Monday, September 9, 2013

Principles of Prophecy

As a Bible class teacher one of my primary roles has been in instructing young Christians.  They are often very new to the Bible, entranced with Jesus (me too!), and easily upset by various media spewings about God.  The controversy surrounding things like Dan Brown's novels or the movie 2012 confuses the kids I love. 

I am afraid however that very often even mature Christians find prophecy difficult.  It's full of images that are frightening like Ezekiel's field of dead bones or bizarre like his mobile throne made of angels.  (Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel 1) It's full of tough pieces of history like Daniel's list of the kings who followed Alexander the Great (Daniel 11- see this link for a clear historical lay out of the prophecy's fulfillment).  Worst of all prophecy is one of things most likely to spark argument among believers.  It's no wonder we avoid it. 

Yet I think a few simple principles taught to me over the years (Thanks Dr. Fortner!) make understanding books of prophecy much easier.  Add to that some resources for filling in the details we don't know, and I'll bet you'll be excitedly digging into the Old Testament by the end of the week. 

The preacher principle

In no way should we imagine that the prophets sat in a small room somewhere dictating to a scribe all the events the future would bring like Nostradamus.  Bible prophets were more like John the Baptist.  They were fiery, counter-cultural, and the people had a love/hate relationship with them.  They were preachers! 

Sometimes their sermons didn't even involve the future at all.  For example in Isaiah 44, the prophet writes a long sarcastic section all about the process of idolatry.  He complains about the fact that the people cut down the tree, burn some for fire wood, make some into an idol, and then pretend that they can "pray" to it.  This is all preaching-no foretelling. 

Each time we approach a section of prophetic writing we should think of it like a sermon. There's a principle, a lesson, some praise or some dire warning there.  Frequently it's immediately applicable to our lives today.  Do you remember the post on Amos? Martin Luther King borrowed from his work for a reason (see "The Letter from the Birmingham Jail  or the speech, "I have a dream"). Amos' sermons could have been stolen from the headlines.  

The history principle

The preacher principle leads us directly to the history principle.  If we understand the prophet was primarily a preacher then it behooves us to ask about the people who heard that preacher.  What was their political situation?  Living standard?  Who was their king? What problems were in their society? Where were they living?  

Answering these questions can get a little tricky and we may need some resources to help us.  The very first thing is to remember the basics of Old Testament history.  Our books of prophecy all lie from the period of the divided kingdom through the post-exilic period (if you are a little rusty on Old Testament history let me recommend this outline or this fun video.) So the first question to answer is where in that outline does our book fit?  For example, the book of Jeremiah begins before Judah is exiled and ends as the captives are carried away.  Then we ask to whom was it written: Judah, Israel, the exiles, the post-exilic community?  

We may also need to throw in some basic geography: take Obadiah for an example.  If you don't know anything about the country of Edom- for example, that the inhabitants were descended from Esau, lived in the mountains and had a long standing animosity towards the Israelites - the book is incomprehensible.  

I am not talking here about taking out a minor in Ancient Near Eastern History from the nearest Bible college.  But a little background knowledge can go a long way!

The poetry principle

If you open the book of Habakkuk, Amos, Micah or Isaiah you'll immediately notice the strange way the lines are laid out.  It's the same ways as it is in Psalms.  In other words, the prophets were writing poetry.  Because the words have been translated from Hebrew into English we can't always see it clearly.  There are no rhymes and no special rhythm help us identify it.  But it's still poetry and must be treated that way.

Poetry can be really intimidating.  For one thing it is full of figures of speech.  You remember Emily Dickinson from 11th grade right?  When she writes, "Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me," we see in our mind's eye the Grim Reaper driving a horse drawn carriage.  Yet I have never heard anyone suggest that Emily Dickinson saw death, believed that death was a horseman, or that she was doing anything other than drawing out an extended metaphor. The wise reader realizes that since the author has not yet reflected on her own mortality, the poem describes a time when she was forced to.  

Sometimes people read prophecy as if it were entirely literal. I believe every word of the Bible; I know it is inspired by God.  Yet something can be entirely true without being entirely literal.  Take Isaiah 55:12 for an example.  I am pretty sure it doesn't refer to some future where the rivers will develop hands and clap them.  

It's is also intimidating because we get lost in the details.  Poetry is particularly cultural, and the further you are removed from that time and place the harder it is to understand. Don't believe me?  Remember when your parents complained that they didn't understand the lyrics of the songs you were listening to?  Hebrew poetry is not ancient but translated to boot.   

What's to do when we don't understand one part, when a verse or a figure of speech just baffles us?  Don't worry about it!  In one of Paul's letters, if you miss a verse, a phrase, a logical link, you may well misunderstand the entire point.  In a poem, not so much. Read for the main idea.  Revel in the imagery. Delight in the mystery.  It is not a newspaper or a treatise, it's God's own poem.

These are the first three principles.  Tomorrow I'll be back with four more including ideas like unraveling the code, double-fulfillment and the backwards principle! 


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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