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Prophecy is not really a genre of writing but a style of writing (actually, this can also be said for the other genres listed here but is more evident in prophetic writing). Prophecy occurs in poetic form (most spectacularly in the prophecies of Isaiah), in historical narrative (such as occurred between God and Abraham when God promised Abraham a son) and in a variety of other literary genres. Its most notable feature is that it is declarative, speaking of events that are not as though they are, and in so doing shows that the purposes of God cannot and will not be thwarted. However, the surety that God's word will be fulfilled does not allow us to apply prophetic teaching to every event that occurs, as has been said elsewhere "Prophecy is a poor guide to the future." Often such application is the result of a very narrow understanding of a very limited group of prophecies. God does not and has not spoken to us in bits and pieces but in the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and God's ultimate revelation to man. Prior to Jesus' own ministry, death and resurrection very few of His contemporaries understood how He was the fulfillment of prophecy. Subsequent to that, however, it became very clear, to the point that we now see that then entire Old Testament can be viewed as an arrow pointing directly at Jesus. In the same way the events of today cannot usually be understood in light of Biblical prophecy until that prophecy is completely fulfilled. Paul makes reference to this when he writes to the Corinthian church that while on earth he sees things as though through a mirror in Heaven he will see things perfectly. We await that day and know that as well as we understand things now we will understand them perfectly when we stand in His presence.
Much of the Bible is composed of prophecy which, though a genre of writing, can occur in the form of poetry, prose, or narrative. Taken as a whole the Old Testament of the Bible can be viewed as an ongoing prophecy of the coming Messiah that is fulfilled in part at the nativity. A prophet is one who speaks the words of God and has been given specific instructions regarding the content, occasion, and audience of the prophetic message. Moses, when arguing with God at the burning bush about his inability to perform the task to which God was calling him was told that his brother Aaron was coming to look for him and would accompany Moses on his mission. God specifically told Moses that he would be as God to Aaron and that Aaron would say and do all that Moses commanded him to say and do. It is in this context that the prophet acted as the mouthpiece of God. The prophet (either man or woman) would be given a direct message from God to be delivered to whomever God commanded, in what ever form God desired. Prophecy in the Bible ranges from the height of human expression (as in the book of Isaiah) to some of the most humiliating acts (as in Ezekiel eating food cooked over animal waste for one of his prophecies) to the depth of human grief (Ezekiel, again, whose actions concerning the death of his wife were symbolic of the actions of God over the destruction of Jerusalem).
Prophecy is very often symbolic and, as will be seen below, often indicates more than one event of similar character separated by large spans of time. This actually leads to one of the dangers of studying prophecy in that we often seek to interpret some of the more spectacular prophetic passages (such as Revelation) within our current context, interpreting the passage in the light of recent events. While this is a valid exercise and indeed is how prophecy is to be treated we often embark on this exercise seeking support for our conclusions rather than to have our conclusions guided by the prophecy. Prophecy is at the same time a perfect guide to the future and an poor guide to the future. It is a perfect guide because God through prophecy has told/is telling us what will occur and He is utterly trustworthy. It is a poor guide because we fall into the trap of believing that the prophecy will be fulfilled in our time.
It is crucial in the study of prophecy to have a reasonable view of history and the flow of events. Prophecies of the destruction of Israel, Judah, or various other nations of the time only become clear when we understand how history happened at the time under question. Likewise, prophecies of future events such as the second coming of Christ or the rise of the anti-Christ can only make sense when we understand what has happened in the world since the time the prophecies were made and even, in some schools of thought, what has happened since creation.
Prophecy in general encompasses both declarative and predictive forms, though we are by far more familiar with the later. It is very important when reading prophecy to have an understanding of history.
A brief breakdown of both types follows:
A) Declarative prophecy - In this sense the prophet is one who speaks for an other, carrying the context of the prophet being the mouth through whom the other speaks. Although the prophet is generally understood to be speaking for God it is possible for the prophet to speak for an other human as well. In the Old Testament we have an example of the declarative prophet in the relationship between Moses and his older brother Aaron:
Yahweh’s anger burned against Moses, and he said, “What about Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Also, behold, he comes out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him, and put the words in his mouth. I will be with your mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He will be your spokesman to the people; and it will happen, that he will be to you a mouth, and you will be to him as God.
Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, I have made you as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet.
In this case Moses would be the speaker for God Himself as the prophet of God and Aaron in turn would speak for Moses as the prophet of Moses.
B) Predictive prophecy - This form of prophecy is concerned with what we generally view as the function of the prophet: The prophet predicts events yet to occur, often speaking of them as though they are accomplished fact as a reflection of the power of God’s word. There are two types of predictive prophecy: That which is immediately fulfilled and that which is fulfilled at some later point in time. A brief definition of both types appears below:
a) Immediate fulfillment - in which the prophecy is fulfilled shortly after it is spoken and is a key in determining if the one who claims to be a prophet truly is a prophet, as seen below:
You may say in your heart, “How shall we know the word which Yahweh has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in Yahweh’s name, if the thing doesn’t follow, nor happen, that is the thing which Yahweh has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him.
An example of an immediate predictive prophecy is shown below:
Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn back and encamp before Pihahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, before Baal Zephon. You shall encamp opposite it by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, ‘They are entangled in the land. The wilderness has shut them in.’ I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will follow after them; and I will get honor over Pharaoh, and over all his armies; and the Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh.” They did so. The king of Egypt was told that the people had fled; and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was changed towards the people, and they said, “What is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?”
b) Delayed fulfillment - in which the prophecy is not fulfilled immediately but is delayed by a variable period of time. The prophecies of Christ's birth and ministry were fulfilled after centuries, those concerning His return are yet to be fulfilled. Most good study Bibles will include a list of at least some of the prophecies made concerning Jesus Christ. An example of a prophecy of Christ that has a delayed fulfillment is shown below:
Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him. This is according to all that you desired of Yahweh your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again Yahweh my God’s voice, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I not die.” Yahweh said to me, “They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brothers, like you. I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him. It shall happen, that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.
There are frequent occurrences in the bible where both the immediate and the delayed types of predictive prophecy are combined. In these cases the prophecy of a significant event to take place in the future is immediately fulfilled as a sign confirming the more complete fulfillment, or simply as a blessing. Many examples of this type of prophecy are found in the book of Isaiah one of which is used to apply as a confirmation of Isaiah's own prophetic ministry and that of Jesus Christ:
The Lord Yahweh’s Spirit is on me; because Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news to the humble. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion, to give to them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of Yahweh, that he may be glorified.
Prophetic passages in the Bible can be found in a variety of literary forms and can range in length from several words to several pages of text. The prophet’s personal response to the message that has been received from God is also frequently found within prophetic literature. One example of this occurs in Isaiah 21 where Isaiah describes the physical effect of God’s proclamation against Babylon upon his own body:
The burden of the wilderness of the sea. As whirlwinds in the South sweep through, it comes from the wilderness, from an awesome land. A grievous vision is declared to me. The treacherous man deals treacherously, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, Elam; attack! I have stopped all of Media’s sighing. Therefore my thighs are filled with anguish. Pains have taken hold on me, like the pains of a woman in labor. I am in so much pain that I can’t hear. I so am dismayed that I can’t see. My heart flutters. Horror has frightened me. The twilight that I desired has been turned into trembling for me. They prepare the table. They set the watch. They eat. They drink. Rise up, you princes, oil the shield! For the Lord said to me, “Go, set a watchman. Let him declare what he sees. When he sees a troop, horsemen in pairs, a troop of donkeys, a troop of camels, he shall listen diligently with great attentiveness.” He cried like a lion: “Lord, I stand continually on the watchtower in the daytime, and every night I stay at my post. Behold, here comes a troop of men, horsemen in pairs.” He answered, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the engraved images of her gods are broken to the ground. You are my threshing, and the grain of my floor!” That which I have heard from Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel, I have declared to you.
The prophecy of Habakkuk also includes personal commentary on God’s message to the extent that the entirety of his prophecy is in the form of a discussion between God and himself.
Prophecy is often regarded by Bible students as the most difficult literary form within the Bible to interpret. While this is often true the study of prophecy is also extremely rewarding. By means of prayerful contemplation of prophecy the Christian gains a wonderful sense of the power of God and the effectiveness of His plan. As well, some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible are prophecies in poetic form that concern the advent and mission of Jesus Christ. In one sense the entire Old Testament is prophetic in that Christ is foreshadowed within its text. For us to gain the greatest benefit from our study of prophecy some guidelines for interpretation are now given: