How Can I Understand Prophecy?
All of us think about the end times. When we reflect on what will happen, not only when we die, but also when this present age ends, some combination of ideas, images, hopes, and fears flood our minds. And this is good. God wants us to reflect on the last things, to cultivate an apocalyptic spirituality in which our vision for the future affects our walk before God’s face today.
For that to happen well our eschatology, our doctrine of the last things, needs to be drawn from Scripture and not reflect our prejudices or wishes. But when we study the last things, especially those things connected with the end of this present age and the beginning of the next, we have to engage prophecy, a genre of Scripture that presents a host of interpretive challenges. But we don’t need to read the prophets unarmed.
To understand the prophets we need to study them through the grid of a biblical hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. And even if we have never used the word we all have a hermeneutic. We all study the Bible with certain assumptions, following definite rules or at least impulses (even if we couldn’t articulate them). This is why two people can read the same passage and arrive at very different ideas, especially when studying prophecy. It is for lack of a biblically informed hermeneutic that some visions of the end are so complicated or wildly speculative that the author’s intent is completely corrupted.
To better understand the Bible’s portrayal of the end times it is critical to think through a number of issues that we have to face when interpreting prophecy.
The Bible Is a Story of Redemption
Neither the Old nor New Testament prophets spoke of the future merely to tell about a few spectacular events beforehand. Instead, they were instilling a piety by means of the story of God’s redemption in the past, present, and future.
Still, it is possible to lose sight of the big picture on account of scintillating or perplexing prophetic details. In fact, this happens all the time. In my in-laws’ home hangs a large framed mosaic puzzle. Each piece contains several tiny scenery photographs. You could study that framed puzzle with your nose a few inches away from the glass inspecting the individual photos. But when you step back from that mosaic you realize that the purpose of the individual images is to build a larger composition, in this case a map of the entire world.
Likewise, it is possible to study the end-times messages of the prophets simply for their ability to tell the future. But when you read their words as part of a grander mosaic, you realize that they are telling a story that is meant to inspire confidence in the meticulous, skillful, patient saving work of God. Prophecies that have been fulfilled and promises still to be realized bolster our confidence that God will continue to take “one from a city and two from a family” and build a holy kingdom called Zion made up of people from all nations (Jer. 3:14, 17).
God does record prophecy to “show His servants the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 22:6; cf. Rev. 1:1). But these things must never be isolated from the grand story they are helping to tell. “Prophecy encourages us regarding the future, not by giving us the news headlines in advance, but by pointing to our victorious God, who has already won the decisive heavenly battle.”1
The Story Starts at the Beginning
When we think about the end times, we naturally think, “Revelation.” If we do consider the Old Testament we might include Daniel or other prophets. But long before the ministry of the apostle John or the later prophets, the Bible introduced themes that, perhaps unexpectedly, help inform our understanding of the end.
Think about how the concept of death seems to intrude on the otherwise serene beginning of God’s story. In the Bible’s second chapter, in the context of so much good (Gen. 1:31), God warned of the possibility of death (Gen. 2:17). In the third chapter animals died (Gen. 3:21).2 In the fourth chapter men began to die. In the book of beginnings we hear about a place where the dead go called Sheol (Gen. 37:35). God told Abraham that when he died he would go to his fathers in peace (Gen. 15:15); at death he was “gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). After just a few pages we begin to wonder what happens to dead people. Are they gone forever? How will God answer the cry of the blood of those unjustly taken from the land of the living (Gen. 4:10)? What is Sheol, whence was Abraham gathered, and will those resting in peace ever wake?
Or, consider the important end-times theme of the kingdom of God. The Old Testament tells us that God is a king (1 Sam. 12:12) who is establishing a vast kingdom. He began gathering kingdom citizens when he rescued Adam and Eve from the devil’s tricks. He has since been preserving a faithful seed from their posterity, also adding those from the other families of the nations–slowly at first, more rapidly after Pentecost. But one day, as Jesus taught us to pray, his kingdom will come (Matt. 6:10). He will return to earth, his people will reign with him, and he will exercise “the kingdom of his power in all the world.”3
Likewise, the Old Testament tells us that God will conquer death and build a kingdom of life through his Messiah (Deut. 18:15, 18, 19; Acts 3:17–26), who will bring about the Day of the Lord (Dan. 7:10, Joel 2:1, 11, 31), adjudicate a final judgment (Mal. 3:1–7), and raise to life every deceased person to either shame (Isa. 66:5–6) or glory (Job 19:25–27).
The message of the end is interwoven throughout the entire story, even its beginning. To understand the end we have to be students of the whole Bible.
The Prophets Were Masterful Storytellers
To understand the language of prophecy we need to wrestle humbly and diligently with several literary features of prophecy.
The Prophets Used Language and Forms Suitable to Their Time
The symbolic language of the prophets can be challenging. But rather than being a hurdle it can be a great gift. Symbolic language engages our interest and stirs our imagination. With richly figurative language Isaiah predicted that “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1; English Standard Version). The symbolism powerfully calls to mind ideas of revival, vibrancy, organic fruitfulness. Likewise, the robust symbolism of Revelation draws us into the story and floods our minds with powerful images of Christ’s victory over evil. We should give thanks for apocalyptic symbolism and allow the context to determine when prophetic language should be taken literally.
Especially with prophecies that will be fulfilled in the far future, we should expect that the forms of the prophet’s ideas might “have undergone radical changes” though their “essential central idea will still be realized.”4 For example, when Ezekiel prophesied that a restored people would worship God on his holy hill, it is perfectly fitting for him to describe this end-times revival in terms of the construction of a temple (Ezek. 40–48). In doing so, he follows a form long established in the construction of the tabernacle after the people’s new birth from Egypt. But it is too simplistic to suspect that the form of Ezekiel’s prophecy would not change by the time of its fulfillment. “This historically and culturally conditioned form is completely overlooked when people in all seriousness propose that the prophets predict for our time a rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and reinstitution of animal sacrifices and a final battle fought with horses and chariots and spears and swords.”5 God’s word is never broken (John 10:35), though the form of its fulfillment can change.
Despite their abstract language and impermanent forms, the prophets always communicated a central message. For example, in portraying a wolf and lion grazing with a lamb (Isa. 65:25), Isaiah does not draw our attention to new feeding patterns of carnivores in heaven but to the other-worldly peace that will characterize the heavenly age to come.
The Prophets Tell Stories in Layers
Students of prophecy often ask whether a prophet was speaking about an event that has been fulfilled already or one that has yet to be realized. Very often, the answer is yes. The prophets’ messages often featured multiple layers in which “the earlier fulfillment is itself prophetic of the later fulfillment.”6Remember, the entire story finds its ultimate filling up only at the end. So Joel’s prediction that someday God’s Spirit would powerfully move his people to prophesy and thatthe earth, moon, and heavens would be violently disturbed (Joel 2:28–32) was realized at Pentecost (Acts 2), but not completely. Pentecost itself is a harbinger for the mighty stirring of the Spirit at “the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31).
Likewise, in Jesus’ end-times speech in Mark 13, rather than insisting that the entire discourse was fulfilled by the Roman invasion of a.d. 70, or that it only points to the end of the age (or dissecting the passage into the parts that purportedly only speak to either event), “It might be simpler to take the whole as immediately, but partially . . . fulfilled in the Jewish War, but also to recognize that the events of that war point forward to the end of history.”7 Has Martin Luther King’s dream from 1963 been fulfilled “that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? Yes, and no. Partly, but not perfectly. So it often is with biblical prophecy.
The Prophets Spoke to an Original Audience
The prophets were primarily preachers.8 As watchmen (Ezek. 3:17) and shepherds (Jer. 3:15) they urged God’s people to return to him so that he might heal their backslidings and deliver them from his judgments and give them rest in his good land. They were surgeons who dissected the hearts of God’s people to expose their disease and refer them to the Good Physician. “The prophets had, first of all, a message for their contemporaries. They were watchmen on the walls of Zion, to guide the destinies of the ancient people of God, and to guard against the dangers of apostasy.”9 For this reason, many prophecies are contingent on the actions of people. Through the prophets God says, “If you . . . then I . . .” (e.g., Jer. 15:19).
All Scripture, including prophecy, is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). God doesn’t give us prophecy so that we can build elaborate timelines or speculate on the precise manner in which God will keep his word. He speaks about our future so that we will live faithfully in the present. He speaks to the contemporary audience to develop in us a robust vision for the end.
The Story Is All About Jesus
If we are tempted to focus on the more mysterious, futuristic parts of biblical prophecy we should remember that at its core, the prophetic message was “always centered in the Kingdom of God, or the work of redemption through Christ.”10When Paul was on trial for preaching a message of repentance to the Gentiles he told his judge that “to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23). Jesus himself said, “For assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matt. 13:17). Peter echoed Jesus when he said, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you” (1 Pet. 1:10).
Twice, on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed and suffer body-and-soul-rending grief before rising from the dead (Luke 9:21–22, 43–45). When they could not understand what he was saying Jesus marshaled the testimony of the prophets: “‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished’” (Luke 18:31). Still the disciples missed the prophets’ focus on God’s promise to secure the kingdom through his Suffering Servant.
If the entire prophetic ministry revolved around the future comings of Christ, why did almost no one—including the apostles—get it when he came? It can be rightly said that only a small percentage of Old Testament prophecies explicitly “describe the Messiah or even the new covenant era.”11 But when taken as a whole, and especially as they began to be fulfilled, and when the Holy Spirit was poured out, Christ began to shine through every prophecy (John 12:16; 13:7, 19; 16:12–13). After the outer prophetic layers had been peeled back Peter could preach, “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). Significantly, when the New Testament speaks of the ministry of the prophets it almost uniformly is focused on how they foretold the person and work of the Messiah. When we read prophecy we need to understand that the message, while ostensibly about future events, is most essentially about God and his saving work through Christ.12 It is not coincidental that the book of Revelation begins with a heart-stopping vision of Jesus ministering among the churches (Rev. 1–4) and ends with his promise to come back soon (Rev. 22:7, 12–13, 16, 20).
The Story Concludes with a Revelation
When we study end times we tend to think about the book of Revelation. As we’ve seen, John’s Revelation is only one of the many places in Scripture that gives us a vision of the future. But it is a critically important prophetic book.
How Should We Study Revelation?
William Hendriksen has persuasively argued that John’s Revelation consists of seven sections that each span the entire time period from Christ’s first coming to his second coming. In other words, the book is not arranged in strictly successive chronological fashion as one might expect. And yet, as the book progresses, especially starting at Revelation 12, God increasingly reveals the deeper spiritual battles that the church faces in this present age. The book is like a movie that seven times returns to the opening scene and records the same story from a different angle, retelling the plot with increasing depth.13
What Does Revelation Teach Us?
Revelation itself prevents us from charting out a continuous history of successive events that will yet come to pass. John’s Apocalypse should not be read like a codebook that can be unlocked to tell the details of tomorrow’s news today. Instead, we should read it as God’s encouragement to a marginalized people that despite the dark forces of evil and our own flagrant weaknesses Christ will be ever among his people, leading them to victory against his enemies and ours. Through its masterful use of words and images, Revelation drives home this much needed exhortation: He who, by faith in the Son of God, overcomes the trials of this life will not be disappointed by his reward in the life to come.
God’s Word encourages us to study prophecy. We will sometimes puzzle over the prophets’ use of unfamiliar symbols. We will not always be able to determine beyond doubt which events have been fulfilled and which are awaiting fulfillment. We cannot possibly presume to know with precision how God will bring his promises to pass. But in prophecy we can see God as the supreme storyteller whose word “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17) and who exists as comfortably in the future as he does in the present and the past. Through prophecy he says to us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by our name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:1–3).
What is your impression of the ministry of the prophets and the parts of the Bible that they wrote? Does their message tend to resonate with you or does it feel strangely inapplicable?
What is hermeneutics and why is it important?
Reflect on some of the most important points of the creation-fall-redemption-restoration scheme of the story of Scripture. What benefits are there in seeing Scripture as a story?
How do the following Old Testament passages, and others that might come to your mind, help to contribute to a biblical eschatology? Daniel 7:9–14; Joel 2:1–11; Job 19:25–27.
Note some examples of symbolism in Revelation 1:9–16. Is it necessary for these symbols to be understood literally in order for them to communicate powerfully? What impression do these symbols give of the glorified Christ?
Is there biblical evidence that the Old Testament prophetic message is all about Jesus? If so, why did his own disciples, and so many people today, not use their message to trust in Christ?
Are there ways in which John’s Revelation is susceptible to abuse?
What is the basic message of Revelation and how does the book develop that message?
How does the message of Revelation comfort you?
——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— ———
1. Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 233 (italics in the original). Consider another illustration. Suppose, in order to run some errands, I decided to leave my young children home alone for a few hours. Before leaving I might say to them, “Dad will only be gone briefly. I have to pick up some things for our home from the post office, the grocery store, and the hardware store. If you work hard cleaning the house while I’m gone, I’ll be here before you know it to play the game you have been asking about.” My point in telling my children where I hoped to go was not so that they could argue about which store I would go to first, second, or third, or so that they could speculate on the sort of items I would buy at each store. I told them my plans to assure them that I left for their good and that I would return soon. I hoped to encourage them to work hard in my absence and to anticipate a good evening when I came back. With similar goals did God inspire the prophets with visions of the future.
2. That God killed animals to provide skins for Adam and Eve is insufficient to prove that this was the first death. “Calvin and most reformed theologians were of the opinion that eating meat was permitted to humans even before the flood and the fall . . . The animal world had already been placed under human dominion in Genesis 1:28, an act that certainly includes, especially with respect to the fish of the sea, the right to kill and use animals. Immediately after the fall God himself made garments of animals skins (3:21).” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 575.
3. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 191.
4. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 151.
5. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19881), 232.
6. McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand, 234.
7. Ibid., 235.
8. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 228.
9. Berkhof, Principles, 149.
10. Ibid., 149.
11. Daniel M. Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 232.
12. Cf. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 229.
13. William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998).
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.