Categories of Bible Literature (IV)


Yesterday we looked at some of the characteristics of Bible prophecy. Today, we’ll discuss some methods you can use to do a better job of understanding prophecy.

Identify Unfamiliar People, Places and Practices

Studying prophecy can be challenging and it takes attention to detail to get it right. Prophetic passages often bombard you with unfamiliar names, places and events. Consider the following passage from Isaiah 15:

“The burden of Moab. Because in the night Ar of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence; because in the night Kir of Moab is laid waste, and brought to silence; He is gone up to Bajith, and to Dibon, the high places, to weep: Moab shall howl over Nebo, and over Medeba: on all their heads shall be baldness, and every beard cut off. In their streets they shall gird themselves with sackcloth: on the tops of their houses, and in their streets, every one shall howl, weeping abundantly. And Heshbon shall cry, and Elealeh: their voice shall be heard even unto Jahaz: therefore the armed soldiers of Moab shall cry out; his life shall be grievous unto him. My heart shall cry out for Moab; his fugitives shall flee unto Zoar, an heifer of three years old: for by the mounting up of Luhith with weeping shall they go it up; for in the way of Horonaim they shall raise up a cry of destruction. For the waters of Nimrim shall be desolate: for the hay is withered away, the grass faileth, there is no green thing.” (Isa 15:1-6)

Here are some questions you need to answer as you try to understand this passage:

  • Who or what were Moab, Ar, Kir, Bajith, Dibon, Nebo, Medeba, Hesbon, Elealeh, Jahaz, Zoar, Luhith, and Horonaim?
  • What is the significance of baldness and every beard cut off, girding themselves with sackcloth, and an heifer of three years old?
  • Has this prophecy been fulfilled? If so, by what event?
  • If the prophecy has not been fulfilled, what do the places and practices mentioned refer to in our time?

You could compare cross-references, but they would often lead you to other lists of obscure places and practices. You’ll probably need to use many of the tools we’ve talked about so far: a study Bible, a Bible dictionary, a Bible atlas and reference works about Bible manners and customs. It’s a lot of work, but it’s what you have to do if you plan to get it right.

Research Symbolic Language

Another obstacle to understanding prophecy is the use of symbolic language. Consider the following example from Revelation 17:

“So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.” (Rev 17:3-6)

Even the most literal interpreters of the Bible don’t expect a literal woman to appear, riding a literal beast with literal horns. Making sense of this prophecy requires you to understand its symbolic language. In this case, that’s pretty easy because the prophecy is explained in the next few verses:

“And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns. The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is. And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space. And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition. And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast. These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast. These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful. And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled. And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” (Rev 17:7-18)

If the Bible didn’t explain this prophecy, you’d have to search the Scriptures to see how horns, for example, are used in other passages. If you compared this passage with Daniel 7:7-9, 24 and 8:20-22, you’d find that horns are usually associated with political powers.

The Gap Principle

Another important principle to remember as you interpret prophecy is the Gap Principle. The Gap Principle says that prophecy often treats events separated by great spans of time as though they were close in time. Some have described this as the prophet looking from mountain top to mountain top, unable to see the valleys of time between them. We talked before about how Jesus quoted Isaiah 61. That passage says:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;” (Isa 61:1-2)

Remember that Jesus stopped short of quoting the whole passage. He did not include, “…the day of vengance of our God,” because that event was separated from the first part by a long valley of time. The Gap Principle is also a key to understanding Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy recorded in Daniel 9:24-27.

The Principle of Double Reference

Finally, the Principle of Double Reference is another helpful principle for interpreting Bible prophecy. This princple says that a prophecy may refer to more than one event. It may have a partial, or limited, fulfillment followed by a complete fulfillment. Malachi’s prophecy of one who would come in the spirit and power of Elijah demonstrates this principle:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Mal 4:5-6)

John said he was not Elijah (Joh 1:21) and Jesus said John was Elijah (Mat 17:10-13). There was a sense in which John fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy, and a sense in which it remains to be fulfilled.

Weekend Workshop

Research on Isaiah 15:1-6. Identify as many of the places and practices as you can. Has this prophecy been fulfilled? If so, how? If not, do you have any idea when and how it might be fulfilled?

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