How do we approach prophetic literature?
In this age of fear, too often the study of prophecy becomes even more fear-full. Bible teachers who proclaim fashionable topics related to prophecy and the end times frequently focus more attention on the “anti-christs” than on Christ himself. Current events are distorted as specific prophecies are detached from the historical framework, and become selectively attached to specific nations today.
The key to prophetic interpretation is to focus on the redemptive activity of God, rather than being caught up with the latest minute-by-minute drama of world events proclaimed by CNN/Fox News updates. Prophecy finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ—in his first coming in the first century, and in his second coming at the end of time.
Principles of prophetic interpretation
Too often interpreters will omit or bypass this crucial point. The original prophets wrote and spoke for their own day and time first and foremost, and then secondarily pointing toward the future. The function of the prophet was to speak to his own contemporaries the two fold message: Law and Gospel. By doing so he was calling the people to repentance and believing God’s promises of salvation. Two words help us keep this dual focus:
Forth-telling: speaking the Word of God to the people at the time of the prophet’s utterances.
The historical factor is important in both aspects of focus. A critical mistake is made by those who read prophecy out of context.
God entered into covenant with sinful humans. The primary covenants have been established by God and based on God’s grace; that is, all of God’s redemptive activity in history revolves around the covenant. The covenantal understanding of Biblical history does not lead to a “dispensational” approach, namely that God operates in different ways in each dispensation. Rather the covenantal understanding of history leads to a recognition of purpose and goal in human history. The entire prophetic message deals with sin, judgment, salvation, hope, faith, and the future, which all relate to God’s covenant with humans as fulfilled throughout history.
Critical Covenant texts
Genesis 12:1-3, 7; Genesis 15:1-6 (7-18); Genesis 17
Exodus 5:22-6:8; Exodus 19:4-6; Exodus 20:24
2 Samuel 7:12-13; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Amos 9:11
Matthew 26:26-28 (and parallels in Mark and Luke)
Romans 3-4; Galatians 3; Hebrews 8-9; 1 Peter 2:4-10
This refers to the prophetic look forward that cannot be separated from God’s covenant activity. The covenant with Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 12 and 15, is expanded through specific instances with Moses, promised through David, and finally fulfilled in Christ (Messiah).
As noted above any fore-telling under the covenant can refer to near-term events, to Christ’s first coming, or to Christ’s second coming (end of time).
Never does a later expansion of one aspect of the covenant nullify or change the original covenant promise and fulfillment. That is, the specific covenant with the people of Israel (Exodus 20, etc.) cannot override the covenant with Abraham (see Galatians 3:15-29). Thus, those who want everything prophetic to focus on the nation of Israel lose the covenant perspective presented throughout the entire Bible. In such a twist of the prophetic message, Israel supplants Jesus Christ as the key to all of Biblical revelation, history, and prophetic proclamation. And such teaching takes away the glory of what Christ has done, is doing, and will do.
Sometimes a prophet will write a specific prophecy but include several components (near-term, 1st coming, 2nd coming) all with a couple verses. This gives the shortened perspective. I liken this to traveling west on I-70 across Kansas heading into Colorado. In the far distance, the traveler sees Pike’s Peak, and many smaller mountains. From the long perspective, it appears that some of the mountains and Pike’s Peak all meld into one mountain. But as the traveler continues, she discovers that she has to drive over many of those smaller mountains, and Pike’s Peak is still in the distance.
In prophecy we can experience that same thing. Joel 2:18-29 provides one example of several future events (restoration of the nation, pouring out the Holy Spirit, Acts 2, signs of the end, etc.) all melded into one prophetic event. Such a caution will help us avoid taking texts out of context and thus interpret texts within linguistic context and within covenant context.
Even more, we then can see how the New Testament sees fulfillment in Christ.
[Yahweh said:] “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the ddays of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,”
[James said:] “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,
so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the gentiles who are called by my name,’ says the lord, who makes these things known from long ago.
So a text that seems Israel-specific is in fact according to the New Testament, much broader in fulfillment in Christ and ultimately demonstrates the covenant fulfillment of Genesis 12:1-3.