This page is part of the basic guide to the participatory study method designed by Henry Neufeld. You may want to start from the outline of the method or at the introductory description. This page will only describe methods that are peculiar to this particular type of Biblical literature.
What is Prophecy?
In Biblical terms, prophecy is simply speaking for God, a person presenting a message that he or she has received from God. In modern times, the term prophecy has become closely connected with prediction, and specifically with predicting events that deal with the end times and the second coming of Jesus. But the predictive element, and particuarly the end times element, is actually a rather small portion of what prophecy was, as actually practiced in Biblical times.
For purposes of this essay, I’m going to ignore those areas in which someone writes a story under divine inspiration, or a book of history. In a sense, Luke is speaking for God when he writes his gospel, but that is not the same thing as we might say of Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Isaiah. There are three categories of prophecy that I will cover partially in this essay: The prophetic oracle, visions, and dreams. In another essay, I will cover more details on interpreting visions and dreams.
Prophecy and Prediction
Is there an element of prediction in prophecy? I certainly believe that there is. Where interpreters and Bible students tend to get into trouble is when they assume that the prediction is the major element in the words spoken by the prophet.
Let’s consider the book of Jonah. Jonah is called to go give a message to Nineveh, one that he wants to avoid giving. Often we get distracted from the meaning of the book right here. The issue of the storm at sea and the whale is simply a narrative element designed to move Jonah unwillingly toward God’s goal. We should be looking at this point at the reaons Jonah is so anxious not to present the message. If Jonah thought that he was presenting a simple prediction of the future, would he not enjoy going to Nineveh, telling the Ninevites that their lives were over, and then watching until his prediction came true? But he runs away. In Jonah 4:2 he tells us why: He was afraid God would be merciful, and thus his prediction would not come true.
This highlights a difference between Jonah’s view of the situation and God’s view. God is not predicting a future event that he knows will happen. Instead, God is telling someone, in this case the Ninevites, what he is going to do. When God does this, his intention is to give them the option to do something about the problem that was coming. The Ninevites are told that in 40 days their city will be destroyed. They repent and it does not happen. This highlights the purpose of prophecy: Changing people!
A friend of mine, Alden Thompson, author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, refers to this as a “failed prediction, successful prophecy.” In our eyes, a prophecy fails when the event predicted does not happen. In God’s eyes, the prophecy quite often fails when it does come true.
Am I building too much theology on this story, one which some scholars think is simply a fictional story built around the historical character of Jonah? Let’s look at another passage:
To uproot, tear down, and destroy
And that nation turns from its evil,
About which I spoke.
Then I will repent of the evil I intended to do to it.
But if at a certain time I speak concerning a nation,
To build and to plant,
And that does evil in my eyes
And doesn’t obey my voice
Then I will repent of the good that I said I would do to it.
How does this relate to the test of a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:21-22? Here is where Christians have generally gotten the idea that every prediction must, in fact, come true, despite Jeremiah’s statement to the contrary. Yet Deuteronomy states that the prophecy must take place or prove true. Thus, when we look at the prophecy, we must ask whether God accomplished his intention with the prediction, and not simply at whether the event predicted took place.
Let’s compare this to a parent dealing with a child. The parent promises the child an ice cream cone if he behaves well. The child does not behave well, and when the time comes, the parent fails to buy the ice cream cone. The child is angry! The parent has broken a promise! Yet the condition was there. In parenting, we even have the situation of an unstated condition. If a child asks to go somewhere special, the parent might say yes. Nonetheless, if the child’s behavior changes, even though the condition was not explicitly stated, permission might be withdrawn as punishment. A promise can be conditional even when that is not stated.
Questions to Ask about a Prophecy
In studying a prophecy, you need to ask the basic questions of context: When was the prophecy given? Who was the prophet? For whom was the prophecy intended?
But you must then also ask what the purpose of the prophecy was. What is the result that God is trying to produce with this prophecy? The answer to that question will help you understand how to apply the prophecy appropriately.
There are several characteristics of prophetic language that require special attention when interpreting prophecy. These are:
- Poetic language
- Hyperbole and sweeping language
- Symbolic language
- Vision and dream descriptions
Much of the prophecy that we have in written form is presented as poetry. Poetry as a literary form tends to force the way that the message is presented into certain channels demanded by the poetic style. You need to be aware of this form in interpretation. For example, Hebrew poetry uses parallelism. This feature uses parallel terms in succeeding lines of text that might be synonyms, antonyms, or they might be complementary. In addition, some elements might be left out in the text, and the meaning is to be taken from the parallel line.
Consider this example:
|A lamp||for my feet||[is] your word|
|And a light||for my path||—|
The words “lamp” and “light” are parallel, as are “feet” and “path.” We fill in the subject of the second line as “your word” according to the parallel. Such combined lines generally combine to present a single truth, rather than presenting separate points.
For more information on interpreting poetry, see my essay Interpreting Poetry. All of the points made about interpreting poetry apply to some extent to interpreting prophecy that is presented in poetic form.
Hyperbole and Sweeping Langauge
The prophets tended to talk in large terms. Sometimes this results in an appearance of falsehood. Some interpreters will try to apply single verses or short passages to some other situation because of this language, but this is no more than a feature of the type of language involved. After a recent hurricane passed through my hometown, I made the comment that there was destruction everywhere, that some areas looked like a giant had stepped on them. Now one would hardly hold me to the true definition of “everywhere.” To do so would be to expect of me the precision of a scientific report rather than an personal exclamation. Neither would one expect the area to look precisely like it would if a giant had, in fact, stepped on it. Both of these are hyperbolic statements.
Now let’s consider an example, Jeremiah 4 has a prediction of the invasion and destruction of Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile. From verse to verse 22 the language is quite clear, though it is poetic. Starting with verse 23, it becomes hyperbolic.
And to the heavens, but there was no light. I looked at the mountains and they were shaking, And the hills and they were moving back and forth. I looked, and there were no human beings, And every bird of the heavens had fled.
We must remember that God is not just speaking generally; God is speaking to specific people about a specific situation. It is unjustified to suddenly assume that he started to talk about something completely different without any warning. In fact, understanding the hyperbolic language allows us to see this as a unified, rational passage, and to interpret it in its own context.
Prophets use symbolic and allegorical language. A good example of allegorical language can be found in Ezekiel 16 (see Interpreting Allegory). Symbolic language occurs especially in the language of vision, and most especially in apocalyptic visions such as those in Daniel and Revelation. Nonetheless one can find symbolic language in many other passages as well. For example, in Isaiah 27:1 we have God’s judgment on Leviathan, probably representing evil here. In Isaiah 55, we have water, wine, milk, and bread all used as symbols for spiritual blessings that the Lord is prepared to provide.
There are two tools that are most useful when attempting to understand symbolic language: A concordance and a Bible Dictionary. In the concordance you look for all other instances of the use of that symbol in the Bible. Remember, however, that a symbol is not necessarily used in only one way. The final way to determine the meaning is by its immediate context. A Bible dictionary will give you definitions, and generally will also point you to the most important references.
Visions and Dreams
Visions and dreams are heavily symbolic. The same process as you have used above can be used in understanding these symbols. But visions and dreams present additional problems, so I have written a separate essay about them, Interpreting Visions.
Prophecy requires some special care in interpretation, but in the end, it is simply another way in which God communiates with us. We look for God’s message for us as we look at how he communicated with others in ancient times.