How can we correctly interpret Bible prophecy? What safety criteria can we use to avoid falling into the trap of hasty and erroneous interpretations?
Prophecies fall into one of the following categories: texts containing predictions about the future, with or without apocalyptic overtones; texts containing social or religious criticism; and texts containing various messages from God. Since prophecies are seldom accompanied by a caption indicating the meaning of the various components of the message, prophetic interpretations are very diverse. Add to this the differences in time, culture, and the circumstances of the author and reader of the prophecy, and the likelihood of a correct interpretation of the prophecies is very low in the absence of clear guidelines. In this article we will look at what the Bible has to say about the principles for interpreting the prophecies it contains, and how biblical prophecy is related to present times and circumstances.
There is evidence of ecstatic activity among most of the peoples of the ancient Near East. We have texts from ancient Mesopotamia, but also from Syria and Palestine, which testify to the existence of dreams, revelations or messages received through other forms of communication (e.g. observation of the planets, animal behaviour and nature, etc.). All these forms were used by various messengers who claimed to have been entrusted with “diplomatic” missions by the gods. In the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century BC, there were at least ten sibyls, of which the best known to the general public is Pythia, the high priestess in charge of the oracle in the temple of Delphi, dating from the 8th century BC. Her messages were often ambiguous, leaving room for conflicting interpretations. When Cressus, king of Lydia, asked Apollo whether he should go to war with Persia, Pythia told him on behalf of the god that if he went to war with the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. Cressus thought of the Persians as the great empire to be destroyed, but the answer also applied to his kingdom, which ended up being defeated by Persian forces.
Judaism was aware of the presence of pagan prophecy, which is why God told the Israelites through Moses: “Let no one be found among you who…practises divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
Biblical prophecy is much clearer than prophecy outside the Judeo-Christian milieu, even though its interpretation, like any other ancient or modern text, needs methodological guidance. Consequently, no one can hope to interpret biblical prophecy correctly unless they are familiar with its historical background, its context, its purpose, and its language.
Many of the errors in interpreting Bible prophecy arise from the meaning of the words and symbols used in it. Taking them out of their context and common usage and applying them to another time and place, in the absence of biblically supported criteria, leads to undesirable speculation.
It is therefore preferable to prove the alleged fulfilment of a prophecy in the present by other examples of fulfilled and confirmed prophecy in the biblical text. In this way we will learn that the fundamental purpose of biblical prophecy is not to announce what will happen, but (1) to present God as sovereign and (2) to bring about a moral change for the better in the recipients of the prophecy.
With regard to the first principle, prophecy shows that God is always in control. Evil may win local victories, but on a macroscopic level God always emerges victorious. As for the recipients, prophecy is not given to them to enrich them with secret information, but to edify them spiritually. In this sense, it is possible for a prophecy with vengeful overtones to remain unfulfilled if the recipients repent (see the case of the prophet Jonah sent to Nineveh). In the words of Paul House, “[p]rophecy is not offered to relieve God of the responsibility to warn before punishing. It intends to effect change in its hearers.” The inhabitants of the Assyrian capital understood that it would be wise to try to change, even without the suggestion in Jonah’s prophecy that the punishment would be lifted if their behaviour changed.
In addition to these characteristics, the Bible teaches three other things about interpreting prophecy. The first lesson is that God formulates prophecy using concepts and ideas to which the recipients are accustomed. This tells us that in order to understand the meaning of a biblical prophecy we must look to the world of the Bible rather than to contemporary events. It is there, in the context of the original recipients, that we discover the meaning and principles to which the prophecies refer. We cannot take the prophetic language of antiquity and superimpose it on contemporary ideas and concepts. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that in crisis contexts, religious apocalypses, together with secular ones, make false connections between biblical prophecy and the adverse circumstances the world is going through at any given time.
The second lesson in interpreting prophecy is that God was creative in formulating prophecy to say just enough to get us to act and not so much to satisfy people’s curiosity. Let’s dwell for a moment on the concept of the “signs of the times.” On the one hand, the upheavals in nature and society tend to give a sense of foreboding about catastrophe and the imminent end of the world. On the other hand, as Jon Paulien reminds us, these signs have been with us all along, and the period leading up to the eschaton is often described in the Bible as “normal” (Matthew 24:37-39; Luke 17:28-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3). It is therefore difficult to decipher from the signs of the times how much longer we have before the end of time. However, in spite of this uncertainty, which persists even in the presence of the signs of the times, there is no reason for resignation and capitulation in the sense of 2 Peter 3:4: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
The third lesson is that a prophecy is best understood when it is fulfilled, not before. Jesus said, “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe” (John 14:29). This principle keeps us vigilant and cautious, just the state in which we are most likely to be found ready.
The Bible warns us that the messages of pseudo-prophets are not totally at odds with biblical truth. They too send listeners to seek Christ, though not where they should (Matthew 24:23) and they also claim that “the time is near” (Luke 21:8). These false prophets also perform unusual signs that appear to come from God (Mark 13:22; Revelation 13:13-14). Therefore, both the Old Testament (Isaiah 8:20) and the New Testament (Matthew 7:16-20; 1 John 4:1) caution God’s people to test these supposed prophecies of God first with Scripture and then by evaluating the effects they produce.
In conclusion, the primary purpose of biblical prophecy is to change the minds and attitudes of its recipients. Full knowledge of the future is not within the grasp of the interpreter of prophecy. Sometimes even the prophets did not understand their own messages (1 Peter 1:11). Therefore, the right attitude of the interpreter must be one of diligence in the study of these texts, of prudence, and of critical verification with Scripture of the prophetic interpretations around us that seek to capture our attention and, above all, our hearts.
Laurenţiu Moţ invites the reader to discover some of the most important facets of the prophetic phenomenon and how to develop a correct way of interpreting prophecy.