply only to the OT dispensation, and are to be fulfilled in it, they will, no doubt, be fulfilled literally in terms of the OT dispensation.

(2) If the prophecies refer to things to be realized only in the NT dispensation, then it will be the interpreter’s duty to strip from them the OT form, which arose from the dispensation and time when the prophet lived, and look for their fulfillment in a way corresponding to the spirit of the NT dispensation and the altered conditions of the world.

(3) If a great principle be expressed, capable of several fulfillments, that fulfillment which took place in the OT times will be sought in terms of the OT economy, and that which either has taken place or will take place in NT times will be understood in accordance with the spirit and principles of Christianity. 6

In summary, when we wish to interpret OT prophecy we must begin with a thorough grammatical-historical exegesis of the text, followed by careful theological exegesis which seeks to understand the dispensational place of the text, including the OT fulfillments. Then we must seek all the possible NT light on the text so that we may understand the prophecy’s fulfillment in the new era.


In this extended section I wish to refer to Peter’s and Paul’s use of Hosea in 1 Peter 2:10 and Romans 9:25,26. 7 How can the apostles apply a clear Hosean reference to the ten tribes of Israel to the reception of the Gentiles into the Church? Before this question can be answered we must establish how the apostles viewed the OT, for this will illustrate clearly how they approach OT prophecy.

Peter’s and Paul’s View of the OT

In the first place, the apostles viewed the OT from a christological perspective. This approach to understanding the OT had been impressed upon them by the Lord Himself. In addressing Peter and the other disciples Jesus made it clear that the OT spoke about Him saying, {41} “It is necessary that all things which are written in the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). But Jesus is also the interpretive key to the OT (“Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” Luke 24:45). Paul used Scripture (OT) to prove that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 9:22, 26:22f). Jesus, by saving Paul and giving him the Holy Spirit, revealed to him the Christocentric nature of the OT.

That Peter and Paul believed the christological perspective to be central to a proper understanding of the OT is patent in their writings. Peter, speaking of the great salvation found in Christ (1 Pet. 1:3-9), adds that this salvation (v.10) was the subject of the prophets’ prophesying and careful investigation. They were “. . . seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” (v. 11). All that was revealed to them, however, was that they were ministering to people who would hear the Gospel preached, the Gospel of the fulfillment of the OT by Christ (v. 12). Peter very clearly viewed the OT as bearing witness to Christ, and yet it was the very Spirit of Christ who inspired the OT prophecy (v. 11). The OT not only tells us about Christ, but Christ is the author and therefore the interpreter of the OT.

This same centrality of Christ to the OT is a constant theme in Paul’s letters. His view of the OT can best be summed up by what he says in 2 Corinthians 3:12ff. Whenever Moses is read there is a veil over the children of Israel’s eyes; the veil of a hardened and closed mind (v. 14). This veil is removed in Christ, and only then can Moses be profitably understood, i.e., Moses can only be understood in terms of a christological perspective. Peter and Paul, then, view the OT from a thoroughly christological perspective.

Second, the historical perspective is vitally important to the Petrine-Pauline view of the OT. In fact, this perspective is foundational to the christological perspective. How could Christ be the fulfillment of the OT promise unless it were grounded in history? The OT presents a history of God’s redemptive activity; a history with which the apostles identify themselves very closely. “The swelling stream of the unity of God’s redemptive action is the starting point of Paul’s view of history and the principle of his scriptural exegesis.” 8

A most striking feature of this historical perspective is that history always proceeds under divine control. On this basis different historical events, even though widely separated by time, can be intimately related to one another because they fit into the progressive pattern of God’s redemptive activity. Paul doubtlessly has this concept in mind when he speaks of the Gospel which God “. . . promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:2f.). It is not the {42} prophets who made the promise, but the sovereign God through the prophets. This same God also gave the Son to the world at the proper time. The control of God over the original promises, the intervening historical events, and the eventual historical fulfillment is patent in this passage.

Another feature of the historical perspective, closely related to the sovereign control of God over history, is the organic unity in all of God’s actions. “The OT is not only a rose bud that opens up in the New (continuity), but it is also a fruit which casts off its peel in the New (discontinuity).” 9 1 Peter 1:10-12 contains an excellent example of this organic unity. The OT prophets had prophesied of the grace and salvation that would come to Peter’s contemporaries (v. 10). In fact, it was the Spirit of Christ who motivated them (v. 11). Moreover, the prophets are looked upon as ministers to the Christian believers in the divine economy (v. 12). Here there is real organic unity and continuity between the OT and NT saints. Yet there is also clear discontinuity. Though the prophets searched for the meaning of what they prophesied they could not see it as can the NT believers. They prophesied concerning the Gospel but never actually heard it in its NT manifestation.

Typology is also an important aspect of the historical perspective. However, it can only exist if God directs all history and if the OT and NT are in organic unity as shown above. 10 Absolutely vital to typology is its basis in historical fact. In 1 Corinthians 10:11 Paul says of the exodus and wilderness events, “Now these things happened to them as a type and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” These events are not only recorded for us but actually happened for us. 11 That is, in His eternal plan God brought about these events in Israel’s history for our benefit and instruction. This places great importance on the type as a historical occurrence.

Third, Peter and Paul viewed the OT with an eschatological perspective. They saw that throughout the OT there was “. . . one continuous movement in the direction of the Eschaton, the coming of the Day of the Lord.” 12 The OT expected the kingdom of God, but never attained it. The Lord’s saving work in the OT was not complete. For the apostles, the completion of this OT eschatological hope came with Christ. Now is the eschatological age (Peter and Paul, of course, still looked forward to the parousia and the final completion of God’s salvation; but Christ’s advent was the initial eschatological fulfillment). Therefore, “the relation of the NT to the Old is eschatological; all the promises are fulfilled in the ‘last days’ by the coming of the Lord.” 13 In fact, to ignore this eschatological perspective would be to sever a most vital connecting link between the OT and NT; it would destroy completely the apostles’ view of who Christ was. Without standing as the eschatological fulfillment of the OT hope and longing, Jesus would be a {43} mere isolated figure of time, unrelated to redemptive history, and essentially meaningless to Peter and Paul.

In retrospect it is vitally important to remember that the christological, historical and eschatological perspectives are totally integrated in Petrine-Pauline thought. Together they explain the apostles’ view of the OT, which is basically theological. This theological viewpoint must be constantly kept in mind when examining Peter’s and Paul’s quotations from the OT. Despite admitted discontinuities, they see a basic unity between what the OT teaches and what they teach; a unity which is solidly grounded in the historical occurrences of the past and present. To them the OT is a history of God’s past redemptive activity now completed in Christ, which occurred in preparation for Christ, takes its meaning from Him, and is continued in the NT age.

Peter’s and Paul’s Use of Hosea 1-3

We turn now to Peter’s and Paul’s use of Hosea in 1 Peter 2:10 and Romans 9:25, 26. Specifically we wish to answer the question how the apostles can apply a clear reference to the ten tribes of Israel to the reception of the Gentiles into the Church. This should help us to determine how we should approach the interpretation of OT prophecy.

Peter and Paul have a legitimate theological interest in Hosea 1-3. In order to derive the theological meaning from Hosea, the apostles by no means ignore what the text says. They take full account of its historical nature and its context. Romans 9:25 and 1 Peter 2:10 are paraphrases that refer to the whole context of Hosea 1-3. Peter and Paul have the whole Lo-ammi and Lo-ruhamah episode in mind as a description of God’s gracious way of adopting as His people those who formerly were not. 14 So by means of a historical and contextual consideration of Hosea the apostles derive the theological meaning, that God will have mercy and accept as His people those who have not received mercy and were not His people. This theological principle is uppermost in the apostles’ minds and is applied to the reception of the Gentiles. That is, God’s mercy and grace is free. Therefore, it can be extended to the Gentiles as well as the Jews, as He wills. There is, in other words, nothing in the Jewish nation which should require God’s love to be limited to them (cf. Deut. 7:6-8). Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 is in keeping with this. His underlying exegetical principle is that the “true Israel” are not the physical descendants of Abraham but “the children of promise” sovereignly chosen of God (cf., Rom. 9:7f). 15 Consequently, the application of the Hosean prophecy to the Gentiles (as well as the Jews) “. . . rests on the conception of ‘Israel’ argued in the earlier verses of Romans 9. It is not the ‘spiritualizing’ of a particular prophecy but the consistent application of a fundamental hermeneutical principle. Hosea has in view not physical Israel (Paul implies) but the regathered remnant of faith (cf., Rom. 9:27ff.) irrespective of their lineage”. 16 Also, when {44} Paul writes, “As he (God) says also in Hosea . . .” (Rom. 9:25), we must view it as God addressing men now from the OT revelation; and what He says from Hosea has abiding significance for modern man, in the light of NT revelation. This dialogical conception of the functioning of the Word exposes the OT words to a new understanding, 17 and allows for the use of Hosea to show the admission of the Gentiles into the people of God.

If the preceding analysis is correct, and if it is legitimate for the apostles to quote Hosea as grounds for the acceptance of the Gentiles, one question still remains: Does Hosea 1-3 really contain all the thoughts that the NT gleans from it? Is there a deeper (fuller) sense of Scripture? Our perspective in answering these questions should be that expressed by Young: “Here, in the age of fulfillment, is the Spirit of God, bringing to clearer light the deep truth which He had formerly revealed unto the writers of the OT.” 18 One thing is clear from our reference to 1 Peter 1:10-12, viz., it was revealed to the prophets that there was much more in what they were prophesying than they themselves realized. That there was a sense intended by the Holy Spirit which the human author did not intend, or know about, is understandable because God is the God of both Testaments and we cannot limit what He intended. 19 Moreover, since God is the principal author of Scripture, and man only the instrument, then His intentions are the criteria by which the meaning of Scripture must be understood: “. . . the prophet reported what God has said, he could not confine the scope of the message to what he understood.” 20 However, this “fuller” sense lies beyond our immediate exegetical control: “. . . one can make an exegesis of texts, but one cannot make an exegesis of the Holy Spirit’s intention.” 21 The only possible way God’s intentions can become known is by further revelation. This the NT provides, since it is the revelation of Jesus Christ through whom God has spoken in these last days. Further revelation clarifies a sense already there, it does not create a totally new one. 22 On this basis it is completely legitimate for Peter and Paul to use Hosea 1-3 to validate the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s Church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they interpreted Hosea in a sense divinely intended but only now revealed.

In summary, what conclusions can be drawn about the hermeneutics of Peter and Paul? First, they always take adequate account of the original meaning of the OT text. Second, their interest in the OT lies in its theological principles. Third, Peter and Paul understand these theological principles in terms of further revelation that has come in Jesus Christ.

The Relationship of NT Hermeneutics to Modern Interpretation

Is the NT hermeneutic normative for the modern interpreter, and if so, what is the nature and extent of this normatively? In what follows an {45} attempt will be made to show the discontinuity and continuity between the NT hermeneutic and modern interpretation.

In the first place, there is a discontinuity between the NT hermeneutic and modern interpretation. This discontinuity consists primarily in the fact that the NT authors were recipients and recorders of new and additional revelation from God which threw much light on the meaning of the OT whereas we are not. We have the same revelation because they recorded it for us under the Spirit’s guidance, but we cannot add to that revelation as they were able to add to the OT revelation. The apostles lived in a time of the special redemptive action of God in Christ and were used of God to contribute further revelation concerning that event. Therefore their quotation-exposition of the OT was legitimate and normative. In the true sense of the word it was the exegesis of the Holy Spirit, who can add to existing revelation and is free to modify expressions used by the inspired OT writers. 23 Our modern situation is not the same in that we cannot add an independent revelation or interpretation to the OT which in any way conflicts with the NT.

On the other hand, the continuity between NT hermeneutic and modern interpretation resides in the fact that the modern exegete must view the OT from the same christological-eschatological perspective as did the NT writers. This is so because further revelation came in Jesus Christ (NT), and because the two Testaments are an integral unity within a single redemptive history. 24 For the modern exegete to ignore the NT hermeneutical perspective and to seek to interpret the OT on purely grammatical-historical grounds deliberately is to put on similar “blinders” that involuntarily restrained the OT prophets from seeing the NT realities. Grammatical-historical exegesis of the OT, important as it is, is not enough for a true understanding of the OT. How is one then to arrive at a true understanding of the OT?

Bright succinctly sums up the answer, saying “. . . our interpretation is to be controlled by the theology expressed in the text with which we are dealing, in its relationship to the theology of the OT as a whole, and as that in turn relates to the theology of the New.” 25 This hermeneutical principle is valid only because:

the theological structure of the two Testaments is essentially the same; each of the major themes of the Old has its correspondent in the New, and is in some way resumed and answered there. By virtue of this fact a hermeneutical bridge is thrown between the Testaments which gives us access to each of the OT’s texts and defines for us the procedure that we must follow in attempting to interpret them in their Christian significance. 26

Furthermore, the OT text, in its plain meaning, is only perceived {46} “. . . in the light of what its theology has become in Christ.” 27 This is the Christocentric theology undergirding the apostles’ use of the OT; and this is the biblical theological method the modern interpreter must follow in order to understand the OT.

The application of the biblical theological method of interpretation varies in degree of difficulty. Passages that are referred to in the NT are easier to understand than those that are not mentioned. For example, Peter’s and Paul’s use of Hosea 1-3 is not too difficult to understand as we have shown. More difficult are the OT passages that are not directly referred to in the NT. How are these to be interpreted? The basic principle remains the same: (1) discover the theological import of the text in its context; (2) relate this meaning to its wider OT theological context; and (3) relate it to, and view it from, the NT perspective, specifically as to how this principle has been accomplished and worked out through Jesus Christ. On this basis the OT text can still be interpreted from a NT perspective. The only caution that must be urged in such a case is that the interpretation and application of the OT text may never contradict the teachings of the NT. We cannot add to the OT what the NT has not added, but we can understand unmentioned OT passages in the light of NT principles.

There is then a normative relationship between the NT hermeneutic and modern interpretation. Like the apostles the modern interpreter must be concerned with biblical theology. Even though he can not be a creative biblical theologian like Peter and Paul, yet he must follow their lead in interpreting the OT in the light of the realities directly revealed to them as they are recorded in the NT. This involves two important principles. First, the OT theology can only be ascertained by a thorough grammatical-historical exegesis. This is foundational. Second, the OT theology can only be fully understood in terms of grammatical-historical exegesis plus, i.e., plus the interpretive light of NT revelation. It is only through what Jesus accomplished that the theology of the OT has attained its full meaning. Since Jesus came the claims and promises of the OT theology have become a reality. Therefore, like the apostles, the modern interpreter must read his OT in two directions: forward, by grammatical-historical exegesis determining its plain historical meaning, and backward, by grammatical-historical exegesis plus, seeing it in the light of the NT’s affirmations about it. 28 Both must be done simultaneously. Only if both factors are constantly observed can the modern interpreter understand the OT, including its prophecies, correctly; and in so doing he stands solidly in the tradition of interpretation made normative by Peter and Paul and the other NT writers. {47}


  1. Ernest Kevan, “The Principles of Interpretation,” Revelation and the Bible, ed., C.F.H. Henry. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 294.
  2. John Bright. The Authority of the Old Testament, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), p. 170.
  3. Kevan, p. 295.
  4. Kevan, p. 297.
  5. Kevan, p. 297.
  6. Kevan, p. 297.
  7. I am here relying heavily on my Th.M. thesis, Peter’s and Paul’s Common Use of Old Testament Quotations, a thesis submitted to the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Theology, (Philadelphia). 1969.
  8. Herman Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus, (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1958), p. 61.
  9. P. A. Verhoef, “The Relationship Between Old and New Testament”, an unpublished lecture presented to the Evangelical Theological Society at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, in Dec., 1968, pp. 32f.
  10. E. Earle Ellis, Pauls’s Use of the Old Testament, (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), pp. 127ff.
  11. Otto Michel, Paulus and Seine Bibel, (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1929), p. 63.
  12. Verhoef, pp. 29f.
  13. Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), p. 99.
  14. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures, (London: Nisbet & Co., 1953), p. 75.
  15. Ellis, p. 122.
  16. Ellis, p. 122.
  17. Verhoef, p. 16.
  18. Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), p.161.
  19. Bright, p. 93.
  20. Raymond Edward Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scriptures, (Baltimore: St. Mary’s University, 1955), p. 131. Cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-12.
  21. Bright, p. 94.
  22. Brown, p. 125.
  23. Roger R. Nicole, “A Study of the Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament with Reference to the Doctrine of the Inspiration of the Scriptures,” an S.T.M. thesis submitted to the Faculty of Gordon College of Theology and Missions, Boston, (April, 1940), pp. 30f.
  24. Bright, p. 200.
  25. Bright, p. 210.
  26. Bright, p. 211.
  27. Bright, p. 212.
  28. Bright, p. 200.
Erwin Penner, Th.M., is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and teaches at Winkler Bible Institute, Winkler, Manitoba.

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