Understanding Prophecy

Most Bible students probably admit that prophetic utterances are the hardest to understand and interpret properly. If not admitted, it is recognized by all who read the multiple interpretations that most persons do not understand them. While admitting my ignorance of the meaning of many of them, there is one simple clue that will help those who have problems with prophecy. If we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Apostles are inspired, then when they tell us the meaning of some prophecy, we can be confident that our understanding is superior to that of someone who is simply guessing.

Let us examine a few of the dozens of such prophecies. When Jesus was about to go to Jerusalem to be crucified, He sent His apostles to get a colt upon which He was to ride. Note Matthew 21:4, "All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass." The prophecy is in Zechariah 9:9, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." If you will read the whole of Zechariah 9 and imagine yourself as an Israelite living in that time, you will realize that you could not possibly see any connection between the ninth verse and what the inspired writer says fulfilled the prophecy. It appears evident that in many prophecies, there was a primary reference to some current event, but the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy must be understood to be what Jesus said it was.

In Luke 3:5 we find, "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth." Assume that you were a good Jew and had read Isaiah 40:3-5, "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it." You would not have had the remotest idea that this referred to John the Immerser preaching the good news about the coming Kingdom. However, when the inspired writer tells us that it referred to the preaching of John, we should know that we do not need to look for a literal fulfillment sometime in the future. It is almost beyond belief that any honest Bible student can read such passages and still assume that all prophecy is to be literally interpreted, and that this cannot take place until Jesus comes back to set up some earthly kingdom. Can you imagine that Jesus is going to set up a kingdom here on earth where all roads will be straight and there will be no mountains? Whether Elijah will come with a big bulldozer and do it, or whether it will be miraculously accomplished by someone, we have not yet heard, but no doubt someone will "reveal" it some day.

Almost every person who believes in the premillenial theory takes passages such as Isaiah 61:1-2 and applies them to their imagined material kingdom which they think Christ is coming back to earth to establish. Note, however, what Jesus said about it in Luke 4:21 "And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." Then he quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2, "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." Any person who would rather trust the statement of Jesus than the imagination of some speculator will do well to let Jesus interpret the prophecy, and attempt to understand in the same manner all the ones He does not interpret.

Jesus says something very significant in Luke 24:44. "And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me." The rest of the context shows that He was talking about His life, suffering, resurrection and the establishment of His kingdom. Those prophecies were not talking about His second coming. He says the same thing in Luke 18:31, "Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished." They did not wait to be accomplished when He comes back at the end of time. The same idea is expressed in Acts 3:24, where Peter says that all the prophets from Samuel on down were talking about "these days." They were not talking about what was supposed to happen at the end of time when Jesus returns.

One of the clearest indications of the meaning of Old Testament prophecy is found in Acts 20:6, where Paul says, "And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers." Surely no thoughtful believer can look at why the Jews were trying to have Paul killed and assume that it was because he was preaching that the Messiah was going to come and restore to them an earthly kingdom! Any unprejudiced student can clearly see that the hope of the promise God made to the fathers was to be fulfilled in obedience to the gospel. This means that when one tries to interpret Old Testament prophecies that deal with the kingdom of God, he should always keep in mind how Christ and His inspired Apostles said they were fulfilled.

We are not aware of a single instance where there is an indication that some prophecy was to be fulfilled a third time. When the writer said "This is that which was spoken by the prophet" or "It came to pass that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet," we would do well to give heed to it. Furthermore, we would do well to view in the same light all the other Old Testament prophecies of the same nature although there is no specific statement about them in the New Testament.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive