Unsticking the Pages of Prophecy

 

-Today's post originally featured on LifeWay Women's All Access Blog. You can find it here: https://blog.lifeway.com/womenallaccess/2018/05/24/the-reference-desk-how-to-study-prophecy/ 

Until about five years ago, books like Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation were all crispy and clean in my Bible. The pages all stuck together and had to be peeled apart because, quite frankly, I’d never read much of them. Sure, there were a couple of pages here and there that I had referenced, but study the whole book? I hadn’t tackled that, and it seemed unlikely I would.

But then a local Bible study began on the Book of Isaiah, and I thought, “This is probably my best shot to unstick those pages.” Admittedly, I’m not super Type A, but it did bother me that parts of my Bible were unread and crisp. I felt incomplete. There were these passages of Scripture I was not only ignorant of, but was also afraid of. (Those two liabilities often hold hands.) So, I nervously signed up.

And goodness gracious, it changed my Bible study in the most profound ways! Now, I won’t lie. It was crazy hard most weeks. But I learned things not just about the Book of Isaiah, but about all of the Bible, that have refined my study and illuminated Scripture. Here are three “ah-ha” moments from studying just one book of prophecy.

  1. The Bible is meant to be read both literally and literarily.

Isaiah, like the Books of Daniel, Revelation, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk (just to name a few), is a literary genre called “prophecy.” This literary genre is meant to be read differently than other parts of Scripture. Scholars typically break the Bible down into several categories or genres, including historical narrative, law, wisdom, psalms, and prophecy in the Old Testament; and gospel, parable, Acts, letter, and apocalypse in the New Testament. [1] It can be difficult to know which genre we are reading, but it is worth a little work and research to find out. Because reading a book within the intended context is critical to understanding it. Think of it this way: we wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) read Shakespeare and The New York Times the same way. Similarly, we shouldn’t read Genesis the same way we read Philippians. And we shouldn’t read Philippians the same way we read Isaiah.

  1. Knowing a book’s genre helps me read it the way the author intended and allows me to follow the content more clearly.

This is especially true of books and passages of prophecy. (We should point out that prophecy appears even within books that are not books of prophecy. For example, Luke records the prophecy that Zacharias will be silent until the birth of his son, John the Baptist, because Zacharias didn’t believe the angel’s promise. That prophetic word is realized just a few verses later. But it is prophecy nonetheless.) When I had studied a part of any book of prophecy before, I tried to read it linearly. To me, it was just another part of the story, and I wanted each section to follow sequentially. But prophecy rarely does that. It’s not like reading narrative or even an epistle, like Paul’s letter to say, the church at Corinth. Books of prophecy use literary devices like symbolism, parallelism, or allegory. And the oracles or revelation each writer is describing can span years, centuries, or even millennia. Within the Book of Isaiah we read prophecies that would be fulfilled within a few generations for the Israelites. For example, Isaiah 44:28 prophesied that after years of captivity, Cyrus would allow the Jews to return to their homes to rebuild the temple. This was fulfilled in Ezra 1:1-2. But parts of Isaiah, that appear both before and after chapter 44, are messianic and point to Jesus. These prophecies would not be fulfilled for hundreds of years. Consider Isaiah 53:5-6:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [2]

  1. Prophecy can be intimating and hard to understand, but it tells us something unique about God.

Because of its purpose, a “miracle of knowledge, a declaration or description or representation of something future, beyond the power of human sagacity to foresee, discern, or conjecture,”[3] prophecy can be especially intimidating to study and particularly hard to understand. While the meaning of some prophecies is understood and generally accepted, there are passages that are still disputed even among the smartest biblical scholars. It can make us wonder what hope we have, and ask ourselves if we should even study books like Revelation, Zechariah, Ezekiel, Nahum or prophetic passages found in Genesis, Psalms, or John. But friend, while we may not fully grasp what is being promised or how it will be fulfilled, the study of prophecy is for more than just understanding a timeline or cracking a symbolic message. Prophecy, like all of Scripture, is meant to tell us something about our supremely powerful, yet sweetly intimate God. That He would condescend to tell us the promises and plans He has for His people is a staggering prospect and makes God completely distinct from all other gods. More than anything, these messages were an invitation for God’s people to trust and revere Him. Additionally, because we see the scarlet thread of Scripture, that every promise made of Jesus’ first 33 years was accomplished, we can have hope that no promise of God will ever fail. Even if we aren’t one hundred percent sure exactly what that promise is.

Though studying prophecy can be daunting, here are a few practical ways to tackle even the most confusing passages.

  • Read the passage and ask yourself, “What does this tell me about God? What attribute of His is on display, being celebrated or communicated?”
  • Next, ask who the intended audience is for this prophetic word. While some texts are communicated to a specific individual, most prophecy is either made to Israel, about Jesus, or for the church. (And in some cases, all three.)
  • Finally, consider how this promise, when it was made or when it is fulfilled, advances the grand story of Scripture—God creating and then reclaiming a people for Himself to enjoy relationship with Him forever.

The primary benefit to studying Scripture is to know and love God. We can often cling to the parts of Scripture that we understand. We are creatures of habit and comfort. I know I don’t know you, but would you let me gently encourage or push you (if you’re stubborn like me) to places of Scripture you wouldn’t likely go before? The point of study isn’t to start smart. It’s to finish smart, or smarter. And that path begins with some level of ignorance. Don’t hide out afraid of what you don’t know. Jump in, with just you and the Holy Spirit as your guide, or perhaps in a group. Either way, I can tell you, you’ll be glad you did.

"Take off your shoes"

So, it was hardly a burning bush kind of moment. No smoldering embers. No wilderness communique. But I did sort of get heartburn.

I was in Old Navy yesterday. Two of my boys needed new white dress shirts for school. (Yes. Dress shirts. My youngest went to school in white, came home in cream, playground, marker, lunch-colored cream. So new shirts were in order.)

As I was walking to check out with new shirts in hand the cashier commented on my shoes, my favorite leopard print wedges. (I’m kind of fashion wall-flower, NOT.) Charlene asked where I found them, but I honestly couldn’t remember. I thanked her for the compliment and walked to the door.

As I stepped off the curb God said, “give her your shoes.” I knew it was from God. This was not a thought that originated with me. I immediately replied, “that’s crazy.” I was fully committed to disobedience. I was continuing my protest as I neared my car.

“They probably won’t fit.”

“Who would want my used shoes?”

“Isn’t that offensive to give her my worn in shoes?”

“She was probably just being nice; she wouldn’t want my shoes.”

None of these were really arguments or suggestions. This wasn’t an open discussion. There was no way I was going back inside. I pulled on the door handle of my car. It wouldn’t budge. Wouldn’t unlock. I pulled again.

God was unlocking my heart instead. I turned and walked back inside.

I had to wait 15 minutes on Charlene, letting the other customers go ahead of me to the other available cashiers.

As I walked to her register I said, “You may think I’m crazy. I kind of think I’m crazy. But God told me to give you my shoes.”

Charlene was shocked. Truthfully, so was I. I took of my shoes and paid for a pair of super cute flats. (I don’t know if God wanted me to walk out barefoot. I didn’t ask. Just bought a pair of super cute lace-up flats.)

We hugged, and I said, “there not a lot of good stuff happening between black and white folks in this country. Shoes won’t change the world, but God told me to do it. If they don’t fit, just pass them on to somebody else.”

Y’all, don’t be impressed with me. I didn’t fix the racial divide in this country. I just took of my shoes. I did something kind of crazy because Jesus asked me to.

To whom can you show the extravagant love of Jesus today? It may seem crazy, but this world could use a little bit of that kind of crazy, don’t you think?

 

 

First 5's First Day!

Today is the day all of us at Proverbs 31 Ministries have been waiting for. It’s the first day of our First 5 app. Hopefully by now you’ve heard a bit about it. We technically launched the app last week in hopes of giving you time to download it, familiarize yourself with the functionality and test your alarm clock. But today is our first day of content for our inaugural study of the book of John.

I am so proud to be a part of the content team. You are going to be blown away by the brilliance of these spectacular girlfriends, Bible junkies and wise women. (One of whom is the fabulous Lysa TerKeurst. Listen, I’ll just be trying to play catch up with their awesomeness!)

We are all passionate about this app because-we get it-carving out time for God’s Word is hard, but it is also so worth it. Now, make no mistake, we aren’t saying you should ONLY spend five minutes with God a day. No ma’am. More time often equals more transformation.

But our great God can do big things with small efforts too. I have experienced in my own life how studying the Bible helps my heart even when I’ve only had a few minutes. When something I read or studied hijacks an emotional meltdown or softens a sorry attitude, I’m more committed to making the effort the next day and the next day and the next day.

So how do we let the Word of God shape our days? Certainly the Holy Spirit can just arrest our thoughts in a moment, but there are things we can do to keep those first thoughts fresh in our mind even as our to-do lists beckon.

First things first (see what I did there?), we read God’s Word. Man, an app would help with that, huh? But even if you don’t use the First 5 app, take just a few minutes to read the Bible. And read it slowly.

I don’t know about you, but often when I’m reading my Bible I feel like I’m playing beat the clock. I’ll let the pressure of my next thing kill the sweetness of this present thing. So savor what you’re reading even if you don’t read as much. Being purposefully slow and lingering over just a few verses can dramatically increase our ability to process it.

Second, ask what this passage tells you about God or Jesus. Now this may seem overly Sunday School-ish or like we are being too simple with our internalization of the passage, but it’s important. Sometimes I’ll rush through a passage looking just at what’s in it for me. That’s the temptation when we’re in a hurry.

But if we don’t hang out on this key step we can mis-apply Scripture at best or make it behavior modification at worst. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the Bible to make me act better; I want it to make me better. It’s really hard to maintain right living if it’s not supported by right thinking.

Who is God? What is His character like? What characteristic is on display here? Where does this characteristic or attribute intersect with us? Why would that aspect of His character be in conflict with some part of my behavior?

Now, (and this is just the nature of my life) I usually have to let these questions simmer in my brain as I move on to fixing dinner, re-washing the load of clothes that I washed yesterday but forgot about or go break up a serious lego dispute between my boys. I just think about what I read, and keep asking questions about it in my head.

And you know what, this is the spiritual discipline of meditation. No matter how you do it, formally or informally, just let what you’ve read steep a bit.

Finally, and most practically once I’ve walked around with these thoughts for a bit, I’ll try and crystalize what I’ve learned into a key thought, attribute of God or personal application. Then I’ll put it on sticky note on my mirror or refrigerator. It’s silly and small, but it makes me feel like I’m taking some meaningful step to reinforce what I learned. I’ve also heard dry-erase markers work great on a mirror. Perhaps you could find an artsy quote on Pinterest that you can make your lock screen on your phone.

Try something, anything that keeps your main take-away front and center AND kind of says, “yay me!” Celebrate that you made the effort! God will faithfully bring it to mind at just the right time.

So, how do you study the Bible and meditate on what you’ve learned?