Why Study Prophecy?
This article was adapted from a Discovery lesson that will be published in the fall of 2022.
The Bible was written over a period of fifteen centuries and is the work of more than forty human authors. Its sixty-six books deal with a wide range of topics and have differing literary styles, but they all provide insight and instruction that God wanted humanity to have. Prophetic declarations were one way God imparted His messages, so prophecies appear in various places throughout Scripture.
Much of Biblical prophecy is contained in the Old Testament books called the Major and Minor Prophets—a reference to the length of the books rather than the relative importance of their contents. These books were recorded during the decline, exile, and return of the Children of Israel to their native land, a period of 350-400 years. Most of the messages were directed to Judah and Jerusalem: the prophets Isaiah, Joel, and Micah ministering before the fall of Jerusalem; Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah at the time of the fall and during the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon; and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi at the time of the exiles’ return and later.
The prophetic messages recorded in the Word of God are both intriguing and mysterious, because many of them concern ancient kingdoms that no longer exist. However, God included them in His Word for a reason. Prophecy can teach us many lessons about God’s nature, His plan for mankind, and His desire for a relationship with the people He created. When we understand the prophets’ motivations and methods, we are better equipped to grasp how their words have significance for our day.
What is prophecy?
The dictionary defines prophecy as “an inspired utterance of a prophet; the inspired declaration of divine will and purpose; a prediction of something to come.” While “a prediction of something to come” is probably the most common usage in contemporary society, in the Old Testament era, prophecy not only was a foretelling of future events but also a way God communicated His will to His people. In addition, prophecies also were given at times to admonish and instruct (2 Kings 17:13), to comfort (Isaiah 40:1-2), and to warn (Ezekiel 33:7-8). All of these purposes for prophecy reflect God’s love for the people He created, and His great desire for all men everywhere to prosper spiritually through steadfast commitment and obedience to Him.
Who were the prophets?
Biblical prophets were intermediaries between God and man. As emissaries commissioned to challenge His people to remembrance, repentance, and obedience, they functioned in Israel alongside other spiritual leaders such as priests and elders. Scripture also identifies the prophets as “messengers” of the Lord (Isaiah 44:26), “seers” (2 Samuel 24:11), “servants” of God (Amos 3:7), and “watchmen” (Isaiah 62:6). Each of these titles provides insight regarding the role these individuals filled.
God chose His prophets from many lifestyles. They included princes and priests like Abraham and Ezekiel, but also sheepherders and farmers like Amos and Elisha. Women and even children were among the prophets. Some ministered for decades, while others delivered just a single message.
Some of the prophets had names that were symbolic. Hosea means “salvation”; Nahum means “comforter”; Zephaniah means “the Lord hides”; and Zechariah means “the Lord remembers.” Whether or not the prophets’ names reflected their calling, all true prophets spoke with the authority of the Holy Spirit. We read in 2 Peter 1:21 that “the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
Whatever the details of their backgrounds and messages, God’s prophets were called to be a positive spiritual influence, and this frequently brought opposition by national leaders. When rulers turned away from worship of the true God, the prophets were commanded to correct them and, at times, to pronounce judgment. Since this often placed the prophets in life-threatening situations, it was imperative for them to be fully committed to God. They needed to maintain a close relationship with Him, be fully obedient, courageous, and able to withstand hostility. In addition, they needed to be deeply concerned about the spiritual welfare of God’s people.
The qualities necessary in the lives of God’s prophets are important in every field of service for the Lord. While the personalities and natural abilities of these individuals were likely as varied as their backgrounds, God was able to use them because of their spiritual qualifications. In our day as well, while God will use our natural abilities and personalities in His service, our relationship with and commitment to Him are of the greatest importance.
God’s call of the prophets
The manner in which the prophets received God’s call varied. Moses heard from God through a burning bush. God spoke to Daniel through a dream, and to Ezekiel in a vision. God chose some of the prophets, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist, before they were born.
Perhaps one of the most well-known and detailed calls in the Bible is found in 1 Samuel 3. In that chapter, we read how God directed the young boy, Samuel, to tell Eli the priest that his descendants would be judged forever because he knew of his sons’ wickedness but failed to restrain them. Though Samuel was afraid to tell Eli what God had said, he obeyed and hid nothing of God’s message from the priest. This is just one of many Biblical examples of times when God’s messengers chose to follow divine instructions in spite of their natural apprehension or the potential of a negative response to their words. Samuel’s obedience in performing a difficult task for God was a first step in his decades-long service to God as a prophet of Israel.
At times, God may ask us to do things for Him that are difficult, could subject us to unpleasant responses, or seem beyond our ability to perform. However, we will benefit spiritually if we will we obey in spite of any natural inclinations to avoid such challenges.
Messages communicated through actions
While Biblical prophets generally delivered their messages orally, at times prophets were instructed to communicate through actions—and sometimes those actions were highly unusual. For example, Isaiah was told to give his two sons names that symbolized prophetic truths, so they would be ongoing reminders of the coming invasion of Jerusalem by enemy forces and of the Jews’ eventual return to their land. Hosea was commanded to marry a woman who would be unfaithful to her marriage vows, as a picture of God’s commitment to Israel in spite of that nation’s spiritual adultery. God told Jeremiah to bury his unwashed belt near the Euphrates River, and later to recover it after it had deteriorated beyond use as a parable that pointed to the spoiling of Judah. Ezekiel built a model representing the coming siege of Jerusalem and then dramatized the attempted escape of King Zedekiah through a hole in the city wall. The unusual nature of these portrayals would have made them memorable, and thus more likely to be passed on by those who witnessed them. In God’s great love and mercy, He used every means possible to make His message clear and unforgettable. Today as well, He goes to great lengths to draw sinners to Himself.
Prophetic themes in Scripture
Two key prophetic themes woven throughout Scripture are the coming of the Messiah and the events that will transpire on this earth at the end of time (see more below). However, there are a number of other prophetic themes in the Word of God, including the following.
· God is sovereign. The prophets understood that as Creator, God had the right to control all nations and people.
· God is holy. Knowing that holiness is part of God’s nature, the prophets taught that He required absolute differentiation between the holy and the unholy.
· God will not tolerate sin. The prophets could not compromise their stern exposure of sin because the only hope for the people was a humble turning to the Lord and genuine repentance.
· God requires obedience. The prophets reminded the people that God had a rich purpose for them, but they must believe and follow His commandments.
· God will judge sin. The prophets warned that if the princes, priests, and people arrogantly rejected God’s moral and spiritual principles, they would face the consequences.
All of these prophetic themes are still true and applicable in our day. God is unchanging, and so are the principles of His Word. This is one reason why a study of prophecy can be so beneficial for us. While sin, unbelief, and opposition to the truth of God are prevalent in our world today, they were also widespread in the era of the prophets. Just as the prophetic predictions of judgment were fulfilled centuries ago, one day judgment will fall upon those of our day who reject God.
Prophecies of judgment
All the prophetic books of the Old Testament, with the exception of Hosea, contain messages of judgment against the nations around Israel and Judah. At times in history, nations responded positively to prophecies of judgment, while at other times, the message was completely rejected. In Isaiah 30:1-2, the prophet Isaiah pronounced woe upon the people of Israel for rebelling against God and forming an alliance with Egypt. Verses 8-11 of that chapter record that the people of Israel rejected the truth delivered by Isaiah, demanding that he preach only “smooth” things and telling him to “cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.” In contrast, when the prophet Jonah gave a message of coming doom to Nineveh, the powerful and wicked capital city of Assyria, the people of Nineveh believed his message and repented, “from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5).
Responses to the Gospel message today mirror the contrasting responses to the ancient prophetic messages of Isaiah and Jonah. Some people reject the truth, preferring lies and delusions to the necessity of humbling themselves and admitting their wrongdoing. Others believe and respond by repenting and turning to God.
The acceptance or rejection of a message from God is not the responsibility of the one delivering it. The prophet’s duty, and our duty today as men and women of God, is to be faithful in communicating the truth as God instructs us or gives us opportunities. While we pray for a positive response, we must continue to be faithful and obedient whether or not that is the case.
Dual and multiple fulfillments
Old Testament prophecies sometimes had a dual or multiple fulfillment, even though the prophet spoke the prophecy as a single event. While the prophet’s audience would have viewed the message in the historical context of their own day, a more complete fulfillment would come later. In a sense, the prophets saw the “mountain peaks” of prophetic events, but not necessarily the “valleys” of time between the peaks.
We find one example of this in God’s promise of a “son” and a “house” to David in 2 Samuel 7, which was only partially fulfilled in David’s son, Solomon. The second and complete fulfillment of that promise will be realized when the “Son of Man,” from the earthly lineage of David, establishes His kingdom on this earth.
Another example of dual fulfillment is the “day of the Lord” referred to in Joel 2:28-32 and Amos 5:18-19. The prophets Joel and Amos viewed this as a one time event when invading armies would bring judgment and destruction upon Israel. However, based on 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10-13, we understand that the secondary and future fulfillment of these verses will occur at the Second Coming of Christ.
It is important to remember that Biblical prophecy is not intended to provide a complete, sequential, unfolding of the future. Allusions to coming events may only be fully understood when they come to pass. Nonetheless, scriptural prophecies—especially those concerning end time events—provide hope and encouragement for those whose trust is in God.
Identifying false prophets
In the Old Testament, false prophets at times claimed to deliver messages from God, while in actuality, they were speaking deceitfully. Some spoke on behalf of false gods, prophesied for monetary gain, or had a purpose to deceive the people. However, the Bible gives characteristics of both true and false prophets, and these offer guidance in discerning if a prophet is speaking truth.
· Deuteronomy 18:22 — The predictions of false prophets will not come to pass.
· Jeremiah 14:14 — False prophets speak lies.
· Jeremiah 23:32 — False prophets do not encourage righteous behavior or teach things with any spiritual benefit.
· Lamentations 2:14 — False prophets do not condemn sin.
· Matthew 7:15 — False prophets disguise their true nature.
· 1 Corinthians 14:32-33 — The messages of true prophets are in harmony with each other and the Word of God.
· 1 John 4:1-3 — True prophets acknowledge that Jesus Christ is divine.
Why Christians should study prophecy
The prophetic books of the Bible record the ministry of individuals whom God chose and commissioned to encourage, warn, exhort, and guide His people. The world in which Biblical prophets delivered God’s messages was much like our own—it was filled with individuals who wanted their own way, and rebelled against the instructions of the God who created them. It took courage for the prophets to proclaim what the people needed to hear rather than succumbing to the temptation of telling them what they wanted to hear. Nonetheless, these men and women of God ministered in obedience to Him, and their words have been preserved in the Scriptures for our benefit and instruction. Those who invest time in studying Biblical prophecy will develop their knowledge of God’s holiness, righteousness, justice, and mercy, and their appreciation of the Bible as God’s revealed will to mankind.
Extra Interest: Prophecies Related to Jesus Christ, the Messiah
The Old Testament, written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, contains over three hundred prophecies that Jesus fulfilled through His life, death, and resurrection. Prophecies regarding the Messiah are found in Scripture from Genesis to Malachi. Mathematicians have figured that the odds of any one person fulfilling this number of prophecies are staggering. From a mathematical perspective alone, the conclusion is obvious—Jesus Christ of Nazareth truly was the Messiah, the Son of God, who came to this earth in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.
A study of what Old Testament prophets foretold about the Messiah can be beneficial for today’s Christians for many reasons, including these three.
God can use Old Testament prophecy to strengthen our faith. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist began to struggle with his faith after being imprisoned by Herod. John sent a message to Jesus, asking, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Jesus responded by directing those who delivered the message to tell John, “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). Jesus was using two separate Messianic prophecies, from Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61, to affirm that He was indeed the Messiah.
Christ’s fulfillment of those prophecies is central to the New Testament Gospel. It is clear from the Book of Acts that the Apostles relied on two key points in their preaching: that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead, and that He had fulfilled the predictions of the Old Testament. These two points were central to their message, and it was upon these truths that the New Testament church was established.
Prophecies about the Messiah are key tools in evangelism. Most secular people do not believe the Bible is a divine revelation. Yet it is impossible to explain how all the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament could be fulfilled in Jesus Christ if they were not divinely inspired. Thus, understanding these prophecies and their fulfillment in Christ is a great way to encourage faith in the supernatural nature of the Bible.
Extra Interest: End Time Prophecies
People around the globe discuss and debate what the future holds, but many ignore the prophetic signs playing out around them. There has never been a period in history when end time prophecies aligned more closely with the conditions of the world than they do today. For believers, that is an exciting thought! Clearly, the culmination of God’s dealing with the people of this earth will soon occur.
Fully understanding prophecies concerning the last days can be challenging, so we should approach such passages with humility rather than dogmatic absoluteness. God has given man only limited glimpses of many aspects of the future. On the other hand, Scripture is very explicit about some coming events.
One future event spelled out clearly in Scripture is the Second Coming of Christ to this earth—an event so important that it is mentioned in almost every New Testament book. The Second Coming encompasses two separate events: the Rapture of the Church, when Christ comes to claim His waiting Bride; and the Revelation of Christ, when Jesus comes with His saints from Heaven to execute judgment upon the ungodly and to set up His Kingdom and reign on this earth for a thousand years. According to the prophetic statements Paul made to the saints in Thessalonica and Corinth, at the time of the Rapture, believers who have died will arise from their graves to meet Christ in the clouds. Then those who are alive and who have prepared themselves for His coming will be changed in a moment and will be caught up to join Him in the air.
Prophets in the Old Testament and Christ’s disciples in the New Testament spoke of signs that would indicate Christ’s return to this earth was imminent. For example, in the Old Testament, Daniel predicted that in the last days, multitudes would travel to and fro, and knowledge would increase (Daniel 12:4). Zechariah described what seems to be the use of nuclear weapons (see Zechariah 14:12). In the New Testament, Peter predicted that many false prophets would emerge, bringing in heresies (2 Peter 2:1-2). John the Revelator indicated that the Gospel would be preached as a witness to all nations (Revelation 14:6).
The multiplicity of signs forewarning the end times are indicative of how important it is to believe that Christ’s return will occur soon and to make the proper spiritual preparation. Because God has provided so many indicators of the end of time, there will be no excuse for those who fail to prepare. Some say they believe that the end is near, but speculate that perhaps the Lord will delay His coming a few years longer. We have no guarantee of that.
As followers of Christ, we should seek to understand Biblical prophecies as clearly as possible, looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance. As we explore indicators of what the future holds, we discover God’s hand in the chaos around us, and that gives us hope.