Some Old Testament prophecies seem to have been fulfilled in a literal manner, but others clearly have to be interpreted. Why are some literal, and others not? In prophecy, things of a spiritual nature are represented by symbols.
Here are some prophecies of Zechariah that are said to have been literally fulfilled by Jesus.
Patrick Fairbairn observed, “There are many passages in the prophets in which the application to them of a strict and historical literalism would not only evacuate their proper meaning, but render them absolutely ridiculous and inconsistent one with another.”
In their interpretations of Isaiah 2:2, the prophecy that the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established at the top of the mountains, above the hills, dispensationalist commentators and expositors are torn between their commitment to their mantra of literalism, and their devotion to the idea that ethnic Jews will dominate other nations in the Millennium. The literal view says the prophecy means that mount Zion and Jerusalem will be literally raised up, by tectonic means. Contrasting with this approach is the interpretation of mountains as nations, which leads to the concept of Jews becoming a kind of master-race.
In Daniel 8 a little horn growing out of the head of a goat grows tall, up to the sky, where it casts stars and the host of heaven to the earth, and tramples them. This of course cannot be literal, but has to be interpreted. In verse 14, Daniel hears that the desolation of the sanctuary is to continue for 2,300 days. This specifies the termination of the desolation, but no start date is mentioned. The phrase “unto 2,300 days” indicates that the time extends from when the words were spoken by the angel in the vision, the 3rd year of Belshazzar, about 553 BC. If the days represent years, 23 centuries would end in about 1750 AD.
In the table below two kinds of interpretation of Revelation 11 & 12 are compared. The column at the left identifies many of the symbols in these chapters. The middle column presents commonly held views based on a literal approach, and what is here considered the natural or human point of view, represented by the little horn in Daniel 7, with “eyes like the eyes of a man.” The column at the right contains a more mature, spiritual interpretation. Often, scholars will offer a mix of interpretations from either of the two columns.
Israel’s promised land, described as a land of milk and honey, and the seventh day sabbath, are both types of the rest that Hebrews 3-4 encourages believers to enter. Entering this rest requires belief.
After the children of Israel were delivered from Egypt, they endured 40 years wandering in the wilderness. At the end of that period Joshua addressed them, and he spoke of their promised inheritance as rest. “Remember the word which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, The Lord your God hath given you rest, and hath given you this land.” [Joshua 1:13]
The author of Hebrews contrasts milk and strong meat. The meaning of milk, and strong meat, as symbols representing elementary and advanced kinds of spiritual knowledge, is evident from the context. The milk of God’s word includes the accounts of the lives of men of faith, and the accounts of the history of Israel, the gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus, and the Acts of the apostles, all the events in the scriptures related in a straightforward manner.
In his Ezekiel 36 Commentary, Bruce Hurt quoted from the works of numerous authors who support dispensationalism. However the author identified himself as a literalist rather that a dispensationalist. In his comments on verse 1 he wrote:
The prophecy of Ezekiel 39:11-16 describes the burial of the slain corpses of the armies of Gog and Magog. The following particulars are given:
- Burial location: east of the sea, in the valley of Hamongog
- Identity of those who are burying: the whole house of Israel
- Duration of the work: seven months
- Results: God is glorified, and the land is cleansed
The following are comments by Lutheran scholar Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg on determining the meaning of Old Testament prophecies, and pitfalls that exist in either literal or excessively figurative views. [From Christology of the Old Testament, Volume 2. T. & T. Clark, 1858. pp. 430-439.]
In the 10th of his 15 arguments against the idea that Christ reigns upon the throne of David now, in this article, George Zeller commented on the prophecy of Amos 9:11-15, which James applied to the church in Acts 15:16. Zeller wrote:
In the 8th of his 15 arguments against the idea that Christ reigns upon the throne of David now, in this article, George Zeller asserts that “literal interpretation is to be preferred.” He wrote:
The third of 15 scriptures discussed in this article, apparently by George Zeller, refers to Jeremiah’s prophecy that Jerusalem would remain forever. But that was not true of the earthly city, which was destroyed completely in 70 AD.
In Zechariah 14:1, Jerusalem’s spoil is divided up in her midst. The spoil is her possessions, and prophecy is one of the things given to the church, which many have treated as if it were a spoil. Dr. Michael J. Vlach discussed Zechariah 14:1-9 in his post, Zechariah 14 and the Timing of the Kingdom. In this prophecy, Zechariah described the mount of Olives being cleaved in the midst, and the two sections of the mountain moving apart, in opposite directions.
Vlach denies that the subject of the prophecy of Zechariah 14 is the church. But the name Jerusalem is applied to the church in the New Testament. Jesus said it is “the city of the great king.” [Matthew 5:35] In 1 Peter 1:1-12, the apostle Peter said the prophets ministered “not unto themselves, but unto us.” Perhaps the armies that Zechariah described, who come against the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, include those who misinterpret prophecy. Read more…
The prophecies of Daniel 7 and 8 each describe a little horn. The horn in each chapter appears in different beasts; the fourth beast in chapter 7 has ten horns, and is identified with the Roman empire; the male goat in chapter 8 has four horns that represent the hellenistic Greek kingdoms established after the conquests of Alexander. In both chapters the little horn is not numbered with the initial horns. The little horn that grows very tall in chapter 8 is connected with the Seleucid kingdom at Antioch, in Syria. Read more…
Isaiah’s prophecy about making a highway in the desert is coupled with a prophecy about mountains being made low, and in many interpretations of his prophecy, the mountains are reduced to mere bumps in the road!
In his introduction to the last eight chapters of the book of Ezekiel, Frederic Gardiner gave several reasons why Ezekiel’s description of the temple, the river flowing from it, and the division of the land, should be understood figuratively, and why insisting on a literal approach leads to contradictions.
Those who support a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple in chapters 40-47 point to the remarkable amount of detail in Ezekiel’s account, supposing that such detail can only mean that everything described must be taken literally. Dispensationalist John C. Whitcomb wrote:  Read more…
God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Jesus said that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, will be in his kingdom. [Luke 13:28] Paul said that those who have faith in Christ are the children of Abraham. [Galatians 3:7] Do the Gentile saints also inherit the land? If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are to inherit the land of Canaan, and they are also to be in the kingdom of God, would not this imply that those in the kingdom of God also inherit the land? Read more…
Three interpretations of Isaiah 2:2, by Jean Calvin, (1509-1564) Franz Delitzsch, (1813-1890) and Ebenezer Henderson (1784-1858) are examined. Each of these men wrote commentaries on Isaiah. Calvin was French, Delitzsch was German, and Henderson was a Scot. Read more…