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Special Problems—The Predictive Passages

While most of the prophets’ words are directed to the events of their time, a small portion of their message points to events that are still future to us. We, of course, are extremely interested in that portion of prophecy that still lies ahead of us. These passages, however, present us with a unique set of interpretive challenges, especially as we try to interpret the details of those future things. Indeed, today there is substantial disagreement over the correct interpretive approach to such texts.

One of the major problems that surfaces when we attempt to interpret the predictive prophecies is the near view – far view problem. When the prophets looked into the future, they saw clearly the destruction of Israel or Judah by the Assyrians or Babylonians. However, they also saw glimpses of destruction on other nations; indeed, they saw judgment on the entire world (the day of the Lord). The near judgment (Assyrian or Babylonian) is easy for us to identify historically, but the far judgment is much more vague.

Likewise, when the prophets paint the images of the events related to future hope and restoration, they can be referring to one of three things: (1) the return of the Jewish exiles to Israel under Ezra and Nehemiah, (2) the first coming of Christ, or (3) the second coming of Christ. The interpretive problem for us is that the prophets are not always clear as to when they are looking at near events and when they are looking at far events. The prophets will slide back and forth from describing events that will occur soon within their lifetimes (the near view) to events that will occur during the first advent of Christ (the far view) to events that are still future even for us (the even farther view). These events often seem to be blurred together in the images they present.

This near view – far view is similar to the visual image we encounter when we look at a mountain range from a distance. Suppose, for example, you are standing on a flat prairie and looking at a mountain range in the distance. What you see is a landscape similar to the sketch below:

When we peer at the landscape from a distance, the mountains seem twodimensional; that is, they all appear to be the same distance away from us. The mountains in front do not look any closer than the mountains in back. In reality, however, there are large valleys that separate the mountains from each other. The mountains in the back of our landscape view may be miles and miles away from the mountains in the front. Yet from our vantage point, they all look to be equally distant.

The prophets paint their images of future events in a similar fashion. Their picture of the return of the exiles under Ezra and Nehemiah is like the mountain in front; the mountains behind are the events relating to the first and second comings of Christ. To the prophets these events are all future and distant, and so they do not always indicate which event they are describing. Indeed, often they seem to shift from one future event to another even within the same passage, and sometimes within the same verse.

This phenomenon leads us to be cautious about being overly dogmatic in interpreting the specific details of future events. We need to be aware of the near view – far view characteristics of these texts. However, this manner of describing the future events should not hinder us from taking the Interpretive Journey and developing theological principles as normal. The broad, sweeping themes we discussed above are still clear. Furthermore, it is possible that the prophets have intentionally blurred these events together so that their readers would in fact focus more on the larger, broader principles rather than on the details (e.g., trying to determine exactly when the Messiah will return).

Another interpretive problem that we will encounter occasionally is that some biblical prophecies appear to have aspects of conditionality attached to their fulfillment. God himself states this clearly in Jeremiah 18:7–10:

7If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

God seems to be saying that in many cases the final outcome of a prophecy is conditioned by the response of people to the prophetic word. This does not indicate any kind of failure on the part of God’s Word; indeed, he indicates that this conditionality is part of his sovereign will and is related to his sovereign right to decide such things (Jer. 18:6).

A good illustration of a conditional biblical prophecy can be found in the book of Jonah. In Jonah 3:4 the prophet declares, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” However, the people of Nineveh respond to Jonah by believing him, repenting of their deeds, putting on sackcloth, and fasting. God then responds to the actions of the Ninevites with compassion, canceling the prophesied imminent destruction (3:10). Therefore, as stated in Jeremiah 18:7–10, God is free to exercise his sovereign choice and modify the fulfillment of a prophetic word as a consequence of his great compassion and the repentance and prayer of the people under judgment.

A literary feature in the prophetic books that presents us with interpretive challenges is the prophets’ use of imagery and figures of speech to describe the future Often events. Remember that the prophets use poetic language continuously! They paint visual pictures with their imagery and use wonderful, colorful figures of speech to convey their predictions of the future. Often it is difficult to determine whether the picture they paint is a literal prediction of the future or a figurative, symbolic one. Certainly, their predictive imagery represents firm future realities, but determining with certainty whether their image is literal or symbolic can be difficult.

For example, consider Isaiah 11:6:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

Clearly this text is talking about peace, but how literal is it? Are the “wolf” and the “lamb” figures of speech representing traditional enemies? That is, does this passage speak primarily of a time when nations will no longer war with each other? Or is it completely literal? In the coming kingdom age, will wolves and lambs literally live together in peace? What is the intent of the author in this text?

Or consider Isaiah 65:17–20. The Lord states in 65:17 that he will “create new heavens and a new earth.” In 65:20 he adds:

Never again will there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.

Is this all to be understood literally or figuratively? Is this passage saying that God will literally create a new physical earth? Will it be an earth in which people literally live quite long, but still die? Or is it all symbolic?

Christians remain divided on how best to interpret this type of predictive passage. Even among believers who approach the Bible with the same “evangelical” presuppositions, there is disagreement concerning the interpretation of many of these predictive texts of the prophets. The disagreement revolves around two central questions. The first question is the broad one: How literal are the images that the prophets use to predict the future? That is, do we interpret the figures of speech in a literal sense or a symbolic sense? The second question, arising from the details of the first, grapples with a related issue: Does the New Testament church fulfill the Old Testament prophecies that refer to Israel?

The issues involved in this debate are lengthy and complex, and they are beyond the scope of this book. We are striving to teach you an interpretive method; we are not trying to convince you of any particular theological position. However, on this issue, one’s broad theological understanding of future events and of the relationship between the church and Israel usually determines one’s methodological answer to the two interpretive questions above. This is not necessarily bad; remember that as we interpret, we must move back and forth between the parts and the whole. We must interpret particular passages within the context of the entire Bible.

However, we have also cautioned you against allowing your fixed theological preunderstandings to dictate how you interpret a particular passage even before you begin to struggle with it. The correct balance is maintained as we allow the parts and the whole to inform each other. That is, we do bring our overall theological understanding with us into these predictive texts, but we also seek constantly to update and mature our overall theological understanding (the whole) precisely by our study of particular texts (the parts).

In the Interpretive Journey, this issue arises during both Step 3 (the theological principle) and Step 4 (How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?). Remember that the theological principle developed in Step 3 must be faithful to the text, but it must also correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture. Likewise, we must next pass through the filter of New Testament teaching (Step 4). The New Testament also has much to say about future events, providing us with numerous passages that address the nature of God’s kingdom, the relationship between Israel and the church, the second coming of Christ, and the events of the end times. So our understanding of these New Testament teachings will necessarily influence the way we translate the expression of meaning for the Old Testament audience into an expression of meaning for the church today.

A few suggested guidelines may be helpful. First, do not overlook the poetic aspect of prophecy. That is, do not allow your theological preunderstanding to ride roughshod over your appreciation and understanding of imagery and figures of speech. You should spend more time struggling to grasp the images that the prophets paint than trying to fit the events they describe into some overall future time schedule. Yet keep in mind that grappling with the imagery and the figures of speech certainly does not suggest a negation of the literal reality behind the image. Jesus Christ came to earth as a literal, physical fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic imagery. The way in which he fulfilled prophecy in his first advent on earth is perhaps suggestive of how he may fulfill prophecy during his future coming.

We also suggest that you focus more on translating and applying the broader theological principles than on trying to fit all the details into a system. The prophets soar like eagles, painting their images of the future with big broad strokes. They appear to have little concern for presenting an organized, structured, detailed description of the end times.

Finally, do not forget the way in which the prophets use the near view – far view. The future events are often blurred together.

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