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What Do the Prophets Say about the End Times?

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This post is adapted from The Message of the Prophets, a new online course taught by J. Daniel Hays. For a limited-time, save $20 on your sign-up price. Learn more.

When most people think of prophets, they think about prediction of events that will happen in the future.

But did you know? Only a fraction of prophetic literature actually concerns the future—as little as 8 percent, according to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

However, that small fraction of predictive prophecy presents us with some of the Bible’s greatest interpretive challenges.

The main interpretive challenges for us regarding the predictive aspects of the Old Testament prophets can be grouped around six central issues:

  1. the land
  2. the near view/far view phenomenon
  3. conditional prophecy
  4. figurative language
  5. the relationship between Israel and the church
  6. the nature of the future kingdom

Let’s take a look at each of these.

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1. The Land

Throughout the Old Testament one of the most important themes is that of “the Land.”

It is promised to Abraham, it plays a central role in the blessings of Deuteronomy, it is lost in 2 Kings due to disobedience, and yet it appears to be included in the prophetic promise of future restoration. In the Old Testament, “the Land” is important.

But in the New Testament, it disappears as a prophetic theme.

What are we to make of the New Testament writers’ omission of this central Old Testament theme? Is the Promised Land still implied as part of the kingdom Jesus proclaims even though it is not specifically mentioned? Or does the New Testament completely spiritualize it?

Evangelical scholars remain divided over how to understand the Old Testament theme of “the Land” in regard to the New Testament era.

2. The near view/far view phenomenon

When the prophets paint pictures of the future, they often don’t appear to make chronological distinctions.

For example, in a poetic picture of future judgment they may mix together numerous future events, some from the immediate future and some from the far future.

Thus, while they see clearly the imminent destruction of Israel or Judah by the Assyrians or Babylonians, they also see glimpses of destruction on other nations that may happen later (or may not have happened yet).

It’s easy for us to identify this near judgment—that of Assyria or Babylon, which have been historically and biblically documented. But it’s harder for us to pin down “the day of Yahweh,” which includes a future judgment on the entire world.

Is this future judgment only to the original readers—and in our past—or is it future to us as well?

The near judgment (Assyrian or Babylonian) is easy for us to identify historically, but the far judgment is much more difficult to define with precision.

In proclaiming the future restoration, the prophets will often mix and merge several different events into one powerful poetic picture of restoration. In their depiction of the future restoration, the prophets can be referring to one, two, or all of the following historical events in the same text:

  1. the return of the Jewish exiles to Israel under Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel
  2. the first coming of Christ; or
  3. the second coming of Christ.

This poses a challenge for us as interpreters, because we often cannot tell if they are describing the “near future” or the “far future.”

The prophets will often 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).

What’s more, as we read through these texts we observe that the prophets sometimes seem to shift from one future event to another and then back again without giving us clear indication that they have done so.

We, of course, are interested in the historical details of future events. We often desire to locate events along a clear historical timeline.

But that’s not always what the prophets had in mind. The prophets may have intentionally blended these events together so that their readers would in fact focus more on the broader principles than on the details.

3. Conditional Prophecy

Another interpretive challenge we face is that the prophetic books occasionally appear to include conditions in their proclamations.

Thus in Jeremiah 18:7–10, for example, Yahweh states:

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and 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.

In a text like this, Yahweh appears to be saying that what will actually happen depends on the response of the people to the prophetic word.

Placing elements of conditionality on future events does not indicate uncertainty on God’s part or undermine his sovereignty. In fact, if we read the text carefully, we realize that this conditionality is part of God’s sovereign will and is related to his sovereign right to decide such things (Jer. 18:6). Such texts prevent us from distorting sovereignty and foreknowledge into fatalism and determinism.

Another example of conditional prophecy is in the book of Jonah. As Jonah arrives in Nineveh, he proclaims, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

However, the people of Nineveh listen to the prophetic word and repent of their evil deeds. As a result of their repentance, Yahweh responds with compassion and cancels the prophesied destruction (Jonah 3:10), in accordance with the pattern described in Jeremiah 18:7–10.

Thus, while Yahweh’s prophetic word is powerful and always true, he remains free to exercise his sovereign choice and to modify the fulfillment of a prophetic word according to the response of people.

The interpretive challenge for us is to discern which prophetic descriptions of the future are certain and unconditional and which ones are conditioned by the response of people.

4. Figurative language.

The prophets use poetic language continuously, and one of the central features of their literature is the extensive use of figures of speech. They continue to use figurative language as they poetically describe the future restoration.

The interpretive challenge for us is that it is often difficult to determine with precision whether the picture they paint of the future is a literal description or a figurative, symbolic one (or a mixture of both).

The prophets will use figures of speech to represent real historical future events, but such figures of speech do not always portray these events in a literal manner.

On the other hand, some prophetic pictures of the future are quite literal in their portrayal (i.e., Jesus was born in the literal town of Bethlehem, as prophesied by Micah 5:2). The challenge for us is to discern which is which.

To illustrate this problem, let’s 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.

Obviously, Isaiah is speaking of a future time that is characterized by peace, but here are some possible questions the passage could raise:

  • Is his portrayal of future peace a literal picture or a symbolic one? That is, are the “wolf” and the “lamb” used as figures of speech to represent traditional international military enemies?
  • Does this passage prophesy of a future time when nations will no longer go to war against each other?
  • Or is Isaiah’s prophecy completely literal?
  • In the coming messianic age, will wolves and lambs literally live together in peace? That is, does Isaiah prophesy the end of carnivores?
  • What is the intent of Isaiah in this passage?

Another challenging example is Isaiah 65:17–20. In 65:17 Yahweh declares that he will “create new heavens and a new earth.” Then in 65:20 he adds the following:

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

This passage could raise the following questions:

  • Should the passage be understood literally or figuratively?
  • Is this passage prophesying that Yahweh will literally create a new physical earth?
  • Do we take the entire passage literally? That is, will such a new creation be an earth in which people literally live quite long but still die?
  • Or is it all symbolic?
  • Or perhaps a mixture?

Evangelical scholars are divided over how to interpret texts like these.

In fact, thoughtful scholars who hold the same evangelical presuppositions about the veracity of God’s Word strongly disagree over how to interpret prophetic texts like these—texts that use figurative language to describe future events.

Usually, this disagreement emerges from two approaches:

The first is: 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, arising from the details of the first, grapples with a related issue and leads us to the fifth interpretive challenge.

5. The relationship between Israel and the church.

The central question is, Does the New Testament church fulfill the Old Testament prophecies that refer to Israel?

That is, does the church replace Israel in the promises of God? Or are Israel and the New Testament church totally separate?

When the prophets declare that in the future Israel will be regathered and will dwell in peace in Jerusalem and will worship Yahweh there, are they speaking of literal fulfillment by believing Jews in Israel, or is this a symbolic/figurative reference to the New Testament church?

Evangelical scholars are sharply divided over this issue.

6. The nature of the future kingdom.

The prophets paint a picture of a future kingdom with a Davidic king on the throne in Jerusalem.

How does this kingdom promise relate to the first coming of Christ, when Jesus proclaimed that “the kingdom is at hand”? Are all aspects of the promised kingdom still in the future, or were some fulfilled by the first advent of Christ? Likewise, are some aspects being fulfilled now, in the church?

You can see that several of these challenges are interrelated, stemming from the issue of figurative versus literal language.

We’ve now covered six significant interpretive challenges when reading the predictive passages of the Old Testament prophets.

As you read through the prophets, you’re going to struggle through these issues. Any time we look at the prophets and ask a question about the predictive nature of a passage in the prophets, we’re going to face these challenges.

The question is: where do we go from here? With these challenges in mind, how can we read the predictive passages of the prophets?

4 guidelines for reading and interpreting the predictive passages of the Old Testament prophets

1. Don’t overlook the poetic aspect of prophecy.

That is, do not allow your theological pre-understanding to ride roughshod over your appreciation and understanding of imagery and figures of speech.

Whatever system you hold, don’t let that become the only lens through which you read the prophets.

Read the text. See what it says. Wrestle with it.

Only once you’ve read it should you move on to discerning how it informs and is informed by your theology. In other words, you should spend more time struggling to grasp the prophets’ images than trying to fit the events they describe into some overall future time schedule.

At the same time, 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 images. 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.

2. Focus more on translating and applying the broader theological principles of the prophetic message than on trying to fit all the details into a system.

The prophets soar like eagles, painting their images of the future with broad strokes. They appear to have little concern for presenting an organized, structured, detailed description of the end times.

3. Do not forget the way the prophets use the near view/far view.

As we’ve seen, the near and far future events are often intermingled. Read these sections carefully, and remember that well-meaning, well-respected evangelical biblical scholars remain divided on these passages.

4. Be cautious against allowing your fixed theological understandings to dictate how you interpret a particular passage even before you begin to struggle with it.

All 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 constantly seek to update and mature our overall theological understanding (the whole) precisely by our study of particular texts (the parts).

Keep learning

To dig deeper, sign up for The Message of the Prophets, an online course taught by J. Daniel Hays—and save $20 off the enrollment price for a limited time! Learn more.

Learn more about the Old Testament

Get started with a free online course. Plus, you’ll get occasional updates about new courses, free videos, and other valuable resources.

By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at yourprivacy@harpercollins.com.
Old Testament Prophecy is Not About the Future (Mostly)
Old Testament Prophecy is Not About the Future (Mostly) This post is adapted from The Message of the Prophets online course, taught by J. Daniel Hays. When many people think a...
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