“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all…” – WCF Chapter 1, Section 7
This phrase from the Westminster Confession of Faith has been a great comfort to me as I approach one of the most difficult areas of the Bible to interpret: predictive prophecy. Predictive prophecy is about the claims that the Bible makes about what will happen in the future. It especially focuses on eschatology, the study of the end times and what will transpire at the end of the world. This brief article will discuss the ‘ground rules to use when confronting this difficult area.
R. C. Sproul made a classic understatement when he said, “We must approach prophecy very carefully with a sober attitude.” Sproul makes some interesting points, either directly or indirectly:
First, avoid two extremes. The first is the “skeptical, naturalistic approach” that does away with predictive prophecy. If there is a God who created the world, it is virtually impossible to say He does not know the future. On the other extreme, avoid the “wild, bizarre method that sees in every contemporary event a “clear” fulfillment of a biblical prophecy.” There is a middle road.
Second, leave room for “symbolic predictions or predictions that have a broader scope of meaning.” The New Testament itself interprets some prophecy as having a”fulfillment of the letter” (see the Bible’s prediction of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in Bethlehem) and a “fulfillment in a broader scope” (see the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah). John the Baptist himself said he was not Elijah (John 1:19-28), while Jesus said he was (Matthew 11:13-15). The answer to the dilemma is in Luke 1:17’s reference to John the Baptist as coming “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” That is a clear example of a “broader fulfillment.”
Third, be extremely careful with the “apocalyptic form” of prophecy. “Apocalyptic literature” is a special form of literature that was used in the time of the First Century. This form of writing is laden with symbols and metaphors. We will look at statements made by J. Scott Duval on this topic below.
Duval is the J. C. and Mae Fuller Professor of Biblical Studies at Ouachite Baptist University. His keen interest in the book of Revelation yields several insights for dealing with apocalyptic literature such as what we find in Revelation. We will look at some of his key insights next.
Revelation uses symbols, and Revelation 1:1 makes this clear when it says God sent the revelation “and signified it through His angel to His slave John.” These symbols are a little like political cartoons used in our culture, where “pictures represent a reality.” These pictures are not meant to be taken literally, “but they are taken as pointing to a reality.” We don’t find a literal donkey and a literal elephant fighting in American politics, but the two major political parties are often portrayed in exactly this way in political cartoons.
Next, there is no rule against mixing metaphors in apocalyptic literature. A ‘metaphor’ is a figure of speech that makes an implied comparison between two unlike things that actually have something in common. A ‘mixed metaphor’ is when two or more metaphors are jumbled together, usually illogically. The pictures of Revelation are often jumbled together in this way.Last of the several principles we will look at: “don’t try to find a chronology of history in [Revelation’s] pages.” The original audience would not have tried to, and neither should we.
Predictive prophecy, especially prophecies about things that have not occurred yet, must be handled carefully and prayerfully. There are many pitfalls and problems with its interpretation. We should all pray for greater understanding of the different approaches to the end times.(Sources: Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul and Read the Bible for Life by George H. Guthrie)