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The key to interpreting Biblical prophecies

The key to interpreting Biblical prophecies
Posted on May 31, 2019  - By Dr. David Brooks

In the prophetic books of the Bible, there are many prophetic messages that do not predict the future — or, at least, specific future events. One writer says as much as 94 per cent of the prophets’ messages were not predictive. This number seems too high, but it is true that prophecy is not all prediction.

So, how do we interpret a non-predictive prophecy? (Some Bible students call this forthtelling to distinguish it from foretelling.)

First, realise that the primary Old Testament Hebrew word for a prophet means “one who speaks for another, a spokesperson”. God’s prophets were speaking for Him (Jeremiah 1:9). Their purpose was to deliver God’s message, regardless of whether it was a prediction or not. The New Testament word for a prophet similarly means “one who speaks for a deity and interprets his will to people” (2 Peter 1:21).

Second, all Scripture reveals something about God. In John 5:39, Jesus said that all the Old Testament reveals Him. So, whatever the topic of a prophecy, it tells us something about God. When a person perceives Jesus, He perceives God (John 14:9), for He is God (e.g. John 10:30). Read prophecy looking for truth about God.

Third, God desires people to come into relationship with Him (Exodus 25:8; Isaiah 7:14 [Immanuel = God with us]; John 17:3) because He loves them (John 3:16). However, He does not change His personality or character to enter relationships. As the God of the universe and Creator of humans, He is not the One who needs to change, but sinners — and that is all of us — need to have our values, attitudes, and behaviour changed for the better. Sin corrupts us and causes us to harm ourselves and each other (James 1:15). Therefore, in studying the preaching messages of the prophets, look for God’s values, whether they are spiritual, social, moral, intellectual, emotional, or even economic.

God desires relationship with people, but He does not change His personality or character to do this. As God of the universe, He is not the One who needs to change

Contexts and covenants

One fact that repeatedly appears throughout the Old Testament is that God tells the truth and keeps His promises. It is no surprise then that He has made covenants with people. Covenants formalise a relationship and include promises by God and obligations He expects from people. The Old Testament has explicit covenants beginning early in the first book of the Bible.

The first covenant mentioned in Scripture is spoken to Noah (Genesis 6:18), the next is with Abraham (Genesis 15:18, referring back to the promises in Genesis 12:1-3), then the Mosaic covenant at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:7), and the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 23:5; 7:12-16).

In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God announced the Mosaic covenant would be replaced by the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:9). All the prophets speak from the context of the covenants God has made. Even Jonah who addressed a non-Israelite audience was speaking from the context of the Abrahamic covenant that God would bless other nations (Genesis 12:3).

Three kinds of contexts

When studying anything, a person must think about the context if he or she is to understand what is said. In the Old Testament, there are three contexts: theological, literary, and historical. The theological context means that a passage should be interpreted by taking into consideration the truths about God that have been revealed in Scripture. Since He deals in covenants that involve values, promises and expectations, those must be considered when interpreting a passage.

The literary context means what was said in the preceding and following passages has some effect on what is meant in the prophecy you are trying to interpret. This is what we often mean when we say we take things in context. The Bible is not simply a collection of thousands of memory verses. The thought progresses logically from one verse to the next; there are logical connections from passage to passage.

The Bible is not simply a collection of thousands of memory verses. There are logical connections from passage to passage. Always take things in context

The historical context cannot be separated from the cultural context of the time and place of the prophet and his audience. Information about this context may come from Scripture, but since the audience already lived in that context, the prophet assumed some facts that we do not know. For us, we need to learn the historical-cultural context from those who have done the research. Many resources exist for this, though some of us do not have complete access to these resources for various reasons. But we can learn as much as is available to us.

In Isaiah 1:2-20, for example, the theological context is a lawsuit against Judah for failure to keep the Mosaic covenant. The literary context in the following chapters describes their sins. The historical context is the Assyrian invasion in 701 B.C. God severely disciplined Judah by sending the violent Assyrians to ravage their country, but Judah did not pay attention or seek God from their hearts. Nevertheless, He graciously offered one more time for them to repent and be reconciled to Him.

Dr. David Brooks

About Dr. David Brooks

David Brooks is a senior professor of Hebrew & Old Testament at Criswell College, Dallas, where he lives with his wife and four children. Having been raised with an emphasis on international missions, he often accepts international teaching assignments while also teaching adjunctively at Dallas Theological Seminary.



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