This is the seventh post in a series I am writing about end times prophecies in the Bible. If you would like to read the earlier posts, the series starts here.
Having written a six-post introduction to my series on Biblical prophecies, it may seem that it is time to start getting into the prophecies, themselves. Unfortunately, we’re not quite ready to do that. That’s because we have to learn the language of prophecy before we can study prophecy. Now, that may sound absurd, but it isn’t. That’s because — in this case — I am using a much more expansive meaning of ‘language.’ I do not mean that we have to learn Hebrew and Greek, or any of the languages into which the Scriptures are translated. No, I mean we have to understand everything connected to the way the prophets tried to communicate their visions. To do this, we not only need to understand their written and spoken language, but also their culture. Only by studying these things can we hope to place the prophets’ messages in their proper context. So, before we can understand the language of prophecy, we have to learn how to put ourselves in the prophets’ sandals (so to speak). We do this by addressing three general areas, all of which are connected to the language of any given culture and time:
First, we have to understand that all of the prophets were Hebrews (i.e. Jews), and they were writing from a Hebrew perspective and to a Hebrew audience. Therefore, we have to learn something about the Hebrew culture. Otherwise, we may miss the cultural references written into prophecy. This is especially important for those of us who have been raised in the Western world, as we have inherited a Greek mindset, whereas the ancient Hebrew was of a Middle Eastern mindset. The two are very different. The primary difference being that the Greek mind tends to think in abstract terms, whereas the Middle Eastern mind tends to think in more concrete terms. If we do not understand the differences, though we may read the Scriptures with sincere desire to understand, we will likely never understand their fullest meaning simply because we do not understand the cultural divide.
Next, we have to understand the Hebrew language. In many ways, language and culture are interconnected: each helps to shape and define the other. This would also include things like idioms, allegories and figures of speech and the way they are connected to a given culture. It is no different with the ancient Hebrew culture and language. The need to understand the ancient Hebrew culture and language is made all the more important when we realize that the ancient Hebrew only had some 8,500 — 9,000 words in his entire language, and those words were all based in relation to a nomadic culture that saw the world in concrete terms. Now consider what this meant to the ancient prophet who was told to describe Spiritual things (which are inherently abstract in nature) to a people who thought in concrete terms. Not only did the prophet have to explain something alien to the Hebrew mind, but he had to do so using a language that was based in concrete thinking. Think of it like this: how would you explain computer programming to someone who has never seen a computer, and how would you explain it without using any of the language computer programmers use to describe what they do? If you can imagine how difficult that task might be, then you will have some idea of the task that was handed to the prophets.
Finally, we have to understand Hebrew poetry. This is because a great deal of prophecy is actually written using various forms of Hebrew poetry. Now, at first glance, this may not seem to be all that important: why would it be unusual that an ancient author might write in poetic form? After all, we still do this today. The problem is that Hebrew poetry is very different from the poetry most of us recognize. Therefore, if we do not know and understand Hebrew poetry, we might miss it in the prophets’ writing. Now just imagine, how would your understanding of a modern poem change if you did not realize it was poetry and tried to force a literal interpretation onto the words in the poem? I doubt any of us could make much sense out of any modern poem if we tried to read it in this way. Well, why should it be any different when reading ancient Hebrew poetry? It isn’t. So, if we do not realize we are reading poetry, then, no matter how sincere, we simply will not be able to understand the message.
Therefore, before we can hope to understand ‘the language of prophecy’ in its fullest meaning, we have to understand as much as possible about the three areas I just mentioned. So, by the way I reason, this means we should start first with the ancient Hebrew people and their culture.