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Systems of Interpretation

There is probably no other portion of the Scriptures concerning the meaning of which the interpreters so widely differ. This has caused some readers to conclude that the work is a tissue of confused and perhaps incoherent utterances, thrown out in prophetic ecstasy, the interpretation of which is a hopeless attempt; and they have supposed that the attempted explanations only illustrated the vagaries and the failures of the commentators. The differences are due to the different systems of interpretation employed. Of these there are three principal ones, all containing some truth, but all also in danger of being pushed to extreme erroneous conclusions, and it is probable that every interpreter, who is not rationalistic, accepts some of the results of all three of these systems. These are: (1.) The Preterist. According to this system the successive visions apply to events chiefly in the history of the Jewish nation and of Pagan Rome. These events have occurred long since in the past. Many rationalistic writers insist that all events described must have taken place before the visions were written, and that there is no such thing as prediction. Hence these critics are called Preterists, but this view is not confined to them. It is held by most Roman Catholic commentators and by some Protestants. (2.) The Futurists. These insist that the predictions apply mainly to events yet in the future, and will be fulfilled in the future history of the literal Israel. They assert that Israel will again occupy Palestine, that the temple will be literally rebuilt; that the holy city shall be literally trodden down for 1,260 days by the Gentiles, etc. The Preterist system is right in asserting that much of Revelation applies to what is now past, and the Futurist is right this far, namely, that a portion applies to what is still future. (3.) The Historical. In my opinion this system is more nearly correct, and yet it needs to be modified by the others, and carefully guarded. It holds that a succession of historical events, future when John wrote but now in part in the past, are portrayed by a 410series of visions. The error must be avoided of supposing that the book is continuously historical from the beginning to the end. If it is borne in mind that there is more than one series of visions; that when one series ends another follows which is synchronous, at least in part; that a part of the events portrayed by symbols is not in the past, while another portion is in the future, I think the result of the Historical system will be found to be clear, harmonious, and surprisingly in correspondence with the visions of the prophet. It perhaps cannot be expected that even those who adopt this system will agree in every detail, but we do find that the great expositors of the historical school, embracing the majority of English commentators, are in substantial agreement.

It must always be kept in mind, however, that this book is a book of prophecy, intended to “shew the things which must shortly come to pass.” John was a Seer. He recorded what he saw. The future was portrayed to him in a series of visions. The pictures which passed before his eyes represented future events. Hence, each is a symbolical representation of what was then future, and may now be past history. Thus, when the first seal is opened in chap. 6:1, 2, and a warrior is seen with a bow in his hand riding on a white horse in conquest, this must be interpreted as a sense-image which appropriately represents an event or epoch of history which was future when John was an exile on Patmos. Symbolical pictures follow each other in rapid succession as the seals are opened and the trumpets blown, a correct interpretation of which is to be sought not in literal fulfillment, but in events of which the sense-visions might be appropriate symbols. It will be a help in understanding the text to have an explanation of the meaning of the various symbols employed as they are ordinarily used in prophetic writings; hence I give a

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