Bible Interpretation Class – Hiawatha Bible Chapel

Genre – Principles for Interpreting Prophecy

Lesson 5 – March 25th  2017

  1. The Prophets are Often Poets, so One Should Expect Poetic Language and Interpret it Accordingly

I know we have discussed parallelism in Hebrew poetry numerous times, so I am not going to go back over it again except to remind us that in parallelism, thoughts are repeated using words that are near or somewhat near synonyms or opposite ideas (and words). As I have stated in the past, we must not try to emphasize any minor differences in words that are intended to just be somewhat synonymous so as to repeat an idea to make it poetry.  

Poems also contain more figurative language, so while at times literal interpretation can still be applied to prophecy, there will generally be more figurative language in prophecy which should not be interpreted literally. An example:

Isaiah 13:9-11 (NASB) "9Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. 10For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; The sun will be dark when it rises And the moon will not shed its light. 11Thus I will punish the world for its evil And the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud And abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. 

Verses 1 and 17 of Isaiah 13 make it very clear that this chapter is about God’s judgment on Babylon when Cyrus, king of the Medo-Persian empire invaded Babylon in 539BC.

This suggests that verse 10 describes something that was not a literal happening. There are other verses in the Bible that are very similar (for example in Revelations 6) which do speak of end times events, but it seems that this one does not.

Therefore it is normally interpreted as figurative language that is used to describe a world shattering event. Trying to tie these verses to end times is likely a mistake

  1. The prophets spoke mainly to the people of their own day

This does not mean that they do not have messages for future generations, but suggests that one should know what was going on in the prophet’s day or in the more near term future to their day. The historical context of the prophesy is critical in understanding it

For example:


Malachi prophesied during the Persian period when exiles had returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple, but had fallen into a dry and dull religion, just going through the motions.

Amos prophesied during a prosperous time for Israel but the people were morally corrupt and the rich took advantage of the poor.

This would suggest that end times should not necessarily always be the first focus when interpreting prophetic Scripture.

As we have mentioned, even the when the “day of the Lord” is mentioned, it does not necessarily mean that the reference is to end times. The simplest example is Joel 1:15, which is a reference to the Lord’s judgment on Judah through the locust plague.

Joel 1:15 (NASB) "15Alas for the day! For the day of the LORD is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty."

Joel brought together all these themes in his book. The day of the Lord is upon the Jews in the form of the recent locust plague, but it also is imminent in the coming northern army (2:1–11). But the northern army will itself be destroyed (2:20), and all nations will face the day of the Lord (Chapter 3). This is probably why he said it is “near” when the plague was already on them.

  1. Most Predictions in the Prophets Pertain to the Immediate Future

Prophets do predict the future, but most of the time their predictions have nothing to do with the end times or even the first coming of Christ. Often the predictions in the prophets are fulfilled within the lifetime of the original hearers.

For example:

Micah 1:5-6 (NASB) "5All this is for the rebellion of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the rebellion of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? What is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem? 6For I will make Samaria a heap of ruins in the open country, planting places for a vineyard. I will pour her stones down into the valley and will lay bare her foundations."

These verses prophesy the fall of Samaria (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) which happened in 722 BC. This prophesy was made in about 740 BC, so it was fulfilled in the lifetime of many who heard it.

Again this doesn’t mean that all prophesies are like this, but we need to be careful not to immediately jump to the conclusion that all prophesies are still future.

A good reference to help determine which prophecies have been fulfilled is Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy by J. Barton Payne.

Although he is, of course, subject to the same difficulties in interpretation that we are, so you may find that you disagree with him at times.

  1. Interpret Predictions, Even Ones Which Pertain to the Distant Future, in Light of their Relevance to the Immediate Audience

Prophets were first and foremost preachers. Their predictions serve their preaching purposes.

For example:

Isaiah 7:14 (NASB) "14Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel."

This is kind of a strange prophesy, because we tend to know it as quoted by Matthew referring to Jesus:

Matthew 1:23 (NASB) "23Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which translated means, ‘God with us.’ “

But it originally was given as a prophesy to King Ahaz as a rebuke of his unbelief, so when interpreting it, one needs to try to understand what the word translated “virgin” really means and how was it a sign to Ahaz

  1. Some Predictions are Conditional Threats or Promises Rather than Unconditional Pronouncements of Doom or Blessing

This means that the results depend upon the response of the hearers.

Jeremiah 18:7-10 (NASB) "7At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. 9Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it."

For example:

Jonah 3:10 (NASB) "10When God saw their [Nineveh] deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. "

  1. Biblical Predictions do Sometimes Mix Distant Events

Prophets do sometimes speak of more near term events (still future) and much more distant events (more distant future) in the same sentence. For example, prophets can refer to the first and second comings of Christ in the same breath. These were both distant future events to the prophet, but one occurred about two thousand years ago, and one has not occurred yet. This is called a Split Reference.

Joel 2:28-31 (NASB) "28It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. 30I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes."

What suggests this is a split reference? Well, Peter quoted verses 28 & 29 on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, but verses 30 & 31 refer to the “great and awesome day of the Lord” which seems to be spoken of in a similar way in Matthew 24:29-31 and also in Revelation 6:12-14, so it seems to be references to the beginning of the church age and the end times all within a few verses with no real indication that the change is coming.

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