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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Double Sense of Scripture.

In certain prophetic passages there is a double import or twofold application, a lower and a higher, a nearer and a more remote. The former relates to the present and immediate, while the latter usually refers to the Messianic period and spiritual deliverance. This distinction, however, has been contested by many. It is undeniable that several of the fathers maintained, the so-called double sense of prophecy, particularly Theodore of Mopsuestia; and there is little doubt that numbers in modern times have rejected it on account of the unfortunate appellation. Twofold reference would be much more appropriate; but the name is of little consequence. A recent writer asks, "How could such positions form part of a revelation when, after we have ascertained their meaning, we are still left as ignorant as ever of their import, since under these words another deeper meaning still lies hidden? Besides, how, and upon what principle, can we ever be sure that we have arrived at the true secondary meaning, or that we have perfectly exhausted the burden of these passages, or that our work as commentators is accomplished? There may be a third, fourth, fifth, or as the Rabbis maintain seventy meanings lurking still deeper under these very words" (Wolfe, Messiah in the Psalms, page 74). But neither the single nor the double sense of prophecy can justly be argued on a priori grounds. Thus Arnold (Sermons, 1:427) tries to show that "a double sense appears to be a necessary condition of the very idea and definition of prophecy, as having, so to speak, a human as well as a divine author." This language applies to all inspired composition, and would therefore imply a double sense in all Scripture. The true and only philosophical method is to consider the actual phenomena of prophecy as they lie before us in the Scriptures, and see whether the one-sense theory meets all the exigencies in every case.

At the outset it is proper to deny that the theory of double-sense rests wholly upon the construction put upon the formulae by which the N.T. writers frequently introduce the quotations from the O.T., e.g. Matthew 1:22, ἵνα πληρωθῇ, "that it might be fulfilled," and the like (Wolfe, page 76). (See FULFIL). The basis of this method of interpretation lies far broader and deeper than this; it is founded in part on the typical character of the O.T. institutions, and on symbolical transactions and teachings; it is derived from the language of many individual passages, which is both historical and hyperbolical; it is inherent in the nature of a theocracy like that of the Jews, which was elementary, symbolical, typical, preparatory to a better and a spiritual economy. It is freely allowed that a double sense should not be admitted when another explanation is more probable. No doubt it has been assumed in some cases too hastily; but there are cases which cannot be fairly interpreted without it. (See QUOTATION) (of O.T. in the New).

The language of prophecy is generally vague and obscure; the ideas of the seers their visions and dreams, were tinged with darkness. In many instances, it would seem that they had not themselves a clear perception of all the meaning of what they were prompted to utter (1 Peter 1:11). Some of their predictions, therefore, are fairly susceptible of various references, and were doubtless intended to be so taken. Indeed, it is a good rule, in the interpretation of Scripture generally, to adopt that signification which is the most comprehensive, and which frequently includes two or more senses upon which commentators have generally been divided; but this, of course, cannot be done when these meanings are diverse in principle, but only where, as in the case of the double references now spoken of, they are but branches of the same wider extension, or applications coming under the same analogy. That one event in this manner frequently adumbrates another in Scripture is unquestionable, and the language is often adapted to such a twofold import. Remarkable instances of this may be seen even in the New Testament, as, for example, in our Lord's blended prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world (Matthew 24); and a similar ambiguity runs through all the O.T. utterances respecting "the latter days," the details of which are applicable in various degrees to the Restoration and to the Messianic sera. (See ESCHATOLOGY).

Indeed, more recent expositors are strongly inclining, in the case of the Apocalypse, to that system of exposition which regards its language, its visions, and its symbols as designed to refer not so much to any specific event or series of events as to various historical occurrences and periods; that wherever general agencies appear in operation, as distinguished from individual transpirations wherever general causes and influences exist, there the Apocalyptic prophecies apply; that they comprehend various events and periods, because they speak of general influences or agencies producing similar results. (See REVELATION (BOOK OF).)

Hence the scenery is largely borrowed from Daniel and Ezekiel, not in a sense foreign to its original import, but merely as a fresh application or extension to cognate incidents. According to Alexander (Commentary on Isaiah, Introd. page 37), " all predictions, or prophecies in the restricted sense, are not specific and exclusive, i.e., limited to one occasion or emergency, but many are descriptive of a sequence of events which has been often realized. Thus, in some parts of Isaiah there are prophetic pictures of the sieges of Jerusalem which cannot be exclusively applied to any one event of that kind, but the terms and images of which are borrowed partly from one and partly from another through a course of ages. Thus the threatening against Babylon contained in Isaiah 13, 14, if explained as a specific and exclusive prophecy of the Medo-Persian conquest, seems to represent the downfall of the city as more sudden and complete than it appears in history. . . . . It is a panorama of the fall of Babylon, not in its first inception merely, but through all its stages till its consummation." It therefore depicts different and distinct occurrences, separated by intervals of time from one another. Each is a certain grade and stage of fulfillment. If referred to one occurrence, or to a series of occurrences taking place together, the prophecy certainly applies to them it has its meaning in them; but it has not its full sense or entire fulfillment till applied to other occurrences. The sense of it is springing or germinant; coming to widen till it embraces various references-allusions and applications to various events. (See PROPHECY).

A still more striking instance of this twofold reference is found in Isaiah 49, which nearly throughout alludes most palpably to the Messiah, yet under the more immediate imagery of the return and restoration of the Babylonian exiles. Thus Jehovah's "Servant" (see Umbreit, Knecht Gottes, Hamb. 1840), chosen from his birth for the redemptive and evangelizing work (Isaiah 49:1-2), is explicitly styled "Israel" (Isaiah 49:8), and a similar blending of the national and the Messianic references is continued through the chapter. That the speaker is not Isaiah himself, nor the prophets as a class, is evident from the fact that neither of these were ever entrusted with a message to the Gentiles. That the address is put into the mouth of the chosen people is favored by various considerations, but there are at the same time clear indications that the words are those of the Messiah. These two interpretations can only be reconciled by assuming that in this passage (as in others that might be cited) the ideal speaker is the Messiah considered as the head of his people, and as forming with them one complex person, according to the canon of Tichonius, quoted by Augustine: "Mention is often made in Scripture of Christ and his body the Church as of one person, to whom some things are attributed which reside only in the Head, some which belong only to the Body, and :some again which pertain to both" (Alexander, Later Prophecies of Isaiah, page 170). (See ISAIAH (BOOK OF).)

Another example is Psalms 16, which, although in the first instance, as explained by all good commentators (e.g. Calvin, De Wette, Ewald, Hengstenberg, Alexander, Olshausen, Hupfeld), describes a pious sufferer in peril of death, either David himself or some other, yet in a higher sense passes through one stage of fulfillment in every pious sufferer; while its highest fulfillment is if Christ, as is proved by the quotations of Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. The same may be said of Psalm xxii: few will deny that it has reference, chiefly or in its highest import, to Christ, the head of the righteous afflicted; but Psalms 16:6; Psalms 16:9-10 demonstrate that it has a literal application to the writer's own sacred sorrows. We may also point to Isaiah 40-66 as a more extended example. We cannot doubt that this portion of the book refers primarily to a historical object, the exile, and the deliverance of Israel from Babylon. But along with the description of this restoration there is a deeper and higher reference, namely, to the time of the Messiah, in which comes spiritual deliverance. The two are spoken of together, and blended in the description given. The prophecy was fulfilled in the last; it had an incipient fulfillment, if we may be allowed the phrase, in the first. It matters not whether the prophet himself distinctly intended to speak of both; it is highly probable that he had no very clear perception of the manner in which his language would be verified by history in its highest sense. The descriptions are of such a kind as to forbid their exclusive application either to the New dispensation or to events in the Old; both must be combined in order to bring out the true interpretation; they relate both to historical events under the Old, and spiritual ones under the New economy. Nor are the references to the historical and the spiritual kept apart; the one merges into the other; in some parts the descriptions point to the two as successive, while in others they embrace both together. (See PSALMS).

A common objection to this mode of interpretation is that it is arbitrary to apply one part of a prophecy to a historical person or place, and another part of the same passage spiritually; to interpret one verse literally and another emblematically; for example, to say that David is meant in this clause, and Christ in that. Those who do not explain the same prophecy throughout in one consistent method are justly liable to this objection: the two methods, the historical and the spiritual, or the nearer and more remote, should be adopted together and applied throughout the same passage, except that in certain parts a preponderance may be allowed to one or the other import; while those who. prefer the historical alone, or the spiritual alone, should adhere to each respectively: it is wrong to run from one to another in the same prophecy, unless there be evident marks of a transition. This objection, therefore, does not lie against the legitimate use of the twofold-reference scheme, but against its abuse.

As to the other objection urged against this method of interpretation, that it opens the door for many, even an indefinite number of senses, as well as two, it may be sufficient to reply, in the first place, that if there be evidence of several senses inhering in a given prophecy, they ought, of course, all to be admitted, however numerous they may be. But, secondly, there will rarely, if ever, be found to exist more than two such senses, and these not really distinct, but related to each other as special and general, as local and universal, or as primary and secondary, as germinal and complete, as historical and spiritual, etc. In short, one event is to be viewed as the type of another, because involving the same principle in the divine economy; e.g. the "Man of Sin" (q.v.) is Antichrist as a spiritual antagonist, whether in the form of the Seleucid persecutors, pagan Rome, or the papacy. (See LITTLE HORN). See Davidson, in Home's Introduction, new ed. 2:458 sq.; on the other side, Stuart, in the Biblic. Repos. 1831, page 63 sq.; in the Bibliotheca Sacra, 1852, page 459 sq.; comp. Stier, Words of Jesus, 1:431 sq., Am. ed.; Meth. Quart. Review, April, 1867, page 195 sq. (See HERMENEUTICS).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Double Sense of Scripture.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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