“Doesn’t the Bible say something about the future?”
Has that thought ever crossed your mind? The Bible does indeed say much about the future. In fact, the Bible is the definitive guide to the purpose of this world and where it is headed. The Bible is more reliable in what it says about the future than what a history book might tell you of the past or a newspaper (or website) might tell you about the present. How is that possible? Because this is God’s world, and the Bible is God’s Word. So if we want to know the purpose and end of God’s world, we must know what God has said about it in His Word.
God wrote His Word as the story of His creation, with a beginning, middle and an ending. The Bible’s story of this world thus records its past, describes its present, and tells of its future. And running throughout this story at every bend and turn is a singular, overarching theme—the glory of God. Everything God wrote in His Word is meant to portray and extol His glory. In Isaiah 40:5, the prophet writes what God has determined: “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed….” The purpose of creation is to reveal and magnify the glory of God.
What is the glory of God? It is the comprehensive summation of all God’s qualities, coalesced together in magnificent brilliance. The glory of God includes His holiness, love, peace, and joy, as well as His patience, grace, mercy and forgiveness. It even includes His wrath against sin and determination to judge all wrongdoing. The Bible declares that God created the world to put His glory on display, so that His entire creation might glorify Him (Ps 50:15; Isa 48:11).
One particular feature of God’s glory is His sovereignty. This means God controls every detail of His creation. Ephesians 1:11 says God “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” The operative phrase is “all things.” Nothing is outside of God’s attention and control, at all times and in all places. Isaiah 46:10 says God is able to declare, “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose.’” This last verse shows that God is not only sovereign, but providential as well. Providence is sovereignty with a plan, and God is providentially overseeing all things right down to their divinely appointed end (Ps 115:3).
The study of the future is known as eschatology, and it is our task to study what God has said about it. Because of an unwarranted belief that matters of eschatology are obscure, divisive, or unimportant, many churches fail to give any systematic teaching on the topic. When not considered strictly verboten, matters of eschatology are often treated without any Scriptural precision or confidence, and are usually relegated to a vague and rarely spoken understanding that Jesus is somehow, some way, returning to right the world. As for all the prophecies in the Old and New Testaments describing in great detail God’s plan for how the world will end, and what the eternal future will bring? They are generally dismissed as unintelligible allegories, and are therefore deemed contentious and unimportant.
But that is not how God wants His followers to treat His Word. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 when He proclaims, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4; italics added), and that includes His prophetic utterances. Hebrews categorizes matters of the “resurrection of the dead” and “eternal judgment” as “elementary doctrine” (Heb 6:2). Paul agreed. Although he was only there for a very short period, Paul taught the church in Thessalonica so much eschatology that Paul considered it fully instructed in both the coming of the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:5) and the subsequent Second Coming of Christ (1 Thess 5:1-2). And Revelation, which describes the future in more detail than any other book, is the only book of the Bible that both begins and ends with a blessing for all who read and understand it (1:3; 22:7). God wrote His Word so that it might be comprehended and thereby edify its readers, and that includes all He has written about the future.
Why Study the Future?
This then is the first of five biblical reasons why God instructs the readers of His Word to study and understand its prophecies: that such understanding might bless those who seek to know what God says will take place. A second reason to study what God has said about the future is that it might bring about repentance—a vital criterion for salvation. Paul says to the Athenians at Mars Hill, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31; emphasis added). Knowledge that Jesus Christ is returning as the world’s righteous judge is meant to generate repentance among all those enlightened to this reality.
A third reason to read and understand prophetic texts of Scripture is the purity that such an endeavor brings. John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears, we shall be like him because we shall see Him like He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (1 John 3:2-3; emphasis added). Jesus offered a similar insight when He instructed His apostles, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:43). What Jesus and John are stating is axiomatic: if you know Christ might return at any time, you will be more likely to strive for purity in your life’s pursuits.
Fourth, comprehension of biblical prophecy brings comfort and reassurance. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul unveils God’s plan for the rapture of the Church: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with Him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” And what is his point in revealing this mystery? Verse 18: “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” Paul wants believers to know the future so that they might hearten and reassure fellow believers regarding what is shortly to take place.
The fifth reason to study and understand biblical prophecy is simply because God wrote about it! God’s writing is never trivial or superfluous (Prov 30:5; 2 Tim 3:16). If it matters to God to include an ending to His story, it should matter to His followers to comprehend that ending. In fact, Jesus teaches that the world is accountable for everything God has written in His Word (Luke 16:29; John 12:48), and this includes His revelation about the future.
How to Study the Future
Having established why Christians should study what God says about the future, the next logical question is how? How does one assimilate all the Old and New Testament prophetic texts intelligibly and with confidence? Answer: literally. In general, readers of prophecy should process such information just as they do other portions of Scripture, anticipating that the information is being presented in a straightforward, indicative manner and is subject to a “plain-meaning” interpretation, or hermeneutic.
How do we know a literal hermeneutic is a valid way to study biblical prophecy? We look to the Bible. Did you know that many biblical prophecies were actually fulfilled within the scope of its events? In other words, both the prophecy and its fulfillment are recorded within the time course of Scripture, most notably surrounding the promise of the Messiah. These are extraordinarily valuable examples, for they provide the critical validation of a literal hermeneutic for interpretation of Scriptural prophecy.
Specifically, there are approximately 333 prophecies in Scripture about the coming of the Messiah, of which approximately 111 were fulfilled—literally—with His first coming. These include such well-known predictions that He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), to a virgin, and that He would be called “Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). The prophecies further declare the Messiah would be rejected by His people (Isa 53:3) and betrayed by His friend (Ps 41:9), that He would die upon a cross (Num 21:9; John 3:14) and subsequently rise to life again (Ps 16:10). Christians rejoice at the literal fulfillment of these and other prophecies regarding the first coming of Christ. These corroborated prophecies therefore represent an authenticated framework for the literal interpretation of the many yet-unfulfilled prophecies regarding Christ’s Second Coming. To interpret prophecies of Christ’s first arrival literally and then insist upon a different hermeneutic with regard to prophecies of His Second Coming is illegitimate.
What about the interpretation of eschatological passages within the Bible itself? Does Scripture provide any examples where biblical persons use a literal hermeneutic for prophetic interpretation? Indeed it does, and from a particularly devout and approved man of God (Ezek 14:14; 28:3; Dan 9:23). The year is around 538 B.C. The people of Judah, what remained of God’s chosen people, had been exiled from their land into captivity in Babylon in three deportations, beginning around 605 B.C. and culminating in 586 B.C. All of this was predicted by the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote, “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the LORD, making the land an everlasting waste” (Jer 25:11-12). In another passage, he adds, “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you My promise and bring you back into this place” (Jer 29:10).
The prophet Daniel, then a youth, was among those taken captive to Babylon in the first deportation. Nevertheless, through God’s empowerment and blessing, he rose to become the governor of the entire kingdom of Babylon. And when the Medes and Persians conquered the Babylonians in 539 B.C., Daniel maintained his position through his divinely granted wisdom and competence. But even in his position of authority, Daniel never lost the desire to see his people, the Jews, return to their Promised Land. And so it was that, late in his life, Daniel remembered the prophecies of Jeremiah regarding the coming captivity of his people, and when their exile would end. As he contemplates this imminent date, Daniel explains, “I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the Word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years” (Dan 9:2).
In other words, Daniel interpreted Scriptural prophecy in a literal manner. He read where Jeremiah wrote “seventy years” and believed it meant “seventy years.” Seventy literal years. Daniel did not try to spiritualize or allegorize the text. He did not assume that “seventy years” represented some abstract concept subject to multiple interpretations. He interpreted “seventy years” to mean precisely what we would expect it to mean. And in fact, the prophecy came to pass exactly as it was written. Seventy years from the captivity of Judah to Babylon, Cyrus, the king of Persia decreed that the Israelites could return to their land (Ezra 1:1-4). As with all His prophecies, what God wrote through the hand of Jeremiah came about exactly as foretold. Here, then, is further precedent for the literal interpretation of prophetic texts.
Amazingly, the Bible even gives an example where failure to interpret prophecy in a literal manner brought catastrophe. Upon the conquest of Jericho (c. 1400 B.C.), Joshua, the leader of the people of Israel, pronounced a prophetic oath upon its ruins, saying, “Cursed before the LORD be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho.” He then specifies the penalty that will ensue: “At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates” (Josh 6:26). For five hundred years, that prophecy lingered over the desolation of Jericho, until the reign of the wicked King Ahab (c. 875-853 B.C.), when Hiel of Bethel set about to do what Joshua had said should not be done. The text does not say if Hiel was either unaware of or unconcerned by Joshua’s historic curse—all we know is that it did not dissuade him from his task. Sadly, Hiel’s effort in Jericho’s urban revival came at huge personal cost: he lost his oldest son, Abiram, when he laid the new foundation for Jericho, and then lost his youngest son, Segub, when he set up its gates (1 Kings 16:34). The prophecy was fulfilled literally, in perfect accord with what Joshua had stated under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The lesson? Not only will using a literal hermeneutic for eschatological interpretation bless its reader, failure to handle such portions of Scripture in this manner can bring personal disaster and heartbreaking tragedy.
So that is the why and the how of prophetic interpretation. With this established, we will embark upon a journey (in coming articles) into what the Bible says about the future—starting with looking back in time, to the time before there was time, to see where things are headed.