biblical-hermeneutics

Most understand the word “prophecy” to be another word for prediction. The Hebrew, navi and the Greek prophētēs (prophet), carry the meaning of one who is a proclaimer of God’s message and need not necessarily be foretelling of the future. He may very well be proclaiming a moral teaching, an expression of a divine command or judgment, but they also mean a foretelling of something to come. Below, we will be considering the secondary meaning of prophecy, one who for foretells the future, not the primary meaning, one who forth tells the will and purpose of God, i.e. a proclaimer. Just as it is true of all these genres, there are principles that both writer and reader were aware of, and need be explained. We, however, are far removed from their time and need to be introduced to these principles.

The Prophetic Judgment of Nineveh

Deuteronomy 18:20-22

20But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— 22when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

Jonah 3:4

4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Jonah 3:5

5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

Jonah 3:10

 10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

Based on Deuteronomy 18:20-222, does Jonah 3:4-5 and 10 not prove that Jonah was a false prophet. No, both Jonah and the Ninevites were aware of a principle that is often overlooked by the modern-day reader. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel give the answer or the principle that readers of that time would have understood about judgment prophecy. Jeremiah explicitly explains the rule of judgment prophecies, when he writes, “If at any time I say that I am going to uproot, break down, or destroy any nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns from its evil, I will not do what I said I would.” (17:7-8, GNT)

The opposite is true as well,

Jeremiah 18:9-10 Good News Translation (GNT)

On the other hand, if I say that I am going to plant or build up any nation or kingdom, 10 but then that nation disobeys me and does evil, I will not do what I said I would.

Yes, if one turns back from their evil ways, endeavoring to obey God’s Word, he will not receive the condemnatory judgment that he deserves. That a repentant, evil person’s previous wicked deeds will not be held against them, God states,

Ezekiel 33:13-15

13Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

Regardless of all that one has done throughout their life, it is their standing in God’s eyes at the time of the divine judgment, which God considers. Therefore, God goes on to say through Ezekiel,

Ezekiel 33:14-16

14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.

Supposed Unfulfilled Prophecy

In the days when Micah was prophesying, c. 777-717, the king, the heads of the Jerusalem government, the religious leaders, the priests, and some prophets, were deserving of nothing but death. All were guilty of causing the life of their fellow countrymen, all for the sake of greed. They were guilty of false worship, bribery, lies, and wicked behavior. These leaders used false prophets, who were not true spokesmen of God. Therefore, the real prophet, Micah, shouted,

Micah 3:12

12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

The destruction occurred in the late seventh-century B.C.E., just as it was prophesied. As we can see below, Micah 3:12 was quoted over a century later in Jeremiah 26:18.

Jeremiah 26:16-19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

16 Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man is not worthy of death; for he hath spoken to us in the name of Jehovah our God.” 17 Then rose up certain of the elders of the land, and spoke to all the assembly of the people, saying, 18 “Micah the Morashtite prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah; and he spoke to all the people of Judah, saying: ‘Thus says Jehovah of hosts,

“‘Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.’

19 Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear Jehovah and entreat the favor of Jehovah, and Jehovah changed his mind about the misfortune, which he had pronounced against them? But we are committing a great evil against our own souls.”

Is this another unfulfilled prophecy? Did not Jeremiah himself say, “Jehovah changed his mind about the misfortune, which he had pronounced against them”? Verse 19 of Jeremiah [chapter 26] “indicates that Micah’s preaching may have been instrumental in the revival under King Hezekiah (see 2 Kgs 18:1–6; 2 Chr 29–31).” (Barker and Bailey 2001, 82) The New American Commentary authors go on to say,

Lamentations describes the awful fulfillment of this prophecy (see Introduction, p. 30).[1] It is ironic that those who thought they were the builders of Zion (v. 10) actually turned out to be, in a sense, its destroyers. The Lord, because of their breach of covenant, used King Nebuchadnezzar’s Neo-Babylonian army to raze Jerusalem and its temple. They were reduced to a “mound of ruins” (translating the Hb. word ʿîyyîn) similar to an archaeological tell and to Ai (see also comments on 1:6), foreshadowing the Roman destruction of a.d. 70. Jerusalem became a place suitable only for wild animals. And the temple mount that thronged with worshipers became as deserted as when Abraham almost offered Isaac there on Mount Moriah (Gen 22:2, 14). (Barker and Bailey 2001, 82)

Yes, there is no reason to view Micah’s words as an unfulfilled prophecy. What we have here is a following of the above rule, with a qualifying clause, so to speak. As God said through Jeremiah, “If at any time I say that I am going to uproot, break down, or destroy any nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns from its evil, I will not do what I said I would.” (17:7-8) However, “if I say that I am going to plant or build up any nation or kingdom, but then that nation disobeys me and does evil, I will not do what I said I would.” In other words, the king, the governmental leaders and the priests heeded Micah’s warning, repented, and were forgiven for a time, with the judgment prophecy lifted. However, they fell back into their former ways, even more grievously than before. Therefore, Micah’s prophecy was reinstated. It is as Jeremiah said in 26:19, “But we are committing a great evil against our own souls.” Therefore, Jeremiah was saying, Micah prophesied, the people repented, God forgave them, and now Micah’s words will be carried out, because of the current generation of God’s people ‘committing a great evil against their own souls.’

As we can see from the above, judgment prophecies are based on a continued wrong course by those receiving condemnation. However, both the condemned and the one proclaiming the prophecy knew that the judgment would be lifted if they reversed course, and repented. This was even expressed by Jonah himself. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to Jehovah and said, “O Jehovah, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (4:1-2) However, it is also true, if one goes in the opposite direction after having repented, returning to the sinful ways, the judgment will be reinstated.

Prophetic Language

The prophet is much like the poet, in that he is given a license to express himself in nonliteral language. Generally, he is working with images that are far more effective than words themselves.

Matthew 24:29-31

The Coming of the Son of Man

29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

The above cosmic terminology need not be taken literally. It is a part of their toolkit, which enables them to make it clear that God is acting on behalf of humans. (See Dan. 2:21; 4:17, 25, 34–35; 5:21) The sun is not going to be darkened, the moon will not stop giving its light, the stars are not going to fall from the heavens, nor will the heavens be shaken. What is being communicated here is that following the tribulation when God is going to judge humans, the righteous will receive life, and the unrighteous will cut off from life. (34-45) While we do not take cosmic terminology literally, we do discover its meaning, and this is what we are to take literally.

Acts 2:14-21

Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

In all occurrences, prophecy proclaimed in Bible times had meaning to the people who heard it; it served for their guidance as well as each generation up unto the time of its fulfillment. Usually, it had some fulfillment in that time, in numerous instances being fulfilled during the days of that very generation. In looking at Peters quote from Joel, it must be asked; did they see those cosmic events on Pentecost? Yes, the cosmic terminology is expressing that God was acting on behalf of those first Christians. A new era was being entered, and God did pour out His Spirit, and sons and daughters did prophesy, both in proclaiming a message and in the foretelling of further events. However, let us delve even deeper into prophecy and how they are to be interpreted. Before moving on, let us briefly offer what we have learned this far:

  • Judgment prophecies could be lifted, set aside if the parties affected repent and turnaround from their former course.
  • On the other hand, if God has promised blessings but then that person or group disobeys him and does evil, he will not do what he had said he would do.
  • Then again, if one has repented, turned around, and a judgment prophecy has been lifted, it can be reinstated if that person or group returns to their former evil ways.
  • Prophets have a license to use prophetic language, cosmic terminology that evidences that God is working or acting within humanity.
  • While we do not take cosmic terminology literally, we do discover its meaning, and this is what we are to take literally.

Interpreting Prophecy

If we are to understand and interpret prophecy correctly, we must first have a grasp of the figurative language, types, and symbols. We have already dealt with figurative language back in chapter 5, and typology is dealt with throughout this book. In addition, the reader should carefully consider CHAPTER 13, New Testament Writers Use of the Old Testament.

We will follow the same interpretation process here that we would elsewhere, grammatical-historical interpretation, which attempts to ascertain what the author meant by the words that he used, which should have been understood by his original readers. (Stein 1994, 38-9) It was the primary method of interpretation when higher criticism’s Historical-Critical Method was in its infancy back in the 19th century (Milton Terry), and remains the only method of interpretation for true conservative scholarship in the later 20th century into the 21st century.

Grammatical Aspect

When we speak of interpreting the Bible grammatically, we are referring to the process of seeking to determine its meaning by ascertaining four things: (a) the meaning of words (lexicology), (b) the form of words (morphology), (c) the function of words (parts of speech), and (d) the relationships of words (syntax). In the meaning of words (lexicology), we are concerned with (a) etymology- how words are derived and developed, (b) usage how words are used by the same and other authors, (c) synonyms and antonyms -how similar and opposite words are used, and (d) context-how words are used in various contexts.

In discussing the form of words (morphology), we are looking at how words are structured and how that affects their meaning. For example, the word eat means something different from ate, though the same letters are used. The word part changes meaning when the letter “s” is added to it to make the word parts. The function of words (parts of speech) considers what the various forms do. These include attention to subjects, verbs, objects, nouns, and others, as will be discussed later. The relationships of words (syntax) are the way words are related or put together to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. (Zuck 1991, 100-101)

Historical Aspect

By “historical” we mean the setting in which the prophets book was written and the circumstances involved in the writing. … taking into consideration the circumstances of the writings and the cultural environment. We must keep in mind that even though many of the prophetic utterances were meant for the generation, in which they were spoken, or shortly thereafter. Even if it is not the immediate generation, all prophetic utterances had some type of meaning to the prophet’s generation, be it hope in some future person or event, or the knowledge of a judgment that is coming or could come as a result of their behavior. For example, maybe the Israelites are under persecution and oppression by the surrounding nations, and the prophecy is for a protector that is to rise up, and set matters straight. Even though they do not know, who the protector is, or the exact time of his appearance, they do know that God cannot lie, nor has he ever lied, and so, they can have hope and faith in his words. Moreover, they would have also known that if they fell back into false worship, God could withdraw his prophetic message of a savior.

The context in which a given Scripture passage is written influences how that passage is to be understood. Context includes several things:

  • the verse(s) immediately before and after a passage
  • the paragraph and book in which the verses occur
  • the dispensation in which it was written
  • the message of the entire Bible
  • the historical-cultural environment of that time when it was written. (Zuck 1991, 77)

We will end this chapter here. However, our next chapter, chapter 10, will walk the reader through a portion of a prophetic book. We have chosen the book of Isaiah (66:1-14), which is a favorite of many, even viewed as the fifth Gospel, because it speaks of the coming Messiah so much.

Review Questions

  • What do the Hebrew, navi and the Greek prophētēs mean?
  •  Based on Deuteronomy 18:20-222, does Jonah 3:4-5 and 10 not prove that Jonah was a false prophet.
  •  How do Jeremiah and Ezekiel help us to understand the rules of judgment prophecies?
  •  How was Micah’s prophecy different?
  •  As to language, what license dis the prophets have?
  •  How should we understand the cosmic terminology of the prophets?
  •  What are some rules of interpreting prophecy correctly?

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[1] Cf. Lam 1:1, 4, 6, 18–19; 2:2, 6, 9–10, 20; 5:17–18, etc.