Unfortunately, the word ‘prophecy’ is thought, in the common mind, to be synonymous with ‘prediction’.
This has had two serious side-effects.
The first is the tendency for certain people to set themselves up as ‘students of Bible prophecy’, and to specialise in speculations about the ‘end times’ that have lost contact with the central message of the Bible. Never trust a man (I say) who is more interested in Gog and Magog than in grace and holiness; who spends more time with the Revelation of John than with the Gospel of John.
The second is the habit of many scholars to minimise or discount the predictive element in biblical prophecy. When people assert (as they sometimes do) that certain biblical ‘predictions’ were uttered after the event they purport to anticipate, or that certain New Testament writers were in the habit of concocting prediction-and-fulfilment connections between Old Testament scriptures and the life of Christ, they are telling us more about their own scepticism than about the real meaning of the Bible.
In attempting to keep to the path of understanding on this topic of biblical prophecy, without wandering too far either on one side or the other, I turn for some guidance to How to read the Bible for all its worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. What follows is based on the relevant section in that book, with a couple of comments from me [in square brackets].
We should avoid at all costs, say Fee and Stuart, this idea that ‘prophecy = prediction’. They ask us to consider the fact that less than 2% of Old Testament prophecy pertains to the Messiah, that less than 5% specifically relates to the New Covenant age, and that less than 1% describes events that are still future. [Unfortunately, they don’t tell us how they arrived at these figures.]
The prophets did indeed often announce the future; but it was usually the immediate future, of which they spoke.
A key thing to remember is that the prophets’ primary purpose was to minister to their own generation. I say ‘minister’ advisedly, because for many prophets (such as Elijah and Elisha), what they did was at least as important as what they said. In the case of the ‘writing prophets’, however, the opposite is often the case: we know more about their words than their lives.
Another important thing to realise is that the writings of the prophets are generally collections of oracles. These may not be presented in the order in which they were originally spoken or written, and it may not even be clear where one oracle ends and the next begins.
Further challenges arise from the fact that most prophecy was spoken in the form of poetry, and from the huge differences in historical context between their days and our own.
The function of prophecy
The prophets were involved, first, in calling God’s people back to the covenant he had made with them. They did so by reminding people of God’s will, and of the blessings and curses that were respectively attached to keeping and violating God’s law. Moses himself provided the model for this prophetic function, and much of the prophets’ message can be traced back to Lev 26 and Deut 4, 28-32. When reading the prophets, it is helpful to look out for (a) a statement concerning Israel’s sin or of God’s love for her; and then (b) a prediction of curse or blessing.
A second aspect of the prophets’ function was to speak God’s words, and not their own. It was God who raised up the prophets (Ex 3:1f; Isa 6; Jer 1; Ezek 1-3; Hos 1:2; Amos 7:14f; Jon 1:1). They habitually spoke with a ‘Thus says the Lord’, and frequently relayed God’s message in the first person. They had one eye on God’s covenant, along with its promised blessings and curses, and the other on the application of this to the spiritual and moral situation of their own day, addressing royalty (2 Sam 12:1-14; 24:11-17; Hos 1:4), clergy (Hos 4:4-11; Amos 7:17; Mal 2:1-9) and other groups as the situation demanded.
Thirdly, the message of the prophets was not new. They called the people back to what God had previously commanded and promised. They sought to preach an old message in new and fresh ways. Hosea, for example, anchors his complaint about Israel’s sinfulness in the Ten Commandments (alluding to these by mentioning five of them in one verse, Hos 4:2). Even the messianic prophecies are not new. Even though the amount of detail in, say , Isa 42, 49, 50 and 53 may be unprecedented, the notion of God’s Messiah permeates the entire Old Testament, including the law (Deut 18:18; cf. Luke 24:44; Jn 1:45).
How, then, can we understand biblical prophecy?
We need to understand the historical context, both of the prophets and his times generally, and also of a specific oracle. The days of the writing prophets (about 760 BC to 460 BC) were characterised by unprecedented political, military, economic and social upheaval, by spiritual and moral unfaithfulness, and by changes in populations and national boundaries. This period begins with Israel as a divided nation, racked by civil war. As had been announced by Amos and Hosea, the northern tribes (‘Israel’, or ‘Ephraim’) were overrun by Assyria in 722 BC. Then, due to its persistent sinfulness Judah, in the south, was conquered by the new superpower, Babylon (587 BC): this is the focus of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Later prophets – Ezekiel, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, announced God’s intention to restore his people, rebuild the nation, and reinstate God’s rule and worship.
With regard to specific oracles, it is helpful to know something about the date, audience, and situation. Bible commentaries and dictionaries can assist here.
Although some of the material in some of the prophets is presented in chronological order and dated (see Haggai, for example), most of it isn’t. It is helpful to distinguish between separate oracles. However, this can sometimes then be a tricky business (how oracles are there in Amos 5, for example, and where does each one begin and end?), and chapter divisions in our Bibles do not always correspond accurately.
Oracle forms include:-
- lawsuit, Isa 3:13-26; Hos 3:3-17; 4:1-19, etc. God is portrayed variously as plaintiff, prosecutor, judge, and bailiff in a course case against the defendant (usually, Israel).
- woe, Hab 2:6-8, etc. Typically, these announce distress, provides reasons for the distress, and predict doom.
- promise, Amos 9:11-15; Hos 2:16-20; Isa 45:1-7; Jer 31:1-9. Typically, such oracles include a reference to the future (‘in that day’, or similar), mention of radical change (such as the restoration and repair of ‘David’s broken tent’, Amos 9:11), and the announcement of blessing (often in the covenant categories of life, health, prosperity, abundance, respect, safety, and so on).
Prophecy as poetry
The Old Testament abounds in poetic forms, and these made the stories and messages both more striking and more memorable. Patterns of repetition include
- synonymous parallelism, e.g. Isa 44:22
- antithetical parallelism, e.g. Hos 7:14
- synthetic parallelism, e.g. Obad 21.
Applying biblical prophecy to our own day
There are some teachings that can and should be applied quite readily and quite directly: the God’s judgment awaits those who ‘sell the needy for a pair of shoes’ (Amos 2:6), or who use religion as a cloack of greed and injustice (Isa 1:10-17), or who have mixed modern idolatries (such as self-justification) with Christ’s gospel (cf. Hos 13:2-4). Such things apply now and then, because they violate the two great commandments that the Old and New Covenants share.
As previously stated, where prophecy was predictive, it was usually predictive of the near, rather than the more distant, future. In Ezek 25-39, for example, most of the material relates to the nations of that time, and the fulfilment came within the next few decades (an exception would be Ezek 37:15-28, however, with its description of the New Covenant and the Messianic blessings).
The case is complicated (or made more interesting!) by the fact that the more immediate and local is sometimes blended with the more distant and global. This is because the Bible presents God’s acts throughout history in the light of his overall plan; the temporal in the context of the eternal. And it means that even when a prophet does seem to be speaking of the final events of the present age (e.g. Joel 3:1-13; Zeph 3:8f; Zech 14:9), the descriptions are combined with, and couched in terms appropriate to, the local, temporal, situation. Conversely, a local, temporal situation may be described in eschatological terms (as in Ezek 37:1-14, where the return of the nation from exile (a temporal event that took place in the 6th century BC) is described as a resurrection from the dead (which will take place at the end of the age).
Sometimes, a New Testament writer will pick up an Old Testament text and give it a meaning that can scarcely have been foreseen by the original speaker or writer. When Paul says, ‘that rock was Christ’ (1 Cor 10:4; cf. Ex 17:1-17; Num 20:1-13) he is, under divine inspiration, giving it a fuller meaning (‘sensus plenior’) than the event had in its original context. We, however, are not authorised to do as Paul did. We must not confuse inspiration with illumination. Other examples of ‘second meanings’ are found in Mt 1:22f- (Isa 7:14); 2:15 (Hos 11:1); 2:17f (Jer 31:15); Jn 12:15 (Zech 9:9). [I’m not entirely convinced by Fee and Stuart’s argument regarding the ‘sensus plenior’ here; there might be other ways of explaining the New Testament’s use of the Old: I must look into this].
One of the great benefits of the writings of the Old Testament prophets to us today is that through them God calls his people, in every time and place, to right belief and right behaviour. Those who trust in God, and express that trust through love towards God and neighbour, are eternally blessed, even though appearances in this life may not seem encouraging. For the disobedient, the result can only be curse, regardless of what material benefits may be enjoyed in this life.