This might sound obvious to most, but — surprisingly — it doesn’t seem to be the case. How many people think that Revelation must be mythology because of the beasts it describes? How many believers actually insist we will see such beasts in the flesh? Both interpretations result from not knowing the language that John was using. We encounter the same problem today. If I told you “I store my contacts in the cloud,” what would it mean to you? I am using English, but does it mean I put the contacts from ignition system in a cloud in the sky? Or my corrective contact lenses in that cloud in the sky? Or have I put my list of personal contact information on a computer somewhere on the Internet? It all depends on to who I am speaking and when. This is because the language can only be understood when viewed from the vantage point of the culture being addressed, at the time it was addressed. So, let’s start with a few basics to help us understand the language of prophecy.First things first: we must understand that the prophets were guided by the Holy Spirit, but they were also individuals. This means they will include apiece of their own, unique personalities in their messages, but the message, itself, will remain True to what the Holy Spirit told them to write.
Next, we must understand that every one of the prophets was a Hebrew writing to other Hebrews. This means we must learn to read prophecy from the perspective of an ancient Hebrew. This is where things start to get hard.
We have to start by understanding that the ancient Hebrew was of a Middle Eastern mind. This is a difficult thing for most of us today, especially those of us who grew up in the Western world. The Greek influence in our culture has taught us to think in abstract terms. But the Hebrew thought in more concrete terms. For the ancient Hebrew, what mattered was what a thing did? What was its purpose or function? Therefore, the best way I have found to try and understand the difference between the way we think today and the way the prophets thought was to think in pictures. This is because, in practical terms, they thought in pictures. Here, this next part should help the reader understand what I am trying to explain.
Ancient Hebrew only had some 8,500-9,000 words. Originally, the language was pictorial (i.e. hieroglyphic). The individual letters were pictorial representations of things in the every day lives of the Hebrew. The language worked by putting these pictures together in a way that described the purpose of the thing being described. For example: the symbol for strength was an ox head with horns. There was also a symbol that looked like an ancient tent. It meant tent (or house). When they are put together, you get the Hebrew word for father (or husband). It literally meant the strength of the house, and in their culture, that was the husband or father. Similarly, the Hebrew for anger literally means flaring nose. This is because, when we get angry, our nostrils usually flare out because we start to breath harder and faster. But notice how all of this is pictorial in nature? (Keep this in mind when you read the Scriptures, because it applies to the entire Bible, not just prophecy).
The next thing we have to do is learn the different Hebrew figures of speech. Here again, if we read the Bible literally, but we do not know Hebrew idioms, we are going to misunderstand. A modern example would be if I was talking to you about a game I was playing and I said “I killed him!” You know I do not mean that I literally killed someone, but if a third person who did not grow up in our culture were to over hear our conversation, they might think this is what I was saying. Now, can you see how you, who understand what I meant, and the person who did not are going to arrive at two totally different interpretations of “I killed him?” And I would dare say that the person listening in is going to go away with a less than favorable opinion of me. Well, non-believers do this a lot when they read the Bible, but — sadly — so do believers.
In addition to idioms, we have to learn the ways Scripture uses symbolism. Fortunately, this is not as difficult. If we read carefully, we will generally find that the Scriptures define the symbols is uses. Either it will be defined in clear language, or by context (which is another critical element of understanding the prophets: always context, context, context!). The only hard part here is, the farther we go into Scripture, the more likely it was defined earlier in the Bible. This is why we have to know the whole of Scripture: because Scripture assumes this. Additionally, some symbols re assigned different meaning according to how it is used or addressed. Here is why we must pay attention to who is speaking, to whom the passage is addressed and about what it is addressing. Context! I cannot stress how important this is.
Then we have the use of allegory. Since the prophet assumes the audience knows all of Scripture, and Hebrew history, he will often use everything we have just discussed in a story form that would be familiar to his audience, but which is actually about a central theme that may not be readily apparent to an outsider. For example: the Wizard of Oz is believed to be an allegory dealing with the ramifications of America coming off the gold standard in the 1890’s. We can find similar themes in ‘The Planet of the Apes.’ In fact, many classical stories are actually allegories. So we have to pay attention to prophecy because we may be reading an allegory that the original audience would have understood clearly, but the meaning of which has been lost to us due to the passage of time.
Finally, we have to pay attention to the indicators the prophet gives us telling us he is using symbolic language. When the prophet tells us he had a ‘vision,’ or was ‘in the spirit’ (an idiom), he is telling us what follows is symbolic in nature. He may also use words that tell us he is using symbolism. These include “like’ or ‘like unto,’ and ‘as’ or ‘such as.’ There are many others, but the point is to read carefully. You are dealing with an infinitely intelligent author here — God! He does not waste words, and He folds meaning upon meaning into the words He does use.
We’re almost ready to begin our study of end times prophecy. However, there are a few more guidelines we need to address before we do. Theses guidelines are important as they help us understand how to approach prophecy, and to make sure we have a proper and correct understanding of what the prophets have told us. This will be the subject of my next post.