Question: "What is headline exegesis?"
Answer: Exegesis is the practice of reading a text and determining what it means using a literal, honest interpretation. Terms are defined as the context dictates, metaphors are acknowledged properly, and the author’s original intent is carefully considered. The opposing interpretive method is eisegesis, which depends more on the reader’s intent than the writer’s.
Headline exegesis is a pejorative for the practice of trying to determine where the world is in end-times prophecy according to current news stories. A recent example is the response of some Bible commentators to the drying of the Euphrates River. Due to drought and farmland irrigation, the large river that runs through Turkey and Iraq has dwindled to a stream in some places. It is true that Scripture mentions the Euphrates drying as part of the end times (Revelation 16:12). But the current low levels of the Euphrates do not mean we are in the end times. The Euphrates will dry up at the very end of the tribulation, shortly before Jesus’ return. We are not currently in the tribulation. The drying of the river in recent days is due to human actions and climate; in the end times, it will be an act of God.
One cure for headline exegesis is learning history. Conflict in the Middle East, inflation, dismaying political elections, natural disasters, technological advances, pandemics—these things have happened for hundreds if not thousands of years. Rising gas prices do not mean that Jesus is returning soon; anyone who lived through the 1970s knows this. An election in the US likely has nothing to do with the end times, especially since the US isn’t mentioned in end-times prophecy. Even a global nuclear war wouldn’t necessarily be a sign of the end times.
Reading headlines is not a reliable way to determine where we are in the end times. Rather, headlines should be used to determine how to apply the tasks Jesus has given us. How can we love our neighbor (Matthew 22:39)? How can we love our enemy (Matthew 5:43–48)? Where should we spread the gospel (Luke 10:5–6)? How can we support the church (1 Corinthians 16:1–3)? Wars show us who needs safety (Exodus 22:21). Inflation tells us to trust God for our needs (Matthew 6:25–33). Pandemics remind us not to fear death (Matthew 10:28). Every headline tells us how to pray (1 Timothy 2:1–6).
Bible exegesis, not headline exegesis, teaches what we should do in light of the end times: be prepared for Jesus’ return by spreading the news about the kingdom of God. Share the gospel. Practice and promote justice. Love one another. “And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mark 13:7).