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to Biblical Prophecy

What is Prophecy?

Prophecy is usually assumed to be predicting future events, but the Old Testament shows that the prophet was understood as a person who preached whatever God revealed to him. It usually involved a message of God’s judgment upon an unrepentant group of people.

Of course, predictive elements were also included in the prophetical message. Many of the Old Testament prophets spoke about the future reign of the Messiah.


1.0 Why Study Prophecy

2.0 Tests for Prophecy

3.0 Interpretation of Prophecy

1.0 Why Study Prophecy?


1.1 Bible Study.

Nearly one-third of the bible is related to prophecy and therefore if we skip out on prophecy (for whatever reason), we will be missing out on a large portion of the inspired Word of God.

1.2 Jesus Christ.

It proves that Jesus Christ is God, whom the Old Testament predicts. The number of prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfills is too numerous of it to be a coincidence and impossible for anyone else to fulfill them.

1.3 Bible.

Fulfilled prophecy proves that the bible is the word of God. It proves God’s existence, as the intellect behind the Bible. It proves that the Bible is God’s inspired Word, without error. Since all of the prophecies that should have been fulfilled in the first coming of Christ were fulfilled to the finest detail, we can be sure that the Bible itself is God’s revelation to man since no human writer could be 100% accurate. 2 Peter 1:21.


1.4 God’s Purposes.

To be aware of what God is doing and get in step with His purposes. We may not be able to visualize the details, but we should be aware of things going on that could be the fulfillment of prophecy.


1.5 Purity.

It should cause us to live a pure life 2 Peter 3:11 since we expect Christ to come for us at any time and be diligent in winning other people to Christ while we still have the time to do so 2 Corinthians 5:8-11

2.0 Tests for Prophecy

The bible is the only book that correctly predicts the future hundreds of times. No other religious book can claim this. The Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim writings contain no cases of clearly fulfilled prophecies. Any human book can contain moral teachings. However, only a book whose author is God will be able to predict the future hundreds of years ahead of time.

Not every random statement by anyone can be a legitimate prophecy. What constitutes a real prophecy? Here are three tests to determine what a prophecy is:

2.1 The prediction must come true.

Deuteronomy 18:22. This appears silly to mention, but if the prediction is just words and does not or did not come true, the morality of the prediction is immaterial. What matters is the fact of an unfulfilled prediction.

2.2 The prophecy needs to be far enough before the actual event to exclude the possibility of human guesswork.

2.3 The predictions should be free from ambiguity and vagueness and should not be capable of several explanations.


3.0 Interpretation of Prophecy

Interpreting Prophecy in Scripture is unlike any other genre in biblical interpretation. Some of the unique principles relevant to appropriately interpreting and understand almost one-third of scripture are:

3.1 Central Truth

In interpreting prophetic portions of Scripture, we need to recognize that the central or primary meaning is significant, and not the relatively minor details which accompanies the prophet’s message. In the same way that we interpret the parables of Scripture, so also we must guard ourselves against deriving separate or obscure meanings from the various details in which the prophecy is cast and, instead, focus on the central thrust of the prophecy

For example, in Isaiah 11:6-9 the prophet describes the universal peace which shall exist during the Messianic age in terms of wild animals living peaceably with the rest of creation. Yet, later in Isaiah 35:8-10, this same period is described as having no wild animals present.

Is there a contradiction? Not at all. Once again, while the metaphorical details may change in each respective narrative, the central message of universal peace in the Messianic age remains the same. Thus, our focus must be on the primary intended meaning, and not upon the details per se (which may change).

3.2 Recognize the figurative or non-literal nature of prophecy.

Much of the prophetic portions of Scripture are entrenched in figurative language, symbolism, and dramatic imagery for the express purpose of emphasizing the gravity and imminence of God’s judgment. The audience of the prophet understood such language as describing God’s intervention into human history.

Example: some interpreters have interpreted Ezekiel chapters 40-48 as describing the future Millennial temple and its worship. There is an elaborate description given of the temple and its measurements, particularly details of the various sacrifices that are to be offered at the temple (45:15-20). This has led people to interpret these chapters literally. The literal interpretation, in this case, would be that in the Millennial period, not only will a literal temple be rebuilt but also, that there will be literal sacrifices in the temple.

However, the interpretation that Old testament sacrifices will happen in the future goes against the rest of Scripture. Instead, Scripture teaches that Christ abolished the need for the temporary Old Testament sacrificial system because of His Death on the Cross. In addition, he gave the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to commemorate that final sacrifice.

By failing to understand the figurative nature of prophecy as well as ignoring the central meaning that the prophet is attempting to convey, interpreters have misunderstood these chapters and built a theology that contradicts the rest of Scripture.

Instead, Ezekiel is simply describing the glorious worship of God’s people in the age to come in terms and ideas which the Jews of that period would have recognized.

Since their worship previous to their captivity had been centered in the Jerusalem temple, it is understandable that Ezekiel describes their future blessedness by picturing a temple and its sacrifices. The details about temple and sacrifices are to be understood not literally but figuratively.

Other examples:

Isaiah 13:9-11 uses cosmic imagery in connection with God’s judgment upon the Babylonian empire approximately 600 years before the birth of Christ (see Isaiah 13:119).

In Joel 2:28-32, cosmic imagery is used to describe some events. Peter interprets the prophecy and cosmic imagery as having its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. Acts 2:14-21. But a closer look will show that although the prophecy was fulfilled, the cosmic signs did not happen as described showing that that was just figurative language.

Other passages that use such cosmic terminology: Isaiah 24:23Jeremiah 4:2813:1615:9Ezekiel 32:7-8Joel 2:10,313:15Amos 8:9Habakkuk 3:11Matthew 24:29Mark 13:24-25Luke 21:25Revelation 6:12.

In all these instances, we need to keep in mind the figurative nature of prophetical language and interpret appropriately.

3.3 The Original Context

When interpreting prophetic accounts in Scripture, a common mistake to make is to think that the message was for the future only. Such thinking can result in taking every prophecy and projecting it into the future. The interpreter should consider the possibility that the words of the prophecy may apply to and have their fulfillment in the historical period in which it was pronounced.

3.4 Recognize the non-systematic character of prophecy

The prophetic parts of the Holy Scriptures are not organized systematically or chronologically. There could be significant variations in time. The future may appear in the present, the present may appear in the past. Widely separated events may appear together in Scripture. There is the issue of the prophetic mountain range. When we travel from afar, the distant mountain ranges look closer to each other. But as we come closer, we find that those ranges are actually further from each other than we originally thought. The ability to differentiate the time difference between events is critical to understanding biblical prophecy.

Eg. From the Jewish old testament standpoint, the suffering and the glory of the future Messiah seemed to happen together. However as we came closer to the mountain range, we find that the suffering and the glory of the Messiah are separate by the church age with his two comings on either side. Jews who failed to recognize this would be confused by the suffering, but not glorified savior. 1 Peter 1:10-12 and Hebrews 9:28.

3.5 Other Difficulties

a.  The specific characteristic of Apocalyptic writing, where the writer introduces a topic, then mentions it again, then expands on it at a later time.

b. As if the issue of the mountain range was not enough, then there is the matter of combining time on earth with “simultaneous” events of altered time in heaven. This accentuates the difficulty to make a completely chronological timeline of prophetical events.

c. multiple events happen in multiple places at the same time, compounding the issue.

d. John, probably in an effort to make sense of the chronology issue, has parenthetical passages that alter the chronological sequence of events. These are the passages in Revelation: 7, 8:2-6; 8:13; 10:1-11:14; 14; 15:2-4; 16:13-16; 17; 19:1-10. Reading the book by temporarily removing these passages will enable a slightly easier ability to understand the sequence of events.



Hugh Ross, Reasons to Believe

Darryl M. Erkel, Hermeneutics – A Guide To Basic Bible Interpretation, 1999

Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation.

Further Reading

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