How to Read Prophecy Part 1 – Promising Principles and Problematic Pitfalls

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How to Read Prophecy Part 1 – Promising Principles and Problematic Pitfalls

As the people of God living in the last days, a perennial question that demands clarity is, “How should we study, understand, and apply the prophetic messages of the Bible?”[1] As I had the task of teaching on biblical prophecy several years ago, it became apparent to me that I was not as clear on the matter as needed. So,I started a journey to take such a complex topic and simplify it for the benefit of the church and my own personal growth. It is Peter’s clarification and warning that makes necessary a clear biblical method of study that arises from Scripture. Many Bible readers are familiar with Peter’s assertion that,

“knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet 1:20–21)

Applying the reading method of reading texts as wholes (i. e. reading the whole book in one setting) alerted me to the fact that I needed to keep reading because it is what he says in the next sentence that explains the relevance of his statement,

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Pet 2:1)

 

So, a strong impetus for understanding biblical prophecy alongside character development[2] is giving a clear understanding of how to hear and respond to true biblical prophecy in the face of false prophets and the prophesies they parrot.[3] When it comes to the bible’s communicative force, we should note that prophecy is not an esoteric[4] enterprise. Unfortunately, the way prophecy is sometimes taught, fanciful theories are passed off as sound biblical teaching. So, after noting the varied nuances of what prophecy actually covers in the text, we will look at some simple principles that we can build upon from deeper study of the Word.

 

The Nuances of Biblical Prophecy

An unnecessary dichotomy is often set up between the predictive elements of prophecy (i.e. Foretelling) and the proclamation facets of the prophets that address the moral life of the people (i.e. Forthtelling). After reading through the prophets several times and paying attention to what they are doing, we can at least see five central elements of their ministry that I will call a “Multifaceted Approach.” I suggest this approach because after wrestling with Scripture, that is what I observed emerging from the text, rather than something I read elsewhere and am forcing on the text. I’ll use Isaiah 13–14 as a test case which refers to the destruction of Assyria and Babylon.

  • (1) Prophecy as Prediction (of Events). These signs give us indications of God’s foreknowledge and control over history.

Behold, Iam stirring up the Medes against them [Babylon], who have no regard for silver and do not delight in gold.” (13:17)

  • (2) Prophecy as a State of Affairs (descriptive of conditions, but not necessarily a clear fulfillment in historical terms).

“Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor, and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.” (13:19)[5]

  • (3) Prophecy as Fulfillment (description of what life would be like after the fulfillment of prophecy).

“When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon.” (14:3–4)

  • (4) Prophecy as Hope (elements are given in their seminal form in the Torah (Gen–Deut), so in a sense prophecy is the extension of hope

“For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their ownland, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob.” (14:1)- Divine Election was givenin its seminalform in Genesis 12–50.

  • (5) Prophecy as Covenantal Proclamation (morally persuasive divine perspective about where life’s choices lead)

“For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (14:27)

Classical Prophecy: Local and Literal to Cosmic and Eschatological

Another crucial interpretive principle is recognizing how what was localized in the land of Israel and historically temporal for the classical prophets (see below) is utilized in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. Reading prophecy in its historical context first allows us to hear the major concerns of the people of those times then we see how Daniel and John take some of those themes and set them in a grander cosmic eschatology in light of the Messiah’s first appearance. We see God communicating his character through a multitude of avenues (Revelation). We see the manifold ways of God’s promise and power to deliver his people (Liberation). Moreover,we see God giving his people a sense of his leading and the goals he has in mind for his people and the world (Expectation).

So, what did that look like for the people during that time? First, there was the restoration of the land and the people where God was their Savior. Second, they were concerned about the restoration of the Davidic covenant kingship to lead them as the covenant people of God. Lastly, they were concerned about the Day of the Lord when God would set forth his lordship over the world in unequivocal terms. The prophets Daniel and John pick up these aspects emphasizing God’s revelation as our High Priest, Judge, and Savior. They show how God will liberate his true people by functioning in those roles on behalf of his people. And the final consummation of earth’s history is reported on as the Messiah Jesus is promised to return and set all right and make all things new.

Prophecy and History

One problematic pitfall to avoid is trying to apply the words of the prophets without considering first their original historical context and then subsequently the NT’s use of prophetic language in light of the work of our Messiah, Jesus. Reading the prophets in their historical setting means we understand that prophecy is grounded in history, not mysticism. I say that because a lack of historical rootedness can lead one to mysterious interpretations akin to modern day Jewish mysticism (e. g. Kabbala).[6]

So, we want to read prophetic literature first in a historical view. During the time the prophets ministered there were three historical eras where world empires expressed their hegemony.[7] Many of the prophecies concern Israel’s relationship with these nations. As we can see below,there were different emphases within which the Lord was calling his people to relate to his lordship.

  • Neo-Assyrian (745–626): Calls to Repentance or Exile will come
    • Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah
  • Neo-Babylonian (626–539): Calls to accept Exile or Destruction will come
    • Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah
    • Apocalyptic- Daniel
  • Persian (539–331): Calls to Reestablish Temple, Torah, and Kingship
    • Minor- Joel, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

So, what did historical fulfillment look like? Since Amos was most likely the first writing prophet, we will use his work as our guide for the rest of this article. In the first two chapters of the book of Amos we see several prophetic judgments against the surrounding nations, that were given during the neo-Assyrian rule over the ancient Near East but were typically fulfilled decades later during the neo-Babylonian era.

Judgments fulfilled:

  • Damascus, 2 Kgs 10:32-33; 16:9 (Fire =Assyria)
  • Gaza, the “outpost of Africa and the door of Asia” Jer 47:1–4; Obad. 11; 2 Chr 21:16-17; it served as a slave trading center (Fire = Pharaoh)
  • Tyre, times of Alexander the Great who sold 30,000 citizens Ezek 27, 28
  • Edom, Obad. 14 (Assyrians, Nabatean Arabs, Romans) Ezek 25:12–14
  • Ammon, Amos 1:13; Ezek 25:1-7 (Fire = People of the East)
  • Moab, Ezek25:8–11—desecration of the dead
  • Judah, 2 Chron 36:14-21— failure to be an international witness
  • Israel, 2 Kgs 17:1-18 Israel fell to Assyria in 722 B. C. E. (2:6-8 —abuse of the law, the poor, and of religion)

For those unfulfilled elements in the prophets, we have insight from Ellen White who states about the people of God during the first century. “The people, in their darkness and oppression, and the rulers, thirsting for power, longed for the coming of One who would vanquish their enemies and restore the kingdom to Israel. They had studied the prophecies, but without spiritual insight. Thus, they overlooked those scriptures that point to the humiliation of Christ’s first advent, and misapplied those that speak of the glory of His second coming. Pride obscured their vision. They interpreted prophecy in accordance withtheir selfish desires.” DA 30[8]

Prophecy and Prophets

Understanding how the prophets were ministering also gives us insight into hearing their message. So, the characteristics of the prophetic messenger expresses a role that was at least five-fold:

  • (1) Preachers of the Law of Moses. We see this in the application of covenant curses in chap. 4:
    • Famine- v. 6 (Deut 4:29–31)
    • Drought (failed crops)- vv. 7–8 (Deut 28:23–24)
    • Blight and mildew- v. 9 (Deut 28:22, 30, 40)
    • Pestilence- v. 10 (Deut 28:35)
    • War- v. 10 (Deut 28:25, 26; 49–59)
    • Judgment- v. 11 (Deut 29:22–24)
  • (2) God’s delegatesto summon the people to repentance. We see this in God’s paradigmatic appeals to the people to turn from their wicked ways.
    • Broken covenant- Repent!
      • Moral Decay- Idolatry
      • The crisisof Leadership- Social Injustice
      • False Religion- Religious ritualism without heart conversion/pagan syncretism
    • No Repentance? Judgment!
      • Admonition/threat-promise
      • Instruction
    • Future Hope and Restoration for the faithful who repent and turn back to the Lord.
  • (3) Social reformers in a covenantal context. The call to social reform for the prophets was always grounded in God’s earlier revelation of his character and was directedtowards his covenantal people.[9]
    • Mistreatment of the Poor- 3:10; 4:1; 5:10–15; 8:4, 6
    • Corruption in worship- 4:4–5; 5:21–23; 8:5
    • Abuse of special privileges as the elect- 6:1–7
    • Opposition to God’s prophetic ministry- 7:10–17
    • Inescapable judgment-
      • 3:1–8 Prophetic Justification- who is God’s vessel of prophecy?
      • 3:15 Economic loss
      • 4:2 Exile
      • 4:12–13; 8:7–14 Day of Yahweh “this” (application of covenant curses)
  • (4) God’s messengers to the Gentiles. God’s specificinteraction with the nations was grounded in the promise that he would one day express his lordship over the nations. We see that in the prophetic Day of the Lord, which had positive aspects and negative aspects.
    • Day of the Lord- Positive
      • Day of the Lord as Deliverance
        • Restoration of the People to the Land
        • Restoration of the City (Jerusalem) as the domain of righteousness
      • Day of the Lord as Divine Justice
        • Restoration of Yahweh’s dominion
    • Day of the Lord- Negative[10]
      • Day of the Lord against the rebellious People of God
      • Day of the Lord against the Nations
        • “Day of vengeance for Yahweh” (Amos 5–6)
          • Justice as “repayment” or righting of wrongs-cf.Rib (justice as a covenantallawsuit)
  • (5) Announcers of hope & judgment

Within the prophetic corpus in the Bible, we see what can be called institutional prophets and non-institutional prophets.[11] It is interesting that the overlap of the prophetic voice many times has at least one from each group. For instance, during the neo-Assyrian era the prophet Micah was not an institutional prophet, but Isaiah was, as he had access directly to the king. The same is seen during the neo-Babylonian era where Jeremiah was working within the system in Jerusalem while the prophet Ezekiel was hundreds of miles away. So, we see working through manifold instruments to get his message out to people wherever they were.

Conclusion

So, we see prophecy is not some mysterious, weird message that comes from anyone’s private interpretation. It is God’s word of grace and hope to a world so desperately in need of both, but who seem recalcitrant and bent on refusing the conditions for living with a holy God. Working through the prophets is rewarding and humbling because it shows us the heart and justice of God. We need that in our church today.

Click here to read the rest of Jerome’s series on Reading Biblical Prophecy

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Notes.

[1] Most theologians make a distinction between Classical prophecy (Isaiah–Malachi) and Apocalyptic prophecy (Daniel). Because Daniel is covered in detail by our church elsewhere, I will primarily address the Classical Prophets. https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/the-book-of-daniel-in-3d

[2] Louis Were, The Moral Purpose of Prophecy, repr. (Bradenton, FL: First Impressions, 1989).

[3] Hans K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles of Prophetic Interpretation (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1983); idem., How to Understand the End-Time Prophecies of the Bible: A Biblical-Contextual Approach(Bradenton, FL: First Impressions, 1997).

[4] Intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.

[5] That is, under judgment, because the Babylonian Empire was vast and there is no archeological evidence that the whole empire was scorched.

[6] For example, Daniel Chanan Matt and Arthur Green, eds., Zohar, the Book of Enlightenment (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983).

[7] Leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others.

[8] Moreover, she alerts us to the fact that, “There will always be false and fanatical movements made by persons in the church who claim to be led of God—those who will run before they are sent and will give day and date for the occurrence of unfulfilled prophecy. The enemy is pleased to have them do this, for their successive failures and leading into false lines cause confusion and unbelief.”—Selected Messages 2:84 (1897).

[9] Note how God’s judgment against the pagans in Amos 1–2 was based on international war crimes, not covenantal breach. So, it would be improper to try to hold a secular political system accountable to covenantal mores and laws and use the political apparatus to enforce one’s ethical dogma in the context of the call for social justice.

[10] Keywords: distress (tsarah); uproar; wrath (ʿebrah); vengeance (naqam); fire (ʾesh); shaking; destruction; desolation.

[11] This is important for us today, because it reminds us that God is not solely working through the trained pastoral ministry or solely through self-supporting ministries. He works through both to the degree that faithfulness characterizes each person’s ministry.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.