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INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY.
f 1. INTRODUCTION. The history of scriptural interpretation presents few, if any, phenomena more peculiar than those which have been exhibited, by some of the modes in which parts of the books of Daniel and of the Revelation have been explained, by a large class of English and American expositors. It would be a difficult task to enumerate all the writers of the class in question, who have made their appearance before the public; and still more difficult, to make out even a sketch of all their peculiar and in some respects ever varying interpretations. It is no part of my present design to attempt this. As a polemic, or an antagonist of particular writers, it is not my wish or intention to appear. Nor is it at all within my purpose to write a book on the general subject of expounding prophecy. My design is, to keep strictly within the bounds designated by the title of this Essay; and therefore I shall attempt no more than to give some HINTS, addressed to the consideration of the Christian public, in respect to some two or three of the principles gene
rally adopted by the expositors already named, in their interpretation of Daniel and of the Apocalypse.
The subjects of discussion to which I have adverted, may be comprised under three distinct heads. The first is the proposition, that there is in many parts of the prophecies, an occult, mystical, undeveloped meaning, which renders those predictions occasionally pregnant with a double sense.
The second, that some other prophecies have a meaning which is so concealed and obscure, that it can never be discovered until the events take place to which they refer. The third is, that the leading designations of time in the book of Daniel and the Apocalypse, viz." a time, times, and half a time," and " forty and two months or twelve hundred and sixty days,” comprise, not the actual period literally named, but 1260 years. In other words, the general principle, in respect to this third head, is, that the times, named in the two books before us, are designed to be understood as meaning, that each day is the representative of a year.
For a long time these principles have been so current among the expositors of the English and American world, that scarcely a serious attempt to vindicate them has of late been made. They have been regarded as so plain, and so well fortified against all objections, that most expositors have deemed it quite useless to defend them. One might indeed almost compare the ready and unwavering assumption of these propositions, to the assumption of the first self-evident axioms in the science of geometry, which not only may dispense with any process of ratiocination in their defence, but which do not even admit of any.
If I have overstated the confidence that has been felt and exhibited as to the principles in question, it is not from design. I have stated merely the impression that has been made on my own mind, by the perusal of many expositors
of prophecy; and I would merely make the appeal to every intelligent reader, whether my representation is not substantially correct.
Is it lawful and safe, now, to call in question a mode of interpretation so generally admitted, and which has so long been current among us ? Lawful, I think, it may be; for the Scriptures have prescribed to us none of these rules, nor have any of the creeds of Protestants dictated any thing which binds us to admit them. Safe it may be, provided truth admits of our questioning such rules; and surely it must be safe, if truth demands that we should reject them, for it is always safe and proper to follow truth.
The true and legitimate principles of interpretation depend on no individual man, no sect, no party. They are independent of all parties, else they would be of little or no value. They depend on no niceties of philosophical theories, on no far fetched and recondite deductions, on no caprice of fancy or imagination. Were they so dependent, they would be of little value even to the learned, and of none at all to the great mass of men who read the Scriptures.
The origin and basis of all true hermeneutical science are the reason and common sense of men, at all times and in all ages, applied to the interpretation of language either spoken or written. The faculty of interpreting is as natural as the faculty of speaking; and the rules or principles of interpretation are formed merely by observing how the faculty of exegesis develops itself. All science of interpretation so called, all modes of expounding language proposed by whomsoever they may have been, (unless indeed they may truly be the result of inspiration), which are not founded on the simple basis described above, can put in no just claim to our confidence, and have no right to exact our homage.
A scientific digest of the principles of interpretation, if rightly prepared, would be made in the like way as a grammatical treatise. In the latter case, the usages of language as to the forms of nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc., are first observed; then the manner in which sentences are constructed. A simple and true account of these constitutes what we call the Grammar of any language. So is it, also, in respect to Hermeneutics or the science of interpretation. The general usage of intelligent men, in respect to interpreting the language which they hear or read, is first observed, and then a record of this is made and reduced to a scientific form. The result is, a book of Hermeneutics.
Nothing can be more certain, than that language was not constructed by the aid of grammar as a science; for this science is only a regular digest of facts observed in respect to language already spoken, with some obvious deductions of general principles from these. These principles the rational nature of man, when employed in speaking or writing, instinctively follows. They are not matters of calculation and of consciously designed effort. So also in Hermeneutics; the principles of interpreting what we hear or read, are instinctive; they belong to our rational nature. Science only collects and arranges them, and draws deductions from them.
If this account be correct as to the origin of the science of interpretation, it would seem to follow, that any principle inconsistent with the general laws which our nature and reason have prescribed, or any principle beyond the circle of that prescription, cannot be safely trusted. Should any one ask : Why do the proper principles of Hermeneutics address themselves to all intelligent men with an imperative force? The answer is, that they are imperative, because they are the laws of our communicative nature ourselves, and are conscious therefore of their binding force. But
and faculties-because we find the basis of them within 2
suppose that we are called upon to give our assent to a rule of interpretation which is not founded in the usages of men, nay which is even contrary to these or inconsistent with them, are we obliged to yield assent ? Just as much, I answer, as we should be to yield our assent to a proposition in grammar, which would convert into a rule of the English language the patois of some little district or village. For example; not far from the place where I am writing, is a small collection of people, who have, no one knows how long, been accustomed to say: I does ; I reads this ; I goes to-morrow, etc. Shall this be inserted, now, as an additional rule for the declension and use of verbs in the next edition of Murray's English Grammar? If you answer in the negative, then why should a rule of interpretation foreign to general usage, or inconsistent with it, be adopted into a treatise on Hermeneutics?
$ 2. Occult OR DOUBLE SENSE OF PROPHECY.
The bearing of what has been said, the reader will speedily perceive. Our first question, as above proposed, is, whether we are to regard the position, that “there are many occult passages in the prophecies, which are pregnant with a double meaning,” as a position founded in the common-sense principles and usages of mankind as to the interpretation of language ?
On this question I shall now proceed to make a few remarks; keeping in view, however, the title of this Essay, and remembering that I am pledged only to give HINTS, and not to write a Thesaurus of hermeneutical science.
I must first of all define the meaning of double sense, so that the subject of discussion may be distinctly understood.
If we ascribe to any passage of Scripture a literal, ob