Biblical prophecy is important
Gaining a better understanding of biblical prophecy takes us a long way toward understanding the Bible as a whole. More than a fourth of the Old Testament (29%) consists of books of prophecy, including the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel) and the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). The New Testament book of prophecy, the Book of Revelation, is 6-1/2% of the whole.
But when we consider that all of the books of the Bible were written by prophets, and that specific prophecies are scattered throughout the law, the historical books, the Psalms, the wisdom books, the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the epistles, we can begin to realize how important a study of biblical prophecy is.
A person who is biblically illiterate or a Bible study novice usually equates the term ‘prophecy’ with an inspired prediction. Many prophecies, however, do not have a predictive element. They simply reveal a message from God relevant to the situation. We should train ourselves to understand the term ‘prophecy’ to mean revelation – God is the source of the message, and it is a message we would not know unless He revealed it to us (see 1 Corinthians 14:29–30).
Predictive prophecy, however, is frequent in Scripture, and the challenge of interpreting predictive prophecy constantly confronts the Bible student. Knowing the seven possible outcomes of biblical predictive prophecies certainly makes the task easier. We can divide these seven possible outcomes into two groups: fulfilled predictions, and unfulfilled predictions.
- Short-range fulfillment – A short-range fulfillment is one that takes place soon after the prophecy was made. We can define ‘soon’ as within the lifetime of those who heard the original prophecy. Many biblical predictive prophecies fall into this category. Example: 2 Kings 7:1–2 – Elisha’s prediction of the end of the siege of Samaria.
- Long-range fulfillment – a long-range fulfillment is one that takes place beyond the lifetime of those who heard the original prophecy. A handful of biblical predictive prophecies fall into this category. Example: Genesis 15:13–15 – God’s prediction of the Egyptian sojourn and bondage, lasting 400 years.
- Dual fulfillments – A few predictions have both a short-range and a long-range fulfillment. Example: Isaiah 7:14–17 – The sign God gives to Ahaz, among other things, is how long the Syrian-Israel coalition will be a threat to Judah: only as long as it takes a newborn to grow enough to distinguish right from wrong. This is the short-term fulfillment. The long-term fulfillment takes place about 700 years later: the virginal conception and birth of Jesus.
- Typological fulfillment – typological fulfillment finds in the person or event predicted a copy of a person or event of past history. The New Testament recognizes many typological fulfillments from Old Testament persons or events. Example: Colossians 3:16–17 – kosher foods, religious festivals, new moon celebrations, and Sabbaths are only shadows of the reality found in Christ.
- Unfulfilled because of unmet conditions – Many genuine prophecies in the Bible have not been fulfilled and never will be fulfilled, because they are conditional prophecies. God spells out the principles of conditional prophecy in Jeremiah 18:1–10. Prophecies may be conditional, even though the conditions are not spelled out in the prophecy. Example: Jonah 3:1–10 – Jonah’s prediction of the fall of Nineveh in 40 days did not take place because the people of Nineveh repented of their sins.
- Unfulfilled literally, but fulfilled spiritually – Other prophecies, which appear to be unfulfilled, actually ought to be regarded as fulfilled prophecies, because their fulfillment was not literal but spiritual. Example: 2 Samuel 7:16 – the prophet Nathan predicts that David will never fail to have a descendent on the throne, fulfilled in the reign of King Jesus.
- Prediction awaiting future fulfillment – The last category of unfulfilled predictive prophecies involves those that await a literal fulfillment in our future. Example: 1 Corinthians 15:51–54 – Paul’s prediction of the general resurrection. We must resist the temptation to place all unfulfilled prophecies in this category, because some of them might be conditional predictions, and others might have a spiritual fulfillment that we have not yet understood.
Consider your choices when interpreting a predictive prophecy
When examining any predictive prophecy in the Bible, we must consider each of these seven choices: Did the prophecy have a short-range fulfillment? Did it have a long-range fulfillment? Did it have dual fulfillments? Was its fulfillment typological? Is it unfulfilled because its conditions were not met? Is it unfulfilled literally but fulfilled spiritually? Is it a prediction awaiting a fulfillment that is still future to us? Just having this array of choices makes us better interpreters of God’s Word. We should seek within the context of each passage clues as to which choice we should make. (For a more detail examination of these, see my e-book, Revelation and Predictive Prophecy: Exploring the Options Before Jumping to Confusions and the section “Understanding Predictive Prophecy,” pp. 21–28 in my book, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation.
Want to go deeper?
Walter C. Kaiser and Moisés Silva. “The Alleged Double Sense of Prophecy,” 156–158 in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994.
Kaiser (the author of this part of the book) distinguishes between “double sense” (two outcomes intended by the author) and “multiple fulfillment” (valid whether anticipated by the human author or not). That the prophets did not always understand what they were prophesying is assumed in the New Testament (see 1 Peter 1:10–12; 2 Peter 1:19–21). Kaiser follows Willis J. Beecher in applying to such predictions the term “generic prophecy” and also describes a more complicated category: “sequential” predictions, in which a prediction is fulfilled by a sequence of events over an extended period of time. His example is Ezekiel’s prediction of the fall of Tyre (Ezekiel 26:7–14), fulfilled in part by Nebuchadnezzar’s unsuccessful siege (586–573 BCE), and in part by Alexander’s siege that ended in the fall of the city (323 BCE).
J. M. Roberts. “A Christian perspective on prophetic prediction.” Interpretation 33, 3 (July 1979):240-253.
Roberts suggests categories of predictions: those that have already happened (my “short-range” and “long-range”), those that did not come to pass and never will (my “conditional fulfillment”), those that are yet to be fulfilled for which we longingly wait (my “future fulfillment”), and those taking place in a way that is less than—or more than—literal (my “spiritual fulfillment”).
John H Walton. “Isa. 7:14: what’s in a name?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30, 3 (Sept. 1987):289–306.
Walton argues for the idea that the first fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 involves a natural conception at the time of King Ahaz, and the second fulfillment is a supernatural conception, that of King Jesus. For an argument that the second fulfillment is the only one, see Edward J. Young, 1:283–291 in The Book of Isaiah: A Commentary. 3 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965.
For further reading
Kenny Barfield. The Prophet Motive: Examining the Reliability of the Biblical Prophets. Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate, 1995.
- Earle Ellis. Prophecy & Hermeneutic in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995. pp. 165–169.
Patrick Fairbairn. The Typology of Scripture: or the Doctrine of Types Investigated in its Principles. Philadelphia, Penn.: Daniels & Smith, 1852.
Leonhard Goppelt. Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New. Translated by D. H. Madvig. German ed. published in 1939, Eng. translation: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982.
Walter Roehrs. “The Typological Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.” Concordia Journal 10, 6 (November 1984): 204–216.
Steve C. Singleton. Revelation & Predictive Prophecy: Exploring the Options Before Jumping to Confusions. (21-page e-book). Garland, Tex.: DeeperStudy, 2003.