The Purpose of Prophecy
Part 2 by Philip Jones
In the first article in this series, we were able to provide a definition of prophecy, i.e. we observed that prophecy was, in simple terms, a message emanating from God via the Holy Spirit, providing truths otherwise unknown to its hearers. We were also able to identify some of the key characteristics of prophecy; for example, that the truths being communicated might be about past or future events and also that the future events being foretold may be immutable, or may be subject to change, depending upon the response of the hearers. In conclusion, we noted I that one of the key dimensions on which prophecies can vary, is their use of either literal or figurative language. This latter characteristic means that prophecy will sometimes convey information about future events in plain and simple language that can be understood in a concrete, every-day sense, while at other times, prophecy may communicate using symbolic language and images. God uses symbols in this way because they can convey complex ideas and concepts in a highly efficient way. The problem for us is that, when confronted by prophetic scripture, we have to make a judgement about whether literal or figurative language is being used. If we get this judgement wrong, we can come to a conclusion about the prophetic message that is radically different from the one that God intended.
This is not a minor problem; many of the most heated debates over the interpretation of prophetic scriptures stem from one group interpreting a scripture in a literal way, while their ‘opponents’ interpret in an allegorical manner (i.e. they assume the prophetic scripture uses figurative language). Heated disputes of this kind cause a lot of confusion among Bible students and put many people off even attempting to understand prophetic scriptures and can even sap our confidence that the original intended meaning of specific scriptures can ever be reliably grasped. However, we at PWMI would argue that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, if a few, simple, common-sense principles of interpretation are used, the original intended meaning of these scriptures can be reliably understood.
The simple rules
If interpreting a scripture literally results in an impossibility or an absurdity, then the language used is obviously figurative. However, if a literal interpretation results in a rational and plausible outcome, there is no need to seek a figurative interpretation. In the vast majority of cases, the decision really is as simple as that. In cases where there is still some doubt over whether a literal or figurative interpretation is the right one, asking two additional questions can help to inform the choice.
1. Do other scriptures elsewhere help with an interpretation, such as New Testament writers commenting on OT prophecies?
2. Do we have the benefit of hindsight, i.e. have prophecies given in the OT already come to pass, allowing us to judge whether the prophecy requires a literal interpretation or not? For example, Old Testament writers declared that the Messiah would be the offspring of Abraham (Genesis 22:18), and that He would be raised from the dead (Psalm 16:10). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that these prophecies contain straightforward predictions that warrant a literal interpretation, because they have already been fulfilled and they were fulfilled literally.
2. The characteristics/requirements of true prophecy
There are a number of criteria for distinguishing genuine prophecy, which originates with the Holy Spirit, from purely human speculative prediction.
i Genuine prophecy requires that the oracle (the prediction) precede the events predicted by a significant period of time. This is to remove all possibility of the event being forecast by building upon already visible trends, or signs;
ii The events predicted must be beyond the realm of reasonable calculation, in order to exclude the possibility of the prediction being based on educated guesses, perhaps informed by the direction of current processes. Forecasting rain tomorrow when you have been looking at the MET office website, is NOT prophecy;
iii The prophecy must deal in specific details, not vague generalities, which are capable of being manipulated to fit various circumstances. You will usually find people claiming to be clairvoyants and astrologers speaking in vague generalities that the gullible can be persuaded to interpret in terms of their own specific circumstances;
iv Prophecy about future events must be completely accurate, not just partly correct;
v A prophet (in Scripture) must be correct 100% of the time. Why does this need to be the case? Because all true prophecy comes from God and He makes no mistakes. God Himself gives us an infallible test of whether prophecy is true and whether a prophet speaks for Him, based on exactly this principle:
‘You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not come true, that is a message that the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.’ Deuteronomy 19: 5.
3. All prophecy in Scripture (in toto) meets all of these criteria
The prophecies found in the Bible, and there are hundreds of them, meet all of the strict criteria listed above. Here are a few examples of prophecies found in scripture, which contain specific detail and that were fulfilled centuries later, exactly as foretold. In this first example, speaking face-to-face and in plain words to Abraham several hundred years before the event, Israel’s enslavement in Egypt was foretold by God.
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation that they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace, and be buried at a good old age”. Genesis 15:13-15.
There is no way that any human agency could have predicted this. In the next example, the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and its people going into exile was foretold, again, long before it occurred. Getting that fact alone correct would be remarkable enough, but consider the specific detail given in these prophecies, which predicted with complete accuracy: (a) the nation that would take Judah captive; (b) the length of their captivity; (c) the fact that they would be released and return; and even (d) the name of the king who would release them.
“This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the King of Babylon for 70 years. But when the 70 years are fulfilled, I will punish the King of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians for their guilt.” Jeremiah 25:11-13.
“I will raise up Cyrus in My righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild My city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah 45: 13.
These prophecies both came true exactly as foretold and there are many, many more just like these, including, of course, the numerous prophecies given about the coming of the Messiah, which foretold, in rich detail, so many aspects of His identify, life, work, death, resurrection and future coming in glory.
Now that we have determined what true prophecy is and what forms it might take, in the next article we will go beyond the content of individual prophetic texts to examine what we, the Church (in any age), can learn from prophecy as a type of scripture. But before we end this article, to whet your appetite for the next one, here is a little taster of the kind of issue that we will be exploring in our quest to understand the purpose of prophecy. Christianity is seen by large sections of people in this country, and others in the western world, as largely an irrelevance. This view is now entrenched and getting more pervasive. Of what relevance to us, the skeptics ask, is an ancient religion based on narratives and rituals originating in the pre-scientific age, i.e. an age of ignorance and superstition? They look at the Church in the present and see nothing more than the remnant of a bygone age.
In the not-so-distant past, such a view could be countered by pointing to the ‘eternal truths’ contained in Biblical teaching, particularly the teaching of Jesus. These ‘eternal truths’ are primarily the moral laws and the standards of behaviour that they both demand and condemn. These truths were accepted as providing relevance and currency for the gospel, because they were believed to be immutable. But this approach could only work while the moral standards of society, i.e. its aspiration rather than its practice, were aligned with God’s Law. This is not the case today. In this, the postmodern age, truth claims are treated with extreme skepticism and absolutes are rejected. Morality has become shifting sands and Scripture’s ‘eternal truths’ are seen as anything but. In all essentials then, Christianity, and God along with it, is viewed as an anachronism - a thing of the past.
Even within the Church, while belief in God endures, many struggle to carry God into their workaday lives, because their faith is wholly rooted in the past, i.e. the historic accounts of God’s interventions in the world. God was obviously alive to the people we read about in Scripture, because He intervened in their lives directly and overtly. He changed their circumstances, performed miraculous wonders and even spoke to them face to face. He was, in that age, at large in the world. But God simply doesn’t behave in that way today does He?!
Here is where prophecy comes to the rescue. There are certain prophecies given in Scripture that simply have no analogues in the past. What does that mean? It means that a thorough study of the historical record finds no events that come close to matching those foretold in some prophecies. The interpretation of these prophecies is, of course, derived by following the simple rules of interpretation outlined above. Some of these prophecies may well contain symbolism, but we understand that even where symbolic language or images are used, the symbolism relates to real events in the physical world. Having found no analogues of the events foretold in these prophecies in the past, the inescapable conclusion is that the events foretold must lie in our own future. This fact changes everything. When we see, in prophecy, God directly intervening in the future world, raising up nations and destroying others, speaking, judging, rescuing and destroying, just as He did in ancient times, He ceases to be the God of ancient history and He becomes the God of the future and the now. In light of such scriptures, God can no longer be viewed as the God who ‘lit the blue touch paper’ and walked away. He must be seen for what He actually is, the God who has in no way changed the way in which He is willing to engage with us in this world. And why should He? He is eternal and never changing and He has but one plan for salvation. Right here, right now, God is close. He is watching, and He is working, just as He was in the days of Abraham, David and the Apostles. Unfulfilled prophecies prevent us seeing the God of Scripture as different from the God of the future and the present. For believers, prophecy literally brings God to life. Prophecy can have the same effect on unbelievers also, as subsequent articles will show.