Many people assume that the prophet’s ministry was primarily concerned with predicting future events. However, the Old Testament reveals that prophetic revelation was much broader than this. There is certainly a foretelling of future events, but there is also a forth-telling of the revealed mind and heart of God. This is a very important dimension of prophecy. Thus, prophecy was not always futuristic. Prophecy spoke into the contemporary context. So we can speak today of preaching prophetically. This can be done in two ways. First, we can preach eschatologically. Scripture speaks of future events, which are yet to happen. One such event is the Lord’s second coming. Second, we can preach the revealed mind of God for our generation. This is not to say that preaching and prophecy are the same things. The prophet was understood as a forth-teller of God’s message. He frequently declared God’s message of judgment on an unrepentant people. His message related to people who lived at the time the message was spoken.
The prophet ministered in and to the historical period in which he lived, but he was also a foreteller of future events. There were predictive elements in the prophet’s oracles. They often spoke of the Messiah and his kingdom. Berkhof defines prophecy in the following manner, “Prophecy may simply be defined as the proclamation of that which God revealed.”
In prophecy, the central or primary meaning is significant. Focus on this rather than the relatively minor details in the prophet’s message. This is similar to how we interpret parables. We must try to avoid deriving obscure meanings from the various details of the prophecy. We should fix our attention on the central thrust of the prophet’s discourse. For example, in Isaiah 11:6-9 the prophet describes the universal peace which shall exist during the messianic age. We see this in terms of wild animals living peaceably with the rest of creation. Yet, later in Isaiah 35:8-10, this same period is described as having no wild animals present. Is there a contradiction? Not at all! The metaphorical details may change in each respective narrative. However, the central message of universal peace in the messianic age remains the same. Our focus must be on the primary intended meaning and not upon the details per se.
Let me give another example. Many have interpreted Ezekiel chapters 40-48 as describing the future millennial temple and its worship. An elaborate description is given of the temple and its measurements. This has led many to interpret these chapters literally. These chapters give a detailed description of the various sacrifices that are to be offered at the temple (45:15-20). In their thinking, a literal and physical temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem during the millennial age. Nevertheless, they also think there will be a sacrificial system without expiatory value ~ although the animal sacrifices are alleged to be memorial sacrifices. However, the Old Covenant sacrificial system has been abolished with the coming of Christ. It would be retrogressive to return to such types and shadows. What would be the point of all this when the Lord Jesus has already given us a memorial of his death in the Lord’s Supper?
We must not fail to understand the figurative element in prophecy. We must focus on the central meaning that the prophet is attempting to convey. Some have misunderstood these important chapters. They have erected a theology which contradicts the fuller revelation of God found in the New Testament. Ezekiel is simply describing the glorious worship of God’s people in the age to come. He is describing it in terms and ideas, which the Jews of that period would have understood. As Anthony Hoekema has written:
Ezekiel gives no indication in these chapters that he is describing something which is to happen during a millennium preceding the final state. An interpretation of these chapters which is in agreement with New Testament teaching, and which avoids the absurdity of positing the need for memorial sacrifices in the millennium, understands Ezekiel to be describing here the glorious future of the people of God in the age to come in terms which the Jews of that day would understand. Since their worship previous to their captivity had been centered in the Jerusalem temple, it is understandable that Ezekiel describes their future blessedness by picturing a temple and its sacrifices. The details about temple and sacrifices are to be understood not literally but figuratively…What we have in Ezekiel 40 to 48, therefore, is not a description of the millennium but a picture of the final state on the new earth, in terms of the religious symbolism with which Ezekiel and his readers were familiar.
We need to recognize the figurative or non-literal elements of prophecy. Much of the prophetic portions of Scripture are presented in figurative language. They are rich in symbolism, and dramatic imagery. The reason for this is often to emphasize the gravity and imminence of God’s judgment. Such picturesque language was familiar to the prophet’s audience. They would have understood it as a way of describing God’s intervention in history. Isaiah uses cosmic imagery:
Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.―Isaiah 13:9-11.
To many, this would appear to describe the end of the world. But the passage is about God’s judgment upon the Babylonian empire approximately six-hundred years before the birth of Christ. As the opening verse of that chapter will attest, “The oracle concerning Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.” (Isa. 13:1). This is confirmed later in the chapter, “…Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor, and pomp of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them.”―Isaiah 13:19.
In Acts 2:14-21, Peter interprets the prophecy and cosmic imagery of Joel 2:28-32 as having its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. The cosmic signs (expressed by Joel) did not literally occur at Pentecost. But what the author willed to convey by those signs did. Some say that Joel’s prophecy was only partially fulfilled at Pentecost. They say that its final fulfillment will take place when Christ returns. However, as Robert H. Stein notes, this interpretation does not satisfy the words of Peter:
There have been attempts to deny that the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 was fulfilled at Pentecost. Usually, this is due to a misunderstanding of the figurative nature of this cosmic terminology. Some have suggested that Luke and Peter believed that Pentecost was ‘kind of like’ what Joel prophesied but not its actual fulfillment. Such a manipulative interpretation of this passage of Acts, however, is impossible in light of Peter’s words in Acts 2:16: ‘this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.’ Furthermore, such interpretive gymnastics are unnecessary when we are willing to accept what the author meant by the use of such terminology. We need only note other passages to see how widespread the use of such cosmic terminology is in the Bible (Isaiah 24:23; Jeremiah 4:28; 13:16; 15:9; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10,31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Habakkuk 3:11; Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25; Revelation 6:12). Attempts to see Mark 15:33; Matthew 27:45; Luke 23:44-45 as the fulfillment of this prophecy err. They do not explain the signs of Acts 2:19 and most of 2:20. Second, and more important, they err because Peter and Luke associated the fulfillment of these signs with what is happening then and there on the day of Pentecost.
Does the prophecy have its fulfillment in the historical period in which they were announced? This should be asked first when considering a prophetic passage. By doing so, we will avoid the common abuse of many preachers who engage in a sort of “newspaper exegesis” whereby they wrongly interpret prophetic passages. Because such passages have a historical context they refer to events and fulfillment in the life of Israel and should not be automatically projected to a distant future. Osborne warns us against such mistaken notions:
I would add a fifth type of erroneous preaching, the ‘newspaper’ approach of many so-called prophecy preachers today. This school assumes that the prophecies were not meant for the ancient setting but rather for the modern setting. Amazingly, that setting is often post-1948 (after Israel became a nation) America. Such preachers ignore the fact that God chose all the symbols and passages to speak to Israel and that modern people must understand them in their ancient context before applying them today…‘Newspaper’ preachers instead take prophetic passages out of context and twist them to fit the modern situation. This is dangerous for it too easily leads to a subjective ‘eisegesis’ (reading meaning into a text), which does anything one wants to the Scriptural text…Many today leap too quickly into a futuristic interpretation of passages that were more likely meant to speak to the author’s own day.
Many prophetic passages were meant to speak to the author’s own day.
The prophetic portions of Scripture are not organized as systematically as one might suppose or wish. Ramm points out:
The future may appear present, or nearby, or indefinitely remote. Widely separated events on the actual calendar of history may appear together in the prophetic sequence. The Jewish scholars unable to decipher pictures of Messianic suffering and Messianic glory were not properly prepared for the advent of the humiliation of our Lord. Only in the pages of the New Testament are these two pictures properly related in terms of two advents of the Messiah (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12 and Hebrews 9:28).
Specific verses from the Old Testament were understood as directly predicting the person and work of Christ (for example, Isa. 53; Micah 5:2 ~ Mt. 2:4-6). See Acts 8: 26-40 Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and note v. 35. In such instances, there is a one-to-one correspondence between an Old Testament prediction and its New Testament fulfillment.
Therefore, the prophet discloses God’s will and words to the people (forth-telling). This word may be a prediction that refers to future events (foretelling). Prophecy related very much to the present contemporary realities of the time when they were issued. In that sense, they reveal the meaning of the present from a true spiritual perspective. Prophecy may give instruction, offer comfort, exhortation, or confrontation. Prophets spoke God’s words, not their own. Most of their future predictions are now past. They tell the story of and the prophet’s interaction with God and people surrounding them.
There are different types of prophecy, which may be categorized as follows:
- Disaster ~ Isa.30:15-17
- Salvation ~ Jer.28:2-4
- Woe speech ~ Mic.2:1-5
- Prophetic dirge (over Israel) ~ Amos 5:1-3
- Prophetic hymn ~ Amos 4:13
- Prophetic liturgy ~ Jer.14:1-3, 7, 9-22
- Prophetic disputation ~ Amos 3:3-8
- Prophetic lawsuit ~ Isa.3:13-36
- Prophecy against foreign nations
- Prophetic vision ~ reports include things that they saw (Isa. 6)
- Prophetic narratives relate how God called and commissioned the prophets
As always, historical-cultural analysis is crucially important. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are essential tools. Commentaries are also important. We must also see how people in the Bible understood the language that was used. Did they understand the language figuratively or literally? As you read through the prophets, think oracles rather than chapters or paragraphs. What was the oracle of God on any one particular occasion?
Can a prophecy have more than one meaning? Yes. There can be multiple fulfillment (see Caiaphas’ prophecy in Jn. 11:50). The prophets must have understood what they said and meant at one level. However, they may not have understood the full implications of their words.
Should we understand that prophecies used the language of the day but refer to modern realities? For example, could swords and horses in the text actually refer to modern guns and tanks? How much should be interpreted literally and how much symbolically or spiritually? The prophets often express poetically what will happen. Will lions lying down with lambs be literally true during a millennium or is this poetic for the peace that will exist during the eternal state?
Is the prophecy meant to be understood universally or is it limited? How conditional are prophecies? Jonah’s prophecy of the destruction of Nineveh was conditional, but this was not stated by him. Do we understand that God changed his mind about certain prophecies?
With prophecy, there can be a literal and/or figurative fulfillment.
 Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1950), 148.
 Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 204-5.
 Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Baker Academic; 2 edition, 2011), 93.
 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Second edition. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 217-8.
 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, (3rd edition, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1970), 249.