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Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature Interpreting the Literary Types

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Prophecy and Apocalyptic Literature

When we hear the word “prophecy”, we usually think of  “predicting the future”, our future in particular.  The OT prophets did forecast the future, but less than ten percent of their predictions involved the new covenant, the second coming, or our time.  Most predictive announcements concerned the immediate future of Israel or the surrounding nations.

The primary function of the prophets, however, was to act as spokespersons, relaying God's message to the people (in this sense, the entirety of Scripture is prophecy).  We must emphasize that the prophets were delivering God's message, not their own.  For the OT prophets, this primarily involved reminding the Israelites of the law and the covenants, including the blessing and curses, calling them back into compliance.  The prophets were not proclaiming anything new, merely finding new ways of expressing the law of Moses.  For example, a prophet often used an agricultural metaphor to explain the consequences of obedience or disobedience, much like a modern preacher contemporizes a Biblical message for his listeners.  Sometimes, a prophet would even perform actions symbolizing what would happen, such as Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot to demonstrate how the Assyrians would capture and treat the Egyptians.

Even though the prophets introduced very little new content, they often expanded the details.  For example, Dt 18:18 tells of God raising up a prophet (the Messiah) like Moses from among the Jews.  Isaiah greatly offers additional details about the coming Messiah in chapters 42, 49, 50 and 53 of the book bearing his name.  The NT writers, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, further amplified the message, even revealing fuller patterns of meanings (known as sensur plenior or “fuller meaning”) of which the OT writers might not have been aware.  There are also cases in which a NT writer draws a connection or conclusion that would not otherwise be obvious to a Bible scholar.  A good example of this is Paul spiritualizing Moses drawing water from the rock during the wilderness wanderings (Ex 17:6, Nu 20:11) by writing that the spiritual rock was Christ (1Cor  4:10).  A word of caution is needed here.  Many modern scholars find certain NT passages to be a sensur plenior of OT scriptures.  We must remember that we are not inspired writers of sacred Scripture, unlike the NT authors, but merely illuminated readers.  Unless a passage is clearly identified as a sensur plenior by the inspired author, we are not authorized make the allegorical connection.

Two Prediction Fulfillment Challenges

We will now deal with two major challenges of the “predicting the future” aspect of prophecy.  One of the biggest challenges in understanding predictive prophecy involves determining when the fulfillment of the prediction will occur.  We should begin our study by examining the historical context.  A good Bible commentary, dictionary and handbook can often be very helpful here.  The majority of the OT books containing prophetical statements originate from a three hundred year span from the mid 700s to mid 400s BC.  This era was marked by ongoing civil wars between the Northern and Southern tribes of Israel, as well as wars involving the Assyrians, Babylonians and the Persians, both with Israel and each other.  It was obviously a time of great political and economical upheaval, characterized by spiritual unfaithfulness and a disregard for the Mosaic covenant.

As if dating a prophecy's fulfillment wasn't tough enough, a prophet may sometimes describe two or more different events in the same paragraph (or even in the same sentence) that might be hundreds or thousands of years apart, and the fact that he's delineating between more than one event is not always readily apparent.  In addition, a prophecy might have an initial (or partial) fulfillment within an almost immediate or short time period after the prediction that foreshadows an ultimate later fulfillment.  This ultimate event could be in our past (often by the Works or Person of Christ), or still in our future.  This technique is often referred to as “Prophetic Telescoping”.  Adding to our challenge, since fulfillment of any Biblical prophecy is certain (but see the “exception clause” below), a prophet often describes future events in the present rather than the future tense.  The identity of the event(s) can often be determined by the historical context, and how it was understood by the original audience.  We must then ask if the event has already occurred in history.  Don’t automatically assume that phrases such as “in the last days”, “end of the age”, or “day of the Lord” indicates a future event.  We can also look for parallels in Scripture.  For  example, Jesus' Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 is connected to the “great tribulation” (also Dan 12:1).  In many cases, we may even be able to identify the event from extra-biblical historical sources, if it has already occurred in the past.

The second major challenge involving many of the future predictions has resulted in much debate among Biblical scholars.  The question for many of these predictions is, “should we expect a literal or a figurative / symbolic fulfillment”?  Some of the most commonly debated predictions involve national Israel, the Jewish people, the Church, and the future return of Christ.  A fuller treatment will require separate article(s), so we’ll just add one note here.  Of all the predictions that have already been fulfilled in the past, most (but not all) have been fulfilled in a literal historical manner, particularly with regard to the first advent of Christ.  If previously fulfilled prophecy is any guide, it is quite likely that most predictions concerning future events will fulfilled in a likewise manner.  This is not to deny that there could not be accompanying valid spiritual applications of the coming historical events.

Literary Forms of Prophetical Oracles

In our Bible Interpretation Guide, we suggested “thinking paragraphs” as being helpful in determining context.  We also gave some hints on determining when the author was changing subjects.  Similarly, when studying prophetical oracles, we want to isolate the individual oracles.  This can usually be done by determining the known literary type or form that a prophecy can typically take.

A common form is the “lawsuit” oracle.  God is portrayed as a type of judge, prosecutor and jury, with Israel as the defendant.  The oracle contains language (often figurative) typical to a court case, such as a charge of indictment (explicit or implied), testimony of the evidence, and the concluding verdict or judgment (examples Is 3:13-26, Hos 3:3-17).  Another form is the “visual aid” prophecy, in which the prophet performs a symbolic enactment of the resulting judgment (Is 20, as mentioned above).  A very common type of oracle is the “distress” or “woe” proclamation, typically a prediction of doom (Mic 2:1-5, Hab 2:6-8, Zeph 2:5-7).  A much more welcome form was the “promise” oracle, involving blessings for the future, often accompanied by the restoration of Israel and return to the land (Amos 9:11-15, Is 45:1-7, Jer 31:1-9).  We can also look for phrases such as “This is what the Lord says...” or “The word of the Lord came to...” etc, which typically signals the start of a new revelation, and as we mentioned before, reminds us that the message originates from God, not from the prophet.

Before we move on, we need to mention one of the rules of prophetic literature concerning the “judgment” types (distress, woe, promises), which if not applied correctly, can lead to erroneous charges regarding the Bible prophets.  There are cases in which a prophet has declared that God would enact judgment on a certain group of people, but God later relented.  One of the better known examples concerns the prophet Jonah declaring that the city of Nineveh would be overturned (Jonah 3:4).  Elsewhere, the prophet Micah states that Jerusalem will become a “heap of rubble” (Micah 3:12, quoted and lack of fulfillment noted in Jer 26:16-19).  In these cases, does the lack of divine judgment make Jonah and Micah false prophets?  No, because the prophets (and their audience) realized that in all judgment prophecies, there was a built-in “exception clause”.  This clause was delivered by God to the prophet Jeremiah:  “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it (Jer 18:7-10).  So, the rule shared by both author and reader and part of the “norms of language” for judgment prophecies is that, if the hearer repents, the judgment will not take place.  Therefore, judgment prophecies are conditional, based upon the response of the hearer.  We see that Jonah clearly understood this exception clause.  He initially fled and was swallowed by a big fish, before reluctantly going to preach to the hated Ninevites.  After the Ninevites repented, he complained to God that “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).  We also see in Kings 21:20-29, King Ahab avoided judgment by repenting after a pronouncement by the prophet Elijah.  We must also note the reverse portion of the statement in Jeremiah.  Judgment later fell on Nineveh, Jerusalem and Ahab when they returned to their evil ways.

Apocalyptic literature is frequently used within prophetic writings.  This type is characterized by highly symbolic forms (some real, some fantasy), dreams and visions, expressing earthly events in cosmic terms, and often contains cryptic (hidden) meanings.  It is frequently concerned with themes of judgment and salvation, good vs evil, wars in heaven and on earth, present pessimism compared with future glory, and the divine transcendence of God.  Apocalyptic literature is found primarily in Ezekiel, Daniel, many of the Minor Prophets, parts of Isaiah and Revelation.  The books of the Apocrypha are also loaded with this literary type.

Important Interpretation Principle

Before we lay out some rules for dealing with prophetical genre, we'd like to mention an important interpretation principle of prophecy courtesy of the 16th century reformer, Martin Luther.  Luther taught that recorded prophecy (like the rest of Scripture), generally has the Christ (or Messiah) as their central focus (Lk 24:44-49).  So we should interpret the messages of the prophets in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Additional Rules for Interpreting Prophetical Literature

Prophetical writings contain many other literary forms, especially making frequent use of poetry and figurative language to communicate their message.  Therefore, the rules of the other types, particularly epistles and poetry, also apply to this genre.

The first rule (as with most other types) is to determine the author's intended meaning to his original audience.  Our starting point should be the historical context (occasion, purpose, main themes etc)  and the literary form, as discussed above.  Keep in mind that these words were written thousands of years ago, so some predictions have already taken place.  Others have partially transpired, which foreshadowed an ultimate fulfillment still to come.

We should generally interpret prophetical texts literally (as with other literature types) unless the literal interpretation violates common sense, is obviously contrary to the author's intention, contradicts other teachings of Scripture, or the content indicates that figurative language is being used.

If the passage  can't be taken literally, we must then discern what the writer is attempting to convey by the use of figurative (symbolic) language.  The most challenging aspect is evaluating the images (or symbols).  Start with the ones interpreted by the scriptures themselves.  Many times, these will help us determine the meaning of the others.  We can also compare the analogies in images from other texts, such as John's use of Ezekiel or Daniel while writing Revelation.  John expected his readers to be familiar with the OT writings.  Actually, one of the most useful tasks in correctly interpreting NT prophecy (or other doctrine) is checking cross-references to the OT.  We must, however, use a bit of caution when comparing the analogies of Revelation to images in Matthew or Thessalonians for example, since we can't safely assume that these texts would be available or familiar to John's original audience.  We can note how these symbols were used in other literature from the same period (a good commentary should have this info).  More importantly, we must not get bogged down in the details of the visions.  Generally, a vision, or even a series of visions should be seen as a whole, with each individual vision contributing to a central meaning, similar to interpreting a parable.

Finally, predictive prophecy is usually not intended to give us a chronological, blow by blow account of specific events in the future.  We must let the text speak for itself, being cautious in attempting to make contemporary events fit the biblical pictures.  We should concentrate on the theological meaning of the event in the context of God's eternal plan, rather than on the minute details of the event itself.  Even though we can't understand exactly how or when God will work out all the details, we can be certain that God will work everything out in His own time according to His perfect will.

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