Survey of Prophecy: Some Basic Considerations

In this series of nine articles, the author will present an overall survey of prophecy. The outlook adopted is that which is most surely believed amongst the saints, though any author on prophetical matters must be very conscious of the fact that on points of minute detail, as indeed on broader issues, some readers and other authors may well expound the subject differently. The simple recognition of this fact makes the subject living and fresh, a subject for exercise and discussion but not contention, a subject for appreciation and anticipation but not mere curiosity.

Some parts of Scripture give rise to more speculation and imagination than others. In this connection, we may mention typology and the interpretation of the parables, but above all the subject of prophecy. Young believers may tend to adhere to the first imaginative prophetical system that they come across. In fact, many may become earthbound by looking too stedfastly at the precursors of things to come rather than for the actual coming of Christ our hope.

The subject has been too often discredited by linking present events with particular prophetic pictures. For example, the millennium was considered to be Constantine’s edict of toleration. Jerome believed that the coming of anti-Christ was near because the Roman empire was crumbling. Augustine asserted that the millennium was the ministry of the imperial Catholic church. The pope has been regarded as Daniel’s little horn, the anti-Christ. The Catholic church has been equated to the holy Jerusalem on earth. In his time, Napoleon was regarded as the beast; later, the League of Nations was regarded as the beast. More recently, Hitler and the Common Market have been pressed into the interpretation of prophecy, as they have entered the stage of history. In the light of these observations, it ill behoves believers to speculate on present events, unless they are certain that there is a climax at the present time in moral, social, political and religious affairs on earth, and that the situation now is different from that in all preceding centuries.

A fundamental approach to prophecy is to reject all schools of interpretation

  1. that do not distinguish between the Jew, the Gentile and the Church of God;
  2. that do not distinguish between God’s heavenly purposes for the Church and for God’s people in local churches today, and His purposes on earth relating to His earthly people the Jews;
  3. that do not foresee the vindication of Christ in the very place of His past and present rejection.

The believer’s attitude to the prophetical portions and books of Holy Scripture is important. We are stated to be “blessed” if we read, hear and keep the words of the prophecy of Revelation, Rev. 1. 3; this promise to those who “keep the sayings” is repeated at the end, 22. 7. We cannot keep the words if we do not read or hear them. The seven letters to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 all contain the injunction from the Lord, “let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches”. The whole subject is not hidden; the “sayings of the prophecy of this book” are not sealed, 22. 10; the Lord would not keep the matter secret, although it is not given to unbelievers to understand the interpretation of the vision given to John. In these days, it is tragic that in some places there is so little ministry and teaching on these important topics — when teachers themselves would be out of their depth on most prophetical subjects, when elderly believers have to look back to their younger days to recall any substantial prophetic ministry, and when younger believers are quite in ignorance regarding the prophetic word both in panoramic survey and in depth. Hence the papers in this series will seek to stimulate interest, so as to regain what was once held dearly by the Lord’s people.

By way of contrast, men in the world have no interest in true prophecy; the idea that God will intervene in world affairs is distasteful to their minds. They will cry, “Peace and safety” instead, knowing nothing of the sudden destruction about to overtake them, 1 Thess. 5. 3. There will be false teachers bringing in “damnable heresies” and “denying the Lord”, making people think that everything will be all right, 2 Pet. 2. 1; Ezek. 13. 7, 10. Peter also wrote of the scoffers who ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?”, satisfied that all things continue as they have done since the creation, thereby being willingly ignorant of God’s intervention, 2 Pet. 3. 4.

On the other hand, Christians know that much of the prophetic word has already been fulfilled. Thus in Genesis 15. 13, God informed Abram that his seed would be captive in a strange land until four hundred years would have passed; this took place when the children of Israel were in bondage in Egypt up to the passover deliverance. In Isaiah 44. 28, Cyrus is named as the king who would command the rebuilding of the temple; this took place two hundred years later. In Micah 5. 2, the promise is made that the Ruler would come out of Bethlehem, and this took place seven hundred years later, Matt. 2. 5-6. The cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Psa. 22. 1, was a pre-echo by one thousand years of the Lord’s cry on the cross. These and many other examples have all been fulfilled, giving to believers the certainty of the truth of the prophetic word. We must therefore believe that all prophecy relating to the future will be fulfilled.

How is this past prediction and future accomplishment achieved? Today, the only events that men can predict years ahead are events such as the positions of the planets, of the moon, the dates of eclipses, and the heights of the tides, because these events follow definite laws dictated by God in His creation. Such events are independent of the activities of men. Nothing of men’s activities can be so accurately predicted — all the so-called economic forecasts are inconsistent amongst themselves, and seldom bear any relation to reality. But God, knowing all things from the beginning, adopted peculiar means whereby to make known to His people events that were to them essentially future. We may quote, “Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”, 2 Pet. 1. 21; “what… the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow”, 1 Pet. 1. 11, namely relating to events in His first advent and His second advent respectively. It is the same in the Book of Revelation; the Lord showed His servants things which must shortly come to pass, 1. 1. The vision concluded with the assertion that “These sayings are faithful and true”, 22. 6. How thrilling to see the ultimate object of prophecy, Christ once rejected yet to be glorified and vindicated; this will be the time of the coming of the Son of man in His kingdom, Matt. 16. 28. But it is solemn to realize that this scene of glory will be preceded by judgments on earth. It is important for believers to see what is to be judged, so that they can keep clear of such things now: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins”, Rev. 18. 4. We must therefore learn what this refers to, so a panoramic view of prophecy from now to eternity is an essential basis for the believer’s faith.

Prophecy is usually given in pictorial form, in order that only Christians who want to know can find out; mere curiosity can achieve no blessing. This means that the pictorial symbols must be interpreted.

  1. Some symbols are self-explaining; no expositor should depart from them. Thus the seven candlesticks (lampstands) are defined to be the seven churches, Rev. 1. 20; the waters are stated to be “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues”, 17. 15.
  2. There are more allusions and references to the Old Testament in Revelation than in any other New Testament book; thus the concept of beasts in chapter 13 must take our minds back to Daniel 7. Many identical pictures may, however, require different interpretations, depending on the context, so great care is necessary. Thus “Gog and Magog” in Revelation 20. 8 cannot be the same as in Ezekiel 38-39. The river and trees in Ezekiel 47. 12 cannot be the same as in Revelation 22. 2. The differences are noted by answering the questions When? and Where?
  3. The types of the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament are scattered throughout the Revelation: pure gold, the altar of incense, the ark, the lampstand, the courts, and so on, are found in the Book, and must be interpreted in keeping with the overall body of scriptural typology. This is in keeping with the Lord’s word as He “signified” the vision to John, Rev. 1. 1, namely He made it manifest by signs.
  4. If these three methods of interpretation fail, then sanctified suggestions must be made (consistent with interpretations made by the prior three methods), but dogmatism must now be avoided, and interpretations that are really only suggestions must be recognized and owned as such. This would enable us to avoid those writers who assume that an expert knowledge of profane history is necessary for the interpretation of prophecy, rather than an expert knowledge of the rest of Holy Scripture. Such writers have a good imagination, treating minute detailed historical events as a giant jig-saw puzzle to be pieced together to form the Book of Revelation, but such writers are inconsistent amongst themselves, failing to see that God’s great purpose is the glorification of Christ after judgments on earth and the eradication of sin.

The scope of prophecy is vast. We all realize that much of the Old and New Testament prophecy is still future as to its accomplishment. Even the disciples knew that when they asked the Lord about the sign of His coming, and the end of the world, Matt. 24. 3. In the Old Testament, the subjects of prophecy are:

  1. Israel. For example, the prophecy relating to the valley of dry bones, seen as revived with life from God, Ezek. 37.
  2. Christ. In Psalm 2. 2, the kings and rulers are seen gathered against the Lord — partially effected at the time of His cross, Acts 4. 26, but with implications still future at the battle of Armageddon, Rev. ,17. 14. See also, for example, Daniel 7. 13, when the Son of man comes in the clouds to take His kingdom, and Zechariah 14. 4, when His feet shall touch the mount of Olives in that day.
  3. The nations. Their complete history from Nebuchadnezzar onwards until the end is traced in both Daniel chapter 2 and chapter 7.
  4. The millennium. The Book of Revelation hardly touches upon its effects on earth, but the Old Testament-anticipated utopia refers in great detail to this period: “a king shall reign in righteousness”, Isa. 32. 1; “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose”, 35. 1.

In the New Testament, the Lord spoke of the events prior to and at His coming in glory, Matt. 24. Paul wrote of the Lord’s coming for His Church, 1 Thess. 4. 13-18, and of the later apostasy brought about by the man of sin, 2 Thess. 2. 1-12. 2 Peter and Jude deal with this apostasy in great detail. Revelation 2-3 provide a history of the church-age on earth, followed by events leading up to the Lord’s coming in glory. The scope of prophecy is therefore wide, the details are exhaustless, the implications are vital for the service and conduct of the Lord’s people, while the treasures are precious for the heart.

To be continued.


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