Interpreting Prophecy

Interpreting Prophecy

From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is filled with prophecy. If you want to handle the prophecy in the Word of God accurately, the following guidelines will give you some important parameters.

The Greek word for prophecy, propheteia, comes from two Greek words, pro, meaning "forth," and phemi, meaning "to speak." It means to speak forth the mind and counsel of God. According to this definition, all Scripture is in a sense prophecy.

Predictive prophecy points to a future fulfillment and is of divine origin. In Understanding and Applying the Bible, Dr. Robertson McQuilking says: "There are two purpose for predictive prophecy. The chief purpose is to affect the conduct of those who hear the prophecy. Another purpose is met only when the prophecy is fulfilled. That purpose is to build forth, to establish confidence in the God who miraculously foretold events (John 13:19; 14:29; 16:4)."

Some scholars divide predictive prophecy into two categories: forthtelling and foretelling. Forthtelling prophecies contain a message about the present or immediate time. (Often this is call to godly living in the light of prophecy yet to be fulfilled.) Foretelling prophecy contain a message about what God will do in the future.

When a prophet spoke for God, the prophecy could refer to the following:

  • a present or near fulfillment

  • a future fulfillment

  • a twofold fulfillment: a near fulfillment and then a later, future fulfillment.

As you read the prophecies of the Bible, keep in mind the following guidelines and discern whether the prophecy refers to:

  • the prophet's own time and / or a future time

  • the captivity and / or restoration of Israel or Judah

  • the first coming of Christ and any events connected with it

  • the second coming of Christ

  • the last days or end times

The Prophetic Points of History

As you study prophecy, it is important to remember that the prophets did not always indicate intervals of time between events, nor did they always write their prophecies in chronological order.

For example, an Old Testament prophecy could include the first and second coming of Christ without any indication of the time span between the two comings. One such prophecy is found in Isaiah 65:17-25. In this prophecy, Isaiah first talks about the new heavens and the new earth (in which we know there is no death), and then in verses 18-25 he refers to a time when a youth dies at age 100 and the wolf and lamb lie down together. Chronologically, verse 17 will be fulfilled after verses 18-25 become a reality.

Always approach a prophecy as literal (in its usual, ordinary meaning) unless one of the following occurs:

  • The grammatical context shows that it is figurative language by the use of similes, metaphors, parables, allegories, symbols, or types.

  • A literal interpretation violates common sense, is contrary to what the author is saying, or is contrary to what the rest of Scripture teaches.

When a prophecy passage cannot be taken literally, look for what the author is trying to convey through his figurative or symbolic language. To discern what the author is saying, look for answers in the following places:

  • within the context of the book in which the passage appears

  • in any other writings of that author

  • in any other prophetic writings to which the author had access (for example, other prophetic books or passages in the Word of God)

Remember that often when a prophet refers to future events, he does not use the future tense.

When you interpret Scripture, consider the historical context of that writing, remembering that God was delivering His prophecy to a particular people at a particular time. Granted, it might have been a prophecy with a future fulfillment, but it would still be delivered in a way that was comprehensible to those receiving that prophecy - even though they might not understand the details, the symbolism, or the full implication of the prophecy

Make a careful historical and cultural analysis of the text. Determine the identity of all historical events, proper name, and geographical location before you attempt to interpret the text.

Remember that the meaning of a specific prophecy could not always be understood by the prophet or by the people who heard the message. For example, Daniel could not understand what he had written, since it was to remain sealed for the end time (Daniel 12:8, 9).

However, many prophecies will come to light through the following:

  • a fulfillment as recorded in history

  • a fulfillment as recorded in the New Testament

  • an explanation given by an Old Testament

  • or a New Testament writing (for example, Acts 4:24-28)

Remember that many New Testament prophecies include Old Testament quotations, and allusions. Scholars estimate that at least 350 Old Testament quotations or allusions appear in the book of Revelation alone. Revelation is replete with the language of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezequiel, Daniel, and the minor prophets. It is obvious that the author of Revelation was steeped in the Old Testament, for he talks in Old Testament phraseology. So to correctly interpret New Testament prophecy, check Old Testament cross-referent.

When you study prophecy, watch for phrases which indicates periods of time. For example, look for in the last days, day of the Lord, day of wrath, and end of the age. When you come across phrases such as these, carefully observe the things which occur during that particular time period. Then ask the following questions:

  • Have these events ever occurred in history?

  • Do these events coincide with any other particular period of time?

  • Do these events parallel any events mentioned in another place in the Word of God?