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How do we read the Prophesies?

by Anton Stier

Whoever wants to understand more about the people of Israel from Biblical perspective, needs to study the prophets. Of course the Bible contains a treasury of information on the history of Israel, but the biggest part of Scripture speaks about its future. Moreover in Biblical history very many future views are given. For example the days of Noah, the Lord Yeshua speaks of: “so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Matt. 24:37), the history of Babel, with all its marks of the end of times (Gen. 11); the history of Joseph, in which we can find Gods complete plan of salvation with Israel. And especially the Exodus out of Egypt, which is a symbol of the future redemption that God will bring on a much larger scale. Even concerning the law, the writer of the Hebrews states of that it is “having a shadow of good things to come”(Hebr. 10:1). And so we could mention many more examples. In this study we want to limit ourselves to the most important marks of the prophetic Word, as stated by Peter: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:19-21).

Three mainstreams of Christian theology
With regard to the approach and interpretation of the prophetic Word we can roughly distinguish three mainstreams within Christian theology.

First mainstream
First those who neglect the prophesies. They limit their interest in the Scriptures to their personal spiritual life of ‘here-and-now’ without realising that “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Hebr. 11:1). In other terms, Biblical belief is always related to the future, to ‘the things we hope’. Remember for example the believers of Thessalonica, who had turned away from the idols, “to serve the living true God. And to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:9b-10a). But not only that, “All scripture (including prophesies) is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine.. (2 Tim. 3:16). Especially while we see the world-history coming to a close, we should take heed to the prophetic Word as “a light that shineth in a dark place”.

Second mainstream
The second stream we distinguish is the allegorisation of prophesies. One does acknowledge the fulfilled prophesies about Christ’ first coming, but the prophesies concerning His second coming are interpreted in a very subjective way. One suddenly doesn’t read anymore what is written. Instead of Israel or ‘the house of Jacob’ one reads ‘the church’, the ‘sheep of His pasture’ are the Christians. Christ is seen as ‘the King of the church’ and the church as the ‘salvation organ’ through which Gods Kingdom will be founded on earth. Although the early church still had the expectation of a messianic Kingdom, according to Augustine (354-430) this empire began with the conversion of pagan emperor Constantine (306-337) to Christianity. When as a result of this fact persecution of Christians ended and the Christian church spread it was considered as a proof that Satan was bound and the government of Christ had started. Following this thought the church had taken over the position and calling of Israel. The fact that according to Romans 11:29 “ the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” obviously does not embarrass these who support this replacement theology.
Also Luther, who was allowed to rediscover the grace and justification by faith, didn’t bring any new light in this area. When the Jews didn’t respond to his calling for repentance he even distanced himself from and wrote terrible things about them.

A second reason why Christian theology inclined so strongly to an allegoric exegesis of prophesies, was the fact that many descriptions of the future exceeded man’s imagination. How can you imagine without television, Internet and advanced mail distribution the prophesy of Revelation 11:10: “And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another and how can you imagine without recent pay-systems the words of Revelation 13:17.”that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name ?

Third mainstream
The third stream – and we account ourselves to this one- holds a literal explanation of the prophesy, unless it is a matter of certain metaphor, figures of speech or poetic expressions.
We agree with the words of Peter that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20). In other words, what counts are not our own well-intentioned explanations, but an exegeses which is based on comparing Scripture with Scripture, because we strongly believe that the Bible explains itself. Everything which goes beyond this principle, is, what Peter calls, ‘private interpretation’. It is for example important that expressions keep their original meaning and that they are not used alternately literally and figuratively. If for example Genesis 46:27 speaks about the ‘souls of the house of Jacob in Egypt’ then the natural descendants of Jacob are meant. Why should the words of the angel in Luke 1:33 that “He (Christ) shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever” suddenly be applied to the church? Another example is Revelation 7:4: “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel “ Also here we must not imagine anything else than believers who literally will come forth out of the tribes of Israel and stand in a special relationship with the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5). Also expressions as “in those days” and “the day of the Lord’, always concern a future period, in which the Lord discontinues His silence when He comes to judge the earth (1 Chron. 16:33). For example when John says in Revelation 1:10 that he was in the spirit on ‘the day of the Lord’ we cannot explain this as meaning ‘Sunday’. Nowhere in the Bible the first day of the week is mentioned ‘the day of the Lord’. The Scriptures reserve that expression very consequently for the day of judgement. (cf. Is. 2:12; 13:6,9; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11,31; Zeph.. 1:7,14; Mal. 4:5; 2 Thess. 2:2,3 and so on).

But when it is clear it concerns metaphor, as for example in Is. 60:16 where there is said to Israel “Thou shalt also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shalt suck the breast of kings”, it doesn’t give us the right to give our own explanation to it. The explanation is, as you can see in verse 10: “The sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee”. When explaining metaphors we are not permitted to apply capriciousness, but explanation should be as far as possible be found in the context. Not the one with the best fantasy, but the one who believes the Word and diligently compares Scripture with Scripture can - under guidance of the Holy Spirit (the Author of the Word) - discover the true meaning. It is after all ‘the Spirit of truth who will guide into all truth’ (John 16:13). Concerning metaphors, which can be found especially in the book of Revelation and the prophetic books related herewith (Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah), the following principals matter: (We limit ourselves to some examples from the book of Revelation.)

1. The explanation which is directly given:
The seven stars: the seven angels of the churches (1:16, 20);
The seven lampstands: the seven churches (1;13,20);
The seven lamps of fire: the seven Spirits of God (4:5);
The golden vials full of odour: the prayers of the saints (5:8, cf. 8:3).
2. The explanation from the direct context:
The star who falls unto the earth is found to be the angel of the bottomless pit (9:1, 11);
A time, times and half a time are explained by 42 months (11:2; 13:5) and 1260 days (11:3;12:6);
The whore is the big city of Babylon (17:1,5,18);
The Rider on the white horse (19:11-16,19) is the King of kings and Lord of lords (verse 16).

3. The explanation from other Bible books:
The tree of life (2:7; 22:2; cf. Gen. 2:9; 3:22,24);
The iron rod (2:27; cf. Ps. 2:9);
The key of David (3:7; cf. Is. 22:22).

Interval
Prophesies can sometimes have an interval of a few thousand years. A clear example is the history in Luke 4 where the Lord Jesus reads a part from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor He hath sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luk. 4:18-19). The Lord stops halfway Isaiah 61 verse 2 and says “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears”. He doesn’t read the whole sentence and omits “and the day of vengeance of our God”. Why doesn’t the Lord read further? Because His first coming has heralded ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’, in which is proclaimed the Gospel of mercy and salvation. The exclamation of the ‘day of vengeance’ on the other hand, waits for His return. Then He shall not sit on the colt of .....? (Luke 19), but He will be the Horseman on a white horse, Who judges and makes battle. “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:15,16).
A comparable interval we find in Acts 15 where James gives an explanation from the prophesy of Amos about the fact that the gentiles come to believe. “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up” (14-16).
James doesn’t spiritualize the prophesy of Amos, as if God has now definitely put aside Israel and goes on with the church. No, inspired by the Holy Spirit he enfolds a time interval in which God adopts out of the gentiles a people for His name, in order to return after this and to make true His promises to Israel. In connection to James words Paul later writes (quoting from Isaiah 27 and 59): “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:25-26).
So it is a matter of an interval in which the salvation goes to the gentiles, but at the same time the promise of future restoration for Israel does hold.
Many prophesies are comparable with a mountain-landscape of which you see the mountain tops after each other and it just seems that they are combined together. If you come closer you discover the often very big distance they have in relation to one another.

Some examples of such a prophetic interval are:


Isaiah 9:6a: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given……”

Unfulfilled:
Isaiah 9: 6b “and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace”.

Fulfilled:
Hosea 3:4: “For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim”.

Unfulfilled:
Hosea 3:5: “Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days”.

Fulfilled:
Micah 5:1 till 3a: “Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us: they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth”.

Unfulfilled:
Micah 5:3b: “then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel”.

Fulfilled:
Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass”.

Unfulfilled:
Zechariah 9:10: “And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth”.

From these examples it is obvious that it is illogical to suppose that the first part of the prophesies has been fulfilled literally but that for the second part you cannot expect a literalfulfilment. In that case the prophetic word would be unreliable and all Gods promises are insecure. Then the cited prophets are false prophets, as is written that only “The prophet which prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the LORD hath truly sent him” ( Jer. 28:9).

Pré-and endfulfilment
There are also prophecies which have a pre- and endfulfilment. A clear example is the letter of Jeremiah to the exiles (Jer. 29). Jeremiah comforts the exiles with the prophecy that after 70 years their captivity will end. By careful reading though you will discover that Jeremiah looks further than the salvation from Babylon. In verse 14 he writes: “And I will be found of you, saith the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive”.
This prophecy therefore has both a pre-fulfilment (after 70 years), when the people returned only from Babylon, as an end-fulfilment (after Christ’ return) when the people will return from all nations and places. The same we find in the known prophesy in Daniel 9 where Daniel confesses the sins of the people after being aware of the fact that the destruction (verse 2) would last for 70 years. The prophesy he then receives from the angel Gabriel includes the whole redemption process of God with Israel in periods of (year)weeks. By the way, also with an interval of more than 2000 years between the 69th and 70th year(week).

Contemporary fulfilment of prophesy
However much we plead for a literal taking of the prophesies we also must strongly warn against (?) a forced application of prophesies on our time. Thus often all sorts of promises of return and recovery of Israel are applied to the situation of today without taking the context serious near it.
Many for example see in the prophesy of Jeremiah 23:8 the return of Jews from the former Soviet-Union: “But, The LORD liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them and they shall dwell in their own land”
One doesn’t mark the context, which clearly indicates that these promises only become reality when the righteous branch, which is raisen unto David, will reign as King. Only "In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (verse 5,6).
More over it is very speculative to interpret ‘the country of the North’ with the former Soviet-Union. Jeremiah 46:10 situates the north country on the river Euphrates.
Furthermore we see that the Lord doesn’t only return them from the ‘country of the north’ but ‘from all the countries’ to which He had driven them.

Flower as a rose
A text, which is often applied to the ingenious irrigation works of Israel, is Isaiah 35:1 “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose”.
But when will this happen? The answer is clear from the context: When they see the glory of the Lord (verse 2) and He will cause to come down for you the rain, the former rain, and the latter rain, by which the floors shall be full of wheat, and the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. (see Joel 2:23 and 24)

Hunters and fishermen
Another example is the metaphor of ‘the hunters’ and ‘the fishermen’ in Jeremiah 16 who are often explained as successively the Nazi’s and the Zionists who God would have used to return His people to the land. The Nazi’s are seen as the ones who have merciless driven the people to the land and the Zionists the ones who have lovingly fished them up out of the sea of people. If we read the whole chapter though we mark that almost everything speaks of Gods judgement. Jeremiah is ordered to take no wife and by that no children because they are awaiting a dreadful death (verse 4). They are not even allowed to be lamented or buried (verse 4,5) “for I have taken away my peace from this people, saith the LORD, even lovingkindness and mercies”
After mentioning in verse 10 up to 12 their unbelief and disobedience as the reason for His judgement, the Lord says in verse 13: “Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers and there shall ye serve other gods day and night where I will not shew you favour”. Herewith the Lord acts in harmony with the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 28:64.
Although the Lord promises in verses 14 and 15 the return of the people, but this is not a return with the assistance of ‘hunters and fishermen’. The fact is that their way of acting is connected with “all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes. And first I will recompense their iniquity and their sin double because they have defiled my land, they have filled mine inheritance with the carcases of their detestable and abominable things” (verse 17,18). The word ‘for’ which verse 17 starts with, gives the reason why those fishermen and hunters will be sent, namely to throw the people out of the country. By the way both fishermen and hunters aim to catch and kill their prey and that’s not the way according which the Lord presently shall gather His people as a loving Shepherd (cf Ezek. 34:11,12). The context teaches us therefore clearly that fishermen and hunters are a metaphor for people like Babel and later Rome who have driven them out of the land.

We hope by using these examples to hurt nobody but just try to bring clearness into the confusion, which exists around the prophetic word. In the next ‘Beit Hamidrash’ we want to go deeper into the prophesies in relation to Christ’ first coming.