What is prophecy? It is common in the twenty-first century for people to associate prophecy with predictions about the future. In the Bible prophecy frequently has this element. But in the Bible prophecy often has two elements: prediction but also direction. Prophecy, therefore, can involve words of prediction that warn God’s people about what is to come and confirm God’s plan. Prophecy in the Bible also regularly provided words of edification, comfort and instruction.
The presence of “predictive” prophecy in the Bible tells us something about God. It tells us that He knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and it tells us that He has an unchanging plan or purpose with us and the world.
It is through the purpose God has for the earth — of revealing His glory (Numbers 14:21) — and how this will be accomplished in humanity (through Christ) that all prophecy is focussed. The prophets in the Bible did not speak on their own. Peter tells us that “…prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). We are also told in Deuteronomy that anyone who claimed to be a prophet, but encouraged the worship of other gods, even if what he said came to pass he was not to be listened to (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). And if a prophet claimed to speak in the Name of the Lord and what he said did not follow or come to pass, then God has not spoken it (Deuteronomy 18:22).
The Bible begins with the account of Creation, and depicts an orderly and purposeful beginning to the world. The final act of creation was to create humanity, male and female, in the image and likeness of God. They were to rule on the earth for God in a way that would manifest His glory. But humans were not created in the same way as the rest of creation, they were given the freedom to make choices because manifesting the glory or character of God can only come from understanding its worth and choosing it for oneself.
The first prophecy
The very first prophecy given in the Bible was spoken to the serpent in Genesis 3:15. God said: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Enmity is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “positive, active and typically mutual hatred or ill-will.” The serpent questioned whether God really was interested in what was best for people, and suggested that disobedience would actually be a better thing. This conflict has shown itself to be true down through time in the constant struggle between the often difficult ideals of God’s character, and the thought that doing things our own way will bring us greater satisfaction and happiness. But this prophecy promised a descendant of the woman who would deal a death blow to this way of thinking. This prophecy was fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, who despite human nature, manifested His Father’s character perfectly, and in his obedience even to death, conquered the serpent (or sin), becoming the first man truly in the image of God.
Prophecy about Israel
God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through them came the nation of Israel. They were promised the land of Canaan as long as they obeyed the commandments of their God and Deuteronomy 28 contains a prophecy of what would happen to these people if they were to go their own way. This prophecy came to pass after they rejected their God to follow the gods of the nations, and God allowed them to be taken captive by other nations. After a time, they did return to their land, but then lost it and were scattered again after their rejection of the Lord Jesus when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in ad 70 and scattered the inhabitants of Judea.
However, God did not allow His people to be completely destroyed. There was always a remnant. And there was a promise that they would one day be regathered to Israel: “…I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.” (Ezekiel 11:17). This has also come to pass. Although there has been every effort taken at various times to destroy them, they have survived as a people. For centuries they continued to exist without a country, often persecuted, massacred, hated, and made to live in ghettos. Gradually they began to trickle back to their homeland until the Jewish population there had grown to several million. In 1948, Israel became a nation again.
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be said, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, the LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers. (Jeremiah 16:14,15 KJV)
Prophecy about the future
The book of Daniel contains a visual prophecy of how God will establish His kingdom on the earth (Daniel 2). The king Nebuchadnezzar was given a dream which showed world history — an image of a man with a head of gold, breast of silver, belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. The image was struck by a stone cut out without hands, which toppled the image, ground it to dust and grew to fill the whole earth.
Daniel provided the interpretation of this dream. And history, related to the nation of Israel and what was thought of as the civilized world at the time, developed in the fashion described by Daniel — Babylon (who Daniel explicitly names) was followed by the Medo-Persian Empire, followed by the Greeks, the Romans and then a mixture of strong and weak nations. This is an image of human rulership that will be brought to an end by God.
And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, [but] it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever. (Daniel 2:44 KJV)
Not all predictive prophecy is easy to understand however. For example, the book of Revelation contains prophecy that is heavily symbolic and therefore requires careful study and a comparison of Scripture with Scripture.
Principles for understanding biblical prophecy
Note exactly to whom or to what the passage refers. Is it directed to comfort and edification, or is it speaking about the future?
Is it using symbols to portray its message or is it speaking directly?
How would the people of the day have interpreted it? Remember that it should have made sense to the original readers.
A prophet’s message often had an application and fulfillment in his own day, as well as a more complete fulfillment in a future time.
Analyse the passage in terms of history, context and its literal meaning.
Remember that prophecy is not meant to make us into prophets but to reveal the providential hand of God in human history.
This final principle ought to remind us to be humble as we approach prophecy in the Bible. Many reckless but also well-meaning people have made over-confident forecasts about the future — especially about dates — based on their reading of prophecy in the Bible. This can bring discredit on the Bible and lead to cynicism about faith in God.
Instead, as the prophecy of Daniel 2 shows, as the prophecy is fulfilled and confirmed in history it reveals that there is a God in heaven who is faithful and worthy of our love and worship.
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