According to the Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy, there are more than 660 prophecies in the Bible, which amounts to about 20% of Scripture. Prophecy fulfills a unique two-fold purpose.
- To show that God is God. One of the distinguishing marks of false gods is that they are incapable of revealing themselves to humans. The Psalmist says of them, “They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat” (Ps. 115:5-7). In contrast to idols’ impotence, God says, “Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead bronze, therefore I declared them to you long ago, before they took place I proclaimed them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol has done them, and my graven image and my molten image have commanded them’” (Isa. 48:4-5). God distinguished himself as God and declared His omniscience by prophetic proclamation of events that were still far in the future.
- To proclaim God’s word. God used the mechanism of prophecy to communicate His truth with His people. Prophecy was often referred to as the “word of the Lord” (Isa. 1:10; 28:14; 38:4), and is often prefaced by the introductory phrase, “thus says the Lord God” (Isa. 7:7; 10:24; 22:15).
As is true of all Scripture, great care must be taken to ensure that prophecy is interpreted appropriately because true prophecy is the word of the Lord to His people. Consider the following principles for the proper interpretation of prophetic passages.
- Approach prophecy with the same grammatical-historical and literal approach that you would employ in your approach to any Scripture. If you missed the post on interpreting the Bible literally, you may read it here. Even when the prophet uses symbolic language, there is a literal truth at the heart of the message. There is no textual reason to change our fundamental hermeneutic approach simply because we are reading prophetic literature.
- Determine if the prophecy has already been fulfilled. It is important to not unhinge this principle from the previous one and the other contextual clues.
- Recognize the occasional presence of partial fulfillments of prophecy. This principle may be illustrated by looking at the partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9-10. Verse 9 prophesies of the Messiah’s triumphal entry while sitting on a donkey. The first part of this prophecy was fulfilled in Matthew 21:5. In fact, Matthew even quotes Zechariah 9:9. However, Zechariah 9:10 prophesies the end of war in Jerusalem and the Messiah’s dominion from sea to sea. Verses 9-10 are only partially fulfilled by Jesus’ first coming.
- Look for an explanation of prophetic symbols within the immediate context. For example, in Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a huge statue. The head of the statue was made of gold. The obvious question is, “To what or whom does the head of gold refer?” The question of the symbolic reference is answered in verse 38 where Daniel says, “You are the head of gold.” In the same way, Revelation 1:20 informs us that the seven stars are the angels of the churches and the seven lampstands are the churches.
- Recognize the unconditional covenants in Scripture. When God made unconditional covenants in Scripture, the recipients took the covenant and its promises literally. The covenants are prophetic in a way because God declares that something will happen at some point in the future without connecting it to any contingencies.
- Approach prophecy with a healthy balance and avoid extremes. Avoid the extreme of current event eisegesis. That is, do not impose current events onto your interpretation of prophetic texts. One example is interpreting the demon locusts of Revelation 9 as actually referring to Black Hawk attack helicopters.
- Be aware of “telescoping” or “prophetic foreshortening.” Here’s what I mean. When prophets received messages about multiple future events, they wrote the events as they received them. So, the events appear in the text to happen back to back. The reality may be that one event is separated by many years from the next event. The separation is called a “prophetic gap.” Consider what mountain ranges look like from a distance. The mountains in the foreground seem to be touching the mountains in the background. But, when you drive through the mountain pass, you realize a great distance separates them. Zechariah 9:9-10 is an excellent example. These verses read as if the Messiah comes, enters Jerusalem on a donkey, puts an end to war, and reigns from sea to sea. The reality of this prophecy is that they are separated by millennia.
Prophecy is a rich source of God’s revelation. There is much to learn from properly interpreted Scripture. Our part is diligence; His part is illumination. The combination of the two produces extraordinary blessings for all who read prophecy and heed its message.