It is important to learn to interpret the Bible correctly, especially when it comes to understanding Bible prophecy. Bible interpretation is both a science and an art. “It is a science because it is guided by rules within a system; and it is an art because the application of those rules is by skill, not by mechanical imitation.” (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 1)
In this section of Jeremiah, we find an excellent example of one of those rules for interpreting the Bible: the law of double reference. Basically, “double reference” says that a passage can have one meaning for the immediate hearers and one meaning for future hearers, while saying the same thing at the time of writing.
In Jeremiah 50-51 we find God’s promise to destroy Babylon because of their wickedness. At first glance we assume that it simply refers to the overthrow of Babylon by the Medo-Persians in October 539 B.C. (see Daniel 5 for the account of what happened).
These are the clues that tell us that this is the overthrow described:
- the specific references to King Nebuchadnezzer – the then-current king of Babylon (50:17-18)
- the reference to the Medes coming against Babylon (51:11)
- there was a message given to the Israelites who were in Babylon at that time (51:45-53)
This is what the Israelites needed to hear – Babylon was going down, and God was going to do it. And that happened, but not the way they expected.
In 539 B.C. when the Medo-Persians did conquer Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar was no longer the king of Babylon, and the Israelites who were exiled there were not allowed to escape. So we are left with an apparent contradiction. Does this passage refer to that event or not?
Enter the law of double reference. This rule of interpretation says that the 539 B.C. conquering of Babylon was definitely anticipated here, but it is not the only conquest meant. Here are some clues that tell us that Babylon is going to be conquered again:
- multiple references to complete devastation – no one will live there again after the final conquest (50:3, 12-13, 39-40; 51:29, 37, 43); this has not happened yet
- this conquest will be done by a army of many nations, not just one (50:41; 51:27-28); this has not happened yet
- parallel references to the future fall of Babylon in Revelation (51:7 and Rev. 17:2; 51:41 and Rev. 18:1-2); this has not happened yet
- Israel’s complete forgiveness and restoration (50:20); this has not happened yet
Paul encourages us to “accurately handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). That includes growing our skills in the “science and art” of proper Bible interpretation. The better we have an accurate handle on God’s Word, the better God’s Word will have a handle on us.