This is part of our series on genre in the Bible. You need to understand the different genres of the Bible if you want to hear what God has to say to us today. This post looks at how to read prophetic writing in the Bible.
We all want to know what’s going to happen. Sometimes we are curious about small things like whether it will rain tomorrow. At the other end of the scale, many of us are consumed with anxiety about things like climate change.
In ancient Greece the Delphic oracle was taken very seriously. Supposedly vapours came up through a fissure in the earth, and a priestess who breathed them uttered ecstatic sounds in answer to questions about the future. These were always ambiguous. Croesus, King of Lydia, is famously reputed to have asked the oracle if he should invade Persia. The reply came back: “If you do, you will destroy a mighty empire.” He did. The empire was his own.
The Romans paid close attention to all sorts of fortune-tellers. They read omens, watched the flight of birds, consulted the entrails of dead animals. (This last is called “extispicy”–try saying that aloud. It’s not “extra spicy.” The stress is on the first “i”.) How they thought this would reveal the future is a mystery to me.
And in the Bible there are prophets.
King Ahab and the prophets.
There is a story about prophets brilliantly told in 1 Kings 22. Ahab, king of Israel, and Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, were debating whether to attack the city of Ramoth-Gilead in Syria. Ahab consulted the professional prophets—all 400 of them!—and they told him what he wanted to hear: “Go, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” Jehoshaphat was more circumspect. “Isn’t there a prophet of the Lord?” he asked. Well, there was: Micaiah. Ahab didn’t like Micaiah, because he never prophesied anything good. They sent for Micaiah anyway, and when he came he found all the 400 prophesying success so he said, “Sure. Attack and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” But they pressed him, and he told them what he really saw: “So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.” For that he got a slap in the face.
At the battle of Ramoth-Gilead Ahab was killed.
There are prophets of the Lord and there are false prophets.
There are prophets of the Lord and there are false prophets. God had warned his people about this back in Deuteronomy. (See Deuteronomy 18:9-22.) How can you tell the difference? Prophecies of false prophets don’t come true; those of prophets of the Lord do. I know that’s a bit circular, but a prophet builds up a reputation.
True prophets, like Micaiah, spent time in the council of the Lord. They knew God. When they spoke to someone like Ahab they reflected how God saw the situation.
What is a prophet?
The word “prophet” means someone who speaks out. We think of a prophet as someone who speaks the future, but in the Bible a prophet didn’t do that as much as declare things the way God saw them. When they spoke about the future, it was primarily the immediate future they had in mind.
The word “prophet” means someone who speaks out. We think of a prophet as someone who speaks the future, but in the Bible a prophet didn’t do that as much as declare things the way God saw them.
Mostly the prophets in the Old Testament were calling people back to the covenant God had made with them, reminding them of the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience laid out in Deuteronomy 28:1-68.
Sometimes the consequences of people’s actions came swiftly, like Ahab’s death at Ramoth-Gilead.
The word “apocalypse” means unveiling
Just occasionally the prophets could see into the far future. For those faithful few the Holy Spirit pulled back the curtain (the word “apocalypse” means unveiling) and gave them a glimpse of God’s promises fulfilled in the Messiah. Some of what they saw was fulfilled when Jesus came; some is still in the future. Read 1 Peter 1:3-12.
The time-line is rarely clear. There are times when a prophecy is fulfilled in the immediate future, but the same prophecy awaits a fuller fulfilment at a later date. The best-known example is Isaiah’s prophecy of the young woman in Isaiah 7:14. The KJV translated the young woman as “virgin”—which the Hebrew word “almah” can mean. But “almah” can also mean young woman. There’s been a debate among translators ever since over which English word to use. The immediate point Isaiah is making is that a young woman would get pregnant and in a few months the crisis that was consuming the king of Judah would be over. When Jesus was born hundreds of years later, Matthew saw another meaning in these words. A virgin had conceived, and the baby was “Immanuel” or “God with us” in a far richer sense.
There are times when a prophecy is fulfilled in the immediate future, but the same prophecy awaits a fuller fulfilment at a later date.
God isn’t into giving us a blue-print for the future, either to satisfy our curiosity or to enable us to clean up our act before he comes in judgment. Jesus himself didn’t know when he would come back. God is into revealing himself in such a way that we live trusting him. He wants us to live in hope, and encourages us when times are tough. We long for the time when his kingdom is fully come and there are no more tears. The very fact that we don’t know when that will be keeps us in a sense of expectancy.
God isn’t into giving us a blue-print for the future, either to satisfy our curiosity or to enable us to clean up our act before he comes in judgment.
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