"The best way to interpret a Bible passage is to understand it the way the original writer and recipients understood". Agreed. This principle is helpful. But what about texts like Daniel's prophecies, for example. Daniel did not understand most of the prophecies he was directed to observe and record, and God did not expect him to understand (Daniel 12:8-9, or 8:27). Even his original readers would not understand, I'm, sure.

This situation seem to give modern interpreters (like us today) free license to interpret such prophecies according to our own whims and prejudices. My question is: What is a safe principle we can use in interpreting such difficult texts, which seem to be unbound by time and historical realities?

  • Jesus said all the scriptures speak of him. In Sensus Plenior we always look for him first. A metaphor must be the same everywhere, it must speak in an important manner of Christ in agreement with the NT. There is no such thing as Biblical free license in interpretation. There are many who disagree with this. Welcome to SE.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 2:17

3 Answers 3


Daniel presents himself in the book as not understanding the meaning of the prophecy, but there is also the angel in the story who gives him the message, who apparently does understand the prophecy, and even says that "the wise" would understand the message (Daniel 12:10). So there was obviously a meaning intended

Here are two possible approaches to interpreting the intended meaning:

  1. Daniel didn't understand what he was writing, and the book is only his transmission of it for one of "the wise" to interpret. If this is the case, there is no real authorial intent as to the actual meaning of the prophecy; maybe only "angelic intent." You may or may not be the audience he was writing for. If we are not his audience, the author doesn't believe we will be able to understand it either: the message is sealed until the time of the end (12:9). Only if we are that audience, and we are wise enough, can we understand it (12:10). This just begs the question how to know, and indeed many interpreters who regards Daniel as scripture have thought it applies to their own time, for at least two millenia. The only objective interpretation you can attempt with this approach is what Daniel thought about the prophecy, not Daniel's own interpretation of the prophecy.

  2. To separate completely between Daniel the character and Daniel the author: Daniel's not knowing the meaning is only a literary device, and the author had a specific, known time in mind. A widely accepted interpretation views Daniel as a Hasmonean-era book describing the Hasmonean revolt. This also suffers from the problem of starting with an assumption about the text, but the method in this case would be to examine the time period of the author's own life, as far as it can be determined, and interpret the text based on that time period.

  • Thanks. It didn't occur to me that may be we (those in 2018) may not be the ones to "understand", since Daniel seem to be writing for a future generation very near the end. Fascinating to think about that. Thank you.
    – Kedo
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 1:33

"The best way" depends on your goals. What information do you want to get? If you are interested in ancient religion and culture, it is definitely most appropriate to try to figure out what the original writer (and its audience) meant. If you are interested in cultural development, you may instead look at reception history. These are both accepted scientific approaches, because hypotheses relating to these questions are falsifiable.

However, it seems instead you are looking at how these texts can be used in personal religious life today and how they can bring you closer to God. The major, unfalsifiable assumption here is that the text indeed says something about the present and about your life. The goal of such a reading makes it impossible to objectively compare different interpretations. There is nothing to measure or falsify.

If this is indeed what you want, you don't need to consider yourself bound by rigid scientific methodology (for better or for worse). In essence, you are free to do as you like. However, there are certain established methodologies in religious denominations. A well-known one, for instance, is lectio divina where reading is alternated with meditation, prayer and free association.

Because such methods are typically highly subjective one must be hesitant to make general claims about them. Nevertheless, I know from personal experience that sometimes lectio divina or similar practices can cause one to see non-coincidental parallels that can be tested scientifically. For instance, one can notice a dependency of some text on another text, which can then be tested using methods from textual criticism.

  • you are right, I am looking for something useful in personal religious life, and something to bring me closer to God. But whether it is for this purpose, or for some other scholarly debate, I do want to make sure that my interpretation is verified as true and faithful to the Bible, that it is historically reliable and spiritual edifying. thanks. your answer did clarify certain things for me.
    – Kedo
    Commented Aug 23, 2018 at 11:31

Daniel 8:26-27 (YLT)


And the appearance of the evening and of the morning, that is told, is true; and thou, hide thou the vision, for it is after many days.'

And I, Daniel, have been, yea, I became sick for days, and I rise, and do the king's work, and am astonished at the appearance, and there is none understanding.

Daniel 12:8-9


And I have heard, and I do not understand, and I say, 'O my lord, what is the latter end of these?'

And he saith, 'Go, Daniel; for hidden and sealed are the things till the time of the end;


Isaiah 29:10


For poured out on you hath Jehovah a spirit of deep sleep, And He closeth your eyes -- the prophets, And your heads -- the seers -- He covered.

And the vision of the whole is to you, As words of the sealed book, That they give unto one knowing books, Saying, 'Read this, we pray thee,' And he hath said, 'I am not able, for it is sealed;'


Revelation 5:1

And I saw upon the right hand of Him who is sitting upon the throne a scroll, written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals;

and I saw a strong messenger crying with a great voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose the seals of it?'

and no one was able in the heaven, nor upon the earth, nor under the earth, to open the scroll, nor to behold it.

And I was weeping much, because no one was found worthy to open and to read the scroll, nor to behold it,

and one of the elders saith to me, 'Weep not; lo, overcome did the Lion, who is of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, to open the scroll, and to loose the seven seals of it;


A safe principle is to let the bible interpret itself.

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