How to Interpret Bible Prophecy, by Michael Morrison
There are many difficulties involved in interpreting prophecy, but if we take the Bible seriously, we need to study prophecy, because prophecy is a large part of the literature God has inspired to be written and preserved in the Christian canon. Since prophecy encourages us to know God and do his will, it is important for us to study it, even if it is difficult.
Prophecy has a spiritual message, and readers need the help of the Holy Spirit to be able to understand it. But even people who have the Holy Spirit can make errors, and people with the Holy Spirit may disagree with each other. All sorts of erroneous interpretations have been taught by people claiming to have God’s Spirit and claiming to have the inspired interpretation. Therefore, as a practical matter, we cannot convince people of our interpretation if we are using special insight they don’t have access to. If we did that, we would be asking them to have faith in us.
We need to base our understanding, our arguments, and our teaching on what the scriptures say and on what people can see for themselves, in the translations that are commonly available. We have to use an understandable method of interpretation, one that makes sense historically, linguistically and theologically. We need to examine the words, the grammar, the paragraph flow, the type of literature we are dealing with, and the overall message of the Bible.
Prophecy was not inspired to satisfy our curiosity about the future – it has always had a theological purpose. It tells us something about what God is doing with humanity, and it is given to help motivate people to do something in the present. Prophecy is not an end in itself — it supports a more important goal. God’s primary purpose in dealing with humanity is to reconcile us to him, to give us salvation through Christ – and prophecy serves that larger purpose. It tells us something about what God is doing, and it may also tell us something about what we should be doing. Prophecy should lead us toward God, so that we know him, have faith in him, and seek him through Jesus Christ.
We need to understand the type of literature we are dealing with, because this is where many of the difficulties arise. Prophecy is not written in the same way as history is. Prophecy is often poetic, and ancient poetry, like modern poetry, uses words in a metaphorical or symbolic sense more often than history does. Psalm 23 is a familiar example of poetic metaphors, with pastoral imagery. The Lord is my shepherd; he leads me beside still waters; my cup runs over. These are metaphors drawn from different aspects of life.
Psalm 18 is a good illustration. The subtitle says that it is about “when the Lord delivered David from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” Saul tried to kill David, but David kept escaping.
The psalm begins with some common metaphors:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies. (verses 1-3)
David uses a variety of images to describe God as a place of safety – a defensive and passive role. He adds more images when he writes:
The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. (verses 4-6)
From images of the underworld, David now turns to images of heaven, and he puts the matter in cosmic terminology:
The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him — the dark rain clouds of the sky. (verses 7-11)
David is using some of the same language that Canaanite myths use. He is speaking of earthquakes and thunderstorms. Is this the way that God rescued David from Saul? That is not in the history – David is speaking in imaginative, poetic terms.
We see more as we go on:
Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced, with hailstones and bolts of lightning. The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies, great bolts of lightning and routed them. (verses 12-14)
This is primarily thunderstorm imagery. But then David adds something that was surely not involved in his escapes from Saul:
The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (verses 15-18)
In this psalm, we can see how poetic language can be applied to a historical event. It would be a mistake for us to take this literally – and we must be equally cautious about taking the language of prophecy literally, because it is also poetry. Some dramatic figures of speech may be involved. Poetic language about the valleys of the sea should not be taken literally, mountains may not be meant literally, and heavenly signs may not be meant literally.
Hosea 12:10 says some of the prophecies were given as parables, that is, in figurative language: “I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them.”
One school of interpretation stresses the literal interpretation of prophecies. Prophecies are sometimes meant literally, but to begin with an advance assumption about prophecy runs contrary to the biblical evidence. We can’t assume in advance that it is literal; nor can we assume in advance that it isn’t. The literal approach has produced a lot of failed prophecies, and a lot of disappointment. Other schools of interpretation have their problems, too, all of which emphasizes our need to be cautious in our approach.
Amos’ prophecy of blessings illustrates some problems of literal interpretation:
The days are coming…when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills. (Amos 9:13)
Will the reaper really be overtaken by the plowman? Why wouldn’t the plowman stop and help the reaper? How can the grape-treader, who works in a wine press, overtake the planter, who works in a field? If streams of wine flow from the hills (other verses might make us wonder whether there will be any hills), why would anyone need a grape-treader? This is not meant literally. But how much of it is figurative? Will there be plowmen and grape-treaders at all? The verse cannot answer that question.
When we read that “mountains and hills will burst into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), we interpret it symbolically, because a literal fulfillment isn’t possible. When we read that “the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:7), we find something equally impossible without a miracle. Maybe it isn’t meant literally, either.
When we read that everyone will sit under a vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4), we need not insist that everyone will have a vine and fig tree. We need to look at the picture before we look at the details. The details are artistic license used to support the picture of peace and prosperity, which is the context of verses 3-4. The details are like those in a photo of happy people. The photo can be representative of happiness, but we don’t expect every detail to be representative. Sitting at home may illustrate peace and abundance, but those details are not required for peace and abundance.
As another example, Isaiah 40:3-4 says that the mountains will be brought low and uneven ground will be made level. Literally, this would mean that there will be no hills. However, Luke 3:4-6 implies that this prophecy was fulfilled by John the Baptist. Luke understood it figuratively, in a very non-literal way. He was not talking about mountains and roads at all.
Due to the way New Testament writers present Messianic prophecies, some readers may think there has been a “literal” fulfillment. But a comparison of Old Testament context and New Testament fulfillment sometimes shows a major shift in meaning. Sometimes the original verse in the Old Testament wasn’t a prophecy at all – it was just given greater meaning in the life and ministry of Christ.
Joel 2:28-29 predicted God’s Spirit on “all flesh” and dreams and visions, but Peter said that this was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when there was no mention of dreams and visions (Acts 2:16-17). Nevertheless, Peter said that Pentecost was a fulfillment of the prophecy. He did not press the details very far, and neither should we. Their understanding of fulfillment is different from the concept many people today have.
Let’s look at an example from the book of Revelation: Does Christ hold a sword in his mouth (Revelation 19:15), or does it metaphorically mean words of war? Similarly in the Old Testament, when we read that people will “beat swords into plowshares,” do we restrict the meaning to swords and plows, or do we update it technologically to include all instruments of warfare and productivity? In this case, the specific item (a sword) seems to refer to a general subject (violence); the same may be true with other details of prophecy. Each word may stand for something else.
What about people? Malachi 4:5-6 predicted an Elijah. But it wasn’t literally Elijah; Jesus said that John the Baptist fulfilled that role. When Elijah comes again, will it be a resurrected Elijah, or someone in his role? What about the prophecies of a future David? In many cases, “David” may be a reference to his descendant and successor, Christ. If Christ fulfills the prediction, it isn’t necessary that David himself will also. When we read that Christ will sit on the throne of David, should we expect the same physical throne, or is it a figure of speech depicting rulership of Israel? Will we all sit on the one throne of God (Revelation 3:21) while the apostles sit on other thrones (Matthew 19:28)?
We should interpret the Bible by asking, What did the writer mean? He may have intended a figurative meaning. However, to understand the figure of speech or the metaphor, we must first understand what the words mean literally. But we cannot reject all other possibilities in advance. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to tell us which words are literal and which are symbolic, and even if we know the word is symbolic, there is no formula to tell us what the symbol means. That is why Bible prophecy is interpreted in many different ways.
Although we’d like to have an answer for every Bible question, we should say “We don’t know” more often. “Some of us think this way, and some of us think that way. I understand how you got your view, and I might happen to disagree with it, but I cannot prove that either view is the only way of looking at it.” This is the approach we need on several issues.
Because of the ambiguities that are involved in prophecy (probably by God’s design), differences of opinion will exist, even among converted Christians. On such matters, we should not be dogmatic, and none of us should insist that the church teach our particular view. On many debatable issues, the church need not teach any view; it is not essential to Christian discipleship or to our commission. There are sections of the Bible we do not understand (even Paul didn’t know everything), and we need to admit it. We cannot be dogmatic about many specific interpretations — and we cannot categorically reject everyone else’s.
A brief word about dates, perhaps one of the most often misused aspects of prophecy: Bible prophecies are often purposely ambiguous about chronology. That isn’t so we will study harder and make lots of guesses – it is because the chronology is relatively unimportant. The more important thing is our spiritual response, and that is more important even if we did know the chronology.
Prophecy is given not so much that we will know the future, but that we will know that God controls the future. It is far more important for us to know God, than it is for us to know the future. Any revelation of the future is given primarily so that we will do something now to be on the side of the One who wins in the end, the one who declares the end from ancient times, the one who will be sure to bring it all to pass just as he has purposed.
A balanced approach
Many Christians need an overview of prophecy, to put prophecy into perspective. That is because many Christians overemphasize prophecy and make claims about prophecy that cannot be substantiated. For some, prophecy is the most important doctrine. That is what occupies most of their Bible study, and that is the subject they want to hear about the most. Armageddon fiction sells well. Many Christians would do well to notice the real purpose of prophecy. We might formulate a statement:
Bible prophecy reveals God and his will and purpose for humanity. In Bible prophecy, God declares that human sinfulness is forgiven through repentance and faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Prophecy proclaims God as Sovereign Creator and Judge of all, it assures humanity of his love, mercy, and faithfulness, and it motivates the believer to live a godly life in Jesus Christ.
The above paragraph has three sentences. The first one says that prophecy is part of God’s revelation to us, and it tells us something about who he is, what he is like, what he wants and what he is doing. The second sentence says that Bible prophecy announces salvation through Jesus Christ. It does not say that all prophecy is concerned with forgiveness and faith in Christ. Nor does it say that prophecy is the only place that God reveals these things about salvation. We could say that prophecy is one of the many ways in which God reveals forgiveness through Christ.
Since God’s plan centers on Jesus Christ, and prophecy is part of God’s revelation of his will, it is inevitable that prophecy relates, either directly or indirectly, to what he is doing in and through Jesus Christ. (We are not trying to pinpoint every prophecy here — we are giving an overview.) The most important thing about prophecy is not about nations, and not about the future — it is about repentance, faith, salvation, and life right now.
If we took a survey in most denominations, I doubt that many people would say that prophecy is about forgiveness and faith. They think it is focused on other things. But prophecy is about salvation through Christ, as well as a number of other things. When millions are looking to Bible prophecy to discern the end of the world, when millions always associate prophecy with events still future, it is helpful to remind people that one purpose of prophecy is to reveal that human sinfulness can be forgiven through the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Human sinfulness can be forgiven. I am referring to the fundamental condition of humanity, not just the individual results of our sinfulness. It is true that individual sins are forgiven, but it is even more important that our flawed nature, which is the root of the problem, is also forgiven. We will never have the time nor the wisdom to repent of every sin. Forgiveness does not depend on our ability to itemize them all. Rather, what Christ makes possible for us is that all of them, and our sinful nature at its core, can all be forgiven in one fell swoop.
Next, we note that our sinfulness is forgiven through faith and repentance. We have assurance that our sins are forgiven, on the basis of what Christ has done. The coming of Jesus to rescue us from our sinfulness was prophesied in the Old Testament; this is something that prophecy is about. Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin.
People can experience forgiveness simply through faith in Christ, without having any precise beliefs about how Christ is able to forgive us. No particular theory about Christ’s atoning death is required. No special beliefs about his role as mediator are required for salvation. However, the New Testament teaches that our salvation is made possible through the death of Christ on the cross, and that he is our High Priest interceding for us. When we believe that what Jesus did is effective for our salvation, then we experience forgiveness. We acknowledge and worship him as Savior and Lord. We realize that he accepts us in his love and grace and we accept his wonderful gift of salvation.
Prophecy is concerned with our salvation. We find evidence for that in Luke 24. There, the resurrected Jesus is explaining things to two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”… Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
Jesus did not say that the Scriptures spoke only of him, or that every single prophecy was about him. He didn’t have time to cover the entire Old Testament. Some prophecies were about him, and some were about him only indirectly. Jesus explained the prophecies that were most directly about him. The disciples believed some of what the prophets had written, but they were slow of heart to believe it all. They were missing part of the story, and Jesus filled them in and explained it to them. Even though some prophecies were about Edom, Moab, Assyria, or Egypt, and some about Israel, other prophecies were about the suffering and death of the Messiah, and his resurrection to glory. Jesus explained these to his disciples.
Jesus began with the books of Moses. They have some messianic prophecies in them, but most of the Pentateuch is about Jesus in a different way — in terms of typology, in the rituals of sacrifice and priesthood that prefigured the work of the Messiah. Jesus explained these concepts, too.
Verse 44 tells us more:
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Again, he did not say that every single detail was about him. What he said is that the parts that were about him had to be fulfilled. We could add that not everything had to be fulfilled in his first coming. Some prophecies seem to point to the future, to his return, but like he said, they must be fulfilled. Not just prophecy pointed to him — the Law also pointed to him, and the Psalms pointed to him and the work he would do for our salvation.
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (verses 45-48)
Here Jesus explains more prophecies concerning himself. Prophecy was pointing not only to the Messiah’s suffering, death, and resurrection — prophecy also pointed to the message of repentance and forgiveness, a message that would be preached to all nations.
Prophecy touches on many things, but the main thing it is about, the most important thing it reveals, is that we can be forgiven through the death of the Messiah. Jesus highlighted this purpose of prophecy on the road to Emmaus. If we are interested in prophecy, we should be sure not to miss this. If we don’t get this part of the message, it won’t do us any good to get anything else.
It is interesting to read Revelation 19:10 with that in mind: “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” The message about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. That is what prophecy is all about. The essence of prophecy is Jesus Christ.
Three more purposes
Our third sentence adds several more details: “Prophecy proclaims God as Sovereign Creator and Judge of all, assures humanity of his love, mercy, and faithfulness, and motivates the believer to live a godly life in Jesus Christ.” Here are three more purposes of prophecy. First, God is Sovereign Judge of all. Second, God is loving, merciful and faithful. Third, prophecy motivates us to live right. Let’s look at these three.
Bible prophecy tells us that God is sovereign, that he has authority and power over all things. Isaiah 46:9-11 supports this point:
Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, [I make known] what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.
God is saying that he can tell us how everything ends up, even when it is only starting. Only God can make the end known even when he is in the beginning. Even in ancient times, he was able to make predictions about what would happen in the future.
Some people say that God can do this because he sees the future. It’s true that God knows the future, but that isn’t Isaiah’s point here. What Isaiah is bringing out is not so much that God sees or knows in advance, but that God will intervene in history to make sure that it happens. He will bring it about, even though he may call upon someone from the east, in this case, to do the work.
God makes his plan known in advance, and that revelation is what we call prophecy — something said in advance about what is going to happen. So prophecy is part of God’s revelation of his will and purpose. Then, because it is God’s will, his plan, his desire, he makes sure that it happens. He will do everything he wants to do, because he has the power to do that. He is sovereign over all nations.
Daniel 4:17 tells us the same thing. Just after Daniel announces that King Nebuchadnezzar will be insane for seven years, he gives this reason:
The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.
This prophecy was given and carried out so that we would know that God is sovereign over all nations. He has the power to set someone up as ruler, even the most unlikely of people. God can give it to whomever he wants, because he is sovereign. That is one message conveyed to us by Bible prophecy. It shows that he has all power.
Prophecy tells us that God is Judge. We can see that in many of the Old Testament prophecies, particular prophecies of punishment. God is bringing unpleasant consequences because the people have done bad things. God is acting as a judge, with the power to reward and the power to punish, and the power to make sure that it is done.
Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14-15)
Here the New Testament is quoting a prophecy that is not in the Old Testament. This prophecy is in the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch, and it has become part of the inspired record as to what prophecy reveals. It reveals that the Lord is coming and that he is a judge of every nation.
Love, mercy, faithfulness
Bible prophecy reveals something about what God plans and what he does, and it is therefore inevitable that it reveals to us something about his character. His purposes and plans will inevitably reveal that he is loving, merciful, and faithful. I think here of Jeremiah 26:13 — “Reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” If the people change, then God will change. He is not anxious to punish; he is willing to wipe the slate clean. He does not keep grudges – he is merciful and willing to forgive.
As an example of his faithfulness, we can look at the prophecy in Leviticus 26:44. The passage is a warning to Israel that if they broke the covenant, they would be conquered and taken into captivity. But then this assurance is added: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely.” This prophecy is highlighting God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love, even without using those specific words.
Hosea 11 is another example of God’s faithful love. After describing how unfaithful Israel has been, verses 8-9 say, “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” This prophecy is showing God’s persistent love for his people.
New Testament prophecies also assure us that God is loving, merciful and faithful. He will resurrect us and reward us. We will live with him and enjoy his love forever. Bible prophecy assures us that God intends to do this, and previous fulfillments of prophecy assure us that he has the power to carry it out, to do exactly as he has purposed to do.
Motivates godly life
Last, we say that Bible prophecy motivates believers to live a godly life in Jesus Christ. How does it do this? For one, it gives us a motive to turn to God, because we are assured that he wants the best for us, and we will receive good forever if we accept what he gives, and we will ultimately receive bad if we don’t.
This is shown in 2 Peter 3. We can start in verses 10-12:
The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.
We are to look forward to the day of the Lord, rather than fearing it, and we are to live godly lives. Presumably something good will happen to us if we do, and something less desirable will happen to us if we don’t. Prophecy encourages us to live godly lives, because it reveals to us that God will reward those who faithfully seek him. Verses 12-15:
That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
Bible prophecy encourages us to make every effort, to have right behavior and right thoughts, to live godly lives and be at peace with God. The only way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In this passage, prophecy is telling us that God is patient, faithful and merciful.
Jesus’ ongoing role is essential. Peace with God is possible only because Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us as our High Priest. The Law of Moses foreshadowed and prophesied this aspect of Jesus’ saving work; it is through him that we are strengthened to live godly lives, to make every effort, and to be cleansed of the spots we incur. Through faith in him as our High Priest, we can be confident that our sins have been forgiven and we are assured of salvation and eternal life. Prophecy assures us of God’s mercy and the way that we can be saved through Jesus Christ.
Prophecy is not the only thing that motivates us to live godly lives. Our future reward or punishment is not the only reason to live right. We can find motivations for good behavior in the past, the present, and the future. In the past, because God has been good to us, and in gratitude for what he has already done, we are willing to do what he says. Our present motivation for living right is our love for God; the Holy Spirit in us causes us to want to please him in what we do. The future helps motivate our behavior, too—God warns us about punishment presumably because he wants that warning to motivate us to change our behavior. He promises rewards, too, knowing that they also help motivate us. We want to receive the rewards he will give.
Behavior has always been a reason for prophecy. Prophecy is not just foretelling, it is also forth-telling: setting forth God’s instructions. That is the reason many prophecies were conditional — God warned of punishment, and he hoped for repentance so that the punishment would not have to come. Prophecies were not given as trivia about the future — they had a purpose for the present. Zechariah summarized the message of the prophets as a call to change: “The earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says, Turn from your evil ways…. Return to me, and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3-4). Prophecy tells us that God is a merciful judge, and because of what Jesus Christ does for us, we can be saved if we trust him.
Some prophecies were longer-range, and did not depend on whether people did either good or bad. Not all prophecies were designed for that purpose. Prophecies come in such a wide variety that it is difficult to say, except in a general sense, what all prophecies are for. Some are for this, some are for that, and there are some we aren’t sure what they are for.
When we try to make a statement about something as diverse as prophecy, we will make a general statement, because that is accurate: Bible prophecy is one of the ways God tells us what he is doing, and the overall message of prophecy therefore tells us about the most important thing that God is doing: leading us to salvation through Jesus Christ. Prophecy warns us of judgment to come, assures us of mercy, and therefore encourages us to repent and get with the program of what God is doing.