Articles, essays, chapters, books – even commentaries have been written about biblical prophecy. Amidst the plethora of “stuff” about prophecy, some basic characteristics of prophecy have become unknown to most Bible readers. Consequently, most of prophetic scripture is at best a puzzle, at worst an excuse for sensational speculation that discredits not only the speculator, but, sadly and unfairly, the Bible itself. When fictions like the Left Behind series sell 50 million and the few contemporary commentaries stay in print only a few short years, it is no wonder. Here are a few foundational keys to understanding biblical prophecy.
Two basic mis-assumptions plague most people’s unsuccessful attempts to understand prophecy. First, many people think prophecy is the same thing as fortune telling or divination. They think of the ancient Greek customs such as the Oracle of Delphi when they think of prophecy. The Oracle of Delphi was a young “chosen” woman who sat above a smoking fissure in the rock at the Delphi temple, chewed bay leaves, and experienced an ecstatic state that manifested in incomprehensible speech in response to an individual’s specific inquiry of the gods. Then a priest in the temple “interpreted” the message and gave it to the inquirer. The questions and answers were always specific to the individual and the time. For example, an inquirer might ask whether the gods would bless a particular business deal, or whether a particular courtship would be successful. Many people who experience a false “gift of prophecy” misunderstand prophecy in this way. Instead, the bible gives us a picture of prophecy that is rationally received and delivered, is one hundred percent accurate, and involves God’s eternal righteousness, judgment, and mercy.
Second, many people think prophecy is only or at least primarily about future events regarding God’s interventions in human history. This misunderstanding fuels most of the sensationalistic fiction and non-fiction(?) literature glutting the shelves of most Christian bookstores. This misunderstanding lies behind many Christians’ fears that we are living in the “terminal generation,” the “last days,” that will see worldwide, cataclysmic events in which millions – even billions – of people will suffer and die immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming. Instead, the biblical examples give us a picture of prophecy that focuses on the eternal covenant between God and man, ratified and fulfilled in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. While at first glance biblical prophecy may seem to cover thousands of events and principles, at its core biblical prophecy is simply concerned with God’s eternal salvation plan in his Son.
After we lay aside these two common misunderstandings, we can look at what the Bible says about prophecy and understand much more than we once did. There are many books that we recommend on this subject, including Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics, and William Biederwolf’s The Millennium Bible.
The biblical prophet is one who is called by God to give inspired teaching and preaching. He (or she) is primarily a forth-teller and only secondarily a fore-teller. In fact, when one actually analyzes the prophetic passages and books of the Bible, it is evident that fore-telling is a minor part of the prophet’s burden from the Lord. When we understand this important distinction, much of the Bible becomes suddenly more easily understood. It makes sense, then, that Moses is called the greatest of prophets except for Jesus (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Acts 3:22; 7:37), even though we think of him primarily as the liberator and law giver of Israel. It makes sense that Jesus linked Moses with the prophets who spoke of him, God’s Son (Luke 16:29-31; 24:27, 44). We can understand the words of Philip, who told Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).
This emphasis on forth-telling is verified by analysis of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. There are five “Major Prophets,” books representing four authors (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations – also written by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). They are called the major prophets not because they are the most important, but because they are the largest in size. There are twelve “Minor Prophets,” so named not for any lack in importance, but for their relatively smaller sizes.
When we analyze these 17 books, we find that the vast majority of the texts do not refer to the future at all. Instead, we find the same exact theme often repeated in each book: the story of redemption. This simple story includes that God created us perfect and provided us with everything we needed for perfect life in him. We rebelled against him and earned his righteous judgment and condemnation. Because of his infinite love for us, his mercy and grace, he did not leave us in our sin but provided reconciliation for us in his Son, so that by responding in faith to the power of his gospel, we can repent, be reconciled to God, and enjoy the presence and power of God in this life and for the future (John 3:16-21).
What do we notice about this timeless story of redemption? Comparatively little of it has to do with the future: it is primarily concerned with the past (God’s creation, our fall), the present (God’s judgment delayed by his mercy through Christ), and the immediate future (will we respond in faith believing or continue in unrepentant rebellion?). The far or final future (enjoying God’s presence and power into eternity) is merely the culmination of the first three “time” elements in the story. In fact, every prophet in most of his (or her – Miriam, Deborah, for example) prophecies includes these four time referents: past, present, immediate or near future, and far or final future. This is what we would expect.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 gives us the first test of a true prophet of God: even if what he says comes to pass, if he encourages us to worship a false God, or to worship God falsely, he is not to be believed. He is a false prophet.
Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the second test of a true prophet. (This immediately follows Moses’ declaration of a coming “prophet” who would be greater than him – 15-18 – we know him as Jesus Christ cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37.) In this test we are told that if what the prophet says is going to come to pass does not, then he is a false prophet. While Miss Cleo and her band of dollars-by-the-minute psychics repeatedly fail this test, in the Old Testament, to have even one prophecy not come to pass disqualified one from being a true prophet of God. If it were the case that a substantial part of a prophet’s message was concerned with the far or final future (events hundreds, even thousands of years after the lifetime of the prophet), how could the trustworthiness of a prophet be established? For this test to have any reliability, it must have been the case that an overwhelming portion of the prophet’s messages had to have been about times his hearers could test – the past, present, and near future.
When we analyze the Old Testament prophets, that is exactly what we find. Isaiah, for example, spends most of his time talking about the past. He talks about how Israel had a covenant with God but repeatedly broke that covenant, both while united and by Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) after the monarchy divided. He talks about many other nations that practiced idolatry and ignored the Lord God Almighty. He talks about how God had already brought judgment against these other nations. All the nations failed to repent and thus deserved God’s judgment.
Isaiah spends the second greatest amount of material talking about the present. He points out all the areas of sinfulness, rebellion, unrighteousness, idolatry, and social injustice in Israel and Judah. He points out all of the examples of God’s patience and mercy, withholding judgment even though it would be just because of Israel and Judah’s rebellion.
Isaiah talks at length about the near future: if Israel and Judah do not repent, God will bring well deserved punishment, judgment, and condemnation on the nations for their continued rebellion. If, however, Israel and Judah repent, God will withhold his judgment and restore the kingdoms to the power and blessings of God. In fact, Isaiah says, both Israel and Judah will refuse to repent. First God will allow Israel to be destroyed as a nation and its leaders taken into captivity because of its greater sinfulness and as a final example to Judah. This all happened during the course of Isaiah’s ministry. Everything Isaiah said about these time periods (past, present, and near future) was tested by his contemporaries (using Deut. 13 and 18), and Isaiah was proved to be a reliable prophet of God.
Once Isaiah had been proven a reliable prophet of God, his listeners were willing to suspend judgment on the comparatively little he says that would occur after the end of their own generation. Isaiah spends comparably less time speaking about the far future. In that time, Judah will fall to foreign destruction just as Israel had already. This judgment of God will last seventy years. Judah will finally repent and beg God for forgiveness. God will extend his mercy and grace to Judah through the pagan king, Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to their land, rebuild the temple, and restore their kingdom. This happened within less than two hundred years of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.
Finally, Isaiah spent the least amount of time speaking about the final future – the time when the entire earth, all of humanity, will be affected eternally by God’s redemption plan in his Son, the Messiah: those who believe and repent will be resurrected to eternal life; those who continue to rebel will be resurrected to judgment and condemnation. This final future time began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and will conclude with Christ’s Second Coming for final judgment and the reconciliation of all things (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The redeemed inherit eternal life, the unrepentant inherit eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).
The next time you stumble across prophetic portions of Scripture, don’t despair or throw up your hands in confusion. It’s not as mysterious or cryptic as contemporary sensationalists make it. Remember that the prophet always talks mostly about the past, the present, and the near future. Certainly he talks the least (and sometimes not at all) about the far future (after his own generation) or final future (the completion of the redemptive story).
 See Colin Brown, gen.ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Volume 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, 75ff.
 Colin Brown, Dictionary Volume 3, 74-92.