First of all, let me say that prophecy is difficult. Because the point of view of the writer can change from one verse to the next, it is often hard to know who is speaking, to whom the prophecy is being written, of whom the writer is speaking, etc. Figurative language is also used frequently, adding another layer that can obscure the meaning of the passage. Also, it may not be clear if the passage is referring to a future event, a past event, or a present event. I say all of this to encourage you to hold your interpretations humbly and loosely. Some people can be overly dogmatic about things in prophetical passages of Scripture that are just plain difficult to understand. All I know is that there are great theological minds who agree on all essential doctrines, but who disagree about much in the realm of prophecy.
But rather than discouraging us from studying prophecy, hopefully this will intrigue us. This series on bible study is not intended to be an exhaustive, meticulous methodology. My goal is to simply whet your appetite for study and get you moving. Whether studying proverbs or prophecy, we need to stay in the Word. That being said, I do think it is important to get a good bit of studying under your belt before tackling prophecy. Do some work in all the other genres first and try to gain some competence there. Then I would encourage you to get some hermeneutical tools with deeper instruction than I can give in a few blog entries. For this reason, I won’t spend a whole lot of time on interpretive principles for prophecy here on this blog.
Until you feel ready to study prophecy, the most important thing I can encourage you to do is to read it and read it and read it. It sounds simplistic, but the best way to understand prophecy is to have a familiarity with all of it. It is very easy to become dogmatic on some point after studying one prophet, only to find later on that another prophet flat out contradicts your interpretation. The breadth of your understanding of the prophets will directly affect the accuracy of the depth of your understanding. This is just another manifestation of the importance of the overview we talked about at the very beginning of this series. You need to see the forest before the trees will make sense. So read, read, read. Read the prophets all the way through. Then take one and read it repeatedly until you have a good idea of the gist. Then it’s a good idea to read all of them straight through again. Take the second one and read it repeatedly. Then read them all straight through again. Admittedly, this will take much time, but a limited idea of the greater context is a recipe for error in prophetic literature.
When we think of prophets we tend to think of those who were foretellers of future events. This is accurate, but most of the prophetic literature in the bible contains forthtelling (revealing the message of God) and only secondarily contains foretelling. Forthtelling prophecy can be approached with the principles we use to interpret poetry. Foretelling prophecy is the more difficult stuff that you may want to try after gaining some more experience.
I will share with you one important rule for handling foretelling prophecy. It involves prophecies of judgment. In Jonah 3:4, we find Jonah proclaiming to the people of Nineveh, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" There is a problem here. If you are familiar with the book of Jonah, you know that this prophecy was not fulfilled. v5 tells us, And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. This appears to have made God change his mind: When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it (Jonah 3:10).
Jonah predicted that Nineveh would be overthrown and it didn’t happen. What are we to make of this? If we look at this prophecy outside of the context of other prophecy, we would have to conclude that one of three things is true. Either 1) Jonah is a false prophet, in which case he should have been killed (Deut 18:20); or 2) God does not know the future; or 3) God does know the future, but He is a liar. None of these are handsome options. First, we know from the context of the book that Jonah is not a false prophet, but he is a somewhat reluctant prophet speaking the precise message he was commanded to speak. Second, Scripture is clear that God knows all things perfectly, including the future (Isa 46:9-10; 1 John 3:20). Third, God can’t sin, so we know He isn’t a liar (James 1:13).
But never fear – we do have a principle for understanding prophecies of judgment. It is found in Jeremiah 18:7-8:
7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.
Of course, this was Jonah’s understanding, too. He hated Nineveh. He wanted them to perish. It was because he understood the conditional nature of judgment prophecies that he didn’t want to prophesy there. He knew that if the people of Nineveh repented they would not be judged. If he had been unaware of this condition, he would have joyfully prophesied to the people of Nineveh.
This is an important rule to keep in mind. We also should know that just as judgment prophecies are conditional, many prophecies of blessing are conditional. We find this principle also in Jeremiah 18:
9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it (Jeremiah 18:9-10).
Again, I would encourage you to simply read the prophets repeatedly. They are rich in truth. If you have a good study bible, like the ESV Study Bible or the MacArthur Study Bible, it would be helpful to read through the study notes as you go through the prophets. These notes will frequently provide references to the other prophets, which we help you to understand prophecy as a whole and prevent you from arriving at interpretations that are contradictory to the big picture.
Next time we’ll look at the final stage in interpretation: cross-references and commentaries.