Remembering the Lost Art & Science of Interpreting Prophesy Language

Posted on 26. May, 2019 by in Equipping the Saints, Posts

Bible Study

Sacred scripture is delivered in various literary forms, most of which are rather straight forward historical narratives, instructions & teachings. Yet there are poetic passages as well as parables that render animated illustrations, though not as plain as the typical narratives. Even less plain and certainly more vague and even encrypted, is the symbolic & metaphorical design of prophesy language. Being familiar with this particular form of sacred scripture is essential in deciphering the enigmatic model of prophesy language, and takes a more advanced skill & understanding to interpret such.

Even so, the basic concept of biblical interpretation remains the same for all forms of sacred writing. That is the basic principle of biblical context, whether it be the immediate context within the same book or a broader context from another writing; In other words, interpreting the bible with the bible. Making the connections to the original scriptures provides greater clarity & meaning for the New Testament scriptures, and certainly is the essential key to deciphering the prophesy language of Apostle John’s Revelation.

Remembering the Lost Art & Science of Interpreting Prophesy Language will clarify the scriptural parameters for interpreting this form of scripture, and serve as an introductory to New Testament prophesy by taking an overview of  St. John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ.

Foundational Principles

While most forms of scripture may generally be interpreted literally, there are many indications that a literal approach is not the way to go about interpreting prophesy language. The cues & clues taken from the prophets of old may govern & guide the understanding of those faithful who diligently apply themselves to the study of scripture to help recognize the meaning of particular symbols and illustrations. Such hieroglyphic representations are not so hard to interpret when connecting them to the same illustrations given through prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joel.

Considering also that these were Hebrew prophets, so understanding Jewish figures of speech, religious rites, and philosophy is essential. Western thinking too often presumes to make scripture fit its own paradigm, but we need to remember the scriptures were written from a Jewish perspective; Even though the New Testament was written in Greek, the writers were Jewish, who employed Jewish language patterns, idioms, religious rites, and philosophies

Even more fundamental and essential is the cultivation of vital faith & devotion to God. Indeed, righteous living, prayer, and the diligent study of scripture is foundational to receiving the mysteries of God. Remember how the prophet Daniel was endowed with the gift of interpreting dreams & visions, and how such a gift was accompanied with such devout lifestyle:

“…I, Daniel, understood by the books – the number of years specified by the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.”Daniel 9:2

After gaining precise clarity of the duration of Israel’s desolation, through careful study of scripture, Daniel then applied himself to very earnest prayer, and in the midst of such praying, he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who said,

“O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you skill to understand…” Daniel 9:22

With that, Gabriel gave Daniel his own special revelation which not only answered his deep concern & hope for the restoration of Israel, but so much greater than what he had hoped for – the time appointed for the Messiah to make ultimate reconciliation between God and man! – Daniel 9:24-27

This was not the only time Daniel was blessed with such revelation during his devotion times; And not only was he continually given such mysterious visions, but was continually given the means to unlock & understand such mysteries.

The same principle of receiving visions with understanding was demonstrated among the other prophets who also applied themselves to earnest devotion in prayer, fasting and study of scripture. To be clear, the prophets did not just passively receive such revelation, but disciplined themselves to become virtuoso’s of God’s word.

Such virtuoso-prophets foreshadowed the New Testament Church. The Spirit of God before was only given to those privileged to be either priest, prophet or king, yet under the New Testament, all of God’s faithful have been made priests and kings, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy ( Joel 2:28-32 ~ Amos 7:14-15 ~ Acts 2 ~ Rev 1:5 ).

With such a status, God’s faithful are prompted to advance from the elementary principles of Christ, as the author to the Hebrews declared, “…let us go on to perfection” (Heb 6:1). In other words, become virtuoso’s in implementing the precepts & practices of God. For such advancement cultivates the vitality of faith, as prophesy excites God’s people to a more vigorous & constant faith. Otherwise, the condition of a passive & idle faith disposes such to the grave danger of falling away, which is exactly why that exhortation to progress was followed with such a striking warning (Heb 6:4-6).

Prophesy therefore is vital for the upkeep of steadfast faith, so endeavoring to understand all forms of prophesy is quite worthwhile, being so highly beneficial, since prophesy encourages God’s people to a more robust & resolute faith so necessary to endure through the trials & tribulations of a hostile world.

Getting into the Nitty-gritty of Prophesy Language

The essence of prophesy is the spoken word of God; and since God expresses Himself in a multitude of different forms, no wonder why the meaning of prophesy has such a wide definition. Even certain forms are mixed together, whereby a plain expression may also have an encrypted message which renders a dual application. Many Messianic prophesies were delivered in this style: Psalm 22,  16:10 ~ 2nd Samuel 7:12-16 ~ Isiah 59:16 ~ Zechariah 13:6,  11:12);  as well as references to antichrist: ~ Daniel 8:23-25 ~ Matthew 24:15-21.

Let it be understood that prophesy is not limited to foretelling future events, but certainly involves declaring & explaining what has already been accomplished in the triumph over sin & death, and the power of Satan by means of the reconciliation through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Thus the everlasting Gospel of Jesus Christ is the basis of New Testament prophesy.

Even so, New Testament writings, such as John’s Revelation foretold events which were to take place throughout the New Testament era. I certainly mean to emphasize that the foretold events of John’s revelation were to take place progressively throughout the Church era, commencing shortly after the Revelation was received, since the revelation says just that in the very opening line:

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — THINGS WHICH MUST SHORTLY TAKE PLACE.” (emphasis added)

And at the end of the Revelation, “Do not seal the words of this prophesy of this book, FOR THE TIME IS AT HAND.” Rev 22:10

Contrary to popular opinion of the 20th & 21st century, the foretold events of John’s Revelation, such as the divine judgments of the seven seals and seven trumpets, were not to be understood as being reserved for the very end of the age, but to be a progressive sequence of judgments throughout the ages & stages of the church era. To think otherwise, reduces God to a pacifist throughout two thousand years of the most cruel persecutions upon God’s people. Yet proper interpretation reveals how God walks amidst His Church throughout all times with such providential care to preserve His saints, while inflicting great calamities upon the persecuting powers.

A few examples of “prophesy templates” will help clarify the intended meaning while correcting the common error of the literal approach to the design of John’s Revelation. By holding true to the model of prophesy language, we can be sure that the prophetic images of John’s vision are not to be taken in a literal sense, rather are emblems of certain events. One example is the description of the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12-14:

“…there was an earthquake,
the sun became black as sackcloth of hair,
and the moon became like blood;
And the stars of heaven fell to the earth,
as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up,
and every mountain and island was moved out of its place.”

Take note of the particular description of that prophesy while comparing to Isaiah 34:4:

“All the stars of heaven shall be dissolved,
the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll;
All their stars shall fall down
as the leaf falls from the vine,
and as fruit falling from a fig tree.”

The context of Isaiah 34:4 indicates that the description represents the toppling of world empires. Such symbolic & metaphorical imagery was a rather typical style among the prophets of Israel in foretelling the pending doom of worldly kingdoms in opposition to the Kingdom of God. While the above passage is more of a general prophesy towards world empires, and may certainly be applied to the future, we see the same kind of imagery applied to certain empires which have already been destroyed, such as the oracle against Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8:

“When I put out your light,
I will cover the heavens and make its stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give her light.
All the bright lights of the heavens
I will make dark over you,
and bring darkness upon your land,
says the LORD God.”

The same genre of ‘cosmic imagery’ is also used in the prophetic predictions concerning the judgment of Jerusalem in  Joel 2:10, and the words of our Lord in Matt 24:29. And the same imagery is used to describe the pending destruction of Babylon in Isaiah 13:10, to illustrate the massive impact of a great empire, being such a fixed pillar of the world, that its downfall was as if the whole universe were collapsing.

All these have collectively established a prophetic pattern, as this particular template of ‘cosmic imagery’ always signifies the overthrow of a great kingdom.

Great empires like Babylon were also described as great mountains, and their fall rendered as a burning mountain – Jeremiah 51:25

“Behold, I am against you,
O destroying mountain,
who destroys all the earth,”
says the LORD.
“And I will stretch out My hand against you,
roll you down from the rocks,
and make you a burnt mountain.”

Such prophesy language sheds much light on the second trumpet of Revelation 8:8 “… and something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea…”

Jeremiah’s imagery of a burnt mountain provides a template to help us understand that the burning mountain of Revelation 8:8 is referring to God throwing down a great empire. The rest of the same passage reads, “… and a third of the sea became blood, and a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships destroyed.”

The oracle of Ezekiel 29 likens the fish of the Nile to the inhabitants of Egypt, who would meet the same doom as their Pharaoh; This gives insight to what is meant by the living creatures in the sea, as the sea and earth are also a prophetic way of describing the nations (Rev. 17:15). Furthermore, ships being prophetic emblems of commerce & military might, which signify the wealth and strength of such great empires.

Considering the precedent of prophesy language, we should not look for a literal fulfillment of the universe collapsing. Instead, if we follow the patterns of prophetic design, such a reference may guide us to recognize the imagery of the first four trumpets are relating to the fall of a great empire within the Church era.

Matching Prophesy with Historical Events

The other aspect of understanding is then guided by knowing history, in order to recognize how these prophesies correspond to historical events. Synchronizing prophesy with history is the way prophesy had always been applied up until the 20th century. This is the way the Jews recognized how their Maccabean Revolt was the fulfillment of certain prophesies of Daniel.

In the same way, the first Jewish Christians validated that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah – by aligning particular events of Jesus with particular messianic prophesies. The Gospel of Matthew especially employed this validating method, from start to finish, by assigning a specific messianic prophesy to each and every event of Jesus. And throughout the Church era, Christians were recognizing the progressive fulfillment of prophesy from the book of Revelation.

This method of interpreting prophesy has been known as the Historicist view. Most such scholars of this method, who have discerned within the framework of prophetic patterns, agree that the first four trumpets speak of the spiraling downfall of Imperial Rome. Besides the evidence we already covered, this view is reinforced by aligning the sequence of John’s visions with the sequence of history.

Thus, from the very first visions of things that will happen afterward (Rev 1:19), we may see how well the seven seals correspond to the sequence of events from the first century to the fourth; Then we may see how well the six trumpets align with the sequence of events from the fifth century on; The period after the sixth trumpet, concerning the tribulation of antichrist now nearing its end, will bring on the seventh trumpet, marking the return of Christ, yet to come.

However, the deviation from such a basic principle of biblical context has led to the futuristic-literalist view of prophesy, which dominates the thinking of today. Consequently, many under the influence of this popular view, like myself before, have been further misled in misunderstanding the prophetic time frame.

The time frame of most significance is introduced after the sixth trumpet, variably expressed as 1260 days, or 42 months, or three and a half years, also rendered as time, times and half a time. All different ways of rendering the same amount of prophetic days.

Yet, we may find more cues & clues from the prophets of old which designate a day for a year from Ezekiel 4:6 & Numbers 14:34. These are yet more pathways which guide us through the nuances of prophesy language, so we may realize that 1260 prophetic days are actually 1260 literal years. This is just another point of general consensus among those scholars who have held true to the parameters of prophesy language.

This 1260 year time frame is given special attention, being introduced after the sixth trumpet, via the little book, which is like an appendix of expanded information regarding this period of most significance, which precedes the return of Christ. The same period of time is described in three different ways in chapters 11,12 & 13 of Revelation; The two witnesses (chap. 11), the women fleeing into the wilderness (chap. 12), and the two beast (ch. 13). Each vision gives a different image of the plight of true saints under the persecution of the antichrist kingdom until the return of Christ.

More than anything else in both the narrative and visions of Daniel, the repetitious elements with the most emphasis pertains to the four succeeding world empires — which ends with Christ’s return to consummate the Kingdom of God on earth for a thousand years. Until that glorious era of the millennial rein of Christ, the providence of God permits Satan to exercise dominion upon the nations while persecuting the saints.

The four successive kingdoms – Babylon, Persia, Greece & Rome — rendered as four beasts in Daniels vision


The four kingdoms rendered in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as a statue of different metals

The 1260 year period is the most notable time in which the Devil proceeds with great wrath upon God’s people through his antichrist kingdom, which proceeds from the fourth empire of Daniel’s vision. The writings of Daniel, in corroboration with history, makes it quite clear that the fourth & final kingdom of the world is Rome, which would be the kingdom from which the antichrist arises (see The ‘Little Horn’ of Daniel).

This time frame brings us to the latter part of the seventh century — when that fourth kingdom Rome, which had been virtually extinct for three centuries, was revived & risen by the subsequent rise of temporal papal power. In a word, the popes of the Roman Church facilitated the revival of the Roman Empire, and ultimately inherited the supremacy of the Caesar’s.

800 A.D. marks the official revival of the Roman Kingdom with the crowning of Charlemagne by his papal counterpart, Pope Leo III. As these two imperial & ecclesiastical powers converged, then began a heightened corruption of this Church/State union, which persecuted the remnant of true believers who were not in line with the prevailing political & ecclesiastical order — all in the good name of Jesus Christ.

After a few hundred years of chronic power struggles between the popes and the imperial dynasty, the papacy prevailed to become the supreme ruler of the “Holy Roman Empire“. Subsequently, the papal persecutions ramped up its course with a more systematic onslaught upon the true saints of God – through crusades, inquisitions, massacres, tortures & executions of the most cruel nature. All commerce with those deemed “heretics” was forbidden and could be subject to the same treatment, thus no one could buy nor sell who was not loyal to the Roman Antichrist.

Such significant historical events of Papal Power thoroughly correspond with the prophesies of the Antichrist Power, which is why there had been such general consensus on this point for centuries among the many learned theologians guided by prophetic patterns. However, recognition of what was once so recognized has been forgotten and nearly lost due to the countermoves of Papal Rome.

This antichrist era marks the period of 1260 years in which we are now towards the end, and according to Daniel 12:7, there will be a final blow which signals the completion of this period – when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, these things shall be finished. It is chilling to contemplate the power of God’s holy people being completely shattered, yet that end marks the time of Christ’s return upon the sounding of the seventh trumpet!

After the visions the seventh trumpet and the little book, another sequence of visions of God’s wrath inflicted upon the beast, or antichrist kingdom. These judgments rendered as the seven bowls, reveal divine retribution in which God deals with that blasphemous persecuting power.

God’s faithful can take courage in knowing that even in the midst of their suffering, God is striking down that wicked beast, Mystery Babylon, just like God had always done against the enemies of truth & righteousness. God did not wait two thousand years to punish Sodom, or Egypt, or Tyre, or any other enemies of His kingdom, He only allowed them to persist for His wise & providential purposes for a time, and then met their doom.

How can we think that God has sat out during the New Testament era for millennia, and had nothing to say or do about any of that history until the last few years?!

That was the question which haunted my thoughts while under the schooling of Futurism. Doesn’t prophesy & providence have anything to say or do about any of that history? So what about the persecutions of Pagan Rome, the multitude of wars, the great plagues, the onslaught of the Islamic Empire, the fall of Imperial Rome, the rise of Papal Rome and her crusades & persecutions, the Protestant Reformation breaking loose the scriptures, the Napoleonic Wars and end of the Holy Roman Empire & demise of papal dominion, the next rise of papal dominion during World War I & II, and more as history unfolds?

The Precedent of Providence

The historical precedent which traced how God dealt with Israel and the enemies of Israel should lead us to expect the same providential care for His Church throughout the New Testament era, just as the precedent of prophesy language may guide us to the correct interpretation, even amidst the multitude of diverse conjectures from post-modern academia.

This should be encouraging for those faithful who have been daunted by numerous opinions of contradicting views surrounding the mysterious language of prophesy. There are indeed sensible patterns to follow in ascertaining the true meaning of these prophesies. Besides the invaluable aid of the Holy Spirit, God has provided practical guidelines for us to follow; In other words, the scriptures are the general blueprints while the Holy Spirit is our personal guide, and one without the other would leave us exposed to the deception of impostor spirits and apostles.

Moreover, there are sensible reasons why the visions given to John were encrypted, since they have to do with certain events such as the bringing down of Rome. If such predictions were clear for all to see, the Christians may very well have been viewed as seditious, whereby providing validation to their persecution.

Just like the prophetic parables of Jesus, the prophesies were designed for the faithful in Christ, to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven ( Matt. 13:11 ), but to be hidden from those obstinate ones devoid of genuine faith. As it says in Daniel 12:10, “… none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand

If this introduction to prophesy has peeked your interest to learn more, then I suggest starting at the beginning of the series of prophesies delivered in the book of Revelation in the order in which they were given, starting with the Seven Seals. Though I do my best to convey difficult truths in the most focused and intelligible way I know how, I do not dumb it down, because there are those few who would not be deterred by difficulty when poised on the things of God. So a quick and easy read – no;  But a most blessed & rewarding journey for those diligent saints of God – yes indeed!




Related Articles
The ‘Little Horn’ of Daniel
The Two Beasts of Revelation 13
Time, Times and Half a Time | Time of the Antichrist
What Happened to the Historic Premillennial View and Historicism?
The Abomination of Desolation – Standing in the Holy Place

Sources
Word & Spirit of God, Who Was and Is and Is to come
Moses Lowman – “Paraphrases and Notes on the Revelation of St. John
John Clark Ridpath – ‘Ridpath’s Universal History
E H Broadbent–  “The Pilgrim Church”
– Joseph Benson –
Benson’s Commentary on Revelation
– Thomas Newton –
“Dissertations of the Prophesies” – Volumes 1-3
Henry Fliedner – The Martyrdom of a People’ or ‘The Vaudois of Piedmont and Their History
– Albert Barnes – 
Barnes’ Notes on the Entire Bible
Theodor Griesinger – ‘The Jesuits: Their Complete History
– Peter DeRosa – 
Vicars of Christ: ‘The Dark Side of The Papacy
– Avro Manhattan – 
The Vatican Holocaust
– Charles Spurgeon –
Spurgeon Archive
– Adam Clark– 
Clark’s Commentary on the Bible
E. Boyd Barrett – The Jesuit Enigma
– John Cornwall –
 ‘Hitler’s Pope’
– Ian Paisley
– ‘The Pope is the Antichrist
– Augustus Toplady – 
The Road To Rome
– John Foxe – 
Foxes Book of Martyrs’
– John Gill – 
Gill’s Exposition of the Bible
– Kenneth Scott Latourette –
 ‘A History of Christianity’

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