I’ve noticed something about prophecies in the bible. There are two types: Those said in the context of the current time to warn people to change their behavior, and those said in the context of a future time to show that God exists outside of the constraints of our world and is in control of it.
For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh to say “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown”. Nineveh repented, and God didn’t overthrow them. (Jonah 3)
Future prophecies are very interesting in that they’re usually quite literal and make perfect sense within the context of the time they’re written for. However, before that time, they sound very deep and mystical, but don’t make much sense. The reason is that language evolves through time. As the world changes, so does the meaning of words. For example, consider a phrase like “I surfed the web and found a flight”. Obviously you can tell I booked a flight on line. But what if I’d said that in the 60’s? They’d probably think I was high and commenting on my trip. (As a tangent, imagine saying the last three sentences in different time periods…).
Now consider this text:
1Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
3He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
4Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
6All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
7He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
9His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
10But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
11As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
12Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.
If you’ve been in a church, you can probably tell it’s from a sermon about Jesus. However it’s from Isaiah 53, written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. So imagine it in the context of the day it was written – it probably sounded deep and symbolic. To us, it’s just a literal description of the Messiah’s suffering and a description of what he did for us. Psalm 22 (which Jesus referenced on the cross) is similar, and even provides us with some in-depth details about Jesus that aren’t in the gospels.
Many people try to analyze the “end times” prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. Certainly anyone would agree that Revelation is just “deep and symbolic”. Well, probably most people just think it’s confusing. I think they’re right – it’s like trying to describe surfing the web in the 60’s. Stamping numbers on our right hand? Dragons chasing pregnant ladies? Beasts with horns? The whole world seeing two witnesses in the streets?
Ah yes, but that last one makes sense now doesn’t it – two crazy people in the streets of some city doing something miraculous would be covered on CNN, and the “world would be watching”. That wouldn’t have made sense at all 100 years ago. If I started talking about the stars and stripes fighting the middle east, that’d make perfect sense too, wouldn’t it? What if in the near future common culture refers to China as a “great dragon”? What if the number 616 or 666 becomes something that’s commonly understood? (by the way, the command to give read/write permissions to everyone on a file on a UNIX system is “chmod 666 filename”, and UNIX is the most common OS used on servers in the world – perhaps that’s some “insight”? (Rev 13:18)).
In the proper time, I believe these prophecies are clear. Before the proper time, interpreting them is futile – we’re not in the proper time or context, so we can’t understand. Isaiah 53 didn’t make sense until after Jesus rose from the dead. I believe Revelation 13:17-18 even tells us the prophecies are meant to be clear in the right context: “so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast of the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.” (Rev 13:17-18). In the right context, this isn’t cryptic – it’s something that someone “with insight” could calculate. Of course, in the proper context, perhaps this entire phrase takes on a new meaning. (If you’re curious about 666, it’s actually mentioned in the old testament also).
As far as the end times are concerned, we are seeing more frequent wars, famines, and earthquakes in various places (Matthew 24:7-8), and the gospel is being preached in almost the entire world (Matthew 24:14), but to my knowledge, “the abomination that causes desolation” (Matthew 24:15) doesn’t make sense yet (if it did, I’d probably be “running for the mountains” (Matthew 24:16), not typing a blog entry :), nor does most of the last part of Revelation (although I think we’ll probably have to be in the end times before that makes sense).
So when reading the Bible (if you don’t, you should – good books there, and we’re rarely privileged in this time and place to be able to read it), keep an eye out for things that start to make sense when reading prophecies. As we get closer to their times, I think they’ll get clearer.